News, nuggets and longreads 1 April 2023: Fear City

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Czech porter to scouse pubs.

First, for Pellicle, Emmie Harrison-West has written about an issue that gets mentioned, sheepishly, from time to time: how are you meant to hear anything in echoing bars and taprooms? And that’s even more of an issue if you have hearing loss:

If there’s no tasting notes on menus, I don’t order something new. I daren’t ask because I simply won’t be able to hear a response from vendors, albeit helpful ones. If I can’t decipher pump-clips, or read the chalkboard clearly, I order something that I know the bar will have – not necessarily what I want. Forget about the fridges, I don’t even bother asking if there’s no menu… To me, there’s no such thing as a ‘quiet pint’. I struggle if I sit at the bar, or next to barking dogs (which is torture, I tell you – being a lover of all four-legged friends), speakers, toilets, televisions, fruit machines, pool tables, and kitchens, as I have to strain to hear my friends, or ask them to repeat themselves. It’s as frustrating as it is exhausting. There’s only so many times I can say: “Sorry, what?” before I end up closing in on myself, smiling and nodding, becoming reserved, and making an excuse to leave.

The cap of a bottle of Pardubicky Porter.

A famous and unusual beer is about to disappear: Pardubický Porter, from the Czech Republic. For Good Beer Hunting Evan Rail tells both its story and the story of his relationship with it:

I know that Pardubický Porter isn’t brewed with spice, but I keep picking up notes of cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg as I drink it. It’s probably a trick of the cerebral cortex, some kind of sensory suggestion stemming from the dessert-like sweetness of the malt. Or perhaps it is inspired by the setting, since Pardubice is known as the home of perník, a kind of gingerbread that is baked with most of the same spices. In fact, this city of 90,000 residents about 75 miles east of Prague has long been famous for three things: its perník gingerbread, a historic horse race called the Velká Pardubická, and Pardubický Porter, brewed here since 1890. And because of the impending closure of Pardubický Pivovar, the large brewery next door to the pub I’m in, the latter of those three points of pride is down to its very last kegs, tanks, and bottles.

The ornate ceiling of the Philharmonic.

Will Hawkes has been to Liverpool to cast an outsider’s eye over its pubs, pub life, and culture:

You might think it’s a shame that such a place is used mainly by tourists – but actually, The Philharmonic, opened in 1900, wasn’t built for ordinary Scousers. As Quentin Hughes put it in his marvellous 1964 architectural guide to the city, Seaport, “Buildings like this … formed part of the [mercantile] culture [of Liverpool], a setting to which wealthy businessmen had become accustomed.”… It’s easy to forget that Liverpool was once like that, a place where a barbed quip from its rival city, “Manchester Man, Liverpool Gentleman”, made sense. Both Liverpudlians and outsiders have done their best to forget the era when Liverpool (or at least its merchant class) was hugely rich, when it was Tory, when sectarian division was as much a part of the culture as it has been down the years in Belfast and Glasgow.

The Altstadthof in Nuremberg.

Beer Wanderers is a blog that’s new to us, by Rich Carbonara, and caught our eye when it covered a topic that’s been on our own to-write list since last year: Nuremberg Rotbier. He covers the recent history of the style (it’s not a survivor, it was reborn) and tastes all the examples he could find in the city:

No concrete evidence seems available as to when Rotbier “disappeared” but the Hausbrauerei Altstadthof in Nuremberg is credited with its revival in 1984. A forerunner to both Märzen and Vienna Lager, Rotbier shares both beers’ malt forward profiles. What the original beers tasted like is beyond the scope of this exercise and what I’ve set out to do is taste the five known Rotbiers of Nuremberg and rank them. I’ll be honest, it’s not a style I’m particularly enamored by. I’m not averse to malty beers but I like a bit of dryness mixed in the finish and I’ve generally found Rotbiers to be on the sticky side. So, when I ventured to Nuremberg in February 2023 I restricted myself to drinking nothing but Rotbier to keep any hoppier/drier beers from interfering with my assessment.

A footnote: rather to our surprise, we found a UK-brewed Rotbier, by Utopian, in a bottle shop in Manchester last weekend. But we left it untasted in a pal’s fridge. We’d be interested to hear from anyone who has (a) tried it and (b) can tell us how it compares the Nuremberg originals.

Craft beer shop

We’re enjoying Jeff Allworth’s clear-eyed ongoing appraisal of what’s going on with craft beer. Acknowledging its downturns is as important as celebrating its growth, after all. In his latest piece on the subject he recalls the last time the ‘segment’ (ugh) collapsed, in the late 1990s:

It was a frothy time, and breweries assumed it would continue. Scores of the larger breweries made big capital investments into new facilities that would produce the much larger volumes they expected to sell. Visibility was also way up, and this was the biggest change. Throughout the 80s, “microbreweries” were the domain of only the most avid fans. But by the ‘90s, regular folks were starting to sample the beer. Much like what we saw in the 2016-2019 period, breweries chased after these new drinkers with sweet, fruity, adjunct-heavy beer. In the 90s, a lot of it was not good, and a lot of the new breweries weren’t, either. Many of the old-timers complained about tarted-up beers that seemed to be aimed after an audience hitherto satisfied with “alco-pops” and “malternatives,” categories that also, familiarly, flourished during this period… People talked about those 1,500 breweries like they do the 10k today – way too many. Then the reset came… Craft continued to grow, but it left the public zeitgeist for the next decade. Cocktails and spirits flourished instead. Real growth wouldn’t return again until 2004, and brewery growth not until 2009. 

A pump clip for Fuller's Chiswick bitter.

One change hidden in the recent UK Budget was a shift in the thresholds at which duty is charged, as reported by Phil Mellows at British Beer Breaks:

A couple of decades ago, most lunchtimes you’d have found me under a flyover in Croydon that funnels the traffic towards east Cheam, in a secluded suburban nook called the Royal Standard. And I’d be holding a pint of cask Chiswick Bitter… Brewed by Fuller’s, it was the ideal beer to break the middle of a day at the office. Crucially, it was only 3.5% abv, yet bursting with a hoppy bitterness that danced refreshingly on the tongue… But why am I going on about a beer you can’t get any more? It was the recent Budget that called Chiswick to mind, with the confirmation that, from August, the upper threshold of the lower band of alcohol duty will be raised from 2.8% to 3.4%… It means we’ll be seeing more beers in that lower abv bracket. In fact, they’re already coming.

But there’s a counterpoint from the Pub Curmudgeon: might this also lead to existing beers having their strengths reduced?

Surely it will be a no-brainer to reduce existing beers positioned at 3.5% by a single point. This would include Taylor’s Golden Best and Hook Norton Hooky Bitter, and locally Hydes Dark Ruby and 1863, and Lees Dark. The same would also probably happen to Bud Light, and very likely also the 3.6% smooth bitters such as John Smith’s and Worthington. Robinson’s have already introduced a new 3.4% beer called Citra Pale to compete in that category, although in my experience it’s a thin, lacklustre product and not a patch on the 3.7% balanced bitter Wizard which is being withdrawn… I can’t really see established products around the 4.0% mark such as Carling or Holts Bitter having their strength reduced. But brewers of beers in the 3.6-3.8 range will be carefully considering their position.

Finally, from Twitter…

…and have a look at the the #beer and #BeerWriting hashtags on Mastodon if you’re after an alternative to that increasingly wobbly platform.

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

4 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 1 April 2023: Fear City”

an unironic hear hear to the quandry of background noise. Too many Motorhead gigs mean noisy venues, mumbling staff or traffic outside make life very difficult. In the absence of menus or lists even asking the bar staff can be an exercise in futility – “those 6 are the pastry stouts and all the rest are DDH bangers” doesn’t whittle down the list much

You can always shout ‘Listen Up!’ to people, like I get told to ‘Speak Up’ in places due to my voice being quite quiet and really have to be almost directly across from barstaff when ordering. So I mainly go to pubs now at times when they are likely to be quiet. I remember having a pint with a friend in a local pub, in fact a very good ‘traditional’ outlet, when the landlord declared it was too quiet and put the jukebox on. So we left and went round to Wethersoon. Locally, that’s were I mostly go now and at around 1600 or so – probably home around 1900.

Have had quite a few pints of Utopian’s Rot both on draft and can, very good and I did have a Tucher one last week and it compared favourably with its richness, but tbh honest I was just drinking rather than analysing

I went to the doctor with tinnitus in 2001 (I can date it because I remember first noticing it after listening to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor); I had a hearing test a few weeks later and was fitted with a hearing aid a couple of weeks after that. Whole thing free of charge, naturally (including an endless supply of replacement batteries); I did have to pay for a replacement when I lost the thing once, but that seems fair enough. It’s not conspicuous, and it’s made a massive difference to my quality of life – I remember walking out of the hospital when I first had it fitted and realising for the first time that there were birds in the trees. And, as a kind of bonus, a hearing aid entitles you to a Disabled Person’s Railcard(!).

I’d strongly recommend anyone in the position of Emmie & her anonymous friend to [well-meant but somewhat brisk words of encouragement omitted] and book an appointment with their GP, ASAP. (I still can’t follow conversations in pubs, mind you, but that’s probably because I got out of the habit too long ago.)

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