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Friday, 18 December 2009

2009: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part Two)

OK, after getting most of the political and industry stuff out of the way yesterday, let's get on with celebrating the best of beer and pubs. Remember, this is totally subjective and based on my experiences, and isn't trying to be any kind of definitive guide.

(Note: because this is a review of the whole of 2009, Let's Be Nice on Pete Brown's Beer Blog Month is suspended for this post.)


Winner: John Keeling at Fuller’s

Because in an industry that’s riven with divisions, he sets an example that every brewer, large or small, should aspire to.

To large breweries, he shows that being part of a PLC whose fortunes rely on TV-advertised brands doesn’t have to stifle experimentation and innovation. He’s leading the way with learning about how ageing affects beer. He refuses to call this innovation – he prefers ‘rediscovery’. Also, he’s the model head brewer as brand ambassador, touring the country with informative and entertaining tastings and jokes so old they were first told over a pint of Egyptian bouza.

And to micro/craft brewers, he’s an example of professionalism and rigour, who wholeheartedly supports a micro scene that keeps him on his toes.

Fuller’s has a perfect core range of beers – a malty premium ale in Pride, an often-overlooked hoppier session ale in Chiswick, a glorious finisher in ESB, a summer ale, and a stable of seasonals, plus the legendary vintage ale, and much more.

All this, and he’s a Fall fan. (We’ll let him off being a Man United supporter.)

If your name is Stuart Ross, please look away now…


Runner-up: Stuart Ross, Crown Brewery, Sheffield

Stuart works alone with a three-barrel plant in a cellar beneath a pub. He does everything single-handed, from cask washing, to bottling, to designing labels and pump clips.

And the beers he turns out in his understated fashion are too good to be overlooked any longer. He saw a load of chillies being sold off cheap in Morrisons so he bought them on impulse and created Ring of Fire, a 10% chilli beer that has a subtle taste of chilli pepper before the heat gradually builds. He does a nice range of session beers, and a variety of fully-hopped IPAs. His Smoked Oktoberfest is the best beer I’ve ever tasted with Indian food. And the Damson Porter he created with Zak Avery is divine. I could go on.

Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting. I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is. I’m scared how big his head will grow when he does realise, so I just hope I don’t help create a monster by giving him the recognition he deserves. So no one tell him what I just said.

OK Stuart, you can come back now.


Winner: Wye Valley HPA (Hereford Pale Ale)

Because a recent post by ImpyMalting made me realise that, along with many beer bloggers, when it comes to beer appreciation I’m getting seduced down a cul-de-sac of the extreme, eclectic and experimental, whereas in reality most of my drinking consists of session pints.

Because HPA is a very good session pint, quenching and citrusy and refreshing and satisfying.

Because it’s very smartly branded and presented and makes ale look cool.

Because when my father-in-law was dying in February, Liz and I shuttled between the hospital and the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny and the perfectly served HPA kept us going, a quiet moment of relaxation and contemplation in the middle of the stress and grief, an escape, a tonic.

Because after the funeral, we and our friends held a wake for Eddie in the Angel, and we drank HPA until we could drink no more.

Because when you ask someone what was the best beer they ever had, they tell you all about the context of it, not the flavour or the ingredients, and this beer reminded me of that in 2009. Great beer isn’t about what’s in the glass; it’s about so much more.


Runner-up: Crown Brewery HPA (Hillsborough Pale Ale) special 13% version

You couldn’t get two more different beers, and the fact they’re both called HPA is a rather weird coincidence. Hillsborough Pale Ale is a 3.8% session beer. One day, CrownBrewerStu decided to see what would happen if he brewed a 13% version of it, which he did in a home brew bucket. When I first tasted it, my jaw hit the floor. This is a stunning barley wine, rich in caramel sweetness, rounded and not too harsh, a hint of sherry. I’ve no idea how he got the balance and depth and smoothness of it at this strength. If Brew Dog released this beer it would – rightly – be celebrated around the world. I made Stu give me the last of it for our Christmas party last week. Hopefully this post will force him to make some more and sell it at a premium price in 750ml cork and wire finished bottles. And hopefully he’ll get someone in to do a really gorgeous label.


Winner: The Sheffield Tap, Sheffield Train Station

I’ve only been once. It’s only been open a couple of weeks. But it’s not very often a pub takes your breath away. If only more big pub operators had Thornbridge’s vision, thoughtfulness and bravery. If only more small operators had their scope and access to investment capital.

The Sheffield tap: before...

... and after. ("Barnsley Skins" graffiti not pictured)


Runner-up: The White Hart, London N16

It’s my local, and this is my review so I’m allowed to choose whomever I like. But this perfect boozer in Stoke Newington is a microcosm of what’s happening in beer. It’s always had great atmosphere, decent, reasonably priced food (though being the chef there seems to be like being the drummer in Spinal Tap), a fantastic beer garden, and is easily the best pub I know to watch a match on the big screen. You can tell it’s a great place to work because many bar staff have been there for years. But until recently there was one lonely Spitfire handpump in the corner that almost seemed to have cobwebs on it. Andy thought cask ale was only drunk by old men, and was of no interest to his hip, young clientele. Now, he has an slowly rotating range of three cask ales, sells bucketloads of them to N16’s hipsters, and is a born-again drinker of St Austell Trubute. He told me last night he’s applied for Cask Marque accreditation. And he’s planning on replacing Stella with Peroni. Kind of sums up the best of 2009!


Honourable Mention: The Hillsborough Hotel, Sheffield

For the beers, for the welcome, for the bacon sandwiches, for the quiz, for Pie Night, and for offering the best value accommodation in Sheffield. Eventually, I’ll get used to the trams and won’t be woken up by them before dawn.


Winner: By a country mile – and he’s really going to hate this – Cooking Lager!

No one knows who he is. Someone thought he might be me, which I was flattered by. But is he a beer geek playing a role, venting frustration? Or could he be for real? Every now and again he slips up and reveals that he knows more about beer than he lets on, but mostly, he ruthlessly skewers the pretentions of beer geeks and reminds us that, at the end of the day, it’s just beer. I depend on his tirades against pongy ales, odes to Lout and tales of his eternal struggle to stay on the right side of the Ladysqueeze to keep me grounded. And his review of my books, where he compared the relative merits of Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind not on the merits of language, or insight, or research, but on their ability to prop up his wobbly sofa, is something I’ll always treasure. If it’s an invention, it’s a genius one. If he’s for real… I don’t know whether to admire him or fear him.


Runner-up: Boak and Bailey

I picked this not on who is the most prolific, or who uses the medium of blogging to its best advantage (that would be Young Dredge). As this is subjective, I’ve chosen it purely on what blogs I find myself clicking on most often from my blog roll, who I enjoy reading most. Boak and Bailey clearly know their stuff but write with a beautiful simplicity and understatedness, and a constant sense of exploration and discovery, across a refreshingly broad range of beers and topics. If you haven’t read them before, start with this brilliant discussion on pubs and class.


Honourable mentions:

Runner-up spot was a tough call: the other blogs I habitually click through to whenever I see there’s a new post include Pencil & Spoon of course, Woolpack Dave, Tandleman, and the thoughtful, beautifully written, lyrical ImpyMalting. Pump Clip Parade for a laugh, and ATJ is doing some lovely stuff too. We’ve got such diversity and richness now! Oh yes – and the Beer Widow of course. God help me if I don’t give ‘er indoors a richly deserved mention for sticking a long-suffering toe into the blogging waters.


Winner: Easy – the Daily Mail.

Look, why don’t you just fuck off?


Runner-up: The BBC

We expect it of the Mail. They’re the pantomime villain in the war against neo-Prohibitionism. But the Beeb website is just as guilty of demonizing alcohol, and beer in particular, as anyone else. This post from yesterday is typical – if you read to the end, expert testimony from Ian Gilmore – hardly a friend to the alcohol industry – explicitly contradicts the assertion in the headline. But as Jay Brooks points out, most people only read the headline and first para, meaning the truth gets buried.

Mostly I’m with Stephen Fry - I love the BBC. It’s one of the reasons I love Britain, one of the best things about our culture. But we expect and deserve much, much better than this continued, willful distortion of the truth about our national drink from an organisation that’s largely trusted for its balance and impartiality. Shame on you.


Honourable mentions

The rest of the British news media. As I said in a recent Publican piece, when you’ve got everyone from the Mail to the Guardian saying the same thing about you, you know you’ve replaced tobacco, hoodies, staffordshire bull terriers and Swine Flu as the moral panic of the day.

So that’s my take on the year. I’d love to hear yours.

Thank you for reading me in 2009. Thank you for your kind comments when I get it right, and thank you also for picking me up when I get something wrong. 2010 is going to be a great year for beer. I’m going to make an effort to remember why I started writing about it in the first place. I’m going to continue to learn more about beer, from brewers and drinkers and other writers. I’m going to do everything I can to evangelise beer outside our cloistered, beer geeky world, to carry on the war against media shite and neo-prohibitionism, to call out foolish behaviour in the industry and to celebrate beer as it continues to emerge and prosper as the most exciting drink around.

Merry Christmas!


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Nice one Pete, glad to see Stu getting runner up spot..he got a couple of runner's up on my look back at the year too.

i had a cracking day out with him brewing the new ring of fire beer using my home grown chillis, and can't wait to try it.

impymalting said...

I'm all aglow at makig this list and being included in such good company here.

That chili beer sounds outstanding! I must try the White Hart; it's just a bus ride away from me.

Holli said...

I agree the chilli beer does sound worth a taste

Cooking Lager said...

I'm made up boos, ta very much for the mention. Oh and I know who I am, I'm John Clarke of Stockton CAMRA.

Bailey said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Pete. It's really nice to have a bit of encouragement.

Woolpack Dave said...

Cookie is great. I hope he enters the beer writers competition next year and wins.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Pete totally agree with you on the greatness of Cooking Lager (and I reckon the John Clarke thing is yet another red herring), at the same time erudite, funny and balloon puncturing — I must admit I did wonder, whilst under the influence,if it was some situationist prank you were playing (Guy Debord and all that), but then I remembered modesty ain’t your strongest suit ;-)

Tandleman said...

well John C is from Stockport so a rouge herring it is. Ta for mention Pete. I agree too Cookie is brill. And a smart er.. cookie.

Whorst said...

Nice one Mr. Brown. Great way to glorify blogger scum. You're at your most interesting when you're carefully opening bottles of ale circa 1902. Other than that, you're just another beer writer impersonating Jesus. Enjoy a cold, crisp, Peroni while in total, blessed care mode.

Jo Copestick said...

And Ben McFarland's World's Best Beers print run was increased at 11th hour because Waitrose wanted copies. The first beer book to be stocked alongside all those wine tomes. Is this lifestyle or progress?

Crown Brewer Stu said...

Acceptance speech,

This has been my best brewing year to date I have never been happier with my beers than now. I have learnt more in the the last two and half years of brewing at Crown than the three years before.
I was supprised to even to get a mention so I’m very happy to be runner up to John.
Cheers Pete (all the beer bribes worked then)
I’d also like to say thanks on behalve of the Hillsborough Hotel, you know where to stay while your house hunting. ;-)

Private Poontang said...

I hope you don't mind me saying this but whilst I applaud your obvious skill and talent as a beer writer your continual attacks on the Daily Mail through posts such as SlopBucket of the Year actually just come over as a cheap and lazy attempt at playing to the gallery.
The Daily Mail is a fantastically successful newspaper with a ground-breaking style employing great writers who knock you into a cocked hat and whose views do not always toe the supposed editorial line.
Like any newspaper it appeals to the prejudices of its reader - the pisspoor Guardian is no different.
And as you have earned money this year for writing for this supposed Slopbucket your criticism just comes over as mere cant.
And no that is not a typo.

Pete Brown said...

Private Poontang,

A few years ago, a friend of mine who works in PR was working with a successful businessman who was investing some of his considerable fortune back into projects for young people in the community in which he grew up. A freelance journo was commissioned by the Mail to write the story. The night before the piece was due to run the journo phoned my friend almost in tears, and said the piece would not be running. When the journo had submitted it, the editorial bods had asked, "Well, is he fiddling with the kids?" No, he wasn't. "Is he on the make? Is it a scam?" No, it wasn't. It was just a good news story. "Well we don't want to run it then."

This newspaper has an agenda of inculcating a climate of fear and hostility simply because it sells more newspapers.

With regard to beer, they print stories they know not just to be distortions, but blatant untruth. Every time they use phrases like "the soaring binge drinking problem" or "Britain's rising alcohol consumption" they are quite deliberately lying to their million-plus readers.

I get read by a few hundred people a day. It's hardly a level playing field, but whatever influence I might have, I feel morally compelled to stand against an agenda I feel is deliberately wicked (in the old fashioned sense) and threatens the community and the drink I love.

Your raise some fair points, and I must point out that I attack this deliberate and inaccurate demonisation of alcohol wherever I see it - this year on this blog I've taken the Independent and the BBC to task just as vociferously as I have the Mail. I've attacked others - including the Guardian - elsewhere. It's just that the Mail does it more often than anyone else does.

I don't know what 'playing to the gallery' actually means in this respect - I'm not just trying to win cheap applause. I don't need to do that, and it's not why I write. It genuinely angers me every time I see a bullshit article spreading damaging lies about our drinking culture. I believe it poses a real threat. I think the people who do it are morally suspect. And every now and again, calling them out on their lies actually succeeds in making them change or retract the story. That's why I do it. I wish more people did.

I did have to think long and hard about taking money from the Mail this year. Part of me feels like a hypocrite for doing this. But they pay well and I needed the money, and if I was trying to justify myself I'd say it was another victory in that I got them to print a feature that had the truth about supposed binge drinking in it. It might have done some good.

As for writers who put me into a cocked hat - that's your opinion, but please tell me who you think they are - I always like to learn from reading other writers.

Finally - thanks for submitting your criticism in a civilised way! The internet is getting a bit like a jungle and it's unusual for someone with a beef like yours to actually take the time to express their disagreement in reasonable terms. That's why I've taken the time to write a full reply.

Cheers - Merry Christmas!

John Keeling said...

Thanks Pete. I have just returned to work and have not been near a computer so I have just read your blog. I will now send a copy to my boss.
I have bought a new joke book, this one was printed by a Mr T. Caxton!

I'd like to meet Stu anyone who names a beer Ornette Coleman must be good

John Keeling said...

I meant W. Caxton- have to brush up on my comic typing