Reflecting on Devon Beer

Vintage map of Devon showing Beer Head.

About two years ago, when we still lived in Penzance, we were approached by the editor of Devon Life magazine. He wanted to introduce a monthly beer column and reckoned we were the right people to do it.

We pushed back: we didn’t know Devon well, although Ray spent some time there as a kid and we’ve often visited; and the fee they were offering would barely cover the cost of researching the column. Still, he was insistent, and there was something interesting in the idea of focusing on one county and ferreting out what there was to be ferreted. So we said yes.

Over the course of 20 months we wrote about notable pubs, breweries, bottle shops, nuggets of history, and specific beers. We made special trips to Cockington, Exeter, Exmouth, Newton Abbot, Plymouth, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Topsham and Totnes, and convinced people from various other places to come to us at The Imperial, AKA our Exeter office. We don’t claim this makes us experts — you have to live in a place, ideally for years, before you can really say that — but it did give us a deeper sense of what is going on than we’d otherwise have acquired.

When the column came to an end at Christmas, we took a bit of time to reflect on what we learned, and to draw some conclusions.

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Thought for the Day: Win-Win For BrewDog?

Cartoon: waiter, to customer -- "Don't worry, sir, it's an ironic fly."

BrewDog today announced the launch of Pink IPA, a product identical to their standard Punk IPA except for a bright pink label, and the fact that it will be 20 per cent cheaper for women in BrewDog bars, in reference to the gender pay gap.

Satirically dubbed Beer for Girls, Pink IPA is BrewDog’s clarion call to close the gender pay gap in the UK and around the world and to expose sexist marketing to women, particularly within the beer industry. This is our overt parody on the failed, tone-deaf campaigns that some brands have attempted in order to attract women.

The collective reaction to this, it’s probably fair to say, averages out to something like a pained groan.

Criticism ranges from suggestions of rank cynicism — they knew this would annoy people, thus generating coverage — to a sense that BrewDog (to whom the nickname BroDog has occasionally been applied) is the equivalent of “that lad from your A-level politics class who makes ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes but it’s OK because he’s being ‘ironic’ and is actually a ‘feminist’”. (@alys_key) It’s juvenile, it’s tone deaf, it’s an attempt to co-opt a serious campaign to sell beer. And so on.

Now, from our point of view, the idea itself doesn’t seem so dreadful even if the execution is terribly clumsy. Yes, it might be time for them to admit that a very large, very successful business is not a great vehicle for social commentary or satire — the phrase, we believe, is ‘punching down’ — but we suspect this is intended sincerely, or as sincerely as a marketing stunt can ever be. We believe there are people in management at BrewDog, which remember is very much more than Watt & Dickie these days, who care about these issues and really are trying to find a way to use the company’s clout for good.

But those who are more troubled by this than us (and we don’t question their right to be) find themselves in a quandary. Do they ignore it, thus giving BrewDog a pass? Or do they call it out, thus giving BrewDog publicity?

We’ve long suspected that BrewDog’s marketing strategy is to embed itself into the minds of people outside the beer bubble because that’s the only way to make sense of some its more surprising decisions. We daresay they’d have preferred to go viral today because the reaction to this stunt was positive, but they’ll probably cope with the hurt feelings by reflecting on how they trended on Twitter, got parodied by other monster brands, and were the focus of comment after comment after comment in the global mainstream.

To put that another way, people might be saying, “BrewDog — what a bunch of wankers!”, but at least they’re saying BrewDog, over and over again.

BOOKS: A Scrapbook of Inns, 1949

The cover of A Scrapbook of Inns.

A Scrapbook of Inns by Rowland Watson, published in 1949, is a cut above the usual ‘quaint old inns’ hack job, its snippets of old books and articles acting as an effective index to beer and pub writing from public domain sources.

It’s not rare. We picked our copy up for £3.99 in a charity shop, still in its dust jacket, and with a dedication to ‘Sydney, with best wishes from Rhode & all at Bedford, Christmas 1954’. There are plenty of copies for sale online at around the same price and we’ve seen multiple copies in secondhand bookshops in the past year.

We think — assume — the author is the same Rowland Watson best known as a literary editor, born in 1890, and who died in 1968. He doesn’t have much to say about himself in the foreword, using those two brief paragraphs to hammer an important point: this anthology is not a collection of the usual quotations from Pepys, Dr Johnson and Dickens, but rather of obscurities bookmarked during decades of reading, mostly from the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 3 March 2018: Norway, Nitrogen, Nanas

Here’s all the news and comment that grabbed our attention in the past week, from keg dispense to Rwandan banana beer.

First, Will Hawkes, who you can trust to make a story about keg beer dispense for Imbibe interesting:

Keg beer dispense quality is not often talked about in the UK, at least in contrast to the perpetual hand-wringing that goes on with regard to cask ale. But it deserves to be a very big issue, because a huge number of pubs and bars in the UK are not set up to serve craft keg beer in the best condition…. That’s because most keg dispense equipment in the UK has been designed to suit low-carbonation, sterile-filtered big-name lager brands, which are relatively easy to look after. But modern craft beers come in a bewildering variety and they need individual treatment, be that a higher temperature of serve or a different gas mix.

For Original Gravity Jessica Mason provides a difficult, emotionally intense read about her family and father, ‘the worst man I had ever met in my entire life’, anchored around the pub:

I knew I had mere hours with a man I didn’t know. But with a hundred questions in my head none of which could be answered by someone intent on impressing me, I would need to put my questions aside and make him feel at ease enough to remove his veneer. But how would I do that? Strangely enough, I did know. I needed just two simple props: a pub table and some beer.

Norway in the snow.
SOURCE: Good Beer Hunting

This piece about Norwegian home-brewers by Jonny Garrett for Good Beer Hunting is packed with lovely photographs, interesting incidents and engaging characters:

Reines and I are sharing a quiet moment at the after-party of the town’s homebrew competition and festival, which he organizes. Things are getting a little philosophical because, well, we’ve been drinking since lunchtime. We’ve just spent a half hour kneeling on the floor in front of his new sound system, listening to Nordic heavy metal at a volume I was sure would echo across the fjords and all the way back to my home in England.

Our favourite thing? Fritz the bucket. (Oddly misnamed Franz in the text.)

Edwardian advertisement for Edelweiss beer: top hatted man points at beer with his diamond-topped cane.

Katie at The Snap and the Hiss has further thoughts on the affordability and desirability of craft beer, and the swirling tides of aspiration and marketing that surround it:

I am fully aware and appreciative of the costs involved in creating beer and I am in no doubt that prices are fair (for the most part). I just know that I’m not flush enough. So what am I suggesting here? That breweries should make no-frills beer for us poor people too? That there should be a pay-it-forward scheme involved? No, of course not. I’m just highlighting the fact that keeping up with trends in craft beer is exclusionary in it’s nature and there should be some awareness of this. Not everybody can take part. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who can’t or don’t take part are any less enthusiastic about beer than the people collecting new cans like Pokémon cards.

Sighing bar staff.

There’s been a fair bit of news on the sexism-in-beer front this week:

  1. SIBA has announced its intention to move forward with plans for a code of practice for (or rather against) offensive beer marketing.
  2. The Portman Group held a focus group about sexist beer packaging this week as part of reviewing its guidance.
  3. American brewery Stone dropped a bizarre, awful social media clanger with what seemed to be a joke about sexual consent. This story continues to develop.
  4. Jeff Alworth has been running a series of posts on this subject with input from various women in the industry, our favourite of which is the conclusion: ‘What You Can Do’.
  5. Nicci Peet, a Bristol-based photographer specialising in beer-related subjects, has launched a project to document women in the UK beer industry you can find out more and support her work at Patreon.

Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

Brewers! You will want to get your hands on the new e-book by Andreas KrenmairHistoric German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer. He’s undertaken lots of painstaking research to come up with recipes for everything from Dreher-style Vienna lager to Mannheimer Braunbier. We bought a copy and have already found lots to chew on even though we don’t have any immediate plans to brew.


Here’s something a bit different: from the BBC World Service programme Outlook, some audio, on the subject of  Rwandan ‘banana beer’. Christine Murebwayire grew up in a family of banana beer brewers and then, many years later, used it to drag her family out of poverty:

“A lot of people like to drink banana beer but some educated, smart people feel uncomfortable drinking it because it’s not a very sophisticated drink. So I thought, if I could make a smarter drink to drink on social occasions, it will appeal to a bigger market….”

(We think you should be able to listen to this worldwide; apologies if not.)

This week we’ll finish not with a Tweet as usual but with a film trailer: Walk Like a Panther is a real sign of the times — a Full Monty style comedy about a community banding together to save the local pub from closure.

Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien –

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.