St Austell Proper Job – Flagship February – February 2019

Flagship February is an international project designed to celebrate those ‘beers that got us here’, the beers that can sometimes get lost in the constant stream of special releases. I was very honoured to be invited to contribute in the project’s inaugural year.

And now, on that same beach in Cornwall I stand with someone different. I step over the footprints I once left behind and make an entirely new path. My hands touch other hands, hands I hope to hold forever. And though the pub may be different, the beer is the same. Because a beer is not an ex-lover. It’s not unfaithful to return to it from time to time. And it will never, ever break your heart.

I chose to write about a beer that meant a lot to me, and was something of a game-changer in terms of British beer. You can read my essay on St Austell Brewery’s Proper Job right here.

‘Aces High’ – Beer Magazine – January 2019

I interviewed head brewer at Wild Card Brewery, Jaega Wise, for a profile in the Spring 2019 edition of CAMRA‘s Beer Magazine.

Jaega is a well-known figure in the British beer scene. Not only is she a talented brewer, she is also a chemical engineering graduate, singer, TV presenter, campaigner for diversity in the brewing industry and an elected director of SIBA.

“I’ve always said I’m a brewer before I’m a female brewer, before I’m a mixed-race brewer. But I will always do my part to support women, ethnic diversity, lots of different types of people getting into the brewing industry. The goal isn’t reached at all. We’re not even close. Equality is 50 per cent. Why should we be satisfied with anything less?” (Jaega Wise)

Jaega Wise (left) and me at Wild Card Brewery, Walthamstow, London

Beer Magazine is free to CAMRA members.

Club Soda – Mindful Drinking Festival

I was really pleased to be invited to be a part of Club Soda‘s Mindful Drinking Festival which took place at the Old Truman Brewery on Saturday 12 & Sunday 13 January 2019.

Me at the Club Soda Mindful Drinking Festival (January 2019)

There were thirteen breweries represented at the festival, and some great beers. Low and no alcohol beers have moved on significantly in terms of both quality and range and I enjoyed showcasing a number of great examples in my festival beer tours and talk. Some of the standouts for me were Adnam’s Alcohol-Free Ghost Ship, which I’m really pleased to see is available on draft; Braxzz porter – apparently the world’s first alcohol-free porter; and the tasty low-alcohol alternatives from Small Beer Brew Co.

Like all Club Soda events, the Mindful Drinking Festival was friendly and welcoming, and full of a diverse, enthusiastic crowd, ready to explore some great alternatives to alcohol. I look forward to heading along to future festivals – after all, this scene can only get better!

And, if you want to hear more about Club Soda – and about some great alcohol-free beers – check out the Alcohol-Free Special episode of Fermentation Beer & Brewing Radio right here.

Do You Pass the Test? Or: what can 1980s lesbians teach us about beer?

‘Beer people are lovely people!’ and ‘The beer industry is a wonderful, friendly place!’ are things I’ve been told on a number of occasions since jumping boots-first into the scene a couple of years ago. And, for me, there’s a lot of truth in these celebratory statements. I spent the first two decades of my working life in an environment where I didn’t always see the best of how things could be. As a frontline social worker – and more latterly, a social work academic – I bore witness to desperation, deprivation, and sometimes degradation on a scale most would find hard to contemplate. I met many, many good people on both sides of the intervention divide – some of the bravest, warmest, creative, most intelligent people there are – and I have a lasting respect for them all. I also derived a great deal of satisfaction from my work, and felt immensely privileged to work alongside people in some of the darkest times of their lives. But, in terms of a joyful working environment, I can’t honestly say that it comes close to chatting over a mash tun in a breath-cloud cold brewery just as the sun is rising, or being handed the fullest, maltiest, fattest barley wine by a proud brewer with a grin so wide it must sting, or discovering a taste that will pin you forever to location, a time, an emotion, a memory that  will leave you changed.

But I’m lucky. First up, I’m an old-school butch dyke. I have a quiff and a comb, a pocket watch and a pocket knife. I don’t understand make-up and I sometimes get challenged when using women’s toilets. Men are occasionally scared of me, often confused around me, and regularly amused by me, but I’m absolutely not the kind of woman they want to sleep with. Secondly, I host a beer and brewing radio show, I write about beer for publications in which people want their brews featured, I won a British Guild of Beer Writers Award for Best Online Beer Communicator (I know – I’m shocked too), and I have a website, a podcast, a blog, and so – to my face at least – both women and men in the beer industry are lovely, and the environment in which I work is a wonderful and friendly place.

But I’m aware that’s not everyone’s truth. I don’t need to experience harassment in order to believe the women who tell me they are regularly harassed. I don’t need to feel the creeping nastiness of the belittling, objectifying, ridiculing, rejecting, grabbing, groping, saliva-spraying face of sexism, to know that it exists within the beer industry. I just need to see the dodgy pumpclips, engage with social media, and note the absence of women from many respected platforms within the industry.

But, as someone with a voice that occasionally grabs attention, if I see injustice, I also need to do something more.

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I first came across Alison Bechdel and her wonderful ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ comic strip in the early-1990s when, as a newly ‘out’ lesbian I would scour literature to find any representation of queer culture. In those pre-Internet days, Bechdel’s funny, inspiring and moving series, populated by a cast of lesbians and their friends, was one of the few places where a sympathetic portrayal of ‘women like me’ could be found. Complete with their interests, intricacies and insecurities, Mo, Sydney, Clarice and Toni, held a mirror up to the lives of lesbians all over the Western world, fighting injustice and celebrating personal victories, and all the time providing a community to those of us who were struggling to find a place in our own.

But it wasn’t until some years later that I realised that a 1985 ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ strip called ‘The Rule’ had spawned a way of looking at the world that could be useful across many parts of life. The Bechdel Test – clearly explained in this short video here – is a benchmark or litmus test used to assess the presence of women in movies. For a movie to pass the Bechdel Test it needs to contain three things:

1. Two or more female characters with names…
2. …who talk to each other…
3. …about something other than a man.

This sounds fairly straightforward but, shockingly, around half of mainstream movies – some of our most well-loved films – actually fail this test, including the original Star Wars Trilogy, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar, The Avengers, Finding Nemo, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the complete Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and many, many more.

Of course, just because a film passes does not mean it necessarily advances women’s rights. The Bechdel Test doesn’t assess whether something is progressive or challenging: it simply assesses whether women are present in any meaningful way. And, in a world in which women’s voices are regularly silenced, the mere presence of women is extremely important.

Over the years, the Bechdel Test has been applied or modified to assess other areas of culture including literature, journalism and even software development. And from there I believe it’s only a short hop to applying it to the contemporary beer scene. It is vital for the future of the industry that women are present on discussion panels, leading or chairing conferences, part of magazine editorial teams, present in beer education, at the centre of judging panels, represented at the highest level in brewing or consumer organisations, and called on as the experts they are to be listened to and heard. Importantly, I’m not suggesting that women are invited into male-dominated spaces solely to talk about incidents of sexism, or what it’s like being a woman in the beer industry. Making time to hear those testimonies is important but they are not the whole story – remember in order to pass the Bechdel Test, women must be talking about something other than men or their experiences at the hands of them. Inviting women into otherwise male enclaves in order to give a ‘woman’s perspective’ is also patronising, reductive and ignores the intersectional nature of all our identities in which we are defined not only by our gender – be that male, female or otherwise – but also our race, age, religion, sexuality, abilities, and so much more. It also causes us to miss out on the vast experiences and knowledge that women have amassed in their chosen fields.

The contemporary beer scene is not alone in sometimes struggling with the representation of women, and there are many examples of great work in this area. But every time women are invisible in areas of influence, every time a beer is marketed solely at men, every time a ‘beer for women’ is produced, every time we have to remind people that women were the first brewers, every time a disagreement on Twitter degenerates into macho posturing, every time craft beer lovers are portrayed as people with beards, every time a woman has to justify why she likes beer, or why offensive beer names are unacceptable, every time sexist ‘banter’ is excused, every time beer fans are greeted on social media as ‘lads’, every time the ‘women don’t drink beer’ myth is perpetuated, every time the consumption of alcohol is accepted as an excuse for sexist, racist or homophobic behaviour, we all lose out.

Having trodden the career path I have, I’m not naïve enough to propose that we should all just be kind to one another. But, at the very least, we need to hear each other’s voices. And, as such, I will continue to ensure that each edition of Fermentation Beer & Brewing Radio is Bechdel Test compliant. And I promise to loudly celebrate anyone else who, within their own field of work, commits to doing the same.

‘London Calling’ – Brew Your Own (BYO) Magazine – October 2017

The October 2017 issue of the US homebrew publication, Brew Your Own Magazine, featured my story and photographs about the contemporary London beer scene on the front cover. I explored the diversity of the London scene and highlighted how the beer and brewing environment has grown and developed over the past ten years.

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I also discussed the burgeoning London homebrew scene and its symbiotic relationship with commercial brewing, and supplied four homebrew-scaled recipes from some of the most exciting breweries in the capital.

You can read my article in full by purchasing this issues of Brew Your Own Magazine via this link.

‘Make Mine a Pint’ – Diva Magazine – August 2017

The August edition of Diva – Europe’s biggest selling lifestyle magazine for lesbians and bi women – contained a feature by me about the contemporary beer scene and the women at the heart of it; women like Robyn Bell, tank manager at Manchester’s Cloudwater, Sarah Hughes, head brewer at Newport’s Tiny Rebel, and Sophie de Ronde, brewer at Burnt Mill Brewery in Suffolk, and the driving force behind International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day.

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In addition to featuring some of the lesbian and bi women involved in the brewing industry, I also highlighted some of the best places for lesbians and bi women to drink great beer across the UK.

You can read my article in full by purchasing back issues or subscribing to Diva Magazine via this link.

 

Not tasting but drinking…

I drink a lot of beer. Or rather I ‘taste’ a lot of beer – or that’s what I like to say when I’m trying to portray a professional image. But really it amounts to the same thing. Unlike wine sampling, beer tasting does not involve swilling the liquid around the mouth and then spitting it out before you get a chance to fully benefit from it. No – with beer tasting you get the full experience, from the sweetness on the lips, right through to the bitter backwash on your tongue, and the warming alcohol glow as it slips down your throat. Or just a fruity hop-fuelled punch in the face, of course, depending on what you’re quaffing.

However, like many contemporary beer drinkers, I spend a lot of my time drinking new beers. The quest for the novel, the experimental, the undiscovered, is ever present, and the fear of missing out on that new collaboration, that new small-batch, barrel-aged, wild yeast fermented concoction is as overwhelming for me as for all the other beer-chasers, marking our cards, rating our beers, and Instagramming our discoveries.

But beer is about so much more than that. The world’s most popular alcoholic drink, brewed in almost every part of the world for thousands of years, comes in many more guises than an artist-inspired can. There are many more beers than there are wines in the world. Some are ubiquitous, like the cold, pale, golden fizz that appears in some form in almost every continent of the globe. Some are less well-known, at this point in geography and time like Zoigl (a beer brewed in just one small area of north eastern Bavaria), or even almost extinct, like the Kentucky Common (a dark beer that used to be very popular around the town of Louisville). But in a world of craft beer, in which the new brewers stand squarely on the shoulders of those giants who brewed before them, these kinds of brews inform the present, and write the recipe we’ll all be drinking tomorrow.

Which is why I’m going back. Over the next few weeks I intend to sample around 150 distinct types of beer in a series of tasting sessions that will showcase some of the finest examples of each style. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s all going to be plain sailing. Some sessions will be simply wonderful, of course – I can’t wait to taste a full-house of stouts – but others I know will challenge my palate in a variety of ways . Stepping briefly outside of the ‘craft’ bubble could expose me to the kinds of terrors I thought I’d put behind me – but I know I’ll come out the other end with a renewed understanding of what makes this drink so versatile, so vital, and so loved.

Organising such a vast tasting project is quite overwhelming. Obtaining some sort of an inventory of all the available beer styles is essential, as is grouping them together with beers alongside which they make sense. After all, there’s only so much beer a person can drink and sensibly taste in one sitting, and tasting a light lager alongside a Baltic porter may not provide me with the subtlety of education my palate demands. But, as in so many other regards nowadays, there is a mine of information and resources out there if you just know where to look.

Firstly, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – the body that certifies and ranks judges for homebrew competitions – produces its own style guidelinesthe most recent version of which was published in 2015. Although this is primarily intended as a guide to aid the judging of homebrew, it can provide a useful framework on which to begin planning which beers to taste, and identifying good examples of these. Although beer styles change over time, and not every beer fits into these guidelines, the suggested categories, and list of commercial examples under each heading are invaluable when planning a project such as this. And it’s even available as free app for iTunes or Android for constant handy reference.

Secondly, there are some excellent books around that fully dissect the process of beer tasting, and provide thoroughly readable and accessible guides to the beers of the world. The classic text often mentioned in this regard is Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer – An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, published in 2009, which explains how to deconstruct a beer in terms of the flavour wheel, and how to record tasting notes in a useful manner.

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Another book that covers some of the same ground in an equally appealing way is Joshua Bernstein’s The Complete Beer Course – Boot Camp for Beer Geeks, which consists of twelve ‘lessons’ that promise to turn the reader ‘from novice to expert’. I particularly like the ‘two to try’ feature included throughout this book which suggests two beers of the same style – often one classic and one contemporary – to sample side-by-side.

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Unfortunately, the BJCP guidelines and both of these books are written from a North American perspective, at times to the neglect of the British beer scene. It is rare to find a suggested example from a UK brewery, although Harvey’s, Thornbridge and Kernel are all mentioned in the BJCP guidelines.

Of course, a lot of the beer styles originate from mainland Europe or the USA so some dedicated sourcing of brews is in order. A number of beers can be found in local supermarkets – after all, at some point I’ll need to revisit the likes of Miller Lite and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire. The range of international beers on offer in Marks & Spencer seems to be growing all the time so there are rich pickings to be had there. There are also some excellent websites that can assist in this regard including Beers of Europe and Beer Hawk (as long as you’re happy to put aside any qualms you may have with the latter’s association with AB InBev in the name of research).

And, of course, if like me you’re lucky enough to live in Brighton, we are rather spoiled in terms of access to good, unusual and challenging beer, particularly with shops like Bison Beer on East Street, and the Aladdin’s cave of Trafalgar Wines half-way up Trafalgar Street. 

So, if you want to join me on my mission to rediscover the multitude of beers this planet has to offer, you have no excuse. The rough order I will be tasting in is this:

  1. Pale Lagers
  2. Pilsners
  3. Amber Lagers
  4. Dark Lagers
  5. Bocks
  6. Pale Ales
  7. IPAs
  8. Amber Ales
  9. Brown Ales
  10. Porters
  11. Stouts
  12. Strong Ales
  13. Wheat Beers
  14. Sour Ales
  15. Speciality Beers & Everything Else 

I’ll be certain to see you on the other side with more of an understanding of the range of magic that a handful of rather special ingredients can conjure up. I’ll provide regular updates on my progress – and I’ll be not tasting, but drinking.