Category Archives: Generalisations about beer culture

The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

This piece is 11,000 words long so you might want to consider downloading it to read on your tablet or smartphone via Pocket, Instapaper or another offline reader. It is also available as a free e-book in various formats via Smashwords.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • A London Particular – why everyone is talking about ‘murky’ beer
  • I Can I Can’t? – the reinvention of the tinny
  • Crowds & Community – crowdfunding: exploitation or fan service?
  • On the Turn – signs of tension
  • Vertical Integration – breweries with bars, bars with breweries
  • Almost Too Wee – the rise of the micropub
  • Sorry, Ronnie! – craft beer on the high street
  • Breaking Away from the Peloton – United Craft Brewers
  • Perestroika & Glasnost – CAMRA hints at change
  • Poochie is One Outrageous Dude! – the big boys do craft beer
  • Approaching Total Beer – an afterword
  • Appendix – Where Are They Now?
  • Acknowledgements

New section.

Introduction

We submitted the text of our book, Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer, in October 2013 and it was published in June the following year. Because the ‘strange rebirth’ it described was still underway, it wasn’t possible to provide a satisfying full stop to our attempt to tell the story of how British beer got from Big Six monopoly of the early 1970s to the vibrant scene we currently enjoy. The purpose of this update is to summarise developments in the past 18 months, to explain how (if at all) they fit into the ongoing narrative, and perhaps also to see if a punchline might be in sight.

In doing so, we have considered the ongoing creep of ‘craft beer’ into the mainstream – or is it the mainstream annexing and absorbing ‘craft’? We have also identified points of stress and increasing tension in an industry in which there is a decreasing amount of elbow room.

Like the last couple of chapters of Brew Britannia, this is commentary rather than history. It is in many ways a greater challenge to squeeze the truth out of people who are running active businesses than it was to get 40-year-old gossip out of CAMRA veterans of pensionable age. Nonetheless, as with the book, we have tried where possible to track stories back to their sources, to pin down dates on the timeline, and to avoid making assumptions – ‘Sez who?’ has been our constant challenge to each other. In a handful of instances, however, the only answer has been, ‘Sez us’.

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Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.

It is a fairly short essay which first appeared in Visual References: An International Journal of Documentation in November 2012 and is readily available to anyone with access to an academic library. (We managed to see a copy through a more roundabout route.)

There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:

The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.

That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.

The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:

Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.

We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.

Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?

What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’?

When we’re asked what we want from British beer culture we tend to say ‘Variety,’ but what exactly does that mean?

The story of Brew Britannia is arguably that of the journey — dare we say of progress? — from homogeneity to variety. A Which? magazine article from April 1972 sums up where thing were at back then:

Our tasters thought none smelt very strongly in the glass — none were either unpleasant or very pleasant… As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg beers had an very characteristic taste… We can see little reason for preferring one keg bitter to another…

But 43 years on, it’s not unusual to hear even hardened beer geeks emit the occasional whine about the ‘agony of choice’.

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Trousered on Craft

Stumbling home the other night, we reached a conclusion: the biggest problem with ‘craft’ beer (def. 2) is that it gets us more drunk than ‘normal’ beer.

It’s a multi-pronged attack.

First, it seems to us generally stronger. Whereas old-school breweries are pushing best bitters at c.4%, trendier breweries tend to have as their flagship products pale ales and IPAs at 5-6% ABV.

Then, secondly, that almost inevitably forces special releases and one-offs into high ABV territory and, let’s be honest, to people like us, those are all but irresistible, quite apart from the fact that big flavours paired with big booze often tastes so nice.

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When the Sober Are Strange

Last week, we finally made it to the famous May Day celebrations at Padstow in North Cornwall and saw the ‘Oss in action.

This film is from 1953 but nothing much has changed since then.

Like Helston’s Flora Day (which takes place tomorrow) it’s a genuine, heartfelt folk tradition, going back generations and involving entire families: even surly teenagers dress in the traditional head-to-toe white with coloured scarves.

While we enjoyed the songs and dancing, despite the drizzle, we were, perhaps predictably, especially interested in the drinking culture that surrounds the event.

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