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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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Thursday, 3 August 2017

A Quick Blog Post For IPA Day

If you really want to know why IPA was supposedly so strong and hoppy, look not to the breweries, but to India...

Today is apparently International Let's Argue About The Mythology Of IPA Day.

One of the main points of contention about this much-mythologised style is whether or not it really was strong and hoppy, and if it was, why it was. 

Wherever I've seen this point argued, it's been exclusively to do with the nature of the beer itself: did it have to be strong and/or hoppy to survive the journey? What do the brewing records say?

Some eminent brewing historians have found evidence of low strength, relatively low-hopped IPAs making the journey, which is fascinating. But some commentators have then taken this as evidence that disproves the 'myth' that IPA was strong and hoppy. 

But the logic of that is flawed: evidence of weaker, less hoppy proves that IPA did not have to be strong and hoppy. It does not disprove that strong, hoppy beers went to India. 

In my research for my book Hops & Glory, I found requisition orders from the India Office from the 1870s which specified the gravity, hopping rate, size of barrel, even the width of the bung on the barrel, for both India Pale Ale and Porter. When we translated the specs into modern brewing, we had a beer that was around 8% ABV and had an insane amount of hops. When we recreated it with Everards Brewery, the volume of hops clogged up the kettle and the beer was green when it came out. It was so hoppy we had to new the same beer again without any hops, and blend to two to get a beer that was still damn hoppy. But what's important to remember is that the alpha acid content - the potency of hops - is far higher now, far more concentrated, than it was then. You'd have had to had far greater physical quantities of hops in 1870 to get the bitterness from hops you get today. 



Anyway, these requisitions prove that at least some IPA that went to India was very hoppy and very strong. But its presence against other less hoppy, weaker beers, proves that it did not have to be like this in order to survive the journey. 

What does this tell us? Well, there's only so much that looking at the production end of things can tell us. For further clues, we have to look at the consumption side. What did people in India want their beer to be like? Throughout the whole of brewing history, this is a question that is asked all too seldom.

Another contentious 'myth' is that IPA was brewed for the troops. For some reason, there's a school of thought that it wasn't. Certainly, it wasn't the only think they drank. And yes, the civilians in India drank it too. But the big orders I saw for requisition were specifically for the he numbers of troops that were sent to India after the 1857 first war of Indian Independence (referred to by colonialists as the Indian Mutiny.)




Being a soldier in India was a life of short periods of extreme violence separated by long stretches of total boredom. The soldiers filled that boredom by drinking. 

When Fanny Parkes went India on a ship full of soldiers in 1827, she came to know many of her fellow passengers and was shocked at how quickly many of them died. The average life expectancy of a soldier serving in Calcutta was just three months. Disease was a far bigger killer than combat, and much of it was caused by alcohol.   

Beer couldn't be brewed well in India, but a drink known as arak could be made simply by drawing off palm sap and letting it ferment in the hot sun. Arak drinking contests claimed the first European casualties in India when the Dutch and English spice traders got there. One binge could be fatal. 

So, in order to keep soldiers alive, they had to be given alcohol that was strong and flavourful, like arak, but not fatal. IPA was strong because if it wasn't, the boozy soldiers would have drunk arak instead. 

As for hoppiness? The vivid hop characters we love today would have vanished from the beer after months on a hot ship. But the flavours changed. The locals used to say IPA 'ripened', and when it was ripe, they described it character as being like champagne. My sea-matured IPA certainly had that character to it - somewhere between what we think of as IPA and barley wine. 

So - at least some IPA was strong and hoppy. It didn't have to be. It was like that because that's how people wanted it to be, so they drank it instead of the local gut rot. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Book events this summer - and Stoke Newington LitFest this weekend!!

I'm doing lots of events this summer - starting closer to home, then going further away. Some of them must be near you, surely...



For the eighth year, my wife Liz has organised the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, which happens this weekend, 2nd to 4th June. This year there's a great line-up focusing on politics (there's a lot of it about at the moment), comedy, music and food and drink, with lots more stuff about every subject you can think of, including a children's programme featuring a Harry Potter birthday party and the chance to meet the actual Cat in the Hat, so there's where I'll be.

At least, that's where I'll be when I'm not doing my own events.

On Saturday afternoon at 4pm I'm chatting pubs with Kit Caless, author of the superb Spoon's Carpets, which is far more than the novelty gift book it might initially appear to be. It's a really great take on this love-em-or-hate-em institution.















We'll be chatting all things pubs, including the Wetherspoons Paradox, and signing our books afterwards.Then at 6pm I'll be kicking off an evening of beery fun at my It's The Drink Talking Litfest event. 

This is a loosely formatted beery chat show sometimes, and changes depending on what's happening and who's around. This year, the show is in two parts. In the first half, I'll be talking to Henry Jeffries about his book Empire of Booze, which is about how Britain invented all the best alcoholic drinks, including the French ones. 




Then, after the interval, I'll be presenting my new book, Miracle Brew, which is published on 1st June. I'll be talking hops, barley, yeast and water, with samples of beer and ingredients to savour. 

I'm writing this on my way to make my Hay Festival debut with Miracle Brew tonight. If you're in town, I'm also doing a signing at the fantastic Beer Revolution shop at 4pm. 

Then I'm doing events around the UK, in Holland, South Africa, with some to be announced in the United States! Please do come along. All confirmed events so far detailed below.

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.