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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Further Reading #1: The Newcastle Beerpendium

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. We barely got to scratch the surface in the book so this series of blog posts is intended to highlight some great resources you can go and look up yourself.

Our first stop is the City Library in Newcastle upon Tyne which we visited for a couple of pleasant sessions in June 2016. The top floor reference collection has a nice collection of books on the region’s pubs, most packed with photos and anecdotes, like this from Brian Bennison’s Heavy Nights, published in 1997:

In Gosforth High St the County Hotel was owned by James Deuchar before [Scottish & Newcastle]. One significant change took place in 1975 when the sanctity of the Gents’ Buffet was breached after what was thought to have been 140 years of ‘men only’. The day the Sex Discrimination Act came into force three female journalists entered the Gents’ Buffet to push the boat out with an order of one glass of cider and two fruit juices. The landlord told them, “You realise you’ve just made history in here. It’s a sad day.”

The real star of the show, though, is a huge scrapbook of newspaper clippings and leaflets. Archivists rightly protest when people claim to have ‘unearthed’ something which they, the librarians, found, bound and catalogued years ago, and this collection is a great example of their work. It contains early Tyneside CAMRA leaflets, for example — the kind of thing that most people threw away or lost when their guidance ceased to be useful but that someone thought to keep and preserve.

Good Pub Guide c.1975

From the above, undated but c.1975 we’d guess, it becomes clear how dominant Bass was in the region and that the Mitre at Benwell (second on the list) and the Duke of Wellington in Newcastle city centre were the most notable ‘beer exhibition’ pubs.

The news cuts tell interesting stories, too, such as the offence taken in the region in 1971 when analyses of beer strength undertaken by Durham County Weights and Measures Inspectors revealed that the North East’s beer was rather weaker than popularly imagined.

HEADLINE: "We're Weak Beer Snobs!"

This article also contains a table of the original gravity, ABV and price-per-pint of every beer sold in the region. (Which we think we’ve already shared with Ron Pattinson…)

There’s a story from 1976 about a two-day CAMRA beer festival in Durham with no less than fifteen different ales, but not Tetley, which refused to supply the event because they feared the beer ‘would not be served properly’. That’s followed by a review of the event by John North for the Northern Echo:

There was a feller professing to be the Earl of Derby’s nephew, another who’d struggled there on crutches, and a third who carried round an empty Castrol GTX can, presumably in case he needed to take a few samples home… The senior man at St Chad’s College arrived in knee-length shorts and near knee-length hair; the wife of a bookshop owner in Saddler Street came in a Pickwickian dress; a lot of men wore light blue CAMRA tee-shirts over tight brown bellies and a young lady had the peculiar message ‘Lubby, lubby, lubby’ emblazoned across her chest… In one corner a bearded man sat engrossed in his Times crossword, automatically reaching out every few seconds to grab his Hook Norton’s.

(An early manifestation of the bellies and beards stereotype?)

One final item worth highlighting is the arrival in 1977 of Tsing-Tao at the Emperor Restaurant, run by Arthur King who came to Newcastle from Hong Kong as a child in the 1940s. The Journal had great fun with the crazy idea of Geordies drinking beer from China and got a few locals to taste it, like 71-year-old pensioner Albert Smith:

It’s very good: a soft, smooth tasting drink… But at 40p a bottle it’s too expensive for people like me to drink. And it’s a long way to take the bottle back.

Beyond the stuff specifically relating to beer and pubs there are also, for example, decades’ worth of issues of local society magazine Newcastle Life packed with ads for local pubs, clubs and breweries. (Main picture, top.)

If you live in the North East and fancy learning about your region’s beer history, or if you’re in Newcastle as a beer tourist and need something to do between your smashed avocado toast and the pub opening, do pop in and take a look at this fascinating collection.

Some Beer Writing Not By Beer Writers

We don’t often write book reviews these days but two newly published volumes from outside the bubble grabbed our attention.

The first is One for the Road: an anthology of pubs and poetry edited by Helen Mort and Stuart Maconie, and published by smith|doorstop at £10. It’s a large format paperback with about 130 pages of real content, author bios and indexing aside, and the bulk of that is poetry. Once upon a time we might have been able to provide some meaningful critical commentary but those muscles have all seized so we’ll just say that, in general, most are closer to pop ballads than T.S. Eliot. Which is to say, they make obvious sense, often rhyme, and are on the whole fairly unpretentious.

Book cover: One for the Road

They’re organised into four categories by theme although the majority seem to share a certain nostalgic, lamenting poignancy. One poem by Carole Bromley is called ‘All the Pubs Where We Used to Drink are Sinking’; another, by Alicia Stubbersfield, is entitled ‘Calling Time at the Bull’s Head’:

The Bull’s Head has gone. Now offices to let,
a bleak image on a ‘lost pubs’ website.
No mark on its old walls to say — here
my grandfather died his very Scottish death:
a whisky chaser undrunk before the heart attack.

The prose pieces close each section and include, for example, an extract from Mark Hailwood’s 2014 academic book on alehouses and Stuart Maconie’s portrait of the famous Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station:

‘Now then, sir, the barman begins apologetically, if you’ve come for our infamous black peas’ — this is a northern delicacy, often enjoyed around bonfire night and delicious in a Dickensian sort of way — ‘then I have to tell you that they haven’t really been soaking for long enough yet. I can offer you a hot pork pie from Saddleworth and mushy peas though, and after that perhaps some home-made pudding.’

What this book is made for — where it would be perfect — is the kind of distracted dipping in and out you might do while sitting on your own in the corner of a pub, where there’s usually too much going on to concentrate on a novel, but where you might find yourself in a state of sufficient dreaminess to appreciate a poem even if you usually don’t. Especially if it’s about crisps and ale and merry departed drunks.

* * *

The second book is Know Your Place: essays on working class culture by the working class, a crowdfunded collection from Dead Ink books edited by Nathan Connolly, RRP £15.99. (Disclosure, we guess: we backed this one on Kickstarter, so the opposite of a freebie.)

Book cover: Know Your Place.

It’s a hardback with about 200 pages of real substance, its cover designed to resemble a beer label. There’s actually only one essay expressly on the subject of pubs, ‘The Death of a Pub’ by Dominic Grace, a playwright from Leeds. As you might guess from the title, which deliberately or otherwise echoes Christopher Hutt, it tends to the same kind of bitter nostalgia as the poems discussed above:

We’re losing living, breathing, vibrant cells in the body of our country… Government has done little to reverse this loss, perhaps seeing no merits in a working class that is in touch with itself and can feel not just its muscles but sense the power that resides within itself. Meanwhile, heritage and preservation industries in the UK are worth millions and employ thousands, but the heritage they wish to preserve has nothing to do with the cultural endowment resting in the reservoir of working class communities. Instead, it concerns itself mainly with the houses of the aristocracy…

Grace argues for the pub as the anti-safe-space where you might get ‘called names’ and revels in the ribaldry and naughtiness of working class pubs at full throttle. He recalls, too, the first moment he realised middle class people also went to pubs on an expedition to north Leeds: ‘Everyone else in the pub, bar none, was better looking than us.’

It’s very much a piece about feelings and experience rather than cautious, evidenced analysis (ahem, hello) but there is room for both types of writing, taken on their own terms, and anyone with an interest in pubs and society will want to read it. Whether it justifies the purchase of an entire book will depend on whether your engagement in the politics of working class life goes beyond the boozer.

* * *

Perhaps there’s something significant in the fact that these two books have arrived now, without any of the usual Beer Writing names or faces attached, and from people who see beer and pubs not as the be-all-and-end-all, but as part of a bigger picture. After all, pubs barely feature in any of the other essays in Know Your Place — a reminder that, despite Dominic Grace’s observation that pubs are a literary and filmic signifier of working classness, they’re not necessarily as integral as we monomaniacs might imagine.

COMPETITION: Book Bundle

Competition prizes: 20th Century Pub and Brew Britannia, new edition.

UPDATE: 13.09.2017 THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED.

The winners are @beerfoodtravel and @claytonbrooke.

As is customary around the time a book comes out we’re going to run a little competition.

We’re going to give away two bundles each comprising one copy of the new book, 20th Century Pub, and a copy of the new edition of Brew Britannia (smaller, not updated, but corrected).

There are two ways to enter.

1. With a Photo

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

For this part of the competition, we want you share on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook your very best picture on the theme of the 20th century English pub using the hashtag #20thCenturyPub.

Interpret that theme as liberally or creatively as you like.

We’re after evocative images, not necessarily the most technically accomplished.

We’ll look at all the contenders we’ve received by midnight on Tuesday 12 September and declare a winner on Wednesday 13. (See T&Cs below.)

2. With 100 Words

A pen on a table next to a beer mat and glass.

If you’re not so handy with a camera, try writing. For this, we’re after 100 words (give or take 10-15 either way) on the same topic as above — that is, the 20th century English pub.

It can be a memory, an anecdote, a pen portrait, or whatever else you like.

We don’t care about spelling or grammar — it’s just a bit of fun.

Post it as a screengrab on Twitter, as a Facebook post, or on your own blog, and let us know about it however you like. You could also post it in the comments below or, if you’re shy, email it directly to us at contact@boakandbailey.com

Again, we’ll look at all the contenders we’ve received by midnight on Tuesday 12 September and declare a winner on Wednesday 13. (See T&Cs below.)

3. Terms and Notes
  • You can enter wherever you are in the world; if someone overseas wins, we’ll worry about postage costs then.
  • If you post on Facebook and don’t set the post visibility to ‘Public’, we won’t be able to see it. The same also goes for private/locked Instagram and Twitter accounts.
  • Our decision is final and we won’t enter into any debate over it.
  • We reserve the right to disqualify entries for suspected cheating, or any other reason whatsoever.
  • Once we’ve emailed the winners to get their postal addresses for dispatch, they’ll have 48 hours to respond or the prize will default to another winner.
  • It’s only a bit of fun.

20th Century Pub

The cover of 20th Century Pub.

Right, so it’s finally real — we have hard copies of the new book, as handed over in a Bristol pub last night in a vaguely cloak-and-dagger exchange.

The idea behind the book is that it tells the story of how pubs changed and developed between 1900 and the present via inter-war improved pubs, post-war estate pubs, theme pubs, Irish pubs, gastropubs, micropubs, and so on. The tone is similar to Brew Britannia with perhaps a little more flair in the prose — we’ve had three years extra practice, after all.

You can pre-order from Amazon UK now as well as various other places (list below). The official publication date is 15 September but it’s likely to go out earlier than that.

Detail of one of the illustrations.
Detail from a 1955 illustration by Clarke Hutton, securing the rights to which took considerable detective work on Jo’s part.

And (fingers crossed) it should also be available at the Great British Beer Festival bookshop next week. Assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be there signing copies on Tuesday afternoon (trade day) at around 1:30, and will be hanging about until about 7pm in case anyone misses that organised signing session. Come and say hello!

Chapter header.
Dale Tomlinson, the designer, is a type nerd.

It’s a very pretty book, if we do say so ourselves — bright, tactile, with lots of crisp black-and-white photos, both from the archives and taken by us on our travels during 2015-2017. We’re delighted to say that some of the illustrations we most wanted to include made the cut after much detective work and bargaining by Joanna Copestick at Homewood Press.

Detail from a mock advertisement by Nick Tolson.
Nick Tolson gave us permission to reproduce this mock advertisement from Viz comic as an easter egg on the inside rear cover.

Here’s that list of suppliers we know of so far:

Or, if you want a signed copy sent by post, drop us a line (contact@boakandbailey.com) and we’ll see what we can do.