The Best Books on Home Brewing

Publicity shot of Boots home brewing range 1979.
Publicity shot of Boots home brewing range c.1979.

Every time we find ourselves answering the same question more than two or three times on Twitter, we take that as a hint that a quick blog post on the subject is in order, if only to save us the trouble of repeating ourselves. One common question is ‘Which book on home brewing should I buy?’ and these are our recommendations.

  • How to Brew by John Palmer. This is one of the best all-round guides. It’s perhaps a touch dry and even (or so we found) discouraging in places, but it’s worth a look, especially when the first edition is free online from the author’s website.
  • Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher. Full of historically-informed recipes, crazy ideas, solid research and step-by-step advice, this is like having an inspirational teacher at hand. Particularly good on decoction mashing and brewing lager at home.
  • Brew Like a Monk by Stan Hieronymus. In-depth research into the practices, recipes and ingredients used at Trappist and abbey breweries in Belgium, with bonus material on Duvel and other related beers. A fascinating read as well as a practical guide.
  • Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. Saison and Biere de Garde are given the same treatment as above. The book that helped us understand saison and, recently, to brew a pretty bloody good one.
  • 1909 Style Guide by Ron Pattinson and Kristen England. Self-published so a little scrappy in places but the content… wow. Not only an education in what British beer was really like before World War I but also a goldmine of inspirational recipes and ideas. (Short version: more sugar in everything!) (Print on demand.)
  • UPDATE 07/10/2014: for a broader range of historical recipes, and more professional presentation, we might now suggest Pattinson’s Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer (2014) instead.

Note: we haven’t yet come across a book of ‘clone’ recipes which is worth the bother; read one or two of the books above and you’ll be able to work most of them out yourself.

Inside the Pub, 1950

Detail from an illustration by Gordon Cullen.
One of Gordon Cullen’s illustrations depicting an ideal modern pub.

Maurice Gorham’s best-known books on pubs are The Local (1939) and Return to the Local (1949), neither of which we have yet read. What we did acquire, thanks to a tip from Herb Lester, was a battered copy of Inside the Pub (1950), a pub designer’s manual which Gorham wrote with Harding McGregor (‘H. McG.’) Dunnet for the Architectural Press.

It’s an interesting book for various reasons but what leapt out at us were the opening lines of the introduction by J.M. Richards, on the subject of the alchemy of pub atmosphere:

If I were asked what are the qualities I would like to find in a pub I would say simply, ‘the right atmosphere’, and if asked to be a little more precise I would say that the right atmosphere is one which provides warmth, cheerfulness and a sense of seclusion and one in which the charm of the familiar is somehow combined with a sense of something intriguing just round the corner. A pub should make people feel at home and yet have the capacity to lift them a little out of themselves.

Later in the book, Dunnet says that many pubs built just before the war suffer from the lack of nooks and dividers, offering only a ‘large bleak interior’; they are sometimes ‘indistinguishable from post offices or banks’; they ‘deny the whole pub tradition and only succeed in discouraging the customer from joining his cronies round the kitchen chimney corner’.

We can think of a few pubs to which that description would apply.

Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Beerosphere

Inn guides, whether sponsored or not, have long been a feature of the British way of life — part of the fabric you might almost say. But they have tended to concentrate more on the places which find themselves on calendars and Christmas cards and not at all on the pubs which are the warp and woof of the brewers’ investment.

Derek Cooper, The Beverage Report, 1970.

The very first edition of CAMRA’s newsletter, What’s Brewing, from June 1972, contained an important statement of intent: work had begun on a guide to pubs which would focus solely on ‘the merit of their ale’ without regard to ‘Historic value, trendiness, outside surroundings or other such criteria’. It was to be called ‘the List’ and, as we would say these days, was to be ‘crowd-sourced’ — that is, collated from the recommendations of members all over the country.

In addition to their focus on food, music, go-go dancers and architecture, rather than beer, previous pub guides also had other flaws.

  • Geographical coverage. Egon Ronay’s pub guides, from 1963 (as far as we can tell), tended to focus on London; as, of course, did Green and White’s guides to London Pubs from 1965. Even when Ronay went national, London got far more than its fair share.
  • Method. Derek Cooper mocks the ‘specially trained team’ who surveyed c.1,000 pubs on Ronay’s behalf: what made them qualified to judge? This review of the 1983 edition questions how they chose which pubs to consider and whether they had enough data to work from, having visited too few.

CAMRA’s List emerged as the Good Beer Guide — a stapled, 18 page leaflet — and, eventually, in 1974, became a 96-page printed and bound book, with the help of the printing arm of board-game manufacturer Waddington’s. (Beric Watson, the firm’s Managing Director, was a ‘traditional draught’ drinker himself and had, in fact, published the unfortunately titled Hand-Pulled Beer and Buxom Barmaids, a guide to pubs in Leeds, c.1971.)

The first  run of 30,000 copies of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) sold out within six months of its publication in April 1974, despite (or because of, Brewdog-style…?) some headline-grabbing controversy over its suggestion that Watney’s should be avoided ‘like the plague’, censored by the printers at the last minute, and amended to read ‘at all costs’.

It seems, pretty instantly, to have become an institution — the perfect Christmas present for a beer-loving relative, a nice fit for the glove box of the car. By the time the second edition went to print, however, the realisation had dawned that pubs could come out of the Guide as well as go in, and some landlords sulked, just as they do today.

The 1976 edition of Ronay, while it still makes plenty of mention of food, looks to us like a blatant attempt to imitate the look and tone of the GBG. The simply-titled Pub Guide includes an entire page on ‘Real ale versus keg’, somehow managing to explain the whole ‘controversy’ and the success of ‘persistent comsumer pressure’ in preserving cask ale, without mentioning CAMRA. The term ‘real ale’ is scattered throughout, marked against those pubs offering it, though without quite going as far as to use it as a benchmark for quality.

These days, Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars and Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London iOS app represent something of a return to Ronay’s approach — geographically specific, and ‘curated’, with no real pretence of democracy — but retain the GBG’s relentless focus on beer above all else. Meanwhile, ‘user-generated’ pub review websites offer the opposite: access to the unedited reactions of thousands of pub-goers, each offering a rating based on their mood, the state of the toilets, whether their dog got a bowl of water, and, just occasionally, the quality of the beer, averaged out to a more-or-less meaningful number.

Forty editions later, the GBG, slap-bang in the middle between those two approaches, keeps coming out, and keeps selling.

Drinking on London Underground

Sloane Square tube station by Oxyman.
Sloane Square. We think that snack shop in the middle is where The Hole in the Wall ‘pub’ used to be.

Despite Boak being a Londoner, despite having lived and worked there for years, and despite our compulsive acquisition of books about the capital, we’d somehow never come across this nugget before:

Not everyone realises there are some excellent drinking places on the London Tube known as buffet bars, which have all the advantages of a small well-run pub. Most of them are kept single-handed by capable and friendly middle-aged manageresses, who may have been there anything up to some twenty or more years… These buffet bars are ideal spots to sit back and enjoy a quiet drink in pleasant company and surroundings, and let the commuter hoard rush by.

That’s from The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs (1973 edn.) by Martin Green and Tony White, which has a special appendix listing all of London Underground’s licensed establishments.

Most seem to have been near the ticket barriers, where these days you would find newsagents, sandwich shops and sushi bars, but a handful were actually on platforms, like the ‘Hole in the Wall’ on the westbound platform at Sloane Square: ‘If you’re not in transit, it can be reached by the purchase of a 2p platform ticket, unless you can some to some arrangement with the ticket-collector.’

According to a 1949 article in The Times, ‘the Hole’ was an original feature installed when the station was built in 1868, and seems to have closed in 1985. How did these die out? Was there a concerted effort by Transport for London to do so? Or did they go with Truman’s who seem to have owned most of them?

Image by Oxyman, licensed under Creative Commons.

UPDATE: There’s now a quite comprehensive piece on these pubs by Ian Mansfield at Ian Visits.

Drinking About Architecture

Detail from the cover of Nairn's London.

We’d never heard of Ian Nairn until a couple of weeks ago, but he’s unavoidable if you spend any time at all reading newspapers from the 1950s and 60s. He made his name with Outrage (1955), a treatise on the architectural (and therefore cultural) homogenisation of British culture, lavishly illustrated with photographs from towns around the country which demonstrate the increasing difficulty of telling the suburbs of Southampton from those of Carlisle. Thereafter, he wrote hundreds of weekly columns and books, and hosted several TV shows up until the 1970s.

He worked with, and was a disciple of, Nikolaus Pevsner, but his own books were much more accessible. Perhaps disproving the point we made here, his architectural guide to the capital, Nairn’s London (1966), includes almost thirty pubs and, in many cases, mentions the quality of the beer. (Nairn liked a drink. No, actually, Nairn liked lots of drinks.)

He writes about pubs with flourish and wit.

  • The Barley Mow, Marylebone: has ‘cubicles… for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets’.
  • The Beehive, a Fuller’s pub in Brentford: ‘a song’, but causes him to lament that ‘there don’t seem to be the same number of real people around any more, especially among the designers of pubs’.
  • The Black Friar, Blackfriars: ‘tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter’.
  • The Black Lion, Plaistow: ‘has gone back to the fountain-head of human pubbiness’.
  • Crown and Greyhound, Dulwich: ‘an act of love, it bursts out all over — and has the same reverberating effect as a an untouched nineteenth-century pub, because it is set off by a similar gusto’.
  • The Grenadier, Wilton Row: ‘untouched by half timber, leaded light, chromium plate, or Festival of Britain lettering… the old servants’ pub that has short-circuited to become a local for rich mews-dwellers’.
  • The Swan and Mitre, Bromley: ‘teeters all the time on the brink of preciousness, but never quite falls in… the tension is invigorating… The notice requesting you not to take draught beer into the lounge… is in fact topographically just: this really is the place where you drink with your little finger crooked’.

Our 1967 paperback, on the brink of disintegration, wasn’t cheap: if you see a copy, snap it up.