News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.

Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:

In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.

For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…

Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground  — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.

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QUICK ONE: Turning Casuals into Regulars

Detail: a 1970s pub table.

If someone comes into your pub twice you’re missing a trick if you don’t say hello.

We were hanging out with Bailey’s parents recently when his mum told us this story about their pub-going in the 1970s:

The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’ Then a few months later she said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and gave Dad a pint glass with a euchre hand on it, and Grandpa a glass with cherries on, because he liked the fruit machines. We drank in there for years.

This seems like such a simple, effective, emotionally manipulative approach. If you see the same face twice, make a formal introduction, and then use those names at every opportunity. Then after, say, three months of regular custom ask if they’d like a loyalty card, or a glass behind the bar, or make some other small gesture — ‘That one’s on the house.’

Lock them into the relationship, like the free sandwich thing at Pret a Manger.

In practice, there are probably all sorts of reasons this doesn’t happen so often these days, not least the fact that it feels ever rarer to actually find the licensee behind the bar. We often ask (because we want permission to take photos or need to ask some questions for one Thing or another) ‘Is this your place, then?’ and we can’t think of many occasions when the answer has been anything other than, ‘No, I’m just the manager.’

In big chains, though, Creating Regulars could be built into staff objectives and the performance management programme… Aaaaaaaaand we’ve depressed ourselves.

Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.

Roll. noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.

They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.

Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.

This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.

And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.

No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.

Fictional book cover: The Ham Roll Pub Guide.
Not a real book from 1975.

In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.

But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.

Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.

Patreon and Other Encouragements

We’ve just launched a Patreon page so that you can support this blog in its second decade, if you want to.

Patreon is a service that makes it easy for those who enjoy art and media to encourage and financially contribute to those who make it.

The idea is that you make a recurring monthly payment of any amount you fancy. There are increasing rewards for different levels of support, e.g. a special ebook for those who sign up for $5 or more a month. There are also goals we commit to with each fund milestone.

You can read more about all that on the Patreon page itself along with responses to some frequently asked questions and feedback we’ve already received.

The main point is that it’s not compulsory and that the blog will continue as it is either way, except hopefully better. You can also cancel your support at any time — it’s not a huge commitment.

Thanks to those who have pledged already after hearing about this in our email newsletter — we really appreciate it.

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Detail from the cover of Gambrinus Waltz.

If you don’t fancy Patreon you can also contribute by buying our books: Brew Britannia is just going into a second edition (slightly smaller and cheaper, with corrections) and our new book, about pubs, should be available to pre-order soon.

If you buy our short ebook, Gambrinus Waltz, from Amazon we earn 70% of the £2.00 cover price and you get to read a book Martyn Cornell has called ‘excellent’. You don’t need a Kindle either — Amazon offers free apps for phones, tablets and desktop PCs. This is as close as you can get to buying us a half down the pub unless, er, you bump into us in a pub.

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Victorian clip art man: I Endorse Boak & Bailey.

And if even that’s a bit rich for your pocket there’s always the smallest unit of payment: shares and endorsements on social media. It’s costs nothing but is a big boost for our morale and helps us find new readers. We’re not asking you to spam anyone — just tell people about us if you think they’ll find the blog genuinely interesting. We’re easy to find as ‘boakandbailey’ on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram if you want to point people our way.

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If you’re a regular follower we hope you’ll trust us not to bloody go on about this — we’ll mention it every now and then in passing probably but otherwise this is it.

Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.