BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole

Is there any point in another beginners’ guide to beer, especially one that is, by its own admission, ‘Little’, and pointedly lightweight?

That we felt moved to buy a copy (via Amazon for £8.45; RRP £10) suggests that there is something in the proposition that sets it apart from other such volumes. That something is, in large part, the voice of the author, which is one we happen to appreciate a great deal. Melissa Cole is a visible, highly vocal presence on the beer scene, notable as much for her refusal to let incidents of sexism pass without comment as for carving out of a middle ground between daytime TV fluff and extreme beer nerdiness.

In line with that tightrope act this book has not so much hidden depths as artfully concealed ones. Though she makes a point of saying in the very opening lines that this book is not for experienced beer geeks, it is clear that Cole herself is sitting on a vast mine of experience and knowledge. The greatest challenge for knowledgeable writers is resisting the urge to drop it all, everything they’ve learned, in a great torrent — to batter the reader into submission with facts, dense detail and footnotes. Cole is sparing with the science and history but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there — it’s just boiled down to the absolutely plainest, briefest of English, and balanced with humorous asides and personal anecdotes.

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BOOKS: Pot Luck in England, 1936

This 1930s travel memoir is far from essential reading but contains plenty of details which will be of interest to students of pub and beer history, and to those with a more general interest in English society in the 20th century.

Douglas Goldring pictured c.1920.
Douglas Goldring pictured c.1920.

Douglas Goldring (1887-1960) was an independently wealthy left-wing journalist who produced poems, novels, travel writing and biographies over the course of a long career. Pot Luck in England, published when he was in his fifties, records a mid-life crisis ramble through central England, with an unusual emphasis on pubs and hotels.

The most interesting section from our point of view is the introduction which amounts to an essay on the horrors of English hospitality and the stupidity of our licensing laws. His purpose in writing the book was, initially, to boost the kind of simple country hotel-pub which had evolved from the coaching inn:

I sincerely hoped that loving, as I do, good simple English food, English comfort and English amiability, I should find much to praise and little to condemn. It is with genuine regret, therefore, that I find that the only was in which I hope I can be of service to the English hotel-keeper is by pointing out what seems to me… some of his shortcomings.

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BOOK REVIEW: London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars

The new edition of Des de Moor’s guide to the best places to drink beer in London (£12.99, 333 pages, CAMRA Books) is more than just a list.

The cover of The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars.The gazetteer which make up the meat of the book is solid. There is a mix of traditional pubs, trendy pubs, bars, taprooms, brewpubs and even the Leyton Orient Supporters’ Club bar. It covers territory from the outer edges of the city to its very heart. Some are old favourites, staples of similar volumes from the last five decades; others are current hype magnets; and, crucially, there are many of which we’d never heard of but now find ourselves wanting to visit.

The selection is broad but does skew, perhaps, towards a certain type of smart pub — the kind with liquid soap in the bogs and scotch eggs under a cloche. If you insist on pubs with no hint of gentility, this may not be the guide for you.

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The Lilliput Beer Book, 1956

This short pamphlet given away with a men’s magazine in the 1950s is far from essential but, if you find a copy going cheap, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Lilliput magazine, December 1956.We first became aware of it rummaging through a bin of assorted old magazines in a local retro-vintage emporium, where the word ‘beer’ leapt out at us from the cover of the December 1956 edition of Lilliput. Frustratingly, in that case, the booklet was long gone. We guessed, given the year, that it might be a promotional spin-off from Andrew Campbell’s Book of Beer, published in the same year, but couldn’t find any information online, and copies for sale on eBay were always rather too expensive to take a punt.

Last week, when we saw another copy on offer for £15, we decided to bite the bullet. It arrived tucked into a copy of the magazine, apparently untouched despite its age, with a bundle of original leaflets selling encyclopaedias and life insurance.

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BOOK REVIEW: Merrie England by Ted Bruning

This slim volume asks: at what point, and where, did the first establishment that we might recognise as a pub pop into existence?

Merrie England by Ted Bruning.

His definition of a pub reflects his background as a veteran writer and campaigner for CAMRA but is a good one nonetheless:

Broadly, we are talking about fully on-licensed, fully commercial businesses which are generally open, without charging membership or admission, to customers who need buy nothing more than a drink. 

He disqualifies clubs, restaurants, village halls and hotels, the latter on the grounds that their primary purpose is accommodation, with drink as an additional service, whereas some pubs offer rooms as a bonus rather than as a core part of the business.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there have always been pubs because they seem so essential a part of the fabric of British society but Mr Bruning, drawing on previous heavyweight academic texts, popular histories and a number of primary sources, paints a picture of a pub-less England in the Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon mead halls, for example, though they share certain features, were not pubs: there is little evidence of an organised trade in the sale of alcoholic drinks and booze was, ‘it’s fair to assume’, produced and provided as part of the communal diet. The roadside hostels that later became inns, which eventually merged into the pub tradition, did not sell alcohol except to travellers as part of their bed and board, and certainly did not build their business around it.

Bruning is methodical in breaking down steps towards the emergence of the pub: communal drinking led to commercial brewing which led to the brewery tap, in a weird pre-echo of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Those allergic to London-centricity will wince at the suggestion that it was the unprecedented size of that particular city, combined with an influx of alienated migrants in search of a substitute for the communities they had left behind, that brought about the particular circumstances necessary for the pub, as defined above, to emerge.

Throughout, he does a good job of exploring the etymology of various terms such as alehuse and tabernus, highlighting how fatally easy it can be to project a modern meaning on to an old word

Ultimately, however, because he is compelled by the lack of solid evidence to resort rather too often to ‘perhaps’, ‘surely’ and ‘we cannot say that’ (far preferable to make unwarranted assertions) the book’s punchline is rather disappointingly vague and interpretative.

The book isn’t long and seems rather padded out with appendices, but there is something to be said for the old-fashioned, single-minded monograph, and Mr Bruning’s prose style is both clear and engaging. The layout, with no paragraph indentations and with line spaces between paragraphs, takes a little getting used to. It is also perhaps a good job that judging books by their covers is so frowned upon.

On the whole, serious pub history geeks will want this intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking book in their libraries.

Bright Pen, £9.55, 163 pages.