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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.
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Sunday, 28 December 2008

2008: what the blazes was all THAT about?

Having blogged fairly regularly for the first time throughout the past year, I have an urge to do a sort of round-up thing. It’s purely subjective, skewed and very possibly inaccurate, but I’d welcome any comments, additions or disagreements.

It’s been a great and terrible year for beer. The beer market is in freefall in volume terms, attacked on every side. It’s not made any better when people who regard themselves as guardians and spokespeople for the industry are the loudest voices shouting about about ‘the death of the pub’ as if it’s a reality - you're just helping to make it so, guys.  Also, we’ve been talking for years about a renaissance in the appreciation of our national drink, and while there always seems to be progress, the idea of widespread love of interesting beer, even to the same degree it currently happens in the US, still seems a long way off.

But on the other hand, I think we’ll look back on 2008 as the year British brewing began to rest one eye on the future instead of being perpetually preoccupied with the past. Four years ago, when I was in America researching Three Sheets, I tasted Cascade hops for the first time and bemoaned a lack of such flavour in Britain. We used to ask why British brewers insisted on brewing a portfolio of beers that were all 4.5% mid-brown session bitters. That criticism now seems out of place. Obviously Brew Dog get the headlines for their daring and authority-baiting brews, but use of North American hops is now commonplace in the UK. Wood ageing of beers is widespread, and many brewers now seem unafraid to incorporate Belgian influences or just bloody well experiment a bit. This is not a discussion about the politics of beer – if you like drinking the stuff, it’s just fantastic to have more variety and flavour more easily accessible.

For me personally, I feel like I spent more time in 1823 than 2008. After getting back from my IPA-to-India trip a year ago, I was planning on finishing the book by the end of January. Then I got lost in history, wrote a book that was nearly twice as long as planned, and didn’t hand it in till October. Next year sees a painful edit and a rush to get the book out in June. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not as good as it could be, but books never are. I can’t wait to share it with you.

So here, in no particular order, are a few highs and lows:

Winner: Beer Exposed in September – it wasn’t perfect, but it reinvented what beer festivals can be like. If they learn the lessons from this year, and if more brewers, having seen it work, join in, the 2009 event will be phenomenal.

Runner-up: The widespread new experimentalism of British brewers.

Winner: tax, tax ,tax.

Runner-up: obvious to anyone who has endured reading me over the last few months - the slow death of Stella Artois, once my favourite brand, now presided over by people who see beer as just another grocery brand, no different from cat food or laundry detergent.

Winner: learning how to brew – or starting to. A day brewing Jaipur at Thornbridge in the summer saw my first (and hopefully last) stint cleaning out a copper from the inside. Then I was lucky enough to be invited on Everard’s gold brewing course, where we recreated an authentic nineteenth century IPA. I’m still trying to flog stories on these – if I fail, I will write them up on here in the New Year – when I also hope to be doing lots more brewing.

Runner-up: a Goose Island beer and food matching dinner at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, with the head brewer introducing each of the beers. Mere sensual bliss…

Winner: Having a very exciting meeting with a development producer from ITV where we agreed in principle to develop an idea for a series that would see me going around Britain investigating different regional beer styles and stories. Then reading THE NEXT DAY the announcement that Oz Clarke and James May were filming the same idea.

Runner-up: Having a very promising meeting with a development producer from an independent production company, who eventually turned down the idea of serialising Man Walks into a Pub but said they would love to film me doing a beery journey, something ambitious, that I was doing anyway, that had historic roots but contemporary relevance… and me saying, “WHERE WERE YOU A YEAR AGO WHEN I WAS TRYING TO GET PEOPLE INTERESTED IN FILMING MY JOURNEY TO INDIA?” and them saying, “Yes, we’d definitely have been interested in that”.

Winner: Stefano Cossi at Thornbridge. Possible bias here because I saw him at work close up, but I’m blown away by his combination of experimentation and obsessive rigour and quality control. His beers have consistently wowed. With a new, bigger brewhouse almost complete, 2009 could be Thornbridge’s year.

Runner-up: Alastair Hook at Meantime. Awarded Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers, he consistently and tirelessly pushes quality and flavour ever closer to the mainstream drinker.

Winner: Orkney’s Dark Island Reserve. Matured in malt casks for three months, 10% ABV, full of fruit, spice, wood and malt. It’s not the most challenging or extreme of the new wood aged beers but it’s perfectly balanced and, importantly, perfectly packaged. It looks great, and these days that’s just as important as the product delivery if you want to change perceptions of what beer can be.

Runner-up: Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse – a collaboration between Garrett Oliver and the ancient German Schneider brewery. It tastes like what it is: a hybrid of North American hoppy craft brew and spicy, banana-scented German wheat beer. It’s fragrant, it’s fruity, it’s fabulous.

Honourable mention: Brew Dog’s 13% IPA that’s been matured in a whisky cask for 18 months with a load of strawberries. The result is more like a Sauternes than a beer. Amazing.

Winner: Alastair Darling for his one-man mission to kill off the pub industry.

Runner up: the renowned home brewer who keeps collaring me at industry events to tell me my IPA journey was a) full of errors and b) pointless. Get a life.

Blogging is not always a comfortable pursuit.  There's a tension between the democracy of blogging for all and the unapologetic use of blogs by writers such as myself for personal promotion.  It's often hard to know where to draw the line between the professional and the personal.  Any writer writes because they have a need to be listened to, and whatever that says about our psyches and frail egos, I'm gratified that people read this blog and link to it and recommend it. I apologise to anyone I've offended on here - I try not to.  I hope you've enjoyed reading most of what I've written, and wish you a happy and prosperous 2009.



Thursday, 18 December 2008

Is it alright to like Morrissey Fox?

Saviours of the ale industry?  Or a pair of twats?  As they say on reality TV, YOU decide...

One of the most controversial beer stories this year is the entry of man behaving badly Neil Morrissey into the brewing industry, with his mate Richard Fox.  They took over a pub, Ye Olde Punch Bowl at Marton cum Grafton in Yorkshire, built a microbrewery in the back garden, started turning out a golden ale that was very quickly listed nationwide in Tesco, and got the whole thing made into a TV show, Neil Morrissey's Risky Business, which ran for three weeks on Channel 4.   

The whole saga sent the beer world into a bit of a tizz, and we can summarise the debate as follows.  On the one hand, the brewing industry is gasping for breath and celebrity involvement is the oxygen of our times.  It can only be a good thing.  They're brewing real ale rather than lager - nothing wrong with lager of course, but ale needs publicity to help challenge outdated perceptions of it.  And in the TV series, they managed to get beer on the telly for the first time since Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter, seventeen years ago.

So what's the problem?  Well, they're interlopers.  They swan in from nowhere, with no brewing background, and suddenly it's their beer in Tesco and them on the telly.  That's just not fair.  Brewers are jealous of the success of the beer, and people like me are jealous because it should be us on the telly because we've been trying for years and we've all put so much more work in.  They're famous, we're jealous and bitter.  

And the telly programme itself - was it a good advertisement for beer?  Reviews were mixed, and many industry grumblers felt it was too laddish.  Too much swearing.  As we know, in some corners of the industry these are terrible crimes.

I must confess I'm ambivalent myself.  I've known Richard Fox for a few years and he's a really nice bloke.  He's a great ambassador for beer, particularly at live events where he evangelises beer and food matching.  But I've had about five or six serious attempts at getting my books turned into TV series and never succeeded.  They have a book tie-in which has an endorsement on the front from Richard Hammond - why can't I have a quote from Richard Hammond?  And the book shamelessly and without credit rips off an idea from Man Walks into a Pub.  

So I'm a bit resentful and jealous, at the same time as feeling sneery and critical of people in the brewing industry who feel the same way.  To resolve my feelings one way or the other, I went along a few weeks ago to the official trade launch of Morrissey Fox, with the intention of letting the beer itself do the talking.

My quest for objectivity ran into trouble straight away, because the two stars were pouring the beer themselves, working the bar like pros.  Richard greeted me warmly and immediately introduced me TV's Neil Morrissey.  I was a big fan of Men Behaving Badly in its day, but I wasn't star-struck because Neil is a genuinely warm and nice bloke who genuinely makes you feel like a mate.  He may have been laying it on a bit thick when he said he was star-struck at meeting me!  Turns out he's a big fan of Man Walks into a Pub, having read it when Hugo Speer out of The Full Monty gave him a copy and said he had to read it.

Having seen The Full Monty I can, unfortunately, only ever picture Hugo Speer in a red leather thong.  I imagined him wearing this, all oiled-up, while handing over a fake-tan-stained copy of my first book to the man who does the voice of Bob the Builder.  It was a moment I could never have imagined at the start of my writing career.

Anyway, I tried my best to put this out of my head, and moved on to the beers. 

The blonde ale is a blonde ale.  I like blonde ales a lot and I like the way they bring people into the ale category for the first time.  Morrissey Fox blonde ale was not at all bad and it was not the best I've tasted.  There's not much more I can say about it, but that shouldn't be seen as a criticism.

The best bitter was a different story.  This was a very fine beer indeed: chocolatey brown with a nice tight head, it was nutty and toffeeish and caramelly and very, very smooth, complex but insanely drinkable.  I loved it.

Finally there was a Christmas ale, full of spicy and fruity flavours.  It felt a bit obvious - too much of a collection of elements rather than a blended whole.  But not unpleasant.  

So they may be spawny gets who have more attention than they deserve.  Or they may be very talented brewers who simply have more drive and nous than other brewers and beery media wannabes.  Whatever, they are really, really nice blokes who genuinely love beer, and they've made two not-bad beers and one fantastic beer.  If you just take that last sentence and forget the controversy and jealousy over the media circus, that's good enough for me.

The 'Death' of the pub - a global news story

After seemingly trying to destroy the pub for the last few years, the media seem to be having a change of heart, with a flurry of articles mourning the death of the British pub over the last week or two, and even a programme on the subject on the BBC last Friday.

And it's attracted attention from overseas too: last week in the space of two days I gave a lengthy interview to a Dutch broadsheet newspaper on the subject, and a TV interview to the same country's equivalent of Newsnight.  Thankfully they went easier on me than Paxman would have.

Knowing a bit of Dutch might help you follow the narrative, but most of the interviews here are in English.  You need to fast forward through the programme to 10 minutes 30 secs.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Now I'm Britain's second-best beer blogger!

Sorry to be an egotist for a minute but last night I attended the British Guild of Beer Writers (don't laugh) annual awards ceremony.  This year saw the first award given for 'Best use of new media', and I picked up the silver for this blog, plus the website for the Intelligent Choice Report, which means this blog is now officially Britain's second-best beer blog.

Older readers may remember that about 18 months ago I was runner-up in the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group's Beer Drinker of the Year Award, which I took to mean I was Britain's second-best beer drinker.  Some might say that on this performance, I'm carving out a niche for myself as the biggest Number Two on the British beer writing scene.

The judge's comments were of course complimentary, but laced with a thread of chastisement.  Apparently I'm "improving" as a journalist, with the main improvement being that I'm "less laddish".  I can only apologise to fans of my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, for this development, and promise to try to be more fatuous, rude and irreverent in future.  Let me start by urging you to go here and click on 'drunk words', for a reminder of the kind of writing that has apparently prevented me from winning much in the past.

When I won silver I simply assumed that I'd been beaten by Stonch - but it seems it wasn't his year.  The gold award went to Zak Avery, who embraced the medium more fully than I by being more prolific and also posting a regular video diary.  Given that I have trouble pasting pictures on this blog, if you're going to call your award 'best use' of new media he deserves it hands down.

Zak then went on to beat some very distinguished and talented writers to be named overall Beer Writer of the Year - a magnificent achievement for someone who is a relative newcomer to the scene.  Congratulations Zak.

The only problem I have with this result is that I just assumed Ben McFarland was going to win this year.  If you win one year you're not allowed to enter the next, and Ben has won every year he's been allowed to enter since he started writing.  Zak's success means I now have to face competition from Ben in the awards next year when my new book comes out.  Looks like the best I can hope for will be number two again.    

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

A quandary for CAMRA

Every time I start paying attention to this blog, something comes along to annihilate it.  

Since my last post MFI went bust, at a time when I'd paid them £6500 for a new kitchen that hadn't yet been delivered, and now never will be.  I had to buy a new kitchen from somewhere else, fight to get my money back from MFI via my credit card company, deal with the fact that said credit card company, after reassuring me they would follow up and resolve it, then took the £6500 from my bank account, thereby reducing me to penury just before Christmas, and cope with builders taking advantage of the situation to up their fees and reduce their service, all while having had to take a five day a week contract back in the greasy world of advertising to keep my head above water while all this was happening.

I've got a list of blog entries as long as my arm that I've been meaning to write, but don't have time.  But every now and then, one comes along that jumps to the head of the queue, and even though I'm up and at my desk after midnight writing a PowerPoint TM presentation on the future of an online media player for a meeting in nine hours' time, with a good night's sleep and a 75 minute commute between me and said presentation, I can't resist commenting.

From the press release:

Newly formed brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev may look to sell off its Budweiser Stag Brewery as part of a restructuring progamme in the UK, analysts believe.

The brewery, based in Mortlake, London, could face an uncertain future following confirmation by Anheuser-Busch (A-B) InBev that it is reviewing its UK operations.

One analyst told just-drinks today (8 December) that InBev's US$52bn buyout of A-B has left it with "significant over-capacity" in the UK.

The only genuinely funny thing CAMRA's Roger Protz has ever written (to my knowledge) is when he pointed out the Stag brewery - formerly the home of the reviled Red Barrel, subsequently colonised by Bud - was in Mortlake, AKA 'dead water'.  I laughed out loud and was jealous he'd said it and not me.  Personally, I'd rather drink my own piss than Budweiser, and I think most CAMRA members would share my views.  But CAMRA also oppose British brewery closures on principle, and the Stag brewery has a long and honourable history...

Rub your hands with glee and get ready for one of those moments usually only seen in sci-fi movies where the intelligent robot has two core directives: protect human life at all costs, and obey the human master, and the human master orders the robot to kill him... 

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Lovely Pub Hosts Festival of Lovely Beer This Weekend

The White Horse in Parson's Green has long been famous as THE Mecca for the luvvies of the beer world, if that's not too bizarre a concept (the idea of there being luvvies of the beer world, rather than them having a Mecca).  

There was a general feeling when landlord Mark Dorber left after 25 years that it wasn't going to be as good as it used to be.  And while Mark is an irreplaceable character (currently to be found being highly and very entertainingly opinionated at his new gaff in Walberswick), current manager Dan Fox, ably assisted by Ben Lockwood (a man whose unimpeachable and unquestionable passion for Barnsley FC mirrors my own) have ensured a seamless continuation of high standards for which they deserve recognition and acclaim.

A perfect example of this is this weekend, the White Horse's 26th Old Ales Festival.  From beer o'clock on Friday 28th November to I-should-remember-I-need-to-be-at-work-tomorrow on Sunday 30th, the pub will be showcasing at least fifty examples of historic styles like barley wine, old ale, mild, porter, stout and strong ale.  It's cold.  It's raining.  It's the credit crunch.  You don't need any more reasons than that.  But there are many more - including exclusive CASK beers from Meantime, and rare beers from North America.

See you there.

Why does this wanker hate pubs so much?

One aspect of this week's pre-budget statement that hasn't had much coverage is the fact that duty was raised on alcohol, tobacco and petrol to 'offset' the advantage they would gain from the reduction in VAT.  There's since been a rethink and it looks like the move will be reversed on spirits and alcopops - but not beer or wine.

I'm always conscious of trying not to swear too gratuitously on this blog - it's not professional.  And this move is all about financial revenue rather than doing anything to combat binge drinking.  But how fucking stupid do you have to be to give tax breaks on the drinks that teenagers are throwing up in the streets, and single out the beer that many people enjoy responsibly in community pubs for special punishment?

Pubs are already closing at the rate of five a day.  Beer sales are already at their lowest for forty years.  Beer has already received a record tax increase this year.  And now beer is pretty much the only part of the British economy that isn't receiving financial help in the credit crunch.  

The industry has calculated that the duty increase does more than offset the VAT drop - it creates a net price increase.  And while the VAT drop is temporary, the duty increase is likely to be permanent.  Together with the further swingeing duty increases already planned over the next four years, beer duty is set to increase by 40% - and it was already among the highest in Europe.

This fucking moron is killing our pub industry and he has to be stopped - and I say that as a lifelong socialist (I know that's not the same thing as being a Labour supporter any more, but you take my point).

The British beer industry has always been a bit rubbish at speaking with one voice.  The typical response on something like this is for CAMRA to do one thing, the Publican and Morning Advertiser to each mount their own separate campaigns, and the British Beer and Pub Association to do something different again, all of them without talking to each other.  

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and this morning the BBPA and CAMRA (and for some reason Jennifer Ellison and Kym Marsh) launched a five point "Axe the beer tax - save the pub" campaign.  It looks like there's some coordination (though I'd have thought inviting beer writers along to the event might have helped spread the word - I only got sent the press release afterwards).  Hopefully this is the start of a coordinated effort to actually do something.  Sustained, focussed lobbying CAN work.  We need everyone to get behind this campaign rather than start their own, and speak with one voice.  It's too late and too urgent for one body to say it doesn't entirely agree with the aims of another, or wants its name in lights and not theirs.  This is an issue that affects everyone in the brewing and pub industry, and beer drinkers throughout the UK - whether your favourite tipple is Bud or Timmy Taylor's.

So whether you're a brewer, writer, pub landlord, professional beer bore or just someone who enjoys the pub, go to, sign the petition, lobby your MP.  Save the pub.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Positively my last post about Stella Artois before a self-imposed three month moratorium (unless they go and do something REALLY stupid)

My local corner shop stocks a decent range of beers but has no beer knowledge - they're Muslim Turks who simply stock what sells and operate their business in response to the market.  It's the kind of place you go to on the way to a party, or on your way home when you're tired and don't have the energy to do a 'proper' shop.

They sell 330ml bottles of Heineken, Peroni, Budweiser (US), Budweiser (Budvar) and Corona for 99p.  They sell 330ml bottles of Stella Artois for 89p.

So long Reassuringly Expensive - Stella is now a 'value brand'.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Bemused beer bore wonders: is it me that's stupid, or the pub landlord?

We all know what's to blame for the fact that five pubs in Britain are closing down every day: the credit crunch, the smoking ban, the government and their cruel tax increase, the supermarkets and their evil low prices, the punter and their insistence on staying home. 

I beg to offer an alternative point of view.  My story doesn't apply to all pubs by any means, but I'd hazard a guess that most of the places that are being closed down have more rather than less in common with the establishment below.

Tonight me and BLTP went to a rather fine concert by Low at Koko, a very cool music venue let down only by the fact that you have to pay £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664 if you'd like a beer with your music.

As with most places in London the noise curfew is 11pm, which means the band usually shuffle offstage around 10.40 and you're outside 5 minutes later.  You've had a couple of drinks, but thanks to the combination of not wanting to miss much of the gig and the fact that you're paying £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664, you're not pissed.

Just across the road from Koko is The Crescent, a standard format town centre chain pub.  We got into The Crescent at 10.48.  They told us that the bar was closed - chairs were already on the tables, and they were cashing up.  

Now, I'm no expert, but if I was running a pub in an economic downturn which was claiming five pubs every day, and I was twenty yards away from a music venue that I knew would be turning out about a thousand punters onto the streets late at night, and I was the closest pub, I'd take an interest.  Admittedly, if I discovered the gig had been some secret set by Westlife, I'd bar the doors and windows - but I might set up a lemonade stand outside.  But if I knew the band in question had a target audience that consisted primarily of geeks and nervous middle-aged blokes, a few of whom had impossibly cute girlfriends dressed in Amelie-chic while the rest silently fumed 'how come he manages to find a cute indie girlfriend and I don't', and I knew the majority of these people probably wanted one drink to chat about the gig before catching the tube home because it's a Wednesday and they had to get up for work in the morning, I'd be seeing pound signs.

I'd be thinking, 'you know what, since the Licensing Act of 2005, I can take advantage of flexible opening, and for the sake of paying, say, two or three staff to work later, I could probably take an extra £500 over the bar in half an hour with a minimum of fuss.  And this happens two or three times a week!  I'm sitting on a fucking gold mine!'  

I certainly wouldn't be closing the pub EARLY in order to avoid the unnecessary hassle of all these punters coming in cluttering up the place.

It's not just this particular pub - though it's a particularly striking example of this phenomenon - it's a common experience BLTP and I have after gigs.  It was just about understandable when pubs had to close at 11pm - they just set the clocks ten minutes fast to avoid the hassle.  But when you have the option of staying open later, but you'd rather not have the bother... am I missing something?  Or are some publicans their own worst enemies? 

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Hurrah! A Decent Lager Ad Campaign!

Pilsner Urquell has a new poster campaign out - at Waterloo station the walkway between the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines is completely taken up by posters based on the theme that it's the detail that matters.
They're not going to win any creativity awards or convert millions to drinking Pilsner Urquell, but they're doing something really important and deserve to succeed.

Each execution shows a perfect drinking moment: one is the bloke on the sofa with a curry ordered, the wife out for the evening and a great DVD about to start.  Another is a class reunion with the boys really on form.  Another is a couple with the kids in bed and a long, relaxed evening ahead.  

In each, the details are pointed out ('DVD: Bladerunner, Director's Cut'; 'tomorrow: a long way off').  And then it's the detail in the beer that's equally important ('head: European': 'flavour: full-bodied').  

I love this because there's a misconception among large brewers that mainstream drinkers are scared of flavour, and this is not true.  It's telling people about a premium lager that has genuine heritage and tastes of something.

But more than that, what they've managed to do here is portray a positive drinking experience and get away with it.  In each scenario, alcohol - beer - is an integral part of a perfect moment.  The drink is definitely helping the flow of banter or the curve of relaxation, and yet no-one could argue that each scenario shows responsible drinking - there's suggestion of a beery buzz, but no hint of drinking to excess.

That might not sound like much, but in today's hysterical anti-drink environment, it's almost forbidden to suggest that the reason we drink is that we like the way it makes us feel.  It must have taken many iterations to get the balance of tone right, and no doubt someone somewhere will be offended by the suggestion that an adult can have a couple of beers without beating up an old lady and then dying a slow, lingering death from liver disease.  But well done to SABMiller for putting a stake in the ground on behalf of proper drinking.

Happy Hour Again

You must have seen the thing in the news the other day about the call to ban happy hours.  There's been quite a bit of debate about the fact that cut-price drinks are next in the firing line for the current gaggle of moral crusaders.

The positions on both side of the debate are very familiar and not worth repeating here.  What I think is fascinating is that the pub happy hour is the only aspect of this issue that anyone is talking about, when in fact the call from MPs has been for a ban on happy hours AND cut-price deals in supermarkets.  Any sane observer of the British drinking experience knows that it's ten bottles of Carlsberg for a fiver in Asda that's causing far more trouble than half-price pints between six and seven, but on the whole that's been ignored yet again.  

No doubt the pub industry will be up in arms about this - it's yet another example about how the media pick on the pub.  Yet again, the real culprits - the supermarkets - are getting away with murder.

But I think it's not that simple.  I think the reason for the imbalance in coverage is that the pub remains so culturally potent.  

As of this year we drink half our alcohol at home.  The latest slew of surveys shows that, for the first time in British history, a slight majority of people prefer drinking at home rather than in the pub.  But nobody wants to talk about supermarkets - they're boring.  The pub and the happy hour are cultural institutions.  To anyone outside the alcohol industry, that aspect of the current proposals is far more newsworthy, far more emotive, than whether or not Tesco's is going to get its wrists slapped.  

Yes, we should constantly remind anyone in a position to affect the alcohol trade that cheap deals in supermarkets are where the problem really lies.  But we should actually take comfort from the fact that people only want to talk about pubs.  When the regulation of what happens in your local boozer is no longer deemed newsworthy, that's when we really need to start worrying.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Is that the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin?

No, it’s the new TV ad for Stella Artois 4, the new 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers (not to be confused with Peeterman Artois, the, um, recent 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers).

I really, really don’t want this blog to turn into – that would be at least as boring for me as it would be for you. But they just keep doing things that make my jaw drop, and not in a good way.

When the ad came on my TV on Friday night I hadn’t seen it before or heard anything about it. Until the resolution where the brand is introduced, right at the end of the 40-second spot, I honestly believed I was watching a new ad for Lynx – the deodorant specifically targeted at teenage virgins who masturbate furiously to pictures of recent Big Brother contestants in Zoo and Nuts magazines.

Maybe this was intentional – a watered-down beer targeting the consumers of watered-down porn – but I doubt it.

Officially the ad has a James Bond theme. The campaign is set on the French Riviera. (Confusingly, while the entire dialogue is in French, the final bar call is for “une Stella Artois Four”, the number being the only English word used. Why?) While the plot may be Lynx-lite, the tone and feel are sub-Peroni: five years ago, Peroni was shamelessly stealing art-directional cues from Stella Artois. Now, too, that’s reversed.

One final thought: given that the whole launch of Stella Artois Four is aimed at helping Stella lose the ‘wifebeater’ tag, isn’t it a bit ill-judged that the whole plot is driven by the threat of physical violence meted out by one man to another who has been messing with his bird?

It’s fascinating watching the sheer velocity with which this brand is imploding.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Let's have a heated debate!

I've done enough pontificating for a few days and wanted to try something different.

Most of the people who read this blog really seem to know their stuff, so let me ask you a question: what's the next big thing in beer? What's the next thing we're excited about that has a real chance of going mainstream? Think about how Hoegaarden launched in the UK a decade ago: building slowly with little in the way of marketing hype, to the point where wheat beer is now an established sector in the beer market that doesn't scare the mainstream drinker.

Things are very exciting just now -we've got more choice and variety in beer than ever before if you know where to look for it. Deus and Kasteel Cru have pegged out a 'champagne beer' niche that seems to have a lot more room in it. Innis & Gunn has blazed a trail leading wood-aged beers into the supermarket and we've seen an explosion of whisky-aged beers from Schiehallion, Orkney, Brew Dog, and now Fuller's. Brew Dog's Punk IPA and Thornbridge's Jaipur show that British brewers can make big, American-style IPAs, and we're getting more of the US beers readily available. And what's happening in the States now? What's creating a beery buzz over there?

Will 2009 be the year we see another big beer style go mainstream?

I may be using some of the answers to this for a commercial project for which I will be paid money. If this offends your sensibilities and you feel it contravenes the unwritten ethics of blogging I apologise. I'm making this clear so that if you object, you can choose to withhold comment. But if you don't mind, I'd love to hear what you think and would hope that it would create an interesting thread!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bye bye my first beery love

From a press release today that's been posted on the British Guild of Beer Writers website:

"Drinks giant Carlsberg has announced plans to close its historic brewery site in West Yorkshire with the loss of 170 jobs. The company blamed falling consumption, and higher duties for the decision to shut its Leeds site by 2011. Consultation with the workers has started and Carlsberg said it would seek to redeploy staff. There has been a brewery on site in the city since 1822 when it used to produce just Tetley beers. The brewery now produces Tetley and Carlsberg and is one of two owned by Carlsberg. The other site is at Northampton."

I've got little insight to offer here, but I'm gutted. I grew up in Yorkshire before leaving home to go to university in St Andrews. Trips between home and Uni usually involved getting the little local train from Barnsley to Leeds (there was a sign saying 'home of Tetleys' as you pulled into Leeds station), then the train from Leeds to York, then the intercity up to Scotland. Every time I was leaving home I'd stop at Leeds station and go for a pint of Tetleys in the little pub just outside the main entrance (now a M&S Simply Food). Coming back, I'd stop there again for half an hour before getting the train home. There was no decent beer in Scotland at that time and during term I confined myself to Tennents Lager. My ritual was about savouring a gorgeous, nutty, rich pint, and it was about thinking about my relationship with Yorkshire while standing on the point between past and future, my heritage and upbringing and what it meant to be leaving that behind. In other words, the perfect beer moment.

There are brown and white heritage road signs all around Leeds (a city with a thirving craft beer and real ale scene) directing you to Tetleys Brewery Wharf, which conjure up an image of a living, breathing, beer experience - a museum to a much-loved brand almost 200 years old and a powerful symbol of regional identity and pride, not just for me, but for thousands of Yorkshiremen and women. The reality is a development of 'luxury apartments' and identikit chain restaurants, behind which you can stand at a chain fence and watch lorries loading up on beer. The brewery has no visitors centre and doesn't officially run tours.

Tetleys now is a shadow of its former self. It's hilarious for the brewer to blame falling sales when they haven't spent a penny advertising the brand since God knows when, when they dropped the word 'Tetley' from the corporate 'Carlsberg-Tetley' moniker, when makes no mention of Tetleys whatsoever and when there is no corresponding stand-alone website for the Tetleys brand. None of this suggests Tetleys will be made welcome at its new home in Northampton. We're talking about a top five brand in a multi-million pound market, and it isn't even worth a bloody website - just how much contempt can you show a brand you're supposed to be looking after?

But none of Carlsberg's actions - or lack of them - are responsible for the brand's decline and the resultant brewery closure. Of course they aren't. It's falling consumption and higher duty that are to blame. In other words, it's the government's fault, your fault and my fault that one of the most popular ale brands in the UK takes a giant step closer to extinction.

Thanks for clearing that up, Carlsberg.

(And thanks for making me sound like a die-hard CAMRA fundamentalist. I really appreciate that.)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Ever wondered why Stella Artois had the gall to call itself 'Reassuringly Expensive'?

It goes back to the yuppie-tastic eighties, when the brand really was a cut above its rivals. At the time, most lagers in the UK were brewed to around 3.5%, pale imitations of the European brews they claimed to be. Stella never compromised in order to get into pubs - it was the full 5.2%, sat pretty much on its own in this category, and was therefore comparatively more expensive and premium than its rivals. But ABV wasn't the only measure of worth.

Stella was celebrated in beautifully-written, long-copy press ads - the kind you don't see any more in our attention-deficient age. This one's my favourite:

I dug this ad out because I've been thinking about the campaign in the context of an apocryphal story in marketing that's usually attributed to a leading soup brand. Every year, the story goes, the manufacturer cut the cost fractionally by saving money on ingredients. Every year, a bowl of soup made to the old recipe and one made to the newer, cheaper recipe is brought to the MD, who is challenged to taste the difference, and he can't. One year a new MD comes in, can't taste any difference, and says, 'bring me a bowl made to the recipe from ten years ago'. This causes some consternation, but eventually they manage to find the recipe and recreate last decade's product. When everyone tastes this compared to the latest version, the difference is incredible - they're hawking a shadow of what the product used to be, and didn't even know it.

Now let's come back to the Stella press ad. Great advertising works in a very simple way. You make a bold and attention-grabbing claim, and then you give the consumer reasons to believe this claim.

The above ad is a beautiful gag about how expensive the beer is. But why is it so expensive? You might not be able to read the copy from the image (though you might be able to enlarge it if you click on it), so let me tell you:
  • Stella Artois is only brewed with the best female Saaz hops
  • The beer is malted only with Europe's finest barley
  • Unlike other, cheaper lager beers, Stella is lagered for six weeks

Taking those in turn: Stella does still use Saaz hops. But it clearly uses far fewer of them than it once did. Stella used to perform poorly in blind taste tests because it had a distinctly more bitter character than the British lager-drinking palate was used to. Taste Stella side-by-side with Budvar, even Kronenbourg today, and this is no longer the case. At a recent seminar on lager organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, former Stella head brewer Paul Buttrick diplomatically explained that large-scale brewers generally are using fewer hops than they once did, which means that "Many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had".

Malted using only Europe's finest barley? Stella now proudly advertises the fact that it is brewed with maize which, far from being reassuringly expensive, is a more economical source of fermentable sugar than barley, and produces a blander beer. Stella's beautifully-produced website, which harks back to an entirely fictitious origin of the brand in 1366 (they word it very carefully, never actually claiming that Stella was first brewed in 1366, but leaving you with a very strong impression that it was) doesn't address the issue that maize is indigenous to North America - which wasn't discovered for another 126 years.

Fermented for six weeks? Oh, my aching sides. To be fair, there is at least a basis for a debate here, one raging between brewing traditionalists and those who have to deal with the reality of the economics of modern brewing. The latter claim you simply don't need to condition beer for as long as we used to, that modern fermenters and ingredients can achieve the same results over a shorter time period. That may well be so, but whatever the optimal period now is, Stella is lagered for a far shorter time than many of its rivals - a week is now standard in lager. I've heard from an authoritative source - but without being able to get confirmation I'd better leave it vague - that Stella is fermented for considerably less time even than that.

On its website, Stella claims that it is still brewed "with the same process of mixing and fermentation as in the old days". I suppose your view on whether or not this is a bare-faced lie that insults both the drinker and the brand itself depends on how closely you define the word 'process'.

I used to love this beer - both the brand and the product itself. I was proud to have my stint working on the ad campaign. I think the ad above demonstrates exactly why I no longer feel the same way. I suspect that if a batch of Stella was brewed to the spec it had ten or fifteen years ago, and if we were permitted to taste it side-by-side with the modern version, Inbev would be the proud inheritors of one of marketing's most enduring and revealing fables.

Friday, 31 October 2008

What your book really says about you

This is not just another desperate plug for a book that doesn't even come out for another nine months, honest, but I was just checking the link to Hops and Glory worked (you can't be too careful) and noticed that Amazon now does a thing where you can suggest key words that link you to other items "that have similar qualities" to the one being looked at. Hops and Glory has already collected quite a few, which is curious given that the only people in the world who have read it yet are me, my wife, my edirot and agent. Some of the tags are obvious, others less so. I'm grateful that one of the strongest tags is 'humour', but 'travel' and 'India' don't feature. And the strongest tags - the areas that are most closely related - are... well, just look for yourself. Amazon seems to think I've written a book that combines one man's beery adventures on the high seas with a penchant for poking around in people's poo and pretending to be a doctor:


Is there something wrong with the sales blurb?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Pete's Pub Etiquette - number two in a (very) occasional series

Bar staff - if, when serving me a pint, you get so much beer running down the side of the glass that you have to go and wash your hands immediately after presenting to me, how about rinsing or wiping the fucking glass so I don't get my hands all wet and sticky too?

It's called showing respect for your customer and respect for your product, and if you start doing that people might actually continue to use your pub!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The fruits of labour

Talk to any author for more than ten minutes (and if you ask them about their work, you'll be there for at least that long) and you can be pretty sure that at some point they'll unintentionally use language that compares writing to giving birth. No massive insight there, the creative process and all that. Someone once said that giving birth to a child is like shitting a bowling ball. Obviously writing is not as physically arduous as that, but the mental equivalent to shitting a bowling ball sounds about right. And while writing is not as painful as childbirth, do bear in mind that the labour usually lasts for around two years.

But there are of course some wonderful aspects to both. You know when the expectant couple get their first little scan of the foetus and bring it home to show everyone? The equivalent for me is when I see the first cover design. It's the point at which the book stops being something that exists only in my head and on my laptop and starts to take on an independent life of its own. So here it is!

Another thrill is when it gets listed on Amazon for the first time, and that just happened too. I was very touched to see that someone has already pre-ordered it, and that's not me or my wife.

This book has ruled my life for two years - I was heavily into it by the time I first started blogging. I can't wait to get the bastard finished and unleashed on the world. I've finished the first draft and it's now with my editor, but it's far too long and we're going to have to cut about a third of it out - expect lots of IPA-themed blog entries to appear on here as they're slashed from the book (a process Steven King refers to as 'killing your babies').

The book comes out on June 5th 2009.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Theme Park Britain is missing a vital ingredient

I find myself in Stratford-upon-Avon, covering the European Brewing Convention's Environmental Sustainability Symposium for the Brewers' Guardian. I'll spare you the details of the controversy surrounding the re-use of spent grains, and the latest revelations on the optimisation of CIP-cleaning of open machine surfaces by surface modification, but being in one of Britain's tourist meccas really has brought home a point we discussed often in our steering committee meetings on the Intelligent Choice Report over the summer.

People come around the world to Stratford to mainline Shakespeare. It's everywhere you look: his birthplace, the theatres, the Othello Bar and Restaurant - I was half-expecting the Indian restaurant in town to be branded King Lear's Curry House (motto: 'blow winds and crack your cheeks'). Like any theme park anywhere, Stratford is a mix of faux-ancient and depressingly modern. Almost every building is mock-Tudor, which would be fine, but the effect is undermined somewhat when every single shop front is a national or global chain: Pizza Hut, WHSmiths, Costa Coffee, Pizza Express - all with steep gabled roofs, black beams and white walls. It's a dispiriting place.

But the thing is, people come here for more than the works of Bill himself: as far as I know he never wrote 'authentic-looking wattle and daub or ordinary red brick work? That is the question'. Stratford is a hopeful homage not just to Shakespeare but to his time, a chance to step into a plastic history, and for many tourists, it works.

So you're a hotel that caters mainly to American tourists seeking a sanitised verison of sixteenth century England. You've got the exterior looking like it did in Bill's day. You've got the prints of characters from the main plays adorning your walls inside. You've probably got badly-punned dishes on the menu named as tributes to the same characters. All this goes down brilliantly with Hiram and Blanche from Des Moines. But they've come all this way to sample a taste of Ye Olde England, and here they are in the centre of it, and what do you offer them to drink? That's right: Stella, Becks or Budweiser.

This is what we noted in the Intelligent Choice Report: cask ale is outperforming every other ale or lager. Cask Marque's real ale trail regional guides are stocked by tourist offices nationwide, and they can't re-stock them fast enough. Surveys among tourists show that 'traditional British beer' is near the top of the list of things they want to try when they visit the country. And hotels in general steadfastly refuse to stock it. WHY? I've never been one to bleat on about how we should treat cask ale almost as a charity case - we should drink it because, well, because we should, because it's traditional, all that stuff - but I'm all for anything that gives me a better choice of beers when I'm out and about - I'm selfish like that. And this is simply a case of commercial opportunity. My hotel has a shit beer selection. If it stocked a decent range of well-kept cask ales I'm sure it could easily sell them at four quid a pint if they wanted to.

It's not just Stratford - touristy pubs in London almost have to be tortured by water-boarding before they will admit to stocking cask ale alongside the usual global lager brands.

People travel to foreign countries because they want to see, hear, taste something different. Britain's cask ale culture is unique in the world, and when you ask tourists, they think it's pretty cool. But we act like we're ashamed of it, like we don't want to know.

I know it's not very British to be proud of something we do really well, but could we please at least make available something tourists come here looking for and are prepared to pay good money for?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Pissing in the streets

I went to a Westminster Forum conference on binge drinking yesterday. It was worth shelling out for to hear the latest thinking on why drinking is evil, and to be fair, there was a rough consensus reached on the role of the community pub being beneficial and beer - particularly cask ale - not being the main problem.

One of the best presentations was from a police inspector who had looked at the problems with drink-related anti-social behaviour in north London and reduced them by looking at the causes rather than just trying to treat the symptoms. So for example they have officers patrolling a car park with Blackberries trying to sort out minicabs for people rather than just waiting for them to get into a fight in a cab queue and then arresting them.

But one of the main problems is, apparently, trespass - people going into gardens and pissing on the flowerbeds, the lawns, even the doorways.

Sure, this is revolting. But no-one actually presented an alternative solution.

Hands up - every now and then, maybe once every couple of months, I take a leak in some dark street corner on the way home. I'm not proud of it. I'm faintly disgusted by it. But here's the thing: the British Public Toilets Association (yes, there really is such a thing) reckons 45% of public conveniences have closed in the last couple of decades. They occupy prime real estate - one former public toilet was recently sold for £125,000 as a flat. A parliamentary enquiry just this week estimated that the number of public conveniences in the UK has fallen from 5,410 in 2000 to 4,423 this year.

And then you've got the pubs themselves: almost every pub I visit these days has big notices on the door: 'toilets are for the use of customers only'. Why? What possible harm could it do to allow someone to pop in and take a quick leak? Some pubs near me have even installed security locks on the toilet doors, so you have to go to the bar, shame-faced, and ask for the code before you're allowed to use the facilities. This mean-spirited approach shames the essence of the pub.

So put yourself in the shoes of the average Friday night drinker: you've had a few pints. You've been ejected from the closing pub into the cool evening air. You've got to that point in the evening where you need a piss about once every half hour. If you're very lucky and the night bus comes or you happen to drop on a taxi, you could be home in an hour. There are no public toilets, and you're not allowed to use those in any of the few pubs or bars that remain open.

What, precisely, is the alternative to urinating in some conveniently dark corner or behind someone's hedge?

If anyone has any suggestions, please contribute: I'd offer a prize for the best one, but you know, credit crunch and that...

Beer Exposed - a little after the event

Lots of these posts should have been up here a few weeks ago - anyway...

I posted (late) that I was doing Beer Exposed, a new event in London that took place during the last weekend in September.

I was interested when the organisers approached me because after my first visit to the Great American Beer Festival in 2005, I got very jealous of what they had and felt that it was infinitely superior to the Great British Beer Festival - why did beer festivals have to be restricted to real ale? If you allowed big brewers in didn't that give more money to make the whole event a little more polished? Wasn't it a good idea to have small tasting glasses so people could sample more beers? And would it be possible to pay an entry fee and then let people just try the beer without having to pay any more?

My outspoken piece in the trade press led to a very entertaining war of words and quite public feud with Roger Protz, who saw himself as CAMRA's appointed guard dog. This feud ended when I wrote a piece on the Great Yorkshire Beer and Food Show a year later, during which I realised there was room for more than one kind of beer festival: let CAMRA preach to the converted, there was clearly a market for it, and there was room for a different kind of beer festival alongside the GBBF rather than us always putting pressure in CAMRA to wake up and smell the 21st century.

Well, Beer Exposed turned out to be almost exactly the kind of event I was imagining. It was a big risk, run as it was for the first time by a couple of guys who were not known to the beer industry. Many of the big names in brewing stayed away. The numbers of attendees were not as high as the organisers had hoped and they almost certainly lost money. But this was year one, and the feedback from those who attended suggests next year can only be bigger and better.

There were real ale brewers, extreme beers, US beers and lagers from all across the world. Stalls were staffed by the brewers themselves rather than CAMRA volunters. Without the need to take cash, the brewers were free to talk to drinkers about their beers, and many brewers I spoke to said this was the highlight of the event - being able to meet the punter and discuss the beers they love creating.

The people who attended the festival were, in the main, not beer afficionados but people who were curious about beer, knew very little and wanted to learn more - about a 50-50 split between men and women. The walks I did around the floor were well-attended by people who wanted to learn about different varieties of hops! It was proof that there is a big audience out there who want to embrace more interesting beer - and are prepared to pay £17 entrance fee to do so.

With the addition of slops bins, glass washing stations and a bit more food, this could be the perfect beer festival.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Beer at All Bar One

Another thing that was keeping me busy over the last couple of months is that I was helping All Bar One launch their new beer range. Each October they do a special push on beers and are trying to create a genuinely exciting collection of beers from around the world, not just the usual selection of overpriced lagers with obscure provenance and interchangeable product delivery.

This year, like last year, I wrote the blurb and tasting notes which is currently sitting in a very attractive booklet on every table in each of All Bar One's 37 outlets.

OK so it was paid work and I'm bound to be positive, and while 'the world's best beers' might be a bit of an overclaim, they're doing some really interesting stuff - far more interesting than you'd expect from a chain like this. The highlight this year is the world exclusive launch of Duvel Green on draught. It's 6.5%, and while it's still definitely Duvel, it's a little lighter, a bit more quaffable. Other beers include a keg version of Adnam's East Green, which is jolly nice, Kasteel Cru Rose (not my cup of tea, but lots of people like it), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Budvar Dark, Worthington White Shield and Meantime Chocolate. You can find out more about the full range with my tasting notes here:

The new food menu is also genuinely excellent, and we did a bit of food matching in the back of the booklet. One that didn't make the cut is Guinness with their melted chocolotae pudding. Truly awesome, and I guess Meantime Chocolate would go even better.

It's well worth getting down there - several big chains are starting to look more closely at their beer ranges, and while they're never going to break new ground for the hardened beer aficionado, it's got to be a good thing worth encouraging.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Can you afford to ignore cask ale? (That's a rhetorical question by the way)

The other big thing apart from the book is the Intelligent Choice report, which was launched last night in the stunning Counting House, a Fuller's pub and former bank (maybe we'll be seeing a lot more of those!)

The report is the brainchild of the Why Handpull group, formed of the main regional brewers, in association with the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), CAMRA and Cask Marque, the body that promotes cask ale quality in pubs. They commissioned me to write the first one last year and, happily, asked me to do it again this year.

I've slagged CAMRA in the past and I used to advertise lager, so I have no particular political axe to grind about cask ale - I think that's one of the reasons they chose me to write it. I hate it when people can't decide whether a beer is any good or not until they know whether it's cask conditioned. So while the report is positive, it's objective. I'm not saying everybody should drink cask ale because I want them to, I'm saying pubs should stock it mainly because it is a proven driver of profit and footfall at a time when pubs need all the help they can get.

This year's report shows that, far from the terminal decline many mistakenly believe cask ale to be in, it's actually performing better than any other ale or lager category. It's still in volume decline but only just, whereas premium lager is shedding volume faster than Fern Britton in a gastric band.

This couldn't be happening if cask ale was only drunk by old blokes and beardy wierdies. Those people do exist (though every time I see an old man on his own in a pub these days, he's drinking Carlsberg or Carling), but most cask drinkers are affluent, upmarket, discerning individuals in their forties and fifties. What's really interesting is a growign number of occasional drinkers are in their late twenties and early thirties - younger on average than beer drinkers generally.

But 65% of the UK population have never tried cask ale, Britain's national drink. That's nonsense - imagine if 65% of French people had never tasted wine. And the remarkable thing is that when people do try it, 40% if them start drinking it regularly. There's huge potential for growth here.

The report website went live yesterday and is at You can see a summary of key findings on the site and you cand download PDFs of last year's and this year's report. I'm available for interviews and comment if you're a journalist and you're interested in covering it. If you're a journalist and you're not interested in covering it, why the hell not?

Unemployed lapsed blogger in that 'end of A levels' mood


You may have noticed that the blog has been quiet for a while. Well, I've been busy, and this week, the fruits of my labours can be revealed to the three of you who are interested.

The main thing from my point of view is that I finally finished the IPA book! Eight months later than planned, and 60,000 words too long, we've got a fair bit of editing to do, but then that's why I have an editor. Publication has now been delayed till July 09, but I'm hoping the final result will be well worth the wait. A year ago today I was posting that my first barrel had exploded in Tenerife, and was setting sail from the Canaries to Brazil. I can't believe where the year has gone, save that I spent most of it wandering through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, lost in archives, old newspapers, and the cheerfully racist reminiscences of those who spent time in India under the East India Company and the Raj.

At the same time as finishing the book several other projects came to fruition. When I talk about them they'll be above this post, so I want to say read on, but if I've posted them yet, you probably already have. If you see what I mean.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Come and join us at Beer Exposed!

This weekend sees a different kind of beer event at the Business Design Centre in Islington.

Beer Exposed is based on the American beer festival model - you pay a high initial entry fee, then inside you're given a sample glass and get free samples of as much beer as you want. It's a great way of doing things - you really get to try a great many different beers and it makes for a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

Today I'm giving tutored tastings and guided walks around the venue. If you're in London and at a loose end, do come along. It's a fantastic event - exactly what the British beer scene needs.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

What it's really all about

I had a moment the other night that made me realise the single thing I love the most about this whole beer lark.

I was out with a journalist from Time Out Mumbai who had written a feature on my IPA voyage, (it's credited to me, but it was one of those 'as told to' jobs) and is now in London for a couple of weeks, and asked me to show him around a few pubs. He knew his beer and his been in London before, as his ability to teach me the rule sof bar billiards (a shameful gap in my knowledge) testified.

We confirmed together that the Dog and Duck in Soho serves the best-kept point of Timothy Taylor Landlord to be found in the south of England. Then we moved on to a Sam Smith's pub. He deferred to me on the ordering.

"Do you like Guinness?" I asked.

He nodded.

"OK, let's try a bottle of Oatmeal Stout."

The look on his face was one I see often in this situation. It's the look of having nailed it. His eyes bulged, his knees bent slightly, his mouth puckered, then stretched into a massive grin. "My god," he said, "That is amazing! I'm never going to drink anything else ever again!"

That this was Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout isn't really the point. It's a great beer, but I've also had this same reaction to Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager, Orkney's Dark Island Reserve, and Franziskaner Weissbier. Maybe you think none of these are the absolute immortals of the beer world, but they're all beers that, to someone who doesn't know craft beer, completely change their very perception of what beer can be. Their palate becomes recalibrated, the doors of perception are opened. And to be the person who gets to facilitate that, who gets to introduce someone to the sheer sensory pleasure of a great beer for the first time, is both a privilege and a great high all of its own.

The delicate relationship between beer and fashion

The nice people at Use Small Words e-mailed me and asked me if I'd mention thier website, where they make t-shirts and beer glasses featuring famous drinking quotes. I checked out the website and the designs are pretty cool - far better than the ones you get where someone just strips the words across the front - so I'm more than happy to oblige. They're US-based, so not sure about international shipping etc, but if you want to make that summer fashion statement on the beach, go check 'em out.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Book Review: London Pub Reviews

Dunno why, but I’ve been doing one or two pub reviews on here recently, so I thought it was about time I sang the praises of this book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to have a go at doing pub reviews a little differently, trying to evoke the atmosphere and character rather than rigidly evaluating the food and drink selection. After all, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘my kind of place’ are, in survey after survey, the main reasons people give for choosing a particular pub. Paul Ewen, author of the deceptively dull-sounding London Pub Reviews has beaten me to any notion I might have had about reinventing the pub review. If the dull, plodding, workmanlike-yet-practical Good Beer Guide exists at one end of a scale, Ewen, a Kiwi living in London, has pegged out the other extreme.

According to the blurb, ‘although wanting to follow the Kiwi tradition of working in English pubs, he was thwarted by a complete and utter lack of social skills, forcing him to write about them instead’.

And how he writes about them.

His warped vision often nails a pub’s character completely: the Dublin Castle in Camden reminds him of the alien bar in Star Wars, an observation affirmed by “the pierced faces, weird clothes and outrageous hair styles of the Camden locals”.

Each review ends with him being forcibly ejected from the pub. In the Holly Bush in Hampstead, this is precipitated by Liam Gallagher walking in, inspiring our hero to climb on the table and shout “I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE NOW!”

In the Jeremy Bentham, a university pub, he approaches the blackboard advertising the day’s specials and begins an impromptu lecture, attempting to keep order by yelling and hurling beer glasses to the floor.

For the first few reviews, you’re wondering if this man, Dom Joly-style, really did go to these pubs and do these things. He was in there, as his descriptions attest, and he does enjoy his real ale. (And the Bentham piece was originally commissioned for The Times Higher Education Supplement by my mate Steve Farrar. When Paul sent Steve the invoice, it included the itemised cost for the smashed glasses.)

But as the book progresses, we take off through the beer glass and into a world that Alice would recognise if she had been a Camden bag lady on a Tennents Superdiet.

In Effra at Brixton, the bar person is working the pumps “like a submarine engine room attendant, darting here and there pulling levers and plugging holes.” Paul’s small round table is “shedding its varnish like skin”, and a sign advertising the daily special – Jerk Chicken – reminds him how often he was called “jerk”, “chicken” and indeed “special” during his formative years.

In the Prince of Wales on Clapham Common, “My table was covered by a strange, grey, cocoon-like coating, as if it were soon to emerge as a more beautiful pub table.”

At the Half Moon in Herne Hill, the flowery pattern on the carpet comes to life, unties his shoelaces and empties out the contents of his satchel (yes, he carries a satchel).

A secret passage at the Eagle in Battersea Park Road leads him to the secret underground lake where custard comes from.

By the time we get to the King’s Head in Tooting, he’s carrying his disembodied head under one arm, which hampers somewhat his attempts to catch the rabbits that infest the pool table, mocking him from the pockets.

All this, and he still makes you want to visit the pubs in question.

The review on the cover, written by Toby Litt (another of my favourite writers) says it all in one brilliant sentence: Ewen has created the ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’.

Marvellous. Buy this book. Make an unhinged Kiwi bastard happy. He deserves it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Yin and Yang of JD Wetherspoons, part 3

My first post about JDW was a glowing account of their last national real ale festival. My second post about the chain was a scathing attack on one pub's out-of-control security thugs. For a brand that is supposedly consistent (whether you like it or not) across its 600-odd outlets, Wethersopoons really does offer both extremes of the pub-going experience.

Yesterday we see-sawed back to the good end. I went in my local branch, The Rochester Castle, for a quick pint, saw a beer from the Orkney Brewery (whose Dark Island Reserve is the past beer I've tasted in years) and tried a pint. It tasted like it had been diluted with tonic water and lemon, and had a very odd texture. Knowing how experimental Scottish brewers are just now, I had another sip. An assertive summer beer? No. If it was meant to taste like this it was a foul beer, and I didn't think Orkney capable of that.

I hate taking pints back to the bar. Eight times out of ten some newly-arrived adolsecnet antipodean barman will take a swig, say, "tastes alright to me," and you're in a battle of wills then. It's worse for me now, because a little demon pops up and suggests I point out that I'm a beer expert - which I am - but I still sound like an utter wanker if I say so.

But this one had to go back. I explained to the barmaid that it simply didn't taste right. She didn't ask for any explanation. She didn't taste the beer herself. She didn't say "well no-one else has complained", or any other of those passive-aggressive, anyone-who-says-the-customer-is-always-right-must-be-an-arse phrases. She took my pint off me, set it carefully aside, and immediately took off the pump clip of the beer in question, taking it off sale. She asked me what I'd prefer instead, served me a fresh pint, then took my dodgy one to the bar manager.

This is only what you'd expect from any decent pub. But I confess it's not what I expected from Wetherspoons. Deeply impressive. To redress the schizophrenic karmic balance they seem to maintain in the market, this probably means I'll be murdered next time I go in.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

From the sublime to the Ridiculous: The Piss Poor Pub on the Park, Hackney

Nice facade. Shame about everything else.

Each of us who cares about beer and pubs has a duty to warn the rest against the potential of being ripped off. After waxing lyrical about the Cricket Inn, I'm therefore compelled to bring attention to the Pub on the Park on London Fields.

It's a great building in a perfect location, with a beer garden and terrace looking out onto the park, across which lies Broadway Market - a lovely place to get your ricotta and sun-blushed tomatoes if Borough's a bit too busy. It attracts the shaggy-haired, ironically t-shirted artisanal bread-shopping crowd who love reading their copy of the Guardian while keeping an eye on the football, and markets itself accordingly: a charming array of mismatched furniture, and an excellent selection of ales and speciality beers on the bar as well as the premier league of 'world' lagers (you know the brands I mean, and I think most of them are decent beers. But if these are 'world' lagers, where do the other lagers come from? Space? Anyway, different topic).

So far so good - the perfect pub - until you order something to eat or drink.

They had Grolsch Weizen on tap. In bottle this is a stunning wheat beer, all the moreso for the low expectations you probably have when you see the word 'Grolsch' on the label. That'll teach you to be snobby about big brewers. So I ordered a pint of it. The barman had never heard of it before. I had to point it out to him on the bar. He gave it to me in a Stella glass. Nice touch there mate. I also ordered a half a Leffe for my wife, which was also served in a Stella half pint glass. And then the world turned upside down.

"Seven pound seventy please, mate."

"I'm sorry? I thought you just said it was seven pounds seventy for a pint and a half of beer just then!"

"That's right. These beers are a little expensive, just over five pounds a pint."

Over five pounds a pint is not 'a little expensive'. It's taking the piss. Even the Rake , often criticised for its pricing, wouldn't charge this much for these beers, and their staff warn you in advance if you've ordered something super-expensive. The only beers they charge this much for are those that are rarely available on draught, and beers that you shouldn't be drinking in pints anyway becauise they're above 7%ABV. By contrast, here were two premium, 'speciality' yet freely available commercial brands, served in the wrong fucking glassware by a man who wasn't even aware that one of them was sitting on the bar he stood behind for six hours a day. I had been well and truly robbed.

After all that, the beer was deeply average. It tasted like Hoegaarden, not Grolsch Weizen, and these are two quite distinctly different wheat beers.

I then made the mistake of ordering food. All the main courses were basic pub fare and every dish came with chips. In this situation, with nothing better to choose from, I usually order fish and chips. I've been lucky recently, getting fish in pubs how it should be: crisp, golden, light batter, soft flaky fish inside.

In Pub on the Park, my luck ran out. My fillet of fish - if indeed that's what it truly was - had clearly spent much, much longer in a cardboard box in a deep freezer somewhere than it ever had in its native aquatic environment. The batter was thick and wooden, the deep, shit-brown colour of the last thing in the bottom of a deep fat fryer that hasn't been cleaned for a long time. There was a thin layer of something white and runny inside it. The chips were carboardy oven chips.

I would have complained if I thought this was in any way below the standard they aimed for, but as our plates were wordlessly plonked in front of us by a scowling woman who answered our query about salt and vinegar by pointing to a table on the other side of the pub, where we had to go and fetch our own knives and forks and salt, vinegar and sauce, all in those unbranded, cheap, nasty little plastic sachets you only ever see in dives and dirty motorway service stations, I knew there was little point.

The whole meal was inedible. Given that I left it, any server who cared one shred about what their customers thought would have asked me if the meal was OK. As the scowling woman came back to collect our still-full plates, she didn't say a word.

Pub on the Park is a down-at-heel, no-strings, back street boozer pretending to be a well-run, modern food and drink pub. Judging by how busy it was yesterday, it's getting away with this deception. Don't go there. Tell everyone you know not to go there. If this blog post changes one person's mind about visiting this pub, and deprives it of the twenty quid I wasted in there, I'll be happy.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Food of the Gods: the Cricket Inn, Totley, South Yorkshire

Times are tough for pubs, no-one's disagreeing about that. On Wakefield Road, between Barnsley and the village of Mapplewell, where I grew up, there are about seven pubs over four miles. When I was up there in July, five of them were boarded up.

Running a pub was never the post-retirement, easy option many people see it to be. But even today, if you put the work in, and you know what you're doing, you tend to do OK. I've never, ever seen a pub that does great food and a fine and interesting selection of well-kept ales on its uppers. Never. Just a few miles from those ghost pubs outside Barnsley, when the Acorn lads took me round Sheffield we found pubs like the Hillsbrough Hotel and Kelham Island Tavern were packed to the rafters. We literally couldn't squeeze through the door at the Fat Cat. These were clearly destination pubs that knowledgable drinkers had travelled to. The lesson for the local is that it needs to cast its net further afield.

While I was up north, Thornbridge took me to a pub I'd happily travel two hundred miles to for dinner - their latest aqcuisition, the Cricket Inn.

The pub is just outside Dore. Every northern town these days seems to have a village or suburb they proudly boast is home to the biggest concentration of twats - sorry, that should have said 'millionaires' - outside Knightsbridge. This usually means it's where the local footy team and their WAGS park their sports cars and it-bags. Dore is Sheffield's version, and the old animosity between Barnsley fans and Sheff Wednesday fans in no way influences my belief that local residents Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer don't exactly compete in the glamour stakes with Wilmslow, where there is a profusion of far bigger twats.

But we don't really do that kind of glamour in South Yorkshire. The Cricket stands at the foot of a low range of Pennine foothills, dry-stone-walled fields rising gently to the bruise-coloured ridge. Even when the drizzle is siling down – and you have to assume it will be – the view is diverting.

Inside, the pub is a warren or rooms with stone floors, oak beams and muted, earthy Farrow & Ball-style paints. A mixed collection of solid tables, chairs, benches and old school pews create an informal, relaxed ambience, and the clincher is that you can’t book a table anywhere. This isn’t a gastropub, just a pub that does really good food. And how.

The Thornbridge lads – Simon the CEO, Alex, Paul – had mentioned that we might be popping in. Chef Jack, had replied, “Oh, I’ll put a few snacks on for you then.” So we didn’t need to look at the menu, but I did anyway. It’s a big A3 sheet. One side manages to give a brief history of the pub before going on to explain the principles of beer and food matching and supply a few recommendations, all in less than about 200 words. The other side boasted big wooden sharing platters, British Isles seafood, home-made pies, Sunday roasts and sandwiches, many with suggested pairings of Thornbridge ales and other beers.

And then Jack appeared with a piece of slate about a foot and a half square. “A few snacks” were piled upon it: pork crackling, sausages, gravy, fries, olives, anchovies, prawn skewers... there was far too much here for one table. And then another, identically-sized slate arrived, groaning under ribs, potato wedges, monkfish cheeks, steak & kidney & cow-heel pie, home-made black pudding.

Simon leaned over to me. “You’ve got to watch Jack. He’s a feeder. I come in here to catch up with some work and at half nine in the morning he’s sidling up going, here, see what you think of this, or try a plate of this.”

The ribs were marinated in a sticky, viscous mix of Thornbridge’s strong, inky St Petersburg porter, orange juice, Demerara sugar, brown sauce, garlic, ginger and Tabasco. The meat slid form the bone.

I ate the first nice Scotch egg I’ve ever had. Jack spends an hour making them. It’s his ambition to make a Scotch egg that’s still soft in the middle. Given that you have to boil the egg first, then shell it and cook it again inside its meat casing, this would require a considerable degree of skill. He’d almost managed it with this one.

And then, the food of the Gods. Simon, who is right about most things, made a colossal mistake when he described the piece de resistance as a Sheffield fishcake. As any fule kno, it’s called a Barnsley fishcake. We were both in a good mood, so we compromised and christened it a Yorkshire fishcake. (It’s listed on the menu, diplomatically but a little boastfully, as the ‘Cricket Inn fishcake’.) If you think a fishcake is a small disc deep-fried in radioactive orange bread crumbs, you had a cruelly deprived childhood. If you think a fishcake is all salmon and herbs mixed up and pan-fried, you’ve been spending too long in middle-class gastroworld. A Yorkshire fishcake – a true fishcake - is a collection of fish offcuts sandwiched between two large scallops of potato, covered in crispy golden batter, served with mushy peas – like it was here – or curry sauce. It was the taste of my youth. Here it was matched with Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a delicious caramel colour and a deep, sweet flavour. Together in the mouth, this sweet maltiness combined with the fish to invent new flavours and textures, spiralling off into heaven.

This was good, honest pub food, the kind of dishes that have been served for generations, but treated with the same degree of dedicated perfectionism you’d expect in a top restaurant. What better template could there be for today’s pub? The Cricket is not the first pub I’ve encountered with this philosophy – the Marquess in Islington springs to mind very quickly – and every time I find a pub like this business is booming, and the walls are filling up with awards and adulatory press clippings. This is how you do it. It’s not the only way to beat the crunch, but it’s a very joyous one.

We did as much damage as we could to the slates before begging for them to be taken away. I heaved a sigh of relief, which turned into a whimper of fear as chef Jack reappeared with a big apple pie in a traditional 1940s white tine dish with blue piping, nine different ice creams, a Bakewell pudding, crème brulee, a chocolate sponge and a treacle tart, and a cheese plate. And lots of custard, “Cos everyone loves custard,” he said, as he covered the last available inch of the large table top.

Thornbridge were already the most exciting and innovative young brewery in England. As they continue to seek out pubs they can do this to (the pub company, BrewKitchen, is a joint venture with Richard Smith, Sheffield’s most celebrated cook), they look like raising the bar on what a pub should deliver too.

You could almost forgive them all for being Wednesday fans.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Consumer Journalism, Gonzo Style

In the mid-nineties I used to dream of writing for Loaded magazine, with no trace of shame or furtive embarrassment. Sure, one month they’d have perky Jo Guest on the cover, or Liz Hurley in her underbashers, but that would be interspersed with Richard E Grant, Frank Skinner or Michael Caine. Scantily clad women were just one of the laddish obsessions featured, and whether it was regular features such as ‘greatest living Englishman’ or ‘drop me bacon sandwich’, comic consumer journalism triumphs such as the Crisps World Cup, or in-depth pieces of travel writing such as the time they endured several days at Mardi Gras without sleep or drove a Land Rover through the Amazon basin, there was a Gonzo intelligence and wit at work that lifted it far above the simple tits, vomit and football formula that lads mags have become. They were living the dream, inspired by Hunter S Thompson's Gonzo journalism, they became part of the stoeis they covered, making laddish behaviour almost heroic. Around 1999 I realised I was embarrassed to be seen reading it in public – and ‘reading’ had become a bit of a euphemism, as the long articles had disappeared – and I stopped buying it.

Until now. Six weeks ago, I lived the dream and spent an afternoon getting pissed with the editor of Loaded.

The occasion was a return to the old days of inspired consumer features: the Credit Crunch Booze Test. With a looming recession, we have to economise, so what are the best budget and supermarket own label beers? The brief was to do a proper, professional tasting job, which I tried my best to deliver. The results are in the August issue, which actually came out at the beginning of July and is due to come off the shelves any day now – I missed it the first time I looked because it’s not listed in the contents section, but you can find it on page 28-29, between an article on pandas and a feature on inflatable pubs. (You can easily spot this issue on the newsagent’s shelf – it’s the one with a naked lady cupping her bare boobs on the front). In fact here it is:

The editor, Martin Daubney, really knew his way around beer and gave me a run for my money in pinning down the various tasting notes – or lack thereof. Buy the mag for the full results – all I’ll say is that if I ever find myself on my uppers with less than 60p to spend on my beer, I’m off to Lidl. They really do pull it out of the bag. Loaded seems to have had a modest revival – it has proper articles, and interviews with actors such as Christian Bale and James MacEvoy. It is still what it is – the literary equivalent of Carling – but next to Zoo and Nuts it’s like the Economist.

After we tasted the beers Martin asked me if I’d mind moving on to vodkas and whiskies, and the afternoon started to unravel. I needed something to wash away the taste of Aldi’s ‘Voska’ (our expert commented “as they say in Withnail and I, even the wankers on the site wouldn’t drink it.’”), and we repaired to Loaded’s local for a very fine pint of London Pride.

Remembering the heady days of Loaded’s youth, I was excited about where things might go from here. It was a Friday, it was late afternoon, and we were already well-oiled. Would the rest of the gang join us after putting the feature to bed? Perhaps they’d invite along some page three girls. Maybe on the spur of the moment we’d charter a helicopter and fly to Amsterdam for last orders. Literally, anything might happen. But I could never have predicted what did. In a sad sign of the times, Martin looked at his watch, said, “Shit,” downed his pint and profusely apologised. He was running late for some market research focus groups about the magazine, which he had to attend that evening.

I’m just glad Hunter S Thompson didn’t live long enough to see such a thing.