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What's new?

What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Two Peters venture into the world of video blogging

Peter Amor is a very nice man.  25 years ago he set up the Wye Valley Brewery, which brews some very nice beers indeed.  Earler this year, once the silver jubilee celebrations had died down, he decided he wanted to give something back to the industry he´d built his livelihood on.  He wanted to do something to help celebrate British beer.

Ian Hudson, a former brewery employee, had by this time set up a film production conmpany.  So Ian and Peter started talking, then contacted me with a view to making some kind of film that sang the praises of British beer.

After kicking a few ideas around, we decided to start off by making a series of video blogs.  Once a month, we will be filming in a particular region of the UK, to produce monthly pairs of blogs.  I believe (though I may be wrong) that these represent a bit of a depatrture for V-Blogging in that they´re made with a full film crew and hopefully therefore have a veneer of professionalism to them. 

They´re not necessarily aimed at a beer geek audience but at a more general public, and we´re exploring ways to give them a wider reach in an age where TV channels won´t commission many serious content about beer.  So if you´re a fellow beer blogger and you´re thinking ´this is rally basic stuff´ - fine, but it´s not basic to most people.  The featured beers will be limited to cask ales, because that´s what Peter´s passionate about and he´s paying the bills.  But in today´s brewing scene, limiting it to cask is hardly a hardship.     

My bit is easy.  I have to select a few beers from that region, drink them, and talk about them on camera.  We decided to do the first one from Nottingham, home of the 2010 Champion Beer of Britain, Harvest Pale.  Here are the results.  Apart from convincing me of the urgent need for a diet, I´m quite pleased. 

Pete Brown's British Beer Blog from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

Mr Amor has a harder task.  He has to explain the history and production of beer, the ingredients and the process. Here´s his first one.

Peter Amor's British Brewing Blog from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

We´re quite pleased with the results for a first go.  Next month we´re in Wales.  If you think we should come and see you, let me know!

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Cask Report

Have spent most of the day in a radio studio doing syndicated interviews about the Cask Report, which we’re launching today.  This means the Report, which I was hoping to put up here as an exclusive here earlier today, has already been picked up by several bloggers which, along with some favourable national media coverage, is great stuff.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m hardly a cask ale purist.  I regularly criticize people who are.  But cask ale is the most misunderstood of beers.  And it was cask ale brewers who got together and decided we needed an industry report on their part of the beer market.  I’m proud to write the report each year, and to be a spokesperson for cask ale when the report comes out. 

This year’s report contains great news for cask ale brewers and pubs that sell it.  In fact, it’s the best news we’ve had in the four years I’ve been doing the report: 
  • 5% value growth versus 2% value decline for beer overall.
  • Volume steady versus 4% volume decline for beer overall – the first time since 1994 that cask volume hasn’t fallen.
  • 120,000 new drinkers taking total cask drinkers to 8.6 million
  • 4% increase in distribution, with 3000 new pubs stocking cask
  • Average age of the cask drinker is getting younger – 17% increase in 18-24 year-old drinkers.

This in an amazing performance given the general state of pubs and the collapse of volume in the beer market as a whole.

But despite the fact that many people simplify this good news into “cask is growing”, actually it's not.  Cask's fantastic performance is great news for drinkers, but good as it is, it's still only static in volume terms.  That's because most cask ale drinkers only drink it infrequently, and average throughput of cask ale (in line with beer generally) is down 5 per cent.  

I have a tiny worry that in spreading the good news about cask, we might make drinkers, brewers and pubs complacent, that all you need to do is stick a few handpulls on the bar and everything will be sorted.  

It doesn't work like that.

In the beer world, we spend time with other like-minded people.  The brewers and publicans I speak to are all doing really well, but that's because they work hard developing beers, keeping them in great condition, and telling people how good they are.  It doesn't happen automatically.  46% of the UK population have still never tried cask ale.  Only 18% of drinkers claim to drink it on a regular basis.  People still don't know that much about it.  

It's important that anyone who loves cask ale who reads the report (downloadable here in full) reads the warnings as well as the fantastic news on cask's resurgence.

Look, I just do as I'm told.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Plzen: Built on Beer

OK so the live blogging experiment was only partially successful (what can I say? I had a cold).  But here, better late than never, is another post from our recent beer bloggers’ Czech trip.

In retrospect, some places seem fated to become what they are, drawn hopelessly to their destiny.  I thought I knew the story of Plzen, but as with so many stories, the narrative is geological.  Sometimes I’m a historian, but sometimes you have to be an archaeologist: if you gently scrape away the story on the surface, you find another one beneath, and maybe even one below that.
Wonder if this is where my publisher got the idea for the horrid old cover of Man Walks into a Pub from?

Plzen (places in the Czech Republic have both German and Czech names, and when you’re there it starts to feel appropriate to use the Czech spelling) is synonymous with beer, and with the date 1842, when Josef Groll allegedly brewed the first golden lager, the style which eventually became known as Pilsner.  That’s bollocks of course – there was golden lager before Groll – but there’s no denying the astonishing impact his intervention had on the beer world.

Legend has it that the circumstances leading up to Groll’s appointment saw the quality of the town’s beer deteriorate so badly that it was ceremonially poured down the drain in front of the town hall.  Prior to this, the people of Plzen had had the right to brew themselves – a privilege not given lightly.  After the ceremonial dumping of the beer, the city formed a burghers brewery, a collective venture that employed Groll and made history.

The clues to the layer beneath are there for all to see in that story.  Why was beer so important to the citizens of Plzen?  Why did they all have brewing rights?

And so you come back to fate and destiny.

Plzen lies in rolling, tree-lined Bohemian countryside.  Naked, in the thirteenth century, it would have been one of those locations that screamed “Build on me!”, especially if you were looking to build a gaff that could be easily defended during centuries of almost constant warfare.  Amid a confluence of rivers, stands a gentle, dome shaped hill.  Town square on top of the hill, a cathedral in the middle of that with a 100-metre-high tower for observation, nice grid system of streets, a network of walls and moats at the bottom of the hill, and you’ve got a town that withstood fairly regular assault until 1618 and the opening exchanges of the Thirty Years War.

Why is this relevant to beer?  Because that gentle hill is made of sandstone, easily excavated.  And as soon as the town was granted its charter in 1295, the citizens began to dig.  First cellars, then tunnels joining them up, and soon there was a 19km underground network inside the hill.   

And according to the tour guide (not always reliable, but in this case very plausible), the initial reason for digging was storage for beer – in other words, lagering.  All burghers had brewing rights, and it seems many used them.  It backs up what Protzy has discovered talking to historic German breweries, that lagering goes back much longer than we thought.  In the labyrinth beneath Plzen, there are even underground bars and restaurants, where people who brewed better beer than their neighbours sold it to them though holes in their cellar walls.

You can now go on a tour of the ‘Plzen historic underground’ starting at the town’s brewery museum.  Thankfully the old man in Czech trousers who greets your hangover with traditional songs played on an accordion remains on the surface, and a sexy-librarian type tour guide issues hard hats (this is not just health and safety gone mad – you will smack your head) and guides you through 800 metres of tunnels and caves.

The sound of running water is constant.  There are about 360 wells down here, providing the famous soft water that’s so important to Pilsner beer.  The natural temperature is around five degrees Celsius.  Among the many museum pieces are drinking vessels from down the centuries.  Tin steins from the fifteenth century look pretty similar to anything you see in souvenir shops today.

OK, the table's from IKEA, but the tankard is over four centuries old.

All these factors – along with the treasured Saaz hops grown nearby – come together to make brewing great beer seem inevitable.  Beer came to the Czech Republic with its first inhabitants – evidence of brewing and drinking has been found in the dwellings of early Teutons, Slavs and Celts, and by AD 922 the newly consecrated Bishop Vojtech was complaining about the scale of brewing in Brevnov monastery in Prague. 

So Plzen was a hugely significant brewing city before Groll came along.  In fact, that’s why they hired him – it was inconceivable that the city should have substandard beer after such a long brewing history.  Plzen literally stands on its brewing heritage.  The question is, what really happened to make such dramatic intervention necessary?  Why did the burghers pool their collective brewing rights?  Did the beer really deteriorate so badly it had to be poured away, or was the move simply a less dramatic reaction to the Industrial Revolution, an acknowledgement that brewing needed to happen on a bigger scale?

I don’t know, but in Plzen, nobody is saying anything to spoil the legend.