BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole

Is there any point in another beginners’ guide to beer, especially one that is, by its own admission, ‘Little’, and pointedly lightweight?

That we felt moved to buy a copy (via Ama­zon for £8.45; RRP £10) sug­gests that there is some­thing in the propo­si­tion that sets it apart from oth­er such vol­umes. That some­thing is, in large part, the voice of the author, which is one we hap­pen to appre­ci­ate a great deal. Melis­sa Cole is a vis­i­ble, high­ly vocal pres­ence on the beer scene, notable as much for her refusal to let inci­dents of sex­ism pass with­out com­ment as for carv­ing out of a mid­dle ground between day­time TV fluff and extreme beer nerdi­ness.

In line with that tightrope act this book has not so much hid­den depths as art­ful­ly con­cealed ones. Though she makes a point of say­ing in the very open­ing lines that this book is not for expe­ri­enced beer geeks, it is clear that Cole her­self is sit­ting on a vast mine of expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge. The great­est chal­lenge for knowl­edge­able writ­ers is resist­ing the urge to drop it all, every­thing they’ve learned, in a great tor­rent – to bat­ter the read­er into sub­mis­sion with facts, dense detail and foot­notes. Cole is spar­ing with the sci­ence and his­to­ry but that does­n’t mean it isn’t there – it’s just boiled down to the absolute­ly plainest, briefest of Eng­lish, and bal­anced with humor­ous asides and per­son­al anec­dotes.

Con­tin­ue read­ingBOOK REVIEW: The Lit­tle Book of Craft Beer by Melis­sa Cole”

BOOKS: Pot Luck in England, 1936

This 1930s travel memoir is far from essential reading but contains plenty of details which will be of interest to students of pub and beer history, and to those with a more general interest in English society in the 20th century.

Douglas Goldring pictured c.1920.
Dou­glas Goldring pic­tured c.1920.

Dou­glas Goldring (1887–1960) was an inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy left-wing jour­nal­ist who pro­duced poems, nov­els, trav­el writ­ing and biogra­phies over the course of a long career. Pot Luck in Eng­land, pub­lished when he was in his fifties, records a mid-life cri­sis ram­ble through cen­tral Eng­land, with an unusu­al empha­sis on pubs and hotels.

The most inter­est­ing sec­tion from our point of view is the intro­duc­tion which amounts to an essay on the hor­rors of Eng­lish hos­pi­tal­i­ty and the stu­pid­i­ty of our licens­ing laws. His pur­pose in writ­ing the book was, ini­tial­ly, to boost the kind of sim­ple coun­try hotel-pub which had evolved from the coach­ing inn:

I sin­cere­ly hoped that lov­ing, as I do, good sim­ple Eng­lish food, Eng­lish com­fort and Eng­lish ami­a­bil­i­ty, I should find much to praise and lit­tle to con­demn. It is with gen­uine regret, there­fore, that I find that the only was in which I hope I can be of ser­vice to the Eng­lish hotel-keep­er is by point­ing out what seems to me… some of his short­com­ings.

Con­tin­ue read­ingBOOKS: Pot Luck in Eng­land, 1936”

BOOK REVIEW: London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars

The new edition of Des de Moor’s guide to the best places to drink beer in London (£12.99, 333 pages, CAMRA Books) is more than just a list.

The cover of The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars.The gazetteer which make up the meat of the book is sol­id. There is a mix of tra­di­tion­al pubs, trendy pubs, bars, tap­rooms, brew­pubs and even the Ley­ton Ori­ent Sup­port­ers’ Club bar. It cov­ers ter­ri­to­ry from the out­er edges of the city to its very heart. Some are old favourites, sta­ples of sim­i­lar vol­umes from the last five decades; oth­ers are cur­rent hype mag­nets; and, cru­cial­ly, there are many of which we’d nev­er heard of but now find our­selves want­i­ng to vis­it.

The selec­tion is broad but does skew, per­haps, towards a cer­tain type of smart pub – the kind with liq­uid soap in the bogs and scotch eggs under a cloche. If you insist on pubs with no hint of gen­til­i­ty, this may not be the guide for you.

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The Lilliput Beer Book, 1956

This short pamphlet given away with a men’s magazine in the 1950s is far from essential but, if you find a copy going cheap, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Lilliput magazine, December 1956.We first became aware of it rum­mag­ing through a bin of assort­ed old mag­a­zines in a local retro-vin­tage empo­ri­um, where the word ‘beer’ leapt out at us from the cov­er of the Decem­ber 1956 edi­tion of Lil­liput. Frus­trat­ing­ly, in that case, the book­let was long gone. We guessed, giv­en the year, that it might be a pro­mo­tion­al spin-off from Andrew Camp­bel­l’s Book of Beer, pub­lished in the same year, but could­n’t find any infor­ma­tion online, and copies for sale on eBay were always rather too expen­sive to take a punt.

Last week, when we saw anoth­er copy on offer for £15, we decid­ed to bite the bul­let. It arrived tucked into a copy of the mag­a­zine, appar­ent­ly untouched despite its age, with a bun­dle of orig­i­nal leaflets sell­ing ency­clopae­dias and life insur­ance.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Lil­liput Beer Book, 1956”

BOOK REVIEW: Merrie England by Ted Bruning

This slim volume asks: at what point, and where, did the first establishment that we might recognise as a pub pop into existence?

Merrie England by Ted Bruning.

His def­i­n­i­tion of a pub reflects his back­ground as a vet­er­an writer and cam­paign­er for CAMRA but is a good one nonethe­less:

Broad­ly, we are talk­ing about ful­ly on-licensed, ful­ly com­mer­cial busi­ness­es which are gen­er­al­ly open, with­out charg­ing mem­ber­ship or admis­sion, to cus­tomers who need buy noth­ing more than a drink. 

He dis­qual­i­fies clubs, restau­rants, vil­lage halls and hotels, the lat­ter on the grounds that their pri­ma­ry pur­pose is accom­mo­da­tion, with drink as an addi­tion­al ser­vice, where­as some pubs offer rooms as a bonus rather than as a core part of the busi­ness.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assum­ing that there have always been pubs because they seem so essen­tial a part of the fab­ric of British soci­ety but Mr Brun­ing, draw­ing on pre­vi­ous heavy­weight aca­d­e­m­ic texts, pop­u­lar his­to­ries and a num­ber of pri­ma­ry sources, paints a pic­ture of a pub-less Eng­land in the Mid­dle Ages. Anglo-Sax­on mead halls, for exam­ple, though they share cer­tain fea­tures, were not pubs: there is lit­tle evi­dence of an organ­ised trade in the sale of alco­holic drinks and booze was, ‘it’s fair to assume’, pro­duced and pro­vid­ed as part of the com­mu­nal diet. The road­side hos­tels that lat­er became inns, which even­tu­al­ly merged into the pub tra­di­tion, did not sell alco­hol except to trav­ellers as part of their bed and board, and cer­tain­ly did not build their busi­ness around it.

Brun­ing is method­i­cal in break­ing down steps towards the emer­gence of the pub: com­mu­nal drink­ing led to com­mer­cial brew­ing which led to the brew­ery tap, in a weird pre-echo of the Bermond­sey Beer Mile. Those aller­gic to Lon­don-cen­tric­i­ty will wince at the sug­ges­tion that it was the unprece­dent­ed size of that par­tic­u­lar city, com­bined with an influx of alien­at­ed migrants in search of a sub­sti­tute for the com­mu­ni­ties they had left behind, that brought about the par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances nec­es­sary for the pub, as defined above, to emerge.

Through­out, he does a good job of explor­ing the ety­mol­o­gy of var­i­ous terms such as ale­huse and taber­nus, high­light­ing how fatal­ly easy it can be to project a mod­ern mean­ing on to an old word

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, because he is com­pelled by the lack of sol­id evi­dence to resort rather too often to ‘per­haps’, ‘sure­ly’ and ‘we can­not say that’ (far prefer­able to make unwar­rant­ed asser­tions) the book’s punch­line is rather dis­ap­point­ing­ly vague and inter­pre­ta­tive.

The book isn’t long and seems rather padded out with appen­dices, but there is some­thing to be said for the old-fash­ioned, sin­gle-mind­ed mono­graph, and Mr Brun­ing’s prose style is both clear and engag­ing. The lay­out, with no para­graph inden­ta­tions and with line spaces between para­graphs, takes a lit­tle get­ting used to. It is also per­haps a good job that judg­ing books by their cov­ers is so frowned upon.

On the whole, seri­ous pub his­to­ry geeks will want this intel­li­gent, enter­tain­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing book in their libraries.

Bright Pen, £9.55, 163 pages.