News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 February 2017: Mackeson, Market Towns, Mainspring

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pub writing in the last week, from Mackeson to market towns.

Mackeson beer mat detail.

Some of the home brew recipes posted by Ron Pattinson and Kristen England are bigger names than others and this dissection of 1965 Mackeson Stout is essential reading for anyone with an interest in British brewing history or, indeed, a more practical need to understand a neglected style.


Crafty's Bottle Shop and Micropub.Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer finds an interesting angle, as always, on the proliferation of beer shops in home counties market towns, and especially in and around his native Hertfordshire and neighbouring Buckinghamshire:

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 February 2017: Pretzels, Craft and Care Bears

Here’s everything on the subject of beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the last week, along with a couple of more tangential items that nonetheless shine a light.

Reuben Gray has been considering the health of RateBeer from an Irish perspective and concludes that it might be looking a touch peaky:

Galway Bay’s Of Foam and Fury has 121 reviews at the moment on Ratebeer. It’s the highest rated Irish beer on the platform. That wouldn’t be too bad except the same beer on Untappd has a whopping 2,726 Ratings at the time of writing this. An interesting thing to point out is that this beer is number two on Untappd for Ireland with GBB’s 200 Fathoms beating it to first place whereas on Ratebeer, 200 Fathoms gets spot number two.


Pretzels painted on a wall in Luebeck, Germany.

Not exactly about beeer: Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin has written a long reflection on the subject of pretzels, a snack closely associated with beer in Germany and the US, with lots of historical information. The best bits are his personal reminiscences, though:

One of my favorite memories as a child was being in downtown Reading with my stepfather. He took me down a side street, almost an alley, and I could smell baking pretzels. I think it may have been Unique Pretzels, which was Dad’s favorite brand, but I’m not sure. At any rate, it was a stone building, and my Dad went inside, while I peered in from the sidewalk, and could see the stone oven inside, with workers there using a large flat paddle to pull out freshly baked pretzels from it. Soon after, my father reappeared outside, handing me a hot, crunchy pretzel straight from that oven. Although I’m sure I’ve romanticized it over the years, that must have been the best-tasting pretzel I’ve ever had.


Illustration: 'Hand Crafted' painted on wood.

Also not about beer: for Architectural Review Catharine Rossi writes about the resurgence of interest in ‘craft’ in recent years. It’s full of light-bulb lines and ideas:

With its ethical associations of authenticity and trusted provenance, and its offer of a hands-on engagement in a hands-off economy, craft offers a tangible moral compass in uncertain times. Making craft or buying goods from craftspeople enables a meaningful relationship with the material world… As the sociologist Sennett argued in The Craftsman (2008): ‘craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’

(You can view three articles on the AR site free per month so click carefully and maybe save it to Pocket or a similar reader app if you use one.)


Del Monte, Cloudwater, Um Bongo.

Alec Latham continues to find interesting angles from which to approach beer. This week, he tasted a tropical-fruity double IPA from Cloudwater alongside (a) the syrup from a tin of Del Monte fruit salad and (b) a carton of Um-Bongo fruit drink. It’s sort of a joke, but also not:

In a glass [the Del Monte syrup] actually looks attractive. There’s a gleam to the liquid – almost a sparkle – a bit like pearls. Some tiny suspended fruit particles also put me in mind of things trapped in amber… On the nose it’s horrible. It’s like a Care Bear’s fart or one of those odd “fruit” scented rubbers we used to have at primary school (by rubber I mean eraser – the school wasn’t THAT bad). I go back to inhale from the DIPA and by comparison, the beer now has a mustard aroma.


Close-up of the CAMRA logo from the 1984 Good Beer Guide.

From Ed at Ed’s Beer Blog we get a bit of what amounts to gossip about the CAMRA Revitalisation project:

[The] national executive seem to have had kittens when they saw the project’s recommendations. OK, that wasn’t exactly how it was put but CAMRA Kremlinologists can draw conclusions from the fact that the current national executive decided to delay any decisions until 2018, and three of the Revitalisation committee have decided to stand for election to the national executive.


The Old Packhorse, Chiswick.
The Old Packhorse which has a Thai restaurant in the back room.

Here’s one from a couple of weeks back that we missed out of last week’s round-up: why on earth do so many British pubs serve Thai food? For Lucky Peach Catherine Lamb tells the story:

Gerry began managing The Churchill Arms thirty-two years ago. During his first two years as manager, the pub served British classics at lunch and meat-and-potatoes dishes at night. One day a Thai chef named Ben (yes, Ben has a longer Thai name, which Gerry can’t remember and still can’t pronounce) walked in with a proposal: he wanted to take over the Churchill’s kitchen and cook Thai food… Gerry began receiving calls from other pub owners asking him for his secret—and Gerry, who loves a good story, told them everything.

(Via @Will_Hawkes.)


And, finally, Charlie Worthington, AKA ‘The Crafty Beeress’, is reporting on her West Country roadtrip starting with this account of drinking in Bath — one to bookmark if you’re planning to go that way anytime soon.

Magical Mystery Pour #22: Brixton Megawatt Double IPA

This is another beer chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East. It’s an 8% ABV double IPA from Brixton, South London, which we got for £3.09 per 330ml via the Honest Brew online store.

Rebecca says:

Another high ABV beer, yes, but I was slow to discover Brixton Brewery and this was something I rectified in 2016. All of their core beers are intensely drinkable, but this is an annual release of their DIPA and it’s packed with some great flavours from both Northern and Southern hops, including three unfamiliar to me: Rakau, Mosaic, Azacca and Falconers Flight. I got to try the 2016 version in December at a bar only a minute’s walk from the brewery. In fact, I also happened to be there on the day that they showed up with the keg and was told to watch out for the neon orange keg badge when it was on… I love Brixton Brewery and this nice release is well-balanced and very palatable number. It’s the biggest ABV beer they do and it goes down in a flash.

Every now and then, not very often, our palates get out of sync — you say hints of tomato, I say notes of potato, let’s call the whole thing off, and so on. With this beer we both tasted more or less the same things but in terms of overall likeability it fell into no-man’s-land.

Brixton Megawatt DIPA in the glass.

Popping the cap released a burst of fruit aroma, as if someone had stamped on a tangerine, with a gentle ‘Tsk!’ Some beers won’t be controlled on pouring but this one was highly malleable, providing more or less foam depending on the angle and height of the pour — you know, like a proper beer. We ended up with an unmoving head of just-off-white over a clear body of orange-highlighted brown — a 2009 model DIPA rather than the hazy yellow generally preferred in 2017, then.

Noses in, there was hot apricot jam and, appropriately, but disconcertingly, a suggestion of toasted brown bread.

The flavour is intense, we both agreed on that — there really is a lot going on. It’s rather jumbled and muddy, an odd combination of peach and chocolate. It’s fairly well dried-out and light-bodied, but also fiercely bitter. And then a different kind of bitterness — the savoury burnt dinner sort — lands on top of that. Plus, finally, there’s some hot booziness.

Boak: ‘That’s really very decent. Almost rough but not quite. Characterful. I like it.’

Bailey: ‘Hmm. I’m not keen. It tastes like dodgy home-brew to me. I’m confused by all these dark beer flavours in a double IPA.’

We concluded, based on this beer and a couple of others we’ve tried from the same brewery, that Brixton isn’t one of those outfits aspiring for slick and clean so much as funky and textured. Not everyone will like what they do, which is great — we want more breweries that not everyone likes — but probably explains why they attract less buzz than some of their peers in London. If you like your beer impolite and punkish, give it a try. If you insist on a high polish, walk on by.

Q&A: Why Are Cask Ends Painted Red?

The Brewers' Company Cask.

Q: ‘Why do wooden beer casks have red paint on the rims?’ The Beer Nut

Having been asked this question more than a year ago we got a nudge earlier today when Barry Masterson issued the same query, with a supplementary question: Is it a special type of paint?

Ideally, we’d have liked to find a whole string of historical texts setting out how this came to be, but… Didn’t. Like many of the more functional aspects of brewery life, it seems to have gone largely undocumented, at least in readily available print sources. There is, however, this nice bit from Alfred Barnard’s 1889 book The Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland in which he describes the purpose of the painted cask-ends at Guinness in Dublin:

The heads of the casks containing single stout are painted with a rim of white, double and foreign stout, red, and export, yellow.

In other words, in this one case at least, it was a pragmatic approach to dealing with the challenges of moving and storing large amounts of different types of beer.

We decided, in lieu of contemporary evidence, that the quickest way to get to some sort of satisfactory answer was to email Alastair Simms (@AlastairSimms), Britain’s last master cooper, at the White Rose Cooperage. He told us (with some small edits for clarity):

The cask ends are painted to seal the end grain of the staves. When everybody was using wood, the ends of the casks were painted in the brewery colours. After the decline in wood, the most popular colour was red, so by default most casks ended up being painted that colour. Originally, the paint used was a special formula devised to dry quickly so a cask could be painted at both ends in an hour. Now we use acrylic paint.

Until we come across any historic material to contradict it that strikes us as a pretty good answer. Thanks, Alastair! And just to prove Alastair’s point that red is merely a matter of taste and tradition, here’s a cask of Wild Beer Co Shnoodlepip painted grey!

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

And, as far as we know, no-one died as a result.

Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

The recent decision by Thornbridge to move their packaged beers from 500ml to 330ml has rubbed some people up the wrong way — are they pulling a fast one?

A particularly vocal complainant is Mark Dexter who used to blog at The Bottled Beer Year but who is nowadays busy being a successful actor, notably playing Prime Minister David Cameron in Coalition on Channel 4 a couple of years back. Yesterday, he repeated his objection to the switch to 330ml bottles:

For our part, we do find the indiscriminate switch to 330ml across the whole range a bit baffling — some Thornbridge beers at low ABV clearly suit drinking by the (near) pint — but actually rather welcomed it for the stronger stuff. Half a litre of Halcyon imperial IPA at 7.4% ABV? Too much. (Although we do at least have the option of splitting it between us.) The same goes for Jaipur too, probably, although we realise that makes us seem a bit pathetic what with it being a mere 5.9%.

Our gut feeling is that, for a lot of British drinkers, the point at which a pint becomes too much is somewhere around 5%. These days, that probably just translates to choosing a different beer, but we used to have a tradition in the UK of nip bottles (less than half a pint) for stronger, special beers such as Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. Thornbridge and others who package at 330ml clearly believe, or hope, that drinkers can be convinced to buy stronger or otherwise ‘bigger’ beers if they don’t have to drink quite so much in one sitting.

So, in itself, the packaging change makes some sense.

But here’s the real nub of Mark’s objection: are they using the opaqueness introduced by the switchover to screw over consumers, as retailers were accused of doing back at the time of decimalisation?

First, we wondered whether the price rise people noticed with the switch to 330ml bottles might have happened anyway. This is far from scientific — we just grabbed info from Twitter and newspaper articles — but it does seem that the price-per-litre of Thornbridge Jaipur at Waitrose has been on the climb fairly steadily since 2012, going up by about 6 per cent each time. With the switch to 330ml, though, the increase was sharper at about 15 per cent, even though the absolute price of a bottle dipped back under £2. So, some sort of price rise was probably due, but the numbers certainly do seem fishy.

Then a good follow-up question seemed to be this: What kind of price increase have we seen on beers whose packaging hasn’t changed in the same period? Perhaps Thornbridge/Waitrose are merely following wider trends and the packaging size-change is a red herring.

Well, no. Oakham Citra, BrewDog Punk and St Austell Proper Job — similarly hop-focused beers from independent UK breweries — have all got cheaper at Waitrose since 2012.

So it seems Mark is right: Thornbridge is making a concerted effort to drag itself into the premium bracket and avoid the bulk-discount tendency, and the packaging change was a good opportunity to conceal the gear shift.

Even so, this is all just part of an ever-more crowded, complex UK market neatly segmenting itself. Jaipur is a great beer, sure, but these days it’s far from the only beer like that on the market, and plenty of those IPAs are still in 500ml bottles, for now at least. And we do after all live in an age of incredible transparency where packaging size conceals nothing with price-per-litre displayed right there on the supermarket shelf, and in the online shopping basket:

Waitrose screen display for Meantime IPA.

What could Thornbridge have done differently here? They could have stated outright that the price rise was to pay for investment in the brewery (have they said that somewhere?) and/or introduced the increase at a different time from the packaging change. But, seriously, are there many companies that self-flagellatingly honest?

Meanwhile, Mark and others — check Twitter, there are lots of others! — may stop buying Thornbridge in protest, but we suspect the brewery won’t much care. After all, it doesn’t seem as if they have trouble shifting every drop of what they brew, whatever they charge for it.