Tag Archives: Micacle Brew

Last-minute Christmas beer book recommendations

Postcard from 1906 showing the ‘largest and smallest employees’ of Watson Brothers’ Wembley brewery, Sudbury, Harrow, North London. The brewery closed in 1910. There’s no particular reason for showing this picture, except that it’s great

As a man who owns 14 different books just on the subject of hops, I am not, perhaps, the target market for such recent volumes as The Little Book of Beer Tips,Yet Another Atlas of Beer, or even 1001 Beers to Try Before Your Liver Explodes and You Have to Spend Three Years on a Dialysis Machine Waiting for a Transplant. I buy guides to beer like 1001 Beers cheaply, second-hand, in charity shops, because as they age they become good records of what was happening in beer in a particular year, which is very useful if, as has just happened, I write something on the recent history of a particular beer style. The 1984 Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer by James D Robertson, £5 in a second-hand bookshop in Chiswick four years ago, was out of date within, probably, two years but is now invaluable as a picture of the world of American brewing (and what it was doing with porter) just before it underwent Big Bang-style super-inflation, when there were fewer than 100 operating breweries in the US, across only 28 states. And not a single one in Vermont. I buy new books on beer only when I think I’ll learn something I didn’t already know, and, ah, yes, this is big-headed, but that doesn’t happen very often. So that means I’m not the best person to make recommendations about possible beer book Christmas presents for your ale-loving mum or dad.

However, I CAN still recommend two books that came out this year, one because it’s probably the most comprehensive in-depth look at the subject of beer and its ingredients as you’ll find anywhere right now, so that all but the most nerdily knowledgable will definitely have their beer education levels lifted, and even better, it’s entertainingly well-written; and the other because it’s on one of those subjects that, until you read a book about it, you probably hadn’t realised you needed to read a book about it: the history of the pub in the 20th century, or How We Got from Lloyd George to Tim Martin (not the actual sub-title, which is “From Beer House to Booze Bunker”, though perhaps it should have been …).

Pete Brown’s Miracle Brew (sub-titled “Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer”) is a book whose time had come, in that at least two other beer writers, to my knowledge, had been contemplating a “history of the ingredients” before Pete announced what his next book project would be about. Astonishingly less than a quarter of the population could tell you what all the ingredients of beer actually are, even though it’s still, by total number of glasses consumed, easily the biggest-selling alcoholic drink in the UK. As awareness of those ingredients grows, however – led, of course, by the increasing narrative around hops and hop varieties powered by the craft beer movement – curious drinkers do seem to be finally wishing to educate themselves more thoroughly on what goes into their beer, judging by the numbers (almost 600) who pledged money to the crowd-funding that paid for Miracle Brew to be published. That may not sound a lot in advance sales, but it’s better than many books do in total.

Pete is a travel writer as much as – or possibly more than – he’s a beer writer, and Miracle Brew explains how the ingredients that go into beer work with a series of journeys: to Warminster in Wiltshire, and to North Norfolk, to see how barley becomes malt, and to Bamberg, to talk about speciality malts with the people from Weyermann, whose name you will see on bags in the malt store of most breweries you might get to visit; to Dublin, Bohemia and Burton upon Trent, to investigate the biggest ingredient in beer by far, and the most under-appreciated, water; to Bohemia, again, and Kent (where he meets, and hails, a man who is also one of my heroes, Dr Peter Darby of the British Hop Association – amateur enthusiasts love professional enthusiasts) and Slovenia, and Oregon and Tasmania, to try to understand the allure of hops; and back to Burton, to Copenhagen, to Brussels and Amsterdam, and finally to Munich, in pursuit of yeast.

I don’t think it’s possible to write any fact-crammed non-fiction book without getting some of those facts wrong – I never have, and I was kicking myself only recently as I reread one of my early books and wondered why I had written that a butt of beer contains 120 gallons (it is, of course, only 108 gallons – three barrels). Miracle Brew does pretty well: there’s a howler on page 10 where the date that the Fuggle hop was discovered is given as 1785; the London & Country Brewer was indeed published anonymously in 1736 (p59) but we’ve known for around half a century at least that the author was a Hertfordshire farmer called William Ellis; Guinness didn’t start adding roasted barley to its stout as soon as it could (ie 1880), but waited around 50 years (p117); unhopped, unherbed ale isn’t automatically sweet, but has a tannic dryness and probably would have had a woody smokiness too, from the way the malt was dried (p174); the surname Hopkins most definitely does NOT mean “children of the hop” and was NOT given to babies born nine months after the hop harvest who ended up in orphanages, even if Dr Darby says so (p265) – it’s fundamentally the same origins as Robertson; and “kvaic” (it’s properly spelt “kveik”) is from Norway, not Finland (p354). And that’s it. Six small stumbles in 407 pages: well done Mr B and/or his fact checkers.

Pete is, no question, the most stylishly dextrous and verbally entertaining writer about beer in the English language right now, and because of that, Miracle Brew is a great read even, probably, if you’re barely interested in beer at all. Buy it for a pal you know likes beer: buy another one for yourself, you’ll enjoy it.

I was slightly surprised to find just how many people I knew of those mentioned in the pages of Miracle Brew, though beer is a small world. I was more surprised to find how many of the outlets mentioned in Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s 20th Century Pub I also knew: indeed, Chapter Four majors on a discussion of one pub I knew well from the age of six, the Pied Piper in Longmeadow, Stevenage New Town, which was a short walk from where my grandparents lived after they moved out from Burnt Oak, North London, and which had a large garden where children could run around and choke themselves on the blue bags of salt that used to come in packets of crisps, while their elders drank pints of mild and bitter from Simpson’s brewery in nearby Baldock. B&B use the visit by the Queen to the Pied Piper soon after it opened in 1959 as peg from which to hang a discussion of the 4,000 or so new pubs built in the decade or so after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.

Pied Piper, Stevenage, 1959, designed by Messers Moore, Simpson & Cleverly for Simpson’s Brewery, Baldock

Probably a couple of hundred of those new pubs were built, like the Pied Piper, in the first wave of New Towns, from Crawley to Glenrothes. It would be interesting to know how many of those New Town pubs have now closed: of the 15 pubs that were built in Stevenage New Town, at least seven have shut, including the very first one to open, in 1953, the Twin Foxes (named for a pair of notorious early 20th century Stevenage poachers, Albert Ebenezer Fox and his identical twin Ebenezer Albert Fox) in Bedwell, which is now flats. For comparison, the original Old Town of Stevenage, once a major coaching stop on the Great North Road, and the surrounding hamlets and villages the new town swallowed, had around 20 pubs and beerhouses in 1953, of which eight have disappeared: the New Town has thus lost 47 per cent of its “original” pubs, the Old Town and surroundings just 40 per cent (while gaining two more).

The Twin Foxes, the first pub to open in Stevenage New Town, built by Stevenage Development Corporation and leased, at first, to three brewers jointly: one local, McMullen’s of Hertford, and two from London, Whitbread and Mann’s

It’s that kind of question which 20th Century Pub constantly provokes: it is comprehensively researched and excellently footnoted, and will be a book I know I will be turning to whenever I have a question about recent events in British pubs, just as I turn to Brew Britannia, their equally comprehensive and deservedly award-winning survey of the past four decades of British brewing, whenever I want to check a fact. Run down the index, and it ticks off almost all the more obscure subjects I would wish to find in such a survey of pub history 1901-2000: the foundation and growth of the Trust House movement, Thomas Nowell Parr, Levy & Franks and the Chef & Brewer chain, the roadhouse movement, the ploughman’s lunch (thanks for the hat tip to my own Strange Tales of Ale, chaps!) Everything seems to be covered: the pre-First World War battle between brewers and the temperance parties about the very existence of the pub, the problems of the First World War, the “improved pub” movement of the 1920s and 1930s, “modern pubs”, estate pubs and theme pubs, gastropubs and superpubs, the threat to the community pub, and the concomitant rise of the micropub. And yet: I’d have liked more in-depth discussion of the history of many of the topics that flash by, such as Chef & Brewer, founded some time before the Second World War, probably the longest-lived “non-brewer” pub brand still going, albeit now under its fourth or fifth owner, Greene King, still with 145 pubs operating under the brand, but not one in central London, where the brand began: indeed, there are now only four Chef and Brewer pubs inside the M25. What happened to all the former Levy & Franks Chef & Brewer pubs? Are they closed, or running under other names?

The public bar at the Twin Foxes, the first pub in Stevenage New Town. Note the five handpumps on the bar

I would also have liked more discussion on a topic that, as someone who grew up in a town that had large numbers of brand new pubs competing against large numbers of pubs that had been open for hundreds of years (the oldest pub in Stevenage, the White Lion – recently renamed, with no good excuse, the Mulberry Tree – has been around since at least 1652), continues to fascinate me: why were all the new pubs so soulless? B&B quote an Architects Journal piece from 1964 on “the post-war pub” which says of the sort of estate pub that dotted Stevenage, at one end of every parade of shops, with a church at the other end: “… in their architectural decoration [they] tend to reflect the type of house which surround them … often the pub could in fact be another house except for the inn sign and car park.” But if you look at New Town pubs, while they often do indeed reflect the surrounding estates in architectural style, namely blandardised “neo-Georgian”, they look more like a New Town corporation house after a huge intake of steroids: swollen and bloated. The family resemblance is still there, but if you took the innsign away, you still wouldn’t mistake this for a normal dwellinghouse. They were cold-looking and unwelcoming outside, and the insides were no friendlier. Nobody I knew drank in a New Town estate pub: Friday and Saturday nights it was on the bus and away to the Old Town. But why? What were those New Town pubs missing, and could they have been injected with it?

The ‘mixed bar’ – that is, the ladies were allowed in – at the Twin Foxes, Stevenage in 1953, before furniture was installed

Those criticisms of 20th Century Pub apart, the error rate, again, appears to be commendably low: the original Stevenage was a town (since it had a market), not a village; the Bear and Baculus is not a “curious” name for a pub in Warwick, since “baculus” means “rod or staff”, and the Bear and Staff has been a badge used in Warwick and Warwickshire since the middle ages; craic is not a Gaelic word, but an “Irishisation” of the old North of England dialect word “crack”; table service was not an Irish oddity, but something that could certainly still be found in pubs in the North of England in the 1970s, where staff could be summoned to take orders via a bellpush on the wall; the bust of Carl Jung in an alcove at Flanagan’s Apple in Liverpool was not installed as a “whim” but in homage to the dream Jung had in 1927 in which he found himself in a mystic Liverpool, interpreting the city’s name afterwards as symbolising the “pool of life”.

If you have any interest in pubs (and I assume that since you are reading this blog, you do), this is a book worth buying: buy a copy for any friends interested in pubs, as well. And if reading it inspires you to answer some of the questions the book raises via some research of your own, all the better.

Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water Yeast and the Nature of Beer, Pete Brown, Unbound

20th Century Pub: from Beer House to Booze Bunker, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, The Homewood Press