Pete Brown has quickly established himself as one the best beer writers around with his quick wit, historical insights and strong opinions appearing in vast array of books, magazines and websites. His recent publication ‘Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub’ is out now in paperback and we caught up with him to talk about the book, the pub at the centre of the story and, of course, beer…
A historical journey viewed through one pub is one of those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ book concepts. What gave you the idea?
At a time when people are talking about the ‘death of the pub’, it just seemed like a really important point to make that pubs have been around for a thousand years and I don’t think they’re going anywhere fast in the next two or three years. Illustrating this with one pub that’s survived for centuries seemed like the best way to make the point!
Why did you settle on the George Inn, Southwark, as the book’s star?
There were a few obvious candidates. The reason the George won out is because the history of the pub is only slightly about the history of the bricks and mortar – mainly it reflects the area it serves, the people who passed through it. And when I started to research the idea, I realised the George had been standing all this time on probably the most interesting street in the world.
What do you think makes the pub so special to have survived for so long
Gosh, there are so many things! When you survive past a certain point, that survival itself becomes remarkable and self-perpetuates – the fact that it has survived makes it interesting to people and that in turn ensures its continued survival. The best illustration of that is that the National Trust took it on in 1937 because it was ancient, and it’s the National Trust’s ownership that has kept it going since then. The reason it survived up to that point, when all its neighbouring coaching inns disappeared, is that it was run by Miss Agnes Murray, a truly remarkable woman and the real star of the book, apart from the George itself of course. She held it together with a mixture of string and glue and smoke and mirrors and love and determination for over sixty years. And then on top of that, the place has enjoyed a ludicrous, almost unbelievable amount of good luck.
If you could travel back in time, what era would you choose to be a beer drinker?
Would it be too cheesy to say right now? We have the best array of beers available in London today than we have ever had. But if I could choose to go back for a brief visit, and then come home safely, but could only choose one era, it would definitely be some time around the 1780s. London was a huge party town. It had the biggest and most advanced breweries in the world, it had just invented porter and was evolving IPA – my favourite beer style – into its current form for export to India.
You express strong opinions about the beer and pub trades in various publications and on your own website, petebrown.blogspot.co.uk. What do you think is the main factor causing so many pubs to close?
The reason pubs are in so much trouble is that there are so many different factors working against them. The structure of the industry and the corruption endemic in the big PubCos, the huge tax and duty burden, the red tape they face, the demonisation of drink and drinkers by the media and dishonest anti-alcohol pressure groups… and the one no one wants to talk about – the social changes that mean we simply don’t need as many pubs as we did. That’s the one that pubs really need to get their heads around if they want to survive. The good news is that I know loads of pubs that are doing just that and thriving even as others close.
And if you could pass one piece of legislation to improve the lot of the beer drinker, what would it be?
Before the last budget it would have been the end of the Duty Escalator, but we achieved that! After that success, it would now be something longer term that encourages us to treat beer with the same kind of respect that France treats its wine – protecting beer styles and insisting on certain professional standards and openness to drinkers. We make the best beers (and ciders) in the world, but we also make the very worst in the western world because of our industry’s obsession with cutting costs and disguising crap products with good marketing. I don’t know if you can legislate effectively to make an entire industry take pride in what it does at the same time as protecting it, but that’s what I’d look into.
Your next book is ‘World’s Best Cider’. Tell us something you’ve learned about cider while researching the book.
Cider is the most misunderstood drink in the world. In this country we see it as a sweeter substitute for beer, but it’s actually got at least as much in common with wine, as well as having something no other drink has. And I’ve really learned how connected good, craft cider is with the land and the seasons, something which has a wonderfully grounding effect on me.
And finally, can you recommend any good beers or ciders you’ve enjoyed recently?
Tom Oliver is the best cider maker in the world. Anything with his name on the bottle is stunning. As a style, Canadian Ice Cider is your new favourite drink, you just don’t know it yet. Beer: there are so many! I’m currently enjoying Curious Brew Lager, Redemption ales (especially Trinity) and saving Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout for best.
If you can’t find a copy of Pete’s book in your local store, then you could always order a copy here