Friday 5 June 2009

Hops and Glory

People mill about, chatter rises to the rafters like smoke from a fire; have a beer says someone to someone else; have another says another. White Shield or Sierra Nevada says a nice woman behind the table. On the wall, photos of the sea, ships and brewing following each other with clockwork precision — a lazy drift of snapshots like a punt ambling upstream. Who’s that over there? Oh it’s Neil Morrissey and Richard Fox. I’m pissed says someone from the Publican. I’m not says the Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers, but I will be. A pile of books, the brickwork of a life in writing, rise from a table. Hops And Glory: the name of the book. The launch. Back in 2007 beer writer Pete Brown went on a journey with a barrel of beer and I thought him mad, while also admiring the inspiration that motivated such a journey. Beer writing is about journeys, but usually from brewery to brewery, from country to country, cocooned in the company of PRs and fellow writers — not with a bloody great barrel in tow. Yet Pete — by barge, by rail, by cruise ship, by sailing ship, by banana boat — went further than any other beer writer, in more ways than one. Forget about press trips to Polish or Czech breweries, smooth train journeys to welcoming English micros and barmy Belgians or even long winded drives around the hidden breweries of the biĆ©re de garde area — I have done them all, but I would never have had the courage or fortitude to do what Pete did. As the people come and go in the confines of the BrewWharf, the question to ask: was it all worth it? Reading the book, reeling at the cost, the logistical nightmares, the emotional toil and trouble, the single minded obsession, the energy and motivation to continue when all seemed lost, I think the answer is yes. Yes, as Molly Bloom said at the end of Ulysses (there I’ve given the ending away), the most positive word in the English language, yes it was worth it. The book is funny — Pete (and I speak as someone who has enjoyed many a drink with him) is a funny man with a fine sense of the absurdities of life; he’s the sort of writer who can make mockery of the moment he fell in the Burton-Rugby canal; is he having a laugh? Of course he is. Alongside the humour there’s also a well-observed sense of poignancy at the decline of the brewing industry in Burton; there’s much new information on the development of IPA and even if the history bits occasionally owe a lot to the John O’Farrell/Stuart Maconie school of historicism (ie historical characters seemingly straight out of the pages of Loaded or Nuts), the fascination that Pete has with the Raj and its roisterers and way that IPA became the drink of choice shines out through these pages. Then there is the sense of tension that ripples through the pages when he is writing about waiting for a replacement cask before boarding the boat that will take him across the Atlantic and up to India for the end of the journey. In an age where I have thought that there is nothing new to be written about beer, Hops And Glory comes along and refreshes the genre (see pages 234-235 for a new take of keg beer), while also managing to shed new light on a beer whose mythology we have taken for granted for too long. So back in the BrewWharf. As the people come and go the question to ask: was it all worth it? One word. Yes.

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