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News, nuggets and longreads 6 March 2021: Trans Europe Express

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that caught our attention in the past week, amounting to the bones of a pleasing jaunt around Continental Europe.

First, something that always cheers us up: news of a pub that had seemed doomed springing back to life. The Magdala Tavern in Hampstead has been closed for seven years. It’s famous as the place where, in 1955, Ruth Ellis committed the murder that led to her being the last woman hanged in Britain. Having been awarded asset of community value status in 2015, several attempts to rebuild and develop have been swerved, and now local man Dick Morgan is taking it on with plans to tidy it up and reopen later this year.


Social distancing in the pub.

Another interesting bit of news: all that checking in and QR code scanning we did last summer? Probably pointless, it turns out:

Data from hundreds of millions of check-ins by people who visited pubs, restaurants and hairdressers before lockdown was barely used by Test and Trace, according to a confidential report obtained by Sky News… The report admits that the failure of the £22bn service to use the data for alerts or contact tracing meant “thousands of people” were not warned they might be at risk of infection, “potentially leading to the spread of the virus.”

Track and trace is an essential part of tackling a pandemic but here, through mismanagement, was reduced to part of the theatre of safety.


Macro image: 'Hops' with illustration of hop cones, 1970s.

At Beervana Jeff Alworth has written an in-depth piece about how successful hop varieties earn the names by which we consumers eventually know them:

Agronomics represent the second and equally important challenge for a hop plant. It’s not enough for a variety to produce hops that taste sublime in an IPA. They must produce enough hops per acre (ten bales, or 2,000 pounds, seems to be the benchmark), grow well, and resist diseases. In some cases, an especially vigorous variety with similar traits to another are worth pursuing. “We certainly don’t need another hop variety that doesn’t yield well,” [hop breeder Michael] Ferguson said. “I don’t need another eight-bale Cascade. I’ll take another 15-bale Cascade!” In order to produce a viable commercial hop, the cultivar must have qualities that make it perform as well in the field as it does in the glass. 


Gary Gillman at Beer et seq. has unearthed an interesting historical brewing figure – the Polish aristocrat Róża Maria Augusta Tarnowska. She was, he reveals, the subject of news coverage in 1896:

She was visiting a brewery in Berlin to learn details of pneumatic malting, as she wanted to install this in her brewery. She grew her own barley on “large acreage” and couldn’t get sufficient labour to work a traditional floor maltings (is the implication)… The story stated she sent samples of her beer to the German brewer, who pronounced them equal to the best German and Bohemian beer. The report added, she was believed to be “the only woman brewer in Europe”.

Further research required, it seems. (I knew learning Polish would come in handy one day. – Jess.)


Früh am dom

At Tempest in a Tankard Franz D. Hofer provides a pen portrait of a Cologne beer hall:

One such place is Früh am Dom… a rambling collection of discrete spaces that are almost like beer galleries. Some are dark, some lit by daylight streaming in from large windows, others lit by skylights… Not long after opening his top-fermenting brewery in 1904, Peter Josef Früh secured himself a place in the history of Kölsch. Früh was among the first brewers in Cologne to filter his beers. He is also reputed to have dialed back the hopping rate of his beers to set them apart from the indigenous hoppy-bitter Wiess beers (not to be confused with Weissbier). This latter move arguably ushered in a trend in the direction of softer, rounder beers.


Elephant.

For Ferment, the promo mag for a beer subscription service, Eoghan Walsh has produced a fantastic A to Z of Belgian beer – a hint of a book project to be?

E is for Elephants. Belgian brewers don’t like to talk about marketing. Ask any of the old guard and they’ll tell you it’s what’s in the bottle that counts and not what’s on the bottle. But you don’t build a global brand – and Belgian beer is still a global brand – without knowing a thing or two about marketing. And of all the Belgian brewery mascots created to hawk beer, probably the most recognisable are the pink elephants of Brouwerij Huyghe and its Delirium Tremens beers.


American porter caps on a historic map of the US.

Al Reece at Fuggled is digging into something we didn’t know we wanted to know: what is ‘robust porter’ really meant to be?

Once upon a time, according to the BJCP at least, there were 3 types of porter, brown, robust, and Baltic. Baltic porter is, putting on my product manager hat for a moment, out of scope for this particular conversation/project, so really I am thinking about brown and robust… When you look at the 2008 BJCP guidelines for Porter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the difference between brown and robust was largely based on the side of the Pond your drink came from.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s proof that interesting historical information on pubs still lurks in unexpected places:


For more good reading have a look at Alan McLeod’s Thursday round-up.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 27 February 2021: roadmaps, poorter, Untappd

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week from the end of lockdown to beer stolen from a shipwreck.

The big news this week is, of course, the announcement of the Government’s conditional schedule for the easing of national lockdown across England:

  • 08 March | Meet one other person socially, outdoors
  • 29 March | Outdoor mixing of two households or up to six people
  • 12 April | Hospitality venues can serve customers outdoors
  • 17 May | Indoor hospitality resumes
  • 21 June | All limits on social contact to lift

There also seems to have been confirmation that it will be OK for pubs to sell takeaway beer from 12 April even if they don’t have a beer garden.

All of those dates depend on certain targets being met with regard to COVID case statistics, vaccinations and so on – they’re ‘no sooner than’ rather than set in stone, or so the Government insists. Depending who you listen to, this plan is either ludicrously over-cautious or insanely reckless. For our part, we think, for once, the Government has actually got this about right – assuming it can stick to that ‘data, not dates’ promise and not cave in to populism at the first stumble.


Wetherspoon pub sign, Penzance.

Undoubtedly the chunkiest and most satisfying read of the week is this piece about the Wetherspoon pub chain by Jonathan Moses for Bloomberg Business Week. It’s scrupulously balanced, neither puff piece nor hatchet job, and it’s probably a good sign that Tim Martin had his lawyers on standby in advance of publication:

Late one evening last March, Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc, Britain’s highest-profile pub chain, descended to his basement to record a video message for his staff of 43,000… In the grainy video, recorded on a phone camera, Martin did his best to sound reassuring. “I’m very sorry about the situation that has occurred with our pubs,” he said, clutching a mug of tea decorated with what looked like woodland sprites. “It puts everyone in a very difficult position, and I know you’re all sitting there wondering what the hell is happening.” What he said next wouldn’t exactly put Wetherspoons employees at ease. There was “no money coming through the tills,” and government checks that would temporarily cover as much as 80% of wages for furloughed workers weren’t yet in the mail: “They’ll probably be pretty slow paying it, so there may be some delays, for which I apologize.” For those who “didn’t want to wait around,” he continued, “we’ll give you first preference if you want to come back.” There were jobs available at supermarkets, he noted. “Deeply appreciate your work,” he signed off. “Best of luck!”… The national reaction was furious.


Illustration: men in a pub.

For The Conversation Thomas Thurnell-Read, an academic specialising in the cultural aspects of pubs and booze, has written about why British people are missing pubs and their role in combating loneliness:

Conducted before the pandemic, my research highlights the variety of social interaction that took place in pubs. This ranges from the “swift pint” to leisurely lunches with friends and close family as part of daytime outings, or to mark celebrations… For others, pub going involved activities such as book groups, craft classes and public talks, which many pubs offered. A number of participants also spoke of visiting pubs frequently but rarely drinking alcohol. For these people, good tea and coffee, a range of soft drinks and well-priced food were reasons to visit the pub.


It’s been a while since we had a good old-fashioned beer history takedown from Martyn Cornell – perhaps because he and Ron Pattinson have, to some degree, won the war on the most common myths. But when Martyn encounters a claim that porter gets its name from the Dutch word ‘poorter’… Oof, he is not happy:

I’ve never met Larry Hatch, but I’m sure he’s a great guy… However,  he’s written some dumb nonsense about porter, and I’m feeling grumpy, so he’s going to get a kicking… [Believing] that porter as brewed in London in the early 18th century could possibly be derived from a beer called poorter brewed in the Low Countries in the 14th century is a collapse of the critical faculties, an inability to assess the evidence and judge its likelihood, a breakdown in logic, a failure to properly weigh up competing possibilities and sift the probable from the improbable, a disastrous misunderstanding of the importance of Ockham’s razor, of exactly the same kin and kind that leads people to believe baseless conspiracy theories involving pizza restaurants and child abuse rings, to insist that, despite all the irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the Earth is flat, and to claim that the Moon landings were faked by Stanley Kubrick in a Hollywood studio.


For Good Beer Hunting Kate Bernot has been investigating the weird feedback loop caused by Untappd ratings:

Americans’ use of the app lagged in 2020, but Untappd’s use as a decision-making tool in the U.S. has only increased in this time. Next Glass offers Untappd for Business, a menu management and analytics service for bars, restaurants, breweries, and bottle shops. Many businesses that don’t pay for Untappd for Business simply use its publicly available ratings to decide whether to stock a certain beer, or whether to brew a specific style. Retailers and distributors desperate for data about an increasingly crowded field of breweries turn to Untappd’s simple one-through-five rating scale for quick insights… But because of the types of behaviors the app incentives, and who constitutes its user base, such insights aren’t as generalizable as many assume.


Here’s a classic ‘and finally’ story, as reported in the New York Times. Argentine craft brewers decided to age some beer on a shipwreck – an old-school BrewDog style gimmick – but were disappointed when they went to retrieve it:

[Diver Carlos] Brelles dove to check on the barrels on Jan. 19 and everything looked fine. He returned this Tuesday, a day before the barrels were going to be brought back to land, and couldn’t believe his eyes: All the barrels were gone… Mr. Vincent said the contents of the barrels would be useless in the hands of people who lack sophisticated beer-making skills, since the purpose of the brew was to mix it with another beer… “If they stole it for their own consumption, they’re going to have to throw it away,” said [brewer Juan Pablo] Vincent. “It was a lukewarm, gasless liquor that would be very difficult to drink.”


For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Heavy lifting

Beer is working hard these days.

When every day feels the same, when the only way to tell one week from the next is the curve on a graph, it’s how we mark the coming of evening and discern the ghostly outline of our weekends. Beer as anchor to reality.

The presence of bottles, cans and glasses is how you tell whether the Zoom call you’re in is for work or pleasure. It makes quizzes and frustrating can-you-hear-me, you’re-on-mute, no-you-go-first conversations just about bearable. It enables the seance.

It’s memory. Cask ale from a bag in a box to recall the Drapers Arms; mixed cases of cans as a faint reminder of turning up at a strange bar in a strange town and exploring strange breweries; bottles of Augustiner or Westmalle on the sofa standing in for train journeys, hotels, warm beer garden evenings.

We expect it to distract us, too. To be something we can talk about that doesn’t hurt or scare us. To provide new experiences when those are a rare commodity. Little presents to ourselves that arrive in the post.

And it’s what we’re looking forward to – the end point that will tell us we’ve made it through, the whole family around the pub table, thinking about nothing but the cards in our hands or whatever trivial question we’ve decided to half argue over.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 20 February 2021: smoke, disruption, trends

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out to us in the past week, from opinion on lockdown to reflections on smoke.

In the UK, the COVID-19 numbers are mostly and consistently heading in the right direction which has, of course, prompted calls for a Great Reopening. Tandleman wants to see pubs open soon, but not right now, and with due consideration for how pubs actually operate in the real world. Having originally titled his post ‘Get them open NOW!’, or something along those lines, Paul Bailey (no relation) is in a similar place.

Matt Curtis, on the other hand, urges patience:

We tend to agree with Matt – slow and steady makes sense, as long as there’s support in place to keep pubs afloat in the meantime. We’re almost there, and can you imagine what it would be like to reopen only to have to close up again a month later? If we’ve learned one thing in the past year it’s that those reassuring downward trends can turn in the blink of an eye.


Illustration: Victoriana.

Something Jeff Allworth said this week struck us like a lightning bolt:

There is every reason to believe the year-plus Covid disruption will have long-lasting effects on the alcohol market, and I wonder if we won’t use 2020-‘21 as a convenient place to divide the “craft era” with whatever we’re about to inherit. It will mean reckoning with this era, attempting to make meaning out of how we got here. We are a species of story.

Almost a year ago, we used the phrase ‘great disruptor’ to describe the pandemic and, yes, we’ve seen plenty of evidence of it accelerating trends already underway and putting a sudden full stop on slow decline.


King Narmer of Egypt, via archive.org.

We’re 20th century kids, really, and don’t seem to have the heads for keeping track of the debates and disputes in beer archaeology. Nonetheless, like everyone else, our reaction to the news of the discovery of a 5,000-year-old brewery in Egypt was, “Wow – that’s cool!”

A joint Egyptian-American team discovered the brewery in Abydos, an ancient burial ground in the desert. They found a number of units containing about 40 pots used to heat a mixture of grain and water to make beer. The brewery is likely to date back to the era of King Narmer, according to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It says it believes the find to “be the oldest high-production brewery in the world”.


Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

For Ferment, the promo magazine for a beer subscription service, Mark Dredge has been thinking about trends and where beer might be going. Cleverly, he’s sourced his intel from the current cohort of students at Heriot-Watt – what do they expect to be brewing in years to come?

So what about the beers we’ll be drinking? “Something I’ve found very exciting in the last few years is a real shift to beers that are a lot more accessible,” said Caitlín [McErlean]. A lot of other people also used the word ‘accessible,’ and all of them used it in relation to hazy IPA, fruit sours or flavoured stouts – accessible seems to now mean a knowable non-beer ingredient, or a beer which has an abundantly fruity hop character.


Smoke on a Cornish moor.

At Appellation Beer Stan Hieronymus has been thinking about hops, smoke, wheat and the almost-lost beer style Grodziskie:

Beers change over the course of 500 years, so let’s forgo any discussion about what the “most authentic” version of Grodziskie might be. The givens are that it is made with smoked wheat malt and it is low alcohol. Sometimes it was hoppy, and sometimes it included barley… The version from Grodzisk is not quite as hoppy as one from Live Oak Brewing in Texas and a bit drier, but they are cut from the same cloth. They are about smoke and hops… But that smoke, that’s important. Oak smoked wheat malt does not smell like beechwood smoked malt or English peated malt.


Meux's Original London Stout advertised on a derelict pub building at Finsbury Park, North London.
Meux’s Original London Stout advertised on a derelict pub building at Finsbury Park, North London.

Joe Tindall is after a bit of help – do you remember drinking beer from Friary Meux? If so, drop him a line or comment on his post.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 13 February 2021: demolition & developers

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that caught our attention in the past week, from ambient sound to monstrous Guinness keg fonts.

First up, an important amenity: imissmybar.com is an ambient sound generator that recreates the atmosphere of a pub or bar. You can turn sounds on and off, or adjust the levels, and even add music via a custom Spotify playlist. It was in such demand yesterday when it went viral that the site fell over but it seems to be stable now. Enjoy!


Collage: a 1960s pub.

For Hull Live, Michael Mutch has written a frankly macabre account of the misfortune and violence that has plagued the estate pubs of Hull in recent years. There are subheadings such as ‘Chainsaw threat’ and ‘Lawless pub with mass brawls’. Depending on your point of view, this is either wallowing in the misfortune of others or a rare example of absolute raw honesty:

There are many reasons why these pubs are forced to close but there are none in Hull that raised eyebrows more than Orchard Park’s Arctic Ranger… On the surface it seemed like a traditional community pub set within the heart of the Orchard Park Community. But behind closed doors it was a different story… The pub was closed down in 2013 after a spate of violent attacks in and around the premises, including glassings and mass brawls, with Humberside Police saying it had become almost lawless.


Truman pavement.

From ‘The Gentle Author’ at Spitalfields Life we get yet another story of developers rushing to destroy brewing heritage to prevent its listing holding up their no doubt very important building project:

Last year, Dan Cruickshank made a survey of the historic fabric of the Old Truman Brewery to ensure that these elements would be preserved in any redevelopment of the site, which sits within the Fournier St and Brick Lane Conservation Area. The owners have responded by destroying a large area of old granite paviours and setts in the large yard east of Brick Lane that Dan identified as original, thus avoiding the possibility of any restriction upon their future development plans in this area… The work was undertaken covertly on Thursday 28th and Friday 29th January when the yard was cordoned off by security guards while mechanical diggers removed the surface and the debris was hastily taken away on trucks.


SOURCE: Simonds Family website.

In happier news, The Giant Goram, one of Bristol’s few remaining post-war estate pubs, has been saved as developers’ plans to build houses on the site were rejected. The planning inspector, John Wilde, said:

“To my mind the Giant Goram has to be defined as a community facility… It is the last of the original five pubs in Lawrence Weston, a community that has also lost many of its other facilities. Further housing in the community is due to be developed in the near future… It has not been shown that there is no longer a need to retain the pub and alternative provision has not been made.”


SOURCE: Matt Curtis/Pellicle.

For Pellicle Matt Curtis has produced a long, earnest tribute to St. Mars of the Desert, the Sheffield brewery that evolved out of cult US outfit Pretty Things. If you’re a cynic, you might roll your eyes here and there, but enter in to the spirit of things and it’s a touching piece that also includes some astute commentary on the status of Sheffield as a beer city:

Could the arrival of Dann, Martha and The Brewery of St. Mars of the Desert be the missing piece, cementing the Steel City in people’s minds as one of England’s best beer destinations? More likely, they’ve added another layer of excitement and intrigue to an already buoyant scene. Try as they might, they did not arrive anonymously. The lofty reputation of Pretty Things following them across the Atlantic, with rumours of their new brewery soon appearing online. 


Hops against green.

From Jake Huolihan at Brülosophy comes a recipe for hop-flavoured pop introduced with an interesting nugget:

I love beer, but there are certain occasions where consuming alcoholic beverages just isn’t in the cards and can even be dangerous or illegal. According to Lagunitas, regular consumption of beer on the job was killing productivity as employees became lethargic and probably still hungover from the previous day. To keep brewers happy satiated yet sober while on the job, they began making non-alcoholic carbonated hop flavored water, a concoction that was spearheaded by homebrewer Paul Tecker in the mid-2000s.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.