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

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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  In the autumn, he published a study that was not peer-reviewed, had a deeply questionable methodology, and had questionable, self-interested motivations, claiming that alcohol was more harmful then hard drugs such as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.

10 comments:

The Pub Diaries said...

Can CAMRA really be kicked for not putting up a good enough case against the neo pro's if by the example given the Guardian are so one sided. Something i'd expect from the Mail perhaps but am genuinely surprised by a lack of balance in the Guardian. The neo pro seems to be alive and well as far as Perth (the warm one) with the WA state Parliament passing lck out laws. The Australian Hotel Assoc was unable to nip this one. Its proof that kicking pubs and brewers is political capital the world over.

Curmudgeon said...

Couldn't agree more about CAMRA's shameful silence in the face of the anti-drink lobby,

The Hearty Goodfellow said...

I took your final point like a bullet to the heart...

You see, the beer I first fell in love with was Directors Bitter.

A fond memory it is, too.

But today, I'd need an IPhone just to remind me who the hell is brewing it these days.

"Charles Wells", the IPhone yells.

"Oh yes, the very same company that now brews Red Stripe for us", I moan in response.

Surely some things just have to stay important to us... otherwise we lose all sense of why those early memories ever mattered to us at all.

Phil said...

I think you're totally, utterly, and dangerously right about point 1, and more power to you for pushing it. (How can we have been so wrong about David Nutt?) As for point 3, erm...

Shut up. All of you, just shut up.

...compliments of the season to you too.

Two points. Firstly, if you want to stop people being grumpily obsessive about something, telling them at some length that what they're obsessed with doesn't matter probably isn't the best tactic. You're now saying that, while it may or may not matter, we're wrong to be grumpily obsessive about it - which is probably true.

But (secondly) keeping the green out of your ink is harder than you make out. Some bloggers do set out to do nothing more than celebrate good beer and good brewers, but most of us are less disciplined and more opinionated than that. And for most of us, there is always going to be a point where we say "this tasted quite nice but I don't think it's in the style", or "these brewers are doing some nice things but I wish they were doing more cask" (or more keg if you prefer). Of course, you could say "I'm not a boring obsessive cask purist but I wish these people were doing more cask", but I think that strategy is fairly dubious. (As in, "I'm not a loony conspiracy theorist but I'm not sure about this particular official story...") It's one of those irregular verbs - I have opinions, you're a bit of an obsessive, he's an utter loon.

More moderation is probably a good idea; more civility and tolerance is definitely a good idea. But "no grumpy obsessiveness" isn't realistic.

Martyn Cornell said...

Your iPhone is not quite accurate - it's Wells & Young brewing Courage beers now. And so what if they brew Red Stripe? Does that mean they can't possibly brew "decent" beer? Personally, I've found the Courage beers I've tried since W&Y took over responsibility to be more than acceptable, on cask and in bottle.

The Hearty Goodfellow said...

MC -

You're right of course about the brand new brewers of that fine old ale - it is really brewed by a far larger giant than I'd hinted. I'd split the new company into two halves a vain attempt to sound 50% less cynical.

However, I find myself emboldened by your views on the beers known as Courage, and I might even feel able to reach out for that old favourite once again.

The fact that the same multi-brand brewery is simultaneously brewing 'Jamaican' beer in Bedfordshire will remain a nagging concern, even if I'll never quite understand why.

CarsmileSteve said...

Those drunken New York tweets were absolutely hilarious, certainly once you'd tweeted (twote?) again the following day and I knew you weren't lying in a gutter somewhere!

Gary Gillman said...

It's salutary to remember though that the energy of the North American beer scene would not have been possible but for the geek factor. Had people just sat back and enjoyed good beer, there would be far less of it than we have. Anyway, it's like anything else, the real devotees will talk the small details endlessly, just as the coffee mavens will or gearheads will or techies will in their respective areas. I certainly agree that one shouldn't intone at length to the non-initiate, there is nothing worse than the beer bore.

Gary

Gary

Ed said...

I'm extremely dubious about the idea that CAMRA should be taking on the anti-alcohol lobby. Wouldn't a beer consumers' organisation look just a little biased?

Phil said...

Ed - I think that's Pete's point: that CAMRA (and beer lovers in general) have been scared to make valid arguments in favour of beer, & against prohibitionism more generally, in case they were somehow disqualified as partisan. There's a grain of truth in this - if CAMRA said that beer should count as one of your five a day, nobody would take it seriously. But there are falsehoods & bad arguments passing unchallenged on the prohibitionist side, & currently CAMRA seems afraid to expose them.