Bits and Pieces for October 2013

An assortment of beers in a box.

Here are a few bits of business that don’t warrant a blog post of their own.

  • Prompted by an email from a relative of Paul Leyton (early UK ‘microbrewer’), we’ve updated the ‘Help us with our book’ page. As the manuscript is now off with the publishers, we can’t make huge changes, but we’re still interested in finding out more on the topics listed out of curiosity, and with future blog posts and articles in mind.
  • The Winter edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s BEER magazine is arriving through members’ doors as we speak. We’re excited because It includes the first article we’ve ever written on a professional basis. It’s part of the ‘real ale heroes’ series and tells the story of the part writers Richard Boston and Ian Nairn — both interesting characters — played in boosting CAMRA’s profile in the mid-seventies. If you’re not a member, you’ll probably find a copy knocking about your local CAMRA-friendly pub.
  • We’ve been thinking for a while  that it might be interesting to cross-reference all those X Beers to Drink Before You Die books to see if there’s a core group of essential beers that make up a kind of ‘canon’. When we expressed that thought on Twitter, we discovered that some have already made a start, and others were keen to get involved. A bunch of us are now entering data on a collaborative basis. Watch this space for results, but here’s one pre-emptive headline: Pilsner Urquell is one for the ages.
  • We’ve picked a topic for our 30 November ‘long read’: we’re going to tell the story of Newquay Steam Beer, arguably an early ‘craft beer’. If you’ve got any insight beyond ‘the packaging was nice but it tasted boring’, feel free to drop us a line…

Let’s Go Long in November

Beer books on a shelf.

On Saturday 30 November, we’re going to post something longer than usual.

When we did this back in September, quite a few people were kind enough to keep us company, and it would be excellent if anyone felt like doing the same this time round.

When we say ‘longer than usual’, we mean 1,500 words minimum, but we’re aiming for 2,000+ this time.

As before, pro-writers might want to consider using this as an opportunity to give an airing to something from their back catalogue, or publish a piece that’s never found a home.

Our fellow bloggers might want to give their writing muscles a workout, perhaps by conducting research or interviews, and telling a bigger story than they would usually attempt. (That’s how we’re approaching it.)

Or, screw that — just have some fun with a stream of consciousness, personal memoir, a list — whatever.

Last time, we avoided suggesting a Twitter hashtag because, ugh, hashtags, but several innocent bystanders did suggest they’d have welcomed an easy way to find people’s contributions. With that in mind, how do people feel about #beerylongreads?

Now, with astounding arrogance, we present some tips and ideas…

  1. If you pick a big subject, you’ll sail to 1,500 words.
  2. Alternatively, pick a small subject, but go into ludicrous detail —  perhaps tell the story of a single grain of malt.
  3. Or go high concept: present a review of a single beer as a round table discussion between ten historical figures.
  4. Go to the library and skim a few books or old newspapers. You’re bound to find a story worth telling.
  5. Michael ‘Beer Hunter’Jackson’s first writing gig was a column called This is Your Pub in a local paper in Yorkshire — why not paint a portrait of your local pub, its history, regulars, and the publicans?
  6. Struggling to make 1,500 words? Drop in one or two 100-word quotes. This is how Norman Davies gets his books up to the requisite fatness.

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

1899 illustration of brewing yeast.

Michael Pollan Cooked.Michael Pollan’s book is a mix of history, philosophy, personal memoir and cookbook, which amounts to an extended pep talk: cook more! Eat more dirt!

The book is built around the conceit that the four primary methods of preparing food each correspond to an element: grilling (meat) is fire; stewing is water; leavening bread is air; and fermentation with fungus and bacteria is earth.

Pollan’s approach to understanding the act of cooking is hands-on, which leads him to question repeatedly why anyone bothers to make their own bread, beer or sauerkraut. One of his conclusions is that preparing at home, at great expense and with highly variable results, versions of products that can be bought at the shops for next to nothing is enjoyable and meditative: it is ‘adult play’.

This is certainly a fair description of our own attempts at home brewing, and perhaps (no offence intended) even of some small commercial brewing operations.

In his exploration of ‘the Balkans of barbecue’, we found echoes of the debate over categories of beer in the UK. What ‘barbecue’ means in the US, Pollan explains, varies from region to region, state to state, city to city — some ‘tribes’ use sauce, others don’t; sauces can be based on mustard, vinegar or tomato; they might use the whole pig, the shoulder, the belly, or specific cuts thereof. Each region thinks the others is doing it wrong. Those differences, he suggests, are a form of social glue — a way for members of one group to bond, while also excluding outsiders.

When he quotes a friend saying ‘So barbecue is basically kashrut [kosher food law] for goys?’, and barbecue aficionados dismissing the slow-cooked pork from the next town with, ‘Okay, but that’s not barbecue,’ we hear the voice of a Campaign for Real Ale member or Brewdog shareholder: ‘Okay, but that’s not real ale/craft beer.’

Back-to-basics artisan, or rock-star?

Pigs

Throughout the book, Pollan grapples with a few problems which also affect the world of beer, such as the arrival of the ‘rock-star’ artisan. When he meets world-famous barbecue pit-master Ed Mitchell, he observes with some disappointment that not only is Mitchell a touch hypocritical (he uses both charcoal and propane for convenience, despite having railed against them), but is also a walking ‘brand’ whose job is to sell a particular vision of ‘authenticity’ (Mitchell is black) on behalf of the wealthy investors who actually own ‘his’ restaurant.

Some of this exists in beer already, and more of it is on the way.

‘Craft beer’ drinkers will also recognise the tale of how the $2.75 barbecue sandwich became the $8 ‘premium product’: it takes more time and uses more expensive ingredients, and, as a result, only people in suits can afford to eat them, in sanitised, theme park surroundings. With pork products, however, the argument is somewhat more compelling — the $2.75 sandwich uses factory-farmed ‘commodity pork’, while the more expensive version uses fattier and reportedly tastier meat from rare breed pigs. There is no such thing as battery-farmed malt or hops, as far as we are aware.

Craft: instinct and fingers?

There are also various compelling illustrations of ‘craft’ as a verb. For example, Pollan describes a miller knows when the grains are overheating because he literally puts his nose to the grindstone. Of a rockstar sourdough producer, he says this:

[Chad] Robertson seemed to be suggesting that success as a baker demanded a certain amount of negative capability — willingness to exist amid uncertainty. His was a world of craft rather than engineering, one where ‘digital’ referred exclusively to fingers.

‘Negative capability’, just to be clear, means ‘lack of ability’: it helps not to be technically competent. (See comment below.) We can imagine some brewers bridling at that, especially those who seem (to borrow another of Pollan’s pithy turns of phrase) ‘less like… cooks than twenty-something computer geeks trying to master a new software platform’.

Elsewhere, Pollan tells a familiar story of the march of progress and the resulting blandification of processed, industrialised food. He suggests that attempts by hippies to revive ‘whole grain’ bread in the nineteen-seventies did more damage than good, producing black, indigestible bricks that created an image bread-makers are still trying to shake-off forty years on. (We thought, once again, of ‘real ale’.)

‘The cheese and the sex’

When we finally got to it, the section on fermenting was, perhaps inevitably, a let down, though there were a few interesting nuggets which demand further research.

A long meditation on why people would voluntarily eat rotting shark meat or cheese that smells like toe-jam — ‘the erotics of disgust’ — applies just as well to sour and otherwise ‘funky’ acquired-taste beers. After consulting Freud, talking to a cheese-making nun, and reading the insane website of an apparent cheese fetishist, Pollan concludes that humans fundamentally love body smells (feet, shit, sweat) but (except in France…) are then socially-conditioned to pretend they don’t.

While making mead with wild yeast, he is told that they typically ‘crap out’ at around 5% ABV, which leads Pollan to suggest that is arguably the ‘natural’ strength for primitively-produced alcoholic beverages. European beer culture would certainly seem to have decided as much.

We were also amused and intrigued by his argument for why drinking is inseparable from socialising. When animals are given access to booze under laboratory conditions, he explains, not only do they love the stuff, but they gather together to drink in group ‘sessions’, apparently because being drunk makes them more vulnerable to predators, and there is safety in numbers. Suddenly, the pub makes much more sense.

* * *

Though it occasionally tips over into self-righteous disgust at the eating habits of the masses, and isn’t always successful in avoiding a certain middle-class smugness, Cooked is an entertaining, amusing book which anyone who has ever felt the urge to make pickles, bacon or beer ought to enjoy.

And we dare anyone to read it and not come away wanting bake a wholemeal sourdough loaf, or roast a whole hog.

We were given our copy as a gift by a friend but the recommended retail price for the hardback edition is £20.