As the new year gets going and the nights start to get shorter, here’s our round-up of essential reading on beer and pubs from the past week.
First, some more-interesting-than-usual brewery takeover news from the US: a company that owns several American breweries including Oskar Blues and Cigar City has itself been acquired by the Monster Beverage Corporation.
Why should people in the UK care? Because some commentators (Tim Webb, specifically) have been warning for a while that the next big shake up is likely to be soft drinks companies buying up breweries – and here it is, or might be.
His suspicion, if we’ve got this right, is that it might be partly about securing access to water, with a rather worrying long-term view in mind. But it’s also a symptom of a general muddling of categories that often occurs in the later consolidation phase.
As always, Jeff Alworth at Beervana is our first port of call for measured commentary on these things but for now, he’s still in shock.
And then some local news: things are looking up, just a bit, with regard to the saving of The Rhubarb, the last pub in our neighbourhood of Bristol. The planning application for its conversion to flats has been withdrawn after hundreds of objections were filed by the public and various organisations. It has also been declared an Asset of Community of Value. So, it’s not out of the woods yet, but things are looking more hopeful than they were a year ago.
You can’t imagine our excitement on noticing a new Lady Sinks the Booze blog post from Kirsty Walker in our Feedly. She’s been back in the pub and has some reflections on Dry January, Try January and the British aversion to tipping:
Something I have noticed about this pub in particular is that they are tip averse. When you pay by card you are prompted to add tip or continue without, but I’ve found that the staff either tell you to press continue without tip or actually take the machine and do it for you. I wondered whether this was because of the inevitable pushback from locals who believe tipping is for the rich and the American, or whether something else was at play… By law, the staff have to be given their tips… but I discovered when they are paid by card they are rounded up at the end of the month and distributed equally among all the staff who have been on shift in one lump sum. Our waitress confided that someone had tipped £100 on Christmas day but due to the system, it had pushed up their monthly earnings and ended with them all being taxed more, as they mostly earn under the tax threshold a year on their part time hours. Not what the kindly gent hoped for, I’m sure. Hence they are not too bothered about tips through the machine and prefer the cash which they can just pocket without Rishi Sunak getting involved.
Eoghan Walsh is taking a break from his 50 Objects project but is still writing, this week providing us with a bit of psychogeography in the form of a walk along the Zenne Valley in Brussels:
In early January and February 2021, with Belgium suffering through a second lockdown in nine months, I walked the length of the Zenne from Lambic’s reputed origin in Lembeek to Brussels’ new brewing district in Laken, speaking with brewers and business owners to find out the state of brewing in the Zenne valley in this strange time. Originally, this was intended as a contemporaneous account but it (and me) fell victim to lockdown-induced fatigue… Which is why it is only appearing now, a year later. Instead of an on-the-ground report, it functions more as a snapshot of a particular moment when we didn’t know which way the pandemic was going to go. Which seems grimly appropriate as we wait in January 2022 to see which way the Omicron wave will break.
For Craft Beer & Brewing Randy Mosher has written about that hippest, most zeitgeisty of beer style – bitter. It’s a good overview of the style and especially of why it’s so hard for people outside Britain to experience at its fullest:
It’s cliché to say that beer is better when you drink it in its homeland, but it’s especially true in this case. Sad to say, great cask ale is quite rare outside of Britain. Elsewhere it is usually the passion project of a brewery or a pub. Nor does it travel well. I was involved in Ray Daniels’ Real Ale Fest, which offered more than 200 firkins of real ale at its zenith in the late 1990s, mostly from U.S. brewers. A sponsor paid to fly in British casks, but the ales were often imperfect, and many were pulled from service—apparently, even a few hours of truck and air transport was all it took to pull them to pieces. Even under the best circumstances, there’s a tempus fugit quality about cask ale, as inflowing air brings oxidation as well as infectious microbes just a few days after the casks are broached.
Des de Moor has just released a new edition of his excellent guide to London pubs. As part of that, he’s totted up how many breweries there are in the capital, and how that has changed over the years:
London’s brewery count rose from 131 at the end of 2020 to 136 at the end of 2021, with at least three likely to start operations in the early months of 2022. While six breweries closed, suspended production or moved out of London during 2021, another 11 either commenced or resumed selling their own beer… Following the boom of the 2010s, when London leapt from accommodating 14 commercial breweries in 2010 to over 100 by 2017, the year-on-year figures have been creeping up much more slowly recently: 125 at the end of 2018, 129 by 2019, 131 by 2020 and 136 today. But given the challenges of the past two years, it’s particularly remarkable that they are still increasing.
Here’s a nugget from Ron Pattinson: Courage Russian Imperial Stout, he says, is the only British beer he can think of that survived two world wars and retained its strength, “being almost exactly the same gravity in 1986 as in 1847”.
Finally, from Twitter, news of an interesting development around the ongoing BrewDog culture story: