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!

It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

Announcement: Session #113 — Mass Observation: The Pub and The People

We’re hosting the 113th edition of The Session in July and we’re asking you to go to the pub, observe, and report.

The beer blogging Session logo.In the late 1930s a team of social researchers descended on Lancashire and spent several years observing the people of Bolton and Blackpool as they went about their daily lives. As part of that, in 1937 and 1938, they made a special study of pubs, which led to the publication of one of our favourite books of all time, The Pub and The People, in 1943.

This is an extract from a typical entry from the original observation logs, probably from 1938, describing the Vault of a pub in Bolton:

13 men standing, 8 sitting. 4 playing dominoes. 2 of the sitters are postmen.

2 men, about fifty, short, sturdy, caps and scarves, shiny worn blue shirts quarrelling about politics. One keeps saying, ‘If ee don’t like the country why don’t ee go away? No one stops me getting a living.’ Then he suddenly shouts ‘Why shouldn’t the king and queen be there. I’m for them! They should be there.’ … Barman comes round with a small canvas bag, jangling it, asks me if I want a penny draw for a pie. So I put my hand into the bag and get out a worn brass disc about size of a half penny, which says Riggs Pies and has a number in the middle. The draw takes place somewhere else. Number 9 wins… and he gets a small hot pie, the sort you can get for fourpence.

What we want people to do for The Session is to recreate this exercise in 2016: take a notebook to a pub or bar — any one you fancy — and write a note of what you observe.

  • How many people are drinking?
  • Which beers are on tap, and which are people actually drinking?
  • What are they eating?
  • How are they passing the time?
  • What are the topics of conversation?
  • How is the pub decorated?
  • How many TVs are there and what are they showing?
  • Are there pot plants, parrots, spittoons?
  • How many smokers are there? And vapers?
  • Is there a dartboard, pool table or quiz machine, and are they in use?

Over the years, people have fretted about Mass Observation’s attitudes to privacy and so, in line with original Mass Observation practice, you might want to anonymise the pub — city centre sports bar, suburban dining pub, industrial estate brewery tap, and so on. And it’s bad form to give names and details which might allow individuals to be identified from your descriptions.

And an Optional Extra

As a chaser, after your observations, write whatever you like spurred by the idea of ‘The Pub and The People’. Really, whatever you like, as vaguely related to theme as it might be. Or instead of making any observations, even. The main thing is that you feel inspired to write something.

How this Works

Do your observing in the next few weeks, publish your post on or near FRIDAY 1 JULY and let us know about it by Tweeting (@boakandbailey), emailing (contact@boakandbailey.com) or commenting on this post. We’ll publish a round-up in mid-July to allow for stragglers.

If you’ve never taken part in The Session before, or have lapsed, do join in — it doesn’t have to be a huge effort and it’s a great way to connect with other beer bloggers worldwide.

A Pub Made of Glass

We’ve just acquired a handful of in-house magazines from John Smith’s of Tadcaster dating to 1968 and 1969 one of which contains a feature on a pub in Kirk Sandall, Doncaster, S. Yorks, called The Glassmaker.

The article says that the pub was the Kirk Sandall Hotel up until 1956-7:

It was erected by Pilkington’s, glass manufacturers, of St. Helens, Lancs., who have a large factory at Kirk Sandall, for their employees and to show off their “wares”… When it was first opened in 1934 it was regarded as being years ahead of its time…

(You can see a picture of it in full Deco glory accompanying an article by David W. Gutzke at the Brewery History Society website.)

From the outside The Glassmaker appears as an oblong building with flat roof. One of its windows measures about 20 ft. x 10 ft and contains no less than 98 panes. Dogs, representing various breeds have been exquisitely cut into some of the panes.

Dogs etched into glass.
Dogs etched on glass. Photographer uncredited. SOURCE: The Magnet, April 1968.

But that’s not all:

Inside the building the glass panels, squares and shapes of many sizes which surround the visitor on all sides are of many colours. Those used in what is known as the Gold Room are very rare and are known as “rough cast printed and fired gold”… The door of this room is of armour-cast toughened glass… The mirrored walls of one quite small room turn it magically into a vast auditorium and three or four people are multiplied into hundreds.

Glass panels.
Glass panels. Photographer uncredited. SOURCE: The Magnet, April 1968.

This combo of industrial showroom and pub sounds amazing so far — almost like a fun house. But…

To some extent the result of all this glass was a building which did not generate a high degree of warmth. In fact it was distinctly “cold” in appearance so the recent improvements have had the physical and psychological effect of “warming it up”.

Oh, no — ‘improvements’. What did they do?

The principal entrance hall has been completely changed and fitted carpet and mahogany-style panelling have covered up hundreds of green tiles which tended to give the impression of a fish and chip shop! The lounge has also been equipped with fitted carpet, some mahogany panelling, comfortable seating and modern tables.

The really interesting glass features, they insist, were retained, but we’ve got used to this narrative: modernised in the 1960s, faux-Victorianised in the 1970s, and then… Well, let’s stop guessing and take a look.

It’s still there! And looks in quite good nick. There’s hardly a trace of Art Deco left, the name has changed — it’s now The Glasshouse — and there’s a big old extension on the front. But, hey, it’s not boarded up, burnt down, or been replaced by a branch of Tesco.

And here’s an amazing 21st century perk for the architecturally curious: thanks to Street View we can even look inside at all that beautiful glass!

Oh.

Unless we’re being dense, there is no interesting glass anywhere to be seen. Just boring glass. That’s a shame.

Still, looks a nice enough place for a Sunday carvery (you can read Simon’s comments at The British Real Ale Pub Adventure) and at least we have The Magnet for a record of how it used to look.