News, Nuggets & Longreads 10 December 2016: Howlers, Landlords, Shipping Containers

Here’s everything beer- or pub-related that’s caught our attention in the past week, from howlers to sprouts.

The founders of Honest Brew.

We try to steer clear of soap opera spats between businesses but this dialogue in open letters between beer retailers Honest Brew (independent) and The Beer Hawk (now owned by AB-InBev) covers interesting ground, even it is wrapped up in bickering over a cardboard tube. Here’s what Honest Brew had to say:

At HonestBrew, we stand with the independents. We are proud to be a member of the UK beer industry, and look forward to a future where we continue to bring independent, world-class brews to beer lovers across the UK. We pledge to only support and purchase beer that is not controlled by Blandy [AB-InBev].

And here’s Beer Hawk’s response:

The change in our ownership hasn’t changed our values, nor has it changed how we obsess about the world’s best beers… In fact, the change has enabled us to do a better job of hunting out the world’s best beers. We have been able to secure a warehouse five times as large and employ twice as many people. As a result, we have added 300 new beers to our stock and reduced delivery charges by nearly 30%, making all our beer even more accessible to beer lovers. 

(Disclosure: a couple of years ago Beer Hawk sold our book with a case of beer and we wrote some notes to go with it. They didn’t pay us but that counts as a relationship, so, you know…)


Did you know that 75 per cent of the world’s beer mats (drip mats, Bierdeckels) are made in one small town in Germany? For Eater, Brian Blickenstaff visits the factory.


For the Spectator Tom Goldsmith writes in praise of the pub landlord:

These days, it’s not really about the beer — that battle has largely been won. Even grim chain pubs sell craft beer and the days when it took serious research to find a decent bitter are long gone. For me, at least, the mark of a good pub is not its look or its location. There is something to be said for a village inn where your pint of foaming ale is brought to your table next to an open fire, but it’s as easy to have a great time in a 1970s estate pub, if it has the right atmosphere. And this is created (or destroyed) by the pub landlord.

(Via @KnutAl.)


Macro shot of 1p pieces with The Queen's profile.

From Wee Beefy here’s something you don’t read too often: a frank account of the literal cost of being obsessed with beer and pubs:

My debt is mine. I caused it. My lack of funds stems from my own reckless, wilful, degenerate over consumption of ale in fine public houses the land over.

For clarity, specifically, nobody else:

Forced me to go to the pub almost every day for the last 5 years;

Held me at knife-point and poured delicious real ales and keg beers down my capacious throat as if liquid itself was going out of fashion;

Made me buy numerous bottles of beer that one should maybe only buy now and again as an expensive treat;

Compelled me to spend my existing funds and many many more travelling the country with friends and family to visit amazing unspoilt pubs.


David Cameron and President Xi at The Plough.
From Flickr under Creative Commons.

An odd bit of news: in October 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a pub in Oxfordshire with the then Prime Minister David Cameron. This, it turns out, inspired an obsession with the pub among Chinese tourists and the pub has now been bought by a Chinese firm (reports the BBC) which has plans to build a chain of English pubs based on The Plough back home.


Peter McKerry brings news that the railway arch brewery is dead — long live the shipping container!


And, finally, there’s this seasonal image from Twitter:

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.

QUICK ONE: The Flea and Sawdust School, 1927

The English Public House As It Is, a book by social observer Ernest Selley, was published in 1927. Re-reading it in search of a reference, we spotted a passage that hadn’t previously grabbed our attention.

In it, Selley reports on his visit to The Fellowship Inn, Bellingham, South London (pictured above when we visited in August), where he met someone who was unimpressed with the new style of ‘improved public house’:

Evidently this man is a member of what I once heard described as ‘The Flea and Sawdust School’; one of the type which prefers the stuffy ‘coziness’ of the dirty, ill-ventilated taproom to any of the ‘new fangled’ ideas.

Some ancestor of The Pub Curmudgeon, perhaps? (That’s not us having a go: we suspect he’ll quite like the comparison.)

It’s interesting to us that this lobby, which we associate with a certain wing within CAMRA today, was sufficiently well-developed by the mid-1920s for Selley to say he had ‘met several of these critics’, and for it to deserve a nickname. It was clearly, as they say, ‘a thing’.

The Fellowship Inn when it was new.
The Fellowship Inn in c.1920s. SOURCE: Inside Housing.

Also of note, in the section that immediately follows, is an account of early beer snobbery: Selley records a meeting with a bloke who won’t drink at the local improved pub because ‘the beer is rotten’. Selley says he tried it and found it anything but ‘rotten’. In his view the man was prejudiced because he resented the posher, more expensive pub, even though Selley was sure he would have enjoyed the very same beer served at the more down-to-earth ‘Pig and Whistle’. We can’t say for sure what was really going on — Selley was prejudiced too in his own way, in favour of improved pubs — but this kind of debate about value, quality, and the qualities of a ‘proper pub’ is certainly still going on 90 years later.

The Short Pub Documentary — A New Artform?

Pub culture lends itself to film-making thanks to its quirks, eye-catching details, and characters.

We’ve been picking up the odd video here and there over the years but hadn’t checked Vimeo for a while. We were lured there this time trying to answer a question about seafood hawkers in pubs which turned up this gem directed by Matthew Daunt:

Then, following the breadcrumbs, we found this recent portrait of the Steve, landlord of Ye Olde Vic in Stockport:

(Of his fists: ‘Let me just tell you that they’re only resting, not retired.’)

This next film, The Regulars, by Grant Hodgeon, is actually eight years old but it’s the first time we’ve come across it. It’s an eccentric piece in some ways, switching styles, stopping and starting, but there’s no denying the charm of the raw footage:

And, finally, another Stockport pub (is everyone there a documentarian?) filmed by Jake Parker in 2013:

You can really smell the booze and the sticky carpets in that one, can’t you?

The similarity in tone of these films and others — wistful, slightly sad — says something about how the pub is viewed in 21st Century Britain. We suppose it’s because it feels fragile or endangered as an institution that people feel motivated to document it, while they still can.

Is it a new artform? The existence of Peter Davis’s 1962 film Pub, available on the BFI DVD of London in the Raw, would suggest not.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 5 November 2016: ‘Chavs’, Antics and Dirty Tricks

Oof, it’s a big one today, taking in everything from sabotage anti-marketing to the origins of Gold Label barley wine.

John Holmes of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group has written on his private blog about the troubling implications of an updated take on Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’:

The modern pastiche gives us an obese mother, mouth wide open, burger in one hand and phone in the other while her baby shares her chips. The baby is in a onesie with ears while the mother is dressed in leopard-print leggings and a top so small that only anatomically-dubious drawing protects her decency. In combination, these stylistic choices seem designed to define the woman as, for want of a better word, a ‘chav’ and it is hard to escape the sense that we are intended to both judge and blame her for being in a disgusting state and, worse, for inflicting the same destiny on her young child.


Detail from Bourbon County label.
SOURCE: Goose Island, via Chicago Tribune.

Josh Noel at the Chicago Tribune, author of a book about Goose Island brewery, wasn’t satisfied with the vagueness around the origin date of Bourbon County Stout and did some digging which proved that breweries are often the worst sources when it comes to their own histories:

Legend says that the industry’s first stout aged in a bourbon barrel was initially tapped in 1992, at Goose Island’s Clybourn Avenue brewpub… Even the bottles say it, right there in the brown glass, between the words BOURBON and COUNTY — ‘Since 1992.’… But on the eve of this year’s release, I’ve concluded that there’s almost no chance that Bourbon County Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of interviews and hours of research point to the first keg of Bourbon County Stout being tapped in 1995.


The Ravensbourne Arms.

London-based pub group Antic is fascinating and weirdly opaque — we’ve never managed to get them to respond to queries by email or Tweet for starters. For 853, a website about local issues in South East London, Darryl writes about their weird antics (heh) with regard to the Ravensbourne Arms in Lewisham and how the collapse of local journalism has removed a key element of scrutiny:

Lewisham Council granted planning permission for flats above the Ravensbourne Arms as well as development of surrounding land twice, in 2014 and August 2015… The applications don’t mention the pub itself, but this should have rung alarm bells. Housing above pubs can be a way of securing the future of a venue (the new Catford Bridge Tavern will have flats above it). But such developments are also a very good way for developers to shut down the pub itself – these are cases that demand vigilance… The applicant was given as “Antic London”. There is no company of this name registered at Companies House in the UK, nor in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man.

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