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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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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Hurrah! Another new "innovation" from A-B Inbev!



Porter Tun House, Capability Green, Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.  (UK HQ of A-B Inbev.)

And I'm not even being snarky and ironic when I say 'Hurrah'.

No, the thing is, I'm starting to look forward to the press releases announcing these new launches for their sheer entertainment value.  I'm a day late with this one - but with good reason, explained below.

You may remember that in April A-B Inbev announced an "innovation that would revolutionise the beer category", which rather bizarrely turned out to be a 4% bottled Budweiser variant.  I took the piss over the hyperbole they used in announcing something that wasn't only most definitely not an innovation in the market, but wasn't new to A-B Inbev, and wasn't even new to the Budweiser brand.  

I have to say, I'm still waiting for the shockwaves of innovation to rumble through my life, having yet to spot a bottle of Bud 66 in any bar, supermarket or off-licence.

But now they've gone better than mere hyperbole, and actually seem to be entering the realms of the surreal.  I guess if you believe your own hype 100 per cent you start to live in your own world. And if you're completely immersed in your own fantasy world, I guess you can start to invent your own rules and laws of nature.  That's what seems to be happening at A-B Inbev, and it's becoming fascinating and really quite entertaining to watch.

The latest announcement is a new brand extension for Stella Artois.  After the illustrious success of Artois Bock, Eiken Artois and Peeterman Artois (remember them? Anyone? Come on, you must!  it says here that "AB InBev UK have a strong track record in successful innovations"!) A-B Inbev have announced their latest innovation: Stella Artois Black.

We all know what that must be, right?  After Budvar Dark and Asahi Black, it's quite clear that this could only be a black lager. 

I actually think this is a really good line extension for Stella.  Its premium credentials have suffered of late - to say the least - and black lagers remain a very fashionable niche.  Wherever you see Asahi Black on sale it's a priced a lot higher than the main brand, and it's clearly working.  Admittedly it's a shame Stella is not the first to market, but they'll be the first to a mass market with something different yet accessible, something that truly is, for most people, an innovation, and demonstrates that as a premium brand, Stella is, if not quite back on track, certainly groping its way to the edge of the woods.

And look, here's the font:




Nice, premium design.  It's certainly black.  The beer that comes out of that tap will definitely be black, no doubt about it.  Why am I even going on about it so much?  Oh, hang on, here's a shot of the product itself:


Yep, the innovation that is Stella Artois Black is, in fact - golden!  Just like all their other beers!!  Hey, that squirrel just talked to me!!!

According to the press release: "Matured for longer, Stella Artois Black is a golden beer, offering a rounded, full-bodied flavour and a refreshing aftertaste at 4.9% abv. Brewed in and imported from Belgium, the home of Stella Artois, Stella Artois Black will be available in limited distribution and is perfect for those special occasions when consumers want to try something new and different."

Yes, Stella Black is in fact a 4.9% premium golden lager for when consumers - not beer fans mind, not even beer drinkers, but consumers - fancy "something new and different" from Stella Artois a 5% 'premium' golden lager.

It's all rather wonderful, like when someone explains to you their absolute firm belief that fairies exist, or the Matrix is real.

The reason I'm late with this is because I replied to the PR agency who sent me the release, asking why it was called Black, when it wasn't, and why it was any different from Stella.

I just got a reply - here's what they said.

"The name Stella Artois Black denotes premium quality to our customers and consumers - as opposed to being a descriptor in terms of the beer's colour."

and on the second point:

"Stella Artois Black is matured for longer, to develop a rounded, full-bodied flavour, and has a rich, golden colour."

OK.

Now I've got the sarkiness out of my system, when you stare at it for a bit, it becomes clear what A-B Inbev are trying to do with this launch.  Stella has lost its premiumness.  Black does indeed connote premiumness in a general branding sense.  People think (not necessarily accurately) that imported lagers are better than those brewed here.  And more discerning drinkers value flavour a little more.

But here's why this is in fact a disastrous brand extension.

Black may denote quality in a general sense.  But in beer, it denotes colour.  That's been established by previous brands.  I'm sure someone somewhere has produced focus group evidence suggesting that this isn't an issue. But it is. This will cause huge confusion, upsetting people who want a black lager, driving away those who don't like the idea.

The problem with the product specifics of this beer is that, by launching it, A-B Inbev have drawn attention to all the flaws in the parent brand:
  • Ten years ago there wouldn't have been a need to launch a richer, fuller flavoured version of Stella, because Stella itself was richer and more fully flavoured than other lagers.  
  • For much of its history there was no need to mature Stella for longer, because Stella was matured longer than other lagers.  I'm trying to find out how long 'longer' is, but it would be temporally impossible to mature Black for any shorter length of time if rumours of Stella Artois' current maturation time are to be believed.  
  • Even back when it was good, 'proper imported Stella' was seen as superior to the stuff brewed here (even though blind taste tests proved this was not the case).  Black is reminding us that the main Stella brand is brewed in a shed just off the M4.  
As they list each selling point of Stella Artois Black, they remind the drinker of what Stella used to be, and how inferior the present version is.  That's why a brand launch intended to raise the premium credentials of the Artois 'family' overall will in fact do the direct opposite, actively making it painfully clear how un-premium the parent brand - the most important member in that family - has become.

Stella Black also falls between two stools in targeting terms.  The premium beer drinker who has moved on from Stella has already found other brands that are fully flavoured and genuinely imported.  The worrying lack of any product information surrounding this release - I even had to write and ask if it was an ale or a lager - shows a desire to remain vague about specifics that will not satisfy the discerning drinker.  What reason would a Budvar drinker, for example, have to switch to this?  And the silent majority who like Stella how it is now - why would they be interested in this?  It's lower in alcohol, looks expensive, and sounds like it tastes too strong.

It's fascinating to watch, like a slow motion car crash.

I once summarised the expert thinking on brand extensions for a brand manager on Stella.  That brand manager is now president of A-B Inbev UK.  I wish he'd kept hold of my powerpoint presentation - he'd have saved his company several million pounds.  Because anyone who knows the first thing about brand extensions can see that in this case, black is most appropriate as a colour of mourning.

Friday, 25 June 2010

IPAs in (OK, near) Brighton this Saturday!

It's my IPA event where Dark Star meets Hops and Glory tomorrow, in the Duke of Wellington pub, Shoreham on Sea, near Brighton, 4pm:

Here's the list of IPAs and other beers (yes, I know a lot of them aren't "proper" IPAs, but we'd all be comatose if they were) that will be on the bar:

Thornbridge, Jaipur IPA 5.9%
Nethergate, IPA 3.5%
Mighty Oak, IPA 3.5%
Rebellion, IPA 3.7%
Green Jack, Mahseer IPA 5%
Hopdaemon, Skrimshander 4.5%
RCH, Hewish IPA 3.6%
Stringers, Paint it Black IPA 5.5%

Boggarts, Rum Porter 4.6%
Crouch Vale, Blackwater Mild 3.7%
Whitstable, Oyster Stout 4.5%
Salopian, Ironbridge Stout 5%

To be confirmed:
Brewdog, Punk IPA 6.2%

And from Dark Star themselves:
IPA 6.2%
Six Hop 6.5%

Be there or be, well, sober I suppose.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Hardknott comes to the Rake

We used to call him Woolpack Dave, because he ran a pub called the Woolpack, and wrote a thoughtful blog on life as a publican, which earned him the runner-up spot to Young Dredge in Best Use of New Media at last year's Guild of Beer Writers Awards.

Yeah, he looks friendly.  And he is.  Most of the time.

But Dave also brewed in his cellar, and soon realised that making rather than selling the stuff was where his true vocation lay.  It is a statistical fact 79% of all brewers north of Birmingham are in fact called Dave, so Dave fit right in.

Now, just because he no longer runs a pub called the Woolpack and instead runs a the Hardknott Brewery, he expects us to call him Hardknott Dave instead of Woolpack Dave.  Well, I suppose it'll catch on, but he'll always be Woolpack Dave to his longtime followers.

Anyway, Dave his bringing his beers to London next week, with his long-suffering partner Woolpack/Hardknott Ann (Following them both on Twitter is like eavesdropping on an online George and Mildred style marriage sitcom.  Sitting across from them in the pub while Ann rolls her eyes at some of Dave's observations and they bicker over the remains of the packed lunches Ann lovingly prepared for their day out is like being front row in a really funny Alan Bennett play).  

Come and meet them at the Rake next week and you'll see what I mean.  They'll be there from 4pm onwards next Monday, 28th June, talking about the beers on offer. 

These consist of three ales on hand pump:
  • Fusion - a 4% ginger beer that has had chilli added to the mix.
  • Dark Energy - a 4.9% 'sort of a stout perhaps, dark and fruity dry hops' in Dave's words 
  • Continuum - their 4% 'standard' beer, dry hopped in the cask
From the cellar there'll also be Infra-Red, a 6.2% IPA (apparently 'hoppier than a bucket of frogs')

And in bottle there's Granite (Barley Wine style) and Aether Blaec (Islay whisky barrel-aged stout).  

Then only one of these beers I've tasted so far is the Aether Blaec, but it's one of the finest whisky-aged beers I've had - packed full of flavour, but incredibly smooth and welcoming.  Dave's an independently-minded bloke, and I suspect all the above beers will carry a personal streak, something that could possibly become a bit of a Hardknott trademark.  

See you there.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Come and drink some beer and buy my books!

Doing a few events this summer to promote the beer trilogy and generally have a nice time drinking beer and talking about my books. You should come along.

This Sunday, 20th June, I'm at the Cheltenham Food and Drink Festival, ostensibly talking around the theme 'In Search of the World's Best Beers. I'll have beers including Otley O-Garden (last week voted Champion Beer of Wales), Harviestoun Ola Dubh and Goose Island IPA, and I'll be reading passages from or talking about all three books. Talk starts at 1.30pm on Sunday, and if you fancy making a weekend of it you can listen to Ben McFarland talking about the world's best beers on Saturday, and after me on Sunday afternoon Adrian Tierney-Jones talking about Cotswold beers to try before you die.

I'm spending next weekend in Brighton and surrounding areas, courtesy of the fine people at Dark Star. At 4pm on Saturday 26th we'll be converging on the Duke of Wellington pub on Brighton Road in Shoreham for a talk about Hops and Glory and IPA.  What better excuse to tuck into a dazzling array of IPAs, both 'genuine' and 'modern'?

There will be more events to be announced.  Another one already confirmed for later in the summer, I'm incredibly proud to have been asked to do the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  I'll be there on Tuesday 24th August at 8.30pm.

Books beer and - hopefully - balmy sunshine.  Can life be any better?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

It's a dirty job, but...


Congrats to Steve Williams on being named London's official ale taster last week!

I was one of the judges, and he thoroughly deserved it.  Find out more (and see a news video of me looking utterly knackered after Stokey Lit Fest) right here.

Steve already blogs, but part of his new role is to basically go around London drinking beer and writing about it.  And he gets paid for this.

It's going to become an annual competition.  If you like the sound of the job and fancy yourself as Steve's successor, bookmark http://www.londonaletaster.co.uk/ and look out for details.

The Ugly Game

It's difficult to figure out what to be most disgusted by in the whole Robbie Earle world cup tickets farrago:

The fact that he sold tickets he had been allocated for friends and family?

The fact that ITV is allocated thousands of free tickets anyway?  Why on earth does Robbie Earle need forty tickets for a Holland Denmark game in the first place?

The fact that when Fifa Vice President Jack Warner did the same thing in 2006 - netting himself $1million - he kept his job?

The fact that Earle's naughtiness only came to light because he sold his tickets to forty women who used them to stage an 'ambush marketing' campaign for Bavaria Beer?

Fifa says these women are illegal. (Pic stolen from the Guardian)

No.  Winner in this whole unpleasant business has to go to the fact that these women were surrounded by forty stewards, ejected from the stadium, and held by Fifa for several hours in what they call a 'facility', for the crime of looking quite hot and wearing orange mini skirts.

Budweiser is, once again, the official beer sponsor of the World Cup.  This means Bud is the only beer on sale in and around the stadia (not quite as offensive in South Africa as it was in Germany in 2006, but still pretty offensive).  It also means that Budweiser is the only beer signage allowed anywhere near the games.

That's why in 2006, Bavaria issued Dutch fans with orange trousers with 'Bavaria' written on them.  It was a cheeky bit of guerilla marketing, and Fifa decided they didn't like it.  The Dutch fans were told they had to strip and watch the game trouserless, or go home.  This astonishing infringement of human rights became headline news, giving Bavaria infinitely more free marketing than if paying fans had just been allowed to wear what they liked to watch their national team.  When I googled 'Budweiser World Cup' later that year, the first page of hits were all newspaper articles and blogs criticising Fifa's bully boy tactics on behalf of Budweiser.  The official Bud site was way down the page.

Fair enough, A-B Inbev forked out a lot of money and in return deserve not to have any other beer advertised in the stadia.  But your right to exclusive marketing surely does not extend to telling private individuals what they are and are not allowed to wear.

But this week saw an unrepentant Fifa and Budweiser taking this abuse to even higher levels.  Orange is the Dutch national colour.  It's quite reasonable to expect fans of the national team to wear it.  Unlike the trousers last year, this time there was no branding, no mention of the beer at all, anywhere on the garments in question.  And yet these girls were ejected from the game and held against their will for several hours afterwards.

Let's be realistic: even though Bavaria have denied involvement, of course it was a marketing stunt: why else would forty identically dressed women turn up in one block?  But it's a brilliant stunt: once again, Bavaria has had acres of free press coverage, and Fifa and Bud have been made to look really quite sinister and scary.

But that's because they are.  We all know it's a marketing stunt, but it doesn't break any rules.  The rules prohibit competitive beer branding around the stadium.  There was no branding.  End of.

As the Bavaria spokesperson says, Fifa don't have a trade mark on the colour orange.  This is an astonishing abuse of human rights - admittedly a trivial one in the context of South Africa's recent history, but still deeply disturbing, because it's all about protecting the commercial rights of a beer brand.  No brand should have the power to do something like this.  If Fifa and Bud are to remain consistent in this policy, we should expect them to eject and detain any England fan with a St George's cross flag, T-shirt or face paint, because this is a device used extensively in marketing by Bombardier, a competitive beer brand to Budweiser.  That would be utterly absurd, outrageous and unacceptable of course.  But then so is this.

How A-B Inbev think this ugly, bullying behaviour helps enhance Budweiser's reputation is beyond me.

UPDATE 17TH JUNE
So it now appears that the two women who organised the stunt were arrested and face criminal charges.  Let's be clear here: they are guilty of getting women to wear orange dresses at a football game.  And they could face jail time for that.  So FIFA and A-B Inbev are now giving their rival billions in free publicity.  They're making themselves look sinister to an unparalleled degree - as brands, Nestle, Halliburton, Goldman Sachs look positively cuddly next to this lot.  And something that allegedly breaks the terms of a brand licensing deal (it doesn't, in fact) has been wilfully confused for something that breaks the criminal laws of a state.  Let's be clear: the precedent this creates could see you arrested for wearing branded merchandise of your choice if you're wearing it in what a corporation - not the police, not the state, but an unelected, unrepresentative private company - deems the wrong place.  I don't know about you, but I'm scared.

My A-B Inbev boycott starts right now.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Stirring things up in the Publican

I've had a busy month in The Publican, the pub trade mag for which I write features and a monthly column.  If you don't run a pub you might not see it, so I occasionally provide links here in case anyone is interested in the topics.

Firstly, I wrote a piece about how pubs are the best places to watch the world cup - often better than being at the game itself (especially in the face of relentless vuvuzelas) - and there's even academic research to back this up.  Research that states the bleeding obvious mind, but solid academic research nonetheless.

Then I got angry about people who pretend that pubs aren't pubs.  It's been a few months now since the new chairman of Pub Company Mitchells & Butler insisted a city analyst referred to the company's pubs not as pubs but as 'licensed catering outlets', but he's not the only culprit, and this is a viewpoint I've been mulling over for a while.

Finally, I totally lost my rag over the news - sorry, very strong rumours - that A-B Inbev is about to sell Bass.  I love that they're getting rid of it - or rather, I did until I discovered the breathtakingly cynical terms of the deal.  A-B Inbev have still refrained from commenting on the story, but sources inside the company say the deal is 'common knowledge'.  I've never been angrier about anything in the beer industry.  I've taken the piss out of them before, but this move is beyond piss-taking: if and when it is confirmed, report back here for the official start of my 'Boycott A-B Inbev' campaign.

(That last sentence may be a joke.  But I'm not entirely sure.)

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The White Hart @StokeyLitFest

It's taken me a week to recover from the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  Four hours sleep a night for five days, phenomenal stress, unimaginable peaks of pride and delight.  Written up as 'The new Hay' by none other than The Times, we'll be back bigger and better next year.

My events went well - both sold out.  In the flavour event we had a foodie crowd rather than a beer crowd, and doing a beer tasting caught them completely off-guard.  Otley O-Garden turned on thirty-odd people to beer, and the idea that you could taste beer properly, for the first time.  It's a powerful weapon.  That event also earned me my first ever piece in The Times - a World XI of beers for the World Cup, which ran on Thursday but doesn't seem to have made it to the online edition.

Me in our pubs talk

Then on Sunday we had the pubs event in the White Hart.  I got shivers running up and down my spine as I read Orwell's Moon Under Water.  Tim Bradford proved he's a beer writer struggling to get out from within a successful narrative non-fiction author when he read pub reviews from all three of his books, none of which is ostensibly about beer and pubs.  And Paul Ewen very kindly did a review of the pub we were sitting in, based on a visit a few weeks before.  It was a brilliant introduction to Paul's surrealist style, and we talked afterwards about how the pub - with all its Man Walks into a Pub jokes - often demands a surrealist response in a way any other public space or retail establishment simply cannot.

Paul has very kindly given me permission to post his review below.  If you enjoy it, and if you like pubs, please buy his book from Amazon, right here.


The White Hart,
69 Stoke Newington High Street,
London N16 8EL
Nearest Train Station:  Dalston Kingsland

It was a glorious sunny afternoon as I made my way along Stoke Newington High Street, and the dazzling light reflected off the windows of passing cars, and from the spectacles of orthodox Jewish men. Some of the shops I passed were painted in bright and gay colours, to match the cheerful day, and I found my spirits lifted by their festive and perky tones. But the dark exterior of the White Hart pub was, in comparison, rather ominous and foreboding. It reminded me of an old scary house at the top of a windy hill, with bolts of lightning zig-zagging all about it. 

On one of the front windows was a paper sign. On the sign was an arrow and a message that read:
DON’T USE THIS DOOR, USE THAT DOOR.

Following these directions to the appropriate entrance, I proceeded into the White Hart, as if entering a dark purple storm cloud, full to bursting.

It was raining inside. It was pelting it down. I was immediately struck by a flurry of hard wet drops, so raising my hands like a wig-wam above my eyes, I peered about in a search for dry shelter, but there was none. My hair and eyebrows were quickly drenched, and my mouth was like a plughole in a bath, surrounded by the wet wispy hairs of my silly little beard. Resigning myself to the elements, I ran like a person with a limp in both legs towards the large central bar, which lay just a short distance ahead, past some outlying tables and chairs. The barmaid was in good spirits despite everything, and the bucketing water gave her the distinct appearance of an Afghan Hound beneath the ocean.

A pool table to the right of the bar resembled a large birdbath, and a few young fellows were engaged in a match with the red and yellow balls, persevering atop the waterlogged felt. When a ball was struck, the sound it made resembled that of a plump duck landing on a pond. Next to the pool table was a large old fireplace, and this was stacked high with round logs of soggy firewood.

The rain water plop-plopped into my 3 pints of English ale, and when I raised one of these to my mouth, some of the drips ran off my nose and fell into my drink.

After leaving the bar with my ales, I found a square wooden table not far from the entrance door. Foolishly, I took out my handkerchief to give my chair a wipe, before realising my error as the rain beat about my head. To cover my embarrassment, I quickly hid my face behind the menu on the table, which the management had very sensibly chosen to laminate.

A large droplet-shaped light fitting made quite a show in the front bar, with many individual glass pieces sparkling in the heavy downpour. The bulbs and sockets were fizzing and sparking, and steady wisps of smoke were escaping from the fuses, but nobody seemed to mind. Making the best of the conditions, I tapped my flat soles on the watery floorboards, creating a loud ‘slapping’ noise. As I slapped away, I quietly sung along to a random tune that had formed within my head:
Every Sha-la-la-la
Every Wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they're startin' to sing's
So fine.

At an adjacent table, two large lads had been engaged in earnest conversation, and my singing had somehow managed to disturb them. Raising a wet hand, I took the opportunity to engage in conversation.

“What about this weather, ay?” I exclaimed.

“What?”

“I was just saying, what about this weather, ay”?

The two men shook their heads and turned angrily back to their conversation. Feeling small, and a little bit stupid, I reached for my satchel and fumbled about inside for my pub review notebook. By huddling over the top of it, I thought I could spare the open pages from the torrential, pouring rain. But it was a thankless task, and the squiggly black ink soon resembled dangly goldfish poo, which is dragged around a bowl, like an advertising message behind a light aircraft.

The pint I had been drinking had quickly refilled with rainwater, and my other two drinks were also being diluted and watered down. It really was a ridiculous state of affairs. But there was no use fighting it. I was in England, and if there was one thing I knew, you had to roll with the weather. So instead, I laughed. I laughed aloud! I laughed aloud and said,

“Ah, heck!”

And then…I poured each pint over the top of my head, one after the other. There. As if it mattered!

Well, the bar manager of The White Hart came over very shortly after that, and I noticed his shirt was very crisp and very smart.

“Right”, he said. “You, out. Go on, out. And you can forget about coming back ‘cos you’re bloody barred.”

Outside, on Stoke Newington High Street, the sun continued to blaze. It was very bright and very hot, and as I trudged away, my sponge-like shoes left behind little squelchy puddles.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hops and Glory: Officially back on sale today!


Hope you haven't minded this week of relentless self-promotion too much, but this is the final post in the series: today is both the first day of Stokey Lit Fest, and the official launch day of the Beer Trilogy in newly jacketed, beautifully produced paperbacks.

So far I've discussed the revisions to Man Walks into a Pub and tried to offer a reappraisal of Three Sheets to the Wind.  So what can I tell you about Hops and Glory?

If you're a regular reader, probably not much more than you already know.  There are no changes to the text (apart from a few name spelling corrections and sorting out the sequencing of some footnotes).

But in its own way, this is the most exciting release of the lot.

Hops and Glory was the first book of mine to be released in hardback.  This was a big status thing for me.  But the thing is, a lot of people don't like hardbacks.  They're big and heavy and expensive, and I know a lot of people have very weak wrists.  So today is an exciting day for you!  The paperback edition is MUCH cheaper, MUCH lighter and MUCH smaller!  It's way better for reading on the beach, in the bath, in bed, on the bus - in fact, anywhere!

The paperback edition of Hops and Glory - you know it makes sense!

I'll be signing copies of all three of the Beer Trilogy at Stoke Newington Literary Festival this weekend.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

What’s so great about the Great British pub? Stokey Lit fest, Sunday 6th June

What's so great about pubs?

We all know the answer to that one, of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have the discussion all over again.

Sunday afternoon will be the culmination of lots of threads. The Beer Widow decided to organise a literary festival when I was reading Hops and Glory at lots of them last summer, and we realized that of all the places that have LitFests, our local manor, Stoke Newington, should have one, because of its rich and multi-layered literary history (Stokey residents invented feminism, sci-fi, horror, even novels, if you allow yourself to go with the flow of local history).

When we agreed that she would go ahead with the idea, I always thought it would be nice to do an event in my local pub. The White Hart has a good function room upstairs that often hosts great comedy nights, and I launched Three Sheets to the Wind there.

But it would be wrong of me to simply do another lot of readings from my books, like I do at other literary festivals. I want to use the occasion, the fact that we’re organizing it, to do something different, creating an event that you won’t get anywhere else.

So we’ve taken the topic of pubs – of locals – and made something special out of it. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve become increasingly fixated by Orwell’s essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’. 
Orwell with a tea cup.  I bet it's got beer in it.

So I’m going to kick things off by reading that, instead of my own work. I think that one essay says more about pubs, more effectively, than I’ve been able to do in all the many thousands of words I’ve written about beer and pubs. I want to hold it up to the light, while we sit in the pub, and see if it’s still a useful yardstick to measure the perfect boozer.

Then Tim Bradford tells us what he loves about pubs. Tim is a writer in the vein of people like Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins – fond memories of growing up, reflections on British culture, a story that works because although it’s personal, its shared by many of us. He’s written about growing up in smalltown England, and of course the pub is a vital component of that. 


As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to hear someone who is not a beer writer talking about pubs – they spot things the rest of us sometimes miss. The Glasgow Herald says "He comes across as the kind of guy you'd love to have a drink or three with." So that's what we're going to do.

Finally we have an absolute treat from Paul Ewen. If you like pubs, and you live in or around London, and you don’t own a copy of his London Pub Reviews, you’re even more insane than he is. 


They start off as any pub review does, but increasingly descend into surreal madness. I’ve always loved the pub partly because it gives licence to the irreverent, absurdist streak that runs through British culture. Paul is a Kiwi – this streak is foreign to him – but he’s fallen in love with it, warped it and presented it back to us in a way that makes it alien to us too, like a picture that’s run and blurred, a pub on an acid trip. 

I asked Paul if he would come and do one of his reviews on the White Hart, and he has done. Fuck knows what he’s written, what he thinks happened there. I have no idea what he’s going to say. But he will unveil this review during our event – a unique thing – we’ll be sitting in the pub he’s describing, in a review that has never been seen before. Trust me, it’ll be like no other pub review you’ve seen. Steven hall, author of the amazing The Raw Shark texts, says Paul is "A surrealist's dream, a landlord's nightmare!" I’m just worried we might get chucked out or even beaten up by the time he’s finished. 

Things will be eased along by free beer – Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted – kindly donated by Harviestoun Brewery. Buy their beers. They really are rather wonderful. I’m not just saying that because they sponsored the event – I asked them to sponsor the event because of how much I love the beers.

The event kicks off at 3pm on Sunday and tickets are available – until 5pm today – from here, and after that at Stoke Newington Bookshop, the festival information and box office point at the library, and - if there's any room left - on the door of the venue.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Three Sheets to the Wind

My second book is the difficult middle child of the beer trilogy.


At the time of writing this post, Hops and Glory is number 3 in Amazon's beer books, Man Walks into a Pub number 7, and Three Sheets number 39.  That's pretty typical of the relationship between the three.

It's simply never had the same level of commercial success or beery acclaim of the other two, and so I start to think of it as being not as good as the other two.

But it is.

I re-read it recently expecting to be embarrassed by it, and I wasn't.  It is by some way the funniest book I've written so far.  It hangs together as a concept.  It has a broad appeal way beyond beer geeks, yet hopefully still manages to teach the geek a new thing or two.

The true story behind Three Sheets was varnished a little for the book.  My editor decided the first draft of the first chapter set the wrong tone, and I think he was right: a conversation between publisher and writer along the lines of 'why don't you write a travel book?' doesn't really set the right tone in the book itself.  But that conversation did happen, so I've decided to publish the first draft of the first chapter - something only me, my former editor and the Beer Widow have read before now - which I'll cut and paste below.

Just before I do that, if you don't know the book, the premise is as follows.  After writing Man Walks into a Pub, a history of beer in Britain, it kind of made sense to do an international comparison of beer drinking.  There are two ways I describe the book, depending on who I'm talking to: the laddish way and the cultural studies way. Both are equally true.

The laddish way is that I wanted to go on the world's biggest pub crawl.  I drank in over 300 bars in 26 cities in 13 different countries.  As a self confessed 'crap traveller', most of the humour comes at my own expense.  You'd never believe the person who struggles to negotiate getting on a bus just outside Dublin is the same person who took a barrel of beer on a three month sea voyage to India.

The cultural studies description is that it's a search for the meaning of beer.  I was struck by the beer drinking moment, the significance of it, the uniqueness of it compared to other drinks.  Also, I was writing at a time when binge drinking hysteria took off in Britain, when everyone in the media was making a simple, causal link between the availability and consumption of beer, and anti-social behaviour among people who had been drinking.  This didn't make sense if you consider that there are many countries that drink more than the UK but don't seem to share our problems of anti-social behaviour.  So I wanted to see if there was such a thing as a universal 'meaning of beer', or whether drinking culture is shaped more by national cultural traits and characteristics.

Practising what sociologists euphemistically call 'participant observation research', I attempted to drink how the locals drink in each country I visited, and discovered that the answer is a bit of both.

There is a universal meaning of beer.  The deep rhythms and meanings of beer drinking - the fellowship, bonding and democracy it represents - are both universal and timeless.

But the way in which we drink - the styles of beer, where we drink it, how and it what servings - are culturally determined by the country in question.

In an age of globalisation, many of these local traits are disappearing as cultures homogenise.  In places like Japan, Spain and China, I felt like this was a 'last chance to see' type book as global giants invaded.

People who have read the book have really enjoyed it.  I even get letters and emails from people who use it as a travel guide in some of the cities I visited.  So if you haven't given it a go yet - and the sales figures suggest you haven't - please give it a try!

Here's that never-seen-before original opening, rightly deleted from the book.  It's more travelly than beery, in fact it's hardly beery at all.  Hope you enjoy it.  I'll break it up with some of the photos from my travels.


One: “Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you…”


St. Andrews


“Tell me.  Do you trAAARGHvel?”

The word echoes off the walls, those capital letters really giving it some force.  The speaker curls his mouth around the word, performing a passionate verbal cunnilingus that really shouldn’t be seen or heard in public.  His lips are wet, and I swear his eyes glaze and unfocus as he barks it.

He’s been at it fairly constantly since we arrived four days ago, at the start of Fresher’s Week.  I’ve ignored him until now, having very little to say to a braying, ginger Sloane Ranger.  But he won’t go away.  Every night after dinner he sits there in the corner of the hall of the residence common room, telling stories about how crap the buses are in Afghanistan, how charming the natives in Pakistan, how amAAAYZing the sunsets in Goa.  And every night, the gaggle of first-year girls surrounding him grows larger.  After three nights talking to cumbersome blokes studying chemistry and a strange little man called Simon Dresner who describes himself as a “Sherlock Holmes enthusiast” (yes, in those exact words), and who the porters keep trying to throw out because they think he’s a child from the local school, it’s become clear to me that the only way I’m going to meet any of these rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced girls is by joining them in Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller’s orbit.  So here I am, hovering on the fringes of his audience, when he interrupts an anecdote about a gourd to subject me to the full honk. 

“Tell me.  Do you trAAARGHvel?”

Of course, he already knows the answer.  He can see it in my eyes.  His apparent attempt to include me in the conversation is really no more than a strategy to keep me out.  And what’s this “tell me” at the front all about?  For Morrissey’s sake: only chat show hosts, people in TV programmes like Crossroads and Howard’s Way and utter twats start a sentence with “tell me.” 

Do I travel?  I’m eighteen years old and in my first term at university.  And it’s 1986: A-levels are difficult, gap years are a privilege not a right, and we can remember when it was all fields around here.  Oh, and I’ve just finished growing up in Barnsley, a Yorkshire town whose residents are unlikely to be famous for their spirit of adventure any time soon.

I have hammered my student railcard over the summer, but I’ve got just enough sense to realise that’s not what the Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller means.  I’ve never even been on a plane, unless you count the time we got to fly in a glider when I was in scouts.  And that was in North Yorkshire.  When I was thirteen I went by bus to France on an exchange scheme, and lived for three weeks in Pas de Calais with Bruno, who managed to embody every negative stereotype the British have of the French before I even knew what they were.  I’ll admit I earned a bit of kudos back at school by bringing back the news that the French had toilets called pissoirs, a fantastic triumph because I said ‘piss’ in French class and the teacher had to congratulate me.  But apart from that, I’ve never been abroad in my life.  I’m in Scotland now, and apart from Bruno’s house it’s as far away as I’ve ever been from the place I called home until a few days ago.  I don’t even have a passport.
They like their beer REALLY cold in Sydney 

Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller knows all this of course.  I’ve never met him before, but he can tell.  And he knows I’m trying to muscle in on his action.  He’s counting on me saying something like “Travel?  Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you.”  But I’m determined that he will not humiliate me in front of the rosy-cheeked girls.[1] 

In this one question, I learn my first lesson at university: never trust a Second Year who comes back “to help out” during Fresher’s Week.  They’re after one thing.  They didn’t get it when it was their turn, so they’re using their extra experience to steal it from you now.  But this realisation has come too late.  “No, I don’t travel,” I smile back.  You smug cock, I add telepathically. 

For a second, the girls acknowledge my existence.  But it’s all calculated.  Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller looks at me with disappointment, a little sympathy, a smidgen of disgust, a soupcon of loathing.  Apart from anything else, he’s placed my accent.  A moment later I will cease to exist, not just for him, but for the whole group.  “ANYway, as I was saying, these gourds…” 

I wander off into the hallway, to gaze – again – at the notice board crammed with appeals from an array of societies that are desperate for me to join them.  Three days later, Steve From Luton, who dresses all in black and never goes to dinner or sits in the common room afterwards, hears The Smiths moaning from my room while he’s walking past.  He pops his head around the door and we start talking about music.  Pretty soon, Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller is forgotten along with the cumbersome medics (though sadly Simon Dresner endures for the next four years), and the rosy-cheeked girls are dropped in favour of the whey-faced indie chicks.  And that’s the end of my interest in travelling.
An 'Ice Cold in Alex' moment in Barcelona 

A lot happens in my next few years at St. Andrews University.  I become lead singer of the uni’s only punk cabaret band (with Luton Steve on rhythm guitar, The Other Steve on bass, Andrew the Bad on drums[2], and Iain ‘Bonker’ Jameson, who used to jam with Wet Wet Wet before they were famous, our secret-if-rather-unstable weapon on lead guitar.)  I run for office in the Student’s Union, and win because no-one can really be that bothered about standing against me, seeing how I seem to want it so much.  I get to know Nicholas Parsons so well that he feels unembarrassed about me seeing him in his underpants.  And after putting my Bono-at-Live-Aid mullet out of its abject misery, I even start to enjoy some success with girls of both the rosy-cheeked and whey-faced-indie-chick variety. 

But the travel situation never changes.  I get nervous going to Luton to visit Steve.[3]  Many of my new middle-class friends enrol with BUNAC and jet off to be handlers at North American summer camps, or inter-rail across Europe.  Back in Barnsley, my non-uni mates (who are now working and driving cars) start going on Club 18-30 holidays.  They come back with stories of the exoticism of the food, the beer, the women and, especially, the contents of their arses.  Meanwhile, I spend summers back home in a village where pit closures have removed not only most of the jobs, but also the whole point of the community existing, and get deservedly laughed at in Barnsley Job Centre when I ask if there are any summer jobs for students.  Or I stay in St. Andrews, becoming more deeply involved in the Union and working behind the bar in our favourite pub, the Niblick, my skinny frame blissfully unaware of the impact this will ultimately have. 

And all the time, at the back of my mind, there’s this assumption that people who Travel can do so because they have skills that I don’t yet possess.  Skills like being able to start conversations with people you don’t know.  Skills like being able to walk into a travel agent’s.  I really don’t think I’m scared of flying or anything – I’d dearly love to fly.  What I’m scared of is being rumbled as the gauche, nervous bumpkin from Barnsley I’ll always remain.  Travel simply doesn’t make it onto my agenda.

Four years later I eventually get my first passport.  I’m going out with a girl from Canada, and it’s serious.  I’m going to spend six weeks of the summer living with her family.  She’s already gone home, so I’m going to buy a plane ticket on my own, go to Heathrow on my own (via Luton, obviously – you have to take these things one step at a time) and get on a Boeing 747 and travel six thousand miles.  On my own.  I’ve just turned twenty two years old.  How brave am I?
Listen, they know why this makes us snigger. 

“I’m sorry, this flight is full.”

“It’s WHAT?!” 

Thinking back to this incident, trying to recreate it, I find it impossible to re-inhabit my twenty two year-old self.  Instead I see myself from a third-person perspective.  I’m looking down from the ceiling of Heathrow Terminal Four at a wet-behind-the-ears student wearing a cheap Burton suit and a bleached blond flat-top haircut.  His face crumples.  He’s trying to look stern and angry, but the smart money is on him bursting into tears.  Perhaps at the time I had left my body, as people do when they’re close to death.

My briefcase clatters to the floor.[4]  I start to sweat into my suit.[5] 

“I’m sorry sir, but it is policy that we overbook these flights, and sometimes when we’re very busy, seats are over-allocated.”

This makes no sense at all.  I’m here precisely two and a half hours before check-in, as requested.  I’ve bought and paid for my ticket (well, my Dad has).  Jill will be waiting for me at Vancouver airport.  (Not yet obviously, but by the time this plane lands.  I hope.)  I have to be able to get on it. 

“So what we’ll have to do is upgrade you to Business Class,” finishes the check-in lady.

I’m back in my body with a bump.  Obviously I’ve never heard of this practice before, but I like it.  On my first ever proper flight, I am a transatlantic Business Class traveller.

Later, people will tell me that however unlikely it sounds, it was probably the suit that did it.  Sometimes they do have to upgrade people, and they choose those who look the part.  The main reason for this – I know now – is so that upgrades are not too obvious and insulting to the people who’ve paid several thousand pounds to sit in Business Class legitimately.

“I got upgraded!”  I say to the two middle-aged businessmen sitting next to me, as we taxi out to the runway.  “My first ever flight and I’m in Business Class!  I’ve never even been on a plane before!  Have I fastened this seatbelt properly?  Oh look – socks and a toothbrush!  Do you have to pay for these?  NO?  Fantastic!  Ooh yes, a glass of wine please.  No, not champagne, I couldn’t afford – what, that’s free as well?  Oh, go on then!  Yeah, through the student travel service I got this ticket for three hundred and fifty quid.  Well, my Dad lent me the money.  And I’m in Business Class!  Sitting next to real Businessmen!  This is the first time I’ve ever flown you know.  Upgraded just like that!  Can you believe it?  Yes, I know I’m very lucky.  Yep, I certainly do appreciate it.  What?  You want to watch the film now so you have to put on your headphones?  Oh, okay then.  That’s strange; the film on my set doesn’t seem to have started yet…” 

I don’t know who those guys were, but to this day I have never been upgraded again.[6] 
Look, it's true (Oktoberfest) 

Over the next ten years I do start to earn a few air miles.  A few more trips to Canada, two honeymoons (don’t ask), three package holidays and a smattering of business trips later, my passport has some stamps in its pages.  But I never compete in the destination point-scoring of my work colleagues.  I never holiday in places like Guatemala or Mauritius, or even Ibiza.  I never trek.  I never backpack.  I never eat anything I can’t pronounce. 

I certainly never Travel like my friend Allan, who after graduating does Peace Studies in America during the first Gulf War, almost dies of the irony, and recuperates by going to Central America to teach English, where huge floods wipe his village clean away, and he has to climb trees when he wants to go to the toilet, finding a comfortable branch at a safe height from which to do his business. 

I never Travel like my friend Alastair, who starts at St. Andrews after spending a year in Pakistan.  The habit of haggling over everything from big scarves to the price of a pint doesn’t endear him to the local barmen, and he achieves the dubious fame of being regarded as tight even by his fellow Scots.  After graduation he goes to teach English in Cairo.  Three years later, the day he leaves his apartment to return home, he’s clearing out his room and realises that if he’d had his bed where his wardrobe was, he’d have woken up to a view of the pyramids every morning. 

No.  All my travel is strictly lower case, safely looked after either by holiday reps or office PAs.  Holidays are full of transfers to and from the airport, all-inclusive deals and vouchers that need to be given to nice people in slightly patronising uniforms.  Business travel means someone else doing all the booking, then giving me envelopes stuffed with tickets, currency and detailed itineraries.

This is my secret.  A decade and a bit after university, I’ve been to America and Africa and Hong Kong, and I count myself very lucky to have done so.  But by today’s standards, I am a Crap Traveller.  I hear they don’t even let you into university these days unless you’ve caught dysentery in Phuket or planted mango trees in Kerala.  Small children chide me for my naivety about the world and tell me I need to get out more.  I remain the same ingĂ©nue the honking Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller saw straight through nearly twenty years ago.  And nothing will change that.
 Night out down Shanghai


London


 “You should write a travel book, you know.”

If we listed all the possible things Jason, my editor, could have said to me, I hope you now realise that this particular sentence would rank some way below “You’ve won a Pulitzer”.

We’re having lunch together, celebrating the end of hostilities on my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, a ‘sociable history’ of beer.  I’ve finally written it and rewritten it to his satisfaction, it’s printed, and it’s ‘selling in’ to book shops better than we dared hope.  It will never cause J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown any sleepless nights, but it looks like the publishers won’t lose money on it.  And that means they’ll entertain the idea of me writing another book for them.  We’re talking about what this book could be, and I’m wondering if this travel nonsense is just a desperate attempt to change the subject from the various ideas I just finished proposing[7].  But looking at Jason now, I realise he’s been thinking about this seriously.

He’s nodding and chewing thoughtfully, oblivious to my incredulity.  I try to frame a response, but it takes a while.

“Umm… why?” I eventually manage. 

“Well.  Travel writing is really hot just now.  Not guidebooks, you know, proper travel writing.  Stuff that’s engaging and funny.  You’d be good at that”

“Right.”

“You need a twist,” he continues.  “You can’t just write a straight destination guide.  There’s got to be a hook.  An angle.  And, well, beer seems like a good angle.  It fits.  And no-one else has done it.”

Suddenly it makes sense.  I start to get that upgrade feeling again.  I need to choose my next words very carefully.  “So… you’re saying that you will pay for me to go around the world drinking beer and writing about it?” 

“No.  Of course not.”

“Oh.”

“What I’m saying is, if you pay for yourself to go around the world drinking beer, or get someone else to pay you to do it, we’ll almost definitely publish the result.”

Almost definitely?”

“Go away.  Think of an angle.”

“Around the world in eighty pints?”

“No.  Something interesting.”

“OK.”

“Perhaps you could get a TV company to pay for you to go round and do a programme off the back of it.”

“Excellent idea!  Do you have any contacts we could talk to about that?”

“No.”

“Ah.”
The day I fell in love with America

A few weeks later, I resign from my job without another to go to, so I can divide my time between working freelance and taking unpaid time off to focus on finding the hook.  I phone my Mum and tell her the news: I’m going to be a travel writer.  She’s silent for a few seconds. 

“Are you sure about this, luv?” she asks eventually.


[1] I’m perfectly capable of doing this myself without any help from him, as I will shortly demonstrate in tonight’s three-legged pub crawl.
[2] Trust me, that’s as much as you want to hear about Andrew the Bad.
[3] Of course, we all still do.  But in the late 1980s the nervousness is because they have posh accents, there are proper curry restaurants, and Steve’s dad does a job that means he has to wear a suit.
[4] Looking back, I’m really not sure why I’m carrying a briefcase.  I think it was a 21st birthday present from my parents, who had by now resigned themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to come back to work in the carpet factory, and were symbolically showing me that they understood I was now an upper-class twit, or at least a middle-class twat.  But I’m going on holiday.  Apart from my recent sabbatical in the Student Union, I don’t have a job.  But there it is.  I can see it now.  It’s definitely a briefcase.  It probably has 2000AD comics and copies of Melody Maker inside.
[5] I remember why this was though.  I had no idea what people wore on planes.  My only frame of reference was the seventies Airport movie franchise, and in every film the men all wore brown suits.  So a week before the trip, I went to Burton’s and splashed out sixty quid.  Thinking about it, perhaps the briefcase was just a misguided attempt to complete the look.  After all, I had to make a bit of extra effort to compensate for the fact that I’d compromised on collar width and tie kipperness. 
[6]In fact I’m the only person I know ever to have been travelling on a fully paid-for business class ticket and be downgraded to economy on a long-haul flight, which happened to me eleven years later.  There’s karma for you.
[7] Which, for our purposes here, we can refer to as: 1. “Been done”; 2. “Not really sure what the hook is’; 3. “Hmmm…” [uncomfortable silence] and 4.  “A novel you say?  Oh look!  There’s the sales director from Harper Collins!  Hi Jim!”