News, nuggets and longreads 5 August 2023: Dark Waters

Here’s what we’ve been reading on the subject of beer and pubs this week, from sociology to homesick Flemings.

First, some news from New Zealand, where a pioneering craft brewery, Epic, has gone into liquidation after 16 years in business. Phil Cook at Beer Diary does a great job of contextualising the story for those outside New Zealand, and provides more data for the ongoing discussion of why these older craft breweries might be especially vulnerable:

[A] sense of a timewarp, of a throwback to the days gone by of “craft beer”, is what struck me the hardest when I looked at Epic’s recent releases for the first time in ages. They just launched a beer called Snakes On A Plane, referencing a movie that came out in 2006. Last winter, and again last month, they put out collaborations with A.J. Hackett — the man / company known for commercialising bungy jumping in the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably worst and weirdest is Root Red, pitched as the first in a probably-now-doomed series to be based on the seven chakras derived from Hindu tradition, popular in various yoga practices — and just really rather awkward to see used, by a fifty year old white guy, to market a beer.

A jumble of pubs.

This week’s chunkiest and most challenging read is a sociological paper by Thomas Thurnell-Read entitled ‘“It’s a Small Little Pub, but Everybody Knew Everybody”: Pub Culture, Belonging and Social Change’. Based on discussions with focus groups, it challenges some of the nostalgia around pubs, while also acknowledging their symbolic importance within communities:

All the focus groups involve extended discussions about past pub going experience and, in particular, about local pubs and their character and history. Even participants who rarely visited pubs traded information and opinions about local pubs, often in ways that revealed an intimate connection to the local area. For example, in a focus group in Greater Manchester, a discussion centred on the pubs and clubs where participants ‘used to go dancing’ in their youth, which were remembered for their ‘sociable’ atmosphere, while a participant in the East Midlands Market Town focus group asserted that: ‘We used to have all these pubs because [the town] used to be the main route, and it’s a market town.’ Knowledge about local pubs, then, was presented as a means of making attachments to place. Notably, though, these reflections were nearly always accurately aware of changes over time. 

An Irish pub in London.

On a similar note, for VinePair, Evan Rail has written about the changing nature of the English pub, and its cultural diversity, with an American audience in mind:

Instead of being a purely British invention from the halcyon days of “Merry England,” numerous foreign influences have helped to create British pub culture. In recent years, some of the most visible might have their origins in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. But a generation or two ago, they predominantly came from the Republic of Ireland — geographically part of the British Isles, but decidedly not part of the United Kingdom… Originally from Ireland, Oisín Rogers has been working in London pubs since 1989, most recently running the celebrated Guinea Grill in Mayfair. An oversize Irish population among pub management and employees in the 1990s, he says, greatly influenced U.K. pubs, putting an Irish touch on everything from food to atmosphere.

A view of the mirror behind a bar with the barman's shoulders reflected in it. In chalk above is written the cryptic message "Rule number 1: IYAMWTMYHTBMAD"
The Sultan, London SW19.

Benjamin Nunn has shared his thoughts on some of the contenders for his own personal London pub of the year award. It’s a useful overview of the subtle changes in pubs to which locals are finely attuned (see Thurnell-Read, above) but also works as an up-to-date guide:

A proper locals pub in South London, the Sultan is something of a favourite with the local CAMRA branch, and has been so since the 1990s when the Hopback brewery first took the place over to gain a London outpost… I was always really impressed with the beer quality here back in the 1990s, but there was a period of inexplicable slumpage that lasted quite a while. I’m happy to report that the condition of cask here now really is excellent. Indeed, I had a couple of pints of (Hopback) Garden Party recently that were possibly the best conditioned beer I’ve had all year. It’s not always quite that good, but the CAMRA credentials here are actually meaningful, which isn’t always the case.

A simple flat-roofed pub on a street corner.
The Laurieston, Glasgow, in 2019.

What makes Kirsty Walker’s pub crawl write-ups such fun, we think, is that the venues are dictated not by the CAMRA beer guide, or by a pursuit of good beer, but by convenience, personal recommendations and instinct. In Glasgow, she made it to the magical Laurieston (phew) but also visited some hotel bars and, most amusingly, a cocktail bar with no cocktails:

‘Cocktails! Here! So many cocktails! Come and try one of our cocktails!’ Said every single A board and poster outside this place. Once inside I took the cocktail menu from the table to the bar, to be told they don’t do cocktails, because they don’t have the ingredients. I could literally see the ingredients very attractively back lit behind the bar person in question, but yet another member of staff said ‘No, we don’t do cocktails, THEY keep saying we have to.” She then walked off without serving me anything so I ended up calling her back for a rum and coke. I don’t know who the mysterious THEY are, some sort of cocktail pushing cabal whose only agenda is making bar staff work for a living.

Roadworks in Brussels.

At Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh continues his survey of expat pubs in the effective capital of Europe. In his most recent post he looks at a community that hasn’t travelled far, geographically speaking, but which is culturally completely distinct:

Simon Steverlinck is already at Café In Den Hemel when I get there, sitting at a wooden table between a squat stove and the café’s big plate glass window. In Den Hemel is in the northwestern Brussels district of Ganshoren, and Steverlinck (originally from Halen in Flanders) has been coming here on and off since he moved in nearby five years ago… It reminds him of the “bruine kroegen”, the old brown bars, he grew up in as a teenage musician drinking in provincial Flemish towns. “What I’m looking for – and what you find in these kinds of bars – is a cosiness,” he says, and plenty of chat at the bar too. Chat conducted in Dutch. Not exclusively, but predominantly – both barmen and beer drinkers.

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