Having just published An Opinionated Guide to London Pubs, with a second book – Modern British Beer – in the works, it’s safe to say Matthew Curtis knows a thing or two about what makes a good pub, and the kind of beer it should be selling. Fiona Holland talks to the freelance writer and photographer, who by day is busy putting together his drinks website, Pellicle, about what long term impact he sees Covid-19 having on the British pub and beer industries.
As book titles go ‘An Opinionated Guide to London Pubs‘ pretty much tells you what to expect. A pub guide that does not pull its punches.
Matthew Curtis has been interested in beer writing ever since he started drinking it. It was a trip to America in 2010, however, that encouraged him to write about beer full-time. “My Dad had just emigrated to a town called Fort Collins in Colorado, which is home to a pretty incredible bunch of breweries”, recalls Curtis. “On visiting Odell Brewing Co, one of its largest, and tasting its eponymous IPA, I had what can only be described as a ‘moment.’”
After that came a period where he was passionately obsessed by researching and tasting as many new and interesting beers as possible. “At the start of 2012 I was encouraged by my partner, Dianne, to start a beer blog as a way of venting my enthusiasm,” says Curtis. “A few years in [that] led to me getting my first commissions, and eventually becoming a full-time freelance writer in February 2016. I never began with any ambition to make it my full time job, but now I’m here I can’t see myself ever doing anything else.”
In late 2019 Curtis was contacted by the independent publisher’s, Hoxton Mini Press, who asked if he would be interested in writing a guide on pubs as part of their “Opinionated” series – “an opportunity I jumped at,” says Curtis. “I was commissioned right at the start of 2020 and then things got very complicated in terms of research, as you can imagine. It didn’t quite make the planned Christmas release date, but its almost serendipitous that it released ahead of pubs reopening.”
Curtis is now based in Manchester. “But I lived in London for 15 years and I’m a pub person, so a lot of the research was already done”, he laughs. “What happened when I got the initial list and we started having meetings was I then started going back to some of these pubs, and some of them I knew really well because they were regulars of mine. In July I was out there researching, and Martin, the owner of Hoxton Mini Press, encouraged me to write while sat in the pub to really try and capture that vibe.”
Who is it for?
The book is meant for anyone who enjoys a great pub atmosphere. “I would say [most of] my own writing is geared towards beer enthusiasts like myself, but this isn’t a beer book, it’s a pubs book”, says Curtis. “Yes, it features a fair number of my favourite pubs with excellent beer selections, but it also includes some that are world class restaurants, some that are beautiful architecturally, and some that are just proper old school London boozers that you just can’t help but find charming.”
To enhance the charm, Curtis’s writing is also accompanied with photographs by Orlando Gili depicting the eclectic, quirky and unique interiors of these London spots. “This isn’t just a written guide, it’s a photographic one”, says Curtis. “Each pub is a little vignette with some amazing photography, and they can be quite transportative.”
While Curtis admits it was difficult to decide on the shortlist of venues that went into the guide, he stresses that more often than not in London we can be led astray into a dissatisfying drinking venue, unless we’ve done our research. “Let’s be honest, there are a lot of pubs in London that just lack that certain something that tips them from good to great,” says Curtis. “So many are chains designed to look and feel like ‘the local’, and as someone that spends a lot of time in pubs that inauthenticity comes through in a really obvious way. The pubs in the book are true gems, brimming with character, which is such a rare quality, be that in London or anywhere in the UK for that matter.”
So, what makes a great pub? A good quality beer selection is the first key ingredient, says Curtis. “I’m especially keen to see pubs supporting their local independent breweries, especially considering how hard they’ve all had it during the pandemic, with minimal government support.”
Other factors to look out for he notes are well looked after cask beer, as well as friendly staff and a decent amount of space to sit. “But the real quality I look for is one that’s difficult to put your finger on – vibe”, he says. “It’s not a tangible quality, but when a good pub has it, you know it’s there.”
Modern British Beer
The next major project that Curtis is currently undertaking is the completion of his book Modern British Beer, due to be published with CAMRA Books in September. It features a range of 87 beers from across the country and is sorted by region to work with Curtis’s overall argument throughout, that the craft beer scene is returning to a sense of regionality. He says: “With big beer adopting craft, and there now being over 2,000 breweries in the UK, in order to succeed, the smaller breweries need to focus on their local market.”
While the book does refer to “British” beer in its title, it focuses more on the different regions in the British Isles. “It’s more about how we’ve got modern Scottish beer. We’ve got modern Welsh beer, we’ve got modern Yorkshire beer, and so on.”
Throughout the book, he talks about examples of beers and breweries that are trying to produce less but better quality so they can be more sustainable. “I mean, look at The Kernel in London,” says Curtis. “They’ve been going since 2009. They’ve reached the size they’re happy with, they support 30 jobs. That’s a lovely example of a modern brewery that exists in its own environment without ever pushing to grow, and every beer it makes is fantastic.”
A key theme that he feels is missed out in discussions on beer, which he tries to bring to the fore in the book, is the relationship between the drink and its agriculture. “I think that connection to ingredients is really important”, he says. “With cider and wine it’s so easy to connect it to agriculture, like apples have grown, grapes are grown. Guess what? Barley is grown, hops are grown too. I think if you can put a beer in front of someone and say, the barley for this was grown 10 miles down the road, that’s, that’s way more interesting.”
Curtis tries to home in on the beer’s ingredients in his writing. “When I described the beers, I don’t just say this uses the Citra hop, I will say this uses North American Citra”.
Modern British Beer was a project that Curtis has been wanting to complete since 2018, but the confidence that he had in British craft beer wasn’t always shared with other publishers. “I even met a potential agent, but they were all saying craft beer is going to be over soon, we need to do this quickly. I thought, that’s not how I see this project working, so said to myself I’d put it to one side and just see where it goes.”
Luckily, after pitching the idea to Alan Murphy, a commissioning editor at CAMRA books at the start of 2020, he was given the green light to start writing.
Craft beer’s appeal
For Curtis, what makes British craft beer interesting is how it takes inspiration from other countries and cultures. “The reason Britain is great is because it’s absorbed so much cultural influence and its beer is a great example of that”, says Curtis. “In the UK you’ve got breweries making amazing German lagers, amazing American IPAs, amazing Belgian style saisons … British breweries take influences from overseas, and ultimately, after they’ve sat on it and learned it, they turn it into something uniquely their own.”
One example he gives of a beer that does just that is the Fyne Ales Jarl. “It’s a 3.8% first released in 2010 and is probably best known for being a cask beer brewed in the Highlands of Scotland, but it uses 100% North American citra hops.” When Curtis pitched the book initially, someone at the publishers commented on the fact that it uses American hops, which to their mind didn’t seem at all Scottish. Curtis quickly responded: “I said, ‘you go to the Glen and sit in the fields around the hills with a pint of that and a plate of oysters from the Loch, there is nothing more Scottish in the world, trust me.’ They have taken an American ingredient and English barley, and made that to be a taste of the Glen. It is inherently tied to that place.”
As well as being in the process of writing two books during Covid times, Curtis has also had to manage being the co-founder of the online food and drinks magazine Pellicle. “[The magazine] is largely reader funded via Patreon, so we assumed that would dry up during the pandemic and we’d have to call it a day when the bank account ran dry.”
However, he was happily surprised. “Our supporters stuck with us through it all, which was amazing, and we’re now in a stronger position than ever with readership growing each month.” While he admits the past year has pushed the magazine behind in terms of what content they could produce during multiple lockdowns, he is excited to see what the future holds: “The start of 2021 has been really positive, and we’ve got some amazing stories lined up that we can’t wait to publish. I’m feeling very optimistic about the year ahead, which is a nice feeling, if a little unusual in this day and age.”
As we come to the end of the interview, we wish each other luck in finding a space outside to enjoy a hand-poured pint on a very frosty, but sunny Monday. And with the return to in person drinking experiences, Curtis tells me what he’s missed the most: “Drinking in a pub, whether its with friends or for a quiet solo pint, is a joyous experience. That joy stays with you, lifts your mood, makes you more positive, more productive. It’s something that’s impossible to replicate on a Zoom call – and believe me I’ve tried.”