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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.
>

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beer Writer of the Year

On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time. 


I even bought a suit.

It caps an incredible year for me and I'm obviously delighted. But I still wouldn't recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won't be repeating this trick any time soon.

I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to 're-brew' with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense - the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers - just weeks before his passing was something I'll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book. 

In case you're interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:




I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I've written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I'm not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines - if you haven't done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.

As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it's my name on the front I'm only a third of the team. People's first reaction to it is that it's a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.

Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year. 

It's a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn't the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories. 

Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you're in the thick of it, phrases like 'the standard was really high this year' and 'the quality of entries continues to improve' get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I'll be chair of the judges next year. I've done this twice before. It's always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I've never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I'll be here writing 'the standard of entries was very high this year' and 'the judge's decision was an extremely difficult one.' 

I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it. 

For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Pub - On Tour

My new book on pubs spans the whole of the UK. So it only seems fair to take it back to the places where it was researched.

Still need that elusive Christmas present for that difficult-to-buy-for person? Looking for an evening to kick off Christmas party season? I'm taking my new book (well, one of them) on tour. 




The Pub is a coffee table, illustrated book that celebrates the unique cultural institution of the British pub. But it's more than that. The main reason most people choose a pub is because of its atmosphere, but atmosphere is very tricky to write about. I've given it the best shot I can. 

In these events, I'll be reading a selection from the fifty short essays in the book that seek to evoke the atmosphere of the best pubs I came across - best in that respect anyway. These are not the best beer pubs or food pubs, nor the most historic or architecturally stunning (though many of them do score highly in these attributes.) They're the pubs that feel special when you walk in, that feel like home, even if you can't immediately figure out why.

But it would get dull if I just read out lots of short essays. 

So I'll also be illustrating my talk with a selection of the stunning photography from the book, giving you what I'm told is a fiendishly hard pub quiz to do, holding the Great Crisp Flavour Challenge, and contravening intellectual property rights with my travesty of Bullseye

These are the dates we managed to fit in before Christmas. There are some glaringly obvious gaps here which I aim to fill in the New Year. (Norwich, Leeds and London being among the main candidates.)




These events are in association with Waterstones, who will be selling books at the events, and each pub is, obviously, one that features in the book. Admission is free but tickets need to be booked in advance, and are available from eventbrite

I had such great times in these places while I was researching the book. Hoping to repeat the experience. See you there.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Book of the Week

The Apple Orchard - coming to a radio near you...


I'm enormously proud, and more than a little nervous, that this morning BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting the first episode of the serialisation of my new book, The Apple Orchard. 

My last narrative book, Shakespeare's Local, was also Book of the Week, so I guess lightning can strike twice. It's an enormous honour to be chosen. Shakespeare's Local was read out by Tony 'Baldrick' Robinson, who made my words sound about 100 times funnier and more interesting than they read on the page. To follow that up, the producers decided they would like The Apple Orchard to be read by... me. 

I can talk on radio just fine, but reading out something scripted is an entirely different skill, one I learned quickly in a studio in Glasgow three weeks ago. You can hear the results at 9.45am each day this week, Monday to Thursday.


There are many different strands to The Apple Orchard. Most people who know me keep referring to it as my 'cider book', and I have to stop myself referring to it in that way still. There's a lot of cider drunk in the book, and cider production is addressed in detail towards the end, but it's mainly about the cycle of the apple year, the history and nature of apple cultivation, and the symbolism and significance of this fruit in our lives, what it tells us about systems of belief and how we make sense of the world. 

That's an awful lot to fit into four fifteen minute broadcasts, so the abridger at Radio 4 had to choose one thread to follow. He chose to focus on the cycle of the apple year and what needs to be done in the orchard at various times. So this week, you can hear about the origins of the apple and how it came to England, how I learn to prune and graft apple trees, and the joy of apple harvest. I think of it as a 'remix' of the book, with different elements shuffled around to create something new, simpler and leaner.

This seemingly ordinary fruit is in fact one of the most potent symbols in our lives. It was a life-changing joy to unravel its story.

If you're not near a radio at 9.45am, you can catch up on iPlayer by following the link in the screen grab above. The Apple Orchard will be available for about 30 days.


I've been asked a lot if all this means I don't write about beer any more. I can assure you that I do. I'm doing the final edits to my new beer book this week, which will be available spring 2017. After I've finished that, I'll be blogging all the stuff about beer I didn't have time to address while I was working on these books. I'm also writing regularly for the Morning Advertiser, Original Gravity and Ferment magazines. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Budweiser: You Can't Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America's beer just can't stop stealing things from southern Bohemia...

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I've seen plenty of good ads from Bud before - stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it's true, it's centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category - good lager takes time to mature. 



Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That's not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it's a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool. 

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer's astonishingly long lagering time - five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:


The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There's a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:




Having stolen the idea, they've now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? 'You can't rush perfection.' Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.


Come on, Budweiser. You've already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You've copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I'd run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers' Association, the idea being that we'd pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that's the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn't have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. I don't promote Samuel Smith's beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with... nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but... wasn't there anything else in that style? No.

I've just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed 'American-style' brown ales, but no English-style examples. It's a similar story across various other retailers. 

I'm not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American 'English-style barley wines' but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller's Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we'd been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit 'British beer for British people' rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we've ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of 'what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better' means that we're not innovating with styles developed here. You can't just argue that it's because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don't already know him, read this short biography, it's incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I'd like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There's no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it's an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia's original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you're lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren't exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I'd visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It's now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I'm doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching... a new brown ale! I haven't tasted it yet. Those who have say it's great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I've seen some of the recipes. But they weren't defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Apple Porn

The simple pleasures of tramping round an orchard.





Autumn is a season of two halves. Both are definitely autumn, but one is summer's older sibling, looking back fondly, while the other is winter's harbinger. The change comes almost overnight some time late in October, just before the clocks go back. By this time we've all been remarking for several weeks that the nights are drawing in and it's getting a bit chilly, but then, around the 21st - which is, coincidentally (or not) now celebrated as Apple Day - the season finally shifts its weight to the other foot. 

Before the change it's all about crisp blue skies with a chill at the edge, the leaves turning and sweaters coming out of the wardrobe. After, it's mud, rain, bare branches and those recently beautiful golds and yellows and browns clogging the drains and flying in your face. In short, Autumn Part One is a time to be outside. Part Two is the bit where you rediscover the joys of open fires, home baking and soup.

Every year, it's a panicked rush to make sure I enjoy Autumn Part One as much as I can. It's a very busy time of year with festivals, events and trade shows, and from early September to mid-October I'm invariably living out of suitcase most of the time. So when Thatcher's Cider invited me down to Somerset for a walk in their orchards - with no other agenda than simply catching up with each other - I jumped at the chance. 

Thatcher's has grown at an incredible rate in the last few years. Many locals still remember when it was a small cider farm, but now it's a national brand. Thatcher's Gold is pretty much a mainstream cider now, dismissed by purists but superior to the likes of Magner's, from which it seems to be soaking up a lot business. It doesn't appeal to me personally, but there are other ciders within the Thatcher's range that do, particularly the crisp, satisfying oak aged Vintage. The new special vintage blends of apple varieties, such as Tremletts and Falstaff, are also really interesting. 

But for me, the most exciting thing Thatchers has done recently is to create a periodic table of the apples they use. 



I can't really post a big enough picture of it here to do it justice, though you should hopefully be able to enlarge it. 

Apart from it being ridiculously clear and informative, and fascinating if you're an apple nerd like me, this is what the whole cider industry needs to be looking at. Good cider is made from apples. Obvious I know, but bad cider is made from cheap, imported apple concentrate of indeterminate origin. 

Different apples have different characteristics, just like different grapes or hops. Wine became popular in the UK when people began to discover their favourite grape varieties. Craft beer exploded when people started to learn about different hops. It really doesn't take a genius to see apple varieties as the key building block for a stable, established premium quality cider market.  

Martin Thatcher is genuinely fascinated by apples, after having spent his whole life around them. Walking around the massively expanded cider production facility at Myrtle Farm in the village of Sandford, he points to the house where he was born. "I've moved house six times in my life," he says, "And I think they're all within about 600 yards of each other." 

Between these houses there are over 500 acres of orchards. 

Martin is currently experimenting with the effects of terroir. He's planting stands of the same apple varieties in different types of soil and monitoring the results, and is convinced the fruit will show significant differences.

You can see where this hunch comes from down in the Exhibition Orchard. 



Here there are 458 different cider apple varieties. When the Long Ashton Research Station's Pomology and Plant Breeding programme was disbanded in 1981, Martin's father John took cuttings from as many different trees as he could and grafted them onto rootstock in his own orchard. It's just as well he did: the Long Ashton orchards were bulldozed soon afterwards, and a library of old cider varieties could have been lost for ever.




Walking around the Exhibition Orchard in a brief but wonderful interval of clear blue skies, I'm compelled to take photos like some kind of apple ticker. My cider comrade Bill Bradshaw always says that when he was commissioned for a photography project about apples and cider making, he found he couldn't stop afterwards. I now see why. He's a professional photographer. I'm a bloke who can just about work out how to point a smartphone in the right direction. But the apple demands to be captured and recorded. It's the centre of still-life art. The artists who create Pomonas - the visual guides to apple varieties - obsess over capturing their beauty far more than they need to for simple identification purposes.











 At various points, Martin stops and points to groups of trees bursting with life and fruit, and to others next to them, small and wizened, like the last kids to get picked when a school games lesson splits into two football teams. "These were planted at the same time, in the same soil, and given exactly the same watering, pruning and spraying regime," says Martin. "Look at the difference."




If you're a grower, that's fascinating. But if you're a lucky tourist in the orchard at harvest time, you have eyes only for those that have decided this particular soil type, this precise elevation and position,  is just right, and have shown their gratitude in the best way they know.

My new book The Apple Orchard is out now. This week's BBC Radio 4 Food Programme is about the book, and is broadcast for the first time on Sunday 9th October at 12.32pm.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously...*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World's Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn't really belong in the cider book. 

More importantly, the best stuff - or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate - wasn't about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they're grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them. 




So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too. 





I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit - indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.




I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages. 

Pieter Paul Rubens' depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig. 

Michelangelo's Forbidden... er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself - I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.




I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.




I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.




I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I've developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or 'pomace,' when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.




The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It's a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that's what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we'd left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points. 




I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph's weekend section last week. I'm going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn - another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.) 

I'm delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I'm doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December. 

I'm nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you've never really thought that much about apples - as I hadn't until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand - you'll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.




The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated. 

* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer - an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it's back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here