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

What's new?

What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Friday, 26 February 2010

Apologies...

Dropped out of circulation for a few weeks there while I was rewriting Man Walks into a Pub. Just got final rewrites off to the editor and am now resuming normal service.

Apologies if you entered the Budvar/Publican Why Beer Matters competition - it's a month since closing date and it's very remiss of me not to have done the judging by now. I'll be resolving that asap.

Lots of great stuff happening over the next few weeks though - I'll be posting about my recent trip to Denmark, the Welsh beer revolution, lager, and plans for Cask Ale Week over the next week or two.

In the meantime, here's a column I did for the Publican when I was out after the Liverpool Beer Festival last week.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

I remember when it were all fields round here

Wading through mud at the moment trying to finish off the rewrites for the new edition of Man Walks into a Pub, due out 4th June with a spanking new cover from the fella who did Hops & Glory. Making up the trilogy with the H&G paperback will be a newly covered Three Sheets, which isn't changing apart from that cover, but it's lovely to see them all together looking like a set - my beer trilogy. It makes me feel like a proper grown-up writer.

I had lunch yesterday with someone I knew from the beer world before I'd had a single word published, and it made me think how rapidly everything has changed - when we knew each other I was working full-time in an ad agency, Stella Artois was widely respected as a quality beer and in double digit growth, Progressive Beer Duty didn't exist so, therefore, neither did the British craft brewing revolution. Cask ale was in terminal decline and seemingly drunk by no one under 50. CAMRA had half the membership it does now and the mere thought of them as an organisation and the terrible image they were giving beer at the time made me seethe with rage and frustration - as did the fact that not a single beer writer seemed to criticise them in print.

Google was new, and most of us accessed it via a dial-up modem. Around the time I finally finished my first manuscript of MWIAP, I was in a meeting with someone who had a laptop on his desk that wasn't plugged into anything. Nevertheless, at one point he said "I'll just print that" and pressed some buttons. Christ, I thought, he's pretending to print something. Why would he do that?

It was only when he returned with the printed document that I realised I'd just seen wireless networking for the first time. This was 2002. 18 months before, I'd read a cyberpunk thriller centred around the (fictitious, impossible) idea.

Christ, I sound like an old fart. But this is my point - it only seems like five minutes ago really. I still think of myself most of the time as a new kid on the beer writing block. It's disorientating when I get a brief glimpse of self-awareness that I might be one of the old guard.

Do I feel like an old fart?

Well, today I had a quick look at Twitter and my blog roll - I'm trying to ration myself while I get this bloody book finished - and in the middle of overhauling some very outdated text I was struck by the sheer scale of what's happening in beer now, loving it and at the same time feeling slightly panicked by the fact that, as Beer Writer of the Year, I should be somehow attempting to keep on top of everything and have a comment on everything, and that is utterly impossible now.

So I'm surprised to find that I have no view one way or the other on the wisdom of Brew Dog's latest venture: I'd like to taste a 41% IPA and think it's a fresh departure for super-strong beers, but I still had to roll my eyes when it was announced. I think Sink the Bismarck is a shit and self-indulgent name for the beer, but at the same time I really struggle to work up any moral outrage at making fun of the Germans and referencing the war.

I fins myself applauding Cooking Lager's lout ticking post, but have no new comment to make on the whole ticking issue.

And on the neoprohibition stuff, I'm delighted to see Phil Mellows continuing to bring some excellent new findings and developments to light, but have to curtail myself from spending another entire month digging into the issue.

There are so many people writing about these things now, and they're all worthy of coverage. So I'm not complaining - I'm just a bit overwhelmed at how much the collision of craft beer passion and new media has generated and wondering - both from a beer worlds and a personal point of view - where do we go next?

In the short term - back to revising chapter ten - the one that slagged off CAMRA...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Why it's fruitless to try to paint beer as the new wine

Last year we were having the kitchen done and the house was a building site. The year before that I'd just got back from Kolkata. The year before that we left it too late, and the year before that our mad neighbours scared off a lot of the people we wanted to talk to. Jesus - thinking about it, we hadn't had one of our traditional Christmas drinks parties since 2005.

I wanted to make a good impression. On top of that, I had so much beer in the cellar that if I was to try and drink it all before it turned to vinegar I would surely kill myself. So I laid out a beer extravaganza on the table.

I never try to force beer down people's throats - you never win hearts and minds by doing that. So in the afternoon, we went to Majestic Wine and bought a case of decent, zingy Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a case of light, fruity Italian. Owing to a schoolboy-error oversight in my beer scrounging and having spent far too much of 2009 obsessing over hop bombs and whisky aged tar-flavoured stouts, I also found myself rather embarrassed at having to buy a case of Asahi.

Come party time, the Asahi and the sauvignon were chilling in an ice bucket. On the table stood bottle of the cheeky red, and about fifty assorted beers from the cellar. We had tumblers and wine glasses at the ready, and bottle openers in profusion.

When the guests arrived, I offered them drinks, and talked them through what was on offer. By the end of the evening I'd made a dent in the beer lake, and converted one or two people to beery delights they hadn't had before.

But there was one conversation I had seven or eight times, and it's been rolling around my mind for two months now so I wanted to write it down to see if by doing so I can make sense of it in my head. Here goes:

Me: "Hi! Long time no see! So, what can I get you to drink? We've got beer and wine and a bit of fizz if you like. There are a lot of beers so let me talk you through them: there's lager chilling in the bucket, these ones here are blonde and pale ales and are lightly chilled and a bit fruity and zingy, then you've got these ones which are a bit darker, more caramelly and may be with flavours of ripe red fruit or toffee or caramel. Then these here are stronger and darker and maybe a bit challenging, but if you like rich red wine you might like them, they have chocolate and coffee and sometimes oaky flavours. And here's some wheat beers that are light and refreshing, some fruit beers and some other surrealist shit from Belgium*."

Guest: "Um... I'll have a wine, thanks."

Me: "Sure! What kind of wine would you like?"

Guest: "White, thanks."

Me: "What kind of white?"

Guest: "Eh? I dunno, just white."

Me: "Any particular flavour? Any particular style?"

Guest: "No, just white."

To me, this exchange - which, like I said, I had several times without much variation - reveals a major misconception in the way both beer fans and wine lovers think about the relationship between the two drinks.

They argue that beer is crude and unsophisticated. We reply strenuously that beer has just as much flavour and complexity as wine.

But just like the majority of beer drinkers, the majority of wine drinkers don't actually care that much about complexity and depth of flavour. When someone orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio in All Bar One and has it served in an ice bucket and drinks it at about 2 degrees above freezing, they do so not to appreciate the flavour, but to look and feel good while they're drinking it, and to manage their arc of inebriation in a way with which they feel comfortable. They're showing the same level of discernment, and the same physiological and psychological needs, as a Carling or Bud drinker.

If you started to talking to a Carling or Bud drinker about the subtleties of difference between a French and a Californian Chardonnay, they'd run a mile. Similarly, someone who chooses a wine on the basis that it;s not the house wine but one above it, so you don't look like a cheapskate but you still get good value and gosh doesn't it slip down quickly, is going to be completely unimpressed by arguments that the malt of a porter or the hop of an IPA can compete with the intensity of a Shiraz or Kiwi Sauvignon.

The vast majority of drinkers simply aren't that interested in flavour. That's not a criticism. you can't make someone start obsessing about taste buds any more than you can inspire in them a sudden interest in fashionable hosiery if it isn't something they've already pondered. The way to get these people into beer is to cast beer as fashionable, something with a favourable image.

I'm, not arguing in favour of total superficiality here - one way of doing that is to get respected people to proselytise about beer. If we really want to evangelise beer, we need to find the people who are interested in flavour, and engage them on their level. In turn, they pass on their enthusiasm to those who don't care as much.

Yes, it is annoying when the person who says "Just white" walks away with their glass of "just white" actively thinking they have made a more discerning, premium choice than any of the beers you were offering, many of which cost more per millilitre than the wine in their hand. But in the final analysis, that's their problem, not yours

*This was not to dismiss Belgium, but I didn't want to go on too long or scare novices away completely.

Friday, 5 February 2010

How "87000" glassing injuries a year gave the neopros a bit of a headache

We had a bit of fun yesterday over the latest hysterical media circus around the dangers of drinking.

The Home Office have employed a design agency to come up with a new, safer beer glass in an attempt to reduce violent attacks with broken glasses in pubs.

The most important bit first: the design agency claim to have come up with a glass that looks the same as a normal beer glass, feels the same, and costs the same for pubs to buy, but has a laminate coating that means the glass will not shatter into shards if broken. Here's what it looks like when dropped:

And here's a link to a BBC video of how it works.

This is a clever move - when the initiative was announced back in September they scared us with the prospect of banning glass from pubs. Newspapers pronounced the 'death of the pint glass' and its replacement with some crappy plastic/polycarbonate thing that would probably be the wrong shape and have pictures of flowers on it to calm everyone down. So if this new glass is everything it's cracked up to be (sorry), and if the laminate coating doesn't impact upon the flavour, aroma or carbonation of the beer, you'd have to be a bit of a mental to think that it's not a good idea.

So what's the problem?

The problem is the epidemic of broken beer glass assaults that this new design is going to help solve. The money and attention given to this initiative is necessary, we are told, because of the sheer number of assaults, the terrible injuries they do, and of course the cost of all this to the NHS and society at large.

The Times tells us that " Last year 85,000 people were attacked with glasses, leaving many scarred for life." The BBC agrees, reporting that "Nearly 87,000 injuries are caused by glass attacks each year in England and Wales, according to the Home Office. Many more are hurt as a result of accidents." The Mail tells us there are "
around 87,000 violent incidents involving glassware each year, which costs an annual estimate of £100m in NHS, police and court costs." The Telegraph goes further, with "Up to 1,000 youngsters a week suffer serious facial injuries in drunken assaults with many left scarred for life", and that "Treating such injuries costs the NHS £2.7 billion a year".

Pretty conclusive, right? So where does this 85,000-87,000 figure come from?

I spent an hour yesterday trying to find it somewhere. But the only Home Office figure I could find was 5,000 - a figure quite different from that quoted in every single newspaper report that covered the story. But the newspapers clearly said that 87,000 was a Home Office figure.

What was going on?

When I couldn't, I asked my followers on Twitter to help me. The results they brought back speak volumes about how anti-alcohol scare stories are being spread.

Melissa Cole phoned the home office and was told that the figure was 5000 when the initiative was announced, by had leapt to 87000 in the intervening months. Given that alcohol-related crime is down, and that violent attacks of any kind are down 33% over the last 12 years (none of the newspapers seemed to find this relevant either), that seems unlikely.

@junklight went back to the Telegraph story and found that, even though the headline claimed 1000 people a week were scarred by glass attacks only 5000 of these attacks took place every year. Skipping over the physics-defying possibility that every single glass attack somehow results in scarring injuries to ten people, the Telegraph goes on to quote a figure of 80,000 'threats' as well as the 5000 actual attacks to get to that 85,000 figure.

Peter Haydon of Meantime Brewing was at the press launch for the new glass and asked where the figure came from. He was told by the Home Office representative there that 87k was the total number of alcohol-related assaults, and that the number involving glassware was actually 5,000.

@Iamreddave found a home office report on violent crime and worked out some stats from that. This data gives a total figure of 2164000 assaults of any kind in the Uk, and in a different charts says that bottles or broken glass are involved in 4% of all assaults. Divide the total, and you get 86560.

So looking at it, I'd suggest Red Dave is right about where the 87,000 figure comes from. The trouble with that is that it relates to ALL assaults of any kind with any glass or bottle, anywhere - and yet the media is claiming every single one of these assaults is someone with a broken pint glass in a pub.

Elsewhere in those Home Office tables, there's a figure for all violent crime 'in or around pubs', and that figure is 623000 assaults. Here it claims glasses or bottles were used in 10% of all assaults - which gives you a figure of 62,300.

Another antineopro blogger with a source close to the action confirmed to me last night that the official Home Office figure is 5,500 reported assaults, but that there are another 37,000 that go unreported. As he points out, if they're unreported, how do they know?

In other words, this is a news story that is based upon a complete and utter fabrication.

Here are some real facts:
  • The £2.7 billion figure quoted as the cost of glassing accidents to society is actually the estimated cost of ALL alcohol related conditions treated by the NHS, according to the NHS.
  • NHS data shows that the other figure - £100 million - is the cost of ALL glass-related injuries treated by the NHS, accidental or otherwise, alcohol-related or not.
  • The Hospital Episode Statistics from the NHS list all external causes of hospital admissions. In 2009 it treated 10413 for unspecified 'contact with sharp glass' and a further 5226 people for injuries sustained by an 'assault by a sharp object'. The former covers every single accident involving glasses, the latter includes knife injuries etc. The true number of beer glass-related injuries is buries somewhere within one or both these figures and is therefore clearly much smaller than we are being led to believe. It's not clear why the 'many' of the Times' 85,000 who are 'scarred for life', or the Telegraph's '1000 a week' who receive horrific glassing injuries, are not going to hospital to have these injuries seen to.
  • To put this in context, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reports that 40,000 people are injured in accidents in the pub. So should we ban pubs then? Hardly - people might go home instead, and that's far more dangerous - 100,000 people injure themselves each year trying to assemble furniture, and last year there were 5310 accidents involving trousers.
Home Office data shows that 2% of all pub-goers are involved in any kind of assault each year. 43% of these assaults are described as 'grabbing or pushing'. Only 16% of assaults result in cuts of any kind. Around two thirds of victims in alcohol-related assaults describe themselves as being affected 'not at all' or 'just a little', with around 15% affected 'quite a lot' and 15% 'very much'. Only 4-10% involve glasses or bottles, The vast majority involve fists, feet or blunt instruments.

So why such a huge focus on the pint glass? Why has the government spent so much time and money on something that, while horrific for those exposed to it, affects fewer people than those hurting themselves trying to put together a crappy IKEA wardrobe?

Now we've established that those are actual figures, and that no one in the media or the Home Office seems to know what this 87,000 figure is or where it came from, and that 87,000 is actually sixteen times higher than the REAL Home Office figure, go back and read those newspaper quotes on stats again. And get angry. Get very angry.

Just don't get angry enough to glass anyone.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Is the worst over for pubs?


After last week's report that beer sales are not quite as shit as they have been, there's similar cautious optimism this week for pubs - while not exactly something to shout from the rooftops, there are two bits of news suggesting that things have at least stopped getting even worse.

First, The Publican reported yesterday on claims from Merrill Lynch that pub performance is improving. The city broker chained that pubs face a brighter outlook in 2010, “with trade recovering, debt at manageable levels, regulatory concerns back to historical levels and property values having bottomed out”.

They were looking mainly at the big PubCos of course, and claimed in that the tenanted sector in particular was improving, with the underlying performance trend improving and top-end pubs showing “greater resilience”.

Today, this was followed by new data compiled for the British Beer and Pub Association by CGA Strategy, showing that the rate of pub closures slowed in the second half of 2009. We've spent six months quoting the horrible figure of 52 pub closures a week - that has now slipped back to 39 a week. Hardly great news - before we got up to 52 this was shocking - but after 52, it doesn't seem quite as bad, and suggests that some of the factors killing pubs have done their worst.

A total of 2365 pubs closed in 2009, with the loss of 24,000 jobs. There are now 52,500 pubs in Britain – well down on the 58,600 pubs operating when the Licensing Act came into force in 2005. In addition to the loss of these vital community hubs, the Government is set to lose over £250 million in tax revenues this year, if the current closure level continues.

Food for thought for PubCo haters - in the second half of 2009 the rate of closure of free houses was far higher than tenanted or leased pubs - from July to December 575 free houses closed compared to 320 tenanted and 117 managed pubs.

The data also shows that pubs serving food led pubs continued to do better than those that don't - just 130 of the pubs that closed were food led, with 883 drink-led.

It convinces me that while the trade is absolutely right to point fingers are factors such as supermarket pricing and in particular Thunderbirds Boy and his moronic tax rises, the recession has clearly been a particular bane to pubs, and now it's easing, so is the pub's plight.

The industry is by no means out of the woods and could still do with a helping hand from government rather than yet more punishment, but the pub is not going to die. Many (though I'll admit, not all) of those who behave in an entrepreneurial way and continue to offer people something relevant will survive, and many are prospering.

I'll be talking about this on Five Live's drive time show later today.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Wikio rankings for January 2010

I've now agreed with Wikio to be their 'beer blog monitor'. As such, I get sneak previews of the monthly rankings and keep a lookout for any blogs that should be featured and aren't.

Whether you think this is a bunch of self-congratulatory mutual backslapping or a credible guide to who's blog is best, I don't know many people who can resist a list. I find it alarming when people actually get angry about its very existence - this suggests to me a severe deficit in stuff happening in life offline. At the end of the day, it's a bit of fun. If you think it's more than that, have a word with yourself, so here it is - the charts for January:

1Pencil & Spoon (+1)
2Pete Brown's Blog (+1)
3Brew Dog Blog (-2)
4Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog (=)
5Tandleman's Beer Blog (=)
6The Pub Curmudgeon (=)
7The Beer Nut (=)
8Jeffo's Beer Blog (=)
9The Bitten Bullet (+5)
10`It's just the beer talking` ? Jeff Pickthall's Blog (+11)
11Boak and Bailey's Beer Blog (+7)
12Spittoon (-3)
13Jamie goode's wine blog (=)
14Real Ale Reviews (-4)
15The Wine Conversation (-4)
16Impy Malting (+3)
17Brew Wales (-5)
18Reluctant Scooper (-3)
19Bibendum Wine (-3)
20Zythophile (-3)

Ranking by Wikio

Not much movement at all really in the top spots, though I think Brew Dog James' month on a trawler in the North Sea is a pretty good excuse for slipping down the blog rankings. But congrats to Young Dredge for his perseverance in getting to the top spot - he's taken a medium and run with it, working incredibly hard. Also nice to see Boak & Bailey, Impy and Jeff moving up.

Anyway, if you have or know of a blog you think should be featured, or if you would like to host the preview of the rankings yourself any time in the next few months, please let me know!

An open letter to Frank Dobson MP regarding his comments on drinkers

Dear Frank Dobson

I’m just listening to you speak on Decision Time, Radio 4, broadcast on 27th January.

You’ve just claimed – and I’m quoting your words exactly here – that "heavy drinkers cause a vast amount of disorder, get involved in sexual assaults, get involved in accidents and are a major nuisance with loutish behaviour."

As a heavy drinker myself, I find your comments astonishingly offensive. I have never been involved – even in my youth – in any of the behaviour you describe above, and neither have any of my friends. You are quite clearly implying that if I drink, I am more likely to assault someone violently or sexually.

Your failure to specify ‘some’ or ‘a minority of’ drinkers, or to qualify your claims in any other way, means you are quite clearly claiming that ANYONE who drinks heavily is more likely to carry out such an assault. Having studied NHS and ONS data closely (I’d recommend you do the same) I know for a fact that there is no proof of this. While those who are already prone to sexual or violent assault may well have a drink before carrying out an attack, you are making a grave and slanderous error by implying that alcohol itself makes people more likely to commit such an attack. You are wilfully confusing correlation with causation.

On behalf of myself and the vast majority of drinkers who consume a legal drug that in the vast majority of cases enhances and benefits social interaction rather than damaging it, I demand an apology from you for this appalling slur on our characters, and suggest you check the facts before you open your mouth on this topic again.

As a beer writer, I’ll be copying this email in various channels and urging my many law-abiding, respectable readers to make their feelings known to you in a similar fashion.

Cheers

Pete Brown

Write to Frank at -
Frank Dobson MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

Ring Frank on -
020 7219 4452 or 020 7219 5840

Fax Frank on -
020 7219 6956

Email Frank on
patelm@parliament.uk

Beer Cocktails. Only nice.


I've never been a fan of beer cocktails.

When we have people round for parties I often make a cocktail for the start of the evening and have a few recipe books. I like the idea of beer cocktails, but when I check the books that have sections on these they tend to be creations that I wouldn't describe as cocktails necessarily, but as the horrible mixtures we used to drink as students when we wanted to get throwing-up pissed as quickly as possible. Whereas rum, vodka and gin-based cocktails reek of sophistication (until you stray too far into paper umbrella territory), depth charges, boilermakers and other shooter combos smell only of stale vomit, and a black and tan doesn't really count as a cocktail at all.

So I had to go to Belgium overnight last week (Joe S - I would have called, but I was with clients and we had about one hour spare to devote to bars) and we were staying in the Sofitel in Brussels, a posh business hotel that manages to be just about as classy as it thinks it is - a rare thing indeed on the kinds of business trips I take these days.

And on the menu they had a section of beer cocktails, and they looked... interesting at least.

'Mojikriek' was - yep, you guessed it - a Mojito made with kriek, as well as rum, lime, mint and sugar.

'Coro Island' was tequila, lime, blue Curacao and Corona.

'Captain Leffe' was old rum, caramel syrup, strawberry syrup, and Leffe.

Each was served in a tumbler, shaken and poured over ice. I was on the detox, but then again, I was in Belgium. So between us, we decided to give each a try.

The Captain Leffe was not to my personal taste, but was probably the most successful as a cocktail revolving around beer as a main ingredient. You got a gorgeous, deep, caramel hit first, followed by a touch of citric sourness and then a lingering, drying, toffee-infused bitter finish. In other words, it was the sum of its parts - very tasty, but a little sweet for my palate.

I preferred the Mojikriek as a drink, although there was little beery character to it - just a faint, gentle dryness at the end of a cavalcade of candy sweetness and citrus acidity, taking it down to a lingering dry, candy fruit that reminded me of fruit pastilles.

And the Corona one was fucking horrible - I swear I could taste the lightstruck skunking even through the syrupy layers of the other ingredients.

Overall though, quite inspiring, albeit with no outright divine revelation. I get the sense that there is an amazing beer cocktail out there somewhere, that has a beery character to it and yet looks, tastes and feels like a 'proper' cocktail (ie something flavourful to be served in hotel bars in small glasses over ice, and sipped slowly between handfuls of those posh nuts that seem to have been coated in varnish that no one ever, ever asks for but gets given anyway and eats without quite knowing why). If anyone knows any other good beer cocktails along these sorts of lines, I'd love to hear them.