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News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 February 2018: Labels, Lollies, Lambic,

These are all the beer- and pub-related links we’ve enjoyed most, or found most informative, in the past week, covering everything from breakfast beer to computer games.

First, from Jeff Alworth, a clever idea: using rank-my-boss website Glass Door to gain insight into the employment cultures of American craft breweries. He writes:

In my experience, people are uniformly tight-lipped about their employers, and trying to suss out which breweries treat their employees well and which don’t has always been elusive…. There are some real surprises here. Rogue has long had a reputation as a terrible place to work, thanks in part to this report. But on Glassdoor, it’s getting a quite-respectable 3.9. New Belgium, by contrast, is usually described as something like heaven to work for, and it’s getting only a 3.5.

A crowd outside the Market Porter.
SOURCE: Stacy/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Jessica Furseth has written a fascinating piece for Atlas Obscura on the handful of London pubs that are open for breakfast, arguing that they are the last reminders of a time when Londoners drank at all hours of the day:

It’s 7 a.m. at The Market Porter in South London, and I’m eyeing the choices behind the bar. “You alright there?” the barman asks. This is the first time I’ve stopped by the pub on my way to work in the morning, and I have no idea what to get. Honestly, what I want is another coffee. But eventually I settle on a cider: the “Traditional Scrumpy,” which is a feisty six percent alcohol. As the morning sun pokes through the patterned glass windows, it goes down a lot better than I expect.

Collage of sexist beer labels.
SOURCE: Pursuit of Abbeyness.

At Pursuit of Abbeyness Martin Steward gives us what may well be the definitive summary of the most recent round of debate about sexist beer packaging, though summary is perhaps not quite the right word for a post this substantial. Adopting something like an academic tone he also puts various designs under examination, asking ‘Is this sexist?’, working his way towards a set of principles that takes into account aesthetic, narrative and context:

With Siren’s beers…. men are allowed the frisson of this assertive female sexuality, but ultimately re-assert their dominance, and the sexual double standard, in the act of consumption – for, once again, the feminine is objectified as a personification of the beer in the taproom, just as the feminine is objectified as the vessel onboard a ship. The underlying assumption is that both brewery and bar are male-only domains, just as surely as an 18th-Century ship was.

Bavaria beer ice lollies.
SOURCE: Bavaria Corporate website.

Because it’s a situation we know so little about, we enjoyed Rick Kempen’s assessment of Dutch ‘mega brewers’ and their attempts to engage with the idea of craft beer:

Late 2016 I worked myself up over some hilarious newspaper article in which, among a whole lot of other oddities, Bavaria said it wanted to position itself as the biggest independent family brewery in the world. Funny, isn’t it? Currently they seem to be real busy with a nutty attempt to have carnival be made an official national holiday – not so much because they like carnival, but it makes for an awesome selling opportunity. Bavaria’s biggest contribution to beer innovation was last year’s introduction of beer ice [lollies] – a disgraceful attempt to bring alcohol into a new shelf in supermarkets. It makes one think they’re totally clueless in Brabant.

(Radler ice lollies sound quite cool to us, though….)

Jamie's Italian.
SOURCE: Matty Ring/Flickr, under CC BY 2.0

It’s not about beer but Tony Naylor’s piece for the Guardian on the struggles of mid-market high street restaurants such as Jamie’s Italian offers some useful insight into how chains work, which is worth applying to BrewDog and other such ambitious craft beer enterprises:

A pressure that can easily lead to large chains, no matter how they are funded, eroding the food quality or service that once made them stand out. When the market is sluggish and a restaurant chain’s headline sales growth slows down, that chain will attempt to protect its profitability by cutting costs, from ingredients to staffing levels. It can quickly become a spiral of decline as quality falls and customers walk…. That sense that large chains are constantly cynically whittling away at their costs fuels huge resentment among foodies. For instance, who would have thought that Jamie’s Italian – a brand supposedly popularising rustic, artisanal Mediterranean cooking – would share a meat supplier, the now-collapsed Russell Hume, with budget pub chain Wetherspoons?

The roof at Cantillon brewery in Brussels.

Roel Mulder is troubled, even irritated, by the casual approach taken to the history of Belgian lambic beers and is on a mission to shake out the truth. This week at his website Lost Beers he laid out some of his thinking:

[A] lot of claims about the history of lambic are based on, to put it mildly, sloppy research and wishful thinking. The main error is in the basic assumption that lambic is an uncorrupted relic from the past, and that it has never changed throughout the centuries. The traditional perception by both lambic brewers and drinkers, a perception that has been around for the past fifty years or so, is that in the Middle Ages all beers were a kind of lambic: no yeast added and deliberately soured in barrels…. Nothing is less true: all data we have show that during the Middle Ages people simply did add yeast to beer.

Screenshot from Witcher 3.

Here’s a bit of silliness to take us into the last stretch: for Kotaku Riley Macleod has earnestly reviewed every tavern in the computer role-playing game Witcher 3:

The Alchemy is near a small market in Oxenfurt, making it perfect for a pick-me-up after you’re done running errands. A small patio (no seating) leads into a bustling side room that feels like walking into a friend’s house. The kitchen dominates the small place, which is made more crowded by shelves full of vases and knickknacks. The exposed brick walls and stone floor give it a weathered character. It’s not quite elegant and not quite a dive, but it has its own special something…. A range of beer on tap from across the Continent, as well as some spirits and juice.

We’re going to finish with this perfect vignette from a new Bristol oral history project:

3 replies on “News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 February 2018: Labels, Lollies, Lambic,”

I remember making that observation about medieval beers not being sour and receiving a pretty cold response, too. Yet the tax information presented by Unger is pretty clear about the speed of production and consumption,

What a rich trove you’ve offered today—thanks as always for your sleuthing.

The lambic post, however, is odd. Lambic is clearly just one spur of Belgian brewing and anyone who thinks it’s representative of all old styles would be quite wrong. But that seems straw-mannish to me. In Lacambre’s mid-19th century text, multiple spontaneous beers are documented. To me, this suggests a lineage dating back—well, probably pretty far.

Of course, lambics have obviously evolved. Gueueze appears to only date to the late 19th century. Hops have only been used 900 years or so, and less than that in Belgium. The turbid mashing almost certainly emerges from tax codes (I don’t have a source in front of me to remind myself when that was—but in the past couple hundred years). Humans are clever and their tastes change. All styles evolve. But spontaneous fermentation is ancient, and barring some decisive evidence to the contrary, I’d bet my bottom dollar it goes back to the time Julius Caesar discovered the Belgians brewing beer and admired their tenacity.

Thank you for that very generous assessment of my work!
Must read that Lambic piece, too, it sounds most interesting.

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