It was the beer’s fault. It usually is.
Although, when you consider that beer is the most popular drink in the world, consumed by billions on a daily basis, and not a single person among those billions has attempted to do what I was about to do in the name of beer, I have to shoulder at least some of the blame myself.
I don’t mean that I got drunk and did something I regretted. I did get very drunk. And I did do something I would come to regret bitterly at several points over the following year. But one did not lead to the other: I did most of the damage while perfectly sober.
What I mean is, this was one of the increasingly frequent occasions when I got carried away after spending too much time with the kind of people you meet when you let beer start to mean more to you than simply the best long drink in the world. Not for the first time, the ideas and associations that surround beer, what beer means, intoxicated me more effectively and more devastatingly than mere alcohol ever could.
My voyage across the Atlantic on a century-old tall ship, and the larger quest of which it was merely part, began over dinner, ten months before I boarded Europa. Not just any old dinner though. Tonight, in the elegant surroundings of the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London’s fashionable Kensington, just before Christmas really started to get going, several people – not all of them bearded, pot-bellied, cardigan-clad or even necessarily male – were about to receive trophies and cash for writing about beer.
Every single time I mention the British Guild of Beer Writers to people who don’t work around beer, they seem to find its very existence, the mere concept it, either hilarious or completely unbelievable. A few years ago I could still sort of remember why this was. But I wasn’t laughing tonight. Tonight, for the first time since I started writing about beer, I was one of the people hoping to climb on stage and shake the hand of TV Chef and Celebrity Yorkshireman Brian Turner, and collect an envelope from him as the great and good of the British beer industry bathed me in their applause. Beer had just got serious.
As formal dinners go, it was probably one of the more unusual the harried hotel staff had catered. The India Pale Ale sorbet had been a triumph. The venison matched with brown ale had split opinion, and the double chocolate stout with the chocolate pudding had been judged a bit too obvious by my table. But the contented bickering indicated that, overall, the dinner had been a success. Brewers, beer writers, beer marketers and beer PR executives pushed back their chairs, ambled past tables where they paused to shake hands with colleagues and adversaries they hadn’t seen since this time last year, and made their steady (for now) way to the bars at the side of the big, palm tree-lined conservatory to choose a digesitif from the range of forty or so beers available. The cannier among them picked up more than one bottle, knowing that in a few minutes they’d be confined to their seats to wait patiently through the business part of the evening.
When it comes to the mix of emotions within the audience, all awards ceremonies are the same. Whether we’re talking about the Oscars or school sports colours awards, most attendees are willing this part to be over as quickly as possible. The few attendees who believe they’re in with a chance of winning something do their best to project an attitude of good-natured, weary boredom, while their insides churn through hope, envy, bitterness and triumph and back to the start before the shiny envelopes have even appeared.
I wondered briefly which end of that scale –Academy Awards or school colours– the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards Dinner was closest to. I was always rubbish at sport, and so far nobody had tried to throw my bag on the roof, beat me with a rolled up wet towel, or take the piss out of my green flash trainers in front of forty other people before whipping my arse repeatedly with them. And the idea of me winning something, anything, was something you could at least entertain without having to question the fundamental laws of reality. So tonight didn’t feel like my school sports award ceremony at all.
On the other hand, Brian Turner was by far the most famous person in the room.
As the PA system popped into life and the big screens lit up with the logos of our brewery sponsors, I joined the stomach-churners for the first time, practising the requisite benevolent smile for when the name that is read out is not yours, the smile that you will need to keep pasted to your face as you watch someone else walk in YOUR stead up to the stage and collect YOUR award and you can only think of how long it is before you can reasonably disappear to the toilet and punch the cubicle walls and question your whole direction in life and wonder at the futility of it all and hate yourself for even thinking for a second that you were in with a chance of winning anything. You know how it is.
“And the winner is… Pete Brown!”
As Brian Turner became the first person in history to utter those words in that order, my initial reaction was not jubilation, but profound relief. It wasn’t the main award, of course (I would need my fake smile after all, later in the evening, for that one) but it was the one I really, really had to win.
The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary is awarded for beer writing that has an international scope. This is a good idea in a country where many beer acolytes start with the belief that the best beer in the world is brewed within a couple of hours’ drive of their front door, and work cautiously out from there. The 2006 prize was awarded for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, which is still available on Amazon at a bargain price. To write it, I’d travelled forty-five thousand miles around the world, visiting nearly five hundred pubs and bars in twenty-six towns and cities in thirteen countries on four continents. It had cost me one year and thousands of pounds to plan and execute the travel, a second, much lonelier, more frugal year to write a book about my journey that was far too long and self-indulgent, and then help my editor delete about a third of it and fashion what was left into something people might conceivably pay money to read. I was the only beer writer to have attempted anything on this global scale, at least in one go. If someone else had won the beer/travel prize for, say, a fifteen hundred word article in Beers of the World magazine about a day trip to a brewery in Bamberg that makes smoked beer, interesting as that would no doubt have been, I would have had to take it as a pretty heavy hint that I wasn’t really getting this beer writing lark right. I’d even included a glowing account of my visit to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice, southern Bohemia, and their head of Public Relations was on the judging panel.
I had no idea what I was setting in motion as I stood up and walked to the podium, shook TV Brian’s hand and relieved him of a ceramic tankard with painted figures on the outside and, even more attractively, a cheque for a thousand quid on the inside, underneath the heavy pewter lid. After that, everything happened so quickly it would be months before I came to terms with it.
Relief turned to glowing satisfaction as I got back to the table, moved the cheque to my jacket pocket and filled the tankard with something dark and malty from somewhere in Belgium. The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary 2006 was the fourth prize I had ever won in my life. Two of the previous three had been writing competitions: the first was for a story inspired by a poster in the school corridor when I was ten. My gripping yarn of mutated giant hornets ridden by evil goblins thrashed the living daylights out of the runner-up, and not just because he was eight years old and the only other entrant. My last victory was the Time Out short story competition in 1994. My delight at winning my first ever computer for a story about an eclipse over London, and having it printed in a magazine people actually read, was only slightly lessened by the fact that Time Out immediately abandoned the competition in their wake of my victory, and has never done anything to encourage people to write short stories since. As I returned to my table I was optimistic: sixteen years between the first two prizes. Only twelve between the second two. My writing career was gaining momentum.
I should have been very happy indeed. There was no other sane reaction to the kudos of having won a prize with my first entry into the competition, not to mention paying off another thousand quid of the debt the writing had accrued. But as Brian reeled off the names of the winners of the other categories I’d entered, doubt crept back in.
Finally it was time for the overall prize: Beer Writer of the Year, chosen from the winners of all the categories, built up by a glowing eulogy from Alistair Gilmour, the previous year’s winner.
“This guy could have won every category he entered…”
Hey, I entered several categories! And I won one!
“He’s very funny....”
People always say they laughed at Three Sheets.
“He brings a breath of fresh air to beer writing...”
Me, me, me…
“And I’d just like to finish by illustrating this with a short piece…”
Yes? Which piece? The bit about the Hamburglar in Spain? The bloke who ran the bar in Portland Oregon for 25 years after signing the lease for a laugh while he was drunk? The bits with Billy and Declan in Galway? Which?
“…about the time he tried to convert his older brother to the delights of real ale…”
My only brother is three years younger than me and I’ve never tried to get him to drink real ale. Ben McFarland, the hardest working man in beer writing, rose to collect his second Beer Writer of the Year award in three years. I couldn’t begrudge him it. He’s a very good writer, and if I couldn’t win, he’s the person I’d want to. In fact, every category was won by someone I not only respected as a writer, but also enjoyed sharing a beer with. It was a good night.
But they were still all bastards.
Doubts started to crawl all over me like little ticks; ticks that could whisper in your ear instead of giving you a rash. They’d given me my award out of sympathy. Just because of the disturbing amount of effort I’d put in.
And you couldn’t ignore the very curious wording of the award. As I drained my tankard, I started to think very carefully about that, oh yes. You see, if you read it closely (OK some might say too closely), The Budvar Travel Bursary is specifically not awarded to “the year’s best piece of beer-themed travel writing (or travel-themed beer writing)” at all. It was actually awarded to “the writer who the judges feel could most benefit” from the money. Technically, it wasn’t rewarding my writing. It was saying I needed more practice.
Well, that was that. Three Sheets had taken two years of my life, cost me thousands, damaged my health and upset my wife. I wanted to write more books, but there was no way I could ever do anything else on such a scale. I had been trying to work on new ideas for six months, and come up with nothing. It had been my best shot.
I was having trouble communicating this to the people around my table though. They weren’t sitting with the overall winner, but they were sitting with a winner, and they were very happy for me.
“Congratulations, Pete. What are you going to spend the money on?”
“You’ll be off on your travels again now then, eh?”
“Where are you going to go next?”
“I think Liz deserves a bit of a break from the whole beer thing,” I said. “I might spend most of it on some luxury health spa retreat for us both. And then… I might write a book about... I dunno, something else.”
“No, but seriously, there’s loads of countries you didn’t go to last time aren’t there?”
“It’s a travel bursary. You’ve got to travel.”
“You could do a pub crawl across England. The longest pub crawl.”
I grinned mirthlessly. “I was going to. But a man called Ian Marchant already did. And not only did he steal my idea before I’d thought of it, he wrote a better book about it than I would have done. It is in fact called The Longest Crawl. Funny eh? It came out a month after Three Sheets. I can recommend it.”
“So where are you going to go then? What about going to the States again?”
“I need to refill my rather splendid tankard, I’m afraid.”
I was being churlish. Every person on my table was a beer-world mate, someone I was very happy to be dining with. And I’d won something. So later, after refilling my tankard too many times, disgracing myself, losing my cheque and phoning Budvar the next day to ask them to stop it and issue me with a new one, I thought about how I might satisfy the moral obligation to spend at least some of my prize money on a beery trip somewhere. I might return to Germany and visit some of the famous brewing towns I was forced to skip on my Three Sheets trip due to the Death Star-sized hangover and possible scurvy inflicted on me by Oktoberfest. Maybe write that article about the day trip to Bamberg and the smoked beers myself. Or perhaps I’d go to Finland and drink the very strong beer they still make there by fermenting wort with bread yeast inside a hollowed out spruce log before filtering it through pine needles. Either of these trips would make a nice article for one of the specialist beer magazines. I would enjoy the trip, learn something new, and the obligation would be fulfilled.
These plans made me happy for about two weeks, before flying scared out of the window of a central London pub, chased away by the dangerous and stupid idea that was about to change my life.
 The games teachers at our school knew they had an important stereotype to conform to.
 Nobody ever actually said, “And the winner is… Pete Brown!” for the first three, unfortunately.
 The other prize I won was for painting some Citadel Miniatures TM Warhammer TM Chaos Warriors TM at a model making competition in Rotherham when I was thirteen. But that’s another story – one I have no intention of writing.