buying beer

Liquid popcorn: finding a time and place for non-alcoholic beer

Tough day. Lots on your mind. Open the fridge, grab a bottle, loosen and lose the cap. Sip. Close your eyes. Sigh.

The after work beer is a ritual or ceremony for many people. It’s about scrubbing dirt and dust from the throat. Cooling down. Stamping a firm full stop.

We’ve seen it enacted in hundreds of films and TV shows over the years, too. Sarah Lund in The Killing springs to mind, slumped by her fridge, clinging to a green lager bottle for comfort as the corpses pile up.

Oh, yes, the green bottle. This is a job for a small amount of a small beer – something without a big personality.

A few months ago, with a plan to watch a film on an uncomfortably warm evening, I fancied one or two unwinders. With that in mind, I let my evening walk take me past the CO-OP. I wandered in and up the beer aisle and after a moment decided, to my surprise, to buy a four-pack of Heineken 0.0.

Let’s be clear about what happened here: I looked at it on the shelf and wanted it. I’d had it before and retained, it turned out, a fond memory of the encounter. I could have had Pilsner Urquell, or Krombacher, but Heineken 0.0 was the one that grabbed me.

So I grabbed it.

And over the past few months, that’s become a habit.

I’ve always been resistant to non-alcoholic beer. Those I’ve tried over the years simply haven’t tasted good. Or, at least, less pleasant than a glass of sparkling water.

I’ve tried quite a few other brands and, no, they don’t do the job.

Some low alcohol craft beers are technically impressive and enjoyable in their own way. The problem is that they often end up being rather intense. Very bitter, or very sweet, and heavily hopped to fill the hole. They’re not green-bottle after work brews.

No, it’s Heineken 0.0 that works for me. It is, first and foremost, not disgusting. It doesn’t taste cooked or artificial. More than that, though: it’s actually pleasant. I find it light, lemony and dry.

Other opinions are available, of course:

When I say non-alcoholic beer in this context is like liquid popcorn, that’s not a tasting note.

It’s about the part it plays in my personal slow shutdown rituals.

The bottle feels right in the hand. The foam prickles, refreshes and slips into the background.

And it certainly doesn’t make a fuss when you’re trying to concentrate on Randolph Scott, Gloria Grahame or some black-gloved killer roaming the streets of Milan.


News, nuggets and longreads 4 December 2021: new blogs in town

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs we especially enjoyed reading in the past week, from Lambic to Lewisham.

First, news from Brussels: the city now has a second Lambic brewery, as reported by Eoghan Walsh. Why is this a big deal?

Lambic, together with its offshoots Faro, Geuze, and Kriek, are ur-Brussels beers. In fact, until the arrival of industrial brewing in the 1860s, they were virtually the only beers brewed in the city and came to be closely intertwined with its folklore and culture. But where it once had dozens of Lambic breweries, since the mid-1990s Brussels has been home to only one – Brasserie Cantillon… The artisanal traditions that Cantillon have steadfastly kept alive were obliterated in the decades after WWII by the arrival of industrialised Lambic brewing championed by the Belle-Vue brewery in Molenbeek. It has been even longer since anyone started a new Lambic brewery, as far back as Belle-Vue in 1943, or even Cantillon in the late 1930s.

And while you’re there, check out this week’s related entry in the history of Brussels beer in 50 objects – ‘Les Mémoires de Jef Lambic’.

A show of hands

For Burum Collective Sarah Sinclair has looked into the steps some breweries have taken in the wake of allegations of bullying and harassment across the industry. It’s an interesting piece for several reasons, not least that the editor has added their own disclaimer: “I cannot pretend either myself or Rachel, my co-editor, are fully comfortable publishing something positive about companies… after a heavy year of feeling unsafe and let down”. The bit that especially struck us, though, was this dose of heavy reality:

My new bosses at Moonwake Beer Co. did not just take my word for it, they sat and read every post and took it as a serious learning opportunity for their business… These inherent discrimination issues within the industry, which really should not have been a surprise for anyone in our small microcosm, led to them working with our investors on 28 business practice policies… This measurable action impressed me as I’d simply not heard of brand new breweries having these things in place. It wasn’t until I spoke to our non-executive directors who previously run their own, now employee-owned business, that I realised without their prior experience and contacts this would have cost us upwards of £50,000 with third-party lawyers… This makes some sense as to why small, independent craft breweries may not have these.

Doing the right thing ain’t always cheap.


Gin palaces: elephantine features

Writers and artists in the 19th century were fascinated by gin palaces – and especially by their bold, gaudy architectural and decorative features.

The image above is from the Wellcome Collection and contrasts an old-fashioned tavern of the 16th century with a gin palace of the 1840s.

Trying to read the messages it is sending about the dangers of the gin palace, we think we can see:

  • tottering drunks
  • a transaction underway in the alleyway
  • a thin man emerging into the cold
  • a pawnbroker right next door

In other words, this gin palace might look grand, but it’s part of the industry of poverty.

The gin palace is also called The Upas Tree – the poisonous plant from which strychnine is produced.

In context, the criticism is even clearer. For our version above, we’ve cropped the picture; this character appears next to it in the original.

A drunk outside the Bacchus Club.

The building, though, does look astonishing. Improbably, even. How would that huge keyhole window in the centre work in practice? No, we think this is a fantasy.

It does pick up on the truth about gin palaces, though, which is that they often made enormous lamps or other sculptural features a key part of their marketing. This is from The Globe from 14 October 1837:

At a gin palace lately established in Shoreditch, the proprietor, in order to eclipse his other neighbours, has got a clock of large dimensions and splendid workmanship at the extremity of the saloon, and so constructed, that, when occasion requires, it will perform no less than sixteen tunes, and play, without intermission, for one hour, the following amongst other tunes and waltzes: Jim Crow, accompanied (of course) by some of the old women present); All ’round my Hat, The Light of Other Days, Farewell to the Mountain, Jenny Jones, &c. None but an eye-witness can imagine the effect of the music on the motely [sic] group assembled in this gin palace.

We dipped into the world of gin palaces in a series of posts last year…

…and there may be a few more coming in the next week or two.

In the meantime, you might also want to check out a blog that’s new to us, A Drinkers’s History of London, the anonymous author of which has also touched on gin palaces.


News, nuggets and longreads 27 November 2021: Mega-City One

Here’s all the writing about brewing, beer and pubs that intrigued or informed us in the last week of November, from architectural faux pas to supermarket draught.

There’s a planning row brewing in Manchester. This time, it’s not that developers want to demolish a historic pub but, rather, change its context. The Briton’s Protection is a cult favourite. As Jim Cullen reports at Beers Manchester, however, plans to build an enormous tower block right next to the 19th century pub could lessen its appeal:

Quote “We have been working with our leading Manchester-based team to design a scheme which will complement the neighbouring buildings – including the much-loved Briton’s Protection ……” I nearly choked on my beer! And the next absolute zinger? “Throughout the design process we’ve been focussed on designing an ambitious yet complementary scheme…..” Now I don’t know about you, but “complementary”? DOES THAT LOOK COMPLEMENTARY??? IT’S A PUB SANDWICH!!!

Tricky one, this. Cities do grow and develop and pubs surviving at all can feel like a miracle. And we think of The Albert on Victoria Street in London. That’s become a tourist attraction in its own right precisely because it is an ornate Victorian jewel surrounded by towering glass and concrete.

Keg taps.

Staying in Manchester, Ross from the Beernomicon podcast talks about his changing relationship to both taprooms and “old, reliable” pubs:

Over the past years, as I’ve gone through my own craft beer journey (as arsey as that sounds) I’ve wanted the craftiest of craft places. Exposed brickwork, big bronze piping leading to bold lightbulbs, concrete bars, fucking endless uncomfortable chairs, picnic tables, 10-20-30 beers on tap, countless Phoebe Bridgers songs playing out; I wanted that. And god forbid there would be a taproom in an industrial estate, damn, now you’re talking. Get on Uber and lets go sit in a drafty brewery with one toilet. Heaven… Going to new taprooms in new cities you felt like you had discovered a secret society.

Cask ale

To make it viable, cask ale needs to cost more, say some. Like hell does it, says Tandleman, in a brief but punchy post:

Yes, folks, a perishable product, often kept badly and served in appalling condition, should cost more, to save it. Such logic would make a cat laugh. For the umpteenth time, what you need to do with cask beer is keep it well and turn lots of it over. This increases quality and confidence, which then means more sales. A virtuous circle. Maybe when everyone does that, then we can talk about price. Until this happens, then charging more to make it better, just isn’t on.

And here’s a chaser from the frontline:

A brewery.

For Culture Matters Keith Flett has been thinking about how, in practice, people can go about drinking beer ethically. Never a knee-jerker, he understands the complexity of this conversation:

Modern beer has built an image of itself as progressive, against discrimination and for equality. The reality is often very different… Craft beer, as a visit to any bar, taproom or event will underline, is predominantly about middle-aged, middle-class, white blokes. This is not surprising as the beer is usually far from the cheapest around, and so attracts those with disposable incomes and ample leisure time. Whereas those who actually work in the largely non-unionised and not well-paid bars that sell modern beer, or the breweries that produce it, are often not from that demographic.

The Tavern on the Hill
SOURCE: Stephen Jackson.

The very idea of a Blackhorse Beer Mile seems mad to us – and especially to Jess, who grew up in Walthamstow when Blackhorse Road really wasn’t the kind of place to have a ‘scene’. We did notice a while ago that something was going on in E17 but Stephen Jackson’s write-up of the crawl tells us things have come a long way since then:

A short bus ride from the tube station dropped me a brief walk from the first stop of the day, Tavern On The Hill. Previously a pub known as the Warrant Officer it has been taken over by Wild Card Brewery and now offers a range of their beers, both cask and keg, in a back street pub. Now I won’t say that I’m overly keen but they had to unlock the doors for me, the first customer of the day. It was a pleasant surprise to find that Wild Card had a cask offering and it would have been rude not to try it and as Best Bitters go it was pretty good, and in excellent condition. This is a classic old style pub and it is good to see breweries taking on places like this alongside their brewery taprooms.

Tiger Beer
SOURCE: Chris Taljaard on Unsplash.

Every now and then we like to dip into the marketing trade press to see what people who sell and advertise beer are thinking. This week, we enjoyed an interview with Sean O’Donnell, global brand director for Tiger Beer, by Amit Bapna of The Drum:

Asia is a huge continent, which makes marketing beer here super interesting. On-premise consumption (bars, restaurants, hawker centres) in many Asian countries is significantly greater than in many Western markets. The experience that beer brands can create in these venues can be very creative… Secondly, the biggest beer occasion in Asia is with food, again quite different to many Western markets. When you think of many Asian foods you think of spicy and hot, so beer’s role and taste profile is different. In general, Asian beer brands are less bitter and more refreshing than beers in the West, hence craft beer in Asia is only very small in scale.

We suspect people who know more about craft beer in Asia than us will have something to say about that.

Finally, from Twitter, a sign that recently announced changes to draught beer duty might be prompting changes in the market:

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

london pubs

Special grade mediocre everyday

We’ve been struck down by nostalgia lately and find ourselves yearning for a particular experience of the pub.

Maybe it’s birthdays. Maybe it’s the emotional impact of the two weirdest years we’ve ever lived through.

Or perhaps it was just that excellent pint of Young’s Special at The Railway in Fishponds in Bristol.

Whatever the reason, here’s where we want to be: in a slightly crappy Young’s pub in central London c.2008, after work, with rain turning to sleet outside.

We used to end up somewhere like this quite often back then.

If the Tube was knackered, or the overground trains, or both, we’d hang about until after rush hour. That often meant finding a pub.

There was socialising, too – with colleagues or friends from university, before everyone got kids, mortgages and hair trigger hangovers.

You rarely ended up in really good pubs. They were too small, too busy or too end-of-the-line.

No, it was usually a Young’s pub with shiny tables and bad lighting. There were usually lots of suits, a few cabbies, and maybe someone selling plastic-wrapped roses.

Being interested in beer, we’d make the best of it, working our way through every cask ale on the bar – Ordinary, Special, maybe Winter Warmer.

Then we’d turn to the bottles. Ram and Spesh, Chocolate Stout, Special London – the original hazy IPA?

Once or twice, to our glee, we even found the Oatmeal Stout brewed for the US market, marked up in pints and ounces.

It doesn’t have to be Young’s. Fuller’s or Sam Smith’s would do.

But it does have to be a bit damp, a bit warm, a bit weary. Our friends need to be there. And we need to be in our twenties again.

Is that too much to ask?