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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.
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Monday, 21 May 2012

Dave Wickett, Beer Legend, RIP

Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.

This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett

Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for.  When cancer said, "You've got six months," Wickett replied, "Fuck you," and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.

He'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.

How's that for six months?

The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett
Beer is a tight-knit community.  If you're reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett.  If you didn't, you probably know someone who did. And if you don't think you did, I promise you you're more closely connected then you might think. You're probably no more than two - at a maximum, three - degrees of separation away from one of beer's singular heroes.

I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well.  Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography.  To my shame I didn't get as far with that as I wanted to before he died - not by a long way.  I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.

Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield - a city he much preferred to the UK's capital. That, in itself, is a big clue - here was a man who saw things differently.

You're probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s.  You may be less familiar with what Wickett did.  He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries.  He had little interest in the politics of the organisation.  But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous - which brought him to the same place as his passion.  So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.

This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett
In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him - and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.

In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the 'principles' of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer - something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to - and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain's cask ale revival.

He'd been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US - the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.

The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett

Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash.  He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved.  He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons' Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did.  Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn't do that.  But he was always happy with his choices - he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.

So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield.  Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge.  He hired the two young brewers - one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.

Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food.  It's still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it's another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett's actions were extraordinary.  Wickett wasn't always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren't good enough to keep their jobs.  The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away.  Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.

Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world.  Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him.  The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Beer? Books? Classic Albums? Perfect Pubs? GIN?! It can only be Stokeylitfest

If you're in North London, or fancy making the journey, you should wear your clever drinking boots on Jubilee Weekend.

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is organised every year by my wife, and it takes place this year on 1st to 3rd June, and between stocking bars, introducing acts on stage, running to CostCo and directing volunteers, I'll be doing a couple of events you might be interested in.

On Saturday 2nd June I'm teaming up with Robin Turner to talk perfect London pubs.  Robin is one of the co-authors of this excellent book, which you should definitely read, and not just because I'm in it:

I've often spoken about my huge admiration for The Moon Under Water by George Orwell, the best thing anyone has ever written about pubs.  Robin and his co-writer Paul Moody, who together run the excellent Caught by the River, travelled the country trying to find Orwell's vision.  Yes, they looked in Wetherspoons, and they looked in many other places as well, including London.  As my new book is about a legendary London pub, the George in Southwark:

we thought we'd get together and chat about some Perfect London Pubs, and what makes them so.  We'll be doing that over a beer upstairs in the White Hart (one of my perfect London pubs) on Saturday 2nd at 1pm.

The following day, I'll be back in the same place for a beer and music matching event.  Last year I did beer and book matching and it went down pretty well, so I've moved it on this year.  I wrote ages ago about how scientists have proved that listening to particular styles of music can actually change the taste of what you're drinking.  It's called Cognitive Priming Theory, and means that particular combinations can create a greater overall sensory experience.  I've been mulling this over for a while, and in February I put it to the test with a feature in WORD magazine where I matched up ten beers with ten classic albums.

Duvel, for example, poured from the bottle into its tulip glass, is so feisty it tries to climb up the walls off the glass as if it's trying to get out and claw your face off.  This is exactly the same experience as the opening chords of Debaser by the Pixies.  Put the two together and it's wildly exhilarating.

Hopback Summer Lightning is too mellow to go with the Pixies and would jar slightly, but put it with Higher than the Sun of Slip Inside This House from Primal Scream's Screamadelica, and you create a woozy, sun-kissed tip that takes you half way to Ibiza.  Brew Dog Abstrakt 08 with Public Enemy? Thornbridge Jaipur with the Stone Roses?  The possibilities are endless.  I'll be choosing six at 1pm in the White Hart.

The link back to books from that one may be tenuous, but Stokeylitfest has always had a strong musical bent too, and this year we've also got Wilko Johnson, a retrospective on the NME with some of its most illustrious former hacks, a review of indie music, and loads more.  Check out the website for full details.

And that's not the end of the booze.  Refreshed after my event (some beers will be included in the admission price) you may want to toddle along to the talk being hosted by festival sponsors Hendrick's Gin.

They're going to take us on a tour through the history of gin, and some of the legendary writers and characters it has inspired, with some free samples throughout.

With a unique festival beer brewed by Redemption, and other bar sponsors including Aspall's and Budvar, we'll be showing how brain food and booze are the perfect combination.

See you there.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Why I've finally joined CAMRA

Well there we are.  I've set up the direct debit and got my membership number.

This is in some ways a 'hell freezes over' moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision.  But it was the right thing to do.

What's the big deal?  Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I'm a CAMRA member already, given what I do.

A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:

Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages.  I have carried on attacking them - albeit with declining frequency - ever since.  With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there's nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc.  But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn't do that.  I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.

I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn't much else between them back then.)  When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated.  It came across as a clique - one that I really didn't want to be part of.  There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager - and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view.  There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt.  I didn't want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people.  (Distressingly, in the last ten years I've grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like.  But beards are trendy now.  As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that.  The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)

I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn't real ale.  It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as 'industrial yellow fizz'.  I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like 'Beers of Britain', and brands like Carling weren't even in the index.  OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn't exist was childish.  Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really... I'd come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the 'Great British Real Ale Festival', note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA's stance on "We're the campaign for real ale, that's our name, we can't support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)"

I shared many of CAMRA's beliefs.  But I felt I couldn't sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking.  The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.

So what's changed?  Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?

Well, the nerds are still there, and I'm still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I'm one of them when I tell them what I do.  And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays).  And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.)  I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions.  I still think they often present an image that's by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.

But many things are different now.

I could talk about how CAMRA's membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn't, about how CAMRA's membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.

I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.

I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic 'CAMRA' to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.

I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn't (or rather, shouldn't) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don't reflect this official stance, I am as 'for' real ale as I am 'for' any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer - of course it is).

I could admit that for the last four or five years I've really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.

And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it's important to stop playing Judean People's Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.  This is what I've been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I'm saying.

I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I'll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I'm not sure I have the time or the will for that.)

I could say all these things to justify my about-face.

But while I'm not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I'm joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin' way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom.  I give in.  I surrender.  OK, I'll join your bloody organisation.  Just send me the magazine.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Someone (formerly?) at Diageo is probably having trouble sitting down at the moment...

It's the drinks PR omnishambles that makes George Osborne look like a competent chancellor.

Brew Dog have long been known for their spectacular PR stunts, but the storm that broke on Twitter today seemed breathtaking even by their standards.

In this sensational statement, Brew Dog claimed that at the Scottish BII Awards last weekend, Brew Dog were voted clear winners of the Bar Operator of the Year Award.  They knew this because the judges were sitting at their table and told them so.  So everyone was surprised when another company's name was read out, with judges saying, 'That's not possible.'

The plot thickened when the 'winners' took the stage and refused to accept the trophy because it had Brew Dog's name engraved on it!

Later, according to Brew Dog, the BII phoned and said this had happened because Diageo, the main sponsors of the award, had threatened BII officials, warning them that any future sponsorships would be cancelled if the award was presented to Brew Dog.

Another stunt?

Well... no.  Brew Dog are famous for stunts, but this would be suicide if it were not true.  And this was all about the bars - say what you like about the sensationalism of the head honchos, love or hate the brand, but as I've said repeatedly, the bars are about nothing but genuine passion and hard work.  Could this really be spin and exaggeration?

No, it couldn't.

I asked Diageo for a statement, and here it is:

“There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in anyway Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

“We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.”

I've got more to say about the increasingly shameless bullying and anticompetitive tactics employed by some (but not all) big brewers, but this one really takes the biscuit.  Diageo, having been caught red handed, had no option but to blame it on a rogue element, and we must take them at their word.  But does this reveal something deeper about the attitudes of some global brewing corporations?

Brew Dog's facility with social media means that the hashtag, #andthewinnerisnot, was trending globally by early afternoon.  Would Diageo have rushed out this grovelling apology before the advent of social media?  I'm not sure they would.  We may well look back on this as the start of the tables turning in how different types of brands manage their media.  We live in a very transparent and interconnected world these days - interesting times, as the Chinese would say...

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Session #63: (The) Beer Moment(s)

My whole writing career has been based on the notion that there’s something about beer that is greater than the sum of the parts.  There are other ways of relaxing, other alcoholic drinks, other special moments to share with friends.  But my belief, after going across the world talking to beer drinkers and sharing a glass with them, is that there’s more to it.

That’s what I wanted to use my turn to host the session to explore.  It’s been a fascinating experience.  I deliberately wanted to set a topic that was as open and inclusive as possible (like beer itself), something unpretentious that anyone felt they could make a contribution to.  And this has been borne out by the comments/contributions.  I’m not sure how the 54 comments on the original post compares with other sessions, but it’s a great response.  And more importantly, at least three of those commenters were contributing to The Session for the first time.  Hopefully it won’t be the last, guys – you did good.

Of course, set a bunch of beer bloggers an open-ended, loosely defined topic, and the more analytical end of the spectrum will wonder, “What does he mean by that?  What does he want from us?  What’s his agenda?  What is the technical definition of the beer moment?” 

While most found my brief simple and motivating, others felt I was being obscurantist, and accused my announcement post of ‘impenetrable prose’. 

Honestly, I had no agenda – other than to encourage wide participation and to focus the session on the emotions around beer rather than the definitional politics of craft beer, of which I’ve grown heartily bored.  (But if you find them fascinating, then that’s OK.  We don’t need to argue about it.)

So, on with the round-up.

There are a lot of comments, and I need to fit them all in, in as readable a way as I can.  I’m going to mix up mentions and links if that’s OK.  HUGE apologies if I miss anyone out – it wasn’t intentional.

It was a varied bag.  Some people read ‘the Beer Moment’ as the need to pick just one, singular moment from a lifetime of loving beer.

For Professor Pie Tin (comment on original post), this moment was a bar in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, a “Whaddya havin’?” and the beginning of a 30 year love affair.  For Jordan, it was a different beer, same resonance.

Other felt that there were many such ‘Beer Moments’, and didn’t want to choose just one, giving a wide array of examples.  Tiffany put these in picturesDavid muses on walking in the Lakeland fells and meeting old school friends, and Jorge lists many moments in few words, succeeding in making himself (and me) thirsty.

Beer for the Weekend (a first time sessioneer) offers a trio of stand-out life beer moments, and Landells (another Session virgin) lists many classic moments before plumping for that common moment when “you’ve got so caught up in something that for a few minutes you’ve actually forgotten that your beer even exists but then you slowly turn to the side and your beer is sitting there, you smile, nod your head approvingly and then reach out your hand.”  Derrick offers five examples, some happy, some sad, and asks us, “Could any other beverage create such a diversity of universal moments?"

Moving on from that, for most people it wasn’t about specific moments per se, it was about lots of moments that had common characteristics – and even here, those characteristics could vary.

Beer Nut rumbled my mission to open things up and thinks he resisted my attempt to move away from geekery, by saying his moment was finding a beer he hadn’t ticked off before, even if that beer wasn't great.

Thing is BN, you’re still talking about how that moment makes you feel, so I win.  And you were funny too, not just geeky.  And you’re not alone.  For TudorguySean, and others, the Beer Moment is also when you encounter a beer for the first time, and you love it.  These are the moments you feel alive.  And it's very similar with cider too.  

Or it may simply be, like Wyreman (comment on original post), Nate Dawg and others, the moment is the feeling of anticipation when you order a beer, new or old, the moment before it touches your lips.  Daniel made a video in which he talks about the moment the beer is poured (and also about our current moment in the evolution of beer brewing appreciation – this moment, right now – as a significant beer moment.)

For Reluctant Scoop, it's one moment later, as the first gulp slides down, expressed to perfection in this iconic film scene:

For people like Matt, Gary and Paul (comment on original post) it’s when the drink is right, but that’s not enough – the people and the atmosphere have to be right too.  It’s about the context in which you drink your beer the respite and communion with like-minded people.  Jayelde, a first time contributor to the Session, believes these moments are about common ground, about beer bringing people together.  Sam agrees – it’s about simple satisfaction, but also bonding, and for John, it’s about excitement and sociability.

These moments may be planned or unplanned, says Bob, but the unplanned ones are often the best.  Over in San Diego at the Craft Brewer’s Conference, it seems the majority would agree.  Stan took a poll there, the results of which suggest any time could be the time for the perfect beer moment.

The Beer Moment might be the moment of understanding between harassed bar staff and a regular customer late at night, or if you're a brewer, it might be the labour and the chance to taste the results.

It can also be a solo thing – not for everyone, but for some.  It’s that reward at the end of a long, shitty day – not especially shitty, just every day shitty, and special mention must go to Beerbecue (and his adorable daughter) for bringing that to life in a short film that says more than words can.  Craig talks about the perfect combination of beer, sunshine and grill – but the final ingredient to his mise-en-place is more revealing and resonant.

Uncle Puble also talks about that transition, that me-time at the end of the working day

While Ghostdrinker explore similar territory before moving onto moments that are more special and specific, and Tale of Ale sums up such ‘first beer of the day’ moments as those times when “everything falls into place and life is always good and not much else does that in the world”.

Leigh takes us into more poignant territory – the beer helping create a moment of reflection on hearing the new that a much-loved musical hero has died.

Steve Lamond takes a more emotive stab at similar territory, reminding us that beer is timeless, that in the beer moment “we are transported back to… a time before any of the cares of the modern world and allow ourselves to relax.”

As well as relaxation, there’s inspiration – just ask Broadford Brewer, who expresses it thus:

Joe thinks this happens because the reward and relaxation, sparked by the sensations coming through taste receptors that have had this experience before, link the current beer moment to previous ones, to fond memories and associations.

All contributors, being beer bloggers, are craft beer drinkers who would always rate tasty, crafted beers over insipid mainstream lagers.  But the beer moment is not exclusive to craft beer.  That doesn’t mean the beer moment equals ‘not caring about what you drink’ (see below) it just means the moment can be bigger than the beer.  Ask John, whose first ever beer shared with his father was a can of Foster’s.  Crap beer, still a very special moment

Jeremy agrees – a love of craft beer doesn’t preclude special moments with ordinary beers – if the moment is right.

Having said that, I bet few people would disagree with RSB (another session first-timer) who argues that in general, there’s a correlation between the best moments and the best beers.

But could any (alcoholic) drink do this? 

Looke doesn’t think so, arguing that “the one moment that is purely of pleasure” is a “little spark that goes off inside which doesn’t happen with a glass of wine or a G&T”.

Jay – who came up with this whole ‘Session’ idea – points out that it is beer that links all the most special moments in life, and has done throughout history, across a broader range, far more than any other drink.  These are truly the moments that matter most.

Of course, this is beer.  And in beer there’s always someone who wants to dispute and over-analyze, and bring joy crashing back down to earth.  According to Alan, the very idea of a beer moment is “just silly”, which must mean everyone mentioned above is deluded and utterly mistaken. 

 Beer does not change the moment even when it is present within it. Any number of other things could be there instead,” he argues, suggesting that a cup of tea or a cigarette could just as easily have created the moments everyone has described so passionately.  He actually seems to take offence at the very notion of discussing the beer momentand decries the whole thing as a marketing construct, which is strange given that few of the scenarios above have ever appeared in beer marketing (although some obviously have).  

“Don’t let the admen fool you,” he warns, meaning, presumably, me.  (I’m not an adman anymore.)

If advertising were as powerful as Alan thinks it is, every last one of you would now be drinking Budweiser and Stella Artois, and nothing else.  And you wouldn’t be as happy with beer as you obviously are.  Talking about the context, the emotions and the companionship, does NOT mean you don’t care about what you drink - as many commenters have pointed out.  It simply means that beer is one part of a healthy, joyful life – unless you’re someone who would just rather sit and analyze and deconstruct beer instead.  

If you are one of those people (and Alan has never, before now, struck me as someone who is) I think the point of this Session is that you should get out more – you could be enjoying your beer even more than you are now.

Thanks to everyone for taking part!