A Quiet Beer with Pete Brown

Pete Brown
London based author of Three Sheets to the Wind and Man Walks into a Pub, 2006

Pete Brown hard at work

Q: Pete, you're newly returned from a global pub crawl with one eye on your pint/schooner/mug/stein and the other on the beer and pub culture around you. You drank at four hundred bars in twenty seven towns in thirteen different countries. How's your liver?

A: I’m in surprisingly good shape! I did a month-long detox when I finished the travel, and the liver is a very resilient organ – it recovers quickly. I’d recommend a journey like this to anyone who loves their beer, but I’m very conscious that if I want to enjoy this lifestyle for the rest of my life, you have to build in checks and balances. You can’t get bladdered every day and still expect to be able to write about it afterwards.

Q: On of those thirteen countries was of course Oz. We have to ask, how did you find the beer culture down under? How is it different to the other 12 countries, if at all? Our beer's the best in the world right? Right??

A: Aussie beer may well be the best in the world, but you drink it so cold no-one would ever know! Don’t get me wrong, on a hot day after working up a thirst an icy-cold lager is the only thing that’ll do. But I was surprised to see a lot more craft beer in Oz than I’d expected – Coopers ales, Chuck Hahn’s James Squire beers and brands like Little Creatures are as good as any beer around the world, but you just don’t get the full character of them if you drink them at, like, two degrees. Your Aussie drinker thinks of anything above about three degrees as ‘warm’, but some of us who live in cooler climes have found this new temperature band between ‘bloody freezing’ and ‘blood heat’ which we call ‘cool’. You guys should check it out.

But Aussie drinking culture is just fantastic. Australia and Ireland were the two countries I was sorely tempted to stay in and write a whole book on. But in each country, so many people have had the same idea before me. I love the fact that drinking beer is ‘Australian’, the fact that it’s seen as part of the culture rather than this embarrassing trait that some people persist in doing. I love the fact that you’re rightly proud of your drinking behaviour.

Q: You mention in the book at the US produces some of the blandest, most piss weak, cardboard tasting beers in the world (which appear, at least in part, to be taking over). And yet the US appears to be leading the world in the craft beer revolution at the same time - even Michael Jackson (The Beer Hunter) has said that if he wants the best beer choice he'll go to the US. Where is this heading do you think? Will big, bland and shithouse take over, or will the craft brewing scene become the norm?

A: Craft brewing will never become the norm, but we will get to a position where everyone who actually wants to taste their beer and is curious about trying new and different stuff will be able to get access to it quite easily. There seems to be this unwritten rule in a lot of human behaviour, the 80-20 rule: in the case of beer, I reckon about 80% of people are perfectly happy drinking the same old shit every day of their lives, and would be scared if a new, strange, different-tasting brand appeared in front of them. These people will always drink bland mainstream beers because they’re not drinking to appreciate the taste; they’re drinking purely for physical refreshment and to get a bit of a buzz going. And you can’t tell them that they’re wrong to do that. There are plenty of wankers in the beer world who think these people are stupid, or that they only drink big brands because they’ve been brainwashed in to doing so. But the truth is simply that not everyone is as interested as we are.

But the other 20% of people like the taste of beer, and are curious about it in the same way they explore new and different tastes in all food and drink. These people tend to be educated and affluent, and are prepared to pay more for beer they know has been carefully brewed with quality ingredients, as well as with love and expertise. So craft beer is more profitable than standard beer, which means retailers want to sell a higher proportion of it, which means there’s a motivation for getting more people to try it. We’re seeing this amazing cross-fertilisation of ideas and styles now as the world gets smaller, and if you want it, there’s an astonishing variety of great beer out there.

Q: At least in American TV shows, there seems to be a real piousness about giving up the grog in the US. "I've been sober 18 months", some grinning idiot will say proudly to the acclaim of all. In Australia people would politely nod and never speak to him again. Or someone will call themselves a "recovering alcoholic" because they used to get on the turps every now and then in their uni days and haven't since. That just sounds bloody stupid down under, because beer isn't evil. Did you come across this in the US, or is it just on the TV? Presumably this derives in part from the deranged US bible bashers who also appear on TV in great numbers and appear to control the country.

A: Increasingly we’ve got it in the UK as well. I thought it had disappeared years ago, but it’s getting stronger again around the world.

Health bodies are campaigning for alcohol to be treated in the same way as cigarettes, which is just stupid: I don’t smoke, but I’m fine with people who do. But it’s scientifically proven that every single cigarette you smoke does harm to your body. Whereas if you drink in moderation, not only is it not bad for you, it’s actively good for you. Beer is full of Vitamin B, and it actively lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer, for Christ’s sake.

But we’re scared of a bit of liberty. Most of us are grown-up enough to be able to drink and get on with it as a functional part in our lives. Every single civilization in the history of the world has drunk alcohol at some point, and we do it because it feels nice. If it was as dangerous as they say, we wouldn’t be here now! There will always be a few people who can’t handle it – there are damaged, sensitive people the world over who believe rock music is telling them to kill themselves, or are obsessed with sex or addicted to tranquilisers, or play Dungeons & Dragons and think they can fly. You just can’t ban everything that’s potentially dangerous, but we seem to be trying to go that way. Most global drinks companies are starting to plan for a time when alcohol advertising is banned altogether. The problem is, they’re scared to fight back and lobby on the many benefits of drinking because they’re terrified of being seen to encourage alcohol abuse.

The problem is worse in the US because of the bible basher thing (even though Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine), but behind the religion is this need to control and regulate people. The pub has always been a place where people can escape the glare of the state and relax and be themselves, away from supervision. And we’re all supposed to be efficient little workers now, devoting our lives to the companies we work for so we can remain competitive. You can see why Australia, even though it does have these issues to some degree, is like a drinker’s paradise.

Q:. Were you surprised as the hospitality given to you as a beer writer around the globe? Do you think that would have happened if you were writing about another product, e.g. apples? Why would this be do you think?

A: I dedicated the book to the kindness of strangers. I couldn’t believe how welcoming people were everywhere I went. Yeah, part of it was I told them I was writing a book and they wanted their country or their beer to come across favourably, but you’re right – it wasn’t just that, and there is something about beer that made it more extreme. Beer is simply the most sociable drink in the world. It always has been, back to when ancient kings would drink wine from individual goblets but drink beer from large, communal pots. So beer attracts people who are particularly sociable. It turned out that half the people I was meeting for the first time in different parts of the world all knew each other from international competitions and festivals and so on. It’s a great way to live.

Q: You conclude in your book that the best drinking occurs when you are "a bit pissed" (i.e. rather than drunk). You mention that other countries have a special name for it: "la chispa" in Spanish, "Gemutlichkeit" in German, "hygge" in Danish. That all sounds great, but you then say, "The Irish have the craic" as though it is the same thing. Now that sounds all well and good, but every Irishman we've ever drunk with has been a right pisshead, and I wouldn't say the Irish are role models for the "middle state" as you put it. Explain yourself.

A: You’re right, that is a tricky one. But when you’re in a traditional Irish pub out in the country, sure everyone has had a few but what makes the night special is the conversation, the laughter and the music. Drinking is an integral part of it, but it’s what makes the other stuff happen, it plays a supporting role. Now it’s a different story when you meet the Irish abroad – they only seem to have brought the drinking bit with them, not the rest of it. But I’d say Aussies are the same: drink in an Australian pub, and you have a fantastic time, with everyone taking the piss and so on. But meet a bunch of Aussies at Oktoberfest and they only seem to want to drink until they fall over or get into a fight.


Q: Although you may have already covered this in your answer, if we had to give one beer message to our readers, it would be to drink better but less. Drink three or four really interesting beers (starting light with say a decent pilsner and eventually ending up with a stout), rather than guzzle 7 or 8 state based lagers without thinking. Or as Chuck says, don't just have a beer but savour it and enjoy the flavour. That would presumably put you in that 'middle state' in terms of sociability, but would also give you something to enjoy and talk about as well without getting a cracking hangover the next day. Is this your middle state, or is the middle state having the 7 or 8 lagers but not moving onto the bourbons afterward?

A: Yeah, it’s definitely drink better but drink less. I find now that on long session I can drink beers that are 8 or 9% ABV, but I drink them slowly, savouring their depth and complexity, and not get drunk. I’ve got one beer, a Belgian brand called Scaldis, which is 12 %. People say, ‘shit, how can you drink a beer that strong?’ and I point out that it comes in a 25cl bottle, the same as a large glass of wine, and that wine is between 12 and 14%, so I’m drinking exactly the same amount of alcohol as they bare, and they still see me as some kind of alkie. On the other hand, I find it hard now to sink pint after pint of something bland – it just seems like there’s no point to it. Of course, there is something in our genetic make-up, or history or culture, that Anglo-Saxons have in common (Aussies, Brits, Americans and Germans) – we do find it hard to stop at that middle state, we do like to carry on, whereas Latin countries find it much easier. For me, drinking more interesting, flavourful, stronger beers in smaller quantities, is the way to do it. I don’t want to turn into a beer bore, but when you let a good beer roll around your tongue, hitting the different flavour receptors and really savour it rather than just necking nit down, you feel like you’re getting about five times more value out of it.

Q: Towards the end of your book you express your frustration at English beer culture. Your local for example, used to serve cracking real ales, although they weren't thought of as real ales then, they just were. It was your beer. Now people do a song and dance if they serve up what used to be the norm, and no doubt expect to be paid a 'premium' and recieve accolades. Do you think we will ever move away from 'craft' beers being seen as premium and just becoming beer again? I suppose this has happened with lager hasn't it. Initially it was new and special, and now it is the norm.

A:The thing that’s most annoying about premium is that it’s a function of image more than reality. So the thing about real ale in the UK is that it’s actually cheaper than lager, even though it’s better beer. This delights true real ale fans. The only problem I have with it is that they’re a tiny minority of drinkers, and because real ale has a shitty, nerdy image more people don’t drink it, so fewer pubs stock it, so the fact that it’s cheap doesn’t do me any favours because it’s hard for me to find it!

The flipside is that we’re getting loads of new beers that are being marketed as ‘premium’ just because they’re from countries we haven’t seen beer from before. So you’re getting punters paying £3.80 for a pint of Russian lager thinking it’s quality, when in fact it’s vastly inferior not only to the real ale that’s on the same bar at £2.40 a pint, but also to lagers like Heineken, which are simply better but are a bit boring because they’ve been around for so long. But I suppose if we were all perfectly informed and made decisions entirely rationally then the world would be an incredibly dull place.

Q: I was once told to not put my interest in beer in my CV when applying for a job in the UK or people will think I'm a pot bellied, sandle wearing, bearded Real Ale freak. I didn't have a clue what this person was talking about. Surely this is unfair, as in my mind an interesting qualty beer has nothing to do with, well, sandles and beards at least. How did this come about, does it still exist, and what does the future of the image of someone interested in beer in the UK hold?

A:It’s that thing about image again. British men are famous for their hobbies, particularly the middle-aged, slightly eccentric British male who has trouble relating to people and is far happier pottering in his garden shed or study. Some of these guys get into train spotting. Some of them get into stamp collecting. Sadly, some of them get into beer. And while they’re the tiny minority, they are the most visible and the most vocal.

And unfortunately CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, encourages this. The problem is that real ale almost died out in the UK. Craft beer around the world would be nowhere near where it is today if CAMRA hadn’t formed and campaigned to prevent traditional British beer from dying out. But because this was their focus, as an organisation they’ve always tended to look back rather than forwards. Tradition is good, new technology and processes are bad. The traditional English pub is good, smart new bars are bad. So their most vocal members tend to be people who are not happy with the 21st century. I find all the time that because my books have ‘beer’ in the title, people think I’m one of these guys. They’re surprised when they meet me, even more surprised when they read the books. Because while we all enjoy drinking beer, if you say you’re interested in it enough to read or write about it you must be one of these guys, because for normal people beer just isn’t that interesting. So many people who have read my stuff because they know me have said, “I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but actually it’s really interesting.” That image problem is the biggest thing holding great beer back.

Q: One change I noticed from your earlier book (Man Walks into a Pub) is that all of a sudden you are using fancy words to describe how a beer tastes. In the earlier a book you seemed to consider all of that a bit of a wank. Has your palete improved, or just your vocabulary? Can you really taste cloves and bananas when mere mortals can only taste, well, beer?

A: Shit, I hope my vocab hasn’t got too wanky! What used to piss me off – and still does – is when people try to make beer too intellectual. The English traditionally make shit wine (though this is starting to change) but are renowned as the best wine critics in the world. We just go on about it so much. We’re scared of sensual pleasure, so we have t make it an intellectual one. Beer writers are aping wine writers in this, failing to realise that wine only really took off in the UK when the industry abandoned the pretentious shit and started describing it in words anyone could understand.

My palate is improving, and I’m trying to develop a vivid language to convince people that it’s not “just beer”. Loads of friends and people at my book readings keep telling me they don’t like beer. I’m getting better at asking them what drinks they do like, then giving them a beer that amazes them and confounds their expectations. I can only do that in person, so for everybody else I have to try and make them thirsty with this kind of description. I have to say, I wasn’t too bothered about the whole tasting side of things until I was about half way through the travel for this book. The I got more in love with beer itself, and more frustrated that so few people seemed to appreciate it.

Q: Was there anywhere during your travels did you think, sod this, Liz, stuff shithole England, we're upping stumps and settling down here. Surely you thought about it in Sydney when having a beer with me at Bondi beach?

A: Bondi, Portland Oregon, Bruges, Madrid, Barcelona, the West of Ireland… yep, it was a fairly regular occurrence. It’s 18 months now since I finished travelling, and while I’ve had a couple of holidays since then, I really miss these places. London is the only place for me in terms of work (or maybe New York). The trick is to get to a point where I don’t have to work again, so if all your readers buy my books I might be back out to Bondi soon!

Q: Is there a global beer culture? What conclusions can you make about people and beer the world over? What's in store for us all?

A: Wherever you go, beer is all about sociability and different interpretations of mateship. All alcoholic drinks make us more relaxed and help us interact with people, but wine is a bit more poncy, and spirits are a bit more about extreme connoisseurship or hardcore getting pissed. You go for a beer with someone and you’re leaving all the shit of the world on the doorstep, you’re going there as equals, you’re not going to allow the conversation to become too intense for too long, you’re going to have a laugh. I found this everywhere I went and it’s why I’m so passionate about beer.

And I think this meaning of beer is so fundamental that we’ll always have it. Styles might change, we might go through phases where drinking is frowned upon as we get more health conscious, but the history of beer is very cyclical – the same issues keep coming back again and again, and beer always survives them. In the UK, the pub and the church have been the only constants of town and village life since the eleventh century. I think that tells you all you need to know.

AustralianBeers.com would like to thank Pete for his global drinking efforts. The result of those efforts - Three Sheets to the Wind - makes for a very entertaining read on global beer culture, and should be purchased by any drinker who thinks past his or her local mass produced beer. Think of a combination of Bill Bryson and the Beer Hunter going on a year long global pub crawl.

Oz of course features prominently.

His earlier book, Man Walks into a Pub, is also worth a read if you (or your Dad) would like to know something more about the history of beer. And who wouldn't.


Pete pondering global beer culture



Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers