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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?
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!
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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Beer and cider and music and books and food in North London

I don't often do sponsor-heavy sales blurby posts, but this is is a special exception each year. Apologies if you can't make it to North London next weekend...

It's nearly here - the fifth Stoke Newington Literary Festival takes place all around N16 from 6th to 8th June - that's in just over a week!

The festival is the creation of my wife Liz, and is organised by her, me, and a bunch of die-hard volunteers. It's a charitable venture that aims to improve literacy in the Borough of Hackney. More than that, it's about everyone enjoying ideas, debate, comedy, and brilliant words of all kinds. Last year Irvine Welsh - one of our headliners - described it as "The real London LitFest,"and Time Out said it's "Like Hay-on-Wye, but in Hackney."

With me involved, there's always a strong boozy element - so here are the bits that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Drinks Sponsors
We receive no formal funding for the festival, and we keep ticket prices lower than anywhere else we know to encourage the widest possible access. The support I blag from friends in the drinks industry to run bars at events is therefore what makes the festival viable. If you come, every beer or cider you buy helps a small child to read! Budweiser Budvar are our main sponsor, and last year they introduced the Budvar Marquee - a fantastic, informal bar space where we have a rolling, loose programme of authors, poets, comedians DJs and musicians chatting away while you enjoy a quality pint.


Local favourites the Bikini Beach Band are back to do another set:


and Phill Jupitus will be back with his mate poet Tim Wells to spin some platters that matter and do a bit of dad dancing for your edification. 


The marquee is outside Stoke Newington Town Hall and you don't need a ticket for any of the festival events to soak up the buzz and free events. (You do have to pay for the booze though.)


Our other key drinks sponsors are Aspall, who very kindly provide us with top quality cider, and local brewer Redemption who have been with us from the start, supplying a specially brewed festival cask ale that's light, hoppy, and perfect for what will hopefully be a lovely summer weekend. Talking of which... 

Name the Festival Beer!
Andy from Redemption is routinely declared the nicest man in brewing. And not just by us.


Each year he brews a special festival cask ale and donates it to us, and since year two of the festival we've run a competition to name the festival beer. It's usually a dreadful pun on one of the acts or strands in the festival. Edgar Allen Poe lived in Stoke Newington, and the year we commemorated this we went for 'Cask of the Red Death'. When Alexei Sayle headlined, 'Alexei's Ale' was an obvious winner.

Get the idea?

OK, this year's programme is more diverse and eclectic than ever before, but it does have a strong music strand running through it. Our closing headliner is Ray Davies. Yes, the real Ray Davies out of the Kinks! If you can think of a beery pun based around Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, All Day And All The Night or any other of the songs this man wrote that changed the face of British music, let us know. We've also got Thurston Moore out of Sonic Youth, because he now lives locally (and drinks Guinness or locally brewed hoppy pale ales). We've got Viv Albertine out of The Slits. We've got Ben Watt out of Everything But The Girl. All talking about books about music. Or check out the rest of the programme and see if anyone else inspires. It doesn't have to be a pun. It just usually turns out that way.

The winner gets free beers and entry to an event of their choice at the festival. Or just the satisfaction of knowing hundreds of people will be saying your pun as a bar call if you can't make it along. Send entries to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, marked 'beer names'.

Beer and Music Matching - Sunday 8th, 7pm


I've been doing a lot about this recently, and my first event was at this festival two years ago. Now it's back, bigger and better, with added neuroscience and real time experiments. Discover how your senses overlap and often deceive you. Learn how memory 'primes' your appreciation of flavour. And experience the Pavlovian brilliance of Duvel vs. the Pixies. Tickets available here, and the price includes a flight of outstanding beers. The event is on just before Ray Davies starts, in the venue just around the corner from his. Trust me, we will be finishing on time so I can get to see Ray too.

The Craft Cider Revolution - Saturday 7th, 4pm
As part of our food and drink strand, last year I hosted a panel discussion with local brewers. This year I thought I'd do the same with cider - but are there any local cider makers? Well, yes - London Glider make cider with apples foraged inside London - there are more of those than you thought, and the resulting cider is excellent. They'll be joining me on stage along with the somewhat less local Andy Hallett of Hallet's Cider, who will be bringing some of his brilliant ciders up from South Wales to try. (If you live locally but can't make this event, don't miss Andy's Meet The Cider Maker this Saturday, May 31st at the Jolly Butchers). I'll have some special stuff from our sponsors Aspall too. Tickets available here, and the price includes enough cider samples to give you a nice afternoon buzz.

The food and drink venue also has the legendary Claudia Roden being interviewed by Valentine Warner, Julian Baggini talking about the philosophy of food and drink, and the brilliant Gastrosalon - food confessions chaired by Radio 4's Rachel McCormack.

It's going to be our best festival yet. Please join us if you can.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Shiny shiny cider shiny

Look at the shiny. Go on, look at it. 
I think I may just about be recovering from a two-week long hangover. That's the only reason I can think of why I haven't written this blog before now.

On Tuesday 13th May, my compadre Bill Bradshaw and I were named winners of the Drink Book of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, for our book World's Best Cider.

This is a deeply gratifying award to win. For one thing, it's very heavy and shiny. Judged purely in terms of melted down scrap value, it's worth more than my six Guild of Beer Writers Awards tankards put together. It works far better than those awards as a doorstop. On the downside, it's not nearly as good as those tankards for drinking warm Efes out of in a kebab shop at 3am as you try in vain to keep the post-award party vibe going. 

What was even more gratifying was that this is, as the name suggests, an award that judges books on all types of drink. We were in a shortlist of three, up against a book about wine and a book about champagne. Every single judge on the panel from the drinks world was a wine writer. And when we stepped onto the fourth floor of Fortnum and Mason for the drinks and canapé reception, the only drinks being served were champagne and rosé wine. 

After a couple of remarks that could have been interpreted as hints by an optimistic dreamer, and one too many phone calls from the organisers just checking that we were both definitely coming, I'd started to get my hopes up. But as I took my glass of rosé across a jungle-thick carpet to admire flower arrangements that probably cost more than my house, I thought, 'Under this brand, in this place, there is absolutely no way a book on cider is going to beat a book about wine or a book about champagne. No way.'

But we did. And we were quite happy about it.

Playing it cool for the cameras.
Apart from succeeding in a much broader (and posher) arena than I'm used to, what was so gratifying was the reaction from judges I had very, very wrongly assumed would be sniffy about our subject. I still occasionally bump into people who think the idea of writing about beer is humorously absurd. Not as much as I used to. But for many, the idea of a serious book on cider is laughable. 

Not so for chefs, food writers and wine writers. 

I won't repeat the best complements we had (unless you ask me in the pub) because this would be an insufferably smug blog entry if I did. Safe to say people who write about other drinks and get much more attention for them are genuinely excited about cider and its potential to be explored in more detail.

Following the ceremony we were ushered to the basement bar in Fortnum's for the after-party. Now, I've been to a great many beer events. I've seen people get pissed at parties. I thought beer writers, brewers and publicans could really put it away. But nothing I've seen in a decade in the beer world prepared me for the sheer almighty CARNAGE that happens when the broader food and drink industry gets together to party. Perhaps it's because champagne gets you pissed quicker. Maybe it's because the only food on offer did a far better job of looking beautiful than of filling you up. But I have never seen so many people get so drunk, so quickly, in one space.

At one point Stephen Fry popped in for what I'm guessing was a quiet drink. His face registered surprise at seeing us all there, briefly, before being torn apart by sotted chefs and fucked-up food writers clawing at him for selfies. He held his ground and chatted like a hero for as long as he could stand, and was then literally chased out of the building by several people who had been waiting their turn when he decided to flee. 

The Hairy Bikers - also winners on the night - stuck it out with us. Dave Myers has read my books and says he likes them so this didn't feel too much of an imposition:

L-R: Hairy Pedestrian, Hairy Biker, unhairy publisher who believed in the cider book and made it happen 
The bar stocked one beer - Meantime Lager - and no ciders. None at all. There's still a lot of work to do to get people to reconsider good quality cider and take it seriously outside its current niche. But this night felt like a start. I'll be suggesting a few brands to Fortnum's that they might want to stock now this has happened. We're talking to another TV chef about ideas around cider. It feels like things might happen, and if feels like there's a broader appetite to learn more about this misunderstood drink.

Thank you so much to Jo Copestick (above with Dave) who has been hassling me to work on a book with her for years and guided us into shaping the book that needed to be written about cider even when we wanted to write a different one. And thanks to everyone else at Jacqui Small Publishing who made it happen. And thanks to my co-conspirator, who emailed me out of the blue one day, never having met me, and informed me that we needed to work on a book together. Turns out the mad scrumpy-necking bastard was right.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

With great beer comes great responsibility

I didn't want to write this post, but I have to.

It comes on the back of me breaking my own cardinal rule about not behaving like a dick at the bar.

In a version of that classic "Do you know who I am?" thing that spoilt celebs do, there are often times when I'm tempted to counter claims of "There's nothing wrong with that pint" or "Well, no one else has complained" by pointing out that I know the brewer of said beer, have judged it competitions, written tasting notes for it, perhaps even helped brew it myself. It's a horrible situation where even though I might be right, I would still be an insufferable, pompous prick for pulling rank in this way. So I have always resisted the urge.

Until last week.

I was staying in a hotel in Bristol. The Bristol Hotel in fact. I went into the bar and was utterly blown away by the range of beers on offer. Not the widest or best range of beers I've seen by a long way, but certainly among the very best I've ever seen in a British hotel bar, where usually it's a choice of Stella, Becks Vier and Boddington's on tap. This place has Freedom as its pouring lager, a couple of decent craft keg ales, and a wide range of bottled beers from Bristol Beer Factory.

I ordered a bottle of BBF's excellent Southville Hop. The barmaid began pouring it into a branded glass. 'This is excellent,' I thought.

Then, halfway down, she swirled the bottle to agitate the yeast, and poured me a cloudy beer with bits in it.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"That's how it's supposed to be poured," she replied.

"No it isn't, can I have another one where you don't do that?" I asked.

She referred me to the duty manager, who looked far too young to be out this late.

"It's meant to be poured like that," he said. "We've been trained."

I spotted bottles of Bristol's Hefeweizen in the fridge, and understanding dawned.

"Ah, no," I said, "They probably showed you how to pour the Hefe with a swirl, to agitate the yeast - it's a tradition for that style. But you don't do it with an IPA."

"Look," he said angrily, "I've done a training course with the brewery. And I'm telling you that's how you pour this beer!"

And that's when I cracked.

"No, you look," I replied, "I'm one of the UK's leading beer writers. I've written a whole book about IPA. And I'm doing an event with the brewer of this beer tomorrow. And I'M telling YOU that it's not poured this way."

Rhetorically, I had won the argument. But not really. The barchild had proven himself to be a twat. I had proven myself to be a bigger twat. There were no winners. So I ordered a pint of lager instead, which thankfully came without bits in.

There are of course debates to be had about the desirability of swirling yeast in a bottle conditioned beer. Coopers Sparkling Ale use this as their serving gimmick. (I did check with Bristol Beer Factory, and they don't.) But in any case, with any beer, the accepted norm in the UK is to try to pour a bottle conditioned beer without the yeast. And if you DO want the yeast, that is a matter of personal choice. This is why most good bar staff leave it to the customer to pour their own bottled beer as they see fit.

I still think it's wonderful that the Bristol Hotel stocks such excellent beers. And I think it's amazing that the brewery offers training to bar staff. But here was a classic example of a little bit of training having the opposite effect to that intended.

The downside of the craft beer revolution is that such hazards are commonplace. I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it's cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way. If the brewer wants to explain that he created the beer, and that he goes to great lengths to have the beer served sparkling clear, he's running the risk of emulating my twattish behaviour.

Recently I was served a pint of porridge in a local Cask Marque accredited pub. When I took it back, the barman poured another pint from the same tap, the same barrel, and said, "No look, this one's the same. It's meant to be like that." I've almost stopped drinking cask in London craft beer pubs, because so many seem to think that it's OK to serve a beer as soon as it's dropped clear. They proudly tell you "This one only came in this morning!"which I find confusing given that every single piece of cask ale cellar advice I've ever seen insists the beer should condition for three days in the cellar before it's ready to serve. Of course, this varies from beer to beer. But hop-forward cask beers in particular have a jagged, pixellated flavour when they have not been given time to condition.

Then there are the bars and pubs with six handpulls, all of them with pump clips turned backwards, because on a busy shift where a lot of beer is being drunk, there's not a single member of staff on the premises who knows how to change a cask.

The situation is often little better with craft keg: beers pour cloudy, flat and lifeless, and because it's 'craft', most bartenders and drinkers, for whim this is a new experience, assume it's meant to be like that.

At six quid a pint, this simply won't do.

Sometimes a lackadaisical approach to beer quality is born of simple greed and cynicism. America may be the home of late stage consumer capitalism, but over there, there is at least a belief in the value of capitalism, and pride in a job done well.  Other European countries are less aggressively capitalist than us. We seem to have this uniquely British combination of belief in the primacy of profit, but a cold cynicism of achieving it by any means necessary, preferably not involving genuine hard work.

In other pubs, intentions are good and honest, but the sheer hard work of trying to stay afloat as a pub means that training in speciality beer styles and optimal serves is simply too difficult to achieve.

Either way, it's just not good enough.

Craft beer, whether it's in bottle, keg or cask, is capable of saving pubs and making them profitable. It sells at a price premium. It justifies that premium because it is better beer. Because it is better beer, it deserves to be kept properly. If you cannot serve it properly, you should not be selling it - and you certainly shouldn't be selling it at a premium.

It's a simple as that.

If you think you can't train your staff, or it's not worth doing so because they move on quickly, then consider that staff who have better training have better job satisfaction, and stick around longer. If it means you have to pay then more, then do so - you're asking them to do a more specialised job than their counterparts in a bog standard pub selling Fosters and John Smith's Smoothflow, and your prices already reflect this.

If you went to a fine restaurant and your sommelier was a nineteen year-old who knew nothing about wine, poured your bottle of Margaux badly and didn't offer you a taste first, you'd be appalled. But we still accept similar standards in bars that boast of being beer specialists, that have accreditation and even awards saying they are.

Any fool can phone up James Clay and ask for a selection of interesting beers. That doesn't make you a great beer bar. If you want to be known for great beer, you have to go further than the average pub and take some pride in how the beer is kept and served. If you don't, then as the price of a pint of craft beer increasingly takes the piss, the bubble will very quickly burst.

With great beer comes great responsibility: if you can't look after it properly, if you're not prepared to learn how it should be served, then don't fucking stock it. You haven't earned the right.