News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 August 2017: Breakfast, Blackness, Beer Festivals

Here’s everything in beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from breakfast boozing to totalitarianism.

For Vice Angus Harrison asked a very good question that yields interesting answers: who exactly are the people you see drinking in Wetherspoon between breakfast time and lunch? Knee-jerk assumption has it that they are tragic alcoholics living chaotic lives outside the rules of society but, of course…

You perhaps wouldn’t notice the pub was full of finished night-workers if you’d just walked in, but as soon as you know what to look for, it becomes obvious. The barman gestures to a table in the corner where six blokes in battered denim and dusty T-shirts sit hunched over pints. Upstairs, three journalists who have just left the news desk drink lagers before heading home for a sleep. In the smoking area out front, a member of Stansted’s lost luggage team tells me he often pops in around this time, on his way home from the airport.


Illustration: a pint of beer with Van Gogh textures.

For Eater Lauren Michele Jackson writes on a subject that feels especially topical, this week of all weeks — the thoughtless, politically charged, overwhelming whiteness of ‘craft culture’ in food and drink:

Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white… The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.

(Via @robsterowski.)


Beer hall: German student society c.1897.

On a related note, Alan McLeod at A Better Beer Blog AKA A Good Beer Blog has been too preoccupied with the anxiety-inducing global political situation to write much about beer, until the two subjects came together in these notes on moments when fascism, communism and racism collide with our favourite drink:

Earlier this year, Hungary witnessed a bit of a political controversy over the appearance of Heineken’s red star – which Hungarian law considers a totalitarian symbol… In 2016, a brewery in Bavaria was accused of offering a Nazi friendly lager named Grenzzaun Halbe, or Border Fence Half… Then there are the old boys who, you know, just say those sorts of things…


Closed sign on shop.

For the US magazine Draft Zach Fowle gives a substantial treatment to a subject we’ve previously prodded at here on the blog: why exactly do breweries fold when they fold? It’s hard to get people to talk about this because it’s so raw, even humiliating, but Fowle elicited some great frank responses:

For us, it was really a production restraint. It’s simple math. Overhead was too high for the amount of beer we could produce in the space we had. There were all kinds of things that were always limiting: pump space, floor space, combined with the big cost of the space, the people we work with, and we were also a shared facility hosting several other breweries. That was something we were really passionate about, but these breweries are taking 20 percent of the space but not paying 20 percent of the overhead. We were basically landlocked in a very expensive building… I learned in this process that whatever money you’re raising, double it. Maybe triple it.


GBBF handpumps in action.

In the week following the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival there has been, as ever, much debate about whether it works in its current form. Tandleman, who works there as a volunteer, says, broadly, ‘Yes’:

A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn’t come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn’t go on.

But in a comment on that same post retired beer blogger John West (@jwestjourno) provides a measured and typically eloquent counter-argument, suggesting that GBBF is ‘under-curated’. He reference Benjamin Nunn who on his own blog, Ben Viveur, expressed his disappointment at the event:

Normally, I’d put that down to mid-life-crisisism, post binge-drinking comedown and my generally bleak outlook on life. But a few conversations with other attendees seem to confirm a pretty widespread view that this really was the most lacklustre GBBF for some time… There are always a few folks (I hesitate to generalise but very often older people from other parts of the country) who whinge about the GBBF pricing. This year they have a point…

(Disclosure: we got free entry to this year’s GBBF because we were signing books and are frequently paid to write for CAMRA.)


ILLUSTRATION: "Kill the Bill".

We feel no shame in including our own 4,000 word post on the rise of the lager lout in Britain in the 1980s, which we stupidly posted last night when everyone was in the pub:

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis… Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets… In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.


And, finally, here’s an illuminating nugget from Joe Stange:

Appy Meal

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

We’d noticed Wetherspoon pubs pushing their order-at-your-table phone app but didn’t feel moved to download it until Bailey’s parents started raving.

They first used it in Exeter the other week and rang us up to tell us about it, so excited were they. Bailey’s Mum:

The bar was six deep and we were knackered and then we saw the thing on the table advertising the app, so I downloaded it. We ordered drinks and food and they arrived in minutes, no queue! Brilliant.

Then, during the house move, we ended up in Spoons with them a couple of times, where they kept up the propaganda campaign. Bailey’s Dad seemed puzzled as to why we’d keep putting ourselves through the misery of queueing at the bar when such a wonder existed.

And that’s a good question — what had stopped us?

For one thing, we had some ethical qualms — won’t this put bar staff out of work? Isn’t full self-service automation the next stop? (Probably not.) At-table ordering via apps and touchscreens has been taking off in US fast food chains in recent years (probably where Mr Martin got the idea, being a known McDonald’s worshipper) and similar debates have been underway there, too.

More selfishly, we had our doubts about how well it might work for fussy drinkers like us — would it make ordering guest ales easier, presenting them in a neat list with all the info, or simply give the basic core drinks list?

I kept thinking about all this, perhaps because I had some responsibility for procuring and maintaining electronic point of sale systems (EPOS) in my last job, and so, on Wednesday, I cracked and gave it a go.

My chosen testing ground was The Imperial in Exeter, a beautiful building so vast that (first hurdle) the app kept warning me I was 142 yards away from the pub when I was actually sat at one end. The app downloaded in seconds over the pub’s own free wi-fi and was incredibly easy to use — it was clearly tested thoroughly on real people before roll out. For ordering food, it worked brilliantly. Being on my own, with work papers and laptop, I loved the idea of being able to get served without the usual anxious glancing back and forth from bar-staff to table, worrying whether my stuff was about to get half-inched.

As suspected, though, it fell down on drinks. The Imperial has two bars each with different ales and the app ought to be a way to show picky ale drinkers everything on offer in one neat list. As it is, I could only order the cross-chain standards (Doom Bar, Abbot, Ruddles) so I ended up having to do the anxious bar dash anyway.

And, unless I’m missing something, there’s no way to apply the CAMRA voucher discount. Probably a deal breaker for many, but probably also on the project planner for a future version: e-vouchers with a pin code, saving on all that glossy paper, perhaps?

As I sat there, Billy no mates, I pondered those ethical questions and concluded that, frankly, if you’re in a Wetherspoon pub, you’ve already crossed the line — Spoonsland is a realm of pure capitalism, for better or worse. There’s also something pleasing, not to say amusing, about the idea of Tim Martin, arch Euro-sceptic, quietly introducing something like Continental-style waiter service to English pubs.

Overall, I was impressed, and can imagine using it for ordering the chicken wings to which I’m addicted, if not drinks. While that’s not quite the sci-fi future they promised us it’s pretty astonishing all the same.

Further reading: this article on the pros and cons of the app from the Independent, published back in March, is an interesting read that takes a balanced view.

The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 25 February 2017: Babylon, Oldham, Cologne

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer- and pub-writing in the last week, from memories of a glamorous landlady to, yet again, the question of sexism in beer.

It’s true: when any archive releases a new batch of digital content, public domain or otherwise, it is a beer blogger’s duty to search that collection for ‘BEER’. That’s how Alan Mcleod came across a Bablylonian cuneiform tablet from the 1st Millenium BC containing information on beer:

How is it that I can read a Mesopotamian clay tablet and pretty much immediately understand what is going on? If it was about religion, governance or astronomy I wouldn’t have a clue. But beer and brewing are not strange. They are, in a very meaningful way, constant. You can see that if we go back to column 2 where you see words for 1:1 beer, 2:1 beer, 3:1 beer and even triple beer. The ratio is the relationship of grain input to beer output.


Public Bar etched on a Manchester pub window.

For the Guardian Rachel Roddy uses a recipe for cheese and onion pie as an opportunity to reminisce about a childhood spent in and around an Oldham pub:

A good slice of my childhood was spent at my granny’s pub, The Gardeners Arms: a large, red-brick Robinson’s pub at the bottom of Durham street… I remember her both in her housecoat buffing the brass tables and flushing out the pipes – good bitter comes from a clean cellar and clean pipes – then, later, when regulars had taken their place, coming down the stairs ready for the night. ‘You look a million dollars Al,’ my grandpa Gerry would say, Bob Seger curling out of the juke box in agreement: ‘She was looking so right, in her diamonds and frills…’

(Via @phil55494)


Fuller's Vintage Ale 2016.

Martyn Cornell wants to know where the hell all the 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale has gone:

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable.


Shipping container: KOLN.

Barm has been in Cologne and paints a wonderfully evocative picture of a busy session at a pub with a cult reputation:

When we arrive at 1620 there are already 60 people waiting for the pub to open at 1630. By the time the doors open the crowd has swollen to 80 or more. Thirty seconds after the doors open, every seat inside is taken… Because there is no choice, the beer pours constantly, never becoming flat or warm. One waiter is dedicated to pouring beer. Clack-clack-clack go the small glasses as he rotates the round tray underneath the tap.


An example of the iceman pour.

We’ve been ignoring the so-called ‘Iceman Pour’ — a weird trend among a small group of drinkers on social media that has some beer folk growling with irritation — but we couldn’t resist Richard Taylor’s attempt to explain its origins and appeal:

Users like theiceman13 and benhur345 love nothing more than running out of room in their glassware, pushing the limits of fluid dynamics by leaving a gently convex beer surface clinging to the tops of their Tekus. The rest of us look on in bemused wonder thinking that in our day something handed over like that would result in a trip back to the bar for it to be be-frothed once again. Although when the meniscus is wobbling like a week-old jelly it takes some skill to take the glass anywhere without it dribbling down the sides. As I discovered for myself.

After all, if in 50 years time we’re all drinking our beer this way, Richard’s blog post might end up being an important historical document.


Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

If you’ve been trying to find an excuse to wriggle out of boycotting Wetherspoon pubs over CEO Tim Martin’s vocal support for Brexit Henry Jeffrey’s has you covered in an article for The Spectator:

This seemed to me the definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face; imagine turning down cheap beer because of the EU! But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society: that you do business even with those whom you disagree. Voltaire marvelled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: ‘Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.’


There’s been a fresh flurry of articles about sexism in beer lately but John Holl, editor All About Beer, is doing more than merely talk about the issue:

We will not be quiet about this important issue. We want to do our part so that the next generation of beer drinkers can focus on the fun, the flavorful and the future. Beers that demean women or promote rape culture will not be reviewed or promoted in this magazine or on AllAboutBeer.com.

A lot of angry comments follow the article — ‘Take this leftist PC garbage and shove it.’ — and it is possible All About Beer will lose some readers and subscribers over this. But maybe it’ll gain some too.

(DISCLOSURE: We are occasionally paid to write for AAB.)


Green Bottles Standing on a Wall

Not happy about UK craft breweries switching over from 500ml packaging to 330ml? It’s only going to get worse, said Ed. And then, as if on cue, Weird Beard made an announcement


And, finally, here’s an interesting nugget of news: