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News, nuggets and longreads 10 February 2024: Station Eleven

Every Saturday morning we round up our favourite reading about beer and pubs from the previous week. This time, we’ve got country houses, faux-snugs, and little bowls of malt, among other delights.

First, some news. SIBA has published updated stats on UK brewery numbers and reports a slight drop from 1828 active brewers in January 2023, to 1815 in 2024. Interestingly, the data they’ve collected also allows them to be more specific about which regions are being hit hardest. This time, it’s the North West of England, and the North more generally. This is always worth remembering when we have conversations about boom and bust in the brewing industry: it’s rarely evenly distributed.


A Victorian painting of farm labourers during harvest with English countryside behind.
‘Harvest‘ by John Frederick Herring, 1857, via Wikimedia Commons.

Martyn Cornell has been looking at English country house brewing – a commercial activity in a different sense, as a byproduct of the real business of farming. His focus is Samuel Unwin Heathcote of Shephalbury Manor in Hertfordshire:

The six quarters of malt at a time that Heathcote bought in 1861 would have been enough to make perhaps 24 barrels of beer, which would have been supplied to the servants and farm workers at Shephalbury Manor, as well as the family (I’m ignoring the malt dust Heathcote was buying because I have no idea what difference that might have made to yields …) Over the year that works out at 96 barrels, or just under 76 pints a day. If that sounds a great quantity of beer, the average number of male farm workers per farm in Hertfordshire in 1851 was 13. Let’s guess that Heathcote was, as a substantial landowner, employing twice the average, that gives him 26 workers. That’s three pints per day per man, which sounds perfectly reasonable for the time.


Ale casks piled in a pub yard.

Whenever someone suggests raising the price of cask ale as a way to save it Tandleman is on hand to argue: “No.” This time, his post is in response to an opinion piece by Georgina Young, head brewer at St. Austell. He writes:

You have to get the quality right, and really there is a fat chance of that given that there is a wide and diverse range of outlets for cask beer, from the specialist supplier to the lone dusty handpump sporting a Doom Bar pumpclip. You have token cask beers, indifferent cellar keeping, differences between brewery outlets and those of pub companies and more. In the diverse pub market we have, you can’t simply wish premiumisation upon it, bump up the price, and hope people will cough up… Already in some specialist outlets that premium does apply, and it applies for the simple reason of trust. People will pay more for the certainty, especially if quality is poor elsewhere.  The other point that should not be forgotten, is that cask beer is a live product. Usually in premium situations, you price an object higher, but sell less at a greater margin. But pesky old cask doesn’t lend itself to this arrangement. It goes off if you keep it hanging around.

One thing that struck us, though, is the suggestion that “the existing consumer base for cask conditioned beer often values its affordability and accessibility”. Our suspicion is that the existing customer base for cask ale has shifted, or has already substantially shifted, to those who can afford to waste a fiver on the odd duff pint.


BrewDog bar sign.

Glynn Davis at Beer Insider has some sharp insight into what’s going on with the global superclass of craft brewers as represented by Mikkeller (which just sold a 20% stake to Carlsberg) and BrewDog:

The strategy since BrewDog received a £213m investment from private equity firm TSG (in exchange for a 23% stake) in 2017 has been all about top-line growth, and the business has failed to make a profit since that date. As part of the deal, TSG received an 18% compounding coupon that has so far earned it a total of more than £600m, which BrewDog now owes. This payment will be made when the brewery is either bought in a trade sale or undertakes an initial public offering… The fact BrewDog is now talking about profits represents a change in the narrative that could be the precursor to TSG initiating a course of action that, seven years into its investment, will enable it to take out some money out for its investors… The craft brewing revolution has long since passed its honeymoon period… But it could be the poster child of the sector, BrewDog, that potentially takes things on to the divorce stage for the industry and craft beer drinkers.

The Mikkeller news did surprise us because we’d totally missed it. Perhaps that’s because, frankly, we’ve never particularly cared about Mikkeller (disappointing beers brewed under contract) but maybe also because we’re not using Twitter. Was it the hot topic for a day or two over there, as it would have been in, say, 2016?


A green-painted pub with lettering in gold: "J. McNeill, select bar, music shop, ales, beers, wines, established 1834".
SOURCE: Lisa Grimm/Weirdo Guide to Dublin Pubs.

We quite fancy the look of J. McNeill’s as presented by Lisa Grimm at Weirdo Guide to Dublin Pubs. It’s interesting that Ireland is so dominated by a single brand, Guinness, that a pub with a different stout, Beamish, seems positively rebellious:

As is the case for countless Dublin pubs – indeed, for countless pubs across Ireland – J. McNeill’s Pub purports to be quite a different business, at least partially; in this instance, a music shop… Indeed, J. McNeill’s did begin life as a musical instrument shop, back in 1834, albeit a few doors further down Capel Street, though the music business moved out of Dublin a good 20 years ago, and J McNeill’s has been ‘just a pub’ ever since… But it retains a strong musical tradition, from the instruments in the window to the nightly-ish trad sessions in the main bar, and the wealth of photographs of well-known musicians throughout the pub. While the entrance and front bar are rather small, the pubs winds its way back in slightly eccentric fashion, with a series of not-quite-snugs (you may decide for yourself whether our seating area pictured here, with your own fair author deep under the stairs, counts as a snug) to a cozy back room with another fireplace…


The sign on the Brasserie de la Senne brewery

You might take Eoghan Walsh’s evocative list of his favourite food and drink in Brussels as a to-do list for your next visit to Belgium. But it’s more like a poem than a city guide, and perhaps a more accurate reflection of the culture for that:

Fried plantains and Guinness at Le Vieux Mila

A little bowl of malted barley to chew on at Moeder Lambic

The window nook at Le Coq with a cold €2 Stella

A meringuey half litre of Zenne Pils down the back of the Brasserie de la Senne taproom

A zingy bottle of Zinnebir on the terrace at Bar Eliza (RIP), on a Friday after the school run 

Pre-match weeknight beers upstairs at BBP Port Sud after they’ve finished brewing 

Cask-poured Stouterik from a tankard at Gist

A quiet Orval in the hotel bar of the Esperance


Finally, from Instagram, Nat Ainscough has been photographing pubs again…

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

2 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 10 February 2024: Station Eleven”

You know you are of a certain age when you notice the cheery bunting before seeing the nice picture of the nudie lady.

“Our suspicion is that the existing customer base for cask ale has shifted, or has already substantially shifted, to those who can afford to waste a fiver on the odd duff pint.” I think cask drinkers generally have always allowed for the odd duff pint. What I would add is that the gentrification of cask – in certain areas – has done it a power of no good at all. If you consider cask heartlands where cask is more of a norm, they often have the lowest prices and best quality.

Of course that’s not universally true, but as I point out in my blog piece, the market is very fragmented these days. In areas such as Greater Manchester, where there are smaller breweries with tied houses ,the customer base is not always that affluent. But you are right, there is a shift and that shift started with the Beer Orders and still rolls on today.

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