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Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
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Friday, 21 December 2007

The Great Christmas Ale Hunt

Here's a mystery - with Christmas and winter ales available from hundreds of British brewers, amply stocked in the larger branches of all major supermarket chains, where are the reviews of them in the press?

The food and drink supps of all major newspapers are, like every year, suggesting treats for the Christmas table. Observer Food Monthly had a page of festive wines and a selection of whiskies, but no mention of beer.

This must be a bit galling if you're a brewer. You create a recipe specifically for the season, often using seasonal ingredients, and succeed in getting major retail distribution. Here are magazines with pages to fill, with writers and readers who are interested in more seasonal, natural food. And they recommend wines that are no different than those available all year round.

You could say people like me should be the ones writing, but I was away last week, and anyway, when I've tried before they don't even return calls or e-mails.

Why do the press try so hard to pretend beer doesn't exist? Have we done something to upset them? Maybe I'm wrong.

If you're in the UK, and you have seen any Christmas or winter brews reviewed anywhere, please let me know!

A blog entry and words

Wandering around the Euro-chic shopping mall of St. Pancras I was starting to get worried - there was the champagne bar, but where was the pub? Who ever heard of a huge city centre train station without a pub? Eventually I found it, far off in the corner, on its own, away from the main shopping concourse.

The "Baby Betjeman" is a fenced off area in the corner of the station and provides an interesting snapshot of what's happening to British pubs. It's by no means shit, but it's a curious combination of things to both love and loathe that leaves you unsure of what kind of mood you're in as you sup your pint.

The first thing you notice is that it's not a pub. No, you see, mere pubs are naff. Too English, too old-fashioned, too working class for our modern, aspirational, solutions-oriented society. The Baby Betjeman is a "pub and kitchen".

I'm confused by this trend in naming establishments - you see quite a lot of it in North London now. I'm confused because I always thought a kitchen was an integral part of a pub, so why is it now a separate addendum? Because it sounds posher. I've tried to adopt this to see if I can make my own like sound a bit classier and I'm not sure it's working. It feels strange talking about 'my body and arms'. When I leave my house and bedrooms to travel somewhere by car and engine, then come home to write this blog entry and words, I can't help worrying that I sound like I'm talking out of my arse and rectum.

The BB has waiter service at its tables so it really isn't a pub at all. (Pubs also have walls and ceilings in my experience). There are wine lists pushing champagne heavily on each of the tables.

And yet...

The draught lagers are Budvar and Amstel - an excellent choice of premium and standard strength brands. And even though they don't mention them anywhere, behind the bar are two casks of real ale on stillage - London Pride and a guest ale - Sharp's Doom Bar, which was excellent. There are further bottled ales behind the bar and an interesting-looking food menu, if you're the kind of person who can splash out seven quid on a cheese sandwich. (The Doom Bar had the honour of being the first pint of real ale I've ever paid three quid for.)

And here's a nice thing - as this pub has no walls and ceiling, it was bloody freezing. But over the backs of each of the chairs was a lovely thick blanket to drape over your knees. I've seen this before in Denmark, which has a thriving pavement cafe culture throughout the winter, and thought it was a lovely idea that would never catch on in the UK, so I'm delighted it has.

I'd say it's worth turning up half an hour early for your train - if you can find it.

London’s Brightest New Shopping Mall

St. Pancras station reopened a few weeks ago to great fanfare, so after a stimulating afternoon reading tables of import and export figures into Bengal in the nineteenth century at the British Library, I popped in for a look.

For those who don’t know London, St. Pancras used to be a train station, and is one of London’s most iconic buildings. For those with a fondness for the solid, utilitarian yet still proud architecture of Victorian industry, it’s more awe-inspiring than any of the capital's palaces or cathedrals.

It's now London's most tasteful shopping mall. There are trains still here somewhere - at least, there are signs pointing to them - but the magnificent central spaces is devoted entirely to accessories and candles and lotions and posh sandwiches. There are two branches of "your" M&S, among tasteful luxuries that are in no way useful for a train journey. These shops aren't here for travellers to stock up; they're here as a destination in and of itself.

Maybe we could turn St Paul's into a huge Starbucks; Buckingham Palace into a Heat Magazine theme park, or County Hall, the magnificent former council facing Parliament on the south bank, into a lowest common denominator tourist trap. (Oh hang on, we already did that last one).

Shopping is the most important contribution any of us can make to our own and the world's happiness. It doesn't matter that you already have everything you need; doesn't matter that your credit cards are up to their limits, get out there and buy. You can now cross London without ever being out of sight of a Starbucks, Pret, M&S or Tesco Metro. The Onion magazine once ran a spoof story with the headline "Starbucks opens new branch of Starbucks in Starbucks rest room." That's what it feels like in St. Pancras now.

St. Pancras is of course the new Eurostar Terminal, and if you look hard enough, you can find the trains. When it was at Waterloo I always thought it was a bit mean making the French arrive at a station that reminded them of their greatest ever military defeat. But St. Pancras has gone the other way. I'm not a Europhobe or Little Englander - that's why I go to France and Belgium as often as I can to soak up the culture, food and drink. I just don't understand why everything British has to be regarded as shit compared to anything non-British.

St Pancras has the biggest branch of "Le Pain Quotidien" (French baguettes) I've ever seen. The world's longest champagne bar dominates the central concourse. If you look really hard you can find what just about passes for a pub tucked in the corner, far away from the main mall. I feel dispossessed. St Pancras makes me feel like we've been robbed.

But as shopping malls go, it is a very, very beautiful one.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The other journey - the journey through time

I didn't see much of Kolkata - not its present day incarnation, anyway. But during my brief time in the city, I found something much more thrilling. And I believe there may be as many as a dozen people in the world who will agree with me when I tell you what it is.

In my previous books, where I've dug into history I've relied on the same secondary sources as most other writers. Maybe I've read around the subject a little more than most beer writers do, trying to put beer into its proper context, but I'm no historian, and I didn't push back any boundaries of knowledge. For that, I always direct people to Martin Cornell's book, which had the misfortune to be released two months after my first. Martin made a point of not including anything he couldn't check from an original source. And while this means maybe some things that were probably true were not included because they weren't definitely true, his book remains the most factually accurate history of beer there is.

Inspired partly by Martin, and encouraged by the fact that I had a tight niche compared to the whole history of beer, I though a bit of original research using primary sources would not only be fitting , but fun. And I'm hooked - it's like being a time-travelling detective.

I spent my last day in Kolkata in the Indian National Library, persuading them to dig out their archived, worm-eaten copies of the Calcutta Gazette, the paper of record during the days of the East India Company's rule of Bengal. Advertising today tells you the story of a society - what its obsessions and values are - and it's no different in history. The ads in the Gazette from the 1780s to the 1840s tell the story of the evolution of India Pale Ale in a way it has never been told before. Added to what I've already found in the archives of the Museum of Brewing in Burton, and in the archives of the East India Company, I've managed to pull together a complete rewrite of the history of this wonderful beer style. The gist of the legend is correct, but some very important details of it are wrong - based on entirely reasonable suppositions, but different when you have all the facts.

Unfortunately, my book is now not due for release until early 2009 (publishing schedules being a mystery to any writer who is not the author of a celebrity kiss and tell), so I can't reveal the juicy details right now.

But the man thing that stays with me is nothing to do with beer itself, and may impart some of the thrill I felt - as I was looking for the notice of auctions for the ale and porter that had arrived in 1790, I noticed the front page headline of the paper I was holding. It talked about updating the Gazette's readers on "The Commotions in France." No, not an early tour by Lloyd Cole's criminally underrated band. I was holding the newspaper that was informing the British in India of the unfolding French Revolution.

I think that was the point where I fell in love with primary historical research.

The Beer Part Two

We had an explosive end to my quest to take IPA on its traditional journey for the first time in 150 years - but it all worked out OK in the end.

Thanks to an enormous stroke of good fortune, I was in India at the same time as the British Beer and Pub Association were attending a trade show. Janet Witheridge, whose job it is to promote exports of British beer, and her husband Robin, very kindly stayed on after the show - instead of going home, they came to Kolkata with me, roped in the British High Commission and organised a press reception for the opening of Kevin the Keg.

After yet another last minute hitch - the hotel where the reception was organised turned round at the last minute and demanded complicated things like papers proving I'd paid excise duties and stuff, whereas in fact I had paid $275 bribes for which, funnily enough, I hadn't been able to get a receipt - the reception happened at the Deputy British High Commission in India, and I was introduced by the Deputy High Commissioner himself.

Sadly the brewer of our beer, Steve Wellington, couldn't make it because sales of Worthington White Shield are up by an incredible 67% this year and he's brewing round the clock. So it was up to me to tap the keg. As the journos started to arrive, I attached the custom-built keg coupler and pushed down...

At this point I should probably mention that the function suite at the Deputy High Commission had just been extensively redecorated. The smell of fresh paint still filled the room. The suite wasn't officially reopened yet, and was open early especially as a huge favour to us. As the beer shot ten feet through the air, taking out the back row of seats and giving a comprehensive sticky sheen to the shining new marble floor, few people seemed interested in my explanation of live beer. residual yeast and the effects of the journey. The staff looked on in uncomprehending horror, and the Deputy High Commissioner had to call on every ounce of the incredible fund of tact and diplomacy needed to do a job like his.

The beer in the keg was different again to that in the jeroboam. Unlike the bottle it was dry-hopped, and that wonderful fresh hop aroma was the first thing that hit. The tropical fruit aroma behind it was similar to what I've already described. The taste was much more mellow and complex, with the malt reasserting itself now against the hop attack. As well as the rich summer fruit, there was a thin stream of caramel, not thick and obvious, but the golden, gloopy kind you get in Cadbury's Caramel bars, light and not too cloying. The elements of the beer ran into each other, finishing smooth and dry.

And when the catering staff finished mopping up spilt beer and started bring round the tandoori canapes, it cut through the heat and harmonised beautifully with the spices. In India, drinking a beer specially brewed for the climate, with food like that the boys of the Raj would have eaten while drinking the beer, I finally realised that, after a very wonky and jittery journey, I'd finally done it - here was a real IPA, back in its home for the first time in modern India. Words cannot describe the feeling.

It's a bloody wonderful beer. I hope we haven't seen the last of it - watch this space for news of any potential future brews.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Back Home

Here's something I could never have imagined saying until I stepped off the Heathrow Express at Paddington forty-eight hours ago: blimey, London's quiet.

I don't mean it was quiet for London; I mean the typical noise level in London, the constant buzz of traffic on the Euston Road punctuated by sirens, seems to me now an agreeable, soft, ambient hum. Does this mean I actually went completely crazy in my cabin on a container ship? No. It just means I've been in Delhi and Kolkata for a couple of weeks.

London, which had always seemed a bit too loud and fast for me before I went on my voyage, is like a sleepy Sunday afternoon in India's major cities. The traffic in Kolkata is so bad cab drivers turn off their engines when they get into a queue at a junction, knowing they're going to be there for some time. In Delhi, the buses try to never stop, knowing that if they do they might not get going again, and passengers throw themselves towards the moving open doors and hope for the best. Autorickhsaws and mopeds outnumber four-wheeled traffic a hundred to one, even when you include four-footed traffic - the oxen with their brightly painted horns pulling carts - among the latter. And talking of horns - everyone drives with them! The gaily painted trucks have no rear view mirrors, so all have the words "horn please!" emblazoned across their bumpers.

A game of cricket. Because the street wasn't quite chaotic enough anyway.

India is relentless, an assault on all the senses that was only magnified by the fact that I came to it after months at sea. I love it, absolutely adore it, but you wouldn't go to urban India for a holiday. It's not restful. You need a holiday to recover from it.

I left London hoping to think my way through my antipathy towards the city I've called home for the last 16 years, sure that I'd find it unbearable when I returned, determined to sell up immediately and buy a cottage somewhere I could open the curtains and see the sea every morning. The cottage still seems like a nice idea, and the sea is simply something I now have to make more room for in my life, but after India, London feels manageable again, which is an unlooked for bonus. And when Liz and I reacquainted ourselves with each other over a couple of pints of Fuller's ESB at the pub in Paddington Station, I realised it's not quite time for people to start dragging out Dr Johnson's most oft-quoted phrase just yet. It's good to be home.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Jerry the Jeroboam

A few days ago in Delhi, I opened the first bottle of IPA to travel around the Cape of Good Hope to India for at least 140 years.

Jerry the Jeroboam didn't quite do the whole journey from the UK, having joined me in Rio, but he did do 10,000 miles by sea, braving storms and pirates, and did go round the Cape and through the Indian Ocean.

We opened him at IFE, a trade show where food and drink producers form around the world come to sell their wares to India. I did a presentation about my trip to an audience of press and curious delegates, and then we opened the bottle.

I was extremely nervous as I chipped away the wax seal, sending black shards and dust across the room, disturbing the pigeons in the roof of the conference centre. The cork didn't explode out of the bottle. That was a good sign. I had a short corkscrew on my Swiss Army Knife (Chris insisted I would need one and he was right). I pulled out the cork... and it broke half way. Gently now, I eased out the bottom half, hoping I wasn't going to get shrapnel in my beer, and it emerge with a satisfying pop and a whiff of vapour. As soon as I saw this silver tendril creeping up like cigarette smoke, I knew we were going to be OK - the beer was lively, but not too lively.

It poured a rich, deep copper colour, slightly hazy. It reminded me of American IPAs – you could almost see the weighty alcohol content. The nose was an absolute delight – an initial sharp citrus tang, followed by a deeper range of tropical fruit – I was reminded of mango and papaya. Later, after it had breathed for a while, it went a bit sherberty. On the tongue it simply exploded with rich, ripe fruit, a little bit of pepper, and a wonderfully clean bitter finish that left my tongue buzzing.

I’m a bit biased because before this, Brahma lager is by some measure the best beer I’d had in the last two and a half months - that's how bad it's been - so my palate was starved and desperate. But I’d say the journey has definitely matured it from what I can remember of when we sampled it in Burton. It was smoother and more rounded, the different elements blending into each other a lot more. Comparing this to Melissa's tasting notes when she sampled the same beer back in the UK, I'd say the journey has done what we all believed it was supposed to do. I've found large elements of the IPA story to be myth, but this central fact - it wasn't just the brewer but also the journey that created this beer - holds up.

And my God, it was drinkable for 7%. It’s damn hoppy, and proves you can get a really big hop character on a par with the American IPAs without necessarily using West Coast American hops. But it was much more balanced than American IPAs. To my mind it’s the best of both sides of the Atlantic – as punchy as the best American IPAs; as balanced as the best British ones. I can firmly believe that this was what IPA used to taste like in India 150-200 years ago. It just makes perfect sense for the climate - not to mention the food.

Opening the keg tonight. The bottled beer was bright; the keg still has residual yeast, so we're expecting something different again. And then flying home! I'll fill in the results - plus many of the gaps from the last three months - once I'm over my jet lag.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

We made it!

Well, as far as India anyway.

12 weeks after leaving Burton, I find myself in Mumbai. After five weeks of monastic isolation on the container ship, going stir crazy and risking scurvy from the dire food, Mumbai has stunned me into a numb daze. I can't cope with all the people!

The beer survived. We find out how it tastes on Friday 7th December, at a trade show in Delhi.

So many tales to tell. If you ever decide to arrive in India by sea port, make sure you have plenty of US dollars with you. Cost me $275 to get off the ship and out of the port, and that's without them knowing about the beer. Of course, iot was all high;y illegal, but the alternative was staying on the ship unhtil Durban ands missing India altogether. Apart from missing the point of the whole exercise, I couldn't stand another portion of the cook's charred liver and soggy mash.

More updates soon. I am dying for a decent beer...

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Rendezvous in Rio

This is me and Jerry. Jerry is short for ´jeroboam of India Pale Ale´.

You can see a handle in the hand of the porter to the left. That´s a bag, and in the bag is Kev. Kev is short for ´Keg of India Pale Ale´.

These are the brethren of dear departed Barry, and while they missed the canal trip from Burton, the cruise to Tenerfie and the Atlantic Crossing on Europa, they´ll be joining me on the next stage of the journey - 12,000 miles across the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean to Mumbai.

This is thanks to Jeff Pickthall - beer writer, beer drinker, and now beer smuggler - who brought them to Rio for me in his luggage when all attempts to get them in through normal channels failed. After travelling from Newcastle, via Burton, Heathrow and Sao Paolo to Rio, Jeff arrived at the hotel FIFTEEN MINUTES AFTER the man who came to pick me up to board me on to the container ship - the container ship that left three days ahead of schedule. It was skin of the teeth stuff - the stuff of legend.

While Jeff had a well-deserved few days beer drinking in Rio, me and the boys cruised down the Brazilian coast. I´ve´been getting soaked in Paranagua, blowing up balloons with whores in the sailor´s paradise in Santos, and finally we´re as far south as you can go in Brazil - Rio Grande, a deserted Wild West town where thankfully there´s an internet cafe.

This will be my last contact with the outside world till we´re off the coast of Oman in about 16 days time. In the meantime, I´ve got a book to write.

The theme of the book?

Taking a 30kg keg of beer on an 18,000 mile sea route that no longer exists is not as easy as it sounds...


Saturday, 27 October 2007

Days on Europa

Denis from Solvenia - my watch buddy at the wheel. Some people thought he might be a spy.

How do I sum up the experience of sailing on a three-masted tall ship across the Atlantic? Perhaps best to describe a typical day.

Someone shakes you awake at 11.45pm - it's your turn on Dog Watch, midnight to 4am. Fifteen minutes later, armed with a cup of black tea, you climb the steps to the foredeck and take your place at a seat on lookout. For the next half an hour you are the eyes and ears of the ship, looking out for other shipping or debris such as fallen containers. There's rarely anything like this, so you spend most of the time looking at the sky, noting that it's a new moon so the Milky Way is fully visible. Every few minutes, if you don't blink, you see a shooting star. Above the sound of the bow ploughing through the hissing waves, there's the occasional series of skipping plops as a shoal of flying fish skitter out of your way.

Half an hour's rest, then it's your turn on the wheel. The team you're relieving are visible only by the light from the big ship's compass illuminating their faces form beneath. They tell you the course is still 220 degrees, and you take the wheel. She's behaving badly tonight because she'd rather sail closer to the wind. You give her rudder a few degrees of starboard and she seems happy for a few minutes. Then you take a minute to look at the trail of phosphorescence in your wake, an underlit disco dance floor in the sea. You look back down at the compass, and she's suddenly steering 245, the sails are flapping, and you to haul the wheel round to bring her back on course. The ship lurches from side to side and you imagine the other watches rocking in their bunks, cursing you.

2am brings soup and whatever left-overs there are, and the next two hours seem to pass quickly. Another stint on lookout, a few pages of an unchallenging thriller sitting in the deck house, and soon the day watch is being woken up, and you're back to bed.

You sleep through breakfast (fine - there's only so much ham and cheese a guy can eat) and wake up around 10am. You doze for a bit to the sound of the waves rinsing the hull, inches from your head. But it's getting hotter - it's never cooler than 30 degrees down here, and your head is burning where it touches the pillow. Out of bed, a shower and up on deck, and the sun is high in the sky. A few people sit on deck reading. Several are working - Erik the barman is sanding and varnishing the wheel house. Some of the crew are sanding blocks. One or two are putting on harnesses and going aloft to work in the rigging. You look over the rail at 360 degrees of deep blue, solid blue ocean, and a slightly lighter cloudless blue sky.

On watch again at noon. Then soup and sandwiches for lunch, and at 2pm the captain calls everyone to the main deck and gives his daily speech. We did 150 miles in the last 24 hours, which is good progress, and we're due to arrive in Salvador a day or two early if we keep this up. You're not sure how you feel about this - is that a good or a bad thing?

A lazy afternoon, maybe mending sails or helping on the ropes when the captain decides a sail has to be set or taken away, other than that, sitting reading in the sun - if the full complement of sails haven't shaded the entire deck. The big excitement is a school of dolphins, leaping through the waves, racing for the bow, where they spend half an hour swimming alongside and under the ship. They love to see us - it almost looks like they're taking a shower in the ship's bow wave.

At 5pm Erik opens the bar and brings anchovies, meat and cheese out on deck. A couple of beers and all too soon the sun is setting, sinking quickly, setting fire to the sky in the west.

At 7pm dinner is served. Hearty and nutritious, but this sea air gives you an appetite. And then, as darkness completes its takeover of the sky, you're back on watch again - the schedule moves round, and tonight you're on 8 till midnight. At least it means you'll get a full night's sleep. Maybe tonight you'll take your mattress up onto the sloop deck and kip under the stars...

Half way through and too much excitement

So we arrived in Brazil. Three weeks on Europa was three weeks I'll always remember, mostly for the right reasons. If you're not moved by the idea of helping to crew a ship of such stunning beauty and grace, you must have the emotional range of yer average serial killer.

I've been travelling for seven weeks now, with seven or eight to go before I return home. I have grown a full beard - initially for a joke, but now I'm being urged to keep it. I have a nice deep tan. And I've got enough narrative twists and turns to get my next book onto the thriller shelves rather than travel or food and drink.

Whatever you do in life, never try to import a keg of beer into Brazil on a short time scale. As we speak, a friend of mine is picking up Barry's replacement - Kevin the keg - and bringing him out as personal luggage. That was all fine until I checked the details of my onward journey, and discovered that my container ship - due to leave Rio on Wednesday - actually now leaves tomorrow, and I have to be on board a mere three hours after Jeff (and Kevin) are due to land at the airport.

The future of this voyage rests on some luck with customs, and is going to be a photo finish.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Tracking device

To find out where Pete is at 12-hourly intervals, because let's face it, there's nothing better to do on a drizzly afternoon and it makes a change from Facebook, go to this site and you can join the dots to track his route:

Today they hope to arrive at Cape Verde where they'll get off and stretch their legs, then it's another 18 days straight to Brazil.

It all sounds fantastic: flying fish, playful shoals of dolphins, whale spouts and phosphorescent plankton. If Pete can't post from Cape Verde I'll fill in some of the details later in the week.

And now back to my life of mouse-like playing whilst the sea-faring cat is away.


Saturday, 29 September 2007

Barry RIP

This entry comes from a web cafe in Tenerife about an hour before I board the Europa and sail across the Atlantic, both lighter of luggage and heavier of heart than I should be.

We arrived in Tenerife just over a week ago and I hired an apartment in the south east corner of the island. After a weekend taking the pulse of the great British holiday and the beers thereof (Dorada is just a great name for a beer, but it has to be a beer you only drink on holiday, don´t you think?) I had to dash home for a couple of days for the media launch of the Cask Ale Report, leaving Barry on his own. On his own in a sealed, south-facing apartment.

I got back to the apartment late last night and wondered why there was a strong smell of air freshener in the corridor. I opened the door, and there was a different smell in the apartment. Not one hundred per cent unpleasant, but not right either. I checked the bin and the fridge, and noticed my feet were sticking to the floor. Something had leaked. My brain did not want to even consider the most likley possibility, so I checked the ceiling for leaks, the toilet, under the sink, until finally, after about five minutes, my brain caught up with my nose and identified the smell: stale, oxidised beer. SPILT beer.

I rushed to pick Barry up and take him out on to the patio to have a look without making more of a mess. He was very, very light.

I slit open the cellophane wrapping the bag - the thick layer of cellophane - and opened the bag. An empty barrel, a puddle of stale beer and dry hops, with the bung from the barrel floating in the bottom. Barry had committed suicide. I hadn´t realised our relationship had deteriorated that far.

Historically on this voyage, beers used to have to withstand extremes of temperature. High temperatures encouraged a more vigorous fermentation inside the cask, so it was essential the cask could breathe, allowing excess CO2 to escape. I´m pretty sure this was the problem, whether the cask wasn´t allowing CO2 to escape in the first place, or whether wrapping the cask inside a bag and then encasing it very tightly in a thick layer of cellophane was what did it, I´m not sure. But I think I know.

We´re now seeing if it´s possible to get me a replacement barrel delivered to Brazil. While this beer will have missed some of the most interestig and certaiinly the most authentic leg of the voyage, at that point we´ll still have 60-70% of the distance left to run, so the experiment just about stands.

But I´m about to set sail, and when I do, I have very limited e-mail contact.

And whereas three weeks ago, it was looking like I had about niine days between arriving in Brazil and the container ship leaving, I´ve been notified that the container ship is speeding up, and is now due to leave Rio on 30th October - just three days after we are due to arrive in Salvador, a thousand miles up the coast. It´s starting to look doubtful whether I´ll even be able to board the container ship, let alone arrange to meet with a new barrel before I do.

Things are starting to become a little too interesting.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Cask Ale Sector Report

One of the nice things about the British Cask Ale industry is its diversity and lack of corporate bastards. The only problem with this is that it can be criticised for not speaking with one voice.

This has now changed.

A consortium made up of brewers regional and local, CaskMarque and CAMRA, commissioned me to pool all existing knowledge on the market for cask ale, and mine it for new insights. The results are at the URL above. You can download a PDF of the report. Please do. Hopefully it will be informative.

We’re under way

Access to internet facilities is now sporadic, as Barry and I are in the third week of our re-creation of the voyage of IPA and spending much of our time on ships. I’m going to end up posting a few entries at once, with this being the first lot – a potted story so far. The next update will probably be at the end of October, when we land in Brazil.

Sorry for the lack of pics and links - my battery is almost dead and I ahve to be out of here in ten minutes!

Leaving Burton-on-Trent

I wanted the send-off from Burton to be a bit of a celebration of the town’s brewing tradition, and we managed to accomplish this in some style.

The night before the send-off, we had dinner (curry obviously) in Burton with most of the town’s brewers – Rudgie representing Coors/Worthington (sadly both brewers, Steve and Jo, were on holiday), Ian Ward from Coors, although by the time you read this he’ll have left to go to Marston’s, Jeff Mumford from Burton Bridge Brewery, and John Saville from the Burton Old Cottage Beer Company. And my mate Chris. The latter two seemed a bit bemused as to why we were all there, but a fantastic curry and a tasting of various Burton IPAs – Marston’s Old Empire, Worthington White Shield, and Burton Bridge Imperial India Ale, meant the evening went off very nicely.

We capped it with a bottle of Ratcliffe’s ale, the beer from 1789 found by Steve Wellington in the cellars. It was like nothing else – or maybe a little like Utopias from Samuel Adams – strong aromas of port and dried summer fruit, rich raisins, brandy and plums, vanilla, cinnamon, buttered leather, and according to one of our company, “the inside of a Bombay taxi driver’s jock strap,” though he didn’t tell us how he knew. And a taste of cedar wood, leather and old closets.

Thus fortified, the following morning the local MP, Janet Dean, turned up to see us on our way. Barry and I then travelled with Ian, Chris and Rudgie though Burton on the back of a horse drawn dray to the canal, where we set off back south again.

And so Barry was on his way – at a speed which, if I kept constant, would mean the whole journey would take me six and a half years…

Power Cruising through the Midlands

Before 1840, beer used to be taken from Burton to the ports by canal boat. It was slow and expensive, often costing more than the trip form England to India. Not much has changed.

Canal holidays in the English Midlands cost more than a decent-sized chalet in the Mediterranean, with flights included. I have no idea why. The very nice people at Viking Afloat gave me a 25% discount off the market rate, and it was still more expensive than the cost of a month at sea on a tall ship.

Cost and logistics meant we couldn’t do the whole trip from Burton to London or Liverpool by canal. So we rented a boat form Rugby, 55 miles from Burton along a stretch of canal that was once packed with barges full of India Pale Ale.

You can only go so fats in a canal boat, with an average speed of two and a half to three miles an hour. Our journey each way was estimated to be three full days cruising. The only problem was, we didn’t have three days to get there. By the time we were allowed to pick up the boat, and then stock it with groceries, we only had about three hours’ cruising time left on our first day (you can’t cruise after dark). We had to start at first light, keep constantly on the move, with one person on the tiller while others made breakfast, showered, produced cups of tea, and we didn’t stop until dark. We were meant to be using this stage as a way of getting used to the concept of slow travel, getting away from the idea of speed being everything. Instead, we ended up inventing extreme canal boating by mistake.

And then my cruising companions all had to get back to real life, and I was faced with the prospect of piloting a 68 foot long boat on my own, which we had decided would be impossible. In desperation, I phoned my mum to see if she and her new boyfriend (her first in the 11 years since my dad died) fancied a day and a night on board. I was a bit nervous about meeting my mum’s new beau, and wanted to create a good impression. About half an hour after rendezvousing with them, I took a call telling me that Tehran were refusing to give me an Iranian visa, which I need because my container ship stops off at an Iranian port before it reaches India. Maybe it’s because I was flustered by this, but I took a bend badly and managed to crash the boat. We’d all done this several times, but this was a bad one. I’d got us wedged across a bend in the canal, stuck against both banks. I went forward to try and sort us out. And that’s when, carrying my blackberry and mobile phone, I fell in the canal.

Oceana: a rest home at sea, but in a good way

Our first leg at sea was on the P&O cruise ship, Oceana. I was angry at Barry (see below) so he remained in our cabin the whole time, glowering. But he was in good company – it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the ship’s many bars all stocked Marston’s Pedigree and Bass Ale, which should have made him feel at home.

I can heartily recommend a cruise ship holiday to anyone who can afford it. Even if you don’t think it’s your kind of thing, it’s like all your senses are in a warm bath. This is what it must be like to be in long term respite care, only without being ill. Every need was catered for. You sign for everything on a little card that goes on your bill at the end, so you don’t even have to carry money.

Although this did cause a problem when we went ashore in Madeira, had a few bars in the Madeira Brew House (not worth the bother), realised we’d both become so institutionalised we had left all our money on board ship, just bringing our little cards out with us. With thirty minutes to go before ship left port, cue a sprint along the cobbled quayside back to the ship for my wallet, and a sprained ankle to add to my rapidly mounting injury count. And these were supposed to be the easy bits.

Barry the Bastard from Burton

It’s one thing to give a name to an inanimate object and anthropomorphise it. It’s quite another when that object starts to take on a personality that is not necessarily the one you would have chosen for it.

I’m worried that Barry is actually a bit of a bastard. And a grumpy one at that.

Of course he’s heavy – about 30kg. When I first picked him up, I breathed a sigh of relief (which came out as a grunt of exertion) that I’d made a compromise and gone for an aluminium cask instead of the planned wooden one, which would have been twice the weight and would never have gotten very far.

But this is about more than weight.

After getting off the train in London there were no trolleys, and I had a large, heavy bag and laptop case as well as Barry. I managed to get down the length of the platform by hoisting him on to my shoulder, where I could carry him for about thirty yards at a time. By the time I got home, I had a bruise on my bicep as big as a saucer.

He didn’t stop there. We bought a wheelie bag with a handle for him to go in. He broke the spine of that after about a hundred yards, the wheels sticking out uselessly at the sides. So then we bought him a trolley. We checked on the label that it was capable of taking 40kg. So far he’s managed to scrape the paint off it and buckle some of the supports at the bottom. We’ve wrapped him in that special cellophane packing you can get at airports. His bag is red, and glows through the mucus-green cellophane, making him look livid. He’s already burst through this cellophane at the shoulders of the bag, which is scarred with long black marks and tears.

Barry is now a malevolent presence in the room, causing people to stub their feet or bruise their shins on him far more than would be normal for an inanimate, highly visible object.

Our journey’s end in Calcutta is still far away, but I’m already starting to have fantasies about spilling the bastard’s guts once we get there.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Reassuringly Expensive

So I was in Burton Public Library, researching the IPA book, and I found something else interesting - in 1852 and 1875, Britain sent expeditions to the North Pole. And being British, they took beer with them. There was a public tencder to see who could brew the best beer, which was won by Allsopp's of Burton on Trent.
The expedition's leader, Captain Belcher reported that "Allsopp's Arctic Ale proved to be "a valuable antiscorbutic", helping fight off scurvy, the bane of all sea voyages in those days. He added that the beer was "a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick" and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped well below zero.

According to historian Colin Owen, the beer withstood temperatures of 90 degrees below freezing without a detioration in quality, "a reminder of the superb keeping qualities of Burton ale." But I don't think they expected it to keep for quite this long...

Last month, some guy with an antiques and Militaria shop in the US put a bottleof Allsopp's Arctic Ale on EBay. A bottle made it to the United States in the early twentieth century, and is now believed to be the oldest surviving bottle of beer in the world. It comes with a laminated description that tells its own story about the US in 1919...

“This ale was specially brewed and bottled in England, in 1852, for Kane’s Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. A portion of the lot was cached in the Arctic; and was afterwards taken back to England, where it was bought by Allsopp, from whom Mr. Jus. Fennell obtained a part.

This bottle was given to me by Mr. Fennell May 13, 1919. Should I depart from this (by that time probably) dry world before consuming the contents, let my son and brethren perform my duties and enjoy my rights in that respect, on the eve of my funeral (if they find it in time) – unless such act be then illegal, in which case those of the aforesaid trustees who sufficiently learned in law shall advise ac-????? To the rule of ey fares.

Two bottles of this ale were guests of honor at the banquet given to Shackleton and Peary, in Boston, some years ago. (1907/1908) The skeletons of said guests were preserved as mementos of Sir John Franklin! (Useful suggestion regarding the “cast off shell” of the spirit.)

Signed: Percy G Bolster

So what was the closing bid on this item?

A cool $503,300.00...

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Father of Beer Writing Dead

I just learned that Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, died this morning. He's been ill for a long time, and the reports don't yet say what the cause of death was, but the beer community has been increasingly concerned about his health for some years.

Michael was simply the most famous beer writer, beer advocate, beer fan, beer drinker, in the world. When I was researching my last book, I visited countless breweries around the world, and Michel had been there first. I knew this because people there couldn't wait to tell me - many of them had framed pictures by the mash tuns, evidence of his visit, a mark of approval, a stamp of credibility to rival any brewing award.

Every single person who ever puts pen to paper about beer (or finger to keyboard I suppose) is influenced by him, whether they know it or not. Because before Michael started writing about beer in the 1970s, nobody did - not in the way we recognise. He was the first champion of Belgian beers, then languishing in obscurity. He was the insipiration for god knows how many microbrewers setting up, a sort of patron saint of the American craft brew industry. He invented the way we write beer tasting notes, often imitated, never equalled.

Because the thing about Michael's writing was he understood that beer writing should be like beer itself - accessible, democratic, relaxed. His articles welcomed you in and sat you down. He made beer and brewers human, and realised you needed a bit of context around the piece, setting the scene, bringing it to life, if you wanted people to truly engage. He knew that it was only partly about what goes on in the glass - and at the same time made that compelling.

Earlier this year I was at a dinner where he was interviewing two young British microbrewers. The questions he asked them got them to open up and talk about their beer in a way they had probably never done before. He drew them out and made them eloquent. They were in awe of him - to them he was a pop star or movie idol, and they actually insisted on getting his autograph as the interview ended - but he treated them with respect and made them shine.

Coming only weeks after the death of John White, I think the whole community of British writers is just shellshocked now - I certainly am. It's no exaggeration to say that the whole world of beer has suffered a massive loss.

We Brewed the Beer!

(l-r: Me, Kevin the American, Steve Wellington, Jo)
The India Pale Ale for my epic trip is now brewed and sitting in Burton-on-Trent.

Two weeks ago (fittingly, the week India celebrated 60 years of independence) I went up to Burton to meet Steve Wellington, head brewer at the White Shield brewery, and he put me to work.

We've recreated (that's "we" - I'm a brewer now) an authentic nineteenth century IPA, as near as we can figure it. For those of you interested in brewing, here's the recipe bit - if you think this kind of thing is a bit spoddy, look away now.
The 'chassis' of the beer, if you like - the basic recipe - is based on an old beer called Bass Continental, that was brewed for export and last saw the light of day in about 1920. This beer was 6.5% ABV, so we've upped that to 7%. It's brewed with crystal and pale malts, and English hops, using Northdown hopes for aroma. It's a rich golden colour - "a blonde with a tan", as Steve puts it. We used Worthington yeasts and water from the well that used to belong to Thomas Salts, so it's kind of a meta-Burton IPA, with three legendary brewers represented. It'll be dry hopped as it goes into the barrel, and will come out at around 50 units of bitterness. That's quite bitter, unless you're an insane American hophead who likes drinking fermented hop extract and thinks that tooth enamel is overrated anyway.
There was a bit of a party atmosphere in the brewery with plenty of friends turning up, and the long pauses when wort was bubbling away and there was nothing to do inevitably became filled by beer tasting, and by the afternoon everything was starting to get a bit warm and fuzzy.

Me cleaning out the mash tun. I told you they made me work.

By now it'll be in the barrel - or 'Barry' as I've taken to calling him. I'm going to collect him in about a week, and then we'll be off!

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Bye bye freedom - it was nice knowing you

When I'm not happily drinking beer, I'm increasingly concerned about the systematic undermining of our civil liberties in the name of the prevention of terrorism. As every half-decent stand-up comedian in the country is quipping at the moment: "We cannot let terrorists take away our freedoms - we've gotta do it first."

I'm not the first writer to see a link between beer and pubs and fighting for freedom - many revolutionary and workers' rights movements met in pubs when they were not allowed to meet anywhere else, and George Orwell saw the pub as the last bastion of freedom away from the prying eyes of government. But that's another story, and I'm just trying to justify writing about this on my blog. Maybe I'm going to need a separate political blog like BLTP.

Anyway, many people in the UK still don't realise that the police have been given powers of random stop and search and detention without charge. Your brain doesn't want to accept it, because powers like that would mean we are living in a police state. Well guess what? We are.

The s44 Terrorism Act 2000 act gives the police powers to:

  • Stop and search people and vehicles for anything that could be used in connection with terrorism
  • Search people even if they do not have evidence to suspect them
  • Hold people for up to a month without charge
  • Search homes and remove protesters' outer clothes, such as hats, shoes and coats.
Let's be clear: they have the power to do this to you whoever you are, just because they decide they want to. You don't have to be acting in a suspicious, terrorist-like way, or commit the crime of travelling on public transport with a rucksack and brown skin. "Anything that could be used in connection with terrorism" - you mean like a car, or a rucksack, or more than 100mls of liquid in a container, or chapatti flour... it could be applied to anything.

Everyone wants terrorism defeated, but when civil liberties groups protest against measures like this, it's because once granted, these powers may be misused - that is, used for purposes other than defeating terrorism. Because clearly that would be wrong. That would be using a climate of fear in order to erode civil liberties and increase government and police power across the board, with the overall aim of keeping the population cowed.

Whenever anyone protests about this they are dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theorist who hasn't got their priorities right. "But we'd never misuse these powers!" the authorities protest. "Look at us, we're nice guys. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we will only ever use these powers to fight terrorism. It. Would. Never. Happen."

Cut to today's Guardian: the government are encouraging the police to use stop and search and detention without charge... against climate change protesters. Why? Because climate change protesters might blow shit up? No - because they might exacerbate delays at Heathrow.

Now, I wouldn't want to be delayed while going on my holidays either, but if I am flying off somewhere, I think it's right that I should have to go past a bunch of people pointing out what my flight was doing to the atmosphere. It might make me think a little before booking the next one. But those protesters now face the full might of anti-terror law.

The arrests have already started. According to the Guardian article, one protester has already been arrested under anti-terrorism powers. Her terrorist crime? Riding a bicycle, near Heathrow.

Perhaps they were worried that, inspired by 9/11, or by that mad fucker in Glasgow last month, she might crash her pushbike into the terminal, causing massive explosions and unimaginable loss of life. Perhaps the reason British troops could be on the ground in Afghanistan for another thirty years (The Soviet Empire failed to defeat the Taliban - it's almost cute we think we'll be able to) is that the Taliban have employed mass fleets of bikes, with wicker basket mounted rocket launchers, or bells with a specially modified ding-ding sound that disrupts human brain waves.

After holding her for thirty hours, they of course dropped the terrorist charges (because, in fact, she wasn't a terrorist after all - funny that) and re-charged her with the crime - and this really is a crime, apparently - intention to cause a public nuisance. Now. If that really is a crime - and Gods help us, it seems like it is - and you were to compile a most wanted list, and you went around arresting people in the order of how big a public nuisance they were intending to create, just how many people would you arrest before you got down as far as a woman riding a bicycle near Heathrow?

I'm sure the families who live under the flight path would like to see BA's top executives arrested on these grounds well ahead of the woman on a bike near their houses, and given that they are "the public" nearest to Heathrow, maybe we should let them decide. We could arrest Pete Doherty every time he plays a concert, as well as all the other times. James Blunt. Big Brother contestants. Jodie Marsh. Jose Mourinho. Simon Cowell. That sinner/winner bloke on Oxford Street (though I hear he has in fact been ASBO'd). Richard Littlejohn. Jordan and Peter Andre. All these people regularly cause a public nuisance and as far as I know, they have never been arrested for it. Perhaps it's just a matter of time.

It's funny how some people can sound a bit bonkers until they are proven right. Welcome to the police state.

If you don't like it, please, for your own sake, go here.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Losing your head?

"Englishmen are like their own beer: Frothy on top, dregs on the bottom, the middle excellent."

Voltaire said that.

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and smartarse about English beer. Much like me - apart form the French bit. And the whole affectation about having to write under a pen name. And the global fame, obviously. And the memorable epithets.

A couple of recent posts on here have raised a bit of debate, so in a devilish mood I thought I'd throw another one in.

Imagine you're in Starbucks. You order a cappuccino. Here it comes, in its big cup, a dense, creamy foam piled high. If you're feeling naughty, it might have chocolate or even cinnamon sprinkles on it. What do you do? Is it:

a) Think, "Mmm, lovely, an indulgent little treat to start the day. This is way posher than a cup of Nescafe. Because this is REAL coffee, like the Italians drink, but with a really complex ordering system, like the Americans have. So I feel a little bit more stylish, like an Italian. And also, at a subconscious level, though I may not realise it, I'm associating myself with the opening scenes of Hollywood romantic comedies in the tradition of Working Girl with Melanie Griffiths. They always use moments like these to symbolise the start of yet another humdrum working day and then something wonderful happens. So in drinking this particular type of coffee I'm making my working day a bit more like Melanie Griffiths's, so that means that I too am making myself slightly more likely to be swept off my feet by Harrison Ford fifteen years ago. Shit, I suppose I'll have to settle for Hugh Grant, or Sandra Sodding Bullock if I'm the heterosexual male of the piece. Still, at least the coffee's nice," before enjoying a tiny, lost, blink-and-you've-missed-it moment of private bliss as the foam caresses your top lip and you mouth puckers downward through the fluffy clouds in search of the hot, dark delights it conceals.

or is it:

b) Take your coffee back to the counter and say "Oi! I think you will find I asked for a cup of COFFEE! What do you call THIS?! I think you'll find that this is half a cup of coffee, and a lot of air. I'm not standing for this! I demand you scrape off all this foam, NOW, and fill up my paper mug with more coffee until it's dribbling down the sides, or I shall have no alternative other than to mutter under my breath and sign a strongly worded petition!"

Which one are you? I really hope it's not (b). Nobody would be that sad. So why would you choose (b) if we switched the capuccino for a pint of beer?

Melanie Griffith asking Harrison Ford if he likes a good head.

It's really simple: a foamy head is an integral part of a pint. It's not something that sits on top of a pint, superfluous, it is part of the pint. A pint is not complete without a head. Want to do this on technical grounds? OK, a head releases volatiles from the hop compounds in the beer, which improve the aroma of the pint. And head formation indicates that the glass is clean, and that the beer is fresh. The world's brewing scientists KNOW that a head is an important part of a beer. If you disagree, and you're not one of the world's leading brewing scientists, then I'm afraid you're wrong.

This is why I have a major problem with CAMRA's dogged determination to fight for a change in the law to demand a full pint.

First, let's define parameters:

  • It's acceptable for a head to constitute five per cent of the total pint. You may like it to be more than that, but if it is more, no-one's going to call you an arse if you demand a top-up.
  • I share the view that the simplest solution to the whole controversy over a full pint would be to introduce over-size glasses with the pint mark clearly on them, to allow room for a head.
  • And I do know that pub companies have been known to ask for yields from tenants of over 100% of the volume of a barrel, effectively ordering bar staff to short-serve.

So I'm not saying there isn't an issue here.

But I've seen data from research sponsored by CAMRA, and it says that most consumers think you're a bit of an arse if you keep banging on about our right to have a full pint. Alright, it doesn't say that; I'm lying. But it really does say that most drinkers, if they were given a short measure, would simply ask for a top-up. And you know what? The vast majority of pubs would give you one, no questions asked. Most pubs these days even have signs behind the bar stating that they will give you a top-up if you are not happy with your serve.

So at best, the issue is not all that big, and CAMRA's campaign for a full pint is a waste of valuable campaigning time and energy.

At worst, it's damaging the interests of the beer drinkers it seeks to protect.

Here's a true story. Last year Paulaner lager (I know, it's not a real ale but bear with me - it's still a very fine beer and the story is still relevant) introduced special World Cup glasses into UK pubs - it's a German lager, World Cup in Germany, good promotional opportunity. These were over-size glasses, with pint line clearly marked, to allow a good couple of inches of head, as is the tradition for German lagers.

As a new, different, quality lager, served in its own unique glass, Paulaner could be sold at a premium price compared to other lagers, but bars weren't too keen on stocking it. One of the importers, a friend of mine, went out to find out why. Bar staff were filling the glass to the brim, serving drinkers considerably more than a pint, and yet, serving a drink that looked, smelled and tasted a little less appetising than it should. Pubs were losing money, and at the same time, the beer was not as attractive as it should be. My mate pointed out the lined glass, the fact that you didn't need to fill it to the top. The barman said, "Watch this."

A customer came to the bar and ordered a pint. The thing about a large head in an oversized glass is, when the beer is first poured, the head extends below the pint glass mark. But we all know that as the beer settles, the head doesn't just evaporate; the level of beer comes up as the level of head goes down. The drinker, however, wasn't having this. He insisted he had not been served a full pint. The barman explained what I've just said. So the drinker waited at the bar for several minutes, until the head had disappeared and the liquid had settled at the pint mark. Despite being proven wrong about his accusation of being short-served, despite pissing off the barman, despite allowing the head on his beer to disappear and the beer to warm up, giving himself a poorer quality pint, despite spending ten minutes more at the bar away from his mates, he was satisfied.

The barman explained to my mate, better just to over-serve. Better still just to give them an ordinary lager in an ordinary pint glass.

This doesn't have to happen. But if we get what we want and we have all beer served in over-sized glasses, then it will happen - maybe not to this extreme degree, but drinkers won't be any happier, one way or another, with what they get. And that's because this British attitude, where we always assume we're about to be ripped off, leeches both the trust and the joy out of what should be a happy, informal occasion. CAMRA didn't invent this attitude, but they are encouraging it with a full pint campaign that doesn't explain all the issues around the importance of a head, and which panders to and encourages English small-minded pettiness.

Where there is a short serve, people are happy to correct it. To shout shrilly (and ultimately, inaccurately) about it could ruin perfectly good and valid beer serves.

OK, I'm ready. As the late, not-so-great Mike Reid would have said, "Rrrrrrrrunaround now!"

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

It's that time of the year again...

The first week in August - time to wander down to Earl's Court and mingle with some of the weirdest people ever to crawl into the daylight in the name of research and networking, come back home and write an article or blog entry fuelled by anger and frustration - yes, it's Great British Beer Festival time again!

This year's festival opened yesterday and I was down there for the trade day. And I just had one problem: there was nothing to complain about.

This bloke wasn't even there.

I feel slightly cheated. I also worry that perhaps this means I'm going native and turning into one of them through over-exposure (I've even started wondering about growing a beard.)

I mean, yes, there were the usual things - the fact that it's cask only doesn't represent the true picture of British beer. But they're a cask-only organisation, rightly or wrongly. That's not going to change. Yes there was the usual motley collection of weirdos, but that's half the fun - I'd have been devastated if they weren't there.

And of course, they still refuse to stock my books in their bookshop.

But most of the specific things I've ranted about in the past seem to have disappeared: the door staff were unfailingly polite; no-one was wearing T-shirts with messages like "If you drink lager you're a moron and you're not welcome here", the service was mostly attentive and, again, polite. They's sorted out the acoustics so you could hear what was happening on stage. It's the second year at Earls Court, and they've made the venue look a bit nicer - there are more seating areas, though still not enough really.

They've brought back third of a pint glasses, and these are elegant and stemmed, so women don't have to stand holding a pint. The pint glasses also have half and third of a pint markings, so everyone can explore more. I didn't have a full pint over the eight hours I was there. I must have tried ten or twelve beers, but only drunk about three and a half pints. This is the future for beer festivals, and it's the way American festivals have always been run, with the emphasis on trial and exploration rather than drunkenness.

And the 'Bieres san Frontieres' bit, the exception to the cask only rule (it's great that they do this - just stupid that you can have non-cask beer if you're foreign, but not if you're, say, Greenwich Meantime, who brew great beers just down the river) is bigger and better than ever. We spent most of our time drinking awesome American IPAs and unfiltered, unpasteurised Czech lagers. In both cases, this is the only time these beers are available in the UK. In both cases, this makes you want to get on a plane and spend a bit of time drinking in the beer's country of origin.

So for the first time in my beer writing career, I can heartily and unreservedly recommend that you go. It's on till Saturday.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Pete's Big Adventure, or, Can You Take Obsession With a Beer Style Too Far?

I wrote on here a few months ago about the plan for my new book. Well now it's official. From September to December this year, I'm recreating the historic journey of India Pale Ale from Burton-on-Trent to Kolkata (Calcutta).

I like IPA. It's my favourite beer style. I love the heady, citrus and tropical fruit rush of the American new wave, and revere those few examples of English beer that are faithful to the style rather thn simply appropriating the name for an average session bitter. And when I was challenged to do a great beer journey... well. As soon as the idea emerged, I had to do it.

So on 16th August, I'm in Burton-on-Trent brewing an authentic 19th century IPA with Steve Wellington, head brewer at the White Shield Brewery. At the beginning of September, we take a pin of this beer (four and a half gallons) from Burton to London, hopefully by canal (like it went before 1839), but if not, by train (like it went in its heyday).

Then on 16th September I leave the UK... on a P&O cruise ship! This gets me as far as Tenerife, where a few days later I board the Barque Europa (top), a nineteenth century tall ship who made me cry the first time I saw her. Tenerife was often a staging post for the old East Indiamen, so while it sounds like a great holiday, it's still a kosher historical recreation.

As part of the extended crew of the Europa, Barry and I (that's what I'm calling my beer - it's short for 'barrel') sail south and across the Atlantic, and land in Salvador, Brazil, at the end of October. From here I have to cheat slightly, getting a flight down to Rio, where I board the Carribbean (right), a modern container ship.

Sailing ships would often drift, becalmed, for weeks in the mid-Atlantic doldrums, and would sometimes end up as far off their route as Brazil, so again, this is still accurate.

The Caribbean sails without stopping down the coast of Brazil, across the South Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and up the coast of East Africa. Then we stop at various points around the Arabian peninsular (including Iran) before landing in Mumbai. From Mumbai, I'm getting the train across to Kolkata (Calcutta), which used to be the main base of the East India Company. There, we'll taste the beer and find out of the sea voyage, with its constant pitch and roll, and its thirty degrees celcius temperature change, really does condition the beer in the way we've always told each other it did.

This is an enormously exciting journey personally, but I also hope it's of interest to anyone who brews or drinks IPA. And it's an opportunity to put Burton-on-Trent back on the map as one of the world's great brewing centres. No-one outside beer aficionado circles is aware of Burton's former glories, and that's something this book hopes to change.

I'll be posting updates on here as frequently as I can. The book is due out in Summer 2008.

And if you know anyone with a narrowboat on the English canals who might be interested in doing the first bit, please let me know!

Friday, 27 July 2007

Pete's Pub Etiquette - the first of an occasional series

Hello, pub-goers!

We all know that one of the most difficult aspects of going to the pub is toilet etiquette. It can be stressful for straight men, because as we know, gay men sometimes go to the toilet too, and any straight man knows that if he is in the toilet with a gay man, the gay man is sure to find him irresistably attractive and make inappropriate advances towards him. This means that not only do straight guys need to be on the lookout for gay men lurking in pub toilets, they also need to do absolutely everything possible to ensure they don't send out any signals whatsoever that they thenselves might be a bit gay.

This has given us the elaborate urinal ritual - so delicately coded that often, when you try to explain it to women they refuse to believe it. But hey, it makes going to the toilet more interesting! But where do you draw a line in your attempts to prove your assertive, hetero masculinity?

Here's a couple of thoughts.

Say I don't know you, but we're in the same pub and we go to the toilet at the same time. You're just in front of me, and you've clocked me and are aware that I'm a few paces behind you.

If you were to hold the toilet door open for me as you walk through, instead of allowing it to swing shut in my face, I promise this won't make me worry that you're inviting me inside for some hot bum sex. Instead, it'll just make me think you have manners and aren't some sort of twat.

Why not try it next time?

And on a similar vein - washing your hands after you've been to the toilet wouldn't make you look less manly. This message goes out with particular urgency if the reason you were in the pub toilet in the first place is that you're currently on duty behind the fucking bar.

Until next time!

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Pure Genius? Or sheer idiocy?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Marketing magazine to write a comment for their 'Brand Healthcheck' page, which looks at brands that are facing a rocky time and asks people what they should do. This one on Guinness was prompted by the fact that sales are down in the UK and Ireland, and there are rumours that Diageo (Guinness' owners) are thinking of closing down the St James' Gate brewery in Dublin, and brewing somewhere else more cost-effectively.

Here's what I said:

Anyone at Diageo who thinks it’s a good idea to close Guinness’ Dublin brewery should maybe also give some thought to abandoning the famous two-part pour, making it paler – lager-coloured say – brewing it in a shed just off the M1 and changing the name to something snappier – what about Harp? Oh, hang on…

Guinness is an unparalleled icon in the beer market, peerless in terms of quality. The brand team that walks away from this kills the brand.

Everyone I’ve ever met who has worked on Guinness knows what the real problem is – a problem that was recorded at least as far back as the 1930s. People think it’s heavy, harsh and bitter, a challenging taste, whereas it’s actually silky, smooth and deceptively drinkable. They think it’s a meal in a glass, whereas a pint of Guinness actually has fewer calories than lager.

Beer is about heritage, romance and tradition, whereas taste is transitory and often cyclical. Guinness has always stuck to its guns, and has ridden out all short term trends. It should continue to do so.

[Then you have to give a few bullet point, off-the-cuff marketing tips]

  • Step up experiential marketing – confront the misconception about the product head on by getting people to try it.

  • Events with vertical tastings of the many different Guinnesses available would only deepen people’s appreciation of the brand.

  • Don’t waver on ritual, and don’t lose the romance of the product

  • Try food pairings – why are so few people aware of what an amazing match Guinness is with chocolate desserts?

It's not that difficult, is it? I would bet my house on the fact that, if Guinness closed their brewery as a cost-saving measure, they would find themselves with a more impoverished business twelves months later. Why do so few marketers (and I say this as a marketer) fail to see that it's the romance of beer that contributes to profitable beer brands? Heritage, superstition, a respect for tradition, tribalism, belligerence, call it what you will, love it or hate it, all brand owners know that there is a huge but intangible value in the whole invisible history around any given brand. You can't prove it's there, so you can't quantify the impact of its loss. Until it's too late. And apart from that, isn't the world simply a duller place when this kind of thing gets overruled in favour of simple, measurable metrics? (Sorry, but that's what they call them - numbers.)

Hoegaarden closed the brewery in Hoegaarden, and there are rumours of industrial unrest leading to supplies runnign out in the UK - just as competitors like Grolsch Weizen appear on the scene. Boddington's clsoed its Strangeways brewery, and a year later announced that it was withdrawing advertising support (I would imagine, though Inbev would deny this, because the shrunken value of the brand doesn't justify a big spend).

Christ, it's hardly rocket science is it?

Thursday, 19 July 2007

What does it take to be fit to run a pub?

Just back from a night out at the theatre. We'd all love to think that someone who lives in London goes out to the theatre all the time, but it's not like that - we went to see a play because it had John Simm in it, and I can't remember the last time we went out to the theatre. The play was brilliant though.

Anyway, after we left the theatre, we went to a fairly iconic West End pub, which I won't name. But if you're a Sam Smith's fan lurking near Trafalgar Square, you can probably guess.

Anyway, it's got some really nice partitioned snugs, which were all full when we arrived. We got a perch near the end of one of them, which contained a young couple on one side of the table, and a pretty girl, maybe 22-ish, across from them. It looked like the couple were there with the girl, though I might be wrong. Anyway, the girl decided she'd be more comfortable lying flat on the seat at her side, and the people she was with left. If they did know her, then deciding to abandon her just as she slipped into unconsciousness makes them without doubt the villains of the piece - the kind of people for whom my wife Liz is happy to suspend the embargo she has on the use of the word "cunt". So these cunts left, and this girl is lying prone, quite a bit of shopping on the table in front of her, her eyes slightly open and a bit gluey. It doesn't look good, so Liz checks that she's actually still breathing. She is, and her legs are moving, so I think we're OK to leave her, especially since the bar staff are trying to get us to leave.

But then these bar staff come past once, twice, three times, collecting the empty crisp packets and glasses in front of the girl, but ignoring the comatose customer herself. Well no, that's not quite right - the third time, the bar person - a spotty Australian youth - comments "Jesus, that's disgusting. I've never been drunk like that in my life," before walking away. So he's clocked that this is someone who is in no state to get home on her own, but the idea of taking some kind of action to resolve this doesn't occur to him. Neither does the possibility that the girl might have had her drink spiked, or even intentionally taken something other than alcohol.

Liz and her mate Joan decide not to leave until we know this girl is going to be OK, but the bar staff are insistent that we leave. They tell us they've called an ambulance and that the manager is coming down, so we move outside. Then we see they have revived the girl to the point that she is just about able to walk, and are trying to shunt her out of the pub so she's not their problem any more. Liz and Joan make thier presence felt again (a fat northern bloke sticking his oar in was probably not what was needed) and they eventually agree to look after her until an ambulance arrives.

Look, we don't know what the story was: she might have just been really pissed. She might have been an insufferable pain in the arse who her 'friends' couldn't wait to get away from. She might have been a regular. But we have this tendency to say "It'll probably be OK, and anyway it's none of my business." And 99% of the time this is probably right. But it strikes me that every date rape victim, every person who has ever been attacked and/or robbed while pissed, probably thought "It'll probably be OK" up to the point that it was too late.

Here was a girl who was quite clearly incapable of getting home on her own, and quite clearly not with anyone who was left in the bar. So I genuinely don't know, and am asking if anyone does: what are the legal responsibilities of the bar/pub in this situation? And if we wanted to say "fuck whatever the law says, what about basic human fucking decency", what moral obligation do bar staff and management have?

Let's have a heated debate!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

It's official - I'm the second-best beer drinker in Britain!

The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group is a group of MPs that does what it says in the title - MPs without any party agenda cooperate to promote and celebrate British beer. Every year they have an annual shindig, one of the highlights of which is they name the person they think has done the most for beer in the preceeding year, and award them the honour of "Beer Drinker of the Year".

Previous winners include Kenneth Clarke MP and Prince Charles, and this year's winner was Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux, who deserved it after introducing beer lists to complement the wine selection in restaurants like le Gavroche and Aubergine, spurring people to think about beer in a completely different light.

But the runner up to Monsieur Roux was... me! Of course, this being the beer industry - which we love for its ramshackle charm, don't we - this year, like every other year, I wasn't actually invited to the dinner and had no idea it was happening. So it was a surreal birthday morning (it's my birthday today - I'm thirty-bastard-nine) when I started getting e-mails and phone calls congratulating me on something I had no idea I'd done.

I'm told by those present that John Grogan MP, the chair of the group, read out a lengthy extract from Three Sheets, some of the stuff I wrote about how to enjoy beer properly, getting the buzz rather than getting wankered, and how the way to encourage it is to promote the virtues of this lovely middle state between sobriety and drunkenness rather than just telling people not to drink as much.

I'm absolutely delighted about this. It means a lot when people say they found the book funny, but the idea that people as influential as this are reading the serious message within the book and taking it on board makes me happy beyond words. It makes the abject misery of having to go around the world drinking beer seem worthwhile (Oh, alright - it makes the £20,000 cost, the two stone extra weight and the two years of writing seem worthwhile).

And I'm very chuffed about being the second best beer drinker in Britain. If I'd won I'd have felt like a bit of a cock telling people I was Beer Drinker of the Year. It's a bit like 'Rear of the Year' or something. Being second best beer drinker in Britain - now that's cool. I can put that on the bottom of e-mails and stuff.

I'll have to see if I can get Michel to buy me a pint.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

John White

The world of beer is a bit less interesting and much sadder today after the death of one of my fellow beer writers, John White. He was only 62.

I met John through the British Guild of Beer Writers - we've served on the committee together for the last two or three years. Unlike the rest of us, I don't think he ever missed a meeting. While some of us grumbled about the venue being on the other side of London from where we live, it made no difference to him - he had to come down from Grimsby every time.

Beer creates strange bedfellows, and I don't think John and I would have ever been in the same room if it wasn't for the Guild. When I first started writing about beer I liked to think of myself as bringing something new and fresh to it, creating a broader appeal. I saw people like John as the Old Guard - people for whom beer was a hobby, in the quintessential English tradition, bordering on the eccentric, and often crossing that border. On a day-to-day basis, it's very easy to see other people only in terms of an agenda, if that agenda is different from your own. It's only when something like this happens that you stop and appreciate the fully-rounded person for the first time. That's a lesson I intend to take on board.

Beer was John's life. He devoted countless hours and days to scrupulously cataloguing bars and beers, particularly Belgian beers, which were his real passion. He organised 'beer hunts' to Belgium and Germany, always seeking out the new. I spent four days in Belgium with him a couple of years ago, and if we ever went ot a bar that just had the same old selection on its list he'd be impatient, protesting that we weren't getting anything new here, and we didn't have long, so let's go to this bar he knew that had a really extensive list. We were the guests of the Wallonia Tourist Board, and they didn't know what to do with him. John was dismissive of brands like Duvel and Chimay because they were too popular, and he suspected them of having compromised on product character and brewing integrity to gain that popularity. We younger writers used to laugh at the idea of brands that most people haven't heard of being considered too popular, but I guess it's no different from what I used to be like around music when I was an 18 year-old, John Peel-loving indie kid. I'm not like that about music any more, but John kept that wide-eyed passion for beer his entire life. And as a result, he introduced me to Westverlateren, and I have to admit that he was right.

Another Guild committe member once told me that John referred to me as "the fourth best beer writer in Britain". I'm still not sure if this was a drunken wind-up, but it's easier to believe than not. From his very vocal passion about other writers, we quickly worked out who the other three would be, before moving on to speculate just how far down the list John had made it while cataloguing our vocation. We reckoned he'd probably got anything up to fifty of us in there somewhere, using a scale consisting of several key criteria giving an overall average score.

As you might expect from this description, John was the kind of guy who harboured a formidable collection of beer memorabilia in his cellar. The floods that have swamped large parts of the north of England swept into that cellar last week. John apparently lost most of his stuff, and was trying to salvage what was left and store it in his loft, when he collapsed and died.

It would be mawkish to speculate further on thse scant details, which I only heard third hand, so I won't. But it strikes me as the saddest thing I've heard in a long time.

I and the people I count as friends within the beer community didn't always see eye-to-eye with John, but we never doubted his passion, commitment and energy, his single-minded devotion to evangelising the beers he loved. He was the kind of person who had the potential to make committee meetings a real pain in the arse: he never did, not once. On the contrary, he was unfailingly polite and considerate, often very funny, always a fine drinking buddy.

Regards and cheers, John.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Drinking from the Green Cup.

When you're knee-deep in shit and you realise you're not actually capable of making the effort fo walking for 45 mins to catch that band you were wanting to see; when you queue 20 minutes for a cup of tea, 30 for a carboard tray of noodles and 45 for a toilet, sometimes you want to cauterize yourself from your surroundings.

Enter, Brothers Pear Cider, a Glastonbury institution since 1995. The Brothes bar is near the Jazz World stage at Glasto, and there's a nice flat area full of flags flapping in the breeze where you can sit down and savour.
Brothers Cider is 7%, bone dry, tastes of next to nothing and yet is incredibly moreish. Pints disappear in minutes. Most drinks at Glastonbury are served in the same white paper cups from the Workers Beer Company, festooned with the logo of which ever is the official beer. Brothers Cider is the only product with its own paper cups, whic are a distinctive green.

And whenever you see a real victim at Glastonbury, the people who think it's a good idea to strip down to their undies and mud surf; those who unzip their flies and start urinating into the slime that is the field in front of the Other Stage; those who in the middle of the afternoon can be found lying prone in the mud, face down - they always have a green cup next to them.
A couple of years ago this led us to invent a new euphemism for extreme drunkenness. Whenever you see someone so drunk they have lost control, when you look into their flat, lifeless eyes and realise that most higher order brain functions have shut down, leaving only the basic motor functions running, you can say they have been "drinking from the green cup".

Most of the time, I value my sanity. One of my favourite phrases that I have ever coined in my writing, which I try to use as often as possible, is "surely the best nights out are the ones you can remember." For all the drinking I did in Three Sheets, I was only ever properly pissed about three or four times. For these reasons, I've always given the Brothers a wide berth. But on Friday at Glastonbury 07, when we realised it was going to be yet another mud bath, having never missed a muddy Glastonbury but having missed most of the nice ones, it all became a bit too much.

We approached the Brothers bar, which had a crowd almost as deep as the crowd around the Jazz stage.

We got our pints.

And I decided to get my notebook out.

Here, unedited, is what I decided to write in it:

"What was I thinking about? I have no idea - I've succumbed to drinking Brothers Cider. Like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, I know what's going to happen: I know my mind is forfeit, but there's nothing I can do about it."
The next bit seems to have been written later, because the hand becomes much less steady. And because the content has taken an alarming turn in the direction of bollocks:

"The workings of the mind become a succession of frozen shards with no forward narrative, no way to make any sense of sequential thought. It's a bit like being let into some kind of seceret brotherhood - feeling the base plates in my mind shift, and knowing I won't be able to remember any of this tomorrow. Liz, after half a pint, falls asleep. Chris, after half a pint, gets up and starts dancing. I, after half a pint, start scribbling shite. One foot is squelchy; the other is perfectly dry."

Christopher Gittner, doing the dance of the Green Cup

I don't remember writing any of this. Some time later, I've attempted to write in hieroglyphs I can just make out:

"African fellas on the jazz stage. It wouldn't be quite the same if we went to Mali and played them On Ilkley Moor Bah't 'at, would it? Is it just that it's diff? Or is it just better?"

I think we know the answer to that one.

The last thing I wrote that afternoon was:

"Wake me up when someone gives a shit."

I guess it was only a few seconds later when this photo of me was taken:

Kids, just say no.