London based author of Hops and Glory, Three Sheets to the Wind and Man Walks into a Pub, 2009
Q: First up, I have to ask if you were stark, raving mad to trace a beer's journey from hundreds of years ago, across the other side of the world, by yourself, by ship, over many months. I mean, we all love a beer, and most of us get a thrill out of a good IPA and the associated story, but what were you thinking?
A: Hello! Nice to be talking to you again, mate! The short answer to this question is yes – I was utterly barmy. Mid-life crisis? I’m not sure if it was or not. Unhinged obsession? Yeah, that’s closer to the mark.
A: You know, people often say to me, “Can’t be bad, getting paid to go on holiday for three months.” Holiday? This was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done! There were many long periods of pure stress and several times when I’m sure I was certifiably insane. But the obsession drove me on. I simply wasn’t going to let go of the idea of doing this.
A: I actually got fit! The five weeks on the container ship were mainly unbroken, mind-boggling tedium, and going down to the exercise room and getting on the bike for up to an hour every night was one of the few ways I had of breaking up the time and making sure I didn’t drink myself to death. I actually lost a bit of weight and was fit and healthy by the time I got to India. Didn’t last long.
Q: After going through it all, what do you think makes a beer an IPA? Is it as simple as the right water, more hops and greater alcohol? Or do you think it should spend time on the high seas or be in a simulator?
I think the definition of a beer style is subjective and evolves over time. In the middle of the twentieth century everyone knew what an IPA was, and it was nothing like the original IPA nor what we understand an IPA to be today. The beer we recognise as the ‘first’ IPA – the beer that was first referred to as ‘East India Pale Ale’ was brewed with London-style water, not Burton water, which has defined it ever since. So does that mean the first IPA wasn’t an IPA? To avoid going mad again, I take a fairly relaxed view of what constitute the style. But I get the point you’re making. And I refer to ‘green’ IPAs and ‘matured’ IPAs. I love drinking big hop bombs – I adore them – but we have to acknowledge that this is not what IPA tasted like when it was drunk in India. They’re not matured. I’ve corresponded with a few people who have experimented with maturing the beer in different ways – I think Luke Nicholas, the mad, hop-obsessed Kiwi brewer at Epic, did a creditable job when he shipped two casks – one named after me, the other after my fellow beer writer Melissa – between the north and south island for a few weeks. But I have my own theories on precisely what needs to happen to the beer to recreate a ‘true’ mature IPA. Hopefully, I’ll be putting them into practice in the near future.
A: No, I don’t think it’s cheating. If it makes the beer taste better, why wouldn’t you do it? The only reason minerals weren’t in purity laws is that, like yeast, we didn’t know about them when those laws were written. Brewing is an evolving process – the logical end point if you disagree is that we should be drinking barley porridge from clay pots through reeds like we did 6000 years ago.
Q: You mention a 1850s note from New South Wales begging for beer from the UK. Do you think that IPAs were being shipped to Australia in any volume? Is Oz part of the IPA story?
IPA was absolutely shipped to Oz in huge volumes – I’ve seen the figures and later in the nineteenth century volumes to Australia outstripped those going to India. IPA – particularly Bass – was a bigger global brand in its heyday than Nike or McDonalds are now. Everywhere the British Empire went, it followed. I had way more historical stuff form my research than I could feasibly use in the book, and a lot of stuff about the wider colonial spread of IPA got cut. But the Sydney Exhibition in 1879 saw an exhibition stand and very lavish brochure produced by John Bull Bottling Company, talking about the importance of getting your bottled Bass form the right people. It was big business.
Pete's home for 5 weeks
Q: What do you see as India's relationship with beer now? From your book it sounds as though India is the one place in the beer world you *can't* get an IPA? Is India a country of freezing lagers? Is this the way it will stay do you think?
A: India is an amazing, lopsided, changing country. There’s appalling poverty but now there’s huge prosperity too. At the top end there’s an elite that’s just as rich as that in any other country in the world, and they’re looking for things to spend their money on. Kingfisher lager is the national drink, it’s everywhere you go. And with a young population, the beer market is one of the fastest growing in the world. A few weeks after I was there, the country’s first microbrewery opened in Bangalore, and there are several bars now that import British and Belgian ales. India is getting craft beer – and IPA will be part of that.
Q: I can see from your blog that you work very hard promoting your books and attend beer functions all over the UK. It is well know that it is difficult to make a quid writing about beer - what drives you to put so much hard work in the industry?
A: Twin passions – I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. My profile is building every year and I work very hard at that. Hops & Glory has recently overtaken the first edition of Three Sheets to the Wind in sales terms, and I want to keep that building so I can basically make my living from writing.
A: Haven’t seen 2009 yet. Is it out? I’ll have to see if my man down in Borough Market has any. Two years ago the Coopers guys were over here and I was invited to a vertical tasting of the different vintages. It’s about the only thing I regret about my IPA voyage – I was in the mid-Atlantic on the day of the tasting!
Q: What's next for the main beer guy in the UK?
A: The next book will be non-beer related: I’m spreading my wings as a writer and trying to do more pure travel stuff. I just did the history of beer and pubs, the world’s biggest pub crawl, and the recreation of the greatest voyage beer ever made – I just don’t know how to follow that! I’m not saying there’ll never be a new beer book – I do have some half-formed ideas fermenting in my head – but it is time for a change next.
AustralianBeers.com would like to once again thank Pete for doing crazy things with beer the rest of us would never have the balls or the drive to do. Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer That Built the British Empire is an engaging story of curiosity, history, British arrogance, brewing excellence and ultimately a personal descent into beer tinged madness (ok perhaps that is going a bit far).
You should also check out Pete's earlier books, Three Sheets to the Wind and Man Walks into a Pub if you (or your Dad) would like to know something more about the history of beer or global beer culture.
Pete before his descent into madness
Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers