Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“Any recommendations for stash beers?” — Rob G.

This question came up in the context of a Twitter discussion in which someone shared a photo of their collection of special beers inteded for ageing. It included Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Old Chimney’s Good King Henry, Courage Russian Imperial and Lees Harvest Ale, which is a pretty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not really into ageing beer ourselves, purely because we haven’t got the time, space or money to do it properly, but we’re certainly interested and so have had a go at answering this question. We suspect more useful advice will emerge in the commments.

First, some thoughts on general principles.

One reason for building a collection is to enable comparison over time, either by drinking the same beer at intervals and keeping notes, or by drinking multiple vintages of the same beer in a so-called ‘vertical tasting’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on better-established breweries that have been producing a big stout or barley wine for some years and look set to continue brewing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to collect a set worth playing with. There’s also a sort of insurance in buying from breweries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less likely to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jezza (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent article on Belgium obsessives in CAMRA’s BEER magazine he mentioned that when stocking his collection of aged and ageing beer he now buys “huge quantities at a time”. That’s because he frequently found himself wishing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of perfection after many years hidden in his cupboard. So we’d say that means looking for beers that aren’t prohibitively expensive and which you can conceive of buying by the case, perhaps with only a bit of wincing and digging around for coppers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that another way, this is one area where ‘boring’, easy-to-buy beers and breweries are probably a safer bet than obscurities.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Masters 1893 Double Stout got better over the course of a couple of years, and the bottle we found in a London pub that must have been three years old was astonishingly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an example of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Imperial Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a similar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will probably age in similar ways.

A beer Jezza mentioned as a particular focus of his ageing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when available, can be picked up in the UK for between £4-5 per 330ml bottle. (He has bottles going back to 1989.)

Belgian beers, tending to the strong and sweet, generally age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers probably won’t yield as much from ageing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kulminator.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d consider filling a cellar with, especially if you can pick it up in Belgium at Belgian prices — it’s getting prohibitively expensive in the UK.

Orval (not especially strong or sweet) is one famous example of a beer often drunk aged and which has the benefit of showing its development relatively quickly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30-40 a go, you’d be able to compare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own preferences. (It is also good for magically enhancing other beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a useful source of knowledge on what time does to specific beers. Of an 8-year-old Westmalle Dubbel, an easy to find, consistent and affordable beer, he says:

There’s sweet sherry in the flavour… which is possibly just oxidation at work, but it does transform the beer in a fun and pleasant way. It hasn’t become magically heavier than usual, but it has elements of the things you find in double-digit dark Belgian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the rounded estery greasiness, though not the heat. It still remains lightly textured and easy drinking… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your Westmalle Dubbel into something more complex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like something we’ll have to try. Do look at his other posts for more suggestions.

If you want to read something more substantial on this we recommend Patrick Dawson’s 2014 book Vintage Beer which contains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, general advice on which types of beer generally age well, as well as tips on which specific beers to buy.

Now, to those comments — tell us, what’s worked for you?

Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?

“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter

It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.

The Crystal Palace.
SOURCE: The British Library.

We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside the Pub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass  was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.

Continue reading “Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?”

Q&A: What was ‘The World of Brewing’?

When Lou Tweeted the above at us back in August we added ‘World of Brewing’ to our list of things to keep an eye out for in the archives. This week, we found something.

It’s an advertisement from around the time of the museum’s launch in June 1980 and gives a pretty decent description of its purpose along with some good, solid facts.

Text of an old newspaper ad.It’s good to know exactly where it was, for one thing — at 226 Tower Bridge Road, right next to the river.

That very distinctive name, Tarant Hobbs, is also helpful. Following that trail we discover that (a) the museum ‘flourished briefly’ but had closed by December 1980; and (b) it was backed by Big Six brewery Courage, somewhat on the quiet:

The Cornell Column, June 1980.
Hertfordshire CAMRA newsletter, June 1980

The museum might have come back to life — it seems to be listed in this 1986 tourist guide to London — and there are hints, here and there, that Tarant Hobbs might still be around. If we can find a postal address we’ll send him one of our nice letters and see if we can get him to tell us a bit more.

In the meantime if you find this reviving any long-buried memories of visiting the exhibition, do drop us a line.

Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“What’s the etiquette when you know more about beer than bar staff? They’re probably passionate about beer, about craft. Maybe they’re younger and hipper than you. Sometimes they think that because they behind a bar they’re experts on beer, but drop clangers like telling you that Ekuanot is a brand new experimental hop rather than a rename of Equinox. What do you do? How do you communicate that they’re wrong about something without being boorish?”

Brendan, Leeds

This is an interesting question, although more about etiquette and human interaction than something to which we can give a definitive answer. But we’ll try.

Short version: let it go.

On a couple of occasions we’ve found ourselves in pubs with a veteran beer writer and watched them come up against the kind of bar person who not only doesn’t know much about beer, but exhibits their ignorance with enormous arrogance.

How does the guru handle it? They say, ‘Oh, interesting — thanks’; they smile kindly; and they walk away.

Unless it will result in you losing out somehow (e.g. being overcharged, or ending up with a beer you won’t enjoy) what’s the point in starting this kind of argument? It can only be ego, surely.

Take the high road.

Let it go.

* * *

OK, short version over — now let’s dig into this a bit more.

The flipside of the situation Brendan describes is the difficulty for bar staff of dealing with experts, or at least people who think they’re experts. We asked on Twitter what people who’ve worked behind bars think of ‘know-all customers’ (leading language, but there you go) and here’s a selection of the comments we received:

“Personally I love when I get a customer that knows more than me. It rarely happens though, not to brag.”

“There is a contingent of generally male cask ale drinkers age 50+ who simply cannot accept that someone in their twenties can know more about beer than them. Despite the fact they know very little.”

“Spent years being ‘told’ how to pour Guinness. These days if they keep annoying me I may casually mention my [beer writing work]… They are there to have fun. It’s my job to help. If they are showing off and it’s jovial I’ll tease them about anything they get wrong.”

“Geeks who are just sharing their excitement – go for it, I like talking to guests like that. Know-it-all asses? Not so much.”

“All power to em, if it’s the one bright spot their otherwise moribund existence then let em have it. Hardly worth the grief getting wound up.”

“I liked people to tell me how they wanted things served, rather than those who expected me to know and complained after.”

“Obviously, I also have the disadvantage of being female, and below the age of 30, so I think I may have had a more concentrated experience…”

“I’ve experienced two kinds of ‘know-all’ customers. Some love beer and just want to talk about it and they’re obviously pleased when they find knowledgeable staff. They’re the awesome customers that you can wax lyrical about hops with and share favourite beer facts. But then there’s the ones that want to lecture you. Normally middle aged men who like proving they know everything about beer to anyone in ear shot.”

“I’ve been that person myself; desperate to get the approval of the bartender. As long as nobody is rude, no harm done.”

One of those comments came from Suzy (@lincolnpubgeek) and we asked her to elaborate — how should a customer in Brendan’s situation handle it?

When I was a fledgling beer nerd [working behind a bar] this happened every now and then and I’d just refer to what I did know or ask a manager… But then that was in a bar without a beer focus so it wasn’t a common issue.

If that’s happening somewhere that does have a focus on beer then that’s simply bad management. In my old job some of the staff weren’t as knowledgeable and they’d often refer to me or a manager which can works too so long as they at least know the basics.

There was a bar in Lincoln where some of the staff had zero training and didn’t even drink beer. It made ordering a very slow kerfuffle but they were apologetic and polite about it, it was definitely a management and training issue.

Staff need to know what’s going on in the cellar and need basic tasting notes for all the products as a bare minimum. Customers need to make it known that beer knowledge is a big plus, with their wallets when it’s not there, and their voices when it is.

We asked the same question to Susannah Mansfield who runs the Station House micropub in Durham:

Usually the people who genuinely know more are people who are happy with how we do things because they know why we do it, and it’s conversational, or suggestions to improve that I either may not have thought of, or have good reasons for not doing, or old tricks of cellaring that are less well known…

I’ve never pretended to know everything, but equally, I know a hell of a lot more than the average punter, and I tend to find that those that have that greater knowledge themselves are far less proud of themselves about it.

What comes out of all of this, is a fairly clear, quite obvious set of rules that really boil down to basic social skills. If you absolutely must have it out…

  1. Don’t be blunt, loud or aggressive. Getting something wrong is embarrassing and being corrected can be humiliating, so gently (and quietly) does it. It’s not a point-scoring exercise…. is it?
  2. Consider that you might be wrong. Of course you think you’re right — you’re sure you’re right — but if you think back a few years you can probably bring to mind ‘facts’ you clung to and parroted because you’d read them in one book you now know is rubbish. (We certainly can.)
  3. If the bar staff haven’t been trained well, it’s not their fault. If they start floundering and looking uncomfortable or unhappy, change the subject, and resist the urge to CRUSH THEM WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.
  4. Don’t go on, and don’t lecture. Make your point but if you’ve been talking for more than, say, 30 seconds, wrap it up.
  5. Ask yourself: am I assuming I know more because I’m older than them? (And/or a bloke.)
  6. Don’t, for goodness sake, trot out your credentials. There is no way to do this that doesn’t make you sound like a buffoon: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ If it gets to this stage, we refer you to our initial advice: let it go.

Thinking about it, some of those rules probably work the other way across the bar too.

QUICK Q&A: Which Was the First Wetherspoon Pub in the Good Beer Guide?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

A week or so ago David Martin asked: ‘Rumour has it that Wetherspoons Milton Keynes was the first JDW pub to get in the GBG. Any idea if this is fact?’

We pretty quickly established that this couldn’t be true — beer and pub people are terrible for inventing and embellishing this kind of lore, unfortunately. But we couldn’t rest until we’d answered the implied supplementary question: which was the first Wetherspoon’s pub to make it into CAMRA’s annual Good Beer Guide?

There was no way to answer this other than ploughing through old copies with a list of early Wetherspoon pub names at hand. That, in itself, is harder to come by than you might think: there’s no official master-list with dates and many are no longer owned by JDW.

But we think we’ve got there, thanks in part, once again, to the wonderful pubology.co.uk. The first Wetherspoon pub in the GBG was, we can say with some certainty, Dick’s Bar at 61 Tottenham Lane, London N8, which made the edition for 1983.

We can be sure because in 1982 when this volume of the GBG was compiled there were only three Wetherspoon pubs: the original Marler’s/Martin’s/Wetherspoon in Crouch End (1979); this one, Dick’s Bar (1981); and J.J. Moons on Landseer Road, Holloway (1982). This is from November 1982, about when the GBG for 1983 would have been wrapping up to go to print ready for a launch in February:

Advert from the London Drinker, 1982.
SOURCE: The London Drinker, November 1982, via West Middlesex CAMRA.

So, that was a lot of work for a whole heap of Who Cares? but at least that itch is scratched. It’s interesting, we suppose, that it happened this early.

Obligatory pre-emptive plug: there’s a chapter given over to the history of the J.D. Wetherspoon chain and the rise of the superpub in our forthcoming book 20th Century pub: from beerhouse to booze bunker. Watch this space and all that.