Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy

You never saw The Beatles live? Seriously? But they’re a hugely important band!

That’s a bit how it feels to have been into beer for all these years without ever getting to know Thomas Hardy’s Ale. It was listed in the Bible of our early enthusiasm, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide, and the elder statesfolk of beer writing all seem to have cellars full of the stuff and have tasted multiple vintages, multiple times, all the way back to 1968.

Our one encounter with it — or, rather, Bailey’s — is from a year or two before we started blogging. His dad brought some home from work at Christmas, discounted out-of-date stock (ho ho!) being a warehouseman’s perk. Innocently, they drank it fresh and, being more used to straightforward 4% session bitters, found it insanely strong and sweet and weird tasting. Most of the bottle went down the sink.

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy”

Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)

QUICK ONE: Strange Times

Illustration: Shining beer.

If we’re in a bubble, then the bubble is getting bigger, or getting crowded, or leaking, or something.

There is a prevalent idea that beer geeks over-estimate the impact of what’s going on with beer at the moment because they’re — we’re — in a kind of echo-chamber. We’re inclined to agree with that up to a point, but then things like this do keep happening.

1. A friend from university who as far as we recall had no particular interest in beer back then, has started a brewery in Japan. A proper one, and apparently successful. He was in the UK recently taking part in a collaboration brew with a well-established British outfit. It’s all over Facebook and it weirds us out, in a quite delightful way. (Hakuba Brewing Co.)

2. Another old pal tells us that his best friend from secondary school has opened a specialist beer shop, where he was himself working the occasional shift until recently. (The Dronfield Beer Stop.)

Continue reading “QUICK ONE: Strange Times”

SIBA Says This is Craft Beer

AIBCB logo.

While we were away SIBA announced a new certification scheme for British craft breweries – that is, a stamp of approval: ‘SIBA says this is Craft’. Having had chance now to get our heads round it a bit, here are some quick thoughts.

1. Our gut reactions to this are just on the positive side of neutral. Yes, it’s partly about SIBA attempting to seize control of the story and shore up its own status, which has seemed shaky in recent years, but they’re not doing anything evil, or that someone else (CAMRA, for example) couldn’t have done if they’d been bothered; and there are distinct benefits for both retailers and consumers.

2. As with the failed United Craft Brewers project, though, a lot will depend on whether anyone actually signs up. Many brewers who are, by almost any definition, ‘craft’ will not be able to afford the fee for accreditation. Others, meanwhile, have beef with SIBA over, for example, their middle-man wholesaler role. If a situation arises where certain outlets are inaccessible to breweries — we can imagine big pub/bar chains agreeing to sell only SIBA accredited craft, for example – then, yes, some holdouts might feel compelled to join, but others would feel even more resentful. SIBA will want to avoid the perception that it’s a way of bullying people to join.

Thornbridge, 2013.

3. SIBA’s definition of ‘craft’ is as valid as any other. We’ve long said that we’re quite happy with multiple overlapping definitions, and with working definitions designed for particular contexts. As it is SIBA’s definition…

* ‘Has agreed to abide by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice’
* ‘Is truly independent of any larger controlling brewing interest’
* And brewing no more than 200,000hl per year.

…chimes very substantially with our own fairly broad Definition 1. That is, it allows for many traditional British brewers specialising in cask and isn’t just about the hip post-2005 keg-friendly scene. (Definition 2, same link.)

For confused licensees and retailers keen to do the right thing this may well be helpful, even if all they do is use SIBA’s definition, or react against it, to inform their buying decisions.

4. The flipside of the problem of some small brewers feeling financially excluded is that for once, the biggest multi-national brewers, however much money they have, cannot buy their way in. Independence and smallness are both blunt measures of ‘craft’-ness but they are something, and one that someone who doesn’t think about the politics of beer 24-7 might stand a chance of getting their head round. In fact, one of the best things about SIBA’s definition is that it reflects what the public think ‘craft’ means based on market research rather than attempting to dictate it to them:

46% of beer drinkers, by far the biggest group, regard craft beer as ‘made by small brewers rather than large corporations’, although one in ten beer drinkers are unsure what the term means. 35% regard craft breweries as ‘artisanal’ with 22% associating the term with ‘small’ and 14% with ‘local’.

5. It certainly moves the conversation forward – one that has been stuck in a loop since about 2009 – and, most importantly from our selfish perspective, gives us a solid answer to the question, ‘What is craft beer exactly?’ Being able to say, ‘Well, SIBA defines it as…’ will be much easier than the rambling and inconclusive lecture we’re currently obliged to give, and far more helpful than a baffled shrug.