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BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis

Modern British Beer (RRP £15.99, 256 pages) by Matthew Curtis comprises a series of short pieces covering 80 or so beers that the author feels reflects the breadth and range of beer on offer in the UK today.

As in our review of the official history of CAMRA, we’ll start with an observation that this is an interesting choice of book for CAMRA to commission and publish.

It suggests they’ve moved quite comprehensively past the debate about whether it is ever appropriate for the Campaign to support or endorse beer that isn’t ‘real’.

The book features a good spread of breweries, from the very new to stalwarts of the real ale scene such as Durham and Oakham. It’s fair to say, though, that the book leans towards those founded in the 21st century.

We often feel we’ve fallen out of the loop since writing Brew Britannia and all too often fall into the trap of writing off a lot of modern beers as hazy and/or sweet, and not to our taste. A book that provides a manageable hit list and helps us find our way to the good stuff in a crowded market might, we hoped, make us feel more on top of things.

This book delivers precisely that. Like the book we started out with all those years ago, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, it offers page after page of delightful descriptions accompanied by enticing photography.

Perhaps wisely, the choice of image goes beyond glossy product or pack shots and instead seeks to convey a sense of what ‘modern British beer’ means in practice. That is, lots of stainless steel, industrial units and taprooms.

We’ve drunk maybe only a third of the beers listed. There are a few breweries in the book we’ve never come across in the wild and which, having read Curtis’s impassioned tributes, will definitely be seeking out.

We know we won’t like everything he recommends but the hit rate is likely to be higher with a guide than without.

Particular kudos is due to the author for making the effort to list plenty of beers that aren’t hazy IPAs.

As with Michael Jackson, the tone is positive and uncritical – perfect for generating enthusiasm in the reader. There is a sense that the text takes the various breweries’ marketing lines and origin stories at face value, usually with a personal recollection of where the author first tasted Beer X or first met Brewer Z.

In a couple of cases, this highlights the weakness of books as a format for covering the here and now. For example, between writing and printing, the environmental credentials that form a large part of the BrewDog story here came under fire in the national press. And a passage about the head of one brewery who ‘has always done things her way’ prompts an involuntary cringe in the wake of bullying allegations which led to her recent resignation.

Books can only ever be snapshots, however, and capturing the moment is worthwhile, too. We can presumably expect a new edition of this guide every two or three years and it will be interesting to see who is in, and who is out.

One final quibble: we’re also not sure about the definition of modern British beer, or whether it even needs defining.

That is, we’re not convinced that being focused on ingredients, or being rooted in the local community, is something that sets the breweries listed here apart from, say, Bathams, or Adnams.

The point isn’t laboured, though, and is hardly that important. Really, it’s all about the list, the guiding hand and the sense of infectious glee.

The book is already well-thumbed and is, as we speak, informing our plans about where to go on holiday later this year.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA at a pre-order price of £13.00 plus delivery.

One reply on “BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis”

“Rooted in the local community” seems an odd claim to make of breweries that (from where I’m standing) mainly exist as a row of visually-distinctive cans in a fridge full of rows of visually-distinctive cans. I mean, good luck to them – got to get your beer in front of the punters who want it – but we’re not in Harvey’s Of Lewes territory here.

the head of one brewery who ‘has always done things her way’

I think this bit should come out – it’s snarky and strikes me as unfair. (The person in question is very easily identifiable from your description – and she resigned in some distress & AFAIK with no allegations against her personally.)

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