QUICK ONE: Greene King Heritage Beers Pt. 2

Illustration: Victoriana.

A couple of weeks ago we tried Greene King’s ‘Heritage’ beers and gave them what we thought was a quite clearly caveated thumbs-up. But maybe the caveats need to be bigger in future.

Commenting on Facebook, one passerby disagreed bluntly with our assessment, adding: “Saying something is the best Greene King have made isn’t really saying much either.” And, yes, that’s sort of the point we wanted to get across, in our weaselly way. We certainly weren’t saying that Greene King is now our favourite brewery, or that these are contenders for beers of the year. Greene King’s marketing department read it correctly and wisely omitted that line when they used us to blurb the products.

Still, when we tried the pale ale again a few days later it tasted no less impressive, and we’ve seen some positive reactions from others on social media, often along the same lines: people who aren’t normally Greene King boosters, who were prepared to be let down, conceding that these are a step up.

Meanwhile, Greene King’s use of the word ‘heritage’ niggled with Steve Dunkley from Manchester brewery Beer Nouveau. We met Steve once and have followed him on social media for years and what is clear is that he’s the sort of bloke who does things properly, if he’s going to do them at all. Accordingly, his own historic recreations are painstaking to the nth degree, and he is clearly uneasy about the Greene King’s efforts and others of their ilk.

He argues that beers with HERITAGE on the label ought to use both a historic recipe and heritage ingredients; otherwise they are merely ‘inspired by’ or, worse, just normal beers in fancy clothing. We wouldn’t disagree with that, fundamentally. Transparency and clarity are important and consumers shouldn’t have to undertake their own detective work to establish that a product they’re buying is what the packaging implies. But these Greene King beers, we think, are pretty clear that they’re ‘inspired by’ in the explanatory copy. We underlined that in our review, too.

Another point that’s been made to us by brewer Shane Swindells, both directly and elsewhere, including in the comments on our review, is that these beers don’t really express Chevallier malt character. We wouldn’t know about that because we’ve not had chance to try many beers made with Chevallier but his suggestion that GK might have used this specialist product in rather sparing amounts purely for the sake of the label doesn’t seem unlikely, now we reflect on it. Shane makes a couple of heritage malt beers himself which he tells us do express the malt character to an almost challenging degree in case you want to investigate further.

All this has helped us clarify something, anyway: interested as we are in full-on, serious historic recreations, we also just want to see more old-fashioned beers. We’re sure there’s room in the market for both Heritage with a capital H and inspired-bys, and the beers that will be displaced by inspired-bys aren’t Shane and Steve’s — they’re the dull bottled bitters and diminished big brands of the late 20th century that coast by on goodwill, nostalgia and inoffensiveness. If GK’s experiments with heritage beers translate into a bump in bitterness and a change in character for some of their mainline products, that’ll be a good outcome.

The GK Heritage beers got discounted pretty swiftly by Tesco, though, so perhaps the world outside the beerosphere didn’t agree with our assessment. In which case, it’s likely nothing much will change at all.

Charabanc Fever

Main image above: ‘Sebastopol Inn, Ladies Outing, Preston’, from Preston Digital Archive on Flickr.

A few weeks ago Doreen (@londondear) made us pause and think when she said she had been puzzled by the mention of ‘charabancs’ in our recent book, 20th Century Pub, and had to look up what it meant.

Somehow, we’ve always known about charabancs, though they’ve been effectively extinct for more than half a century and the word is now only used as a deliberate archaism. While researching the book charabancs became a kind of running joke for us as trying to find historic photographs of pubs without charabancs parked in front of them was often a challenge.

But Doreen is quite right – we probably ought to have given a few words of explanation, but now those few words have turned into this rather long blog post. We’re grateful to Patreon subscribers like Harley Goldsmith and Peter Sidwell for giving us an excuse to spend quite so much time on it.

* * *

Vintage illustration.
A wagonette. (SOURCE: The Book of the Horse, 1880, via the Internet Archive.)

The word charabanc comes from the French char-à-bancs (literally a carriage with benches) and became attached in Britain to large six- or eight-seater carriages previously known as wagonettes, probably because it sounded fancier.

The popularity of charabancs among working class people arose alongside the very concept of leisure time. An account from 1872 describes how shop assistants in Devon celebrated the introduction of early closing on Thursday afternoons by taking a charabanc trip to Babbacombe. [1]

Hiring a charabanc was an indulgence but an affordable one and clubbing together to pay for it, then travelling in a merry group, was half the fun. By the 1880s there were charabancs pulled by four horses capable of carrying 21 passengers, or even 35. [2]

Pubs were natural hubs for clubs, societies and teams, and an equally obvious centre for the organisation of charabanc trips, and for the pick-up and drop of daytrippers. Thus charabancs came to be strongly associated with pubs. (But not exclusively — church groups were also big charabanc fans.)

Continue reading “Charabanc Fever”

Complete Guide to Bristol’s Pubs, c.1976

Cover of The Complete Guide to Bristol's Pubs.

Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.

We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.

We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.

We’re still not 100 per cent sure when it was published but we know from Andrew Swift that a partner volume covering Bath came out in 1976 so that seems like a reasonable assumption and is consistent with the contents.

Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.

Continue reading “Complete Guide to Bristol’s Pubs, c.1976”

The Reality of the Village Inn

Two old men in a village pub.

English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?

We’ve been tinkering with a version of this post for months but were prompted to finish and post it by this Tweet from an academic conference on drink and drinking:

The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to mention the decreased centrality of the inn in village life even as its absolute centrality to the idea of the perfect village persists in popular culture. Hopefully we’ll get to read the finished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few observations of our own.

Continue reading “The Reality of the Village Inn”

Rigby’s Bier Keller, Liverpool, 1968

In the 1960s and 70s German-style beer cellars were all the rage in Britain popping up everywhere from Blackpool to central London, and Liverpool did not miss out on the trend.

We’ve touched on this subject a few times including in an article on theme pubs for CAMRA last year and in 20th Century Pub. Just recently we wrote a substantial article, also for CAMRA, which we expect to appear in the next issue of BEER magazine. This post, however, zooms in one one one example via an article in the in-house magazine of the Tetley Walker brewery group for autumn 1969.

Cover of the magazine.

Rigby’s on Dale Street is a famous Liverpool pub now run by Okell’s of the Isle of Man. In 1968, however, it was part of the Allied Breweries empire managed under as part of the Walker Cain sub-group. Just before Christmas that year Rigby’s newest feature, a Bierkeller, was unveiled in the low-beamed cellar:

Much of the character of the keller was already there, for the old cellars of Rigby’s still have their ancient flagstone floors, original cast iron stanchions and stone block walls… To this existing setting were added girls in traditional Bavarian costume to serve the drinks, long beech tables and benches — four tons of timber went into their making — German poster on the walls and two doors marked Damen and Herren.

The Keller

It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously breweries took this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed to be a sincere effort to evoke a German atmosphere — don’t forget, many British drinkers at this point had actually been to Germany thanks to the war and the subsequent cold war — while others were… less so. Rigby’s was certainly an example of the former perhaps because Liverpool in particular had strong German connections (think of the Beatles in Hamburg) and a fairly substantial reverse traffic with enough Germans in Liverpool to warrant their own church from 1960. There was also a permanent German consulate and it was the commercial attache, H.C. von Herwarth, who opened Rigby’s Bierkeller and “drew the first stein of lager”.

Opening night at Rigby’s Bierkeller. Those aren’t Bavarian hats.

But Rigby’s German-flavoured venture had another advantage: the licensee was one John Burchardt:

Mr Burchardt came to England as a prisoner of war in 1946. He worked on farms in this country and he liked living here so much that when he was released and was given the option of returning to his country…. he decided to come back and take a civilian job…. He married an English girl and Mr and Mrs Burchardt have a family of four boys.

A family photograph.
The Burchardts.

For once, we have been able to gather a bit more biographical information about the nameless spouse: Mrs Burchardt was called Edith and was born in Wales in 1932. The same source tells us that John was actually called Werner and was born in Dortmund but perhaps grew up in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) which might be why he didn’t want to go home. And another perhaps: he may have ended up in Liverpool because of family connections as one Otto Burchardt was appointed consul to the King of Prussia in Liverpool in 1841 and was buried there when he died in 1882.

But, back to pubs: John Burchardt told the reporter for TW magazine that he didn’t see much difference between running a Bavarian Bierkeller and an English pub like the one upstairs. Here’s the public bar in a shot taken, we think, from just about exactly where we sat when we visited in 2016:

Pub interior

We don’t know yet what became of Rigby’s Bierkeller but, based on our research into others, we’d guess it slowly went downmarket and became less German before folding in the late 1970s. (The standard pattern.)

But if you know otherwise, or remember drinking there during its Germanicised phase, do comment below or drop us a line.