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Blogging and writing

Book review: Lars Marius Garshol on farmhouse brewing – Kveik and beyond

Here’s another example of great beer writing emerging from singular obsession: Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing, published earlier this year by Brewers’ Publications.

It sets out to explain everything currently known about arcane, hyper-local brewing practices lingering in rural communities from Norway to Russia, based primarily on Lars’s own fieldwork and archive research.

On the surface, it’s a 400-page technical manual and the cover design certainly suggests a dry textbook rather than, as it should, a new philosophy of brewing wrapped in a tale of adventure. The sweet spot where painstaking obsession with detail translates into magic.

This book is insanely detailed and single-minded and hundreds of pages on yeast genetics or malting techniques with diagrams might not float your boat.

And if you’re affronted at the idea of sour, hazy, gritty, grainy beer sometimes brewed with peas or carrots, this might not be for you. Lars’s tasting notes on specific farmhouse beers include phrases such as ashy, smoky vanilla fudge, male sweat, dung and barnyard – not everyone’s idea of a good time, perhaps.

Who will enjoy it, then? Hardcore geeks, and brewers eager to leave the safe path, will find this a tonic. It puts beer into broader, deeper context, as if the view has suddenly expanded into widescreen and 4D, and gives us permission to break the rules.

Lars’ subject matter was, until recently, the kind of stuff of which footnotes are made. Here, commercial brewing of the type that dominates globally is the footnote, or at least the over-familiar postscript to a much longer story that is rarely told.

For thousands of years, people all over the world have been making beer using methods they learned from their ancestors and the ingredients at hand. They don’t always know why they do things the way they do, only that those methods seem to work. Lars introduces us to brewers still working like this today, producing small batches of beer for community consumption or as barely commercial local enterprises.

From the off, certain sacred ideas are challenged. These brewers rarely measure or test anything, except with their own eyes, hands and palates. They don’t brew to style or strive for absolute consistency. A recurring theme in the book is the author’s own astonishment or disbelief at what he is being told, or surprise and delight at how delicious something tastes when logic says it shouldn’t.

Though Lars sets out to demonstrate to the world that these practices and folk products live on, the shadow narrative is of their endangerment. He frequently hears of a practice in some rural community that has died out within recent memory, or is told that jars of some obscure yeast strain have just been thrown out.

The farmhouse brewers themselves are under constant pressure to modernise and standardise. Why use that dirty old yeast your grandfather passed on when I can sell you a nice lab-grown dried variety designed for brewing? Making your own malt is a waste of time – just buy some.

In that context, this book – and the half-decade of research that led up to it – feels like a just-in-time intervention. Stick to your traditions, Lars seems to be saying; you’re right, the modernisers are wrong; don’t let this die.

So, if you want to brew, say, Stjørdalsøl, what do you need to do? Well, first get hold of some of some of Sigmund Gjerne’s family yeast from Voss in Norway and some local juniper branches. Then, build yourself a small kiln… Oh, by the way, you’ve never tasted this beer and have a frame of reference for it, so you’ll have no idea if what you’ve produced is technically correct.

Home-brewers used to other books from this publisher, such as Stan Hieronymus’s excellent Brew Like a Monk, might expect clear instructions: to recreate this commercial product, follow these steps, with these ingredients. Lars has tried to do that as far as possible but, really, the point is not to think of this as a step-by-step how-to guide so much as a challenge.

Ultimately, what this book presents is an antidote to “millimetre brewing” – a phrase used by one of Lars’s interviewees to describe the pernickety tendencies of home-brewing nerds. Here, you’ll find an entirely new philosophy and language of brewing.

What it says is that there is no right way or one true method. And if you’re doing something because someone told you it was ‘the done thing’ you might be missing out on a chance to brew something truly unique.

Give yourself permission to try new (old) methods. Mash hot. Don’t boil your wort. Use bread yeast.Throw some potatoes in the mash. Use juniper branches – but take care, because picking the wrong plant might kill you.

Do things that don’t make sense.

Scream at your beer.

Find a little farmhouse in your soul.

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Blogging and writing

Self-published eBooks are the future of beer writing

Books about beer seem to be evolving in ways we like quite a bit: getting more specific, exploring fresh territory, enjoying the freedom of new business models.

When it comes to beer, most publishers seem hung up on the same handful of topics and formats: lists of beers you must drink, beginners’ guides, compilations of trivia and the occasional breezy personal memoir.

But perhaps things are changing.

Mark Dredge’s rather good Lager felt significant, specifically because a decade ago it probably wouldn’t have been published. In the age of Camden Hells and pilsner hipsterism, however, Mark was able to convince someone to take a risk with it. It’s a good book – we hope it’s sold well.

Not needing to sell well is one of the great advantages of eBooks, however. If an eBook doesn’t sell, it’s disappointing. If a print publication is slow to move, that’s someone’s office or warehouse or spare bedroom piled high with boxes for years to come.

(On an unrelated note, does anyone want to buy a copy of 20th Century Pub?)

Years ago, we identified the publication of Evan Rail’s Kindle-only eBook Why Beer Matters as a turning point. It was short, heartfelt and somewhat un-commercial – the kind of beer book you’d never find in Waterstones. And yet, it seems to have sold tolerably well and because Evan self-published via Amazon, the bulk of that money went into his pocket.

In a similar vein, two new eBooks published in the past month take full advantage of the medium to offer deeper takes on niche topics.

Craft: an argument by Pete Brown

Veteran beer writer Pete Brown used lockdown to challenge himself: could he write and publish a book in 13 weeks? He chose the topic of ‘craft beer’ – what, if anything, does it mean? And why is it important?

Speed of production is another advantage of self-published eBooks. A traditional publisher might have commissioned this in March 2020 for release in May 2021. The speed of writing, editing and publication gives this book an underlying urgency and currency – the very qualities which make blogging so exciting.

Disclosure: Pete unexpectedly sent us a PDF of Craft: an argument, but we’d have bought it anyway – £6.99 as an eBook via Amazon UK, £9.99 as a print-on-demand paperback.

It amounts to 200 pages of what you might call thoughtful belligerence – perhaps a fair summary of Pete’s personal brand – and feels a bit like being told to sit down, shut up and drink your beer while I explain this whole bloody mess. At points, it even feels as if Pete is arguing with himself.

Does craft beer exist? If so, what defines it? Could another word or phrase do the same job? Roaming through archive sources, summarising online debates and conversations he’s had with brewers, Pete valiantly strives towards a coherent answer.

We can’t imagine this book will change the minds of many people who think craft beer is meaningless, or hate the term, or have a fixed idea of what it ought to mean. But, as it happens, Pete’s view seems to chime with ours: it’s too late to bury or change the term; craft beer definitely exists and has meaning; but if you’re after a simple, rules-based definition – tough shit.

Beer geeks will tell you they’re bored of this debate. Traffic to any blog post on the topic suggests they’re fibbing. If you enjoy thinking about the language of beer, this summary of a decade’s-worth of debate and reflection is well worth £7 and a couple of hours of your time.

Anton Dreher

Vienna Lager by Andreas Krenmair

Andreas has several advantages when it comes to writing about Vienna, one of the early lager styles but now a minor one. First, he is Austrian. Secondly, because he is Austrian, he has access to sources in German. Third, he is as meticulous in his approach to research as he is in his home-brewing.

This eBook, available for £4.99 at Amazon UK, and worldwide via your local Amazon store, is a must-have reference for anyone with an interest in brewing an historically accurate Vienna beer, and benefits enormously from its self-published status.

A traditional publisher would have told Andreas to be ‘less generous’ to his research – in other words, to cut out 60% of the detail he’s worked so hard to dig up. They’d also have told him it needed a narrative, so he’d have been forced to trek across Europe in a camper van, or some such nonsense, as a framing device.

As it is, this is a book by a geek, for other geeks – a repository of information rather than bedtime reading.

The most detailed account in English of the trip to Britain made by lager pioneers Sedlmayr and Dreher in the 1830s? It’s here. The story of the rise and fall of the Dreher brewery? Every date, fact and event you could possibly wish to know about.

For brewers, though, it’s the practical information that will have the most value. Where other authors might say ‘close enough’ or ‘impossible to know’, Andreas keeps digging. The water chemistry of Klein-Schwechat, the family tree of the Dreher yeast, the exact colour of Vienna beer c.1870 – there’s nothing shrugged off or guessed at.
The recipes, the meat of the book for many, are both historically accurate and achievable for the modern home-brewer.

In fact, you might think of this as a single perfect beer recipe – the 1870 Dreher clone – with 200 pages of background notes.

Highly recommended and, if there’s any justice, the inspiration for a Vienna Lager revival in 2021.

* * *

Self-published eBooks might be scrappy – both of these contain the odd typo, as do our own efforts in the same field – but that’s a price we’re willing to pay for something different.

These are precisely the books both authors wanted to write, not something tweaked or tamed by an editor with an eye on the mainstream.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in June 2020

It felt as if we didn’t get much blogging done in June but, looking back, we managed about as many posts as usual. Which is, of course, partly why we undertake this little stock-taking exercise.

The month began with a bit of philosophical pondering on the important question of which is the best seat in the pub and the degree to which the choice is subjective:

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.


The Comet, Hatfield.

Do you know The Comet in Hatfield? It’s a beautiful Art Deco pub particularly beloved of retro bloggers. Here’s our attempt to tell the story of this gorgeous, significant building.

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Blogging and writing

A round-up of #BeeryLongReads2020

In our email newsletter last month (sign up!) we announced another round of #BeeryLongReads through which we ask our fellow beer bloggers and writers to join us in turning out something substantial.

The big day was Friday 8 May and to our great relief, quite a few people took us up on the challenge.

Here are the all the entries we spotted via the hashtag on Twitter or were told about by DM or email.

Authenticity
SOURCE: Florida Memory

Three faces of authenticity (and the diddley-bow)

by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer

“About a week ago, Jenny Pfäfflin—a beer, baseball and Danish hot dog enthusiast who happens to be exam director for @cicerone—tweeted, “I pretty much lean into tradition when it comes to beer and brewing—because it’s what I’m interested in—but the discussion around ‘authenticity’ is often exhausting. That somehow, if it isn’t ‘authentic,’ it isn’t good. And who bears the right to deem something authentic anyway?” Perhaps authenticity is worth considering within the context of music…”


Caulier 28

Caulier 28: The strange life, inevitable death, and curious rebirth of a Brussels brewery

By Eoghan Walsh at Brussels Beer City

“Skieven Architek. Not many cities have a dedicated curse word for architects and malicious developers, but Brussels does. For locals it reflects their animosity towards the developers and urban planners who through their periodic, megalomaniacal plans to reinvent Brussels – the imperial power projections of Leopold II, 19th century public works, the ghastly reconfiguring of Brussels as a post-World War II car-centric city – have trampled on the city’s residents for centuries. Brewers have suffered as much as anyone at the hands of these scheming architects…”


Pub interior.Love beer, love pubs

By Ed Wray at Ed’s Beer Blog

“Since the coronavirus crisis started a number of theories have been offered about the origin of the virus. Most people are blaming the eating of bats, but eating bats is nothing new. We’ve had it happening years ago and I don’t remember any problems arising when Ozzy Osbourne ate a bat. Others blame a Chinese laboratory for creating the virus, but I think they’ve just been getting reality mixed up with The Survivors programme. Strangest of all, some conspiraloons are blaming 5G masts. Electromagnetic radiation creating a virus? I don’t get that one at all. No, none of these theories ring true. As a person of faith the real cause of this terrible disease is clear. And his name is Des de Moor. This might come as a surprise to some, but bear with me…”


Moon Under Water

The public house that roared

By Kirsty Walker at Lady Sinks the Booze

“According to the company’s website, a journalist once remarked to Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin that his chain pubs were exactly like the perfect pub as described by Orwell. And Orwell’s Moon Under Water sounds lovely until you realise that yes, he might be describing a Spoons. Now, my local branch, the Ferry Boat , is very nice. They took over the old Kwik Save store and made a cheap pub with acceptable food and a nod to local history with the name (Runcorn had a famous ferry which crossed the Mersey estuary and is immortalised in the poem ‘Tuppence Per Person Per Trip’.) I’ve been to the Ferry Boat a number of times and it’s perfectly pleasant and a community minded place. But show me the person who says that any branch of Wetherspoons, Yates or All Bar One is their ‘favourite pub’, or ‘the best pub in the world’…”


Real draught beer.

Intoxicated through the years part one: Genesis

By Richard Newberry at Intoxicated Me

“Strong’s of Romsey. On holiday we drove to the market town of Romsey, even before we had got out of the car, the smell was unbearable, I mean really unbearable to this child. I demanded we leave the town. My other early recollection of beer was after the fortnightly visit to Nana and Grandad, my father was often visibly stressed afterwards and before driving home we would stop at a pub. At the very least this was crisps and a fizzy drink in the car, sometimes a garden, better if it had a swing. Dad emerged after one pint, visibly relaxed. The jury was out on beer at this point but pubs were definitely good places…”


Grandfather

Something in the water

By Josh Farrington at Beer and Present Danger

“My father’s family have always lived in Burton and its surrounding villages, nestled among the hills and valleys between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. My great-grandfather was a farmer and a money-lender, who kept a cast iron safe in the living room with a lace doily and a bowl of fruit on top. He would open it up on Sunday evenings to take stock, counting out the large paper notes on his scrubbed wooden table while the rest of the family looked on. My grandfather, Jimmy, was a promising football player who did a stint with Burton Albion, before going into business in the town, setting up Farrington’s Furnishers in two large units on the Horninglow Road…”


Ushers

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

By us, here

“Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all? Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear. What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs…”


We also said we’d choose a favourite post and send the writer some books as a prize. It was a tough choice but the winner is… Josh Farrington. Nice one, Josh, and thanks everyone for joining in.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in April 2020

Here’s everything we wrote from our underground bunker in suburban Bristol, surrounded by stacks of toilet paper and crushed beer cans, during the month of April.

We kicked the month off by asking when and how pub quizzes became a standard component of British social lives. The answer turned out to be, to our surprise, the 1950s:

BIG Jim Traynor, a pint of beer at his elbow, settled down in a corner of a Liverpool tap-room, opened a packet of crisps, and began to study an encyclopaedia. Across the table, Charlie Vipond, from the local gasworks, eagerly flicked through the pages of Whitaker’s Almanack. ‘Hey, mate,’ he shouted, ‘what year did Henry VIII lop off Anne Boleyn’s head?’ No one batted an eyelid. It was just part of the latest pub craze… QUIZ MANIA.


For obvious reasons, we’ve been thinking about the part pubs play in society, which led us to go back to Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place. First, we interested in exploring his idea of ‘the third place’ at a time when many of don’t even have a second place:

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect… As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.

Then we thought about one of the suggestions Oldenburg makes in his chapter on English pubs – that intimacy (smallness) is what makes them special:

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.