News, nuggets and longreads 20 April 2024: Slap Shot

Every Saturday we share links to a selection of articles or blog posts about beer and pubs. This time we’ve got Art Deco pubs, posh publicans and lethal breweries.

First, some news. The Stonegate pub chain has issued a profit warning putting the future of its more than 4,000 outlets in doubt. This story also highlights the problem with chains: when they go, it can potentially wipe out a bunch of pubs at once, rather than the slow drip-drip of closures, causing a jolt across the industry.

An illustration from an old book of a village inn.

Still on the subject of pubs under threat, for Pellicle Jacob Smith has written a provocative piece questioning the benefits of pubs being taken over and run by local communities:

In a 2022 report, the Plunkett Foundation, a charity which helps rural communities in Britain to create and run community-owned businesses, reported that only one in 12 rural community-owned pub projects reached trading status. That means 91.7% of all rural community ownership pub bids failed without ever pouring a pint. These failed bids are rarely, if ever, highlighted by mainstream media. And while it’s human nature to focus on the winners and allow the also-rans the dignity of anonymity, such blatant survivorship bias risks distorting our perception.

The Art Deco Yacht Inn in Penzance, in the sun.

We’re going to bundle together two related posts here, both about inter-war pubs. First, there’s a piece by Joshua Abbott of Modernism in Metroland about modernist and Art Deco pubs in outer London:

The breweries of the 1920s and 30s wanted to overhaul the image of the pub, changing it from a dirty, dark place of drunkenness to somewhere light, spacious and family friendly. To do this they employed architects or even founded their own in-house design departments to produce pubs that the average, respectable citizen would be happy to be seen in. These new pubs were often built besides the new ring roads and bypasses being constructed at the time. Middle class families could take their newly purchased car out for a Sunday drive and have lunch at a suitable pub along the way. A nice example is the neo-Tudor style Daylight Inn in Petts Wood opened in 1935 by Charringtons Brewery, and designed by their in-house architect Sidney Clark.

Then, over at Pub Gallery, Dermot Kennedy has part one of a series of heavily-illustrated posts about Art Deco pubs, starting with those to be found on the English coast:

The trend for streamline moderne in architecture coincided with a boom in ocean going liners, and the launch of the SS Normandie in 1935 and the RMS Queen Mary in 1936 was huge news at the time. Both had art deco interiors and architects were inspired to incorporate features from the liners into their new pubs. The obvious place to locate them was by the sea, and a number of ports and resort towns found themselves with art deco pubs by the end of the 1930s.

A semi-crushed beer can.

Jeff Alworth has shared a chunk of a memoir in progress focusing on his father and stepfathers and how the relationships they had with alcohol might have shaped his attitude to beer:

I know almost nothing about my birth father, yet he looks back at me from the mirror. My thin body, over six feet of it, is Gorostiza rather than stocky Metcalf. It’s a Basque body, or partly so, which isn’t uncommon in Boise, with the largest population of Basques outside Europe… He left me one more inheritance—an affection for booze… The Gorostizas were drinkers. At large Gorostiza family gatherings, the wine and liquor flowed. Mom recalled them more with wonder than affection. The Metcalfs also had big family gatherings, even loud ones. But they were sedate, whereas the Gorostiza get-togethers were tinged with the chaos of drink… Unlike her parents and sister, Mom liked to drink, too. And she liked drinking with Richard; it was something they did together. I think that’s part of the reason Mom liked Richard—he was older, had this strange family, and loved to go out at night. Mom loved getting all dressed up, selecting one of the wigs from the collection she kept on Styrofoam heads in her bedroom, do her nails, and go out on the town.

A warning sign on a brewing vessel: DANGER, CAUSTIC.

Liam K is back with another instalment of his series ‘100 Years of Irish Brewing in 50 Objects’. This time he’s used a copy of the Guinness in-house magazine from 1963 as the jumping off point for an exploration of health and safety in Irish breweries – or, more specifically, of their absence:

The newspapers of the 1800s and early 1900s are dotted with reports of deaths in Irish breweries to the point where almost every decade had a report or two of workers being killed on or off site. It is, even at this remote juncture, a difficult read, as many of the reported inquests go into the details of precisely what happened these individuals, and often include a list of the people they have left behind, where sometimes, almost an afterthought, the reporter will mention the wife, children, parents or siblings that were left in heartache and possible destitution at the loss of a loved one. It is worth remembering at all times that we are dealing with actual human beings who lived not terribly long ago and who possibly still have ancestors walking our streets whose lives were affected directly or indirectly by such a dreadful occurrence.

A jumble of pubs.

On Substack David Jesudason has dug up the story of an aristocratic publican whose snobbery and racism were shameless:

“One has an absolute right to refuse service to anyone without reason. Or rather, one has until this moment.”… The words above were spoken in 1969 by the ‘esquire’ and proprietor of the Tickell Arms, Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, Joseph (AKA John or Kim) Hollick de la Taste Tickell… Tickell had been a publican there since 1958; his family (he claimed) at one time owned 11,000 acres but in 1970 this had dwindled to fewer than 100 acres. Despite this shrinking Cambridgeshire empire – or because of it – he ran the Tickell Arms as a mini-fiefdom which largely manifested itself as him deciding who was or wasn’t allowed to drink there… He barred people for a lot of class-based reasons which seem bizarre today. One of his biggest annoyances were people who wore braces – calling them “hideous apparel worn by grubby people and are offensive to me and other customers”. In fact, a lot of the reasons for barring people were ridiculous, like in 1973 he threw out a group of drinkers for wearing nuclear disarmament badges.

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.News, nuggets and longreads 20 April 2024: Slap Shot

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s in the Draught Lines

Christina Wade has written an accessibly scholarly book about women in beer that offers a refreshingly different lens on the world.

It tells us, with overwhelming heaps of evidence, that women have always been involved in brewing, and still are.

But more than this, it shows us that it’s possible to write a 180-page book almost without citing or talking about men at all.

Women are the centre of the stories told. Academic texts by women are cited in every other paragraph – many of them, more than most of us could digest in a lifetime. And when punditry and insight are required, Wade is able to call on a cast of sharp, experienced experts, all of whom are women. It feels effortless, too, and natural. Who else’s opinion or experience could possibly have more weight or authority?

Despite its clear focus, as a result of when it was researched and written, this is also a vital text about brewing and hospitality during the pandemic. Wade draws parallels between COVID-19 and historic plagues, which also affected the brewing industry, and women’s roles in it.

One particularly eye-opening argument is that the Black Death reduced the population, increased wages, increased demand for better beer, and thus gave men an incentive to muscle into the brewing trade, displacing the women who’d dominated it for centuries. Then, whoosh, we’re back in the 21st century and Wade asks, will COVID-19 have a similar effect? Post-pandemic trading conditions, she suggests, favour larger, better-funded breweries… which happen to be run by men.

One of Wade’s hobby horses, explored in blog posts and articles, is the muddled mythology around brewing and witchcraft. That is, the pervasive story that ‘alewives’ inspired the modern image of the witch. Fun and empowering as these stories might be, and easy as it would no doubt have been to sell a book on the strength of these stories, Wade is as rigorous in debunking them as Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell have been in correcting the popular understanding of the histories of porter and IPA.

Structurally The Devil’s in the Draught Lines resists the simplicity of chronology. Instead, each chapter covers a different angle and whizzes us back and forth through hundreds of years, from the mediaeval world to the 21st century.

There’s also room for stories around race, culture, gender identity, with names and faces unfamiliar to us, like Lizzie and Lucy Stevens of Closet Brewing, and Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela of the Tolozaki Beer Company. In fact, there’s the equivalent of about 25 Pellicle articles hidden throughout the book – and we mean that as a compliment to both parties.

This helps leaven the wholemeal archival research that underpins the book. Any time we start to suspect we’re being fed a chunk of thesis we’re given an interview with a woman working in beer today. These are often cleverly chosen and placed to underline what has changed since the historical examples were recorded – and what has not.

It’s clear Wade put a lot of effort into finding the balance between academic style and plain language – something she’s practised rather brilliantly on her blog for many years. Sources and authorities are named in the text, but not with scary foot- or endnote numbers. Then more detail for each is provided at the back of the book.

If you want to understand the deeper history of brewing in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it’s a readable survey of previous research. And it’s a must-read if you want your world view shaken up a little – something which is good for all of us to do from time to time.

We bought our copy from CAMRA Books for £15.99 delivered with a member discount.

pubs Somerset

Drinking with Dad in the backstreets of Highbridge

Drinking ale with my dad in a down-to-earth backstreet pub in a small town in Somerset was just what I needed, it turns out.

Dad’s been unwell for large chunks of the past year. Lying awake in the small hours fretting about him, I frequently found myself thinking: “What if we’ve had our last trip to the pub together?”

In Brighton a couple of months ago we did make it to the pub, and made the best of it, but he still wasn’t himself, and needed a wheelchair to get around. I wondered if he’d only come out for my sake.

But there have been encouraging signs in the past few weeks. The wheelchair has gone into storage and he’s started eating, as Mum says, like a bloody horse.

When I went down to Somerset on Saturday to take them out for lunch, however, I was still expecting that we’d have one or two drinks as we ate, and that would be it.

Instead, he did something so characteristically himself that I could have cried: he decided, out of the blue, that we were going to visit some pubs, and started issuing directions to Mum, our designated driver.

First, we checked out a country pub that used to have good Butcombe Bitter a decade or so ago. But it was a wash-out – simultaneously pretentious, and grotty, with all the atmosphere of a council storage shed. The passive-aggressive signs on every surface did nothing to help.

Dad was not in the mood for giving up, though. “I know where we’re going,” he said. “The Globe.”

“In Highbridge?” asked Mum. “Is it even still there?”

I was able to confirm that, yes, it is, having walked past it on Boxing Day – the first time I’d ever noticed it, despite having spent some time living in Highbridge as a kid.

Highbridge is an old railway and market town which has been absorbed into nearby Burnham-on-Sea.

And The Globe is a simple Victorian building surrounded by a new red-brick housing estate, on a road that doesn’t really go anywhere.

As we pulled up outside it was immediately clear that, if nothing else, this pub would be more lively than the previous one. The picnic tables on the pavement outside were crowded with people enjoying the spring sunshine, smoking, vaping, and laughing with each other.

Inside, it’s dominated by TVs and a pool table. The floor has bare boards and the walls and ceiling are decorated with:

  • football memorabilia, mostly Liverpool FC
  • joke signs
  • pictures of Elvis
  • electric guitars

Almost everyone was drinking lager but there was a single cask ale pump which Dad zeroed in on. He was disappointed not to find Butcombe Bitter but Cheddar Ales Gorge Best would do. The pints we were served were topped with an inch or so of beautiful froth.

We took a table a little distance from the bar and Dad turned to watch the football. Then he tasted the beer and turned back to me with a look of absolute delight on his face. He declared it a good pint. A little after that, he declared it a good pub, too.

Mum told me that they used to drink there 40 years ago, when I was small, if they could convince my grandparents to babysit. Highbridge has never had many pubs but there was just about a crawl, if they included hotel bars.

Some of the people in the pub also looked as if they’d been drinking there for 40 years, possibly continuously. I was pleased to hear the traditional local greeting “‘Ow be on?” delivered in earnest for the first time in years.

By my frame of reference, it felt like a Bridgwater pub: not ‘rough’, although I suspect some might read it that way, but straightforward, without pretence.

And yet it was also spotlessly clean, especially the gents toilet, which had a selection of aftershave and deodorant, along with proper soap, boiling hot water, and a functional hand dryer. (This should not feel like a pleasant surprise.)

The other killer feature? Pints of exceptionally good cask ale, in exceptionally good condition, were £3.50.

That’s probably why, after Mum had said we ought to be going, then went to the toilet, Dad leapt up and rushed to the bar to line up two more pints before she could get back, like a naughty kid. And watching him swagger up to the counter I thought, “There he is, he’s back.”

We’re going to take Jess sometime, and play euchre, though I doubt she’ll feel quite as at home as Mum and Dad, or as me. It’s the kind of pub I grew up in, and around, and doesn’t have a hint of London about it.

But then there are pubs Jess likes where I don’t feel completely at ease, which I believe she’s going to write about soon.

Generalisations about beer culture pubs

St Davids in 2024: The Farmers is still The Farmers

I visited St Davids in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, after 15 years away, and noticed some changes, and some things that had stayed the same.

The first place I checked in was The Farmers Arms, pictured above, which I wrote about back in 2008, not long after starting this blog:

If I had to choose my favourite pub in the world, it would probably be the Farmers Arms in St Davids, Pembrokeshire. This isn’t because of its beer offerings or even because of the great atmosphere, but because all my early pub memories were formed here. When I was growing up, we went to the Pembrokeshire coast every year for our annual holiday, sometimes as a family, sometimes with a large group of my parents’ friends as well.

It’s strange to go back somewhere you used to know well, which is tangled up with memories of loved ones and happy times, after such a long gap.

In the 2008 post I mentioned going to St Davids every few years. This stopped when we moved to Cornwall, partly because of distance and partly because we found that when you live where other people go on holiday, you like to go on holiday where other people live.

I was delighted to discover that The Farmers still feels like The Farmers. That is, a cosy pub with plenty of locals and lots of interesting chat about who’s doing what, who’s been where, who’s been in lately, and what’s going on in the rugby.

The menu has changed just enough to avoid feeling outdated but yes, you can still get fish and chips and one of my favourite things in the world, pub-grub lasagne.

Having lived in a tourist area for six years we have a better idea of how pubs like this can feel at different times of the year, and also how hard it is to pull off appealing to locals out of season, while still bringing in the tourist money in summer. Locals, especially those working seasonal jobs, aren’t generally loaded with money, and want good value. Whereas tourists on their annual binge can be squeezed a little harder.

Whether it’s the pictures of the lifeboat crew on the wall or the easy conversations at the bar, The Farmers manages to feel like a place that is utterly at the heart of the community.

It’s always interesting to see which brewery’s beers will be on offer. I have a theory that the Farmers Arms is a good bellwether for trends, particularly in real ale. As I wrote in 2009

Back in the eighties and early nineties, the beers on offer were from one of the ‘big six’ – I think Whitbread, but wouldn’t swear to it. In the nineties, Flowers from Whitbread was still available, but beers from the regional heavyweight, Brains (Cardiff) became more and more popular.. This year’s selection was Felinfoel (Llanelli), Crwr Haf from Tomos Watkins/Hurns Brewing Company, (Swansea) and Rhymney bitter (Rhymney). Smaller local breweries have taken over from the regional giant, just as more local produce has started to appear in the cafes and restaurants.

More than a decade on, Double Dragon by Felinfoel is still a regular, and as we get older and more conservative in our tastes, we tend to appreciate beers like this all the more.

The hip newcomer was Evan Evans whose beers were on in most pubs we visited on this trip. We really enjoyed their WPA (4.1%) which was like a softer version of Hop Back Summer Lightning. It was golden but not intensely hoppy, and was deeply satisfying. A proper same-again beer.

A pint of amber ale with the logo 'Felinfoel' on the glass, accompanied by a sealed packet of 'Brown Bag Crisps' on a wooden pub table. The background features a stone wall and a part of the pub interior with a chair and a door, giving a traditional and rustic feel.
Inside The Bishops.

I knew St Davids as essentially a one-pub town for most of my childhood. My dad has reminded me that there were a couple of hotels with licensed bars but, to my mind, they weren’t pubs. We visited one on this trip and it was utterly dire.

Now, though, there is also The Bishops, occupying a prominent position in the central square and sending out Ye Olde Pub vibes. And we liked it well enough.

The staff were friendly and the beer was decent, too. There was more ale from Evan Evans along with the light-bodied and zingy Whitesands Pale Ale from St Davids Brewery.

The crowd, such as it was, seemed lighter on locals than The Farmers. Here, it was all geeky tourists like us sitting quietly in pairs recovering from their day’s cliff walking.

The exterior of a stone-built building with a white window frame featuring decorative stained glass. A sign with two dice hangs above.
The exterior of The Smorgasboard on a rainy day.

There is also a craft beer and pizza joint whose opening hours never quite worked for us and intriguingly, The Smorgasboard which was fitted out before our eyes over the course of a few days and opened just before we had to leave.

We’ve spotted this trend but hadn’t expected it to reach places like St Davids just yet.

When he spotted us peering through the window the owner beckoned us in and told us about their plans, including their intention to serve craft beer on draught.

When it did open, with only coffee on offer, we paid £3 per person for a two-hour session.

Even with work still being done, and the tourists still to come, it seemed to attract a lot of attention, and did decent business.

When I was eight, I’d have loved a board game cafe, and would have been constantly pestering my parents to take me – even though my dad insists on calling them “bored family games”.

I suspect it’s going to do well this summer. Even if – or perhaps especially if – it’s as wet as last year.

I will try to get back to St Davids again before another 15 years have passed, if only because it’s a useful indicator of what people are drinking, and where they’re drinking it.


News, nuggets and longreads 13 April 2024: Stardew Valley

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs one or the other of us bookmarked in the past week, from the stink of Brussels to Pilsator.

This is usually where a beer-related news story goes but nothing much caught our eye this week. Probably the most interesting story was the Portman Group judgement on the pump clip for Twickenham Brewery’s Naked Ladies – it’s fine, they reckon – which prompted a statement of disappointment from the Campaign for Real Ale. Our view is the same as it’s been for years, now: if the name of your beer is ‘cheeky’, and you have to explain to people that, “No, actually, it’s not really a sexual reference because…” then it’s probably going to make some people feel uncomfortable. And why would you want your product to make anyone feel uncomfortable?

An old map of Brussels.

Eoghan Walsh has another update on the Brussels drinking scene: rooftop bars are now a thing. He also has an opinion: they’re not necessarily a good thing. At Substack he writes:

Brussels does outdoor drinking well, and the arrival of tables and chairs blocking narrow footpaths and squares across town is as sure a sign that summer is coming as the swallows returning and the streets smelling of stale piss… One of the attractions of Rooftop 58 when I visited shortly after it opened in June last year was that the stink of urine doesn’t reach nine floors up… Sitting there trying not to listen to the conversations of the tourists next to me with their backpacks wrapped around their torsos, I had a nagging thought. To get up to the bar I’d had to queue up at ground floor lifts, where a man was waiting to riffle through bags to prevent contraband water and food making it to the roof. Past him, there was another man in charge of the lifts and crowd control. I didn’t have any trouble getting in, save for a long wait, but then I don’t look like a troublemaker. I did wonder would they refuse entry to someone they did consider a potential threat to the order of their carefully curated experience.

We also wonder if there are anxious discussions in Belgian tourism about the constant association of Brussels with urine. We suppose they’ve asked for it, really, with the pissing lad statue and all that.