Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, family brewers are an endangered species and worth preserving. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine breweries whose beer we generally love, and a different breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re certainly a million miles from AB-InBev and are ‘goodies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Disclosure: we’ve had occasional hospitality from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have significant advantages over genuinely small breweries, not least estates of pubs which those small brewers are effectively locked out of. They also have national brands, apparently substantial marketing budgets.

If we ran a really small brewery and were struggling every day to keep our heads above water, competing for free trade accounts and scrambling for every last sale, we’d be pretty pissed off at the idea of those two breweries muscling in on what little benefit SIBA membership seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is perfectly cuddly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full members it was probably out of a (entirely reasonable) desire to secure some further commercial advantage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cynical and it was simply a matter of longing to belong, then they clearly have more work to do getting that message across.

Helping those small brewers to sell a bit more beer, without strings attached, would probably be the most directly convincing way to go about it.

Further Reading

Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best single description of Ashburton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ashburton in 1765, whose autobiographical pamphlet England Forever was published in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the original but fortunately is quoted at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning bit eight-pence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle.

A footnote to the 1817 edition of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health confirms that high carbonation was a defining feature:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Henry Harris speculated in 1907 that “it was probably some concoction intended to rival white-ale”, another famous Devon oddity.

Our attempt at Cornish swanky beer, which we reckon is in the same family.

Ashburton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the latter date being given by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brewer. Later sources mention surviving Ashburton Pop bottles bearing the name of what was probably the brewer, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was apparently revived in some form by William Michelmore, landlord of The Royal Oak at Ashburton, no later than 1835. He died in September 1846 aged 68. (Western Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the later 19th century references to Ashburton Pop only turn up in political commentary, like this from the Western Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford Northcote delivered his long-bottled speech at Manchester on Wednesday…. [He] was primed accordingly; but a more flat and vapid effusion was never poured forth in public than the oration of the Conservative Leader, on Wednesday. “Ashburton Pop” is a brisk potation, taken at the right moment, but a brief exposure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of public utterance.

… or this coded satire from the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Barleycorn’ and addressed to the town’s voters ahead of an upcoming election:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barnstaple, but his Lordship’s brewery turns out tipple too bitter even for his family circle there, and certainly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accustomed to excellent Ashburton Pop, of which with your permission, I will now drink to our next merry meeting, never ceasing to reiterate the common-sense patriotic principle that “England and every English Interest ought to be protected against the rivalry of the rest of the world.”

Assuming that, even referenced jokingly, these are accurate descriptions of the beer itself, we might gather that it (a) foamed quickly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bitter; and (c) was to some degree still a topical reference, i.e. still in production as late as 1881, or at least generally remembered.

After this references to Ashburton Pop only appear in the context of historical notes and queries columns, often repeating the Cooke quotation above, and sometimes suggesting that it was a precursor to modern bottled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much solid advice for those wanting to recreate Ashburton Pop, but as none of the sources mention unusual ingredients, e.g. ginger or raisins, you could probably do worse than this:

  1. Brew something along the lines of a fairly basic golden ale.
  2. Then follow the method for Cornish swanky beer given here: ferment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fermentation in a larger vessel before bottling with corks; when the corks start wanting to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from beer festivals to Friday skiving.

From Roger Protz comes a reflection on the London Drinker beer festival which has been organised by north London Campaign for Real Ale activists annually since 1985, but which this year is sadly winding up:

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible….

As interesting as the news itself, though, is Roger’s account of pioneering the very concept of tasting notes in the 1980s, and being jeered at for daring to suggest that there might be chocolate notes in a dark beer.

Illustration: fanzine style picture of a pint and a packet of crisps.

Phil at Oh Good Ale seems to have found an interesting voice lately — a sort of stream of consciousness that coalesces into commentary if you let it. This week he wrote with some panache about the passing culture of Friday lunchtime pints:

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three…. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen…. It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers”

The Mystery of the Rock House Tavern

We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.

First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:

[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.

Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.

We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.

Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.

Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:

Map showing the lane, 'Brook Road'.

The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.

But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.

Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.

QUICK POST: Same Old Song

"Are All Beers The Same?"

The other day we encountered a hazy pale-n-hoppy beer from a local brewery that was decent in its own right, and certainly well on trend, but something about it bothered us: it simply seemed indistinguishable to quite a lot of other beers from quite a lot of other breweries.

Maybe this has been on our minds because our attempt to pin down the definition(s)  of ‘craft beer’ resurfaced again lately. The first definition we provide there, with reference to Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, includes the word ‘distinctive’ as a key characteristic — a sense that an experienced palate could not easily mistake that beer for any other.

Now, there aren’t many beers that really fit that criterion, and we’d probably struggle to tell, say, Bass from St Austell Cornish Bitter tasted blind on most occasions, but, still, perhaps it has got harder still in recent years. When there were a few hundred breweries in the UK, each making a handful of beers, there were plenty of unique selling points to go around: this one does lager, that one uses Cascade, there’s one down the road making an imperial stout that smells of puke to a sort-of-historic recipe, and so on. Now, with going on for a couple of thousand, it’s obviously harder to come up with anything completely new that is also likely to sell in any volume in pubs, i.e. that is not completely bonkers.

Even so, we do wonder if the tendency to rely on the same handful of commercial yeast strains, the same broad families of hops, and to look to the same few highly-rated beers for inspiration, isn’t leading into a cul-de-sac.

What is your thing? What makes your beer different, and better, than Bloggs’s? If you can’t answer that then you probably won’t convince a pub or shop to take your beer over one that’s 85 per cent identical but twopence cheaper, or with nicer packaging. You probably won’t convince drinkers to develop any particular loyalty to your brand either.

If you’re not distinctive, aren’t you… generic?