Supped it Like Bloody Wolves

Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.
Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.

We’ve found more evidence in our efforts to understand the extent to which British people were discerning in their choice of beer before the Campaign for Real Ale came along in the 1970s.

Brian Jackson’s Working Class Community was first published in 1968 and reprinted by Pelican in 1972. It belongs to the ‘working class people as aliens’ genre of academic writing so popular in the 20th century, though it is rather more readable than most examples, and occasionally even funny.

Amongst chapters about brass bands and bowling greens there is one called ‘At the Club’, which includes generalisations based on observations of several working men’s clubs in the north of England. It contains a fair bit about pubs, which were apparently considered expensive and ‘stuck up’:

Ah never go into a pub at all now. Clubs are much more sociable, like. Look at this. Ah couldn’t rest me legs across a chair in t’pub. Here it’s like being at home. As long as Ah don’t put me feet on t’seat, Ah’m all right.

But we were mostly intrigued by the section called ‘Drinking’. Unlike pubs, which were mostly tied to breweries and thus offered a limited range…

Working men’s clubs are a cooperative venture in the purchase and sale of beer and spirits. Each offers a choice of several draught beers, and the brews are changed ruthlessly as members demand…

Club members, it seems, were ‘discriminating and demanding’ in their choice of beers, and so, despite competitive pricing, it often had the best ale in town:

There is an excellent draught beer brewed which is sold in surrounding Yorkshire. But it cannot be obtained in Huddersfield public houses because the pubs are in possession of rival concerns. The beer, though good, is blocked out. Except for the clubs. In almost every one a pint of this ale could be bought. The beer was chosen and sold on its merits, quite regardless of the major brewery strategy which limits the range of the pub drinker.

(What can it have been…?)

There is also an amusing worm-that-turned narrative in the clubs’ resistance to advertising and salesmen from big breweries. They would, according to Jackson, take loans and gifts from breweries, without feeling any obligation to then buy beer from them. Here’s an account of an attempt by a rep from Yarnold’s to win over punters at one club:

Ah remember a traveller bringing a barrel. It were free while he was here, he paid for t’lot. They supped it then, y’know. They did that! They supped it like bloody wolves! But when he were gone nobody would touch it. It’s like lead in y’belly is that stuff. When Ah had some, Ah felt as if Ah’d swallowed yon plumb-line from t’window there.

So, they were discerning, but what did it mean, in this context? Were they interested in flavour, strength, or something more abstract? Unfortunately, that’s where the book lets us down, though who knows what more detail might lurk in the original field notes.

The Batham’s, at Last

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On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we wanted to try it anyway, having heard from various sources, on numerous occasions, that the small West Midlands family brewery produces beers which are delicious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the ticking instinct, either.

Having travelled for 6+ hours from Penzance to Birmingham, we weren’t, however, quite in the mood for a further hour of buses and trains to get to the brewery tap at Stourbridge and turned, instead, to someone with local knowledge.

Tania’s suggestion was the Great Western next to Wolverhampton central station — 20 minutes on the train, plus five minutes walking. Perfect!

A cute, flower-covered pub surrounded by railway architecture and industrial wasteland, it was decorated throughout with memorabilia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its western terminus is, as it happens, Penzance.) On a sunny Friday evening, it had a pleasant buzz, and a mixed clientèle perhaps just tending towards late middle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bitter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Cracklin‘’ — if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather limited in the evening — and set about getting acquainted.

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There are some mental contortions to go through when tasting a legendary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tasting the hype, and praising the Emperor’s new clothes. On the other hand, it can also be easy to end up feeling let down. We tried to forget all of that and just drink it.

It was certainly very pretty, scoring 11 out of 10 for clarity. As for the taste… Well, we were momentarily surprised by a pronounced honey note, but couldn’t help but be impressed. The balancing bitterness developed as it went down, and there was almost a suggestion of nutty grains between the teeth.

Ultimately, though, it had that quality which makes writing about beer difficult at times — something impossible to put into words, but which is perhaps a result of freshness, or a subtle combination of barely-perceptible aromas and flavours. A certain magic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find ourselves wondering how much of its reputation was down to the beer’s relative scarcity, and the glamour of time and place. It didn’t strike us, fundamentally, as that much different, or better, than the products of many other family breweries.

For example (and we’ll probably get told off for this) in Manchester, we attempted to approach Robinson’s Unicorn (4.3%, golden) with similar detachment, and actually rather enjoyed it. If Robinson’s restricted its supply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great Western which kept it in tip-top condition, perhaps it too would have a cult reputation.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Further reading: Barm’s recent post about pub-crawling in Dudley is a cracking read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was probably where we first really registered the existence of Batham’s.

* “What credibility?” &c.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 26/07/2014

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By the time you read this, we will be in Birmingham preparing for our turn at the Beer Bash (3 pm). Let’s hope some people turn up to see us.

At any rate, through the magic of post scheduling, here’s everything of interest we’d spotted by Thursday evening, for your enjoyment this Saturday morning.

→ We’ve managed to avoid the ‘What does AK stand for?’ debate until this point but this post by Martyn Cornell has got us hooked.

→ Late night parties at London Zoo amid the gorillas, tigers and snakes? What could possibly go wrong?

Barm on his relief at finding a beer he can rave about: “I have no idea whether Fourpure’s other beers are also as good as this, and to be honest I don’t really care.”

Barry Masterson cuts through the politics to observe (a) that he really likes Stone’s beer and (b) when they open their brewery in Berlin, it’ll be good news for him.

While Jordan St John goes beyond being a bit miffed at the crowd-funding aspect of Stone’s project: Stone’s Indiegogo campaign is actively evil because they are exploiting secondary ideas around the brewery business model like art and community in order to get you to pay them money to do something they are going to do anyway.”

→ Because Ed is a scientist, he reads all kinds of boring in-depth publications that most of us don’t, which is how he caught the news that lager yeast probably didn’t originate in Patagonia after all, but in Tibet.

→ From a couple of weeks back, an inspiring home brew recipe from Michael ‘Sour Beer’ Tonsmeire, called Saison ‘Merica. Just look at the picture of the beer in the glass: Yum!

→ Jay Brooks keeps up a constant flow of nice scans from old beer ads on his blog, but this one particularly caught our attention:

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Why don’t more mainstream brewers produce a really well-made, top-notch flagship lager? Is it because it would highlight the poor quality of their other supposedly ‘premium’ products?

→ Er, that’s it. No ‘longreads’ of note, and no Brew Britannia reviews to link to. Let’s hope everyone is writing something good for 30 August, eh?

Siren White IPA

Siren White IPA.

We weren’t sure what to expect from a beer with this name, but extreme pallor was, we thought, a given.

After a firm zip and hiss, it actually emerged from the bottle somewhere near amber, haze-free, with an immoveable, whipped-cream head.

Puzzled, we read the label again: it’s their ‘expression of a wit bier’ with IPA hopping, they say, but we think it’s actually an IPA with wit bier spices and citrus. That fine distinction made sense to us, anyway.

The (new concept klaxon!) far aroma — the one we could smell from a foot away — was of the candied pineapple, Del Monte tinned peaches variety, rather than at the weedy, piney end of the spectrum.

Getting closer — the near aroma – there was something mysterious to ponder over, barely perceptible but distinctly weird. Our first thought was swimming pool chlorine, then antiseptic, then… yes, that was it — the white rind of a  soft French cheese! So, ammonia, perhaps? That somehow fit into the Continental rustic farmhouse theme, and we found ourselves quite at ease with its occasional intrusion.

The beer tasted overwhelmingly orangey, in a sticky, Jaffa Cake fashion, but also somewhat salty, almost seaweedy, and had the texture of a vanilla mousse as it foamed on the tongue.

It tasted much bigger than its 4.5% ABV, though not at all ‘boozy’, with just enough complexity to keep the attention. It almost tasted wrong, but not quite, which is what we’d call a sweet spot. It was, in other words, tasty.

We’ve sometimes used the term ‘home brew’ as a pejorative when describing commercial beers, but we’re rethinking that: if a friend had brewed this, we’d congratulate them heartily.

Disclosure: we got this beer in a sample case sent to us by Eebria.

Coals to Newcastle?

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There has been an interesting reaction to the news that influential American brewery Stone are opening a brewery in Berlin.

‘Craft beer’ cheerleaders are whooping; cynics are… well, cynical.

Instinctively, it does seem arrogant (though ‘on brand’) to attempt to evangelise about beer in Germany, of all places.

But we can’t help thinking of the mid-19th century when Germans* were taking their newly-perfected and fashionable ‘lager beer’ around the world, investing in breweries everywhere from Budapest to Boston.

Stone aren’t doing anything Anton Dreher wouldn’t, are they?

German was then a ‘concept’ rather than a nationality, and included Austria.

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007