Saviours of the ale industry? Or a pair of twats? As they say on reality TV, YOU decide...
One of the most controversial beer stories this year is the entry of man behaving badly Neil Morrissey into the brewing industry, with his mate Richard Fox. They took over a pub, Ye Olde Punch Bowl at Marton cum Grafton in Yorkshire, built a microbrewery in the back garden, started turning out a golden ale that was very quickly listed nationwide in Tesco, and got the whole thing made into a TV show, Neil Morrissey's Risky Business, which ran for three weeks on Channel 4.
The whole saga sent the beer world into a bit of a tizz, and we can summarise the debate as follows. On the one hand, the brewing industry is gasping for breath and celebrity involvement is the oxygen of our times. It can only be a good thing. They're brewing real ale rather than lager - nothing wrong with lager of course, but ale needs publicity to help challenge outdated perceptions of it. And in the TV series, they managed to get beer on the telly for the first time since Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter, seventeen years ago.
So what's the problem? Well, they're interlopers. They swan in from nowhere, with no brewing background, and suddenly it's their beer in Tesco and them on the telly. That's just not fair. Brewers are jealous of the success of the beer, and people like me are jealous because it should be us on the telly because we've been trying for years and we've all put so much more work in. They're famous, we're jealous and bitter.
And the telly programme itself - was it a good advertisement for beer? Reviews were mixed, and many industry grumblers felt it was too laddish. Too much swearing. As we know, in some corners of the industry these are terrible crimes.
I must confess I'm ambivalent myself. I've known Richard Fox for a few years and he's a really nice bloke. He's a great ambassador for beer, particularly at live events where he evangelises beer and food matching. But I've had about five or six serious attempts at getting my books turned into TV series and never succeeded. They have a book tie-in which has an endorsement on the front from Richard Hammond - why can't I have a quote from Richard Hammond? And the book shamelessly and without credit rips off an idea from Man Walks into a Pub.
So I'm a bit resentful and jealous, at the same time as feeling sneery and critical of people in the brewing industry who feel the same way. To resolve my feelings one way or the other, I went along a few weeks ago to the official trade launch of Morrissey Fox, with the intention of letting the beer itself do the talking.
My quest for objectivity ran into trouble straight away, because the two stars were pouring the beer themselves, working the bar like pros. Richard greeted me warmly and immediately introduced me TV's Neil Morrissey. I was a big fan of Men Behaving Badly in its day, but I wasn't star-struck because Neil is a genuinely warm and nice bloke who genuinely makes you feel like a mate. He may have been laying it on a bit thick when he said he was star-struck at meeting me! Turns out he's a big fan of Man Walks into a Pub, having read it when Hugo Speer out of The Full Monty gave him a copy and said he had to read it.
Having seen The Full Monty I can, unfortunately, only ever picture Hugo Speer in a red leather thong. I imagined him wearing this, all oiled-up, while handing over a fake-tan-stained copy of my first book to the man who does the voice of Bob the Builder. It was a moment I could never have imagined at the start of my writing career.
Anyway, I tried my best to put this out of my head, and moved on to the beers.
The blonde ale is a blonde ale. I like blonde ales a lot and I like the way they bring people into the ale category for the first time. Morrissey Fox blonde ale was not at all bad and it was not the best I've tasted. There's not much more I can say about it, but that shouldn't be seen as a criticism.
The best bitter was a different story. This was a very fine beer indeed: chocolatey brown with a nice tight head, it was nutty and toffeeish and caramelly and very, very smooth, complex but insanely drinkable. I loved it.
Finally there was a Christmas ale, full of spicy and fruity flavours. It felt a bit obvious - too much of a collection of elements rather than a blended whole. But not unpleasant.
So they may be spawny gets who have more attention than they deserve. Or they may be very talented brewers who simply have more drive and nous than other brewers and beery media wannabes. Whatever, they are really, really nice blokes who genuinely love beer, and they've made two not-bad beers and one fantastic beer. If you just take that last sentence and forget the controversy and jealousy over the media circus, that's good enough for me.