Pub Preservation: The Railway Hotel, Edgware

Railway Hotel in the rain.
‘Railway Hotel Unloved’ by Matt Brown, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

We don’t usually get involved in campaigns or promote petitions but this one struck a particular chord with us.

It was set up by Mark Amies (@superfast72) who blogs about history and architecture and has a particular interest in inter-war pubs in the Greater London area. His piece on The Comet, Hatfield, is a particular favourite of ours.

The Railway Hotel in Edgware, North London, the subject of his petition, is another pub from the same period, so few of which are left that the remaining examples have become precious.

It’s a pub we know quite well even though we didn’t make it there on our tour of outer London’s inter-war pubs earlier in the year. It is mentioned in passing in Basil Oliver’s essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House as a notable example of the kind of ‘imposing inn… quasi timber-framed’ that Truman, Hanbury & Buxton were building at the time. Now, Mark says:

It closed in the early 2000’s and has remained boarded up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a portion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been prosecuted for this to our knowledge. The Railway Hotel has has several owners since last year.

These situations can be turned around. A couple of weeks back we visited The Fellowship Inn, a similar premises in South London, which having been listed is now the focus of a well-funded project which promises not only to restore the building architecturally but also to bring it back to life, giving over the pub to experienced chain operators, installing a microbrewery, and turning the derelict dance hall into a cinema.

Watch the 1989 Beer Hunter TV Series at Leeds Beer Week

Michael Jackson’s influential TV series about beer isn’t available commercially in the UK but several episodes are going to be shown next week in his native Yorkshire.

It’s being shown as part of Leeds Beer Week which runs from Sunday 28 August to Tuesday 6 September. We saw a Tweet about the Beer Hunter episodes from Sam Congdon (@greenarmysam) and asked him for a bit of background. Here’s what he sent us with a couple of small edits:

Like many others, I watched the Beer Hunter series when it was freely available on YouTube or Vimeo, with Dutch subtitles, about six years ago, and I loved it. It fitted in perfectly with where I was on my ‘beer journey’, after moving to Leeds from Plymouth and finding North Bar. I think I found it online after watching all the available Zak Avery video blogs about classic beers.

It’s probably best I don’t go into where I finally sourced copies of the six Beer Hunter episodes, but since then I can’t fault Channel Four for being so open and willing to let us use these episodes for the events. I needed the expertise of the Leeds Bicycle Film Club (who put on cinema events at The Reliance) to contact the right people and ask the right questions but all Channel Four want is a credit for them and the production company (Hawkshead Ltd) to be visible at the events.

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(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919

1914 Punch cartoon of a village pub.

Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?

The Chelmsford Chronicle for 25 December 1914 carried the following story under a headline which gives us another term to throw into the jargon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.

One result of the additional tax of one penny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cottage brewing several Essex villages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct authority that the increase should be carried to the consumer by an extra halfpenny per glass, one penny per pint, on beer sold in licensed houses. This tax has incidentally led a notable return to the custom which prevailed in many Essex villages half a century ago of cottagers brewing their own beer. By law a cottager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the genuine rural cottages are assessed at about half that figure — can brew beer for his own consumption without paying any duty… In a town like Braintree, for instance, home brewing is practically unknown, but the country there has been just enough brewing at cottages or farms to keep the industry alive. So far the impetus to cottage brewing has been chiefly observed in villages Shalford and Stisted, where there are now several brews of Essex ale maturing for Christmas!

The article goes on to quote a local expert:

I have actually seen the brews being made in one place, and ascertained that there are eight cottagers waiting to use one copper which is supposed to make exceptionally good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-looking as good brewery beer, for the art of brewing has reached high perfection. The cottage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and brightness of a nice bottled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and contains what the farm labourers call ‘plenty of bite.’

Cottage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds familiar. He goes on:

The arrangements prevailing in Essex villages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cottager to purchase malt, and hops, then to pay an experienced man in the Village 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, generally a hogshead.

That’s a fascinating arrangement — like the shared oven model for bread-making — but not quite what we’d recognise as microbrewing, i.e. a newly established small brewery producing beer for sale to the general public. A few years later, however, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeated much the same story of East Anglian cottage brewing but with an added twist. Citing an original article in the Evening Standard that we haven’t been able to track down, they reported that one social club in the London suburbs had been inspired by the home-brewing craze to consider applying for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-crafted, artisanal products. (Our words, not theirs.)

As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brewers weren’t happy and they tended to get their way, up to a point) but what would have happened if 1919 had seen the first new commercial ‘cottage brewery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?

UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016

This newspaper report is a garbled account of the founding of the famous clubs breweries, isn’t it? The connection with East Anglian homebrewing is spurious.

Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers

Efforts to boost the pub trade often focus on nagging those who already go to go more often, and to more pubs, and drink more while they’re there. This seems misguided to us.

We go to the pub several times a week — more often than most of our friends and family — but sometimes feel under pressure from the collective weight of pub campaigners, messages from the trade, and fellow enthusiasts, to pull a bit more weight. Don’t ask us for specific examples — this is just a sense we’ve picked up over several years drifting about in the conversation.

But we reckon the saving of the pub (if it needs saving — an entirely different conversation) is in making it a normal part of everyday life for more and different people. We have plenty of acquaintances who used to go to the pub, who have a good time at the pub when they do, but just… don’t.

Why not?

Continue reading “Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers”

Magical Mystery Pour #13: Loverbeer Beerbera

The last of five beers chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is a wood-aged brown ale made with 20 per cent grape juice and an 8% ABV.

It’s another expensive one, this: we paid £13.50 for a single 375ml bottle from Beer Gonzo. It’s a very pretty bit of packaging — a rather Belgian-looking naive pencil sketch on the label and blue foil around the cap, all of which maybe explains 15p of the total cost. The rest, we assume, is made up of the unofficial artisan tax (a levy to cover the pursuit of hopes and dreams), import duty, and cuts for middle men at various points on the long road from Marentino.

Popping the cap triggered a low-key, consipiratorial ‘Psst!’ and released a waft of strawberry scent. There was some noisy fizzing as it went into the glass and a head of pink foam flowered but only for a second leaving us with something absolutely still and mirror-like.

When you have a flat brown-purple liquid in a stem glass it’s hard not to think of red wine. It was at this point we (bright sparks) noticed the lad on the label with his bunch of grapes and picked our way through the Italian text on the label. In Chapter 16 of Brew Britannia, ‘The Outer Limits’, we wrote about The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi, a ‘celebratory drink’ that defies categorisation as beer or cider; Beerbera would seem to be an overseas relative. We admit to being intrigued by this kind of thing which makes us wish we knew more about wine. (On which, purely for educational reasons, we can confirm baby steps are being taken.)

Detail from the label: a farmer holding a bunch of grapes.

We instinctively liked it from the first sip. All that mucking about could have resulted in something silly and gimmicky but, no, it is interesting and surprisingly balanced. (And that’s not code for bland.) There is some sourness from spontaneous fermentation but it’s quite tame compared to, say, Cantillon Kriek. The latter is a more interesting beer altogether but it’s no bad thing that Beerbera is similar but more accessible. (Price aside.)

We identified a big hit of vanilla, especially in the aftertaste, and something like cherry-flavoured cough drops (grape + acid?). We eventually settled on one headline social realist tasting note: those rhubarb and custard boiled sweets from a jar on the newsagent’s shelf. All good fun stuff. There’s a bit of funk there, too — just enough to make clear that this is a grown-up beer. And, despite the list of tuck shop flavours, it’s actually on the dry side.

Overall, it’s a hit, and one we’d probably drink again if we saw it going for a fiver or less. As it is, there are affordable Belgian beers, and indeed British ones, that do many of the same tricks without undertaking a cross-Continental road trip.

So, that’s our opinion, but let’s check in on the Beer Nut’s. He only has a brief note, from 2011:

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes.

That sounds like the same beer, doesn’t it?

That third round of Magical Mystery Pour has been great fun, if both budget-busting and challenging at times. It’s good to have finally taken some tentative steps into Italian beer and to have expanded our experience of the sour and/or funky. Thanks, John!

Next up, a batch of beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer and @beerdoodles).