Platinum Pints 2010-15: Best Beer Book Writer

platwe are half a decade into… the decade. The twenty-tens. Time to reflect and to reflect on a longer time span than the annual keek. Have their been arcs to trace? Have past achievements been already lost? That’s what the Platinum Pint awards are for. To think about what we have received to this point and where we stand as a result.

As I might have foreshadowed, the winner of the award for the best writer of books 2010-15 is Pete Brown. During that span, his three books Hops and Glory, Shakespeare’s Local and World’s Best Ciders: Taste, Tradition, and Terroir have stood as the standard for inventive, daring, interesting and well-written drinks related texts. They also represent an era which may well be over. This past year was dry. We have to be honest. It was such a dip in beer book diversity that when I mentioned this, Stan tweeted about a book about making home brew very quickly. I love Stan’s sense of humour.

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Pete entered the decade riding a high. His third book Hops and Glory had been out for half a year. In December 2009, he won the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Award for Best Writer 2009. I had my eye on Pete. I reviewed his first book Man walks into a Pub in 2003 when most beer communicators were still in elementary school. I interviewed him in 2006 when his followup Three Sheets to the Wind came out. They were good but gave a sense that there was more to come that was better. One thing they did establish was that an insider could write as an insider and also that one could travel the world exploring beer without being a junket parrot. Better still, his books were being published by a proper generalist publisher, Macmillan.

When Hops and Glory came out, I was blown away. I reviewed it over a number of posts. What immediately struck me was the daring. The guy was actually doing something, exploring. And he was doing it in a pretty weird way. His plan was to take a cask of IPA from Britain to India by ship to retrace the origins of the beer. Fabulous. And he failed. Or at least the cask did (spoilers… literally… and I suppose too late for me to mention… oh, well…) But by not actually achieving the physical outcome he imagined he rightly claimed a greater good. He describes the British Empire, shipping routes and shipping methods as well as Georgian culture. He took beer, lifted above itself as subject matter, then drew us a picture of how the beer fits into its own broader history while illustrating the foibles of human existence – and did so effectively as I described:

Anyway, the point is that for 237 to 306, Brown takes us into his internal experience – into the doldrums of the sailing ship and then into the small heart of darkness that is the international shipping trade today – by seemingly forgetting to slip back into the history. It’s a good technique. It weighs a bit, wears a bit. But it still takes us along as if to say “it’s alright, Al, no need for you to ever go on a container ship from Brazil to India all alone for five weeks… I’ve done it… don’t bother.” Thanks Pete. I won’t. It’s off my to do list.

The book set the standard for those that followed. Beer books now needed to be filled with humour, invention and place the theme in context. His next book Shakespeare’s Local ran with all that while staying in one spot – the George Inn of Southwark. With a history going back hundreds of years farther back than India Pale Ale, the opportunity was ripe. He dove deeper again into his topic. I pointed out that the history was detailed, that it would be useful to know who Simon de Montfort was and maybe why Englishmen became more mobile in the 1400s bolstering inns like the George. The fact was we were being presented with beer as a subject worth something other than an introductory nod. I found this inspiring. I had dreams of much the same for the research Craig and I were undertaking with the Albany Ale Project even if not necessarily is the same medium. Pete’s books inspired the idea that there was more to know and more to discuss. I was left with the desire for more at the end of Shakespeare’s Local. More illustrations, a greater library of such histories. In response, I’ve published two histories chasing his example and, since then, have undertaken much more research that I intend to continue in the years to come. The past is, after all, good beer’s future.

The very next year, Pete came out with a new book and took a 90 degree turn with World’s Best Cider. Well, not really a turn as he announced in 2010 that cider and perry were officially on his radar. But when he published this book, he did a very interesting thing – he killed off all hope that anyone would write another as well. It is such a complete text for the first comprehensive global guide that none would be needed until the industry grew to a next level. And that opportunity appears to be off the cards given that the mass market for cider has, to put it kindly, leveled off. Again, I found the effect was somewhat shocking:

The next thing I thought was “oh, my… cider porn.” Never encountered cider porn before but, then again, never met an atlas of cider before either. Which is what this is. Think of all those beer books with the same “what beer is section,” the longer “all sorts of beer section categorized one way or another section” and the “food and beer” section. Then take away the beer, cut the food section and add fermented apple juice. That is what this is. Except… there isn’t another. Is there?

There isn’t. As Jeff uniquely and entirely graciously acknowledged yesterday. And there hasn’t been a set of three books by one author in good beer that have touched these three not only in the decade but, as far as I am concerned, in my experience. Not that they are comprehensive. That is the point. Each in their own way take a small part of the whole and drill down excellently. As a set, they illustrate how wonderfully drinks writing sits in the broader cultural context. These books gave us the impression that like good beer was on a roll.

It was not to be. The downside of the example these books of Pete Brown set is that, sadly, publishers have decided there is no market for such books and, if we are honest, sales likely drive that opinion. So we are left with the lower orders of the publishable and sales worthy, the style guides and pairing companions. Good for the authors, one supposes. But hardly something to look forward to repeating in the years to come. And Pete is self-publishing his next, his seventh book, What Are You Drinking? That is where we are mid-decade.

There you have it. The first Platinum Pints 2010-15 announced goes to Pete Brown as Best Beer Book Writer of the half decade. Next? Who knows. Maybe best experience. Whatever that means.

Are We Approaching Peak Hard Cider?

The All About Beer column by John Holl posted today begins “[h]ard cider continues to climb in popularity and now the largest producer in the country, Angry Orchard, has its own place to welcome customers….” This is odd because of the following news as reported by The Motley Fool a few weeks ago:

Similar to last quarter, Boston Beer’s founding chairman, Jim Koch, opted to be the bearer of bad news: “Our total company depletion trends of 6% in the third quarter of 2015 matched our year to date trends, but represent a slowing from our expectations, primarily as a result of weakness in our Samuel Adams brand due to increased competition and a slowing in the cider category”… Boston Beer CEO Martin Roper elaborated: “During the third quarter, we […] saw a slowing of the cider category, but believe Angry Orchard maintained its share even as competitors continue to enter or increase investment. We remain positive about the long term cider category potential, but short term growth is less certain. We are planning continued investments in advertising, promotional and selling expenses, as well as in innovation, commensurate with the opportunities and the increased competition that we see.”

I’ve heard a bit about cider in the lead up to American Thanksgiving like this piece on NPR’s Science Friday that focuses on Albany’s Nine Pin Cider. Like the All About Beer column, however, there was nothing indicating that the market for hard cider is softening in the way that Boston Beer has admitted. While most stories last year were all about the boom in cider, The Motley Fool saw clouds on the horizon as early as in May of 2014. That concern continues:

Total U.S. cider sales were down 3.4 percent in the 13 weeks ended Nov. 7, and the rate of decline accelerated to about 7 percent over the past four weeks, according to Nielsen. Four and five years ago, the rate of growth was in the heady triple-digits. Even a year back, the pace of growth was nearly 50 percent. “It’s been getting a lot of attention, because of all the huge growth rates in the past three to five years,” said Danelle Kosmal, vice president of the beverage alcohol practice at Nielsen. “It’s obviously difficult to sustain those triple-digit growth rates.”

So is it a case as I tweeted earlier today just that, “basically, Sam Adams bought a pretendy farm to suggest their cider-like product isn’t industrial” or is it worse? Is the farm one form of “the new packaging and advertising expenses taken on in the second half of 2015” in an effort to retain sales in a shrinking cider market? We get no guidance from the All About Beer column other than the oblique observation that the “vast majority of the company’s main brands will be produced at the Boston Beer facility in Ohio, with the focus of the new location being experimentation and small-batch only recipes.” As Jeff found in June 2014, getting a straight answer about Angry Orchard can be difficult. But at least he asked the questions. If the market for cider continues to shrink, it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for the farm to be re-purposed or even sold off.

Bayonne Outside Cider Off Newfoundland In 1520

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I had lost this book. I found it again yesterday. The precursors of Jacques Cartier, 1497-1534: a collection of documents relating to the early history of the Dominion of Canada. Notice that it is a book published under the authority of the Canadian Federal Minister of Agriculture published by the Government Printing Bureau in Ottawa in 1911. We really used to know how to do government right.

Attentive readers will recall last March’s post in which I speculated on who might actually have been the first brewer in New France. A year earlier I wrote about the masses of beer transported along with the English Arctic iron ore mining mission led by Martin Frobisher in the 1570s. This is half a century earlier and might at least exemplify the earliest sort of alcohol use in North America – cider. Newfoundland is an obvious candidate. I suspect West Country fishermen drying cod for the summer caught on the Grand Banks were brewing at their coastal camps in the late 1500s. In the early 1600s they were clearly using beer and aqua vitae. So, its pretty much obvious that the earliest crews were enjoying strong drink in their earliest voyages as this record from 1520 shows:

To My Lord the Lieutenant of My Lord the Mayor, Sheriffs and Notable Council of Bayonne:

Messrs. Michael de Segure and Matthew de Biran make humble petition, setting forth that they have decided, at God’s pleasure, to send their vessel as far as Newfoundland to fish, and they need a large quantity of provisions, and among other things the number and quantity of forty butts of cider, of the best that can be found. And this being so, that the said de Segure has an orchard on his farm at St. Stephen, which is worked at his expense and from this he has a certain amount of cider; and also the said de Biran has certain debts at Seinhanx, for which he is willing to take payment in cider. In consideration of this, the said petitioners beg, supplicate and ask that you will be pleased to grant them permission, by special favour and without prejudice to the regulations of the said city, to load on board the said vessel forty butts of outside cider, part from the farm of the said de Segure and the surplus from Seinhanx, for the provision and victualling of the said vessel ; and you will be doing well.

Signed : M. de Biran.

The present request having been read and considered here in council, it has been ordered that the said petitioners, after they have taken oath before My Lord the Lieutenant, shall be allowed and permitted to load cider in their said vessel for the provisioning of the same, half the amount necessary thereto being grown in the city, and the other half being that belonging to the said petitioners. And this by special favour, in consideration of the voyage the said vessel is to make, and without prejudice to the regulations of the city making mention of wines and ciders, and to other restrictions and edict of the king, our lord, relating to the ports, loading and unloading. And should they be found doing the contrary, they will incur a fine of one hundred livres tournois, to be applied to the affairs of the city.

Given in council, 6 March, 1520.

Bayonne is a port town on the Atlantic coast just north of the French-Spanish border. You seem to be able to get cider and cod fish tapas there still. Early relations on the Canadian coast appear to have been friendly, Mi’kmaq chiefs joining them on the return trip over wintering in Europe on occasion. Crews from Bayonne had been sailing long distances for centuries before this request for cider was made. The Grand Banks cod fishery continued for decades after, well before settlement attempts. Strong drink would have accompanied them throughout the centuries. We even had a fish war with Spain in the 1990s. That image up there? It’s actually from 178 years after M. de Segure and M. de Biran set out with their 40 butt in the hold – according to the Government of Canada website where I found it. Hey. We still do this stuff through government action.

So… what is outside cider? I have no idea.

Your Friday Night Beer Blog Reading Highlights

It’s a distracted time. The game between Toronto and Boston is interfering with the game between Toronto and Boston. The first thunderstorm of the spring is moving through giving parched seedlings out in the garden as heavier duties of life nibble at the back of the mind. Yet, it is a warm Friday evening. The kids are out. The smells of that season we Canadians call “not winter” float in through the one open window as the first large drops pat pat pat on the bags of compost waiting to be settled into their plots on the next dry day. As good a time as any to see what’s going on out there on the internets.

→ In two weeks or so, I have a chance to hit the one orchard estate perry maker I know of in Ontario. Which makes me utterly jealous of Pete Brown. A folk music, cheese and perry/cider fest. Pleasures unimaginable.

→ Please just leave Bieber alone. In Canada, he is now a grown up… sorta.

→ Jeff makes some very good points on the impending reaction from big beer should what’s been considered (for about five years now and still maybe a few more to go) as craft beer not eat itself or, who knows, actually gain a significant market share… as in something approaching 20%. Me, I am quite comfortable knowing that big brewers will quite happily flood the market if need be with cheap and excellent beers inseparable from those offered by the current profitable puritans of craft marketing. I do like his idea that the approach is to add more flavour to lagers but I think this is but one prong of attack. Watch your flank, big craft.

→ Boak and Bailey started early and didn’t have to deal with the thug.

Stan then Craig reacted to a xenophobic article on how US craft brewers woujld teach Germany a thing or two by being boring and hoppy and achieving <1% marketshare. No consideration on the role of Mosel in the overall equation. Much hand wringing over ugly American interventions but, believe me, far better than dealing with the ugly side of Canadians.

There. The hockey is 1-0 in favour of my team at 8:23 pm while the baseball is the same score for… my team. JINKS! Better quit while I am ahead.