News, nuggets and longreads 6 August 2022: people power

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out at us in the past seven days, from remote pubs to craft malt.

The price of a pint, and public perception of the price of a pint, is an important metric for the industry. A new survey by CAMRA suggests that beer feels less affordable to people now than it did even a few years ago:

In 2019 42% of respondents to a YouGov survey for CAMRA said the cost of a pint at the bar was unaffordable – but that figure has jumped to 52% when the survey was repeated last week… It comes as the nation’s pubs are facing rising prices, skyrocketing energy bills and a dip in consumer spending power – prompting CAMRA to issue another plea to government for action to save the UK’s pubs.

SOURCE: Lutz Wernitz/Unsplash.

For Pellicle, our old pal Alistair Reece has written about craft malting in Virginia, USA, and how a tweak to the law triggered the birth of this new industry:

In 2012, then Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, signed into Virginia law a bill with the ever-so-memorable moniker of SB604. The law was to be a watershed moment in the growth of the craft beer industry in the US state, as it brought brewery taprooms into line with wineries by giving them the freedom to sell their wares by the glass… The ability to go to a brewery and have a pint of beer, rather than simply a flight of samples, lit the touch paper on the explosion in breweries throughout Virginia. Prior to the bill passing, there were fewer than 30 breweries in Virginia; today there are nearly 300. Many of them able to operate purely because they can sell pints directly to consumers through their taprooms.

Handpainted signs on The Rhubarb.
The Rhubarb.

The Bristol Cable is a Bristol community newspaper with a radical bent that typically takes the side of the underdog. This week, it turned its attention to endangered pubs with a piece by Alex Turner on the campaign to save The Rhubarb, our (currently closed) local:

[When] the Rhubarb closed in summer 2020, its last landlords claimed the business had become unviable. That’s a position the owner, London-based Mona Mogharebi, reiterates to the Cable… Her company Natan submitted plans to redevelop the site into 14 flats – eight in a new building in the garden – before withdrawing them early this year. They were replaced by a fresh application offering the possibility of reopening a pub on the ground floor, while still converting the upstairs and building flats in the garden… 

Text illustration: IPA.

Jeff Alworth makes a sharp observation about how most people – people not obsessed with beer – make sense of the descriptors supposed to distinguish one style from the next:

It is my strong belief that people inside the craft beer bubble vastly overestimate the public’s knowledge and interest level. The word “session” is a great example. It’s an English word, but not an American one. You have to understand British pub culture and then be able to apply the sense of the term to a low-ABV beer in a way the British never did (until they started brewing American-style IPAs)… When I launch into the explanation, I get maybe half a sentence. “Well, in the United Kingdom, drinking culture revolves around…” Nope, I’ve lost them…  “It means ‘low-alcohol.’” That’s what they want to know… The query “What’s an altbier?” is meant to elicit “a malty brown ale,” not “In German, alt means old, and this refers to the 19th century style called bitterbier…”

A person isolated in a vast landscape of hills and moorland.
On the way to Inverie. SOURCE: Kristóf Vizy/Unsplash.

The Old Forge at Inverie on Scotland’s Knoydart Peninsula, Britain’s most remote mainland pub, is a favourite of travel writers and this isn’t its first appearance in one of our round-ups. Still, we’re always happy to be taken there, especially when there is news to report. For BBC Travel Daniel Stables writes:

Around 120 residents lived here at the last count, spread across 86 square miles (that’s approximately the same population density as Alaska). The majority of those brave and hardy souls live in Inverie, and now, after a community buyout in March 2022, most of them own a stake in the Old Forge… In the decade prior, the pub’s legendary status had waned, with the previous owner closing for six months each winter when tourists were few. The pub’s community spirit was lost; so too its status as a year-round sanctuary for tired, thirsty hikers. Even to summer visitors, impressions were often not good. “This place used to be jumping,” reads one of the many unflattering online reviews from this dark period. “Now it is like a morgue.”… When the Old Forge was finally put on sale in February 2021, a community buyout was quickly proposed and the response was emphatic… In a little over a year, in April 2022, the pub re-opened, this time in the hands of the community.

An elaborate, sprawling pub-hotel building with a thatched roof.
The Thatched Barn. SOURCE: Elstree & Borehamwood Museum.

The blog of Elstree & Borehamwood Museum this week featured a post about a lost building – The Thatched Barn roadhouse:

Commissioned in 1927 by a ‘Mrs Merrick’, of which not much is known, it was opened in 1934 on the A1 or the Barnet By-Pass. In the style of an American ‘roadhouse-motel’ but with an English twist with its thatched roof, it was ideally suited for ‘stars’ from the flourishing studios nearby to take their companions. With a large dining area, chefs, a swimming pool, and other facilities located a short drive from the expensive areas of north London it became a well-known attraction.

For more context on roadhouses check out this post of ours from a few weeks ago.

Finally, from Twitter, an interesting development:

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

20th Century Pub pubs

Watered-down beer in Oldham, 1960

In 1960, a mysterious man slid into pubs in and around Oldham and secretly tested the strength of the beer. What he found was criminal.

We first came across a version of this story back in 2016 when we filleted a 1969 book called How To Run a Pub by Tony White.

His version goes like this:

In 1965, fourteen Manchester licensees, all in roughly the same area of the town, were fined a total of £557 (the highest fine £37) for this very offence. It is interesting to note that these prosecutions were successfully brought as the result of a tip-off from a mystery man, whose identity has never been revealed and who never explained how he came to his conclusions, though the accuracy of his findings suggests that he had some special knowledge or know-how (some say he was an employee of a rival brewery).

This Mr X seems to have gone round his locals, sampled their beer and sent in a report on twelve of them to the police. The Customs and Excise boys immediately went into action and swooped down on about twenty pubs in the area including those mentioned by their anonymous informant. To their astonishment, they discovered that in ten cases out of twelve Mr X was proved right, though in only one case did the landlord actually admit to watering his beer.

Having done our usual checks in the archive, we can’t find any reference to such an event in 1965.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that his dates are wrong – only that if it did, and his dates are right, then either:

  • it didn’t get a write-up in the papers
  • or those papers haven’t been digitised yet

What we did find, however, was a remarkably similar story, from the same part of the world, from 1960.

Here’s how it was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post for 14 April that year:

Twenty-five Oldham and district publicans appeared at Oldham yesterday as a result, it was stated, of a sampling drive carried out by officers of the Customs and Excise Department. All pleaded guilty to being in possession of beer that had been diluted with water, three admitting that they had diluted the beer. A fine of £15 plus 1 guinea costs was imposed on each summons. Mr. W. S. Hill, for the Customs and Excise, said that in 22 cases they could not prove that a deliberate fraud had been committed by the licensees.

The excuses given by publicans for why there was water in their beer are funny, a little embarrassing, but also illuminating:

Mrs. Emma Lees of the Old Post Office Public House, Manchester Road, Oldham, Clifford Pybus of the Wagon and Horses, Manchester Road, Oldham, and Donald Jinks of the Church Inn, Middleton Road, Royton, admitted having diluted the beer.

Mr. Hill said that Jinks had written stating that he had accidentally knocked over a bucket of beer, and had added some water to the beer.

We’re not sure we quite follow this one. Why was the beer was in a bucket? Possibly because it was about to be returned to the cask from… wherever it had been before that. Then he trips over it, or whatever, spills some, and tops it up? This sounds exactly like an excuse made up on the fly.

Mr. J. Lord, for Mrs. Lees, said that she had been under the impression that when beer was muddy on being pumped she was entitled to add some lemonade to it. This she had done. The lemonade cost more than the mild beer.

That she thought this was legal, or claims as much, suggests that it was a reasonably common practice, doesn’t it? We might quite like to try (unmuddy) mild with a lemonade top.

Mr. Harold Riches, for Pybul, said there had not been a deliberate attempt to defraud the customers. but Pybus had carried out injudicious piece of manipulation. He had put a quantity of bitter beer that was rather clouded into the mild beer. Other explanations were that water must have got into the beer while the pumps were being cleaned.

This practice of dumping bad bitter into mild, where it wouldn’t be noticed, has come up before. Maybe that would interfere with gravity readings.

But it does feel more likely, despite all this wriggling, that he put a bit of water into the cask to stretch it further. Especially as we know (same link as above) that this was standard practice:

It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”… Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?

If you know anything about Tony White’s 1965 Manchester Excise swoop, do let us know, especially if you have clippings or the like.

Main picture: The Cranberry, which happened to be the only 1960s Oldham pub of which we had a handy photo.


The death of the pub function room

It’s only when you find yourself trying to organise a wake that you realise the extent to which pub function rooms have all but disappeared.

Growing up in Walthamstow, East London, I think pretty much every pub had a function room – and that’s where we ended up after a lot of funerals, weddings, or christenings.

Pubs in Walthamstow tend to be pretty large, as is typical for suburbs, and, until recently, were invariably undersubscribed. You’d rattle about The Bell or The Duke’s Head.

Now, a lot of the pubs I knew as a kid have either disappeared (farewell, The Plough) or ceased trading (The Lord Brooke).

Many of those that remain have changed substantially, catering to the kind of people who can afford to buy houses or flats in the area.

Those big, empty back-rooms have become dining spaces, or permanent, busy extensions to the main bar.

Although the loss of what were effectively community facilities is bad news for people like me, right now, for pubs, I guess it’s good news. It means they’re too busy to justify a blank space.

And I know from a previous job that offering space for wakes is a really tricky business.

You’re dealing with customers who are struggling emotionally and can’t or don’t want to have boring conversations about logistics. Undertakers are trained to deal with this; publicans not so much.

And they can’t be sure about how many people are going to turn up – “No, we’re surprised too, we didn’t think he had any friends!” – and so fixing a price that works for both parties is a challenge.

Because of a general trend towards hosting weddings in posher places (country hotels, stately homes, the Maldives) it’s also harder to justify holding a room that only does any business when someone dies.

And of course this isn’t specific to pubs. Where real estate is at a premium, it’s hardly surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are prepared to maintain, clean and heat a dead space.

In a different context, the West Country council estate where Ray grew up, the function rooms have also gone. That’s because both The Pig & Whistle and The Withycutter have been demolished, leaving the estate publess. There’s a community centre but that’s one degree more utilitarian again.

One final point, though, to undercut the general “Fings ain’t wot they used to be in my old manor” tone: useful as pubs were, my parents and grandparents hardly ever visited them between big family events.

Researching 20th Century Pub, I asked my practically teetotal late grandfather if he remembered anything about The Lord Raglan in its prefab phase after World War II. Despite having lived around the corner for most of his life, he barely knew which pub I was talking about.

Nowadays, though, my family, and families like it, are more more likely to choose a pub as the venue for a casual social get-together. We use them all year round, not just when we need somewhere to set up a trestle table covered in sausage rolls.

Main image: The Chequers in 2016. I think it might be one of the few remaining pubs that does have a function room.


News, nuggets and longreads 30 July 2022: Open All Hours

As we do every week, we’ve bookmarked all the good writing about beer and pubs we’ve come across this week. Here’s a selection of the best.

CAMRA has announced its 2022 Pub Design Awards – one of the more interesting CAMRA initiatives, in our view, and one which has been running since 1983. It’s partly about pub preservation, rewarding those who look after the pubs we already have, and partly about keeping the pub alive: great new pubs are still being born. The one that particularly caught our eye is The Boleyn Tavern, East Ham, which won the Community Local Award:

The Boleyn Tavern in East Ham was an elaborate ‘gin palace’ built in 1899, which was long the venue for the pre-match pint for West Ham supporters on their way to the nearby ground. With the team moving away to a new home, the pub, like the surrounding area, went into decline… The original seven bars have been restored, with the recreation of the glazed partitions between them using traditional materials and techniques. Surviving features have been carefully repaired; the billiard room to the rear of the building, with its spectacular stained-glass skylight, is particularly impressive.

Craft beer shop

For Ferment, the promo publication for a beer subscription service, David Jesudason has looked into an interesting phenomenon: Asian-run cornershops in London which have found a new market by specialising in craft beer. It’s both a personal story and one about how business works on the ground:

I have Jay’s Budgens round the corner in south-east London and the much-celebrated convenience store offers an array of interesting beers. As well as being featured in a Noel Gallagher music video and gaining praise for handing out free food to NHS staff last year, it now boasts a huge craft beer fridge with 70-80% of the contents from local breweries, such as Villages, Gipsy Hill and the very close Brockley Brewery… It wasn’t always like this, because Jay’s Budgens move into craft was later than Singh’s and at first comprised all the usual supermarket suspects. But interesting bottles started appearing at the beginning of 2020 after Jay’s youngest son, Tilak, 26, convinced his father that people would be prepared to spend more than £5 for one can of beer if it was unique… After a lot of research and preparation, the move exceeded their expectations. A lot of black and Asian customers started trying new cans and bottles, especially after they introduced the beer fridge in July last year. Now they’re even interested in brewing their own beer.

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

Andreas Krennmair continues his exploration of the backroads of European brewing, with reference to German-language sources, this time giving us a detailed account of the 19th century battle of the beer analysis methods. It might sound dry but measuring the strength of beer is a distinctly political business:

[Professor] Steinheil’s downfall came when he was too aggressive in pushing his own method with Bavarian officials: while his beam balance was made an official method in Bavaria to measure extract, the optical part of his method was not. To show how useful his method was, he conducted some measurements on his own and in 1846 wrote a letter to a Bavarian ministry in which he claimed that his analyses showed that the beer of the season had a lower extract than expected, thus brewers must have illegally used lower amounts of malt than they had to (at the time, Bavaria strictly regulated how much malt a brewer had to use to brew a particular volume of either summer or winter beer), which according to Steinheil showed the necessity for a simple analysis method (i.e. his own). Not only did he accuse brewers of fraud, the publication of this letter also angered local beer drinkers. To avert another beer riot like in 1844, officials in Munich had to lower the beer price.

Three men in a brewery, tasting beer from huge casks.
Michaël Blancquaert, centre. SOURCE: Belgian Smaak/Ashley Joanna.

At Belgian Smaak Ashley Joanna gives us a portrait, in words and pictures, of a young man who has become the future of an established brewery:

Michaël Blancquaert was an accounting major working night shifts at a hotel.  He had become unhappy with the mundane nature of his job and was craving a role where he could work with his hands. In March of 2010, looking for a change in his life, he applied for a position he had seen in a newspaper. He wanted to work with a small company so that he could enjoy the feeling of being close to his colleagues. He wanted to learn from someone who had experience, and who would invest in him and his future… The job for which he applied was production assistant at Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen.

This is a particularly interesting story, in a generally interesting series. Brewers can’t work forever and unless they identify their own successors, it’s easy for them to snap out of existence when their founders retire or die.

BrewDog bar sign.

So consistent is the message that BrewDog’s beers are bad, or not what they used to be, that we sometimes doubt our own tastebuds. Fortunately, the Beer Nut is here to state, in the clearest possible terms, that his experience matches ours:

This is their new core-range pale ale, Planet Pale… The acidity is green and vegetal; natural tasting, not chemical. It’s still a bit of a shock, though, and I believed myself long past being shocked by BrewDog. Other breweries don’t put out beers as bold as this as their everyday quaffer on the taps at Wetherspoon. At least, they don’t around here. I liked it. It starts to turn oniony as it warmed, but I didn’t let it get to there, something helped by an extremely modest 4.3% ABV. The bright, aggressive and above all LOUD hops speak to BrewDog actually living up to their hype, doing what they say they do. That’s not to deny their failings in other areas but in general I’ve had very few problems with their actual beers over the fourteen years I’ve been drinking them.

Tasting flight at the Driftwood Spars beer festival.

Are beer tasting flights a great way to try new things, or an abomination? Andy Crouch has long argued the latter but has changed his mind:

I once described beer flights as “sloppy little beer thimbles.” And that was one of the nicer things I’ve said about them. “Sad little beer blights.” “Tiny, uninspired specimens.” I could go on and often did. I long saw beer samplers as sad little representations of a brewer’s hard work and intention… [But the] experience of ordering lets the drinker travel as many flavor paths as possible while giving them a reasonable enough understanding of the beers sampled. And like watching a packed 60 second trailer for a two hour movie, sometimes that’s all you need to get a beer’s measure.

Finally, from Twitter, a very beautiful pub:

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

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: An uneasy journey into Clubland with Pete Brown

Pete Brown’s latest book is really three-in-one: a history of working men’s clubs, a portrait of clubs as they exist today, and an emotional memoir of a life spent struggling to navigate the English class system.

Like Pete, I’ve got a strong connection to working men’s clubs. Although my parents tended to prefer pubs – better beer, better atmosphere – they were also members of The Railwayman’s Club in Bridgwater, and of The Royal British Legion.

But my maternal grandparents, Lancastrians who moved to Somerset in the 1960s, were club people by nature. Grandpa had a strict three-pint limit and liked the fact that, at the club, it felt OK to nurse a half-pint of mild for an hour or two. Nan liked bingo.

The club I think of when I think of The Club is Highbridge Social Club where my grandparents drank for several years and which for a while my cousin actually managed.

A social club.
Conservative Club, Bath.

In Clubland Pete writes about the difficulty of knowing whether he really likes clubs or is appreciating them through a middle class filter. Is it nostalgia? Or, worse, ironic detachment?

Personally, I think it’s both of those things, but also completely sincere. I remember visiting the former railwayman’s club at Truro for the first time (it’s now just a pub, albeit one in a Portakabin) and feeling deeply, wonderfully at home.

Drinking a brown split, in lieu of mild, sitting on a bench under fluorescent light, I was eight-year-old me again, but also my own father and grandfather and uncles, but also a writer thinking: “There’s content in this.”

Pete Brown navigates this awkward space with the confidence you might expect from a man who has been writing about beer and pubs for 20-odd years and seems to win Beer Writer of the Year most years he’s eligible.

A particularly mean-spirited review of one of his previous books, by Jonathan Meades, of all people, dismissed Pete as a “professional northerner”. Still smarting from that, perhaps, Pete has nonetheless leaned into it: good point, Mr Meades – but what does that actually mean? Let’s not shy away but, rather, dig deeper into it.

How does a man from Barnsley – whose identity is built on being A Man From Barnsley – feel when he walks into working men’s clubs in Newcastle or Sheffield, knowing that he is also now a middle class writer from North London?

In the introduction to the book, he recalls how, as a student, he visited the hometown club with his father and, suddenly, didn’t fit in:

“I’m at college,” I said proudly (‘college’ being the catch-all term for any education after the age of sixteen. You just didn’t say the word ‘university’).

“What’s tha study?”

This was brilliant. A follow-up question! A real conversation with the lads. ‘Management Studies,’ I replied proudly.

An embarrassed silence fell immediately around the table. After a while, one of the other blokes, without lifting his eyes from his pint of John Smith’s, muttered, ‘Tha can’t study management.’

And that was the end of it.

Elsewhere, he runs himself in circles trying to work out if it feels right for him to join his local working men’s club in Stoke Newington. On the one hand, he’s helping it survive. On the other hand, he has a reflexive dislike of “middle class twats” appropriating working class culture.

Of course you might prefer your history with less personality, less emotion, and more footnotes.

The fact is that the facts are all here, in the service of a story about how the British working class has struggled against attempts to dictate how it ought to live, and enjoy itself.

Pete traces the origins of the club movement as an effort by well-to-do, well-meaning people who wanted to provide an alternative to the pub. At first, there was no beer, but the working man won that battle.

They then, after much wrangling, won control of the entire movement. In so doing, they wrestled free of the influence of brewers (real competition, cheap beer) and of moral arbiters – late opening, the development of a unique clubland culture behind members-only doors.

Tales of clubs in the north in the 1960s and 70s have a flavour of the novels of David Peace: an attempt to transplant the glamour of Las Vegas to a landscape of moorland and mines. Did you know Roy Orbison met his second wife while performing at a club in Batley?

A recurring point is that people underestimate the importance of clubs, overlooking their role in the history of everything from music halls to improved pubs, and the extent of their reach.

In 1974, he tells us, there four million people were members of Club & Institute Union (CIU) affiliated clubs.

Interior of the Buffs club, Penzance.
The Buffs Club, Penzance.

In the past we’ve referred to clubs as “shadow pubs”, invisible in many towns and neighbourhoods. Perhaps, as Pete suggests, they’ve flown below the radar in terms of cultural commentary too.

Pete’s accounts of visits to clubs still in operation today are distorted by the strange effects of the pandemic. Soldiering on, though, he talks to treasurers, committee members, bar staff and drinkers, making keen observations on the way.

For example, he is repeatedly told that the secret to the success of clubs is cheap beer. But it’s cheaper again from the supermarket so there must be something else that draws people in. It’s company, he suggests, and live music. (And the relatively cheaper beer doesn’t hurt.)

At the same time, Pete keeps checking himself for rose-tinted-glasses. He reflects on the sexism that blighted men-only working men’s clubs for decades, even as he seeks to understand it as a response to the accumulated trauma of successive world wars. Sheila Capstick, who campaigned to abolish the practice of second-class club membership for women, gets some well-deserved attention in a dedicated chapter.

Pete also forces himself to look long and hard at Bernard Manning who, for many people, epitomises the clubland comedian.

Throughout, the writing is frank, witty and warm. I particularly enjoyed the casual use of northernisms throughout the text – another “fuck you” to Jonathan Meades, but also mimicking the way your accent returns when you spend time with the folks, back home. “As the nature of being working-class shifts, and t’world continues to open up…” he writes at one point. Is it an affectation, or could he just not help himself? Either way, it’s a welcome touch of seasoning to the prose.

He concludes with some advice for clubs which are struggling to survive, including the very basic step of making it easier to join. After more than a century of exclusivity, some have simply not adapted to a world in which they need to attract members, rather than find excuses to turn them away.

Our nearest club is St Anne’s Board Mill Social Club, originally serving workers at a long-demolished cardboard factory. Maybe we’ll join, if they’ll have us.

Clubland: how the working men’s club shaped Britain is published by Harper North, RRP £20, but we got our copy for £15. There’s also an eBook and an audiobook read by Pete Brown himself.