Categories
Blogging and writing

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.

Categories
Blogging and writing News

News, nuggets and longreads 2 January 2021: Future Shock

After a couple of weeks off, partly because beer writing and blogging also went into hibernation, we’re back with our first round-up of 2021.

Once again, things are bleak. As various wags have pointed out, the only pubs you can now sit in for a drink are on Scilly and UK COVID-19 case numbers look scarier than ever. Still, at least vaccines are beginning to roll out – though even that has somehow become fraught and and confusing.

Still, beer continues to exist, and pubs continue to fascinate, and writing about them rolls on.


Brussels blood sausage.

At Brussels Beer City, with the help of his wife, Eoghan Walsh provides notes on whether there is such a thing as traditional Bruxellois Christmas food and, if so, which of the city’s beers might best pair with what:

Irish Christmas traditions are pretty standard when it comes to food, and are what you might expect from the archipelago of English-speaking islands in the northwestern corner of Europe: mince pies, Christmas cake and pudding, turkey, stuffing, ham, various iterations of potatoes (mashed, roasted, parsley), gravy. In asking around what constituted a Brussels Christmas, it became clear that no such culinary canon existed. For some people, game – rabbit often, sometimes small birds – featured highly, while for others it was all about salmon. Noting Brussels’ long history of migrant communities, people suggested dishes with Spanish, Italian, Moroccan, and French influences…


A pint and a book.

Suzy Aldridge has launched a new blog, Hobbyist Lobbyist, with a bit less beer than the old one but still plenty of room for, say, reflections on the magic of bar stools:

There’s just enough space on the curved end of the bar for your pint, your book, and a pot of olives. There’s four more seats at the bar but you’re just out the way enough that no-one needs to lean over you to order. You occasionally duck so they can read the blackboard behind you but you don’t mind, in fact you can recommend the stout – gesturing at your tankard. The bar staff are charming, the ebb and flow of customers sharing the bar with you is friendly and comfortable. You are at peace.


Alice Batham

For Burum Collective, Helen Anne Smith has interviewed Alice Batham, an early-career brewer with a name famous among beer geeks:

“My family own a brewery, so I have actually grown up in the industry. When I was younger, I used to go to the brewery with my Dad, it was only ever like a Saturday, or Sunday kind of thing. I was never pressured into going into beer. I went to University to do English and – it sounds like super cliche whenever I say this to people, but I went and lived in Australia for a bit. Their bar and pub scene is just so different and I realised how much I loved it and missed it.”


Rural Jamaica

In his ongoing research into porter and stout (there’s a big book on the way) Martyn Cornell continues to find new stories to tell. This week, he shone a light on the historic popularity of porter among working-class Jamaicans:

Draught porter was sold from draught porter shops, in existence in Kingston, Jamaica from at least the Edwardian era; from casks in refreshment parlors that also sold fried fish and bread; and also by travelling salesmen, who would call out “Draaf porter!” as they travelled on foot around rural villages in the Jamaican interior, carrying a large tin container with a spout, and cans in quart, pint, half-pint and gill (quarter-pint, pronounced “jill”) sizes, for serving… Draught porter, often referred to as “drought porter,” was brewed by Jamaica’s many soda water and soft drinks manufacturers using “wet sugar,” a type of molasses made by the hundreds of small cane-sugar farmers in the Jamaican countryside and sold in tins. Draught porter retailed for an exceedingly cheap 1½ pence a glass, and was the drink of Jamaica’s poorest classes.


Breakfast now being served.

Liam at Beer, Food, Travel has unearthed a fun little thing – a rundown of the correct names for drinks taken at various times of day, from 1892. At the time of writing, we ought to have put away our eye openers (6am), be working on our appetizers (7am) and looking forward to digesters at 8am. (Ugh.)


After a slow start, a decent number of Golden Pints posts did appear in the end. If we’ve missed yours, give us a shout.

Common themes? “What a year it’s been!” and plaudit for Lars Marius Garshol’s excellent book.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this, which you’ll either get, or you won’t:

For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-ups from Thursday – from the past three Thursdays, in fact.

Categories
Blogging and writing

Our favourite bits of beer writing from 2020

These are individual pieces of beer writing that stood out to us, and stuck in our memories, because they were powerfully written, especially illuminating or simply spoke to a moment.

This isn’t a record of every good bit of writing from the year – we managed to find between five and eight notable posts or articles most Saturday mornings.

If there’s a favourite piece of yours we’ve omitted, feel free to give it a shout out in the comments.

Mallaig

My Journey to Scotland’s Most Remote Pub

By Oliver Smith, Outside, January 2020

“In the beginning, there was the pub. And the people saw that the pub was good… The pub was the Old Forge, and the Guinness Book of World Records declared it “the most remote pub on mainland Britain.” It was set in the village of Inverie, the only major settlement on Scotland’s Knoydart peninsula, a wild finger of land with a population of 100. To get there, you had two choices: catch a six-mile ferry from the little port of Mallaig, or set out on a two-to-three-day hike across some of the most isolated mountains in Western Europe—an attempt referred to by the British outdoor community as a “walk-in.” The trek from the hamlet of Glenfinnan is some 27 miles, crossing swollen rivers and lonely mountains along vague and vanishing trails. With every mile walked, every sprain of ankle, every squelch of bog, the beer tasted sweeter… But then the trouble started.”

Norway

East of the mountains: gong

By Lars Marius Garshol, April 2020

“While the wort boiled, we headed into the house where Ågot, Sverre’s mother, was preparing the yeast. Sverre said that even when his father brewed, his mother was the one that handled the yeast. Entering the kitchen I was astonished to see pieces of cloth with a thin, dry crust of darkish-brown yeast on them. I’d read about people storing yeast by drying it on cloth, but never actually seen it… This is the “gong”, the yeast that Sverre inherited from his father. Exactly where it came from before that he’s not quite sure. He also shares it with Bjarne Halvorsgard, another local brewer. So the exact origin of the yeast is difficult to pinpoint, but it’s definitely been in the village for a long time. Beyond that it was not at all clear what it was, except that it could ferment beer… It turns out Ågot takes the harvested yeast and smears it on cloth, where it is dried. She has a box full of these cloth pieces with dried yeast on them. After they’re dried she cuts them into suitable sizes for the next brews.”

Categories
Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in November 2020

November was a bit more productive than October, thank goodness, or this blog might have started to acquire cobwebs.

It helped to have a bit of a project, only a small one, looking into some of those aspects of pub culture that puzzled or intrigued us.

We started the month by trying to work out what a sign we used to see in a London pub might have meant:

For years, we tried to work out what WYBMADIITY stood for, in the days before everyone had Google on their phones. We got as far as ‘Will you buy me a drink if I _____ you?’ What ITMA, Max Miller, Round the Horne naughtiness might that missing word suggest?


How important is consistency in beer? We’ve heard all sorts of opinions on this over the years and found ourselves reflecting on our own point of view as of 2020:

We want things to be consistent enough that we know what we’re going to get if we order the same thing twice, while still having scope to surprise us, just a little, in the subtle details.


What makes pubs feel like pubs? It’s at least partly the texture provided by the junk on the walls and shelves and back bar, which makes us think of the greebling on the plastic spaceships in Hollywood films.


We spent evening drinking beers from Elusive Brewing and liked them a lot:

The final round included Lord Nelson, a 6.8% saison originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard… [which inspired] oohing and aahing – it’s a really exciting beer. Think Dupont (classical) but with a sharp melon-grape-gooseberry note from New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. Each sip reminded us of something different: Hopfenweisse? Tokaj? Japanese gummy sweets? We wonder how it might have fared in our saison contest of a few years back.


We reviewed our new local craft beer bar, Sidney and Eden, which proves that, in the right neighbourhood, you can make a go of this kind of specialist outlet.


Eoghan Walsh’s book Brussels Beer City seems to be going down well. We certainly enjoyed it:

What gives the book energy is Eoghan’s dogged determination to find the very last traces of these stories in real life – a broken chimney here, a faded sign there… It’s no deskbound, bookbound work of dry scholarship and even, at times, suggests mild peril. Poking through the ruins of a brewery by torchlight, kicking through the traces of recent trespassing, who or what might we bump into?


Jukeboxes are a fixture of a certain type of English pub but when did they first arrive? We reckon it can be pinned down to the late 1940s:

Throughout 1948, newspapers reported on the spread of jukeboxes much as they reported on outbreaks of coronavirus back in March this year – “Two already in Nottingham”; “Juke-box experiment for Hull”; “Juke-box music application fails” (Dewsbury)…In February 1949, a pub landlady in Liverpool, Eileen Jones of a ‘local’ on Griffiths Street, asked local licencing magistrates permission to install a jukebox. After much deliberation – would it cause noise? Bring down the tone? Prompt fighting over the choice of music? – they turned down the application.


Jess provided an update on our cider experiment now it’s had a year to mature:

It’s a gorgeous pale gold and very clear… The aroma is ever so slightly vinegary, which isn’t a good sign, although the acetic aroma dissipates quickly and doesn’t carry through into the taste… It is very dry, unsurprisingly, but I found a teaspoon of sugar per pint was enough to take the edge off.


We put together four round-ups of news, nuggets and longreads:


There was a load of stuff like this on Twitter:


And we put weekly round-ups of our favourite beers of each weekend on Patreon. We’ve had a few new sign-ups there, too – thanks, all!

Categories
Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in October 2020 (spoiler: not much)

We thought we might as well get this out of the way as it’s going to be the world’s briefest round-up.

We didn’t even bother with a monthly email newsletter, having very little to say.

Why the limited output? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Between pandemic, family stuff, work, housing troubles and the Coming of Darkness, it’s been hard to get motivated.

Back in spring, there was at least the motivating power of lockdown mania, but now, the weariness is real.

Don’t think we’re being idle, though.

Jess has knitted five pairs of gloves in the past month, as part of something called ‘Mitten Madness’.

Ray has written a couple of stories like this one, several thousand words of his almost-complete second novel and compered an online event for his writers’ group at the Bristol Festival of Literature.

We’ve also got an idea for how we might motivate ourselves in November – watch this space and so on.

Anyway…

We started October with a big feature piece on Watney’s Birds Nest pubs which were briefly trendy in the 1960s and 70s:

[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.


We wrote about a lost pub, The Cook’s Ferry Inn, the name of which lives on as a road junction and bus stop:

In the inter-war years, it was decided to build a great north circular road to connect newly populous outer London neighbourhoods, open up space for industry and provide jobs. In 1927, the stretch between Angel Road, Edmonton, and Billet Road, Chingford was opened… The rebuilding of the Cook’s Ferry Inn was made necessary by the fact that the new road was higher than the narrow old lane it replaced… In 1928, this was a grand, well-appointed pub – part of Whitbread’s commitment to make pubs bigger, smarter and more respectable.


Pondering why we see such different attitudes to pubs during the pandemic in different contexts, we reflected on the different meanings of pub:

There is no universal understanding of what ‘the pub’ means – no single image that materialises in the mind at the sound of the word… For us, it’s a space with low light, nest-like corners and the murmur of conversation. Though not right now, of course. Together with the world but separate. This is the George Orwell ideal, about contentment more than excitement.


Yesterday, we gave our thoughts on life in Tier 1+ where pubs are open, trading, but… weird:

Humans are terrible at risk assessment, aren’t they? People who were not going out when new cases were at around 20-30 a day and were stable or falling, are now happily visiting pubs with cases at 250 a day and rising. Great British Common Sense in action.


We did, at least, keep up our regular schedule of Saturday morning news and links round-ups:

What an amazing volume of fascinating, insightful, entertaining stuff our fellow beer nerds have produced, despite everything.


We did some Tweets, too, like this:


And, finally, we popped a few bits on Patreon, such as additional notes on Watney’s Birds Nest pubs from our pal Adrian and several sets of ‘Beers of the Weekend’ tasting notes.