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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, 22 August 2013

"Events, dear boy, events!" (As Harold Macmillan probably didn't say)

Early autumn is busy at the best of times and I have a book coming out in October. Here's what's keeping me on the road and off the streets for the next couple months.

This one goes out to all the ad industry planners doing the job I used to do. I'm leading a meander of planners around Southwark tomorrow lunchtime, discussing Shakespeare's Local and ending up in The George. Contact Sarah Newman at the APG to book a place if you're interested.

I feel a bit bad that a pub named after George Orwell - one of the greatest ever English writers - was changed to the name of one of my books. But not too bad. The Hops & Glory is an excellent pub at the top of Essex Road in Islington. This Bank Holiday Weekend it's having an IPA festival, and they invited me down to do a talk on the history of possible the greatest ever beer style. I'll be talking, reading from Hops & Glory, signing books and tasting beers.

(After my talk, I'll be checking out two other excellent Bank Holiday events in pubs that are walking distance from the Hops & Glory, purely as punter: a weekend-long cider festival at The Alma on Newington Green, and a celebration of East London Breweries at the Duke of Wellington on Balls Pond Road.)

Meantime's Old Brewery hosts a monthly beer dinner where you get to taste a stunning array of beers bound together by a loose theme. I was delighted to be asked back to do a new one after a successful IPA dinner at the end of last year. The theme for this one is the role of beer throughout British history, and a look at the different forces that have shaped the development of beer, and the way beer has in turn influenced the development of society. The beers on the menu are a symbolic, rather than literal, representation of key styles over time, starting from the present day and moving back in time. Here's the menu in full:

A History of Britain According to Beer
The Old Brewery Beer and Food Night Menu

Meantime London Pilsner
Timothy Taylor Landlord

Smoked eel, carrot and beetroot salad, horseradish cream
Hobson’s Mild

Beef Wellington, Welsh potato cakes, ale gravy
Redchurch Great Eastern IPA

Apple pie with custard & vanilla ice cream
Meantime London Porter

A selection of British cheese with beer chutney & crackers
St Bernardus Pater C
To finish
Kernel Export Stout

Full details and ticket booking are available at the Meantime Old Brewery website.

The 'Glastonbury of Food Festivals' (copyright: the entire foodie media) has become a bit of a regular fixture for me and every year it's so good I decide that I'm emigrating to Wales before subsequently sobering up. This year Bill Bradshaw and I will be talking about World's Best Cider and sampling a few different ciders from around the world. 

Tickets for this event have already sold out! Returns may be available. But the next day, Bill will be interviewing one of my favourite cider makers - Simon Day from Once Upon A Tree. Simon's ciders are quite unlike anything you might imagine, recalling the seventeenth century tradition of Herefordshire fine cyder. I'll be in the front row holding my glass up. Tickets are available here.

The book hits the shelves! We'll be doing various events around the country. Details will go up here when confirmed. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

How to survive the Great British Beer Festival.

Huzzah! GBBF trade day dawns. If a bomb fell on Olympia this afternoon, there would be no British brewing industry left. And no British beer bloggers either... don't get any ideas now.

GBBF can be a gruelling event, especially for the uninitiated. So here's a guide based on 15 years experience - a few simple DOs and DON'Ts to maximise your beery enjoyment:
  • DO look after your glass. Repeat after Me: "This is my glass. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My glass is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My glass, without me, it's useless. Without my glass, I am useless. My glass and I know that what counts in this festival is not the beards we wear, the noise of our burps, nor the silent-but-deadly farts we make. We know that it is the beers that count. I will keep my glass clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. Before God, I swear this creed."
  • Men, DON'T extend this duty of care to holding your pint in one hand while holding your penis in the other, pissing into the urinal. It's not a great look, especially if you drain the dregs of your glass while shaking. Leave your glass with trusted friends, or finish your pint before you go to pee and use the opportunity to rinse your glass when you - here's a hint - WASH YOUR HANDS.
  • DO eat before you go. You'll need some stomach lining and you may not want to rely on the food concessions on site. Rumour has it that some of the burgers date back to the first time the festival was held at Olympia in 1992. And who eats olives? No but really though?
  • DON'T head straight for Bieres San Frontieres, the 'foreign beer bar'. Yes, we all know it's going to have the most interesting, rarest, most flavoursome brews, but they're all at least 10% ABV and if you start on them your time at the festival will be dramatically curtailed.
  • DO be kind to the volunteers. This is their day in the sun - literally. Sometimes, it's the only day they see the sun all year. They aren't used to being around so many people and can startle easily. But they only lash out when frightened - making inappropriate 'jokes' about health and safety regulation infringements is not big or clever and if you do so you deserve all you get. They do a great job and the festival could not run without them. in recent years, they've even acquired admirable social skills.
  • DON'T bother trying to make sense of how the beers are organised and laid out. You'll just be wasting valuable drinking time. Instead, treat GBBF as a magical mystery tour. Relax and go with the flow, wandering the bars at random and just trying anything that takes your fancy. There are over 800 beers and ciders and there's bound to be something worth trying whichever bar you find yourself in front of, however random the combination of region, alphabetical order and association with British historical figures might be. 
  • DO take advantage of the fact that both pint and half pint glasses have a third of a pint marking on them. It is socially acceptable to order small measures and because the volunteers are really touchy about being served short measures in pubs, they pour almost a half when you ask for a third anyway, making it a great value way to drink. If you're still worried, just get a third poured into a pint glass and pretend you're a really fast drinker.
  • If you want to take non-beery friends along to show off your beery prowess and introduce them to some great brews, DON'T take them on Hat Day (Thursday). Hat Day is the great Gathering of the Nerds. Hat Day will make your non-beery friends look at you with the same expression they would wear if you had invited them to Torture Garden.
  • DO takes advantage of the fact that you're in the same physical space as all your beery acquaintances and PUT THE SMARTPHONE DOWN. You can say the word 'awesome' to each other repeatedly in person instead, which is much nicer.
See you down the foreign beer stand real soon.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Flavour: there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. (Or tongue, or nose, or ears...)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a press release from the Tring Brewery, which announced that their beers have been relaunched with a new look that uses 'applied colour psychology' to improve their appeal to drinkers.

Palettes of colours were carefully examined and one specific palette was selected to to convey the right messages about the brewery. According to research, these 'autumnal' tones are warm and comforting, suggesting natural ingredients and care for the environment.

It's a clever move. And if it sounds to you like so much marketing psychobabble, prepare to have your perceptions of reality challenged.

The story reminded me of a dinner I attended as part of this year's Edinburgh Science Festival. That the dinner just happened to fall on April Fool's Day had no bearing on what followed, but provides a nice backdrop of incredulity - which itself could potentially play a role.

It all started when I began doing beer and music matching events.  I wrote a few years ago about experiments at Heriot Watt university which suggested that the flavour of wine - or the perception of it - could be altered by different styles of music. I took this as an inspiration to mess about pairing great beers with classic albums, the basis of an event I've done at literary festivals and corporate gigs a few times now. With a sound basis in science, it was an excuse to have a bit of fun and find a different way to present beers to people.

Word of my doing this eventually reached Professor Charles Spence, who spends his life looking into something called 'crossmodal research', or 'multi-sensory perception'. He invited me to bring my party piece to Edinburgh's Sensory Dining dinner. Here, 150 people had their senses challenged, and flavour was revealed to be far more complex and mysterious than anyone outside the fields of neuroscience or molecular gastronomy would have thought.

I learned far too much for one blog post, but here are a few highlights that show influencing our perceptions via colour palettes is merely the tip of a humming, red-hot iceberg. That smells of bacon.

Taste and Aroma
Most people who write about beer (and many who enjoy it) will already know that 'flavour' is not synonymous with 'taste', as we often use it to be, but is in fact a combination of taste and aroma - of which aroma makes up about 80%. 

So here's a question: if four-fifths of flavour sensing is happening in the nose, why do we experience it - or think we do - in out mouths? It's only by isolating nose and mouth that we can show ourselves what's really going on, for example by holding your nose while eating. Psychologists, neuroscientists and even philosophers are currently exploring the question.

The coffee flavour wheel - but it's not as simple as that.

I've always told people that if you hold your nose - or drink beer from a bottle, which is the same thing - you're cutting out that 80% of flavour. But our first experiment gave an interesting development on this. We were given bags of Skittles, tiny sweets with intense fruit flavours. We held our noses and placed them in our mouths, and could taste nothing but sugary sweetness.  But then, with out mouths closed, we let go of our noses and the flavours flooded in, instantly recognisable as lime, lemon, strawberry etc. This is 'retronasal' activity - when the nasal passages are clear, air breathed in through the nose brings alive flavour which you think is in your mouth, but isn't. You're not 'smelling' it, but experiencing it in your nasal cavity via the passages linking the nose and the back of the mouth.  

Taste and Sight
It's often been said that the first bite is with the eye. But that goes way beyond something simply 'looking appetising'. For this experiment, we were served black ravioli, green mushrooms and purple pesto. It has to be said, it didn't look great:

Black pasta is at least familiar, and I 'tasted' squid ink even if it was only food colouring. The green mushrooms were a real struggle, and the pesto didn't 'taste' of pesto at all, but to me, of something quite fruity. 

This was a toned down version of a previous experiment that had been thought apocryphal, but which Charles Spence has managed to track down. In the early 1970s a bunch of people were fed a meal of steak, chips and peas under very low lighting. Halfway through, the lights were turned up and everything was the wrong colour. The steak was bright blue, and the sight of it caused half the diners to vomit, even though the steak was fine. 

Colour perception in food and drink is hardwired into our evolution. In evolutionary terms, fruit turns into beautiful, attractive colours when it is fully ripe and ready to eat. It wants to be eaten, because its seeds are then spread in the spoor of animals who move around and spread it over a wider area. 

Adding red food colouring to certain foods makes it 'taste' 10% sweeter.

But meat and fish are not meant to be blue. 

This reminded me of another press release I received back in March. An American company called DD Williamson gave teenagers three different drinks: one clear, one brown, one pink. They were, of course, identical apart from the colour. The respondents (81% of them) correctly identified the clear drink as having a lemon-lime flavour. The best they could do with the brown one was describe it as 'sweet' or 'fruity' (34%) with 15% saying it tasted of cola. The red one was considered 'fruity', 'berry' or 'sweet' by 38%, with others suggesting cola or ginger ale.    

A couple of years ago, Brew Dog and Stone collaborated to produce a 'pale imperial oatmeal stout'. I tasted it with a blindfold at the launch of Brew Dog Camden, and was suitably amazed when the colour was revealed. 

Taste and Sound
Back to Edinburgh, and next up it was my gig. After what I'd experienced so far I was worried I might be bringing the tone down by pairing the Pixies' Debaser with Duvel and simply saying, 'Good, innit?' (It is though - it really works!) 

So I decided to go a bit further. With Chimay Red, I chose Debussy's Clair de Lune (specifically, from about 1.46 on this clip) because I thought it paired well with elegance, structure and swirling, mysterious depths (though Chimay Blue might have been better for this). I faded it out halfway through, and brought up Hendrix's All Along The Watchtower instead, for its darkness and heaviness. Just about everyone thought the flavour of the beer changed. And 70-80% of those who did felt it tasted better with Hendrix.

But Charles Spence went one better - because he does this shit for real. He has briefed a composer to take one simple, tonal piece of music and arrange it in the style of 'sweet', 'bitter', 'salty' and 'acidic'. He played each piece, and asked us to choose which flavour it aligned with. Obviously we could be back in pretentious territory here. But every time Charles does this, he gives the audience buttons to press which record their responses, so over time he's building up a database of the choices people make. In our session, between 70-80% of respondents agreed on which piece of music went with which taste, and these findings were consistent with Charles' norms. We may not be able to explain why, but we make consistent connections between certain sounds and certain flavours. 

Taste and touch/texture
For this course/experiment we had a nice shepherd's pie with a leek and potato mash, and a range of utensils to eat it with. It tasted completely different when eaten with wooden, plastic and stainless steel spoons. It's all about how the texture of the spoon influences the food. Interestingly, stainless steel, even when scratched, will react with the air and 'repair' the coating that prevents food tasting of metal. It's therefore actually better than silver.  According to Mark Miodownik, the materials scientist who presented this course, we're the first generations to be able to taste our food without its flavour being compromised.

As a tip - this is why you shouldn't taste something from a wooden spoon while cooking - unless your guests are also going to be eating with wooden utensils, it's going to taste different when served.

Mixing it all up - synaesthesia
This next bit is where the headfuck really kicked in for me. 

Synaesthesia, where the senses get mixed up, affects around one in 23 people. (It's difficult to say for sure because there are so many different varieties of it and many people aren't aware they have it.) Like many who consider themselves creative, I'd like to think I have a form of it but have never been sure, suspecting I was probably making it up. 

How synaesthetes might see letters and numbers - for some, each has its own colour

Julia Simner, a neuropsychologist and leading expert in synaesthesia, gave us each two lumps of sugar, one a cube, the other round. She told us one of them had been impregnated with a lemon flavouring and the other had not. Which one was flavoured? 

Jumping ahead, I guessed that shape would be influencing our perceptions, and that the two lumps were probably the same. I stared at them. "OK, if I have synaesthesia, the square will taste of lemon," I thought to myself. Then I tasted them. "Oh no, it's the round one - that really does have lemon flavouring, she wasn't messing about. It's really very clear."

She then told us that neither shape had flavouring added - they were both just sugar.

So I have a crap palate then, I thought, or I'm just susceptible to suggestion. 

But here's the thing - I went back for another taste, and even after being told there was no added flavouring to either, that they were identical, the round one still tasted of lemon - even though I knew objectively and rationally that it didn't. 

Was she lying? Was this a double bluff? 

I put the two shapes behind my back, broke off a piece from each, swapped them around, tasted when I could not possibly know which shape each had come from - and they both just tasted of sugar, and nothing more. I looked at them again, tasted again, and the round one tasted of lemon. This carried on until I'd broken off so many bits the shapes were eroded. Eventually they were both just similar-looking blobs of sugar. The lemon flavour disappeared. 

I have no idea what practical use this newly discovered link between shape and flavour could possibly be, but it's there, for me at least.

And totally screwing it around - the miracle berry
Finally, we were each given a miracle berry pill. This small fruit is sometimes used as a sweetener, not because it is sweet itself, but because it contains a compound which affects the tastebuds and blocks out sour flavours. 

After eating the berry, we ate a dessert of lemon and lime wedges, which tasted like fresh, sweet oranges.


The truth about what we 'taste' is that most of it happens not in the mouth, but in the brain. "Taste is, ultimately, just the firing of neurons," said one of the speakers. "You don't have to actually eat or drink to experience it."

You can make someone 'taste' a roast beef dinner by opening their skull and stimulating the parts of the brain where taste is experienced (though you should not try this at home).  LSD makes people experience synaesthetic sensations. And due to advances in neuroscience and our increasing ability to map brain activity, we can now both manipulate it and understand it without sawing into people's craniums.

All of which has amde me very nervous indeed about writing beer tasting notes.

After dinner, a few of the flavour academics and I sauntered to the bar. We were in a student union building and there was just one decent beer - Stewart's IPA on cask. We carried on talking about synaesthesia and flavour perception for half an hour or so, and then Charles Spence noticed me frowning and grimacing and asked, "Is there something wrong, Pete?"

Yes there was. I was not enjoying my beer at all. It was dreadfully sweet. There was no hop character whatsoever, and it tasted like someone has stirred three sugars into it to compensate. I should have known better than to trust a student union bar with only one cask handle. 

Julia Simner smiled. "How long ago did you eat the miracle berry pill, Pete?"

"About 45 minutes ago, why?"

"The effect lasts for about an hour."

Let's hope this research never falls into the wrong hands.

Charles Spence has now thrown down the gauntlet to me to up my game in how apply some of this learning to beer and music matching. I will be attempting to do so at my next beer and music matching event, which is happening lunchtime on Sunday 18th August at the Green Man Festival. Given the amount of drugs the audience will have consumed by that time, I'm feeling pretty confident.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Alcopop: the drink that dare not speak its name.

Where's George Orwell when you need him?

The inventor of double speak, already one of the best writers on pubs we've ever had, would have loved the shenanigans happening in the drinks market today.

A couple of days ago, the BBC proclaimed 'The quiet death of the alcopop'.

These are - or were - alcopops.

Under the image above, they told us that the ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage sector of the drinks market (alcopops to you or me) has halved in size since 2005. Interestingly, the decline is blamed on the tacky, garish image of the products above. Not much is said about the desire for sickly sweet, fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages, and whether that has gone away or not.

The truth is, our desire for these concoctions is just as strong as ever. Sales of alcopops are soaring. The leading brands just don't want you to call them alcopops, and some get angry if you do. 

A few weeks ago I wrote in my column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser that Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, which refer to themselves as 'premium fruit ciders', are nothing of the sort. They are alcopops in disguise - admittedly a very fetching, stylish disguise, especially in the case of Rekorderlig, whose packaging and labels are so beautiful that it sometimes takes a mental struggle to remember how unpleasant the product was - to my palate - when I tasted it. 
And this is another alcopop.
I understand that both brands were rather angry with the PMA for printing my opinion. I don't understand why. I based my contention that these producers are not cider simply by quoting the ingredients they list on their labels/websites.

This is also an alcopop.

Kopparberg is made from ‘naturally occurring soft water’, fruit juice, sugar, acidifier (citric acid), flavouring, and potassium sorbate.

Likewise, Rekorderlig consists of ‘fresh spring water, pear and apple wines, sugar, acids: citric acid and sodium citric, berry flavours, preservatives: E202, E220 and caramel colour.’

Cider, on the other hand, is made from apples. The character of any cider depends on the varieties of apple that are blended, just as most great wines are about the blend of grapes (you can of course have single varieties of either). Even a leading commercial cider such as Magner's - which many cider geeks would not consider cider at all - proudly talks on its website about the 17 varieties of apple used to make it. Say what you like about Magner's, and I don't drink it myself, but the draught version contains more Dabinett apple than the bottle does, a specific move to compensate for the fact that it's going to taste different when not poured over ice.

By contrast, I can find no mention of apple varieties anywhere in Kopparberg or Rekorderlig's promotional material. Rekorderlig's website has a tab telling you about 'flavours'. When you click on 'apple', this is what it says:

"Made from the purest Swedish spring water, traditional yet modern Rekorderlig Apple Cider is best served over ice for a crisp, cool and refreshing experience." 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS, the 'apple-flavoured' variant of their 'cider' is made from water rather than apples.

Click on the 'history' bit on Kopparberg's website, and the word 'apple' doesn't appear once. Instead it talks about the minerality in 'Koppaberg's lakes and waters', which proved inspirational to Kopparberg's first 'brew master'. Cider is not 'brewed'. And once again, cider is made from apples. Not water.

It's sad that we have such a lax regulatory environment that these alcopops are allowed to get away with calling themselves ciders. They do so, of course, because cider is so much more fashionable these days than any kind of flavoured alcoholic beverage.

But this post is not just about faux 'fruit' ciders - the current alcopop boom is much broader than that.

This, too, is an alcopop

Jeremiah Weed has had a brilliant launch. Again, it looks and feels too posh to be called an alcopop, but as a ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage, that's exactly what it is. It reeks of authenticity and heritage. In fact it has none whatsoever - it's entirely a creation of 21st century Big Marketing. That aside, at least it doesn't claim to be a different kind of product from what it is.

Or that's what I thought - until the second comment below from alerted me to this news story from last month - it seems Jeremiah Weed is now a cider too! In the company's own words, although this product:
This is an alcopop, also
has not changed from when it was launched as a 'ginger brew', it is now, apparently, a 'Kentucky style cider brew'. (Remember, cider isn't brewed. At all.) And why have they pulled off this astonishing feat? Why have they changed one type of product into a completely different type of product, while not changing the product AT ALL? Why, "to help consumers, retailers and bar staff to better understand the brand's exciting and innovative offering and [entirely fictitious] Kentucky heritage" (my italics). That's right: they've started calling something a cider that isn't a cider and didn't used to be called cider to help people better understand what it is.

And then there's the recent summer sensation: Crabbies ginger beer.

This is a tricky one, because 'ginger beer' is a recognised style of drink. You could get into an awful lot of semantics here because a true 'ginger beer' is brewed from a combination of ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a bacteria called 'ginger beer plant', and this fermentation process produces alcohol. But while it may be called 'beer', it resembles what we commonly understand as 'beer' in no way whatsoever - it has a completely different base of fermentable sugars and flavour ingredients from any beer. In terms of ingredients and process, it looks a lot more like an alcopop. And that's assuming Crabbie's is brewed in the traditional way - which it isn't.

This is - oh, you get it by now.

But this ambiguity has now led to something truly absurd, something which makes the whole long-drinks market look utterly farcical, even more ridiculous than water-based 'ciders'. Here's the trade ad for Crabbie's that ran on the back of the Publican's Morning Advertiser last week:

I don't know what the hell this is, but it's certainly not a premium ale.
A cloudy alcoholic lemonade. Haven't we had these before? Oh yes, they were the original alcopops weren't they? Before the riot of different flavours came along. Surely there is no argument whatsoever that this is an alcopop.

But no: look at the second bullet point down: on the basis that ginger beer could be confused with actual beer, Crabbie's claims to be not an alcopop at all, but a premium ale. That's right: an alcoholic lemonade is classed as being the same kind of product as Fuller's London Pride, Thornbridge Jaipur, and any other ale between 4.2% and 7% ABV.

Alcopops are enjoying a boom to rival anything they saw in the mid-90s, but they've learned their lesson and are now seeking to establish a credibility that will allow them to outlive the natural 'fad' life cycle they enjoyed last time. Because they do not have any intrinsic credibility of their own, the leading brands are stealing it from beer and cider, ashamed to admit what they really are.

A lot of people like them and that's fine - not everything has to be crafted and balanced in flavour. But by claiming to be something they are not, they displace other products that have some integrity, increase confusion among paying punters, and denigrate the image of the drinks they are masquerading as.