News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 June 2017: Reflecting, Rambling, Reading

After a week off here we are again with all the news and writing about beer and pubs that’s grabbed our attention in the last seven days, from the nature of community to psychogeography.

Phil Cook works behind a bar in Wellington, New Zealand, and this week reflected on the role of bars (pubs) in the community in a post entitled ‘A bar is just a church where they serve beer…

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.)


A sign on a pub wall.
“The Piss Artist”.

Alec Latham continues to use beer and pubs as a hook on which to hang ambitious attempts at proper writing. In his most recent post he retraces the route he took to drink his first legal pint as an 18-year-old, with birth certificate in hand, 20 years ago:

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.


Weldwerks Brewing.
Weldwerks Brewing Co.

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?


Detail from the cover of "Miracle Brew"

We have a copy of Pete Brown’s new book Miracle Brew and but haven’t got round to reading it yet, hence no review. Ed Wray has, though, and breaks it down here in nitpicking detail:

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.


Pub, South London: 'Take Courage'.

Peter McKerry at Brew Geekery seems to have found his muse: the complicated issue of gentrification. In his latest post — dashed off, by his own admission, but those are often the best kind — he reflects on how London pubs have changed during his 13 years in the city, and what that says about class and culture:

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.

QUICK ONE: Hyped/Ignored

Beautiful beer glass.

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.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.

Everything We Wrote in May 2017: Wetherspoons, Straw Men and Reg Norkett

May was a busy month with around 20 proper blog posts covering everything from flying saucers to ham rolls.

We started the month with a rare guest post from John Robinson, a North West of England CAMRA veteran who has been digging into what went wrong with Boddington’s Bitter and when. (He is in the process of revising this post based on the feedback in the comments.)


Having raided a bookshop in Truro we came across a mention of a post-war pub called The Flying Saucer in a book on Kent pubs and did a little digging into its history, the origins of its name, and the design of its sign.


Martin's Free House, North London.
SOURCE: The London Drinker online archive.

Someone asked a question that intrigued us: which was the first Wetherspoon pub to get into the CAMRA Good Beer Guide? After several days we tracked it back earlier than expected, to 1983.

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in May 2017: Wetherspoons, Straw Men and Reg Norkett”

Patreon and Other Encouragements

We’ve just launched a Patreon page so that you can support this blog in its second decade, if you want to.

Patreon is a service that makes it easy for those who enjoy art and media to encourage and financially contribute to those who make it.

The idea is that you make a recurring monthly payment of any amount you fancy. There are increasing rewards for different levels of support, e.g. a special ebook for those who sign up for $5 or more a month. There are also goals we commit to with each fund milestone.

You can read more about all that on the Patreon page itself along with responses to some frequently asked questions and feedback we’ve already received.

The main point is that it’s not compulsory and that the blog will continue as it is either way, except hopefully better. You can also cancel your support at any time — it’s not a huge commitment.

Thanks to those who have pledged already after hearing about this in our email newsletter — we really appreciate it.

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Detail from the cover of Gambrinus Waltz.

If you don’t fancy Patreon you can also contribute by buying our books: Brew Britannia is just going into a second edition (slightly smaller and cheaper, with corrections) and our new book, about pubs, should be available to pre-order soon.

If you buy our short ebook, Gambrinus Waltz, from Amazon we earn 70% of the £2.00 cover price and you get to read a book Martyn Cornell has called ‘excellent’. You don’t need a Kindle either — Amazon offers free apps for phones, tablets and desktop PCs. This is as close as you can get to buying us a half down the pub unless, er, you bump into us in a pub.

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Victorian clip art man: I Endorse Boak & Bailey.

And if even that’s a bit rich for your pocket there’s always the smallest unit of payment: shares and endorsements on social media. It’s costs nothing but is a big boost for our morale and helps us find new readers. We’re not asking you to spam anyone — just tell people about us if you think they’ll find the blog genuinely interesting. We’re easy to find as ‘boakandbailey’ on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram if you want to point people our way.

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If you’re a regular follower we hope you’ll trust us not to bloody go on about this — we’ll mention it every now and then in passing probably but otherwise this is it.