Interview: Pete Brown - Intrepid Pete's Adventure
The award-winning beer writer and enthusiast for all things brewed of hops and malt, Brown it seems is devoid of the restraint that the rest of us live by. Sipping his pint of Bitter and Twisted, he seems the very incarnation of a laid back beer drinker – he's even got the beard. But don't be fooled, Brown, a man who used to work in beer advertising, has already undertaken some fairly outlandish travel in pursuit of his beloved beverage. For his book, Three Sheets to the Wind, he travelled 45,000 miles, taking in 13 countries, to trace how beer drinking has changed and for his latest book, Hops and Glory, things got even more outlandish.
"When I tell people I write about beer they think I write about hops and real ale and beer festivals. That's about five per cent of what I write about. The reason I love writing about beer is because it's global – every country in the world has it. It's the world's most popular drink. And also it's timeless, it's been around for as long as civilisation has. That means it's like a constant force in the world so if you want to look at any single aspect of human behaviour – culture, history, society – you can take beer and use it as a lens with which to look at those things."
But after the 45,000 mile pub crawl, what could be left to say?
In fact, Brown didn't think he could top that until sitting in a Soho pub (where else?) nursing his creative drought with the added pressure of a 1,000 cheque, a travel bursary won for Three Sheets, burning a hole in his pocket, he had an idea. Brown realised that there was another beer-soaked adventure that he could go on, one that would take him even further afield. He'd retrace the steps of India Pale Ale, the beer style created specially for the British Raj in India, from its spiritual home of Burton-upon-Trent to Kolkata in India. Better than that, he'd actually carry a keg of specially brewed IPA on that journey. It would be a living reenactment of a historical voyage.
There was method in his madness too. IPA came into existence because the thousands of Britons who were living in India in the 18th century needed beer, partly as a home comfort but also because quaffing pipes of Madeira and the brutally potent Arak meant that the life expectancy was a ridiculously short three years as people drank themselves to death. But this was before refrigeration or modern brewing techniques, so beer couldn't be brewed in India, it had to be imported. Alas a three to six month sea journey – round the Cape of Good Hope, up the Mozambique Channel and along the east coast of Africa before finally crossing the Indian Ocean, caused havoc with the beer that was loaded on to the ships bound for Bombay or Calcutta. The liquid that eventually arrived was flat and sour. Until some clever brewer clocked that high levels of hops and alcohol preserved beer. IPA was born. Not only did the hoppy concoction survive the journey, the beer had gone through a conditioning process that left it light, sparkling and perfect for the sun-drenched climate of India.
"I just knew I had to make that journey," says Brown. "It was like a compulsion. And I knew if I managed to pull it off it would be the best thing I'd ever done. And it was. But if I'd known some of the difficulties, I think I probably wouldn't have had the courage to go through with it."
Brown's mission was threefold. First, he had to arrange a sea journey that hadn't existed since the Suez Canal opened nearly 140 years ago. Next he had to persuade a brewer to produce a keg of beer they don't usually make and then he had to carry it to India in the hope that the conditioning process would work the same way as it had in the 18th century. The difficulties were practical (dodging through customs with a keg of beer) physical (carrying a 30kg barrel and luggage for a three-month trip isn't easy) and mental (staying sane while travelling on a cargo ship from Brazil to India was a challenge Brown met by playing a lot of solitaire and chopping his beard compulsively with his Swiss Army knife scissors).
There were high points though. The first leg of the journey was done by tall ship. The boat, the Europa, was 149ft long with 300 ropes, 30 sails and of the 40 or so crew, Brown had no experience of sailing. "When you get on a ship you think you might have to coil a rope, but the first day it's like, there's a compass bearing, here's the wheel. It takes a while to get used to it, you've got to get the feel of a ship. When you get it right, when you get the sails, the wind and the rudder all right, it's like a groove and you just feel it. When you're doing bow watch – looking out on to the ocean in complete darkness, it's like a form of meditation. At night it really does sound like a Gregorian chant – the wind is thrumming through the lines and then there's the whispering of the wind. It's magic."
For reasons too complicated to go into here, but hilariously explained in Brown's book, 'Barry' the barrel didn't actually do this part of the journey with Brown but once he got to Brazil, 'Kevin' the keg, another cask of Burton-upon-Trent's finest joined him and completed the rest of the journey. As well as being an engaging travel tale, Brown also manages to weave in the complexities of industrialisation in 18th century Britain as well as the brutal realities of colonialism in India, so whether you're a beer aficionado or not, it's a fascinating story. There's also a Scottish connection.
Brown explains that brewers in Edinburgh had been making pale ale since the 1820s. Originally it was developed for Scots in the West Indies but it was soon exported to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and America. Some of it was so good, largely thanks to a "magic circle" of wells under the city that are still being used today, it was called "Scotch burgundy".
"The water in Edinburgh is very, very similar; not quite as good as Burton but near as damn it. Brewers like Tennent's, McEwan's, Younger's, all started making India Pale Ale for export to India and because they got into bottling quicker than the Burton Brewers at the end of the 19th century, the Edinburgh brewers actually overtook Burton as the main suppliers of pale ale to India. Burton is still known as the home of IPA but Edinburgh for a good chunk of time was the superior IPA town."
Nowadays the pub industry might be in freefall – last month the British Beer and Pub Association warned that pubs were closing at a rate of 50 a week – but the craft beer industry is burgeoning. Brown's only too happy for the change.
"When I went to university in St Andrews, beer was something that came with a big red T on it. It came as lager, 70 or 80 shilling and that was it. Now, I'd say the craft beer revolution in Scotland is outpacing what's going on in England and that means overall we're finally catching up with the rest of the world.
"The trend for going back into history and reinventing British, German and Belgian styles happened in other countries before it happened here. Partly that's because in other places those beers had totally died out so ambitious young brewers used history books to get the recipes and brew them and they became as trendy as artisanal bread or homemade chutneys. Here, because it never quite died out, it always seemed to be looking backwards. It was fogeyish. You still get people in the Campaign for Real Ale saying 'oh we can't do anything that didn't exist in 1890', 'you can't use new technology because it's not traditional'. We've been held back by our sense of tradition."
For Brown that is particularly annoying because it runs against the spirit of the beer brewing that created IPA.
"The Burton brewers were innovators, they were scientists," he says. "It was like, what's next? What can we do? The very beers that CAMRA now idolise couldn't have come into existence if their attitudes had been around then."
Brown speaks about beer in the same way that wine critics talk about their tipple. It's all citrus aromas and length on the palate. Scottish brews do well with him, his favourite beer of last year was Dark Island Reserve from the Orkney Brewery.
"It's wood-aged for 10 months before bottling. It's a really dark, rich beer about 10 per cent. The bottle looks like something that you want to keep in your cellar and guard with knives. It does everything that a really fantastic red wine would do, but with that extra underlayer that beer has. Wine does sweetness and acidity, but the back bit, the buzz you get on the back of your tongue is why people prefer beer."
He bought three bottles of Dark Island. One he drank, the other two were stashed in the cellar. He's going to leave them there for 10 years.
Brown hopes that a celebrity chef (Jamie Oliver is the name he mentions) will take up the cause of beer and champion pairing it with food. It's already happening in a couple of restaurants in London, for example Aubergine, but Brown believes the time has come for it to go mainstream.
"Even something like cheese and wine," he says. "Most wine writers will admit that wine and cheese don't really go together, so they'll recommend serving cheap plonk if you want to eat them together. No! Check out beer. Beer goes amazingly with cheese, it does amazing things with it: Stilton with an old barley wine, a goat's cheese with a pilsner lager, a wheat beer with a creamy beer. It's incredible.
"The thing that beer has that wine doesn't have is the democracy of it – it's accessible to people in a way that wine isn't. And at the end of the day, it's just about liking it."
With that he drains his pint.
• Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer that Built the British Empire is published by Macmillan, 14.99.