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.

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.

Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavistock last week we picked up a tatty copy of Exmoor Village, a 1947 book by W.J. Turner ‘based on factual information from Mass Observation’. It features a chapter on pubs and socialising called ‘Gardens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glorious detail on beer and boozers were shattered with the opening line:

There is no inn in Luccombe [in Somerset], nor anywhere on the Acland Estate. The nearest is at Wootton Courtney. There is virtually no social centre in Luccombe beyond the doorstep and the village street.

Some of the men in the village, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in nearby Wootton or Porlock ‘on Saturday or Sunday — seldom both’:

Mr Gould remembers brown ale at threepence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Wootton. To-day, on an old-age pension, his visits are rare. His son is a teetotaller, and Bill Tame is another… Although Somerset is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Partridge is the only Luccombe person who has it. Another farmer, Mr Staddon, prefers beer.

The true Mass Observation touch, more literary than objective in tone despite its scientific pretensions, comes through in a description of the men at their usual haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Wootton Courtney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The public bar like most country bars is small, with two tables, two benches, and not enough chairs… A visitor at about seven o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, looking tired and weather-beaten, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luccombe, sitting in a chair by the window; a man of forty-five not from Luccombe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, standing leaning on his cane. Talk centres on horses. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and conversation round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoniest one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in question is the Dunkery Beacon Hotel which fits the description — ‘a white building with a verandah’ — but it doesn’t seem likely the bar is still there in anything like its original form. The walk from Luccombe to Wootton Courtney (or Courtenay) is about 45 minutes according to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bailey recalls hearing people in Somerset genuinely, un-ironically saying ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger people had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Porlock, the threat of invasion, German airmen and the Home Guard, chocolate rationing and other then hot topics. (The observations on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Americans turn up (GIs, presumably) they dominate the conversation with talk of farming back home.

If the men were only occasional pub-goers, the women of Luccombe hardly ever went, and the young men of the village aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and wasn’t a frequent drinker because he couldn’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clearly in various bits of post-WWII writing on pubs — the idea that men were abandoning the pub not because it was bad but because home, family, gardens and allotments had become so pleasant.

If you’re interested in country life more generally, Somerset in particular, or Mass Observation (this project was controversial), then this book is worth getting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white photos by John Hinde are also lovely to look at, as are the charmingly period charts and illustrations. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Amazon lists a couple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book showing distances from Luccombe to key amenities.

Beer in Pubs, 1951

Spread from LHATM.

It’s always exciting to come across specific notes on how beers of the past looked and tasted, especially when those notes are from someone inside the industry.

Through a footnote to a footnote in someone else’s book we recently came across Licensed Houses and Their Management, a three-volume guidebook published in multiple editions from 1923 onwards and edited by W. Bently Capper. It’s made up of a whole series of essays and articles by different authors covering everything from book-keeping to ‘handling female staff’. We’re going to post a few more bits from it in the Bits We Underlined format at some point but, for now, the stuff on beer seemed too interesting not to share in its own right.

The section is called ‘Ales and Stouts and Hints on Cellar Management’ and is credited to an anonymous ‘A Brewery Cellars Manager’. (Worth noting, maybe, that the accompanying pics are from Fuller’s.)

First, we should say that, throughout, it is made clear that beer should definitely possess ‘brilliancy’, i.e. must be completely clear. We’ve collected lots of examples of people not minding a bit of haze in their beer, or even preferring it, but there was certainly a mainstream consensus that clarity was best by the mid-20th Century.

There are three types of dispense listed: straight from the cask, via beer engine and ‘the Scottish method of drawing’ — that is air or top pressure. (The cause of so much strife in CAMRA during the late 1970s.) There is also a lovely mention of what are now known as sparklers:

With the beer engine, there is sometimes a difficulty during the winter months of producing a good head on the beer… To combat this there are several excellent fittings on the market in the shape of ‘nozzles’ or ‘sprinklers’ which are fitted to the spout of the engine. These agitate the beer as it passes into the glass and produce a head, without affecting the palate in any degree.

Right, then — time for the main event: BEER. This section begins by highlighting the importance of choosing good beers and the strength of ‘local conditions and prejudices’:

In London, for instance, one class of beer will find favour in one district, whilst in another part of the town the same beer would not be appreciated. The same thing applies through the whole of the counties…

The author then very usefully breaks it down by style:

Mild Ales… In some parts a dark, sweet ale must be served. This must be as fresh as possible and quite brilliant. In the industrial centres this beer will be in very great demand… In the residential or suburban areas, a mild ale of a lighter colour is more in favour…

Ron Pattinson has explored the difference between urban and country milds but we love the idea of Metroland Mild!

Burton… is a heavy-gravity ale, very red in colour, and with a distinct dry-hop flavour. There is a very steady demand for this beer all the year round, but in winter-time the sales in some districts equal those of mild ale… [It should be] neither too bitter nor too sweet, but [have] a round, full-bodied flavour.

Colour and flavour notes! Red ale — sounds quite trendy, doesn’t it?

Bitter… Bitter ales form the great part of the saloon and private-bar demand. These beers are the most delicate and sensitive of all brewed. The colour must be as of bright polished amber, and the pungent aroma of the hops must be well in evidence. It is very important… that the palate is quite clean as the great charm of bitter ales lies in their delicate palate flavour… There is little doubt that the Burton-brewed ales are the best of this variety, although great progress has been made in other parts of the country by brewers and competition is very keen in this beer.

In case you don’t know how social class mapped to bars, the saloon and private-bar were the relatively posh ones. Bitter was a premium product, the craft beer of its day, drunk for flavour as much as alcohol content or nourishment. (There’s more from us on the history of bitter here.)

Stouts… are brewed from highly roasted malts and are therefore dark brown in colour. The palate should be full and creamy, but not too sweet. Avoid stouts that are not in condition or that have too bitter a flavour. There is little doubt that among the best stouts the best are those brewed in London…

An early use of creamy to describe beer, there? From long before nitro was a thing, too. But what is the difference between stout and porter?

Porter… is a light-gravity black beer which is usually much sweeter than stouts.

There you go. Sorted. Sort of.

There are many more editions of LHATM stretching back 25 years from this one — if you have a copy from before World War II, perhaps you can check whether this advice changed over the years?

News, Nuggets & Longreads 3 September 2016: Blokes and Books

This week, we’ve mostly been enjoying profiles of blokes who brew, blokes talking about themselves, and obituaries of blokes who have died, along with a bit of navel-gazing about beer writing.

For Good Beer Hunting Kyle Kastranec (@Beer_Notes) profiles a reluctant businessman who doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy the success is his brewery is experiencing:

At some point during my time with Henry Nguyen, he looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m not a person that was meant to own a business.”

He’s right. He’s also anxious, neurotic, and indecisive. He’s attention-averse. He’s not even all that interested in making money.


Painted Mahr's sign on a wall in Bamberg.

Another brewer profile, this time by Will Hawkes (@Will_Hawkes) for All About Beer, highlights a tension between trend and tradition in German brewing which is finding an outlet in the person of Stephan Michel of Mahr’s in Bamberg:

“I am Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!” he admits, laughing. “I have the traditional thing and then I have the rock and roll thing on the other side.” Mahr’s Bräu, which is imported into the U.S. by Shelton Brothers, is very traditional: the brewery focuses on two beers, the dark amber Ungespundet… and pale Hell (although others are brewed)… But then there are the snappily-designed t-shirts and rockabilly concerts at the brewery, the 250-mL bottles… and the suggestion that he might soon start canning his beers.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 3 September 2016: Blokes and Books”