100 Words: Checking in On Butcombe

Arriving in Somerset we’re greeted at the door with bottles of Butcombe bitter and their IPA.

Maybe it’s the exhausting journey, maybe the occasion, but both taste great — pure beeriness and sweet Christmas tangerines respectively.

Butcombe bottles in a recycling bin.

There’s more bottled Butcombe with a barbecue, alongside local scrumpy. ‘Cider then beer, you feel queer,’ says Bailey’s Dad. ‘Beer then cider… Makes a good rider!’

The Bath Arms, Cheddar.

Finally, lunch at the manorial inter-war Bath Arms in Cheddar with cool, perfectly styled pints of Butcombe Gold — a straightforward, satisfying amber-coloured ale but without the standard Bitter’s whiff of well-worn hand-knitted jumpers.

Soothing, dependable, decent. Good old Butcombe.

Defining a ‘Classic Pub’

We recently exchanged a few Tweets with pub blogger Martin Taylor (AKA @NHS_Martin) about his term ‘classic pub’ — what does it mean? Does such a thing exist?

There is the abstract idea of the perfect or ideal pub, explored most famously in George Orwell’s rather over-quoted 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’, and at length in a book it inspired, The Search for the Perfect Pub by Paul Moody and Robin Turner, published in 2011. Moody and Turner conclude that perfect pubs are those that possess

individuality, wit and wisdom… which fly the flag for independence in the face of corporate domination and the onset of a homogenised ‘clone town’ Britain: the ones which feed the community yet give back in double measures, at happy hour prices.

We reckon that in this context, perfect and classic are synonymous — both imply a quality that bears reflection, that goes beyond mere function, and to which the drinker has a reaction deep in the soul.

The thing is, Orwell tried to draw up a set of rules — no music, cheap food, pink mugs, and so on — but that’s a flawed approach because it just invites a different kind of homogeneity, and homogeneity (as Moody and Turner suggest) is the enemy of character, which is what causes a pub to latch on to your heart.

Inside the Hunter's Inn, Devon
Inside the Hunter’s Inn, Devon.

On the whole, we prefer pubs with lots of dark corners, but there are pubs which have that but that we don’t like at all, and pubs with bright open spaces, chrome and stripped wood that (against the odds, perhaps) we love. We’ve fallen for pubs with food, and pubs without; pubs with jukeboxes, and those as silent as monasteries; crowded pub, quiet pubs; Olde Inns, new builds; round the corner from our house, or on holiday; full of friendly locals, or big-city-aloof. And so on.

Where this conversation so often goes wrong is in the idea that only pubs that match the observers’ particular preferences (which might take a decade of therapy to understand) are Proper Pubs — TRUE pubs. But pubs have been all sorts of things mixed up and inter-mingled since they faded into existence over the course of a few centuries — wine, beer, gin, food, music, art, theatre, children, bareboards, plush furnishings, cut glass, spit and sawdust — you name it. They’re all part of what is and has been The Pub.

Window of the Star Inn.

And when we talk to people for whom a post-war prefab was the Local, their memories are as fond as yours might be of a favourite Victorian corner pub or distant craft beer bar.

Ultimately, for us, the only defining feature of a pub is that we can walk in off the street without making an appointment and drink a beer or two without eating. (And, we suppose, without being made to feel guilty for not eating either.) Beyond that, what defines the meaning of Pub is its diversity, and what makes for a classic pub is that it gets to you, that you remember it and (optional?) that you find yourself longing to go back.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 July 2016: Root Beer, Lisbon, Pub Habits

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related writing from the past seven days that’s tickled our fancy or piqued our interest, from a hard look at hard root beer to the meaning of the pub.

Canadian beer writer Jordan St. John wanted to write tasting notes on hard (i.e. alcoholic) root beer but noticed that lots of other beer folk seemed to be struggling with the same task because they lacked the frame of reference for describing the flavours. So, before he got to the boozy variant, he got to know the soft stuff:

The last time I had one of these was when I got a Papa Burger at the Eglinton Station food court and at the time it seemed watery and may be in fountain service. There is a vaguely barky presence on the finish, a marshmallowy aftertaste here and an herbal kind of presence on the burp. I would describe the flavour as sweet, but balanced and relatively mild. It’s sort of a weird idea. What do you want with your drive in burger? A vanilla, mint and root bark soda, please, and throw a marshmallow at it.

(Related: Next time you have a Coca Cola look out for the lime note — hard to miss once you know it’s there.)


Duque craft beer in the sun.
SOURCE: Rebecca Pate.

London-based beer blogger Rebecca Pate has been to Lisbon where she observed the signs of a nascent craft beer scene:

Up until 2014, it was nearly impossible to source craft beer in Portugal. The first taproom and bottle shop to open its doors was Cerveteca Lisboa in Lisbon and the city’s first microbrewery, Duque Brewpub, opened in February this year. Duque boasts 10 taps where Portuguese breweries are represented- including offerings from their on-site microbrewery, Cerveja Aroeira, and an expansive selection of bottles.  

(See also: Craftonia.) Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 July 2016: Root Beer, Lisbon, Pub Habits”

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.

Session #113 — Mass Observation — Round Up

For this month’s edition of The Session we asked our fellow bloggers to go to a pub or bar and write a report on what they found, in the style of the 1930s Mass Observation project.

Alan McLeod at A Good Beer Blog didn’t manage to get to a pub or bar but instead shared some brief recollections of his first encounter with the work of Mass Observation in the form of a Penguin paperback, when he was 19-years-old.

Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer visited a St Louis pub where everyone had gathered to watch an episode of a TV game showJeopardy, in which a regular at the bar had competed:

When Gilbert’s picture appeared on the screen (there were two televisions in the bar area, another in the adjoining room) at 4:24 a cheer went up. The place went silent when the competition began, but low level conversations returned quickly enough. Mostly cheers followed, sometimes when he got an answer right, other times when one of his competitors got one wrong. Once in a while a chant — “Will! Will! Will!” — broke out. Wearing a T-shirt decorated with a St. Louis city flag and holding an Urban Chestnut ceramic mug Gilbert settled at one end of the bar, a step outside most of the madness.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds observed a city centre pub in the hour or so after work:

There are real flowers in small vases on the table, nothing too unusual, nice light fittings, press button bells on the walls for service – I’ve tried it, no one came.

City centre pub with empty beer glass.

Rob Gallagher AKA Cuchuilain AKA The Bearded Housewife wrote a long, wonderfully thoughtful piece based on his observations of two very different pubs — a city centre place with craft beer, and a more down-to-earth East London local:

Apart from the discomfort involved in the deliberate observation of other people this task involved a much deeper and more personal discomfort, one that may touch on the secondary part of the brief about ‘The Pub and The People’, and my place within both pubs and peoples. It may get slightly confessional… Politically and philosophically, if not in every day practice, I consider myself working class, but the assumptions and attitudes I’ve displayed in this instance loudly proclaim the old trope of an effete liberal elite condescending to rough it in some sort of patronising urban safari.

Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site managed, by his own admission, only a brief set of bullet points on an outlet for Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, but even that contained intriguing details: ‘There’s a spittoon behind the bar that patrons can try to toss coins into.’

W.J. Kavanagh's -- bar view.

The Beer Nut provided a detailed record (‘homework’, he called it) of comings and goings at W.J. Kavanagh’s in Dublin one Sunday lunchtime, interwoven with tasting notes on the beers he drank. There are no pot plants or spittoons…

But it’s interesting how it has been kitted out, and I’m sure this is one of those features that are common to urban pubs but rarely noticed: everything is subtly nailed down and secured; nothing is hanging loose to be idly torn or knocked onto the floor. The pub doesn’t look at all sparse, but if you wanted to trash the place you’d find it tough to gather materials for doing so.

Luke Corbin gave us our only observation from outside the European-American axis, setting himself up at a bar called Suzuki Drink in Yangon, Myanmar:

An almost requisite stylised image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hangs close to the single television and in a large wall niche a collection of pottery, gourds, traditional instruments and tortoise shells draw the eye.  There are chairs for forty pax and the tables are tacky MDF.  A substantial bar sits in the northwestern corner with a single tap dispensing Regal Seven, a Heineken brand exclusively brewed in Myanmar.  It is surrounded by nice-looking glassware, Regal Seven-branded beer towers and a Conti espresso machine. 

The Anonymous author of the Deep Beer blog went to a ‘Bar & Grille’ in Crownsville, Maryland, with fish-carvings, patterned concrete, hops growing in the garden, and lots of people staring at their phones.

Mike Stein at Lost Lagers undertook an observation at a pub in Washington D.C. where, of 13 people in attendance, 9 were ‘tied to their mobiles’. The more substantial part of his post, however, is an extract from a memoir written by his father, a sociologist himself, about beer in pre-WWII Prague.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: The Anonymous author of Man Beach hung out in a suburban pub in Exeter, Devon, where a baby shower was underway:

The women and children in the alcove are obviously preparing for someone coming in – all but one hide behind the wall. A couple come in – the woman plainly pregnant – to be greeted by cheers from the crowd. A sign on the wall behind says ‘Baby Shower’ and someone has a doll dressed in baby clothes. The landlord/chef brings in sandwiches, snacks etc. for the assembly and later they can be seen playing party games such as ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ with the children.

The beer menu at The Mermaid.

Alec Latham, author of Mostly About Beer, conducted not one but two observation in St Albans, a commuter town just outside London which also happens to be the headquarters of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). First he visited The Boot where he found ‘about 40 customers… virtually all are watching England v Iceland in the Euros on one of the two televisions’. Then, on another day, he went to The Mermaid:

Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock).

At his blog Oh Good Ale Phil, like Alec and Rob, provides notes on two pubs in Manchester, a branch of Wetherspoon’s and a famous brewery tap:

The conversation moves on to Guinness, seen as a particularly challenging beer (‘he said, we’ll chill it to fuck, you won’t have to taste it’) and past acquaintances who had been particularly fond of it (‘he’d just drink pint after pint after pint of it… towards the end of the evening when everyone was on shots, he’d just have another pint of Guinness…’). After a while they all go outside for a smoke; my nearest neighbours are now an animated young couple (both drinking the red cocktails) and a balding man sitting alone, wearing headphones plugged into his phone.

Martin Taylor AKA Retired Martin also looked at two different pubs, one in Epworth, and another in Barton-upon-Humber — ‘will be astonished if this place looks different on 1 July 2036’. Martin’s blog is an extended exercise in pub observation in its own right although he found this particular exercise a bit weird:

I’ve never been a detail person, and this was an odd piece to do, particularly when I had to ask the friendly barman for a pencil sharpener (pen and pencil were essential for authenticity).

Jordan at A Timely Tipple lives in Berlin where he set himself up at an English-style pub offering cask ale alongside more typically German styles:

I try to distinguish what people are talking about, but it’s a touch difficult given the three different languages being spoken in here. Some are catching up; others are discussing the philosophy of death. Typical pub talk, really.

Steve at Wait Until Next Year observed a central London craft beer pub around midday during the week when the customers were mostly colleagues sharing their lunch-breaks:

Variations on pork pies, pork scratchings and crisps are available. They are all on the craft-y side too. The pies are under a glass dome, the scratchings in glass Kilner jars. I see one person order the scratchings and the bar staff put on one of those blue catering gloves for handling them, squashing them into a ceramic ramekin.

And, finally, there’s our own contribution featuring button-up shirts, work boots, poker and a full-hearted rendition of My Way.

* * *

So, what did we learn from this admittedly small sample?

  1. Vaping in pubs, which we saw lot of in Newcastle and a bit in Birmingham, isn’t as universal as we’d expected.
  2. Pubs are pubs are pubs — there’s nothing in the descriptions above that made us think we’d be unable to cope with any of those venues, even Suzuki Drink, which sounds the farthest from our experience.
  3. A major football tournament doesn’t necessarily dominate pubs even when they’re showing it.
  4. That looking closely at even the most familiar pub can reveal intriguing details.
  5. Observations without narrative can seem rather dry… But anyone looking back on these in a hundred years time (digital decay and pending apocalypses permitting) will find plenty to enjoy in every entry.

* * *

If we missed your entry, grovelling apologies — give us a nudge and we’ll sort it. If you wanted to take part but didn’t get round to it in time, it’s worth doing anyway — we’re happy to add links retrospectively. The next Session is hosted by Al at Fuggled: