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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?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
I'm doing a Masterclass in beer writing with the Guardian in February. Click to find our more.
My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser piece - some pub etiquette tips for Christmas visitors.
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Monday, 31 August 2009

Drink is evil. Again. Oh no it's not. Again.

Been away researching what will hopefully be my next book - a non-beer book! And back in the hot seat to bullshit so familiar it's almost reassuring.

I don't want this to become an obsession, but maybe it already has. Our friends at the BBC are up to their usual tricks, using this familiar image today:

to illustrate "Courts get 'booze ASBO' powers" to cut down on the scourge of drunken behaviour.

So how did they illustrate the main drinks story this weekend - the new report from the BBPA which shows that alcohol consumption is down, and that Britons drink less alcohol per head than most other European countries. Um... they didn't. They completely ignored it.

I not anticipating them being too interested either in this new study, which shows that moderate drinkers suffer less depression and anxiety and have better social skills than teetotallers.

If you see any mainstream media outlet covering either of these two positive stories about alcohol consumption, please let me know.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Hops and Glory readings

Anyone who was planning on coming to Oxford to see me tonight - I got the date wrong! It's actually tomorrow night, 14th August, Oxford Borders, 6pm.

Still adding new dates so check out the list to the right.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Beer From the Coast

If you're anywhere near London over the next month, here's a unique chance to get closer to - even own part of - one of the best beer ad campaigns of the last ten years.

In 2002 (I think) Adnams commissioned artist Chris Wormell to produce a series of hand-printed lino cut illustrations for a press and poster campaign, 'Beer from the Coast'.


I loved this campaign. At the time it launched, 'provenance' was a big buzz word in beer advertising. We drink Fosters lager because it's Australian, Stella because it's, um, 'European', Corona because it's from somewhere sunny, and so on. Every big ad agency I worked with believed you couldn't 'do' English provenance effectively, because ours was a country that no one aspired to, that no one yearned for or wanted to be closer to.

Adnams proved that if you take it down to a regional level, that's not true. This campaign captured a neverland, a timeless ideal of the English coast that spoke to the hearts of people who grew up here. Of course the coast isn't like that in reality, but Adnams' unique advantage was that where they're based, in Southwold, the coast really is like that. These posters subtly brand the coast and claim it for Adnams, creating a powerful brand that has really helped this small regional brewer punch above its weight these past few years.


Now, The Illustration Cupboard is hosting an exhibition of the lino cuts - and they're for sale! The exhibition runs 13th August to 12th September, perfectly capturing the sinking late summer sun. I'm gutted that I can't make the opening event tomorrow - but I'll be there the day after.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

BBC Watch


Story headline:
Alcohol is largely to blame for an "alarming" rise in the rate of oral cancers among men and women in their forties, say experts.

Quote from one of said experts:
"Tobacco is, by far, the main risk factor for oral cancer."

Another quote from said expert:
"Alcohol consumption has doubled since the 1950s and the trend we are now seeing is likely to be linked to Britain's continually rising drinking levels."

The truth:
Alcohol consumption has been falling for the past four years and looks likely to continue to do so.

And, of course,
Picture the BBC use to illustrate the story about rising alcohol consumption:

Despite this expert quote at the bottom of the piece:
"The really lethal cocktail is drinking strong spirits and smoking"

And in contradiction to the truth about trends in alcohol consumption:
Beer is at its lowest level of consumption since the 1930s. It is lower in alcohol, on average, than wine and spirits. Wine and spirits are taking an increasing share of total alcoholic drinks. So if there is one drink that cannot be blamed for alcohol-related mouth cancer, simple statistics show it's beer - the drink that is, of course, linked to the story.

[Update: I did email the BBC complaining about the beer pic. An hour later, it was replaced by video footage of an interview with an oral cancer sufferer. I'm sure it was a coincidence. Thanks to Peter Russell for letting me know.]


Sunday, 9 August 2009

Me being interviewed!

Yesterday's Scotsman newspaper carried an interview with me which I gave when I was in Edinburgh launching Hops and Glory a few weeks ago.

The journalist has done a wonderful job, making me sound far more knowledgeable, cool and interesting than I'm sure I was at the time. Thanks Claire.

You can read it here.

The most expensive bottle of beer in the world.

Yup, on Thursday night I enjoyed a bottle of beer that cost me over £1500.

I'm thinking it was karma. As you can see from recent posts, I was having a very good week. Then, it just got better. A review for Hops & Glory in the Times Literary Supplement (sorry - it's not online) dubbed me "The beer drinker's Bill Bryson", an accolade I've been not-so-secretly coveting for years because it would look very good on the front cover of the H&G paperback and probably increase its sales.

I was told about the review while en route to Leeds for a reading event in Borders. Before the gig, I visited Zak Avery's fantastic shop, Beer Ritz in Headingley. We had a great chat, and I found beers I thought I would never see again, and beers I'd never seen before, and walked out of the shop £65 lighter, a very happy man indeed. And as if things couldn't get any better, I then realised my oldest mate from uni was on his way to Leeds to watch the Headingley test with his dad. I phoned him, arranged to meet up, and he offered me a ticket to come to the test match with them.

OK, things were getting just a little too nauseatingly perfect.

The reading went well. Sold a few copies. Met a couple of good guys. Later, back in my hotel room, I decided to have a bedtime beer while writing up a few notes.

This is something I've done almost every day of my life for at least the last seven years. I have perfectly normal motor skills - I wasn't brilliant at sport at school, but neither am I noted for being particularly clumsy. So it came as a total shock when, after placing my beer carefully on its coaster, while bringing my hand back to the keyboard I clipped the top of the glass and neatly poured about 250ml of beer into my pretty damn new (last November) MacBook Pro.

The weird thing is - two days before, Mrs PBBB had done exactly the same thing to a different MacBook Pro with a cup of coffee. She phoned the Mac technician she uses and he told her to turn off the power immediately, turn it upside down and rest it on something absorbent. She did. That MacBook now works fine, albeit with slightly sticky keys. I remembered this, and immediately did the same.

But before he told her to do this, he asked one very important question: did the coffee have sugar in it? The circuitry could cope fine with water, but sugar was fatal.

And so we come to the beer in question.

Thornbridge Alliance PX Reserve 2007 is an 11% barley wine brewed at Thornbridge in collaboration with Garrett Oliver. Brew Day was 18 hours long because they had to do two mashes to get the gravity up high enough, and the fermentation was explosive. After brewing, this particular bottle was aged in vintage sherry casks for a year. As far as I knew, it was no longer on sale anywhere, and then, there it was on Zak's shelf. I gladly paid my £7 for a bottle, knowing I would probably never have the opportunity to do so again.

This was a very expensive, very rare beer. It was also a beer with a very high level of residual sugar contributing to its wonderfully rich, mellow, complex, flavour.

I guess at least my MacBook Pro died in style.

The next morning that wonderful residual sugar had gummed up my circuitry and turned my laptop - my fifth limb, my life, my career, my window on the world - into a frozen, dead piece of beautiful brushed aluminium. I'm told I can probably get the info off my hard drive so if anyone is reading this to whom I owe work, I should be back online in a day or two. But I'm writing this on my new MacBook Pro, bought yesterday. It brings the true cost of my bottle of Thornbridge Alliance PX Reserve to £1632.

And of course, England's performance on the first day of the test completed the restoration of karmic balance in the universe after what had been an absurdly good week.

From now on, I'm writing tasting notes by hand at the kitchen table, and typing them up later.

Remember - always drink responsibly.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Beer summits for all

It's one of my broken record mantras: beer is the most sociable drink in the world. And this week proves it - if only people reported on the GBBF as much as they did about Obama, the world would be a happier place.

ATJ posted recently about how the sad demise of Beers of the World magazine means "we're all beer bloggers now". He wasn't criticising blogging at all, merely saying that it's increasingly the only outlet for those of us who want to write about beer. But his comments did lead to a bit of a discussion about the merits of blogging versus other writing.

Without wishing to get into that, whatever your views, the existence of blogging, Facebook and Twitter has revolutionised beer appreciation and led to a far more diverse, colourful, fun and interesting beer community than existed when I began writing. Everyone was talking about GBBF and building the anticipation and when we got there the atmosphere was fantastic. It was great to meet Jay R Brooks, Mark Dredge, Beer Nut, Woolpack Dave, Bionic Laura and the remarkable Laurent Mousson for the first time after much online interaction. Great also to see again Impy Malting, Stephen Beaumont, ATJ, Stonch and Boak, all enjoying themselves. Beer brought us all together and really that's the only argument you ever really need to make in its favour.

Mrs PBBB was lured along to the Guild of Beer Writers event and was so charmed by meeting everyone that she was immediately roped in to come to GBBF trade day too. She was quite taken aback to realise that she has a cult following of her own, mainly consisting of people asking how she puts up with my beer-related behaviour.

I semi-retract the comment about 'freakish volunteers'. There are always a number of remarkable specimens, but I made it sound like I was slagging off people en masse. Once I would have. Now, I don't know what CAMRA have been doing, and I'm over-generalising based on isolated events, but I'd like to offer up the following illustration of how this event has changed since I slagged it off, somewhat notoriously, in Man Walks into a Pub.

2005:

Mrs PBBB: "Hello, I quite like blonde and summer ales. Do you have anything like that?"

Volunteer on Fuller's stand: "We've got this one that's strong and gets you pissed quickly, and this one that's weaker and gets you less pissed. Now which do you want? I'm busy."

This week was the first time I've been able to tempt her back since.

2009:

Bloke standing next to me at East of England stand: "Um... I'm not sure what I want. I don't know where to start."

Volunteer on stand: "Well do you think you prefer darker, maltier beers, or lighter, fresher, hoppier beers?

Bloke: "Um... darker and maltier I think."

Volunteer: "Well let's start you off with a little taster of this one and see how you get on..."

Wonderful.

I'd be back there tonight but Leeds beckons. A visit to the Beer Boy in his wonderful retail emporium, followed by reading and signing in Borders from 6-8pm, with the very high likelihood of beverages in the North Bar afterwards. Please come and join me if you're north of Earl's Court.


Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Hurrah for the Great British Beer Festival

Feeling very benign about the world this morning after a cracking 21st birthday bash for the British Guild of Beer Writers last night.

And I don't know if it's just that this year we're all twittered, blogged and facebooked to the gunnels, but I'm feeling a real buzz of excitement about GBBF that I've never felt before.

I say that as someone who first made my name as a beer writer by dissing CAMRA and GBBF. Seven or eight years ago, when I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, I was sickened by the fact that no one ever seemed to criticise CAMRA in print. Even back then I went to the GBBF every year. I obviously thought it was a worthwhile event. But I saw big problems with it that prevented it from becoming even better. Many of those problems have now disappeared. Some are still there.

I still criticise CAMRA today - in fact I do so in this week's Publican - because no one in the world is above criticism. But I'll be queuing outside when the doors open at twelve. I'll be there with people who will complain throughout the afternoon about the acoustics, about the weird way it's organised by region, about the grumble between regional brewers and micros - both of whom will feel under-represented and hard done by compared to the other - and about the freakish volunteers enjoying their day in the sun, their moment of power, as they get to boss us around.

But for all that - we'll be there. And we'll have been looking forward to it for weeks. And we'll all try beers we've never seen before, and all rush to sample the winners before they run out, and we'll all have the same conversations we had last year with people we haven't seen since last year and we'll all end the day rhapsodising at the bieres sans frontieres bar and unwisely consuming one too many American extreme mofos before making our way unsteadily back to the tube. And we'll look back on it with fondness.

GBBF isn't perfect - but it's pretty damn special, and I'll admit to loving it through gritted teeth if you will.

I'm signing copies of Hops & Glory on the bookstand at 5pm today and tomorrow.

See you there.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Tokyo* Storm Warning

Right - my last post about Tokyo*. But it's a post I have to write because I've done something none of the people claiming this beer will bring about the downfall of civilisation have done - I've tried a bottle.

There's a familiar pattern now with any moral panic in society: you can usually depend on the fact that those linking, say, a film with violent behaviour have never seen the movie they're condemning. People who think a record is disgusting and depraved can be relied upon to give their view without having listened to it. And clearly, those who regard Tokyo as 'irresponsible' haven't had so much as a sip of it. This is obvious simply from the timing of the comments - they wouldn't have had chance to do so before they opened their mouths to the press on the day of the beer's launch. But it becomes more obvious once you taste the beer.

The thing to remember about Brew Dog at all times is that while they're serious about making their beer, they regard the promotion of it as a big joke. They deliberately court controversy, and when they're not doing that they just like to have a laugh.

Exhibit A: Tokyo*'s label copy. This is a beer that was apparently "inspired by a 1980s space invaders arcade game played in Japan's capital. The irony of existentialism, the parody of being and the inherent contradictions of post-modernism, all so delicately conveyed by the blocky, pixelated arcade action have all been painstakingly recreated in this bottle's contents." So they're taking the piss, OK?

So, to the beer.

As I took off the cap, the aroma of American hops wafted out. It poured dark ruby rather than completely black, with a tan had that disappeared instantly. Fine; you'd neither expect nor welcome too much carbonation in a beer like this. Sniffing from the glass, I was struck first by a whisky alcohol whiff. Then there was treacle and molasses, then those hops - the dry hopping has definitely added something. Then finally there's oak - not the vanilla you'd expect, but a fresh, woody scent.

The vanilla appeared on the palate - straight away, barging to the front. This was followed by a profound alcohol burn that stripped everything else away and left my mouth buzzing. It was a shocking experience.

After this initial punch in the mouth, a second sip felt a little smoother. Cherries and chocolate joined the vanilla to give me a nostalgic mouthful of black forest gateau, with a satisfying, drying earthiness towards the end and, challenging the retro dessert theme, an aftertaste of creme brulee. Somewhere in there, the marriage of the fresh hops and the dark, treacly stout was continuously creating new flavours and associations.

I'd expected to recommend this beer as a substitute for port or sherry. But as a big fan of Islay malts, if I ever have another one this young (I'm definitely looking forward to aging this beer - it will be stunning when it mellows) I'll drink it instead of whisky. I'd imagined sharing a bottle between two - I'd actually recommend one bottle between four.

The idea of anyone binge drinking a bottle of this beer, of knocking it back quickly, is utterly absurd. I defy anyone to drink a bottle in under an hour. You actually don't want a full bottle of it. The argument about it containing more units than your recommended daily guideline is no more valid than it would be with a bottle of spirits. In fact a resealable bottle would be brilliant. I had no idea there would be so much coverage of this beer - the Daily Mash pisstake whose copyright I illegally infringed the other day shows they are a national news story. Well, it is silly season. But anyone linking this beer to binge drinking is quite clearly drinking, smoking or sniffing something far more potent.

Brew Dog were probably a little taken aback themselves by the reaction - they've responded with some excellent and thought-provoking points here. But I have one final grumble with them: to claim that this beer will actually help cure binge drinking is possibly as stupid as the reaction to it. Some of the arguments deployed to say it won't encourage binge drinking - limited run, lack of availability etc - equally mean most people won't get a chance to try the beer and have their expectations challenged. They'll only see the headlines and draw their conclusions from that. And I have to admit, going back to the label copy, I definitely felt a little pixelated by the time when - against my better judgement - I sneakily finished off the bottle.

All publicity is NOT good publicity because, after Tokyo* sells out, there's a bunch of blinkered, bigoted neo-prohibitionists who have a bit more ammo in their attack on the industry as irresponsible. This beer is not irresponsible. And the case for brewing beers like this would be much more effectively made if you simply got some of the idiots mouthing off about it to try it, and record their reactions on camera.

The world would be a much better place if there were more beers like this in it.