Category Archives: pubs

The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

An Outpost of CAMRA-land

Trewellard Arms, Cornwall.

CAMRA-land is another country, overlaid upon and occasionally intersecting with the real world.

Like members of most minority nationalities, citizens of CAMRA-land have their cultural centres where they can mingle and speak of the old country in their native language.

These are pubs where games are still given space, open fires are prized, Good Beer Guide stickers cover window panes, and variety trumps ‘localness’ in the choice of beer on offer.

The Trewellard Arms, in the village of the same name beyond Penzance, near Land’s End, belongs to this world, if our fleeting visit on Saturday was anything to go by.

For one thing, the beer wasn’t the Cornish free-house holy trinity of St Austell Tribute/Skinner’s Betty Stogs/Sharp’s Doom Bar. In fact, all three breweries were rather pointedly absent.

Instead, there was Thwaites’ Pure Shores summer ale from Lancashire, alongside another ale particularly beloved of the people of Realalia — Wadworth 6X, from Wiltshire. There was one local ale on offer, but it was Penpont Cornish Arvor, which we’ve only ever seen on sale in Cornwall on a couple of occasions.

Black country pork scratchings, dartboards, CAMRA Kernow award certificates — all the signs were there. There was even a copy of Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s World Guide to Beer peeking out from a windowsill.

A CAMRA member who’d driven for hours to get to a holiday cottage might be dismayed to find a pub that would belong just as well in Sussex or Shropshire

But perhaps that’s not quite fair. Real ale isn’t the be-all-and-end-all — there’s also a long whisky-menu and a serviettes’n’tablecloths dining room — and it’s certainly a Cornish country pub: there are pilot gig racing mementoes on the wall, and so on. Locals come here to sit at the bar and watch the football, while tourists book tables for dinner.

For our part, even though it was in its mid-afternoon, change-over day lull, we loved this pub, and will certainly be back, especially as there’s a bus that runs from right outside more-or-less to our front door.

We’re not citizens of CAMRA-land, as such, but we do feel quite at home there.

Modern Pubmanship, Part 2: Sharing Tables

The second in an occasional series of guest posts by our etiquette expert R.M. Banks.

Pint of Beer illustration.

I am, in general, one of those sturdy types whose natural resting position in the public house is at a 40 degree angle against the bar with one set of hobnails planted on the brass rail, elbows on the drip mat.

From time to time, however, even I cannot resist the siren lure of a chair and table.

For the serious shovelling of peas, the sculpting of mashed tubers, and the dissection of a coiled Cumberland, the convenient horizontality of the C&T is hard to beat.

Continue reading after the jump ⇒

King Street Revisited

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

Last Christmas, we found ourselves on King Street in Bristol, and were astonished to note that it had become home to three self-styled ‘craft beer’ outlets. We subsequently used it as a symbol of ‘the rebirth of British beer’ in the prologue of Brew Britannia.

Back then, Small Bar had only just opened, and, even though there was an exciting sense of commitment to ‘the cause’, it was obviously still finding its feet, serving flat kegged beer, some of it poorly chosen in the first place, amidst paint fumes and an air of mild panic.

Last Sunday, we broke the journey back from Birmingham and braved a night in Bristol to check on its progress.

While the Famous Royal Naval Volunteer across the road was gloomy and mostly empty, Small Bar, was buzzing.

A mini-festival celebrating the Wild Beer Co. (who also get a third of a chapter in Brew Britannia…) and British sour beers more generally was underway, and the chalked-up beer list, with clearly-stated prices, looked especially enticing.

Having missed it entirely last year, and at the Birmingham Beer Bash on Saturday, we started off with Shnoodlepip (6.5%), WBC’s collaboration with Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan, in its 2014 iteration. It was available from straight-up keg and also from an oak cask, so we got a half of each to compare. We didn’t detect much difference except that the former was (surprise!) cooler and had better condition. The barman promised definite oakiness, but we didn’t get it. Overall, there was something of the hedgerow wine about it. It’s tastefully done, and certainly tasty, but not a revelation.

Somerset Wild (5%), also from WBC, was more to our taste. When we spoke to Brett Ellis and Andrew Cooper last summer, they were still working up to using actual wild yeast as opposed to bought-in cultures. This pilsner-pale, appetisingly hazy, gooseberry-wine of a beer is evidence that whatever’s on the breeze in Somerset isn’t just good for fermenting scrumpy. The head disappeared quickly, but the beer had plenty of life, and felt traditional, like the kind of thing farm labourers in Thomas Hardy novels might have enjoyed. A contender for beer of the year, if we can find the opportunity to try it again.

While we were on a streak of finding long-coveted beers with a vague Brew Britannia connection, we were also pleased to encounter  Lovibond’s Sour Grapes (5.4%). (Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibond’s is quoted in the book, as a passionate and eloquent critic of cask-conditioning.) We were expecting, perhaps, indigestion-inducing FEEL THE BURN sourness, so were pleased to find it a clean-but-complex, summery beer which we could happily spend a long session drinking. “Lemon cheesecake” reads the only note we took all afternoon.

Almost everything interesting was £6+ a pint, so it’s not a cheap place to drink, but staff were generous with samples, and we didn’t feel like any of the beers we bought were bad value, insofar as, scarcity aside, they were genuinely different to anything on offer at any of our local pubs.

This was a fun afternoon session in a bar which is in the process of becoming great, and where we felt very at ease. We’ll be back.

Brett Ellis, head brewer at WBC, also happened to be there, delivering a talk to a crowd of fans — was ever there a time when more lectures were given in British drinking establishments?

Supped it Like Bloody Wolves

Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.
Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.

We’ve found more evidence in our efforts to understand the extent to which British people were discerning in their choice of beer before the Campaign for Real Ale came along in the 1970s.

Brian Jackson’s Working Class Community was first published in 1968 and reprinted by Pelican in 1972. It belongs to the ‘working class people as aliens’ genre of academic writing so popular in the 20th century, though it is rather more readable than most examples, and occasionally even funny.

Amongst chapters about brass bands and bowling greens there is one called ‘At the Club’, which includes generalisations based on observations of several working men’s clubs in the north of England. It contains a fair bit about pubs, which were apparently considered expensive and ‘stuck up’:

Ah never go into a pub at all now. Clubs are much more sociable, like. Look at this. Ah couldn’t rest me legs across a chair in t’pub. Here it’s like being at home. As long as Ah don’t put me feet on t’seat, Ah’m all right.

But we were mostly intrigued by the section called ‘Drinking’. Unlike pubs, which were mostly tied to breweries and thus offered a limited range…

Working men’s clubs are a cooperative venture in the purchase and sale of beer and spirits. Each offers a choice of several draught beers, and the brews are changed ruthlessly as members demand…

Club members, it seems, were ‘discriminating and demanding’ in their choice of beers, and so, despite competitive pricing, it often had the best ale in town:

There is an excellent draught beer brewed which is sold in surrounding Yorkshire. But it cannot be obtained in Huddersfield public houses because the pubs are in possession of rival concerns. The beer, though good, is blocked out. Except for the clubs. In almost every one a pint of this ale could be bought. The beer was chosen and sold on its merits, quite regardless of the major brewery strategy which limits the range of the pub drinker.

(What can it have been…?)

There is also an amusing worm-that-turned narrative in the clubs’ resistance to advertising and salesmen from big breweries. They would, according to Jackson, take loans and gifts from breweries, without feeling any obligation to then buy beer from them. Here’s an account of an attempt by a rep from Yarnold’s to win over punters at one club:

Ah remember a traveller bringing a barrel. It were free while he was here, he paid for t’lot. They supped it then, y’know. They did that! They supped it like bloody wolves! But when he were gone nobody would touch it. It’s like lead in y’belly is that stuff. When Ah had some, Ah felt as if Ah’d swallowed yon plumb-line from t’window there.

So, they were discerning, but what did it mean, in this context? Were they interested in flavour, strength, or something more abstract? Unfortunately, that’s where the book lets us down, though who knows what more detail might lurk in the original field notes.