Category Archives: london

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.

Notable Pubs #1: The Eagle Tavern, London

The Eagle (Shepherdess Walk, N1) is known to generations of children from the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’: ‘Up and down the City Road/ In and out the Eagle’.

Charles Green as painted by Hilaire Ledru.
Portrait of Charles Green by Hilaire Ledru, 1835, via Wikipedia.

On Monday 4 April 1825, the aeronaut Charles Green ascended in a balloon from the gardens at the Eagle. After much trouble, he got airborne at 5:30 pm and drifted away south. He returned to the Eagle for another ascent on a later occasion, this time seated on the back of a ‘very small Shetland pony’ (Stamford Mercury, 01/08/1828).

Famous as the site of a theatre and other entertainments, The Eagle was the subject of one of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1833-1836) entitled ‘Miss Evans and The Eagle':

[The] waiters were rushing to and fro with glasses of negus, and glasses of brandy-and-water, and bottles of ale, and bottles of stout; and ginger-beer was going off in one place, and practical jokes were going on in another; and people were crowding to the door of the Rotunda; and in short the whole scene was, as Miss J’mima Ivins, inspired by the novelty, or the shrub, or both, observed—‘one of dazzling excitement.’

The present building dates from around 1900.

Not to be confused with The Eagle, Farringdon, ‘the original gastropub’. There will be more on balloon ascents in a future post on The Star & Garter, Richmond. Main image: ‘The Eagle Tavern Pleasure Gardens, from an old print’, from Dickensian Inns & Taverns by B.W. Matz, 1922, via Archive.org.

Saison Season Pt1: Lemonheads

This first batch of UK-brewed saisons in our new series of tastings are connected loosely by their inclusion of lemon, or lemongrass, and all three just happen to be from London.

They were purchased from Ales by Mail:

  • Partizan Lemongrass (pictured above) — 3.8%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Partizan Lemon & Thyme — 3.9%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Brew by Numbers 01/08 Lemon & Wai-Iti — 6.2%, 330ml, £2.29.

With yesterday’s post in mind, we were looking for the herbs and fruit added to these beers to be noticeable without overriding, and to be integrated into the beer rather than seeming like a shot of fruit squash.

Partizan Lemongrass poured beautifully bright with a persistent but gentle fizz, and was ultra-pale with a pure white head. From the off, opinion was divided: one of us ‘Ugh!’-ed as the other ‘Ooh!’-ed. ‘It smells like washing up liquid,’ said Boak, while Bailey was reminded of fruit tea. The dispute continued as we tasted as, for Boak, the lemongrass was a touch too dominant and brought with it a persistent suggestion of savouriness, while Bailey had no such problem: ‘I could sink this by the pint and, if were in a pub, I might stick on it for the night.’  What we did agree on was that it didn’t much resemble any Belgian saison we’d ever tasted. In fact, despite the absence of wheat in the ingredients list and its crystal clarity, it tasted much more like a witbier (spicy, citrusy, a touch of pot-pourri). The disagreement means we can’t add it to our list of wholehearted recommendations.

We also disagreed about Partizan Lemon & Thyme, although less vehemently. We are both generally of the view that herbs commonly used to season chicken and lamb don’t really work in beer and this did not change our minds. Maybe slightly darker than its stable-mate, but not by much, it had a subdued aroma, with just a passing whiff of zest. The flavour was similarly restrained and brought to mind the kind of slightly astringent golden ales we used to find in ‘real ale’ pubs c.2008. But the thyme was there, giving an unwelcome sickly, savoury note. Boak fundamentally disliked it, while Bailey found it drinkable, though not so much that he’s desperate for another any time soon.

Finally, saving the biggest for last, there was Brew by Numbers Lemon & Wai-Iti — an immediate hit with both of us. (Phew — partnership saved!) It poured clear-to-hazy and, again, very pale. As far as we know, this is our first encounter with Wai-Iti hops and we’re not sure whether it was them, the lemon or a combination of both which provided an aroma reminiscent of Thai pomelo salad. At any rate, it was enticing and faintly enigmatic. Something about the weight of the body and the flavour combined to give a first impression on tasting of milkiness — or was it coconut milk, specifically? Or an Indian lassi? That smooth, almost creamy quality was balanced by an insistent bitterness which lingered and built in the mouth, layer on layer. As with beer #1, we’re not entirely sure saison is the right designation as this too seems to have more in common with witbier. It certainly offers something different to Saison Dupont, and is quirky without being ‘silly’. It’s a definite contender.

We came away from this session with a couple of questions:

  1. Why is wit less cool than saison? Is it Hoegaarden’s fault? Or is it because wit was hip 25 years ago while saison is still, in the broader scheme of things, obscure?
  2. Is citrus, in fact, the defining characteristic of a wit and, if so, does it have any place in a saison?

Next up: because, astonishingly, there is more than one on the market, two saisons with rhubarb, and one with gooseberries.

Gambrinus Waltz: First Review

Our short e-book about the rise of lager beer in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, has been reviewed in the latest edition of the journal of the Brewery History Society.

The editor, Tim Holt, very kindly describes it as ‘well written and superbly researched’ and suggests that we ought to continue the story at book-length. Perhaps it’s time to dust off that draft proposal for a history of lager in Britain and have another go at touting it round?

In the same issue (Winter 2014, No. 160) there is a complementary article about the lager brewery in Tottenham, North London, in which Mr Holt has compiled various pieces from 1880s editions of the Brewers’ Guardian. They confirm what we found to be suggested in census records — that the entire staff of the brewery was of German origin — and add much more detail besides, such as the fact that the brewery was kitted out by Noback Bros. & Fritze of Prague.

And here’s a comment on the beer from 1882 which goes some way to explaining the appeal of lager in Britain:

A bottle of lager beer has been confidentially shown to us, and we must admit that its brightness and clearness really surpasses everything we have hitherto seen about beers.

Any brewers wanting to produce an authentic historic 19th century London lager could do worse than start by mining these pieces for details of, e.g., mashing procedures.

You can get Gambrinus Waltz from the Amazon Kindle store.