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BOOK REVIEW: Desi Pubs by David Jesudason

Desi Pubs by David Jesudason provides a new angle on pubs (and British culture) and acts as a practical guide for finding good grub.

It opens with a long essay (or a series of short ones) synthesising, sharpening and developing award-winning articles the author has written for various publications.

If you’ve been following his career for the past few years, you’ll already know many of the arguments and stories from this section.

Tied together, though, they present a unified account of the British-Indian experience, with pubs as a powerful lens through which to view it.

We’ve observed a tendency to talk coyly about ‘demographic change’ as one of the challenges facing pubs. Jesudason challenges this from multiple angles.

First, he asks us to think about what Asian means. It’s a word that covers a whole range of different cultures, religions and nationalities. He explores the meaning of Desi, of British-Indian, of South Asian, of brown and black, providing an informal crash course in the language of race and ethnicity in the UK.

Secondly, he makes one point very clearly: if British-Indians don’t visit pubs, it’s at least in part because they haven’t been made welcome.

From racist ‘banter’ to colour bars, white publicans and drinkers have said, “No, you do not belong here.” (We touched on this ourselves in a 2016 blog post.)

Thirdly, Jesudason introduces us to a whole cast of British-Indian people who love pubs, and enjoy drinking. Not as a stunt. Not as a protest. As part of everyday life, as natural as breathing.

The Desi pub, he argues, is neither new nor contrived. The earliest example he has been able to pin down dates back to 1962 and was opened by Soham Singh, a working class crane driver.

There is also one final, more hopeful challenge: why can’t everyone feel at home in these pubs, and even feel pride in them?

“When I first visited Smethwick in the West Midlands, I was taken aback, not only by how this was an Asian-majority town dealing with a post-industrial world, but how the white population loved their – and ‘their’ is crucial here – desi pubs… They lived lives far removed from gentrified areas, with many friends who were Asian, and even knew a smattering of Punjabi. Instead of running away or complaining about ‘immigration’ these ordinary people embraced change and discovered their lives could be enriched by it.”

We saw something similar first hand when we visited the Island Inn in West Bromwich, where both white and Asian people go to (a) watch football together and (b) eat great, good value food.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s a sense of an author struggling with his own feelings about the topic. Has he quite worked it out in his own head yet?

He is scrupulous about balance, almost as if engaged in an argument with himself.

And, at times, with critics whose comments he is anticipating, such as those who might query why CAMRA Publishing is promoting pubs that serve mostly lager.

That provides credibility in terms of journalism and history, but conflicts with the celebratory tone the book otherwise strives for.

It works for us – this is a book we can trust, exhibiting depth of thought – but don’t read it expecting tweeness or surface-level cheery-beery jollity.

As a guidebook, it’s exciting, adding a new layer to cities we thought we already knew.

It makes you itch to visit Southall, Smethwick or, closer to home, Fishponds, and go somewhere new. Perhaps somewhere you’ve previously ignored because the signals it sent weren’t ones you were primed to read.

Each guide entry tells a story about the origin of the pub – how did it become ‘Desi’, why, and when? (Jesudason is a journalist and is strong on the 5Ws.)

We get stories from the publicans, from the punters, and from Jesudason himself.

And, of course, we get detailed notes on the food. From momos (dumplings) to scarily spicy fries, there’s an endless parade of enticing dishes that you probably haven’t seen on the menu at your more traditional local curry house. (Just don’t get him started on the subject of ‘authenticity’ in British-Indian food.)

Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years.

We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA for £12.99 with a member discount.


News, nuggets and longreads 3 June 2023: six easy pieces

Once a week we round-up all the blog posts and articles about beer and pubs we’ve bookmarked. This time there’s trains, micropubs and cans in the garden.

First, some news about sustainability in brewing. Bristol brewery Wiper & True has collaborated with Gadd’s of Ramsgate in Kent on a beer brewed using ‘carbon capture’ technology. We don’t usually get excited about collaboration beers or press releases about brewery upgrades but this feels like an interesting signal. Even in these challenging times, breweries are investing in making themselves more sustainable, and we suspect this is something to which consumers will respond positively. It certainly makes us more likely to buy W&T beer.

A map of the Penistone ale trail.

We enjoyed exploring Yorkshire’s Penistone Line Ale Trail via a write-up by Scott Spencer at Micropub Adventures which we hope he won’t mind us calling proper, old-fashioned blogging:

[The] Penistone Rail Line which runs between Barnsley and Huddersfield. The first part of the line opened in 1850 between Huddersfield and Penistone, with the other part following later. It is designated as a ‘Community Rail Line’ and covers a 27 Mile Route (from Sheffield to Huddersfield)… After changing trains at Barnsley and hopping on board the train to Huddersfield, the first stop on the Penistone Line was Dodworth… The pub I called into here is called “Dodworth Tap”, formerly known as the Station Inn, but opened in July 2020 after the amazing renovation work which makes the pub look so good.

Read it for the photos and descriptions of enticing-sounding pubs; stay for the twist at the end when a surprising beer gets a surprisingly glowing review.

Beer styles

What’s Italian pilsner all about?

In Italy for the better part of a fortnight, we ordered Italian Pils whenever the opportunity arose, trying to understand it.

It’s not a sub-style we’ve particularly engaged with back home in the UK because:

  • the UK is not Italy
  • we think of pils as being about freshness

Having said that, we have tried the odd example, such as one that showed up at the Bristol branch of brewpub chain Zero Degrees. “Ever-so-slightly floral” we wrote of that at the time.

In Milan and Parma, the term seems to mean something quite specific.

As in, lots of beer menus have both ‘Pils’ and ‘Italian Pils’ as separate items.

The former tends to be something that might be badged as ‘lager’ in the UK – plain, not especially bitter; think Tennent’s or Carling.

The Italian Pilsners, by contrast, are:

  • dry
  • bitter
  • flowery

Our quick tasting notes, which we don’t overthink, show a theme emerging: we often can’t quite decide if they taste like pale-n-hoppy cask ale, or authentically Franconian.

St.Georgenbräu of Buttenheim has come up a couple of times.

An excellent blog post by Jeff ‘Beervana’ Alworth suggests that perhaps this is the point:

[Augustino] Arioli first brewed Tipopils in 1996 when he founded the brewery, but the inspiration emerged earlier, after a peripatetic journey through the different traditions of brewing. As he learned to brew, Germany was his first influence. Later he spent time and brewed in the UK, Canada, and US. All of this informed the way he thought about beer. “I [had] visited some English brewers and studied some more about English cask beer. I knew that they were using dry-hop in the cask. I thought, why don’t I do this with my Tipopils?”

We found a spectrum with Tipopils being very much the cleanest, most balanced beer we tried.

It’s a grown-up, commercial beer that has plenty of character, without being likely to upset someone who just wants a glass of cold, refreshing beer.

Others seemed to be hazier, and either tilted towards more floweriness (heavy dry hopping) or towards extreme bitterness. 

Almost as if they’ve been brewed based on a description of Tipopils, having never actually tasted it.

For example, on the flowery front, Birrificio del Ducato’s Via Emilia (bottled, 5%) is a remarkable beer which smells like hops straight out of the packet, before they’ve been anywhere near wort or beer.

Bringing it up to take a sip was joyful. A sort of magic trick.

We enjoyed drinking the beer a lot but it didn’t quite live up to the initial aromatic fanfare.

All the Italian pils we tried had a distinct European noble hop character, reminding us of a type of cask ale we used to see quite a lot in the UK: novelty single-hopped golden ales using, say, Tettnang, or Saaz.

Cask ale brewed with lager ingredients; lager brewed with cask ale techniques…

That’s an interesting middle ground, and a place we like to hang out.

A first take on this post first appeared on Patreon, while we were in the middle of our holiday and still thinking it through.

France pubs

It is possible to have fun drinking beer in Paris

In the past, we’ve struggled to enjoy drinking beer in Paris, but this time it’s worked out well, and we found some great places.

There’s some disconnect between British and French manners that can make hospitality experiences challenging.

That’s one reason we haven’t been there for a while. Not avoiding it, exactly, but not prioritising a return visit either.

And, look, Brussels is just over there!

This time, though, on our way back from Italy, we scheduled a few nights there and tried again, applying things we’ve learned over the past couple of decades.

The industrial interior of Fauve Paris with concrete bar, metal fixtures and a small brewery in the background.

Say hello when you enter a bar or cafe

This sometimes happens in the UK but mostly in smaller establishments.

You wouldn’t cut towards the bar to greet the staff in a branch of Wetherspoon, though, before finding a table.

In France, we’ve found, people will do exactly that, effectively announcing their arrival, and getting (quiet, possibly unspoken) permission to take a seat.

This is true (we think) even in craft beer bars where service may be at the bar, and there’s loads of English being spoken and on signs. It might not feel like it but you are still in France.


News, nuggets and longreads 27 May 2023: Le roi des fourmis

Every Saturday we round up the best writing about beer and pubs. This week, we’ve got notes on 16th century beer, American porter and dog hair in pub carpets.

First, news of an interesting intervention from trade body UK Hospitality, which has criticised the UK government’s approach to immigration, as reported by Darren Norbury at Beer Today:

“Unfortunately… there remain significant shortages across hospitality with 132,000 vacancies, 48% above pre-pandemic levels,” said chief executive Kate Nicholls. “These shortages are actively forcing businesses to reduce their opening hours, or even days. This is not good for businesses, the public or the economy… We need to take stock of the current labour market, where we have shortages and what role the immigration system can play in aiding businesses. For example, adding chefs to the Shortage Occupation List would be a practical measure to plug a gaping hole for businesses and provide a huge boost to the sector.”

We’ll add some anecdotal observations of our own: this problem is not unique to the UK. Last autumn, every bar and restaurant we visited in Germany was recruiting, with a real sense of urgency. This past fortnight, in Italy, we saw more of the same. But not in Paris. What is France doing differently?

Medieval beer brewing.
SOURCE: Wellcome Collection.

This week’s chunkiest read by far is an academic paper called ‘Understanding early modern beer: an interdisciplinary case study’ by Susan Flavin, Marc Meltonville , Charlie Taverner, Joshua Reid, Stephen Lawrence, Carlos Belloch-Molina and John Morrissey. We’re not academics (though Jess does have a history degree) and found it both accessible and engaging. Here’s a summary of the paper from the abstract:

Beer was a crucial part of diets in sixteenth-century Ireland, as it was in most of northern Europe. It fuelled manual labour and greased the wheels of social life from grand dining rooms down to raucous alehouses in towns and villages. This drink was in many ways comparable to its modern counterpart – it used hops, was lightly bitter, and was produced using similar processes – but it was also distinctive, employing pre-modern varieties of grains, brewed with heavy quantities of oats as well as barley, and reliant on less precise equipment. To understand more deeply beer’s significance as an intoxicating and energy-providing foodstuff, it is vital to move beyond theoretical calculations and rough approximations with present-day equivalents. This can only be achieved by attempting to recreate an early modern beer, following the practices of past brewers, and employing the most accurate ingredients and technology possible.

The account given of how appropriate grains, hops and yeast were sourced is remarkable, and offers quite a contrast to those ‘inspired by’ semi-historical beers occasionally released by commercial breweries.

Jeff Alworth has a fascinating story about a new variety of hop that just… turned up? It’s called Monocacy and might, or might not, be a variety of wild hop. What the scientists will say, choosing their words carefully, is that it doesn’t match any existing variety they currently have in their database:

The Agricultural Research Service is the in-house research agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it turns out Dr. [Nahla] Bassil doesn’t work alone there. When I arrived at the modest building where her office is located, I was surprised to find a whole team ready to greet me… The process starts with a piece of the plant. “You want the tissue of the mother plant, not the gamete [like a seed]” she began. “Young leaf tissue has less secondary metabolites, and the DNA is cleaner.” For some reason, I assumed they’d actually use the hop itself—I suppose because that’s what scientists test for things like oil content. Nope, they take a small bit of leaf and grind it up until it becomes powdery. They use a “buffer”—a chemical compound—to separate the DNA from the plant, and then unzip the paired DNA strands under high temperature with an enzyme and more chemicals, and “amplify” certain sections of the DNA sequence.

Illustration: "No! Bad dog."

It’s Mark Johnson’s turn to tackle two topics that, as he points out, come up time and time again: children in pubs, and dogs in pubs. As ever, he puts a personal spin on it, reflecting on his own childhood experience of pubs, and that of his sister:

I once took my niece to the pub… She was either 1 or 2 years of age. I often looked after her on Saturdays and on one of our weekly walks, for the first time, I stopped by the local pub, mainly because my friend was there with his daughter of similar age… The two kids got on well together and it was a lovely couple of hours; a perfect showcase of adult friends and their children existing in public houses… But my sister was furious. She didn’t rant or rave but her lips were purser than a 90s children’s show teacher. It was here that I learned of the effect that our childhood had had upon her. She recalls many an afternoon being bored in the corner of pubs that our Dad had dragged us to, arms folded in the corner with nothing to do, and she doesn’t want the same for her children.

American porter caps on a historic map of the US.

For Pellicle David Nilsen asks a good question: what happened to all those American porters we used to see? They were certainly something we used to enjoy when we were getting into beer, turning up in fridges at The Rake or craft beer bars in places like York. He writes:

Some of porter’s decline might stem from the blue collar accessibility that made it popular in the first place. Since its adoption by American craft brewers as a standard style in the 1980s, American porter has generally been brewed to between 5.5-6.0% ABV with a medium body and moderate hopping. In the last decade or even half-decade, we’ve seen a split in style trends, with easy drinkability at one end of the spectrum and strong, intensely-flavoured beers at the other end. A 4.5% German pilsner might have brewers and die-hards salivating, while 14% behemoths dominate the rankings on Untappd. A roasty, 6% beer is something of a no-man’s-land, neither low enough in strength or mild enough in flavour to be “sessionable” nor strong or intense enough to be daring.

Closed sign on shop.

Roy at Quare Swally has got us thinking with his latest post. It’s about Farmaggedon, a Northern Irish brewery that recently folded after almost a decade in business:

It’s weird to think they were one of our longest standing breweries as I vividly recall attending their launch night in 2014 upstairs at what used to be known as Aether & Echo – now the Deer’s Head pub in Belfast… Back then they started off with a trio of Gold pale ale, IPA and Porter but the range grew to include the likes of red ale, rye IPA, US wheat beer, barleywine and even cider! I recall the first Farmageddon beer to really hook me in was the Mosaic SMASH of 2014. You know that feeling when you take a sip of a new beer and you know it’s going to be fun? I loved that beer and so did many others. That single malt and single hop (SMASH) release manifested into what would become Mosaic IPA – becoming part of the core range, one of the brewery’s most popular beers and was voted CAMRA NI‘s Champion Beer of the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival 2016.

When we look at Steve Dunkley’s ongoing list of brewery closures, we find ourselves thinking that each of them surely deserves some kind obituary like Roy has provided. Who were they? What made them special? Why will they be missed?

Not least because some beer historian in 20 or 30 years time might have the same kind of struggle we faced when writing Brew Britannia, scrambling around to pin down even the barest facts about breweries that came and went in the 1970s and 80s.

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday (theme: big beer ‘wokeness’) and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday (same).