News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 September 2016: Camouflage, Machines, Monks

We’re still snowed under working on The Big Project but we’ve found time to read a few interesting articles and blog posts in the last week.

First, the author of the Running Past blog profiles a South London landmark, The Northover, which was built in the 1930s, camouflaged during World War II, and made a brief appearance in The Long Good Friday. (Highly relevant to our current obsessions.)


Picture by Michael Kiser for Good Beer Hunting, used with permission.
Picture by Michael Kiser for Good Beer Hunting, used with permission.

Good Beer Hunting continues to sign up great writers to its team. The latest addition is Evan Rail who debuts with a portrait of an American brewer in the Czech Republic:

Despite the American approach, the name itself—which translates, roughly, to something like Brewery Zhůř-guy—is almost ridiculously Czech, containing not only the language’s almost-impossible-to-pronounce ‘ř,’ but also the bizarrely long ‘á,’ to say nothing of the ooh-sounding ‘ů.’ (Oh, and the ‘z’ and the “h’ in ‘Zhůřák’ are pronounced separately. Good luck with that.) 


TV screen showing a monk on the brewery tour.
SOURCE: The BeerCast, used with permission.

It’s difficult to get an interesting post out of a mass junket but not impossible as Richard Taylor demonstrates with his latest BeerCast post contrasting the tour brewery tour at Cantillon with that at La Trappe:

But the problem with Cantillon is that when you combine it with Twitter and Facebook, and become used to breweries communicating with their customers directly 24/7 you develop the worst possible affectation – a sense of entitlement. It doesn’t afflict me very often, but for some reason it did at Koningshoeven – I just expected the monks to be there, mashing in and pausing to answer questions in broken English…


tavern

For the Recipes Project Dr James Brown and Dr Angela McShane of the like-minded Intoxicants Project share an account of a discussion around the question ‘Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?’ It’s a fascinating read with this section on the hearty, nutritious quality of very sweet beer a particular eye-opener:

Indeed, even had they had the technical means to achieve… high levels of fermentation, they would probably not have wanted to: in the more expensive beers, using a lot of malt, they were likely to have been pushing for ‘sweetness and body’ rather than maximum alcoholic strength, which could lead to thinness and an astringent taste.


At Beer and Present Danger Josh Farrington brings news of a brewing project based on machine learning:

Devised by machine learning firm Intelligent Layer and creative agency 10x, the process combines artificial intelligence with the wisdom of crowds, using it’s own algorithms and feedback from drinkers to constantly update, refine, and reiterate the four styles currently being made – a Pale, a Golden, an Amber and a Black. Just as early-adopters can beta-test an app, now you can help develop a beer, responding to an online bot’s questionnaire after each drink, allowing IntelligentX to bring out a newly refined generation each month.

Marketing gimmick, or the future? And will it create beers perfectly engineered to appeal to geeks, or blanded out brews that offend no-one?


Dave S is still struggling to answer a question that bugs him: which British bitters are most highly regarded by beer geeks? This time, he’s crunched some numbers from RateBeer to come up with a ranking.


And finally, another call for help from us:

100 Words: Not an Endorsement

Let’s pop in here for a pint.

Oh, is it good?

Well…

Well what?

Not, good, exactly. Interesting.

What does interesting mean?

There’s always something going on. Some sort of drama.

Oh dear. Is the beer good, though?

Well…. Not good. I mean, it doesn’t taste that nice, but there is something about it.

Sorry, but this sounds terrible.

Oh, yeah, it is, in a way. But we should go in anyway, just for one. It’s brilliant.

Oh, I see — ironic appreciation — ‘So bad it’s good!’.

No, we genuinely like it, we just can’t be sure anyone else will. It’s complicated.

 

Who is Selling Beer ‘Too Cheap’?

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

Some breweries sell beer so cheap that it’s impossible for decent outfits to compete.

That’s an argument we’ve heard multiple times in the last couple of years, usually without naming names, because, as one brewer put it, ‘lawyers are expensive’.

At the more innocent end, it’s breweries making the cheapest beer possible, without particular regard for quality, hoping to scrape a profit by selling a lot of beer on narrow margins. We think that’s primarily what the then MD of Moorhouse’s was getting at here:

The ever increasing number of new brewers entering the growing cask-ale market, he says, has led to some ‘micros’ using Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) tax relief to sell beer at rock bottom price – rather than invest for the future. PBD, a sliding scale of duty, was introduced in 2002 to help small brewers compete.

Spend any amount of time in one area of the country or another and you’ll learn to spot the local bargain brewery: they’re the ones that always crop up in the pubs with FOR SALE signs outside, where the publican is on the phone having a pleading conversation with a creditor, with vultures circling. They’re fodder for Real Ale Pubs that can’t really afford to offer a choice of cask but also can’t afford not to, and that’s can’t get away with charging (ballpark) more than £3 a pint.

In our experience, though, this bargain beer might well taste fine, especially if it’s been looked after well and you’re prepared to accept straightforward over stunning. From the research we’ve been doing in the last year or two we’ve learned that the market has always demanded a range of price points, even at the price of quality: in Liverpool in the early 20th Century, for example, Bent’s was the bargain brewery whose beer was as rough as its pubs, and that served a need. And if cheap breweries disappeared overnight these pubs and their customers wouldn’t suddenly have lots of extra money to spend on painstakingly perfect ales full of Citra or Sorachi Ace — they’d just give up on ale altogether.

We don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, other than that, if you’re the kind of person that worries about The Industry or the health of cask ale culture, it doesn’t do much to win over those who find real ale bland and/or mildly unsavoury.

But then there are the suggestions of outright dodginess: selling beer off the books; offering two casks for the price of one; selling outdated beer, and so on. Dave Bailey of Hardknott expressed his frustration about that kind of thing here:

[Reduced scrutiny by government] is a clear signal to go ahead and pretend that beer is being destroyed, when in fact it is being sold ‘without paperwork’ for cash, no questions asked. Beer duty and VAT no doubt being evaded. I know quite a few business friends that think this is not only OK, but the only thing that can keep a business alive in a tough competitive time. After all, it’d be doing the beer drinker a service by getting the cost of their pint down.

 

Yvan Seth, who works as a beer distributor, commented on last week’s placeholding post with more of the same:

There are some out there who will offer you an extra cask, off the paperwork, as an incentive to put in an order. This is so clearly dodgy that the general suspicion is that these casks are off the books everywhere – no duty, no VAT, etc. And you probably have to be a bit dodgy yourself to even be offered this.

That really does sound bad, and clearly offers an unfair advantage, but if people in the industry know and seem to know who the culprits are (we don’t just mean Dave and Yvan — there’s lots of gossip on social media) we have to ask… Why is it still happening?

Pub Preservation: The Railway Hotel, Edgware

Railway Hotel in the rain.
‘Railway Hotel Unloved’ by Matt Brown, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

We don’t usually get involved in campaigns or promote petitions but this one struck a particular chord with us.

It was set up by Mark Amies (@superfast72) who blogs about history and architecture and has a particular interest in inter-war pubs in the Greater London area. His piece on The Comet, Hatfield, is a particular favourite of ours.

The Railway Hotel in Edgware, North London, the subject of his petition, is another pub from the same period, so few of which are left that the remaining examples have become precious.

It’s a pub we know quite well even though we didn’t make it there on our tour of outer London’s inter-war pubs earlier in the year. It is mentioned in passing in Basil Oliver’s essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House as a notable example of the kind of ‘imposing inn… quasi timber-framed’ that Truman, Hanbury & Buxton were building at the time. Now, Mark says:

It closed in the early 2000’s and has remained boarded up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a portion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been prosecuted for this to our knowledge. The Railway Hotel has has several owners since last year.

These situations can be turned around. A couple of weeks back we visited The Fellowship Inn, a similar premises in South London, which having been listed is now the focus of a well-funded project which promises not only to restore the building architecturally but also to bring it back to life, giving over the pub to experienced chain operators, installing a microbrewery, and turning the derelict dance hall into a cinema.

Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers

Efforts to boost the pub trade often focus on nagging those who already go to go more often, and to more pubs, and drink more while they’re there. This seems misguided to us.

We go to the pub several times a week — more often than most of our friends and family — but sometimes feel under pressure from the collective weight of pub campaigners, messages from the trade, and fellow enthusiasts, to pull a bit more weight. Don’t ask us for specific examples — this is just a sense we’ve picked up over several years drifting about in the conversation.

But we reckon the saving of the pub (if it needs saving — an entirely different conversation) is in making it a normal part of everyday life for more and different people. We have plenty of acquaintances who used to go to the pub, who have a good time at the pub when they do, but just… don’t.

Why not?

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