Tuesday, 31 December 2013


Dose. How nice it looks, like the glow of a hearthside fire, in which one sits in front of reading an MR James ghost story, secure in the knowledge that such things do not exist though the beer in the glass is corporeal and firm and believable; how snug and inviting the beer in the glass looks, a glow and a warmth that lifts the soul even though the next stage of your commitment to the beer is yet to come. Dose. As if in contrast to the soft glow of the beer in the glass, the nose is an assertive sergeant-major, a firm fruity (raspberry, but then you already knew that) toffee nose with a hint of dried rucksack that leads—even in the middle of winter—you to think that Sumer Is Icumen In; and then you taste it and think of the waft of ripe raspberries smashed against the side of a sun-warmed wall (brick perhaps), more toffee (strictly caramel this time), a creaminess that strokes the hand and a Robinson Crusoe sense of dryness in the finish. The beer in the glass is a big wrap around the world in its sensuous, fruity, malt-sweetness, and slightly sour group hug. Dose: this has been Thornbridge and St Erik’s Imperial Raspberry Stout. Dose. The beer in this glass has a darkness, a depth of darkness that you could drop a stone into and never hear its impact on the ground, falling, falling, falling, falling through space and time; but once you’ve got past the darkness and any feelings of vertigo, the senses are lit up with a rainbow bridge of flavours and aromas, a bridge that needs to be crossed. Dose: and then I think it has a Bruckner-like sensibility, in that it brings together fudge-like caramel, luscious liquorice and creamy coffee notes, and then there’s a piney-hoppiness, that hoves alongside a big fat alcoholic musical motif that is symphonic in its intensity. It rises and falls, here quiet, there robust in its challenge to the palate. A complete beer, a beer that sends you off to bed with the expectations of the sort of dreams that all of us wish for. Sweet dreams. Dose: this beer has been Sharp’sQuadrupel.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On beer writing

A few weeks back I was asked by What’s Brewing in my capacity of Secretary of the British Guild of Beer Writers to write something about beer writing for their back page column Industry Insider. I noticed in the new issue that someone has written in a letter taking me to task for ‘bemoaning’ the lack of narrative books about beer , whilst forgetting The Longest Crawl by Ian Marchant. He’s right, I completely forgot about it. I read it several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and whilst I’m on the forgetful trail, another excellent narrative book about beer (or maybe pubs), is The Search for the Perfect Pub by Robin Turner and Paul Moody. However, enough of the sackcloth and ashes, the reason for this post: if you missed it or don’t get What’s Brewing, here is it (this is the version I sent in and it had several cuts to make it fit, it’s only here because I cannot find the print version online, so this is not a case of poor subbed me).

Writing about beer is the best job in the world. Apparently. That’s a phrase I (along with colleagues in the British Guild of Beer Writers) frequently hear, as if I spend all our time propping up the bar or travelling from brewery to brewery or pub to pub.

Yes, there’s a great deal of fun in beer writing and a fair amount of beer consumed (moderately of course). I go to beer dinners, visit breweries in the UK, across Europe and the US; occasionally brew myself; go to great pubs all over the place; judge beer and receive beers in the post. What’s not to like? Oh and I get paid for it.

However, I can count on one hand the UK beer writers who make a living from just writing about beer. I also write about travel, occasionally turn my hand to freelance subbing and editing and host beer dinners and talks. Yes, it’s not a bad job, but not the best paid.

The majority of Guild members either write about beer in their spare time (some are journalists in other fields) or communicate about it as PRs, consultants, brewers or sommeliers. We’ve even got a poet in our ranks (he’s also a part time King of Beer in Derby), while a couple of playwrights have recently joined. Beer writing (or should that be communicating?) is a broad church, all of whose members share a powerful passion for beer.

Despite the financial disincentive to write about beer, as the Guild’s Secretary, I continue to receive requests to join, from both the UK and across the world. We also have members in the US, Canada, Italy, the Low Countries, Austria and Greece — it all makes for a healthy discourse.

Was there ever a golden age of beer writing? Some might say that it could have been during the early 1990s when Michael Jackson’s column in the Saturday Independent was the first thing I turned to or when Roger Protz popped up regularly on the BBC Food Programme. Or is now with books, blogs, apps and beer tastings going on all over the place? I’m inclined to the latter.

The national newspapers, as ever, are desultory in their beer coverage — a pub column here, a feature on women in brewing/beer/whatever there. On the other hand, the regional newspapers cover beer and pubs a lot more regularly, while trade publications such as Publican’s Morning Advertiser, Host, Inapub and Pub & Bar provide a healthy amount for work for Guild members.

On the magazine front, there is of course CAMRA’s Beer, while Beers of the World, which was briefly resurrected, is now online (the history of UK beer magazines is a fraught one and needs a separate article). Let us not forget CAMRA newsletters — I spent ten years editing Somerset CAMRA’s Pints of View and it was good fun.

On the book front, yes there’s a liturgy of lists, whether 1001 Beers, 300 Beers, Craft Beer Worlds or Yorkshire beers. However, there are also home brewing books plus gift-type did-you-know-this-about-beer books and guidebooks.

For me, what is missing (and this is a constant source of conversation between some beer writers) are more narrative books about beer, something that tells a story, or undertakes a journey. Apart from Pete Brown’s trilogy of Man Walks Into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, there is no real beery equivalent to Andrew Jefford’s magnificent book about Islay whisky, Peat Smoke and Spirit (though bloggers Boak & Bailey’s forthcoming Beer Britannia will be eagerly awaited).

From my own experience, publishers are unconvinced that beer narrative books will sell; maybe beer writers have to do what Tony Hawkes did, take a fridge (full of beer perhaps) around Ireland or something? It’s a shame because beer writing is crying out for something that merges beer, history, travel and anecdotes along the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts or even Harry Pearson’s light-hearted take on Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land.

Then there are the blogs: seven or eight years after their emergence there is still a vibrant beer blogging community out there, even if some complain that many consist of beer tasting notes and ‘where I got drunk last night’. With my blog (maltworms.blogspot.com) I enjoy the freedom to write about beer in a way that I cannot do when I have been commissioned; it’s place where I can experiment and think aloud about beer issues. Finally there is Twitter, where brief reviews, comments and links to beer stories can be posted

As well as the up and down nature of beer writing’s financial side, to me there’s also another issue beer writers need to be aware of: independence. By the very nature of what we do, beer writers are part of the industry (beer is sent to us, invitations are issued to launches and dinners), but there is a need to be separate from the industry. Beer writers should not be cheerleaders for every beer in the universe, while some writers are better than others in covering the complex issues of, say, the pub companies.

As for the future of beer writing, I’m positive. It’s no good moaning about the lack of coverage in the national press or the fact that a lot of beer books are list-orientated — people who want to be beer writers have to think beyond the traditional ways.

The whole concept of beer writing has changed in the last decade. I remember when Zak Avery, Beer Writer of the Year in 2008, started doing his beer tastings straight to camera and putting them out on Youtube. This was then a relatively new concept and at the time I remember commenting that this was asymmetrical beer writing: Zak was also writing articles, blogging as well as filming. It pays for a beer writer to use several different approaches to communicate about beer. For me that is beer writing’s future — a diversity of voices, methods and opinions letting the world know about the rich universe of beer, breweries, pubs and the people who make it all work.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

In pastures green…or Golden Pints 2013

What’s best about best when it comes to beer and — if you think about it — pubs? Is it the moment, the surroundings and the time in which the moment occurred, the memory, the nostalgia, the feeling of being somewhere beyond the ken of day to day life, the spontaneous, out-of-the-blue event that can knock one sideways with its sense of chance; or is it the carefully considered, pondered over, politically correct, look-at-me, pencil chewing collection of choices spread out in front of one like a crowded table cloth?

I’ve made my living by working on books that celebrate the lure of the list, so another list should be easy, but given that the aim of this blog has always been to write outside the constricts of my working life, this listing is harder than a list I have to write that puts money in the bank; so there’s an inevitable laziness and fatness to its construction, an indiscipline even, but also a joyous sense of letting loose, running across a meadow like a dog after a rabbit. So let’s go. As the bloke at the bus stop said: trap one, trap two.

Best UK Cask Beer
As much as I like hops and the joy that they bring to my soul, I have also spent 2013 reminding myself that malt has a place in the construction of beer, which is why the most memorable cask beer that leaps to the forefront of my mind is Adnams Broadside, as sampled and glorified and glowed over at the Anchor in Walberswick. I would also like to mention: Exe Valley’s Winter Glow at their pop up bar in Exeter, Fuller’s Black Cab in the Mad Bishop & Bear and a pint of ESB in the Bear in Oxford, which was so entire in the way it embraced all points of my sensory compass that I remembered why I loved it. Oh yeah, Hook Norton’s Old Hooky continues to bring forth both smiles and similes. 

Best UK Keg Beer
Anything by Camden, but I really loved the collaboration they did with Doug Odell earlier in the year, am too lazy to look up the name, but it was very very gorgeous. How about a glass of Freedom Organic Dark? Yes please. Or maybe, Partizan’s muscular Quad, the finale to a good night out, as drank at the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington. And not forgetting Wild Beer’s gorgeous cucumber beer, which I had in a pop up bar in Bath, on a hot summer’s day.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I think I’ve only had one UK canned beer and that was from Camden, while on the bottle front I was bowled over by Ilkley’s ‘triple hopped IPA’ The Chief, which as I wrote at the time it lifted up its leather-trousered, boot-clad leg and got onto a Guzzi Cali and roared off along the highway. Buxton’s Axe Edge, Westerham’s Audit Ale and a couple of beers from Siren, whose names I didn’t note also impressed. Then Meantime’s Imperial Pils was an intriguing drop.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Easy. I was in a bar in Malaga, a craft beer bar, which on the European mainland seem to becoming as ubiquitous as Irish bars were once (see my thoughts on them in the Czech chapter in Three Sheets to the Wind), and I ordered a glass of Dougall’s 942 Pale Ale, a fragrant (as in peach and orange ripe skins frotting each other until the cows come home) beauty of a beer with a weighty mouth feel and a dancing almost Sufi-like whirl of refreshment through the whole of the gulp. And it’s from northern Spain. I also ended up in Rimini twice this year on a couple of assignments and rather enjoyed Forst Sixtus in a sort of sports bar. And while I remember I rather enjoyed the creamy Schwarzbier at Hausbrauerei Eschenbrau in Berlin. Hold on a minute I’ve also just recalled Brooklyn’s Soriachi Ace and Lagunitas IPA, more of them please as well.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
In can I enjoyed Ska’s Modus Hoperandi while in bottle I also continue in my reverence for Orval — I’m just about to start work on a bottled beers book (another list!!) so that might easily change.

Best Collaboration Brew
Is that between breweries or writers? With breweries I enjoyed Moor and Arbor’s Dark Alliance, while Wild Beer’s decision to invite Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan over to produce Shnoodlepip also brought a smile to my face. On the writers/breweries side I enjoyed Melissa Cole’s Siberia with Ilkley and the various Brains continental beers; and in the spirit of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf I would like to mention the India Pale Bock I did with Arbor. Lovely beer, but then I’m not a brewer.

Best Overseas Brewery
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Bellevaux in the Ardennes, where a coachload of beer judges were met by locals holding flaming torches and the village band; the beer, especially their Black, was good as well. Can’t recall if I have visited any other overseas breweries apart from Bellevaux and Val-Dieu this year. Oh and I enjoyed a couple of glasses in the brewpub U Tří růží in Prague earlier this year.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
It’s got to be Burning Sky, whose Saison à la Provision had a leathery, lemony, bitter, orange, dry, bracing character while the large long dry finish reminded me of one of those long endless runs that I seem to vaguely remember on Ski Sunday. I drunk it with the ferocity of a wolf coming down on the fold.

Pub/Bar of the Year        
My local pubs the Bridge Inn and Woods never fail to satisfy me, good company and good beer — what else do you want in life; but in my travels I have also had my head turned by Hops & Glory in Islington, the Exmouth Arms just down the road and the Three Horseshoes in Batcombe; but my favourite at the moment is the Swan in Stratford St Mary, which is Mark Dorber’s second pub. It is brilliant — an old school village pub with a new wave range of beers, including Soriachi Ace, plus great food (pig cheek croquettes). And in the commodious garden at the back there are hop poles with First Gold and Bodicea growing. 

Beer Festival of the Year
Don’t seem to go to too many anymore, enjoyed the one at the Bridge Inn in May, especially as it is a five minutes walk for me; I also enjoyed the Birra del Anno event in Rimini.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Beer continues to impress, while I love All about Beer and look forward to seeing what new (ish) editor John Holl has in store. Audacity of Hops, Craft Beer World and the regular Brewery History Society quarterly publications (if you are not a member then I would recommend joining them immediately) also made my life more bearable.

Best Beer Blog or Website
When he can be bothered to stir himself out of his cave, Pete Brown still smashes it (you could say the same for Zak Avery), while I also enjoy (and occasionally get infuriated by) Boak & Bailey, Alan McLeod, Martyn Cornell, Chris Hall and Pivni Filosof. However, if I am going to choose a best of, then it’s Northern Snippet — it’s more about pubs than beer, but for sheer enjoyment on the ups and downs of the licensed trade it’s unmissable. 

Beer App
Will Hawkes’ thingy. Are there any else?

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon was the best, but my favourite tweeter these days is Dai Llama, but that’s not beer.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Bit of self PR here, but I was very proud of the BritishGuild of Beer Writers dinner, where myself, Mitch Adams and Tim Hampson arranged Camden US Hells with chilli jam brushed smoked salmon, Wild Beer Modus Operandi with pheasant and a venison sausage roll and Partizan’s Quad with stout ice cream and a salted caramel dessert. Try it at home and let me know how you get on.

Cor that seemed to take forever.

Friday, 20 December 2013

1001 Beers updated version

If you have the updated 1001 Beers book that came out in the autumn and are wondering what new beers went in here’s a handy little crib list — I’m not going to say what came out, readers will have to work that one out themselves, but these are the beers that went in and the writers were Zak Avery, Pete Brown, Greg Barbera, Martyn Cornell, Evan Rail, Joe Stange, Tim Hampson and myself. 

21st Amendment Marooned on Hog Island 
2nd Shift Katy
8 Wired Sauvin Saison
961 Lager
Adnams Ghost Ship
Alvinne Morphe Extra RA
Anosteke Blonde
Arbor Breakfast Stout
Badger Wandering Woodwose
Ballast Point Victory at Sea
 Bayerischer Original Gose
Beavertown Smog Rocket
Bell's Brewery Hopslam
Bluebird Bitter
Boulevard Reverb 
Boxing Cat TKO IPA
Břevnovský Pivovar's Benedict
Brewfist Spaceman
Brio Lager
Brodies Peach Sour
Buxton Black Imperial
Colorado Imperial Stout
Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Segua
Courage Russian Imperial Stout
Crazy Donkey
Dark Star Six Hop
DC Brau the Public
Dirty Stop out
Dochter van de Korenaar Belle-Fleur
Eggenberg Nakouřený Švihák
Emelisse Russian stout
Evil Twin Cowboy 
Evil Twin Hipster Pale Ale
Feral Hop Hog
Freedom Pioneer
Gruut Brown
Gypsy Porter
Hardknott Vitesse
HB Festbier
Heavy Seas Below Decks
Hogs Back OTT
Hopfenstopfer Citra Ale
Hoponious Union Jack’s Abby
Pretty Things Jack D’or
Kacov 12˚
Kagua Blonde
Kagua Rouge
Kernel Export Stout
Keserű Méz
La Trappe Quad
Lindemanns Gueuze Cuvee Rene
Magic Rock Cannonball
Marble Chocolate
Modus Operandi
New Albion/Sam Adams pale ale
Nomád's Karel,
Oakham Citra
Oskar Blues G'Night 
Otter Creek Copper Ale
Page 24 Réserve Hildegarde Blonde
Perennial Black Walnut Dunkel
Perennial Hommel Bier
Pivovar Matuška's Raptor
Pivovar Matuška's Weizenbock
Sam Adams Latitude 48
Sharp’s Quadruppel Ale
Sharps Cornish Pilsner
Shepherd Neame Generation
Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi
Southville Hop
Telenn Du
Thomas Creek Up the Creek
Thwaites 13 Guns
Tilquin Oude Quetsche
Toccalmatto Grooving Hop
Troubador Magna
Typhoon T8
U Medvídků's Oldgott
Uinta Crooked Line Tilted Smile
Únětice světlý ležák
Urban Chestnut Zwickel
Vivat blonde
Von Trapp Golden Helles
Windsor & Eton 1075 Conqueror
Windsor & Eton Republika

Yakima Red 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dreaming, I was only dreaming…

Here comes a glass of beer, it might be dark, stygian in its absence of light or as glossy as Black Beauty’s coat; it might be as deep as the mines of Moria, mysterious and hiding all sorts of surprises. On the other hand, it might be pale, bathed in sunlight like a smile from someone you love, a crystalline brightness that brushes away the blues. Hold on though, it might also be coppery, it might also be amber, it might even be chestnut brown with crimson hues, a bomber of a brunette.

Here comes a glass of beer (or could it be a bottle), it might be cheap, it might be affordable, luxuriously affordable, perhaps the sort of price we pay for a decent bottle of wine, a chunk of cheese that has a tang or a pliancy and a creaminess that love-bombs the mouth or a bite that bites back. Or heavens above, shiver-me-timbers, they’re-all-at-it, vote-UKIP, things-used-be-much-better-in-my-day, I-found-a-hipster-in-my-turn-ups, destroy-all-beer, it might be expensive, beyond the pocket of most of us, it might be making money for brewers, it might not be beer, it might use big words, it might be honest in wanting people to pay more, it might offend all sense and decency.

Let’s all go back to a simpler age: mild & bitter, bitter & mild and the ladies in the lounge. Raincoats, trilbies, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in brown paper, the paper the colour of the beer that spills over the Formica table on which the crumbs of a dry, Joker-mouth-shaped sandwich has sat upon prior to immersion in ill-fitting dentures. Let us then, you and I, go back to a simpler age of cheap beer, consumer campaign coupons, beer as beer, which after all it is, and cheap beer, one size fits all beer. Let’s all go back, for beer is the past and we like it that way.

When I first met him 20 years ago I used to have rows with my late father-in-law about wine. I used to say if I had the money I wouldn’t have a problem in spending saying £50 or even £100 on a bottle of wine, while he would say that no wine was worth that much. Perhaps it isn’t perhaps it is, but it’s beer that I’m interested in, which is why an online piece in the Guardian about expensive beers (and the predictable supporting hurrahs) got my goat. Maybe there’s a market for expensive beers, maybe there isn’t, maybe it’s a case of brewers dolling up ordinary beers in a fancy package and asking for top dollar, maybe it isn’t, but what got my goat was that there was no solution to the perceived problem, just an old moan. I spent £11.99 on Sunday for a 750ml bottle of Adnams Sole Bay Celebratory Ale at the brewery’s shop in Southwold; was it worth it? I think so. I am glad that Adnams allow their head brewer Fergus to muck about, to use champagne yeast and to even dress up the beer a bit. I’ll age it and see what it says to me in the summer perhaps. I’m also quite happy to spend £1 on Budvar’s session beer Pardál, as to be found in Morrisons. It’s not the best beer in the world (being famously described by Evan Rail as bear urine and talking of which the expensive/cheap beer argument has a good analogy with Rail’s exemplary Why Beer Matters being released as a limited edition book with a much higher price tag than the Kindle), but it’s a cold one in the fridge that breaks the thirst come the witching hour. I’ll spend £5 on a bottle of Schlenkerla’s Doppelbock and so on. I like the fact that brewers tinker, mess about and see what happens when they do this or that. There’s plenty of hairy-armed blue overalls beer about and plenty of bright citrus-sponged beer about. That’s the great thing about now. Last year, as I spoke with him for a piece on London brewing (see here), Fuller’s John Keeling told me that this was a great time for brewing. I would suggest that this is also a great time to be a beer drinker, all over the world, which is why the moaning about expensive beers got my goat.

Or I suppose we could all go back to a time when beer was just beer. Really? In my research at the National Brewing Library in Oxford last week, I kept coming across accounts of all sorts of beers in the 1880s: IPA, pale ale, bitter, barley wine, stock ale, black beer and of course lager. I suspect some of those would have been more expensive than others and I bet people coped then as they can now.

End of rant/dream.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Melancholic have I been of late, thoughtful even, not bad, neither sad, but the consequence of the dark nights that now seem to fall directly after lunch, while the need for words remains as urgent as ever (I wanted to write the world. What went wrong?). And in this space, thoughts turn lathe-like onto other thoughts, most notably on the blurry cloud of beer-inclined speculation that exists out there in the ether — and one thought keeps returning to me with the regularity of a healthy heartbeat, that there currently exists a feverish nostalgia for yesteryear in beer and brewing. Next year’s most eagerly awaited beer book will cover the history of British beer from the 1960s; one of the most respected beer blogs is a mass of facts and figures from the last two centuries of British brewing, while another equally compelling blog corrects the myths and ghost stories that have plagued beer history for decades; meanwhile retro beer labels have appeared on bottles and cans from an assortment of family and global brewers and recipes from the past are dug out, dusted down and presented to the contemporary drinker. Beer festivals are not free from this strange yearning for the past — some of the most acclaimed ones have called home spaces that once represented a long vanished municipal pride. Perhaps hipsterism, the sickly runt of postmodernism, is also part of this nostalgia.

So is this nostalgia a bad thing? Not really. Beer is nostalgia: things ain’t what they were; you used to get a good pint in here (sometimes with the phrase once upon a time added, which imbues the statement with the quality of a fairy tale); it doesn’t taste like it used to (maybe nothing tastes like it used to); in my day (which suggests that every day is an endless collection of many days; there is no such thing as a day — Borges posited that there had only been one man throughout history in a poem whose name eludes me at the moment). The beer that sits eager and anticipatory in the glass has the ability to take us back in our own personal time; bugger the biscuit that Marcel Proust nibbled on and led him to spending years in bed writing A la recherche du temps perdu, a glass of beer has the power to take the drinker back time and time again, whether it’s to a pub, meal, meeting, sporting moment or even just a moment of discovery. This is beer’s strength but it is also the way that it cannot escape from nostalgia. Mind you, the future is overrated, while being modern means nothing. I’ve seen breweries use phrases along the lines of ‘Modern beer for modern people’, which is as meaningless as pubs that have ‘bar & kitchen’ attached to their name; though no one has yet used something like ‘yesteryear’s beer for people living in the past’. I wonder why. 

This is inspired by an essay I am working on at the moment that looks at memory and beer hence its rather inchoate nature