Category Archives: pubs

Record Where You Drink For Posterity

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

Thank goodness for Nathaniel Newnham-Davis and his eye for detail.

An early food writer — the Jay Rayner of his day — ‘The Colonel’ wrote reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette as well as several books such as Where And How to Dine in London.

We are especially grateful to him for having taken the time and space to write at length about one of London’s 19th century ‘lager beer’ saloons. He described what was seen on entering, the light, the clientèle, the glassware, the food, the pictures on the walls, the floorboards, seating, taxidermy, staff, proprietor, food, and, most importantly, the beer itself.

Many other such establishments were beneath the attention of writers and so might as well never have existed for all that we can find out about them beyond their street address and the date on which their owners went bankrupt. (They always went bankrupt.)

It was much the same in trying to find out about pubs from the 1970s while working on Brew Britannia, Becky’s Dive Bar being an exception as it was too bizarre not to write about.

If you’re stuck for an idea ahead of ‘going long’ on Saturday (30 August), why not look long and hard at a pub or bar of your acquaintance — especially if it doesn’t get much attention — and write an excessively detailed description of it?

Zoom in. Get out your microscope. Examine its pores.

Future historians will thank you.

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?