The Problem with Nostalgia

Life on Mars (1970s pub).

It is possible to be fascinated by the past while at the same time welcoming change.

You might get the impression from some of what we write, and the images that we share here and on Twitter, that we are hopeless nostalgists, but it’s not quite that.

There is sometimes a yearning there — a desire to step into that photograph from 1938, or to know what a particular beer from 1912 might have tasted like — and because we’ve ended up specialising to a degree in recent beer history we do dwell in the past.

But what’s missing is the sense of melancholy. We don’t, as it happens, believe in the Good Old Days. Slops in the mild, buckets of sawdust and phlegm, and ladies only in the lounge, if at all? Fascinating, but hardly desirable.

We’d love to taste Boddington’s as it was in 1970 — it sounds delicious — and we’d be pleased to see more decent mild around in pubs. Historic recipes intrigue us, and can be revelatory.

At the same time, we wouldn’t expect anyone to start a brewery in 2018 with mild and bitter as the core of its business if all the indicators are that the money is in hoppy pale ales and lager. Tastes change, and so beer changes, and styles, brands and individual beers come and go. That’s as it should be. It’s healthy.

The same goes for pubs. One of the arguments of 20th Century Pub is that pubs have changed a lot more over the course of the last couple of hundred years than is sometimes acknowledged: they are not a fixed point around which the world moves, but part of the world, reflecting its trends and tendencies. (“Pubs aren’t what they used to be” was probably first uttered about ten years after the first pub came into existence.)

We are not appalled by gastropubs, craft beer bars, micropubs, industrial-style taprooms or any of the other new mutations. Adaptability and reinvention is evidence that the pub lives, and has a will to keep living.

It’s exciting to find a well-preserved pub, and we would certainly rather people didn’t mindlessly trash historic interiors, or knock down pubs without permission.

That doesn’t mean we believe there’s any point in scrambling to fix pub culture as it was in 1882, or 1958, or 1983, or at whichever arbitrary point someone might decide is when perfection was achieved.

9 thoughts on “The Problem with Nostalgia”

  1. The remembrance of things past in the beer-writing area appeals for different reasons. Some want to recapture presumed superior tastes or pub experiences.

    Some wish to capture a foreign time or experience irrespective of gastronomic or aesthetic merit, which can make for compelling journalism, memoir, or history.

    Part of Michael Jackson’s work falls in this category. He made Belgian beer that was sour sound wonderful even though from a technological standpoint it was retrograde…

    The more that time goes on, the more I see the arbitrary nature of all experience, all taste, and what makes it interesting is the skill of the writer really.

    Consider why there is no single writer in the wine area that did what MJ did in beer. Because he or she wasn’t a MJ, that’s all.

    1. Well, Gary, that seems rather nostalgic for a beer writer… 😉

      Jackson was a huge influence on my drinking, not only through his writing, but through more or less shared experiences – drinking in Leeds, and my dad’s fairly early involvement in CAMRA meaning I was ready to try new beers.

      And broadly I very much agree with B&B. There are pangs for lost breweries, beers and pubs; even for the tie the way it was before the Beer Orders in some ways – at least compared to how the tie works with pubcos these days, anyway.
      But overall, beer is in a much healthier state, in that I can go virtually anywhere and get a nice pint. Although it’s much harder these days to know what you will find when you go into any pub.

      1. Nick: MJ did of course influence many peoples’ appreciation of beer, me too. But when you look through the books, there is no logical system to assess quality. British bitter with 20% sugar was fine, Belgian Trappist ale with adjunct was, too, or Belgian sour beer as I said (which Leeds or any U.K. drinkers would have considered swipes then).

        The real criterion he seems to have used was variety. The U.S., Canada and Australia were regarded as lesser since variety was lacking before the craft era.

        Yet even then he made their beer cultures of interest, through sheer writing skill. And history/nostalgia weaves throughout his work, it’s a vital part and what distinguishes him from even the great modern wine writers.

        Gary

  2. I make a distinction between cultural nostalgia and personal familiarity. I go to a brewpub near work that I have gone to for 25 years here in Kingston. Then I am in Maine I like to go to pre-craft micro spots Gritty’s and Three Dollar Dooeys. In my Mum’s home town in Scotland, I go to a pub with my cousins where my grandfather would go as a young man between the wars. It takes a time for something new to establish itself with me. But I am not against it. Jordan recommended a newish localish craft lager the other days and I was immediately hooked by its clever subtlety. Frankly, I hunt out few beers that I bought regularly even five years ago, that is if they can even be found. In a market driven by change and temporary fad, the familiar is not just a benchmark but something of a foothold.

  3. I have found that in my own homebrewing, I now prefer to be informed by the past but not beholden to a precise recipe. I have brewed plenty of the recipes in Ron’s Vintage Homebrew book, but these days use it more as a reference work for what beer styles were like at a snapshot of time, hence the Blackwall London Porter that I developed for Three Notch’d is not a clone of a particular beer, but rather a stab at what a 19th century porter from London could have been like.

  4. It’s entirely possible to look fondly upon aspects of the past while accepting that there are very good reasons why things are no longer like that. However, on the other hand, it’s equally important to avoid a facile Candide-style embrace of all things New! and Shiny!

    Change is an inevitable feature of life. Sometimes things get better, sometimes worse, sometimes just different. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad about the loss of things that were good, but just weren’t economically sustainable.

    The claim that “there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker” really only applies to beer bubble denizens. The total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds over the past forty years, and if you live on an estate that has lost its last pub, as many people do, it comes across as a sick joke.

    1. “if you live on an estate that has lost its last pub, as many people do …” then you can now go into your local corner off-licence and buy Sierra Nevada, BrewDog and a range of other widely distributed but flavourful beers, or, should that be your desire, a slab of 24 cans of Foster’s for £23.50. Compared to even ten years ago, the choice of different beers in the tiniest booze outlet is vastly wider, and the availability of cheap beer, for that considerable part of the market that desires beer to be, above all, affordable, really has never been better. It’s not just in a metropolitan bubble where this is true. And if an estate pub has shut, this will be fundamentally because not enough people were going in it to make it economic. You’ll notice right now the restaurant business is having all sorts of problems, with, eg, the Cau chain folding. This is not happening because of smoking bans, or ‘greedy pubcos’. And ‘The total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds over the past forty years’ – so? You seem to be implying that quantity equals quality.

  5. I love an old style traditional pub, but times do move on and I think you have to embrace change, micro pubs , craft bars, taps, they’re all keeping pub culture alive, and within that maybe some of the old style pub culture will survive.

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