News, nuggets and longreads 27 May 2023: Le roi des fourmis

Every Saturday we round up the best writing about beer and pubs. This week, we’ve got notes on 16th century beer, American porter and dog hair in pub carpets.

First, news of an interesting intervention from trade body UK Hospitality, which has criticised the UK government’s approach to immigration, as reported by Darren Norbury at Beer Today:

“Unfortunately… there remain significant shortages across hospitality with 132,000 vacancies, 48% above pre-pandemic levels,” said chief executive Kate Nicholls. “These shortages are actively forcing businesses to reduce their opening hours, or even days. This is not good for businesses, the public or the economy… We need to take stock of the current labour market, where we have shortages and what role the immigration system can play in aiding businesses. For example, adding chefs to the Shortage Occupation List would be a practical measure to plug a gaping hole for businesses and provide a huge boost to the sector.”

We’ll add some anecdotal observations of our own: this problem is not unique to the UK. Last autumn, every bar and restaurant we visited in Germany was recruiting, with a real sense of urgency. This past fortnight, in Italy, we saw more of the same. But not in Paris. What is France doing differently?

Medieval beer brewing.
SOURCE: Wellcome Collection.

This week’s chunkiest read by far is an academic paper called ‘Understanding early modern beer: an interdisciplinary case study’ by Susan Flavin, Marc Meltonville , Charlie Taverner, Joshua Reid, Stephen Lawrence, Carlos Belloch-Molina and John Morrissey. We’re not academics (though Jess does have a history degree) and found it both accessible and engaging. Here’s a summary of the paper from the abstract:

Beer was a crucial part of diets in sixteenth-century Ireland, as it was in most of northern Europe. It fuelled manual labour and greased the wheels of social life from grand dining rooms down to raucous alehouses in towns and villages. This drink was in many ways comparable to its modern counterpart – it used hops, was lightly bitter, and was produced using similar processes – but it was also distinctive, employing pre-modern varieties of grains, brewed with heavy quantities of oats as well as barley, and reliant on less precise equipment. To understand more deeply beer’s significance as an intoxicating and energy-providing foodstuff, it is vital to move beyond theoretical calculations and rough approximations with present-day equivalents. This can only be achieved by attempting to recreate an early modern beer, following the practices of past brewers, and employing the most accurate ingredients and technology possible.

The account given of how appropriate grains, hops and yeast were sourced is remarkable, and offers quite a contrast to those ‘inspired by’ semi-historical beers occasionally released by commercial breweries.

Jeff Alworth has a fascinating story about a new variety of hop that just… turned up? It’s called Monocacy and might, or might not, be a variety of wild hop. What the scientists will say, choosing their words carefully, is that it doesn’t match any existing variety they currently have in their database:

The Agricultural Research Service is the in-house research agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it turns out Dr. [Nahla] Bassil doesn’t work alone there. When I arrived at the modest building where her office is located, I was surprised to find a whole team ready to greet me… The process starts with a piece of the plant. “You want the tissue of the mother plant, not the gamete [like a seed]” she began. “Young leaf tissue has less secondary metabolites, and the DNA is cleaner.” For some reason, I assumed they’d actually use the hop itself—I suppose because that’s what scientists test for things like oil content. Nope, they take a small bit of leaf and grind it up until it becomes powdery. They use a “buffer”—a chemical compound—to separate the DNA from the plant, and then unzip the paired DNA strands under high temperature with an enzyme and more chemicals, and “amplify” certain sections of the DNA sequence.

Illustration: "No! Bad dog."

It’s Mark Johnson’s turn to tackle two topics that, as he points out, come up time and time again: children in pubs, and dogs in pubs. As ever, he puts a personal spin on it, reflecting on his own childhood experience of pubs, and that of his sister:

I once took my niece to the pub… She was either 1 or 2 years of age. I often looked after her on Saturdays and on one of our weekly walks, for the first time, I stopped by the local pub, mainly because my friend was there with his daughter of similar age… The two kids got on well together and it was a lovely couple of hours; a perfect showcase of adult friends and their children existing in public houses… But my sister was furious. She didn’t rant or rave but her lips were purser than a 90s children’s show teacher. It was here that I learned of the effect that our childhood had had upon her. She recalls many an afternoon being bored in the corner of pubs that our Dad had dragged us to, arms folded in the corner with nothing to do, and she doesn’t want the same for her children.

American porter caps on a historic map of the US.

For Pellicle David Nilsen asks a good question: what happened to all those American porters we used to see? They were certainly something we used to enjoy when we were getting into beer, turning up in fridges at The Rake or craft beer bars in places like York. He writes:

Some of porter’s decline might stem from the blue collar accessibility that made it popular in the first place. Since its adoption by American craft brewers as a standard style in the 1980s, American porter has generally been brewed to between 5.5-6.0% ABV with a medium body and moderate hopping. In the last decade or even half-decade, we’ve seen a split in style trends, with easy drinkability at one end of the spectrum and strong, intensely-flavoured beers at the other end. A 4.5% German pilsner might have brewers and die-hards salivating, while 14% behemoths dominate the rankings on Untappd. A roasty, 6% beer is something of a no-man’s-land, neither low enough in strength or mild enough in flavour to be “sessionable” nor strong or intense enough to be daring.

Closed sign on shop.

Roy at Quare Swally has got us thinking with his latest post. It’s about Farmaggedon, a Northern Irish brewery that recently folded after almost a decade in business:

It’s weird to think they were one of our longest standing breweries as I vividly recall attending their launch night in 2014 upstairs at what used to be known as Aether & Echo – now the Deer’s Head pub in Belfast… Back then they started off with a trio of Gold pale ale, IPA and Porter but the range grew to include the likes of red ale, rye IPA, US wheat beer, barleywine and even cider! I recall the first Farmageddon beer to really hook me in was the Mosaic SMASH of 2014. You know that feeling when you take a sip of a new beer and you know it’s going to be fun? I loved that beer and so did many others. That single malt and single hop (SMASH) release manifested into what would become Mosaic IPA – becoming part of the core range, one of the brewery’s most popular beers and was voted CAMRA NI‘s Champion Beer of the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival 2016.

When we look at Steve Dunkley’s ongoing list of brewery closures, we find ourselves thinking that each of them surely deserves some kind obituary like Roy has provided. Who were they? What made them special? Why will they be missed?

Not least because some beer historian in 20 or 30 years time might have the same kind of struggle we faced when writing Brew Britannia, scrambling around to pin down even the barest facts about breweries that came and went in the 1970s and 80s.

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday (theme: big beer ‘wokeness’) and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday (same).