In conversation with… Pete Brown, award-winning beer writer and author

By all accounts, Pete Brown hasn’t had a bad career. The three time winner of The Guild of Beer Writers’ beer writer of the year award is currently in the middle of promoting his eighth book -‘Miracle Brew’ – his first exclusively about the subject of beer since 2009. I sat down with the globe-trotting author to find out why it took him so long, what motivated him to write the book, and where he sees the industry going in the future.

“It feels quite hilarious that I stepped away from writing about beer just as craft beer was taking off,” he tells me. “I always wanted to write it the broader arena of food and drink, so I think it was a case of getting that established that saw me move away from the subject, but I did leave it a bit too long.”

“It takes about two or three years from starting to think about the idea for a book to it finally being published so I was kicking this idea around in 2013, and this is how long it has taken to come to fruition.”

The book focusses almost entirely on the four core ingredients that make up the nation’s favourite brew – barley, hops, yeast and water for those less educated in the subject – and Brown admits that the decision was based on a desire to speak to a more mainstream audience about the product.

“Beer is the most popular drink in the world after water, tea and coffee”

“Most of my mates who now drink beer very enthusiastically don’t actually know what it’s made from,” he says.“Beer is the most popular drink in the world after water, tea and coffee. Everybody knows that wine comes from grapes and cider comes from apples, but when you talk to people about beer they go ‘it’s made from hops isn’t it?’ They don’t know what hops are or what they do, they just think that beer is made out of them, which isn’t exactly true.

“I just thought it was so weird that everyone is so into food and drink and where it comes from, yet so even most beer drinkers don’t know that much about what they’re drinking.”

Despite this desire to educate and inform, Brown’s book steers away from some of the more technical elements of producing beer, instead adopting an anecdotal and accessible style. “I generally write in the engaging conversational style and not get too technical,” he admits. “I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so where I do get technical I’ve had to reduce it so that I can understand it myself! I’m hoping I’ve given it to people in a way that is engaging and interesting.

“Before I wrote this book I thought I knew a lot about hops and barley and yeast and water, and I decided to put everything I knew to one side and I just learnt so much new stuff, and got a new appreciation of beer all over again.”

That’s not to say that the book doesn’t offer anything for the more advanced reader, and Brown tells me he has even had brewers get in touch with him to say it has taught them things about water and barley that they weren’t previously aware of. “Even though it’s written for an introductory audience I think there’s something in there for everyone,” he says proudly.

“When people talk about wine they talk about terroir but terrior is in beer more than it is in wine”

Another motivating factor behind writing Miracle Brew was Brown’s desire to see beer elevated to the status enjoyed by drinks such as wine, which he does not see as in any way superior to his favourite amber nectar. “When people talk about wine they talk about terroir all the time, but terroir is in beer more than it is in wine,” he says. “Take the water that is used in beer, for example; it falls as rain and then soaks into the ground and runs through rock or shale.

“It is a product of that land, which is the very definition of terroir. The water in Burton on Trent is totally different from the water in Pilsen, and hence beer is really tied with place and with location.”

One thing is for certain, Brown is certainly not someone who is tied to location. Whilst writing his latest book, the jovial adopted Londoner travelled far and wide, visiting breweries from the Czech Republic to Belgium. On his travels he became aware that other cultures had a greater sense of pride in their brewing traditions than the UK, something he hopes to see change in the future.

“British drinkers think that cask ale is a bit old and dull, but you go anywhere else in the world and people say how amazing it is,” he says. “Marris Otter malt gets exported across the entire world and is regarded as the best malt from Japan to America, and we don’t take that much pride in it.”

“If you’re not genuinely proud then don’t stock it, because you’re doing it a disservice by serving it below par”

“We just don’t take a genuine pride in our styles and our ingredients and products in the way that other countries do.”

Nevertheless, he is at pains to point out that in order to take pride in British output, the product must be at its very best. In January of this year, he drew criticism for an article in which he claimed to have almost stopped drinking cask beer due to the poor quality of the product in most pubs and bars. Today, he stands by that position, and says that pubs are doing cask beer a disservice by serving it in poor condition.

““There are publicans out there who are desperately proud of their cask beer,” he says. “But I think if you’re not proud then don’t stock it. If you’re not genuinely proud of it, just don’t serve it, because you’re doing it a disservice by serving it below par, which is what most pubs do.

“There are plenty of pubs that serve good cask and I’d rather just see it in them. When I was writing The Cask Report the message was always to try and improve and increase distribution and I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do anymore.”

“There are plenty of pubs that serve good cask and I’d rather just see it in them”

“In America they recognise that hop aromas are incredibly delicate and they recognise that heat kills them, and so all craft beer is distributed with cold chain distribution, the beer is chilled from the moment it is packaged to when it reaches the consumer. British cask beer is different but can be just as good as American craft beer if you use the right methods for distribution and cellaring. When you see pubs with casks sat outside in the sun or being thrown around it’s like ‘god, treat it with a bit of respect.’”

Turning to the subject of pubs themselves, the subject of another of the writer’s many books, Brown warns that unless local boozers do more to attract customers they would continue to face closure due to changing social patterns.

“Pubs have got more competition than ever before, beer is spreading outside the pub and the pub is no longer the default,” he says. “There are so many other places that serve beer now. Look at festivals, pop-ups, supermarkets. My local barbers offers craft beer when you go in for a haircut!

“We say in the industry ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to pubs, but that makes going to the pub sound like something we should feel guilty about not doing; Great, let’s turn the most pleasurable thing in life into a chore. Whether it’s great food, the pub quiz, the best conditioned cask beers, the greatest range of craft beer, pubs have got to have a USP.”

“Whether it’s great food, the pub quiz, the best cask beers… pubs have got to have a USP”

He does, however, have some sympathy with pub owners, who he says often face a near-impossible task for little financial gains. “I appreciate that all these things are really difficult, and running a pub is really difficult. When I’ve written about pubs that are great, they’re usually run by people who are very very clever who have got a massively wide range of skills.”

“A lot of them choose to run a pub because they really, really like it; and the industry relies on people doing the job not because of the renumeration but because of they’re prepared to do a job that is far harder than it should be for the money they are earning because they really love it.”

Turning finally to future trends, one thing that Brown believes will continue to grow in popularity over the coming years is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, which he states are now catching up in terms of flavour due to the rise of craft beer. “When you drink a pint of lime and soda, you don’t want a second one, whereas when you drink a good beer you want four or five, so that’s the challenge for low alcohol beers,” he says. “What’s the point in having a low alcohol beer that doesn’t taste like a good beer? But now all of a sudden they do.”

“It’s about the ritual of having something in your hand that you enjoy doing, so if I could do that with low alcohol beer I’d be quite happy to have two or three days off a week.”

A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser, and has been reproduced here with their permission. 

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