‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads — they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Further evidence to support this view arrived in our Twitter timeline earlier this week:

And this summary struck home with particular impact:

The map referenced (irritatingly uncredited at first, though they’ve since apologised and given him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incredibly comprehensive London pub blog Pubology. Do go and explore it, and bookmark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many other postcodes (e.g.) many of which show a broadly similar picture — red and yellow dots in the backstreets, green on the arteries.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are closing, and which ones, concluding that it’s easy for middle class commentators to shrug closures off because it’s not their pubs that are disappearing. This is another angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own compulsive wandering: if you stick to main roads in London, or any other major city, there are plenty of pubs. But cut back a block and the story can be quite different. We’ve seen it with our own eyes — walked miles on the secondary route without seeing a single operating pub, even if the buildings remain, converted for residential, retail or some other use.

Coincidentally, on the same day, we came across a note of a parliamentary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this coming:

I do not think that alcohol is evil in itself. I find that drinking with meals is more beneficial than drinking without a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawling to continue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attractive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-purpose restaurants. I believe that we shall see the larger ‘pubs’ taking over and the smaller ‘pubs’ gradually turning in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just happens to be micropub central.)

It all makes sense in commercial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advantages. Backstreet pubs don’t get as much passing trade, obviously. They can be a nuisance for those who live near them, and are harder to police. (More on this coming up.) And smaller pubs especially, without room for kitchens, waiters, gardens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a particular disadvantage in the 21st century.

Of course there are many, many exceptions — Bailey wrote about one earlier this week; and our old Walthamstow local The Nags Head is another. It’s funny, now we think of it, that those lingering backstreet pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feelings for a moment) the nicest, being all the better for their seclusion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it happens in our new neighbourhood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a couple of surviving back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can manage.

Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 13 August 2017: Steel, Skittles, Sexism

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from dwile-flonking to brewery takeovers.

For the BBC David Gilyeat returns to a favourite silly season topic: traditional pub games. There’s nothing especially new here but it’s an entertaining round-up that draws on the expertise of, among others, Arthur Taylor, whose book on the subject is definitive:

Arthur Taylor, author of Played at the Pub, suggests Aunt Sally – which is played in Oxfordshire and parts of Buckinghamshire – has rather grisly origins.

‘It can be traced back to a barbarous business called “throwing at cocks”, when you threw sticks at a cock tethered to a post that if you killed you took home,’ he says.

‘What was barbarous turned into something that wasn’t, and the cock became a coconut shy… and eventually it became the game we know.’


Thornbridge, 2013.

For Good Beer Hunting Oliver Gray has investigated the manufacturing and sales of stainless steel brewing kit, much of which originates in China, even if the vendors might like buyers to think otherwise:

Chinese steel producers like Jinfu have begun establishing ‘reseller’ companies that sell their goods under different names. One such company, Crusader Kegs & Casks LTD, works out of Rushden, England, and was on site at CBC 2017. At quick glance, one would have no idea they weren’t selling British kegs. The capital U in the name is a St. George’s flag kite shield, and the reverse side of their business cards have a sword-wielding, armor-clad Templar, almost like they’re trying really, really hard to ensure they look as ‘British’ as possible.

There are plenty of other disconcerting details in the story which is a great example of the kind of insight generated by asking awkward questions.

(GBH has connections with AB-InBev/ZX Ventures; provides marketing/consultancy services to smaller breweries; and has also been one of our $2-a-month Patreon sponsors since May.)


Macro image: 'Hops' with illustration of hop cones, 1970s.

There’s some spectacular hop-nerdiness from Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer: a new study suggests that first-wort hopping makes no difference to the quality of the bitterness in the final beer. But many brewers disagree:

Fritz Tauscher at Krone-Brauerei in Tettnang, Germany, uses a slightly different process. He adds 60 to 70 percent of his hops as he lauters wort into the brewing kettle…. He explained that initially he added all his first wort hops (what he calls ‘ground hopping’) in one dose. ‘I thought the bitterness was not so good,’ he said. He opened his right hand, put it to his chin and slid it down his throat to his clavicle, tracking the path a beer would take. ‘It was, I’m not sure how you say it in English, adstringierend.’ No translation was necessary.


Beer is Best poster, 1937 (detail)

This is exciting news, brought to us by Martyn Cornell: the classic British ten-sided pint glass is back in production, and available at pub- and consumer-friendly prices. We look forward to drinking, say, Fuller’s London Porter from them in a proper pub at some point in the not too distant future.


Takeover news: Constellation Brands has acquired Florida’s Funky Buddha brewery, adding it to a portfolio which already includes Ballast Point. (Via Brewbound.)


GBBF controversy: in an open letter Manchester’s Marble Brewing has alleged that the local CAMRA branch effectively prevented their beers appearing at the Great British Beer Festival, suggesting that a dispute over an incident of sexist behaviour might be the cause. CAMRA head office has confirmed it is investigating the issues raised. (But don’t read too much into that statement.)


And finally @nickiquote has found the moment where Doctor Who and the real ale craze intersected:

Updated 14.o8.2017 15:29 — the disclosure statement for the GBH article has been amended at GBH’s request.

Breaking out of the Rut

Illustration: moody London pub.

It’s easy to end up drinking the same beers, and going to the same pubs and bars, and feel miserable about it. But there are ways to break free.

1. Walk down a new street or visit a new town and go into the first pub you walk past after a certain hour. (Don’t cheat.)

2. Or go to every single pub in a neighbourhood, town or village, however weird or unpromising.

3. Buy an old guide book and visit the pubs it recommends, or take on a famous historic crawl.

4. Drink your way through a list of beers from a book or listicle.

5. Get someone else to choose beers for you.

6. Drink every beer you can find in a particular style, from a particular region, or that meet some other criteria – ABV, colour, Christmas themed…

7. Critically revisit beers you know you don’t like but haven’t tried in years. After all, they change, and you change too.

8. Spend a month drinking things other than beer, but with beer in mind.

There are lots of other ways to go about this kind of thing. The point is, like writing poetry using restrictive rules, or cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats, it should be sort of pointless… But not really.

You might hate all the new pubs you go in and beers you taste, or you might find new favourites you kick yourself for having missed out on for so long. Even the duds will teach you something.