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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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Monday, 31 March 2014

Barcelona discovers craft beer: becomes even more perfect

I can't believe it's a decade since my first visit to Barcelona, as part of the research for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind

Back then any new city outside the UK mainland was a bewildering adventure for me. Anything that was marginally different from home was a marvel. I used to enjoy going into Seven-Elevens and Spar shops, buying any beer I hadn't seen before, good or bad, noting how the snacks were arranged differently, or appreciating that the ham roll was an international standard that took slightly different forms wherever you went.

Last weekend, as I got off the airport bus at the top of the Ramblas (I'd never have dared get a bus on my own that first time) I felt an echo of the old rush, conjured up by Barcelona's graceful architecture, the relaxed rush of the place. But I was nostalgic for that lost innocence. I've become a little blasé about travelling now. Once you've done a three month sea journey to India, a European city break is well in your stride and holds little that's unexpected. This makes me feel slightly sad and a more than a little old.

I feel even older when, after checking in to my hotel, I take my city guide out for a stroll around the Barri Gotic, Barcelona's old quarter. Stealthily, my eyesight has worsened since I was last here, and I simply can't make out the street names on the maps. 

I try wandering randomly instead. That first time I was here with the Beer Widow and my wingman Chris, this strategy brought us to Barcelona's Kojak tribute bar, and not one, but two pirate themed bars. The best thing was, these nautical oddities were just across the road from each other - the only two pirate themed bars in the city; in fact the only two I've ever seen. Getting slowly pissed on Estrella and full of jamon and pimientos de padron, we tried to imagine what the story was. Two friends with a vision of the perfect pirate themed pub, maybe, and after opening it together one ousts the other. In his rage, he opens a rival establishment across the road. "There's only room for one pirate theme bar in Barcelona, and by God, mine will triumph!" Images of cannon firing across the street, and people swinging on ropes across the narrow gap with daggers in their mouths.

It seems both the pirate bars and the Kojak bar are long gone, which adds to my building sense of nostalgia. But then I walk into a small square and discover La Cerveteca. According to the Craft Beer section in my copy of the Rough Guide to Barcelona (seriously) this bar offers the city's widest selection of beers from around the world, as well as a few local brews.  

Last time I visited Barcelona - about five years ago on a work trip - there was no craft beer. There is now. Ever since my Three Sheets trips, Spain has always been one of my favourite places to drink. Not because of the quality of the beer (although Spanish mainstream lagers are far superior to their British equivalents) but because of the way people drink. Small glasses, often with tiny bits of food, moving through the city until the small hours, ending up happy and sated but not completely pissed. It's the perfect way to drink beer.

Now you can do it with good beer.

I'd heard that Spain had discovered craft beer and considered reading up on it, maybe contacting a few people before I flew out. I'm glad I didn't. I can just be a punter again, on a new journey of discovery.

La Cerveteca is in an old building of exposed massive stone blocks, very high ceilings and mosaic floors. It's a very Spanish bar, which makes the shelves of Nogne O, BrewDog, Meantime, Dupont and Cantillon bottles lining the walls seem all the more incongruous. People stand around large hogsheads on which they drape their heavy winter coats (they seem to be feeling the chill of 15 degrees Celsius more than I do) and perch their beers.

I'm one of those people who usually speaks English slowly, assuming/hoping serving staff across Europe will understand. But here, ordering a pint of IPA in a foreign language for possibly the first time, I realise those three letters have become as international as 'OK' or the scribbly airsign you make when you want the bill. Even in languages where the phonetic pronunciation of the letters is different, they anglicise it for IPA, the way Brits sometimes say Zee instead of Zed if it's in an American context. Say those three letters in a craft beer bar anywhere in the world, and the bartender will nod, whatever languages they do or don't speak.

As well as 'Ipanema IPA', the bar boasts locally brewed beers including porter, saison, red ale and smoked marzen. Some of these are even cask conditioned. A half-drawn just behind the bar reveals an expansive cellar.  The physics-defying heads on the pints being poured suggest there might still be some work to be done there, so I stick to the keg taps.

My IPA is good: clean, fresh and quenching, with a slowly building hop fuzziness, just how I like it.

I'm absurdly happy that I can stand at the bar in a place like this and order a pint of saison with a plate of Jamon Belotta - the king of ham, at least within my budget - or just about. (The first time I had Belotta ham is detailed in Three Sheets in the bit about the Hamburglar in Madrid, who got me and my mate Chris pissed on Ballantyne whisky and tricked us into buying a €17 plate of ham each).

The ham simply melts around it's fat, sweet and salty. And although it's not a perfect match with the saison, it pulls the beer into interesting new shapes, making it bolder and more cheerful than a saison usually is.

Craft beer belongs perfectly in Barcelona's easygoing gastronomic culture, which is even now creating playful new fusions such as Asian-influenced tapas (unsurprising given the Japanese eat and drink beer in a very similar fashion). This is Ferran Adria's city after all.

The next day I find the actual address of Hook, the last pirate theme bar, and discover it closed last summer. Instead, a few doors down, there's a bar called CRAFT, selling BrewDog, Meantime and Brooklyn beers far more cheaply than I can buy them at home.

This prompts mixed feelings. The charm of researching Three Sheets was discovering the quirks of drinking culture around the world, realising that there was a universal template for what beer means, and what the beer moment is, and that this template gets dressed up in different national and regional costumes that are unique, and sometimes special.

In one sense it's fantastic that I can now get the craft beers I know - plus some new ones such as Holz and Aktien, that I'd like to get to know better - in one of my favourite cities in the world. In another, it makes me slightly sad that this seemingly comes at the cost of sitting in a pub lined with prints of Telly Savalas, drinking perfectly average lager, and laughing like a drain.

But maybe those days were gone anyway.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Guinness back to what it does best

It really is good for you.
Ah, St Patrick's Day: guaranteed to drive some angsty beer geeks to ask why everyone insists on drinking Guinness when there are so many superior stouts available, and explain to their friends that it's not really an Irish beer at all because it was derived from London's porter tradition, so really the whole of Paddy's Day is a sham, and anyway it's an Irish festival and we're not Irish so why are we celebrating this one instead of celebrating with real ale on St Georges Day?

And no one listens to them. Instead, everyone else sees it simply as an excuse to spend another boozy night in the pub enjoying themselves, buying into a version of the Irish craic that may not have anything true about it, but is perfectly good fun nonetheless, if you're in the mood for it.

Guinness is facing an interesting time at the moment. It's the very best illustration out there of our declining need for big brand reassurance in the beer market. In the late nineteenth century, when brewers floated on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the pubs that sold their beers, Guinness followed a different path, building a singular, iconic brand rather than a tied estate of pubs selling a range of different beers. Throughout the twentieth century, it didn't matter whether you were drinking in a Whitbread, Courage or Watney's pub, a freehouse or a managed pub - you had to have Guinness on the bar. Pretenders like Murphy's came and went, but consistent investment in building a brand that looked like no other kept Guinness strong. There aren't many brands that enjoy seeing tourists actually spending money to buy copies of their adverts from seventy or eighty years ago.

Three for a tenner on Portobello Road
This brand strength has meant that Guinness can get away with charging pubs more than other beers. I've spoken to publicans who feel bitter, almost held to ransom, who believe they must have Guinness on their bar even if it means paying through the nose for it. And market research shows why: in the late nineties, more people claimed to drink Guinness than any other beer brand. Some of them may have only drunk it on one day of the year; others were simply lying - they liked to think of themselves as Guinness drinkers, or be seen by others as Guinness drinkers, even if they didn't actually like the taste. 

Things are different now. Brewers such as Brains, Fullers, and Wadworth are developing their own 4.0-4.2% nitrokeg stouts and discovering that Guinness is pretty easy to copy. When they put it on the bar, they're finding that these days, people who actually like the beer are OK not to have the brand - especially if their pint is a bit cheaper.

How did this happen?

Well, partly, it's that mainstream brands have become boring and commoditised across the board, and drinkers are increasingly confident to try something that hasn't been on the telly.

And partly it's that the iconic advertising lost its mojo. 

When you've made a commercial that is routinely voted as the best TV ad of all time (an early work by the director of this year's most talked about film) it's a hard act to follow.

The last decade and a bit has seen huge budget Guinness ads that have been very easily forgettable, with the possible exception of this one:

which always seemed to reappear a few months after the latest misguided spectacular had quietly disappeared.

But suddenly, the mojo seems to have come back. Possibly the two best commercials I've seen in the last year both turned out to be for Guinness.

The first one pulls you in and you hesitate, worried that you're going to like the film only for the rug to be pulled at the end and it turns out to be something cynical and cheesy. In fact the pay-off is quite moving, and fits perfectly with what Guinness wants to say about both itself and its drinkers.

And then there's this beauty, which starts off so good you think you're almost certainly going to be disappointed, and you're not - thoughtful, spectacular and bang on for a brand that's at least as popular in parts of Africa as it is in Ireland.

If you find this as compelling and beautiful as I do, you might also enjoy the five minute film they made:

These two are possibly the best beer ads we've seen in a decade. Whether they are enough to make Guinness as indispensable and irreplaceable as it once was, we'll have to wait and see. But I would imagine that the Paddy's Day toasts at St James's Gate are a little easier this year than they have been.

Oh, and there's one more beer bore cliché we have to get out of the way while talking about Guinness. If you think it's just a tasteless, bland brand produced by a big corporation that is scared of flavour and has no idea about how to get it into their beer, that's because you've fallen for the trap that there is only one Guinness. Last time I visited the brewery, we were given a tutored tasting of seven different Guinnesses that were all on sale at the time. If you do want a powerful stout that's up there with the very best, seek out Guinness Foreign Extra Stout:

One of the best stouts in the world.

At 7.5%, rich and complex with vinous notes and spiciness twining around the usual big blocks of coffee and chocolate flavour, it's a genuine classic that allegedly makes up over 40% of total Guinness sales worldwide. For those who take notice of these things, it scores 96% on Ratebeer and 91% on Beer Advocate.

Not bad for a dull, corporate global brand.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Will 'craft' change beer for good?

Guys from Five Points took this at the previous, shorter Masterclass.

There's something deeply wrong when you have to set the alarm on a Sunday morning and be out of the door by half past eight. 

But you wouldn't do it if it wasn't also the sign of something being very right.

At a time when I would normally be contemplating a long bath and a fry-up, last Sunday I was giving the introductory presentation at a 'Masterclass' on 'How to launch an independent brewery' being held by the Guardian in their north London offices. The event was a sell-out: a hundred people had paid £99 each and given up their Sunday to hear me followed by a succession of brewers and publicans, including people from Beavertown, Five Points, Burning Sky, Harbour Brewing and Pressure Drop talk about the perils and pitfalls of jacking in the day job to make beer.

I had been concerned that my own presentation erred on the negative side, and through the day the brewers' presentations seemed to focus on lists of things you had to think about and be careful of, and constant reminders that opening a brewery was not a route to riches. And yet on Twitter (#indiebrewery) and at drinks afterwards (which continued at the excellent and new-to-me Queen's Head pub in Kings Cross, who's guv'nor was another of the speakers) people said they had found it inspiring and motivating. Clearly an audience consisting mainly of home brewers who want to spend more time on that and less time in their current jobs were not going to be put off by the idea that this was hard work. They'd all given up their Sundays too. Most had come from outside London. I even spoke to people who are about to open breweries in Spain, Italy and Germany who had come along for tips.

The momentum around beer and brewing, the sense that we are in the middle of the best time in living memory to enjoy a decent beer, was palpable. I kicked off my presentation with this tweet, from someone reading my first book, which is now eleven years in print:

Things have changed beyond recognition, beyond hope, since I wrote that chapter. 

Against this, the questions that were asked most often were: "How long can this go on?" and "Will the bubble burst?" 

Entirely understandable if you are considering jumping off a career ladder and spending your savings on a brewery.

The bubble question is being asked with increasing frequency inside the craft beer movement. One of my slides on Sunday pointed out that in the last ten years, the number of breweries in the UK has more than doubled, while the total volume size of the beer market has collapsed by 23%. Craft beer is focused more towards the on-trade in Britain, and yet each week, on average two new breweries open for business while 28 pubs close for good.

And yet in the UK, real ale and other formats of craft beer together account for only 18% of the total beer market. The mass volume is still in mainstream, mass-produced commercial brands, and probably always will be. But it's those brands that are suffering the most, those corporations that see craft beer as a threat - or maybe an opportunity.

I don't know what's going to happen. No one does. But a follow-up question that helps determine the future prognosis is this: is the taste for craft beer (and if the definition of craft is still bothering you, forget that word and just use 'interesting, flavourful beer' instead) a fad, or more than that?

In my presentation, I had a slide saying 'Craft beer is a movement', which this picture on it:

This is from when a bunch of brewers went to BrewDog to make a whole host of collaborative beers that then formed 'Collabfest', where jointly made, jointly branded products were sold across BrewDog bars. 

When I looked at the slide while I was rehearsing my presentation, it made me wonder what I was going to say over it. I always use the words 'movement' and 'revolution' to describe what's happening in beer now. They are big, juicy, dramatic words. Am I right to use them? 

Other people talk about the craft beer 'fad'. Interestingly, the only people I have heard use this term are working for large brewing companies. (They are inevitably framing craft beer as an east London hipster thing, which is a whole other argument. Brewers such as BrewDog near Aberdeen, Thornbridge in Derbyshire, Dark Star just outside Brighton, Marble in Manchester and Moor Beer in Somerset, and bars like the North Bar in Leeds, the Bridge Bier Huis in Burnley, the Devonshire Cat in Sheffield, the Snowdrop Inn in Lewes and countless others up and down the country, who have been making and selling craft beer since Daltson's hipsters were drinking shandy, may feel justifiably aggrieved at that.)

So what's the difference between a fad and a revolution? Both, eventually, run out of steam. The momentum, the velocity of great beer certainly can't carry on at its current rate indefinitely.

I think the difference is that a fad comes and goes, and when it's gone, it's forgotten by everyone apart from Peter Kay, Stuart Maconie and Barry Shitpeas. It hasn't changed anything, or left any meaningful legacy.

When a revolution happens, it changes things for ever. The repercussions of a movement are felt long after it has disbanded. And whether or not the bubble bursts, whether or not there's a shakeout, consolidation or contraction in the number of people making beer in Britain, I simply can't imagine that the beer scene will go back to how it was when I wrote the megabrands chapter in Man Walks into a Pub

I can't imagine that people like Beavertown's Logan Plant or Lovibond's Jeff Rosenmeier will fail as brewers, or get bored of it and walk away. BrewDog, Thornbridge, Meantime, Camden, Magic Rock, Marble, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Stone are not going to go bust, or suddenly start making pissy lager to stay in business. Yes, some will sell out to bigger companies at some point. But they've helped a lot of people discover a taste for beer they never knew they had. 

Tastes change. You might wake up suddenly one day and say "I'm bored of bold hoppy flavours." But you don't wake up and say, "I'm bored of bold hoppy flavours. I think I'm just going to drink Foster's from now on."

However it evolves, and whoever ends up brewing it, craft beer is here to stay.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Man V #BrewBurger

Burger condiments

The idea, apparently, was "to get as much beer in a burger as we possibly could."

"Ah, well, I like to chuck a bottle of beer into my burger mix," I smile.

Tom from Honest Burger looks at me oddly. "No, we don't actually put it in the burger itself. The beef is the main ingredient. It has to shine. We don't want to smother it."

Oh. This is more complicated than I thought.

Fair enough though: the meat for the burger is 35-day dry-aged beef sourced from The Ginger Pig, possibly the most adored meat supplier to the self-conscious London foodie. The only thing added to the meat itself is a light seasoning. My own preferred way of making burgers - buy whatever mince they have in Sainsburys round the corner, squidge it all up with salt, pepper, onion, beer, grain mustard and a bit of coriander or parlsey before chucking it on the barbie - suddenly seems crude and naive. 

This branch of Honest Burger, yet another new burger chain, is in King's Cross, and has been open about six weeks. "Oh, you're the beer blogger," says the person on the door when I give my name. I'm shown downstairs where a few people from BrewDog welcome me and get me a beer, and I slide into a booth constructed from bare wooden planks. 

London has been deluged by new burger 'concepts' over the last couple of years, and my 'hipster twat' alarm is on a hair trigger, ready to go off. 

The theory is sound: southern US cuisine is a perfect foil for craft beer, two complementary flavour suites just waiting to be fit together.

But Britain has a habit of appropriating brilliant concepts and executing them in a humdrum way. Last autumn I went to a 'street food festival' in Dalston. We paid eight quid to get in (which included a free pint of Meantime beer, but not the Meantime beer I wanted, according to the incredibly bad-tempered servers) then queued for 25 minutes to spend another £9 on a deeply average burger which we ate from wobbly paper plates on creaky benches in a disused factory warmed by open braziers. I fancied that two years previously, tramps had sat in this same spot eating very similar food in identical circumstances. All evening, this was my earworm:

A couple of months earlier, I'd joined Evan Rail, an American beer writer now living in Prague, who had been dispatched to London by the New York Times to review another trendy London burger joint. He's much kinder in the article he wrote than he was on the night, when he said, "Well... it's a burger isn't it?"

So tonight, I'm wary, ready for another 'concept' that promises everything and delivers only salt, fat and deflated guilt. I'm here for the #BrewBurger, a collaboration with BrewDog that allegedly contains so much beer you need to be ID'd as over 18 before you're allowed to eat it. I'm sceptical about this, as most of the alcohol surely burns off. I'm doubly sceptical when introduced to Tom and his business partner. They barely look old enough to get served in a pub themselves, let alone run one of London's most talked about new burger chains. Exactly half an hour after the appointed start time, the room fills instantly with fresh-faced hipsters and the burgers start coming out.

So if there's no beer in the burger itself, where does all the booze go? Well, the beef dripping in which the onions are cooked has been slathered with Punk IPA. The bacon has been marinated in 5AM Saint and brown sugar. And the barbecue sauce has been infused with the mighty Arran whisky barrel aged Paradox.  

With a billing like that, I decide to take a little more care with my burger than I normally would. 

Firstly, the appearance: the style of presentation could be summed up as 'Fuck you, Masterchef.' This is dirty and, yes, honest food. 

Detox buster.

It smells wonderful, complete in a way I've never thought about in relation to a burger before. It's all about balance, with sweet and sour, umame and caramel, strong yet surprisingly graceful.

The bacon on its own is so phenomenal you could be forgiven for forgetting the burger and asking for a bacon buttie instead. If it were possible for a flavour to transport you to a high ridge at a flaming Montana sunset to watch cowboys herd steers across the prairie, only you're sitting on the balcony of a Parisian Michelin starred restaurant at the top of that ridge, then this bacon would do it.

Onto the main event, and the burger is simply the best one I can remember tasting. You can taste the beef, and I realise how rarely beef tastes of beef, and that good beef tastes of a happy life.

When I get to the middle of the burger, all these elements finally come together - the onions and the bacon and the barbecue sauce - and suddenly the hype doesn't sound like hype any more. There's definitely booze here, spiritous and risky. Am I just imagining I can taste the barrel ageing of the Paradox through all those layers of barbecue sauce in the middle of everything else that's going on? I'm not sure.

If that's not enough alcoholic complexity, the burger has been paired with a fourth BrewDog beer, the newly released Bourbon Baby. It's been aged in Bourbon barrels - something that conventional craft brewing wisdom says only works for strong, dark porters and stouts, not a 5.8%ABV Scotch ale like this.

I tried this beer fresh off the bottling line just yesterday, 500 miles north of here in BrewDog's new brewery. Those bottles were then couriered down here and crash-chilled. This beer cannot possibly be on its best form.

And initially, the beer is less than the sum of its parts. It's doing what a beer does, being all cold and refreshing and helping out with a bit of palate cleansing action. Despite the temperature there's a big hit of chocolate and bourbon, but it becomes less interesting in the face of the onslaught of flavour the #BrewBurger is packing. And then, the retronasal action kicks in. Despite the trauma it's endured over the last day or so, the beer comes out punching, sneaks around the back of the palate and pulls in that boozy spiritousness, completing a whole chain of flavour elements and making them sing harmonies. Bourbon Baby is a very good beer, even this cold, even this agitated, even up against this burger. And there you are: dirty food and dirty beer together playing magic on your palate like an idiot savant virtuoso pianist made out of chopped beef and malted barley. Yet another BrewDog idea that sounds like it might be trying a bit too hard on paper, but makes perfect, stunning sense when delivered.

Last time I ate at McDonalds - which was more recently than I care to admit - I remember using the last of the fries to scrape up the dregs of salt and sauce. Even as the compacted aggregate of the food slumped heavily in my stomach, my palate was unsatisfied, overstimulated and seeking closure. With #BrewBurger the fries, nice as they are, are superfluous. The burger and beer together a complete meal without anything else, battering your palate into delighted submission.

I always feel guilty about eating burgers. They are not good for you. This meal is not a healthy meal, and doesn't pretend to be. I resolve that from now on a burger has to be this good for it to be worth the damage.