Thursday 29 May 2014

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

There they are, the seldom-seen kids, Boak (left) and Bailey (right) in full flow at North Bar. Except they're not really kids any more - they're properly grown-up and have just published a meticulously researched book about the last 40 years of British brewing. So precise has some of this research been that I half expected them to appear in white lab coats and carrying clipboards. But no - smart casual it was.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the pen sketches of all the major protagonists of the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood, of the early Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. A lot of the early players have reached almost mythological status, burnished to an aged sheen by long nights in smoky, coal-fired public bars. But as the zoom is pulled back to nearer the present day, the characters seem curiously less fully-formed, less sure of themselves, or just less engaging

Could it be that the major players and the key points from 40-odd years ago have had their histories validated more by being told and re-told, and passing almost into folklore, while the nearer you get to the present day, the less entrenched are the stories of the key players? Or is it that the major players in the recent history of beer simply aren't as interesting as those of even 20 years ago? Or perhaps their motivations are different, less concerned with a wider culture and more interested in some 21st century Cult Of The Self. After all, it's better to have someone tell stories about you than have to do it yourself. Or put it another way - Michael Hardman got an MBE for services to beer - can we see that happening to James Watt in 30 years time?

There's no doubt that this is a character-driven book, and this is it's great strength. The beer industry was (and is) full of great characters, and Boak and Bailey give the impression that many of them did it for the craic, for shits and giggles, and, in the internet age, teh lulz. Indeed, the more precarious the story - David Bruce and birth of the Firkin chain, Sean Franklin driving a taxi during lean times - the more engaging it becomes. More recent parts of the story seem to lack a bit of definition, but given that history is written by the victors, and the craft wars are still being waged, this isn't surprising.

Boak and Bailey are undoubtedly meticulous archive-diggers, but the recent present isn't particularly well archived yet. The modern story hasn't been told enough times that it can be re-told with any certainty or clarity, so at some point, this book stops being a record of what happened, and becomes part of the making of the story itself. How very meta.

If you're even vaguely curious about why you can get a beer that is as good as Brewdog Punk IPA in almost every supermarket in the UK, then this book has the answers. It's a fascinating tale of peculiarly British pluck and pioneering spirit, all washed down with lots of great beer. What more do you want?

It's about how British beer has turned half circle. The really interesting question is, where next?

Thursday 15 May 2014

Happy Now?

I found myself pondering something late last night, after being e-prodded by Will Hawkes, on the subject of the rise of the beer off-licence. He'd quite politely asked if I'd like to contribute some thoughts to an article that he's writing for The Grocer magazine.

(Incidentally, that's how the pro's start a blog - infer that you have an opinion that someone deems worthy of canvassing. Gives you a bit of gravitas)

In an email back to him, I said something along the lines of "alongside the rise in popularity in beer, there are also a lot of people who know very little about beer, who are selling beer brewed by people who know very little about beer, to drinkers who can't tell if it's any good or not". I then said something about not wanting to commit myself in print to being a dick - too late! But in the spirit of Eno and Schmidt's Oblique Strategy Cards, "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify"

For many years, beer has struggled to get as wide a coverage as it is getting today. Isn't that what we've all wished for all this time? Does it really matter if some people are in it solely for a quick buck, some of it's a bit ropey, and some people are drinking it just to be cool?