News, nuggets and longreads 15 June 2024: Hope & Glory

Every Saturday we round up the best writing about beer from the past week. This time: cask ale, old pubs, smoothflow bitter.

First, some news, the particular relevance of which will become apparent shortly: Cornish craft brewery Verdant is releasing a cask version of its popular keg beer Lightbulb. Verdant has been releasing cask beers in traditional styles for some time (porter, best bitter) and we’ve generally been pretty impressed with them. Some Bristol craft breweries take the same approach: they’ll make cask ale, but that’s for dark mild; the hoppy stuff stays in keg. So this small news item feels somewhat significant. Could it be that cask has to die before it can be reborn? Well…

A pile of metal beer casks in a pub yard.

Not really being on Twitter these days (we pop in once or twice a week to check DMs, which people still send us) we were insulated from what was apparently a pretty spicy day or two of debate about cask ale earlier this week. It kicked off when American writer Jeff Alworth posted about cask ale under the provocative title ‘What if CAMRA had valued quality over romance?’:

These beers should be vying with lagers as the growth style in the US, and they should be the pride of Britain. Instead, they’re unknown here and on life support there – or receding into the background as boutique beers… As I review the case file on this tragedy, I can’t help going back to an important decision CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) made and defended for decades… One decision in particular was pivotal in driving the industry away from technologies that would have elevated quality above romantic stories: defending at all costs the method of drawing cellar air straight into casks, causing the beer to lose its pep in mere hours, and spoil in a few days. Would cask be a robust market today if they hadn’t been wedded to a romantic story?

We don’t know exactly what went down online but we do know that Jeff has now added this to the post: “Note: post updated at the end in response to a large, collective ‘you’re wrong!’ from British cask fans on Twitter.” We also read Peter ‘Tandleman’ Alexander’s response which described the discussion as being like an old-fashioned chatboard ‘flame war’:

Well, where are we really? In sheer volume, cask is a declining segment of the market, but there are many variations. In many cities, finding good to excellent cask beer is not a problem. In no particular order, I’d suggest that applies to:Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Chester, Wolverhampton, York – and likely Bristol and Norwich. This list is not definitive and the bonus is that usually, the quality of beer in the surrounding areas is also dragged up by proximity.  Even London is showing signs of recovery, with my own experience of  recent improvement and many defenders springing to its aid on X.

John Smith's packaging close up.

For food newsletter Vittles Jimmy McIntosh has written a rather mischievous piece about ‘Where to find the best pints of John Smith’s in London’. At least we think it’s mischievous. It’s not 1 April and it’s extremely deadpan. The point is that it would be very weird if people talked about smoothflow keg bitter with the same semi-mystical reverence generally reserved for Guinness:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you won’t have failed to notice that one beer is having more than a bit of a moment right now: John Smith’s. The beloved creamy bitter from Tadcaster has gone from fusty old-man’s drink to fad beer almost overnight, thanks in no small part to northerners in London, perfectionist landlords and an army of online influencers who can be seen rating pints in the capital’s best pubs. The hype is inescapable. You see it in the pub gardens, where rumbustious boys with football scarves tied around their heads compare cream-topped glasses, endlessly angling them to confirm that they have, indeed, got the perfect pint. You see it in the effusive puff pieces from privately educated journalists who’d never drunk a drop of the brown stuff until 2023. You see it on social media, in the hyper-local London meme accounts which have made the consumption of John Smith’s a conscientious lifestyle choice, along with Perelló olives and wild garlic.

The brown stuff! Heh.

A sketch of a street in Athlone with historic buildings.
‘Scene of the Last Struggle in Athlone – Connaught Side’. SOURCE: Liam K/Google Books.

Liam K has returned to a favourite subject: when we say a pub is ‘ancient’ what does that really mean? And what are the various ways stories can be twisted to make outlandish claims for the great age of Irish pubs in particular?

There is that grey area for many as to the question of whether a rebuilt pub is the age of its first founding versus the age it is from its last rebuild, and it can be seen as subjective in truth. A good example of this conundrum would be The Palace Bar in Dublin, which, by the way, is a wonderful example of an Irish urban pub. That establishment was completely rebuilt in 19001, with the then owner Patrick Hall operating from 1 Burgh Quay while it was being erected. The ‘complete transformation of the old establishment’ was done by July of the following year and it reopened ‘after rebuilding’ on the 10th of July 1901, making it Edwardian if one was to be a pedant about it, but certainly of late Victorian design and fair to be classed as that. This public house recently celebrated its bicentenary, and I don’t know of its complete earlier history, although there are plenty of mentions of it being a public house in the 19th century, and a Thomas Corcoran was letting it as ‘A Public House’ as early as 1828 so the date of 1823 could well be correct for the site, even to there also seems to be a piano seller at that address at that date…

In his opening preamble he’s somewhat apologetic about repeating himself, and for his obsession with this subject, but it doesn’t strike us that way. It’s more that we’ve been watching him develop this argument over the course of several posts, and several years. Maybe it will achieve its final form in a book about the history of beer and brewing in Ireland. That’d be cool.

A dark corner of Burp Castle with a warm red lamp made from an old Corsendonk beer bottle and a beer menu on a blackboard.

We enjoyed Phil Cook’s sharp account of visiting three bars in New York City. Phil is a New Zealander living in Australia who has worked behind bars and around breweries for many years, and has his own perspective on a well worn beer geek beat:

Burp Castle was so close by as to be irresistible after that. I had added it to my map after reading a piece in Good Beer Hunting and had remembered the general Belgian monastic vibe but forgotten its own particular quirk: a rule to speak only in whispers… Halfway through my first beer, I had fully acclimated; it was just like switching from hanging out in a busy bookstore to being in a library (fittingly enough, for the day we had). A place where a serene, meditative mood was the norm rather than a piece of lucky timing (or, worse, the sign of a ‘dead’ day) felt truly special… The bartender twice broke out of his muted default. Once, when I was contemplating my second beer and asked his opinion of a relatively-local tripel, he brightened and said without hesitation “oh, that shit’s beautiful” (he was not wrong). Then, after a few more couples and groups had filtered in and the volume level crept up, as it does, he very gently – but with the direct insistence of an exam proctor – shushed the crowd. We’d previously heard him training a fill-in bartender: “the whispering thing is kind of a joke, but also kind of not”…

The fireplace and a big mirror at the Nell Gwynne on The Strand.

Finally, some fiction, from Andrew ‘The Dulwich Raider’ Grumbridge at The Deserter. It’s about a London publican on an afternoon off pub crawling around the city, bumping into old friends and acquaintances, before returning to his own pub only to discover… Well, have you read John Cheevers’ story ‘The Swimmer’? Or seen Frank Perry’s 1968 film version with Burt Lancaster?

He crossed Strand in a lull in the traffic and did a little skip up onto the pavement on the other side. He was, despite his age, still sprightly. Anyone looking would have seen a dapper, handsome man with grey in his hair but joy in his step. His jaunty lope radiated optimism. His wife used to say it was his optimism that kept him youthful… He turned into Adelaide Street and the Harp came into view, its large front window open to the street where a few customers leant on the brass counter. Oh my, what a sight. Here, perhaps, was another reason he hadn’t asked the young woman to accompany him. He loved to savour this moment, this pub. Somehow it wasn’t the place for small talk. Not at first anyway, not until you had drunk in the people and the surroundings, not to mention the ale. Back in the day, he’d often arrive twenty minutes early to meet friends, just so he could have a little time alone in lamp-lit pub glory.

Finally, another little capper on that ‘cask is dead’ story, from a pub we really must visit:

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday. And sign up for our Patreon for extra footnotes on this post, including an explanation of the title and cover image, plus bonus links.

2 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 15 June 2024: Hope & Glory”

The poorer sort of cask has its commonly encountered NAm equivalent in shelf turds, those cans and bottles well past their best before. But it’s not a topic much discussed because there isn’t a retail level feedback loop or brewer led quality control process managing best before dates. Nor is there the same sort of consumer oriented writing tradition as in the UK. Poor Widdle Cwaft still needs so much protection.

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