My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.
We’re trying to drink one beer every week from a brewery that’s new to us and this time round it’s a Jaffa Cake milk stout from Neon Raptor of Nottingham.
We’ve actually found ourselves having to hunt round a bit to find unfamiliar breweries. There might be 2,000 or so of them but it turns out that in Bristol, you only tend to see about, say, 150 of those in circulation.
To find Total Eclipse, we had to go to a pub that’s not on our usual rounds because we haven’t really warmed to it over the years – that is, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, or Volly.
What do you expect from a beer with 7.4% ABV, vapourwave branding and a lactose warning? It is not subtle. It is loud, and best looked at through Ray Bans.
One definite point in its favour was that it had the weight of its strength, being positively chewy. It looks like chocolate sauce and, yes, that’s about the texture it achieves too.
The reference to Jaffa Cakes is misleading – the orange and chocolate here are both bitter, and intense. We certainly found ourselves thinking of confectionery, though: Mum’s Christmas box of Black Magic, crystallised ginger, candied peels.
Ray liked it; Jess less so. She detected a dirty background flavour, something earthy, like… potatoes? But overall, once again, it was kind of fun, and we’ve got another brewery to keep an eye out for.
Here are all the blog posts and news stories about beer that seized our attention in the past week, from potato beer to ancient Irish pubs.
First, some food for thought: SIBA, the body that represents a significant chunk of the UK’s independent breweries, has published its annual report. (Unfortunately, in flippy-flappy skeuomorphic online booklet form. UPDATE: Neil at SIBA sent us a link to a PDF.) Some of the key messages:
The public perceives craft beer to be from small, independent producers, and made using traditional methods.
Young people do seem to be pulling away from alcohol, with only 16% of 25–34 year olds drinking beer more regularly than once a week, down from 26% in 2017.
The number of breweries producing keg beer has increased, and craft lager especially is on the up.
Better late than never, having finally got round to reading it in a hard copy of Ferment, the magazine from beer subscription service Beer52, we wanted to flag Katie Taylor’s piece on the beer scene in Preston, Lancashire:
A former Victorian textiles giant left to the fates of so many Northern towns, the city sits patiently on direct rail routes to nearly every UK city you can think of; it’s two hours from London, two hours from Edinburgh. Deprivation has cast its shadow for some time, but after over a decade of diligent local action and positive steps towards self-sufficiency it feels like recently, Preston’s time might finally be arriving… The hipsters of Preston are made of different stuff though. For a start, they’re not interlopers searching for cheap loft spaces – instead they’re local, young and they’ve never left.
“The Crown and Magpie Tavern had, besides its wine trade, been long noted for the exportation of beer to the East and West Indies; the principal being in the possession of a secret preparation, which prevented the too great fermentation of malt liquor in warm climates, consequently it rendered the liquor more palatable and estimable.”
This passage comes from a reference book called the Biographia Curiosa published in London in 1827 and refers to a noted publican, Benjamin Kenton.
The story is that Kenton, born 1719, grew up in Whitechapel in the East End of London and at 14 became an apprentice at the Old Angel and Crown near Goulston Street. Excelling as an apprentice, he became a barman-waiter, before defecting to another nearby pub, the Crown and Magpie.
Here’s the Curiosa bit, we suppose: the landlord of the C&M, Kenton’s boss, had taken the magpie off the sign, after which point the export beer suddenly lost its magic quality. Only when he died and Kenton, taking over the pub, put the magpie back on the sign did it return to its former excellence.
Kenton ran the C&M until around 1780 when he retired from the trade, though he kept up the wholesale business from a premises in the Minories. He outlived his children, and all other relations, and died in 1800, worth £300,000 – about £25m in today’s money.
The good news is, we don’t need to rely on this one after-the-fact source for information on Benjamin Kenton and his excellent export beer because Alan McLeod has already compiled a slew of contemporary references from an American colonial perspective. Kenton’s name was apparently a valued brand – a mark of quality worth mentioning in advertisements for imported British beer that appeared in newspapers in New York City in the late 18th century. Here’s a passing mention from a 1787 book, as quoted by Alan:
On taking leave he invited me to dine with him the following day, at his plantation, where I was regaled in a most luxurious manner; the turtle was superior to any ever served on a lord mayor’s table; the’oranges and pine-apples were of the highest flavour; Ben Kenton’s porter sparkled like champaign, and excellent claret and Madeira crowned the feast.
Which brings us back to the main question: what was the trick to the superior quality of the export beer from the Magpie and Crown, which Ben Kenton inherited and made his name from?
Benjamin Wilson and Samuel Allsopp often advised customers to bottle the ale which they wanted to survive into the summer, leaving the bottles uncorked for a time to allow the ale to get flat. This was exactly the procedure adopted by a London wine merchant, Kenton, who is said to have first shipped porter successfully to the East Indies. Once ‘flat’, it was corked and sealed so that the secondary and tertiary fermentation on the voyage brought it up to the necessary state of ‘briskness’ by the time it reached India.
We bet that beer was pretty funky by the time it reached its final destination.
Every time we think we’ve at least heard of every substantial book about beer or pubs, a new-to-us specimen pops up. This weekend, we came across They’re Open! by Ronald Wilkinson and Roger Frisby, with illustrations by Neville Main, from 1950.
It’s fluff, really – the kind of thing the chaps at the golf club would buy for another chap known to like the odd pint of bitter on the occasion of his birthday. Still, it’s a revealing time capsule, as throwaways often are.
The gimmick, as with T.E.B. Clarke’s What’s Yours? from 12 years earlier, is that the book claims to be a manual for those keen to learn the mysterious ways of the pub:
The student should on no account embark upon the theory of Serious Drinking without first pausing to consider certain fundamental concepts and general principles… It should be clearly understood from the outset that the subject must not be approached in a light or frivolous vein…
Another section from the introduction is probably meant to be a joke but it’s hard to tell from this side of the real ale revolution, when we’re used to this kind of thing being uttered in earnest:
It may strike the sceptic as odd that the word ‘serious’ is applied in this context. However, the word is not chosen at random. It is, in fact, the keystone of the whole arch of Alcohology. For the Serious Drinker drinks not to be sociable; neither does he drink to drown his sorrows, nor for want of anything better to do. Above all, it cannot be too strongly impressed upon the student that drunkenness in any shape or form must never be the aim, nor indeed must it be the concomitant of Serious Drinking. The Serious Drinker drinks on a rational basis. He drinks for no other reason that that he likes drinking. One would never ask a stamp-collector why he is serious about collecting stamps…
This introductory section also sets out the book’s stall on the issue of women and beer:
In all the authors’ experience, they have never encountered a woman who held forth even the remotest promise of successful development into a Serious Drinker. Her very make-up prevents it. Charming, lovable, fascinating as women may seem, all attempts on their parts to become Serious Drinkers have so far been but empty threats.
(That’s me told. – Jess.)
There’s disappointingly little about beer in the book, of course, beyond a warning against foreign beer, where foreign has the broadest possible definition: “For the Serious Drinker is a drinker of beer, and beer is only to be found in England.”
There is a chapter on what to wear in the pub: thick-soled shoes to raise you above the sawdust, with beer-coloured uppers to conceal stains; and drinking trousers with expanding waistline and a deep left-hand pocket for change.
The bit that really grabbed our attention, with 20th Century Pub still ringing in our brains, is an attempt to classify different types of pub:
The Roadhouse… Construction in concrete… Design frequently of the pseudo-Tudor or bogus-rustic…
The American or Cocktail bar… Neon signs… Stools… A plethora of chromium… Preponderance of women… It is difficult to find words adequate to condemn this type of abomination…
The Chain House… This is a large establishment usually of brick which sports a car-park. It is by far the least offensive of the non-serious types of drinking establishments, and at a pinch it is perfectly correct for the Drinker to enter it…
The Pub or Local… The is the ideal locus bibendi for the Serious Drinker. Now, the true pub is not always easy to recognise… it will in all probability be tucked away in some side-street, mews or alley…
There are then pages and pages on the subject of pub doors – the various types, their actions, how to operate their handles – and then a whole lot more on where to sit once you’re inside for optimum efficiency. There’s a section on posture, one on how to grip your glass, and on how to chat up barmaids. All of this is more or less tedious.
Things pick up again with an attempt to categorise types of drinker:
The Serious Drinker…
The Solitary or Introspective Drinker… unshaven… unethical ties…
The Crypto-serious or Miscellaneous Group… This group includes inter alia, the dart-players, the shove-halfpenny boys, the domino kings, the cribbage enthusiasts, the bar-billiards men and the pin-table fiends…
The Celebratory of Extrospective Drinker… a noteworthy hazard to the Serious Drinker…
The Social or Gregarious Drinker…
The Medicinal or Therapeutic Drinker… On no account should he be engaged in conversation, because this inevitably consists of an interminable repetition of his morbid ailments, past and present…
The Casual or Intermittent Drinker… He looks at the clock between gulps and speaks in an anxious tone of voice…
All in all, this is a minor work, perhaps of greatest use to those with an interest in attitudes to women in pubs.