It’s been a great and terrible year for beer. The beer market is in freefall in volume terms, attacked on every side. It’s not made any better when people who regard themselves as guardians and spokespeople for the industry are the loudest voices shouting about about ‘the death of the pub’ as if it’s a reality - you're just helping to make it so, guys. Also, we’ve been talking for years about a renaissance in the appreciation of our national drink, and while there always seems to be progress, the idea of widespread love of interesting beer, even to the same degree it currently happens in the US, still seems a long way off.
But on the other hand, I think we’ll look back on 2008 as the year British brewing began to rest one eye on the future instead of being perpetually preoccupied with the past. Four years ago, when I was in America researching Three Sheets, I tasted Cascade hops for the first time and bemoaned a lack of such flavour in Britain. We used to ask why British brewers insisted on brewing a portfolio of beers that were all 4.5% mid-brown session bitters. That criticism now seems out of place. Obviously Brew Dog get the headlines for their daring and authority-baiting brews, but use of North American hops is now commonplace in the UK. Wood ageing of beers is widespread, and many brewers now seem unafraid to incorporate Belgian influences or just bloody well experiment a bit. This is not a discussion about the politics of beer – if you like drinking the stuff, it’s just fantastic to have more variety and flavour more easily accessible.
For me personally, I feel like I spent more time in 1823 than 2008. After getting back from my IPA-to-India trip a year ago, I was planning on finishing the book by the end of January. Then I got lost in history, wrote a book that was nearly twice as long as planned, and didn’t hand it in till October. Next year sees a painful edit and a rush to get the book out in June. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not as good as it could be, but books never are. I can’t wait to share it with you.
So here, in no particular order, are a few highs and lows:
BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Winner: Beer Exposed in September – it wasn’t perfect, but it reinvented what beer festivals can be like. If they learn the lessons from this year, and if more brewers, having seen it work, join in, the 2009 event will be phenomenal.
Runner-up: The widespread new experimentalism of British brewers.
WORST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Winner: tax, tax ,tax.
Runner-up: obvious to anyone who has endured reading me over the last few months - the slow death of Stella Artois, once my favourite brand, now presided over by people who see beer as just another grocery brand, no different from cat food or laundry detergent.
MY PERSONAL BEER HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR
Winner: learning how to brew – or starting to. A day brewing Jaipur at Thornbridge in the summer saw my first (and hopefully last) stint cleaning out a copper from the inside. Then I was lucky enough to be invited on Everard’s gold brewing course, where we recreated an authentic nineteenth century IPA. I’m still trying to flog stories on these – if I fail, I will write them up on here in the New Year – when I also hope to be doing lots more brewing.
Runner-up: a Goose Island beer and food matching dinner at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, with the head brewer introducing each of the beers. Mere sensual bliss…
MY PERSONAL BEER LOW POINT OF THE YEAR
Winner: Having a very exciting meeting with a development producer from ITV where we agreed in principle to develop an idea for a series that would see me going around Britain investigating different regional beer styles and stories. Then reading THE NEXT DAY the announcement that Oz Clarke and James May were filming the same idea.
Runner-up: Having a very promising meeting with a development producer from an independent production company, who eventually turned down the idea of serialising Man Walks into a Pub but said they would love to film me doing a beery journey, something ambitious, that I was doing anyway, that had historic roots but contemporary relevance… and me saying, “WHERE WERE YOU A YEAR AGO WHEN I WAS TRYING TO GET PEOPLE INTERESTED IN FILMING MY JOURNEY TO INDIA?” and them saying, “Yes, we’d definitely have been interested in that”.
BREWER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Stefano Cossi at Thornbridge. Possible bias here because I saw him at work close up, but I’m blown away by his combination of experimentation and obsessive rigour and quality control. His beers have consistently wowed. With a new, bigger brewhouse almost complete, 2009 could be Thornbridge’s year.
Runner-up: Alastair Hook at Meantime. Awarded Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers, he consistently and tirelessly pushes quality and flavour ever closer to the mainstream drinker.
BEER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Orkney’s Dark Island Reserve. Matured in malt casks for three months, 10% ABV, full of fruit, spice, wood and malt. It’s not the most challenging or extreme of the new wood aged beers but it’s perfectly balanced and, importantly, perfectly packaged. It looks great, and these days that’s just as important as the product delivery if you want to change perceptions of what beer can be.
Runner-up: Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse – a collaboration between Garrett Oliver and the ancient German Schneider brewery. It tastes like what it is: a hybrid of North American hoppy craft brew and spicy, banana-scented German wheat beer. It’s fragrant, it’s fruity, it’s fabulous.
Honourable mention: Brew Dog’s 13% IPA that’s been matured in a whisky cask for 18 months with a load of strawberries. The result is more like a Sauternes than a beer. Amazing.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR
Winner: Alastair Darling for his one-man mission to kill off the pub industry.
Runner up: the renowned home brewer who keeps collaring me at industry events to tell me my IPA journey was a) full of errors and b) pointless. Get a life.