I’m not used to reading things on a Kindle, but I had to go there for this one. Over £60 for a second hand copy on Amazon! Under a fiver on Kindle. Meh. Anyway … Martyn Cornell is a beer writer and blogger of high repute; he’s won multiple awards from The Guild Of British Beer Writers and his blog Zythophile is always a good read. This book is from 2008, so may not be up to date with all the craft trends, but that works well enough as Cornell can use distance to get a long term view of the rise and fall British beer styles and their history.
For much of the book, Cornell dredges through brewing history. Or British brewing history anyway. The back story of bitter/pale ale/india pale ale is murkier than it is often made out to be (everything seemed so much simpler in Pete Brown’s Hops And Glory): Cornell isn’t happy to go along with the myths (though he isn’t against a good story when the opportunity presents, so the book doesn’t get too dry). He delves through newspapers, advertisements, popular literature and (of course) brewery records and finds plenty of gold.
There are some niche topics – long forgotten herbal beers, honey beers, and heather beer (that had been revived with Williams Brothers’ Fraoch). Wood aged beers too had made a comeback with Innis & Gunn and an aborted (for tax reasons) Fuller’s aged Golden Pride getting a mention. I especially liked the chapter on Barley Wines and Old Ales, fitting my personal taste in beer. A chapter on British Wheat Beer goes in some odd directions, and a chapter on Lager that shines a light on big British brewing and technology.
I have seen a few good criticisms of this book: the lack of Scottish styles (although Scottish brewers do play a prominent role in the Lager chapter); a writing style that isn’t entirely clear – Cornell has plenty to say on the distinction between stout and porter, but I would be hard pushed to summarize it. There is occasionally a technical focus that feels out of place, leaving the book hanging between something more specialist and something more popular. Despite these faults, it’s well worth reading for anyone really interested in traditional English beer styles (both obscure and well known).
In 1683 John Locke fled into exile in Holland, after being connected to a scheme to assassinate Charles II. While there he denied involvement or knowledge in such a plot and refused to implicate his friends. His excuse, which amuses me, was that he was simply in Holland because he preferred the beer! It seems pretty plausible to me.
(Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to find a primary source for that; it was mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin Classics’ collection of his Political Writings, and I have found mention elsewhere online. Annoyingly many of his letters have been collected by a fellow called E.S de Beer, so google searches have been pretty difficult. The man did seem to know his beer – as noted in this beer blog, with John Locke organising various types of British ale into categories.)
I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times. It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect. Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside). There is an atmosphere however. Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history. And there is quite a lot of history.
The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence. Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess. The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period. It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era. It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived. By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.
In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India). Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless. In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it. That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?). It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017. Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.
Apparently it was Shakespeare Week this week. I saw a display in the local library just as it was ending – a little late to actually get involved. On closer inspection, it’s not actually aimed at me. It’s designed to get primary school age children. The aim is to give them early (and fun) exposure to Shakespeare.
It seems like a good idea. I only read the Bard in secondary school, and it may have been a different approach. After reading MacBeth we watching a couple of productions – including Trevor Nunn’s dark and minimalist version with Ian McKellan and Judy Dench (probably a bit arty for kids) and Roman Polanski’s Playboy version (definitely not for kids).
On a different note – I had actually made this recipe for honey flatbread from a Shakespeare heritage site. The honey was a really good touch, it gave the bread a sweet warming quality, and the salt contrasted with the sweetness in a nice way. Stayed tuned for more top literary insights (or not) next time!