Monday, 6 September 2021

Book Review -Modern British Beer - By Matthew Curtis

Although this lavishly illustrated book by beer writer, Matt Curtis (who took most of the excellent photos himself) begins with an opening paragraph giving some background on why he wrote the book, it was the title of the second chapter which caught not only the eye of this reviewer, but my imagination. "Broad Spectrum of Joy" is as good a way of describing beer drinking as any and, it encapsulates in that one brief sentence, that sitting behind this joy there is much detail, many stories, imagination, passion and hard work.

Matt describes his own beer journey and the inspiration given to him by a story of his father to whom this book is dedicated.  Recounted to him by his Dad was the ordering of eight pints of Tetley in his then local pub. As the Tetley was ordered in Sheffield, then a bastion of Stones, this tale reminds us of how things used to be and brings out the often overlooked fact that many, even then, sought out the different as well as the familiar. 

How we moved on from local breweries, mainly selling their own wares in their own pubs, slowly but surely to the multi faceted beer scene we have today comes next.  Matt's American experiences are mentioned here and  also, in that context, a reference is made to the role of CAMRA. As the author points out, part of the success of CAMRA was its undoubted influence on the American beer scene of the eighties. This by degrees became the American craft beer movement, before it returned "home" in the shape of our thriving small brewery sector and the beer styles they produce. In this historical context, the influence of CAMRA  - it is a CAMRA Books publication after all - is again rightly mentioned but, as Matt points out, it is the expansion of the number of breweries from 170 in the seventies to over 2300 presently, that reminds us that change has been on an epic scale.

While the background to modern beer is laid down in the early couple of chapters, this is not a "history of beer" book, as Matt himself points out. Wisely though, his brief but necessary dip into the past provides the reader with both context and scene setting for the core of the book, which is the development of  the diversity of both styles of beer and where they are produced. This is emphasised by the layout of later chapters on a geographical basis. The return of "local" is also an important part of the rise of brewery numbers, as is the culture that lies behind them. 

At this point, it is worth noting that this is rather a personal book. Matt has opinions, and these come out strongly as a recurring theme throughout. Together with the outlining of his own journey through beer, they add to the worth of the book as the reader is encouraged to think of their own relationship to the beer scene, both then and now. 

The shift in British Brewing can be overestimated - it has always been dominated by the big players - and it still is now, but what has changed and become ubiquitous, is not only choice in what we drink, but the expectation of choice.  There is, too, a change of philosophy, with new small brewers embracing not only a dizzyingly diverse array of beer styles, but also a move from the paternalistic ways of old. This, in vision, if not always in practice, defines how modern brewers see the world. Matt takes this on in his chapter titled "Defining Modern British Beer" in which he lays down five principles, not all of which are uncontroversial. 

Perhaps, on close inspection, some ideals outlined are more aspirational than actual. While it is certainly true that ingredients and provenance are important to many breweries and customers, it is by no means certain that this applies to all. Similarly, the inclusivity and equitable mindedness have surely a long way to go but in fairness, in both these cases, Matt admits that progress is slow. Where Matt makes his point most persuasively is when taking his five principles as a whole. In that, the re-introduction of "local", the use of quality ingredients, together with inclusiveness and the intent to be better both as a business and employer are surely worthy objectives?

To bolster his points about modern beer generally, the author has chosen specific case studies of various beers and breweries, split up by area.  They are representative of the whole, but old favourites such as BrewDog, Black Sheep, Oakham, Marble and more are there. Your favourite brewery or beer may well be missing, but in any book drawing on such a vast industry, you cannot expect this not to be the case. Also, given that there is a fair chunk of opinion in it, it is not unreasonable that the author will have  chosen those he knows and understands as exemplars. Matt is unafraid to point out that too often what is produced by many modern brewers, is  a plethora "of near identical, hazy mid-strength pale ales".  He is right to mention this, and certainly this is a point brewers should take on rather than cavil against. It is interesting to this reviewer, to contrast this with the common allegation of craft beer drinkers that all cask beer is "boring brown bitter". Different presentation - same issue?

In the brewery and beer section of the book, what comes out clearly is that motivations vary vastly. Some brewers simply wish to find a niche. Some, like BrewDog want to be writ large on a worldwide stage, while many just want to do their thing in their way in their space, Torrside being a fine example. For some, this part will be the real strength of the book, where carefully picked examples of breweries brewing modern styles of beer are supported by a narrative that makes you want to give them a try. Nonetheless, to my mind, rather than a "try" list, these are better considered as supportive of Matt's "five principles" proposition.

The sheer breadth of beer produced today supports the argument that British beer has changed beyond recognition. This book and Matt's enticing narrative and easy going and personal style make understanding the changes in British brewing easy for the reader. It sets out to explain the current British beer scene, and in that it succeeds. Clearly not every point made will strike a chord with all readers, but, nonetheless, the book is an excellent and thought-provoking read, made all the better for the bits of opinion thrown in. It could be argued that there should be a clearer nod to the fact that however many breweries and beers there are, the craft movement - a word that Matt carefully avoids -  is still a niche, albeit a growing and important part of the British beer scene. It is also worth saying that CAMRA Books are to be congratulated for being open-minded enough to commission this important book, given that cask (or is it live?) beer isn't the main thrust of it.

I'll finish this review by referring to the book's last few paragraphs.  Firstly, a statement (by Five Points Brewing) that well-made and presented cask is the "epitome of modern British Beer." Amongst all the exotic beers described, that, for this reviewer, is enduringly true, as is Matt's statement that to be modern, beer must be "truly open and accessible to all." Like him, I'll drink to that, while recommending this book highly.

Modern British Beer is written by Matthew Curtis and published by The Campaign for Real Ale Ltd

ISBN 978-1-852-49-370-7   Pages - 286

Copies are available from CAMRA Books here


Anonymous said...

> while recommending this book highly.

I haven't bought a book for a while so you've convinced me, this is one to go for, about to order it now !

Tandleman said...

Good for you. I hope you enjoy it.

retiredmartin said...

Proper insightful review there, Peter. May well treat myself.

Tandleman said...

Cheers Martin.

Sheffield Hatter said...

Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful review.

You write "It is interesting ... to contrast this [the suggestion that too often what is produced by many modern brewers, is a plethora "of near identical, hazy mid-strength pale ales"] with the common allegation of craft beer drinkers that all cask beer is "boring brown bitter". Different presentation - same issue?" Am I to take it that the author does not go down that road himself? Having dipped his toe in the water, it is a little disappointing that he doesn't jump right in. (Apologies for mixed metaphors.) Was he perhaps afraid of losing half of his audience?

Tandleman said...

As a reviewer I make my own comments and judgements. I can't and don't speak for the author.

This thought occurred to me, but the author has his own points to make.

You have to read the book I'm afraid.

Curmudgeon said...

A good review - positive without just being a puff piece.

And you are surely right to suggest that Matt Curtis overestimates the wider significance of the trends he describes.

Tandleman said...

I suppose it is context Mudgie. There can't be much doubt that things have changed a lot, but underneath it all we still have the dominance of big brewing.

Tandleman said...

I only do (did) puff pieces for money. Like most writers. ­čśë

Q said...

Beer blogger gets freebie, hawks mates book/beer/pub. A story as old as beer blogs.

Tandleman said...

If you say so. But put it this way, the effort I put into it is worth a whole lot more than the cover price. And I don't hide in the shadows.