Monthly Archives: October 2014

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: final thoughts

After all that, what do I think? Would I recommend you get this book?

In two words, Hell, yes! (Other expletives are available, but you get the idea.) Absolutely definitely. Get it now. I haven’t got a huge beer book library – before I acquired this book it consisted mainly of Amber, Gold and Black (Martyn Cornell), Beer and Skittles (Richard Boston) and Pulling a fast one (Red Rog). Brew Britannia fully deserves a place in that company. If you’re only going to buy one book about beer, if I’m being brutally honest it should probably be Amber, Gold and Black, but this one’s not far behind. (Anyway, why would you only buy one book about beer?)

So what’s so good about it? Four main things, I think. I’ll put down my thoughts in the form of a numbered list, a device I’ve recently had great success withused.

  1. It tells a story… You know the criticisms I put forward in the previous post? They’re not (for the most part) criticisms, not in the sense that “the book’s too long” is a criticism – they’re disagreements. The authors don’t tell the story I would have told, but why would they? What’s important is that they have got a story to tell, and they follow it through from the first encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood to… well, the final encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood (much later and in a very different world). You know those books you read sometimes – particularly books by bloggers or newspaper columnists – which are basically just a lot of disparate bits pulled together? This isn’t one of those; if anything, it gives the impression that the authors’ blog is just somewhere to put offcuts from the book.
  2. …and it tells it well. It rattles along, frankly. One of the things I would have done differently would actually have been to slow it down, brake the narrative and put it on pause for a while in a number of places. But that’s not the way the authors have written it – and the way they wrote it does work. Everyone won’t be equally interested in all the subject matter – personally I started to glaze over a bit somewhere between Belgo and Mash – but there’s always something different round the corner; the book moves along quickly enough that you won’t get bored.
  3. The ruthless efficiency of the freelance journalist. Some beer books are like poems, with a blast of green hop suddenly striking the nose as a door opens somewhere and a waft of air carries jaunty fragments of shop talk and banter, familiar yet incomprehensible, while the beer itself slips down casually, almost unnoticed in the golden afternoon haze of sub-clauses and (cont’d p. 94). Some are the record of a personal quest; some are more about the writers than they are about the beer; some are encyclopaedic reference works; some tell you nothing you don’t already know from reading blogs. This isn’t any of those things. As I said earlier on, the authors write like freelance journalists – they’re readable, reliable and above all efficient. If you’ve got to make your writing pay and you don’t know where the next commission’s coming from, you develop a certain way of working. You find out what you don’t know, get the facts and get it down; then you cut it to shape, then you move on. It makes for a good, solid read.
  4. The interviews. Saving the best till last – the interviews! Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Christopher Hutt; David Bruce, Alastair Hook, Brendan Dobbin (Brendan Dobbin!); Stuart Ross, Jeff Rosenmeier, Justin Hawke… With a couple of exceptions (wot no Protzie?) the authors seem to have spoken to everyone who is anyone, who’s still around and has a story to tell. I was really impressed with the range and number of people they’d managed to track down and talk to. Especially Dobbin, obvs.

It’s not a timeless classic; it wouldn’t be my desert island book; it hasn’t changed my life. But it’s a fine book, and if you’re interested in beer (i.e. if you haven’t arrived at this page completely by accident), you should definitely contact the publishers about a review copy, they were really nice about it when I askedbuy a copy with money (here’s a link).

[Personal to RB and JB: OK, guys, that’s your lot – you can come out now. Seriously, I’d be really interested in your reaction to any of these posts.]

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Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: critical thoughts

My Brew Britannia review, part 3 of 4: the critical part.

As you can probably see from the previous post on this topic, most of my doubts about the book had to do with history. Put simply, I had trouble with the overall shape of the story B&B tell – it’s not the shape that story has in my mind – and, although the content is mostly excellent, I kept stubbing my mental toe on the structure. This has three main aspects: where the story’s coming from; where it’s going; and the role of CAMRA.

To begin with, while the book’s subtitle is “The strange rebirth of British beer”, it doesn’t contain very much about what it was that needed to be reborn. The thing is, even the most dramatic processes of reform & revitalisation build on what was there before. I remember a letter to the Guardian about the English Reformation, challenging the idea that Henry VIII had founded a whole new church when he declared himself head of the Church of England. Quote: “Asking ‘where was the church before the Reformation?’ is like asking ‘where was your face before you washed it?'”. Like the English church, the British brewing industry was right there before anyone ever tried to transform or revitalise it, and had been for some time. Obviously the authors are well aware of this, but they begin the story with the first (major) reform campaigns, without doing much to sketch in the background. Hence some of my notes: “History of brewing industry consolidation/introduction of keg skated over.”; “Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)”; “Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved”. I’m not saying that this book should have been Amber, Gold and Black – on top of what it is already – but a few pages on what beer and brewing looked like pre-kegging and pre-Big Six would have been very welcome, both in general terms and as background to the rise of CAMRA. (On a side note, I’m pretty sure the authors know what ‘crystal malt’ is (although they put it in quotes), and I suspect they also know what the ‘air pressure’ debate (dismissed as “an obscure technical issue”) was about. Again, a few words of explanation would have been welcome (at least to the geekily-minded) and wouldn’t have slowed things down very much.)

Secondly, the authors tell the story of CAMRA – particularly in its early days – in oddly detached, almost cynical terms; there’s a lot about image, position-taking and organisational machinations, not so much about CAMRA as a group of people trying to achieve something. I’m not saying that the first generation of CAMRA activists were idealists or romantics, just that they were campaigning – against heavy opposition – for something worthwhile which they genuinely believed in. While the authors draw a parallel with the contemporaneous formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the Homosexual Law Reform Society and others, they underplay the association with contemporary environmentalist, ruralist and wholefood campaigns, which seem a much closer parallel. My (youthful) perception of CAMRA in the 1970s was that it was the ‘beer wing’ of a much broader and more diffuse countercultural movement, in favour of small scale production using traditional methods, against adulteration and industrialisation. To my eye the book doesn’t really capture this, or take it entirely seriously. (There is a reference to small brewers producing ‘pure, virtuous beer’ later on, but the phrase is presented as a marketing pitch; the overstatement is telling.) On the other hand, the big brewers’ reintroduction of cask bitter is presented in the same tit-for-tat style, as a dastardly plot to take the wind out of CAMRA’s sails; again, the framing of the narrative obscures a much simpler and more obvious reading, which is that this was a defeat for the Big Six (or, at the very least, an enforced change of direction).

What gets lost, or downplayed – or, at the very least, taken for granted to the point of being downplayed – is what CAMRA fundamentally was in that first decade: a highly political consumer campaign, using the tactics of political campaigns of the time, which protested against the effective destruction of British beer through the industrialisation of brewing and the monopolisation of pubs, and was more successful than anyone could have imagined. (Some would insist that CAMRA did no more than spearhead and give voice to a wider protest against the effective destruction, etc, and I think that’s arguable. It would still be a pretty significant achievement.) Whether, as of the early 1980s, CAMRA had won all the battles it was ever going to – “Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – is another question. Personally I’m more hopeful: the fact that the major pub chain with the cheapest beer (by a long way) is also the one with the best cask selection (by a long way) has got to mean something. I also think the presence of CAMRA throughout the contemporary beer scene is easy to underestimate. On ‘third’ measures, advocated by CAMRA, the authors write that the smaller glasses have only really been taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'”. Personally I can only think of two places where I’ve drunk beer in thirds more than once. One is the local J D Wetherspoon’s (home of the CAMRA token), which regularly offers three thirds for the price of a pint during its ‘beer festivals’; the other is a craft beer bar (10 handpumps, 20 keg taps) – which offers CAMRA members a 25% discount on cask. (Thus making the keg prices even more ouchy, ironically.)

As for where the story’s going, I think the difference between my point of view and the authors’ is summed up by that Mark Twain quotation, and perhaps by my rather grumpy note to chapters 11 and 12 – Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene? (To which I guess the answer is “yes, it is – partly”. Well, maybe.) I get the impression the authors look at places like the three Bristol bars in the Prologue and think – this is it – we’ve arrived! Whereas I’d be more inclined to think this, too, shall pass. (I’d still go in the bars, mind you – I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid.) Basically I don’t think ‘craft beer’, in any except the broadest possible sense, is the future of beer; there was good beer before that phrase was ever used, and there’ll be good beer after it’s been forgotten. Nor do I think people who would identify as ‘craft beer’ drinkers are numerically significant at the moment, as interesting as the beer they’re drinking may be. In terms of numbers, the state of British beer at the moment is still that a lot of people are drinking Tetley’s smooth and a very large number are drinking Carling; I’d love to see that situation change, but I don’t think it’s going to be craft beer that changes it. But this isn’t really a criticism of the book, more a comment on what I brought to it.

Lastly, a couple of points about ‘craft keg’. On craft beer itself, a definition would have been nice! (I know, I don’t ask for much.) To be fair, there is a thoughtful and interesting discussion of the term in chapter 12, but without any firm conclusion; when the phrase is used again in chapter 17 it seems to have drifted into marketing-speak, largely unmoored from what it had meant before. It would have been good to stick to a single meaning – or, if that’s not possible (which it probably isn’t), to put the narrative on pause and take a page or two to set out what the various meanings seem to be. Then there’s the issue of new-wave keg vs cask; here I felt the authors were trying to sit on the fence – again, for the sake of keeping the narrative going – and not really succeeding. So we learn that some people denigrate keg as ‘cold and fizzy’ (in quotes), only to then be told that “A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing’” (also in quotes); the implication seems to be that some people think they don’t like cold and fizzy beer, but they’re wrong. (Also, “whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself”; I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘in itself’, but as it stands this certainly hasn’t been my experience.) Rather than taking a view, I think the chapter – and the book – would have benefited from stopping for a moment to present the different views in a bit of detail.

Coming soon: part 4, which explains why, having taken all of this into account, you should buy this book pronto.

To you it may be taboo

I’m afraid I won’t be going to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention. Or rather, I didn’t go (it was this weekend). Having missed the first one last yearthe first two (h/t Tyson in comments – time flies eh?), I wrote off this year’s IMBC when ‘sold out’ messages started appearing, several months in advance of the event itself. However, not all the advance tickets got used – as is bound to happen when tickets go on sale with a lot of time to spare – and a few were being touted around on Twitter as late as Friday.

So I did have the choice whether or not to go, and in the end I chose not.

REASONS FOR GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. Lots of interesting beers from cutting-edge brewers.
  2. The food sounded pretty good too.
  3. And it was in Victoria Baths, which would be unusual if nothing else.
  4. So, really, whatever the beer was like, it would have been an interesting experience and made a good blog post (as long as I hadn’t got too drunk to remember anything).
  5. (Even if I didn’t much enjoy it, it would have been an interesting experience.)

REASONS FOR NOT GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. It was £13 to get in. For that (according to the Website) you got a glass, a programme and er. Making it approximately £10 dearer than most CAMRA beer festivals.
  2. If last year was anything to go by, the beer would have been fairly pricey, too.
  3. Not to mention the food.
  4. More to the point, about 3/4 of the beer (at least, for the session I checked) was keg.
  5. I didn’t want to go and then spend the evening roaming the halls disconsolately looking for cask beers that (a) were on (b) looked interesting and (c) I hadn’t had.
  6. Nor did I want to spend it trying keg beers and hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. Because I do keep trying them and I do keep being disappointed – not every time, but definitely most times.
  7. And I certainly didn’t want to be the old bloke leaning accusingly on the Magic Rock bar and saying “Got any real ale, young man? No? Aye, well, think on.”
  8. In terms of interesting experiences, the last three possibilities wouldn’t have been very interesting – and “man who doesn’t like craft keg tries craft keg, doesn’t like it” doesn’t make a very good blog post.
  9. I know, I’ve written it.
  10. More than once.
  11. Most importantly, and setting aside any consideration of beard length –
  12. (May I point out at this point that I’ve recently gone clean-shaven myself, and am confident this will be the next trend. At least, I hope it is. I cannot be doing with those Iain-from-Bake Off full beards that the real hipsters seem to be sporting these days.
  13. I saw a little short bearded guy unlocking his bike from the railing of a bar down the road the other week – 5′ 4″ at most, long shorts, full beard. Not many things make me stare, but I could not stop staring at that guy. I think my subconscious must have taken him for a gnome.)
  14. Anyway, the point is that there’s a selection effect here. An event like IMBC, with lots of fanfare about its general awesomeness and cutting-edge-icity, will attract a lot of people who like the idea of going to an awesome cutting-edge event. (And I’m willing to bet that a lot of them will have full beards, but that’s not important right now.)
  15. And an event with what I imagine to be expensive beer and food, and what I know to be expensive admission tickets, will attract people who don’t mind paying a lot for their beer festival experience.
  16. Also, and most obviously, an event where 3/4 of the beer is keg will attract people who (at the very least) don’t mind that.
  17. In short, if I had gone I strongly suspect I would have been surrounded by well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers.
  18. I’ve got nothing against well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers, but they are not my people.
  19. (I mean, the guy with the ponytail and the Hobgoblin shirt drinking a pint of Old Tom from his own pewter tankard isn’t exactly my soul-mate, but I’d much, much rather be surrounded by people like that. Really much rather.)
  20. Also, the festival glass is a third of a pint. And serving bitter in thirds is just wrong.

So that’s five reasons in favour, twenty reasons against. The result was a foregone conclusion. To me the IMBC is – still – something to say ta-ta to.

(H/t John Hegley.)

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: second thoughts

Although I liked Brew Britannia a lot, it wasn’t long before I started noticing – and noting down – things which, I felt, the authors had got wrong. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about factual errors, or anything that could be added to their scrupulous Errata. There’s ‘wrong’ as in ‘you spelt my name wrong’ – category 1 wrong, with no room for opinion; then there’s category 2 ‘wrong’ as in ‘this beer tastes wrong’, which is a statement of fact filtered through opinion (some people may like the taste of a beer that’s sour, full of yeast or both); finally, there’s category 3 ‘wrong’, which is pure opinion (as in ‘serving bitter in thirds is just wrong’). When I say B&B have got something wrong I’m mostly talking about category 3, with a few excursions into category 2. I also kept a list of things the authors had left out. This is a bit less challenging as a concept, although we should note that the list of things not included in any book is infinite; obviously when I say that a particular topic was left out, I’m saying it should have been included – or that leaving it out was… er… wrong. In some sense.

More from Philosophy Today next week. In the mean time, here (without much editing) is my list of omissions:

History of brewing industry consolidation/ introduction of keg skated over.

Earlier drinking clubs – much more!

Folk!

CAMRAIL story starts to get political and is immediately dropped

Top pressure – at least tell us what it is!

Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)

Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved

Craft beer – not exactly a gap, but the subject is dropped very quickly (though not without a decent attempt at a definition). Crops up later in the context of Crafty Dan, Brains etc – could really do with a definition by that stage

Could have done with much more (than one paragraph) on Spoons

Ditto on present-day CAMRA

And here’s my list of things that I thought were… other than right, in whatever way.

Prologue: is this what it was all for? Mark Twain (Eiffel tower)

Any real connection between Victorian Society etc and SPBW?

Any real connection between CAMRA and CHE etc? Boston green/”real food” campaigning connection underplayed by contrast. Frustratingly, they get this in Ch 4 but treat it as spin (“pure, virtuous beer”)

Marches and TU alliances against brewery closures – loss of “political neutrality” – ? (This was 1973-4)

Big Six reintroduce cask: authors assume this is a cunning plan to undermine CAMRA, despite informants not saying anything of the sort. Surely a retreat and as such a victory for CAMRA.

Lager explained by 60s social mobility, in turn explained as a generational shift, leading to the conclusion that “People liked lager, and the fact that CAMRA did not made the organisation seem rather parochial and backward-looking.”

“Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – fighting talk!

Firkin thrived because of higher prices? Bears investigation

Beer Orders – could unintended consequences have been avoided?

Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene?

“whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself” – ???

“A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature” – as distinct from being ‘cold and fizzy’ – “has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing'” Quite a contentious point, and what are those scare quotes doing there?

“some people have a strong preference for one, while others are able to appreciate both”

“There are young professionals … who think nothing of spending £8 on a pint of beer” Are there?

Thirds taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'” Really not convinced by this narrative – look at Font

Wild – are they using wild yeasts or not?

I’ll pull together these thoughts in a third post. For now I’ll leave you with the quote from Mark Twain which I referred to above. For background, the Prologue features a thumbnail sketch of a street in Bristol with three (count ’em) separate craft beer joints, each one craftier than the last. (“We shake our heads in disbelief and ask, ‘How the hell did beer get so hip?'”) Take it away, Mr Clemens:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.