BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis

MODERN BRITISH BEER: Matthew Curtis and I have weirdly parallel lives when it comes to beer. We are roughly the same age – we would no doubt have been classmates had we attended the same school. I think we first came to really obsess about beer after exposure to the craft scene in the United States in the early 2000s. After years of working other jobs, building experience in other industries, we both gradually turned to beer writing. 2021 is the year that we have both published our first book with CAMRA Books. It is perhaps not surprising, that we both feel that British beer experienced a watershed moment at, (would you believe it?) about the time that we first discovered beer.

Welcome to the Modern Age

Perhaps everyone sees their own epoch as the most pivotal time in history. Certainly, the Romans were as guilty of eulogizing their Good Old Days as anyone I’ve met in the twenty-first century. And there is a compelling argument that the last 15 or 20 years have seen massive change in the British beer industry in Britain. Well, provided you ignore the utter dominance of slabs of lager bought at the supermarket. And pints of Doom Bar and GK IPA on cask. But nonetheless, I was interested to read his new book to find out more about what Matthew considers Modern British Beer to be. Perhaps it is another thing we have in common.

I think there is a strong argument to say that the book is a contemporary re-imagining of volumes like Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, or even Adrian Tierney Jones’ 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die, which is presumably written for people with more time on their hands and more miles left on their liver. Modern British Beer is a very warm account of 86 beers that Matthew loves. He weaves his own tasting experiences in with the origin stories of some of the beers. Add in chats with brewers up and down the country and you have a series of beautifully told short stories with a wonderful sense of perspective. In an age where the online listicle is king, it has been most refreshing to get my hands on an honest-to-goodness printed book that puts personal experience and storytelling first.

Modern British Beer book cover, this book is written by Matthew Curtis.

Thanks for the Memories

Matthew’s easygoing narrative style is definitely his strength, and therefore the strength of this book. I have loved dipping into it when I had a few minutes to spare. I enjoyed hearing a fresh perspective on the influence of Oakham Ales in the canon of British beer while sitting on the bus. While running a bath for Bam Bam one evening I was fascinated to read about the evolution of Boston’s Pretty Things Beer into Saint Mars of the Desert in Sheffield. This was a connection that had passed me by previously. This book is full of lovely tidbits like this, new avenues to explore as well as familiar favourites. I loved every moment of reading about the innovation, the passion and most importantly the quality of our brewing community.

Matthew talks a lot about his book being a conversation starter, not a manifesto. His ideas are not set in stone. I certainly found it to be thought-provoking. It gives a jumping-off point for conversations about what the future of beer might be. It is a great time for this discussion as we move through Coronavirus and everything that it means for the industry, the supply chain and the customer. I think Matthew’s nod to sustainability in the introduction is particularly important as warnings about climate change become increasingly dire.

However, I wasn’t completely convinced by the overall argument about what Modern British Beer is. The prologue and introduction of the book read almost like an apology to excuse the book’s existence. I thought the stories that he tells require no such validation. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the book for me is that it pays homage to the rise of the UK craft beer scene over the past 20 years (whether those craft beers are in cask, keg, bottle or can), but the word ‘craft’ is carefully and neatly sidestepped pretty much throughout. This leaves us with a vague idea of ‘modernity’ in its place. It would seem that this is even more difficult to define than ‘craft’.

Defining Modern British Beer

Matthew sets out five checkpoints to illustrate his definition of modern British beer. Then informs us that they rarely all apply to a single beer. After that those five points aren’t really explored further in any detail subsequently in the book. I found it a little confusing in all honesty.

What I don’t find confusing is that Matthew tells us the purpose of beer is to bring joy. We can all drink to that. A paragraph or two about beery beauty being in the eye of the beholder would have been more than enough introduction to lead me into Matthew’s wonderfully succinct collection of ale tales.

I like (and subscribe to) the idea that modern British beer has something to offer to everyone. It’s nice that perhaps Matthew would put Brewdog’s Punk IPA at the top of the table of epoch-making beers, whereas I might offer that accolade to Thornbridge’s Jaipur. I have enjoyed hearing about other people’s experiences. This book reminds me of all of the lazy afternoon conversations I have missed through lockdown. Sitting perched on a barstool and shooting the breeze with the regulars in my own local pubs. So cheers Matthew! Thanks for introducing me to new game-changers, highlighting beers that are perfect expressions of their style. Thank you for encouraging me to settle back into some reassuringly nostalgia-inducing pints of deliciousness.

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