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

What's new?

What's new?
Next beer book - now called 'Miracle Brew' - is finished! You can still subscribe to it here.
You can still listen to The Apple Orchard on BBC iPlayer radio
I'm taking the pub on tour - four dates between now and Christmas.
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Monday, 16 January 2017

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there's a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It's one of my favourite competitions, because it's global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you're tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and... well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard. 

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you're going to get. You accept you're going to get some that you're not best friends with, but hope that it'll balance out and that you'll get some good ones. Sometimes - as I found with the Tripels the year before - getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit, syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you've ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it's a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was 'to style' or not? 

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don't spend too much time thinking about what's going on in the mouth, and that's fine - beer is a social lubricant, and while you're drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven't taken it in because you've been thinking about something else, or there's music playing and you can't recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there's a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it's in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else. 

I've seen many craft beer fans necking beers they've paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There's nothing wrong with that - even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you'd look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you. 

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what's going on with it, and not just when you're judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here's my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that's correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to 'get' notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here's an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you're into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what's it doing, really? I honestly can't tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can't be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it? 

I don't think so. 

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of "She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes."

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details. 

But I'm meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole. 

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here's a strawberry beer. "I'm getting strawberries." OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and feet like they belonged together. 

By the end of the morning I'd enjoyed several of the beers, and I'd scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I'm in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It's also dependent on the context of the beer you've ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It's also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness. 

It's flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from 'retronasal olfaction,' meaning you really get it when it's in your mouth/when you're swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose. 

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not? 

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma's promise. But overall, I'm looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn't doing it, it's not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there's an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I'm increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip. 

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional? 

Here, I then start to think about whether I'm actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What's it trying to be, and does it succeed? 

If it's trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I've nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it's trying to do.) 

If it's trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea). 

FINISH
After-taste is a sensory experience - partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you've swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing - how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you've paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz completely you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I'd enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them - even the ones I didn't like - to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it. 

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Beery Books for Christmas

Obviously you've already bought mine (or dropped strong hints to have it bought for you) but it's been a bumper year for beer books. Here are my three favourites of 2016.


The World Atlas of Beer (second edition)
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Mitchell Beazley, RRP £25


 Michael Jackson's first World Guide to Beer (and its vinous forerunner, Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine) set a template for coffee table drinks books that has slowly mutated over the years, and spawned off-shoots in the 'how many beers to drink before you die' mould that seem to be hitting the shelves daily. I question the need for books like this, partly because there are so bloody many of them and they're all essentially the same, and partly because if you want beer reviews, the internet is a much more up-to-date and accessible way of getting them. But these books work because people love having them all in one place and ticking them off - or some people do, at any rate. 

What's surprising when you go back to Jackson's first book now is that there isn't a single page of bottle shots and tasting notes, just longer, highly readable articles about different countries, regions and styles. 

In this second edition of their guide - the first of which established Beaumont and Webb as the natural heirs to Jackson in the format he created - the authors managed to convince the publishers to get rid of the pages of bottle shot and tasting notes that have crept in over the years, and use the space instead to actually write about beer rather than simply cataloguing it. That makes this book a blast of fresh air in a format that's become stuffy.

The world of good beer has expanded greatly since Jackson first mapped it out, and that's why a book like this today needs two authors, one on either side of the Atlantic, if it is to be as authoritative as it needs to be. Both Webb and Beaumont have been writing about beer for decades - they have about sixty years experience between them. They still travel regularly to both the obvious beer countries - the US, Belgium, Germany, UK - and those that are rapidly emerging as new craft beer stars, such as Brazil, Spain, Japan. 

At times the book's scope is stretched a little too thin - some of the minor countries get a page with a nice photo and just enough room to list three or four up-and-coming craft brewers - but in the countries you really want to read about, no one does it better than these two. They combine their knowledge with a very dry wit, and don't suffer fools gladly. The tone is calm scholarship rather than breathless enthusiasm, and they're unafraid to be critical. But on every page you feel like you're in the company of experts who love their subject.

(Like big, epic beer tomes? You should also check out the gargantuan Belgian Beer Book by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker, Lanoo, RRP £45.) 


Beer in So Many Words
Adrian Tierney-Jones (editor), Safe Haven Books in association with The Homewood Press, RRP £14.99


It's not just beer writers who write about beer, and not all beer writing is good. To pull together an anthology of the best writing about beer (as opposed to 'beer writing') requires an extensive knowledge of the subject as well as being well-read much more broadly. 

The contents page of the book is a delight to read in itself. As a community, beer geeks and writers need to be reminded fairly regularly that beer doesn't belong just to us, that it's a popular drink that is appreciated by a wide range of people. And here, names like Boak and Bailey, Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Melissa Cole and, well, me, rub shoulders with Dylan Thomas, Ian Rankin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Charles Dickens. 

This is a book to lose yourself in, to wander back and forth through, to put down briefly and take a sip of something dark and rich while you ponder. It's themed in sections: The Taste of Beer, Beer in Pubs, Beer People, Brewing, Beer Journeys, Beer and Food and The Meaning of Beer. It reminds you of what made you fall in love with beer (and reading, and writing) and is highly likely to give you fresh perspectives and insights on a subject you thought you knew all about. 

(Like anthologies of writing about beer? You should also check out 
CAMRA's Beer Anthology: a Pub Crawl through British Culture, edited by Roger Protz, CAMRA, RRP £9.99)

Food and Beer
Daniel Burns and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Phaidon, RRP £29.95


Of all the avalanche of beer books being published right now, the most dramatic trend is in books about beer and food. Within the last couple of years, I've acquired a whole bookshelf full on this subject alone.

I'm a keen cook, and am always looking for inspiration. I use some of these books often, but am often frustrated that most of them seem to consist mainly of big hunks of red meat, of burgers, wings and pulled pork, of melted cheese and stout-braised ribs and sticky puddings with rich glazes. I'm sure it's all very nice, but I'm already bored of the kind of food because it seems to be the only thing you ever get served in craft-centric pubs and bars. When I get home, I want to eat more healthily. At the same time, I want to push my cooking skills, taking time out of writing to do something absorbing and satisfying, learning new techniques and skills. 

'Food and Beer' may not be the most exciting title of a book about food and beer (I've already got three different books called Beer and Food, and one other Food and Beer) but this is the topic getting a higher end, classier treatment than it's ever had so far, and it's no accident that 'food' comes first in the title. Chef Daniel Burns has cooked at Noma and the Fat Duck, and gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bergso founded Evil Twin brewing and also worked as beer director at Noma, routinely billed as the best restaurant in the world. 

What I like about this book is that there's stuff that is insanely ambitious for an amateur like me, with those kinds of recipe that are actually five separate recipes nested within one big dish that require two days of work. But there are also relatively simple things to test yourself out with - anyone can make a heritage tomato sandwich with cider-infused mayonnaise.

Having put this book through its paces in my kitchen, it has one major flaw. A friend of mine works as a recipe tester for various celebrity chefs, taking their ideas and cooking them in her well-appointed but strictly domestic kitchen, and working out the timings, quantities and temperatures that actually work in a kitchen  a little less awesome than Noma's. Like several other beer and food books I've acquired this year, this book really, desperately, needed her input. Some of the quantities in recipes are utterly nonsensical (Welsh Rarebit that contains ten times the volume of double cream to that of cheese? Really?) and whatever oven they worked out the cooking times on bears no relationship whatsoever to how mine works. 

But with that fairly significant caveat aside, this is a book that combines two elements I've always wanted from a beer and food book: one, it seriously elevates beer as both an accompaniment and an ingredient. There's nothing wrong with beer being allied with hearty pub and bar fare, but it's good to see it in haute cuisine, showing its adaptability and scope. And secondly, it inspires me to be a better cook, and makes me believe I can stretch and do some of the more challenging dishes. (Although it might be a while before I attempt the pork broth and smoked egg whites on chrysanthemum base paired with smoked wheat beer.) 

(Like reading about how beer and food go together? Also check out Mark Dredge's Cooking With Beer, Dog & Bone, RRP £16.99)


Disclosure: I'm good friends with the authors of the first book and the editor of the second one. One big reason we're good friends is that we admire each other's work. I genuinely love these books, and have tried not to let friendship bias me in my opinion of them.



Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beer Writer of the Year

On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time. 


I even bought a suit.

It caps an incredible year for me and I'm obviously delighted. But I still wouldn't recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won't be repeating this trick any time soon.

I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to 're-brew' with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense - the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers - just weeks before his passing was something I'll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book. 

In case you're interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:




I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I've written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I'm not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines - if you haven't done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.

As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it's my name on the front I'm only a third of the team. People's first reaction to it is that it's a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.

Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year. 

It's a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn't the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories. 

Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you're in the thick of it, phrases like 'the standard was really high this year' and 'the quality of entries continues to improve' get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I'll be chair of the judges next year. I've done this twice before. It's always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I've never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I'll be here writing 'the standard of entries was very high this year' and 'the judge's decision was an extremely difficult one.' 

I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it. 

For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Pub - On Tour

My new book on pubs spans the whole of the UK. So it only seems fair to take it back to the places where it was researched.

Still need that elusive Christmas present for that difficult-to-buy-for person? Looking for an evening to kick off Christmas party season? I'm taking my new book (well, one of them) on tour. 




The Pub is a coffee table, illustrated book that celebrates the unique cultural institution of the British pub. But it's more than that. The main reason most people choose a pub is because of its atmosphere, but atmosphere is very tricky to write about. I've given it the best shot I can. 

In these events, I'll be reading a selection from the fifty short essays in the book that seek to evoke the atmosphere of the best pubs I came across - best in that respect anyway. These are not the best beer pubs or food pubs, nor the most historic or architecturally stunning (though many of them do score highly in these attributes.) They're the pubs that feel special when you walk in, that feel like home, even if you can't immediately figure out why.

But it would get dull if I just read out lots of short essays. 

So I'll also be illustrating my talk with a selection of the stunning photography from the book, giving you what I'm told is a fiendishly hard pub quiz to do, holding the Great Crisp Flavour Challenge, and contravening intellectual property rights with my travesty of Bullseye

These are the dates we managed to fit in before Christmas. There are some glaringly obvious gaps here which I aim to fill in the New Year. (Norwich, Leeds and London being among the main candidates.)




These events are in association with Waterstones, who will be selling books at the events, and each pub is, obviously, one that features in the book. Admission is free but tickets need to be booked in advance, and are available from eventbrite

I had such great times in these places while I was researching the book. Hoping to repeat the experience. See you there.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Book of the Week

The Apple Orchard - coming to a radio near you...


I'm enormously proud, and more than a little nervous, that this morning BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting the first episode of the serialisation of my new book, The Apple Orchard. 

My last narrative book, Shakespeare's Local, was also Book of the Week, so I guess lightning can strike twice. It's an enormous honour to be chosen. Shakespeare's Local was read out by Tony 'Baldrick' Robinson, who made my words sound about 100 times funnier and more interesting than they read on the page. To follow that up, the producers decided they would like The Apple Orchard to be read by... me. 

I can talk on radio just fine, but reading out something scripted is an entirely different skill, one I learned quickly in a studio in Glasgow three weeks ago. You can hear the results at 9.45am each day this week, Monday to Thursday.


There are many different strands to The Apple Orchard. Most people who know me keep referring to it as my 'cider book', and I have to stop myself referring to it in that way still. There's a lot of cider drunk in the book, and cider production is addressed in detail towards the end, but it's mainly about the cycle of the apple year, the history and nature of apple cultivation, and the symbolism and significance of this fruit in our lives, what it tells us about systems of belief and how we make sense of the world. 

That's an awful lot to fit into four fifteen minute broadcasts, so the abridger at Radio 4 had to choose one thread to follow. He chose to focus on the cycle of the apple year and what needs to be done in the orchard at various times. So this week, you can hear about the origins of the apple and how it came to England, how I learn to prune and graft apple trees, and the joy of apple harvest. I think of it as a 'remix' of the book, with different elements shuffled around to create something new, simpler and leaner.

This seemingly ordinary fruit is in fact one of the most potent symbols in our lives. It was a life-changing joy to unravel its story.

If you're not near a radio at 9.45am, you can catch up on iPlayer by following the link in the screen grab above. The Apple Orchard will be available for about 30 days.


I've been asked a lot if all this means I don't write about beer any more. I can assure you that I do. I'm doing the final edits to my new beer book this week, which will be available spring 2017. After I've finished that, I'll be blogging all the stuff about beer I didn't have time to address while I was working on these books. I'm also writing regularly for the Morning Advertiser, Original Gravity and Ferment magazines. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Budweiser: You Can't Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America's beer just can't stop stealing things from southern Bohemia...

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I've seen plenty of good ads from Bud before - stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it's true, it's centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category - good lager takes time to mature. 



Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That's not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it's a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool. 

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer's astonishingly long lagering time - five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:


The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There's a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:




Having stolen the idea, they've now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? 'You can't rush perfection.' Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.


Come on, Budweiser. You've already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You've copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I'd run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers' Association, the idea being that we'd pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that's the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn't have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. I don't promote Samuel Smith's beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with... nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but... wasn't there anything else in that style? No.

I've just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed 'American-style' brown ales, but no English-style examples. It's a similar story across various other retailers. 

I'm not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American 'English-style barley wines' but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller's Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we'd been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit 'British beer for British people' rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we've ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of 'what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better' means that we're not innovating with styles developed here. You can't just argue that it's because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don't already know him, read this short biography, it's incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I'd like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There's no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it's an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia's original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you're lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren't exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I'd visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It's now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I'm doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching... a new brown ale! I haven't tasted it yet. Those who have say it's great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I've seen some of the recipes. But they weren't defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs.