Wednesday, 3 June 2009

“Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer the Built the British Empire”, Pete Brown

Pete Brown should have crossed my path earlier in life. He went to St Andrews a year or so ahead of me, and clearly enjoying the finer things in life (namely beer), it should be inconceivable that our paths didn't cross in one of north-east Fife's many watering holes. It is however, a matter now of public record that that did not happen, and it was only a chance outing with some of my wife's work friends to the launch of “Three Sheets to the Wind” in Ottakar's Greenwich in 2006 that made me discover him and his work. In the flesh he's entertaining, personable, and anything but a beer bore, and this comes across in both his previous books and in his highly enjoyable blog.

Part social history of the British empire and part travelogue “Hops and Glory” is a lot more serious than his previous two books. He's always been capable of striking a sober note when needed, but there's a dark despairing edge to this one that at times almost perturbs. In the early chapters I suspected that this might be classified as his mid-life crisis book, and by the latter half it almost has more akin to Peter Nichols' “A Voyage for Madmen”.

It is a tribute to Pete Brown the human and the author that the tribulations of recreating a voyage of traditional India Pale Ale from Burton on Trent to Calcutta didn't break him, despite fate's best efforts, and that the end result is quite such a satisfying read. Despite its more serious tone and the more challenging personally honest sections to the narrative it's a tremendously enjoyable read and one that was read far more quickly (and in the face of some stiff competition for reading attention) than either of his previous works. Overcoming all the periodic bleakness is an irrepressible sense of humour, with elements that make you want to stop and read bits out to anyone who'll listen.

Reading “Hops and Glory” undeniably informs as both beer history and travelogue. Like many other relatively casual drinkers of what's referred to British pubs as IPA I'd never really given the roots of it much thought, and blindly taken at surface value the assertions that what's sold as IPA now was true to its origins. Brown comprehensively demolishes this illusion and makes us re-evaluate our thoughts about beer in general and IPA in particular. It's the sort of engaging story told with a passion about the produce that makes you go and seek out the few British examples and perhaps rather more numerous American beers that hold true to the notion of what an IPA historically was. It's also an interesting thought that IPA, as a light beer with most fermentable matter removed and almost pasteurised by its long sea voyage might, in fact, have a touch more in common with the Cobra we drink in Indian restaurants than the thick, yeasty, brown British session bitter

One is also more informed about travel with places throughout described with colour. Canal boating is effectively shown to be hard work on your own – although I suspect getting RSI while steering such a vessel is probably going a bit far, and cruising, despite its reasonably favourable treatment at the hand of the author, does come across as being a little bit ghastly, his account of Bryan Ferry vengefully readying an Exocet to fire at the cringingly appalling cover band aboard cuts to the heart of why I, having encountered similar outfits in the 1990s on a the Le Havre-Rosslare ferry, never want to go on a cruise. More adventurously, a tall ship comes across as a beautiful way of crossing the Atlantic, and a container ship voyage across the Indian Ocean (made seductive by Icebreaker International's “Trein Maersk”) seems dully mechanistic and stripped of all romance.

“Hops and Glory” is a genuinely good book. I'm very sadly going to miss Pete Brown's South London launch of the book in Forest Hill next Thursday (11 June, full details on his blog, linked above) when instead I'll be relaxing (probably with a Maredsous) watching sportscars at Le Mans, but if you're in the area you could do a lot worse than go along, listen to someone with some very good stories to tell, pick up a copy of “Hops and Glory”, and if Pete Brown has had anything to do with picking the venue, drink some really very good beer.


  1. Thanks for the review! Really lovely. Same you can't make it to Forest Hill but I will be doing more London events and would love to buy you a beer at one of them!



  2. Belated thanks for the comment Pete - will certainly be at the Great British Beer Festival this year - and given your seeming rapprochement with CAMRA have a mild degree of optimism of potentially stumbling across you.

    Otherwise delighted the book's going well and seems to be driving interest in IPA.