The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.


The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.


From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

dscf4868And a similar taster of some of the golden ales: William Brothers Joker IPA, Deuchars IPA, JO C’s Knot Just Another IPA and Oakham Ales Green Devil. Granted they’re all golden in colour but beer isn’t a paint chart but a sensory experience.

Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.


Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

The London Beer Writers

Left to right: Ben Sedgwick, Alec Latham and Csaba Babak attempt to look casual for the camera.

On Wednesday evening, the London Beer Writers Meetup took place at the Craft Beer Company, St Mary Axe in London’s financial district.

The Meetup consisted of a certified beer Sommelier who works for Fullers Brewery (Ben), the published author of Beer Means Business (Csaba) and a blogger and sometimes magazine contributor (me).

As texts to offer feedback on, Ben’s work was about the growing beer scene in northern Spain. Csaba presented part of a project he’s working on about the factors influencing consumer choice in the marketplace. I offered my piece about the debt the public owes to the nation’s bar staff and publicans. These three topics were as varied as the beers showcased along the bar a few feet away from where we sat.

It’s enlightening meeting up with other writers whether they be a simple enthusiasts, bloggers, vloggers or someone who works in brewing, marketing, development or in any other ale-related capacity. The beer and brewing culture has become such a wide magisterium – the insights come from backgrounds that are multiplying. Though all three of us write about beer, our own backgrounds are diverse: civil engineering, EU policy and regulation management and front line emergency services.

The way this Meetup works is we read each others’ work and then write down our thoughts. There are some useful little questions on pages I supply to function as whetters if you’re a little dry. It’s structured but far some scientific and it’s definitely a work in progress. When you read a text, there is no such thing as a right or wrong reaction to it. What kindles the flames for one reader might just snuff them out for another. All viewpoints are equally valid.


At the London Beer Writers Meetup, you’ll hear praise and the criticism is constructive and friendly. It could be conflicting or you might see patterns emerging in the feedback. You simply mull it over and next time you sit down to write, it might well influence it. The point of this Meetup is to grow as a writer and help others to do so.

What’s impossible to do as an author is become another person reading your own work because as its creator, you can’t shed your own bias. Sometimes only getting someone else’s opinion will do. And it’s as simple as that. It makes you think about what you write about and how you write it.

Some brilliant sites and feeds to pursue:

You can follow Ben Sedgwick’s focus on beer at
and follow him on Twitter:

Follow Csaba Babak’s work at:
and his Twitter accounts:

Apart from the three official topics, we also found time to discuss CAMRA’s softening stance on key kegs, the Pig’s Ear Festival, red kites, Sierra Nevada, Belgium, Zurich, Watlington and the Vicar of Dibley. Not only that but we honed our magical skills – namely by making pints of Dark Star, Beavertown, Kernel, Orbit, Weird Beard & Tiny Rebel disappear.

If you’re someone who writes about beer or is thinking about doing so, please join the group. It’s a relaxed environment in which to chew the spent grain with other beer writers:

London Beer Writers Meetup

London, GB
24 The London Beer Writers

Hi my name’s Alec. I love reading and writing about beer. I’ve had some success in being published but would like to improve my skills and help others to improve theirs. I wou…

Check out this Meetup Group →

core strength

core strength

Until recently, when a new brewery opened in Britain, it started with a bitter. It might then go on to brew a best bitter, a pale ale or even a stout but then several years ago something changed. Though some new breweries still follow what could be called the traditional path (mostly brewpubs and rural breweries), it’s becoming increasingly outdated.

On Thursday 13th October I went to a Siren Craft Brew tap takeover in London along with a craft beer Meetup group. To me, Siren Craft Brew was the first new brewery to create completely different beers not just as specials but as its core range. This confident new chapter in beer started in 2012 and never deviated back toward the norm. As a nation, we were obviously ready for this new stage in our drinking culture.


Siren Craft Brew inhabits the countryside of the home counties. It’s situated in a business park in Finchampstead, Berkshire but unlike rural names like Chiltern, Hall & Woodhouse, Exmoor, St Austell, Timothy Taylor or Hook Norton, it eschews the traditional. There are no wheat sheafs, anchors, clergy or ploughs to be seen on the pump clips. The nostalgia for the maritime and the agricultural has been replaced by a more Mediterranean guiltless pleasure.


dscf4832The recipes aren’t about tradition either but indulgence. The basic range consists of silky oat bodies, fragrant aromas and citrussy new world flavours. The mainstay also sees the return to Britain of the rich chocolatey breakfast stout once beloved by labourers, and at the other end of the spectrum, the sour dry-hopped Calypso.


The artwork on the bottles is reminiscent not of session beer but of luxury. The siren depicted is a cross between a pre-raphaelite female, a Klimt muse and the character Durham Red from the comic 2000 AD. She even has a touch of the Starbucks logo about her. To my mind, a possible forerunner could’ve been the reclining figure that represents Brewsters Brewery. These women are a world away from tired British smut – the swollen women’s anatomy on Hobgoblin pump clips, naughty seaside postcards, the confessions of a plumbers mate.

Instead, it brought to mind imagery more commonly associated with high-end desserts, perfume or even wine. The website itself alludes to fine wines and some of its aged beers fulfil the analogy: I can imagine someone leaving his guests to reappear from the cellar blowing the dust off a bottle of Siren Craft Brew he laid down several years earlier and announcing the vintage.


Now on the badges, the artwork still represents sirens but also drops of oil/blood dispersing in liquid like unfurling tendrils with the hop flowers opening out at the edges. I think this was a part of an artistic meme later taken up by breweries like Cloudwater whereby those primary splashes have been deconstructed again into component parts: they’ve become the abstract shapes representing a synaesthesia of taste and aroma in Cloudwater’s own branding. Or maybe it’s just what I read into it.

Siren Craft Brew and its evolving beer range isn’t the only thing that causes me to pause in my tracks, however. There’s also the venue the tap takeover is happening in.

dscf4826The Draft House on Tower Bridge Road is part of a small chain of pubs that beer lovers could only have dreamt of a few years ago. Not only does the beer occupy centre stage like a burlesque act under the bar’s seductive red glow, but there are beer menus too – a phenomenon once known only to Brussels.


I pace around the inside. In some ways it’s less comfortable than a pub. It’s certainly less intimate. The bar doesn’t have a landlord or landlady but a shift manager. There aren’t any dogs sprawled out on the floor, and yes, there is a lot of neon which I hate whether in its pre-ironic, actual ironic or post-ironic form. It also has hideous 1970s style goblet patterns on the wallpaper. Some of the seating is like an American diner. The signage for food and events is like a cinema foyer. The dimmed lights bathing each section are the hue of the coloured bulbs of an underground laboratory. Somehow these flights of ague and distemper balance each other out into a welcoming warmth

Along with the tested comfort of Sound Wave, Broken Dream and Liquid Mistress on tap, there is their chilli beer 5-Alarm, Pompelmocello – a grapefruit IPA, Amigos Britanicos – a farmhouse ale with lime, honey and chilli, and Tidal Wave – a 10% IPA based on a barrel aged cask of Sound Wave.


The grapefruit IPA didn’t taste like the Citra hop as I’d imagined, but is refreshing like the oval cells in citrus flesh are exploding on the tongue. It’s cool and sharp like zest spray. The Tidal Wave reminds me of the orange cream centres in chocolate assortment boxes combined with the cool freshness of orange peel.

From Siren’s vast portfolio, I’ve drunk beers aged on cedar wood, gorged on the clay-like depth of Ryesing Tides and wrestled with their braggot Uncle Zester. I’ve been soothed by their tea-infused beers, tantalised by their peach cream IPA and been given a wedgie by their black Brett Gose. I’ve downed seaweed and cloudberry beer, sipped a dessert of cacao nibs and cypress wood and kept vampires at bay with their blackberry IPA.

Could it be that these challenging and, frankly, mad beers become the core range of other breweries in a few years time? They could be the new norm just as the bitter, best bitter and stout were of the recent yesteryear.

on writing – cliché

why cliché should be avoided like the … erm … an airborne infectious disease



Tonight we have an eclectic mix, a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment. Though you’ve probably said “eclectic mix”, do you actually know what eclectic means? Thought not. Neither did I until I looked it up. This is because it’s only commonly seen in that cliché. Cliché can use words most people don’t know the meaning of, but get them to repeat it like parrots (cliché). This isn’t an intelligent state of affairs.

When you start out in writing, cliché seems professional; it’s like you’ve stumbled onto familiar ground (one) and is the most natural and intuitive thing to do. There are, for example, two clichés right off the bat (and two) in these two sentences. Using cliché seems to legitimise your writing precisely because it lends it the comfort of familiarity.

Cliché is the linguistic version of copying and pasting when you struggle to put yourself across. You’re copying and pasting other people’s words as a million have done before you. If you could trace the saying back to the one who originally said/wrote it, you’d probably find he/she was a capable writer or orator as they had to find an original way to epitomise what they were trying to express; it’s a difficult and active process which requires effort and imagination. That’s why as a writer you need to stop at the same junction between prose and cliché and reinvent again.

Cliché is the level of language used by Harvester menus, humorous birthday cards, radio disc jockeys and political press teams.

The phenomenon has a mayfly existence in political circles. The cabinet, shadow cabinet and their advisors push a series of media soundbites when a notion needs to be polished to be repeated in lieu of actual argument by the masses. The public really do end up repeating them – especially with the epidemic spread of social media. It’s a form of echolalia.

In the past few years the phrases “difficult decisions”, “too far too fast”, “fix the roof while the sun’s shining”, “cost of living crisis” etc etc have been absorbed via osmosis into the public psyche but won’t be remembered for long. With regards to these political salvoes, historians of the future will be able to date a cliché’s vintage. If a newspaper cutting were to be found without the date, examining the clichés in a political column could be as reliable a test as carbon dating the paper it’s printed on.

Not all clichés are so time-specific though. Whether it’s to be in stitches, in a pickle, to be eaten out of house and home or even to be as dead as a doornail, these were seeds of vocabulary all planted in the sixteenth century by one Will Shakespeare – proof that a cliché’s origin can come from a competent wordsmith. When you mine a good phrase, it can catch on in which case it gets repeated. Now we have a larva turn to a rote chrysalis that might hatch into a cliché.

Cliché could be used in technical writing but such a document’s brief is not to evoke emotion nor make a connection with the reader. Its remit is to set out things in a logical sequence and illustrate quantitative data. As long as the logic is there, cliché won’t really harm the text.

Where cliché does the most damage is in expressive writing. Imagine if you replaced every cliché with the words “what he said” That’s actually what you’re doing. Cliché is therefore a crutch that supports you as you straddle the voids in your own prose and the more clichés that are to be found within it, the more obvious that crutch becomes to the reader.

Some clichés are perfect: to not be able to get a word in edgeways is like it’s a physical object you’re trying to shunt into the gaps in a speeding convoy of words from the other party. The openings are so narrow it keeps glancing off and so never penetrates the dialogue. To have a rapier wit is another beautifully crafted example – it incises, thrusts and parries in the debate’s exchanges. To have a memory like a sieve is exact in its construction. A raft of measures (actually a common political saying) is a good analogy for something that is humble but will keep people afloat through difficult times. Whoever first came up with it was a deft embroiderer of the English language but then it becomes robotic in the repetition.

Is there anything good to be said about cliché? Maybe. It reinforces a sense of shared language and by extension, a shared culture. But this benefit is also its restriction. It’s also a retrospective compliment to its creator, but again, we don’t usually know who that is to attribute the praise to.

The English language is a veritable smorgasbord of choice words – an eclectic mix of saying. At the end of the day we just need to roll with the punches, grin and bear it, and come out fighting for our native tongue.

Or alternatively,

The English language is our dew glistening hedgerow: an embarrassment of fruit we should never plunder but tend to. We must prune, feed and cross-pollinate to warp the droops and berries into sumptuous shapes and flavours. We need to ensure the sweet, the tart, the sharp and the running juices of its yield. Let’s keep our native tongue fertile.

The more you employ cliché, the more you disappear as a writer. Avoid cliché like the…….. well, it’s over to you.

Contortionism & Diplomacy

Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.


But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.