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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Friday, 31 October 2008

What your book really says about you

This is not just another desperate plug for a book that doesn't even come out for another nine months, honest, but I was just checking the link to Hops and Glory worked (you can't be too careful) and noticed that Amazon now does a thing where you can suggest key words that link you to other items "that have similar qualities" to the one being looked at. Hops and Glory has already collected quite a few, which is curious given that the only people in the world who have read it yet are me, my wife, my edirot and agent. Some of the tags are obvious, others less so. I'm grateful that one of the strongest tags is 'humour', but 'travel' and 'India' don't feature. And the strongest tags - the areas that are most closely related - are... well, just look for yourself. Amazon seems to think I've written a book that combines one man's beery adventures on the high seas with a penchant for poking around in people's poo and pretending to be a doctor:

(5)
(3)
(4)
(2)
(2)
(12)
(2)
(11)
(11)
(9)
(9)

Is there something wrong with the sales blurb?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Pete's Pub Etiquette - number two in a (very) occasional series

Bar staff - if, when serving me a pint, you get so much beer running down the side of the glass that you have to go and wash your hands immediately after presenting to me, how about rinsing or wiping the fucking glass so I don't get my hands all wet and sticky too?

It's called showing respect for your customer and respect for your product, and if you start doing that people might actually continue to use your pub!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The fruits of labour

Talk to any author for more than ten minutes (and if you ask them about their work, you'll be there for at least that long) and you can be pretty sure that at some point they'll unintentionally use language that compares writing to giving birth. No massive insight there, the creative process and all that. Someone once said that giving birth to a child is like shitting a bowling ball. Obviously writing is not as physically arduous as that, but the mental equivalent to shitting a bowling ball sounds about right. And while writing is not as painful as childbirth, do bear in mind that the labour usually lasts for around two years.

But there are of course some wonderful aspects to both. You know when the expectant couple get their first little scan of the foetus and bring it home to show everyone? The equivalent for me is when I see the first cover design. It's the point at which the book stops being something that exists only in my head and on my laptop and starts to take on an independent life of its own. So here it is!



Another thrill is when it gets listed on Amazon for the first time, and that just happened too. I was very touched to see that someone has already pre-ordered it, and that's not me or my wife.

This book has ruled my life for two years - I was heavily into it by the time I first started blogging. I can't wait to get the bastard finished and unleashed on the world. I've finished the first draft and it's now with my editor, but it's far too long and we're going to have to cut about a third of it out - expect lots of IPA-themed blog entries to appear on here as they're slashed from the book (a process Steven King refers to as 'killing your babies').

The book comes out on June 5th 2009.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Theme Park Britain is missing a vital ingredient

I find myself in Stratford-upon-Avon, covering the European Brewing Convention's Environmental Sustainability Symposium for the Brewers' Guardian. I'll spare you the details of the controversy surrounding the re-use of spent grains, and the latest revelations on the optimisation of CIP-cleaning of open machine surfaces by surface modification, but being in one of Britain's tourist meccas really has brought home a point we discussed often in our steering committee meetings on the Intelligent Choice Report over the summer.

People come around the world to Stratford to mainline Shakespeare. It's everywhere you look: his birthplace, the theatres, the Othello Bar and Restaurant - I was half-expecting the Indian restaurant in town to be branded King Lear's Curry House (motto: 'blow winds and crack your cheeks'). Like any theme park anywhere, Stratford is a mix of faux-ancient and depressingly modern. Almost every building is mock-Tudor, which would be fine, but the effect is undermined somewhat when every single shop front is a national or global chain: Pizza Hut, WHSmiths, Costa Coffee, Pizza Express - all with steep gabled roofs, black beams and white walls. It's a dispiriting place.

But the thing is, people come here for more than the works of Bill himself: as far as I know he never wrote 'authentic-looking wattle and daub or ordinary red brick work? That is the question'. Stratford is a hopeful homage not just to Shakespeare but to his time, a chance to step into a plastic history, and for many tourists, it works.

So you're a hotel that caters mainly to American tourists seeking a sanitised verison of sixteenth century England. You've got the exterior looking like it did in Bill's day. You've got the prints of characters from the main plays adorning your walls inside. You've probably got badly-punned dishes on the menu named as tributes to the same characters. All this goes down brilliantly with Hiram and Blanche from Des Moines. But they've come all this way to sample a taste of Ye Olde England, and here they are in the centre of it, and what do you offer them to drink? That's right: Stella, Becks or Budweiser.

This is what we noted in the Intelligent Choice Report: cask ale is outperforming every other ale or lager. Cask Marque's real ale trail regional guides are stocked by tourist offices nationwide, and they can't re-stock them fast enough. Surveys among tourists show that 'traditional British beer' is near the top of the list of things they want to try when they visit the country. And hotels in general steadfastly refuse to stock it. WHY? I've never been one to bleat on about how we should treat cask ale almost as a charity case - we should drink it because, well, because we should, because it's traditional, all that stuff - but I'm all for anything that gives me a better choice of beers when I'm out and about - I'm selfish like that. And this is simply a case of commercial opportunity. My hotel has a shit beer selection. If it stocked a decent range of well-kept cask ales I'm sure it could easily sell them at four quid a pint if they wanted to.

It's not just Stratford - touristy pubs in London almost have to be tortured by water-boarding before they will admit to stocking cask ale alongside the usual global lager brands.

People travel to foreign countries because they want to see, hear, taste something different. Britain's cask ale culture is unique in the world, and when you ask tourists, they think it's pretty cool. But we act like we're ashamed of it, like we don't want to know.

I know it's not very British to be proud of something we do really well, but could we please at least make available something tourists come here looking for and are prepared to pay good money for?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Pissing in the streets

I went to a Westminster Forum conference on binge drinking yesterday. It was worth shelling out for to hear the latest thinking on why drinking is evil, and to be fair, there was a rough consensus reached on the role of the community pub being beneficial and beer - particularly cask ale - not being the main problem.

One of the best presentations was from a police inspector who had looked at the problems with drink-related anti-social behaviour in north London and reduced them by looking at the causes rather than just trying to treat the symptoms. So for example they have officers patrolling a car park with Blackberries trying to sort out minicabs for people rather than just waiting for them to get into a fight in a cab queue and then arresting them.

But one of the main problems is, apparently, trespass - people going into gardens and pissing on the flowerbeds, the lawns, even the doorways.

Sure, this is revolting. But no-one actually presented an alternative solution.

Hands up - every now and then, maybe once every couple of months, I take a leak in some dark street corner on the way home. I'm not proud of it. I'm faintly disgusted by it. But here's the thing: the British Public Toilets Association (yes, there really is such a thing) reckons 45% of public conveniences have closed in the last couple of decades. They occupy prime real estate - one former public toilet was recently sold for £125,000 as a flat. A parliamentary enquiry just this week estimated that the number of public conveniences in the UK has fallen from 5,410 in 2000 to 4,423 this year.

And then you've got the pubs themselves: almost every pub I visit these days has big notices on the door: 'toilets are for the use of customers only'. Why? What possible harm could it do to allow someone to pop in and take a quick leak? Some pubs near me have even installed security locks on the toilet doors, so you have to go to the bar, shame-faced, and ask for the code before you're allowed to use the facilities. This mean-spirited approach shames the essence of the pub.

So put yourself in the shoes of the average Friday night drinker: you've had a few pints. You've been ejected from the closing pub into the cool evening air. You've got to that point in the evening where you need a piss about once every half hour. If you're very lucky and the night bus comes or you happen to drop on a taxi, you could be home in an hour. There are no public toilets, and you're not allowed to use those in any of the few pubs or bars that remain open.

What, precisely, is the alternative to urinating in some conveniently dark corner or behind someone's hedge?

If anyone has any suggestions, please contribute: I'd offer a prize for the best one, but you know, credit crunch and that...

Beer Exposed - a little after the event


Lots of these posts should have been up here a few weeks ago - anyway...

I posted (late) that I was doing Beer Exposed, a new event in London that took place during the last weekend in September.

I was interested when the organisers approached me because after my first visit to the Great American Beer Festival in 2005, I got very jealous of what they had and felt that it was infinitely superior to the Great British Beer Festival - why did beer festivals have to be restricted to real ale? If you allowed big brewers in didn't that give more money to make the whole event a little more polished? Wasn't it a good idea to have small tasting glasses so people could sample more beers? And would it be possible to pay an entry fee and then let people just try the beer without having to pay any more?

My outspoken piece in the trade press led to a very entertaining war of words and quite public feud with Roger Protz, who saw himself as CAMRA's appointed guard dog. This feud ended when I wrote a piece on the Great Yorkshire Beer and Food Show a year later, during which I realised there was room for more than one kind of beer festival: let CAMRA preach to the converted, there was clearly a market for it, and there was room for a different kind of beer festival alongside the GBBF rather than us always putting pressure in CAMRA to wake up and smell the 21st century.

Well, Beer Exposed turned out to be almost exactly the kind of event I was imagining. It was a big risk, run as it was for the first time by a couple of guys who were not known to the beer industry. Many of the big names in brewing stayed away. The numbers of attendees were not as high as the organisers had hoped and they almost certainly lost money. But this was year one, and the feedback from those who attended suggests next year can only be bigger and better.

There were real ale brewers, extreme beers, US beers and lagers from all across the world. Stalls were staffed by the brewers themselves rather than CAMRA volunters. Without the need to take cash, the brewers were free to talk to drinkers about their beers, and many brewers I spoke to said this was the highlight of the event - being able to meet the punter and discuss the beers they love creating.

The people who attended the festival were, in the main, not beer afficionados but people who were curious about beer, knew very little and wanted to learn more - about a 50-50 split between men and women. The walks I did around the floor were well-attended by people who wanted to learn about different varieties of hops! It was proof that there is a big audience out there who want to embrace more interesting beer - and are prepared to pay £17 entrance fee to do so.

With the addition of slops bins, glass washing stations and a bit more food, this could be the perfect beer festival.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Beer at All Bar One

Another thing that was keeping me busy over the last couple of months is that I was helping All Bar One launch their new beer range. Each October they do a special push on beers and are trying to create a genuinely exciting collection of beers from around the world, not just the usual selection of overpriced lagers with obscure provenance and interchangeable product delivery.

This year, like last year, I wrote the blurb and tasting notes which is currently sitting in a very attractive booklet on every table in each of All Bar One's 37 outlets.

OK so it was paid work and I'm bound to be positive, and while 'the world's best beers' might be a bit of an overclaim, they're doing some really interesting stuff - far more interesting than you'd expect from a chain like this. The highlight this year is the world exclusive launch of Duvel Green on draught. It's 6.5%, and while it's still definitely Duvel, it's a little lighter, a bit more quaffable. Other beers include a keg version of Adnam's East Green, which is jolly nice, Kasteel Cru Rose (not my cup of tea, but lots of people like it), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Budvar Dark, Worthington White Shield and Meantime Chocolate. You can find out more about the full range with my tasting notes here: http://www.all-bar-one.co.uk/classics/index.htm

The new food menu is also genuinely excellent, and we did a bit of food matching in the back of the booklet. One that didn't make the cut is Guinness with their melted chocolotae pudding. Truly awesome, and I guess Meantime Chocolate would go even better.

It's well worth getting down there - several big chains are starting to look more closely at their beer ranges, and while they're never going to break new ground for the hardened beer aficionado, it's got to be a good thing worth encouraging.