If you like beer and know who Martyn Cornell is, the next couple of intro paragraphs probably won’t bring you much news. After all, they’re more about my own admiration for his work, which drove me to reach out for this interview – generously granted in writing via messages over Facebook – than about the author himself. Full disclosure, I have absolutely no objectivity to talk about his writings. Please feel free to skip them.
If you like beer and you don’t know who Martyn Cornell is, maybe it would be better to go straight to his blog, Zytophile (http://zythophile.co.uk/). Since 2007, it’s one of the main sources (if not THE main) for the history of beer in Great Britain. His posts are long, detailed, with an abundance of information extracted from various historical sources that is very rare to see in this field.
The blog is the digital expansion of a beer writing career that spans for almost 40 years, with numerous articles and a few books – “Beer: The Story of the Pint: The History Of Britain's Most Popular Drink”, “Strange Tales of Ale” e “Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain's Great Beers”.
I found out about Cornell’s work when I was starting to write about the subject, back in 2011, while researching one of my pet peeves: the legends surrounding the creation of the India Pale Ale (IPA). I read an academic article that very timidly mentioned there was a “controversy” about the widely accepted version and mentioned the British journalist’s work.
It took me just a couple of clicks to be completely mesmerized by the content of Zythophile. Exact dates, quotes from newspapers, magazines and books from centuries ago, properly contextualized and analyzed… everything that was missing in the beer content written in Brazil – and even in great part of the beer content written around the world – was there.
I was, at the time, a devotee of Saint Michael James Jackson, but devotion aside, he sometimes seemed to me to follow the old adage “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, and that bad habit appeared to have seeped in the beer writers’ works in general. Today, I see this more as a reflection of the perceived need many felt to legitimize with an attractive storytelling this “beer renaissance” that started in the 1970s.
Martyn Cornell, with a big black beer. Photo: Personal Archive
Cornell’s writings are an antidote against all that, to the chagrin of many “beer culture” merchants who sell their courses based on the equivalent fairy tales. And they go off a simple principle: the stories we can verify about the past may sometimes not be as compelling, or colorful, or heroic as the imagination of some people, but to reconstitute them as well as the historic records allow is certainly more gratifying, at least for those who make this ethical commitment to the truth.
Cheers and Happy 2021!
MARCIO BECK: What is the hardest part of writing about beer?
MARTYN CORNELL: Finding the time! Too much to write about, too little time to write it …
Do you have any ideas for blog posts or books you've decided not to pursue for being to time consuming/work intensive?
Loads … too many to list.
What got you started?
I'm a journalist by profession, starting out on local newspapers, and moving on to magazines and national newspapers, so I've always been involved with words. I tried not to write about beer to begin with, I didn't want to mix work with something I enjoyed outside work, drinking new beers and visiting pubs. But someone I knew was writing a guide to local pubs, and had some space that needed filling, and he asked me to write a few hundred words about the history of breweries in the area. I found I greatly enjoyed doing the research, and it all took off from there.
What kind of subjects did you write about?
I moved into production journalism in my early 30s – sub-editing, as we call in in Britain, copy-editing, as the Americans would say – and then in my 40s worked for trade magazines covering the hospitality industry, mostly as an editor, but with some writing, before moving back into full-time production journalism. So as a journalist most of my time, professionally, has been spent on the editing/production side.
Did you feel any difficulty transitioning?
No, writing has always been pretty natural to me – I enjoy copy-editing, I prefer writing, but the competition on the writing side is huge, which is why I became a sub-editor, professionally.
Any specific work routine or habits?
Sit down at the computer, spend far too long on Twitter and Facebook, finally start writing, get into the "zone", eventually look up and several hours have passed while several hundred words have been written.
Do you have a favorite among your books? Maybe one that was more satisfying to write, was more important to your career, more groundbreaking, more rewarding… or that you were just particularly happier the way it turned out?
I'm proudest of “Amber, Gold and Black”, the history of British beer styles: no one had ever done anything like that before, and ten years on it still stands up very well. It's certainly the book people seem to have appreciated the most, and it appeared on two different people's "must read" lists only this month, which was very flattering. It's now out of print, in hardback, and copies sell for upwards of £50 a time – it's still available in the e-book version, folks! Funnily, it's the only one of my books so far not to win a prize, which confirms, I'm afraid, the idea that awards are not necessarily a reflection of how good a book really is.
Amber, Gold & Black, book from Martyn Cornell. Photo: Bia Amorim
Do you feel a particular satisfaction in busting historical myths about beer? Did the
“mythbusting” aspect drive your work at any point or was it more of a natural consequence of extensive research?
When I decided to write a book on the history of brewing in Britain – because there hadn't been one, at that time, for 25 years – I said to myself that I would not print any story that I could not make stand up, that there was not good hard evidence for. Then, once I started researching, began looking for the historical records, I was staggered to discover that there was no actual evidence at all for some of the mostly widely accepted stories about the history of beer in Britain – that porter was invented by a man called Harwood to replace a drink called three-threads, that IPA was developed by a brewer called Hodgson, that King Henry VIII had banned hops, and so on. These stories, which had appeared in dozens of books and articles about beer and the history of beer, turned out in fact not to be true. I think as a journalist one always has a dedication to telling the "real" story, so that influenced my decision to always have good evidence before I wrote a story up. Of course, as a journalist, I always enjoy being able to say: “Hey – you think THAT is true, but do you want to know the REAL story?” But it's also the historian's devotion to assembling the verifiable facts that drove me to try to find the evidence behind these old stories, and when it turned out there was, in fact, no evidence at all to back up the old tales, then as a historian you have a duty to say so. The myth-busting sprang out of a desire never to write anything I did not have evidence for, rather than just a desire to bust myths.
There are also scenarios in which the available evidence is not enough to confirm or deny a hypothesis. Or in which subsequent findings either refute or confirm certain stories. In your writings about IPA and porters/stouts, it seems you very aware of that and concerned about not making too definitive statements, would you agree?
Yes, you quickly learn that if you make a definite statement about something, the evidence will turn up eventually to prove you wrong …
How do you navigate the historical sources for your articles and books? Have you developed a personal methodology for sifting through the information from old newspapers, trade reports and studies etc.?
I just dive in and start gathering information. We are very lucky today that there is a huge, huge quantity of information available on the internet, not just from scanned books, but scanned newspapers and magazines, in countries around the world, and Google Translate, while not perfect, gives a fighting chance of understanding other languages: the book I am currently writing, on the history of porter and stout, will have quotations from more than 850 newspapers in 52 different countries and 12 different languages, from Indonesian to Romanian, and around 800 different books. That sort of massively wide-ranging research simply would not have been possible even ten years ago. For example, I can tell you that thanks to being able to access back issues on the internet of O Estado de Sao Paulo, in 1911 the Brahma brewery was selling Brahma Porter as a “Cerveja Preta Medicinal”, one of very many examples of brewers claiming that porter (or stout) is good for your health.
How did your personal connection to beer develop through youth, adulthood and nowadays?
I loved beer from the moment I first tried it, aged 14, and I always recognised that some beer was good and quite a lot was bad but it wasn't until my early 20s that I started to learn WHY some beer was good beer, and where to find it. Like, I think, most "aware" beer drinkers of my generation, the writings of the English beer writer Michael Jackson were hugely important in educating me about beer, and since then it's been a constant journey to discover more. I've been very lucky in that I have been able to drink exciting beers from Norway to Australia, and it's been tremendous to see the growth of interest in great beer develop over the past 10 to 15 years – there really has never been a better time to be a beer drinker.
The one in my glass! Seriously, I love a huge range of different beers, and different beer styles, and my favourites at any time will differ depending on where I am, who I'm with, what I'm doing, what's available, what the weather is like, and so on.
How do you feel about novelty styles like New England/Hazy IPAs, Pastry IPAs and stouts.. Do you actively look for them to try?
Beer is always developing – you can find comments from the middle of the 19th century in newspapers about this horrid new bitter beer all the young people are drinking. But I wouldn't make a special journey to try a new pastry stout…
Any advice to people who wish to write about beer (professionally or as a hobby)?
Don't think you're going to make any real money from it, because you won't. Write primarily for yourself, don't worry about what other people might think of it, and do read the best-selling beer writers, the best-selling non-fiction writers generally, be they travel writers, wine writers, restaurant reviewers of whatever, and try to work out what makes their writing work.
Do you feel there is such thing as a perfect beer experience? What would that look like?
The perfect beer experience is probably drinking great beer in great company and having great conversations, but there are plenty of other tremendous beer experiences, and some you can have on your own: one of mine was in March this year when I was sitting outside a bar-restaurant on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio in the sunshine, drinking a fine wheat beer, eating ceviche and looking out at Copacabana beach in the distance – that was pretty good …