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.