Some pictures we took while walking from one meeting to another in London a couple of weeks ago. We’d forgotten quite how densely ‘pubbed’ London is, and how characterful and varied those pubs can be.(There’s more of this kind of stuff on our Facebook page, by the way.)
With photographs by Teninchwheels.
For those of us who feel sad whenever a pub vanishes, this is a sad life. Progress, reconstruction, town-planning, war, all have one thing in common: the pubs go down before them like poppies under the scythe.
Maurice Gorham, The Local, 1939
Early in 2012, regulars at the Ivy House, a 1930s pub in Nunhead, South London, were stunned when its owners, Enterprise Inns, gave the manager a week’s notice and boarded the building up.
Howard Peacock, a secondary school teacher in his 30s who regarded the Ivy House as his ‘local’, felt what he calls a ‘sense of massive injustice’:
[The] pub was one that should have been able to stay open in any fair trading environment. The small local pubco that was running it… had been making a go of it even with restricted stocking options and limited profit margins thanks to the beer tie…
But he and his fellow drinkers (Tessa Blunden, Emily Dresner, Stuart Taylor and Hugo Simms) did something more than merely grumble and begin the hunt for a new haunt: instead, they launched a campaign to SAVE THE IVY HOUSE!
Nowadays, the idea of a community campaign to save a pub hardly seems remarkable — they are seen as an endangered species, the cruel property developers’ harpoons glancing off their leathery old skin — but a hundred years ago, thing were very different. Then, a cull was underway.
Our trip to London coincided with Craft Beer Rising, a big event on the beer geek calendar, but we didn’t get anywhere near it. Nor did we get to take on the Bermondsey mile.
Fortunately, in London, you’re never far from a pub, and we don’t know many people who take much persuading to meet in one.
1. Friday afternoon: The Craft Beer Company, Islington, for a meeting
This happens to be the nearest pub to our publishers’ offices and so we adjourned to what they call ‘Meeting Room Three’ for the last part of our discussion. We weren’t concentrating on the beer, really, but enjoyed Burning Sky Saison L’Hiver and Kernel London Sour well enough. A party of female students from various parts of the world sat to one side while two burly Londoners perched on stools in a corner. Very pubby. We could happily have spent the entire weekend here, but duty called.
2. Friday night: The Pelt Trader, City of London, to see friends
Our friends demanded a central location, ‘not one of those real ale pubs’, near a station, with room for a fairly large group. The Pelt Trader fit the bill, though there were still grumbles about the lack of ‘normal beer’. A bit of a bare, noisy echo-chamber, but very efficient, with lots of bar surface to minimise queuing. It was good to try Burning Sky Aurora (a decent US-style pale ale) and to have another go at this Lagunitas IPA everyone is on about, though none of the beers blew our minds. Lasting memory: great service driven by a bar manager who seemed to grow happier and more energetic the tougher the crowd got.
3. Saturday evening: The Queen’s Arms, Walthamstow, out of thirst and curiosity
Having spent a day clearing out and cleaning a store room, we literally had dust in our throats. Seeking fresh air, we went for a walk around our old stomping grounds, and couldn’t resist checking out the Queen’s. It used to be just short of rough, but when we occasionally went there to watch football we were always made to feel welcome, as long as we behaved. It has recently, however, become a ‘gastropub’, straight out of 2002. It has a small range of not-the-usual beers, but nothing actually very good. Bare brick, candles, pushchairs. We felt sad at the loss of the karaoke stage and dart board. ‘One gastropub too many,’ seems to be the local view.
4. Saturday evening: The Nags Head, Walthamstow, for old times’ sake
This was our local for years — the pub we went to at least three nights a week and most weekends. It hasn’t changed much (cats, red lights, jazz) though the beer selection has taken a turn for the worse in some areas (Caledonian where once there was Crouch Vale and Mauldon), and improved in others (bottled Brooklyn East India Pale Ale in the fridge). Thwaites’ 13 Guns is a very nice bottled IPA, but by no means ‘intense’ as the label claims. The crowd was more Shoreditch than it used to be — younger, trendier, and more ostentatious about it — but the local bearded CAMRA stalwart and his partner were still sat in their usual corner — ‘one fixed point in a changing age’.
5. Saturday night: The Chequers, Walthamstow, for a pint with our hosts
We were staying with friends and this is where they like to drink, even though the William IV is nearer their house. Of course we were also interested to see what had happened to a pub that was once no-go, was taken over by Antic, and then taken away from them in mysterious circumstances. From outside, it looked as tatty as ever, and High Street remains eerily deserted at night with market packed up and gone. There was a healthy buzz inside, though, with, at a guess, 90 per cent of seats taken. We drank more Lagunitas IPA (we’d have loved it five years ago) and pints of Sambrook’s Porter, the first of their beers we’ve really enjoyed. Surprisingly, it had a real East London feel: if the DJ had stopped for a moment, we wouldn’t have been surprised at a spontaneous chorus of Roll out the Barrel.
6. Sunday lunchtime: The Castle, Walthamstow
Multiple sets of friends with multiple children adding up to a party of fifteen required a banqueting table and Yorkshire puddings. It was absolutely heaving with every seat and surface occupied. There was hardly a beer worth drinking (Adnams’ Broadside was just about OK) but the food was good, and the staff were friendly and professional, feeding and ejecting us in two hours flat without hurting anyone’s feelings.
7. The Village, Walthamstow, out of convenience
Our party of fifteen wanted to keep boozing, so we retreated to the nearest pub likely to have room for us — the poor old Village. This was once the best in the area, but hasn’t really kept up. Even here, though, there was something for the beer geek to observe: an off-the-shelf ‘craft beer solution’ for pubs seeking to capitalise on the latest market trend. That is, a fridge containing Kwak, St Stefanus Blonde, Viru Estonian pilsner, and so on, probably supplied by Matthew Clark (PDF) Twitter reckoned.
8. Sunday evening: Tap East, Stratford, to see Boak’s little brother
He was working a double shift behind the bar but we caught him on his break to discuss some family business. We took the opportunity to drink a couple of pints of Tonic Pale Ale brewed on site — austerely bitter and genuinely refreshing. Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale was the last of the day and reminded us why we used to get so excited about American beer: widescreen and awe-inspiringly Spielbergian. Almost everyone else was drinking Fuller’s Frontier Craft Lager or Koenig wheat beer — make of that what you will.
9. Monday lunchtime: The Mad Bishop & Bear, Paddington, on the way home
Most of our trips to London finish here. It’s not a lovely pub, but it has (a) a departure board; (b) cask ale kept to the high standard of most managed Fuller’s pubs; and (c) a nearly complete bottled range on offer, too. This time, we noted approvingly the addition of an information board listing all the available cask ales, when they were tapped, and when they were first served. We were also pleased to see a few beers from outside the Fuller’s empire, notably Castle Rock Harvest Pale.
All in all, this was a reminder that beer isn’t the only reason to go to the pub, and a great opportunity to look outside ‘the bubble’.
From January 2013. A bit of a puff piece but with some lovely footage of the brewery in action, and good to hear John Keeling speaking about hops.
You might think that a brewery called Camden Town makes all its beer in London, but some of it is actually brewed in continental Europe.
When we drank a pint of Camden Hells lager on Sunday, we enjoyed it enormously, having not previously been huge fans. We Tweeted about it, and got several interesting responses along the lines of this one:
@BoakandBailey did I hear correctly that most of it is actually brewed *in* Germany, now?
— James R Grinter (@jamesrgrinter) January 26, 2014
When we asked for more information, we were pointed towards this article by Nicholas Lander on the Financial Times website from September last year (sometimes behind a paywall, sometimes not):
Hells Lager, is now so popular with British drinkers that each week an extra 50,000 pints are trucked back from a brewery outside Munich… A 40-strong team brews 80,000 pints a week supplemented by the beer imported from Germany.
We sought corroboration on the Camden Town website but couldn’t find anything. Both the point of sale information (the keg font) and the website give the distinct impression that all Camden Hells is brewed in London: ‘Great beer brewed in Camden Town’; ‘Inspired by Germany, delivered for London’, and so on.
The Facts in the Case
The best way to clarify the situation was, we decided, to speak to someone at Camden Town. That someone turned out to be Jasper Cuppaidge, the brewery’s owner and founder. He seemed surprised that there might be confusion, and felt that he’d been quite open about the overseas brewing arrangement in interviews, but was happy to explain the details (our emphases):
The only beer that we ever brew in Europe is kegged Camden Hells. Pale Ale, Ink, everything else, is brewed at HQ, and all small packaged beers including Hells is brewed and packed at Camden
Right now, because it’s a quiet time of year for sales, none of it is being brewed abroad. In the summer, when it’s really busy, yes, a small proportion might come from overseas. It doesn’t come in big tankers every single week. We pull from our warehouse and pallets might contain some kegs of European-brewed Hells, and some from London.
It’s our recipe, using the same suppliers of malt from Europe and hops that we use for UK-made beer, and we always have one of our brewers there to supervise
It’s not about cost-cutting — it’s actually expensive, and we can’t really afford to do it, but it is important to maintain supply to bars and pubs. We want to be making the change and not riding it.
We worked with a small family brewery in Bavaria from summer last year till November this year and, recently, after running trials for three months, moved to a similar brewery in Belgium, a lot closer to home, and so easier for getting to and from for us as a team. We work with them because they’re the best and can make the beer taste exactly like it does when we brew it here.
We don’t declare it on the keg font because we don’t want to confuse consumers, but we are going to improve the FAQ on our website, because we’re not ashamed of this — we’re proud of it — and we came into this business with the intention of being transparent and honest.
Though he was reluctant to specify how much Camden Hells is brewed abroad at peak times because it can vary, the very vague ballpark figure of 25 per cent was mentioned. So, between, say, May and September 2014, there will be a something like a one-in-four chance that pint of Hells you drink will have been brewed in Belgium.
(The very tasty pint we drank was, it turns out, definitely brewed in London.)
Does it really matter, and why?
We asked our readers this question in a poll which ran for 26 hours, closing at 5 p.m. today:
Do you think it is important for a brewery to declare where a beer is made?
Of the 207 people who responded, 125 said it was essential to know; 79 said it was good to know; and only 7 people — about 3 per cent — said they didn’t care.
That confirmed our suspicion: that provenance is important, at least to beer geeks. They want to know where the beer they’re drinking has been made.
More specifically, the comments under that poll and discussions on Twitter suggest that people really don’t like the idea that a beer bearing the name of a specific place might or might not come from another country.
Reasons vary. Some feel that if a brewery isn’t honest about provenance, they can’t be trusted in other areas; others want to support the local economy; and some, presumably, just like the idea of lager from London because it’s cool.
For us, it’s about the balance of power. Even if the continental-European-brewed Hells looks, smells and tastes identical to the UK product, withholding information about its manufacture exploits consumers.
Where is the ‘premium’?
At first, we thought of it as an inversion of the Big Beer practice of brewing foreign brands under license in the UK. But it isn’t an inversion — it’s exactly the same. Where is the ‘premium’ right now? In the 1980s, it was with Continental beers, so everything was presented as Continental, even if it was actually made in Northampton. Now, the market demands local, so continental European beer is presented as British.
What should have happened instead?
Breweries thinking of following Camden’s suit and having some of their beer brewed elsewhere have, as we see it, three choices:
- Do it and hope no-one notices; be prepared for some finger-wagging (like this post…) if word gets out.
- Be completely, pre-emptively honest about it: turn it into a good news story about partnership, quality control, and serving the needs of your customers. (Mr Cuppaidge told exactly this story when we spoke to him, and it sounded good.)
- If you can’t face explaining it to people, pre-emptively or during that backlash, that might mean you are about to do something that, in your heart of hearts, you are ashamed of. So don’t do it.
We would, of course, always advocate option 2 — complete honesty and transparency. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with contract (‘partnership’) brewing, as long as it’s done openly.
We’re glad to hear Camden Town are updating their online FAQ — information like this should be easy to find and unambiguous, if only for the sake of avoiding rumours which over-state the case. (Camden don’t brew ‘all their beer’ in Germany; and they’re not buying some dodgy Bavarian supermarket brand and relabelling it.)
Ideally, there also ought to be some information at the point of sale that indicates whether the specific pint a customer is about to drink is British or German, but how to do that elegantly is beyond us.
Main image based on a photograph by Les Chatfield, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.