News, nuggets and longreads 30 July 2022: Open All Hours

As we do every week, we’ve bookmarked all the good writing about beer and pubs we’ve come across this week. Here’s a selection of the best.

CAMRA has announced its 2022 Pub Design Awards – one of the more interesting CAMRA initiatives, in our view, and one which has been running since 1983. It’s partly about pub preservation, rewarding those who look after the pubs we already have, and partly about keeping the pub alive: great new pubs are still being born. The one that particularly caught our eye is The Boleyn Tavern, East Ham, which won the Community Local Award:

The Boleyn Tavern in East Ham was an elaborate ‘gin palace’ built in 1899, which was long the venue for the pre-match pint for West Ham supporters on their way to the nearby ground. With the team moving away to a new home, the pub, like the surrounding area, went into decline… The original seven bars have been restored, with the recreation of the glazed partitions between them using traditional materials and techniques. Surviving features have been carefully repaired; the billiard room to the rear of the building, with its spectacular stained-glass skylight, is particularly impressive.

Craft beer shop

For Ferment, the promo publication for a beer subscription service, David Jesudason has looked into an interesting phenomenon: Asian-run cornershops in London which have found a new market by specialising in craft beer. It’s both a personal story and one about how business works on the ground:

I have Jay’s Budgens round the corner in south-east London and the much-celebrated convenience store offers an array of interesting beers. As well as being featured in a Noel Gallagher music video and gaining praise for handing out free food to NHS staff last year, it now boasts a huge craft beer fridge with 70-80% of the contents from local breweries, such as Villages, Gipsy Hill and the very close Brockley Brewery… It wasn’t always like this, because Jay’s Budgens move into craft was later than Singh’s and at first comprised all the usual supermarket suspects. But interesting bottles started appearing at the beginning of 2020 after Jay’s youngest son, Tilak, 26, convinced his father that people would be prepared to spend more than £5 for one can of beer if it was unique… After a lot of research and preparation, the move exceeded their expectations. A lot of black and Asian customers started trying new cans and bottles, especially after they introduced the beer fridge in July last year. Now they’re even interested in brewing their own beer.

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

Andreas Krennmair continues his exploration of the backroads of European brewing, with reference to German-language sources, this time giving us a detailed account of the 19th century battle of the beer analysis methods. It might sound dry but measuring the strength of beer is a distinctly political business:

[Professor] Steinheil’s downfall came when he was too aggressive in pushing his own method with Bavarian officials: while his beam balance was made an official method in Bavaria to measure extract, the optical part of his method was not. To show how useful his method was, he conducted some measurements on his own and in 1846 wrote a letter to a Bavarian ministry in which he claimed that his analyses showed that the beer of the season had a lower extract than expected, thus brewers must have illegally used lower amounts of malt than they had to (at the time, Bavaria strictly regulated how much malt a brewer had to use to brew a particular volume of either summer or winter beer), which according to Steinheil showed the necessity for a simple analysis method (i.e. his own). Not only did he accuse brewers of fraud, the publication of this letter also angered local beer drinkers. To avert another beer riot like in 1844, officials in Munich had to lower the beer price.

Three men in a brewery, tasting beer from huge casks.
Michaël Blancquaert, centre. SOURCE: Belgian Smaak/Ashley Joanna.

At Belgian Smaak Ashley Joanna gives us a portrait, in words and pictures, of a young man who has become the future of an established brewery:

Michaël Blancquaert was an accounting major working night shifts at a hotel.  He had become unhappy with the mundane nature of his job and was craving a role where he could work with his hands. In March of 2010, looking for a change in his life, he applied for a position he had seen in a newspaper. He wanted to work with a small company so that he could enjoy the feeling of being close to his colleagues. He wanted to learn from someone who had experience, and who would invest in him and his future… The job for which he applied was production assistant at Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen.

This is a particularly interesting story, in a generally interesting series. Brewers can’t work forever and unless they identify their own successors, it’s easy for them to snap out of existence when their founders retire or die.

BrewDog bar sign.

So consistent is the message that BrewDog’s beers are bad, or not what they used to be, that we sometimes doubt our own tastebuds. Fortunately, the Beer Nut is here to state, in the clearest possible terms, that his experience matches ours:

This is their new core-range pale ale, Planet Pale… The acidity is green and vegetal; natural tasting, not chemical. It’s still a bit of a shock, though, and I believed myself long past being shocked by BrewDog. Other breweries don’t put out beers as bold as this as their everyday quaffer on the taps at Wetherspoon. At least, they don’t around here. I liked it. It starts to turn oniony as it warmed, but I didn’t let it get to there, something helped by an extremely modest 4.3% ABV. The bright, aggressive and above all LOUD hops speak to BrewDog actually living up to their hype, doing what they say they do. That’s not to deny their failings in other areas but in general I’ve had very few problems with their actual beers over the fourteen years I’ve been drinking them.

Tasting flight at the Driftwood Spars beer festival.

Are beer tasting flights a great way to try new things, or an abomination? Andy Crouch has long argued the latter but has changed his mind:

I once described beer flights as “sloppy little beer thimbles.” And that was one of the nicer things I’ve said about them. “Sad little beer blights.” “Tiny, uninspired specimens.” I could go on and often did. I long saw beer samplers as sad little representations of a brewer’s hard work and intention… [But the] experience of ordering lets the drinker travel as many flavor paths as possible while giving them a reasonable enough understanding of the beers sampled. And like watching a packed 60 second trailer for a two hour movie, sometimes that’s all you need to get a beer’s measure.

Finally, from Twitter, a very beautiful pub:

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

4 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 30 July 2022: Open All Hours”

It was interesting to read the Beer Nut’s take on Brew Dog, and there’s certainly a place for a commentator who remains unaffected by the noise around a subject. A bit like yourselves, I guess, giving an honest and personal view on the qualities of Wetherspoons.

I’d pop in a Brew Dog to find out myself (there’s been new openings in places like Plymouth I’ve walked past) but they’re always so quiet and uninviting these days, and I don’t drink at home. In Aberdeen last month the three Brew Dog bars seemed to be visited only by middle-aged groups and couples ordering pizzas.

Interesting Jesudason article, as ever. I’d not thought about it until just now, but Birmingham’s best two bottle shops – Stirchley Wines & Spirits and Cotteridge Wines, both of which regularly top national best-of lists – are both family-run Asian off-licences that have long had a good beer selection, rather than having been started as craft-centric bottle shops.

Not sure I agree with Andy Crouch on getting the measure of a beer from a small sample. I regularly find my opinion of a beer changes as I drink down a pint. Part of the quality of beer is that it’s a drink to be drunk in volume. Well, normal beers anyway.

the first thing I do when visiting an unfamiliar brewery is get a flight. At that point, I’m not quite concerned with spending time with the beer — I just want to know if it’s worth spending time with in the first place. If my experience is good, then I’ll have a full pour or two and form more detailed opinions.

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