A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

Mild in Manchester

It turns out to be difficult to stumble upon cask mild in Manchester these days — you need a few clues as to where to look.

We have a theory that we’ve been testing for a few years now that there’s a sort of corridor running from the Midlands to Manchester where you can expect any halfway decent pub to have some kind of mild on offer, even if it’s only keg. (Keg mild can be quite decent, but it’s distinctly different.) When we’ve floated this thought before people have pointed out that it might extend down as far as Cambridge and up to Leeds, so something like this:

Mild map of England
Adapted from images at Wikipedia.

We’re not interested in pubs that sometimes have a guest mild, or left-field interpretations of mild. In fact, we’re sceptical of many micro-brewery milds which, through misunderstandings over how the style evolved, are too often really baby stouts. No, what we’re intrigued by is the idea that there are still pockets of the country where you could, if sufficiently perverse, be a Mild Drinker, day in day out, in roughly the same style as your parents or grandparents before you.

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DETAILS: Performance Enhancers

Item: the pills they sell in pub toilets that definitely aren’t Viagra.

The other week in Munich with friends I mentioned how funny I found the various ‘blue pills’ they sell in gents toilets alongside condoms and other useful items such as a novelty penises that expand when you put them in water. The women in the group were astonished by this revelation, as was Boak when I mentioned it to her the other day.

So, because this leads me to believe other people may not know about this either, here’s an example:

Solid Gold vending machine in a pub toilet.This one is unusual in that it doesn’t have ‘blue’ in its name but otherwise the characteristics are typical:

  1. A vague suggestion of potency (extra strong) without any indication of what the active ingredient might be, if any. A quick search online suggests these ones are ‘herbal’ which leads me to conclude that you might as well eat a vegetable stock cube.
  2. Some iconography of ‘adultness’ — in this case, a simple nod to the BBFC’s 18 certificate logo, although it’s often an elaborate illustration of a ghostly blue naked woman.
  3. And a word that hints at what it is supposed to do to your physique without being open to challenge under Trade Descriptions — solid, if you catch my drift, nudge nudge, know what I mean?

Who buys these? The condoms I can understand but non-specific pills that might do… something? Then again, perhaps someone gullible enough to spend their cash on ‘medicine’ in a pub bog is also highly susceptible to the placebo effect.

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.

A Landlady Complains

Illustration: moody London pub.

What a nice pub, I say. Authentic, cosy and characterful, full of little quirks. ‘Ha!’ says the landlady, bitterly. ‘It’s a dump.’

The sloping bar top is hilarious: if you put your glass anywhere but on a drip mat it drifts towards the precipice. A customer makes a dive to save his lager, catching it just in time, and everyone laughs, except the landlady.

‘We lose a few pints that way,’ she says. ‘We’ve asked time and time again for it to be fixed but, no, they don’t care about us — we’re only tenants. If this was a managed house they’d be all over it, but not us.’ She prods the floor behind the bar with her toe, steps with theatrical care over a gap in the floor I can’t see. ‘This is all rotten. They want us to spend our own money on it. Well, you can forget that.’

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