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Sunday, October 21, 2018
   
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Review: CAMRA's Good Beer Guide: Belgium

CAMRA's Good Beer Guide: BelgiumVeteran beer writer Tim Webb has been publishing a guide to Belgian beer and pubs since 1992. This and the previous edition in 2014 were co-edited by the Europe-based American writer Joe Stange. A short essay by Webb at the front of the book charts the origin of the guide and announces his retirement from it. That means the next one will have a different feel to the current edition, because this is not simply a list of Belgian pubs and breweries, but rather a series of personal observations. This unusual approach really captures the idiosyncracies of Belgium's beer culture.

It does work perfectly well as a guidebook too. Every brewery in the country is listed alphabetically and given a short description with noteworthy beers highlighted, and then there's a couple of hundred pages of pub listings by region. Where it really shines is how it takes you off the beaten track, including the landmark bars of course, but offering plenty of alternatives too. One criticism, from some field-testing during my last trip to Belgium, is that by separating the breweries from the pubs you don't get an at-a-glance guide to wherever you are. Looking for places to drink in Mechelen, for example, there are six recommended pubs on the page dedicated to the city, but no mention of the Het Anker Brewery, one of the highlights -- it's covered elsewhere.

As well as the listings there are articles on Belgian beer history and culture, as well as the inevitable piece on food. There's also a fun, if not exactly helpful, guide to identifying client brewers from the real thing: "If the person fronting the business has a marketing-team smile, beware". A run-down of the annual festival calendar rounds it off. The tone throughout is cheery and enthusiastic, if a little snarky at times, and reflects well the authors' genuine affection for Belgium.

Overall, it's a well-pitched book: easy to follow for the newcomer exploring Belgium and its beer for the first time, while also having plenty of new perspectives and ideas for the seasoned Belgophile.

CAMRA's Good Beer Guide: Belgium, 8th edition, 2018, is published by CAMRA Books and the cover price is £14.99.

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Review: 20th Century Pub

There is no shortage of books on English pub life and pub culture. It is, after all, as essential a part of that nation’s self-image as the café is to Paris or the beerhall is to Bavaria. Popular works on the pub, however, have tended to take an overtly celebratory or sentimental approach, and this much is noted by Boak and Bailey at the beginning of their latest work on the subject. But 20th Century Pub: From Beer House to Booze Bunker is no tub-thumping demand for the pub to be recognised as the cornerstone of civilisation, nor a misty-eyed look back at an ornate past full of horse-brasses and handpumps. There’s a proper academic rigour to their treatment, while avoiding getting bogged down in detail.

The structure is broadly chronological, beginning at the creation of the modern pub in the 19th century from an amalgamation of the tavern, inn and beerhouse: each serving a different market need in their own ways. From the resulting Victorian pub, we follow developments through the social optimism of the early 20th century, the upheavals of two world wars and their aftermath, and into the pub diversification that we know today. The later chapters focus on specific archetypes of British pub: the theme pub and its most popular spin-off, the Irish pub; the gastropub; the superpub and the more recent developments of the community-run pub and the micropub. In each case we get illustrative examples, fastidiously researched and presented with original documentary sources, first-hand interviews and real-life visits. The authors clearly put in significant mileage when putting the book together and it really stands to them in the observations and photographs they provide.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how many other corners of life and society it touches on. Urban planning and development is obviously a major factor in how pubs have evolved in Britain, likewise the class system, attitudes to women, and of course the temperance movement. All of them play bit parts in the drama, stepping in and out of the narrative as required.

Fans of the authors’ first book, Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer, will enjoy the similar style in this one: a big picture, sliced into easily-digestible chapters and fleshed out with colourful characters and anecdotes from behind the scenes. It’s narrower in scope, however, and speaking as a beer person more than a pub person, I found it somewhat less engaging. Your mileage may vary of course. Overall it’s an excellent look at recent British history through the lens of the pub, and certainly more substantial than any number of glossy coffee-table works.

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Review: The Pub

The Pub by Pete Brown

English beer writer Pete Brown is probably better known for his matey-blokey beer history and travel books, like Hops & Glory (the definitive story of IPA) and Shakespeare's Local (a history of one not-so-well-known London pub). His latest is a rather different format, however. The Pub, subtitled "A Cultural Institution - from Country Inns to Craft Beer Bars and Corner Locals", is a glossy, lavishly illustrated, coffee-table job, highlighting 50 different pubs around the UK.

It's more than a work of pub pornography, however. The book also has a practical remit, documenting an additional 250 pubs to the ones featured, so despite a total lack of portability it also has a very useful reference function. If you're going to a specific part of the UK and looking for particularly pretty or otherwise noteworthy pubs to visit, this book is of real help. The pubs are set out region by region with a couple of exceptional examples given a double-page spread of photographs and Pete's personal account of the place. These highlights are interspersed with single-paragraph descriptions of other pubs in the region, all with details of facilities available, address and contact details.

Review: Sláinte - The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider

Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider

My review of Iorwerth Griffiths's small 2007 volume, The Complete Guide to Beer and Cider in Ireland, expressed the hope that growth in Ireland's craft beer scene would mean the next edition would be more of a coffee table size. A successor has finally been published and while it's not a large-format work it does share much in common with the glossy, image-rich, lifestyle publishing genre.

That's not to say it's all fluff, however. Far from it. Caroline Hennessy and Kristen Jensen have meticulously researched the current state of the Irish beer and cider scene and drawn upon a wealth of sources, historical, zythological and gastronomical to create this compact and accessible guide.

Review: Brew Britannia - The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

Brew Britannia

We all know the story: in 1971 a group of Englishmen on a walking holiday in Kerry created a beer drinkers' protest group to fight the rise of industrialised beer in Britain.

35 years later, a pair of young Scottish home brewers set out to shake up the staid UK beer scene with a daring and aggressive new venture: we all know that story too.

But neither of these well-worn creation myths are the full truth. The circumstances behind the formation of CAMRA and the founding of BrewDog are just two of the areas covered in Brew Britannia, a book about the changes in British beer culture from the middle of the 20th century to the present day, and one which shows a continuity between the events with which, perhaps, neither entity would be entirely comfortable.

 

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