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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.
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Friday, 31 December 2010

2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part three)

A day late thanks to laptop crashes. Here are my final reflections...

Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub

Is the worst over?  The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010.  That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.

That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs.  In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.

And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing.  In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks.  In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.”  Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.

And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation.  They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs.  People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more. 

It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.

Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival

Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity.  I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done. 

The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival.  I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year.  I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.

In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good.  In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly. 

We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along.  It’ll never be perfect. 

But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago.  More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them.  The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival.  It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.

Congratulations, CAMRA.

Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell

Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc. 

At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.

Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris.  This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north.  Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces.  Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews.  I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.  

There was already a certain giddiness in the air.  With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home. 

This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy.  Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us.  And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman.  More drinks all round.

And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air.  Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant.  I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in.  It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again.  Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one.   The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.

One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people.  In the snow.

Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution

In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival.  At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries.  London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados.  It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.

In 2009-2010, that all changed.  When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long.  Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton.  With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more.  Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.

So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too.  I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad.  Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it?  I was trying something new and interesting the other day.”  I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s.  But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.

Here’s to more of the same in 2011.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part two)

Here’s part two of my review of the year – three more arbitrary categories…

Villains of the year: The rise and rise of the neo-pros

I spent most of January trying to offer a robust and factually based defence against the wilful distortions and occasional outright lies told by those who seek to curb our right to drink.  The actual data – from most sources – suggests that Britain’s drink problem is declining, yet the NHS, Government and newspapers from the Daily Mail right through to the Guardian are trying to tell us the ‘epidemic’ is getting worse.  Any rational, scientific analysis of the data shows this is not true.  But no one is giving us that analysis. 

As the biggest consumer body, CAMRA does absolutely nothing to confront or challenge the lies being told about drinkers and pubs.  All it does is ‘welcome’ the bits where people like Alcohol Concern acknowledge the role of well run community pubs as part of the solution, not the problem, and campaign for a lower rate of duty for low strength beers.  Where distortions are put forward about drink in a wider sense, CAMRA remains silent.  Always.  

People like Mike Benner deserve to be congratulated for at least getting Alcohol Concern to concede the point on community pubs.  But for a body that, according to its website, acts 'as the consumer's champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry' (ie it’s NOT ‘just about real ale’, as many of its defenders are quick to argue) it plays no role at all in supporting the industry or the consumer in this wider attack on our right to drink and our reputation as drinkers.

The BBPA is little better – though it at least has an excuse.  If the BBPA were to actively argue that the scale of alcohol abuse in this country were being deliberately exaggerated and distorted (it doesn’t), the media would say “well you would say that wouldn’t you?  You’re the drinks industry.” Even though this argument is never put to self-declared temperance advocates,  whose “findings” are accepted without dispute.  Every time.

Look at the case of David Nutt, for example.  In the autumn, he published a study that was not peer-reviewed, had a deeply questionable methodology, and had questionable, self-interested motivations, claiming that alcohol was more harmful then hard drugs such as heroin.  His findings were published without question, as 'authoritative' scientific fact.  The Guardian broke this story on a Monday.  I wrote to the Guardian pointing out the problems with methodology and the self-interest point, arguing that the Guardian, as professional journalists, should at least show some scepticism about what they were being told.  I was ignored.  An archive search shows that in the week that followed, no dissenting voice was published in the paper arguing against Nutt’s claims.  And yet on the Friday, he was given a full page to ‘answer his critics’ – critics who no one had actually been allowed to hear from.

And look at the case of the Dentist’s Chair.  The legislation banning promotions that encourage excessive alcohol consumption actually names the Dentist’s Chair specifically. Even though, at the time the legislation was passed, it seems that there was only one pub in Newcastle that actually did it.

A few people think I overreact about this.  But I’ve studied Prohibition in some detail for my books, and the point about everything from total Prohibition in the US through to the UK smoking ban in 2007 is that before you pass the legislation, you create a climate in which most people will support it.  That’s what’s happening now, and it’s happening quickly, and it’s happening because we are being deceived about the true scale of the problem.

Ben Goldacre, we need you.

Time to cheer up I think…

Personal regalvanisation event of the year: America

I’ve done so much this year that I haven’t had chance to write about a lot of it.  Partly I’m too busy doing stuff to actually write about it, partly the process of getting features commissioned, delivered and published is akin to the gestation period of an elephant.

In October I went to the US for ten days.  A trip that was based upon a book and a feature I’m writing expanded to include a bit of self-indulgent travelling.

It’s the first time I’ve been to the US for four years, first time in New York for six years, first time I’ve done a big beery adventure since I got back from India at the end of 2007.

And it’s a trip that completely reset me. 

I spend so much of my time now writing about the kind of shit above, arguing with people about beer style definitions, trying to meet trade press deadlines, negotiating the fine balance of political interest around the Cask Report, or worrying about keeping abreast with everything that’s happening in an ever-accelerating craft beer scene, I sometimes wonder why I want to be a professional beer writer, making my living from researching and commenting upon the beer and pub industry.

I went to New York and visited a couple of the obvious craft beer bars, and also found wonderful dive bars where the spirit of the boozer is alive and well.  I went to Brooklyn, had a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery, almost finished in its ambitious expansion, had a tasting of the stunning, poetic boutique beers Garrett Oliver is creating, then went out and got riotously drunk with Garrett in a selection of stylish Brooklyn craft beer bars, before wondering off into the New York night.  The next morning, scrolling back, I had cause to regret the invention of Twitter, reading what I’d posted the night before.

Then I got on a plane to Rochester, New York, the main purpose of my visit.  In an unassuming town, robbed of much of its purpose after the decline of Eastman Kodak, I visited the Old Toad, the pub I’d come to write about, one of the first real ale pubs in North America. 

My plan on Day One had been to sit at the end of the bar, order a pint and take in the ambience, observing anonymously before introducing myself to the people I was there to meet.  I was on the premises for ten seconds before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pete?”  They were waiting for me, Rochester’s craft beer drinkers, and they proceeded to show me a life-affirmingly excellent time. 

In three days I never got my chance to sit quietly at the end of the bar on my own.  I tried it one afternoon and the staff were sitting there trying to put together a ‘trifecta’ beer, food and whisky matching menu, which they pulled me into.  I mentioned that I loved Buffalo Wings and was taken to the place that served the best wings outside Buffalo itself – which also had a great selection of American micros.  I mentioned I loved the whole dive bar thing and was taken to Rochester’s best dive bars – which, again, had a great selection of American micros.  The Old Toad and its sort-of-sibling, the Tap and Mallet, and the group of great beer fans who drink in them, are worth the price of a transatlantic plane fare on their own.

But I wasn’t done yet.  On the Amtrak, around the Lakes and up to Toronto, to stay for a few days with Rudgie out of Hops and Glory, who now lives there.  A few days in town with him and the excellent Steve Beaumont, and again Toronto’s constituency of craft beer fans, beer writers and Hops and Glory fans were waiting for me in the craft beer pubs and at Volo, a one-time Italian restaurant that now boasted a cask ale festival featuring over thirty Canadian real ales, including some of the best Imperial porters and dark IPAs – sorry, “Cascadian dark ales” – I’ve ever tasted.  We won’t mention Rudgie taking us to the hockey game only to find out we had tickets for the wrong day, because we still had one of those evenings you remember for years, and the following morning he drove me for two hours up through Ontario to Creemore Springs, a craft brewery in a town strongly reminiscent of Groundhog Day’s Punxsutawney, especially when the Halloween snow started flying at the windscreen.  Creemore Springs itself was an object lesson in great Kellerbier and how sometimes, a macro can go into a partnership with a micro successfully, to the benefit of both partners.

Beer people, beer places, and great beer.  I came back from that trip re-energised, repurposed, the flame of passion for this crazy, infuriating, eccentric scene burning brighter than ever, with so many plans and ideas for 2011 and, more importantly, a pubfull of great new friends.

This is what beer is all about.  This is why I started this, was pulled into it, allowed it to change my life.

All of which makes me even more frustrated about…

Green ink moments of the year: Craft beer, CAMRA, real ale and beer styles

Beer is only any good if it’s from cask.  Fuller’s ESB is not ‘to style’ for an ESB.  The new wave of keg beers will consign cask to history.  Brewery X has grown so big I no longer like their beers (even though the beer hasn’t changed).  Micro is good, macro is bad – but how do we define micro?  Craft beer is a meaningless term and we shouldn’t use it.  Greene King IPA is not a true IPA.  Micros are parasites feeding off regional brewers.  Craft beer is only craft beer if the brewery producing it is below a certain size.  This beer is not really real ale if it served with gas pressure.  How can you have a black IPA?

Shut up.  All of you, just shut up.

I include myself in that.  I get pulled into some of these debates – I even fuel them sometimes – but I always regret doing so, and I apologise for every moment in 2010 where I’ve made people focus on these aspects of beer more than they otherwise would have.

On some level they’re important.  But try this test.  Find a friend or work colleague who you think is open to discovering the flavours of your favourite beer, but currently just drinks something boring and characterless.  Now try to interest them in that beer by telling them about your definition of craft beer, or real ale, or talking to them about the politics of craft brewing, or explaining the importance of the absence of cask breathers.

Now you’ve lost their interest and reaffirmed their status as a wine drinker for the foreseeable future, find a similar friend or colleague, and say, “Here, drink this,” and if they're interested, tell them a bit about the history or provenance of it, or why it tastes as good as it does with reference to how it’s made and what’s in it.

Or if you can’t be bothered, just shut up.  Find the beer that made you fall in love with great beer.  Drink it.  Savour it. Enjoy it. And marvel at how good beer can be, how much happiness it can bring, the flavour sensations, the inspiration, the soft mellow buzz, the conviviality, the laughter, the friends.

Part three tomorrow.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part one)

It’s that time of year again.  As the post-Christmas hangover turns into a week of bleary limbo dreamtime and the whole country forgets what day it is, and beer bloggers turn from listing obsessively every beer they drank on Christmas Day to listing obsessively everything from their Favourite New World Hop of the Year to their Favourite International Collaboration Between Brewers of Between 500 and 3000 Barrels Output Per Year Featuring Russian Oak Barrel Ageing And Resulting In a Beer of 60 IBUS or Above.

I first did a review of the year two years ago, partly because I thought it would be a bit of fun and partly to reflect on broad trends in brewing and pubs.  I repeated the exercise last year and found myself just one of scores of bloggers listing their favourite brewers, favourite beers etc. 

This year, with the Golden Pint Awards, it all seems to have got a bit serious and standardized and regulated and defined, like many things in the beer blogosphere.  I congratulate and support everyone who lists their year’s highs and lows, I offer my piss-take above in good spirit, and I hope you have a good time doing it – it’s great for everyone to be able to compare notes.  It’s just not for me.

So this year I’ve taken a broad sweep in trying to summarise the year in beer.  I’ve invented category titles to fit what I want to write about.  It’s a mix of pure self-indulgence and commentary upon the state of the industry, with the odd great beer thrown in – which kind of sums up my blog. 

The beer blogosphere is expanding so rapidly, evolving so quickly, and becoming so much more intense, I honestly don’t know what or how I should be blogging any more.  Most bloggers don’t worry about that – the whole point of blogging is writing what you want, with no editorial constraints.  So that’s what I’m going to do.

Part one today - the most self-indulgent part.  Part two tomorrow, and thoughts on 2011 Thursday or Friday, if you’re interested. 

“What the fuck was that wooshing past” sensation of the year: Beer Writer of the Year 2009

As I said at the Guild dinner this year, it didn’t feel like a year – that’s because it wasn’t, it was only 51 weeks.  

But it felt like ten.  

I worked for about five years towards winning the BWOTY award.  It’s not like it was the only reason for writing or anything like that, but this is now my chosen career and so I wanted to be recognized as being at the top of the game.  After the work that went into Hops & Glory, winning was more a relief than anything else – I knew it was the best I could do.  If I hadn’t won with that, I doubted I ever would win. 

After I won, I realized I’d been so focused on winning, I had no idea what to do afterwards.  What can or should a beer writer of the year actually do?  

I had hoped I’d be able to be a bit of an ambassador for good beer to the broader world.  Having the title certainly opened some doors and got me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it failed to get me the presence in national press that I and so many other beer writers still crave. Between us we have had more press opportunities in 2010 certainly than I’ve had before.  But we’re still lacking that big breakthrough.  Newspapers like the Guardian and associated weekend magazines enjoy a significant proportion of good beer fans among their readership, but seem almost ideologically opposed to allowing regular beer coverage in their pages.  Same with TV shows like Saturday Kitchen. 

I’ve enjoyed and been very humbled by the recognition I now get within the beer world.  But I've been just as frustrated by my inability to spread the beer word beyond the already converted.  It’s a long job.  We’re not giving up yet.  But by the time I was handing the title over, it felt like I was only just getting started.  

Happily, after reading through a record number of entries (there are so many of us writing about beer) I passed the title to someone who is very successfully spreading the word about great beer and great pubs to the broader public – Simon Jenkins.

Personal warm glow of the year: The Beer Trilogy

We all judge books by their covers, and we never quite got it right with my first two.  The paperback release of Hops and Glory gave me the opportunity to repackage Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind, and the chance to heavily rewrite the former to bring it up to date and also get rid of all the factual inaccuracies and repetition of received myth that characterized the first edition.  I'm very, very proud of the reworked edition of my first book - there's a lot of new stuff in it.  But I still haven't found anyone who's actually read the revised edition.

But it has worked – each of the first two books sold double what it did last year, and Hops paperback has sold well too.  

This is partly due to another endless round of book events – talks, tastings and so on, the highlights of which were selling a 250-capacity venue at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and another almost as big at the Ilkley Literary Festival, at which my old English Lit teacher, whom I haven’t seen for 25 years, loomed up out of the crowd.  If we weren’t both Yorkshiremen, we’d have been blubbing like babies.  We almost did. 

These highlights gave me the strength to shrug off the crushing sense of doom and despair when a mere six people turned up at the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop in October, and only two turned up to my final event in Sheffield last week.

I’m now seemingly doing a permanently ongoing round of after-dinner speeches, literary festivals, food festivals and private/corporate tastings - a whole new side to my strange career.  That’s the thing about beer.  It’s never dull, always evolving.

Heroes of the year: How many do you want?

Ron Pattinson for his obsessive historical quest.  I’ve read and used some of what he endlessly quotes, and I’ve read some stuff he hasn’t.  But I could never imagine attacking old brewing records with the gusto he does.  God knows why he does it.  But he’s built up an essential beer history resource.

Fuller’s – who among their multi-pronged approach to examining the relationship between beer and age, did a collaborative brew with Ron and their own past.

Andy Moffatt at Redemption, officially the nicest man in brewing, a man who simply will not let you buy a drink, and then turned up to my Christmas Party with a barrel of London Brewer’s Alliance Porter (more on London Brewers later).

Garrett Oliver.  Thornbridge.  The insane Jamie Hawksworth of the Sheffield and Euston Taps.  The new wave of Czech craft brewers like Matuska.  Stuart Howe at Sharp’s for a commitment to invention that’s made it into the national press.  And everyone who is brewing so much good and interesting beer, I’ve given up even trying to keep track.

More tomorrow.  (This may actually be a three-parter.)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

December Vlog - Christmas beers with the two Peters!

So, three weeks there with no posting.  Did you miss me?

If so, sorry about that.  Three reasons contributing to my silence:
  • I've been insanely busy, working 14-16 hours a day on stuff that pays money, not because I want to but because if I didn't, HMRC were going to come round and auction off my rare beers and CD collection to pay my unpaid tax bill
  • My hard drive died and I was computerless for a while.  Today I heard that, for a mere £500, a specialist data recovery agency has been able to do what a mac engineer could not, and salvage all my data from the old hard drive.  Not only can I now do my accounts, look at 10,000 photos and listen to 30,000 songs, I have my entire archive of everything I've ever written back safely.
  • I was in no great hurry to blog anyway.  I needed a break from the relentless negativity that infects some parts of the blogosphere.  I swear that if I was to post an exclusive along the lines of "Brewer creates beer that cures cancer - and by the way, it tastes fucking awesome" - I would only have to count to about 40 before someone out there commented that it probably, in fact, tastes shit, or is brewed by the wrong-sized brewer, or is served under gas, or doesn't have enough hops.  Sure I have my own rants, but I always try to be constructive - I did actually taste Stella Black, for instance, before writing about what an appallingly fucking shit beer it is, and I gave some very clear pointers as to what I thought was wrong with it, and how I thought they could have done it much better. But some of you seem determined to see only the negative in everything, to close down all options apart from the inevitability of shit.  It's not your fault, it's the internet.  It's what it does to some people.
Anyway, it's nearly Christmas - and I'll brook none of that behaviour now.  

Annie Lennox doesn't like Christmas.  She's released an album with which she is attempting to destroy Christmas.  She takes Christmas songs and sings them like the ghost of a premenstrual Scrooge-ess whose puppy died one Christmas and doesn't see why anyone else should enjoy Christmas if she can't.  It was playing in a Starbucks I was in yesterday, and the snow began to melt, and turned to rain, and now London has no snow for Christmas.  Coincidence? Yeah, right.

I'm the opposite. I love Christmas.  For much of the year I'm George Bailey in the final third of It's a Wonderful Life.  I'm that despairing, that pessimistic.  And then it gets to Christmas and I realise the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville is merely state of mind*, and I become end-of-film George Bailey.

That's why we've done a Christmas beer blog. It's fun-filled.  It's cheesy.  It's meant to be.  We also happen to taste some really good beers and give you a blueprint for a beery Christmas Day that you can take way and adapt to whatever beers are available in your locale.

Having finished his videos of the brewing process, Peter Amor joins me for a drink.  I drink one of his beers in one of his pubs. Then we drink some more.  We hint at what beers go with each stage of Christmas dinner.  We drink beer, enjoy it, and have a laugh.

That's what beer is about.  That's what Christmas is about.  No brainer.

From now on our blogs are available for you to cut and paste from Vimeo and disseminate into the wider world.  And in the New Year, while I'll still be posting monthly video blogs here there will also be a separate British Video Blogs site attempting to spread appreciation of great British beer more widely.

So just ask yourself: are you a George Bailey?  Or an Annie Lennox?


*If you don't get this reference, you need to stop reading, right now, and go and watch It's a Wonderful Life before you do anything else.  This is important.  Your life could depend on it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Who's the Christmas number one?

Ah, that's better! - December Beer and Wine Ranking
1Pete Brown's Blog (+3)
2Brew Dog Blog (+1)
3Pencil & Spoon (-1)
4Boggle About Beer (-3)
5Zythophile (=)
6The Pub Curmudgeon (+2)
7Tandleman's Beer Blog (-1)
8Are You Tasting the Pith? (+3)
9Beer Reviews (-2)
10Thornbridge Brewers' Blog (+5)
11The Wine Conversation (+7)
12Rabid About Beer (+2)
13Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog (-1)
14Called to the bar (-5)
15Spittoon (+4)
16"It's just the beer talking" – Jeff Pickthall's Blog (+19)
17The Beer Nut (-4)
18Master Brewer at Adnams (-8)
19I might have a glass of beer (+3)
20Beer. Birra. Bier. (+1)
Ranking made by

Boggle's Sidebottom Crusade keeps him in the top five, and it really is quite a good blog aside from that. Nice chap too.  Cooking Lager's Jonah-like aura continues to wreak its harm though.  Since he defected from Team Avery to form Team Boggle, Zak has recovered and gone back up three places - mirroring precisely the fall suffered by Cookie's new cause.  The blogosphere's reaction to Kelly Ryan's return  home sees Thornbridge's blog rise five to break into the Top Ten.  And Jeff Pickthall stages a stunning recovery based on a mere three posts, covering beer judging and busting a potent myth.

Full updated rankings will go live on Wikio on Sunday 5th December.

So, Christmas number one - does that make me the Cliff Richard or the X-Factor winner of the beer blogosphere?  Well now you're here, why not watch my latest Vlog and draw your own conclusions.  But please, if you're moved to comment on my weak chart-based analogy, remember it's the season of goodwill.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

November V-Blog: The Astonishing Rise of London's Brewers, and the Jolly Butchers!

With just hours of November left, the team behind our video blogs have managed to pull together the edits of me in the Jolly Butchers, and Peter Amor's latest instalment of brewing fun.

In previous V-Blogs we've gone around various pubs trying a variety of beers.  This time we stayed closer to home - very close to my home in fact - just around the corner from my house, and focused the whole episode on the astonishing rise of London's small brewers.  Four years ago, London had Fuller's and Meantime.  Both among my favourites, but a shockingly small choice for the nation's capital.  A couple of years ago something exploded in the collective beery psyche.  The result, well, click below...

Pete Brown's British Beer Blog - November from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

By the way - I'm slurring a bit - that's not drunkenness - just tiredness.

If you enjoyed these, and haven't seen previous ones, check out my adventures in Nottingham and in South Wales.

Meanwhile, Peter Amor, after taking us through beer's ingredients and the process in the brewhouse, moves now to fermentation - in both the brewery fermentation room, and the pub cellar.

Peter Amor's British Brewing Blog: Episode 3 from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

Just before Christmas, Peter and I join forces to taste some great seasonal beers.  See you back here in a few weeks.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Pub closures: is the worst over?

I was at a presentation the other day by CGA strategy, the company who does all the market stats for the UK on-trade market.  Over the past couple of years, when you've seen grim headlines about the number of pubs closing every week, it's been based on their figures.

Enough already.

Well, perhaps I've been too busy, or maybe it's because good news never tends to get as much coverage as bad news, I seem to have missed their latest figures, whenever they came out.  But while pubs are still closing at a depressing rate, it does seem as the the worst might be over - and the closure rate is falling faster than CGA had forecast.

They calculate the figure every six months, and the trend is as follows:

June 08 to December 08 - 39 net pub closures every week
December 08 to June 09 - 52 pub closures a week - the figure that really hit the headlines
June 09 to December 09 - 39 closures a week
December 09 to June 10 - 29 closures a week

As I said, 29 pubs every week is still a shocking rate of decline.  We're losing about five per cent of Britain's pubs in less than a decade.  But it has fallen by almost half in a year.

CGA reckon that the pubs that are closing are those that didn't adapt to suit changing needs in the recession.  That may be too much of a generalisation, but they're probably right when they say the pubs left behind may be smaller in number, but will be stronger.  They reckon proper recovery in the pub market will begin in 2013.

Another interesting stat is what happens to those closed down pubs?  Property company Christies says that 60% of the boarded-up pubs they sell on eventually reopen as pubs.  That will be included in CGA's net figure.  But it does show that there is still some dynamism in the pub market.  Both the Jolly Butchers and Cask and Kitchen were failed pubs before they were taken over and relaunched as craft beer pubs.

So - hardly joyous tidings to shout from the rooftops.  But as I've always maintained, reports of 'the death of the pub' are greatly exaggerated.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Simon Jenkins crowned Beer Writer of the Year

So last night I had to hand over the title.  It's not fair - my year as Beer Writer of the Year passed very quickly - partly because it was only 51 weeks, with this year's dinner being a week earlier than last year.

Part of winning meant I had to be chair of the judges this year.  We were deluged by a record entry: 45 individuals entered work.  On average, they each entered 2.3 of the available six categories, with between one and six pieces of work each time.  My fellow judges and I read about 400 different pieces of beer writing, from 400 word columns to 1000 page books, and everything in between.

Last night, after a cracking beer and food dinner prepared by Michelin star chef Sriram Aylur, we revealed the winners.  I'm too hungover to go into great detail about each one, and if you've read this far you probably just want to get a quick look at the names anyway.  There are some familiar names and some new ones.  If there's anyone here who you've never read before, I urge you to check them out.

I'll just say a bit about our overall winner, Beer Writer of the Year 2010, Simon Jenkins.  Because he writes in a regional newspaper not many of us get to see his work, and he's already being described as a 'new face' despite the fact that he's about my age and has been writing pub reviews for years.  It's so good then, that we have a regional category that allows great writing to reach a wider audience.  I've put a link at the bottom of this post to a random pub review he's written for the Yorkshire Post, and I'd urge you to follow the links from that page to the other reviews listed down the side.  I've also linked to all other winners' work where I can.

There was an awful lot of writing to read while judging.  But with some people we got to the end of their submission and were disappointed that there wasn't any more to read.  Simon exemplified this.  That's one reason he won.

Another reason is that pubs are going through hell at the moment, and anyone reading Simon's review will be overcome by a desperate urge to go to the pub - any pub - by the time they're halfway down the page.  I said when presenting the award last night that one of the biggest challenges facing all beer writers is the struggle to reach a wider audience, to not just preach to the converted.

I really don't want to sound ungrateful to any of the beer fans who read this blog, my books or any of the work produced by the writers below.  But the aim of the Guild is to spread the appreciation of beer.  We're getting better at doing that, we're more successful all the time, but we still struggle to bring in new people to the world of beer.  With his pub reviews, the judges felt this is exactly what Simon excels at.


Brewer of the Year 
Stefano Cossi, Thornbridge Brewery

Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary
Winner: John Conen, Bamberg and Franconia - Germany's Brewing Heartland

Bishop's Finger Award for Beer and Food Writing
Winner: Will Beckett, Imbibe magazine

Brains SA Gold Award for Best Online Communication 
Winner: Mark Dredge 
Runner-up: Jerry Bartlett

Adnams Award for Best Writing in Regional Publications 
Winner: Simon Jenkins, Yorkshire Evening Post 
Runner-up: Duncan Brodie, East Anglian Daily Times 

Wells & Young's Awards for Best Writing for the Beer and Pub Trade 
Winner: Larry Nelson, Brewers’ Guardian 
Runner-up: Isla Whitcroft, Beer, the Natural Choice

Molson Coors’ Award for Best Writing in National Publications 
Winner: Zak Avery
Runner-up: Adrian Tierney-Jones 

The Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award – Beer Writer of the Year 2010
Simon Jenkins
(This link takes you to one of Simon's pub reviews in the Yorkshire Evening Post.  There's a list down the right hand side of more pub reviews - all Simon's.)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

So last night I came across Stella Black...

Oh no, not another post about Stella and its sinister clownish owners A-B Inbev.

Why do I do it?  Why do I care?  Why do I obsess about this particular mass market, tasteless lager more than any other?

A few reasons:
  • It's responsible for my entry into the world of beer - I started writing about beer when I was advertising Stella, so there's a past history, an historical fondness.
  • I don't just write about craft beer, I write about all beer - and Stella is one of the biggest beer brands in the UK.
  • It could have been so much better than it is if it didn't keep making such spectacular business errors - it could have been a gateway between mainstream and 'interesting' beers.
  • Even by the standards of mainstream, industrial lager, it's so bad I'm drawn back to it with morbid fascination - it's a slow motion car crash.  I find Foster's undrinkable, but aligning with comedy and resurrecting Alan Partridge was an inspired move to make the mainstream drinker a bit fonder of it.  Carling is bland and tasteless but its 'You know who your mates are' campaign has produced some of the best classic beer ads for nearly twenty years.  Heineken is mainstream and dull and always gets its advertising wrong, but whenever I taste it, I have to acknowledge that it's a well made beer.  But Stella... it's becoming a textbook case study in marketing failure, as well as a shocking example of how to devalue a once OK beer.  (I know some people like the French Riviera advertising and the Draught Masters thing got some praise, so maybe I'm being unfair. But read on.)
So I was in a Nicholson's pub last night, and spotted the Stella Black font.  

What was I expecting?  Was I anticipating an amazingly complex beer?  Something that aficionados like me would love?  No.  I wasn't expecting it to be great.  But having learned that it's brewed with Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, and having seen quite attractive press shots like this:

I was starting to suspect that it might at least be drinkable, that it might be one of those beers you could have in a pub where there are only mainstream, mass market brands available.

Is it aimed at me?  No.  But according to A-B Inbev, it is aimed at drinkers of "world beers" such as San Miguel, Budvar, Peroni. Not the most flavourful lagers (Budvar aside), but perfectly drinkable and decent quality, bought by people who want something that's just a little more interesting than tasteless mainstream lager.

Also, as the beer is being restricted to the on-trade and is being sold in "hundreds, not thousands" of pubs, with bespoke training for bar staff, all intended to create a premium drinking experience, I was expecting the presentation to be pretty good even if the beer wasn't - just look at that lovely photo above.

So I was surprised to see that in one of these handpicked pubs, this special, super premium beer looks like this on the bar:

No special font.  Just an ordinary tap along with all the other ordinary brands on the bar.  And look at the design.  A-B Inbev have some research that says people don't think it's a dark lager, even though everyone I've spoken to about it thinks it is a dark lager.  So confident are A-B Inbev that NO ONE will mistake Stella Black for a dark beer, they've made it look an awful lot like Guinness - the darkest mainstream beer there is.  

Now look closer, what are those words on the font?

"Matured for longer".  That's the main point on which they've chosen to sell this beer.  Nothing wrong with that - except they refuse to reveal how long the beer is actually matured for.  Several writers - including me - have asked what the maturation period is.  It's the first question any competent writer would ask after being sold 'matured for longer' as a claim.  But A-B Inbev responded that this information was confidential.  It's matured for longer - but we won't give you any indication of what that means.   

OK, well, it's a super premium lager.  At least it's going to be served in an attractive glass, right?  Wrong.  Here's my Stella Black:


So, handpicked bars, super-premium image, going up against the likes of Peroni which can charge over £4 a pint because it has a font two feet high and is served in a beautiful, unique glass.  And we've got a standard font, an anonymous glass, confusing brand imagery, and a product claim they refuse to tell you about.  Is any of this the pub's fault?  We know how unreliable bar staff are.  Well, no.  It's currently only in handpicked outlets that they really trust.  They said so.  And every other beer in the pub was being served appropriately in its branded glassware.  A-B Inbev have chosen to present the beer to you in this way.

So what's it taste like?  I told you my expectations weren't that high, but I was prepared to be open-minded.  Well.  No aroma whatsoever.  I don't know what they did with the Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, but they didn't put them in this beer.  It's so long since Stella has seen whole Saaz hops perhaps no one at the brewery knew what they were and they made a weird, bitter salad with them instead.  

The taste has a very brief flash of malty sweetness, then a chalky dryness that disappears almost instantly, and that's it - until the unpleasant aftertaste starts to build after a few sips.  Then you need another beer to get rid of that.  Stella Black is one of those special, rare beers that manage to be both tasteless and unpleasant.  A beer that's merely tasteless we can all understand, but this?  It's like a 4.1% standard lager with a weird, Special Brew type finish.  The worst of all worlds.  Utterly undrinkable.

It fascinates me, the extent to which this once great brand can fall so far short of my expectations, no matter how low they are.  If the whole "we're calling it super-premium but serving it in a standard fashion, calling it black but making it blonde, making longer maturation our main claim but then refusing to talk about maturation period" brand concept was presented by a bunch of hopeful 21 year-old graduate recruits on a final interview day workshop, they wouldn't get a job in any agency I've ever worked with.  And if the beer was tasted blind in any competition I've judged, you'd either think it had a fault or was a nasty industrial, chemical concoction from the Balkans.        

One final joke - when coming up with the name for the beer, they obviously failed to get the internet ownership of it. takes you to this lady's website:

Now that's tasty.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

'The Brewery Tap' - the next generation?

Imagine you're a microbrewer.  You've established a few successful beers and have won the odd award here and there at SIBA competitions and CAMRA festivals.  Sales are showing healthy growth and you've got some local recognition.  In a few years time, you might have to expand.  But there's one thing now obsessing you.

Your own pub.  You want a brewery tap.

But you can't get one.

Buying a freehold pub is a financial step too far - you just haven't got that kind of money to hand.  You could of course get a lease or tenancy from one of the big PubCos but what would be the point of that?  The tie means you'd have to take beers from their limited range, and your not on it - you want a pub that showcases YOUR beers, as you want them to be seen.

This is a scenario facing many micros at the moment.  To some, it's a symbol of what they're fighting against - an outdated model in the British beer and pub industry.

But now, things are changing.  And it's my old mates at Thornbridge who are leading the way, with the first pub on an interesting new deal with Enterprise Inns.

Well, not quite leading the way.

Three years ago, Midlands brewer Everards started a scheme called Project William.  They took over defunct, failed pubs - the ones that we read about that are closing every week - and went into partnership with local brewers around the Midlands and the north of England.  Everards invested in refurbishing the pub - in partnership with the local brewer - and took a traditional tie on lager, soft drinks and spirits - meaning the publican had to buy all these from Everards at their rates.  This is usual enough for PubCos and regional brewers.  But they made cask ales free of tie, simply asking that one Everards beer be stocked on the range.

Now, if you were a bog standard pub that relied mainly on industrial lager (as most of these pubs were before they failed), it doesn't make much difference.  But if you're a micro looking for a pub where you can stick six handpulls on the bar to showcase your own beers plus a range of other interesting micros, it's giving you what you want from a pub with much lower risk and investment than you'd get elsewhere.

There are about twenty Project William pubs now, and they're all - apart from one uncertainty - booming.  Everards gets the return on its investment from the other drinks.  The micro gets its Brewery tap.  A community gets its pub back.  Everyone wins.

I wrote about Project William in the Cask Report and The Publican.  It's such a clever idea, the biggest question for me was why no one else had done it, why the big PubCos didn't take heed.

Well now, someone has.

Thornbridge have worked with Enterprise - one of the two giants of the PubCo world with between 7,000 and 8,000 pubs - before.  The Cricket Inn in Totley is an Enterprise pub, but the leasehold model is not ideal for a brewer with as many great ideas and beers as Thornbridge has.  So brewer and PubCo have been talking about doing things differently.  When Enterprise decided to take a leaf out of Everards book and create a different kind of leasehold, Thornbridge was the first to jump.

The result was the Greystones:

God bless Farrow and Ball.

This was a failed pub in Sheffield called the Highcliffe, a great building that had just become a haunt for local, erm, 'characters', the kind of people who spend more money in a toilet cubicle than at the bar.  The refurb was a joint investment - with Enterprise chipping in most of the cash.  Thornbridge are free of tie on ales so they can showcase their range.  Enterprise gets a big pub run by people who know what they are doing.  Sheffield gets yet another amazing craft beer pub, which also has an emphasis on 'arts and the local community', with gigs and other events happening regularly.

The Greystones opened on November 3rd.  It sold 3000 pints in its first 48 hours.

So if you're that ambitious micro, it's not simply a case of walking up to Enterprise or Everards and saying, "Gizza pub" - they need to be convinced that you have the business acumen to make it work, and that if they pay for a refurb it's going to pay back.  But if this model catches on - as it surely will - we're going to see more abandoned pubs revived, and a much greater variety of drinks on British bars.

Hats off to Enterprise - not always the hero in stories about British pubs - for having the vision to do this.    Props to Everards for coming up with the original idea in the first place.  And well done Thornbridge, yet again.

I'll be doing a Hops & Glory event with a tasting of Thornbridge beers at the Greystones on Thursday 16th December.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Why Beer Matters - the final chapter

I need to address an oversight.

Long term readers may remember that in January, I decided to give away a trip I'd won to the Budvar brewery, because I've been several times before.  I invited anyone who had never had their writing published in print media before to write an essay entitled 'Why Beer Matters'.  Then me, Budvar and the Publican would choose a winner who would get my trip.

I published the first and second runners up back in the spring, but the winner was Mark Dredge. I wanted to wait before publishing his winning entry until it was published in The Publican, and that wasn't happening till Mark did his trip, so he could write about that too. That happened way back in September, and sadly The Publican didn't publish Mark's full piece.

So now, much later than it should have been, here's Mark's take on Why Beer Matters.  We thought all the top three entries were evocative, passionate and wonderfully written.  Mark addressed very similar themes to lots of other entries; he just delivered them in the most compelling way.


Our distant ancestors, the cave men and women, had the campfire. They would gather there, they lived around it and socialised around it, they learnt their life skills in its glowing, flickering flame. It was the centre of the community, the source of warmth, the source of heat to cook, the place where stories were told and learning happened. We don’t have campfires, we have the pub.

It’s the early drinking years which are the important ones. They come when we are trying to discover who we are, who we are going to be and they help to shape us into that person. In the pub, at this time, we become more socially aware of ourselves and others and catching the eye of a mate becomes the primary motive for almost every action. Strut to the door at 17, acting grown up, feeling 27, ballsy. They let you in (of course they shouldn’t but everyone knows this pub lets you in). It’s the first step. Inside, the area opens up. It’s a man’s world and you’ve taken your first adult steps. Ordering the first pint is a ritual ceremony and with that beer in your hand you are now a part of the adult world.

Those early years are fraught. There’s ID checks, your mates having too many, the knock-back from the girl, the running out of money when you want another drink, learning about life, talking to people, being a shoulder to cry on or a voice of reason, acting stupid, spilled drinks, loose lips and broken hearts. But there’s more than that. There’s the laughter, the fun, the growing up, the being with friends. I can picture the pub we drank in: dark and dingy, a loud rock club-pub, always smelly, always crowded, always smoky, always hot, always surrounded by friends. It was my campfire.

And in that pub, or in others, or at a friend’s house with some bottles, or in the park with some cans, that’s where I learnt so many things, so many life skills: effective communications (ease the raging drunk; say hi to the girl), societal order (that’s the manager so act sober; they are the cool group), self-control (I shouldn’t have had that last pint), budgeting (I’ve got £5.20 and a burger is £3 so what can I get to drink?), how to attract a mate (play it cool, smile, what’s the worst that can happen?), how to deal with rejection (‘Can I buy you a drink’, I slur, ‘Err... no’, she says), responsibility (looking after the one who had too much). And we learn these things on our own, away from the comfort and security of the parental nest. We are growing up, in the pub, pint glass in our hand: the beacon of beer is always there, a flaming torch to guide us.

And it’s always there. It’s the reason and the excuse to catch up with old friends; it’s the oil of our social life. Let’s go for a beer. Beer is currency: ‘thanks for your help, I’ll buy you a pint’. Beer is the offer of friendship: ‘Pint?’ Beer is business; beer is passion. Beer is food, beer is life. It’s there in the good times and the bad, like a familiar friend to laugh with us or ease our pain with us. It’s in the fridge when we get home from work or it’s at the forefront of our minds as the clock hands ache around the last hour of the last day of the week. As we move along the beer-drinking path it opens up a wider view over the whole, vast plains of possibility. It can be the simplest cold lager on a hot day or it can be the most complex, rich barley wine on a cold night. It can be challenging and thought provoking; enlightening and inspiring; light or dark or a thousand shades in between; smooth or rugged; mild or tongue-twisting. It comes in fat, round glasses or tall thin ones; it’s hand-pulled and frothing into a dimpled mug or carefully poured from a dusty old bottle into a crystal tumbler. And then there’s the nonic pint glass: the stunning vision and lasting beauty of great British design, right royally branded with the crown. Holding it provides the same comfort as your loved one’s hand: it just feels right; the perfect vessel, the perfect size and weight. We get halfway through and already we want it re-filled so that it looks handsome and proud and full of colour and life again. It’s the pint glass, that guiding light, which we’ve known since we were taking our first, uneasy grown-up steps back from the bar after saying for the first time, ‘Can I have a pint please?’

Our pub is the caveman’s campfire. We grow up there, we become ourselves there, we make important decisions there, we go there after a long day, we eat, we share experiences, we relax, we have a beer there. It’s changed from those primitive and fraught pub-going adventures and we’ve learnt the important things about life and love and where we are and where we’re going. Now we can just sit back and enjoy it, say cheers to our drinking partner and take a deep, long pull on that pint in our hand. Beer: it’s more than just a drink and it matters because it’s always been there and it always will be; the guiding torch around our campfire.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Real Ale - Preference or Dogma?

"Are the beers dispensed by gravity or gas?"

When I previewed the opening of the Euston Tap, this was the first question I received on both my blog and Twitfeed.  It's because the real ale taps come straight out of the wall rather than being from hand pumps on the bar.

And when I replied that they were served with gas, there was a supplemental question: "Does that mean air pressure or do they also use CO2?"

These questions are of no interest to the vast majority of craft beer drinkers.  But they are of fundamental importance to the Campaign for Real Ale.  And because CAMRA is the biggest and most influential consumer body in beer in the UK, that makes them important.

While I'm a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers.  But this is an issue that won't go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

CAMRA as a body fight for real ale.  When it suits them they fight for other stuff as well, but let's leave that to one side for now.  When it comes to British brewed craft beer, by their constitution they have to champion 'real' or cask conditioned ale.  Given that, it's quite understandable that they need to have a pretty specific technical definition of what real ale is.  That means there are bound to be some beers that are pretty close to that definition, but fall outside it.

I can accept that.  What's more bizarre is what happens to beers that do not qualify as real ale, and to the pubs that serve them.  If they are not real ale - even by a whisker - CAMRA cannot support them.  Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.

I understand how they get here.  But I still think it's bizarre.

I don't know whether the beers in the Euston Tap are served with CO2 (i.e. cask breathers) or not.  But what if they were?

Let's take Thornbridge Bracia.  Normally a bottled beer, it's won numerous awards around the globe.  It's breathtaking in its complexity, subtlety, structure and power.  Now it's on cask at the Euston tap, and nowhere else.

Now, I know most CAMRA members join because they love great beer and by and large that's what CAMRA's about.  But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA's official website:

"The beer must remain untainted and utterly genuine. CAMRA have fought off all sorts of threats, some blatant, others more subtle and the image remains intact. The dishonest cask breather must not be allowed to corrupt CAMRA's standards."

If you agree with this, I would genuinely like to hear from you...

Let's say I get you into the Euston Tap and place a pint of Bracia in front of you.  Would you demand to know about gas and cask breathers before you deigned to drink it?  If I told you it was served without cask breathers, and you drank it and enjoyed it, would you then change your mind about it if I said, "Actually I lied, it is served with cask breathers"?

What would you do if I said "Why not taste it and decide if it has a cask breather or not?" Given that the main argument against cask breathers is that they supposedly affect the taste (something every brewer I've spoken to denies), surely you'll be able to tell whether it has a cask breather or not?  If you can't, then what exactly is the problem?

Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers.  Whether you agree with that or not, it's an argument about the quality and delivery of the beer.  But it's about your senses.  It's about the beer.  If I give you a beer that doesn't fit with your definition of cask, but is generally regarded as a flavourful, quality beer, you could:

  • Drink it and say, "Amazing - it's not about cask or keg or cask breathers - it's just about the taste of the beer."
  • Drink it, and perhaps say something like, "Wow, I still prefer cask beers generally, but I'll admit there are some pretty damn good beers that are not cask conditioned."
  • Say, "If it's not cask beer I refuse to drink it.  It must be rubbish."

Most people I know would go with the first option.  I think the vast majority of CAMRA members would go for the second one.  But I have met people who do the third.

I once told the chairman of Edinburgh CAMRA I'd really enjoyed a pint of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted in my hotel while visiting the city.  Because it was delivered to me at a table by a waiter, I had no idea whether it was cask or keg.  This man, who surely considers himself an expert on beer, was adamant that if it had been cask I must have enjoyed it, but if it was keg I couldn't have.  He was telling me to ignore the evidence of my senses and instead focus on a technical aspect of beer dispense to decide whether my beer tasted nice or not.

Surely it's meant to be about the taste of the beer.  Why else are we all here?  If you need to ask technical questions about methods of dispense before deciding if you like a beer or not, you are making your decisions based on dogma.  You are making a political decision rather than taste driven decision.  And I believe that means you've lost sight of what the whole Campaign for Real Ale was supposed to be about.

Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston's, are "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn't exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated.

I think that's a pretty paranoid argument.  And if I were being contentious, I'd also say "But if the quality of the beer doesn't change, what's the problem?"

CAMRA was established because beer most beer was shit.  A lot of beer still is.  But dogma, definition and politics mean that the most hardline CAMRA members often save their hostility for really good beers that simply don't meet an over-specific technical definition.

If you're one of these people, I know ranting and telling you you're stupid isn't going to change anything. But I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971.  I don't think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA's image and credibility, or even cask ale itself.

I've tried to outline the argument in reasonable terms, understand your position and specify why I think it's wrong.  I'd be hugely grateful if you wanted to respond in kind.

The Book Tour That Wouldn't Die

It's deeply, deeply gratifying, but it seems that what began as a tour of readings and tastings to promote the release of Hops and Glory has become a semi-permanent, perpetual round of speaking and reading gigs.  That is so not a complaint - I love doing these events - I'm just surprised.

Anyway, this is just a short post to announce some events I'm doing between now and Christmas.  If I'm near you, please come along!

Tuesday 9th November (today!) - Fuller's Brewery, 6.30pm
bengal Lancer on draught is this month's seasonal from Fuller's.  John Keeling will be giving a tutored tasting of the draught versus the bottled beer, and I'll be telling the story of IPA, which is a lot more romantic but slightly less funny than the story behind the naming of the beer.

Friday 12th November - Westmorland CAMRA Beer Lovers' Dinner, Kendal
Sold out

Saturday 13th November - Ulverston Brewery, Cumbria, 7.30pm
Exciting new Cumbrian brewery, already winning awards, Ulverston Brewing Company, The Old Auction Mart, Lightburn Road, Ulverston, Cumbria. Tickets from the brewery shop, 11am - 3pm, Mon - Sat.

Sunday 28th November - Amber Ales Brewery Tap - The Talbot Tap, Ripley, Derbyshire
This exciting new brewery loves hops and they're having an IPA weekend, 25th-28th November, with a bunch of excellent different IPAs from around the UK and beyond.  I'm talking on Sunday at 3pm.  £6 ticket price includes a tasting flight of IPAs.

Sunday 5th December - Abergavenny Christmas Food and Drink Fayre
Not really book-related, I'll be tasting Christmas beers and doing a bit of food pairing.  Ticket details will be on the website soon.

Thursday 16th December - The Greystones Pub, Sheffield, 7.30pm
The latest acquisition by Thornbridge, a pub in an affluent part of Sheffield that may well be Richard Hawley's new local.  I'll be tasting Thorndbridge beers and talking about the book.

See you there!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Exclusive: the Euston Tap: A Sneak Preview

When the Sheffield Tap opened almost a year ago, I wrote that it was almost worth getting the train to Sheffield just to sit and have a drink in the station.  Since then, I have done just that.  But now there's no need: the team behind this wonderful craft beer bar - one of the best in the country - have now repeated their stunning success at Euston Station.

In an audacious and visionary move, Jamie Hawksworth and co - also responsible for the Pivo bar in York - have taken a lease on one of the iconic square Portland stone buildings flanking the front of the station, and made it the Euston Tap.  Yesterday, manager Yan Pilkington invited me for a look around.

London landmark becomes beery destination.
The builders - imported like the management from Sheffield - were still busy when I arrived.  A lobby into the bar area was being erected over the door, and Yan and Jamie were in the cellar struggling with the three pythons that will take the beer into the bar.  Said beer was standing on pallettes outside on the grass, and there was an awful lot of it.  I imagine the guys won't be getting too much sleep between now and 6pm tomorrow,  Friday 5th November, when the place opens.

Signage will be subtle, to say the least
I love the ambition here.  And while it's not finished, it already looks stunning.

It's a small place, but not as small as you'd think if you walk past.  There's standing room for around 65 downstairs, and then a spiral staircase leads to a second floor where a lounge area will seat up to around another 50.

When you walk in, the main bar itself - like the one in the Sheffield tap - takes your breath away.

Would you like a beer sir?

They've gone for the American craft beer bar style, with all the taps coming out of the back wall and nothing on the bar itself.  By opening time, this back bar will be flanked by two fridges, which you'll be able to walk up to and inspect.

But the main stars are the draught beers.  Expect to encounter beers here that you will never see anywhere else.  The taps will be constantly rotating, and treats lined up for the first couple of months include cask Thornbridge Alliance and Bracia - outstanding, rare beers never seen on tap before - and Coalition, a collaborative brew with Dark Star that has been maturing for two years at Thornbridge.  One cask is coming here, the other is going to the Sheffield Tap, and the rest is going to be bottled - that's how rare this beer is.  The cask beer selection will at all times include three beers from Thornbridge and three from Marble.
Eight cask ale taps, looking forward to the objections from dinosaurs
There are 19 quality keg beers.  I spotted Bernard's wonderful unpastuerised lager, Matuska, a rising star from the Czech Republic that blew us beer writers away when we visited recently, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and Stone Pale Ale, to name but a few. In those fridges there'll be 100 rotating bottles.  Currently these include 60 American craft beers, 30 German and ten from Danish cuckoo brewer Mikkeller.

You have never seen a craft beer selection like this anywhere else.  And Yan insists you won't be paying through the nose for it either - cask ales start at £2.70.

There's just one serious flaw.  This is a listed building, and the work that can be done to it is limited.  Which means there is one - ONE - toilet in the entire place, and it's at the top of the spiral stairs. So remember to go before you get here.
If you're a craft beer geek already, you will now be reading this already queuing outside the Tap for tomorrow's opening.  If you're not, I urge you to get to Euston as quickly as possible to sample some remarkable beers in what will be a wonderful atmosphere.  You'll never make your train from Euston again.

See you there.