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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 no 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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Uncategorized

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.

Categories
Beer history

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.

Categories
london pubs

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.