Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?

‘How come the cask hand-pump system didn’t develop in mainland Europe? Or am I missing something?’ Jordan (@timelytipple), Berlin

Instinctively, we thought, yes, Jordan’s right — you don’t go into a bar or the local equivalent of a pub in France, Belgium, Germany or points east and see someone pulling on a handle to draw beer from a cask into the glass. In Cologne and Düsseldorf you might see a cask on a counter with a trickle-tap on its side, or a grand and gleaming keg font, but not this:

Gaskell and Chambers beer engine.
SOURCE: Advertisement in the Licensed Victuallers’ Yearbook, 1937.

But then we paused — was this always the case or are we, and Jordan, making the mistake of assuming that how it is now is how it’s always been?

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Brewhouse Death Trip

With apologies to Michael Lesy and James Marsh and a respectful nod towards the long-running ‘Strange Deaths’ column in Fortean Times, we present a macabre compilation of ways that breweries can kill you.

We have been collecting these stories as we’ve come across them for a couple of years now, and one has previously featured on the blog. All are sad, many are truly grim, and if you are prone to squeamishness or shaken by suicide or industrial injuries, you’ll want to stop reading now.

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Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

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Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavistock last week we picked up a tatty copy of Exmoor Village, a 1947 book by W.J. Turner ‘based on factual information from Mass Observation’. It features a chapter on pubs and socialising called ‘Gardens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glorious detail on beer and boozers were shattered with the opening line:

There is no inn in Luccombe [in Somerset], nor anywhere on the Acland Estate. The nearest is at Wootton Courtney. There is virtually no social centre in Luccombe beyond the doorstep and the village street.

Some of the men in the village, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in nearby Wootton or Porlock ‘on Saturday or Sunday — seldom both’:

Mr Gould remembers brown ale at threepence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Wootton. To-day, on an old-age pension, his visits are rare. His son is a teetotaller, and Bill Tame is another… Although Somerset is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Partridge is the only Luccombe person who has it. Another farmer, Mr Staddon, prefers beer.

The true Mass Observation touch, more literary than objective in tone despite its scientific pretensions, comes through in a description of the men at their usual haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Wootton Courtney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The public bar like most country bars is small, with two tables, two benches, and not enough chairs… A visitor at about seven o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, looking tired and weather-beaten, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luccombe, sitting in a chair by the window; a man of forty-five not from Luccombe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, standing leaning on his cane. Talk centres on horses. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and conversation round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoniest one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in question is the Dunkery Beacon Hotel which fits the description — ‘a white building with a verandah’ — but it doesn’t seem likely the bar is still there in anything like its original form. The walk from Luccombe to Wootton Courtney (or Courtenay) is about 45 minutes according to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bailey recalls hearing people in Somerset genuinely, un-ironically saying ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger people had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Porlock, the threat of invasion, German airmen and the Home Guard, chocolate rationing and other then hot topics. (The observations on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Americans turn up (GIs, presumably) they dominate the conversation with talk of farming back home.

If the men were only occasional pub-goers, the women of Luccombe hardly ever went, and the young men of the village aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and wasn’t a frequent drinker because he couldn’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clearly in various bits of post-WWII writing on pubs — the idea that men were abandoning the pub not because it was bad but because home, family, gardens and allotments had become so pleasant.

If you’re interested in country life more generally, Somerset in particular, or Mass Observation (this project was controversial), then this book is worth getting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white photos by John Hinde are also lovely to look at, as are the charmingly period charts and illustrations. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Amazon lists a couple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book showing distances from Luccombe to key amenities.

Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting

One of the weirdest, grimmest things about our recent Big Project has been the amount of time we’ve spent reading about spitting.

We knew it used to be common in pubs from the detailed coverage in Mass Observation’s The Pub and the People but that’s nothing compared to what we found in Industrial Town: self-portrait of St Helens in the 1920s by Charles Forman, published in 1978. The bulk of a small section on pubs is given over to a woman in her sixties recalling life as the teenage daughter of a publican. Here’s what she had to say about spitting (look away now if you’re squeamish):

My sister and I used to do all the cleaning when we left school, polishing the floors… There were spittoons, because they used to smoke a lot of pipes then, and they have had worse chests than we do now. They smoked long clay pipes and dipped the ends into the beer to keep them cool. The spittoons were iron, and terrible to clean out — you used to have to put sawdust in. Imagine cleaning what someone had been spitting out! When the floors were carpeted, they daren’t spit on them and went outside to do it. They used to spit on the fire; you used to have to clean off what stuck on the grate after bad aiming. They always spat on the fire at home.

It seems weird to think this was ever acceptable, doesn’t it? We wonder (nervous to mention it because people do get narky on this subject) if this is how people will think about smoking in pubs in a few years time. Or maybe this is another thing (tuberculosis risks aside) that ought to make a comeback, with a little symbol in the Good Beer Guide?