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What's new?

What's new?
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.
News about my next books!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

It's a Dog's Life

What better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon than visit the nicest pub you never knew about, drink some fantastic beers over a hog roast and watch your dog be utterly humiliated?

Meet Captain PBBB - the final member of the PBBB family:
Captain is a rescue dog, and we're not quite sure of his progeny - we think he's a Yorkshire terrier mixed with a Shitsu or laser apso. In other words, Yorkshire with a bit of ponceyness mixed in - just like his master.

On the scale of doggie hardness, Captain marks out one end of a continuum of which the foam-flecked, wild-eyed hounds of the Flying Dog Brewery's labels pin down the other:

But the two ends met yesterday at an event to mark the launch of an expanded range of Flying Dog beers in the UK, including two of their best sellers - Doggie Style Pale Ale and Gonzo Porter - now being listed in over 300 Tesco branches across the country. (Of course, in Tesco it won't have the words 'Doggie Style' on the label - after all, that would bring about the collapse of civilisation).

I've always liked Flying Dog and have visited the brewery when over at the Great American Beer Festival. We went out drinking with them one night and all I can remember is my sides hurting from laughing. Their beers are excellent - not the most envelope-pushing ever, but American craft brews don't always have to try to reinvent the wheel. A small range has been available in the Uk for a few years, and when I was touring Three Sheets to the Wind three years ago, doing events with a selection of beers from around the world, Gonzo Porter - inky like alien blood, full of spicy chocolate malt and yet at the same time a Cascade hop bomb - converted a surprising number of women to beer for the first time. It's great news for any beer lover that this and the pale ale - zingy, hoppy, but light and perfectly balanced - now have such wide distribution.

And it turns out that Flying Dog are more experimental than their limited (till now) range in the UK would suggest. I'm looking forward to trying my bottle of the 11.5% Double Dog Double Pale Ale I scrounged from lunch. We tried a German-style smoked lager that can be enjoyed even when you're not eating bacon - so an improvement or a 'dumbing down' on German smoked beers depending on your point of view - mine is certainly the former. And we heard great things about a new Belgian-style IPA, which isn't bottled yet. Good luck with the Portman Group over the name of that one when it does get over here, guys.

The event was in the Spaniard's Inn, on the north-west side of Hampstead Heath. I've never been there before but it instantly became one of my new favourite pubs. It's an M&B place, and within that group it's the only pub other than the famous White Horse that has free rein over its beer stocking policy. A great range of draft and bottled beers - Doggie Style was on tap, along with the great and good of English cask beer and a few new ones I've never seen before. And a fantastic food menu with dishes like slow-cooked lamb shank, pearl barley and creamy mash and organic pies at prices that are lower than some really dreadful wannabe pubs I've visited recently.

And my new test of a pub menu - a Ploughman's should have ham and cheddar in it. So why do pubs normally ask you to choose between the two? Why do they not even give you an option of paying a quid extra and having both? A good pub is one that does both on the plate. The Spaniards goes better: a choice of two from rare roast beef, honey roast ham, Cropwell Bishop Stilton or mature Cheddar - for £7. I've paid more than that for some pretty dire city centre Ploughman's before now.

The building itself is centuries old, and rumoured to have been a haunt of Dick Turpin. Dickens visited, but Dickens seems to have visited every single pub that was standing in the Great London Area at ay point in the ninteenth century. Whatever, The Spaniard's age, affluent location and basic pub infrastructure combine to make it a blend of gastro and traditional boozer you rarely see pulled off so successfully. Other nearby pubs have gone down that infuriating route where they still insist on calling themselves a pub even though they ask if you've booked a table as soon as you walk through the door. The Spaniards is definitely, 100% a pub - albeit a pub that did 700 covers for food last Sunday. As pubs that Dickens has visited go, just thinking about how this place compares to the Anchor on the Thames makes me want to cry.

The location means it's popular with dog walkers, and you can even buy boutique, artisanal dog food and treats at the bar. Sounds a bit poncey, but if you believe your dog deserves as nice a meal as you're getting, well there you go.

Proximity to the Heath means some of the dogs must be a bit muddy sometimes by the time they get here - and that's why, at the bottom of the car park, there's a Doggie Wash. In goes the dog, up go the screens. A few tokens from the bar and your dog has the pleasure of shampoo and conditioner, rinse, cold air blow down and warm air blow dry.

So yeah, nice pub, great beers and everything. But the true highlight of the afternoon was this - a mutt who won't be inspiring any Flying Dog beer labels any time soon:
Heh heh heh.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Beer World Cup - the next round

My Market Kitchen appearance was broadcast last Thursday night, so I can now reveal that, as some people guessed, I squeaked through the first round of the Beer World Cup versus Germany.

The competition breaks down into two parts: a blind tasting of the two beers before we get there, and a studio debate on whose beer culture is the best. The audience score both parts and the combined score produces the winner. Schiehallion actually lost out very narrowly to Paulaner lager in the taste test, confirming my suspicions about how to play this tactically with a mainly female audience not that into beer. I very narrowly won the studio debate.

(Sample dialogue:

Sabine von Reth: "In Germany, in the army you get two litres of free beer every day. The British army doesn't have this."

Matt (our chair): "Pete, what do you say to that?"

Me: "If you're British, don't join the army. Go to the pub instead.")

Overall, I won and went through. But I think it was by the very narrowest of margins. Sabine was great. She runs the Bavarian Brewhouse in Old Street, London. They're currently having an Oktoberfest there, with bands flow in from Munich. I suggest you go. I will be.

Anyway, next week we record the semi-final. I'm up against America, so this could get messy. I don't know the person I'm up against, but they could bring either the blandest, most boring beer in the world or something very good indeed. What will the audience go for? Will they recognise greatness?

I need to choose another beer to go up against them. And if I get through, I need a range of six beers for the final. I can't duplicate beers. So do I sacrifice one of our finest beers for the semi, choosing something I believe can beat whatever the Yanks throw at us? Or do I save the best for the final and play tactically? And why is British beer culture so much better than American beer culture?

These are the questions that will preoccupy me till October 7th...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Well that was nice. What next?

Nearing the end of my four month promotional tour for Hops and Glory, which will no doubt come as a relief to regular readers of my blog.

Yesterday was a good day. I arrived in Nantwich, Cheshire, to speak at the food festival here and help judge CAMRA's Champion Beer of Cheshire at the beer festival. About an hour before I went on stage, I got an e-mail from my editor with lots of very good news in it.

First, sales of Hops and Glory are about double what I thought they were. In four months, the £14.99 hardback has sold more copies than the £10.99 trade paperback of Three Sheets ever did. This book has been an obsession since the night in the pub when the idea presented itself to me uninvited in December 2006, and will be until my final reading date in a few weeks. It HAD to sell. And it has. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed it, blogged about it, tweeted about it, recommended it, joined the Facebook group for it, booked me to talk about it, and otherwise help promote and sell it. I feel like I've got to the top of a mountain I've been climbing for three years.

One of the main reasons it has succeeded is the fantastic cover. And the next bit of good news is that the artist responsible for designing it has been commissioned to redo my previous two books. Man Walks into a Pub, now six years in print, has sold an extra 1500 copies this year, which is amazing, but every time I see its horrid sub-powerpoint clip-art cover I wince. In June 2010, the paperback release of H&G will be accompanied by new editions of MWIP and Three Sheets, and they're going to look stunning as part of a set - my beer trilogy. It also gives me the opportunity to update the text of MWIP - bringing the final chapters on the state and prognosis of British beer and pubs up to date, quietly getting rid of some factual inaccuracies that have been pointed out to me, and deleting a few of the gags and footnotes that are trying a bit too hard. The question is... will I temper the scathing criticism of CAMRA that won the book its initial notoriety, now we're on more friendly terms?

More good news: some good feedback on H&G from GABF - so North American readers may finally get to see the book after all without the seemingly controversial tactic of buying it from Canadian Amazon.

What next? I'm about to start work on a non-beer book. Feels a but weird but I want to spread my wings and try to achieve recognition as a 'writer' (whatever that is) rather than simply a beer writer. Before I get irate comments from beer bloggers, that's not to dis beer writing or suggest it's inferior to other forms of writing - it isn't at all. But it does have a very narrow appeal in the book-purchasing world. I've been trying to change that as hard as anyone else who puts fingers to keyboard, if not harder, and I will continue to do so. But there are maybe three or four people on this planet who can make a decent living from writing about beer and nothing else, and I'm not one of them. I'll continue beer blogging and journalism, and may even have two or three nebulous future beer/drinks ideas gathering traction in my addled head. But changes in personal circumstances mean I will soon be able to afford to write pretty much full time, and I now have to start thinking about all this in terms of career progression, skills development, broadening areas of expertise etc.

Next week (October 5th) sees the launch of the new Cask Report. It's the third year I've written this, the definitive guide to Britain's cask ale market, written independently with third party research, but paid for by a group of major regional brewers, CAMRA, SIBA, Cask Marque and Family Brewers of Britain. I'm better known for this now in the brewing world than I am for anything else. And there's some major good news for anyone who loves cask beer, and important new findings for any publican thinking about stocking it.

I've got a load of catching up to do on this blog - I've spent most of the summer travelling, meeting people, being invited to brew, taste, and judge beer. I've been holding some of these pieces back because I've been trying to sell them to 'old media'. I have totally failed in this respect and so will put them on here. I know blogging is 'supposed' to be a short-form medium, but I've got some longer, 1000-word features that I can't place anywhere else and I don't want to waste. If you strongly believe blog entries should only ever be short and sweet, I invite you to completely ignore them when they appear.

And I'll post the first one just as soon as I get back from day two at Nantwich. Day one was a tough crowd - they didn't warm to my opening gag about Brazilian prostitutes...

Monday, 21 September 2009

You just can't win

New figures out today reveal that convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour have fallen by 80% over the last three decades.

So how does this get reported? As proof that Britain's binge drinking culture is in long term decline? Evidence that more relaxed licensing laws are encouraging people to drink more responsibly?

Um... no. Of course not.

The only reason convictions have fallen - according to the national press - is that the police are increasingly turning a blind eye to the animal-like behaviour that obviously affects the town centres we don't actually go and see for ourselves, and are just letting people get away with it.

Glad we've got that one clarified.

Scenes from the back of the hall

Will blog in detail a bit later about my events this weekend at the Abergavenny Food Festival - the two best tasting events I've ever done. But in the meantime, here's what happened to Mrs PBBB while I was talking to a sold out hall about the virtues of Welsh microbrewers.

Mrs PBBB was sitting at the back, after having helped get everyone in and get the beers on the tables. About ten minutes into my talk, a man in his late fifties or early sixties, with grey hair and beetroot face, stumbled into the hall waving a £10 note and trying to buy a pint of Otley's Columb-O, one of the beers I was tasting. Mrs PBBB spotted him, waved him over to her table and gave him a beer.

"Ah, you seem friendly. I'm going to sit with you!" he boomed, and at this point Mrs PBBB realised he'd come quite a way since his first beer of the day.

According to Mrs PBBB, every time I used words like 'modern' or 'new', or phrases like 'revolution in British brewing', he winced, tutted and shook his head.

Eventually she said, "Would you mind keeping it down a bit? That's my husband talking."

"Pete Brown is he?" bellowed the man.

"Yes," replied Mrs PBBB. "Shhh." She added.

"Yes, I read him in the Publican every month! Writes for the Publican doesn't he?"

"Yes, he does."

"Yes. I was reading him last month. Writing about the Meantime Brewery."

"That's right."

The man sat silently for a few seconds then, thinking. And then he suddenly announced, "Yes, I read him all the time. I think he's RUBBISH!"

He grinned at Mrs PBBB, then said, "I think I'll leave now before I'm thrown out! Goodbye!" And off he went, clutching his Columb-O.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Hops and America

Every week I'm asked by American readers when Hops and Glory might be available over there. We've not had much luck.

Next week I'd be over there at the Great American Beer Festival if it wasn't for the gigs listed below. But beer hero Glenn Payne has very kindly offered to haul some books and promo material across the pond and give them to anyone who may be in a position to engineer a North American publication.

This is Glenn, although he now sports a fetching beard (beards are the future):

Most people in the American craft brew scene already know him thanks to his tireless efforts to promote US craft beer in the UK. If you see him, say hello. And if you know anyone you think he should speak to, please let him know!


Still talking about that bloody book

Look, I'm sure most of you have read Hops and Glory by now if you are ever going to, and I know I've blogged obsessively about it, but if you have read it you'll understand why.

Anyway, after a bit of a break I'm now into my final bunch of events, and we may well have been saving the best till last.

Tonight in Nottingham I'm doing a reading as part of the first Nottingham Food and Drink Festival. We're at the Tamatanga Indian restaurant from 6-7pm. As well as going on about the book we'll be tasting three different IPAs and matching them with Indian food.

Over the weekend I'm at the Abergavenny food festival. On Saturday I'm talking about the Microbrewers of Wales - and that sold out weeks ago! On Sunday I'm doing 'The Glory of IPA' and I think there may be a few tickets left for that.

A few remaining gigs still on the list to the right, but one I've been very tardy in posting is an event at the Henley Literary Festival in association with Lovibonds brewery. As well as reading from the book we'll be trying a big old hop monster that Lovibonds brewer Jeff has brewed specially for the occasion.

I also missed off the Nantwich Food and Drink Festival - two gigs on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th, preceded by a Worthington White Shield dinner in Manchester on Thursday 24th.

Beer and books. I find them a winning combination!

Friday, 11 September 2009

Cask ale pricing is stupid: discuss

My latest monthly column for the Publican magazine is here.

There's going to be a lot of chat about cask ale round here in the next month! New Cask Report coming out on October 5th. If I can finish writing it in time...

Me and microbrews on the telly

Was asked by More 4 News yesterday to appear on the news in a positive story about beer!

The new Good Beer Guide, published yesterday, reveals that 71 new Microbreweries opened in the last year. In the midst of both the shitstorm being faced by the beer and pub industry, and the usual negative coverage of beer by the media, it's great news, even better that we got our two minutes worth on the telly.

Thanks to BLTP for working out how to bung it up on YouTube.

Britain's Best Beer: All is Revealed

Me, my worthy adversary Sabine von Reth, and presenter Matt Tebbutt

Thanks for the record number of comments when I asked you about the best British beer. Consensus is somewhere around Landlord, White Shield and London Pride, which I find hard to argue with.

But now I can reveal what it's all about.

Market Kitchen, the food magazine programme on UKTV Food, is running a Beer World Cup to find out which country makes the best beer in the world - and has the best beer culture. Each week two countries face off in rounds then go through to semis in October, then the final. It's all just a bit of fun of course.

I was honoured to be asked to represent the UK in the first game in the first round, and I drew Germany. We filmed it yesterday evening.

Now this was a tough gig. I was expecting Germany to bring a very good lager along - and I was right. And the thing is, the decision is made by a studio audience vote on a combined blind tasting of the beer with a heated studio debate. The audience is not sophisticated in its beer appreciation - it's an audience of people who go along to the filming of a daytime cookery programme. Lots of men who drink lager, and lots of women who think they don't like beer. A really good German lager - to this audience - would surely be more acceptable than a complex, intriguing, flavourful ale. I had to think clever on this one.

So thanks for all the suggestions, but thanks to Mike from Utobeer for the inspired tactical suggestion of Schiehallion - a British lager, cask conditioned, that last year won 'best pilsner' at the World Beer Awards. Not the beer that represents everything great about British brewing, but a beer that shows what Britain can do, a British take on a European style.

So how did we get on? Was this particular meeting a return to the glory of 1966 or a rerun of the agonising defeat on penalties in 1990? You'll have to wait till 24th September and tune in to UKTV to find out...

Monday, 7 September 2009

The best of British beer

Can I have your thoughts?

For reasons I'll be able to reveal in a week or so, I need to choose one beer (bottled) to act as an ambassador for all that is great about the British brewing.

If we're honest, that's an impossible task, but nevertheless I need to do it - and make my decision in the next 24 hours. There's so much diversity, so much quality. There are enduring classics, and exciting new tyros on the scene. But which one, above all others, symbolises why British beer is the best in the world? (This is not the place to argue whether or not British beer is the best on the world - for the purposes of this thing we have to assume that it is - for reasons I'll explain later).

I already have a couple of ideas of my own, so I'm not just being lazy, but thought it would make an interesting debate!

You've lost that Leuven feeling

Just got back from my first trip to Belgium for about three or four years, and my first time at the Brussels beer festival. Trying to sell a piece to the papers about the event itself so I may have to keep my powder dry on that for now, but one or two other observations cropped up on the side.

The first is my former love, Stella Artois. For new readers to this blog, Stella was my intro to the beer world - I worked on it in a marketing capacity ten years ago, when it was a hoppy, characterful pilsner lager with great advertising, a premium brand image, and only a small number of people referring to it as 'wifebeater'. It's responsible for my entire beer career. But times have changed, and about a year ago I was really laying into Stella about the compromises it's made.

Back in the day, people used to insist that "proper Belgian Stella" was far superior to the UK version, brewed under licence by what was then Whitbread. UK Stella is still brewed in the UK, but both it and Belgian Stella are both owned by what is now AB-Inbev, the world's largest brewing conglomerate. It breaks my heart that UK Stella has deteriorated so much, it's joined the very short list of beers that I can't actually drink. I'd have wine if it was the only beer available in a bar. So what about Belgian Stella?

Here's what I wrote about it in Three Sheets to the Wind, on my first ever trip to Belgium in 2004, tasted in a cafe in Leuven, where it's brewed:
I feel a little nervous, like meeting up with a former lover I haven't seen for some time. The beer arrives in a curvaceous, tulip-shaped goblet. It has the most beautiful golden colour, served with a full inch of foamy head. It looks perfect. There's a light aroma suggestive of summer fields, and the taste is perfectly balanced - satisfyingly malty and wonderfully bitter.

In 2009, Stella looks pale and watery, with very little head, which disappears instantly. There's no discernible aroma whatsoever. It tastes thin. It tastes of corn syrup, with a nasty metallic alcohol tint. There is no discernible hop bitterness or character. It tastes like a beer that has been lagered for a mere day, rather than the four weeks it once was, or even the week that's now standard among mass-market, industrially produced lagers. Most distressingly - for what used to be a premium brand - it tastes cheap. In other words, it's no different now from UK Stella.

I don't think it ever was different from UK Stella. In both countries, it used to be good, and has now been stripped, hollowed out.

What I find baffling about this is that AB-Inbev also brew Jupiler. I tried a glass of that and it had a thick, foamy head, a nice hop grassiness and a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In the UK, where you see Stella on the bar you're likely to also see Becks Vier, because Ab-Inbev brew that too. There aren't many occasions when I'd choose Becks Vier over other beers, but if you drink it side by side with Stella, this 4% lager has more beer character than Stella at 5%. Like all global brewers, AB-Inbev knows perfectly well how to brew great-tasting lagers. It simply chooses not to where Stella is concerned.

I don't think I've ever seen such a wholesale degradation of a perfectly nice beer.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

OK, I am one to blow my own trumpet

People who say, "I'm not one to blow my own trumpet" always follow it with - well - blowing their own trumpet. So I'm not going to try to pretend.

The nice people at Wikio have been in touch again. A few months ago they gave me the exclusive preview of their gastronomy blog rankings, which rank UK blogs using a logarithm that works out how referenced they are - not just hits, but links to, etc.

Shortly after that they split off wine and beer blogs into a separate ranking. The new chart is published this week... and I'm number one! First time I've ever scaled such dizzy heights. I'm sure it can't last, especially after my recent radio silence. Anyway, thanks so much to everyone who reads me and links to me. It's made such a huge difference to my books sales as well as my ego so it really has had a tangible effect.

1Pete brown's blog (+3)
2Pencil & spoon (+3)
3Spittoon (-2)
4Stonch's beer blog (-1)
5Brew wales (-3)
6Tandleman's beer blog (=)
7The beer nut (+6)
8Bibendum wine (+7)
9Jamie goode's wine blog (-2)
10The wine conversation (-2)
11Impy malting (+15)
12Pubology (+43)
13Called to the bar (+6)
14Woolpack dave's beer and stuff blog (+3)
15`it's just the beer talking` ? jeff pickthall's blog (+6)
16The southport drinker (-6)
17Bubble brothers (-8)
18Boak and bailey's beer blog (+14)
19Tyson's beer blog (+1)
20Bordoverview blog (+2)

Ranking by Wikio

And congratulations to Mark Dredge at Pencil and Spoon for soaring up the charts. Relatively new to beer blogging, Mark posts consistently and thoughtfully and does far more than just tasting notes. And he's been nice about my books too.

I haven't come across Pubology before but just had a peek and it looks really interesting - all about history and culture. Other bloggers and friends - Jeff Pickthall, Impy Malting and Boak and Bailey - are also showing strongly.

And I don't normally go in for 'beer is better than wine' mudslinging, but beer definitely seems to be up in Blogworld at the expense of wine. Keep it up!