News, Nuggets & Longreads 30 September 2017: Bang Chang, Meerts, Cork Mild

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that got our brainboxes revving in the past week, with bulletins from Bhutan to Runcorn.

The Cask Marque Cask Report was published this week (PDF) written this year by Rosie Davenport. We’re still digesting it, and, like others, debating its value, but in the meantime James Beeson has written an excellent summary with additional industry comment for the Morning Advertiser:

The headline statistic from this year’s report highlights that sales of cask beer are down by 5% over the past six years, and 3.8% in the past year alone. While it is undoubtedly disappointing, and indeed worrying, to see cask suffering a sharp decline in sales, this is symptomatic of a wider decline in beer drinking across the UK, with keg beer and lager also falling by 25% and 11% respectively.


Brewing in an outdoor kitchen, Bhutan.

For Beer Advocate** Martin Thibault has visited the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to explore its farmhouse brewing culture:

So, Bang Chang and Sin Chang, the nation’s two types of farmhouse ale, are often made from 100 percent organic raw wheat cultivated by each household. In some cases, even the yeast culture itself is coaxed from these same fields… Some of these farmers not only grow their cereal and brew from it, they also make their own yeast bagels from bits of dried bark, leaves, and powdered maize or wheat, which are cooked and solidified. Aun Namgay, a Scharchop woman from Radhi, a hamlet in the country’s sparsely populated east, explains that her newly baked cakes need to be coated in an older ‘mother’ bagel for the fresh ones to be truly effective.

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Partial Pub Preservation: Hermit Micropubs?

Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?

We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.

In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.

Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.

At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.

So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.

The Greenford Hotel, west London.

Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.

Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.

Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.

But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!

The Alpine Gasthof: Let’s Crack This

We’ve been working on an article about German Bierkellers in English towns in the 1970s and as a side quest found ourselves looking into one of the UK’s weirdest pubs: The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

We’ve never been, though it’s very much on the wishlist, but Tandleman wrote about his visit earlier in the year:

Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith’s pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup. This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don’t do that… Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town… The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam’s, sort of on the cheap.

Although there are lots of photos, and though everyone seems quite fascinated by the place, there don’t seem to be many concrete facts. When was it built? Why?

We didn’t hold out great hopes for any information from the brewery which is notoriously tight-lipped but did get this, which is a start:

The Alpine Gasthof was built in the 1970s (don’t have the exact date to hand) because the previous pub we had on that site had to be demolished for road widening. To have a bit of fun we decided to build a pub modelled on the Brauerei Gasthof Hotel in Aying, Germany because at that time we were brewing Ayinger beer under licence.

We can well imagine Sam Smith’s execs going to Aying during licence negotiations and being charmed by the original, pictured here in a shot taken from the gallery on the hotel website:

Brauereigasthof-Hotel-Aying exterior.

Although, oddly, the pastiche doesn’t look that much like it. Here it is photographed in 2013, via Ian S on Geograph.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence:

The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

With a bit more to go on we reckon we can guess that the date of its construction was around 1972, at the tail-end of the theme pub craze (Further reading: Chapter 5 in 20th Century Pub) and just as the German Bierkeller trend was kicking in. That’s also when Sam Smith’s started brewing Ayinger-branded beers. But we’re awful short on actual evidence. We thought this might be something…

Google Search result.

…but there are two problems. First, though Google Books has the date of publication as 1972 the particular issue referencing the Alpine Gasthof might be from, say, 1978. We’ve come across this problem in the past. It’s hard to know until you have the journal in front of you, fully readable. Secondly… It says Wetherby, Yorkshire. Surely some mistake? But, no, apparently not — there is at least one other (slightly odd) reference to an Alpine Gasthaus in Wetherby, giving the address as Boroughbridge Road, LS22 5HH. That led us to this local news story about the burning down in 2005 of the Alpine Lodge, a two-storey chalet-style building in Kirk Deighton (Wetherby). There are various other bits out there including this interview with the couple who ran it for several decades and a teasingly indistinct photo taken from a moving car in bright sunlight on this Facebook nostalgia website. We’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, with some tweaks — hopefully no-one will mind.

The Alpine Inn AKA the Alpine Lodge.

What a bizarre building to find there on the side of the A1.

And that leaves us with two Alpine-style Sam Smith’s pubs to be puzzled about.

So, do drop us a line if you know anything concrete about the origins of either pub (that is, not reckonings or guesses); have friends or family members who might have drunk in them; or live near either Rochdale or Wetherby and fancy popping to your local library to look at newspapers for 1972.

Crimes Against Tea

I’m as fussy about tea as I am about beer, but perhaps in a slightly different way.

I started drinking tea when I was about 2-years-old — weak and milky, then, out of a bottle. The not so fun side of this is that by the time I reached my teens I was on about ten cups a day and suffered withdrawal symptoms (migraine, faintness) if I missed a dose for some reason. Tea is, after all, a powerful stimulant and vehicle for caffeine, despite all the Great British Bake Off tweeness that comes with it.

Over the years I’ve got to a healthier place with a general cutting back and the odd decaff placebo, though I can still be knocked out the next day if I don’t have a cuppa mid-afternoon. And that’s one reason I often end up drinking tea in pubs, between or instead of pints.

There are other good reasons too, of course: it’s a terrific pick-me-up; it gives the palate and the liver a break; it’s warming, which can be useful on a winter pub crawl for icy-fingered folk like me; and (perhaps not universally applicable) it’s entirely historically appropriate in an inter-war improved pub. (Especially for a ladylike lady like wot I am.)

So, here are my thoughts on the quality and presentation of tea, some of which apply to pubs, and some more general.

  1. Just as with beer, how it’s treated matters. Freshness and storage conditions are the most important factors: fancy teabags stored in a glass jar on a shelf in the sun for six months won’t taste as good as basic ones refreshed frequently and kept in an airtight container in the dark.
  2. Let me put in my own milk. You are putting in too much, too early. Remember, tea for me is a substitute for espresso, not bedtime Horlicks.
  3. ‎Related: don’t rush it. Either leave the bag in, or let it brew for four or five minutes.
  4. Fancy leaf tea is fine and can be transcendent (I remember fondly a place in the City of London whose tea had an almost hoppy floweriness) but, really, bags properly looked after taste great to me. So don’t put yourself out on my behalf.
  5. Supposedly artisanal tea brands can do one. Many of the teas with the sexiest brands, biggest claims and fanciest packaging seem to be utterly mediocre — all about the upsell.
  6. Organic tea, unlike organic beer, is still a thing and, just as with organic beer, seems to taste worse than the pesticide-laden variety.
  7. ‎Local tea? Don’t be daft. You can grow tea in the UK but why bother?
  8. The worst crime of all is tea that has somehow been contaminated with coffee. I quite like coffee, I love tea, but the ghost of a stale coffee in my tea? Blech!

Now, to be fair, in my experience most pubs do a better cuppa than the average high street chain coffee shop, which might be worth remembering next time you’re in a pub and, for whatever, want something other than booze.

And, now I think about it, some of this isn’t that different to how I am with beer after all: a basic product in decent condition trumps a fancy one that’s treated and presented like rubbish.

Blue Boy Down

From the Brewers’ Journal, 17 June 1959:

The choice of name in this new House, built by the Bristol Brewery Georges & Co. Ltd., is of interest as it was chosen in an attempt to establish some sort of cultural connexion in an otherwise rather featureless housing estate.

Boarded up front bay window of the Blue Boy pub. Barbed wire around the perimeter of the pub.

Many of the roads in the neighbourhood bear the names of great English writers and it is intended that “The Blue Boy” should be a central pivot of this motive. Above the door to the large bar is a pleasing and colourful wall plaque. Elliptical in shape it is in fact a hand-painted reproduction on glazed frost-proof tiles of Gainsborough’s painting of the Master Buttall better as “The Blue Boy”. It is framed in painted hardboard that accentuates it and effectively separates it from the surrounding brickwork.

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