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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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What's new?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
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Sunday, 28 December 2008

2008: what the blazes was all THAT about?

Having blogged fairly regularly for the first time throughout the past year, I have an urge to do a sort of round-up thing. It’s purely subjective, skewed and very possibly inaccurate, but I’d welcome any comments, additions or disagreements.

It’s been a great and terrible year for beer. The beer market is in freefall in volume terms, attacked on every side. It’s not made any better when people who regard themselves as guardians and spokespeople for the industry are the loudest voices shouting about about ‘the death of the pub’ as if it’s a reality - you're just helping to make it so, guys.  Also, we’ve been talking for years about a renaissance in the appreciation of our national drink, and while there always seems to be progress, the idea of widespread love of interesting beer, even to the same degree it currently happens in the US, still seems a long way off.

But on the other hand, I think we’ll look back on 2008 as the year British brewing began to rest one eye on the future instead of being perpetually preoccupied with the past. Four years ago, when I was in America researching Three Sheets, I tasted Cascade hops for the first time and bemoaned a lack of such flavour in Britain. We used to ask why British brewers insisted on brewing a portfolio of beers that were all 4.5% mid-brown session bitters. That criticism now seems out of place. Obviously Brew Dog get the headlines for their daring and authority-baiting brews, but use of North American hops is now commonplace in the UK. Wood ageing of beers is widespread, and many brewers now seem unafraid to incorporate Belgian influences or just bloody well experiment a bit. This is not a discussion about the politics of beer – if you like drinking the stuff, it’s just fantastic to have more variety and flavour more easily accessible.

For me personally, I feel like I spent more time in 1823 than 2008. After getting back from my IPA-to-India trip a year ago, I was planning on finishing the book by the end of January. Then I got lost in history, wrote a book that was nearly twice as long as planned, and didn’t hand it in till October. Next year sees a painful edit and a rush to get the book out in June. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not as good as it could be, but books never are. I can’t wait to share it with you.

So here, in no particular order, are a few highs and lows:

BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Winner: Beer Exposed in September – it wasn’t perfect, but it reinvented what beer festivals can be like. If they learn the lessons from this year, and if more brewers, having seen it work, join in, the 2009 event will be phenomenal.

Runner-up: The widespread new experimentalism of British brewers.

WORST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Winner: tax, tax ,tax.

Runner-up: obvious to anyone who has endured reading me over the last few months - the slow death of Stella Artois, once my favourite brand, now presided over by people who see beer as just another grocery brand, no different from cat food or laundry detergent.

MY PERSONAL BEER HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR
Winner: learning how to brew – or starting to. A day brewing Jaipur at Thornbridge in the summer saw my first (and hopefully last) stint cleaning out a copper from the inside. Then I was lucky enough to be invited on Everard’s gold brewing course, where we recreated an authentic nineteenth century IPA. I’m still trying to flog stories on these – if I fail, I will write them up on here in the New Year – when I also hope to be doing lots more brewing.

Runner-up: a Goose Island beer and food matching dinner at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, with the head brewer introducing each of the beers. Mere sensual bliss…

MY PERSONAL BEER LOW POINT OF THE YEAR
Winner: Having a very exciting meeting with a development producer from ITV where we agreed in principle to develop an idea for a series that would see me going around Britain investigating different regional beer styles and stories. Then reading THE NEXT DAY the announcement that Oz Clarke and James May were filming the same idea.

Runner-up: Having a very promising meeting with a development producer from an independent production company, who eventually turned down the idea of serialising Man Walks into a Pub but said they would love to film me doing a beery journey, something ambitious, that I was doing anyway, that had historic roots but contemporary relevance… and me saying, “WHERE WERE YOU A YEAR AGO WHEN I WAS TRYING TO GET PEOPLE INTERESTED IN FILMING MY JOURNEY TO INDIA?” and them saying, “Yes, we’d definitely have been interested in that”.

BREWER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Stefano Cossi at Thornbridge. Possible bias here because I saw him at work close up, but I’m blown away by his combination of experimentation and obsessive rigour and quality control. His beers have consistently wowed. With a new, bigger brewhouse almost complete, 2009 could be Thornbridge’s year.

Runner-up: Alastair Hook at Meantime. Awarded Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers, he consistently and tirelessly pushes quality and flavour ever closer to the mainstream drinker.

BEER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Orkney’s Dark Island Reserve. Matured in malt casks for three months, 10% ABV, full of fruit, spice, wood and malt. It’s not the most challenging or extreme of the new wood aged beers but it’s perfectly balanced and, importantly, perfectly packaged. It looks great, and these days that’s just as important as the product delivery if you want to change perceptions of what beer can be.

Runner-up: Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse – a collaboration between Garrett Oliver and the ancient German Schneider brewery. It tastes like what it is: a hybrid of North American hoppy craft brew and spicy, banana-scented German wheat beer. It’s fragrant, it’s fruity, it’s fabulous.

Honourable mention: Brew Dog’s 13% IPA that’s been matured in a whisky cask for 18 months with a load of strawberries. The result is more like a Sauternes than a beer. Amazing.

SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR
Winner: Alastair Darling for his one-man mission to kill off the pub industry.

Runner up: the renowned home brewer who keeps collaring me at industry events to tell me my IPA journey was a) full of errors and b) pointless. Get a life.

Blogging is not always a comfortable pursuit.  There's a tension between the democracy of blogging for all and the unapologetic use of blogs by writers such as myself for personal promotion.  It's often hard to know where to draw the line between the professional and the personal.  Any writer writes because they have a need to be listened to, and whatever that says about our psyches and frail egos, I'm gratified that people read this blog and link to it and recommend it. I apologise to anyone I've offended on here - I try not to.  I hope you've enjoyed reading most of what I've written, and wish you a happy and prosperous 2009.

Cheers

Pete  

8 comments:

ATj said...

excellent post, we do have to be more bullish about pubs and beer this year, not throw in the sodden beer towel; in the slop-bucket status I’m not ‘clear’ who you were talking about. See you at Sharps.

Chris said...

I have to concur on the excellent post comment...

As a member of the organization that is the 'guardian' of British beer, I have to admit that reading their newspaper is a complete downer. I am not sure I can read another death of the pub issue.

Also, when we were in Belgium earlier in the month, I tried Stella for the first time in maybe a decade. I was never a big fan but I do seem to remember it having flavor. The Stella I just tried was fizzy yellow water.

Chris said...

Oh... we recorded for my posterity my reaction to Stella...
http://www.thebeergeek.com/gallery/album124/IMG_2372_001

beermerchants said...

Nice Summary.

I veer away from the whole death of the pub scene thing, it's sickening to the gut. Growing up in a pub, seeing what once was a thriving business, community centred etc etc, with it's own brewery - now probably facing closure - is beyond words.

I just think, in general terms, people won't miss the pub until it's well and truly gone.

Chris: Re Stella, it used to have an aroma too. Just look at what has happened to Leffe over the years!? not a fan of either tbh.

jocko said...

Totally agree about the HOPFEN one of my favourites this year.Also great to see a German brewer trying something new.

Scott said...

That was a really good post, thanks for putting it out there.

It seems that here in the States there may indeed be more innovation and experimentation regarding beer - it wasn't always this way!

It would be great to combine the British beer tradition with some really new creations.

Zak said...

A thoughtful and thought provoking post Pete, thanks.

With just 90 minutes of 2008 left, I'm sure it's not too early to wish you a happy new year So: Happy New Year.

jesusjohn said...

I picked this up on RealAleBlog - a pub turnaround success story. I agree with Paul Garrard this is indeed a heartening article and an interesting case study (though obviously extrapolating from one-offs is always treacherous).

Pubs need to alter their offering to survive. That doesn't mean abandoning the pub spirit.

http://www.examiner.co.uk/leisure-and-entertainment/whats-on-west-yorkshire/2008/12/29/it-s-the-pub-that-cheers-86081-22563398/