Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey
I don’t often review books on here (purely because I’m published…it feels kind of odd) but it’s an understatement to say that I have been waiting for this book to appear for some time – so I’m going to anyway. I’ve been following Boak and Bailey’s progress with it since they announced the deal, and the subject matter interests me greatly; my beer culture, in my lifetime.
Given the range of the posts which have been appearing on B&B’s blog since they started work on the book – a torrent of offshoots, loose ends and interesting nuggets found during the research for Brew Britannia – I was expecting a dense, fact-rich tome, much more akin to Martyn Cornell’s cornerstone book Amber, Gold and Black. Instead we get a almost breezy, fast-paced romp through modern, thoroughly British beer culture set amongst the sociological and economic backdrops of those times.
The ease at which the book the book can read – whilst packing in a fair amount of data – is the book’s strength, and testament to the duo’s writing chops. Focusing – to me, anyway- on the people behind the beer rather than ‘the numbers’ is the real ace in the pack, however. Peter Austin, Sean Franklin, Brendan Dobbin and David Bruce all deserve their own books – let alone chapters – such is the richness of their tales of reform and rebellion.
The genesis of CAMRA is told in a refreshingly frank way, something that’s perhaps been missing in print up until now. Sure, plenty of writing about CAMRA is out there, but there’s always seems to be ‘an angle’ to it; either pro- or anti-. Here, the interviews with the likes of Michael Hardman are ‘as they are’, and seem much more honest as a result. The inclusion of an appraisal of the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood (both past and, in a poignant coda, present) shines a much-needed light on them at a time when many people simply don’t know they exist.
The chapter on BrewDog seeks to smash a few myths – albeit ones created by Watt and Dickie themselves – and offers some interesting lines of thought on the Scottish brewer’s indelible contribution to modern beer in the UK. Despite feeling a little rushed towards the end, the final third does well to bring the whole story up to date. Again, much like CAMRA, I wonder if anyone will finish the book down with a new perspective about BrewDog and their place in our beer culture? Likewise Tim Martin’s JD Wetherspoon’s empire – which is, surprisingly, only mentioned fleetingly.
The events in the decades that it spans all have very real, very tangible imprints on today’s beer culture in the UK, and as a beer blogger in these times I found the chapters and mentions regarding people I have met – Stuart Ross, Sean Franklin, Zak Avery, Barrie Pepper – a real cause for celebration. By bringing this book out now rather than in ten year’s time, B&B have created a very ‘live’, very workable document for those wanting to explore the stories of the people within. This is a rare quality for a ‘traditional’ publication to have – and I have to commend Aurum for showing a little faith in the book’s story at a time when publishers only seem to want conscise guides and how-to books (trust me, I know – this is an area I know all too well!).
I’ll leave my review at this, veering off-track slightly: a few months ago, I left some comments on an excellent blog by Chris Hall about the denigration of ‘Beer Hipsters’, something that, at the time, I personally felt was becoming a little bit out of hand. I stand by my comments today – that I’m, at heart, a traditionalist; a modern drinker who is scared that, in a few years’ time, a whole seam of beer drinkers who have helped bring beer to audiences that it has struggled to in the past, simply up an leave in favour of something new. That there’s a family of drinkers who won’t go visit a pub that only serves cask ale, or will maybe even never touch cask ale, or – even worse – certain beers purely because of the branding.
…That there’s a group of drinkers who have no interest in the truly inspirational pioneers who fought, gambled and took huge personal risks to transform beer into something new or simply make sure it never dies. That there’s journalists out there who are being sent from their desks by panicking news editors to ‘get across this craft beer thing‘ to ‘put the tick in the box’, and doing the brewers and beers a disservice by doing so with poor work despite vital mainstream column inches. Social media and blogs makes us all experts these days, as in food, fashion and pretty much anything else. How useful that actually is remains to be seen.
Brew Britannia is the perfect book for these times, for this audience. To understand where it all comes from, and how everything, much like a Pete Frame Family Tree that the authors are so enamored by – is connected. Welcome publicity is given to minor yet-significant milestones such as Mash & Air, Passageway Brewing, Belgo, and my own beloved North Bar. Without one, you don’t get the other. Brew Britannia is an excellent book; investigative, frank, even-handed and, above all, vital to both the beer geek and the neophyte alike.