Every year for the past few years, we’ve dug through our weekly news, nuggets and longreads posts to identify what we reckon is the best of the year.
We do this not only as a reminder that there’s lots of great stuff being produced by talented writers but also because writing online is transitory – you sweat over something, it has its moment of attention, then sinks away into the bottomless depths of the Eternal Feed.
The pieces we’ve chosen below excited or interested us when they were published an, rereading them this weekend, retained their power.
They tell us things we didn’t already know, challenge our thinking, find new angles on old stories, and do it with beautiful turns of phrase and delightful images.
Give these writers a follow on social media, if you haven’t already, and do what you can to support their efforts (Patreon, Ko-Fi, buy their books or zines, pay them to write for you) if you want more of this in 2020 and beyond.
By Will Hawkes, @Will_Hawkes, January 2019
The story of the rise and fall of Brüpond, a London brewery set up by an American with high hopes, offers a valuable perspective on failure, a topic often overlooked in the excitement around the beer boom:
I only met David Brassfield once, at The Kernel on a warm day at the end of July 2012. He was standing patiently in front of a fermenting vessel, a notepad clutched to his chest, waiting to speak to Evin O’Riordain. I noted how smartly turned-out he was: he was wearing modish thick-rimmed spectacle, as I recall, and there was a biro tucked into the breast pocket of his white shirt… For a moment I imagined him as an American journalist, here to find out more about London’s brewing renaissance. A quick chat dispelled that notion. He was setting up a brewery in London, he told me in easy-going Midwestern style, and gave me his card: Brüpond Brewery, it read in thick black type, “for explorers”… 13 months later, Brüpond was up for sale.
By Lily Waite, @LilyWaite_, December 2018
There’s been some squirming over the attitudes of the cult Belgian brewery for a few years now but if anything, its management seemed to be doubling down:
In 2018… the Zwanze Day events that Cantillon co-hosted at Moeder Lambic—one of Brussels’ most popular beer bars—overshadowed the beer itself… After an introduction by Cantillon owner Jean Van Roy, Colette Collerette, a burlesque dancer who performs with Brussels’ Cabaret Mademoiselle, began to disrobe in front of the bar. The show culminated when Collerette—wearing just nipple pasties and a thong—shook two bottles of beer and sprayed the foam over her nearly-naked body.
What’s going on, and how does it fit into the wider conversation around attitudes to women in beer?
By Andrew Grumbridge, @DulwichRaider, February 2019
In the main, The Deserter is a project that celebrates fecklessness, drunkenness and the art of skiving, so when one of the authors writes openly about his father’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it has all the more emotional impact:
To call my father’s attempts to stop drinking ‘cursory’ would be to do a disservice to the word. Non-existent would be closer to the truth. Indeed, in order to claim any success in this field my father was obliged to alter the definition of ‘drinking’ itself.
‘I’ve been very good today,’ he once told me, as I emerged from upstairs around lunchtime, ‘I’ve not had a single drink.’
‘Wow’, I said, genuinely impressed, until I happened to open the kitchen bin. ‘If you haven’t had a drink all day,’ I asked, ‘what are all these tins of beer doing in the bin?’
‘Oh, I’ve had beer,’ he replied.
By Katie Mather, @Shinybiscuit, February 2019
The best way to address the fact that a town or city is overlooked in the national conversation is to look at it. This piece made us want to visit a town in Lancashire that hadn’t previously been on the wish list:
Tiny micropub The Orchard sits in Preston’s newly redeveloped market hall, offering up some of the freshest craft beer and real ale available anywhere on 10 tap lines and two cask pumps. Opened by Gary Quinn, owner of Preston’s exemplary craft beer palace The Guild Ale House – the first pub in Preston to have proper German Pilsner and wheat beers on tap – it’s bravely contemporary, but doesn’t seem out of place. Speaking of brave, Plau, a grand three-storey beer and gin venture took years to restore, brick by brick, by a landlord with a vision. This grand design is the newest pub belonging to one of the city’s most prolific landlords Jeremy Rowlands, who also owns, among others, traditional food pub the Plungington Hotel and The Continental. Ask anyone who knows Preston’s pubs about the Continental. It was probably the city’s first real taste of craft beer.
By Justin Mason, @1970sBOY, March 2019
Good question, Justin. We were delighted by this exploration of a traditional beer mix that could hardly be less fashionable, or harder to come by in the wild:
Back in the late 1980s, certainly between 1986 and 1988, the years of my O-levels and A-levels… [the] Hinds Head in Dagenham… [was where] I’d meet up with my friends on a Saturday night to drink light and bitter and play snooker, pool, and occasionally darts… Light and Bitter, that magical drink that meant you always got more than a pint for your money. I wish I could remember exactly why we started drinking it, because I don’t think it was for that reason, although we certainly appreciated it, but I have a real feeling it was on the recommendation of the barman, always the same one in the back room, who wanted to keep us in check by making sure we ‘watered down’ our beer.
By Mark Johnson, @MarkNJohnson, April 2019
It seems mad to think that Magic Rock was taken over by Lion Nathan this year. There were so many takeovers that this one almost got lost. When it happened, there was something like stunned silence, which Mark addresses in this typically heartfelt piece:
We are almost becoming immune to the issues and discussions occurring each time a multi-national business takes a controlling stake in a British brewery. There is little new to add, though the same arguments are held on social media forums anyway… The aspect that changes each time comes through personal attachment… Whether right or wrong, northern or southern, capitalist or idealist, one thing remains true – you don’t get to decide how I feel. You don’t get to decide for anybody else what their reaction should be.
By Evan Rail, @evanrail, May 2019
Just when you start to buy into the stereotype of Germans as habitually orderly and somewhat uptight, you discover an aspect of the culture that counters that image:
In Germany… walking with an open bottle of beer is not just allowed, it is so ubiquitous and commonplace there’s even a compound German noun for it: Wegbier (pronounced roughly like “vague beer”).
“A Wegbier is a simply a beer that you drink while you’re walking,” Ludger Berges, owner of the Hopfen & Malz bottle shop in Berlin, says. “Actually, ‘Weg’ means ‘way,’ so it’s a beer for the road. If you’re on your way to a party or on your way home from a party, maybe it’s 10 minutes by foot, many people in Berlin will walk that distance, and many people will drink a Wegbier along the way. It’s cool, it’s relaxed. Everybody does it.”
By Eoghan Walsh, @eoghanwalsh, May 2019
The headline sells this piece short: it’s actually about not drinking banana beer in Kigali. Beer geeks like to think of themselves as intrepid but, when push comes to shove, it can be hard to pluck up the nerve to “drink where the locals do”:
It wasn’t long before all my talk of wanting to explore the “real” Kigali was revealed to be self-important guff… My brain immediately started popping with irrational worst-case scenarios. Was this the right place? Did we really want to go in? Would we get scammed and would our gear come back out with us? And what was making me panic? The children in their Sunday best coming out of mass from a church across the street, jostling for a chance to ogle us from the veranda? Or their parents, no less curious but more reserved in their voyeurism? I was being ridiculous, giving in to my worst, baseless gut prejudices.
By Kirsty Walker, @doubleshiny, July 2019
There aren’t many funny beer and pub writers – we’re an over-earnest lot in general – but Kirsty has a knack of observing people and places we find irresistible. This account of tourist bars on a family holiday is no exception:
Like everyone has a favourite ring on the cooker, everyone has a favourite corner of the bar, and mine is front right for both. I think I had a John Smiths, I can’t remember, but it certainly wouldn’t be anything either craft or Spanish. I was on holiday from more than work, I declared myself on holiday from beer geekery… When we returned to O’Malley’s the following day, our host actually greeted us. “How’s life Richi?” asked Darren with a cheery demeanour. Richi shrugged.”You want the real answer or the bullshit customer answer?” We asked for the real answer. “I hate my life, I hate my job, I wish I was on holiday like you, now what do you want?” We loved Richi.
By Mark Dredge, @markdredge, July 2019
As a trailer for his excellent book on lager, Mark Dredge wrote about the history of beer’s careful cousin, shandy:
No one quite knows the etymology of the ‘shandygaff’ but what we do know is that when it was first written about was a drink that was a mix of ale with ginger beer, and it’s from this that we can trace through to today’s lager and lemonade… The earliest mentions of shandygaff talk about the ginger beer being poured from bottles but by the turn of the 20th century it was common for London pubs to have in tap and it was used for mixing with the other beers on tap.
By Matt Curtis, @totalcurtis, August 2019
Focusing on a single beer is a great idea and in this piece for his own magazine-website Pellicle, Matt Curtis gives us a tribute to the cult best bitter from Lewes:
On its surface, Harvey’s Best is relentlessly simple. It offers you gentle aromas of cracked biscuits and orange pith. There’s a nudge of sweetness from golden malt that becomes more pronounced when the beer’s condition from cask is at its peak. Then there’s a snap of Fuggle and Goldings hops; a dusting of white pepper, nettle tea and perhaps the merest hint of lemon zest in a dry, prickly finish. All of which only serves to prime you for another taste… And yet, among all of this simple, balanced flavour, there is something else. Something feral and without control. Something that can hold your complete attention or pass without a second thought.
By Alan McLeod, @agoodbeerblog, August 2019
We’ve really enjoyed Alan McLeod’s slow exploration of obscure British beer styles from the pre-industrial age. In this piece, he takes us to London in the 17th century:
But why was it called “Lambeth” after a shoreline district along London’s southern bank? One would think this is an easy question to answer but if we look at the facts on the ground at the time it is not one so simple to answer. For today’s purposes, let’s even call this part 1… or perhaps part 7… in my thought process. A winnowing. A ruling out perhaps. See, what bothers me the most about it is how I can identify the who and why and what about 1600s Derby or Hull or Margate but there is a bit of an issue when it comes to mid-1600s Lambeth. There ain’t much there on the ground.
By Joan Villar-i-Martí, @birraire, September 2019
The idea of craft hops caught our attention when we first read this piece at Birraire. Joan paints an engaging portrait of a Spanish maverick pushing against the tide:
“I have intolerance to slackers. And to fascists.” With this forcefulness, Eusebi Sánchez replies to me after getting to know my own -food- intolerances. At 72, and after a lifetime of high physically demanding work, he is the most intense and tireless worker in Lupulina, a small family business in Cassà de la Selva dedicated to the cultivation of hops, founded by his son Jordi in 2013… Graduate biologist, and 30 years younger than his father, in the midst of the past economic downturn he wonders why the raw materials used by local craft breweries, especially hops, come from foreign places.
By Jeff Alworth, @Beervana, September 2019
It took an American looking at Britain with fresh eyes to make us realise how weird it is that so many beer businesses are operating out of the strange voids left by Victorian railway engineering:
London has among the world’s most expensive real estate (there are different ways of calculating this, but put London safely in the top ten). Brewing, accordingly, is a space-intensive business that requires substantial capital investment. For underfunded start-ups, this can be daunting. A solution chosen by about a fifth of London’s breweries is the railway arch.
By Beth Demmon, @delightedbite, September 2019
Something of a companion piece to the Cantillon article at the top of this list, this piece confronts the complexity of the issue around women’s bodies and beer marketing:
I tend to be less than thrilled when men decide to police women’s bodies. But as a woman covering the craft beer scene, I also struggle with the residual impact that hypersexual content from beer influencers has on how the world may view me in the same space. With more and more conversations covering the troublesome history that beer has with women while acknowledging the potential damage this new genre of social media interaction can have on all women, I’ve come to realise one important truth: it’s complicated.
By Ruvani, @amethyst_heels, October 2019
As accusations of racism shook American brewery Founders, Ruvani took the opportunity to reflect not on racism in beer culture but on the way we talk about racism in beer culture. In a world dominated by white men, people of colour (the term Ruvani uses) are held apart and made to work hard:
Every creative industry I’ve worked in or tried to work in has been the same-embarrassing struggles with my name, racially based assumptions that undermine my character and confidence, questions about my experience and competence based on the way I look, prejudiced jokes and asides I’m not supposed to hear… Why is it that POCs have to form our own organisations/events/symposiums? Why do women? We are not wanted or included in the mainstream and won’t be any real equality until we are sitting at the table on an equal footing with white males, but ultimately the reason we are not there is because they do not want us there… To me, this is not a beer-specific problem. It relates to every industry which white men feel belongs to them – particularly creative industries.
By Breandán Kearney, @belgiansmaak, November 2019
Yet more proof that brewery profile pieces can still have power, as long as the brewery being profiled has a story worth telling. The West Kerry Brewery has its origins in a family tragedy:
Adrienne Heslin and Padraig Bric left their chalet in the Italian resort town of Tropea for a short snorkeling trip off the town’s beach… Bric was a nervous swimmer, and together the couple waded into the turquoise, blanketed reefs around the Gulf of St. Euphemia, an inlet leading to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Bric asked Heslin if he could have time alone, five feet from shore, to practice on his own, so Heslin left the water to take a shower. A few moments later, she heard a commotion behind her as people shouted and gathered, and returning to the beach, Heslin watched as a lifeguard tried to resuscitate her partner by blowing into his mouth and pounding on his chest. At approximately 4:15 p.m. on October 6, 2001, Padraig Bric was pronounced dead in the local hospital.
By Martyn Cornell, @zythophiliac, November 2019
The exact truth behind Fuggles, an English hop variety much-loved by traditionalists, has always been hazy, until now:
The long-accepted version of the origins of the Fuggle variety was laid down by John Percival, professor of botany at the South-Eastern Agricultural College, Wye, near Maidstone, Kent, more than a century ago… Unfortunately, when researchers came to look at these claims in the 21st century, a number of problems were uncovered. Nobody by the name of George Stace could be found in the village of Horsmonden in or around the 1860s. Nor was it clear who of three different Richard Fuggles living in the area around that time was the one who had developed the hop that had taken his name: none of the three appears to fit the narrative very well.
By Chris Hall, @ChrisHallBeer, November 2019
Breaking his blogging silence after months, late in the year, Chris Hall presented this long, provocative piece on the problem with the never-ending demand for novelty among beer consumers:
Only recently, there was frequent talk of how quickly the craft sector of the UK’s brewing industry was ‘catching up’ with its equivalent in the United States. That distance, once measured in years, quickly became the length of a long-haul flight. It seemed to me, that what we were talking about at the time was the ‘maturity’ of the scene. Now, I feel that parity of esteem between UK and US craft might be true of certain innovations, brewing knowledge and technical capability, but ‘maturity’ is something else entirely.
We hope you enjoyed reading or revisiting those pieces.
There were lots of other great blog posts and articles this year – we rounded up between five and ten of them almost every Saturday morning in posts you can find archived here.
But if there’s a piece you especially loved that we haven’t included, feel free to mention it in the comments below.