Roger Protz: beer and the brickbats

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Beer, Roger protz

Protz: put off the blogosphere
Protz: put off the blogosphere
As CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2011 is published, editor and MA columnist Roger Protz has a pint with Phil Mellows to talk about battling big brewers and...

As CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2011 is published, editor and MA columnist Roger Protz has a pint with Phil Mellows to talk about battling big brewers and surviving the perils of the blogosphere.

When Roger Protz started writing about beer in the 1970s it was an odd pursuit. Beer, after all, was for drinking. There didn't seem to be much to say beyond "two pints of bitter, please".

Today, it almost seems there's too much to say. The infinite column inches of the internet are home to countless beer writers. It's a jungle out there and, as Protz has discovered, it can be a dangerous place.

Towards the end of last year, on his Beer-Pages website, he wrote a couple of blogs attacking the Scottish microbrewer BrewDog for playing "ABV leapfrog" with its innovative hyper-strong beers at a time when the industry was trying to fend off criticisms of irresponsibility.

It triggered a tsunami of vitriol that surged through the blogosphere and drenched Protz.

While he sticks to his guns on the question — "BrewDog are self-publicists. I was staggered by what they did. It could do terrible damage to the Scottish brewing industry" — the incident has had a profound effect on him.

"It was a very unsettling period for me," he says, and an uncharacteristic sadness comes over him. "I was shocked at how people that you've never met could say such things about you. People used to put it in a letter and post it, but the internet is immediate.

"I was disturbed by the criticism. I'm going to dump the blog. It's not essential to Beer-Pages and I'm not going to be abused like that."

This is worrying, I think, as we chat over a nice pint of beer in a pub called the Plough in the comedy-name village of Tyttenhanger, near Protz's home in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

There's a funeral going on, the guv'nor is in a grumpy mood and the liquid conviviality of beer is doing its usual soothing job. Can it be true that beer can also cause pain? Have we started to take it too seriously?

Michael Jackson

If we have, Protz has certainly played his part in it, helping to develop a language in which people can talk about beer as they talk about wine, which in turn has fed into the brewing innovations that have inspired more talk — and more beer writers.

When Protz began, the field included himself, The Guardian's columnist Richard Boston — "he was of crucial importance" — and Michael "Beer Hunter" Jackson, the first man to give up a proper job to write about beer full-time.

While there are still only a handful who can make any money out of it, the founders of the craft have given birth to a new teeming generation.

"There'll never be another Michael Jackson, but I'm delighted so many people now are writing about beer.

"We should drink beer as seriously as we drink wine; think about aroma, flavour, the different kinds of hops. We should work out a vocabulary of beer descriptors. We don't want to get ridiculous about it, but it's the pleasure of drinking beer to work out the different contributions of malt and hops and yeast."

Upside-down career

The BrewDog unpleasantness is the latest twist in Protz's peculiar professional history, what he calls his "upside-down career".

In the 1960s he was a successful mainstream journalist, working as a sub-editor on the London Evening Standard alongside greats such as James Cameron, and experiencing real 24-hour drinking, as opposed to the fictional sort castigated by the Daily Mail.

"Then came the fateful decision to be editor of Socialist Worker," he says. That lasted five years until he was caught in a split in the International Socialists.

"I found it difficult to get work for a while after that," as you can imagine he would. He lectured in journalism before a financial crisis meant there were no journalists to lecture to — and then a job came up at the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Protz was already a member and he'd worked on the Standard with the man who would be his immediate boss, CAMRA founder Michael Hardman.

He was already writing about beer, too, and had obviously acquired a sensitive palate.

"I've always enjoyed beer. Living in East Ham I cut my teeth on Charrington IPA, and one day it didn't taste the same. What had happened to it? I discovered the brewing had been moved out of east London.

"Then came the Watneys Red Revolution ad campaign. I'd never tasted Watneys and I thought I must try this stuff — it was like liquid Mars bars."

Global brewers

Protz had a new political mission, ironically in reaction to something calling itself a "Red Revolution". In the leadership of CAMRA he would ally a consumer campaign with small brewers in a battle against national big brewing. And those politics haven't changed.

He describes himself as a "green socialist" now, and recently wrote for Socialist Worker again, in praise of the microbrewery revolution, and his frustration at the behaviour of what is now international big brewing is as great as ever.

"How can a company decide to sell off Draught Bass? It used to be a two-million-barrels-per-year brand. It's part of the culture of this country. In the 1950s Draught Bass was so popular it was a guest beer in Young's pubs. It mustn't die."

And the same goes for Boddingtons and Tetley's.

"I just don't understand the thinking of international breweries. How can Carlsberg do what it's doing

to Tetley? I know it's interested in bigger-volume brands, but where's the profit?

"One day a big global group will pull the plug on Britain. They aren't used to how competitive this country's beer market is.

"I'm not against lager at all," he adds. "I love proper lager made in the Czech Republic or Germany. It upsets me that the big lager brands are not lager by any definition. Drinkers are being shortchanged."

He concedes that even an "amazing" organisation such as CAMRA "can't shift companies of that size".

"There are four times as many breweries now as there were in 1971, even while beer volumes are declining. A decade ago I'd have been more pessimistic. But the UK still counts as a major brewing nation and the choice today is so exciting. It used to be mild, bitter and best and that was it."

Stubborn

Plenty to write about there, and Protz has "two or three books in the pipeline".

"Although they don't make any money, 300 Beers to Try Before You Die was my biggest success and it sold 50,000 copies. If it had been 500,000 I'd be quite rich.

"It's tough making a living at this. I did my last Guardian column four years ago. They said they'd done enough about beer. But they're still doing wine."

Then there's the new Good Beer Guide, of course, which is out today, the 18th Protz has edited. It'll be taking an upbeat approach to the pub trade, highlighting the positives, the success stories, the pubs that have been saved.

It's another version of his passionate belief that ordinary people can turn quite extraordinary when they choose.

"I think we're about to turn a corner. Pubs are being saved by local communities. There's a counter-culture.

"The British are very stubborn. We don't like being told what to do. In spite of the brewers' power a large number of people said: 'We don't want to drink that'.

"I've supported minority causes all my life — socialism, West Ham United and cask beer. And cask beer is doing rather better than the other two!"

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