When I meet Pete Brown at the White Hart, his local in Stoke Newington, I’m surprised that he orders a lime and soda. Since he’s one of the country’s best known beer writers, giving up the drink would signify a radical change of both character and professional direction.
It’s nothing of the sort, of course: simply that later on, he will be on a panel at the first ever European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, where 70 beer enthusiasts and writers descend on the City of London for discussion, deliberation and drinking.
The event is further evidence, he believes, that something of a beer revolution is brewing in the UK, and it’s a development to which Hackney has certainly contributed. Stoke Newington’s still relatively new addition, the Jolly Butchers Ale and Cider House, is a shining example of the huge success that ‘craft beer’ pubs have been finding across the country.
At the bar in the Jolly Butchers, similar to other London pubs like the Euston Tap and the Southampton Arms, seven real ales and three ciders are always on tap, with an additional extensive selection of bottles behind the bar. Customers often sample three or four before making their choice.
“It’s one of the best beer pubs in London,” says Brown. “There have always been pubs that serve real ales. But what makes these different is that every single drink on the bar is really interesting and well chosen. They choose their lagers carefully, and they have a good range of speciality beers from around the world.”
Particular favourites tend to be strong-flavoured styles like IPA and imperial porter, which Brown describes as “beers with real character and complexity, that can rival wine what wine does in terms of standing up to food”. Such drinks are helping increasing numbers of people to realise that beer is a massively varied drink, worthy of serious gastronomic consideration – and the result has been a remarkable transformation of its image.
“Some people still see it as being all about flat caps and whippets. But you go into these pubs and there’s not a beard or pair of sandals and socks in sight,” says Brown, before correcting himself: “There are beards, but they are trendy, self conscious ones. Beer is cool. There are hipsters from Dalston drinking ale from chunky handled mugs.”
But it isn’t just limited to fashionable areas, he insists. The last in a series of video blogs he has posted was from the Fat Cat pub, on a residential street in Norwich, which was “rammed all day with people drinking speciality beers”, and similar success can be witnessed at the Bridge Bierhuis in Burnley.
“A lot of these pubs of them are in places where pubs have failed before,” says Brown. “If you are good with people and you are passionate about beer, you can make a pub like that work wherever. You just have to get your customers interested in it and get them trying it.”
In fact, the last group of people clinging to outdated stereotypes seem to be the country’s self-appointed guardians of taste and style. The comments from a Buckingham Palace source that “beer isn’t really an appropriate drink” to be serving in the Queen’s presence at the Royal Wedding highlighted an attitude that is still common, while Brown and his fellow judges could not find any newspaper to publish the winning entry of a recent major beer writing competition.
“Bizarrely, the mainstream media seem to be the only people who are unaware of what’s happening,” he says. “Every broadsheet newspaper has at least one wine column a week. But they flatly refuse to give beer coverage. It’s not just that they don’t print stuff about beer, it’s that they will not.”
He knows staff on newspaper magazines who have been told they cannot write on beer, and finds the policy particularly inexplicable since the publications are perfectly happy to take advertising from brewers. “They know that people who read their paper love beer, but they won’t write about it. There is so much passion about beer in the UK, but they won’t cover it. It really is beyond belief.”
Persistence will eventually bring the doubters around, argues Brown, who, with a top-ranking beer blog and a trilogy of books on the subject, could not be accused of avoiding playing his part. His first book, Man Walks into a Pub, was a examination of beer’s cultural role in the UK; his next explored the same thing in countries around the world; and he then investigated the history of one particular type of beer, India Pale Ale. His new project, (working title Shakespeare’s Local) will explore the detailed history of the George Inn in Southwark, the one remaining historic inn in an area with strong links to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens.
The literary associations of beer was also the theme of his ‘Beer and Book Matching’ event at the White Hart as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. In his research, he has found that figures such as GK Chesterton and George Orwell were eloquent defenders of Britain’s drinking culture. Orwell’s article ‘The Moon Under Water’ says Brown, is “the best bit of beer writing ever”.
He has also sourced the drinks for ‘Pete’s Bar’ in the three main festival venues, where new beers from the Redemption Brewery in Tottenham and Brodie’s in East London – named through a competition – will be exclusively available. Last year George Alagiah and Phil Jupitus were enticed to try Thornbridge’s Kipling beer, says Liz Vater, Brown’s wife, who is organising the festival.
No one could say that everything is rosy regarding British beer at the moment, as pubs continue to close. But the rate has slowed, and in the long term there are grounds for optimism, says Brown.
“It will keep growing – the momentum is still there. I do get frustrated, but I just have to look back over the past five years to see how things have changed beyond recognition,” he says. “I used to say that main reason I wrote about beer was so I could make it more popular and find good beer more easily. And now that’s happened. Stoke Newington now has got so much good beer in it. It’s brilliant.”/ 6 June, 2011