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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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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

'Miracle Brew' is coming - at last!

My first book about beer since 2009 hits UK shelves next week - and North America later this year.


It's been a long wait - nearly two and a half years - for those who pledged when I first announced that I was publishing my new beer book through crowd-funding publisher Unbound. 

Ironically, from announcing the book and opening pledges to the date of publication, its taken about a year less than any of my first three beers books took to research and write. Books like these take you down a long and lonely road. 

There was a degree of consternation over the decision to crowdfund a book. Did it mean I couldn't get published in a traditional way? (No.) What do investors get? (A book, for the price of a book, with your name listed in the back.) Was it vanity publishing? (No - in many ways, it's the opposite.) But quite quickly, enough people pledged - around 530 - so that Unbound could give it the green light. 

Those who did pledge should be receiving their copies this week. (If that's you, please tweet or post when you get it!) The book is also available to pre-order on Amazon,  and because Unbound have a distribution deal with Penguin Random House, it'll be in bookshops just like any other book from Thursday 1st June.

I did have a few readers in North America complain about the shipping cost when they tried to pledge for the book - for some, it was more than the book itself. The good news there is that Chelsea Green, a publisher that has produced some of my favourite food and drink books, has just bought the North American rights to Miracle Brew and they'll be publishing a slightly tweaked* edition in the autumn - sorry, fall - probably early October, and it looks like I'll be doing an American publicity tour to support it! Maybe see you at the Great American Beer Festival.

I'm enormously proud of this book. In terms of tone and content, it picks up on elements of Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, but also reflects the fact that I'm a decade older than when I wrote those books. The first was a history book about beer, the second a travel book about beer, and the third combined the two with a bit extra. Judged by the same standard, this is a science and nature book about beer, with a lot of travel and history, and plenty of extra, all thrown in. At 400 pages long it's a chunky bastard - just like its author these days...

I daresay I'll be writing more here about it soon. 

* Because references to a cheeky Nando's with the Archbishop of Banterbury still aren't travelling that well. 

Miracle Brew is published in the UK by Unbound on 1st June, hardback, RRP £16.99

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Long Read: The Story of the Forgotten Genius who Discovered the Apple's Birthplace, Before Being Murdered by Stalin

When I wrote The Apple Orchard, there were edits. I wanted to give the origin story of the apple, but this was cut from the final book because by the time I'd finished it, The Apple Orchard was the story of my own personal journey of discovery through the English apple year, and this just stuck out in the narrative as something that didn't belong. It was an important chapter in a book about apples, just not the book about apples that mine had become. I've been saving it for a while but as we're at the start of blossom time, one of the most wonderful times in the apple year, I thought I'd celebrate by publishing this story here as a long read. The Apple Orchard has just been released in paperback and should be available now in all good bookshops, as well as here if you don't know any good bookshops. I'm going to be talking about the magic and mythology of the apple at Herefordshire's Big Apple Blossomtime celebrations on Monday 1st May. 

The Heavenly Mountains



Let’s play a quick game of word association. I’ll say a word, and I want you to say the first word that comes into your head in response.

Okay, here goes:

Kazakhstan.

Did you think Borat? If you’re reading this in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I bet you did. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s fictitious Kazakh journalist is world-famous. Now let’s try it again, but you need to come up with a different word.

Kazakhstan.

Anything? Anything at all?

Weird isn’t it? Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-biggest country, at 2.7 million square kilometres, it’s fractionally smaller than Argentina, almost as big as India, and nearly twice as big as the entire European Union. Yet all we know about it is a made-up comedy character. At the start of his book In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, Christopher Robbins challenges a fan of Borat, arguing that no one would dare portray such a negative racial stereotype of Jews, African-Americans or the Welsh. “Well of course not,” replied the puzzled fan, “That’s why he invented a country!”

Robbins goes on to illustrate how Kazakhstan suffers from our ignorance about ‘The ‘Stans,’ that mysterious and chaotic collection of states below Russia:
Was that the country where the president boiled his enemies alive? No, that was the reputation of the Uzbek president south of the border. Was it the place where the president had golden statues made of himself and placed on revolving platforms to lead the sun? No again, that was next door in Turkmenistan. It was an anarchic, narco-state wasn’t it, embroiled in a permanent civil war? No, that was the fate of poor, blighted Tajikistan.

In fairness, our ignorance is hardly surprising. The Russian Tsars closed the country to outsiders during their expansion eastwards, and then it was swallowed by the Soviet Union. It was an incredible trick: the ninth largest country in the world simply disappeared. And it’s re-emergence since the collapse of the USSR has had a profound impact on our understanding of the apple.

The first westerner to discover the great apple forests of Kazakhstan was Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, a German-Estonian botanist and professor of science at Tartu University in Estonia, who also founded its school of botany. The nineteenth century was a time of scientific classification, of epic, years-long journeys to discover and catalogue as many different species of everything as we could. Darwin’s journeys aboard the Beagle may be the most famous of these voyages, because the diversity he saw inspired his theory of natural selection, but he was only one of many undertaking similar expeditions. Von Ledebour took a particular interest in the flora of the Russian Empire, and became the first person to catalogue it comprehensively. Within this study, he identified for the first time a species he called Pyrus sieversii, better known to us know as Malus Sieversii, the wild apple of Central Asia. He discovered these apples in the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, tucked in the south-western corner of Kazakhstan.

In 1854 the Russians built a fort called Verniy (‘loyal’ in Russian) in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, to protect this far-flung corner of their empire. The fort grew, taking in Russian peasants and Kazakh nomads who had been driven from their traditional lands, and by the early 20th century it was a thriving city. In 1921 the residents voted to change the name of their city to Alma-Ata, which means ‘Father of Apples’, and in 1929 the city became the capital of Kazakhstan.

That same year, Alma-Ata received a distinguished visitor. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist, agronomist and geographer, a brilliant scientist, hailed by some who knew him as a genius. Having grown up in a poor rural village that was perpetually hit by crop failures and food rationing, he was obsessed by food security and the prevention of famine both at home in Russia and around the world. He believed that the best way to understand plants and the potential for their cultivation was to establish their original source in the world, and developed an over-simplistic but not entirely inaccurate theory that the likely origin of a species of plant was the place where today it shows the greatest genetic diversity. Effectively, such places were nature’s laboratories, where different permutations were worked through until the best ones were developed. Vavilov travelled the world collecting thousands of seeds, and established the world’s largest seed bank in Leningrad.

In 1929 he was travelling by mule train across Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, attempting to reach western China via a mountain pass. ‘The path turned out to be more difficult than we expected, and, in fact, we lost two of the horses,’ he wrote later. ‘But somehow we reached the northern slopes of the range where we found a road leading directly to Alma-Ata.’

What he found there astounded him. In Five Continents, the book that set out his theory of plant origins, he wrote:
Thickets of wild apples stretch out through an extensive area around the city and along the slopes of the mountains, here and there forming a real forest. In contrast to the small, wild apples of the Caucasus, the wild apples of Kazakhstan are represented mainly by large-fruited varieties, not differing much from cultivated species. It was the first of September and the time when the apple ripen. We could see with our own eyes that here we were in a remarkable centre of origin of apples, where cultivated forms did not rank noticeably above wild ones and where it was difficult to distinguish wild apples from those cultivated. Some of the forms in this forest were so good in respect to quality and dimensions that they could be directly grown in a garden…
The slopes of the Tien Shan were, he believed, a ‘living laboratory where one can see the evolutionary process unfolding before one’s eyes.’

Five Continents was the most important book on plant origins ever published up to that point. It had the potential to radically improve our understanding and cultivation of important pants. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the world forgot all about Vavilov and his sensational discoveries, just as it forgot about Kazakhstan.

Vavilov’s problem was that he believed science should be kept separate from politics. That may sound perfectly reasonable, but Joseph Stalin, who came to power in 1924, disagreed. Around the same time, Vavilov befriended an ambitious young scientist called Trofim Lysenko. Eleven years younger than Vavilov, Lysenko was a peasant by background who had gained his degree from a correspondence course. When he met Isai Prezent, a political ideologue, their fusion of politics and science began to find favour within the Soviet hierarchy.

By this point, the science of plant genetics was well understood. Gregor Mendel’s work in the mid- to late nineteenth century had established the basic principle of genetic inheritance. Controversial at the time, it was rediscovered and elaborated upon in the 1900s by a number of scientists, including British biologist William Bateson, with whom Vavilov had spent time studying plant immunity.

Bateson was the first person to use the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of heredity, and was the main champion of Mendel’s ideas once they had been rediscovered. So it came as a shock when Lysenko, who Vavilov had once regarded as his protégé, rejected the entire basis of Mendelian genetics. Lysenko falsely claimed to have invented the process of ‘vernalisation’, where wheat varieties normally sown in winter could be made to behave like those sown in spring. In reality the procedure had been familiar to farmers since the early 1800s, but Lysenko made grossly exaggerated claims about its efficiency. He also claimed that by changing the conditions a plant was experiencing, you didn’t just change its behaviour; you were creating a new species of plant, one which would pass on its new characteristics to its offspring. In this way, grain that could only grow in warm climates could be made to grow in cold climates too, and the Soviet food supply could be guaranteed.

All this was rubbish of course. It was little more than a rehash of Lamarckism, the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, which had been destroyed by Darwinism. But in Soviet Russia, it was heralded as a new ‘Soviet genetics’, and Lysenko became the most influential scientists in the USSR. Until the 1930s Russia had been a world leader in the advancement of genetics. Now Lysenko dismissed mainstream genetics as ‘harmful nonsense.’ Stalin began working on a five-year plan to enforce the collectivisation of all farms, applying Lysenko’s principles. Lysenko began praising his master in speeches as ‘The Great Gardener.’

Vavilov shook his head in disbelief, asking, “Is this some kind of religion?” If religion and science are related in the ways they seek to understand and explain the world, this was a cult masked as science. With no scientific proof, it was all about faith. It appealed to Stalin’s sense that the Soviet machine could improve everything, even breeding undesirable traits out of people. By 1940 Lysenko had successfully eradicated any mention of the great 19th century geneticists from school textbooks.

When the collectivisation experiment inevitably failed, cognitive dissonance ruled the day. The problem couldn’t possibly be Comrade Lysenko’s crackpot theories – someone must have sabotaged the great experiment. Between 1934 and 1940, eighteen of Vavilov’s colleagues were arrested, and almost every serious agricultural publishing outlet was closed. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues, worried for their safety, began to disown him. His research was cut and he was barred from travelling.

Finally, in 1940 Vavilov himself was arrested and charged with being an anti-Soviet spy who had sabotaged crop production. After days of 13-hour interrogations, he cracked and confessed to trumped-up charges of wasting state funds, deliberately creating a shortage of seeds and disrupting the rotation of crops. He was even accused of ‘damaging the landing grounds in the Leningrad military region by sowing the airport with weeds.’

Vavilov was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to twenty years imprisonment. He died in a hard labour camp in 1943.

By that time Leningrad had been under siege for two years by the Nazis. Stalin had rescued the art from the Hermitage ‘for the future enjoyment of all people,’ but he ignored Vavilov’s seed collection at the Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues preserved large parts of the seed collection by hiding it in the cellars, keeping it intact, refusing to eat the seeds even though nine of them starved to death by the time the siege was lifted in 1944. Their incredible bravery was for nothing: after the war the collection fell into Lysenko’s hands, who allowed it to be ruined by the cross-breeding and outbreeding of different strains.

Through the middle of the twentieth century, advances in our understanding of plant genetics allowed food production to soar around the world. When followers of Thomas Malthus predicted that a rising population would result in global starvation by the 1970s, this didn’t happen because the yields from fields and orchards rose faster than the population did. In the USSR, until Lysenko’s demise in 1954, agriculture went backwards. By the time of his death the Soviet Union was fifty years behind the rest of the world in agricultural practice – surely a factor in its eventual demise.

*

In 1929, when Nikolai Vavilov made it into Alma-Ata after losing two of his horses, the residents tried to help him by supplying more. As it happened, Vavilov declined their offer because a colleague was on the way with motorised transport. But for Aimak Dzangaliev, a fifteen year-old boy charged with looking after Vavilov’s fresh horses, the brief encounter with Vavilov would change his life – and perhaps the future of the apple.

Dzangaliev was amazed that an eminent scientist from Leningrad would come all the way to Alma-Aty to look at its apples. Seeing them through Vavilov’s eyes inspired Dzangaliev to study them himself. After going to study with Vavilov in Leningrad, he returned to Alma-Aty to continue the work Vavilov had started. He spent the next sixty years with his wife, Tatiana Salova, cataloguing and researching Kazakhstan’s fauna. They discovered that of 6000 species, at least 157 were either direct precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. They found that 90 per cent of all cultivated fruits in the world’s temperate zones had wild relatives or ancestors historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, in their eyes confirming Vavilov’s by now forgotten theory that this was the birthplace of the apple. They catalogued more than 56 native forms of apples, 26 of which looked like purely wild ecotypes, with another 30 being natural or semi-domesticated hybrids.

There was just one problem for Dzangaliev: his beloved forests were disappearing. Since 1960 between 70 and 80 per cent of Alma-Aty’s wild forests have been lost to luxury apartments and hotels, holiday chalets and summer cabins.

When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Dzangaliev, now in his eighties, contacted plant scientists in the United States and begged them to come and help save his apples. Phillip Forsline, a horticulturalist at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, led a number of expeditions in the 1990s and was amazed by what he saw.

Apples don’t grow in apple tree forests. They grow here and there, wherever the seeds fall. That’s why an orchard looks so stunning: it’s something you don’t see in nature, the product of human co-dependence with nature to produce something neither can on their own. Unless, that is, you’re in the Tien Shan mountains. Dzangaliev welcomed Forsline with a firm handshake and an astonishing passion and energy for a man in his eighties. (He credited his health and longevity to a constant diet of wild apples, eating at least one every day.) He led Forsline into Tien Shan’s apple trees forests, and showed him dense clusters of trees that were 300 years old, fifty feet tall with trunks as wide as oaks, still producing healthy crops of apples. The variety of those apples was astonishing: dun russet and shiny smooth, marble-sized and melon-sized, reds, greens, pinks, purples, yellows and gold. Some of the wild varieties had grown as big as domesticated apples in the west. From the samples they took, Forsline and his team estimated that the apples in the rest of the world together contained no more than 20 per cent of the genetic diversity on show in the Kazakh forests. Somewhere in that gene pool may lie resistance to blight, scab, or pests which can be bred into our favourite apple varieties, or even possibilities for the apple that we haven’t yet thought to explore. At a time when ever-fewer commercial varieties are cultivated widely, becoming less resistant to disease thanks to their intensively monocultural breeding, the birthplace of the apple may well contain its future.

In the early twenty-first century, a series of researchers used molecular genetic markers capable of distinguishing between species to establish that what Vavilov had deduced from observation was correct: the domesticated apples cultivated across the Western world had so much in common genetically with the wild apples of the Tien Shan mountains that they were without doubt descended from there.

But why here? How can one spot produce so much genetic diversity? Barrie Juniper, a plant scientist from the University of Oxford and the first person to confirm Vavilov’s hypothesis on the origins of the apple, has a pretty good idea. Around ten million years ago, earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates began to create the mountain ranges of Inner and Central Asia. At this time, an early form of the apple became trapped on the rising land. The Tien Shan never glaciated during the Ice Ages, and was fed by a constant supply of water from the snow pack above. Glaciers on one side and emerging deserts on the other cut the region off from Europe and the rest of Asia, but in this lost, fertile valley, plants and animals interacted and cross-bred. As well as apples, the Tien Shan region is also remarkable for its diversity and concentration of walnuts, peaches and a whole array of fruit and nut varieties. 

I never got to make the journey to Kazakhstan mysslf, but I consoled myself by reading the many accounts written by scientists who have been. Every one of them is filled with awe and wonder at these forests, even in their diminished state. It’s hardly surprising – in fact probably inevitable – that when he first saw the apple forests, Phillip Forsline declared that they had found ‘the real Garden of Eden located in the Kazakh mountains.’



Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Why I can't get too excited about BrewDog's big 'sell out'

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I'm afraid I was partly responsible for that. 



It wasn't my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time. 

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain's housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he'd never just do an ad for the money - he'd only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying. 

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it's OK. 

Predictably Lydon got some stick for 'selling out'. Because this is Johnny Rotten we're talking about, he didn't give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that's exactly what he was doing here. 

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk's 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I've witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco - the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst - and were greeted with cries of 'sell out!'

I can't get too excited one way or the other about this. 

Firstly, it's hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being 'punk' makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they're ten years old now, and that's ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash. 

Before
After
BrewDog stopped being 'punk' when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people's livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they're doing, because you can't function as a large business if you don't. That doesn't sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he's sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft. 

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I'd be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, 'I told you so.'

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding '4 real' behaviour. I've sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway. 

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people's wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case. 

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Why 'craft keg' - whatever that is - is the saviour, not the enemy, of cask ale


The vibrancy of London's brewing scene in 2017 shows just how antiquated the argument over format has become. 


On Wednesday I opened the 33rd London Drinker festival, in a grand old hall just opposite St Pancras Station. For the first time, the festival was stocking exclusively beers brewed in London. This wouldn't have been possible until recently - ten years ago London had two or three breweries. Today it has around ninety.

This was also the first time the festival had a keg beer stand. It was tucked quietly into a corner by the cider stall, but it was there. Festival organiser Christine Cryne told me she'd had some hate mail about the inclusion of beers that some feel are 'the enemy of cask', the 'thin end of the wedge' of some vast, corporate conspiracy, carefully woven over the last forty years, to exterminate cask ale, for reasons that have never been really made clear. 

But Christine did say she'd had about the same number of messages congratulating the organisers for having a more progressive stance. CAMRA is not some single monolith, but a sprawling mass of people with differing views. Parts of it at least are moving with the times. 

But on my way to the festival, I read something in one of CAMRA's branch magazines that reiterated the old arguments against 'craft keg' - a phrase which, in its very existence, to me shows the absurdity of those making the argument, defining and judging beer by the container it's served in rather than its style, ingredients, or the intent of the person brewing it. The whole argument feels like it should have gone away after 2010, and for most beer drinkers, it has. 

So I don't want to reignite a debate that's pointless in that neither side is likely to change their minds, but I do want to share one observation, given that this was on my mind when I was looking around the festival and trying to think what I was going to say onstage to declare it open. 

I was struck not just by the number of London brewers around, but also by the nature of the beers they were offering. 

I didn't even get chance to visit the keg bar: the central cask offering was utterly absorbing. 

Most of the brewers didn't exist ten years ago. Those that I know personally consider themselves craft brewers, and sell their beers in cask, keg, bottles and cans. I can't speak for them, but I suspect many of them were inspired to give up their old jobs and start brewing because of the energy and momentum surrounding craft beer over the last decade. 

The beers they were offering would certainly seem to bear this out. Alphabeta's Best Bitter was quenching and refreshing at 3.8% ABV and wouldn't have been out of place at any time in the festival's 33 year history. But I doubt the same brewery would have been offering a brown ale aged in old bourbon casks if it were not for the pioneering work of American and British craft brewers in barrel ageing. 

Anspach and Hobday's pale ale, like many British pale and golden ales now, was brewed with American hops popularised by US craft brewers. Barnet's Pryor Reid IPA was brewed to a Victorian recipe. Before US craft keg and bottle brewers rediscovered such old recipes, IPA had become a low strength session beer indistinguishable from any other bitter. Craft beer hasn't just inspired brewers to try something new and different, but also to dig back deeper into our own past. 

And so it goes on, all the way through the beer list: Brick's American pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Mosaic, Canopy's session IPA, Clarkshaw's Darker Hell - a dark lager, East London's Oatmeal Stout brewed with vanilla, Howling Hops' double chocolate coffee toffee vanilla milk porter, One Mile End's blood orange wheat double IPA, Uprising's wheat beer with American hops, Southwark's Russian Imperial Stout...

The dependable milds and best bitters, the golden ales and ESBs are still there. But before craft beer came along, every brewer in the room would have been brewing in the same narrow template. The number of breweries is soaring. The range of cask beers those brewers are creating is unprecedented. And attendance creeps steadily upwards. 

The first generation of American craft brewers were inspired by British cask ales from the likes of Fuller's and Young's. In turn, those American craft brewers are inspiring British brewers to brew not just 'craft keg' beers, but also breathe new life and creativity into cask. 

If craft keg really is the enemy of cask ale, it's doing a terrible job of trying to kill off cask, which has never looked more vibrant.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

New Book News: not for the first time, I'm trying to copy the great Iain Banks...

One of the greatest British novelists of the last fifty years, the late Iain Banks developed parallel tracks in his book publishing. Irritatingly and wonderfully prolific, he'd a write 'mainstream' fiction'Iain Banks' book one year followed by an 'Iain M Banks' book set in his stunningly detailed and intricate sci-fi universe the next. While my books obviously won't be as anywhere near as good as his, and while they're resolutely non-fiction (at least for the time being) I'm hoping to adopt a similar method...

As I've written before, I was extremely lucky to find in Pan Macmillan a mainstream, large scale, award-winning publisher who was willing to pay me to write several books about beer and promote them to a broad, general audience. I was in the right place at exactly the right time.

After three books that sold perfectly well but didn't trouble any bestseller lists, Pan Mac asked me to adapt my style to broader subjects and themes. My agent agreed, and it sounded like a good idea to me too. My fourth book, Shakespeare's Local, was a first step away from beer to broader social history. It was my most successful book launch at that point, and everyone felt they were right to gently encourage me to move further away from beer.

Since then, I've written books about cider and apples and pubs. But I missed beer writing, and I felt like an idiot that in the midst of a craft beer boom like nothing we've ever seen, I was moving away from the subject I loved.

So at the same time as writing The Apple Orchard - my last book, which is out in paperback next month - I joined up with innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound to write a new beer book. I screwed up the timings quite badly, and ended up trying to write three books at the same time, but now I'm through the pain. The Apple Orchard did really well. (After long conversations with Pan Mac about it, we amicably parted ways and it was published by Penguin.)

Exploring nature and the rhythms of the year, I discovered a new lyricism in my writing that's not always been there in the beer writing. So I want to do more along that line, at the same time as not giving up on beer. I want to have my cake and eat it (or should that be 'I want to have my pint and drink it'?)

So: the Apple Orchard paperback is out on 6th April. I just got sent the paperback cover today, a subtle evolution of the hardback design, which I think is lovely:




And then, 1st June sees the launch of Miracle Brew, my first beer book in eight years, via Unbound:



I'm currently checking the page proofs of Miracle Brew for any last typos or errors, and realising that writing about other stuff in between - particularly apples - has definitely brought something extra to a book about hops, barley, yeast and water. I'm really excited to start sharing it with people. (Even though the book is fully funded, you still have a short time left to pledge here and get your name in the back and get other benefits. Or if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can pre-order it on Amazon here just like any other book.)

Books take a long time to write, and I've always struggled to get the period between books to shrink. But now I'm on a bit of a roll. So while this year will see me on the road promoting the Apple Orchard paperback and the new hardback of Miracle Brew, today I signed the contract on my next book, which should see the light of day in autumn 2018!

This one is with Penguin again, the follow-up to The Apple Orchard. I had two ways to go from that book: I could develop the whole nature writing theme more, or I could continue to expand from beer into a broader food and drink arena. While there are lots of very good writers in both disciplines, I felt nature was the more overcrowded, and food and drink the one I was more excited about.

So I pitched an idea in January, and it was approved and bought quicker than any book I've written to date. The roots of it go back at least seven years, when, touring Hops & Glory, I started getting invited to a lot more food festivals and events. And it's based around the notion that food and drink form a large part of how we see ourselves - and in Britain's case, point to a very confused and uncertain self-image.

It's a global joke that British food is a bit crap - and Brits are at least as likely to say that as anyone else. When British people do stick up for their food, they usually point out that we have restaurants representing more different international cuisines in cities like London than anywhere else, or that British chefs are modernising and doing fusion with pan-Asian cuisine or 'modern European.' If they do celebrate traditional British dishes, they invariably add a cosmopolitan 'twist', just so everyone can be sure they'd never do anything as vulgar as simply make a traditional dish really well. 

There are exceptions to this of course, but the general theme I pick up is that no one is that keen on celebrating traditional British food and drink. It's why British craft beer fans will denigrate cask ale and British brewers would rather use American hops. Its why Somerset farmhouse cider is laughed at by people who adore Belgian lambic, when it's almost the same drink in many ways. Its why a craft beer festival that is passionate about showcasing local brewers will have endless food stalls doing mac 'n' cheese, Texan barbecue and hot dogs, but not British street food such as pie and peas. It's why France has more cheeses protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) schemes than Britain does for all its food and drink put together, and why the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) still has absolutely no clue whatsoever about how it's going to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese, Herefordshire perry and the rest of Britain's protected produce once Brexit means they no longer qualify for the EU protections they currently enjoy.

And yet, when surveys ask people what their favourite meals are, the vast majority invariably come up with fish and chips, full English (or Welsh, or Scottish, or Northern Irish) breakfast, and Sunday Roast. In terms of consumption, this isn't true of course: most of us eat Italian, or Chinese, or burgers way more often than we eat these staples. Large swathes of the population are far more likely to go to a faux-Italian coffee chain and have pain-aux-chocolats or croissants, or more recently, the heavily Americanised concept of brunch, than go for a full English. But when asked, these are the meals, along with Devon cream teas, cheese sarnies and bacon butties, that we still feel some patriotic pride about.

This brings up the whole issue of multiculturalism - curry has famously become defined as a British dish. But go back far enough, and what is British and what is multicultural start to blur. The first curry restaurant in Britain opened in 1809, only 15 years or so after it became socially acceptable for image-conscious Brits to eat potatoes.

To tie all these thoughts and themes together, I'm going to eat seven of Britain's favourite meals in their ideal settings: full English in a greasy spoon, fish and chips by the seaside, Sunday Roast in a country pub, and so on. For each meal, I'll explore its origins and history, why it became so important to us, and what it tells us about how we see ourselves and our place in the world in 2017. I'm starting work on it with a fascinating new reading list:


With this as-yet-untitled book due out in 2018, this establishes the beginnings of a pattern of annually alternating beer books and books with broader themes. I won't go as far as differentiating them by calling myself Pete Brown in one strand and Peter S Brown in the other, but I hope it's a pattern I'll be able to continue for a few years - I have a very tentative conversation next week about a possible new beer book.

I hope at least one of these strands will continue to interest you. Thanks for reading.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Remembering Lunchtime Drinking

So Lloyds of London announced last week that it is banning its employees from drinking at lunchtime.

Under strict new rules, anyone found to have enjoyed a pint between the hours of 9 to 5 faces the prospect of being fired for 'gross misconduct.'

Having frequently been in City of London pubs at the same time as some of these often boorish drinkers, my first thought was not to spare them any tears. The move comes in response to 50% of disciplinary incidents at the firm apparently having to do with staff members being over-refreshed. 

But whatever your views on our financial colleagues, just let that phrase roll around for a second: drinking alcohol during your lunch break is 'gross misconduct'. Not getting drunk. Not failing to complete your job because you're pissed. But having one drink. 

This ban is symbolic of the ever tightening stigma of drinking alcohol - and of changing public opinion - and I fear it's the first of many similar measures to come.


But according to YouGov, Lloyds are in line with public opinion. I guess I'm not. 

I started my first job in 1991, at an advertising agency in Central London. At that time advertising had a glamorous reputation, but that wasn't the reason I joined: I just wanted a job that would be different every day, one that would be interesting and intellectually challenging, and accountancy (which is what my university tried to push everyone into) didn't seem to offer that. 

I started as a graduate trainee in the middle of a recession, and to most of the people in advertising, this was the first recession they'd noticed, because it was the first that had had a serious impact on the south east. (Coming from Barnsley, I'd just assumed the early 90s recession was simply a continuation of the early 80s recession - I had no idea that some parts of the country had enjoyed a boom between the two.)

So advertising in the early 1990s was like turning up to a splendid mansion on a Monday morning and finding a Rolls Royce in the swimming pool, fag butts stubbed out in champagne glasses, TVs still smoking from having their screens smashed in, and my new bosses minesweeping empty bottles and greeting me with, "Man, I can't believe you missed the eighties. It was so great here then. We had such a party, a party like you wouldn't believe. Where were you? Now get this mess cleaned up, the place is a tip."

(Don't feel sorry for me. When I tell this story to people who work in advertising today, their reaction is along the lines of "There were parties here once? Bollocks, I don't believe you.")

But there were various hangovers of different kinds from that decade of excess. At least once a week during the 90s, the 'Jolly Trolley' would be wheeled down the corridor connecting our veal-fattening pens. It was someone's birthday, someone was leaving, someone had got a promotion, we'd won a new piece of business - there was always an excuse. Me and the other graduate recruits were usually too busy to join the festivities, but when we finished work around 8pm, long after the party had moved on to the pub, we'd scavenge the Jolly Trolley for unopened bottles to take home. For my first 18 months in London, I practically subsisted on stolen crisps, warm Budweiser and cheap, shitty champagne. 

Often, we'd have a mild buzz before the Jolly Trolley even appeared. Frequently, client meetings would run over lunch, and at 1pm a trolley that was only marginally less jolly, loaded with crisps and sandwiches, would be wheeled into the meeting room and unloaded onto the middle of the table. Behind this first trolley, a second full of wine and beer would follow, and people would crack open the booze without even breaking the flow of whoever was presenting acetates on the overhead projector. This was normal. No one even commented on it. From that point, we would drink steadily and moderately until the meeting was over. (I don't remember anyone ever finishing the meeting pissed.)

I can't remember when the drinks trolleys stopped. I didn't notice them becoming rarer and finally disappearing. But some time in the early noughties I was in a lunchtime meeting with Pret sandwiches and cans of Coke and I remembered the lunchtime booze trolley for the first time in many years. I realised that not only had it disappeared; if anyone suggested bringing it back now they would be censured for suggesting something so inappropriate. Somewhere along the line, without it being discussed, the idea of drinking alcohol in a daytime business meeting had become completely unacceptable. Everyone simply knew it was, just as everyone had known a decade previously that its was fine. 

Back when advertising was boozier, the ads were much better, and people enjoyed the job more. I'm not going to argue that the presence of booze was the main reason for this; all I am saying is that when people were drinking, the job still got done. Good ads got made and those ads did good business for the clients. The standard of work did not dramatically increase when the booze disappeared. People were made to work harder and longer, but if anything, the quality of the work they produce has declined. Just watch a commercial break if you don't believe me.

You should be able to trust grown adults to occasionally go to the pub at lunchtime without coming back to the workplace sozzled. If people drink at lunchtime to the point where it affects their work, then they should be reprimanded for it, but the crime should be the sloppy work or unacceptable behaviour, not the drinking itself.

Workplace drinking has beneficial effects as well as negative ones, and while there's no measurement of them, I suspect they're more widespread than the bad behaviour. A quiet pint can smooth things over, avoid problems, thank someone, share problems or create bonds. 

When I visited Japan for my book Three Sheets to the Wind, I discovered that beer solves an apparent paradox in the Japanese workplace. Japanese salarymen tend to give little of themselves away in the workplace, but will only do business with those they know and trust. How do you get to know and trust someone if the shields are always up? Beer symbolizes a switch from 'on' to 'off', a ritualised movement from formality to informality, to a time when they are permitted to bond and share. 

Maybe they don't do it at lunchtime, so it's not quite the same as the plight of Lloyds drinkers. But to ban lunchtime drinking outright, rather than punish any negative consequences of it, stigmatises drinking in general. And if you're lucky enough to still get a lunch break, it's your own time. If drinking is wrong at lunchtime, then surely it's not ideal at other times either? What next: a ban on evening drinking from Monday to Thursday to get rid of the detrimental effects of weekday hangovers?

I have no desire to get pissed with city boys. But thinking about it, and mangling a quote traditionally attributed to Voltaire, when it comes to their drinking, I disapprove of their twattish, drunken behaviour, but I will defend to the death their right to be drunken twats.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there's a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It's one of my favourite competitions, because it's global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you're tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and... well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard. 

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you're going to get. You accept you're going to get some that you're not best friends with, but hope that it'll balance out and that you'll get some good ones. Sometimes - as I found with the Tripels the year before - getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you've ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it's a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was 'to style' or not? 

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don't spend too much time thinking about what's going on in the mouth, and that's fine - beer is a social lubricant, and while you're drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven't taken it in because you've been thinking about something else, or there's music playing and you can't recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there's a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it's in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else. 

I've seen many craft beer fans necking beers they've paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There's nothing wrong with that - even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you'd look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you. 

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what's going on with it, and not just when you're judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here's my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that's correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to 'get' notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here's an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:


“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you're into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what's it doing, really? I honestly can't tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can't be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it? 

I don't think so. 

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of "She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes."

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details. 

But I'm meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole. 

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here's a strawberry beer. "I'm getting strawberries." OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together. 

By the end of the morning I'd enjoyed several of the beers, and I'd scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I'm in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It's also dependent on the context of the beer you've ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It's also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness. 

It's flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from 'retronasal olfaction,' meaning you really get it when it's in your mouth/when you're swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose. 

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not? 

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma's promise. But overall, I'm looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn't doing it, it's not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there's an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I'm increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip. 

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional? 

Here, I then start to think about whether I'm actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What's it trying to be, and does it succeed? 

If it's trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I've nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it's trying to do.) 

If it's trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea). 

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience - partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you've swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing - how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you've paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I'd enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them - even the ones I didn't like - to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it. 

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.