QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?’

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

Hatherwood: Problems and Ideas

The numbered caps of the Hatherwood beer box.

The LIDL supermarket made a big deal of its revamped beer offer back in 2015 and the Hatherwood Craft Beer Company range was its sly centrepiece.

We got given a box set of six by a friend — a cute package with numbered caps and tasting notes — which prompted us to give them some serious thought.

Initially brewed at Marston’s the beers are now produced at Shepherd Neame, although you probably wouldn’t realise that if you’re not a keen beer geek trained to ferret out such information. Hatherwood’s head brewer happens also to be Shepherd Neame’s, and the bottles are the same distinctive shape as theirs too. Alarm bells also ring for us when we see those carefully chosen words ‘beer company’. No-one is claiming this is a brewery, of course they aren’t, but how many consumers will pick up on that fine distinction?

Really, this is the beer equivalent of those fake farms — Ashfield, Rosedene, Strathvale — that the supermarkets started using on meat packaging a year or two back with the intention of jumping on the provenance bandwagon.

It would be better, and more honest, if these were clearly labelled as own-brand products, with the actual brewery named on the label.

So, that’s the first misdirect. The second is that the admittedly very lovely labels and the names of the beers suggest something that the product in the bottles does not deliver. Green Gecko, for example, is a perfectly decent example of an old-school, historically-influenced British-style IPA but is presented as if it’s a competitor to BrewDog Punk. Amber Adder is really a sweetish strong bitter. Gnarly Fox new wave lager (still made by Marston’s at their Wychwood plant, we think) is a perfectly OK golden ale but certainly not the aromatic, adventurous, hip beer the blurb pitches.

What is the thinking here? Craft beer is the buzz-phrase of the day so that makes sense, but why not then make the beer more like the kind of beer that people who are excited by craft beer are actually drinking?

The funny thing is it’s actually not a bad range of styles. The porter in particular, which we guess is the same as the one Shepherd Neame produce for other supermarkets, is pretty decent and in this case comes in a very welcome brown bottle. If these were presented as the traditional British beers they really are, and the box was marketed as a guided tour of traditional beer styles, it would be rather a brilliant thing. (Especially at less than a quid a bottle.)

It certainly made us think we’d like to see more six-bottle sets with manuals from retailers and breweries, e.g. an IPA box with examples of the various sub-styles, designed to help newbies understand how, say, Marston’s Old Empire relates to Cloudwater DIPA. Or a package designed to demonstrate the subtle distinctions between porter, stout, milk stout, double stout, and imperial stout. (The Bristol Beer Factory have kind of done this.) Six is a nice manageable number — an evening’s work for two people, with just enough points of reference to learn something.

QUICK ONE: Turning Casuals into Regulars

Detail: a 1970s pub table.

If someone comes into your pub twice you’re missing a trick if you don’t say hello.

We were hanging out with Bailey’s parents recently when his mum told us this story about their pub-going in the 1970s:

The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’ Then a few months later she said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and gave Dad a pint glass with a euchre hand on it, and Grandpa a glass with cherries on, because he liked the fruit machines. We drank in there for years.

This seems like such a simple, effective, emotionally manipulative approach. If you see the same face twice, make a formal introduction, and then use those names at every opportunity. Then after, say, three months of regular custom ask if they’d like a loyalty card, or a glass behind the bar, or make some other small gesture — ‘That one’s on the house.’

Lock them into the relationship, like the free sandwich thing at Pret a Manger.

In practice, there are probably all sorts of reasons this doesn’t happen so often these days, not least the fact that it feels ever rarer to actually find the licensee behind the bar. We often ask (because we want permission to take photos or need to ask some questions for one Thing or another) ‘Is this your place, then?’ and we can’t think of many occasions when the answer has been anything other than, ‘No, I’m just the manager.’

In big chains, though, Creating Regulars could be built into staff objectives and the performance management programme… Aaaaaaaaand we’ve depressed ourselves.

Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.

Roll. noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.

They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.

Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.

This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.

And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.

No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.

Fictional book cover: The Ham Roll Pub Guide.
Not a real book from 1975.

In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.

But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.

Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubsâ„¢ might be the best pubs.