The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

The Beer of the Future, 1924

More lager, daintier glassware, beer at the dinner table… These were some of the predictions made by  brewing scientist Herbert Lloyd Hind in a talk given to a meeting of Scottish brewers on Burns Day 1924.

We came across this paper while researching our big two-parter and thought it deserved a bit of attention in its own right.

As everyone knows, making predictions is a mug’s game, but Mr Hind, as you’ll see, did pretty well.

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

1. Beer must get prettier

“The days are past when meals could be eaten from wooden bowls, and the days of the old pint pot are numbered. There was nothing like the pewter pot when it was necessary to hide the drink from the eye to make its consumption possible. Developing taste demands that food be served with greater delicacy, and that beer be offered in shining glass which sets off its attractive sparkle and condition to the utmost, and under conditions in which it has nothing to suffer when compared to champagne, or dark red wine.”

This might seem like a pre-echo of the so-called ‘winification of beer’ — more an aspiration than a reflection of reality — but think about how beer has been presented in the last century: glass became the norm, and even quite ordinary commodity beers have their own branded glassware and prescribed pouring methods.

Hind goes on to argue that British beer suffers in beauty contests because it lacks the substantial, stable foam of the Continental rivals. Which brings us to…

1937 advertisement for Barclay Perkins lager.
2. More lager, and a drift away from ale

In this country beer drinkers have become so wedded to the flavour of top fermentation beer that they prefer it, and in many cases express dislike for lager. The great majority, however, of those who decry lager have never tasted it as it should be, and generally say they do not like such thin stuff, ignoring the fact that such a description does not apply to good lager any more than it does to good English beer.

Hind was cautious on lager but essentially called it: tastes can change, he argued — British drinkers had already ditched “that acid beer that used to have a great sale in several districts” — and Denmark was an example of a country similar in climate to Britain where lager had ousted top-fermented beer.

In fact, he pointed out, Britain was the oddity in having not embraced lager, and that perhaps the decrease in beer consumption in Britain could be put down to the fact that brewers weren’t giving people beer they wanted to drink:

[Those] countries showing an increase [in beer consumption] were all lager-drinking countries, or countries where lager was gradually ousting top fermentation beers. If there is anything in this argument it must follow that lager is better than ale

Oof!

He certainly got this right, anyway: Britain did eventually embrace lager, and in a big way. Only now in the 21st century is there any evidence of re-balancing.

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

3. Cleaner, more stable beer

Typical characteristics of British beers are their hop aroma and the flavours produced by secondary fermentation. Chilling, filtration and pasteurisation tend to remove these very much-desired flavours, so that chilled and filtered beer generally suffers in comparison with naturally conditioned beer.

This is particularly astute and sets up a debate that would dominate the following century: how do we retain the essential character of British beer while also taming it for ease of production, distribution and dispense?

Hind goes on to argue that the British beer ought to be fermented with pure yeast strains — that it was time to do away with the superstition and sentiment around English brewing yeast:

[The] sweeping condemnation some times passed on any suggestion to adapt pure yeast to English conditions is not justified. The only trials I know of were made many years ago and in connection with beers whose distinctive palate depended on a secondary fermentation. This distinctive Burton flavour I have seen produced in beers as different from normal Burton beers as bottom-fermented stout by an inoculation in the bottle of pure cultures of Bretannomyces, as its discoverer, Clausen, called the particular Torula employed. Conditions are now entirely altered. Secondary fermentation in far the greater number of breweries is a thing of the past, and the desideratum now is to prevent the development of secondary yeast. Under conditions such as these, surely it is time to reopen the investigation and endeavour to put fermentation on a sounder and more certain basis.

This point of view certainly won out in the industry but, of course, drinkers did notice when Adnams changed and Boddington’s lost its complexity.

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

4. Traditional English methods don’t work for session ales

I think it will be admitted on all hands that the typical English naturally matured pale ales left very little to be desired. They had a delightful appetising flavour, and poured from the bottle with beautiful appearance and condition. The cask beers of similar type were also excellent, but lower gravities have been forced upon us, and the tendency towards a lighter kind of beer seems so definite that it is hardly likely that there will be any return to the old style. Endeavours to brew these lighter beers on the old lines are not altogether a success, as is evidenced by the amount of beer on the market lacking in brilliance or condition.

This is some controversial stuff, or at least seems that way from this side of the real ale revolution of the 1970s.

It’s become a point of faith that British brewing methods are particularly well suited to producing low ABV beers, adding complexity to make up for the lack of oomph.

The answer to this contradiction — the desire for beers to be both lighter and cleaner — is, Hind argues, to adopt lager brewing methods even for beers that aren’t presented as lager.

Which is exactly what, for example, Thornbridge does, using lager yeast for its packaged products and traditional ale yeast for casks. (At least this is what we think Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge head brewer, told us in a pub about four years ago.)

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

5. Keg!

Even though our methods of manufacture were ideal, there is no possibility of the invariable appearance of the beer in the customer’s glass in condition that will satisfy a connoisseur, or even a man with ordinary standards of taste and perception. The methods of retail are hopelessly out of date. Though the brewers do all that is humanly possible, there are all too many chances of the beer being ruined in the publican’s cellar or at the bar… While bars are fitted with the usual types of pumps, and unlimited air is allowed to pass into casks, flattening and destroying the flavour of the beer, how can it be expected that beer will serve well to the end of the cask ? The possibilities which are offered in this direction by compressed CO2 collected in the brewery have hardly been explored at all in this country…

He really nailed this one.

Almost a hundred years later the same conversation is still going, keg bitter having arrived then retreated, while gas remains the key flashpoint in Britain’s beer culture wars.

It’s all about quality, everyone agrees, and cask ale at point of service doesn’t always make a good showing for itself. “Look after it better!” say the purists; “Reduce the opportunity for user error!” answer the pragmatists.

Meanwhile, most people carry on drinking lager, oblivious and uninterested.

* * *

Hind’s predictions are interesting because they’re not outlandish — robot bartenders! Powdered beer! — but careful, based on observation, and on a knowledge of things already afoot in the beer industry in the UK, and especially abroad.

It would be interesting to read similar papers from brewers active in 2018.

Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is something that only really dawned on us recently as, taking an interest in the history of Bristol pubs as we do, we kept coming across references to Berni Inns in old guidebooks and local histories:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tavern Public. Here find beautifully served Wadworth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Worthington E in peak condition — both on handpumps. Sandwiches at reasonable prices also available. Quite small friendly bar with comfortable seats, thick carpet and jovial old locals.

Insofar as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imagined. For decades they were the punchline to jokes about the tackiness of aspirational lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bringing prawn cocktail and black forest gateau to the masses. For example, here’s a song from Victoria Wood’s 2011 musical That Day We Sang which hits all the familiar references:

There are no shortage of articles summarising the history of the Berni Inn chain but — this one by Bristol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for example. The story is also covered, with some lovely archive footage, in this 2015 edition of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a precis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obituaries of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respectively, and various other sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bardi near Parma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up primarily by his mother because his father was abroad in South Wales running temperance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the family business in the UK. He was soon joined by his brothers, Aldo, born 1909, and Carlo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Catering Review, March 1968, via Facebook.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inheritance from their mother to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was successful enough to fund expansion into Plymouth and Bristol.

During World War II Frank and Carlo were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British passport, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmarket cocktail bar and restaurant in Bristol. Tom Jaine suggests in his obituary of Frank Berni that they might have got the money to fund this bold move from reparation payments for Blitz damage to their pre-war properties which just happened to be in the most heavily bombed cities in the West Country.

Like motel entrepreneur Graham Lyon the Bernis sensed that there were interesting things going on in America that British people, exhausted and bored by wartime austerity, might be ready to welcome.

Frank Berni visited the US in the early 1950s and came away inspired by American steak bars which made money by carefully controlling margins while maintaining the appearance of generosity and good value. He was also impressed by the consistency of chain restaurants which were capable of serving identical steak meals in identical surroundings anywhere in the US.

When meat rationing ended in Britain in 1954, they pounced, taking on The Rummer, a historic pub in central Bristol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bristol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ackland offers some details we’ve not come across elsewhere:

The Rummer is a rabbit warren of a place with cellar bars and rooms large and small as well as a history as an inn which dates back to the 13th century. They called in a clever designer, Alex Waugh, who created several restaurants and bars under one roof and cultivated an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shabby look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmosphere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Bernis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cobwebs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

“The Rummer was the protoype”, she writes; “The Revolution quickly followed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bristol by 1964, clustered around the city centre.

The Berni Inn model seemed to answer a need for accessible luxury. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophisticated and posh British people brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the other hand, everything about The Rummer was designed to make eating out unintimidating.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they hermit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like character, and called themselves Inns, gave people something to latch on to. (See also: gastropubs.)

Then there was what Martin Wainwright called “the crucial role played by chips as a bridge between traditional fare and the glamorous… world of sirloin and black forest gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped potatoes’ on the menu.)

Finally, there was the simplicity of the offer as summarised by Mary Ackland:

The brothers planned down to the last detail. They were determined that every last worry about eating out would be removed… The fixed-price, limited item menu ensured that customers knew exactly how much they would be paying. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The limited menu wasn’t only easy for customers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with minimal equipment by interchangeable staff using a meticulous manual.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ronnie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nationwide until there were 147 branches all over the country, all following the same formula. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Metropolitan in 1970. The chain continued to operate until the 1990s when Whitbread bought 115 Berni Inns and, deciding that the brand was effectively dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Knowing a bit about the Bernification of Bristol helps makes sense of the 21st century pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, historic, potentially brilliant pubs are apparently still recovering from their long stretches as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone recommend The Rummer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llandoger Trow, though it has its charms, is essentially the bar and breakfast lounge for a Premier Inn.

It goes without saying that we’d like to hear your memories of Berni Inns but especially the extent to which you recall them feeling like pubs, or otherwise.

Reading the descriptions of plush furniture, wooden tables, and chips with everything, we can’t help but wonder if most pubs aren’t Bernified in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an advertisement for Berni Inns in Bristol on the back of the programme for the Bristol 600 Exhibition published in 1973.

Our Village Parliament

Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.

Like the other Jarge Balsh books it is narrated by a city man in standard English, while the yokels’ speech is reported in a version of north Somerset dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Parliament”, and so on. Here’s how the narrator opens Our Village Parliament:

Away back in in the nineteenth century, in days when motor-propelled vehicles had not begun to disturb the peaceful serenity of the country-side, and when the rural landscape lay yet unsullied by poles and wires for conveying electric power or for receiving the distracting sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to foregather at the village inn to discuss local topics and world events.

The popular night was pay-night and Friday acquired an added important from the fact that the local weekly newspaper was published on that day. The national daily papers were taken only by a select few who had to be content with getting them a day late by post….

A detailed description of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chimney-place like a small room and the extraordinary characters which make up “woold Mother Barker’s” clientele would but bore those readers who have met them in other records by the present writer.

Though the action of the stories in the book takes place in the pub it is not primarily about pubs. There are nonetheless some nice details:

“Time, gennamin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Barker. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thirty, marra’ mornin’.”

There followed the usual reference to watches which seemingly agreed that the King William clock was “vive minutes in front o’ the Church clock — how a hit nine o’clock”, but our landlady stoutly maintained the veracity of her timepiece.

Overwhelming testimony that her faith was justified came from the Church clock itself, which interrupted the argument by striking the fatal hour. Mrs Barker paused in the middle of a heated sentence and turned out the light.

And so we all went home.

Battles between the regulars and Mrs Barker over closing time are a recurring theme throughout the book (she is anxious about the new teetotal village constable) as is her stinginess with the oil lamp, “so different to the glare of the electric bulb”.

Jarge Balsh as depicted in 1926.

Chapter III is an interesting one to read in 2018’s climate of political division concerning as it does the wisdom of discussing politics in the pub. It opens with a gloom settled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abraham Nokes sit sulking having disagreed over the question of “Nationalization and Private Enterprise”:

If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on politics outside a political meetin’ should be shut up together ’til tha’ learned on another better. Whut good do ’em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?

Elsewhere there are passages concerning pub seating…

He who made the first settle must have chuckled with Satanic glee after having tested and proved the potential misery contained in the thing… Not being blessed with even average adipose tissue I can only endure the experience by pressing a hand on the seat either side of that portion of my anatomy so essential for the act of relief. This redistribution of pressure certainly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is inconvenient to one requiring the use of his hands for inhaling cigarette smoke and imbibing cider… I might have mentioned that its back rises straight from a seat which is nothing else but a nine-inch board.

…and pub fires:

In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chimney, the butt ends of oak tree branches blazed and crackled merrily. Mrs Barker provided the branches and her customers pulled them along the floor as the ends became consumed on the hearth. The pleasant aroma of burning wood pervaded the atmosphere and the cider, for which the King William was noted, left one little more to desire.

There’s also what feels like an early use of the word “banter” to describe the particular kind of blokish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judging the condition of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”

In short, if you’re after a portrait of pub life as it was in the early to mid-twentieth century, that hasn’t already been milked to death by anthologisers and quotationeers, and that focuses in particular on country life, then this might be the book for you.

Our paperback edition, dating from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plenty of copies around.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this comprehensive blog post by a relative of the author.

Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947

The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.

‘Return Journey’ was written for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Early One Morning, a 1954 collection of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in various books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.

But, by way of a taster, here’s the passage in which Thomas describes visiting the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:

The bar was just opening, but already one customer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morning, and the barmaid, polishing the counter vigorously as thought it were a rare and valuable piece of Swansea china, said to her first customer:

BARMAID
Seen the film at the Elysium Mr Griffiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicycle our pipes burst Monday…

NARRATOR
A pint of bitter, please.

BARMAID
Proper little lake in the kitchen got to wear your Wellingtons when you boil an egg one and four please…

CUSTOMER
The cold gets me just here…

BARMAID
…and eightpence change that’s your liver Mr Griffiths you been on the cocoa again…

After a passage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blubber lips; snub nose; curly mousebrown hair”) there is a wonderful non sequitur from the barmaid…

I remember a man came here with a monkey. Called for ‘alf for himself and a pint for the monkey. And he wasn’t Italian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preacher.

…and some more customers arrive:

Snowy business bellies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black business bowlers, damp and white now as Christmas pudding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mirrors. The voice of commerce rang sternly through the lounge.

The final sad comment on pubs in this story reflects a common experience across Britain during the post-war period:

NARRATOR
What’s the Three Lamps like now?

CUSTOMER
It isn’t like anything. It isn’t there. It’s nothing mun. You remember Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…

(Fade)