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Tuesday, October 29th 2013

Q & A with Author Ben McFarland
3x British Beer Writer of the Year

Tom Sandham (L) and Ben McFarland (R) on the "Thinking Drinkers" bench

Ben McFarland has been writing about beer for over a decade. During that time he has written three books, appeared on TV and Radio, and been recognized in his native England as the nation's top beer writer on multiple occasions. His most recent book, Boutique Beer; 500 of the World's Finest Craft Brews takes a closer look at some of the world's best craft beers. The book is absolutely packed with thirst-inspiring beer imagery and well-researched information. We definitely recommend adding this one to your bookshelf of coffee table. With that being said, we wanted to get to know Ben a little more so we reached out and pummeled him with questions. Congrats on the book Ben, we already look forward to the next one. Cheers!

Tell us a little about yourself ?

Well, I’m 37, live in West London and I write and talk about beer and drink for a living. I am the triple-crowned "British Beer Writer of the Year" and author of "World's Best Beers"; "Boutique Beer; 500 of the World's Finest Craft Brews" and, my first book, "Good Beer Guide West Coast USA" - co-written with fellow drinks expert Tom Sandham.

Myself and Tom founded www.thinkingdrinkers.com - an online destination for discerning drinkers - and together we have written and performed "The Thinking Drinker's Guide to Alcohol", a unique comedic drinking show which has starred at the Edinburgh Fringe and Soho Theatre for 3 years running.

We also host beer and spirit tastings at festivals and events up and down the country and regularly appear on TV and Radio gently urging people to 'drink less but drink better'.

I also write for numerous publications including Jamie Oliver Magazine, the Telegraph, The Guardian, the Independent, the Spectator, Conde Naste Traveller and a host of specialist drinks magazines both in the UK and the USA.


Ben at work in Brussels

When did you start writing about beer? What was the first thing you wrote about?

Having been a newspaper journalist initially, I joined a newspaper called “The Publican” which was read by all the landlords and bar owners in Britain – here, I was the Drinks Editor and got to learn more about beer. After three years there, I went freelance and began writing about beer for a variety of different magazines and newspapers. Buoyed by the award of Beer Writer of the Year in 2006, the youngest ever recipient, I wrote my first book with Tom called “Good Beer Guide West Coast USA” – which saw us spend a couple of epic months driving up and down the West Coast of America visiting every brewery, brewpub and beer bar we could find. And then wrote it all down in a book.

Coming from the UK, what was that experience like? Any especially memorable brewery visits?

American craft brews are big, bombastic and with bigger balls than Europe… For two lily-livered Limeys weaned on quaffable bitters, mellow milds and light-tasting lagers, America’s IPA infatuation was a shock to the system, but desire for hoppy beers soon enveloped our souls and senses like poison ivy…Visiting San Francisco during Extreme Beer Month was a schoolboy error for which we’re still paying in the shape of costly psychiatry sessions… The California Highway Patrol are not as friendly as they were in 1980s TV series CHiPs and don’t like it when you ask to touch their guns… Judging a Double IPA competition is a taste bud-trashing exercise in futility…There are no winners in the IBU arms race… Our lupulin love goes out to the IPAs of Green Flash, Alpine, Alesmith, Lagunitas, Bear Republic, Diamond Knot, Moonlight and Ninkasi, while Firestone Walker’s Pale Ale makes us dewy-eyed and nostalgic just thinking about it…When an American says a bar is “just down the road,” remember that American roads are much, much longer than British ones… Tijuana is naughty… Butt Crack Brown, Monkey Knife Fight Ale, Old Thunderpussy Barleywine and Willy were the most amusing beer names we encountered… After singing “Yellow Submarine” to fifty moody U.S. Marines in a San Clemente karaoke club, don’t criticise them for not singing along—just leave quickly… The nearest thing to a beer drinker’s Disneyland is McMenamins’ Edgefield… Surfing is harder than it looks… -  excerpt from All About Beer magazine


What is your impression of the American craft beer industry? How does it compare to the state of beer in the UK?

Off the back of the book, we like to think that we have been among the most enthusiastic advocates of American craft beer on this side of the Pond and I still think it’s the most inspiring brewing nation in the world. We’re getting more and more US beers over here and, finally, the general pub-goer is realising that there’s more to American beer than Bud, Miller etc….

America continues to inspire brewing in the UK and Europe but where I think British beer has the edge on its Stateside rivals is in the brewing of sessionable, flavoursome beers. British brewers deftly coax out complexity at low gravity and we should be more proud about that.

It’s quite strange seeing brewers in Britain drawing inspiration and instruction from American interpretations of British beer styles. It’s exciting what’s happening here – microbrewing has got its Mojo back and the number of small brewers in the UK has broken the 1000 barrier for the first time in 70 years. Partly inspired by America, British beer is booming and it’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker and/or – indeed - a beer writer.


Tell us a little bit about Hobo Beer + Co.? 

Ah yes, Hobo has been good fun. It’s a great beer that smells like rainbows and tastes of victory - it’s a collaboration with a few friends we know from the drinks industry – we brew the beer with 100% Saaz hops in the Czech Republic, in a very old brewery, and then put it in our cans. It’s a proper Bohemian Pilsner and the first craft beer in the UK exclusively available in cans. It was a decision we made having seen (and drunk) craft beer in cans in the USA.

At first we had to tackle preconceptions of canned beer but it was a lot easier than we thought and we’re doing great business with it now – craft beer in cans is storming the bars and pubs of London Town


We've seen some other UK brewers such as Brew Dog and Camden Town Brewery putting their beers in cans. Is the British beer scene beginning to embrace craft beer in cans? 

Yes, slowly but surely. A lot of people have approached us asking how we do it and I won’t be surprised if more brewers follow suit. The stumbling block is currently the minimum canning runs which put some small players off.


Your most recent book is called Boutique Beer: 500 Quality Craft Beershow did you go about narrowing down the thousands of outstanding beers in the world to just 500?

It was tricky. I wanted to have a stylistic and geographical spread and I didn’t want to make it overly obscure but equally I wanted to include some hidden, unknown gems. There are always going to be those who think some have been missed and those that disagree but I like to think it captures what’s going on in craft beer around the world.


How many of those 500 have you had a chance to try?

Pretty much all of them. Those that I haven’t come with a reliable recommendation from those I know and respect – be they friends or fellow beer writers.

Thanks for including quite a few American canned craft beers in the book! Do you think people are still surprised to see quality craft beer coming in a can?

You’re welcome. America is leading the way – all they need to do is learn to say aluminium properly. There’s an ‘I’ in it! Beyond beer connoisseur circles, there is still those who are wary of canned beer and the industry needs to tackle this …but perceptions are definitely changing.

What are a few breweries in the world you've yet to visit that are on the top of your list?

I would love to go to Australia and New Zealand and spend a bit of time with the guys down there. Same goes for Japan.

Posted by Russ