News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2024: Children of the Stones

Here’s our regular Saturday morning round-up of the best writing about beer. This time: nitro stout, bottle shops, books.

First, a pep talk from Coach, AKA Pete Brown, who has noticed that craft beer is down in the dumps and doesn’t think it needs to be:

We seem to talk so much about the issues and problems in the industry, the gossip and scandal, the bad practice and culture, who’s gone under and who’s been bought out, that there isn’t much time for talking about the joy of beer and brewing and drinking… Things are still way better now then they were back in the day. I still believe that craft beer has the potential to grow further if it remains interesting and fun. So if you are feeling jaded and wondering where to go, I’d like to offer some prompts to rediscovering creativity and joy.

The provocations and prompts he presents are good ones and could inspire some interesting conversations in the pub this weekend. Or – gasp! – some blog posts.

A pint of stout in a glass with gold writing that reads London Black.
A promo photo of London Black. SOURCE: Anspach & Hobday.

For Pellicle Laura Hadland has written about Anspach & Hobday’s London Black nitro stout… but also about Guinness, indirectly. Can you produce a nitro stout, even a successful one, without sensing the market leader looming over you? Many breweries have tried over the years. Here, we get some hard facts which paint a picture of meaningful but modest success:

In just three years, London Black has single-handedly fueled Anspach and Hobday’s growth, upping their production volume by nearly two-thirds at a time when other breweries have battened down the hatches, or even gone bust… “It was a tough sell to have on,” says Jack Duignan, who owns and manages London pub The Sutton Arms with his dad, Mick. He ran London Black side-by-side with Guinness, but eventually decided to remove the former in mid-2023. “It’s absolutely nothing against the beer or brewery as they are good friends of ours, but it just didn’t work out here.”

The shelves in a bottle shop

Will Hawkes has now shared his March newsletter online and it’s full of great information about longer-term trends based on conversations with specialist beer retailers:

What is interesting about bottle shops – beyond the produce – is the way in which they’ve tracked the evolution of beer in London. The rise and fall of 75cl bottled beer; the domination of hops, then and now; the impact of Covid-19; the gradual demise of growlers, or flagons; the arrival of natural wine; and much more besides. If you want to know how beer has changed since 2014, ask someone who runs one of these places… As a proportion of [Hop Burns & Black’s] turnover, [beer] has fallen from 80 percent in 2014 to 43 percent now. Wine is now about 30 percent of Clapton Craft’s sales, having started at 0. For Mother Kelly’s, which closed its two bottle-shop-only sites in 2022, Covid-19 made a big difference. “We’ve seen our bottled beer, to drink in and takeaway, just disappear,” [Nigel Owen] says. “We’ve gone from 100 to 150 cases a week to about 10 cases a week now.”

The word hops with a simple illustration of two hop cones.

The latest edition of Stan Hieronymus’s Hop Queries newsletter also has some fascinating facts and stats including this little surprise:

Citra and Mosaic production has been slashed the most, because they occupy the most aroma acres. Citra acreage is down 48 percent from its 2022 peak and Mosaic 44 percent since 2022… Several years ago, Citra surpassed Saaz as the world’s most popular aroma hop. Saaz could reclaim the crown this year.

The Sackville Bar at the Thompson Arms, Manchester, in 1966.

John Grindrod writes brilliantly about post-war architecture and planning and this week his newsletter focused on pubs:

It’s funny how pubs take you back in time. For me there was The Forum, the octagonal pub on stilts from the Croydon’s Whitgift Centre, with its trad bar of psychedelic squelchy carpet and dark brown furniture pretending it was a historic inn despite its futuristic design. Of course, if it had been preserved it would now be a historic inn. When I think of the Bedford Tavern in Croydon (does Bedford have a Croydon Tavern, I wonder?) it reminds me of early 90s Christmas eve drinks with mates, all tinsel and alcopops.

(Disclosure: there’s an essay by us in one of the books he recommends.)

An illuminated sign advertising Rothaus Pils in a German subway station.

We’ve been pondering why we like the beer and brewery profiles at Craft Beer & Brewing so much. Because, in some senses, they’re quite boring. But perhaps that’s a feature rather than a bug? There’s comparatively little ‘storytelling’ or mythologising, on the one hand, and a decent amount of technical detail on the other – but pitched at a level we can follow. For example, what makes Rothaus Pils taste the way it does? We hope some UK lager dabblers take notes on Ryan Pachmayer’s article:

The production team initially brews Tannenzäpfle to a higher strength, 5.6 percent ABV, before diluting it down to 5.1 percent ABV just after filtration… The malt for Tannenzäpfle is 100 percent pilsner. Yet even compared to many other German pilsners of similar grist, the finished beer is noticeably a touch lighter… Rothaus takes care to keep unwanted oxygen out of the hot side of the process, mostly by purging pipes with hot water… The brewery creates its own sauergut, an acidified wort, to adjust the pH levels. The water comes straight from wells on site, and it is incredibly soft—similar to the legendary water at Pilsner Urquell in Bohemia. To its own water, Rothaus adds only a bit of calcium chloride.

Finally, from Instagram, news of the reissue of an important book which now comes with a fold-out map… (Grindrod, above, has notes.)

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.


A tale of two Alberts in Manchester

On a recent trip to Manchester we didn’t plan our drinking beforehand and encountered two contrasting Alberts.

First, we were in the city centre visiting a recommended ramen restaurant, and then Googled to see what else was nearby. Albert’s Schloss came up and we recalled that we’d read about it as an outlet for unfiltered Pilsner Urquell.

We’d also heard that it was a bit of a party pub – the kind of place where people go out-out. The website for the chain (Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham) bears this out: “Welcome to the weird, the wild and the wunderment of live performance, musik and kabaret…”

As it was a damp weekday afternoon, however, we figured we’d probably be fairly safe from that crowd, and this was indeed the case.

We entered a huge beer hall that was perhaps around 10% occupied when we arrived and perhaps 60% full when we left a couple of hours later.

It’s a really interesting space. We would say it was pretty convincing as a Bavarian-style beer hall. Which is to say, it doesn’t feel as if you’re actually in Bavaria, but does resemble those Bavarian outposts you get in German cities up north.

There’s been no expense spared in decking the place out with wooden panelling, hefty benches, and fancy light fittings. Though that is all slightly undercut by the (deliberately humorous?) cod-German signs everywhere. “Das Toilets” made us wince.

It’s table service, which you attract by pressing a button marked “Ring for Prosecco”. Being excessively literal, and not in the mood for sparkling wine, we didn’t touch it. Instead, we just waved at a passing waiter.

There’s a choice of mostly German and Austrian beers on tap, such as Paulaner, Hofbräu and Stiegl. And of course, the unfiltered Pilsner Urquell from Czechia, which we drank and drank until we felt distinctly silly.

It’s so strange to think of this extremely characterful, sulphurous beer as the flagship drink for this particular venue, but there you go. We’re not complaining.

We were told by our friends (who had never been in) that it mostly had a reputation for stag and hen dos, but on a Thursday afternoon, the venue really did feel like somewhere in Germany: calm, family-friendly, rustic.

Towards the end, it began to warm up for the evening with a keyboard and vocal due appearing on stage, and a serious-looking sound mixer emerging from a hidden cupboard. As the vibe began to shift, we drifted out into the drizzle.

A pint of cask ale on a wooden table with a bowling green visible through the window behind. The surrounding decor is tasteful with grey walls and pot plants.

Not a million miles away

The friends we were visiting have lived in various locations between Manchester and Stockport and have been keen to take us to the Albert Club in Didsbury for a while. They discovered it because a relative worked behind the bar there.

It’s a combined tennis, bowling and social club founded in 1874 “for the wealthy merchants, industrialists, and professionals of late-Victorian Manchester, especially those based in West Didsbury, Didsbury and Withington”.

Based on the dates we assume that, like Albert’s Schloss, it is named after Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who died in 1861.

Set back from a suburban side street, The Albert Club has a large clubhouse with tennis courts on one side and a bowling green on the other.

Non-members are welcome, or at least not discouraged, though only members get discounted drinks. The door to the pool room does say “Members only”, though – perhaps to prevent rowdy strangers tearing up the precious baize.

The atmosphere was quite different to other social clubs we’ve visited. There were lots of cushions, acres of tasteful grey paint, and plenty of tanned, well-to-do customers with designer labels on their smart casual clothes.

On the bar were standard lagers, several keg craft beers, and four cask ale hand-pumps. We tried something from a local brewery and it was acceptable, mostly because the condition was so good. But the better options were bigger-brewery beers. We stuck on St Austell Proper Job for the rest of the session.

The beer garden was peaceful and leafy – a summer place. The only incident that disturbed the air of comfortable complacency was when a child hoofed a football onto a table covered with empty glasses. Nobody blinked at the sound of breaking glass.


News, nuggets and longreads 11 May 2024: Daybreak Express

Every Saturday we pull together the best of the previous week’s writing about beer and pubs. This time we’ve got White Shield, Leeds and dark mild.

First, a couple of bits of news:

  • James Watt has stepped aside as CEO of BrewDog, taking on a non-executive role. Douglas Fraser at the BBC suggests this is about getting the house in order before the company floats on the stock market. The ongoing story about BrewDog Waterloo might also have been a factor but why this scandal might be the final straw, and not any of those that preceded, is unclear.
  • Thornbridge has taken custody of a Burton union set from Carslberg-Marston’s, preserving at least a small piece of British brewing history. The move was facilitated by Garrett Oliver. Thornbridge’s head brewer, Rob Lovatt, says “there will certainly be some special cask beers being produced on them shortly”.
  • Heineken has announced that it is refurbishing and reopening 62 pubs across the UK. It’s good to have a story about pubs opening, and staying as pubs, although we don’t personally tend to think of the Star Pubs brand as a mark of quality. The Pub Curmudgeon has commentary.

A vintage van in the shape of a bottle of White Shield.

At Pellicle Pete Brown has written about the demise of Worthington White Shield, the legendary bottle-conditioned IPA that ceased production in 2023:

The white shield was the family crest, still visible above the door of what used to be William Worthington’s town house in Burton. It appeared as a logo on the beer in the 1870s, and by the end of the nineteenth century drinkers called it “White Shield.” It was officially renamed in 1950… As a revival of interest in traditional British beer styles grew following the birth and rapid growth of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the early 1970s, White Shield gained both notoriety and a cult following as one of only five remaining bottle conditioned ales available in Britain. It was a lifeline in places where cask ale was of poor quality, or non-existent. Pouring it perfectly and leaving the sediment in the bottle became the ultimate test of any drinker or bartender’s skill.

An ornate tiled bar in a traditional pub. There is bunting with George flags across the room and stained glass windows.
SOURCE: Chris Dyson.

Chris Dyson at Real Ale, Real Music has been to Leeds where he visited a newly reopened heritage pub, The Garden Gate, which has gone right up our must-visit list:

The corridor, with its tiling, etched windows, and rich mahogany is impressive enough, but I walked into the vault which was a stunning room with many remarkable features. An amazing ceramic bar counter with an elaborate mahogany bar back lay at the end of the room, which also featured an attractive mosaic floor. In the middle of the room there was a fireplace with a faience surround, with a moulded plasterwork ceiling above. The pub had been developed in Edwardian times, with the interior pretty much untouched since 1902 when it was rebuilt for its owner, a Mr Edward Wilson by architect W.Mason Coggill fom nearby Stourton, with much of the work on the pub done by the local companies Burmantofts and J. Claughton.

The word 'Mild' in a bold shadow font.

At Craft Beer and Brewing Josh Weikert has a substantial piece about how to brew mild, drawing on advice from Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell:

For his part, Pattinson is an evangelist for the use of sugars—especially No. 3 invert sugar—as well as caramel to achieve mild’s characteristic flavors. While No. 1 is the lightest invert sugar, No. 3 is medium-dark with some molasses-like flavors. “U.S. versions [of mild] are too harsh because they’re using black malt and roasted barley,” he says. “It’s easier to get dark fruit flavors from sugars than it is from malts. Just look at Timothy Taylor Golden [Best] and Dark [Mild]—the only difference is caramel!” Notably, Timothy Taylor—the English brewery best known for its award-winning flagship pale ale, Landlord—markets its Golden Best as a “golden mild ale.”

The interior of a basic Belgian cafe with red walls, wood panelling, a smoke-stained painting and a bare wooden table.
SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh.

On Substack, where he seems to be most comfortable writing these days, Eoghan Walsh has shared another vignette from drinking in Brussels. It’s notable for, among other pleasures, this description of drinking non-alcoholic beer:

There is no warmth to it. It is just a cold glass of sort-of beer, and I drink it too quickly like a lemonade. It leaves no trace behind. Worse, it creates its own disappointment, digging a hole in me and failing to fill it with something else. It’s like a yawn that doesn’t catch.

Young's brewery logo on the outside of a pub.

At Shut Up About Barclay Perkins Ron Pattinson (it’s that man again) has been sharing recipes for Young’s beers from the 1970s:

A surprise about Young’s 1970s records, is that there’s quite a bit single-gyle brewing… There’s just pale malt, though three different lots, from two different maltsters. (Four, actually, as there’s some enzymic malt.) Accompanied by quite a bit of flaked maize and a little bit of No. 1 invert sugar. As well as malt extract, which I assume was in liquid form… Two types of English hops were used. With no indication of variety. Or age. It’s one of the few areas where the logs are weak. Though it does mention that 25% weren’t added to the copper, but to the hop back. Hence the zero minute addition.

This is especially interesting because, as those of you who’ve read our book Brew Britannia will know, Young’s Bitter was one of the beers that inspired the founding of CAMRA, with its legendary dry bitterness. Except Ron’s recipe doesn’t really suggest it was any more bitter than most other beers of the time. When we asked about this on Mastodon, Ron said that perhaps it was more highly attenuated. (More of the sugars were fermented out.) Hmm.

Finally, from Instagram, news of a very special pub opening in Wales

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.

bristol pubs

Graffiti and ale: 3 alternative pubs in East Bristol

I’m a bit of a hippy and I like hippy pubs. There – I’ve said it. It’s just a shame Ray doesn’t.

He posted recently about a session in the pub with his dad, including his commentary about the feel of the pub:

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.

While Ray was on his session, I was drinking in three pubs which are more to my taste than Ray’s.

The occasion was the CAMRA Bristol and District Ladies (BAD Ladies) pub crawl around St Werburghs.

St Werburghs is a fascinating area of Bristol, cut off geographically from the rest of the city by a combination of cliffs, motorways and allotments. 

It’s been known for many years as a haven for alternative lifestyles and includes a self-built cooperative housing estate and a city farm.

The crawl took us to three of the four pubs in St Werburghs: The Farm, The Miners’s Arms and The Duke of York. All of them have hippy vibes of varying degrees and make me feel nostalgic for my early drinking days – while leaving Ray a little on edge. He’s such a clean boy!

The Farm has an enormous beer garden and several of my drinking companions told me it was more of a family pub than an alternative one these days, especially on Sundays.

Last time Ray and I visited someone was trying to persuade the bar staff to give them the beer slops from the drip trays, allegedly to keep slugs off their plants in their allotment.

On this occasion it was the First Beer Garden Day Of The Year and my heart sank at the apparent chaos in front of the bar. Veteran pub goers and infrequent flyers went two different ways: the veterans crowding every inch of spare bar, the infrequents forming a queue out of the door. 

Which goes to show that looks can be deceiving, as the extremely hard working and friendly staff seemed supernaturally capable of working out which order to serve people in. Bravo.

There were three ale hand pumps, although one was in the process of being changed.

A line up of hand pumps on a pub bar: New Bristol Brewery The Joy of Sesh, New Bristol Brewery Bitter, something else from the same brewery, and Wye Valley Butty Bach.

The Miners’ Arms does not have an enormous beer garden but there is a square of grass round the back which the punters pour onto when the weather is nice.

It’s a typical backstreet corner pub on the outside, and inside it’s no-frills from about table level down, with lots of former pump clips around the walls and bar.

It’s a Dawkins pub and now Dawkins isn’t brewing seems to have gone over to New Bristol Brewing, with NBB on three of the four hand pumps.

We got put off coming here a few years back due to a few too many roaming dogs on long strings. But I didn’t spot any on this occasion and, in fact, there is now a sign saying that dogs and babies are welcome “as long as they behave like civilised adults”.

A skittle alley with red velvet draped on its walls and black and red paint on the walls.

We missed most of The Duke of York the first time we visited. We featured it (and The Farm) in a gallery post on Bristol’s painted pubs, written fairly shortly after moving here.

The high level of decoration continues on the inside with an enormous quantity of arty greebling which could be at home in a Brussels bar.

We noted during our first visit that it was cosy and vaguely hippyish, and didn’t go again –not because it’s bad but because there are lots of similar places in East Bristol and, as previously mentioned, this is not necessarily Ray’s cup of tea.

What we hadn’t noticed on our first visit is that there is a whole separate drinking area round the back.

In fact, it is one of the few pubs in Bristol that still has a working skittle alley – and several different groups actually played skittles during my recent visit.

There’s also a sizeable beer garden and another space upstairs including a pool table and dartboard.

What struck me about the crowd is that there were quite a few younger people who had come in to play games as much as drink.

For those that do like to drink, there were four ales on, all in great condition.

What is the quality of hippyness these pubs share that Ray struggles with?

The pervasive smell of weed, perhaps – which just reminds me of Walthamstow and Leytonstone c.1995. And I’d rather have that than the overwhelming stink of scented candles and bleach.

There’s also the layer of worn-in grot that goes beyond ‘character’. I barely notice it but it makes Ray squirm.

On balance, it’s probably quite nice that there are pubs he likes and I don’t, and vice versa. Because, contrary to what you might have heard, we remain distinct and separate human beings.

breweries opinion

The danger of being a quite good brewery

Buxton calling in administrators got us thinking about breweries that are merely quite good – and how that’s a tricky space to occupy.

Buxton used to be top tier. Their beer was in all the beer geek pubs. People raved about them and recommended them.

But that doesn’t seem to have been the case for a few years, at least from what we’ve seen and heard.

It’s not that people are going round saying, “They’re terrible!” If asked, in fact, they’d probably say: “Oh, yeah, Buxton – they’re all right.”

But “all right” isn’t ideal in a hyper-competitive, crowded market.

Looking at their published accounts, it’s not clear why they’re in particular trouble now. It could be interest rates and loan repayments, or any number of other things.

But a loss of reputation and stature can’t help.

Years ago, when we lived in Goldsithney in Cornwall, we had a couple of dinners at a nearby country pub with incredible food.

It’s hard to say why it was so great. Perfectly judged seasoning, perhaps? Or a better command of the Maillard reaction?

Either way, we’d sit there making “wow” and “mmmmm” noises the whole time.

Then, one day, the food lost its sparkle. What had seemed rich began to feel greasy. What was savoury became merely salty. The triple-cooked beef dripping chips no longer shattered like glass.

We later learned that there had been a change of chef.

The food was fine, but not transcendent. So, we stopped going, and stopped recommending it to people.

If it had been awful, we might have complained, or felt moved to leave feedback somehow. But as it was, what would that feedback have been? “Make it more special”? “Give it a certain we-don’t-know-what”?

Bad feedback, unpleasant as it might be to hear, is at least possible to act upon. But what do you do in the face of silent shrugs?

This is what we think sometimes happens with breweries like Buxton.

They’re not bad enough to have anything specific to fix, but not good enough to generate word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

People don’t mind drinking their beer, but they don’t seek it out, or detour to drink it.

They might have one pint but won’t stick on it for a session, or stay in a pub to have one more pint than they ought to.

And they won’t order it by the box from the brewery shop.

What can middling-to-good breweries do about this? (If they have the clarity of vision to identify themselves as such.)

We might suggest tasting panels in which drinkers are given their beers blind, alongside acknowledged classics.

If someone tastes their lager against Augustiner Helles, how does it stand up? How does their IPA compare to Thornbridge Jaipur? Or their mild to Holden’s?

If your beer is only “quite good”, how do you give it that extra zing?

Marketing and branding will only get you so far.

For beer, the wow factor probably lives in those small gains achieved through technical excellence. The equivalent of fresh ingredients, confident seasoning, and hot pans.