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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?
More new events added in Bristol, London and Edinburgh over April and May
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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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

April Vlog: Burnley and Moorhouses

Our wayward ramble through the UK continues, and this month we hit the north west.

Why?

Because Lancashire Brewer Moorhouses has spent over £4m on a staggering expansion with a brand new brewery that increases their capacity by a ridiculous amount.  A confident investment for the future?  That's an understatement.  Moorhouses MD takes a clearly jealous Peter Amor around the brewery, showing him where the money went.  As the most ambitious micros grow to the level of small regional breweries, some shrewd business people clearly believe the revival of interest in good beer is here to stay.

Then we go to Burnley town centre.  I have a strange relationship with Burnley because it's in the north, has a crap football team and sounds a bit like Barnsley, so people often think I come from there, because I come from Barnsley, which is in the north, has a crap football team and sounds a bit like Burnley.

Anyway, I wish Barnsley had a pub as good as the Bridge Bierhuis (which is in Burnley).  If it did, I might not have left town as soon as I was able.

In various publications as well as this blog, I've written quite a bit over the last 12 months about 'craft beer pubs' - often moribund or failed pub sites that have reopened or repurposed themselves with a single-minded emphasis on interesting beer - real ale and otherwise.  One criticism that's been fired back is that these fancy establishments might work well in That London, or maybe Leeds, but you can't expect people in northern provincial towns to enjoy microbrewed cask ales, imported Belgian beers and German lagers.  The Bierhuis proves them wrong, by doing something quite rare - it combines being a beer shrine with being an excellent and important community Local.

I say all this in the video, actually - but I say more besides, so please give it a view and let us know what you think.


Next month: Scotland.

Exclusive: Wanted - New Brewer For One of World's Best Beers

Perfection


If you love beer, and think you're a good brewer, this is like Masterchef and Pop Idol rolled into one.

Steve Wellington, Jedi Master Brewer of Worthington White Shield, is looking for a new Padawan.

White Shield has long been a legendary, semi-mythical beer, with a hardcore of devotees sighing wistfully at its very name, a few others going "Dunno, can't see what all the fuss is about,"and a vast majority in the middle saying, "White Shield? Is that still around?" or "White who? Never seen it."

For me, it's one of the best beers in the world.  It traces an unbroken lineage back to the 1830s as one of the genuine IPAs brewed in Burton on Trent and sold in Calcutta.  When I was researching Hops and Glory I found records of it being imported to the Calcutta docks.  It was dwarfed in size by Bass and Allsopps. but did steady business.  Allsopp's is no more, and Bass is in trouble.  White Shield has certainly had its ups and downs, almost disappeared after brewing was contracted out from Burton, but was rescued and revived by Steve about a decade ago.  Since then, it's won Champion Bottled Beer of Britain and Steve has been named Brewer of the Year.

But all this was happening on a tiny, ancient three-barrel museum plant, that looked lovely, had a personality of its own, but was showing her age.

That's why, at a time when most UK macro brewers were disinvesting in ale, Molson Coors took the relatively enlightened step of giving Steve a brand new, state-of-the-art £1m brewery to play with in the newly reopened National Brewery Centre in Burton.  The macro has seen that there is a future in ale and decided to take a bit of an interest.

The new plant has been operational since the start of the year.  So far, the only thing Molson Coors have done wrong with the new William Worthington Brewery is let marketing have the final say on the names of the new beers that come out of the plant alongside White Shield.  Marketing has misunderstood the brand and declared that every beer has to have 'Shield' in its name.  So the first seasonal is called 'Spring Shield'.  Nice beer, silly name - the master brand is William Worthington, guys.

Anyway, within a few months the new brewery was working at capacity, and today Molson Coors will announce that it brewed more beer in the first quarter of 2011 than the old girl did in the whole of 2010.  So successful is it, they will also be announcing the search for a new brewer to work with Steve and his fellow brewer Jo White.  It's a dream job: one of Britain's oldest and most revered brands, on one of Britain's most modern and advanced small breweries.

Interested brewers should visit http://molsoncoors.com/en/People.aspx for more details.

Monday, 25 April 2011

So I drank some Stella Cidre...

It's here...

Analytics suggest that my post ridiculing AB-Inbev's launch of Stella Cidre is the most popular thing I've written on this blog in 2011 so far.  Long time readers will know that among the multinational brewers, I reserve particular ire for AB-Inbev because their relentless focus on cost-cutting is destroying some once decent brands, and because they keep bringing out new 'innovations' that are nothing of the sort.

It was therefore with a hint of nervousness that I spied Stuart Macfarlane across the room at the annual Publican Awards a couple of weeks ago.  Stuart and I used to work together, but with the piss-taking I've subjected him to on here recently, I wondered if we were in for a bout of fisticuffs.  Especially when, the second he saw me, he got up from his table and made a beeline straight towards me...

We had a good conversation.  Stuart's actions suggest that he is not passionate about beer itself, but you only have to be in the same room as him to realise he is certainly passionate about the brands he's responsible for.  (I would argue that you cannot be truly passionate about beer brands if you're not passionate about the beer itself, but that's a whole other blog post.)  He reads this and other blogs regularly, and he doesn't like the criticism.

"Well just make better beer then!" I hear you scream in frustration.  But in the strange world of multinational brands, it's not as simple as that.

Once we'd established that I wasn't simply criticising AB-Inbev because they were big, but specifically because of their actions, Stuart challenged me to try some Stella Cidra. I said I didn't have a problem doing so, because at the end of my blog post on it, I did say that when I saw it I would try it, and that if it was nice, I would say so.  I'm not pushing agendas here - if it's a good product, I have no reason for saying it's not.

Fair play to Stuart, at lunch time the next day, there was a knock at the door and a case of Stella Cidre, with a note from Stuart saying how much he'd enjoyed our chat.

Stuart asked me to judge the product against its peers - "the two big yellow ones" as he described them - and one quality 'premium' cider.  I chose Aspalls, because I like it, and because it's probably the first 'premium' cider many Magners/Bulmers drinkers would see/try.

Mmmm...

If you're a craft cider purist, look away now - you're going to say it's not cider because it's not 100% apple juice, and that at least three of these four brands are tasteless abominations.  I'm not about to say anything that will convince you otherwise.

But I'm fairly relaxed about cider.  On a hot day, I like a pint of Aspalls or Addlestones, I LOVE Badger's Applewood cider made for them by Thatchers.  Not because it's layered and complex and structured - it's not.  But because it has a moussy mouthfeel and a clean, dry crispness, with just a hint of satisfying tart tingle, that's refreshing without the bloating gassiness of lager.  I'll even happily drink a bottle of Magner's over ice if I'm in the right mood and the wrong pub.  So I'm not judging Cidre by the standards of farmhouse cider - there's no point.

Side by side then:


These are poured in the same order as the bottles above.  You can see that in terms of colour, Stella Cidre has gone toe-to-toe with Magner's and tried to match it exactly.  Bulmer's is more lager coloured, which is interesting - looking more for that lager-cider pint crossover I guess - while Aspall's resembles a glass of white wine.  

I should also point out that, according to the labels, Stella Cidre is made from 50% apple juice.  Not much if you're a purist, but significantly above the 35% minimum you must now have if you want to call your product cider.  Aspall's is made from 100% apple juice.  Neither Bulmer's nor Magner's disclose this information on their labels.

None of them apart from Aspall's really had much of an aroma - although this may be due to the temperature.

Bulmer's was simply a monotone, a fizzy, flavourless thing that, if served truly blind, you would simply have no way of guessing was a cider.  No apple taste or character whatsoever.  Not unpleasant at all - you'd have to find fizzy water unpleasant to be able to say that - just...nothing.

So Stella Cidre then: after the vacuum of Bulmers, there's a bit more of a fruity flavour up front here, followed by an acidity that makes my mouth water.  A bit of a chemical hint, and then, nothing.  It's amazing how quickly it disappears, leaving you unsure whether you've drunk it at all.  Again, not unpleasant - I think - but odd.  

Magner's has more discernible apple aroma, a bit more of that moussy mouthfeel - Stella was more watery - less fruit, a little more of that tartness, and a slightly longer finish.  It's very similar, but fits together a little better and leaves you more certain that you've just had some cider.

Finally, Aspall's was quite different.  It clearly tasted of apples, had a nice aroma, was more structured and had a long, dry finish.

Stella Cidre - judged by the standards relevant to it and its competitors - is not a bad product.  It's certainly nothing like the abomination that is Stella Black.  Both in appearance and flavour profile it seems to be trying to match Magner's.  The interesting thing is that people perceive Magner's and Bulmer's to be the same thing, and they're quite different, as this tasting shows.  I might have a Stella Cidre instead of a Magner's if Magner's wasn't around.  But Magner's would remain my first choice - it has the edge in terms of aroma and overall product delivery, and just feels slightly better made.  Stella Cidre strikes me as being a little bit like the monsters from this weekend's Doctor Who - as soon as you're not looking at them any more, you forget you ever saw them.  As soon as Stella Cidre is no longer in your mouth, you forget you've drunk it.

I believe it will do well where it's sold, and people in the mainstream cider market will like it.

The product, then, is not a disaster.

But.

The marketing launched last week as well.  The image at the top of this blog is one of the posters currently up everywhere.  I won't offer my own comment on this, I'll just share a response to it from a more creatively minded friend of mine:

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Beer 'not appropriate' for Royal Wedding


Yesterday's papers ran with the story that beer has been banned from the Royal Wedding.

Said one 'insider':

"There won't be any beer. Let's face it, it isn't really an appropriate drink to be serving in the Queen's presence at such an occasion.

"It was always their intention to give their guests a sophisticated experience and they have chosen the food and drink with this in mind."


What a shameful, depressing, snobbish, bigoted, blinkered, rude, clueless, cruel, idiotic thing to say.

You might just have been able to dismiss this as a faux pas - you can't and shouldn't force anyone to drink what they don't want, and this could just be an unthinking oversight in a wedding where every single choice of decoration, clothing, dinner service and music is being analysed and dissected to discover it's meaning and symbolism.

Except this is no oversight - that use of the word 'inappropriate' shows that this is a deliberate, calculated snub.  It would not be 'appropriate' to have beer served in the Queen's presence.  The very presence of beer - any beer - would be offensive to her royal sensibility.

And so Britain's national drink - the thing for which Britain is best known after the royals themselves - is barred from the wedding of Britain's future monarch.

(Also, needless to say, the 'sophisticated' wines being served will not include some of the many excellent British wines available today).

In part this just shows up the royal family as the overprivileged and out of touch twits we already know them to be.  But it also shows up the populist impression of the relative worth of different drinks.  Despite all the progress we've accomplished in beer look more interesting, classy and worthy of serious gastronomic consideration, the mainstream image is still that it is boorish and not to be taken seriously.

Past generations of royals went to Burton-on-Trent and 'brewed' special beers to commemorate events such as royal weddings.  Not this lot.  What can we expect when, last year, a visibly disinterested Princess Anne turned up to open the new National Brewing Centre in Burton and made a speech to the assembled throng about how she didn't like beer.

Even Prince Charles' own beer, sold under the Duchy Originals brand, is apparently good enough for him to make a fat profit from, but not good enough to supply to his son's wedding.

The royal family has stuck two fingers up to one of the last remaining manufacturing industries in their kingdom, especially to the plethora of breweries who have created special commemorative beers for the big day (yes, they're cashing in, but they're also wishing the royal couple well).

Particularly given that  £1 of every pint sold in the UK consists of duty and VAT, which goes to the public purse, which is in turn paying for the event, the contempt shown by the royals towards their subjects, their economy, and the icons and traditions of their kingdom, is sickening.

So.  If beer is not good enough for the royal wedding, I suggest the royal wedding is not good enough for beer.  I urge brewers to rebadge their royal beers with republican designs.  I urge pubs not to show the royal wedding, and to advertise themselves as royal wedding-free zones.

I also urge the BBPA to make a formal protest to the royal family using some of the points I have made above, if not the same language, and to issue a press release condemning this shameful contempt for beer.

Go to the pub on Friday.  Celebrate the free day off.  But don't show one ounce of support for these beer hating snobs.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Britain still refusing to drink itself to death - despite media insisting it is

A few weeks ago various shitty newspapers picked up on the shocking rise in binge drinking among women.  Curiously, none of them seem to have picked up on the latter clarification that this isn't actually true.

Last time I discussed ONS figures on drinking, I pointed out that in 2006 the number of units in a glass of wine was changed to reflect the growing trend to larger glasses.  I had no problem with this change in calculation because it's true that on average we're drinking from larger glasses, so the definition of 'a glass' of wine needs to keep pace with this.

But it did create an apparent huge one-off jump in alcohol consumption, particularly among women.  However, this was NOT an increase in drinking - it was a change in methodology.  It meant that the figures in the years before the recalculation should probably have been higher, and meant that any figures coming after the change could not be compared directly to those before the recalculation to give any kind of accurate trend. At the time, the ONS said: "“It should be noted, however, that changing the way in which alcohol consumption estimates are derived [in 2006] does not in itself reflect a real change in drinking among the adult population.”

Get that?  That's the ONS saying it - the people who compile the figures.

Consumption was on a downward trend before this recalculation.  After the jump caused by the change in calculation, it resumed this downward trend.  In other words - let me spell this out as clearly as I can, because it seems to be a difficult thing to understand - THE OFFICIAL ONS FIGURES SHOW THAT ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION/BINGE DRINKING IS IN LONG TERM DECLINE.

So why in March 2011 does the ONS then issue a press release that states: “The percentage of females consuming more than the weekly recommended units of alcohol has increased by a fifth since 1998”?

Is this true? Or did they forget the change in their own methodology that they themselves were previously so keen to point out, in order to ensure people read the figures correctly?

The answer is: yes, they forgot to take account of their own methodology change, which led to them releasing a false story about alcohol consumption to an anti-alcohol national press!

They did at least have the decency to point this out, reissuing the press release with a clarification on the front page that reads:


Corrections have been made to reported trends in alcohol consumption in this article, published on 31 March 2011. The errors are unrelated to estimates of output, inputs and productivity.

In Annex C, figure C.5 illustrated trends in alcohol consumption from 1998 to 2009, using estimates from the General Lifestyle Survey (ONS 2010), but omitted references to a change in the estimation methodology in 2006. The change means that trends over the whole period do not necessarily reflect changes in drinking habits.

Accordingly, explanatory footnotes have been added to figure C.5 and paragraphs C.2.7 to C.2.10 in Annex C. References to alcohol consumption in the main article (Table 4.2) and the News Release have also been amended.

ONS apologises for any inconvenience caused.


According to the Liberal Conspiracy blog, the ONS has apologised to the Portman Group for the error.

According to the Straight Statistics blog, which helpfully found this little clarification for us, the Portman Group wrote to the Daily Mail and pointed out this error, but the Mail has refused to print this correction to a factually inaccurate story they ran, and is no longer accepting comments on the online version.

I wonder why?

The Telegraph story is also still up online and uncorrected.

A special prize goes to anyone who can find a single UK media outlet clarifying the story with the correct data.

Thanks to Jeff Pickthall and to Dave Boyle for alerting me to this gem.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

O-Lordy - caught on the hop(s) in the Welsh Valleys

Last Thursday in Pontypridd, the early summer seemed to have revealed itself as a false start.  A chill mist hung over the peaks and dulled the valleys.  The sombre mood was enhanced when I got off the train at the wrong stop, forcing Nick Otley to come looking for me on a hillside industrial estate he'd never been to before.

When he finally found me and took me back to the other industrial estate back up near Pontypridd - the one where the Otley brewery is - my first impression was that Otley will soon need a bigger unit, if not to expand their brewing operations, then to get a bigger office for all the framed awards certificates.  If they carry on winning stuff at the rate they have since opening shop in 2005, they'll run out of wall space this year.

I'm not the first beer writer to brew at Otley - not by any means.  I would have been higher up the list if I'd got my shit together when they first invited me to brew, but since then Melissa Cole, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Roger Protz have all been asked to come down and get their hands dirty - Glyn from the Rake, AKA @RabidBarFly, was here before any of us - his Motley Brew has become a regular addition to the range.

The trend of collaborative brewing is an exciting one, but I think, dear reader, you could be forgiven for getting more excited about, say, a collaborative brew between Thornbridge and Brooklyn, or Brew Dog and Mikkeller, than one between a thrilling new brewery and a beer writer whose only experience at brewing before has been a kit from Boots in 1981.

I've been asked to brew before - several times.  But on most of those occasions 'brewing' meant I dug out the mash tun and basically got in the way.  The notable exception would, of course, be Avery Brown Dredge - and my write up of that experience is long overdue - but Zak and Mark had much more to do with both the recipe design and the labour than I did.

Like our ABD experience, Otley ask writers to get stuck in.  Not just the symbolic digging out of the mash tun, but designing the recipe, choosing ingredients and really taking responsibility for how it's going to turn out.  Go brew with Otley, and there's nowhere to hide.

The pressure was on.  I'd previously talked to Nick about brewing a big old Imperial stout, because when he first asked me to come and brew - at the end of 2009 - I'd only ever brewed IPAs, and was - not bored exactly - but wanted to spread my brewing horizons.

Funnily enough, inspiration came when we were sitting in Brew Dog, about to brew our Imperious Stout, weeping with hangover.  (The Brew Dog bar in Aberdeen is great - but almost every beer is one you want to have at the end of the evening.  The End therefore goes on for hours.)  I was sitting there, feeling guilty at not having contributed more to ABD, thinking, what will I do at Otley?  And Martin Dickie, Brewing Boy Genius, handed me a nice cup of life-saving tea and popped a packet of ginger biscuits on the table. I looked at the packet of ginger biscuits.  The packet of ginger biscuits looked at me.

And I thought, Imperial stout brewed with ginger, maybe a bot of chocolate, aged in whisky or rum casks.

Otley have so far resisted the cask ageing trend.  This was to be their first attempt.  The easiest casks to get were Welsh Penderyn whisky casks - and they weren't easy to get.  So that's what we're ageing the beer in.  It'll be ready late Autumn.

A man with a camera came, which I hadn't expected.  I didn't have my entourage, make-up or anything.  But, I reasoned, I never have an entourage or make-up, so it makes no difference.  So I hastily improvised a quick description of what and how we were brewing.  I insist all errors in describing the brewing process are down to necessary editing, but I think Wales Online did a really nice job here.  They turned up just after we'd finished mashing in, so I'm covered in malt flour.  I'm also pitifully knackered.  But it's come out OK.  


After we finished brewing, I had several pints of ATJ's excellent Saison Obscura down at the Bunch of Grapes, and even though I was falling asleep from mid-afternoon onwards, the beer somehow galvanised me into giving a competent account of myself during the evening's entertainments, when I matched various beers with each of my three books for an audience bussed into the brewery.  The smell of chocolate filled the air by the time they arrived.  I think they enjoyed the multi-sensory beer experience.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Introducing "Shakespeare's Local" - my next book!

The George Inn, Southwark, Late nineteenth century
So, at the end of last week, my agent shook hands on a very nice offer from the wonderful Pan Macmillan for my follow-up to the Beer Trilogy!

It's been four years now since I signed the deal on my last book, Hops & Glory. That’s so long ago, I had only written three entries on this blog at the time, and most current UK beer blogs were still twinkles in a beer geek’s eye.

For the past two years I've been trying to develop ideas that move on a little from beer. After three books that look at history, travel and complete obsession, I’ve done all I can in book form for the time being – or at least, the kind of books I write.

I have no intention of stopping or even slowing down in beer journalism and blogging, and there may also be other books – more conventional style drinks books – in the offing. But all the ideas I’ve had for narrative, story-driven, personal journey type books in beer feel like they subscribe to the law of diminishing returns. If I ever reach the stage where tens of thousands of people are prepared to buy a book just because it has my name on the cover, I'll definitely revisit various ideas for more epic beer journeys, but at the moment there's simply not a big enough market to justify the expense and time commitment they require.

So after the epic travel of the last two books, I wanted to do something that would keep me closer to home - but that's still grand in scope in its own way. I’d also like to do a book where I don't spend the entire advance - and more - on plane tickets and boat voyages. And finally, I wanted to do something that could extend my growing interest in social history beyond beer, but still keep one foot firmly in the pub.

To tick all these boxes, my editor has been urging me for months to write a very detailed social history of one pub, through the ages, and everyone who drank in it, everything that's happened to it. Fine, but what pub?

The answer hit us just before Christmas - and has been taking shape since then.

The George Inn in Southwark, south London, is London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn – one of the few left in the country. The current building has stood there since 1686, when it was rebuilt after fire. The inn dates back before then at least to 1452, and probably earlier. Its vast network was once home to the hop trade from Kent up to London.

For centuries, when London Bridge was the only river crossing into the city, the gates were locked at night, so travellers to and from the south would set off from and arrive at Southwark.  By Hewnry VIII's time Borough High Street was one long line of inns. The Tabard – Chaucer’s start point for the Canterbury Tales – was right next door. Neighbouring on the other side was the White Hart, mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry VI, and featuring heavily in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Dickens was also a regular at the George, and mentions it by name in Little Dorritt. And Shakespeare - who lived just down the road for a few years – almost certainly performed plays in the inn-yard before the Globe was built.

So you have the three great cornerstones of the English literary canon in or near the pub. But more than that, the constancy of the George as everything around it has changed (none of the other twenty-odd Southwark inns now survives) makes it the perfect vehicle to look at six centuries of social history. As you stand on the ancient wooden balconies now, you can see London’s latest phallus, the Shard, rising up in front if you. And that kind of freaks me out. When Dickens wrote about this place 175 years ago this year, he was already being nostalgic about it. Imagine that!

Imagine all the people who have drunk here – not just Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Dwight D Eisenhower, Princess Margaret, Gary Cooper and other Hollywood stars who made a special pilgrimage, not just the long gone society of London ale conners who used to bless the new season’s ale here, not just the Thespians who staged Shakespeare plays in the inn-yard all the way up to the 1970s, or the ghost of the old landlady who haunts the upper floors. Imagine all the ordinary market traders, hop merchants, bear baiters, prostitutes from the nearby Southwark ‘stews’, clergymen, highwaymen, theatre goers, waggoners, gentlemen and rogues who’ve passed their time in this building. What did they eat? Drink? Wear? Talk about?

That’s the pitch.

I’m writing it intensively through the rest of 2011, hoping for a release in 2012, in time for the Olympics.

And hopefully, it won’t be the only book I’ll be working on! But more on that later, if my other project, in collaboration with a very talented photographer, also comes off.

Anyway, if the blogging slips, that’s why. If you want me, I’ll probably be in the Southwark Local History library.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Bombardier Beer Writing Prize - ladies and gentlemen, the winner!

At the beginning of March I announced a major new beer writing competition, for which I'd been asked to be a judge.

The incredibly generous £2000 prize offered by Wells & Young's certainly did the trick - we had 42 entries by the time entries closed just over a week ago, giving us a huge judging task over one weekend, ready for the winner to be announced last Friday during the Oxford Literary Festival.

We managed it, but the short timescale and weight of entries meant we were less than professional about announcing the winner publicly, for which I apologise.  It's the first year of the competition.  Hopefully it will happen again, and the learning will make it more efficient next time.

There were two things I really liked about judging this: one, the prize attracted some very established beer writers, and some people I've never heard before.  Two, I only found out who these entrants were after the prize was awarded.  An independent administrator processed the entries, and posted them out to the judges with the names removed - my fellow judges and I had no idea who we were reading.  Everyone was on a level playing field, and we were only able to find out who had written the ones we enjoyed after we'd made our decision (though I admit some stylistic tics gave me a clue here and there).

Having never judged a writing competition until recently, this is the third I've done in a year.  In all three, the pattern is the same: one or two rubbish entries, a lot that are competent, interesting but quite similar to each other, and a few that really stand out and make me very happy as a reader, quite jealous as a writer.

The brief this time, as summed up by my fellow judge, food and drink writer and telly pundit Charles Campion, was to sum up "the joys and jolliness of beer".  The judges were looking for something that was lyrical, positive, optimistic - something that, if published in a national newspaper, was actually capable of forcing non-beer drinkers to re-evaluate the most sociable drink in the world.

(Speaking personally, and definitely NOT for the other three judges, essays that began by slagging off beers the author thought were inferior, before moving on to those they liked, kind of missed the point.)

The majority fell in to two camps: personal journeys of awakening to beer appreciation and the incredible role beer has played in the author's life, and/or historical treatises on the cultural role of beer.  There's nothing wrong with either approach, but the sheer volume of entries meant that all the entries that simply did one or both of these well were hard to differentiate from each other.

A few stood out - a grasp of language, an interesting construct, a mastery of storytelling, maybe even an original perspective - seven or eight - and I hope we're able to publish all of them, somewhere, in due course.  The eventual winner was the best of these.

For his essay, 'The Stonemason's Tale', the winner was Milton Crawford.

Milton may not be a familiar name in the world of beer writing (especially as it's a pseudonym - no, not for an established beer blogger or writer) but he achieved a measure of critical and commercial success last year for the Hungover Cookbook, praised on both sides of the Atlantic, and paired rather unfortunately on Amazon with some unpleasant corkscrews designed to look like little men with massive curly metal cocks.

Milton's entry showed that he can write lyrical as well as laxative, and it genuinely moved all the judges.

We're still hoping to publish it somewhere more noteworthy than this blog... but I'll save the tales of appalling newspaper idiocy and disgusting snobbery for another post.

This competition was the first salvo from Oxford Brookes (home of Oxford Gastronomica and the national brewing library), Wells & Young's, and celebrity patron Charles Campion, to attempt to create a more positive image of beer in the UK.  (With occasional involvement from me, and Mike from Utobeer.)

There are much bigger plans in the works, subject to sponsorship that is starting to look more definite than hypothetical.  All competition entrants will be contacted by the judges and, with your permission, kept informed of future developments.  It's early days yet, so if you feel like you should know about it, but don't, that's only because there hasn't been anything to tell you so far.  But stay tuned - hopefully this could lead to something.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Wikio beer and wine blog rankings: March

Another month of all change - at least outside the top five.  This table is virtually unrecognisable from what it was a few months ago!

1Pete Brown's Blog
2Pencil & Spoon
3Beer Reviews
4Master Brewer at Adnams
5Are You Tasting the Pith?
6Bibendum Wine
7Drinking Outside The Box
8Travels With Beer
9Zythophile
10The Wine Conversation
11The Good Stuff
12Ghost Drinker
13Raising the Bar
14Spittoon
15Called to the bar
16Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog
17HopZine.com
18Tandleman's Beer Blog
19Bordeaux-Undiscovered
20The Pub Curmudgeon
Drinking made by Wikio

My return to the top is due to a combination of Young Dredge being preoccupied with starting a new job, and me finishing a freelance adman contract that freed up some time to blog.  I think it will be the last time I'm top of the pile for a while... as the readership of beer blogs grows, it gets more competitive, and I'm not going to be able to blog as much for the rest of this year thanks to getting quite a bit of new column and feature work, the upcoming Stokey LitFest, the next Cask Report, and what will hopefully be imminent good news on new books which will need to be turned around very quickly - I'll blog more fully about those when and if they are confirmed.

You can see the list for yourself.  From now on when I preview these rankings (and if you want to preview them yourself, PLEASE drop me a line - it would be good to spread this around a bit more) I think I'll just pick on one blog that's showing some action and urge you to check it out if you haven't already done so.

This month I want to have a look at number eight, Travels with Beer, mainly because it is more focused on pub photography than writing, and we don't really think about about photography generally when we think about communicating beer.  Good photographs of pubs are wonderfully evocative, and Robert Gale from South Wales is very good at taking them.  I get a very sharp yearning to just be in most of the pubs depicted on the site.

Rob is one half of www.BeerLens.com, a transatlantic partnership of beer loving snappers with the delightful Kim Reid in Rochester, NY.  Kim was one of the people who looked after me on a recent trip to the city, and is probably the only person living in America who wishes she lived in Newport, South Wales, instead.  Most people who live in Newport don't want to, so it's an extraordinary enthusiasm to have.

Travels with Beer is also brilliantly laid out and put together, and makes me feel quite ashamed of my basic blogger template.

Generally it feels like beer blogging is starting to get a bit more serious, a bit more respected, a bit more polished.  There will always be good and bad of course, but 'noisome bloggers' (copyright: Roger Protz) have in the space of a few years become a fundamental part of beer communication, and have made it much more diverse, richer and more influential.

Social media + world's most sociable drink - not hard to see why, is it?