Blogging and writing Generalisations about beer culture

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

22 replies on “QUICK ONE: Overlooked”

I think it’s up to the West Midlands to do enough to get itself noticed. I don’t know what’s holding it back, perhaps the demographic is different to other cities where a more modern beer culture has taken off in a big way. It seems a city needs a critical mass of like-minded people working in the trade (brewers, bar owners, bottle shop proprietors) to gather the momentum to get over the tipping point.

It costs me a mere £8.20 return on the train to get to Brum and while there are some good bars selling good beer from some good breweries, it’s not a patch on the likes of Leeds or Manchester.

Ironically, two of the UK’s best (IMHO) bottle shops are both in Brum – well, in Cotteridge and Stirchley, a short bus ride from the city centre.

I’ve just realised I’ve been using “West Midlands” and “Birmingham” interchangeably there. Having family origins in Wolverhampton I really should know better.

Twisted barrel?checked my records and I only seem to have had one from them which I enjoyed. Don’t remember seeing any others available, would definitely try if I saw though untapped beer list I’m not seeing anything that makes me shout at bar staff to place an order. That many great brewers real struggle to get noticed outside your local area. Ask me to name west Midlands breweries I’m blank. Probably loads im famiar with just don’t know where based.

Holdens (Sedgley)
Sarah Hughes (Sedgley)
Bathams (Brierley Hill)
Green Duck (Stourbridge)
Kinver (Kinver!)
Enville (Enville!)
Sacre Brew (somewhere near Wolverhampton I think)
Backyard (Walsall)
Fixed Wheel (Halesowen)

Those are off the top of my head, there are doubtless loads more.

See there’s a thing, I like to think I keep reasonably up to date on what’s on the bar and at festivals not a squillion miles away from Brum – and yet the only breweries that I can recall having seen on a bar are the first two. That recall may not be 100% accurate, but you get the idea. As a result of reading blogs etc I’ve become aware of Bathams and made the pilgrimage, but I know plenty of fairly beer-geeky people who didn’t recognise the name when I mentioned them. In another life Bathams might have the same sort of distribution and national recognition as Landlord or Harveys Best, but they’ve chosen not to go there. A brewery avoiding the cut in margins to enter the lottery of 3rd-party distribution is a completely reasonable decision, but it doesn’t help national recognition of a scene when one of the “stars” hides its light under a bushel like that. Even Purity have oddly spotty distribution, despite the national profile they’ve gained through supermarkets – I’m not sure what the current position is but they used not to go up the M6.

Another way to look at it is the ratings websites – not as some gospel truth on beer quality but a good guide to “buzz”. Untappd ratings over 3.6 suggests you’re at a level where you’re starting to get national attention, Sarah Hughes and Bathams are both over 3.8, Sacre Brew & Fixed Wheel are both over 3.7, the rest you mention are down at the “good local beers but not really notable outside the region” level.

Purity is very much a Warwickshire brewery, not a West Midlands one. The difference matters.
Alex and Jake’s lists are all Black Country brewers; the Black Country has long had lots of smallish, decent brewers, and as such what happens in the Black Country is followed with interest round and about. These beers are well-known in the region, at least; however, Birmingham and Coventry brewers – where are they? Who are they? The emphasis in Brum has been on pubs (understandably, given the previous M&B/Ansells dominance) rather than brewers, and IMHO there isn’t a loud scene in Cov promoting beer.

The problem comes because “West Midlands” refers to both a metropolitan county (equivalent to “Greater Manchester”) and a NUTS1 region (equivalent to “Northwest England”). Since this was prompted by a brewer in Coventry (in the region but not the county), I figured that we were talking about the region.

In fact the natural size of a beery sphere of influence seems to be somewhere between the county and region – historically a lot of the beer drunk in Manchester was brewed over the border in Warrington, but I’m not sure that Cumbrian brewers particularly feel part of the Manchester scene.

Some random thoughts, as someone who doesn’t know the area well but has been drinking there a bit :

West Midlands suffers in general from not having a single geographical “centre”, and no focus for the beer scene within that in the same way as Bermondsey beer mile or Northern Quarter – it’s not just about getting a critical mass of drinkers together for it to be worthwhile for bars to take risks on more “interesting” beers, but also the networking effect of somewhere where even people from out of town can gather.

WM tastes definitely lie much more towards dark rather than light beer – modern pale hoppy beers were always going to take off sooner in the home of Boddies rather than Banks. But they could be well placed now that there’s more interest in porters and barrel-aged stouts etc – Titanic Plum Porter & Cherry Dark epitomise a modern take on Midlands tastes, albeit not from Brum.

I don’t know what the stats are on tied pubs, but it feels like W&D/Marstons still dominates the local pub estate in a way that’s now fairly rare except perhaps in East Anglia, Kent and Cornwall. The divorce between beer production and pubcos may not have been great in many regards but it did introduce palates to guest beers in a way that didn’t really happen before the Beer Orders – and it created lots of unemployed brewers with redundancy cheques from Tetley/Boddies/Greenalls. Also a well-funded regional makes it hard for smaller companies to buy good pubs.

Demographics are less favourable – higher proportion of Muslims in your potential customer base isn’t ideal for businesses wanting to sell alcohol. Age structure could also make a difference.

I live pretty close to Coventry, but I don’t drink there much. It means bus or taxi, and I prefer to walk some of my beer off these days.
Twisted Barrel is in Far Gosford Street, or “FarGo Village” as it’s termed – it’s solidly, uncompromisingly Student Land. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m sure it keeps them busy every night, but it’s not really the natural home of the beer blogger; as such, it’s perhaps not surprising they don’t get that much attention.

I don’t believe the “Why don’t you …?” attitude is an exclusive characteristic of the Midlands, or of any region for that matter. I find there are plenty of people prepared to tell you what you should be doing, but they back away sharpish if you suggest they show you how it should be done. When I edited the local CAMRA magazine, I’d get comments about what I’d chosen to include and what I’d left out. For example, one came up with the reasonable suggestion that we have a column each issue about pub-related sport. I said it was a great idea and would he do it as I’ve no interest in sport? No chance!

I usually ended up writing most of the mag; I think there was one edition in which I contributed less than 50%. No shortage of ‘helpful’ comments, though. People who are keen to tell you what you should be doing while contributing nothing themselves are well worth ignoring.

Possibly one reason is that central Birmingham doesn’t have anything like the quality and variety of pubs that Leeds or Manchester have, and has always seemed to me a somewhat soulless place. Also, as others have suggested, the other parts of the “West Midlands” such as Coventry and the Black Country don’t really look to Birmingham as a regional centre.

It’s improved a lot recently. Tomorrow, I’m planning on visiting Purecraft, Tilt and Brewdog at the very least, and possibly The Post Office Vaults, The Wellington, Lone Wolf and Clink, depending on time. I don’t know whether the Craven Arms is still going.

Black Country Ales, what a shame. I’ve been to one of their other pubs, The Lych Gate in Wolverhampton. Underwhelming to say the least. So much so I didn’t even bother checking their beers in on Untappd.

The Craven Arms has fairly recently had a change of management.

Seemed fine to me last time I was there.

My CAMRA branch have heard good things about the new gaffer in the last place she was somewhere else in the country.

People keep referring to Birmingham in this discussion as if that is all there is to the West Midlands; and at best, they throw in the Black Country. Twisted Barrel is in Coventry, which is not by any stretch of the imagination Birmingham – it’s a very different city that likes to think of itself as still in Warwickshire. Yes, it used to be dominated by the same brewers, but it was always far easier to find decent beer in Cov than in Brum in the pre-Beer Orders days – more free houses, and a Federation Brewery depot that meant there were at least Fed beers in many clubs, which was where much of the city’s drinking was done until pretty recently. Coventry has a lot more in common with Leicester and the East Midlands in terms of taste preference than Brum, in my view; never as much prevalence of mild as further west, and always more of a taste for Burton-style beers than Brum ones. Even back in the day, many M&B pubs sold Worthington’s Bitter, which was a lot more popular than Spew XI. Even if not much better…
So if a Coventry-based brewery is complaining about the lack of beer coverage of the West Midlands, forget about Brum, it’s not particularly relevant.

qq: Coventry IS in the West Midlands county. Whatever it thinks, it is not part of Warwickshire any more, nor does Warwickshire want it to be. Warwickshire does not identify with the West Midlands on any level, which was the point I was making.

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