What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?
OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.
Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who
works freelances for Jacqui Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.
Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …
Apart from that, what is the book like? Actually, it’s good, edging into very good: excellent production values and beautiful photography, which is what you’d expect from a Jacqui Small book, and rammed full of facts’n’info, about Mikkel and his early life; about Mikkeller and how it developed, including what seems to me, at any rate, a rare mention of the man who gave the operation half its name, Kristian Keller; about beer types; about Mikkeller’s different beers and what inspired them; about beer tasting; about beer and food; and also about how to brew your own beers like Mikkeller’s. The translator, Ray Ashman, has done a fine job of capturing what certainly sounds like Mikkel’s authentic voice (I’d love to know which of the original bits were written by Mikkel and which by his co-author [and wife] Pernille Pang), and the text is enlivened by drawings from Mikkeller’s in-house illustrator, Keith Shore, frequently featuring the two Mikkeller “characters”, Henry and Sally. To whom will it appeal? Well, Mikkeller fanboys and fangirls, obviously, and anyone looking to learn more about beer, and about homebrewing, will get a great deal out of it too, but even the most beer-knowledgeable will, I think, learn enough to make the book worth its £20 tag (£13.60 on Amazon.co.uk, I note, where, unsurprisingly, it’s already the number one best seller in the “beer” category). And those untruths about beer history are really only a tiny part of the whole book …
Which is more, unfortunately, than can be said about another book I just acquired, Beer: A Global History, by Gavin Smith, published last year. This appears to have been written in an alternative universe where Ron Pattinson and I were never born, and repeats big chunks of long-disproved myths about beer history. Indeed, Smith loses all credibility at the very beginning of Chapter 1, which is headed by an alleged “quote” from Plato, the Greek philosopher: “He was a wise man who invented beer.” No, Plato never said this, or anything like it – and if Smith had done any proper research at all, which would have involved reading The Barbarian’s Beverage by Max Nelson (an excellent book), he would have discovered that the ancient Greeks actually had a very low opinion of beer.
This is far from the only nonsense, Smith hits his readers with, even in Chapter 1: he goes on to make the bizarre claim that “the first nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle and grow crops are thought to have been the Sumerians” – but domesticated barley is known from 7750BC at a site now called Netiv HaGdud (sic) in the Jordan valley, 20km north of Jericho, at least 2,250 years before the Sumerians started founding settlements in Mesopotamia. Smith also claims the Sumerians invented the wheel, though the jury is still very much considering its verdict on that one, since the wheel appeared effectively simultaneously in Sumer, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe, and he continues: “more than 5,000 years ago they [the Sumerians] recorded on a series of clay tablets a range of beer types and recipes contained within the ancient text ‘A Hymn to Ninkasi’.” This is, simply, complete bollocks. The clay tablets that contain the “Hymn to Ninkasi” come from around 1800BC, so 3,800 years ago, not 5,000. The poem does not contain “a range of beer types and recipes” – it doesn’t mention beer types at all, and the idea that it can be seen as a recipe describing how to make Sumerian beer is stretching the concept of “recipe” to breaking-point: if you read an English translation of the text, which suffers from unknown words and chunks that are now missing, you will see that it is very hard to make out what is meant to be going on. The Hymn to Ninkasi is, as I have said before, no more a recipe for beer-brewing than the folk song “John Barleycorn” is a text on how to make malt.
And so we go on: Smith repeats the myths about the alleged brewing set-up at St Gall in Switzerland, writing, as others have done, as if the map of St Gall actually described what was on the ground, instead of being an idealised depiction. He claims that porter gets its name from “market porters” – ffs, how many times do I have to repeat that this is a 20th century misunderstanding of who porters were? – and, yes, that it was “reputedly invented during the 1720s by Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewery in Shoreditch”. No, Gavin, it wasn’t, and if you’d bothered even to Google “Ralph Harwood Shoreditch porter” you’d have found the very first link is my debunking of that myth from 2007. George Hodgson isn’t actually called by Smith the inventor of India Pale Ale, which makes a change, but he calls him “an early proponent of pale ales, which in character were light, sparkling and heavily hopped ” – showing he has read nothing about how ale, in the 18th century, still meant a lightly hopped beer – and how these pale ales were “ideal for consumption in the warmer climes of the British Empire, leading to a vigorous export trade”. Gavin – you’re making that up. Porter, as I and Ron have shown, was exported in greater quantities to India than pale ale was, and in any case the overseas beer trade in the late 18th/early 19th centuries was really pretty small. He also clams that after Hodgson “began to send its pale ales to India in 1790” – the firm never sent the beer, it was bought by independent exporters, that is, the captains and officers of the East Indiamen sailing ships – “the generic title India Pale Ale, or IPA, was soon in circulation” – well, only if “soon” means “40 years later”.
Other stupidities include a picture of the Meux brewery at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road captioned “Messers Meux’s brewery in Liquor-Pond Street, Clerkenwell” – a completely different brewery, Meux Reid, later Reid & Co, in a completely different place; and a picture of the Fighting Cocks, St Albans with the claim that it “has a strong claim to the title of the oldest public house in England”. Actually, it has a shockingly poor claim to that title, being almost certainly no older as a pub than 1600. But that’s the standard of histocical enquiry you can expect in this book. In fact, despite the title, the “history” part only takes up 44 out of 153 pages, which the rest of the book padded out with chapters on “The Art of Brewing”, “Great Brewing Nations”, “Beer and Food”, “Beer and Culture”, “Cooking with Beer” and “Great Beer Brands”. That last chapter kicks off with Amstel, which tells you just how rigorously quality control was applied to the choice of brews listed. In all, Beer: A Global History is definitely one to avoid.
● Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, written by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Pernille Pang, published in English 2015 by Jacqui Small LLP, £20