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What's new?

What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fine Beer?

Working through my backlog of of trade press reading, I came across an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser written by Andrew Jefford a couple of months ago. He talks about the sheer obsession with increasing product quality in the St Emilion wine-growing region, the reverence the producers have for their product, and the excitement that's generated by a partiularly good vintage.

Then of course he compares this with beer, and discusses how we don't have great vintages because beer makers focus on consistency of product above all else. He talks about how most people buying beer don't have a clue what it's actually made of, and how we lack that reverence. He argues that there's a category - fine beer -that doesnlt yet exist: superlative beers that people are prepared to pay top dollar for.

I don't agree with everything he says, but it's an interesting argument and I wondered what beer geeks would think of it.

Of course we can all point to examples of fine beers that do exist - Utopias from Sam Adams, the super-strength speciality beers from Dogfish Head that redefine what beer can be, Deus, a bottle of Thomas Hardy's Ale from 1968... but I think Andrew would argue that you have to know an awful lot about beer before you're even aware of their existence, whereas anyone who has ever been to Oddbins will have at least taken a glance at the fine wine section in there.

Should brewers invest in creating more ultra-special beers? Should we be demanding, say, a greater range of 12 month wood-aged stouts that retail at twenty quid?

I would imagine the beer blogging community would instinctively say yes, because they're the kind of people who are constantly searching out challenging, full-bodied, interesting beer. And Jefford's argument that the existence of fine wines has a halo effect on the whole wine market, which could be replicated in beer, is a valid one.

I've got just one counter-argument, and I'm wondering how it might divide people.

One of the strengths of beer is its unpretentiousness, its accessibility. I don't agree that beer can only ever be a 'working class' beverage - Burton pale ale was the most fashionhable thing you could drink for twenty years or so in Victorian society - but I do think that beer is different from wine, and I occasionally get frustrated with people who want to turn beer into 'the new wine'.

We all know beer can be more complex, can go better with food etc, but when people start trying to talk about beer as if it was wine, they have a tendency to make it elitist. And when people want wine to totally replace beer, drawing battle lines between grape and grain, I lose patience. Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they 'don't like' wine is either delusional or a liar, and just as bad as those ignorant people who say they 'don't like beer' after drinking one warm can of Bud when they were nineteen.

Elitism is part of wine's character, so it's going to be much easier to build in snobbery, mystique, and a sense of specialness. The frustrating part of this is that people can order a bottle of cheap, industrially produced pinot grigio, drink it super-chilled, and while they're drinking the wine equivalent of Carling Extra Cold, believe they're actally superior to someone drinking, say, cask ale.

Beer would lose a lot of its soul if it simply aped the culture and mystique around wine.

So I'm not sure. I'd love to see 'fine beers' more commonly on the shelves, but can we have that and keep beer as the democratic, sociable drink it has been for five thousand years? Can beer successfully challenge wine at the top level - I'm talking about popular perception, not just among aficionados - without becoming arsey and pretentious? I hope so, but I'm not sure...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Pete the shameless self-publicist

Next Monday,3rd March, if you've got cable or satellite please tune in to UKTV Food for Market Kitchen. I'm on for about five minutes chatting to Tom Parker Bowles about the IPA trip, and tasting a little of the beer (there's still a bit left in Burton).

Market Kitchen replaced Great Food Live last year, just when I'd become a regular on that show. I don't think MK features beer as much as GFL used to (Tana Ramsay doesn't really like beer) but given the dearth of media coverage of beer in the UK, it's great that they feature it as much as they do. And if everyone watches the show on Monday their viewing figures will spike and they'll ask me back! Or maybe not.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Roll on 2018!

When I'm not writing this blog, another way in which I like to inflict misery on myself is by following Barnsley Football Club.

It's not my fault. I was born there. You can choose your team in that way about as successfully as you can choose your family. I now live within shouting distance of the Emirates Stadium, and while I'm pleased when Arsenal win, I like them as a friend, but I can never love them.

To be a Barnsley fan is to be intimate with disappointment, for it to be one of your default emotions. Barnsley aren't rubbish - if theyb were simply crap, maybe we could walk away. The frustrating thing is that every now and then there is a flash of what they are capable of, and then they are deeply, deeply mediocre.

We were seventh in the Championship when I came back from India, starting to look like real contenders for a play-off slot. And then we took December and January off. We got two draws and a defeat from the three bottom placed clubs, and lost to everyone else. When we win, we win by one. When we lose, we lose by three. We dropped to seventeenth. And then we played

West Brom, who were top of the table, and beat them comfortably. You see the pattern?

And so to Saturday 16th February 2008. We were 14th in the Championship. Liverpool were, as usual, fifth in the Premiership. Our two most in-form strikers were cup-tied, and the goalkeeper whon was responsible for most of our victories was our for the rest of the season with injury. We'd just signed West Brom's tjhird choice keeper on loan, a man who's had two starts in the last 18 months.

He hadn't even had time to learn the defenders' names.

The bookies were offering 16-1 on a Barnsley victory; 1-5 Liverpool. The papers said things like:

"Against Barnsley in the FA Cup the Reds should be hopeful of putting away a few goals and easing into the quarter finals without too much bother."

Ninety minutes later, they were saying things like:

"One of the greatest upsets in FA Cup history."

Yes, when this happened:

it was arguably the biggest upset since Barnsley beat Man U 3-2 in the fourth round in 1998.

Big clubs get famous victories every season. For Barnsley it happens once every ten years.

What, you want to talk about beer? OK: I celebrated with a bottle of Paradox, a 10% Imperial stout from Brew Dog matured in Islay Malt Whiskycasks. What beer would you celebrate such a famous occasion with? What have you got in your cellar or cupboard that you're saving for a very special day?

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Two short scenes from British pub life

I was in Burton-on-Trent for a few days last week.

On Thursday night I went to the best pub in the world, a pub so good I'm not even going to say which one it is because I want to keep it for myself. Having said that, a group of Dungeons and Dragons players already go there, so that's not going to work.

While I was nursing my pint of Bass (two wonderful Thornbridge beers were 'coming soon'; they always are when I go in) I couldn't help overhearing the sounds of role-playing coming from behind the frosted glass door to the snug. Soon they were winding up, and one guy - I guess he was the Dungeon Master - asked when they should meet again.

"Two weeks tonight?" someone suggested.

"What date is that?" asked another.

"February the fourteenth."

"Does that work for everyone?"

The room agreed with a chorus of "Yep," "No problem," "I'm free", "Works for me".


Friday night, I was at a black tie brewing industry dinner (all part of the sinister conspiracy), and it was pretty late by the time we were sauntering through the snow back to our hotel, thinking we looked like the Rat Pack, when in fact we were more like the Fat Pack. It was well below freezing, about 3am, and we saw a girl in the street on her own. She looked about sixteen, and was dressed in a pair of fetish shoes, black fishnet tights, and a nurse's uniform that almost reached her thighs, was open down the front, and was finished off with a little nurse's hat.

We stopped to ask if she was OK, out on her own at that time, underdressed in the freezing cold. She looked us up and down, eyes wide, and said, "What the fuck are you all wearing fancy dress for?"