News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 July 2017: Germany, Quality Control, Staly Vegas

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s grabbed us in the last week, from the politics of micropubs to the price of a six-pack.

Suzy Aldridge (@lincolnpubgeek) brings interesting news from Lincoln which might or might not be meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the keg-heavy local craft beer bar has morphed into a cask-led micropub. Suzy quotes the local CAMRA chair:

As I see it, the craft scene is predominantly aimed at the younger market, and with Lincoln’s nightlife being predominantly student led I could foresee such a business struggling during the University break. Who knows in the future things may change, but for now I will support “The Craft Rooms” in its new incarnation as “The Ale House”.

This certainly fits with our reading of how micropubs and craft beer bars fit together — as versions of the same thing, both essentially products of changes in licensing law and renewed enthusiasm for beer, but catering to different demographics.


Detail from the cover of a German brewing textbook.

Ben Palmer (@Johnzee7) is a British apprentice brewer studying in Germany. On his blog Hop & Schwein he has gathered some observations on German brewing culture based on his experience so far:

The reason I make the generalisation about ‘German brewers’ in the first place is because they must all jump through the same educational hoops in order to become recognised as a brewer… I estimate that 99% of people in production based brewery roles have at some point completed this apprenticeship, sat the exams and, most importantly, received the certificate to prove this. Germans really like certificates. And official stamps too.

His thoughts on how this might be changing with the rise of learn-on-the-job American-influenced Craft Beer brewers are especially fascinating.


Anonymous beer can viewed from above.

At Beer and Present Danger Josh Farrington provides a useful round-up of recent quality control incidents in UK brewing — exploding cans, dumped batches, product recalls — and reflects on why some breweries continue to let customers buy flawed beer despite the current culture of highly-publicised self-flagellation:

Even in the past weekend, I had two canned beers from a pair of small breweries, only to find one was a scorched earth of smoky phenols crammed into a supposed Bavarian helles, while the other was a classic English IPA that had become a metallic soup, like slurping on a slurry of batteries. I can accept that mistakes happen after the beer is packaged – that everything was given the okay in the first instance, that the first swig tasted swell – but there’s no excuse for not making regular checks, or taking samples from across the range, to ensure that what you’re sending out to market is as good as you think it is.


The Wharf Tavern.

One of our favourite blog post formats is the thoughtful home town pub crawl and this week’s contribution is from Mark Johnson at Beer Compurgation who has been exploring Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. He starts by setting the scene:

To many in the north-west it is famous for its nickname of Staly Vegas, that came about (as far as I’m aware) through… a sort of revitalisation project around the central canal area by the new Tesco, improvements to two bus stations and an influx of age-restricting, dress-code-enforcing bars and pubs… The concept of Staly Vegas began to die around 2007 and officially broke in 2011, with the lowering of strict entry policies bringing delinquent youths and drug dealing to the once respectable bars. What the town has been left with for six years is numerous boarded up buildings once used as venues that seem to be no longer use or ornament.


Fry: "Shut up and take my money!"

Jeff Alworth at Beervana has some interesting thoughts on beer pricing that take into account the question of reputation over time:

Every decision a brewery makes about pricing has benefits and risks. Budget-pricing may move product, but it reduces profit margins and may eventually damage a brand’s reputation, miring it in the lower tier in consumers’ minds. Once there, it’s difficult to raise prices. On the other hand, pricing beer at the upper end increases profits, establishes a brewery as a premium producer, but may appear like gouging once the shine has worn off the brewery’s reputation.

(The first comment there is interesting, too, reminding us that even if conversations about price/value aren’t visible on social media doesn’t mean they’re not happening.)


And, finally, here’s some eye candy from the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London which has recently been digitising some fantastic images of pubs from their archives, as shared on Twitter by Stef Dickers, Special Collections and Archives Manager.

A London pub in black-and-white, c.WWII.

Appy Meal

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

We’d noticed Wetherspoon pubs pushing their order-at-your-table phone app but didn’t feel moved to download it until Bailey’s parents started raving.

They first used it in Exeter the other week and rang us up to tell us about it, so excited were they. Bailey’s Mum:

The bar was six deep and we were knackered and then we saw the thing on the table advertising the app, so I downloaded it. We ordered drinks and food and they arrived in minutes, no queue! Brilliant.

Then, during the house move, we ended up in Spoons with them a couple of times, where they kept up the propaganda campaign. Bailey’s Dad seemed puzzled as to why we’d keep putting ourselves through the misery of queueing at the bar when such a wonder existed.

And that’s a good question — what had stopped us?

For one thing, we had some ethical qualms — won’t this put bar staff out of work? Isn’t full self-service automation the next stop? (Probably not.) At-table ordering via apps and touchscreens has been taking off in US fast food chains in recent years (probably where Mr Martin got the idea, being a known McDonald’s worshipper) and similar debates have been underway there, too.

More selfishly, we had our doubts about how well it might work for fussy drinkers like us — would it make ordering guest ales easier, presenting them in a neat list with all the info, or simply give the basic core drinks list?

I kept thinking about all this, perhaps because I had some responsibility for procuring and maintaining electronic point of sale systems (EPOS) in my last job, and so, on Wednesday, I cracked and gave it a go.

My chosen testing ground was The Imperial in Exeter, a beautiful building so vast that (first hurdle) the app kept warning me I was 142 yards away from the pub when I was actually sat at one end. The app downloaded in seconds over the pub’s own free wi-fi and was incredibly easy to use — it was clearly tested thoroughly on real people before roll out. For ordering food, it worked brilliantly. Being on my own, with work papers and laptop, I loved the idea of being able to get served without the usual anxious glancing back and forth from bar-staff to table, worrying whether my stuff was about to get half-inched.

As suspected, though, it fell down on drinks. The Imperial has two bars each with different ales and the app ought to be a way to show picky ale drinkers everything on offer in one neat list. As it is, I could only order the cross-chain standards (Doom Bar, Abbot, Ruddles) so I ended up having to do the anxious bar dash anyway.

And, unless I’m missing something, there’s no way to apply the CAMRA voucher discount. Probably a deal breaker for many, but probably also on the project planner for a future version: e-vouchers with a pin code, saving on all that glossy paper, perhaps?

As I sat there, Billy no mates, I pondered those ethical questions and concluded that, frankly, if you’re in a Wetherspoon pub, you’ve already crossed the line — Spoonsland is a realm of pure capitalism, for better or worse. There’s also something pleasing, not to say amusing, about the idea of Tim Martin, arch Euro-sceptic, quietly introducing something like Continental-style waiter service to English pubs.

Overall, I was impressed, and can imagine using it for ordering the chicken wings to which I’m addicted, if not drinks. While that’s not quite the sci-fi future they promised us it’s pretty astonishing all the same.

Further reading: this article on the pros and cons of the app from the Independent, published back in March, is an interesting read that takes a balanced view.

PLAYLIST: 20th Century Pub

When we’re writing anything substantial we often find it useful to put together a soundtrack. Here’s the one we made for our new book, 20th Century Pub, which is due back from the printers anytime…. now.

It’s a funny old bunch of songs, some chosen because we like them, others because they evoke a mood or period. We could easily have included 50 songs from the 1920s to the 1940s that we listened to endlessly while working on the earlier portions of the book.

You’ll find the full playlist on Spotify here:

And below there are notes on each track along with YouTube videos where we could find decent ones for those of you averse to Spotify for whatever reason.

The book should be shipping in the next week or so despite an official publication date of 15 September. You can order it via Amazon UK or ask in your local bookshop.

In the meantime, have a listen to the playlist by way of a trailer, perhaps as an accompaniment to The Pubs of Boggleton.

Continue reading “PLAYLIST: 20th Century Pub”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 July 2017: Quality, Icebergs, Cheesecloth

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that’s caught our eye in the last week, from beer quality to iceberg water.

A debate about beer quality has flared up in New Zealand prompted by this piece by veteran beer writer Geoff Griggs in which he suggests there is too much faulty self-proclaimed craft beer on the market. It’s an interesting piece in its own right — ‘People aren’t looking for quality beer, as long as it isn’t s…, and you have super sweet packaging and an even better story you will sell heaps.’ — but this response from Jason Gurney at Brewhui is arguably more so. In it, while suggesting that Griggs is wrong to have made such a sweeping statement at this stage, he proposes some concrete, constructive actions for improving beer quality overall, e.g.

We need to facilitate an audit system regarding brewing, packaging and distribution models. If a brewery is having an issue with beer quality, then it’s feasible that this issue is caused by a systematic problem with the way they are brewing, packaging, and/or distributing their beer.  There’s nothing like documenting each step of your process for identifying where things can be done better – and as such, the Brewer’s Guild need to facilitate an audit system that is easy to access and actually valuable from the perspective of the brewery.  I would suggest that international, independent advisors could again be useful here – but it’s also possible that a national peer-review system could be effective too.  It really depends on how much we truly believe in the collegiality of the brewing community.

That’s an interesting idea, as are the others — but which body could administer something like this in the UK? Surely not the currently under fire SIBA.


A London pub glimpsed up an alleyway.

After the slightly controversial inclusion of Marina O’Loughlin’s ‘I don’t like pubs’ piece last week, here’s another, by Jessica Brown for Longreads, which reaches a similar conclusion, but via a more positive, thoughtful, literally meandering route:

I wondered if the Britons’ third place could be pubs… The pub seems to be a perfect fit; at least, it does when you’re looking through the lens of nostalgia, as one can easily do when under the alien skyscrapers and mystical spell of the city… But recently there’s been a decline in the number of pubs, and the ones that remain are struggling to survive. Partly to blame is a shift from the traditional community pub of locals to strangers’ cocktail bars and pop-ups — a new kind of plague on the city.


Josh Noel writes about beer for the Chicago Tribune and is trying out a new format: a simple report of a crawl around a single neighbourhood in one evening. His first ramble was around Pilsen which sounds fascinating:

As recently as nine months ago, Pilsen had no taprooms or brewpubs. In the midst of a food and drink uprising — some call it gentrification — Pilsen, a home to Mexican immigration since the 1950s, suddenly has three.


Quidi Vidi Brewing, Newfoundland.

Rebecca Pate, a Canadian based in the UK, made a visit home recently and reports on a troubled Newfoundland brewery that uses an unusual ingredient in its flagship beer:

The brewery has an iceberg harvester contracted to extract iceberg water, a dangerous process involving cranes and grappling hooks. An unfortunate effect of climate change means that Iceberg Alley, a colloquial term used for the ecozone that stretches from Greenland to Newfoundland, is replete with icebergs traversing the waters. Some have been visible from St John’s harbour, according to the locals.


Beer being poured through a cheesecloth.

Patrick Dawson, who literally wrote the book on ageing beer, recounts his experience of drinking Victorian beers from crusted bottles for Craft Beer & Brewing:

The beer had to be poured through a piece of cheesecloth to strain out crumbled bits of ancient cork. After 15 minutes and four different corkscrews, it became apparent that holding back 10 percent ABV beer for more than 145 years had been too much for the aged stopper. This bottle of the vaunted Ratcliff Ale, a barleywine brewed by Bass in 1869, just four short years after the end of the American Civil War, must have had an Encino Man-moment being poured out into this radically changed world.


And, finally, pub photo of the week must surely be this piece of misty, mournful romanticism from 1960 (via @JamesBSumner):

Pub Perfume

The corner of a pub lounge in Chester.

The recent tenth anniversary of the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs prompted quite a few comments like this one:

It’s funny how rarely the smell of pubs is discussed when it’s such an important part of the sensory experience, and capable of conveying so much. One of our favourite ever quotes is this from an essay by Adrian Bailey for Len Deighton’s 1967 London Dossier:

“Before opening time there is a virgin aroma of freshness, an inimitable pub-perfume mixture of hops and malt, spirits and polish with perhaps a faint touch of violet-scented air-freshener. This is my boyhood nostalgia. Spilt ale, dried and sugar-sticky.”

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few distinct ‘pub perfumes’.

There’s the spore-laden waft of cold air from the cellar for example that, at the right dosage, seems to enhance the atmosphere; but, in excess, can be nauseating, suggesting damp and decay. Similarly, there’s the tang of stale beer soaked into old carpets that a certain type of down-to-earth old-school pub wears proudly, like a 1970s aftershave.

There are a couple of pubs we can think of whose toilets are an intrusive presence, however many equally intrusive air fresheners are deployed, accompanied by meandering and thirsty fruit flies. This is never appealing.

One of the most pleasant smells in a pub is that of an open fire — rustic and homely, a link to the past.

Sometimes the customers contribute to the aroma with too much in the way of toiletries, or too little — a particular problem in the crush at the bar. Increasingly, vapers add unsubtle but not always unpleasant layers of cinnamon, vanilla, apple and so on.

But, generally, most pubs these days smell almost neutral (deliberately perfuming pubs is frowned upon even as scented candles take over the world) thanks to rigorous cleaning regimes and fans designed to suck away the pong of the deep fat fryer. That’s probably better on the whole but, as is often the case, consistency can sweep away character along with the problems it was sent to fix.