Gazza's Ratebeer.com interview
Last Updated :18/04/04
Steve Pereira's interview with Gazza for Ratebeer.com
The full, unedited version!
hatís your next rating milestone? 100 rates? 500? 1,000? Well, thereís a loose fraternity of beer obsessed drinkers in the UK who can sometimes be spotted at festivals pouring beer into small plastic bottles, and scrutinising a beer list printed off the internet and marked with strange numbers, for whom the next milestone is 10,000. These drinkers are known as "tickers" or "scoopers".... These are individuals who are almost obsessed with trying as many different beers as possible.
Gazza Prescott is one of the leading members of this loose fraternity of beer drinkers. Though similar to ratebeerians, the British scooper will generally only count British cask ales; though, because of the number of British cask ales available, this is not much of a restriction, and there are currently 28 scoopers who have sampled over 10,000 different beers. Gazza himself passed this magic number in May 2000, and currently stands at over 14,000 scoops.....
** Gazza's note** I reckon there are about 50 scoopers over 10K, but Iíve not got the info yet so theyíre not on the site! Iím now on 14,300!
Gazza runs a useful website www.scoopergen.co.uk which gives basic nformation on this bizzare hobby, plus a listing of the known scoopers. The total number of known scoopers currently stands at 280.....
1) How did scooping actually start? And how would you define scooping for someone who didnít know?
Noone knows really. I think CAMRA can take a lot of credit for it for producing the good beer guide in those early days and giving those people with the collecting gene something else to tick off! I have spoken to some of the original scoopers, such as Mick the Tick who Iíve known for about 10 years now, and they all say the introduction of the good beer guide showed them just how many beers there were in the UK. Donít forget that in those days people didnít travel as much as they do now and there wasnít the knowledge about, say, a town 50 miles away and therefore no knowledge about the beers brewed there, as then most towns had their "own" brewery. With the production of the GBG, a list of what was available could be marked off by those people who had the collecting gene to start with. Of course nowadays thereís so much information with the internet and suchlike Ė imagine if the net had existed in itís present form in the 1960s?
I think itís also got something to do with showing youíre better than others, or the thrill of the chase Ė or at least it used to be! The "mineís bigger than yours" mindset existed, and still exists in a smaller amount in scooping as the desperate ones strived to get that extra rare beer than anyone else, some scoopers were having over 3000 beers a year at one point in an attempt to be the "top man". Nowadays, the rivalry is a bit more friendly as those of us whoíve been around for a while are in it for the beer nowadays but some people just canít let it lie. Maybe thatís a good thing in a way as it keeps us all on our toes to see if we can scoop a beer theyíve not had!
As for defining scooping, that all depends on your personal rules but it includes a lot of people who wouldnít necessarily count themselves as scoopers. My personal definition of a scooper is someone who drinks beers and records what they have had in some way that enables them to count them Ė simple as that. So, by my definition, ratebeerians are scoopers although a lot of them wouldnít know it Ė you do now! Of course thereís a lot more to it than that, such as having your own rules about what counts and what doesnít. For example, some scoopers count only British beers and not Irish, some count Irish but not other Islands, some count anything they can get their hands on! When you come right down to it, however, a beer scooper is someone who records which beers they have had in some way. Iíve written a whole stack of essays on what constitutes being a scooper, have a look at the "scooping" section of scoopergen and see which bits you can relate to Ė it may be more than you think.
2) And when did you start scooping yourself?
I started writing down what beers I drank in 1986 (an Illegal scooper as I was only 16 then!) purely because I liked real ale and wanted to record which ones I liked so I could try them again. I got more serious about searching out new beers when I was at University in 1988, and actually became a full-time scooper in 1989 thanks to Jonathan Jones, now retired from scooping (but not drinkingÖ..) and Iím still going now!
I say still going, but Iíve calmed down a lot in the last 3 years. I used to visit at least 1 festival every weekend but on turning 30 I reevaluated various things in my life and decided that I needed to do other things apart from drink beer. I felt scooping had taken me over somewhat; rather than being a hobby it had become an obsession dictating what I was to do each weekend and leaving me with no time to do anything else. So, I decided to have under 1,000 beers a year (I was on 1,700 for a few years in the late 90ís) and give myself time to do other things such as traveling and drinking other things like wine and port. I honestly think that there is good stuff in everything, even if itís one example, and I want to find those good examples of each drink I have. Iíve recently been to France, Spain and Italy searching out good examples of the local wines, and to the Czech republic numerous times sampling beers there. Even though I (usually!) write these drinks down, I donít class this as scooping, more research. Not a convincing argument, I know, but Iím only answering to myself!
2a) How does scooping fit in with your personal life? (Personal background - occupation, etc....)
Iíd say the two are very much symbiotic in that my life uses scooping as an excuse to try a lot of beers and scooping makes my life a lot more fun Ė I know a lot of scoopers and there can be a great atmosphere in a pub holding a beer festival when itís full of scoopers. Thatís not saying that my life revolves around scooping like it used to for a period, itís just made more interesting by the social aspect of scooping Ė drinking beer with friends which, by all accounts, is a very sociable pastime and for me at least the scooping is a by-product of this social engagement.
My work takes me around the UK quite a bit and itís good to have chances to scoop beers when work are paying for a hotel, or even the beers too! Iíve recently been working in Manchester for 6 months, one of the great scooping cities of the UK, and scooping has made it a lot more enjoyable. Rather than finishing work and going back to a hotel room and watching TV all night like some colleagues did, I had a trip round the scooping pubs and sometimes meet up and have a rant with other scoopers from the area or sometimes visitors I bump into doing the same thing as me. Scooping certainly made a big difference, without it Iíd have been bored to death after a month!
Travelling with work also gives me the chance to try out places that scoopers wouldnít usually visit, like a night in Cambridge recently, or remote areas of Scotland. Sometimes there are no scoops at all, sometimes not even any decent beer to drink, but sometimes you find a right gem that makes it all worthwhile.
As Iím a pretty sociable person (well, I think so!) scooping has been a good hobby for me in that Iíve met a lot of good people and made some good friends through it. I like to travel, so scooping fits in well with visiting different places and trying to find new beers. All in all, I think me and scooping are a pretty good couple!
3) You obviously have the collecting bug because you are also a train-spotter - but which is more important to you, the collecting or the beer?
Whoa, hold on there!!! Train spotter Ė no, basher yes! For those who donít know the difference, a trainspotter just writes down numbers of trains, while a basher actually writes down the engines he is hauled by Ė more of an active engagement with the hobby, like drinking a beer, rather than a passive engagement such as just looking at it. I suppose there may be people who write down beers theyíve seen and not drunk, but Iím not commenting!
Iíd prefer to call this collecting thing a "gene" for want of anything better. I think there is a medical condition that means you are more predetermined to collect things, something like aspergerís syndrome, but Iím convinced itís in the genes. I know my dad was a railway enthusiast (although he hates beer!) and a dad of a good mate of mine is likeminded and we have both inherited this collecting mindset. Now Iím not going to try and convince the medical establishment that collecting things is passed on from parent to sibling via the genes on the basis of 2 people, but it is my view that it seems to run in families or not as the case may be. Whether it is actually passed down biologically or simply by the parents brainwashing the young child in their formative years I donít know, but I would like to!
As to the actual question, I think that personally speaking itís a bit of both, a bit like a pair of scales where the balance swings one way or the other at different times. A few years back, when I was more desperate, I think the collecting was winning although I always write tasting notes for the beers I drink, so I still thought about the actual beer. Nowadays, definitely the scale is tipping to the side of the beer rather than the collecting. I think a lot of scoopers, once theyíve had the magic 10,000 beers start to re-evaluate their scooping. Some give up, some become less desperate and think more about what theyíre drinking. In my view this is a good thing, as scoopers suffer from a bad press from some people who somehow think we are just beer swillers to whom the number of scoops is far more important than the actual beer. True, there are some scoopers who only think in numbers and would count vinegar if you gave it to them, but a growing number of us are now more interested in the beer itself Ė which can only be a good thing.
4) I notice that scoopers have various rules for what constitutes a "scoop" which varies from a pint to two sips, what are your personal rules?
Now thatís a controversial one!
Letís nail one thing first. Scooping has no rules Ė itís an anarchist hobby. Basically you make up your own, or take the ones you want from the "approved list". However, scoopers fall into several loose categories and Iíll attempt to describe the different attitudes.
Some scoopers will count anything, in any amount. There are some scoopers who count a sip of beer as a scoop, although these people suffer almost universal disdain by other scoopers. I think the scale has come crashing down in the favour of collecting in this instance! These people are usually known as "desperate" and are far more concerned with the tally of scoops than beer quality or appreciation.
Some scoopers try and have a fixed amount, usually a pint, before they count a beer. This severely limits the amount of scoops that can be drunk in a day, so to get a high tally is a huge achievement. Most scoopers are more pragmatic and will scoop in half pints, or will share a half where there are too many scoops to drink a half of.
This is only a part of it. The origin of the beer is also a factor. Most UK scoopers only count UK beers (usually including Ireland) although some count the real ales of Northern France, and some count all cask ales wherever their origin. I donít know of a scooper who counts pasteurized beer, and thatís just the way it should be, although most donít have a problem with filtered beer as served in some brewpubs. Gas pressure is rarely an issue; scoopers leave Camra to worry about gas pressure and as long as the beer is unpasteurised, are happy to drink it as long as it tastes OK.
My personal rules state that the beer must be from the British Isles (including Ireland), be unpasteurised, and be of a nominal strength of over 1% or so. The quantity is unimportant, although I try to scoop a half pint of anything, this is not always possible and Iím happy to share a half pint with my partner. Of course, these are just UK scoops! I have a separate list for Belgium for other beers, and for wine and portÖÖÖÖÖ
5) Who, for you, are the big characters in scooping?
It depends on how far you go back. I suppose Iím classed as one of the "second wave" scoopers from the late 80ís, so I know most of the main characters past and some of the present ones too. I suppose Iíd better limit myself to 5 otherwise Iíd fill up the whole siteÖÖ
Mick the Tick. The scooperís scooper, the ultimate top man. Mick was one of the first scoopers, starting in the 1960ís, and has had beers that were no longer brewed by the time most of us were born! Heís a totally nice bloke and has a huge love of life, very obvious when heís playing in his skiffle band which graces a few beer festivals! Mick has been overtaken in sheer number of ticks nowadays, but to most scoopers heíll always be "the leader!"
Brian "the whippet" Moore. Brian is the person with the highest number of ticks in the world, unless anyone knows better. The last Iíd heard he was on 23,000 scoops which is a phenomenal achievement. Despite being in his 60ís, Brian has a lot more energy than us "young uns" and is usually to be seen tearing around festivals or pubs drinking at an alarming rate. Despite being very desperate, he is one of the most sociable and riotous scoopers and always livens up a drinking session!
"Beige" Phil Booton. Phil is on well over 10,000 scoops and is one of the most sociable and knowledgeable scoopers on the circuit. His knowledge extends far beyond the UK and if Iím going anywhere in Europe itís usually Phil I turn to for help first! He is steadily getting more and more militant as time goes on, and I think heís enjoying it too!
"Planey" Wayne Groves. Planey is one of the infamous "Kalamata 12" plane spotters who were arrested and tried in Greece a few years back on very dodgy evidence and have only recently struck a deal to get some of their bail money back. Despite being a total saddo who will do anything to add to his tally of planes seen, he is also a fairly top man in the scooping scene and well liked. Another one getting more militant as time goes by!
Brian Francis. Brian is an institution. He has chosen the beer list at Cardiff for years, and is often to be seen at scooping pubs and beer festivals around the country adding to his large tally of scoops. Almost everyone knows Brian, once seen never forgotten! Iím not sure if all taxmen are like this, but if so the Inland Revenue must be one scary place to work!
Unfortunately, a lot of the "crowd of the 90s" have now retired from scooping for various reasons, although most of them still drink real ale and are seen from time to time in the pubs we frequent. Iíll list a few here along with a brief paragraph about them.
Pogo. Pogo was one of the early wave of scoopers in the late 80ís and was, at one point, pretty desperate and could be seen maurauding over the UK in search of new ticks. Another "once seen never forgotten" person, Pogo is, shall we say, of rather large proportions with a personality to match! He became the most famous scooper in the UK for a short while as he appeared on a late night cult TV show with his mate Meatloaf (not the real one I hasten to add) starring in a short film detailing the life and times of a beer ticker. He went through a spell of being an "alcopop ticker" (I kid you not) and is rarely seen outside his home town of York nowadays.
Jonesey. I suppose thereís no higher accolade I can give to this bloke except to say it was him who got me into ticking in the first place. We used to meet at Crewe station occasionally and he would baffle me with lists of beers heíd tried on his travels. At this point I was a real ale drinker but didnít really count them until one night he talked me into starting tickingÖ and the rest is history! Jonesey was one of the more riotous tickers in the mid 90s when, at one of the famous Newton Abbot festivals, he annoyed the band by unplugging their PA system and then impersonating Mary Poppins with an umbrella heís inexplicably found somewhere. Jonesey still drinks a lot of real ale, Roosters of Harrogate being his favourite brewery, although he gave up ticking after his 10,000th.
Dean "Ding Ding" Roberts. Dean an his missus Teresa were regulars on the mid 90s ticking scene, traveling far from their Devon home in search of ticks. Dean also ran the Newton Abbott beer festival, which guaranteed some heavy sessions and bookloads of scoops! He also held parties at his new house where hordes of invited scoopers would turn up with polypins of beer and drink themselves silly under the pretence of gardening or some other wasteful pursuit. A lot of good times were had and some good friends were made at these parties! Dean still drinks real ale, although he gave up ticking due to the distances he needed to cover. He also brews at a local brewpub, the Dartmouth in Newton Abbott, and can still be seen at Newton Abbott beer festival.
5a) Do you face much misunderstanding and/or hostility from non-scoopers?
I wouldnít say much hostility, just a bit of bemusement usually. One part of the hobby of scooping is "bottling up" beer to swap with someone else and some landlords, possibly with some justification, see strange people tipping their beer into little bottles and sometimes get a bit curious. Some scoopers have had their bottles confiscated; some have been misunderstood for customs and excise men! It certainly makes it interesting; usually we are very discreet when bottling in a pub that isnít "groomed" for scooping.
Most ordinary people ("normals") who see us bottling up or begin conversations with us are genuinely interested in what we are doing, and when itís explained that we travel all over the country (and world in some cases) drinking beer and having a good laugh they usually think itís a good hobby Ė apart from the writing down the beers. Thatís the bit they usually donít understand. I remember explaining to some young lads in a pub in Manchester once that drinking real ale was a good thing to do rather than the industrial "lager" they were consuming and it was very gratifying to see them a few weeks later drinking the real stuff. Likewise, a work colleague who was working on a project with me now loves to drink real ales although I donít think Iíve convinced any of them that writing down all your beers in a book is a worthwhile thing to do.
Strangely, the most contempt we tickers usually get is from CAMRA people themselves, which is a really odd situation. CAMRA seems to have an unnatural obsession with slagging off tickers and I donít really know why. Of course, not every Camra member is this blinkered, it just seems to be those who are of the more, shall we say, traditional mindset who are most anti. Some Camra branches are very ticker friendly (some are run by them!) and some are really anti. Itís a really sad state of affairs since, in my opinion, most tickers know a hell of a lot about beer and pubs all over the UK, whereas most Camra people only know about those beers and pubs local to them. Itís such a frustrating state of affairs that I recently resigned from Camra as I donít think they are representing my views anymore which is very sad, but until some members learn to respect those who know more than they do about the subject they can keep it!
5b) Do you, as most scoopers do, limit yourself to just British cask ales?
There seems to be a growing number of scoopers, and ex scoopers for that matter, who are casting their net further afield and learning that Britain isnít where beer starts and ends. I think all scoopers who count beers from outside the UK count them on a separate list to their British scoops.
Iím getting a bit hooked now on travelling over to Europe on beer hunting trips, and the proliferation of budget airlines operating nowadays is making this very easy. Iíve just got back from Austria, and weíre off to Denmark in 2 months! I find drinking the beers at source, preferably at a brewpub or good bar, is far better than sitting at home with a bottle and a glass Ė although this has itís merits (Iím doing just that with some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as I write this!)
Iím a great lover of Belgian beers, and in particular Lambics which are almost unique in the world and need supporting, so I drink as much as I can at regular intervals. Being a martyr is such hard work. Iíve visited Belgium over 10 times now and love the whole "package"; sociable people, sensible opening hours, a vast range of beers and styles, no loutish behaviour and of course the food. Saying that, I also have a great love for Baltic porters that was nurtured by drinking Tomislav in Croatia and Pardubice in Czech on holidays the last few years. There are so many great styles of beer out there in Europe and the USA that we in the UK just never see, which is one of my main reasons for drinking more foreign beer Ė the range of styles.
To be honest, Iím a bit bored of UK beer with itís style limitations and few brewers prepared to try something different. Thatís not to say that I donít like British beer, far from it, I just get a bit bored sometimes faced with 10 standard or premium bitters with basically the same strength and flavour profiles. In these situations I yearn to be able to order a Trappiste, or maybe a Lambic to break the monotony a little. Saying that, I feel there are some British beers that would stand up against anything in the world, such as Roosterís Yankee for example. My big problem with the UK is our restrictive range of beer styles, although some of the new micro brewers are starting to make some interesting beers and copy non-UK styles. This can only be a good thing and I applaud them for it. All we need now is some brewers who can bottle condition beers properly and weíre away!
As well as beer, I scoop malt whisky, Port, and wine. These are not taken as seriously as the beer but I still keep notes on what Iíve had of each of them. Port scooping in Portugal was superb; we stayed at the amazing Quinta de la Rosa near Pinhao in the Douro and drank in the Institute of Port Wine bars in Lisbon and Porto. Iím a firm believer in everything has something good Ė I may not like it, but I think every drink in the world has itís quality stuff and industrial dross. Call me naÔve, but this is what Iíve found so far on my travels.
6) Have you found any scoopers while youíve been in Belgium? / (6a) Do you feel that the scooping hobby/activity() is spreading?
I suppose it depends how you class a scooper. Being a vehement traditionalist, I only class someone as a scooper if they write down their beers and keep a list of what theyíve had. Iím sure there are some Belgian scoopers, although Iíve yet to meet them.
I know that some Belgians and Dutch indulge in what is usually seen as a quaintly British eccentric pastime of "plane spotting", so itís only a small step to beer scooping from here. I know this as one of the 10,000 club is also one of the UKís top plane spotters and informs me the hobby is pretty widespread in Europe. The clinching factor is that Planey Wayney is himself a ticker!
Looking at the Ratebeer site, I see people from all over Europe (and America, obviously) writing down their beers and counting up totals and other statistics. Iím sorry, but you lot are tickers! You fulfill the criteria Ė you write down beers and you keep a tally. If you didnít know you were, then now you do! Donít worry though, itís not really such a bad thing to be, after all there are far worse things to be classed as Ė plane spotters for example! Iíd like to hear the views of some of the top ratebeerians about my sweeping assumption that classes you as something you probably didnít know existed, such as do you agree and what are your particular rules? In the UK we have a pretty diverse set of rules amongst the ticking fraternity, open it up to the world and I canít even begin to imagine what else could crop up!
We have actually met some European scoopers, however. During our last trip to Vienna we did a tour of the amazing brewpubs there (now up to 12!) and at the 1516 brewing company we were joined at our table by a German couple who spoke a lot better English than I did German, thankfully. They proceeded to produce a list of breweries and pubs taken from the internet and asked us where some of them were. To our amazement, they then whipped out a pink Barbie notebook (I kid you not) full of beer labels and, more importantly, their tasting notes of what beers they had tried and where. They were keen as mustard and let on that they were in town for a concert, but had decided to use the day for more bacchanalian purposes. We didnít see them again, but Iím sure they scooped many beers that day. Total respect to the German scoopers, and hereís to meeting many more on our travels!
As for the hobby spreading, Iím not so confident. There are a lot of beer scoopers around in the UK nowadays, a lot more than there used to be for sure, but itís still probably less than a thousand. Iím getting to know more and more scoopers via my website but Iím not convinced there are as enough young people starting the hobby as there used to be in the 90ís. Maybe the young people arenít drinking beer at all, or maybe they donít want to pursue sad hobbies like scooping?
On the subject of anorak behavior, one thing that really winds me up is the impression a lot of people have that beer scooping is somehow sad, or an anorak or geek thing to do. Inexplicably these same people who slag scoopers off will then go to their local and discuss with their mates at great length such irrelevant information as who scored a penalty for Accrington Stanley in extra time to win the FA cup in 1895. To me, this is equally anorak behavior but somehow if itís about sport then itís socially acceptable. Absolute crap, I say! Thereís not a lot we can do to change perceptions, but this one needs changing before I get really annoyed with someone!
7) What do you think is the main difference between the British beer scene and what you have experienced on the continent?
Thereís so much different in Europe, and although it pains me to say it, most of it is better than the experience we have at home. For a start, there seems to be more of an appreciation of fine beer amongst ordinary people in most countries Iíve been to. This is not to say that thereís not the usual multi-national conglomerates churning out the same crap we get in the UK, more of a general appreciation that beer isnít just something to get you drunk, rather it is something to be appreciated and to aid a convivial atmosphere, or gemurtlich as the Austrians would say.
Following on from this, thereís the sociability of drinking in most of Europe. Belgium, for example, has a fantastically welcoming bar culture where joviality and having a good time are what matters, whereas in the UK in most pubs it tends to be aggressive youths fuelled by an excessive intake of E numbers from lurid primary coloured fluids intent on causing trouble or being the centre of attention. While this isnít the same in every pub in Britain by any means, it certainly happens in a fair percentage and puts off a lot of beer drinkers from going to those pubs.
Another aspect is beer choice. In the UK our bars for the most part stick to a limited range of draught beers, and even those who carry a lot of guest ales (10-12 beers) are nowhere near the Belgian barís average number of beers. The reason for this is that bottled beer in the UK is usually another word for pasteurised identikit lager type drinks and hardly any pubs sell a decent range of bottled beers, although there are a growing number which sell 50+ Belgian brews. Some of these bars are impressive enough in their beer lists and atmosphere that they would easily hold their own if suddenly teleported into the middle of Gent or Brugge, for example.
We in the UK need to embrace the bottled beer culture far more to increase the number of beers, but much more importantly the number of styles of beer available. As real ale goes off fairly quickly due to itís low strength unusual styles of beer rarely get a look-in as they are seen as "unsellable" in bulk, so brewers tend to stick to the usual UK range of bitter and premium bitter plus a few other minority styles such as mild and stout at the expense of beers that may generate more interest amongst the beer drinking public. A greater selection of beer styles in a bar may encourage the customers to experiment more, and of course they would last far longer than anything on draught.
8) You are quite out-spoken on certain practices by some Brewers and some Beer Festivals that you donít approve of, and have called for a boycott . Can you explain the issues involved here?
There are a number of issues I feel very strongly about in the beer world and most of them affect beer tickers in some way. Iíll go through the issues in detail point by point.
Poor beer quality
Breweries taking the piss
Holding beers back at festivals
There are more things that annoy me a bit, but these are the main ones that annoy me a lot. In the mid 90ís, we created the "militant scooperís front" which, despite basically being a wind-up, was serious in that we wanted to boycott pubs and breweries who took scoopers as people to be fleeced by any means possible. Although it was never a real pressure group, itís beliefs live on in my "ethical scooperís charter" which can be found on my website. Basically, itís ethos is "drink what you want, not what youíre told", and itís not a bad ethic to follow.
9) You say that the old days of scooping were better than today - is this just nostalgia, or have things really changed for the worse?
It all depends how you classify "better". If itís simply the number of scoops available, then today would be streets ahead of the mid 90ís as the number of breweries has probably almost doubled and, if you had the money, time and liver capacity you could probably drink over 5,000 different UK beers a year Ė although how many would be truly different is open to question.
I suppose I think of the mid 90ís as the "golden age" of UK scooping as I was at my scooping "peak" and drinking over 1,500 ticks a year. It was also the time when a large crowd of scoopers traveled the country, meeting up for festivals and in tickerís pubs and generally having a riot. We have hundreds of photos from those heady times on scoopergen and also some videos of, for example, the legendary parties at Ding Dingís house in Devon that still make me cry with laughter when watching them.
It must be to do with me getting older and less riotous (Iím 34 now!) but there doesnít seem to be as much of an enjoyable edge to scooping nowadays, although I must admit a lot of the senior scoopers have become less desperate and concentrate more on drinking decent scoops and being sociable. Donít get me wrong, there's a great camaraderie amongst scoopers, but I donít think Iíll ever enjoy it as much as those days when drinking scoops all night then going to work the next day was a normal thing to do!
Add to this the fairly recent ploys of rebadging beers (although this has been happening on a small scale for years) and a lot of seasoned tickers are wondering why they chase up and down the country for the sake of a few beers that may or may not be legitimate, and a lot have decided not to bother any more. Iím definitely one of this club and find that Iím more and more going abroad in search of my scoops although I still enjoy certain events in Britain; for example the Crescent beer festivals in Salford are a pretty safe bet for good quality scoops with a good crowd of tickers present.
10) I know that you are a CAMRA member, and that you have organised a CAMRA beer festival, but these days you seem unhappy about some aspects of that organisation. What are your main issues with CAMRA as it is run today?
WAS a Camra member! I resigned in February this year after nearly 10 years being a member as Iím basically sick of their attitude to scoopers. Iíve no idea what weíve done, but a lot of the Camra "old guard" seem to dislike anything remotely connected to scooping and as most of them control everything that happens in Camra, we donít get a look-in at most festivals and other events. I decided that my money would be better spent on beer than subsidizing an organization that I feel no longer represents my views on the beer world.
The other thing that annoys me with Camra is their obsession with regional breweries. These (mainly) dinosaur-like creatures stomp through the modern beer world with no idea what to do and staring extinction in the face Ė a good number of old family brewers have vanished over the last few years (Ushers, Brakspear, Morland, Ruddles etc). Although there are some regionals that do brew some excellent and innovative beer, these are far between although these seem to be the ones who are prospering along with those who are growing by swallowing up others.
In my view, microbrewers are the future for beer production in the UK, if not the world. Whether we like it or not, quality beer is now a niche market and the micro brewers are best placed to exploit it with their ability to react quickly to trends and events. For some reason, probably connected with the "old guard" being in control, Camra seem to care little for these excellent brewers Ė when was the last time we saw a campaign in Whatís Brewing to save a micro from closure? I remember plenty to save ailing regionals brewing cruddy beer, but what about those wonderful micros who have closed? Where was the campaign to save Tomlinsons or West Coast all those years ago? It just shows to me that Camra have no idea what the state of the beer market is now; they live in the past where the large regional brewers served the mining communities with their 10 pint a night thirsty men. Those days have gone, the mines have gone, and soon the regionals will be gone. What will Camra do then?
11) What are your hands-on beer credentials?
I donít want to sound like Iím blowing my own trumpet here, but Iíve done most things in the beer world and so know a lot about a lot of things. Although Iíve never run a pub, I have worked in a number of them in a variety of roles Ė head barman, cellarman, and just plain dogsbody! My time as head barman showed me how the "back of house" works in a large food oriented pub, but I enjoyed my cellarman experience far more as I was trained how to look after beer and took a pride in my job, albeit with less than scoopable or rateable beer!
This experience has stood me in good stead when I have organised beer festivals in the past, both Camra and private events. I have cellared at over 10 festivals and although I no longer actively seek to do the job, I will help out if a friend asks. You may think this is terribly corny, but I have actually help organize the proverbial "piss-up in a brewery" Ė twice! This occurred at the now closed Ledbury brewery when the owner asked 3 of the well-known local scoopers to help him run a beer festival in the cool store of his brewery, whilst he brewed next door! The event was a great success for 2 years, but then he sold up and the new owner wasnít interested in such trivialities as real ale.
I also did a lot of full-mash brewing when I was at University. Iíd never brewed a beer in my life, and decided that to save a bit of money Iíd have a go at brewing. Being a real ale drinker, I quickly decided that if I was going to brew something I may as well do it properly, so I read some books on full-mash brewing and had a go. Predictably the first few were a bit ropey, but once our Chimay yeast had settled down and consummated itís relationship with the local wild yeasts the beers just got better and better. We brewed many different styles of beer during the 2 years I brewed and I still have the recipes for when I begin brewing again, hopefully this year. Interestingly enough, the yeast we used for 2 years was cultured from a bottle of Chimay Rood I bought from a supermarket and was recycled between brews. I tried the same procedure recently with various bottle conditioned beers, and none of them seemed to have any live yeast in them - which says a lot for bottle conditioning practices these days!
Staying with brewing, I have also brewed on full-size plants too, namely Swale and Ledbury, doing beers for significant numbers in my scooping tally namely my 4,000th and 5,000th beers. For both brews I devised the recipe with help from the brewers (cheers Andy and John!) and did most of the work including digging out the mashtun and adding the hops. My 4,000th was a smoked beer with Scottish whisky malt, and my 5,000th was a pure Cascade beer Ė absolutely superb it was too!
I have been beer manager at several festivals and have persuaded some brewers to brew (or create) special beers for the events, as well as sourcing some rare scoops. I was never into being a control freak, so the posts of festival organizer was never coveted and, besides, all that walking around being responsible means you canít drink as much as the barmen can! I never saw the point of sourcing loads of scoops only not to be able to drink them Ė after all, wasnít that the whole point of having some influence at a festival, using it and getting as many scoops as possible within budget?
Dunno if this really counts as a "credential", but having scooped over 14,000 UK beers and over 1,000 others worldwide makes me one of the premier scoopers in the UK, although now Iím less desperate for sheer numbers a lot of others have caught me up. Iíve always done tasting notes for my beers as I thought, even in my desperate days, that scooping was about more than just amassing a huge tally; the flavour of the beer was the main reason for drinking it and scooping was just a convenient excuse. Having brewed full mash, I like to think I can analyse beers much better having formulated recipes myself and can analyse what types of hops are in beers (to a limited degree!) and also have a guess at the grain consist in them. It all helps in the tasting of beer to have an idea how the beer was made and what is in it.
I suppose nowadays I can add "webmaster" to my list of credentials, although my website certainly isnít going to win any HTML awards! Everything is done with frontpage and the idea behind scoopergen was never to show off with fancy graphics and code, more to bring the scooping community together in a light hearted way and help scoopers to recognize and interact with others from other areas of the country. I think, from the positive feedback Iíve had, that it has achieved this goal so now it will grow organically by contributions from scoopers and more articles written by myself.
11) As an experienced beer drinker, what do you think are the most important issues facing beer drinkers and scoopers these days?
Iíll take that as a compliment! There are many important issues facing us beer lovers now, some not really crossing over into the scooping world and some being if anything more important to us scoopers.
The main problem seems to be the drift away from beer and onto "alcopops" and other industrially produced slops by young people. I donít know how this can be stopped, maybe weíll just have to wait until beer becomes fashionable again but maybe it never will. I think we have to assume the worst and promote "proper" beer in every way we can and sites like Ratebeer are doing a good service in showing that itís not just geeks who like beer Ė itís a drink for anyone who has a mind of their own and a few tastebuds. This is the crux of the matter in my view; more and more people canít, or wonít, think for themselves nowadays and wait to be told what to drink, eat, do, say and just about everything else by their peers or the media. If we can get into that influential position, then maybe more people will decide to drink decent beer as others are doing it too. Itís the sheep analogy to a tee, get one in the barn and the rest will follow. Itís just the matter of getting the first one into the barn we have to master.
Another serious issue is the globalisation of the beer market by huge multinational conglomerates that trample everything in their path to be the biggest leaving a wasteland of much loved breweries smashed in their wake. This is happening everywhere including the UK, Europe and the rest of the world with predictably dire consequences for quality beers. These huge companies have profit and loss as their mantra and anything that impacts on the bottom line must be jettisoned. Individual local beers are being discontinued at the expense of huge "branded" beers that may come from a country thousands of miles away for ease of advertising and continuity in the "brand portfolio". Any small brewer who competes with these huge bloated juggernauts is in severe danger of getting swallowed up just for their successful brand name which will then be produced at the 10,000,000 barrel a second mega production unit 200 miles away in the hope the customers will never notice the difference whilst the big boys pocket the cash. "Keep beer local" is my belief; unfortunately the people who run todayís brewing industry donít share my views. To them, local means within the same continent Ė if possible.
The march towards standard beers is also a worry. Iím sure that there arenít many bars in the developed world that doesnít sell some sort of bottom fermented beer claiming to be a descendent of the original "Plzen" beer and local styles of beer are losing out as customers drink what the advertising men tell them to. Many areas of the world are now devoted to "pilsner" beers and their original, local beers that had been around for maybe hundreds of years have disappeared within a few generations. OK, so some will resurface but for many this is extinction with a capital E Ė permanent. We should all, as beer lovers, defend with all our energy the individualism of local and regional beers before the global megabrewers destroy them all.
Another threat is from governmentsí misguided laws, such as the recent threat to traditional lambic production in Belgium. Although I believe the European Union will grant lambic brewers an exemption to keep using their wooden casks and leave their cobwebs undusted, we mustnít be complacent about this. If we donít stand up and be counted then it will be assumed we, the beer loving people, donít really care and these beers will be lost and once they are gone that may be it. We must be vigilant and support the brewers in their fight, after all this is a symbiotic relationship; we need them to make the beers, but they need us to drink them. We need each other.
Letís raise a glass of our chosen micro-brewed beer to the brewers who make the stuff. Without them, our lives would be a lot less fun.