Clubs, or working men’s clubs as they have historically been known, are all but invisible to many pub-goers but once you tune into them it can be like discovering a whole new town.
The best and snappiest history of the development of clubs can be found in Ruth Cherrington’s 2012 book Not Just Beer and Bingo (£3.49 for Kindle via Amazon):
Working men in the late 19th century wanted their own clubs and members of the upper class thought that these would be better places than pubs. Clubs fitted into the perspective of the rational recreation movement that aimed at halting a perceived moral decline in society…
After much debate, however, clubs did win the right to serve alcohol from the central organising committee and in the 20th century their character changed:
[If] the club bought in the beer, it could supply it to members without the need to make a profit, so prices could be lower than in the pubs. This gave clubs a reputation for providing subsidised drink. The downside of this was that clubs came to be viewed only in this light with their other services and features overlooked.
Clubs thrived as industry thrived, serving individual factories, local trades such as the railways, or particular political groups and parties — Liberal, Labour and Conservative clubs. With two world wars, several smaller ones and national service until 1963, clubs allied to individual branches of the armed services also became common.
Which brings us to 2017 and our recent efforts to visit clubs in and around Penzance which kicked off at our local, The Farmer’s Arms. We were sat in our usual place, at the corner in the back, when we noticed a bloke at the next table, with his partner and some friends, trying to get our attention.
‘Alright. Ever go to the Legion, do you? You should come down sometime.’
In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.
This story leapt out at us from the pages of a new acquisition for our library, Good Company: the story of Scottish & Newcastle, written by Berry Ritchie and published in 1999. As is the case with many brewery official histories the most interesting stuff isn’t the wigs and genealogy in the opening chapters, it’s the material on the post-WWII period. That’s because there were people around who remembered the events well but at the same time were no longer obliged to toe a corporate line because they were retired; and plenty of surviving paperwork, too. This passage, covering a vague period from around 1970 until the middle of the decade, seems remarkably frank:
Unfortunately, the popularity of Tartan turned out to be less than robust. Compared to English bitters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board member Tim] Lewis had appealed so successfully liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more traditional southern bitters. The big swallowers in the Midlands were never keen; Scottish & Newcastle’s salesmen made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large working-men’s clubs in and around Birmingham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.
Worse than that, falling sales resulted in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their contents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edinburgh, because that was where Customs and Excise checked they were were bad enough to warrant a refund of duty. If not, the rejected beer had to be reblended, which did nothing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tartan had to be recycled that it began to affect the reputation of the group’s premium beers.
Isn’t it amazing that this, which reads like CAMRA propaganda, is from a brewery sponsored publication? It’s funny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a standard criticism of cask ale, and mild in particular, when in fact the supposedly clean, space-age keg bitter was subject to just the same commercial pressures.
When people talk about the dangerous influence of ‘accountants’ on the quality of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’? They could presumably have just written off the duty payments and thrown the bad beer away. The decision to do otherwise seems remarkably short-termist but perhaps — very likely, in fact — at these volumes, on tight margins, the choice was between this or going immediately bust, or being taken over.
We’d like to think this kind of thing doesn’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet higher than the 1970s we wouldn’t be surprised to find some 21st Century variant in play.
Funnily enough, Ron Pattinson has just posted about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this periodwith reference to some archive paperwork. That makes us wonder if perhaps, rather than being mixed with itself, the comparatively light, bland Tartan was hidden in the folds of dark, even sweeter stout and brown ale where it would be harder to spot.
It’s also interesting, by the way, to see further confirmation of the idea that Midlands drinkers in particular were considered to have different tastes, as did young and older drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New England IPAs.
The ‘beer community’ is frequently celebrated as a special thing and one of the reasons this is a rewarding hobby to have, and a nice industry to work in. And that, broadly speaking, is right and true. But since switching back to bartending I’ve been struck more and more by the distinct — although obviously overlapping — nature of bar culture and the nice ways that a good one can have a community all of its own. The title here comes from an excellent Jim White song that gets stuck in my head whenever I’m pondering this and marvelling at the myriad ways that people use the bar to share little moments of celebration or of solidarity or anything in between, including weirdly heartwarming mundanity — and: beer.
(As always with Phil’s posts, the substantial footnotes are half the fun — almost material for a blog post each — so don’t skip them.)
In 1996, I was like a boy queuing for the fun house peeking through the canvas to glimpse the attractions within… I’d gone through the yellow pages to ring the Harrow in advance to confirm the opening times. It feels so weird writing this now. Two decades ago pubs didn’t have websites and even if they did, I had no mechanism to view them.
For Craft Beer & Brewing magazine Tom Wilmes has spoken to several US craft brewers about the difficulties that come with sudden adulation and consumer demand. Yes, yes, we know — tiny violins and all that — but this is a topic that interests us with, e.g., Kelham Island or Cloudwater in mind. This bit struck us as especially interesting:
All of Side Project’s beers are extremely limited releases that King himself has brewed, barrel-aged, and blended. Even if he brews larger batches and fills more barrels—which he has—many barrels just don’t perform and are discarded. Most are mixed-fermentation projects that take many months to reach fruition. He could scale up and hire more people to brew and package the beer, but all of Side Project’s beers are a product of King’s singular blending, palate, and perspective. What does he stand to lose if that changes?
The book is a pleasure to read, and the author travels to key places, historic and contemporary, in his quest for knowledge, and consults with a wide range of experts. The fact I’d finished the book on the kindle before the hard copy arrived is testament to how much I enjoyed reading it. If you haven’t yet got yourself a copy I can certainly recommend you do… And now I’ve got the praise out of the way I can start on the anal retentive OCB Wiki style commentary on where I think he went wrong, or more information is needed.
One Stoke Newington pub that has stubbornly refused to [change] is The Yucatan. When I first moved to the area it was my local in the literal sense, and it was with joy when I first walked through the doors to see Celtic memorabilia adorning every available space, including a window sticker of a young Celtic-supporting boy urinating on the jersey of our erstwhile rivals. It transpired that the pub’s manager was a Dubliner and, like me, a Celtic fan. I henceforth became a regular, with 12 pm kick-off times ensuring an extended stay. It was, and is, regarded as dodgy by some, but while it always had an ‘edge’ I always found it welcoming. It also remains the pub with the most ethnically diverse patronage I’ve ever drank in, a phenomenon more common to London’s working class pubs than its more salubrious venues.
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Glen Humphries’ ‘Five things about…’ is a great format for beer reviews. Here he tastes Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA and uses it as an opportunity to reflect on bottled-on and best-before dates.
And, finally, here’s a Tweet with which we strongly agree: these glasses are crap and an absolute danger sign as far as we’re concerned — we only ever seem to encounter them in pubs that think they all that when they ain’t.
A plea to pubs and bars everywhere – please cease and desist from using these glasses for beer, they are horrid! pic.twitter.com/CEg6A0XDJj
There have been a few times in the last year or so where we’ve seen a beer referred to as ‘hyped’ when we’ve literally only heard it mentioned once or twice.
Then the other day we saw someone complaining that a beer they liked had been ‘ignored’ and something seemed to click: is this all about a handful of prominent voices on social media?
The person we immediately thought of is Matt Curtis who has his own blog at Total Ales and also writes for Good Beer Hunting among other outlets. He was the first person we noticed mentioning Mills Brewing, for example, and literally within an hour or so of him doing so we saw someone complain that they were being hyped.
Two things bother us about this.
First, what’s Matt meant to do? Taste every beer in the UK and give each brewery equal airtime? He likes some beer more than other beer, some breweries more than others, and ought to be allowed to express a preference.
Then there’s the abdication of responsibility. As we’ve said several times now, don’t moan that no-one is blogging about a brewery you think is interesting — write about it yourself! If you don’t like how prominent a beer or brewery is, don’t contribute to that prominence by going on about it. And if you think a beer is being ignored, let people know about it.
Hype isn’t something you have to endure — it’s something you can create too.