By Darren Norbury, Beer Today
It seems I’m not the first who, upon meeting (Jessica) Boak & (Ray) Bailey (pictured above), said: “Oh, you’re younger than I thought.”
Their enormously popular eponymous blog – they are the beer blogger’s beer bloggers – has only been running since 2007, and yet it carries an air of authority and depth of knowledge of its subjects that suggests many more years of fieldwork and documentary research.
The couple are, in fact, in their mid-30s, she (Boak) an accountant and he (Bailey) a former civil servant turned freelance writer. They moved to Penzance, in Cornwall, from East London in 2011 when Jess was offered a job here.
I meet them regularly, normally in the Star, at Crowlas, my local and one of their favourite Cornish pubs, where golden session ale Potion No 9 – a regular on their favourite beers list – is brewed. It’s unusual to be interviewing them and not to be opening various review beers who have brought along for communal tasting.
Their knowledge of an enthusiasm for beer, again, suggests a long association with their subject, yet their real fascination with beer dates back to well within this young century, 2004, and a trip to Bamberg, Germany, which Jess organised as a birthday trip for Ray. A subsequent trip to Bamberg and another to Munich would signal the start of an interest that would change their lives. “Somewhere along the line, beer became an important part of our holidays,” says Ray.
This led to not only the blog, but some adventurous and very tasty home brewing episodes, the quality of which I can vouch for.
The blog came about because Jess felt tempted by the idea of travel writing. But, once more, the beer took over. They looked around to see who was blogging about beer. There were influential names already up and running, such as London beer fan Stonch, Dublin-based enthusiast The Beer Nut and Canadian Alan McLeod, editor of A Good Beer Blog, yet a clear gap existed for Ray and Jess’s style of incisive, forensically researched and history-rich writing.
Whether by accident or design, they have nailed the modern writing style that is the blog. Posts are not too long, there’s no excessive verbiage, and yet the prose is entertaining as well as informative. They are disciplined, too, in blogging regularly and the huge amounts of posts their comments generate are testament not only to the couple’s popularity, but the esteem in which fellow beer bloggers, writers and aficionados hold them.
They seem surprised at the popularity of the blog, but it proves that hard work pays off. Jess looks at it another way. “The thing I like about blogging is reminding yourself what you’ve drunk,” she laughs.
For natural writers and storytellers like this, then, who draw people in with very readable prose and an ability to make complex subjects easily digestable, the book was a logical next stage. It came about from a blog piece put up in the summer of 2012. They put up a timeline explaining the history and development of the beer industry over the past 50 years, as much to clarify the events for themselves, and were told they should write a book.
The stroke of luck in the enterprise was meeting someone from the publisher Aurum, for whom Ray had previously done some copy editing work. Foot in the door, then. And what could have been a tricky pitch was made easier by the promise of colourful characters, of which the book has plenty, in the form of David Bruce, Brendan Dobbin and Alastair Hook, to name but three.
Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer took a year and a half to write, which I think suggests an incredible work rate bearing in mind the amount of research which has clearly gone into the book. The writing process has been much like the way Boak & Bailey approach blogging. More often than not they will discuss an idea, Ray will write up the first draft and Jess will edit and polish. Sometimes it’s vice versa. Ray admits that most of the tasting notes are Jess’s: “She has the better palate.”
The book presented many challenges, generally involving the tracking down of the many cast members in the story of British brewing over the past half century or so. Finding and interviewing David Bruce and Brendan Dobbin was clearly a great help, but there were some who got away, such as Phil Burke, an innovator at Passageway Brewery, Liverpool, in the 1990s. You wouldn’t have thought Martin Dickie and James Watt, of BrewDog, would be tricky to track down, hardly being the shy, retiring types when it comes to publicity, but their diaries were never blank at a suitable time to meet Boak & Bailey so they were not interviewed either, despite the writers’ huge respect for how these brewers, forever destined to be dubbed ‘maverick’, have changed many people’s perception of good beer.
When I first knew them I used to be very protective of what I perceived as Boak & Bailey’s anonymity (the surnames are pseudonyms), but over time they have taken on more speaking engagements, including gigs at the Eden Project, of instance, which has stood them in good stead for the book tour. As I interview them, they have just returned from some dates up north, which took them to venues such as the Port Street Beer House, in Manchester, and the North Bar, in Leeds, which has its own important role in the development of the British beer scene since its opening in 1997.
As they say on their website, they’re “geeks in general, but especially about beer and pubs” and to sit with them in the pub they create no more glamorous an image than a hard working young couple enjoying a pint after a busy day. They have a perfect working relationship which relies on their complimentary talents rather than shared skills, and clearly get a lot of fun out of life.
Having chronicled that past half-century of beer and brewing and Britain, where to they see the future of our ‘national drink’? “We have talked about ‘post-craft’,” says Ray, in that way that you know these are going to become bloggers buzz words soon. “People will start to apply subtlety and tradition.” As massive-IBU double IPAs and rich, viscous imperial stouts hit their zenith, maybe my own pet theory of the emergence of a campaign for brown beer – back to basics brewing – may not be so far off the mark.
However the brewing scene does change over the next few years, you can be sure Boak & Bailey will be taking it all in and offering valuable commentary on what, for many of us, is an obsession. We all love a beer. Boak & Bailey love it so much they wrote it a 287-page letter of appreciation – and thanks, too, for making those German holidays so much more interesting than they already were.
• Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer is published by Aurum Press at £12.99. It is available on Amazon here