About Martyn Cornell

Beer educator, beer consultant, author, journalist and beer historian. Winner at the British Guild of Beer Writers' annual awards five years running, 2011-15

The formative beers of my teenage years

My teenage beer drinking involved plenty of quantity – I was a regular pub customer from 16 onwards, pubs being the place to meet my mates, and girls – but no appreciation at all of quality. This was not, forgive me, deliberate ignorance, but down to a lack of any kind of guidance. Today there are dozens of books about what beers to drink, and more every week, nearly. Then: nothing, nothing at all. The Campaign for Real Ale was only formed the year I turned 19, I had reached 21 when Frank Baillie bought out the Beer Drinker’s Companion and Richard Boston began writing about beer in the Guardian, and I was 22 when the first Good Beer Guide appeared. For my first five years of seriously drinking beer, therefore, while I was developing an awareness that some beers were much better than others, and some were actively awful, there was effectively nothing to explain why this was, nor anywhere to tell me where to find the good stuff.

I was nudged in the ribs into remembering the beers of my long-past youth by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, who posted earlier this week about ten beers that influenced his teenage years and early to mid-twenties. Did I have ten beers I could say lubricated my pre-enlightenment drinking, and eventually led me to wider appreciation: or at the least, were important to me 45 years ago, even if eventually left behind, like my small and long ago disposed-off collection of early albums by Chicago, errors in taste that I can excuse by saying: “I was young – I knew no better”? Yes, and here they are

An 802 bus in Stevenage bus station advertising McMullen’s strong pale ale, No 1, some time around 1967. I would say with confidence that I have travelled on that exact bus, probably numerous journeys

Greene King IPA
Take-overs meant a plurality of pubs in the corner of North Hertfordshire where I grew up were owned by Greene King, and I probably drank its beers, brewed then in Biggleswade, most weekends from 1968 onwards. Stevenage was a new town, but its High Street had formerly been part of the Great North Road, and it had eight pubs in less than 600 yards, five of them owned by GK. Of the two GK pubs most frequented by teenagers, the Red Lion, a small and shabby two-bar ex-coaching inn run by a tall, elderly former News of the World darts champion with artificial legs and a fondness for rum-and-peppermint (I think he thought his wife wouldn’t be able to smell the alcohol on his breath), still had handpumps; the rather smarter Marquis of Lorne a little to the south (should be Marquess of Lorne, properly), where the varnish on the bar was fresher, the toilets considerably less like a biological warfare laboratory and the carpets much newer, served “top pressure” beer, cask-conditioned but then pushed to the glass by a cylinder of carbon dioxide. The bar taps for the top-pressure beer were miniature ceramic affairs clearly meant to look like full-sized pump handles. Camra put top-pressure service outside the limits, claiming it was no better than keg: I cannot, in honesty, say I remember the beer (which was always, incidentally, ordered as “bitter”, never “IPA”) tasting any different in the Red Lion compared to the Mar-kiss. Although Greene King IPA is dismissed today, it was a perfectly acceptable beer to grow up on.

McMullen’s Country Bitter
Many other local pubs were served by the brewery in the county town, McMullen’s. This is one of those long-running family-owned breweries (claiming to be 190 years old this year) you read very little about, for the good reason that the Hertford brewery’s beers are and have been for as long as I’ve known them entirely and totally uninteresting: the acme of meh. Still, it owned, and owns, a number of excellent pubs in the area, and I drank quantities of Country as a teen.

Rayment’s BBA
For reasons too complicated to explain here, Greene King owned a tiny brewery lost in the wriggling and deep-set lanes of East Hertfordshire called Rayment’s, which supplied a small number of tied houses and a much larger number of clubs and bars with an excellent session bitter called BBA. The youth centre where Stevenage Folk Club met had casks of Rayment’s BBA on the upstairs bar, and the teenage I would reel home after a session, hiccupping and singing “Oh Good Ale“. (The reeling was particularly bad if I had moved on to the second cask on the bar, filled with Abbot Ale. The great Richard Thompson, when asked by an interviewer how he had changed from the brilliant but shy lead guitarist who would hide on-stage behind the speaker stacks to the confident and in-command performer he eventually became, replied: “Six pints of Abbot helps!” Fortunately for me I was living at home, and my mother was happy to ease my Saturday hangover with a big FEB: two fried eggs, sausages, fried halved tomatoes, rashers, fried bread, fried mushrooms, and bottomless tea.) BBA was the first great beer I drank, a marvellously balanced brew, and it was a crime when the brewery was closed.

Rayment’s brewery in Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire, circa 1980

Watney’s Special
When I moved away to university, I still knew nothing about beer except that I liked drinking it, and it puzzled me that in the pubs of Brighton and Hove so much of the beer was undrinkable. This was because the local brewery, Tamplin’s, had been taken over by Watney’s, which was then at the height of its experimentation with finding ways to brew as cheaply as possible: maximising the use of raw barley, using continuous fermentation technology and so on. Watney’s multitude of tied houses had to stock the results, even though they were vile. If I was in a Watney’s house I normally changed to drinking

Draught Guinness
even though it was more expensive , and as my budget for food and drink was £5 a week, pennies had to be watched carefully.

Newcastle Amber
Out on campus, however, the beer in places like the arts centre seemed so much better. Everything is relative. Amber was Scottish & Newcastle’s cheap keg, cheaper than Tartan, its OG was about 1030, its abv barely above 3pc, but it tasted of beer, which is more than the horridly phenolic Watney’s Special did. (Amber was, I believe, the beer blended with Newcastle Star strong ale to make Newcastle Brown.)

Watney’s Party Seven
Canned beer was still quite rare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so this, or the smaller Party Four, was what you brought to parties: seven pints of, probably, Watney’s Star Light, an even worse and weaker beer than Special, if that is conceivable, in a can that required a special opener to punch two v-shaped holes in the top – an opener no one ever seemed to possess, so that too many cans had to be attacked with a pair of kitchen scissors, resulting in ceilings dripping beer. You could also buy Watney’s Party Four Mild, and other brewers had their own versions: Ansell’s Pipkin, Courage Jackpot. By the mid-1970s you could get Ruddle’s County in four-pint tins, which was actually a perfectly acceptable beer served that way, and Sainsbury’s sold an “own brand” four-pint can of what was Ruddle’s “blue” ordinary bitter. Then Tony Ruddle made one of the most disastrous corporate decisions of any small brewer and sold all his pubs – prat.

Foster’s Lager
In 1974 Foster’s was an exotic and hard-to-find import in the UK, available in striking large pint-and-a-quarter tins, and I stacked the fridge in the house where I was living in Brighton with them for the post-finals, off into the big world party. That was the first of a run of really hot summers, and an important lesson: if the weather’s very warm and the beer’s very cold, it almost doesn’t matter what that beer tastes like.

Greene King XX mild
The first Good Beer Guide I bought was the third, 1976 edition, when I was 23, and it encouraged me to start trying beers that were all around me but that, because they didn’t fall in the “bitter” category, I had ignored. Once I discovered XX, until I left Hertfordshire, I consumed considerable quantities of this 3pc abv black beauty. I remember a Camra branch “pub of the year” presentation night at the (happily still open) Plough, a rural beerhouse in the tiny and hard-to-find hamlet of Ley Green, on the Herts-Beds borders, where Greene King supplied a free firkin of XX. The lot went in less than 15 minutes: you could hardly have got rid of it faster than by simply opening the tap and letting it flow onto the cellar floor.

Fuller’s London Pride
The GBG also encouraged exploring: one September Saturday in the mid-1970s, after a QPR match at Shepherd’s Bush (did we win? Can’t remember), I walked down to the Dove by the riverside in Hammersmith for the first time, and had an epiphany with a pint of Pride on the sun-struck terrace overlooking the Thames. It was like drinking a cool, beautiful, delicately scented floral bouquet, while Yo Yo Ma played Mozart in the background and expert masseurs attended to your neck and feet. I have had other beery experiences as good, or almost, but that was probably the one that made me know how important beer was going to be to me.

Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.

But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.

Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:

“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”

Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.

“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”

Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:

Do middle-aged men like reading stories about women like this because it turns them on?

But if you think this making-the-facts-up-to-fit-the-story policy is at all new, that we have only recently, after Brexit and Trump, shifted into a “post-truth” world, let me quote you George Orwell, writing 75 years ago about his experiences as a fighter for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War:

“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”

Newspapers, news suppliers, have had an agenda since the Mercurius Civicus and the Mercurius Aulicus fired inky broadsides on behalf of the Roundheads and the Royalists respectively in the early 1640s. In fact, reporting the news is always going to be biased, because the act of “curating” – choosing what goes in and what has to be left out for reasons of space and time – is inevitably going to mean stuff someone thinks is important will be left out.

Worse than active bias, though, is the journalist’s requirement for drama: we want you to read us, and we know you like to be thrilled/shocked/stirred. What this results in is a bias towards the shocking rather than the true. If someone comes along with a story that is thrilling/shocking/disturbing/scary, it is likely not to be interrogated too hard before being slapped into print/on the web. Smart operators know this, and among those skilled in exploiting the media’s love of a good shocker are the neo-prohibitionists, the Institute of Alcohol Studies – which is ultimately descended from the UK Alliance for the Suppression of the Traffic of All Intoxicating Liquors – and its fellows. They bend the facts, they publish half-truths and quarter-truths, they spin all the figures to put the worst possible impact on them, and newspapers report what they say without questioning it because the stories may not be true, but they are shocking and disturbing and they give readers that little electric thrill of horror at how terrible the world is – even if it’s not, really. For example, it was reported that 92,220 alcohol-related hospital admissions of children and young people under 18 were made between 2002 and 2009, or 36 under-18s a day. Your mental picture, possibly, is 36 totally pissed teens in one room. But there are around 180 “major” A&E departments in England, so even if all those 92,220 little drunks went into hospital via A&E, that works out at each A&E seeing an under-18 with a critical alcohol problem once every five days: a figure that sounds rather less worrying.

The neo-prohibitionists produce a regular drip-drip of misinformation, the latest being a report that hit the news yesterday claiming that current drinks industry marketing practices are encouraging young people to drink. In the UK, head wowser Professor Sir Ian Gilmour, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, declared that “We all know [my emphasis] that alcohol marketing contains content and messages that appeal to children and that due to exposure to this advertising children drink more and start drinking at an early age.” His solution is a “comprehensive ban” on alcohol advertising worldwide. But Gilmour’s “we all know” is an actual lie. As The Guardian (not always the first to declare a neo-prohib’s underwear is ablaze) pointed out, the most recent figures show levels of youth drinking in the UK are the lowest on record. In the past decade, the proportion of children aged 11-15 who have had an alcoholic drink has fallen by 38pc, while under 18 alcohol-specific hospital admissions have fallen by 46pc since 2008.

This is not just a UK phenomenon: levels of teen drinking in the United States are at their lowest since figures first started being gathered 25 years ago, and under-age drinking is also falling in Australia and New Zealand. The leader of the latest study on drink advertising and the young, Dr David Jernigan, of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, declared: “Exposure to alcohol marketing among youth is linked to more underage youth drinking and, in particular, binge drinking.” But in the UK the proportion of young adults aged 16 to 24 binge drinking fell by more than a third between 2005 and 2013, from 29pc to 18pc, while the proportion of teetotal young adults rose by over 40pc, to around 27pc of the total, over the same period. The proportion of 11-15 year olds who have never had a drink rose from 39 per cent in 2002 to 61 per cent in 2013. So exposure to alcohol advertising seems to be having the opposite effect to that claimed by Gilmour and Jernigan.

The best way to counter this neo-prohib “post-truth” spinning is to play whack-a-mole with the neo-prohibitionists’ claims: every time they repeat another exaggeration, or make another unfounded claim, hit them with the hard stick of truth. Here, then, is your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies (compiled largely from facts gathered from Christopher Snowdon’s Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog: I disagree with much of his politics, but on the neo-prohibitionists he is extremely sound, and an excellent source of material):

“Britain is in the midst of a booze epidemic”

  • Per capita alcohol consumption has dropped by a fifth since 2004
  • Alcohol-related deaths have fallen by 7pc since 2008
  • Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by 40pc since 2007
  • Drink driving related accidents fell by 45pc between 2003 and 2014 and are now at the lowest rate on record
  • The proportion of 45 to 64-year-old males who drink alcohol on five or more days a week has fallen by 29pc since 2005

“There is no safe level of drinking”

I once covered a story about a young wife whose husband brought her a moped. The first time she rode it, in the cul-de-sac where she lived, she accelerated straight into a brick wall, cracked her skull and died. We can thus conclude there is no safe level of moped riding: once is enough to kill you.

But this “no safe level” claim about alcohol, based on the idea that the tiny, tiny risk of alcohol-caused cancer is there regardless of intake, deliberately ignores the much stronger proven health benefits of moderate drinking. More than a hundred studies have shown that moderate drinking brings a 25pc to 40pc reduction in risk of death from all cardiovascular causes. Heart disease risk is at its lowest for men drinking around four units a day, or two 500ml bottles of 4pc abv beer (for women the optimal level is lower). And heart disease, incidentally, kills more people than all the “alcohol-related” cancers combined. Moderate drinking is also associated with a 30pc lower risk of risk of type-2 diabetes, and of ischaemic stroke.

Moderate drinkers have less osteoporosis and a lower risk of fractures in the elderly compared to abstainers. Light to moderate drinking is associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia in older people. What is more, the risks for many diseases have been found to be lower among frequent drinkers, including daily drinkers, than those reporting less frequent drinking. In the United States, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which says men can safely drink up to 25 units a week, almost two thirds more than current UK guidelines, estimates that 26,000 deaths a year are prevented by moderate alcohol consumption thanks to reduced risk from heart disease, diabetes and stroke, the equivalent of 5,000 deaths a year in the UK. So yes, there IS a safe level for drinking.

“Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the UK taxpayer £21 billion a year”

Nonsense. This figure first appeared in 2003 in a publication by an economist called Dr Rannia Leontarid, from something called the Cabinet Strategy Unit, it actually applied to England only, and should be slapped down whenever and wherever it appears. Those alleged “costs to the nation” include an estimated £4.7bn of “emotional impact costs of victims of crime”, £7.3bn for “loss of output due to absenteeism, reduced output and premature death” and “lost productive output of victims”, and £1.5bn for “costs in anticipation of crime (alarms etc)”: £13.5bn – almost two thirds of the total – that can basically be described as “sums we made up and bunged in to make the total sound high”. How, for example, can you estimate “emotional impact costs”? Or lost output because someone has a hangover? In addition, of the £2.7bn alcohol harm is supposed to cost the NHS, and the sums it is supposed to cost the criminal justice system, there is no analysis of how much of this is sunk costs on the supply of doctors, nurses, ambulances and so on that would have to be paid for anyway, no analysis of how many jobs would vanish, putting people out of work, if “alcohol-related harm” disappeared, and no analysis of how much is saved in everything from bus passes to pensions to subsidised housing through people dying early. For more, see here.

“We are drinking 42 per cent more than we did in 1980”

A classic example of how to lie by telling only half the truth: shamefully (though unsurprisingly) this untrue claim was a Daily Mail headline late last year. In 1986/87 431 million litres of alcohol were sold. Sales hit 567 million litres in 2008. But thanks to an ever-rising population, sales per head show a very different tale:

1980: 9.4 litres
1990: 9.8 litres
2000: 10.4 litres
2010: 10.1 litres
2013: 9.4 litres

And the figure is still falling. So no, today we are, as individuals, drinking less than we did in 1980. See here for more.

“Three in four people in A&E at weekends are there because of alcohol”

Two lies in one sentence, found in stories in national newspapers at the end of 2015. The story sprang out of a study of A&E admissions in Newcastle upon Tyne published in a journal called Emergency Medicine, which actually found that alleged “alcohol-related attendances” make up less than 20 per cent of the weekend total, and only topped 70pc around 3am, when there were comparatively few people in A&E anyway: and these weren’t necessarily “alcohol-related attendees”, merely people who “tested positive for alcohol ingestion”. I’d suggest most people test positive for alcohol ingestion at 3am on a weekend morning. More here.

“Alcohol is now 60% more affordable today than it was in 1980”

Another lie, based on the fact that disposable incomes have risen (and ignoring the fact that we now buy much more stuff – smartphones, computers – and other costs are much higher – housing, travel). In fact, since 1980, the price of alcohol in the UK has gone up by 23pc more than the rate of inflation, and the real price of drinking has thus increased.

“Minimum pricing cuts alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions”

This claim is based on a study of British Columbia, in Canada. The neo-prohibs claim that “a 10pc increase in average minimum price for all alcoholic beverages in British Columbia was associated with a 32pc reduction in wholly alcohol-related deaths within nine months, a 9pc reduction in acute alcohol-related hospital admissions and a 9pc reduction in chronic alcohol-related hospital admissions two to three years after the policy was implemented.” But in fact alcohol-related deaths did not fall and alcohol-related hospital admissions continued to rise. And to quote Christopher Snowdon: “The alcohol-related mortality rate in British Columbia, where they’ve had minimum pricing and a state-run off-licence monopoly for years, is 24 per 100,000, whereas in the UK, where we supposedly have a boozing epidemic, it is barely half of that: 13 per 100,000.” More here, with a particularly good look at the debate from an Irish point of view here.

“More than 135,000 UK drinkers will die of cancer caused by alcohol by the year 2035”

This is the “big figure” lie: 135,000, the population of Gloucester, sounds a huge number. But that figure of alcohol cancer deaths is spread over 20 years – so it is actually 6,732 a year. There are 7,674 GP practices in England alone. Therefore each GP surgery is likely to see fewer than one patient a year die from cancer caused by alcohol. Any figures you see from the neo-prohibs will always be spun to look as bad as possible – deaths quoted over 10 or 20 years, for example, risks given as relative rather than absolute, so that the risk of a particular disease “doubles” if you drink, but further digging will reveal that “doubling” is from, say, a one in 5,000 chance to a one in 2,500 chance; so in reality from very very very small to just very very small.

A picture of a City of London Brewery dray from the 1920s, used here for no particular reason except that I like it. Anyone know the manufacturer of the dray?

Overall, then, when you read anything from any anti-alcohol campaigner, the best policy is to remember what the late Times foreign correspondent Louis Heren would ask himself when interviewing a politician: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” The next step is to try to identify exactly where the lie is, and then rebut it, as loudly as possible.

Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite Camra being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.

Cloudwater: no more cask

When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45 per cent, against 25 per cent in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23 per cent in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15million to £2.7 million and 13,000hl/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask: the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, tbh, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.

Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK.” He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: Cloudwater doesn’t believe that the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.

It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery start-up in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.

However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”

Continue reading

How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

The answer, to stop you looking it up, is Twickenham, which despite not even being a teenager yet, today, after the sale of Meantime, bears the mantle of the capital’s currently longest surviving independent new brewery. Which is more of a burden than you might at first reckon.

The brewery produces some lovely, and deservedly highly regarded cask and bottled beers: Naked Ladies, named for a set of statues of nymphs in a public garden by the Thames, is an excellent and locally very popular American-influenced 4.4 per cent alcohol best bitter, firmly but lightly flavoured with Celeia and Chinook hops, a good session brew and a reliable banker found on bar tops across West London and, in its bottled version, in a large number of off-licences around its home area, including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as Majestic Wine outlets nationally.

naked-ladiesBut the brewery’s full name – Twickenham Fine Ales – is a reflection of the astonishingly different environment in which it was founded, just a dozen years ago. We’ve forgotten, I think, how unlike today the British beer scene was when Tony Blair was prime minister and Michael Howard leader of the Conservative Party. Beer in Britain went through a complete spin-around in 2009/2010, and I suspect, we can only look back now, half a decade on, and think: “Wow – what happened there?” We all saw these new breweries opening from 2009 onwards, in London in particular, we all saw how they were highly influenced by what was happening in the United States, with massively hoppy beers, big stouts, sour beers, strange obscure offerings such as Gose, and oriented towards keg delivery, towards cans, towards 33cl bottles kept in the chiller, and I’m not sure we were able to see quite what a caesura, a total break, this was in the history of British brewing, what a revolution was happening around us. “Fine Ales”? Grandad, that’s so 20th century.

Continue reading

How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen

It’s a grand and globe-trotting life being a beer blogger. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.

I am honorable – it's official

I am the honorable  Martyn Cornell – it’s official

The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.

Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.

Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery? Continue reading

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

Continue reading

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am

Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

Continue reading

Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Let’s get one potentially controversial point out of the way first: this is a £20 bottle of beer. If that shocks you, you’ve not been paying attention to what’s happening in the market: there are more expensive beers than that. Some of Thornbridge’s sour creations sell at £15 for a bottle half the size. And £20 is barely leaving the foothills in the Land of Wine: even my local corner offie, which will sell you 24 cans of Foster’s for £20, has half a dozen wines for sale at that much a bottle or more.

This is also a very rare bottle of beer: Goose Island has brewed not much more than a couple of thousand litres, around 3,600 (UK) pints, of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale, and only 600 bottles have made it to the UK, where they are on sale in fewer than a dozen London outlets, including The Rake by Borough Market (where it was launched last Thursday), Mother Kelly’s, We Bought Beer, the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Clapton Craft.

So: is it worth it? Certainly the bar has been raised once again in the “authentic old beer reproduction” high jump, after Carlsberg’s effort earlier this year in brewing an 1883 lager with revived 1883 yeast. And BYSPA is a considerably more complex drink than Carlsberg’s straightforward 19th century sipper.

The back-story first: Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s “brewing innovation manager”, decided early in 2014 that he wanted to reproduce an old British ale of some sort, one that involved ageing in oak barrels and finishing with Brettanomyces. A great many people make the sign of the cross when Goose Island is named, believing that, since it is now owned by AB InBev, all its works bear the Mark of the Beast. But for me, any company that lets one of its managers say: “Hey – I’m going to spare little expense in recreating an obscure beer from 140 years ago” cannot possibly be totally bad. Continue reading

Hopping down in Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, Farnham, Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, near Farnham, Surrey

Two years ago I helped plant what was Surrey’s first new hop garden for more than half a century, and this week I went down and helped harvest hops from that same hop garden.

Of course, “helped plant” is a wild and self-aggrandising exaggeration: I dug out and popped hop rootstock into fewer than a couple of dozen holes out of the two thousand in total that were made in the field opposite the Hogs Back Brewery’s premises in Tongham, near Farnham. And “helped harvest” is a terminological inexactitude of Melton Mowbray megapie proportions as well: I gathered maybe half a small plastic bag-full of fresh Farnham White Bine hop cones off the lower third or so of a couple of towering bines. Still, those cones then went into some of Hogs Back’s TEA – Traditional English Ale – to make a new, or at least rare style of beer: Fresh Green Hopped Ale. And after a couple of days to mature, it tasted … well, let’s wait to the end.

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

I was down in Surrey after an invitation from Rupert Thompson, Hogs Back’s chairman, to have a look at the hop harvest going on at Puttenham Farm, in Seale, near Farnham, and then have a “hop harvest lunch” in the shade of the bines at Hogs Back’s own hop garden. Puttenham Farm was, until Hogs Back’s plantings, the last of what had been a big and important hop-growing industry centred on Farnham. It still has 14 acres of hops, all Fuggles, and the growing demand for English hops, with resultant higher prices, has encouraged the owner, Hamptons Estate, to plant another 10 acres that are due to come on stream next year. The estate is also building a new oast house for processing and drying the hops, to replace the rather elderly facilities it uses now. (Mind, by far the most profitable way to sell hops is to people who want to decorate their homes/bars/restaurants with them: £23 a bine as decoration, against 50p for the kilo or so of dried hops each bine provides.)

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Sixty and more years ago the hops would have been picked by travellers and other itinerant workers: today it’s students, earning some late summer holiday money before returning to college. This can cause problems: the hops have to be picked when the workforce is available to pick them, and Rupert and his team say that one of the things they have discovered since planting their own hops is that the cones often have the best flavours and aromas later in the year than many hop farmers would be harvesting them. Hogs Back sends its hops after they are harvested to Puttenham Farm to be processed and bagged into pockets marked with the traditional bell logo used on Farnham hops: ironically, being closer to Farnham itself, Hogs Back can have TWO bells on its pockets, while Puttenham, further away, can only have one. (Anyone starting a hop garden in Farnham itself would be entitled to three bells …)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hops Hogs Back planted in its own hop garden are Fuggles, Farnham White Bine, the traditional local hop, which disappeared from Surrey 80 and more years ago, and the American hop Cascade. As it happens, one of Cascade’s parents is Fuggles, so it ought to feel at home in England (though its ancestors also include, probably, American wild hops of unknown provenance, via open pollination, hence its very American citrus flavours.) According to Miles Chesterman, Hogs Back’s head brewer, the Surrey-grown Cascades (which go into the brewery’s Hogstar lager) are the equal to any Americans, and he is turning away offers to buy some of this year’s harvest: Hogs Back wants it all, especially at current prices.

Hogs Back chairman gives a final look over the hop pickers' lunch at Tongham

Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson gives a final look over the hop pickers’ lunch at Tongham

In keeping with the “localism” of growing hops just across the road from the brewery, Rupert and his team laid on a lunch in the dappling shade of the hop garden that featured almost entirely local produce: Surrey cheeses and breads, Surrey scotch eggs and pork pies, and so on, all very fine indeed. The only “outsiders” were a couple of dried meats from Cumbria, if I remember correctly, made by Rupert’s brother, which, too, were terrific.

Fresh green hopped TEA

Fresh green hopped TEA

So, what is fresh green hopped ale flavoured with Farnham White Bines straight off the bine actually like? Excellent and fascinating: beautiful, clean, masses going on, slightly grassy/herby, spot of orange juice, tiny touch of liquorice, red apples, something faintly smokey and autumnal in the background, the sweetness of the beer seemingly brought out more by the raw hops: I’d strongly encourage brewers not just to make “green hop” beers by putting green hops into the copper, but “fresh green hop” beers, soaking the fresh hops in the brewed beer. (And when you put one of those soaked hops in your mouth – whoa!)

And now, a suitable musical ending from Shirley Collins and the Albion Band, “Hopping Down in Kent” – strictly the wrong county, but you’ll spot, I’m sure, that one of the pictures used in this YouTube video shows what is clearly a scene from Farnham.