Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: first thoughts

This isn’t a review of Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (a copy of which the publishers sent me to review). At least, this isn’t the whole review; this is just what I think is special about the book, and – for what it’s worth – what I think is unusual about the authors, as authors of beer books go.

It’s always a good rule of thumb, faced with any kind of encyclopedia or comprehensive overview, to check the bit you know. If they’ve got that bit wrong, it doesn’t tell you that the rest of it is wrong, or even that any of the rest of it is wrong. What it does tell you is that you can’t assume that the rest of it isn’t wrong. In other words, a known error in one part tells you that you can’t trust the rest. (You may remember a celebrated anthology with encyclopedic ambitions falling foul of just this kind of fact-checking on quite a large scale.)

Boak & Bailey’s book isn’t an encyclopedia but it does cover a lot of ground, from Betjeman to BrewDog and beyond. Intuitively, it seems that covering that much ground will come at a cost. Nobody is as keenly aware of changes in pop music between the ages of 36 and 38 as they were between the ages of 16 and 18; similarly, there may well be people out there who have drunk Penrhos Porter, Bruce’s Dogbolter and Wild Evolver, but I don’t think anyone could be equally enthusiastic about all three. You never forget the first one that really hit the spot, whether it was Punk IPA or Ruddles County – but that necessarily means that everything else is likely to fade into the background a bit.

As a writer you can correct for this kind of bias – draining your writing of any excesses of enthusiasm for the stuff you like and dutifully pumping up the descriptions of the stuff you don’t – but the end result is likely to be a bit flat and brochure-y. It also does a disservice to your readers, who – hopefully – are enthusiasts themselves. The telltale sign of this kind of writing is that you notice – as with the fact-checking – when they’ve got your bit wrong. The stuff you don’t much like or weren’t around for, fair enough, the book seems to have done a reasonable job. But for the stuff you like – nay, love – this lukewarm approach is no good at all. This is the cue, in an encyclopedia, for porter enthusiasts to complain that their beer isn’t given its due, while IPA lovers complain about the praise being heaped on porter. Or, in a history, for first-generation CAMRA veterans to complain that the early sections are thin and bland compared to the endless ravings about ‘craft beer’ later on, and hipsters to complain about all the space that’s wasted on beardie nostalgia.

Or, in this history… not. What’s struck me about the reviews of this book is that different generations of beer enthusiasts have expressed satisfaction with the section on ‘their’ period, even if they don’t think the other sections work so well. (I’m no exception – I found the parts about the period I knew best to be particularly interesting and informative.) This is a remarkable achievement, and suggests that this book has something to offer quite a wide range of beer-drinkers – and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Having raved, in general terms, about the book, I’m going to say something about the authors which will sound a bit uncomplimentary. It’s not meant that way; bear with me. It’s like this: it’s tempting to conclude a complimentary write-up like this by saying something like “Boak and Bailey know their stuff”. On one level that would be true – I certainly didn’t see any factual errors – but on another level it’s not. I actually don’t think Boak and Bailey do know their stuff in the broader sense; I don’t think they’re authorities on half the subjects they cover in this book. That’s not what they do; that’s not why this is a good book.

What B & B are is journalists, and good ones. When I was a freelance journalist I had one regular job which involved writing a thousand words about a (specified) famous person, usually in the course of a week: it might be John Betjeman, it might be Prince Naseem, I had no way of knowing before the request came in. Essentially, I had to make myself an instant expert. (Sometimes ‘instant’ was the word. My single favourite assignment involved Crawfie – the Queen’s childhood nanny – and a deadline measured in hours rather than days; I’d barely heard of the woman when I got up that morning, but by the time I went to bed I’d got the thousand words written.) There’s a knack to rapidly absorbing information in that way, and it’s about finding angles and ways in. If two different sources refer to your subject’s love of horseriding or her difficult relationship with her mother, you dig there; you don’t waste time and effort filling in all the blanks (how many brothers and sisters, where did she go to school, did she have any childhood illnesses…) unless you absolutely have to.

In other words, I wasn’t an authority on Wallis Simpson or Helen Keller – the kind of person who would know their shoe size and what time they were born – but I could give you an account of them; I could tell you a coherent and believable story, with facts to back it up. And that’s essentially what Boak and Bailey have done here, on a much larger scale: they’ve become experts on Penrhos and Firkin, Brendan Dobbin and James Watt, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the CAMRGB. It’s a journalist’s book, in the best sense of the word: they’ve done the work, they’ve got the facts right (as far as I can tell) and, most importantly, they’ve found a way in to the story. Specifically, they’ve tapped into the enthusiasm of the people they’re speaking to and writing about, and echoed it in what they write. It’s a fine book. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t got a copy, you probably should; I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Next: part two of the review, which will be about what they got wrong and left out.

(But do get it.)

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