Meet the Professionals

Pete Brown on… the four ingredients of beer

Pete Brown What Are You Drinking?

Our favourite beer writer, Pete Brown, is working on a new book. ‘What Are You Drinking?’ promises to be a journey into the four ingredients of beer – water, malted barley, hops and yeast – and we can’t wait to read it. It’s being published by crowdfunding site ‘unbound’, which means anyone can pledge to support it. We caught up with Pete to find out more about the book…

Your next book project, ‘What Are You Drinking?’, is all about the four main ingredients in beer – water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Why so you think it’s important to tell their stories?
Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in the world, and yet very few people who drink it have any idea what it’s made of. People might say ‘hops’ and then struggle to explain what a hop is. Other people say ‘chemicals’. There are very few people I know who can name all four ingredients. And even among the growing number of beer aficionados, there’s lots of misunderstanding. That’s one side of it. On the other side, there are these astonishing stories behind each of the four ingredients – how they got to be in beer, their biological properties, where they’re grown, what they each contribute. I have a good working knowledge of this, but in my research I’m finding out new stuff that amazes me after writing about beer for fifteen years.

During research for the book were you surprised at just how much certain variations in those basic ingredients can get wildly different results?
That bit didn’t surprise me so much – at least not yet – the astonishing number of different tunes a brewer can play with these four basic ingredients is one of the facts that made me want to write the book in the first place. Think of a guitar as a simple six-stringed instrument, and think of all the different notes, chords and sounds you can get out of it. The put it in a band with bass, drums and vocals… I really want to be able to bring that comparison to life.

How much impact does location have on the ingredients? What are some of the main differences you’ve noticed throughout the world?
The wine world came up with this concept of terroir – a special combination of soil type, climate, weather and geography – that has a profound effect on the character of the grapes grown in a given location. Instinctively many people laugh if you attempt to make the same point about beer, as if it’s absurd to say that the delicate balance of factors that separate a Marlborough, New Zealand Sauvignon from Bordeaux Sauvignon can’t be applied to something as simple as beer. But I think it is far, far more absurd to say that terroir affects once kind of plant, but has no effect on other plants that have a passing similarity to it. That’s just stupid and blinkered. One of the main things I’m excited about in this book is talking to hop growers in Europe, North America and, hopefully, Australia and New Zealand, and getting up close and personal with the hops to see just how much they change. And hops are simply the easiest example: yeast, barley even water is profoundly affected by location, which is why some of the world’s biggest breweries grew up where they are.

Many breweries are now labeling their products with more precise ingredients lists, such as naming hop varieties. Does this extra knowledge increase the enjoyment of a pint?
It does. You could argue about how or why, but it does. I think the number of people who really appreciate what the differences mean to their beer is small, but the fact that the information is there makes the drinker feel a little bit more special and discerning no matter what it says, and I’m not going to poke fun at anyone who sees an ingredient and doesn’t know what it means, but feels a bit more special anyway. It’s far more likely to make that person find out more, and even if they don’t, if they enjoy their beer more as a result, that’s great!

Have you got to the stage where you can recognise hop varieties in a beer by their aroma and flavour?
To a degree. I can identify regions of origin, but I can’t pick out specific hop varieties by name the way some of my contemporaries and many craft brewers can. My palate expertise has always slightly lagged my academic research!

Of all the ingredients, yeast would seem to be the most magical and mysterious. Craft breweries have recently started experimenting with yeast strains to open up whole new flavours. Do you think there’s more to be discovered about the powers of yeast – and more flavours yet to be experienced?
There’s so much more to be discovered about yeast. One of the trips I’ve already done for the book was to visit the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, where Emil Hansen first isolated and propagated single strain yeasts. Just think – we’ve been brewing beer for at least seven thousand years, trying to influence or understand the process of fermentation all that time, and Hansen and Pasteur only really developed our understanding of what yeast actually is less than 150 years ago. There are still hundreds of biochemists trying to build on that work. And any honest brewer when asked about yeast will say something along the lines of “We don’t brew beer, we just assemble the ingredients and try to keep the yeast happy.”

You’re funding the book by support through ‘unbound’. Why did you decide to take this route?
Several reasons. The main one is that the man who bought and edited my first two books now works at Unbound, and in his first week there he emailed me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book specifically about beer with them. It was a no-brainer. Secondly, while my writing career is progressing very well, mainstream publishers are pushing me towards subjects other than beer. I always consider myself a writer first and foremost, rather than a beer writer per se – I’ve wanted to write books since I was nine years old! I’ve just signed a deal with Penguin to write a book that has nothing to do with beer and I’m very excited about that. But I never want to leave beer writing behind. When I’m not doing it, I miss it. Unbound is geared more to allowing me to write for my existing readership than constantly trying to find new readers, so it’s nice to be doing both side by side. Finally, some people see crowdfunding as somehow a step down from other ways of doing things. I think there have been examples of ideas that have turned to crowdfunding because they’re not good enough ideas to work any other way, but Unbound is certainly not one of them. Already, they’ve published huge bestsellers and books that have scooped loads of awards, and have won many business awards themselves as a publisher. It’s an innovative model that puts the power back into the hands of readers and authors and I’m proud to be part of it.
And finally, do you have a dream combination of the four main ingredients?
Not really – not yet. I suppose my dream would be to complete the journey of this book, which began many years ago when I was visiting wild yeast breweries and hop blessing festivals and taking lots of notes that I didn’t really know what to do with, learn more about each ingredient in isolation and find my favourites, and then brew a beer with the best of each one at the end. Thanks for the idea!

To find out more about ‘What Are you Drinking?’ and pledge your support, check out the book on unbound 

Pete’s excellent beer blog can be found here

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