News, nuggets and longreads 13 January 2024: Light Cycles

January’s a great time for writing about beer and pubs as dormant blogs spring back to life and New Year’s resolutions kick in. Here’s our pick of the week.

First, a few items of news:

A canvas sign advertising a beer festival car park.

The longread of the week really is long: it’s Steve Dunkley on the problem of beer festivals. How can they be made to work for drinkers and for the people and organisations lumbered with organising them?

At the more traditional festivals fun entailed tombola, drinking horns, silly hats and suspect t-shirts. At the craft festivals it was DJs and stickers and serving beer from slushie machines. There really was a generational divide… But even the newer craft festivals could be accused of getting stuck in their ways. Where once they hosted a range of brewers not usually seen, they have often settled into an annual showcase of the same breweries and beers, which like the CAMRA festivals before them are now available in the surrounding pubs throughout the year… I think CAMRA can learn a lot from the newer festivals, and they already have. But I also think that these newer festivals can learn a lot from CAMRA.

A painted sign on a pub wall: real ale and real food.

For the Morning Advertiser (you get two free articles before you have to register) Victoria Wells, Professor of Sustainable Management at the School for Business and Society at the University of York, has written about her analysis of some old pub guides and what it tells us about the ways pubs have changed to survive:

My 12-year-old niece… [gave] me a 1992 copy of Pub Walks in the Yorkshire Dales​ by Clive Price… It’s perhaps a sign of the times, with so many pubs at risk or closing, that my first thought was not “great, I can plan a few nice days out walking and visiting pubs” but was instead “how many of these pubs are still going to be there?”… My first response as I worked my way through the pubs was surprise. Of the 31 pubs listed in the guide, 29 still existed – although I would say only 26 of these could be defined as a pub (defining pubs in itself is a problematic endeavour) – with three becoming restaurants or hotels.

Someone in orange boots on an orange brewery floor transferring beer from a fermenting vessel, we think.
SOURCE: Matt Curtis/Pellicle.

At Pellicle editor Matt Curtis has himself put together a profile of RedWillow Brewery in Macclesfield. If you have your brewery profile bingo cards out you’ll get an immediate tick against ‘Owner left a successful career in IT’. But, snark aside, it’s good to have a detailed record of a brewery founded as a cask ale brewery during the keg-focused UK craft beer boom, which has outlived many of its peers:

RedWillow’s first commercially released beer was a 4.2% cask golden ale called Directionless… Directionless gradually became less popular as RedWillow’s audience developed their palates and began to demand more up-to-date flavours in their beer. An evolution that ran in parallel with the arrival of modern North American hop varieties such as Citra and Mosaic. Wreckless, a 4.8% ABV pale ale, and Weightless, a 4.2% ‘session’ IPA gradually filled the space Directionless previously occupied in its core range. These were bookended by the 3.9% Headless, an accessible cask pale for traditionalists, and Contactless, a distinctively modern, hazy, 5.2% pale ale aimed squarely at the growing number of younger beer enthusiasts.

Closed sign

It makes total sense for pubs to limit their opening hours and match them to demand… doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t. Tandleman, who spends plenty of time on the front line chatting to publicans, has been grappling with this question:

Concentrating efforts and resources on peak business hours, can – or here I’ll say should  – ensure that the service, atmosphere, and offerings are of the optimal standard. It does not work at all if you simply take the same sad old offering and simply spread it over a shorter period. If you are going to open less, greater efforts have to be made to make the pub attractive when you do.  And above all, you need to ensure that potential customers know when you will be open. Even now, far too many pubs seem to think that opening hours are some kind of state secret that should jealously be guarded. Telling potential customers about opening hours and what’s happening in the pub is not a bothersome extra. It is an essential part of the business.

A pitcher of dark beer on a pub table with someone making 'ta-da!' hands behind.
SOURCE: Jeff Alworth.

We’re enjoying Jeff Alworth’s reports from a January he’s spending in the pub, especially because the experience he has in Portland, Oregon, is similar to ours in England in some ways, but different in others. This account of a momentary connection with strangers sounds exactly like something that might happen in The Drapers Arms here in Bristol:

On that particular night, my friend and I got our beers, rejoined our group and fell into the flow of conversation. Some time later—could have been a few minutes or two hours, in the manner of bar time—we looked up to see the two women from the line. They were proffering a pitcher of Scottish Holiday, a full, malty winter ale. I tuned into this development late and the pitcher was being deposited on the table by the time I noticed what has happening. Their group was breaking up and donning coats, and I missed why they had this spare pitcher of beer. But we had spoken, and our table wasn’t far from theirs, so they decided to leave us with the extra ale. We took pleasure in this unexpected generosity, and they took pleasure in our wonder. It was one of those things that happens sometimes, if you’re living right, in bars.

Finally, from Facebook, via BlueSky, an invitation to a rabbit hole we hope we have time to go down…

A photo of what looks like a typical English ‘brewer’s Tudor’ interwar pub only it’s actually in New Zealand, shared on a local Facebook group and then shared with us by Kieran Haslett-Moore.

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday. We put no effort at all into making sure our links are different to theirs; if a piece appears in more than one round-up then you know it must be good. But there’s usually plenty of stuff they’ve highlighted that we haven’t.

One reply on “News, nuggets and longreads 13 January 2024: Light Cycles”

I think the Breale announcement of investment in Black Sheep certainly spells the end for at least one, maybe all of the other three breweries they now own. Only Black Sheep has an integral geographical anchor as part of its branding – the others could be brewed anywhere and few would know or care.

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