Tuesday, 22 December 2009
Lunch itself was very fine. Just one problem though - the menu at Elk lists wines, cocktails, soft and hot drinks, but there's no mention at all of beer. When you ask, they'll admit to stocking Kronenbourg, a Swedish lager whose name I didn't catch, and a perfectly serviceable keg Theakstons Old Peculier, plus a range of bottles that don't exactly push the frontiers of beer appreciation but do create a more interesting range of drinks than you'd find in an average boozer.
Friday, 18 December 2009
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.)
BREWER OF THE YEAR
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…
BREWER OF THE YEAR
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.
BEER OF THE YEAR
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.
BEER OF THE YEAR
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.
PUB OF THE YEAR
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.
PUB OF THE YEAR
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!
PUB OF THE YEAR
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.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR
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.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR
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.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR
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.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR
Winner: Easy – the Daily Mail.
Look, why don’t you just fuck off?
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR
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.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR
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.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Writing The Cask Report, we never could have hoped that this difficult year would be the one where cask ale returned to growth - but ahead of expectations, it did. I’m predicting – once SIBA brewers’ volume has been factored back into BBPA figures – that cask will show 2-3% volume growth to the end of 2009.
This remarkable in the current climate, a total turnaround in a mere three or four years. And if you’re not a big cask fan, take heart – it’s irrefutable evidence of the wider growth of interest in flavourful beers, and this can only improve as we come out of recession.
BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Runner-up: The online beer community comes of age.
I don’t want this to sound self-serving and insular, so apologies, but this will prove very beneficial for beer in the long run.
Blogging has become a true medium in its own right, and with the addition of Twitter, online and social media have created a spontaneous beery community that swaps ideas, views – even physical beers.
I know some people have been blogging about beer for years, but this is the first time I started to perceive a real community with legs in the outside world. There was a palpable sense of excitement at the Great British Beer Festival this year when many online friends met up – or twet up? – for the first time.
The industry is now looking online for its ideas – and when brewers and other organisations ask my advice, I tell them that’s the best thing they can do. Brew Dog had already built their brand through this medium before most of us old timers had really woken up to what was going on. They’re going to have some stiff competition in this regard next year.
(Come back tomorrow for my blogger of the year).
BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
I'd hoped to include cask ale week here – I can’t, because it wasn’t quite good enough. But it was the first one and it will be happening again, and will hopefully get even better – from what I’ve seen so far it definitely will.
The Great British Beer Festival was the best I’ve been to, but the usual wranglings around cask ale festivals and lager, filtered and pasteurised craft beers etc show the need for a different kind of beer festival to run alongside CAMRA-organised events. Beer Exposed promised to be that in 2008, but the organizers decided not to do a second year. That’s a crying shame.
WORST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEARWinner: The beer and pub industry’s increasingly childish infighting
The British beer and pub industry, 2009 - aka the People's Popular Front of Judea Suicide Squad.
It almost made me want to give all this up. Yes, everyone has different agendas, yes sometimes the aims of different groups conflict. But the broader issues facing the industry will cause for more damage to beer and pubs if we don’t put less significant quarrels to one side and take them on.
Just a couple of weeks ago, CAMRA declined to support the BBPA’s manifesto for the survival of the pub, promising to bring out their own instead. AAAARGGHHH!!!!!!! What is the POINT of that? Why duplicate valuable time and resources? Why DELIBERATELY create the impression of a fragmented, bickering industry among the people you’re trying to win over to your point of view? I’m not singling CAMRA out – they’re merely the latest in a long line of breweries and industry bodies indulging in cretinous behaviour that does a disservice to their members.
I get so passionate about this issue because history tells us this is what screws people over: whether it’s the American drinks industry in the run-up to Prohibition, communists and anarchists in the face of fascism in the Spanish Civil War, or left wing parties generally and the Life of Brian sketch that satirized them, precedent proves that when you can win a struggle, internal bickering snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
The childish behaviour has to stop.
WORST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEAR
Runner-up: Tax, Tax, Tax. Again.
But the campaign did not receive widespread support among the industry it sought to save. That, and the fact that Alastair Darling is a complete fucking wanker, a Thunderbird puppet lookalike and I’m not just talking about the stupid fucking eyebrows but also the fact that he walks like he’s on fucking strings and talks like someone fucked and bombed on Quaaludes, the fact that he’s so fucking shit at his job he’s actually manage to reduce the government’s revenue from beer by putting up tax, when his only stated aim was to increase revenue, and yet he still thinks putting tax up yet more will somehow have the desired effect – I mean, this man is educationally subnormal – all this meant that tax on beer went up again in the budget.
It'll go up again when VAT goes back up in January and he leaves in place 2008's nasty, pernicious additional tax rise which was purely to ensure that beer and pubs were the only sectors of the economy not to benefit from a VAT reduction. This clueless gimp is going to throw more people out of work, decrease government beer tax revenue still further, and close even more pubs when he puts up beer tax above inflation yet again in the 2010 budget.
MY PERSONAL BEERY HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR
Winner: Well, it’s got to be winning Beer Writer of the Year.
No need to go on about it much more than I already have. To many, beer writing is a hobby – which is not meant as disrespect or trivialization. But to me it is now how I pay my bills, having all but given up my former day job as a freelance ad man in 2009. If I’m going to make a living from it, this is going to help no end.
MY PERSONAL BEERY HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR
Runner-up: The launch of Hops & Glory
…and particularly the ensuing tour.
MY PERSONAL BEERY LOW POINT OF THE YEAR
Winner: My ever-increasing beer belly.
Yeah, I know beer isn't fattening. But anything with calories is fattening when you consume enough of it, and I've put on another stone this year. The one and only downside of my increasing profile is that I get a lot more beer given to me, and a lot more invites to events, tastings, judging sessions etc. Each and every one of these is wonderful in its own right, but the sheer volume of them means it’s now a simple choice between my health and accepting every kind invite when it comes. It’s a high quality problem I guess! But seriously. I need to fit back into my clothes and give my liver a rest.
MY PERSONAL BEERY LOW POINT OF THE YEAR
Runner-up: The Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards
This is going to sound like sour grapes and there’s no way around that, but it’s a reminder that despite beer’s increasing profile and the vibrancy of the blogging world, there’s still a lot of work to do.
The prestigious Andre Simon awards give out an annual gong for best drinks book. With its strong sales, good critical reaction and success at the Beer Writers Guild Awards, I thought Hops and Glory stood a good chance. Then, I saw the criteria the judges were specifically looking for this year: new primary research, educational value, writing that was engaging and interesting, and a book that looked great, and I thought they’d basically described Hops and Glory. I submitted it.
It didn’t even make the shortlist. Every single book on the shortlist is a book about wine. In 31 years a wine book has won this award 24 times. A beer book has won once.
I didn’t expect to win, but I did hope to make the shortlist. It’s the swings and roundabouts of awards I guess, but when the awards website uses the words ‘drinks books’ and ‘wine books’ interchangeably, I can't help thinking that the broader perception of beer’s inferiority to wine might still have something to do with it.
Don't miss Part Two tomorrow - with my nods for Brewer of the Year, Beer of the Year, Beer Blogger of the Year, and the dreaded (but quite predictable) Slop Bucket of the Year! And if I have time, some predictions for 2010.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Monday, 14 December 2009
MARSTON’S PEDIGREE AUSSIE ADS TRIUMPH
Marston’s Pedigree Ashes cricket series advertising campaign has been awarded second place in Campaign magazine’s top ten press ads for 2009.
The campaign ran throughout the Ashes and used traditional banter to poke fun at Australians with strap lines such as ‘we have beer in our blood, Australians have lemon juice in their hair’ and ‘England has history, Australia has previous.’
Marston’s Pedigree was only beaten to the top spot by The Guardian with their classic comics promotion and was the only beer brand to appear in the top ten.
The article praised the ad for ‘lovingly recreating British pub iconography to ridicule Australians.’
Des Gallagher, marketing manager for Pedigree said: “To be placed second out of all of this year’s ads is fantastic news. The campaign was designed to reflect the pub goers view of Ashes banter, good humoured and witty – and judging by the fans reaction we certainly achieved that.”
Throughout the summer Marston’s achieved record sales, selling an additional million pints in clubs, pubs and sports grounds across the country.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
- It's going to be the last time I ever do my Hops and Glory reading presentation in the format I've done it this year. Next year I have all three books being reissued in paperback and will be writing a new talk/presentation/speech/routine/whatever you want to call it, about beer more generally. So it's your last chance to hear about Barry the Barrel, William Hickey and Brazilian prostitutes.
- I've got a cask of Seaforth - the special beer created this summer by Thornbridge which is basically Jaipur brewed with all-English ingredients, and which they asked me to name. So I did.
- I've also got a cask of Crown Brewery Hillsborough IPA - the insanely hoppy brew created by Crown Brewer Stu, which I helped brew in the summer. It's now been aged in a warm room for four months and should have started to gain some authentic IPA characteristics.
- Finally on the beer front, we've got - get this - THE LAST EVER PIN OF CALCUTTA IPA!!! I thought we'd had the last one at my Burton book launch, but they found one last one at the brewery. It's not been on the sea voyage, but traditional IPAs that did not go to India were aged for at least a year before being sold domestically. This one is now two years old and as such should be as close as possible to how IPA was when it was consumed in India (with one exception - we'd probably get punched if we served it authentically ice-cold).
- And finally overall, I'm delighted, privileged and honoured to be sharing the room with legendary master brewer, Burton god, curator of Worthington White Shield and creator of Calcutta IPA, Mr Steve Wellington. Ask Steve about brewing traditional IPAs, keeping the Burton flame alive and generally being one of the greatest living brewers on the planet.
Saturday, 5 December 2009
It was the beer’s fault. It usually is.
Although, when you consider that beer is the most popular drink in the world, consumed by billions on a daily basis, and not a single person among those billions has attempted to do what I was about to do in the name of beer, I have to shoulder at least some of the blame myself.
I don’t mean that I got drunk and did something I regretted. I did get very drunk. And I did do something I would come to regret bitterly at several points over the following year. But one did not lead to the other: I did most of the damage while perfectly sober.
What I mean is, this was one of the increasingly frequent occasions when I got carried away after spending too much time with the kind of people you meet when you let beer start to mean more to you than simply the best long drink in the world. Not for the first time, the ideas and associations that surround beer, what beer means, intoxicated me more effectively and more devastatingly than mere alcohol ever could.
My voyage across the Atlantic on a century-old tall ship, and the larger quest of which it was merely part, began over dinner, ten months before I boarded Europa. Not just any old dinner though. Tonight, in the elegant surroundings of the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London’s fashionable Kensington, just before Christmas really started to get going, several people – not all of them bearded, pot-bellied, cardigan-clad or even necessarily male – were about to receive trophies and cash for writing about beer.
Every single time I mention the British Guild of Beer Writers to people who don’t work around beer, they seem to find its very existence, the mere concept it, either hilarious or completely unbelievable. A few years ago I could still sort of remember why this was. But I wasn’t laughing tonight. Tonight, for the first time since I started writing about beer, I was one of the people hoping to climb on stage and shake the hand of TV Chef and Celebrity Yorkshireman Brian Turner, and collect an envelope from him as the great and good of the British beer industry bathed me in their applause. Beer had just got serious.
As formal dinners go, it was probably one of the more unusual the harried hotel staff had catered. The India Pale Ale sorbet had been a triumph. The venison matched with brown ale had split opinion, and the double chocolate stout with the chocolate pudding had been judged a bit too obvious by my table. But the contented bickering indicated that, overall, the dinner had been a success. Brewers, beer writers, beer marketers and beer PR executives pushed back their chairs, ambled past tables where they paused to shake hands with colleagues and adversaries they hadn’t seen since this time last year, and made their steady (for now) way to the bars at the side of the big, palm tree-lined conservatory to choose a digesitif from the range of forty or so beers available. The cannier among them picked up more than one bottle, knowing that in a few minutes they’d be confined to their seats to wait patiently through the business part of the evening.
When it comes to the mix of emotions within the audience, all awards ceremonies are the same. Whether we’re talking about the Oscars or school sports colours awards, most attendees are willing this part to be over as quickly as possible. The few attendees who believe they’re in with a chance of winning something do their best to project an attitude of good-natured, weary boredom, while their insides churn through hope, envy, bitterness and triumph and back to the start before the shiny envelopes have even appeared.
I wondered briefly which end of that scale –Academy Awards or school colours– the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards Dinner was closest to. I was always rubbish at sport, and so far nobody had tried to throw my bag on the roof, beat me with a rolled up wet towel, or take the piss out of my green flash trainers in front of forty other people before whipping my arse repeatedly with them. And the idea of me winning something, anything, was something you could at least entertain without having to question the fundamental laws of reality. So tonight didn’t feel like my school sports award ceremony at all.
On the other hand, Brian Turner was by far the most famous person in the room.
As the PA system popped into life and the big screens lit up with the logos of our brewery sponsors, I joined the stomach-churners for the first time, practising the requisite benevolent smile for when the name that is read out is not yours, the smile that you will need to keep pasted to your face as you watch someone else walk in YOUR stead up to the stage and collect YOUR award and you can only think of how long it is before you can reasonably disappear to the toilet and punch the cubicle walls and question your whole direction in life and wonder at the futility of it all and hate yourself for even thinking for a second that you were in with a chance of winning anything. You know how it is.
“And the winner is… Pete Brown!”
As Brian Turner became the first person in history to utter those words in that order, my initial reaction was not jubilation, but profound relief. It wasn’t the main award, of course (I would need my fake smile after all, later in the evening, for that one) but it was the one I really, really had to win.
The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary is awarded for beer writing that has an international scope. This is a good idea in a country where many beer acolytes start with the belief that the best beer in the world is brewed within a couple of hours’ drive of their front door, and work cautiously out from there. The 2006 prize was awarded for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, which is still available on Amazon at a bargain price. To write it, I’d travelled forty-five thousand miles around the world, visiting nearly five hundred pubs and bars in twenty-six towns and cities in thirteen countries on four continents. It had cost me one year and thousands of pounds to plan and execute the travel, a second, much lonelier, more frugal year to write a book about my journey that was far too long and self-indulgent, and then help my editor delete about a third of it and fashion what was left into something people might conceivably pay money to read. I was the only beer writer to have attempted anything on this global scale, at least in one go. If someone else had won the beer/travel prize for, say, a fifteen hundred word article in Beers of the World magazine about a day trip to a brewery in Bamberg that makes smoked beer, interesting as that would no doubt have been, I would have had to take it as a pretty heavy hint that I wasn’t really getting this beer writing lark right. I’d even included a glowing account of my visit to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice, southern Bohemia, and their head of Public Relations was on the judging panel.
I had no idea what I was setting in motion as I stood up and walked to the podium, shook TV Brian’s hand and relieved him of a ceramic tankard with painted figures on the outside and, even more attractively, a cheque for a thousand quid on the inside, underneath the heavy pewter lid. After that, everything happened so quickly it would be months before I came to terms with it.
Relief turned to glowing satisfaction as I got back to the table, moved the cheque to my jacket pocket and filled the tankard with something dark and malty from somewhere in Belgium. The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary 2006 was the fourth prize I had ever won in my life. Two of the previous three had been writing competitions: the first was for a story inspired by a poster in the school corridor when I was ten. My gripping yarn of mutated giant hornets ridden by evil goblins thrashed the living daylights out of the runner-up, and not just because he was eight years old and the only other entrant. My last victory was the Time Out short story competition in 1994. My delight at winning my first ever computer for a story about an eclipse over London, and having it printed in a magazine people actually read, was only slightly lessened by the fact that Time Out immediately abandoned the competition in their wake of my victory, and has never done anything to encourage people to write short stories since. As I returned to my table I was optimistic: sixteen years between the first two prizes. Only twelve between the second two. My writing career was gaining momentum.
I should have been very happy indeed. There was no other sane reaction to the kudos of having won a prize with my first entry into the competition, not to mention paying off another thousand quid of the debt the writing had accrued. But as Brian reeled off the names of the winners of the other categories I’d entered, doubt crept back in.
Finally it was time for the overall prize: Beer Writer of the Year, chosen from the winners of all the categories, built up by a glowing eulogy from Alistair Gilmour, the previous year’s winner.
“This guy could have won every category he entered…”
Hey, I entered several categories! And I won one!
“He’s very funny....”
People always say they laughed at Three Sheets.
“He brings a breath of fresh air to beer writing...”
Me, me, me…
“And I’d just like to finish by illustrating this with a short piece…”
Yes? Which piece? The bit about the Hamburglar in Spain? The bloke who ran the bar in Portland Oregon for 25 years after signing the lease for a laugh while he was drunk? The bits with Billy and Declan in Galway? Which?
“…about the time he tried to convert his older brother to the delights of real ale…”
My only brother is three years younger than me and I’ve never tried to get him to drink real ale. Ben McFarland, the hardest working man in beer writing, rose to collect his second Beer Writer of the Year award in three years. I couldn’t begrudge him it. He’s a very good writer, and if I couldn’t win, he’s the person I’d want to. In fact, every category was won by someone I not only respected as a writer, but also enjoyed sharing a beer with. It was a good night.
But they were still all bastards.
Doubts started to crawl all over me like little ticks; ticks that could whisper in your ear instead of giving you a rash. They’d given me my award out of sympathy. Just because of the disturbing amount of effort I’d put in.
And you couldn’t ignore the very curious wording of the award. As I drained my tankard, I started to think very carefully about that, oh yes. You see, if you read it closely (OK some might say too closely), The Budvar Travel Bursary is specifically not awarded to “the year’s best piece of beer-themed travel writing (or travel-themed beer writing)” at all. It was actually awarded to “the writer who the judges feel could most benefit” from the money. Technically, it wasn’t rewarding my writing. It was saying I needed more practice.
Well, that was that. Three Sheets had taken two years of my life, cost me thousands, damaged my health and upset my wife. I wanted to write more books, but there was no way I could ever do anything else on such a scale. I had been trying to work on new ideas for six months, and come up with nothing. It had been my best shot.
I was having trouble communicating this to the people around my table though. They weren’t sitting with the overall winner, but they were sitting with a winner, and they were very happy for me.
“Congratulations, Pete. What are you going to spend the money on?”
“You’ll be off on your travels again now then, eh?”
“Where are you going to go next?”
“I think Liz deserves a bit of a break from the whole beer thing,” I said. “I might spend most of it on some luxury health spa retreat for us both. And then… I might write a book about... I dunno, something else.”
“No, but seriously, there’s loads of countries you didn’t go to last time aren’t there?”
“It’s a travel bursary. You’ve got to travel.”
“You could do a pub crawl across England. The longest pub crawl.”
I grinned mirthlessly. “I was going to. But a man called Ian Marchant already did. And not only did he steal my idea before I’d thought of it, he wrote a better book about it than I would have done. It is in fact called The Longest Crawl. Funny eh? It came out a month after Three Sheets. I can recommend it.”
“So where are you going to go then? What about going to the States again?”
“I need to refill my rather splendid tankard, I’m afraid.”
I was being churlish. Every person on my table was a beer-world mate, someone I was very happy to be dining with. And I’d won something. So later, after refilling my tankard too many times, disgracing myself, losing my cheque and phoning Budvar the next day to ask them to stop it and issue me with a new one, I thought about how I might satisfy the moral obligation to spend at least some of my prize money on a beery trip somewhere. I might return to Germany and visit some of the famous brewing towns I was forced to skip on my Three Sheets trip due to the Death Star-sized hangover and possible scurvy inflicted on me by Oktoberfest. Maybe write that article about the day trip to Bamberg and the smoked beers myself. Or perhaps I’d go to Finland and drink the very strong beer they still make there by fermenting wort with bread yeast inside a hollowed out spruce log before filtering it through pine needles. Either of these trips would make a nice article for one of the specialist beer magazines. I would enjoy the trip, learn something new, and the obligation would be fulfilled.
These plans made me happy for about two weeks, before flying scared out of the window of a central London pub, chased away by the dangerous and stupid idea that was about to change my life.
 The games teachers at our school knew they had an important stereotype to conform to.
 Nobody ever actually said, “And the winner is… Pete Brown!” for the first three, unfortunately.
 The other prize I won was for painting some Citadel Miniatures TM Warhammer TM Chaos Warriors TM at a model making competition in Rotherham when I was thirteen. But that’s another story – one I have no intention of writing.