Everything We Wrote in November 2017: Patreon’s Choice, Cask Magic, Brussels

November 2017 (and the ceiling of a Bristol pub)

Here’s everything we wrote last month in one handy round-up, including bits and pieces published in places other than the blog, and links to responses by other bloggers where we spotted them.

We began the month by raving about a delicious Vienna lager from Zero Degrees in Bristol. When we went back for more a few days later, it had run out. We hope it gets brewed again.


We observed that there seems to have been a flood of porters this autumn and mentioned a few we’d spotted. Earlier this week we noticed that Truman’s also have one out, though it’s not the first year they’ve done so. (Lisa Grimm mentioned this post in her contribution to…)


Session #129 was about missing beer styles, which led us to the conclusion that every beer style under the sun appears to be in product in or near Bristol — what a time to be alive! (Eoghan Walsh’s round-up of all the contributions is here.)

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Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?

“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter

It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.

The Crystal Palace.
SOURCE: The British Library.

We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside the Pub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass  was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.

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Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.

British Beer Exports in Pictures

Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has recently been mining data to tell the story of British beer exports in the 20th century. We thought we’d compliment that with some pictures from our collection of in-house magazines.

The pictures come from editions of The Red BarrelThe House of Whitbread and Guinness Time, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. (Yes, Guinness is Irish, but had it’s corporate HQ and a huge brewery in London from 1932.) It’s pretty well content free but we have plans to write something more substantial about all this at some point in the future.

Belgium
A Belgian pub.
Whitbread’s Taverne Nord, Boulevard Adolphe Max, Brussels, c.1933.
A portrait of a man in an office.
C. De Keyser, Whitbread’s Belgian sales manager from 1937.

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Pub Life: Brussels Edition

All the usual trappings: mirrors, coat-hooks, brown wood, low-light, stern overseer, aloof bar staff, glinting glassware of every variety, and two English tourists experiencing mind-expansion.

They have two beers on the go already but are too excited to stop there.

“Bruv, bruv — you’ve got a lot of beers, man. Like… a lot. What would you personally recommend?”

The barman (dunking glasses in soapy water, running a hand around the rim, dunking again, rinsing in cold water) pauses to think. “Personally? I like this.” He presents a bottle of Orval like a waiter with a vintage wine.

“Yeah, open it up, bruv — open it up. Let’s do this.”

“You want two glasses?”

“I got money, bruv — my pockets ain’t shallow. We can have a bottle each.”

“Of course but you have two beers already and it is quite strong.”

“OK, we’ll have one of these, too.”

The tourist points at the lager tap from which the other barman is in the process of pouring eight 25cl glasses, slicing at the foam with a knife so that it surges up smoother behind the cut.

“That? Uh… that’s just a normal pils. Let me give you this with two glasses and if you want something else, no sweat — order it when you’re ready.”

The tourists are now sharing three beers between them, swigging and laughing, getting louder as time passes. Both barmen avoid their gaze, slide past the spokesman’s upraised hand, and ignore his ever more insistent calls: “Bruv! Sir! Mate! Hello! HELLO?” Eventually the boss barks and the other barman reluctantly attends.

“What would you recommend? Something mad. Something different.”

“Okay, how about…” He presents a bottle of gueuze.

“Yeah, two of them.”

“Uh… It’s a little bit… This one is a special beer, quite sour. Why don’t you share? I’ll give you two wine glasses.”

The tourist presents his wallet, waving a wad of cash.

“I can pay, bruv! Just give me two. Oh, no — tell you what, give me a big bottle! You got that in a big bottle?”

“Yeah but, I mean… It’s like, fifteen euro. Seriously, have this small one and if you don’t like it, you haven’t–”

“But if we do like it, can we part exchange for a big bottle?”

The barman considers, and shrugs.

“OK, sure.”

They do not like it.

But by this point, it doesn’t matter, because they are giggling, their stools involuntarily rotating beneath them, feet slipping from the rests. They are slapping their thighs, crying, weeping with laughter. Draining glasses, draining bottles, slurping down yeasty dregs. Having fun… for now.

Neither the elderly woman with her newspaper and espresso, nor the middle-aged couple holding hands as they consult a tool catalogue alongside two perfect chalices of blonde beer, seem to notice or care.

When we leave, the spokesman has his hand in the air again: “Bruv, bruv — what you got with fruit in it?”

The barmen pretend they can’t hear as they urgently restock the fridges, urgently clean some glasses, urgently disappear into the darkest corners they can find.