Drinking our way through a selection of canned craft beers, we’ve caught ourselves rolling our eyes at the long, strange, often pun-laden names.
And we’re not the only ones, either.
What we’d never asked ourselves before is… why? We reckon the answer lies with the proliferation of breweries in the past 30 or so years.
A hundred years ago, most beers had exciting, distinctive names like ‘mild’, ‘bitter’ or ‘X’.
Then, in the mid-20th century, national brands emerged with snappy names such as Red Barrel or Double Diamond.
Next, the CAMRA-led real ale revolution kicked off, and brewery numbers began to climb in the 1970s and 1980s. These breweries were, in their own way, also national brands, competing for space at beer festivals and in specialist real ale pubs up and down the country.
Premium bottled ales (PBAs) also came along, filling supermarket and off licence shelves.
In this phase, beers with distinctive names such as Summer Lightning, Old Nick or Spitfire had a clear advantage.
Ale ticking culture must also have had an effect. Breweries with ranges of three, five or maybe seven beers are one thing; when you’re producing a new beer every month, or every week, you’re obliged to get creative. Or resort to crude puns.
Jump forward a couple of decades and instead of a few hundred breweries, we’ve got more than 2,000. And that culture of guest ales has morphed into a need for a constant flow of novel, Instagram-friendly products for keg, bottle or can.
The scramble for unique web addresses during the dot com boom led to companies with names like Accenture, Consignia and Moonpig.com. In much the same way, a crowded beer market inevitably calls for Experiments in Evil, Big Raspberry Dog Chew and Grainsley Harriot.
Plus, of course, it’s fun – another outlet for creativity in a subsector that prizes that over blazer-wearing conformity.
So what has happened? In short, Covid-19 has happened. Wales has been particularly hard hit by restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic causing “significant financial pressure” to Brains. The company had already concentrated business on a core number of around 160 pubs with the remaining 40 or so being closed or sold off in March 2020. Clearly this wasn’t enough to stave off problems, as this was followed by an announcement before Christmas that rival pub chain Marston’s was to take over on 25-year lease, 156 Brains pubs in a bid to save 1,300 jobs. The deal includes a supply agreement to continue the availability of Brains brands in the pubs, which will be leased to Marston’s at an annual rent of £5.5 million. Brain’s managed houses will also be run by Marston’s.
And there are further thoughts, with contextual historical notes, from the Pub Curmudgeon:
Too many pubs now have beer ranges that are hard to distinguish from one another. Promoting the fact that Bloggs’ pubs are the best place to find Bloggs’ beers has to potential to create a unique selling proposition. It also must be noted that the integrated approach has been adopted by newer breweries such as Joule’s and Wye Valley who have built up significant tied estates that heavily feature their own beers. Clearly there is life in that model yet.
Beer used to be considered déclassé, beneath the attention of polite society. Now it’s served in every good restaurant. Big companies had enough money to keep craft out of expensive sports and entertainment venues, but it became too popular and ballparks and stadiums had to start offering it. Beer has also seeped into venues it never appeared before like movie theaters. Grocery stores and gas stations sell growlers. Beer is everywhere, and that beer is overwhelmingly the various varieties of craft beer… We beer fans may overestimate the average drinker’s knowledge of terpenes or fermentation techniques, but grab a typical pubgoer and send them back in time and they’d know more than most ‘experts’ did in 1986.
The pub company and brewer is renaming three pubs currently called The Black Boy, in Bury St Edmunds, Sudbury and Shinfield, as well as the Black’s Head, in Wirksworth… The decision to change the name follows detailed consultation with a range of stakeholders and thorough research of the pubs’ histories… While the pub name ‘Black Boy’ exists throughout the country, there is not a consensus on its origins and many of those consulted felt the name to be offensive and discriminatory.
For PellicleEmma Inch has profiled a brewery we’ve never heard of – Good Things of East Sussex. What makes this particular brewery newsworthy? (Always a good question to ask.) In this case, it’s the environmental mission around which it is built:
Along with childhood friend Russ Wheildon [Chris Drummond] initially set up Crafted Crate, a beer subscription service. Through this, the pair visited hundreds of breweries right across the country, gaining their unique insight into the brewing industry.
“We found every time we left a brewery, we were writing down notes like ‘okay, yeah, love the way they did that. Perhaps a little change and we could make this more sustainable’ and that just kind of got us into the process, got us into brewing,” Chris says.
For Ferment, the magazine that accompanies a beer subscription service, Matt Curtis has written about regional character in beer, as a foretaste of a longer work in progress:
With the rise of craft beer… came a gradual move to a greater amount of homogeneity, as brewers attempted to recreate the most in-vogue styles at their own breweries. As brewing equipment and processes improved – as did communication with the rise of the internet, meaning a new recipe or idea can be shared with another brewer on the other side of the world in seconds – so did this march towards uniformity… I can’t escape the feeling that in a regression from regionality, we’re losing something that makes beer truly special.
Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:
(We will never get bored of shots of old skool classic beers in cans; it’s just funny.)
One of the most frustrating parts of writing a book is having a theory but being unable to prove it. For example, we reckon Edwardian West London got improved pubs early because of the attitudes of the local licensing magistrates.
When we were researching 20th Century Pub we sought to trace the roots of the improved and enlarged inter-war suburban pub through a variety of movements and schemes – the Trust Houses, the Carlisle experiment, coffee shops and temperance houses.
However, we also noticed that there were examples of pubs being built in similarly modest, up-to-date styles by private companies in the early twentieth century, particularly in West London, which were ostensibly nothing to do with these movements.
Pubs such as The Forester in Ealing (1909) and the Three Horseshoes in Southall (1916), both by Nowell Parr, showed a yearning for a rural, historic ideal.
Our general impression was that there seem to have been a lot of new pubs built in West London at this time, bucking the general trend for reducing the number of licences and the number of pubs.
We didn’t quite have the numbers to state this confidently in the book, though, although we did spend a fair bit of time looking at Middlesex Licensing sessions in the London Metropolitan Archive.
What we really wanted, but never found, was evidence that Middlesex magistrates looked favourably upon the right type of pub application from the right type of brewery. Fuller’s and The Royal Brentford Brewery seemed to have been particularly successful, for example. Meanwhile, Watney’s, Charrington and other big London brewers are notably underrepresented in the Edwardian period.
Or even, perhaps, we might have found that the magistrates helped influence the design of pubs in this area: “Do it this way, lads, and we’ll sign it off.”
Perhaps, though, it was less complicated than that. Maybe Middlesex magistrates, covering a huge area, were doing exactly the kind of thing that happened in Birmingham and other cities: refusing licences in slum districts but allowing them in well-behaved, leafy suburbs. But we don’t think so. In Birmingham, this kind of switch was often made explicit and we didn’t notice any such statements in the London records.
One day, when we’re allowed back in libraries, we’ll have another go at this. Somewhere in the paperwork – perhaps in the Fuller’s archive that we almost but not quite got into in 2016 – there must be notes on each of these individual licencing decisions.
When we came across the story of compulsive pub ticker Comus Elliott, we wrote it up, with at least a small hope that it might prompt him to get in touch. And it did.
Mr Elliott is still with us and still visiting pubs, plagues permitting, and through his daughter, Caroline, made contact. We emailed a few prompts – where and when was he born and brought up? How did his father, Charles, get into ticking pubs? Which are his favourite pubs? And so on.
In response, he sent some handwritten notes on his life and career which we’ve typed up and present below with some small edits for clarity.
* * *
I was born 1940 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and moved to North London in 1945. Attended Princess Road Junior Mixed School, near Primrose Hill, and then William Ellis Grammar School (Boys) at Parliament Hill till 1958. After 8 O levels and 3 A levels I joined Barclays Bank in September 1958 and was employed in the Trustee Department dealing with estate administration, investment management and taxations where I stayed until 1994.
With Barclays, I moved from North London, West End, City and then to Chelmsford, Essex, Preston, Lancs, and Manchester and Knutsford in the North West.
When the bank reorganised the trustee side, I took (very) early retirement, but continued working in probate with a firm of solicitors in Maidstone, Kent.
All those moves assisted enormously in notching up new pubs!
I have no idea now my father started except for some reason he wanted to visit, and drink in every pub within the London Postal District, then round about 4,400 of them. He actually achieved 4,200 before his death in 2001. He did also keep a record of other pubs in the country but, important as they were, they were not his main aim.
I visited my first, but under age at 16, but was never challenged on age until the eve of my 18th birthday. I had by then decided that I would, too, record pubs visited – not in competition, though.
I kept (still keep) a fairly comprehensive record of those visited, with card index style systems for both names and locations. I also keep a chronological list of London Postal and each individual county, noting name, address, overall number in list of visits, brewery ownership or free house, and date visited.
My father was press and public relations officer for the Gas Council in London and therefore had many contacts in the newspaper world and eventually we were taken on a London pub crawl (six) one evening by the then News of the World who wanted to write a feature article.
That was followed up by several others, including Austin Hatton’s A Monthly Bulletin, so publicity started and continued on and off for some years, including TV appearances on About Anglia in 1968 and Look North West in Manchester, 1981.
Main publicity was attracted when my father and I reached significant milestones on our journey – the 100th, 5,000th, 10,000th, and my father’s 4,000th London Postal District pub. At such events we held parties for drinking companions who knew of our obsession.
Pubs have changed a great deal since my early collecting days, and not always for the better. Nice old drinking dens have either been closed or tarted up, often now food led. There are still nice old pubs if you can bother to seek them out (the Good Pub Guide and Good Beer Guide are invaluable). I much prefer a simple, old-fashioned pub – town or country – with good beer, good atmosphere, no loud games, TV.
Yes, some decent food, but not to the extremes that some so-called ‘gastropubs’ go to.
Nice old original features have so often been ripped out in the guise of progress. Certainly the ideal English pub is not dead as some would have it but we should be careful to protect what is left.
In my prime I would try and average one new [pub] per day – not every day, but 365 [new pubs] in [each] year. I usually managed till I retired in 2000, and living in rural Northumberland, it’s difficult to find many new ones – fortunately, those that are within striking distance are well worth visiting time and again. Due to Covid, [I’ve] only done seven new ones in 2020, but my total is just over 16,000 now.
As regards my ‘favourite’ pubs – how about the one that I am in at the time? Different pubs for different reasons – one next to a sports event, after the theatre, to take your wife, to take somebody else’s wife, it’s the closest and nearly closing time, etc. etc…
Individual favourites include my own current local in Seahouses, The Old Ship – brilliant (old, good beer, good situation in the harbour, excellent long-serving staff (been in one family over 100 years).
Then there is The Blue Lion, East Witton, Yorks (food, atmosphere, Black Sheep, and a lovely place to stay).
The Red Lion, Burnsall, Yorks – I first stayed there with my father in 1961, when we were walking in the Pennines. Through a distant family connection I’ve been back a few times in the past three years and it’s as good as ever. Family run, like most good pubs seem to be – you can tell the difference between such, and a managed pub.
Pubs sadly gone include The Crown and The Paxton at Gipsy Hill in South London, and several village pubs in Quainton, Bucks, where my aunt and uncle kept The George & Dragon for some years in the 1950s and 60s.
I joined CAMRA for news of pubs and books, but have never been an active member. I never joined the SPBW.
Generally, friends and relations have looked kindly (perhaps enviously?) upon my hobby and are quite happy to join in, either with transport or advise on new pubs in their area. They also like the celebratory milestone parties!
People who have had coronavirus are truly baffled as to how they managed to catch it, because they wore a mask, distanced and followed official guidelines. This is not a problem of ignorance or denial, but a lack of education – and that, like so much else during this pandemic, is the fault of the government… Little has been said since the spring about the dangers of meeting indoors, even as restrictions are tightened.
And with pubs forced to close once again (see above) the Government has announced a new round of one-off grants for leisure, hospitality and retail businesses. Again, they’ve ignored the supply chain – breweries get nothing, for example – but hopefully for some, this will be the necessary bare minimum to see them through to the easing of restrictions in spring.
On a less gloomy note, the London Beer and Pub Guide has published its end-of-year stats and finds that 2020 hasn’t yet wrought disaster on the city’s beer scene:
We started 2020 with 323 Guide entries (this includes pubs, brewery taps, tap rooms, bottle shop bars, etc) and, rather bizarrely, we end the year with 323. Not surprisingly, this year saw a sharp reduction in the number of new places added to the Guide: from a record total of 80 in 2019, in 2020 we added just 25. Only four of those 25 were added after mid March… Balancing the 25 new entries were 25 deletions, and while many of these are due to the pandemic, this is not the case for them all.
For Ferment, the promotional magazine for a beer subscription service,Mark Dredge provides a useful explainer about esters – what they are, how they influence the taste of your beer and why they’re no longer talked about only in relation to quirky German and Belgian beers:
For his hazy modern IPAs, [Sam] Dickison [of Boxcar Brewing] is trying to great an ester profile of “addictively delicious fruit”. Think Fruit Salad sweets, peach, apple and vanilla. To get that he uses a blend of different yeasts: “I like blends because I feel like a lot of yeasts have some aspects where I’d prefer less of one thing and more of the other stuff. It’s interesting to see if in a blend, flavours from another yeast can mask some of the flavours you’re not so keen on.”
At Bring on the Beer, Michael has provided some practical tips on how to do Dry January if you’ve decided it’s for you:
The arguments over lo/no have been done to death but the one truth is that the range, and quality of that range, is growing. In 2016 all I had was Becks Blue and Kopparberg Non Alcoholic Cider. Now there is an absolute plethora of options and styles from brands such as Hammerton, Brooklyn, Budweiser, Birra Moretti, Peroni, Drop Bear, Pistonhead, Guinness Open Gate, Big Drop, St Peters, Adnams, Sharps, Tiny Rebel, Northern Monk, Br*wD*g…. the list goes on and on.
At Beer Food Travel, Liam has been exploring words for food and drink in Yola, an almost-extinct language spoken by English-ish settlers in Wexford, Ireland, and their descendents:
Back in 1867 an Englishman called William Barnes published a book with the typical-for-the-time long title of A Glossary with Some Pieces of Verse of the Old Dialect of the English Colony in the Baronies of Forth and Bargy, County of Wexford, Ireland, which included information collected by Wexford native Jacob Poole around 1823… Barnes goes into great detail on pronunciation and origins of the language, suggesting it is closely connected to the language spoken in Somerset, Dorset and Devon in the past…
Stemless Allegras are undeniably attractive to look at, and in a world where looks equal likes, the natural benefit of breweries adopting this glassware is the free advertisement they will get online as every beer geek worth thier salt snaps and tags thier products into the public eye. Though one might argue that these glasses drift dangerously close to #propervaseware, the effect will still financially benefit the breweries.
From Twitter, there’s this thread of retro Kitsch: