Sunday 16 August 2009

Hops and Glory

One man's search for the beer that built the British Empire.

Book Review

Everybody knows that IPA was made to survive the long sea journey to India during the age of international sailing trade. Tall ships were the only way to transport goods to the far east and regular British beer would not be good at the end of the journey. Further more, IPA's hoppy light style suited the climate down to the ground. Moreover, so the legend goes, the style of beer actually improves by the extremes of the journey. There, what else do you need to know about IPA?

It seems Pete Brown was significantly unhappy with only knowing this. Moreover, he decided to risk life, limb and most importantly the patience of his wife to get to the bottom of the legend. He got himself a beer brewed, as authentic and true to the 19th century beer as possible and took it on the very same journey that the beer made during the great age of sail. The main purpose of the journey, apart from "toughening up" Pete with his poor ability to travel1 was to find out if indeed the beer goes through a magical transformation as a result of the wild fluctuations in temperature and sea movement endured.

It was bound to appeal to me2, my early book reading career being put in motion by Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. So, a book that combined ancient sea travel with beer? I was sold on it before I even received my copy. I was also keen to get on with the job of reading it as my friend Jeff Pickthall makes a key appearance when Pete gets into difficulty. Jeff turns into an infamous international beer smuggler when the mission is looking like it might fail completely to achieve it's aims. The picture above, stolen from Jeff's Picasa library, is the moment Jeff saves the day, just in the nick of time.

The book does tell an exciting and gripping tale about Pete's trip by barge, train, plane, cruise ship, tall ship and finally container ship from Burton through to India. Following the route as closely as possible turned out to be a challenge. Nobody travels that route by sea any longer, but one man has done it now. This man puts himself through an ordeal that seems to go well beyond any rational justification, but anybody who is passionate about beer can immediately understand why he has done it, at least you will after reading the book.

But more than the re-creation of the sea journey Pete weaves into his narration the history of IPA. He tells of the building of the magnificent and often cruel world of our imperial past in India. The triangular sea trade that included the far east, where, through each leg there were goods filling the ships. Beer from the UK formed part of that trade and we learn how IPA becomes the dominant style that was shipped. We also learn how it continues to influence nearly 140 years after the Suez Canal is re-opened3 ending the necessity for such a long journey.

I'll confess to being too engrossed in Pete's adventures to take in all the historic stuff. I scan read much of the alternate history chapters as I was too excited to find out what near scrape Pete was heading for next. I fully expect to return to the book and take in more fully the comprehensive information contained there.

If you like beer or history or salty old sea dog stories then you'll like this book. I like all three, so I loved the book. Of course, Pete's humour makes you often laugh out loud, which can be embarrassing when you are sitting on a crowded train.

Perhaps buying the book just because Woolpack Dave says it's a good book is insufficient reason. If none of the above convinces you to buy the book then perhaps there is one good reason left. I met Pete recently during my trip to GBBF. I also met his enthusiastic wife Liz, and without whom, it is apparent from the book, Pete's trip would not have occurred. Pete has apparently promised Liz a good holiday from the proceeds of the book. As I write this Pete and Liz are on "holiday" in rainy Blackpool. There, that's a good enough reason to buy the book, saving Liz from such trauma.

1Actually Pete has not claimed to be a "crap traveller" since his earlier book Three Sheets to the Wind. After this epic he daren't I expect.

2Of course Pete's copious use of that literary tool, the footnote, also appeals to me.

3The canal is not an entirely modern concept. There is significant evidence of a canal over 2500 years ago that linked the Nile and the Red Sea.


Sat In A Pub said...

It is a good read, although I actually paid more attention to the historical chapters. Horses for courses, I suppose.

Mark Dredge said...

Great book, a wonderful read. It was the (love) heart that I enjoyed the most - the Romantic sea journey, the leaving the wife at home, the dogged determination to do this.

I read it in Greece and I was desperate for a good, English IPA come the end, ideally Calcutta IPA!!