Category Archives: london

Sam Smith Hits London, 1978

Samuel Smith Brewery pubs are a positive fixture in London today but 40 years ago, there weren’t any.

We’ve often wondered exactly how they came to have such a substantial estate in the capital and had gathered that it was a relatively recent development. Now, thanks to a recently acquired July 1978 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing newspaper, we have all the details. The story is entitled ‘Sam Smith Rapped for “Own Beer” Pub’:

Samuel Smith, the Yorkshire brewers, have run into angry opposition to their plans for altering their first ever Greater London pub.

The Tudor Close in Petersham Road, Richmond, is a favourite local ale house serving such brews as Wadworth, Felinfoel, Arkells and Brakspear.

But now its new owners want to make big alterations to both the outside and interior… and replace the wide range of beers with Old Brewery Bitter, their only real ale.

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BOOK REVIEW: London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars

The new edition of Des de Moor’s guide to the best places to drink beer in London (£12.99, 333 pages, CAMRA Books) is more than just a list.

The cover of The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars.The gazetteer which make up the meat of the book are solid. There is a mix of traditional pubs, trendy pubs, bars, taprooms, brewpubs and even the Leyton Orient Supporters’ Club bar. It covers territory from the outer edges of the city to its very heart. Some are old favourites, staples of similar volumes from the last five decades; others are current hype magnets; and, crucially, there are many of which we’d never heard of but now find ourselves wanting to visit.

The selection is broad but does skew, perhaps, towards a certain type of smart pub — the kind with liquid soap in the bogs and scotch eggs under a cloche. If you insist on pubs with no hint of gentility, this may not be the guide for you.

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GALLERY: ‘You Ought to Know Whose Beer You’re Drinking’

These two leaflet were among the lovely pile of ephemera Steve ‘Beer Justice’ Williams sent us when he moved house.

The Young’s leaflet is dated 1979 and the Fuller’s one, we guess, is of about the same vintage.

Most notable is Young’s rhetoric — ‘You Ought to Know Whose Beer You’re Drinking’, ‘We don’t go in for chemical engineering’ — which sounds, we think, rather modern.

Sorry about the crappy ‘scans’ — our scanner is broken so we had to use a camera. Still, they’re readable, which is the main thing.

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’?

Pubs We Can’t Walk Past

We’re just back from a few days in London and, though we were mostly busy seeing family and friends, did find time for a couple of beers in pubs that we now realise we simply cannot resist.

First, passing through Angel, Islington, even though we didn’t especially want a lunchtime drink, we had to stop at the Craft Beer Co for a couple of halves. There’s something about this particular branch of the chain that we especially like. It’s partly the guaranteed availability of at least one or two interesting beers among the vast range, but perhaps more so the combination of daylight, darkness, and a general sense of tranquillity. (Perhaps the management would like it to be less tranquil?) The beer was expensive but nice glassware, friendly staff, tasters all round, proper beer mats, and other perks made it seem decent value. We confirmed that Magic Rock Salty Kiss (Gooseberry) is still a wonderful beer, and also that we still don’t quite get what others see in The Kernel, though a half of pale ale with Mosaic and Zeus was perfectly decent.

In Walthamstow the pub that pulled us in, even though we really ought to have been doing something else with that precious hour and a half, was the Nag’s Head. It’s not the best pub in London, and perhaps these days not even the best in E17, but it’s our old local, where we first drank Kriek and sank endless pints of mild and Timothy Taylor Landlord. Since the last time we visited, the range of beers on offer has improved again — fewer Caledonian seasonals, more from Essex — while the cats-and-kitsch décor has intensified in strangeness. We sat in our old corner and drank Mighty Oak Marmalade Skies, a Beatles-themed pale ale at 4.7% which somehow reminded us of Batham’s Bitter — sweet but not sugary, and balanced as in balanced, rather than as a synonym for bland.

We’ll no doubt drift into the Nags next time we’re in town, too because, let’s face it, we’re not under any pressure to be on top of the latest thing in London: there are plenty of others on that beat.

Are there pubs you can’t walk past? If so, what gives them that quality?

Main image taken at the Craft Beer Co, Islington, in June 2014.