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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...