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.


  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. 1909. That’s when beer reached per­fec­tion. All been down­hill since.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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