News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 July 2017: Quality, Icebergs, Cheesecloth

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that’s caught our eye in the last week, from beer quality to iceberg water.

A debate about beer quality has flared up in New Zealand prompted by this piece by veteran beer writer Geoff Griggs in which he suggests there is too much faulty self-proclaimed craft beer on the market. It’s an interesting piece in its own right — ‘People aren’t looking for quality beer, as long as it isn’t s…, and you have super sweet packaging and an even better story you will sell heaps.’ — but this response from Jason Gurney at Brewhui is arguably more so. In it, while suggesting that Griggs is wrong to have made such a sweeping statement at this stage, he proposes some concrete, constructive actions for improving beer quality overall, e.g.

We need to facilitate an audit system regarding brewing, packaging and distribution models. If a brewery is having an issue with beer quality, then it’s feasible that this issue is caused by a systematic problem with the way they are brewing, packaging, and/or distributing their beer.  There’s nothing like documenting each step of your process for identifying where things can be done better – and as such, the Brewer’s Guild need to facilitate an audit system that is easy to access and actually valuable from the perspective of the brewery.  I would suggest that international, independent advisors could again be useful here – but it’s also possible that a national peer-review system could be effective too.  It really depends on how much we truly believe in the collegiality of the brewing community.

That’s an interesting idea, as are the others — but which body could administer something like this in the UK? Surely not the currently under fire SIBA.


A London pub glimpsed up an alleyway.

After the slightly controversial inclusion of Marina O’Loughlin’s ‘I don’t like pubs’ piece last week, here’s another, by Jessica Brown for Longreads, which reaches a similar conclusion, but via a more positive, thoughtful, literally meandering route:

I wondered if the Britons’ third place could be pubs… The pub seems to be a perfect fit; at least, it does when you’re looking through the lens of nostalgia, as one can easily do when under the alien skyscrapers and mystical spell of the city… But recently there’s been a decline in the number of pubs, and the ones that remain are struggling to survive. Partly to blame is a shift from the traditional community pub of locals to strangers’ cocktail bars and pop-ups — a new kind of plague on the city.


Josh Noel writes about beer for the Chicago Tribune and is trying out a new format: a simple report of a crawl around a single neighbourhood in one evening. His first ramble was around Pilsen which sounds fascinating:

As recently as nine months ago, Pilsen had no taprooms or brewpubs. In the midst of a food and drink uprising — some call it gentrification — Pilsen, a home to Mexican immigration since the 1950s, suddenly has three.


Quidi Vidi Brewing, Newfoundland.

Rebecca Pate, a Canadian based in the UK, made a visit home recently and reports on a troubled Newfoundland brewery that uses an unusual ingredient in its flagship beer:

The brewery has an iceberg harvester contracted to extract iceberg water, a dangerous process involving cranes and grappling hooks. An unfortunate effect of climate change means that Iceberg Alley, a colloquial term used for the ecozone that stretches from Greenland to Newfoundland, is replete with icebergs traversing the waters. Some have been visible from St John’s harbour, according to the locals.


Beer being poured through a cheesecloth.

Patrick Dawson, who literally wrote the book on ageing beer, recounts his experience of drinking Victorian beers from crusted bottles for Craft Beer & Brewing:

The beer had to be poured through a piece of cheesecloth to strain out crumbled bits of ancient cork. After 15 minutes and four different corkscrews, it became apparent that holding back 10 percent ABV beer for more than 145 years had been too much for the aged stopper. This bottle of the vaunted Ratcliff Ale, a barleywine brewed by Bass in 1869, just four short years after the end of the American Civil War, must have had an Encino Man-moment being poured out into this radically changed world.


And, finally, pub photo of the week must surely be this piece of misty, mournful romanticism from 1960 (via @JamesBSumner):

Pub Perfume

The corner of a pub lounge in Chester.

The recent tenth anniversary of the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs prompted quite a few comments like this one:

It’s funny how rarely the smell of pubs is discussed when it’s such an important part of the sensory experience, and capable of conveying so much. One of our favourite ever quotes is this from an essay by Adrian Bailey for Len Deighton’s 1967 London Dossier:

“Before opening time there is a virgin aroma of freshness, an inimitable pub-perfume mixture of hops and malt, spirits and polish with perhaps a faint touch of violet-scented air-freshener. This is my boyhood nostalgia. Spilt ale, dried and sugar-sticky.”

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few distinct ‘pub perfumes’.

There’s the spore-laden waft of cold air from the cellar for example that, at the right dosage, seems to enhance the atmosphere; but, in excess, can be nauseating, suggesting damp and decay. Similarly, there’s the tang of stale beer soaked into old carpets that a certain type of down-to-earth old-school pub wears proudly, like a 1970s aftershave.

There are a couple of pubs we can think of whose toilets are an intrusive presence, however many equally intrusive air fresheners are deployed, accompanied by meandering and thirsty fruit flies. This is never appealing.

One of the most pleasant smells in a pub is that of an open fire — rustic and homely, a link to the past.

Sometimes the customers contribute to the aroma with too much in the way of toiletries, or too little — a particular problem in the crush at the bar. Increasingly, vapers add unsubtle but not always unpleasant layers of cinnamon, vanilla, apple and so on.

But, generally, most pubs these days smell almost neutral (deliberately perfuming pubs is frowned upon even as scented candles take over the world) thanks to rigorous cleaning regimes and fans designed to suck away the pong of the deep fat fryer. That’s probably better on the whole but, as is often the case, consistency can sweep away character along with the problems it was sent to fix.

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBeardedOne who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 July 2017: Crowdfunding & Flat Roofed Pubs

Here’s everything on the subject of beer and pubs that’s grabbed our attention in the last seven days from crowdfunding to flat-roofed pubs.

First, with his industry analyst hat on, Martyn Cornell has given some thought to the question of crowd-funding in British brewing, asking bluntly: ‘Is that money down the drain?’

A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors… But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”.


'Women Drinking Bocks', 1878.
‘Women Drinking Bocks’, 1878.

We’re not sure these days that daft attempts to market beer at women don’t particularly need to be Taken Down — they’re usually so inept they crash themselves — but Suzy Aldridge’s rant on the subject, prompted by the latest effort in the genre, is great fun:

I don’t want some bloody pilsner in champagne bottle that looks like a bottle of bubble bath that you got from your great aunt for Christmas. I don’t want “a representation of a woman’s strength and a girl’s tenderness”, I want a pint. A girl shouldn’t be fucking drinking beer anyway, give her a J20 and introduce her to a nice porter on her 18th birthday.


Lounge bar: carpets, leather banquettes.

Restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin is one of the headline acts for the launch of Eater London (of mince on toast fame) and she has confession to make: ‘I don’t like pubs.’

I don’t like beer. I particularly don’t like warm beer. It was a suffocatingly hot day, and the idea of lurking inside a dark, whiffy-carpeted room — or worse still, outside on grimy, fume-clogged London pavement with the smoking fraternity, zero by way of shady umbrellas, on cheap metal furniture searing scorch marks onto my thighs — did not appeal. They don’t do decent wines (well, hello, mass-produced pinot grigio) or cocktails properly. Even an acceptable gin and tonic (quality ingredients, big glass, generous wedge of lemon or lime, plenty of good ice — yes, there’s bad ice out there) seems beyond most of them. And don’t speak to me about the food: the miasma of elderly fish ‘n’ chips that seeps out of that carpet, the pies, the bloody roast dinners.

It’s a reminder (like Victoria Coren’s similar piece from earlier this year) that the pub isn’t beyond criticism, or universally appealing, and, as O’Loughlin concludes, that’s fine.


The Willow, a flat-roofed pub in Harlow.

Grumble moan mutter… In an excellent article for the Guardian Karl Whitney reflects on the disappearance of the post-war flat-roofed estate pub. We’re grumbling, of course, because this is the subject of one of the chapters of our new book and his piece not only makes some of the same points but also quotes some of the same people:

In his blog Manchester Estate Pubs, [Stephen] Marland photographs pubs just like the Gamecock. He thinks pubs “are almost a barometer of community and how a community is doing. If a pub’s doing well, then the community’s doing well.”… He feels the demise of estate pubs is due to factors including changes in patterns of leisure activity, the rise of supermarkets as a source of cheap alcohol, and the increasing real estate value of their sites – it’s more economically viable to build apartments on a pub site than to keep it going as a business, or even a community resource. He believes councils in Greater Manchester are buying up pub sites for future redevelopment, leaving “whole deserts of publessness” in certain neighbourhoods.


A Gibbs Mew pub.
‘Gibbs Mew: The Albion Hotel’ by 70023venus2009 from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Benjamin Nunn‘s ongoing project to record his memories of only relatively recently lost breweries continues with this entry on Gibbs Mew of Salisbury:

It’s hard to believe, given the relative ease with which we can enjoy 8-10%+ DIPAs and Imperial Stouts these days, but there was a time, specifically the time when I started drinking, when almost all beer was in the 3.7-4.6% ABV range… And that’s one of the reasons Gibbs Mew… stood out among the regional breweries of their day. Their flagship beer, Bishop’s Tipple, weighed in at 6.5%. And that, in them days, was a fairly big deal.


Sierra Nevada have disappointed the Beer Nut by giving into the 21st century fad for bunging fruit in IPAs:

I honestly don’t know why anyone thought beery perfection like Torpedo needed tweaked but here we are… Sierra Nevada would be better sticking to humulus lupulus as the centre of their pale ales. Nobody will remember these beers when the fruit IPA craze has come to a merciful conclusion.


And finally, some odd bits of news, for the record as much as anything: