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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Book Review: Built to Brew by Lynn Pearson

English Heritage/Brewery History Society, June 2014, 256 pages, large format paperback, £25, ISBN 9781848022386

Just when you think there are no new angles from which to approach the subject of British beer, along comes Lynn Pearson with a book which focuses not on the products or the people, but on bricks and mortar, copper and iron, stone and steel. In so doing, she has created something which combines the rigour of a scholarly reference work with the ‘dippability’ of a coffee table book.

Built-to-BrewIt would be easy to overlook this volume – the cover features one of the least exciting images in the book, and English Heritage’s off-the-peg guidebook design template renders it rather bland. Inside, however, the barrage of arresting imagery begins at once with a photograph of a brewery worker tending to mash tuns at Shipstone’s in Nottingham c.1900, and doesn’t let up thereafter. There are multiple images on every page – plans, sketches, paintings, photographs. Because she has made good use of the English Heritage archive and her own original photography, most of them are new to us, despite the increasing availability online of major picture archives.

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Book Review: The Beer Select-o-Pedia

This is yet another beginners’ guide to beer, albeit with a gimmick: it is built around a ‘periodic table’ of beers, and is designed to help you choose what to drink next.

Michael Larson's Beer Select-o-Pedia.The author, Michael Larson, is an American, and across the Atlantic, his book is published with a different title and cover. For the UK market, under the care of the Campaign for Real Ale’s publishing arm, it has been tailored and spruced up by consultant editor Roger Protz.

An attractively designed ‘premium’ paperback of just over 200 pages in length, it could probably be condensed into 75 pages of pure text. The bulk of the space is taken up by full-page ‘atomic structure diagrams’ for each beer style, continuing the ‘periodic table’ theme. These, frankly, didn’t work for us at all, using a lot of real estate to convey very little information in a hard-to-read format which made us yearn for simple bullet-point lists.

Some of the icon-style graphics are also confusing: ‘spiciness’, for example, even when subtle and derived from yeast, is indicated with a picture of a chilli pepper as on a curry house menu. This might well lead the target audience of beginners to wonder about the Scoville rating of Marston’s Pedigree.

Gose 'element' from the periodic table of beer.The ‘periodic table’ itself, however, is rather more effective. The idea is that the beginner knows they like, say, Hoegaarden, and so finds Belgian Wit in the section of the table devoted to ‘Ales of Continental European Origin’. They then choose what to explore next based on which styles are adjacent. In practice, that would direct them to Leipziger Gose (yes, that makes sense), Belgian ‘strong pale ale’ (e.g. La Chouffe, which also works). It isn’t perfect, however: ‘Gluten Free’ (that’s a style now?) is next to ‘American Style Wheat’. Oops!

As we’re not beginners, we found ourselves picking holes in the history and griping about terminology but, on the whole, most of the worst Cornell and Pattinson baiting myths have been avoided and, anyway, this book is about learning to love beer in the here and now.

In conclusion, we found the Select-o-Pedia likeable enough, and it is as good a place as any for a would-be beer geek to start. It might also make a good gift for a beer-loving friend or relative who seems unhappily stuck in a rut with bitter or lager.

The RRP is £12.99 and it is due for release on 3 April 2014. We were sent a review copy.

The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer

Detail from the Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer by Ron Pattinson.

Forced into the confines of a book less than 200 pages long, Ron Pattinson’s knowledge of historic brewing seems more impressive than ever.

Cover of the Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerBy his own frequent admission, Pattinson tends to be digressive and expansive on his blog: a single point can spread out across multiple blog posts packed with anecdotes, tables of figures, and rants on the side. It can be tremendously interesting and entertaining, but also, at times, hard to follow if you’re only there for the hard facts.

Either through self-discipline or thanks to the guiding hand of a stern editor, in The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer, he finds a new, clearer voice. Swathes of brewing history are summed up almost in bullet point form, and no worse for it:

Let’s get this straight before we go any further. I don’t believe the story that porter was an attempt to re-create a mix of three different draft beers called “three threads”. No source for the first half of the eighteenth century confirm the tale, and the main piece of evidence used to support the theory was written the best part of a century later.

Right, got it!

The history of hops in British brewing is summarised in three crystal clear pages; malt, in all its complexity, in four. The various types of fermenting vessel, from Burton Union to Yorkshire Square, in a little over two. If you need more detail and references, it’s there online, but this will be more than enough for most people, at least to begin with.

There are also nuggets of trivia that, though we’re sure he has mentioned them before on his blog, have chance to stand out in this more economical style. We hadn’t realised that rice was frequently used in North German beer before 1906, for example.

The recipes, which are the real point of the book, are divided by style (porter, stout, IPA, and so on) and ordered chronologically within each section. Even those who don’t brew at home ought to appreciate the opportunity to see the evolution of each style, their alcoholic strength and ingredients changing from year to year as a result of fashion, economics and war, as explained in pithy notes. Individual beers, such as Truman’s Runner, are present in multiple versions, decades apart, which ought to make for some fascinating ‘vertical tasting’ sessions.

They are written in a simple, clear format, and simplified to avoid four-hour boils and complicated mashing, sparging and gyling routines, though the information is there for those who wish to go ‘all in’.

There is also some guess work. Relying almost entirely on original brewing records, Pattinson has had to make assumptions about hop varieties, alpha acids, the darkness of certain malts, and the identity of proprietary brewing sugars. His guesses, though, are better than most people’s facts, and certainly better than nothing.

A handful of recipes don’t, frankly, sound very appetising, and are really only of academic interest: the final porters from before the style became extinct in the mid-20th century, for example, are weak (less than 3% ABV) and filled with oats and sugars. (Or perhaps we’re wrong and the watery-weak porter is a lost classic. We will, of course, have to find out for ourselves at some point.)

Those committed to the modern-style of ‘craft’ brewing might find these recipes of limited use. Not one features hops added late in the boil for the purposes of creating aroma, even though many feature huge amounts of hops in total. Almost all of them use sugar, which ‘craft’ brewers seem to find a bit of a turn off. Some might make good bases for experimental recipes, though, especially the strong ales.

The spiral binding inside a hard folder-like cover seems an odd choice at first, but actually makes complete sense in practical terms: it lies perfectly flat, which will be great when we need it open in front of us for reference on brewday.

One small complaint: the vintage labels that decorate the pages, while lovely to look at, rarely correspond to the recipe below, which can make browsing the book something of a pat-your-head-rub-your-tummy exercise.

This is not yet another beginners guide with the same old basic recipes, but a Level 2: Intermediate text, and that’s exactly what we would like to see more of. For writers and publishers, that might be a problem — the market for general guides is potentially bigger, if more competitive — but if beer writing is going to grow up, it needs to get beyond the superficial.

We were sent a review copy. The RRP is £17.99 and it is available from AmazonWaterstones, and as a Kindle ebook.

UPDATE 27/02/2014: we didn’t realise that Quayside, who published this book, are a sister company to Aurum, who are publishing ours. They are, so we’re disclosing the relationship here.

The Renaissance of the English Public House

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is printed on post-war paper (rough and yellowing) but is crammed with photographs and floor-plans of specific pubs up and down the country.

In his introduction, Oliver observes that, in the period before World War I, new pub buildings were rare because of the ‘misguided idea… that to improve buildings was to encourage drinking’. He observes, however, that the prohibitionist urge actually triggered a great resurgence in pub design and building: when the state began to run the brewing and pub industry in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it permitted unhampered experiments in many directions, but especially in the evolution of the public house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.

An entire chapter of the book is given over to the Carlisle State Management scheme. During WWI, Oliver says, improvements were limited: the removal of hard-to-supervise snugs and ‘snuggeries’ (small compartments) to create ‘light and airy cheerfulness’. After the war, new buildings were commissioned, including The Gretna Tavern, which replaced (Oliver reckons) six ‘snug-type houses’. We could not help but think of Wetherspoon’s.

Away from specific pubs, the more general detail Oliver provides on contemporary pub culture offer a useful companion piece to the Mass Observation book The Pub and the People. On alternative names for the ‘public bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fashion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint suggestion of superiority, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they frequently require the inevitable darts-board. Smoking Room… is also popular…. Private Bar and Bar Parlour… are equally indicative of their purpose — private transactions and intimate conversations — and from being popular with the fair sex have virtually become, in many houses, a Women’s Bar.

The last, lingering remains of Victorian morality can be detected in a coy discussion of toilets: ladies’ and gentlemen’s lavatories, he insists, must be apart from each other, secluded, but also easy to supervise. (The horrifying fact that people of both sexes piss must be kept secret, but there should be no opportunities for hanky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the easiest way to find the ladies’ toilet is usually to walk as far from the gents’ as possible, and vice versa.

As for beer, Oliver is quite clear: ‘From the consumer’s point of view, the ideal way of receiving his beer is direct “from the wood”, and — on a hot summer’s day — from a very cool cellar.’ Cellars, he suggests, should be cut off from the outside world, running with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as possible to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ideal, he concedes, is rarely possible:

More likely is it that new ways of drawing draught beer will be invented for conditioning draught beer which will eliminate all the complicated paraphernalia of beer engines, air-pressure installations, flexible pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor mansions’ of Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham are also granted a chapter of their own, highlighting the advantages to brewers of building on new sites rather than restoring old pub buildings: restaurants, car parks, gardens, and even bowling greens were common. London gets a chapter of its own, too, with the rest of the country, from Liverpool to Devon, wrapped up in two more general surveys of urban and ‘wayside’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time looking up pubs mentioned on Google Street View. Many are gone altogether. Others were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plastic banners, ugly signage, and accumulated grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, featured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pippins‘, and still a handsome building.

For a rather specialised, technical book, Oliver’s prose is very readable, with the occasional amusing turn of phrase and impassioned diatribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great condition, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depending on how interested you are in the detail of pub design and/or this particular period, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.

Book Review: Great Yorkshire Beer

Like us, Leigh Linley is a beer blogger of the class of ’07, so we were excited when he announced the publication of his first book earlier this year, and bought a copy without hesitation.

Great Yorkshire Beer.
Small-format hardback, RRP £10.99, 190 pages.

On his blog, he has tended to accentuate the positive rather than dishing out savage criticism (the Michael Jackson approach) and this small press book continues in the same manner, declaring itself as wholly celebratory — an expression of regional pride. Fortunately, with more than a hundred Yorkshire breweries to choose from, Linley has no trouble picking a handful which he can endorse with a clear conscience.

Let’s get one substantial ‘point for improvement’ out of the way: the book would have benefited from tighter editing. There are several instances of close repetition (the phrase ‘our fair county’ appears twice in as many pages); too many exclamation marks (screamers) for our taste; and a variation on the dreaded ‘cannot be underestimated’ makes an appearance in the foreword.

Those superficial points aside, what surprised us on this second, closer reading (the first time was on a long train journey without a notebook at hand) was that, though pitched as a lightweight local interest book, Great Yorkshire Beer also functions as something of a ‘microhistory’. By focusing so closely on one region and one particular generation of brewers — those who have entered the industry in the last decade or so — trends in the wider market are highlighted.

For example, an interview with Pete Roberts of Sheffield’s The Brew Company reveals a shift in tastes in the last few years: a beer released in 2008, Frontier IPA, was shelved because it was considered too bitter by local drinkers. In 2013, however, it has returned with exactly the same recipe to general acclaim, suggesting that drinkers’ palates have evolved in the post-Thornbridge, post-Brewdog era.

In allowing brewers to tell their stories in full, subtly different approaches between ostensibly similar businesses are illuminated. Mallinson’s refusal to have a ‘core range’ vs. Leeds Brewery’s reluctance to dabble in ‘one offs’, and Ilkley’s eye on the national market vs. Kirkstall’s determination to remain a Leeds speciality, act as useful case studies for anyone thinking of going into brewing.

A second small point for improvement, though: a couple of the interviews occasionally stray into ‘sales pitch’ territory, and it would be nice to see a little more challenge if next year should see the publication of More Great Yorkshire Beers.

With our interest in the development of ‘alternative beer’ from the 1960s onward, we were also fascinated to read that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — named by one contemporary brewer after another as a key influence — found its way to British beer festivals, and on to supermarket shelves c.2003, thanks to the efforts of Leeds-based importer Steve Holt and his company Vertical Drinks. There are many other such interesting details throughout.

Though brewery profiles make up the bulk of the book, it also has recipes (Linley is a keen advocate of food and beer pairing), suggested pub crawls, and nuggets of Yorkshire beer trivia. Perfect, in short, for dipping in to on train journeys or solo pub visits. Any tourist visiting Yorkshire for the beer would be daft not to take a copy with them, and it would make a great Christmas gift for the Yorkophile in your life.

Disclosure: we paid for our copy of the book, but when we met Leigh for a pint in Leeds and he gave us three bottles of beer and some second-hand books as a gift. We’ve also known him (virtually, anyway) for quite a few years and think he’s a nice bloke, so can’t claim to be entirely objective.