Signs and Hints and Signals: No Bloody Swearing!

Publicans find lots of ways to signal who they want to drink in their establishments and, of course, who they don’t.

We’ve been pondering this post on and off for months — maybe even years — but the news today that Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has banned swearing across its entire pub estate brought it into sharp focus. This is surely an attempt to nudge the estate in the direction of upmarket, isn’t it? An indirect way of saying ‘no riff raff’.

These kinds of signs and signals are one of the most powerful tools a publican has when it comes to shaping their clientele. For example, we’ve been collecting these lately:

A set of written rules is in itself a signal: this is a pub run by human beings; it has quirks and character; and bad behaviour, however it is defined, will not be tolerated. But in their detail the rules are a kind of manifesto for each pub — a challenge: ‘This is who we are. If you don’t like it, please go somewhere else.’

About a decade ago, before London had a ton of overt craft beer bars, there were a handful of (literal) signs that publicans used to attract the attention of desirable (that is, relatively wealthy) customers: Illy Coffee Served Here, free Wi-Fi, This is a No Smoking Pub, Board Games Available. There’s nothing there that’s necessarily tied to any particular social class but still it made a statement about the atmosphere you could expect to find inside.

On the flipside, we sometimes interpret a prominently displayed DRUGS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED ON THESE PREMISES poster as a form of advertising: ‘Gotcha. Say no more.’ [wink] More benignly, some aspects of decor that might be off-putting to the snooty — a bucket of sand full of fag ends, SKY SPORTS SHOWN HERE — may well read as reassuringly down-to-earth to others.

The Salutation, Mangotsfield, Bristol.

Then there’s the extravagant display of national symbols. This is a complicated issue which people have no doubt written entire theses and books about. Frankly, we’re nervous even mentioning it but, in brief, displaying any flag is always a choice — what is it intended to say, and to whom? And, more to the point, what do people think it is saying?

Sometimes, even if the message being sent isn’t one that makes you feel welcome, it can still be honest, and oddly helpful. After all, no-one wants to crash a party where they’re not welcome.

It Conceals Its Lardiness Well

Illustration: a packet of lard.

What do we mean when we say we want a boozy beer to really taste boozy?

In yesterday’s review of a Colchester Brewery porter we mentioned our delight at discovering it had only 4.6% alcohol which was perhaps the immediate prompt for this from The Beer Nut:

We reckon we’re in the clear here — we rejected the first of those two options a few years ago, although Duvel (which we worship and adore) might be an exception.

Trying to think of an analogy, the best we could come up with was this: when you eat a 2,000 calorie pizza, you want to taste those calories. So, when people say ‘It was 9% but had the body and flavour of something half the strength — so drinkable!’ it sounds like ‘…but the cheese was so well concealed I was able to eat an extra six slices.’ Which might make sense if you’re bulking up for a marathon, or have a lot of cheese to dispose of for some reason (hey, that’s none of our business) but otherwise, just seems barmy.

An amazing, rich-tasting dessert that turns out to have barely any fat? Great news! Something that seems virtuous but turns out to have a load of hidden filth? Gutted. (The 1993 Seinfeld episode ‘The Non Fat Yogurt’ plays on this very premise.)

Alcohol isn’t good for us. It can, and often does, make us feel like death the day after. We’re willing to accept those downsides for a sufficiently thrilling, deep, mind-blowing beer. Otherwise, we’ll just drink a lighter, simpler, less intense, and probably cheaper beer and swerve the hangover.

But maybe what people really mean, as per Twitter discussion yesterday, is that they want the good things booze brings to beer — body, richness, headiness — without the burn. In which case the fat analogy works: a hugely calorific meal should taste luxurious, silky, unctuous, and all those other words we use to put a positive spin on fat. It shouldn’t taste greasy or oily, like hour-old battered cod from a chippy that doesn’t manage the temperature of its fryers properly.

Things cooked in lard taste great but no-one wants to eat it with a fork.

Gauging the Mood of the British Beer Scene

Twitter polls are ‘garbage’ as we were repeatedly reminded throughout the US election but, still, this might tell us something:

Twitter poll screengrab (link above).

Despite the pervading sense of gloom, perhaps the result of ennui on the part of hyper-vocal, deep-insiders who spend too much time thinking about all this stuff, the majority of the 502 respondents don’t seem to think a disaster is looming.

Now, it is worth considering the following points:

  1. Our followers are into beer which might translate into being blindly positive about its fortunes. Although, equally, it probably means they’re more aware of the bad news too.
  2. Some people might think a shake-out which sees, say, 10 per cent of breweries cease trading is good news. Equally, some people might feel pessimistic precisely because they think brewery numbers are going to continue increasing.
  3. The 8 per cent who think it’s about to go pear-shaped nonetheless represent a good old chunk. Inside information, or just miserable devils? We wish we’d done this last year, and will definitely do it next year, to monitor the change.
  4. Some of the reasons people gave for being anxious are interesting and, again, subjective: by far the most common concern is that American-influenced styles are pushing out traditional British ones; others were concerned about pubs which remain in trouble despite the brewery boom.
  5. Historian David Turner doesn’t think we’ll get a shake-out and instead predicts a plateau.

For our part, that poll and the rest of this week’s discussion is enough for now to confirm our gut feeling that, though 2017 is going to be bumpier than 2016, it’s not going to see some kind of beerpocalypse.

Breweries and bars will close, certainly, and we’ll keep logging those events, but we also know that plenty of new ones are on the way.

There might be some structural changes — perhaps further polarising of the market, for example — but that won’t look like a collapse.

We’d certainly be somewhat surprised if the launch of the Good Beer Guide in the autumn isn’t accompanied by news of a further rise in the overall number of breweries, for better or worse.

Keeping a List, Checking it Twice

Various bits of beer news in the last few months have prompted a fresh round of declarations that the good times are over, the hangover is coming, the ‘shake out’ is due.

It’s certainly true that after a decade when it felt like the news was almost entirely good — new bars, new breweries, more beer styles! — there has been a bit of a dip in levels of excitement.

Our gut feeling is that it’s overly pessimistic to assume everything is about to come crashing down and that the gloominess is to some extent personal: people are exhausted and bored. (See also: the death of beer blogging.)

Having said that, it is also likely that some ventures commenced in the white heat of 2010-11 are reaching their natural end. That is to say, they’ve either succeeded, in which case they’ve ceased to be new and exciting, have settled into a groove, or perhaps even been sold on; or they’ve folded because the people behind them have run out of money and/or steam, or just want to try their hands at something else.

Our contribution to the collective fretting, which we hope will provide a picture of what’s going on and help maintain perspective, is a table of good and bad news which we hereby commit to keeping up to date throughout the next year.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think need to be recorded on either side — specialist bars opening or closing, breweries folding, and so on. We’re especially interested in total brewery numbers for Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, if anyone has those at hand.

So far, a week into January 2017, it doesn’t look so bad. But let’s see.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 January 2017: Binge Britain, Birmingham Beer Bash

Here’s all the writing from the last week we’ve found most stimulating, from reflections on children in pubs to a peek behind the scenes of how tabloid newspapers cover Binge Britain.

For the Pool Zoë Beaty writes about her time as a junior reporter dispatched on to the streets to find photographic evidence of young women over-indulging in alcohol:

We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written… The true reflection of the night – the hundreds of other people having a brilliant time, aside from that one girl who fell over and is subsequently ridiculed – doesn’t fit the mould they’ve already created for young British working-class women…

(Via @philmellows.)


Breweries to watch -- logo collage.

In what has become an annual fixture Richard Taylor of the Beercast has posted his list of breweries to watch in 2017. He works in the industry (for BrewDog) which may give his observations either more or less credibility depending on your point of view but we tend to find him balanced and astute, and he uses this list as a way to highlight some over-arching trends and issues.


A rubber duck in a pint of beer.

The Bearded Housewife who last week gave us a run-down of how to find child-friendly pubs in East London this week returned to the topic in the philosophical abstract: why do people have a problem with children and pubs and can this argument ever be resolved?

Why would we not say badly-behaved people are a big minus point? Is it that we assume bad behaviour on the part of children is inevitable? Is it that we, perhaps subconsciously, exclude children from the set of ‘people’? If the former, the statement [that you don’t well-behaved children] starts to lose a portion of its unassailability… unless your benchmark for bad behaviour is absurdly low, it’s not reasonable to avoid pubs on the basis that any children in them are likely to be, or become, badly behaved, any more than it’s reasonable to avoid, en mass, pubs with football fans because you think they’re likely to kick-off.


Cloudwater DIPA V3 -- collage of images.

There have been quite a lot of blog posts about Cloudwater’s decision to cease brewing cask but not millions as some have over-excitably suggested. Peter McKerry rounds them up here but we wanted to pick out just one to read if you don’t have time for the full set. Martyn Cornell, a CAMRA member since the 1970s and a beer writer more or less since the cradle, ties the matter into CAMRA’s Revitalisation project and uses his authority to cut through some of the customary delicacy:

I’m not totally convinced Camra can be saved in the long term, given the online comments I read from craft beer drinkers who clearly see Camra members as dull, boring, elderly people drinking dull, boring, elderly beer. The problems with recruiting young activists to the campaign have been apparent for years – and the  really dreadful statistic from the revitalisation project consultation is that under 3 per cent of responders were under 30. I’m in the ‘dull, boring and elderly’ cohort myself, but I love, eg, Cloudwater DIPA as much as I love Fuller’s Chiswick. However, I fear anyone turning up to a Camra branch meeting is more likely to meet someone like Tim Spitzer, former chair of West Norfolk Camra branch, than someone like me. I am sure Mr Spitzer has done an enormous amount of good work for the cause of real ale in the Norfolk region and, having been a Camra branch chairman myself, I know what hard work the job is. But his rant in the latest edition of Norfolk Nips, the local Camra magazine, is certain to guarantee that anyone under 40 who reads it will decide instantly that the campaign holds no welcome for them.


Birmingham Beer Bash glasses.
By Francis Clarke from Flickr under Creative Commons.

We’ve been predicting that Birmingham will be the next city to gain a thriving craft beer scene for a couple of years and it has seemed to be getting there. But now, following on from the loss of the The Craven Arms as a beer-geek-friendly destination, comes news that the Birmingham Beer Bash will not be taking place in 2017. (Link to Facebook.) We don’t read this as a death knell for British beer — we know from speaking to David Shipman that it was always a huge effort to put on and left the organisers out of pocket, and the decision to run another has been touch and go each year — but it’s certainly bad news.


But, then again, there is also the news that BrewDog has closed its central London bottle-shop and this from Craig Heap in re: Cardiff’s best-known craft beer venue:

We’re going to start keeping a tally of good news vs. bad news — perhaps 2017 is when the hurt begins?