How to not drink cask beer at a CAMRA beer festival

1) Go to the CAMRA National Winter Beer Festival in Manchester
2) Visit the foreign bar and order draught German rauchbier or bottles of dunkel
3) Er…. that’s it.

It’s no reflection on the quantity, quality and range of cask beer that was on offer. But I don’t get to try draught German beer too often, certainly not the likes of Schlenkerla Urbock. And the bottles were enticing; though I started off ordering “the one beginning with V and ending in Dunkel”, I was soon wrapping my lips around “Vierzehnheiligen Nothelfer Trunk” like a native. Albeit a native that slurred his words and pointed at lot.

Props to Craig "The Machine" Garvie for a few surreptitious slurps of cask along the way and to Tandleman for... well, for being Tandleman and helping to put on a damn good show.


Gude ale comes and gude ale goes

I don't do Burns' Night. I don't address a haggis. I've forgot most of the words to Tam O'Shanter. Since I was a wee bairn, when I was the spit of Oor Wullie, the quarter-Scot in me has never been attracted to the dirk, kilt and Auld Lang Syne.

To tell the truth, I've never rated Robert Burns as a poet. And as an occasion, the night seems to have been appropriated by a hospitality industry desperate to fleece tourists and sentimentalists for some hard cash in the lull between Christmas and Valentine's.

When Wetherspoons run a 'Burn's Week' - hopefully cheap 80' and microwaved haggis, rather than third-degree maiming - you know the shark has been well and truly jumped, chopped up and stuffed into an intestine.

It doesn't stop me repeating one of Burns' great truisms, mind. Good ale comes and good ale goes. Tonight, the good ale coming and going is a solid Belgian bruin (no, not Broon).

Mc Chouffe.

Jings. Crivvens. Help ma Boab. Etc

Thanks to beermerchants for the beer


Coming up in February

I don't usually do event announcements but there's a couple coming up in February in various Midlands cities that are well worth making the effort to get to.

SIBA are running their first ever keg festival on Tuesday 8th February at the Canalhouse, Nottingham. Kicking off at 5pm, straight after the Champion Keg judging, over 50 beers will be on offer from the likes of Brewdog, Freeedom, Fuller's and Harviestoun. A full list can be found over on Ed's Beer Site.

The Brewing Industry International Awards return to Burton-upon-Trent and features the International Festival of Beer at the National Brewery Centre from Friday 11th to Sunday 13th February. Not sure what beers to expect but with entries from places as far-flung as Belarus, Japan, Laos and Tanzania it'll be a surefire way for me to tick off a few more countries on my world beer list.

And the Derby CAMRA Winter Festival has a new time and place, Thursday 24th - Saturday 26th February at the Derby College Roundhouse. It's a converted rail shed slap bang next to the railway station; shuttle buses will run from the city centre. The only problem with this fest in the past had been the cramped venue; the Roundhouse looks very impressive and I'm sure the festival organiser (and new Alexandra Tavern landlord) Ralf Edge will have plenty of good beer on offer.

So, that's a unique UK keg beer festival, a comprehensive world-beer festival and an ever-impressive CAMRA winter beer festival. If you haven't been to Nottingham, Burton or Derby before - and goodness knows why not if you love beer - then get these dates in your diary. I'll be around at all three. See you there.


On the bookshelf

I'm working my way through a stack of beer-related books that were either Christmas presents or library loans.

Santa brought me a hopback-full of goodies;

- The Brewmaster's Table, Garret Oliver
- Beer Is Proof God Loves Us. Charles Bamforth
- Amber, Gold & Black, Martyn Cornell
- Tasting Beer / Radical Brewing, Randy Mosher

And the library came up trumps with;

- Man Walks Into A Pub, Pete Brown
- Brewery Railways of Burton Upon Trent, Cliff Shepherd
- The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, Peter Mathius
- The British Brewing Industry 1830-1980, Gourvish and Wilson
- A Life On The Hop, Roger Protz
- The Brewer's Tale, Frank Priestley
- British breweries : an architectural history, Lynn Pearson
- Froth! : The Science of Beer, Mark Denny
- The beer lover's guide to cricket, Roger Protz
- Beer : tap into the art and science of brewing, Charles Bamforth

(in fact, the last one is so good I've just bought the updated version)

Two things have impressed me: in a world of wikis and blogs, nothing can replace a well-written, well-referenced, sturdy printed tome. And there are some truly useful and entertaining beer books out there.

Make that three things: I love libraries. I spent ten minutes browsing Amazon for 'beer books' and then another ten minutes searching my public library's online catalogue for a dozen-and-a-half titles. I found a dozen of them, reserved them for free and had them delivered to my village library.

In a world of here-today-gone-later-today Tweets, status updates and blogs, of over-edited wikis and rambling forum posts, of eye strain and backache, nothing beats the feeling of slumping in an easy chair and relishing a good book. Even moreso when it's one that you can no longer buy in the shops; when taxpayers before you and the enlightened collection policy of your local library today ensures that some gems survive, slightly worn with a creased sleeve but otherwise In Good Condition.

I know a fair few people who love beer but don't read books. T'internet ramblings, yes. Big papery things tied up with string, no.

Everybody should. It help you form a world view and, hopefully, makes you think. Thinking is so important, Baldrick.

And if 40% off in the Amazon sale isn't good enough for you, try your local library and see what they have on the shelf / in the collection / in a nuclear bunker store. You may be pleasantly surprised.


Announcing The Session #48: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle?

I'm delighted to be hosting February's round of The Session: Beer Blogging Friday.

The method of beer dispense often raises the hackles of even the most seasoned beer drinker. Some evangilise about living, breathing cask as being the one true way. Others heartily support the pressurised keg. The humble tinny has its fans. Lovers of bottled beer, either conditioned or pasturised, can be equally vociferous.

Perhaps you think that one method magnifies a beer's impact. Perhaps you won't try a beer if it's dispensed in a way you don't agree with. Perhaps you've tried one beer that's been dispensed every which way.

The question is simple but your answer may not be: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter?

Post to your blog on Friday February 4th and add a comment below with a link to your piece so I can compile a round-up.


Hemingway on fermentation

I'll soon be reviewing "A Life On The Hop" by Roger Protz. Not to give much away, if you haven't already had the pleasure, but it's rather good fun. If you've never drank in Belgium - and I know some of you have yet to have the pleasure - then the chapter 'A Belgian Odyssey' is all the inspiration that you need. And don't get me started on the Bamburg chapter...

Anyoldhow. Toward the end of a piece about brewing at Eldridge Pope, Roger says "Ernest Hemingway should have written about fermentation rather than bull-fighting". Which got me thinking... what if 'Death In The Afternoon' went like...

"It is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, hopped wort and a tub of flocculant yeast stirred with a stick".


"His repertoire with the wort is enormous but he does not attempt by a varied repertoire to escape from the performance of the fermentation as the base of his brewing work and his fermentations are classical, very emotional, and beautifully timed and executed. You will find no Englishman who ever saw him brew who will deny his artistry and excellence with the wort".


"To brew a brave beer, have him ferment in ideal condition to the final act and then, through a limited repertoire, not be able to take advantage of conditioning to make a brilliant beer finishes a brewer’s chance of a successful career".

Action and conversation may have been Hemingway's best weapons. Given the choice, I'd probably have gone for a daiquiri as well, rather than a piss-poor local beery alternative. But there's always that sneaky feeling that, given the right brewhouse, Ernie would have been enraptured by beer. To never know feeds the hungry monster of conjecture.


An Open Letter To BMC

Ahh! Budweiser, Coors and Miller
You may use adjuncts as a filler
But with delicate flavour straight from the chiller
Could you be the perfect swiller?

The Bud 'King Of Beers' tag may sound rather fake
But to be honest - it works well as a slake
My flavour buds aren't starting to shake
But at least its fresh, straight outta Mortlake

Miller may have made it from Milwaukee to Woking
But there's something in the soapy suds that's lacking
The gassy sweet cereal just gets me burping
For a sense of satisfaction, I'm still searching

When the mountain turns blue, the Coors is ready
To be honest, it's the bottle I drank quick and steady
Not hoppy, not malty, not yeasty, not crafty
Just satiating beer, clean not clutzy

So, Budweiser, Coors and Miller
You get dissed for being thinner
But perhaps beer drinking isn't just about flavour
Just a cold one to consume...
... not something to savour?

Here's the thing. I've spent the last six years thinking about beer on these terms: aroma, appearance, flavour, palate. I used to think about beer on these terms: social lubricant, hot-throat-quencher, cold-soul-pacifier. In the last year or so I've thought about beer on these terms: place, time, company.

At each of those stages, I know that I've been prejudicial. Towards obvious aromas and flavours. To their absence. To the fact that the impact of any beer is more than the sum of its physical ingredients.

Tonight, I sat down and drank macro lager. America's Big Three, the BMC. I was thirsty. I wanted to remember that, sometimes, you drink beer because you have an itch in your throat. And the Coors - and to a lesser extent, the Bud - scratched it. I am not afraid to say that.

Tonight, with a gargantuan plate of steak and eggs, I drank Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. I wanted a beer that was like drinking a great glass of wine with a meal but was better than any 12oz bottle of wine could dream to be. I enjoyed it.

Apart from the Miller, I enjoyed them all. For what they were, for what they offered, at the time. I am not afraid to say that.

This started out as an off-the-cuff play on words; I love the Beastie Boys and I couldn't resist riffing off 'An Open Letter To NYC'. That led me to drinking BMC. And, having actually drank the stuff, I can understand again why so many drinkers do.

It's just beer.

And, sometimes, just beer will do.


Mikkel Borg Bjergsø - a Bad Ass Beer Advocate

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Danish brewers Mikkeller is the guy behind some of the most innovative collaborations and experimental brews that Europe has ever seen. Here's a piece I wrote for Beer Advocate magazine late last year as part of their Bad Ass Beer Advocate series.


He’s a part-time chemistry teacher who travels the world for beer inspiration. He has brewed some of the world’s highest-regarded beers and collaborated with brewing legends. And he doesn’t even own a brewery. Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is the very definition of a Bad Ass Beer Advocate.

Like many brewers before him, Mikkell started out at his kitchen sink. Homebrew was his way of getting to drink exciting beer in the styles he loved, which were seldom seen around Denmark. When those nascent brews were put on sale at his brother’s shop, Ølbutikken in Copenhagen, the public went nuts for his assertive, challenging beers. So he made the decision to brew more - but not to invest in a brewery.

Instead, he kept his job as a teacher whilst renting brewery time throughout Europe. In places such as De Proef and Nøgne Ø, Mikkel began to brew uncompromising beers of assured quality. Innovative brews such as Monk’s Brew and Beer Geek Breakfast soon captured the imagination (and palates) of drinkers worldwide and collaborations with US brewers followed. And so the ‘gipsy brewer’ legend was born.

Mikkel isn’t driven by sales or volume. Far more important to him is the freedom to brew beers without compromise, to take inspiration from his travels and revel in the endless possibilities that quality craft brewing can offer.

So what does he think of being named a Bad Ass Beer Advocate? “It’s really awesome”, he told us, “it shows that Mikkeller has gained respect in the US and that people like my beers. It also shows my that the whole gypsy thing is being respected now - which was not the case a few years back when I started up brewing!”

For his refusal to do the obvious, for his incessant experimentation and collaboration, for his unstinting approach to no-compromise brewing, Mikkel is Bad Ass through and through. But don’t just take our word for it. James Watt, from Scottish new-wave brewers Brewdog, is full of praise for Mikkel’s approach to brewing. “He is a rock star gypsy brewer,” James explained, “with killer beers, great innovation and breathtaking concepts always expertly executed.”

We’ll leave the last word to another of Mikkell’s collaborators, Nick Floyd from Three Floyds; “Who wouldn’t want to brew with a White Castle Hamburger loving Viking who happens to construct amazing beers without a brewery and a humble school teacher during the day?”


Lies, damn lies and beer statistics

Are aspirational drinkers turning to wine and bringing about the demise of the pub-going beer drinker? Ex-landlord and now full-time brewer Dave Bailey of Hardknott thinks so. In his blog post yesterday, he'd even knocked up a graph to illustrate the demise.

I find that the problem with statistics, having spent most of my professional life working with them, is you can invariably find some that fit your precise world view. So, I believe that beer volume in the on-trade is in decline simply because beer drinkers now drink less beer less often. And I've got a graph to prove it:

Source: derived from 'Statistics on Alcohol, England 2010', NHS

According to these figures the consumption of other alcohol types, either at home or outside of it, hasn't risen significantly in the ten-year period during which on-trade beer consumption has fallen.

This doesn't mean I think Dave's argument is flawed or his figures are wrong. It's just that we're differently right.


Reluctant Scooping: Sheffield

Here's my first Reluctant Scooping report for 2011. Details are going to be brief, it's not going to be encyclopaedic with regards to prices, ABVs, opening hours etc. I'll include links to pubs, bars and brewery websites if you want to follow up on that sort of thing.

The basic plan is: find four pubs that offer the chance for me to scoop new beers/breweries as well as offer up some of my old favourites. Then see if I reluctantly choose the new beer over the old favourite. Maximum of one pint in each pub.

And we start in Sheffield. Why? It's the Holy City of ticks, it's the Valley of Beer. If you can't find good beer to scoop here, you won't find it anywhere.

Sheffield Tap

Cask beers on offer: 6
Potential scoops: 0
Keg beers on offer: 8
Potential scoops: 2
Actual scoops: 1 (Matuška Svatomartinské Polotmavé, half)
Favourites drank: 1 (Brewdog Punk IPA, half)

The cask beers were a quintet of Thornbridge and Fyne Ales Highlander, all of which I'd had before. The Matuška beer was a good scoop, a Vienna-ish, biscuity-grassy affair. The other was some kind of weiss but I couldn't not have keg Punk. Before noon.


Cask beers on offer: 11
Potential scoops: 7
Actual scoops: 1 (Summer Wine, Heretic Black IPA, two halves)

Plenty of new beers on offer here. I realised that I'd never had a beer from Summer Wine, despite seeing them around Sheffield before. So their Black IPA, Heretic, was an obvious scoop. After an always-entertaining chat with Brew Company's Pete Roberts and enjoying one of the Quin's humongous roast beef dinners, I forced myself to have another Heretic. It was too good to ignore now I had the taste for it and it's the perfect example of how a scooped beer can become a must-try-again beer.

Kelham Island Tavern

Cask beers on offer: 13
Potential scoops: 5
Actual scoops: 0
Old favourites: 1 (Pictish Brewers Gold, pint)

No new beer really tickled my fancy here today. Thankfully, one of their regular beers is a favorite of mine; the only problem with Pictish Brewers Gold is that it's so sessionable I felt like stopping for several more. But not today...

Gardener's Rest

Cask beers on offer: 8
Potential scoops: 4
Actual scoops: 2 (Dancing Duck, 22 and Burscough, Ringtail, half each)

A pub with a reputation for new brewery scoops and today was no exception. Half the beers were regulars from Sheffield Brewery that I'd already had; of the four guests, two were from breweries new to me so I plumped for those. The Dancing Duck 22 was OK, another one of those well-made malt-led best bitters that thrive around the North Midlands / south Yorkshire. More interesting was Ringtail from Burscough, I'd love to know what hops were used as there was really delicate fruity edge to it.

Hillsborough Hotel

Cask beers on offer: 7
Potential scoops: 2
Actual scoops: 0
Old favourites: 1 (Crown, Stannignton Stout, half)

Yes, I know I said the rules were four pints in four pubs. But I was on the way to catch the tram and it would have been rude to walk past... I was after the latest in their 'jazz musicians' series of specials, as brewer Stuart Ross had told me about the Amarillo-laden 'Stephane Grapelli'. But that cask had gone and I hadn't got time to see if it was being replaced. A quick half of Stannington Stout is always a pleasure, though - it's one of the best dark beers brewed in Sheffield.


Scoops: 4
Favourites: 3
Verdict: Not Too Reluctant Scooping.
Beer of the day: Burscough Ringtail. It's always good to find a brewery that's new to me and really enjoy their beer.

Next month: Leicester


How To Be A Reluctant Scooper

Every now and again, I'm asked by some drunken fop just exactly what the hell a 'reluctant scooper' is. Perhaps it's time for a refresher. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Many beer lovers like to sample brews in different styles from different breweries. Some of them actively seek out new brews. If both a new brew and an old favourite are on the bar, some will choose to drink the former. They may record the name of the brewer, the name of the beer and its strength into a notebook. They may keep track of all the beers they've sampled.

These people are scoopers. Or tickers - literally, 'ticking off' beers from a hit-list. Some of them have beards. Some of them have breasts. Some of them have both. Some of them are as barmy as a box of frogs. Some of them are knowledgeable, humourous, generous, hilarious. All of them are driven by beer to some extent.

I used to be a full-on scooper. I'd try any beer that I hadn't tried before. I wrote all their names down, kept a tally for the running total, kept a spreadsheet on a PDA so I knew what I'd already had and even started recording the details onto

And then I had a moment of clarity. That, for me, beer wasn't about the numbers. Because having just drank ten boring brown bitters in a row just because the brewers were new to me, then realising they all tasted roughly the same as the first and the first wasn't that good, I decided there was must be more to beer than this.

So I changed. If I tried a new beer and found I liked it, I'd buy more of it. Even if that meant I wouldn't get to try other new beers from new breweries. Then if I walked into a pub or festival and was given the choice of a new brew or an old favourite, I'd often find myself choosing the latter. It started to take something special to tempt me into trying something new.

I'd become a Reluctant Scooper.

Now, the smart cookies amongst you will have spotted the Catch-22 here. If I don't try new beers, how do I find the ones that become my new favourites? Well... I do try new beers and new brewers, often on recommendation from other topers. But it has to be something that's got a good reputation to sway me away from a pint of what I love.

And the proof of Reluctant Scooping is in the, er, scooping. So starting tomorrow, I'll be reporting back regularly on my trials and tribulations in scooping cities across the Midlands and beyond.

Two rules will apply to each trip: visit a maximum of four pubs/bars; drink either two halves of new beer or one pint of 'old favourite' beer in each.

Starting tomorrow. In the Holy City, through the Valley of Beer: Sheffield.


The Session #47: Cooking With Beer

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. This month's, chosen by Beer 47, is 'Cooking With Beer'.

And I'll perfectly honest. I have some real issues with beer as an ingredient. Because I’ve had too many great-sounding dishes that wasted good beer and too many basic dishes that buggered up the very notion of using beer as an ingredient.

Let's be clear: I've had some great food, both at home and in bars/restaurants, that have used beer. My first trip to Brugge was a revelation; the food-beer matching at Den Dyver was faultless and my first taste of carbonnade made with Westmalle at Erasmus opened my palate to how beer could be a vital part of the recipe itself.

Home experiments have tended towards the dessert course, with Innis & Gunn pancakes proving a success and framboise-injected, chocolate-dipped strawberries a la Homebrew Chef being slightly hit-and-miss. Although my Belgian-ish beef stew cooked with an English-brewed, Belgian-style ale was rather superb, even though I do say so myself.

So, what's my problem? Two things.

#1 – Quality food using quality beer, badly.

Yes, you can put an aged gueuze into a sauce for slow-cooked duck. But if it ends up tasting of vinegar, what’s the point? Yes, you can pour barrel-aged imperial stout over a delicate vanilla ice cream. But if it ends up tasting of a melting ashtray, what’s the point? Yes, you can mix in (insert name of seasonal beer here) into the canapés at a beer / brewery launch but if we have to be told what the flavour is supposed to be, what’s the point?

Sometimes, it seems the point is to impress with big beer names. Regardless of the impact it actually has on the dish’s flavour.

#2 – Basic food using basic beer, badly.

In the UK, pub menus and supermarket shelves are often home to a steak and ale pie. It’s a simple concept; ale helps tenderise the steak and add flavour to the meat. If the beer is roasty, malty, caramel, then shouldn’t those flavours be in the pie? If you name the beer used, and you’ve drank that beer before, shouldn’t you be able to recognise the flavours in the pie?

It shouldn’t be bitter (when a heavyweight stout has been added and the flavour profile hasn’t been corrected by a dab of sugar). It shouldn’t be advertised as ‘boozy’; it’s about flavour, not alcohol. And I’ll reserve a special circle of culinary hell for the recipe that lists ‘beer, bottle of. Any will do’. There was one in The Times this week. Suggesting the use of Bud. FFS.

I’m hoping to find a middle ground this year where beer is put to use respectfully and brings added value to a recipe. Until then, I’ll stick to the best beer-in-food I know – cold frothy beer makes the perfect batter for fried fish. And as it’s all about carbonation and not flavour, there’s no need to get carried away with which beer you use. Now, where’s that bottle of Bud…


Keep calm. Drink two thirds of a pint. Carry on.

Your favourite pub or bar may or may not use them. They're not mandatory.

The price of beer poured into them may or may not be proportionate compared to a pint. That already happens with the pint/half differential (and with thirds at many CAMRA festivals).

It may prove useful for decanting 330ml bottles into. Mine certainly is (and was, about thirty seconds after the above photo was taken).

It may prove attractive to licensees and punters alike who fancy serving and drinking higher-ABV beers in smaller measures. Even at a price premium.

It's been on the cards for ages - I've lost count about how many times I've pulled a blog post about this in and out of draft. It's been waiting its turn on the legislative merry-go-round.

It's a two-thirds-pint glass. It's not a revolution, it's not the downfall of the pint, it's not a Brewdog coup.

Put some beer in one and carry on. Or don't. It's only a glass.


Julius: slight return?

It had an orange-ish hue. A hint of crisp biscuit from the Vienna malt; a mere smear of toffee-sweetness from Crystal. Lemon edges with slight spices from the Liberty and Sorachi Ace hops. And then, a garden and kitchen raided; coriander seeds, lemongrass, lemon balm, mint, Tahitian lime leaves. All lovingly prepared by a chef. With a mallet.

Julius was a one-off born in the summer of 2009, a collaboration between myself, the irrepressible Ian Harrison of Pubs & Beer and those brewing fellas at Thornbridge. Why write about it now? Well, I've been recently reading a great deal about the historical use of herbs in English ale and it's giving me ideas...

I'd love to brew something herbal in the spring. Perhaps something that does away with the hop addition altogether? A dandelion stout? A mint bitter? Anything with bog myrtle in it?

All I need to do now is find a sympathetic, adventurous, slightly-mad brewer to work with. Any takers?


Bottled Up: Old and Older

A chill in the air is all the excuse I need to open up some heavyweight beer. Something that coats the throat and keeps you playing the flavour guessing-game. Two bottles sprang to mind. Suffolk, UK and San Marcos, USA may be several thousand miles apart, but they're both home to brewers who know more than a thing or two about strong beer.

Former Greene King and Broughton brewer Alan Thomson set up Old Chimney brewery at Hopton End Farm near Market Weston, in 1995 and ever since has been producing a comprehensive range of beers. I think they're under-rated even by beer nerds; maybe perhaps because the beers are difficult to get hold of outside Suffolk. One that does break out into the wider market is Good King Henry Special Reserve, an oak-aged imperial stout weighing in at a cockle-warming 11%.

There's a warm vanilla fudge-ness floating from the bottle, just a hint of phenolic whisky with loads of wet fig taking over the aroma. It certainly turns vanilla-sweet on the palate, still with a dry malty backbone and a dash of licorice root. Before it all goes crème brulée, dark chocolate drops in and bitterness counters the spun-sugar sweetness. You just have to lick your lips to get the chocolate back and, wow, does it keep coming back.

Several thousand miles westwards in California, there's a fair few brewers who love to wood-age their beers. Port Brewing is most certainly one of them, leading the way with a bourbon-barrelled strong ale named Older Viscosity. Like the Good King Henry's Special Reserve, it has a thick slice of alcohol in there (12%) but this has a deeper sweetness to it. Stronger licorice notes, masses of bourbon and a robust roastness that's never astringent. It look fairly unappetising, to be honest, with little head and real gloopy legs left on the glass but there's a smoothness on the palate that carries the vineous fruit flavours along with the warming alcohol behind.

A powerful duo for an evening's tasting. King Henry gets the nod, just; I'd like to stash a few bottles away and see if that sweetness mellows over time. Now that I've found a supply that's closer to home than Suffolk, I may have to give that a try.

To decide for yourself, try online sellers like Beermerchants who have stocked both beers on occasion. Thanks to (I think) Fin and Scott for these beers. I love well-travelled beery mates!


Book Review: 500 Beers

I don't usually have a problem with book reviewing. But putting together a cogent and concise summary of '500 Beers' has proved to be the exception. I've had the book for almost nine months now and barely given this review a thought. So, apologies to Zak Avery and his publishers. But there's one good reason it's taken me so damn long.

It's unputdownable.

With most of these beercyclopaedia-type books I like to source a couple of beers featured within, conduct my own tasting and compare notes. With '500 Beers', I've been working my way through and tried about fifty beers new to me. Page corners have become scuffed. The paper sleeve was lost a long time ago and there's now a 'beer ring of authenticity' on the cover where it was once used at an outdoor festival as an outsized beermat. Notes have been scribbled next to reviews. Expletives and exclamation marks have appeared where Zak and I differ in opinion.

I'm still struggling with his 'craft brewing' tag of "brewing beer with a focus on flavour and quality". Even when I do get a handle on it, craft really isn't the antonym of macro; macro-scale-brewing doesn't have to be bad and there's plenty of small-scale one-man-and-his-mashtun 'craft brewers' who knock out vinegary tripe.

But some of his assertions deserve to be shouted from the rooftops and become the cornerstone of any beer lover's philosophy. Such as, "Beer is made for drinking. It's essentially a simple pleasure". And he introduces hundreds of simple pleasures throughout the book. Beers are grouped into ten broad styles which become darker and more intense towards the end. Alongside the usual light-dark colour indicator and serving temperature recommendation, there's a neat touch - a light-to-full bodied rating, which comes into its own when comparing stouts and porters.

There's a sprightly introduction along with a well-crafted glossary and a genuinely interesting insights into beer ingredients; yeast in particular gets a well-deserved overview. Too often, this kind of content is treated as contractually-bound filler but Zak adds a real personal flavour to the proceedings.

It's a fairly compact book into which to shoehorn five hundred beer reviews but Zak turns brevity to his advantage. No repetitious flavour profiling here, just pithy observation and well-crafted insights. It's attractively illustrated, too, with judicious use of stock photography and the occasional bottle shot.

Early on in the book, Zak says "there is a lot of pleasure in finding a favourite that you return to time and time again". True with beer - that's what makes me a Reluctant Scooper. And now it's true with beer books; '500 Beers' has already become a slightly-war-torn but much-loved addition to my beery bookshelf.


Pubs To Love: Royal Oak, Southwark, London

Standing outside Borough Tube station in South London, it's hard to imagine that Southwark was once a powerhouse of English brewing. The mighty Anchor Brewery, once the capital's largest, has long gone. The last edifices of the hop trade can still be seen if you know where to look, the now-converted warehouses and the majestic sweep of the Hop Exchange. But beer still has a presence here; on a back street that was once a medieval thoroughfare into the capital, there's a corner pub that preserves the very essence of straightforward, non-nonsense London drinking.

Dwarfed by apartment towers, the Royal Oak squats on the corner of Tabard Street and Nebraska Street and revels in its glories. The only Harveys pub in London, this two-room pub was revitalised in the nineties and has become the very definition of what I love about a city boozer. High ceilings and expansive etched windows lend an airy feel to the main bar. Floorboards are muffled by loose carpets. The bow-shaped carved bar bulges into the second smaller, tighter room, lined with solid benches and random cushions.

And those Harvey’s beers - the seasonal offerings are always tempting and I have a keen taste for their Mild but it’s the Sussex Best Bitter that I could sup all day: clean malts, lithe hops and the kind of balance only otherwise achieved by an angel pirouetting on a pin-head. By itself, it’s legendary; with a proper suet pudding and a mountain of mashed potato it becomes other-worldly. The food here is rib-stickingly good; even the salt-beef sandwiches are of a size to tide a toper over on a long lingering lunch session. The eclectic mix of punters provide a fascinating soundtrack; here the atmosphere and character come from the customers rather than knick-knacks nailed to the walls.

The Royal Oak is a true bolt-hole away from the occasionally over-wrought beery madness elsewhere around Borough. It’s become my pub of choice with which to kick off a capital pub crawl. Maybe one day I’ll stay for an afternoon. There are worse things I could do...

Photo reproduced with permission from Ewan Munro on Flickr