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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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Monday, 31 January 2011

Don Younger - a beer world legend


Don Younger RIP



Last night the brewing world lost one of its best, someone who summed up everything – every last little wave and particle – that is good about the world of beer and pubs.  And that’s no hyperbole – anyone who ever shared a drink with Don Younger could tell you what those qualities are, and how Don encapsulated them.

I was introduced to Don when I was in his hometown, Portland Oregon, while researching my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind.  If I tell you that I have read out the bit about our encounter at every single event at which I was promoting the book, that might give you the first inkling as to what a great man he was.  It was one of the highlights of the book – one of the funniest passages, but also one of the most revelatory about the nature of beer.

I was in Portland because it’s the heart of North American craft beer.  You might now say that’s San Diego, or wherever has produced this month’s latest extreme whisky aged Imperial stout, but Portland still has more craft breweries per capita than anywhere else (I think), and its brewers and drinkers perfectly capture the cooperation, camaraderie and conviviality that make beer great – uniquely great.

And Don was its Godfather, its benign inspiration, in his passion, his kindness, and more than anything else, his legendary drinking prowess.

The story I was told is that he bought the Horse Brass Pub after a night on the piss.  He woke up the next morning clutching a piece of paper bearing his signature, confirming that he was the new owner of the pub. He’d never wanted to run a pub, and had no memory of signing the paper.  He could of course have blamed the booze and negotiated his way out of it.  But he always lived by a strict code: if you make a decision or promise while drunk, you either follow through with it when sober, or you give up drinking.  And Don never gave up drinking.

Under his leadership, the Horse Brass became the hub of the emerging craft beer scene, attracting beer loving locals, many of whom went on to start celebrated breweries.  No one in that brewing scene speaks of him with anything other than love.

Don was 68 or 69, and had a fall last week in which he injured his shoulder.  According to reports, this led to multiple complications, and he died around midnight last night, West Coast time.

I’ll leave it there.  I only met Don the one time and I’ll leave the proper obituaries to the people who were lucky enough to know him well.

But on the basis of one meeting, he was one of my favourite people in the beer world.  Even if you didn’t know who he was till now, take a while to read about him, and raise a glass of your favourite US craft beer to him tonight.  After all, there’s a good chance it may not have existed without his influence.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

January Video Blog - It's Festival Time!

Went to the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester last week, and had a rather marvellous time.

The result is a video with me and Peter Amor - he gets to talk to people and I get to drink a lot of beer.  I almost manage to hold it together to the end...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Britain's beer tax problem

Don't have time to really write much about this today but I received an interesting press release from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) this morning.

As the budget approaches, the beer industry is bracing itself for yet another duty increase.  Duty on beer increased by 26% between 2009 and 2010, and is due to carry on increasing.  The Tories have committed themselves to sticking with Alastair Darling's policy of increasing duty on beer by 2% more than the rate of inflation.  Which means that this year, just a couple of months after a 2.5% VAT increase, we look set for an increase of 5.7%.

Beer volumes are already in steep decline.  The plight of pubs is exacerbated because supermarkets continue to absorb the increases and keep prices low - because they can afford to lose money on beer to get people into the store - while pubs can't afford to.

Analysts PriceWaterhouse Coopers have predicted that this relentless duty increases will actually result in the government receiving lower tax revenue overall, as the benefit for a higher tax per pint is more than outweighed by the resultant fall in demand the price rise creates.

And yet, incredibly, there are some ill-advised, hostile or just plain ignorant people out there who believe that, in the face of a watered down announcement about minimum pricing, tax on beer is too low.

If you hear anyone spouting such garbage, feel free to share with them a few stats the BBPA pulled together:


UK taxes (duty plus VAT) on beer already massively outstrip rates in any of our neighbouring countries. UK tax rates are EIGHT times higher than in France, TEN times higher than in Spain and ELEVEN times higher than in Germany.

The BBPA analysis also reveals the astonishing figure that Britain’s beer drinkers are paying FORTY per cent of the entire beer duty bill in the European Union – despite Britain’s small, 12 per cent share of the total population.  UK beer drinkers are paying £3.1 billion out of an EU total of £7.7 billion in beer duty revenues.

In addition, some countries, such as Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have lower tax rates of tax for pubs, bars and restaurants - to help their hospitality industries and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on them.

BBPA Chief Executive Brigid Simmonds, comments:

“When it comes to alcohol taxation, we need a debate based on facts, not myths. Our alcohol taxes are among the highest in the developed world, and for beer we have had huge, 26 per cent duty increases in the past two years. What we really need is a freeze in beer duty in the Budget.

“Our already high taxes show that duty-plus-VAT cannot be used as a proxy for a minimum price for alcohol. This would have a particularly devastating effect on pubs. When it comes to tacking alcohol misuse, what we need most is improved alcohol education and awareness, and tougher, targeted enforcement of the huge range of existing laws. Pubs need lower taxes - and less red tape.”

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Hops and Glory and Jeff and Smuggling

***SPOILER ALERT***
If you STILL haven't read Hops and Glory (what is wrong with you?) and you don't want to know what happens, look away now.

If you have read it, you'll remember that Barry the Barrel exploded in Tenerife, and I found myself in Brazil with a serious problem - how to get a replacement, pressurised keg into Brazil so I could board my container ship with it.  In the end I had to ask friends for a volunteer to smuggle it in in their personal luggage.

The man who stepped forward was Jeff Pickthall.  Risking time in a Brazilian jail (perhaps) he brought me the keg and enjoyed a few days in Brazil, after a nailbiting race against time to get to me before I had to board my ship.

Some people have asked if I was perhaps laying on the drama a bit thick, exaggerating just how tight it was to make the story better.  Ask Jeff, and he'll tell you that, if anything, I downplayed it.

Except now you don't have to ask Jeff because finally, a mere three and a half years after that fateful day, he's written his own account of his cameo in Hops and Glory.

It's an epic.  And it's right here:
http://jeffpickthall.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-hops-and-glory-adventure-part-one.html

Friday, 14 January 2011

It's official: hell hath truly frozen over

"Ha! Ha! Ha! Being a stock photography model is such FUN!"

Birds fall dead from the sky.  Australia sinks into the sea. Brazil disappears under an avalanche of mud.

This is truly the end of days.

Any second now, birds will fly backwards.  Dogs will howl into the sky.  Flags will hang heavy at the tops of their poles and your wallet will fill with blood.  Time will reverse, volcanos will erupt, the four horsemen will ride and everything you knew will turn into the opposite of itself.

And lo.  It's already started.

Because today, the Daily Mail publishes a positive story about beer.  Yeah, you heard me.  Good news.  About beer. In. The. Daily. Mail.

There is not one attempt to spin it negatively, distort the news, misrepresent anyone, lie, or otherwise seek to create fear and suspicion in their readers.

It seems that two Spanish scientists have done a study that confirms what people like the Beer Academy have been saying for years: moderate consumption of beer is not only not bad for you - it's positively good for you.  One pint a day (yeah, I know, but bear with), accompanying a healthy diet, reduces the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Rather than putting weight on, in some cases it actually correlated with weight loss.

Suddenly, the Mail is saying things that the beer community have been trying to make people listen to for years, as if they were news: moderate beer consumption has the same health benefits attributed to red wine; beer is not to blame for the famous British beer belly, etc.  There's some interesting stuff about the difference between Spanish and British drinking culture, and how it's the way we drink that makes a difference.  I covered all this in Three Sheets to the Wind five years ago, but it's still nice to see someone finally sitting up and taking notice.  It's more than nice.  It's bloody wonderful.

One thing that made me laugh out loud though, because the alternative was to open a vein: in my 2010 round-up I commented upon the relentless negativity that afflicts many on the internet, noting that even when I post a blog about something really good, the first comments are without fail from people who have somehow managed to see a down side.  I speculated that even if I were to post news that great-tasting craft beer cured cancer, some of you would still be able to find a negative angle on such news.

Well get a load of the Mail page.  Here is news that is quite wonderful to behold, almost in the same territory, though not the same magnitude, as my hypothetical cancer cure story: moderate beer consumption is positively good for you.  Could anyone POSSIBLY have a problem with that?

Oh hell, yeah.

The kind of people who write on Daily Mail comment boards make you haterz out there look positively cuddly and benign.

By half ten this morning, Royston Amhplett from Bournemouth had got in there with "And yet another ploy to increase the tax revenue." Yeah, that's right, Roy! That beer lovin' government and reactionary right-wing tabloid are conspiring to trick you into drinking more beer and enjoy yourself! That's what they want you to do!

Fraz from Gosport chipped in with "Researchers never fail to ASTONISH me with thier [sic] Groundbreaking "Discoveries" Just how much are these IDIOTS costing the Nation ???!!!" Er - nothing Fraz.  If you'd actually read the piece before getting your specially green-inked keyboard out, you'd see that they're at the University of Barcelona.

Andy in Scotland moans, "If you wanna keep lapping up these fantasy stories that it's good for you, please feel free to drink as much as you like.  It's just a shame that the reality is that your lax-attitude to alcohol is costing the national health service, tax-payers and police more money than any other substance on Earth. Shame on you, drunken Britain." Well, no Andy, they were at pains to point out it's not about drinking as much as you like; it's about moderate consumption.  Hey Andy, go for a walk! In a few weeks the daffodils will be out and the little lambs will be frolicking in the fields. Go look at them for a bit.  Breathe the fresh air.  Let it go.  Smile!

Pete in the UK (no relation), actually knows more about the topic than scientists who have conducted in-depth rigorous studies into the effects of alcohol: "What absolute nonsense, DM - and you wonder why the UK has a drink problem? This apologist lie of a story is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also is just another excuse for drunks to decimate our national health service."  Yep, the scientific community and the right wing reactionary media are looking for excuses to cost the health service money all the time.  That's what they do.  Scientists wake up every morning and go, "Hmm, how can I use my big scientific brain to fuck up the NHS today?"

But top prize goes to a fella from New York who is in such denial about his relationship with alcohol and so unable to take responsibility for his own behaviour that he posted this classic: "There is a chemical additive in beer that they claim is a preservative. But in actuality it is a addictive agent [sic]. Many years earlier when I drank, a few beers did the job. Many years later 24 beers was not enough this is due to the so called preservation which is actually an addicting [sic] agent. I gave up drinking 14 years ago and never looked back."

When I have my first pint following my dry January, I'll smile and reflect upon the fact that every single day of my life, even the stressful days and the days where self-doubt moves in and squats over me like a heavy weather front, I am happier and more at peace with myself than any of these people ever are.

If I have one moan myself, it's not with the Daily Mail, the study itself, or anything like that.  It's that at the time of writing, a quick internet search revealed that the only national British newspapers to cover this story were the Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph.  The Guardian, Independent, Times, Sun and Daily Star have all ignored it.  How different it was back in November, when David Nutt produced a study that had not a shred of the scientific rigour and process this one has, that claimed alcohol was worse than heroin, and received blanket coverage.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The 'death of the pint'? How?

A schooner. Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Actually, don't.

Recently I've done a bit of moaning about the relentless negativity from some quarters that immediately greets almost any topic you can think of in the world of beer.

Last night, I was approached by a TV station to comment on the new proposals to relax drinks sizes, notably to include two-thirds of a pint as a legal measure.  However, they were specifically looking for someone who was violently opposed to it.  When I told them I thought it was a fantastic idea, they thanked me and said they didn't need me any more.

To be fair, I'm sure the station already had plenty of people in support of it, and they did say that they felt most sane drinkers would be supportive.

So why did they want someone who was against it then?  For editorial balance, of coursee.  But who on earth could be against it?  That's what startled me.  And on what grounds? I couldn't think of any reason to oppose it.

Of course, I soon found some.

The telly people thought I might be against it because of my stance on neo-prohibitionist measures, and because I've spoken to them before about the campaign to ban glassware from pubs.

But I don't see this as a neo-prohibitionist move at all.  A move that might encourage responsible drinking, sure.  But those are by no means the same thing.

Some government people have said it will curb binge drinking, and when governments start saying that, it does set alarm bells ringing.  But no one is saying anything about banning the pint.  (And please, conspiracy theorists, don't start with any of that 'thin end of the wedge' crap.  The pint is not going to be banned.  It's not going to happen.  OK?)

That brings us on to the traditionalist argument.  The pint is a great British icon.  The two-thirds measure or schooner undermines it, threatens its existence.  Why?  Does the presence of 175ml wine glasses, or 125ml, threaten 250ml glasses?  Hardly.  The point is, there's a choice.  Many people will still choose a pint.

This is why I don't think it will do that much to curb binge drinking.  The worst binge drinkers don't do it on beer anyway.  Those who do, who still want to get pissed, will still order pints.

What's good is that it will give drinkers greater control.  Someone driving, say, may be worried about having two pints, but can drink two schooners without worrying.

Closer to home, I think it's a brilliant idea for stronger craft beers.  I would never order a half of something like Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9%) because it feels like a cop out.  But when I drink beers like this by the pint, it feels like too much.  And if I do this on a session, that's the only time I get drunker on beer than I would like.  There are people who would never drink halves, but who would consider a pint of something above 5% ABV to be 'loopy juice'.  The two-thirds measure will actually make stronger craft beers more accessible to a wider audience.

Apparently some people have argued that unscrupulous publicans will use it as an excuse to rip people off, charging considerably more than two-thirds the price of a pint for two-thirds of the volume.

Well first off, that's a classic example of that negativity I was talking about: could you at least wait and see if that happens before you start complaining about it?

Secondly, on the rare occasions where this happens with a half pint versus a pint, the difference is rarely more than a few pence.  If you think that's a rip-off, don't buy it.

My final word on the whole subject: if both Brew Dog and the British Beer and Pub Association, so often at opposite ends of various arguments, are both delighted by this move, it's kind of hard to imagine who could be vehemently against it.

This is the first bit of good sense we've seen in drinks-related legislation for some time.