News, nuggets and longreads 27 January 2024: Dead Beat

It’s Saturday morning which means another round-up of good reading about beer, brewing and pubs, from the Baltic to Bermondsey.

First, a couple of bits of news:

  • Steve Holt, owner of Kirkstall Brewery, has stepped into rescue North Brewing: “The move will ensure North’s future, including its Springwell Brewery and Taproom, as well as the North Taproom sites in Leeds and Manchester. The transaction does not include the North Taproom in Birmingham, which will close.”
  • Carlsberg Marston has decided to shut down the last example of Burton union brewing equipment still in use, in Burton upon Trent. Ian Webster has more background at The Beertonian: “[The] various incarnations of Marston’s have been proud of their Union Room, calling it the ‘Cathedral of Brewing.’ In 1991 their commitment expanded with the installation of more Unions. ‘No Burton Union. No Pedigree. End of.’ Not my words but those on”

An alleyway leading into a courtyard with shops and cafes.
Neal’s Yard by Martina Jorden on Unsplash.

For The Guardian Jonathan Nunn has written about Nicholas Saunders, founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy and various other ventures in the UK. It’s not about beer, though The Kernel does get a mention, but about the complexity behind the idea of ‘artisanal’ foodie culture:

Passersby assumed it was all a posh hippy commune, and in some sense they were correct. For all its democratic impulse, many workers in the warehouse either had the title “Honourable” before their names, had been to the same public school as Saunders… Some resented the increase in “straight” customers that the Yard’s success was attracting. In 1977, when a Daily Telegraph article flooded the Yard with people from the home counties desperate for bargain basement coffee, Saunders temporarily shut it down. He may have distrusted the “freaks”, but Saunders also realised that if too many “straights” came then the Yard’s alternative atmosphere could not be maintained. Days later, an irritated customer came by to harangue Saunders with his thoughts on the matter: “So you stopped selling coffee because you were too successful? How British. How disgustingly British.”

Nunn also observes that graduates of Neal’s Yard and associated businesses dominate the UK artisanal food and drink scene even today. Until very recently (like, this week) Bristol had a specialist beer and cheese shop run by former Neal’s Yard people, via Bermondsey.

His final observation is a depressing one: when you try to create an alternative, it seems to either get co-opted (taken over by Holland & Barrett) or becomes part of the engine of gentrification:

“At times [the British food scene’s] institutions bring to mind Saunders’s criticism of the shops he was once trying to put out of business: meeting places for the in-group, expensive, making ordinary people feel like intruders.”

Illustration: a pub door spilling light.

In the latest edition of her newsletter, The Gulp, Katie Mather asks: “When I say I want to go to the pub, what do I mean?”

I want to be chatted to when I go to the bar to choose from a good selection of beer, and feel like the people who work here are looked after and enjoy being there. I love a real fire, but controversially, it’s not a dealbreaker. I do, however, award huge bonus points for hauntings, witch marks, and fascinating or gory local history that can be linked to the pub—however tentatively. Points are deducted for tourism-baiting, although I’m not too harsh on this right now. It’s a difficult industry out there. Beautiful views from the windows are a tick. Funny or interesting regulars are a tick. Classic bar snacks are a massive tick—pickled eggs, butties wrapped in clingfilm, or pies from a local butchers’ shop all tot the points right up.

Historic red brick buildings around the market square of a German city.
The main square in Stralsund, Germany, by Samuel Svec on Unsplash.

For Pellicle Will Hawkes provides a detailed profile of Störtebeker Braumanufaktur in Stralsund, Germany, which also acts a vehicle to explain the history of brewing in the DDR, and German attitudes to experimental beer:

It was once Stralsunder, founded in 1827, but its modern story begins in February 1990 amidst the wreckage of the former DDR… At the time East Germany breweries were in high demand—or some of them were. Export brands such as Radeberger and Lübzer, which had the best equipment and ingredients East Germany could afford, had an excellent reputation, and were quickly snaffled when the Treuhand—the organisation established to sell off state-owned East German companies—put them up for sale in 1990… Stralsunder was different. Having paid 1 million Deutschmarks (about £815,000 in modern pounds Sterling), [new owners] the Nordmanns were confronted with dozens of suppliers demanding back payment, coal-powered brewery equipment in terrible shape, lagering cellars not cold enough to do their job, and a supply chain in ruins coughing up awful ingredients.

Converted warehouses in Bermondsey.

Let’s stick with Will Hawkes: the December edition of his excellent newsletter is now free to read online and includes what amounts to an oral history of the London brewing scene in the 2010s. That’s a period that’s starting to feel like history, and in need of documentation. Will highlights various instances of people learning the ropes in London then shooting off around the UK, and the world, to found their own breweries:

“The brewers in East London were a tight bunch. There was zero competition, everyone was super open to sharing ideas and excitement about beers. Friday after work in the Cock Tavern you couldn’t move for brewers! I still brew like those early days at the Kernel: I make quite different styles now, but they are made in the same spirit.”

The Lower Turk's Head, Manchester.

We’ve already linked to this in a full-on response post earlier in the week but, for completeness, do check out Ross Cummins on his top 5 Manchester pints (at the moment):

Now herein lies the first problem with this list. Holt’s Black is not available in every Holt’s pub in Manchester City centre. On a previous occasion I had tried to get Dave to try a pint of the black stuff in The Hare & Hounds and Lower Turks Head, both of which serve Holt’s beer (the latter being an actual Holt’s pub, and the former just serving Holt’s Bitter it seems). Yet neither had Black on draft… See I had first tried Black only a few months ago at The Ostrich in Prestwich, thanks to Cafe Beermoth‘s very own bar manager, Big Cal. He had harped on about it a few times, and so when I got the chance I tried it, and loved it. It became my go to at my local, The Cleveland, another Holt’s pub just down the round from my house. Thus I had assumed every Holt’s pub did it. Unfortunately not.

Finally, from Liam K on BlueSky

A screengrab of a social media post by BeerFoodTravel.BSky.Social showing O'Hara's Leann Folláin stout blended with Saison Dupont: “I'm doing a bit more blending tonight, top league stuff…”

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

5 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 27 January 2024: Dead Beat”

“His final observation is a depressing one: when you try to create an alternative, it seems to either get co-opted (taken over by Holland & Barrett) or becomes part of the engine of gentrification:”

It’s actually depressing/disappointing that people think this way.

If someone has created something new and better, why should it be limited to just the select few who found it first?

I’m glad Brewdog has expanded the way it has and laid out the path for loads to follow their example.

The selection of pubs in every city centre is better than 15 years ago thanks in part to what they started.

This: “ That’s a period that’s starting to feel like history, and in need of documentation.” I total agree but it’s the sibling of another idea. A number of times now I have seen discussions of a particular beer, brewery or pub and someone giving their recollection. I then find my post or someone else’s from the place and the time say 15-20 years ago. Written right there at the time. Only then to be corrected because the contemporary reporting didn’t match a recollection or – perhaps more to the point – the wish to improve or fit the facts into the story. Brewery owner (and pub fans) recollections can be the source of some pretty glossed up histories. Which is why I wonder what has been lost with the fading blogosphere (… a word I have not written for a while!)

“How disgustingly British.”

This rang somewhat true to me. A friend would visit London as a child and his family found some small foodstuff—lemon curd or mustard or something like that—that they especially liked. When they returned to London they always made a point of visiting the store to pick up a jar or two to bring back with them. But on one visit they were told that the store no longer sold it. “We had to drop it, it was very popular and we couldn’t keep it on the shelves.” My friend is from New York and this attitude was completely baffling to him. “We couldn’t keep it on the shelves” became his shorthand for anything illogical. I gather England has become somewhat more market-oriented in the years since.

It is actually rather a pathetic utterance.

Why wouldn’t you want something you like to shared, rather than hidden away?

It reminds me of late 1990s punk. As soon as a. band became popular they were “sell outs” if they played to more than say 1000+ people or got on to a label.

Why shouldn’t something good be popular? That to me is uplifting, not depressing.

Spinko, I think you are onto something, but there are a few considerations that cut the other way.

First, the logic of a free market system dictates that (usually, not always) anything nice is expensive and anything inexpensive is not nice. There are exceptions. My wife and I buy the fanciest oatmeal we can find (glyphosate free etc.) and I think it comes to about 1 US dollar per serving, or maybe less. Same with coffee, our morning cups cost under $2 each though we spare no expense. But for most things, this just isn’t true, and artisanal products are certainly mostly “you get what you pay for” or worse.

The classic example is wine reviews. A notable wine reviewer basically said, look, I hate it. I tell my readers about a good value and the wine sellers immediately mark it up because they know my readers will be looking for it. I am destroying the affordability of good wine. What am I accomplishing here? (You can argue something like, you are making sure good winemakers can earn a buck and in the very long run this will improve the availability of good wine. But that is quite a logical stretch in my opinion.)

This is very unpleasant and thinking people are always looking for exceptions to this relentless logic. In the USA, exceptions include public parks, public broadcasting, open source (or otherwise free) software, libraries, and many places of worship. And certain nonprofits. Free concerts. And, yes, undiscovered restaurants and artisans. Obviously it’s great when they find an audience and prosper, and we should hope for that. But it’s not wholly foolish to keep an eye out for, and celebrate, and maybe protect(?), the occasional undiscovered jewel. It’s such a transitory thing to be able to have a delightful experience before the lines get long and the prices get exclusionary.

The other consideration is what you might call “audience capture” or “follower capture.” A business will find itself changing to meet the needs and expectations of its customers. So when the customers get annoying, the business often gets annoying. It’s nice to find a business that caters to people who aren’t just trying to experience something that was recently reviewed in the New York Times or whatever. Now I appreciate that this is, in its worst forms, just another kind of snobbery. “Oh look at me, I only eat Indian food from the restaurants where the cabbies go at the end of their shift,” oh fuck off. But there’s *something* there. Once a certain clientele shows up, the business will very likely change and quite often not in a way that anyone would really choose in the abstract. In New York, Other Half brewing is an example, it literally turned into the brewery where “the other half” (the investment bankers and hedge fund types) send people to stand in line for fancy releases. I don’t think this was their business plan at the outset (the name being a coincidence as far as I can tell) but it’s pretty hard to avoid once it starts happening. What are you going to do, turn down the money? But so it fed into exclusionary prices and practices and once again, nothing nice is available to people without the necessary means for the necessary means. (In this particular case the beer is not very good so no great loss.)

So I think one has to sympathize with the sentiment even if one doesn’t follow it all the way to its (also obnoxious) conclusion.

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