The Distant Gleam of a Backstreet Pub

There’s something Narnia-magical about looking along a silent terraced street at night and seeing a corner pub throwing its light out over wet asphalt.

You know the feeling – walking up the centre of the road because there’s no traffic, TV light flickering behind curtains here and there, and the sound of your boots crunching and echoing in the quiet.

It’s special, too, because by our reckoning, after pubs on housing estates, this is the most endangered species.

Last Saturday we made a concerted effort to ‘tick’ a few pubs for our #EveryPubInBristol mission and so ended up in Totterdown, across the river from Temple Meads, wandering among rows of humble Victorian houses.

Sign: "Booze, food, tables & chairs".

Our first target was The Shakespeare, a pub we gathered from the 1975 guide was once a bit naughty…

The pub that one of us came very close to being beaten up at… [but] pub guide writers can run faster than nice young men with Nazi badges!

It looked mysterious and inviting, like one of those West London mews pubs, hidden from casual punters. To find it, you’ve got to live in the neighbourhood, or be hunting for it, or be a bit of an explorer.

Inside, it’s all scrubbed wood and mild gastro tendencies, but by no means pretentious: “Unfined? We don’t sell that hazy shit here.”

Less than a minute’s walk away, deeper into the maze, there’s the curiously named New Found Out – another corner, another spill of yellow, but also an air of mischief.

It was plain, bright, and lively in that way which makes it hard to quite relax. But, still, there was a bloke reading Brian Aldiss between puffs on his asthma inhaler, and everyone seemed friendly enough, even if we did feel as if we were drawing a few stares.

The Oxford in half darkness.

Our final pub, The Oxford, wasn’t quite on a backstreet, but was hardly on the main road either. We felt like Goldilocks here: if the first pub was too posh, and the second too rough-and-ready, The Oxford was just right.

It sat in the sweet spot between scuzzy and characterful, with a ska band, a lot of Spaniards, and a bloke in a pork pie hat who looked as though he’d been sat in the same seat since 1968.

Pub Life: Cool Hair

Cool hair mod.

Midday, a busy pub but with conversation at murmur level, and subtle grey light on dark wood.

Enter The Mod, a stylish lad in his early twenties in designer parka and suede moccasins, carrying an embroidered carpet bag. He buys a pint and sits with his back to the wall.

A few minutes pass before The Big Lad makes his approach. His eyes are locked on The Mod as he steams across the open bar, clearly more than one pint into his session.

He stops a short distance away and points, just points, for an uncomfortably long moment.

“Fucking. Cool. Hair.”

He means it very sincerely, sounds almost emotional.

The Mod laughs awkwardly.

“Oh, right, yeah, ta.”

The Big Lad hasn’t finished.

“No, I mean it. It’s fucking brilliant. Absolutely mint.”

The Mod raises his glass.

“Thanks, man.” (Meaning: now go away.)

“No, listen, seriously… If I was as good looking as you, I’d go out and get that haircut today. The girls wouldn’t know what hit ‘em.”

Silence. Shifting in seats. The Big Lad’s wheezing breath.

Then, remembering his primary mission, he lurches away into the gents toilet, smashing through doors like a bulldozer.

The Mod exhales and slides down in his seat.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell.”

Everyone sitting nearby laughs, in solidarity and relief.

“Nobody ever compliments my hair,” says a bald man, and there is more laughter.

The the door of the gents flies open and everybody freezes as The Big Lad bursts out, still fiddling with his fly.

He fixes swimming eyes on The Mod.

“Cool. Hair.”

Finger guns, a thumbs up, and he’s gone.

A nice relaxing pint.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fairly typical exchange:

“What you having?”

[Pointing at the keg taps] “Whatever IPA they’ve got.”

“Maltsmith’s?”

“Yeah, fine.”

Maltsmith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, coppery, English hops) is the same as BrewDog Punk (5.6%, pale, pungent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same tendency with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could probably lose weeks bickering over but which to most consumers has a fairly clear meaning: something with CRAFT LAGER written on its label, and a brand invented in the past decade.

Fuller’s Frontier, Hop House 13 (Guinness), St Austell Korev, Camden Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Grounded Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast divergence in flavours, and regardless of ownership, independence, and so on.

It was weird the other night to be in Seamus O’Donnell’s, a central Bristol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guinness stout but also a Guinness branded golden ale, citra IPA, and two crafted-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guinness Pilsner.

This line-up is what people expect to find in 2018, and breweries are obliged to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to competitors.

The frustration for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they wanted, what they clamoured for, but the beers themselves are so often disappointing – hops a little more in evidence than the old mainstream, perhaps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wedded to ideals of independence, quality and choice, it’s all a bit worrying: most consumers are apparently easy to befuddle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 10 November 2018: Pricing Policy, Peterloo, Park Hill

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs from the past seven days that’s grabbed our attention, from 19th century politics to Taylor Swift.

On his wide-ranging blog, a kind of personal notebook, trade union activist and historian Keith Flett highlights a connection between 19th century political radicalism and brewing:

Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773-1835) was one of the best-known English radical leaders of the first half of the nineteenth century, active before the Chartist movement… [John] Belchem argues that a crisis in stewardship of the Bristol brewery he owned led Hunt to move from his Wiltshire farm to Bristol to assume direct control. It was in Bristol that he found an audience for his radical politics and began on the career that led him to Peterloo on 16th August 1819.


Cash Money Pound Signs.

There was a minor kerfuffle around Cloudwater’s decision to make its upcoming beer festival a £60-a-ticket all-in affair with accusations of hypocrisy and elitism being levelled. (Mostly, it seemed to us, expressions personal entitlement masquerading as concern for the supposedly excluded.) Mark Johnson has put together a thoughtful reflection on the topic, comparing the beer festival to a Taylor Swift concert:

Taylor Swift didn’t put on a concert that catered to fans of Motorhead or Five Finger Death Punch or Mobb Deep. It didn’t exist to make every single person in attendance happy. That seems okay. It was for those that wanted to be there. Things can exist that aren’t suitable for all. Just don’t pretend or argue that they are.


Kegs and casks behind the Free Trade Inn, Newcastle.

Having worked in and around the beer and pub industry for years Rowan Molyneux’s thoughts on cask ale and where it sits in the scene, in the form of ‘love letter’, are well worth reading:

Eighteen keg lines, two taps dedicated to cocktails, and four cask on… It was a tough decision, but in the end a half of Origin on keg was exactly what I needed after the train journey; zingy, refreshing, and chilled. As my companion and I gazed up at the rest of the extensive beer range, sorely tempted by the BA Toffee Strannik… we spotted something we didn’t expect. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord… It was in perfect condition and tasted great… The happiness this brought me actually took me aback a little. Since when am I somebody who is excited about cask beer? And then I asked myself, wait – when did I stop being somebody who is excited about cask beer?


A man crouched over his brewing apparatus.
Dmitriy Zhezlov with his unusual brewing kit.

It’s been a while since we featured a mindbending expedition report from Lars Marius Garshol who, this time, calls in from 800km east of Moscow where Dmitriy Zhezlov brews farmhouse ale from undried rye malt:

Once the malts had been ground Dmitriy brought out the korchaga, a ceramic vessel that’s really the key to Dmitriy’s beer, since it is both the mash tun and the lauter tun. The korchaga is heated in the oven, and then the wort is lautered directly out of it through a small hole near the bottom, which is closed with a wooden plug. To make the mash filter Dmitriy soaked rye straw in water to soften it, and then covered the bottom with carefully cut lengths of straw. The straw has to go above the hole, and the higher layers need to be longer.


Park Hill.
One of our own photos of Park Hill.

Stephen Marland, AKA The Modern Moocher, has been researching the pubs of Park Hill, Sheffield – an architecturally significant housing development made newly famous by its recent appearance in Doctor Who:

I’m a virtual visitor to the four pubs that served the population of Park Hill Estate… I arrived late on the scene from not too distant Manchester, sadly much too late to stop and have a pint in The Parkway, Scottish Queen, Link or Earl George… Grade II* listed the building’s structure has prevailed, the original social structures, tenants and consequently their pubs have not.


Tennent's lager advertisement, 1978.
Tennent’s lager advertisement, 1978.

It’s interesting to read that Tandleman – not someone who dishes out praise easily – giving his caveated endorsement to Tennent’s Lager. It’s a reminder that true discernment is about more than parroting what everyone else says, and trusting your own tastebuds.


We and others have moaned about how little respect AB-InBev shows Bass, one of the best-known brands in the world; maybe they’ve listened, a bit?

A spokesperson said: “Bass is a pale ale pioneer and we can’t wait to reintroduce shoppers to this historic brand, whose name lives on as a hallmark of great-tasting beer. “The pale ale category has many good players, but Bass is the only one who can say that it has been on board the Titanic, flew on the Concorde and embarked with Shackleton to the ends of the earth.”

(We heard from an ABI insider a while ago who told us they had been beating this drum within the UK arm of the company so it’s not a total surprise.)


Finally, there’s this:

More reading required? Check out Alan’s Thursday round-up.

The Penultimate Session, #141: The Future of Beer Blogging

Ugh, blogging about blogging… But, then again, we’ve not indulged for a while, and the news that the Session is expiring seems like a good moment.

The Session started a month before we commenced our (calendar check) 11 year, 7 month beer blogging adventure, and has been a reassuring constant.

There have been times when, slightly lost and disengaged from blogging, the Session pulled us back – part creative writing prompt, part warm hug.

When it nearly died a few years ago we were forlorn, but then everyone seemed to rally and it was saved. Kind of.

Like one of those TV shows that comes back for a weird final season on some streaming platform or other, it never quite felt the same.

As Jay Brooks says in his call to arms for this month’s Session, fewer and fewer people took part, and hosts seemed hard to find.

So, as Jay and Stan sail off to the west in one of those elf boats, here we are for the second to last time, doing our duty: Jay wants to know what we think about the future of beer blogging, and we’re going to tell him.

First, we refuse to be gloomy. Every Saturday morning we find plenty of great posts that we think are worth sharing, and those pieces seems more adventurous, stylish, erudite and varied than much of what was around a decade ago.

More often these days, though, great blogs arrive, blossom, and then wither when their authors abandon them to go professional. Yes, it might feel as if all the magazines are closing but we reckon there are more paying outlets for beer writing in the UK now than a decade ago. That’s good for writers, but bad news if you’ve a preference for driven, ambitious blogging.

In general, we’d say the feeling of global community has diminished, but that’s not a whinge. It’s been replaced (probably for the best) by many active, more locally-focused sub-communities: the pub crawlers, the historians, the tasting note gang, the podcasters, the social issues crew, the jostling pros and semi-pros, the pisstakers, and so on.

That can be mildly disconcerting if you don’t want to pick a tribe, we suppose.

And broader community activity does continue, just not often in the form of laboriously interlinked blog posts. Instead, it centres around social media hashtags, sometimes gently commercially driven: check out #BeerBods, #CraftBeerHour and #LetsBeerPositive for a few examples.

These are light in tone, easy to engage with, and don’t require anybody to set aside an hour under the anglepoise with a jug of coffee and a thesaurus. You can respond from the sofa, in front of the telly with a can of pastry stout, or while you’re at the pub.

So, on balance, we see the future of blogging as being much like its past – sometimes supportive, sometimes bad-tempered, over-emotional, churning like primordial soup as blogs are born in fits of tipsy enthusiasm and die of ennui – but also more fractured, more varied, and less cosy.

And less about blogs.