News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from pastry stout to cask quality.

First up, Canadian beer historian Gary Gillman has done something that, for some reason, nobody in the UK seems to have thought worthwhile, and looked into the history of that most controversial of widgets, the sparkler:

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

(As always the mention of a sparkler summons Tandleman to the comments which are worth reading for additional context.)


Dunwich sign.

Dave S, a regular commenter here, lives in Cambridge and has been pondering  The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild. As well as some rather lovely prose evoking the landscape of East Anglia he offers this incisive suggestion:

My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a ‘sense of place’ is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to – what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate – and adapt and evolve to the place where they’re based.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth”

Spoonsgate

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

We’re not quite sure why restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin chose to review a branch of Wetherspoon in her new column for the Sunday Times but she did, and didn’t like it.

We haven’t been able to read the column because it’s behind a paywall so won’t comment on it directly except to say that from the generous quotes the Morning Advertiser has permitted itself here it does seem that she was offering a genuine reaction to the quality of the food. If you’re skint, one of those quotations suggests, the chippy is cheaper and better — a sound argument and surely one that (as intended) goes someway to mitigating accusations of pure snobbery.

But, still, this delicate rebuttal by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the i newspaper chimed with us, bringing back memories of our teens and early twenties:

I’m not going to pretend that I adore the food at Wetherspoons, but it has, nonetheless, been responsible for some of the best meals of my life. When I was working in a shop and gradually tunnelling out from under my overdraft, a monthly treat for me and the rest of the staff was a trip outside of the store’s catchment area (where we could be certain of not bumping into any of the clientele) to have dinner at Spoons… It wasn’t good, but it was affordable, we could sit down without being hassled to move on and, crucially, you pay separately and upfront, with no anxiety about who was paying for what.

This got us thinking about how often Wetherspoon pubs are (to paraphrase a favourite line of the Pub Curmudgeon’s) distress destinations — somewhere you end up out of convenience, as a compromise or because, yes, you’re skint.

We often have a great time in Spoons but that’s usually because it’s so quick, easy and cheap (per Stephen Bush) it takes all the stress out of deciding where to go so you can concentrate on having fun with friends and family. You can walk in with a party of eight, including a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a conservative bitter drinker and a craft beer geek (actual case study) and be sure that everyone will have a reasonably good time, and that nobody will come away feeling ripped off.

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

But, at the same time, any one of those people, if it was entirely their choice and money was no object, would probably choose somewhere else.

Of course it’s not always a compromise. The lure of interesting festival beers makes Spoons the go-to place at certain times of year; some of the buildings are beautiful, important and/or atmospheric; and (controversial opinion klaxon) we’ve yet to have better chicken wings than theirs, and — believe us — not for want of trying.

More generally it’s fascinating how much coverage Spoons gets in the mainstream press, and how many clicks those articles seem to generate. It is very close to a universal British experience these days, after all, and heavy with cultural symbolism in the age of Brexit.

There’s a full chapter on Wetherspoon’s in our new book20th Century Pub, and as a result (disclosure) it’s apparently reviewed or at least mentioned in the upcoming edition of Wetherspoon News. We’ll be acquiring a copy or two of the magazine for posterity.

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.