Here’s all the best reading about beer and pubs from the past week, from notes on Marxist beer to memories of Watney’s in its pomp.
First, a reminder that we in the UK have it relatively easy. Various forms and degrees of lockdown have affected beer businesses around the world but South Africa’s brewing industry has had it especially hard with the imposition of total prohibition. Now, though, as Lucy Corne reports, they’ve found a way to keep the lights on:
Homebrewing has never been more popular in South Africa. Since people can’t legally buy beer, they are choosing to make their own at home. But not everyone wants to invest in homebrewing equipment and not everyone has the time to brew a batch of beer from scratch. Luckily, the homebrew suppliers and craft brewers of South Africa have come together to bring you the absolute easiest way to make beer at home… Breweries around the country are now offering customers the chance to purchase wort. It’s a perfect solution that allows you to legally produce beer at home (it is not illegal to homebrew in South Africa as long as you don’t sell it) and also offers a way to support your local brewery. They can’t sell beer at this time, but they can sell wort, which is a non-alcoholic product.
SOURCE: Geoff Quincy/Wilson Smith and Partners.
At his blog dedicated to one of the most striking pubs of the 1960s, Geoff Quincy gives us part two of his epic history of its construction:
Large buildings often consist of a steel girder skeleton which is bolted into place before the floors and walls are added afterwards. These walls and floors can be made from a variety of materials such as metals or wood, composites of plastics and also concrete… However due to The Windsock’s shape and design this technique of building could not be employed. There was no centre or skeleton in the design to bolt everything onto. Instead the building would be interlinked by a series of columns which would need to be constructed to their full height of around 30ft in the air, the height of the second bar floor, before the main building would then begin to be built around them, joining the columns together in the process.
John Lowrie used to work for Watney’s and has written a post gathering some of his memories and reflections. As long-time Watney’s watchers we were especially interested in his account of the launch of Red in 1970:
Watney’s decided to re-launch the brand, dropping the ‘Barrel’ and calling it just Watney’s Red. The laboratory and marketing boys had co-operated, done their research. They’d booked the TV slots and advertising hoardings. The first brews were brewed ready for delivery. Chairman Mao’s face was salivating in anticipation. In celebration, they told the boys in the brewery – and me – to try it. Next morning they realised there was something amiss in the chemical concoction. Quite a few boys reported diarrhoea! Unfortunately it was too late to correct. So the brand new Watney’s Red was in fact the same old Watney’s Red Barrel. No-one noticed. The joys of keg beer.
In 2016, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, formally ending over 50 years of war. One of the challenges to lasting peace is finding productive legal employment for ex-guerillas who often lack secondary education or formal work experience… Jaramillo Cardona belongs to a group of ex-guerillas that hopes beer is their path to peace. The 30-member cooperative makes La Roja, or The Red, an Irish-style red ale. The name and label are a nod to their Marxist revolutionary ideology.
Finally, from Twitter, there’s this reminder of why you should follow your local archive, library service and museums:
The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”
For the first time in ages, we reviewed some books. First, we looked at a pair of self-published eBooks by Pete Brown and Andreas Krenmair, drawing some conclusions about the future of beer writing:
When it comes to beer, most publishers seem hung up on the same handful of topics and formats: lists of beers you must drink, beginners’ guides, compilations of trivia and the occasional breezy personal memoir… Not needing to sell well is one of the great advantages of eBooks, however. If an eBook doesn’t sell, it’s disappointing. If a print publication is slow to move, that’s someone’s office or warehouse or spare bedroom piled high with boxes for years to come.
Next, we reviewedHistorical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing by Lars Marius Garshol. We liked it quite a bit:
The farmhouse brewers themselves are under constant pressure to modernise and standardise. Why use that dirty old yeast your grandfather passed on when I can sell you a nice lab-grown dried variety designed for brewing? Making your own malt is a waste of time – just buy some… In that context, this book – and the half-decade of research that led up to it – feels like a just-in-time intervention. Stick to your traditions, Lars seems to be saying; you’re right, the modernisers are wrong; don’t let this die.
The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble)… If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.
We believe the breweries lobbying for it have made a strategic error; and we, like others, might be less inclined to buy their beer or speak positively of them as a result… And we don’t really buy the ‘Poor us – we’re being undercut by these upstarts’ argument. It sticks in the craw somewhat to see breweries who own hundreds of tied pubs, to which they often sell their beer at above the market price, complaining about distortions in the market.
A thing that used to be popular in pubs, but has more or less disappeared, is piling pennies on the bar to make a huge tower in aid of charity. We finally did the research to work out (a) when it started; (b) how it worked; and (c) when and why it died out.
First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.” Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps… Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.
We’ve also started to ramp up posting on Patreon again with regular posts on our favourite beers of each weekend, sharing an article on saudade we wrote for Original Gravity in 2018 and adding some footnotes to posts we shared here on the main blog.
We wrote our usual 1,000+ words for our monthly newsletter – sign up here to get next month’s.
And, of course, we were all over Twitter with stuff like this mystery and satisfying crowdsourced solution:
Can anyone confidently identify this pub? Distinctive features: corner door, three-paned windows, J & T Usher branding. Looks like a town/city pub to us. https://t.co/xLytVfDttv
We’ve now been to the pub three times since lockdown lifted, not counting various visits to the Drapers for takeaway – twice to a St Austell house and once to the Highbury Vaults, which is a Young’s tenanted pub.
In all visits, we’ve sat in the garden and used an app for ordering. The two apps are pretty similar and easy to use, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s the same underlying software.
This technology has been around for ages and is pretty affordable. When I was indirectly involved in running a large pub-hotel in Cornwall, I recall being offered a similar product during an EPOS update in about 2012, but not taking it up because, well, honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to order like that.
But now, I can definitely see more places doing this in the near future, even quite small places.
This weekend, as we drank our electronically-ordered pints, we considered some of the ways apps might change pub habits.
First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.”
Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps.
Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.
We don’t tend to think about the Highbury Vaults as belonging to Young’s. It’s not as if they hide the fact but they have managed to preserve a distinct identity thanks to a quirky interior, home-cooked food and the fact the landlord’s been there for 25 years.
Now, all of a sudden, it immediately feels more of a corporate, homogenised space, even if the pub itself is still its lovable old self.
On a similar note, we expect that many Bristolians outside the beer bubble will be surprised to discover over the next few months that Bath Ales is owned by St Austell.
Thirdly, there’s an obvious points about transactions being potentially easier for some people (people on their own, those unable to stand at bars or place orders verbally) and more difficult for others who may not feel comfortable with the technology.
As long as app-based ordering isn’t the only option, and in both places there are waiting staff with notepads on the floor, then apps should enable rather than impede.
Finally, as social distancing continues – remember that as we write this, in England, you are only supposed to socialise with other households at a distance – remote ordering might provide a nice way to buy your mates a pint, whether you’re in the same pub or not.
There’s precedent for this: when the Wetherspoon app launched, there was a spate of stories about people soliciting drinks by sharing their table number on social media, only to get sent plates of peas.
If there’s one obvious improvement to be made, it’s the addition to apps of real-time information on how busy a given pub is. This might help reassure more nervous customers and match punters to pubs that need them.
Looking through old brewery in-house magazines from the 1950s and 60s, one recurring image is inescapable: a monstrous pile of pennies on a bar, in the process of being toppled by a celebrity.
Investigating this oddity of pub culture has been on our to-do list for some time but John Clarke (@beer4john) raised it with us recently which prompted us to dig into the archives.
First, we started with our own collection of magazines from Whitbread and Watney’s. Between them, they give a clear idea of when this trend took off and explain the mechanics.
How it worked
The House of Whitbread for spring 1955 has the earliest reference with a wonderful photograph of Mr. R. Back, tenant of The Trooper Inn, Froxfield, Wiltshire, and a customer placing a penny.
The Red Barrel for August 1955 has another early reference, with more detail:
Congratulations to Mr and Mrs George Jones of The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, [London] WC2, who, through their efforts and the generosity of their customers collected a tower of coppers, totalling 4,602, and amounting to £19 3s. 5d. The amount netted was given to the Spastics, and the pennies, stuck with beer, nearly reached the ceiling. The ceremony of ‘Pushing the Pennies’, that is tumbling over the tower, aroused considerable interest, including that of Alan Dick of the Daily Herald who reported the event.
The key detail there: the coins were glued together with beer.
It’s also worth pointing out that the National Spastic Society, founded in 1952 to support parents of children with cerebral palsy, and now known as Scope, was a frequent recipient of funds raised from penny towers. We wonder if this was something they suggested to publicans as part of their fundraising activity?
The next entry from the Red Barrel, from October the same year, concerns The Northumberland Arms in Isleworth, West London, offers more info on how these towers were structured and on the fund-raising tactics surrounding them:
The pyramid of pennies shown in the picture was built on a half-pint glass, and so large did it grow that it overtopped the tall figure of Wag Carbine, a regular customer, as he stood on the bar beside it. Carbine craved the favour of pushing over the pyramid of pennies christened ‘Little Willie’. Jack Cannon, the publican, consented, with the proviso that he had £5 to the pennies for the privilege… During the evening of ‘Little Willie’s’ demise shillings were paid for the opportunity to guess the amount collected.
Wag Carbine! What a name.
In total, they raised about £70 which paid for the old folk of the Isleworth Silver Threads to spend a day at the seaside.
When did it start?
Elsewhere, we’ve found reference to this trend having begun in 1954, specifically at The Masons Arms in London’s Fitzrovia district. And here’s evidence that, yes, that pub did have a coin tower at that time:
But it didn’t take long to find earlier examples via the marvellous British Newspaper Archive, such as this from the Birmingham Mail for 10 August 1943:
This is not a Fasces – the symbol of the defunct Fascist regime – but a pillar of British money collected in two months from June 1 to July 31 by patrons of The Corner Cupboard licensed house, Union Street, Birmingham. Including two 10 [shilling] notes and a reinforcement of half-crowns in two layers, the ‘pillar of wealth’ contains about £40 with a pint glass base on which it stands full of silver and octagonal [threepenny] pieces and a V for Victory sign made up of shillings and sixpenny pieces.
There are also earlier references to ‘pyramids of pennies’ outside pubs, at market town carnivals, from the 1930s. As ever, if you know of an earlier example of a tower of coins in a pub, we’d be delighted to hear about it.
For now, though, we’ve got a hazy chronology: it began between the wars, crept into pubs in the 1940s and became a full blown craze in 1954-55.
The celebrity connection
The presence in the film clip above of actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles shows that celebrities were connected with this almost from the beginning.
There are accounts of publicans inviting the Queen to knock down their towers (she didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh sent a cheque) and no shortage of photos like this absolute corker:
But it’s fair to say its heyday was the 1950s to the 1970s and that its popularity began to tail off after that, perhaps as pubs became more corporate and less characterful.
Or maybe it just began to seem a bit naff with fruit machines and jukeboxes competing for that loose change.
There’s also the fact that on at least one occasion, the vast weight of one of these towers caused material damage to the pub, as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 16 December 1966:
A pile of pennies – £90-worth of them, collected for charity at the Old Mill Inn, Baginton, was so heavy that the stout oak bar counter cracked under the weight. When two members of Coventry City football team ceremoniously pushed the pile over, it was found there were 2,160 pennies, weighing over three hundredweight. The manager of the inn, Mr. Harold Smith, said today: “Towards the end, we noticed a dip in the counter. Then we could see a crack.”
When you think about it, a precarious tower of metal covered in sticky stale beer doesn’t seem entirely safe or hygienic, does it?