Record Where You Drink For Posterity

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

Thank goodness for Nathaniel Newnham-Davis and his eye for detail.

An early food writer — the Jay Rayner of his day — ‘The Colonel’ wrote reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette as well as several books such as Where And How to Dine in London.

We are especially grateful to him for having taken the time and space to write at length about one of London’s 19th century ‘lager beer’ saloons. He described what was seen on entering, the light, the clientèle, the glassware, the food, the pictures on the walls, the floorboards, seating, taxidermy, staff, proprietor, food, and, most importantly, the beer itself.

Many other such establishments were beneath the attention of writers and so might as well never have existed for all that we can find out about them beyond their street address and the date on which their owners went bankrupt. (They always went bankrupt.)

It was much the same in trying to find out about pubs from the 1970s while working on Brew Britannia, Becky’s Dive Bar being an exception as it was too bizarre not to write about.

If you’re stuck for an idea ahead of ‘going long’ on Saturday (30 August), why not look long and hard at a pub or bar of your acquaintance — especially if it doesn’t get much attention — and write an excessively detailed description of it?

Zoom in. Get out your microscope. Examine its pores.

Future historians will thank you.

Supermarket Saminess

Green Bottles Standing on a Wall

Having written about the benefits of drinking at home, we felt the urge to tramp to Penzance’s three out-of-town supermarkets with a simple mission: to pick up two or three interesting-looking beers we hadn’t tasted before.

This, it transpired, is easier said than done.

At Sainsbury’s, we found nothing that persuaded us to part with our cash. The same old breweries and the same old beers took up most of the shelf-space, with a few seasonal ‘specials’ giving the illusion of variety.

Morrison’s was… well, we thought we’d somehow teleported back to Sainsbury’s. That re-badged Marston’s IPA? Check. Summer ales in clear bottles? Plenty. We left there empty-handed, too.

Finally, at Tesco, we had a bit more success. BrewDog Libertine, a black IPA (7.2%) we ought to have tried but haven’t, was newly-listed at £1.99 per 330ml bottle.

Purely because it was something different, we also picked up some Wadworth Swordfish (5%) even though (a) the concept (strong ale laced with rum) sounds unappealing and (b) we’re generally underwhelmed, and occasionally even appalled, by Wadworth’s output.

All in all, it was a lot of effort to add two beers to our stash.

Though we didn’t see much mild or stout (because it’s summer?) supermarkets do still offer a great opportunity to buy beers in a range of styles, for not much cash. For the novelty-seeker, however, it seems they’re rather a wash-out these days.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23/08/2014

Pint of beer illustration.

We found time to put together a (small) Saturday round-up after all! Yer tis.

→ Saved to Pocket: Evan Rail on how a renowned computer hacker is bringing Berliner Weisse back to the city of its birth. (From what we’ve read so far, this looks like a superb questioning, probing piece of writing.)

→ Home brewers with a love of detail: Derek Dellinger’s home brewing experiments continue with tweaks to yeast selection and water treatment.

Stephen Beaumont lays down the law on the use of ‘Belgian’ and ‘Belgian-style’ as descriptors, and Stan Hieronymus gently questions his underlying assumption.

→ The Beer Nut’s series of posts on Bristol (1 | 2 | 3) have made for good reading in the last week. We agree with several of the points he makes, especially this one:

Moving from BrewDog to Zero Degrees was like stepping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bristol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a period piece from a time before bare wood and distressed lettering, when iconoclastic British beer meant cavernous halls, bare concrete and steel gantries.

UPDATE: we’ve removed the bit about the atmosphere at the Great British Beer Festival and might try to revisit later in the week.

Lager: Bait and Switch

A can of lager in cunning disguise.

By Bailey (edited by Boak)

How easy is it to tell one standard lager from another? And how much are we influenced by packaging and ‘brand values’?

After a rocky start, we’ve very much embraced St Austell Korev as our go-to lager. It is straightforward but tasty, and very good value in cans, which is why we didn’t hesitate to recommend it in this listicle for the Independent.

But, enjoying a half in a harbour-side pub, where it cost £4.20 a pint, Boak wondered aloud, “If they just gave me Heineken in this nice glass, would I notice the difference?”

Which gave us an idea. We agreed that, from then on, we would find opportunities to test each other by secretly replacing Korev with big-brand lagers.

Then, last week, fresh relevance was provided by a study which suggested most people served blind couldn’t tell one mainstream lager brand from another.

Last night, I finally seized the opportunity, dangling a can of Korev, but actually filling the poshest glass I could find with Carlsberg Export (can, 5%, ‘Produce of the E.U.’) and serving it up with due ceremony.

Cards on the table: she did not immediately notice the difference. The beer was cold and looked fantastic. It was only as it began to warm up that she started to suspect something was up: “Did you say this was Korev? It tastes weird. It’s much more… bland than usual.”

I really wanted Carlsberg Export to pass the test because it’s dead cheap and easy to find, but the fact is, it simply isn’t a satisfying beer. It’s clean, yes, but it’s also sweet to the point of sickliness. With more hops, or even more hop extract, it might do the job, but, like this, it’s barely even thirst-quenching.

So, round one to Boak, and to Korev.

Now, this wasn’t even remotely scientific and I was probably giving off all kinds of cues (though I avoided sniggering mischievously…) not to mention the fact that she knew this was going to happen at some point. But it was enough to convince us.

I wonder when my turn will come?

The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007