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:

Understanding New Turf

Cranes on the waterside in  Bristol.
Cranes along the waterside in central Bristol.

We’ve spent the last five days relocating from Penzance to Bristol, mostly stressed and exhausted, but with a bit of time to begin exploring the pubs in our neighbourhood.

What we’re going to do this time, having learned valuable lessons in Penzance, is going to every single one, at least once. Even the ‘shite hole full of clowns’, at some point.

One reason we didn’t do this in Walthamstow all those years ago was that Boak grew up there and so knew all the pubs, although we wonder with hindsight what we might have missed. Certainly when Bailey’s Dad dragged us into The Duke’s Head we found a pub less rough than received local wisdom had led us to expect.

So far, in our bit of Bristol, we’ve been to:

  • one micropub
  • two regional-brewery craft ale gastro lounges
  • a community pub [further information required]
  • a vast back-street inter-war improved pub with no real ale
  • a hipstery place with tapas and board games and
  • one that looks like a gastropub but feels like an estate pub.

And there are a few more to explore yet, although not much in the way of ‘classic pubs’ as far as we’ve noticed.

We don’t know yet which ones will end up as regular haunts but there’s only one we’ve really taken against (terrible beer, as much atmosphere as a Debenham’s cafe).

We’ll keep you posted, no doubt, especially on Twitter where the flow of pint-n-crisps photos will be the same but different, once we’ve got comfortable and don’t feel so anxious about soiling our own vestibule.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 July 2017: London Fields, St Ives, Anywhere

Here’s all the beer writing and news from the past seven days that’s grabbed our attention, from brewery takeovers to the (literal) essence of craft beer.

First, a bit of beer blogging admin: the British Guild of Beer Writers has launched its annual awards. If you’re a blogger, as opposed to a professional or semi-pro writer who happens to have a blog on the side, do consider entering in the Citizen Communicator category.

A sign points to London Fields Brewery.
‘Wall’ by Matt Gibson from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The big news of the week was that, having enigmatically trailed such a purchase a few months ago, Carlsberg has just acquired a UK craft brewery: the troubled, morally murky, unloved London Fields. We didn’t have time to produce anything substantial about this (just a Tweet) but if we had, we’d have written something much like this from Richard Taylor at the Beercast:

From their Hackney base… the Danes will have a London-centric brand to push across the country and beyond. And the fact that it has the city name in the brewery title is an added bonus… Looking at some of the tweets from beer industry people – particularly those based in London – was an almighty WTF moment. Of all the brands to acquire, why pick one with so little public recognition and so much industry resentment? The continual attitude and actions of the founders have blackened the name of London Fields within the beer community – but, as we’ve all seen since time began, the big lager boys don’t really care for that anyway. It’s the bottom line that matters, and in their eyes, picking up London Fields for even £4m is peanuts compared with what they would have to fork out for other alternatives.


The bar at Beer & Bird.

Those of you heading down to Cornwall on holiday this summer might find the latest post at Pints and Pubs useful: it’s an extremely comprehensive run down of the pubs of St Ives. It includes news of an interesting development in the form of a bar that has spun off from the town’s impressive specialist off-licence, John’s:

The most recent addition to the beer scene in St Ives, next door to the Castle Inn… It has easily the most extensive bottle and can list of any of the St Ives pubs, but also a decent selection of draught, with three cask and five keg when visited – we had good pints of Firebrand Equinot and Black Flag Simcoe Amarillo Pale.


Sign: "Traditional Real Ales".

Reflecting on the difference between Real Ale and Craft Beer as subcultures Pub Curmudgeon makes an interesting suggestion with reference to a wider division in post-Brexit Britain:

There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about ‘quality beer’, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

Those on the other side of the political and cultural divide from the Curmudgeon probably wouldn’t disagree with the idea but might spin it differently: ‘Real ale is inward and backward looking, while craft beer points forward and outward!’ At any rate, he might be on to something.


A portrait of Bim looking pensive.

Jordan St. John at St John’s Wort, one of the co-authors of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, paints a portrait of Luc ‘Bim’ Lafontaine, a revered Canadian brewer whose new venture is straining under the weight of expectation:

[People] talk about the brewery before the opening in messianic terms; as though Bim walked into town across Lake Ontario. At one end of the spectrum a local wag claims on twitter that the beer is terrible and two of the first three batches should have been drain poured. At the other end is a wine professional who proclaims the English style IPA the best he has ever had. On both ends is the response to the expectation that Godspeed will somehow redeem the Toronto beer scene, as if it needed it… Bim has been trying not to look at the reviews although they filter in. There are some concerns about the pricing. $3.75 a can for 355ml seems high to the public… The other gripe is about the styles of beer being brewed. There are people reviewing it who are willing to dismiss a third of the nascent brewery’s production because there is a Dortmunder Lager involved. I know through the rumour mill that Bim has spent much of the last two years drinking Spaten Munich Helles.


Finally, the Beer Nut highlights the existence of Essence of Craft: