All posts by 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

RIP MJ

In January 1988 I was sitting in the back of the Brugs Beertje in Kemelstraat, Bruges (rightly called by Tim Webb “one of the finest beer cafes in the world”) with an assortment of other zythophiles including Roger Protz, Webbo himself, who got the idea for his Good Beer Guide to Belgium that night, Pitfield Brewery owner Martin Kemp, Brian Glover and Ted Bruning. We were being taken through a tutorial on Belgian beer – and Belgian cheese – by the bar’s hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic owner, Jan de Bruyne, on a trip organised by the West Flanders Tourist Board for the just-formed British Guild of Beer Writers. As we began the tutorial, a man from the tourist board came in, and said Michael Jackson, even then probably the most famous beer writer on the planet, would be joining us later: he was flying in from judging at a beer festival in Finland …

I believed we all cheered ironically, while secretly thinking: “What a fantastic job!” However, when Jacko did arrive, he immediately showed how hard-working he was: taking extensive notes on every beer, photographing those bottles he hadn’t already got pictures of, while the rest of us were happy just to slurp and trough. Later I learnt that he made notes every time he drank a beer, and stored the notes in filing cabinets in his office in Hammersmith, so that he could track whether a particular brew was changing over time …

Now Michael is dead, and the beer world will miss him enormously. As others have said, his influence cannot be overestimated, in Europe, in America and elsewhere, after a river of books and articles over the past 30 years. Rightly, he won more tankards in the annual BGBW awards – 13, including three golds and two silvers and the guild’s first “lifetime achievement” award – than anybody else. It has to be recorded that not only was he a great beer writer, he was a fine essayist as well: I remember a beautifully written piece he wrote about being trapped at an obscure airport in the United States with nothing to drink in the airport bar except American Budweiser, and how he decided that, out of duty, he really ought to try a glass to see if it was as bad as he kept telling everybody it was … I was given his World Guide to Beer in 1979, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it since: 28 years ago it opened for me windows on brews I had hardly heard of before, from gueuze to Bavarian Weisse, and I still refer to it today.

Because of the enormous range of his beer writing, Michael found himself widely plagiarised, something he would dismiss with a shrug: despite all the fandom he received, and his own vast enthusiasm for the pleasures of beer, Michael was a quiet man, without an ounce of “side”. It’s a little-known fact about Michael that he was the first editor of the UK advertising trade magazine Campaign, and when he discovered that I had worked on Campaign too, he would speak with wry humour of the magazine’s earliest days. I remember being hugely flattered when he namechecked me in his book The Beer Companion in 1993 for something I had written on the origins of the name AK – he didn’t have to do that, but it was typical of Michael that he would give credit to others. Sorry you’re gone, Michael – along with the rest of your millions of fans, I’ll be raising a glass of something hoppy to you this lunchtime … and probably another one tonight …

Young’s makes me feel you so

There are not many pleasures as fine as good, real, live beer, but one of them is good, real, live jazz.

Luckily, for the 25 years I’ve lived back in London, in eight homes and four different boroughs, I’ve never been more than about 15 minutes’ drive from the Bull’s Head at Barnes. Young’s beer on handpump in the music room itself, almost invariably great performances from the stage by terrific musicians: it’s one of the regularly available delights of the capital that make up for the hassle, the noise and the expense of living in London.

Last Saturday, for example, the band at the Bull’s Head was a quintet led by the piano player Stan Tracey, a man justly called by the BBC “the godfather of British jazz”, with Stan’s long-time collaborator, the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Stan’s son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Guy Barker on trumpet. Terrific modern jazz, played with panache and passion – and all for £12 at the door. Frankly, I feel guilty paying so little for something so good – it would cost you more for a not-very-good bottle of wine in the restaurant next door.

Seeing Guy Barker reminded me that I have an LP (remember those?) released exactly 30 years ago by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, called In Camra, and featuring tunes “inspired” by real ale and real ale breweries. Guy was in the trumpet section, and I’ve been trying to spot him on the cover, which shows the entire NYJO in the brewery yard at Young’s Ram brewery, with Ramrod the sheep front and centre and a fully loaded horse-drawn dray in the background.

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Cakes and ale and ducks

Cakes and ale is an under-rated combination, despite it being a well-known expression in English*. Barley wine is best: I once had a slice of fruit cake with a bottle of the Traquair House Ale (seven per cent ABV) at the tearoom in the grounds of Traquair House itself, when I was travelling through the lowlands of Scotland with the woman She Who Must Be Obeyed likes to refer to as “your first ex-wife”, and very fine it was: the residual sweetness, and fruitiness of the strong ale, combined with its slight bitterness, matched well with the cake.

Ale IN cake is just as good an idea – I’ve been experimenting with a recipe for malt loaf from The Guardian that includes malt extract and strong dark ale, but I haven’t yet got the degree of solid stickiness I’m looking for in the final product. However, here’s a recipe for something I know works well, and is amazingly delicious – Guinness Cake.

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Inside the pale

The Times newspaper in London has recently completed the magnificent task of digitising its entire run of issues back to 1785, meaning every word, including all the advertisements, is now electronically searchable. This is a tremendous boon to historians, who will be greatly helped in finding the answers to many of the vexed historical questions of today, such as: is pale ale really a different drink from draught bitter?

Your man with his tent erected in the middle of the “pale ale and bitter are different styles” camp is Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™. In the latest edition of Beers of the World magazine, in a series of articles on beer styles, himself writes:

Let us begin by stating what pale ale is not. It’s not IPA – India Pale Ale – neither is it bitter. Pale ale stands between the two … Bitter, as we shall see later in the series, is an early 20th century beer, brewed to meet the demands of the new “tied pubs” of large brewers who wanted a draught “running beer” that could be served after only a few days of cellar conditioning.

However, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards pale ale and bitter being regarded as synonyms by both the public and brewers from the time the terms first appeared. (I won’t comment on Roger’s second claim, that 20th century bitter was a new invention that needed only a few days of cellar conditioning, until his promised piece on the history of bitter comes out).

Continue reading Inside the pale

Restive about festivals

I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.

The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.

All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.

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Spinning the stats

I’ve known a number of journalists who were brilliant before 1pm and useless after 2.30: Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, had a raft of reasons for naming its archetypal Fleet Street reporter character Lunchtime O’Booze. The advance of new technology into journalism, however, has sunk the five-pint lunch: you just can’t fly a computer keyboard after a good session in the Stab in the Back the way you could a manual typewriter.

It may be because bibulous, red-nosed excess has almost entirely vanished from British journalism that our national newspapers get so up their own posteriors about any story involving alcohol consumption, pub opening hours, “binge drinking”, teenage drinking, “alcohol-fuelled violence” and other staples of the Daily Mail-style scare story. They credulously accept all the propaganda that the anti-alcohol lobby puts out, and spin stories themselves to put the worst possible interpretation front and centre.

The Times last week splashed on crime figures it claimed showed “alcohol-fuelled crime figures rose in the first full year of relaxed licensing laws, with a particular jump in the hours after midnight”. The page one headline roared: “Drink, Drugs and All-Night Violence”, But the figures eight paragraphs down in the story showed serious violent crimes, woundings, assaults and criminal damage cases between 6pm and 6am were up just 0.74 per cent. There had been a “surge” of 22 per cent in the number of such cases between 3am and 6am since pubs and clubs stayed open later, the paper shouted – but the actual number of cases was tiny, and had risen by fewer than five per police force per week. The average police station probably saw one extra case a fortnight. Surge? Not even a ripple across a teacup.

Continue reading Spinning the stats

Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

When Coors decided to redesign the packaging for Worthington White Shield, they added a couple of florid paragraphs to the label declaring that this was one of the last surviving original 19th century India Pale Ales, and describing how casks of IPA would be taken out to India by sailing ship, around Cape Horn.

Ahem.

Continue reading Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

One of the funnier five minutes on the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow, where the public brings its mouldering rubbish along hoping for the experts to tell them it’s worth thousands, was a couple of years back when a woman turned up while the programme was being filmed in Scotland with a painting signed by someone called Jack Hoggan. She liked it, she told the Roadshow’s art expert, she had bought it quite cheaply in a junk shop, and she kept seeing pictures that reminded her of it, so the thought she would bring it along to try to find out more about this Hoggan chap.

The BBC art expert was obviously tortured by, on the one side, being able to tell the woman the painting was indeed worth much more than she had paid for it, and on the other, by having to say this was because it was by the painter who later changed his name to Jack Vettriano, the artist the experts loathe and the public adores. Vettriano’s The Singing Butler is one of the most reproduced pictures in Britain (you know it – it’s the one with the couple in evening dress dancing in the rain, while the butler and maid hold wind-blustered umbrellas). Art critics insist his work is flat and derivative. Vettriano is sheltered from their jibes by the £500,000 a year, at least, he makes from reproduction rights to his paintings.

There are plenty of beers that fit into the Jack Vettriano category – loathed by the “experts”, drunk in enough volume by the public that the brewers who make them don’t care. I don’t like Jack Vettriano that much, but there are at leat a couple of beers I’m not supposed to like that I really feel need to have a flag waved on their behalf: they’re, you know, actually, not that bad. Maybe it’s because they’re both from that global megacategory the pilsalikes that they come in for the ritual dismissal. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ insists

“Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do much better than the familiar Foster’s, Corona, American Bud, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Beck’s and similar international-style golden lagers from Ruritania, Xanadu or Bongoland. People imagine that these beers are enormously different from one another, but they are all lighter-bodied, blander-tasting, distant impersonations of just one style: the Pilsner lager of Bohemia. None of these imitators is truly individualistic.

but there are two errors in that position.

Continue reading Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

How much metaphorical baggage can you pile on a simple bar snack? Can bread, cheese and pickle (plus some lettuce and a sliced tomato, if you like) really be placed in the dock and charged with representing the worst kind of British fakery? Does the ploughman’s lunch masquerade as a false representation of simpler times, when muscular farmworkers furrowed the fields with the aid of a couple of tons of Clydesdale or Shire, while in reality it’s the invention of Italian-suited marketers in slick Soho offices? And what does the father of Martin Bell, the BBC journalist and former MP for Tatton, have to do with the story?

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Out of step …

There’s an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, the volume of reminiscences produced in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Park Royal brewery in London, which talks about the daily tastings of bottled Guinness undertaken by senior staff in the Park Royal sample room. Guinness being the sort of company that it was, bureaucratic, very strongly process-driven, all the tasters’ individual results were logged and compared, so the stats department could tell who were the most reliable. Edward Guinness, whose branch of the clan were actually from the non-brewing side, but who joined the company anyway in 1945, was “i/c sample room” in the late 1940s, and records:

… my worst taster by a wide margin was JF Brown, who upset every graph, and I had to be tactful in finally suggesting to him that he might forgo the privilege …

As John Brown was then head of raw materials, and went on to be Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, it is understandable Edward Guinness felt he had to be careful about telling the poor fellow he couldn’t taste his way out of a hop-sack …

I’ve got reasonable faith in my own tastebuds: I’ve raved over new beers, such as Little Creatures that others have later raved over too, and I’ve dissed beers, like Jupiler that most others seem to compare to weak stale dishwater too. But there are a couple of brews that turn up on “beers to try before you croak” lists that I fail to get at all, and I don’t know why everybody else is out of step except me.

Continue reading Out of step …