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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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Thursday, 31 July 2014

The truth about under-age drinking

This time it's so blatant even the Daily Mail couldn't distort the truth: the number of school-age children drinking alcohol has fallen to the lowest level since records began. 

The decline has been long, steady and consistent. In recent years, when the figures have been released most media coverage has stated the percentage of school children who admit to having drunk alcohol - 39% according to the latest study - with headlines like "four in ten children boozing! Mass epidemic!" while deliberately avoiding telling you that this figure was, say, 61% in 2003 for example. The liars at Alcohol Concern would resort to using older data to artificially inflate the problem when more recent, freely available data showed the numbers were in sustained decline. The deliberate obfuscation around the issue even led to supposedly reputable newspapers writing headlines claiming that under age drinking was 'soaring' when they very data they were reporting on showed it was in fact falling, not rising.

Now the decline is so steep, and so sustained, that there's no getting away from it. Last week's headlines were unequivocal - under-age drinking is no longer cool:
  • 39% of pupils said they had drunk alcohol at least once. This continues the downward trend since 2003, when 61% of pupils had drunk alcohol, and is lower than at any time since 1988, when the survey first measured the prevalence of drinking in this age group.
  • 9% of pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This proportion has fallen from 25% in 2003.

Bouyed by this undoubted good news, the Portman Group undertook some research among parents of school-age children to learn if they were aware of the fact that their children are not drinking. 

Unsurprisingly given the media coverage the issue receives, 9 out of 10 parents had no idea about the 34% decrease in children who have drunk alcohol. The same proportion were similarly unaware of the 33% decrease in the number of kids who think it is OK to drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

I don't normally reprint infographics that are sent out as press releases, but I believe this one, summarising the Portman Group's research, is important and should be disseminated as widely as possible.


What the Portman Group are too polite/professional to suggest is that the national media, fuelled by neo-prohibitionist groups, are deliberately creating concern over an issue that is much smaller than we are being led to believe.

What's also fascinating is that when parents were informed of the truth, they were asked why they believe attitudes and behaviour around alcohol among children are changing. Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer is that they believe the trade is getting tougher on serving alcohol that might be intended for under-age consumption. In distant second place, with 25% versus 57%, was the suggestion that kids are too busy talking to each other on social media to go out and drink.

Of course, even now, the media can't quite bring themselves to credit the alcohol industry with responsible behaviour. Last week's headlines were all about Facebook and Twitter stopping kids from drinking, and the main reason - at least as far as parent's believe - was ignored. 

Admittedly the social media angle is a more interesting headline because it says something about social change. But I think it's a red herring. Think about it: where do kids use social media these days? In their bedrooms? Maybe. But also on the bus, in the park, on the street - everywhere they go, including the places where kids traditionally sneak booze. Social media is mobile, and its use doesn't preclude traditional under age drinking behaviour.

I'm not saying the trade can claim all the credit. I do believe there is a social change going on. If I had to guess, I'd say kids seeing their parents necking a stress-relieving bottle of wine or two when they get home from work every evening kind of takes the glamour off drinking. When I was a kid, boozing was something that happened in pubs and working men's clubs, places from which I was forbidden, that had a mystery and an allure. Now we're much more likely to drink at home, in front of our kids. Through their eyes, I doubt we look as cool as we think we do.

Either way, we can now look forward to the end of scare stories about kids drinking themselves to death, illustrated with picture of cask ale being served at the Great British Beer Festival. Right?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey's 'Brew Britannia'

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style of beer writing:

“Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with added special effects.”

There would then be an online debate about whether or not the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as ‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.

I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band, or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands, other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music made them and their fans feel.


‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people, the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”

Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it instead. Sort of.

Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than most other bloggers, this writer included.


Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its time’ and would have dated badly.

What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.

Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything, caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the working here is meticulous.

But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.

And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.

Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.

But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of controversial and often confusing subjects.

What stops the detachment becoming boring is the all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty) is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.

Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 

If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.

Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to speculate about where it might go next.

While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer [publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

Monday, 7 July 2014

Crap Beer - it's the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station's dispiriting concourse isn't an option. 

I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I'm dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I'm getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it's like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.

Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a 'wide range of cask ales'. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there's a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my 'wide range' consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It's utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.

A little further down the street, I spy a Marston's logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven't been used for some time. It's not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.

"Do you have any cask ale?" I ask.

"No," replies the barman. 

"Do you have any Marston's beers at all?" I follow up.

He just shakes his head. 

For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I'll have to try somewhere else because there's nothing on the bar I want to drink.

I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.


The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning's Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there's only Bud, Becks, Bulmer's and Koppaberg.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" asks the very friendly barmaid.

"There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer," I reply.

She looks confused. "Sorry?"

"Craft Beer?"

"What? CRAP beer?"

"No, CRAFT beer."

"Oh. What’s that?"

"There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it."

"I’m sorry love, I don't even know what craft beer is. I've never heard of it."

"I think they mean that," says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I'm too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 

"I'll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks."

*

Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I'm informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It's now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full - certainly not busy.

"I'm sorry, we've run out of food," says the bar person.

"What, no food left at all?"

"No, absolutely none." 

Some pubs simply don't deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.