News, nuggets and longreads 27 February 2021: roadmaps, poorter, Untappd

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week from the end of lockdown to beer stolen from a shipwreck.

The big news this week is, of course, the announcement of the Government’s conditional schedule for the easing of national lockdown across England:

  • 08 March | Meet one other person socially, outdoors
  • 29 March | Outdoor mixing of two households or up to six people
  • 12 April | Hospitality venues can serve customers outdoors
  • 17 May | Indoor hospitality resumes
  • 21 June | All limits on social contact to lift

There also seems to have been confirmation that it will be OK for pubs to sell takeaway beer from 12 April even if they don’t have a beer garden.

All of those dates depend on certain targets being met with regard to COVID case statistics, vaccinations and so on – they’re ‘no sooner than’ rather than set in stone, or so the Government insists. Depending who you listen to, this plan is either ludicrously over-cautious or insanely reckless. For our part, we think, for once, the Government has actually got this about right – assuming it can stick to that ‘data, not dates’ promise and not cave in to populism at the first stumble.

Wetherspoon pub sign, Penzance.

Undoubtedly the chunkiest and most satisfying read of the week is this piece about the Wetherspoon pub chain by Jonathan Moses for Bloomberg Business Week. It’s scrupulously balanced, neither puff piece nor hatchet job, and it’s probably a good sign that Tim Martin had his lawyers on standby in advance of publication:

Late one evening last March, Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc, Britain’s highest-profile pub chain, descended to his basement to record a video message for his staff of 43,000… In the grainy video, recorded on a phone camera, Martin did his best to sound reassuring. “I’m very sorry about the situation that has occurred with our pubs,” he said, clutching a mug of tea decorated with what looked like woodland sprites. “It puts everyone in a very difficult position, and I know you’re all sitting there wondering what the hell is happening.” What he said next wouldn’t exactly put Wetherspoons employees at ease. There was “no money coming through the tills,” and government checks that would temporarily cover as much as 80% of wages for furloughed workers weren’t yet in the mail: “They’ll probably be pretty slow paying it, so there may be some delays, for which I apologize.” For those who “didn’t want to wait around,” he continued, “we’ll give you first preference if you want to come back.” There were jobs available at supermarkets, he noted. “Deeply appreciate your work,” he signed off. “Best of luck!”… The national reaction was furious.

Illustration: men in a pub.

For The Conversation Thomas Thurnell-Read, an academic specialising in the cultural aspects of pubs and booze, has written about why British people are missing pubs and their role in combating loneliness:

Conducted before the pandemic, my research highlights the variety of social interaction that took place in pubs. This ranges from the “swift pint” to leisurely lunches with friends and close family as part of daytime outings, or to mark celebrations… For others, pub going involved activities such as book groups, craft classes and public talks, which many pubs offered. A number of participants also spoke of visiting pubs frequently but rarely drinking alcohol. For these people, good tea and coffee, a range of soft drinks and well-priced food were reasons to visit the pub.

It’s been a while since we had a good old-fashioned beer history takedown from Martyn Cornell – perhaps because he and Ron Pattinson have, to some degree, won the war on the most common myths. But when Martyn encounters a claim that porter gets its name from the Dutch word ‘poorter’… Oof, he is not happy:

I’ve never met Larry Hatch, but I’m sure he’s a great guy… However,  he’s written some dumb nonsense about porter, and I’m feeling grumpy, so he’s going to get a kicking… [Believing] that porter as brewed in London in the early 18th century could possibly be derived from a beer called poorter brewed in the Low Countries in the 14th century is a collapse of the critical faculties, an inability to assess the evidence and judge its likelihood, a breakdown in logic, a failure to properly weigh up competing possibilities and sift the probable from the improbable, a disastrous misunderstanding of the importance of Ockham’s razor, of exactly the same kin and kind that leads people to believe baseless conspiracy theories involving pizza restaurants and child abuse rings, to insist that, despite all the irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the Earth is flat, and to claim that the Moon landings were faked by Stanley Kubrick in a Hollywood studio.

For Good Beer Hunting Kate Bernot has been investigating the weird feedback loop caused by Untappd ratings:

Americans’ use of the app lagged in 2020, but Untappd’s use as a decision-making tool in the U.S. has only increased in this time. Next Glass offers Untappd for Business, a menu management and analytics service for bars, restaurants, breweries, and bottle shops. Many businesses that don’t pay for Untappd for Business simply use its publicly available ratings to decide whether to stock a certain beer, or whether to brew a specific style. Retailers and distributors desperate for data about an increasingly crowded field of breweries turn to Untappd’s simple one-through-five rating scale for quick insights… But because of the types of behaviors the app incentives, and who constitutes its user base, such insights aren’t as generalizable as many assume.

Here’s a classic ‘and finally’ story, as reported in the New York Times. Argentine craft brewers decided to age some beer on a shipwreck – an old-school BrewDog style gimmick – but were disappointed when they went to retrieve it:

[Diver Carlos] Brelles dove to check on the barrels on Jan. 19 and everything looked fine. He returned this Tuesday, a day before the barrels were going to be brought back to land, and couldn’t believe his eyes: All the barrels were gone… Mr. Vincent said the contents of the barrels would be useless in the hands of people who lack sophisticated beer-making skills, since the purpose of the brew was to mix it with another beer… “If they stole it for their own consumption, they’re going to have to throw it away,” said [brewer Juan Pablo] Vincent. “It was a lukewarm, gasless liquor that would be very difficult to drink.”

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

One reply on “News, nuggets and longreads 27 February 2021: roadmaps, poorter, Untappd”

I share your hope that the government has got it about right this time, but there’s a concern that the message of “data, not dates” is somewhat diluted by the fact that the dates (although not “set in stone”) are there in black and white, but the data parameters are being kept vague. People are already saying, “hooray, pubs open on 12 April”. No, they *might* open (for table service in gardens only) but only *if* there are no worse-than-expected changes in several data sets; which remain undefined. This is asking for trouble. Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. (Never thought the day would come when I’d be quoting Paul Simon as a fount of wisdom.)

Infection rates are already starting to rise again, in some parts of the country – possibly because some behaviours are changing in anticipation of the much-trailed and much-leaked announcement on Monday, as well as the reported progress of the vaccination campaign. I want the pubs to reopen as much as anyone, but there’s still a chance that things will take another turn for the worse.

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