News, nuggets and longreads 8 August 2020: politics, pool tables, Palestine

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs from the past week that grabbed our attention, from the the Himalayas to South London.

We’ll start with a lovely piece from Owen Amos at the Beeb about how the world’s smallest and most remote Irish theme pub at Namche Bazar, Nepal:

The pub’s pool table was brought in this way. “And ours is an old, classic Indian table, with huge marble slates,” says [pub-owner] Dawa [Sherpa]… “Three or four slates, each one weighs maybe 120kg. We can’t hire mules or yaks because the paths are too fragile. It’s all carried by porters – humans – with great carefulness.” They even import Guinness, expensively, via Singapore.

Berliner Kindl Weisse.

Ben Palmer is an interesting chap. He’s British but has been studying brewing in Germany and recently took a role as student research assistant at the brewing research centre VLB in Berlin. Moving to a new city has prompted him to fire up his blog and begin recording his impression of its pubs and bars:

Berlin is the craft beer capital of Germany, probably. I am too lazy to count but the city is probably home to about 20-30 breweries and numerous craft beer bars and bottle shops etc. Some brewing companies have their own production facilities with tap rooms, whilst others adhere to the “Kuckoo”, or contract brewing model. But frankly, I’m less excited about internationalised beer culture these days. I don’t really want to drink IPA in a dimly lit bar in Kreuzberg surrounded by English-speaking expats. So I have set myself the goal to seek out some authentic Berlin pubs, beer gardens and brewpubs and gain an insight into local beer culture.


Take out to help out

We’re getting increasingly cross at the regurgitation of the Government’s line that the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme is designed to boost pubs, as in this piece at BBC News.

First, the 50 per cent discount only applies to food and non-alcoholic beverages. That means only pubs serving food can possibly benefit.

But more serious in our view is that the scheme incentivises sitting in. There is no equivalent discount for places operating as takeaways which means that restaurants and pubs which have decided not to open on safety grounds – in the sincere belief that they’re doing the right thing – are going to lose out.

A number of our favourite Bristol pubs such as The Drapers Arms, The Good Measure and The Plough – have made the difficult decision not to open.

And these aren’t all micropubs like The Drapers – The Plough is a fairly normal, average-sized pub.

Sign outside a pub.

This along with the behaviour we witnessed at the weekend has really made us question which pubs we personally want to support, and how, while the coronavirus is still with us.

We’ve now been to the pub, or rather two pubs, four times since they reopened, not counting many trips to the Drapers for takeaway beer.

It felt important to at least try going to a pub or two once they had reopened. After all, we write about beer and pubs and desperately want pubs to survive. We’d also rather the economy didn’t crash further. And Government messaging around “enjoying what you used to do” probably played its part, too.

In both cases, days apart, we went to pubs that were part of large chains, with apps and carefully stated rules, which provided some initial reassurance. Both are also pubs that we’ve visited a lot and would like to see stay open. (There are many more pubs in Bristol that also fit that criteria, of course).

But both also have food offerings that will allow them to benefit from the VAT cut and the discount scheme, so perhaps they’re not the pubs that need our love right now.

Six weeks ago we wrote fairly positively about the plans for reopening pubs and our thoughts still remain the same. The true pub experience for us is not about an economic transaction – it’s about really enjoying a space that isn’t yours and mingling with others. And we think it’s almost impossible to achieve this while also maintaining social distancing. We’re sure the people taking the piss in the pub on Saturday weren’t doing it maliciously, they’d just had a few and wanted to socialise properly, like they would have done pre-pandemic.

Government messaging has not helped, with the emphasis on getting back to normal, rather than reinforcing the point that you’re still supposed to be distanced from other households even if you meet up with them down the local.

Either they have no idea why people go to the pub or how they behave, or they know and are choosing to keep the message vague in the vain hope that a few extra pints sold will somehow save the hospitality industry.

As everything in life is now reduced to risk assessment vs economic benefit, this makes the case all the more plain for continuing with takeaways for most of our Bristol drinking. The pub (The Drapers, primarily) gets the economic benefit and it remains much less risky for them, for us and our community.

This is our personal decision. We’re not criticising those who want or need a cheap meal out at this time – anything to stay cheerful, really.

Nor are we having a pop at those whose only option for human contact is to visit a pub, or who need to spend some time outside their house to keep their brains healthy.

And, of course, we appreciate that being able to enjoy an off licence experience at home while happily paying pub prices for beer is a sign of our privilege.


Pub life: moving tables

A pub garden in an unusual summer. Hand sanitiser stations and tables two metres apart. Masks folded on tables. Cautious equilibrium. Then, enter chaos.

A party of fifty-somethings, twenty strong, zeroes in on a large table and sets about enlarging it further, dragging chairs from around the pub.

The sound of metal on stone, the clattering and shouting, summons the bar manager: “GUYS, I’M SORRY, BUT…”

Gently, smiling, as friendly as he can be, he makes them put the chairs back where they found them and the party reluctantly spreads out across half the garden, grumbling and tutting.

Over the next hour, they’ll swap seats and rearrange the party five or six times, before driving off in different cars and taxis.

At the other end of the garden, a party of twenty-somethings descend on two picnic tables. It takes a moment for them to decide they’re too far apart and the lads roll up their sleeves.

Knees bent, biceps popping, grunting and giggling, they lift one table and move it so it butts up against the other.

The whole party cheers.

The manager appears like a genie in a puff of subdued stress: “GUYS, I’M SORRY BUT…”

Like naughty schoolchildren, the boys move the table back and then the entire group of ten finds a way to sit in a single table, piled on laps and perched on bench-ends.

They order tequila, lick salt from their hands, hug, kiss, take bites from each other’s burgers and feed each other chips.

Image by Victor Figueroa via Unsplash.


News, nuggets and longreads 1 August 2020: civil war, wort, Watney’s

Here’s all the best reading about beer and pubs from the past week, from notes on Marxist beer to memories of Watney’s in its pomp.

First, a reminder that we in the UK have it relatively easy. Various forms and degrees of lockdown have affected beer businesses around the world but South Africa’s brewing industry has had it especially hard with the imposition of total prohibition. Now, though, as Lucy Corne reports, they’ve found a way to keep the lights on:

Homebrewing has never been more popular in South Africa. Since people can’t legally buy beer, they are choosing to make their own at home. But not everyone wants to invest in homebrewing equipment and not everyone has the time to brew a batch of beer from scratch. Luckily, the homebrew suppliers and craft brewers of South Africa have come together to bring you the absolute easiest way to make beer at home… Breweries around the country are now offering customers the chance to purchase wort. It’s a perfect solution that allows you to legally produce beer at home (it is not illegal to homebrew in South Africa as long as you don’t sell it) and also offers a way to support your local brewery. They can’t sell beer at this time, but they can sell wort, which is a non-alcoholic product.

Blueprint of the Windsock.

SOURCE: Geoff Quincy/Wilson Smith and Partners.

At his blog dedicated to one of the most striking pubs of the 1960s, Geoff Quincy gives us part two of his epic history of its construction:

Large buildings often consist of a steel girder skeleton which is bolted into place before the floors and walls are added afterwards. These walls and floors can be made from a variety of materials such as metals or wood, composites of plastics and also concrete… However due to The Windsock’s shape and design this technique of building could not be employed. There was no centre or skeleton in the design to bolt everything onto. Instead the building would be interlinked by a series of columns which would need to be constructed to their full height of around 30ft in the air, the height of the second bar floor, before the main building would then begin to be built around them, joining the columns together in the process.

This is no ordinary pint.
Detail from a 1961 national press ad for Watney’s Red Barrel.

John Lowrie used to work for Watney’s and has written a post gathering some of his memories and reflections. As long-time Watney’s watchers we were especially interested in his account of the launch of Red in 1970:

Watney’s decided to re-launch the brand, dropping the ‘Barrel’ and calling it just Watney’s Red. The laboratory and marketing boys had co-operated, done their research. They’d booked the TV slots and advertising hoardings. The first brews were brewed ready for delivery. Chairman Mao’s face was salivating in anticipation. In celebration, they told the boys in the brewery – and me – to try it. Next morning they realised there was something amiss in the chemical concoction. Quite a few boys reported diarrhoea! Unfortunately it was too late to correct. So the brand new Watney’s Red was in fact the same old Watney’s Red Barrel. No-one noticed. The joys of keg beer.


Women at a brewery.

Women maltsters at Bass, 1917.

Now, something to explore: the National Brewery Centre’s new online archive has launched. At present, there doesn’t seem to be much online – it’s primarily a catalogue – but there are some gorgeous photos, like the one above.

The sign of the Victoria, a Fuller's pub in Paddington.

Al Reece at Fuggled has been tasting and thinking about a specific beer, Fuller’s London Pride. Here are his notes. We enjoyed reading them.

A palm in Colombia.

Source: Christian Holzinger on Unsplash.

The North American Guild of Beer Writers blog, Reporter’s Notebook, has an interesting piece by Miriam Riner on a former FARC member who has become a brewer:

In 2016, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, formally ending over 50 years of war. One of the challenges to lasting peace is finding productive legal employment for ex-guerillas who often lack secondary education or formal work experience… Jaramillo Cardona belongs to a group of ex-guerillas that hopes beer is their path to peace. The 30-member cooperative makes La Roja, or The Red, an Irish-style red ale. The name and label are a nod to their Marxist revolutionary ideology.

Finally, from Twitter, there’s this reminder of why you should follow your local archive, library service and museums:

For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in July 2020

We kept up the usual pace this month, somehow, turning back to our long-term to-do list and the frequently asked questions at which we’ve been chipping away.

We started the month with a brief note on a perennial question: which is the oldest pub in England? We had this on our list anyway but moved it up when Ewan gave us a nudge via Patreon:

The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”

For the first time in ages, we reviewed some books. First, we looked at a pair of self-published eBooks by Pete Brown and Andreas Krenmair, drawing some conclusions about the future of beer writing:

When it comes to beer, most publishers seem hung up on the same handful of topics and formats: lists of beers you must drink, beginners’ guides, compilations of trivia and the occasional breezy personal memoir… Not needing to sell well is one of the great advantages of eBooks, however. If an eBook doesn’t sell, it’s disappointing. If a print publication is slow to move, that’s someone’s office or warehouse or spare bedroom piled high with boxes for years to come.

There are some related thoughts from Jeff Alworth here.

Next, we reviewed Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing by Lars Marius Garshol. We liked it quite a bit:

The farmhouse brewers themselves are under constant pressure to modernise and standardise. Why use that dirty old yeast your grandfather passed on when I can sell you a nice lab-grown dried variety designed for brewing? Making your own malt is a waste of time – just buy some… In that context, this book – and the half-decade of research that led up to it – feels like a just-in-time intervention. Stick to your traditions, Lars seems to be saying; you’re right, the modernisers are wrong; don’t let this die.

On 19 July, we highlighted the apparent dominance of family brewers when it comes to bitter, based on a numbers from a conversation on Twitter:

The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble)… If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.

Then, on 23 July, we had to tut at the very brewers to which we’d given a big shout out when news broke of proposed changes to small brewers relief (SBR):

We believe the breweries lobbying for it have made a strategic error; and we, like others, might be less inclined to buy their beer or speak positively of them as a result… And we don’t really buy the ‘Poor us – we’re being undercut by these upstarts’ argument. It sticks in the craw somewhat to see breweries who own hundreds of tied pubs, to which they often sell their beer at above the market price, complaining about distortions in the market.

Back to the FAQ list, we revisited the research we did for Brew Britannia to give a straight answer to the question ‘Which was the first UK microbewery?

Tower of coins.

A thing that used to be popular in pubs, but has more or less disappeared, is piling pennies on the bar to make a huge tower in aid of charity. We finally did the research to work out (a) when it started; (b) how it worked; and (c) when and why it died out.

Having visited some pubs, finally, we’ve found ourselves thinking about the apps many of us are now using to order our pints. Jess wrote up some thoughts on this drawing on her own experience working for a business that ran a large hotel-pub in Cornwall:

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.” Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps… Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.

We’ve also started to ramp up posting on Patreon again with regular posts on our favourite beers of each weekend, sharing an article on saudade we wrote for Original Gravity in 2018 and adding some footnotes to posts we shared here on the main blog.

We wrote our usual 1,000+ words for our monthly newsletter – sign up here to get next month’s.

And, of course, we were all over Twitter with stuff like this mystery and satisfying crowdsourced solution:

And that’s it. Next month, we’re actually going somewhere which might inspire something. We’ll no doubt be sharing a work-in-progress diary on Patreon as we go, anyway.