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News, nuggets and longreads 27 February 2021: roadmaps, poorter, Untappd

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week from the end of lockdown to beer stolen from a shipwreck.

The big news this week is, of course, the announcement of the Government’s conditional schedule for the easing of national lockdown across England:

  • 08 March | Meet one other person socially, outdoors
  • 29 March | Outdoor mixing of two households or up to six people
  • 12 April | Hospitality venues can serve customers outdoors
  • 17 May | Indoor hospitality resumes
  • 21 June | All limits on social contact to lift

There also seems to have been confirmation that it will be OK for pubs to sell takeaway beer from 12 April even if they don’t have a beer garden.

All of those dates depend on certain targets being met with regard to COVID case statistics, vaccinations and so on – they’re ‘no sooner than’ rather than set in stone, or so the Government insists. Depending who you listen to, this plan is either ludicrously over-cautious or insanely reckless. For our part, we think, for once, the Government has actually got this about right – assuming it can stick to that ‘data, not dates’ promise and not cave in to populism at the first stumble.


Wetherspoon pub sign, Penzance.

Undoubtedly the chunkiest and most satisfying read of the week is this piece about the Wetherspoon pub chain by Jonathan Moses for Bloomberg Business Week. It’s scrupulously balanced, neither puff piece nor hatchet job, and it’s probably a good sign that Tim Martin had his lawyers on standby in advance of publication:

Late one evening last March, Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc, Britain’s highest-profile pub chain, descended to his basement to record a video message for his staff of 43,000… In the grainy video, recorded on a phone camera, Martin did his best to sound reassuring. “I’m very sorry about the situation that has occurred with our pubs,” he said, clutching a mug of tea decorated with what looked like woodland sprites. “It puts everyone in a very difficult position, and I know you’re all sitting there wondering what the hell is happening.” What he said next wouldn’t exactly put Wetherspoons employees at ease. There was “no money coming through the tills,” and government checks that would temporarily cover as much as 80% of wages for furloughed workers weren’t yet in the mail: “They’ll probably be pretty slow paying it, so there may be some delays, for which I apologize.” For those who “didn’t want to wait around,” he continued, “we’ll give you first preference if you want to come back.” There were jobs available at supermarkets, he noted. “Deeply appreciate your work,” he signed off. “Best of luck!”… The national reaction was furious.


Illustration: men in a pub.

For The Conversation Thomas Thurnell-Read, an academic specialising in the cultural aspects of pubs and booze, has written about why British people are missing pubs and their role in combating loneliness:

Conducted before the pandemic, my research highlights the variety of social interaction that took place in pubs. This ranges from the “swift pint” to leisurely lunches with friends and close family as part of daytime outings, or to mark celebrations… For others, pub going involved activities such as book groups, craft classes and public talks, which many pubs offered. A number of participants also spoke of visiting pubs frequently but rarely drinking alcohol. For these people, good tea and coffee, a range of soft drinks and well-priced food were reasons to visit the pub.


It’s been a while since we had a good old-fashioned beer history takedown from Martyn Cornell – perhaps because he and Ron Pattinson have, to some degree, won the war on the most common myths. But when Martyn encounters a claim that porter gets its name from the Dutch word ‘poorter’… Oof, he is not happy:

I’ve never met Larry Hatch, but I’m sure he’s a great guy… However,  he’s written some dumb nonsense about porter, and I’m feeling grumpy, so he’s going to get a kicking… [Believing] that porter as brewed in London in the early 18th century could possibly be derived from a beer called poorter brewed in the Low Countries in the 14th century is a collapse of the critical faculties, an inability to assess the evidence and judge its likelihood, a breakdown in logic, a failure to properly weigh up competing possibilities and sift the probable from the improbable, a disastrous misunderstanding of the importance of Ockham’s razor, of exactly the same kin and kind that leads people to believe baseless conspiracy theories involving pizza restaurants and child abuse rings, to insist that, despite all the irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the Earth is flat, and to claim that the Moon landings were faked by Stanley Kubrick in a Hollywood studio.


For Good Beer Hunting Kate Bernot has been investigating the weird feedback loop caused by Untappd ratings:

Americans’ use of the app lagged in 2020, but Untappd’s use as a decision-making tool in the U.S. has only increased in this time. Next Glass offers Untappd for Business, a menu management and analytics service for bars, restaurants, breweries, and bottle shops. Many businesses that don’t pay for Untappd for Business simply use its publicly available ratings to decide whether to stock a certain beer, or whether to brew a specific style. Retailers and distributors desperate for data about an increasingly crowded field of breweries turn to Untappd’s simple one-through-five rating scale for quick insights… But because of the types of behaviors the app incentives, and who constitutes its user base, such insights aren’t as generalizable as many assume.


Here’s a classic ‘and finally’ story, as reported in the New York Times. Argentine craft brewers decided to age some beer on a shipwreck – an old-school BrewDog style gimmick – but were disappointed when they went to retrieve it:

[Diver Carlos] Brelles dove to check on the barrels on Jan. 19 and everything looked fine. He returned this Tuesday, a day before the barrels were going to be brought back to land, and couldn’t believe his eyes: All the barrels were gone… Mr. Vincent said the contents of the barrels would be useless in the hands of people who lack sophisticated beer-making skills, since the purpose of the brew was to mix it with another beer… “If they stole it for their own consumption, they’re going to have to throw it away,” said [brewer Juan Pablo] Vincent. “It was a lukewarm, gasless liquor that would be very difficult to drink.”


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

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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Heavy lifting

Beer is working hard these days.

When every day feels the same, when the only way to tell one week from the next is the curve on a graph, it’s how we mark the coming of evening and discern the ghostly outline of our weekends. Beer as anchor to reality.

The presence of bottles, cans and glasses is how you tell whether the Zoom call you’re in is for work or pleasure. It makes quizzes and frustrating can-you-hear-me, you’re-on-mute, no-you-go-first conversations just about bearable. It enables the seance.

It’s memory. Cask ale from a bag in a box to recall the Drapers Arms; mixed cases of cans as a faint reminder of turning up at a strange bar in a strange town and exploring strange breweries; bottles of Augustiner or Westmalle on the sofa standing in for train journeys, hotels, warm beer garden evenings.

We expect it to distract us, too. To be something we can talk about that doesn’t hurt or scare us. To provide new experiences when those are a rare commodity. Little presents to ourselves that arrive in the post.

And it’s what we’re looking forward to – the end point that will tell us we’ve made it through, the whole family around the pub table, thinking about nothing but the cards in our hands or whatever trivial question we’ve decided to half argue over.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 20 February 2021: smoke, disruption, trends

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out to us in the past week, from opinion on lockdown to reflections on smoke.

In the UK, the COVID-19 numbers are mostly and consistently heading in the right direction which has, of course, prompted calls for a Great Reopening. Tandleman wants to see pubs open soon, but not right now, and with due consideration for how pubs actually operate in the real world. Having originally titled his post ‘Get them open NOW!’, or something along those lines, Paul Bailey (no relation) is in a similar place.

Matt Curtis, on the other hand, urges patience:

We tend to agree with Matt – slow and steady makes sense, as long as there’s support in place to keep pubs afloat in the meantime. We’re almost there, and can you imagine what it would be like to reopen only to have to close up again a month later? If we’ve learned one thing in the past year it’s that those reassuring downward trends can turn in the blink of an eye.


Illustration: Victoriana.

Something Jeff Allworth said this week struck us like a lightning bolt:

There is every reason to believe the year-plus Covid disruption will have long-lasting effects on the alcohol market, and I wonder if we won’t use 2020-‘21 as a convenient place to divide the “craft era” with whatever we’re about to inherit. It will mean reckoning with this era, attempting to make meaning out of how we got here. We are a species of story.

Almost a year ago, we used the phrase ‘great disruptor’ to describe the pandemic and, yes, we’ve seen plenty of evidence of it accelerating trends already underway and putting a sudden full stop on slow decline.


King Narmer of Egypt, via archive.org.

We’re 20th century kids, really, and don’t seem to have the heads for keeping track of the debates and disputes in beer archaeology. Nonetheless, like everyone else, our reaction to the news of the discovery of a 5,000-year-old brewery in Egypt was, “Wow – that’s cool!”

A joint Egyptian-American team discovered the brewery in Abydos, an ancient burial ground in the desert. They found a number of units containing about 40 pots used to heat a mixture of grain and water to make beer. The brewery is likely to date back to the era of King Narmer, according to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It says it believes the find to “be the oldest high-production brewery in the world”.


Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

For Ferment, the promo magazine for a beer subscription service, Mark Dredge has been thinking about trends and where beer might be going. Cleverly, he’s sourced his intel from the current cohort of students at Heriot-Watt – what do they expect to be brewing in years to come?

So what about the beers we’ll be drinking? “Something I’ve found very exciting in the last few years is a real shift to beers that are a lot more accessible,” said Caitlín [McErlean]. A lot of other people also used the word ‘accessible,’ and all of them used it in relation to hazy IPA, fruit sours or flavoured stouts – accessible seems to now mean a knowable non-beer ingredient, or a beer which has an abundantly fruity hop character.


Smoke on a Cornish moor.

At Appellation Beer Stan Hieronymus has been thinking about hops, smoke, wheat and the almost-lost beer style Grodziskie:

Beers change over the course of 500 years, so let’s forgo any discussion about what the “most authentic” version of Grodziskie might be. The givens are that it is made with smoked wheat malt and it is low alcohol. Sometimes it was hoppy, and sometimes it included barley… The version from Grodzisk is not quite as hoppy as one from Live Oak Brewing in Texas and a bit drier, but they are cut from the same cloth. They are about smoke and hops… But that smoke, that’s important. Oak smoked wheat malt does not smell like beechwood smoked malt or English peated malt.


Meux's Original London Stout advertised on a derelict pub building at Finsbury Park, North London.
Meux’s Original London Stout advertised on a derelict pub building at Finsbury Park, North London.

Joe Tindall is after a bit of help – do you remember drinking beer from Friary Meux? If so, drop him a line or comment on his post.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

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

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 13 February 2021: demolition & developers

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that caught our attention in the past week, from ambient sound to monstrous Guinness keg fonts.

First up, an important amenity: imissmybar.com is an ambient sound generator that recreates the atmosphere of a pub or bar. You can turn sounds on and off, or adjust the levels, and even add music via a custom Spotify playlist. It was in such demand yesterday when it went viral that the site fell over but it seems to be stable now. Enjoy!


Collage: a 1960s pub.

For Hull Live, Michael Mutch has written a frankly macabre account of the misfortune and violence that has plagued the estate pubs of Hull in recent years. There are subheadings such as ‘Chainsaw threat’ and ‘Lawless pub with mass brawls’. Depending on your point of view, this is either wallowing in the misfortune of others or a rare example of absolute raw honesty:

There are many reasons why these pubs are forced to close but there are none in Hull that raised eyebrows more than Orchard Park’s Arctic Ranger… On the surface it seemed like a traditional community pub set within the heart of the Orchard Park Community. But behind closed doors it was a different story… The pub was closed down in 2013 after a spate of violent attacks in and around the premises, including glassings and mass brawls, with Humberside Police saying it had become almost lawless.


Truman pavement.

From ‘The Gentle Author’ at Spitalfields Life we get yet another story of developers rushing to destroy brewing heritage to prevent its listing holding up their no doubt very important building project:

Last year, Dan Cruickshank made a survey of the historic fabric of the Old Truman Brewery to ensure that these elements would be preserved in any redevelopment of the site, which sits within the Fournier St and Brick Lane Conservation Area. The owners have responded by destroying a large area of old granite paviours and setts in the large yard east of Brick Lane that Dan identified as original, thus avoiding the possibility of any restriction upon their future development plans in this area… The work was undertaken covertly on Thursday 28th and Friday 29th January when the yard was cordoned off by security guards while mechanical diggers removed the surface and the debris was hastily taken away on trucks.


SOURCE: Simonds Family website.

In happier news, The Giant Goram, one of Bristol’s few remaining post-war estate pubs, has been saved as developers’ plans to build houses on the site were rejected. The planning inspector, John Wilde, said:

“To my mind the Giant Goram has to be defined as a community facility… It is the last of the original five pubs in Lawrence Weston, a community that has also lost many of its other facilities. Further housing in the community is due to be developed in the near future… It has not been shown that there is no longer a need to retain the pub and alternative provision has not been made.”


SOURCE: Matt Curtis/Pellicle.

For Pellicle Matt Curtis has produced a long, earnest tribute to St. Mars of the Desert, the Sheffield brewery that evolved out of cult US outfit Pretty Things. If you’re a cynic, you might roll your eyes here and there, but enter in to the spirit of things and it’s a touching piece that also includes some astute commentary on the status of Sheffield as a beer city:

Could the arrival of Dann, Martha and The Brewery of St. Mars of the Desert be the missing piece, cementing the Steel City in people’s minds as one of England’s best beer destinations? More likely, they’ve added another layer of excitement and intrigue to an already buoyant scene. Try as they might, they did not arrive anonymously. The lofty reputation of Pretty Things following them across the Atlantic, with rumours of their new brewery soon appearing online. 


Hops against green.

From Jake Huolihan at Brülosophy comes a recipe for hop-flavoured pop introduced with an interesting nugget:

I love beer, but there are certain occasions where consuming alcoholic beverages just isn’t in the cards and can even be dangerous or illegal. According to Lagunitas, regular consumption of beer on the job was killing productivity as employees became lethargic and probably still hungover from the previous day. To keep brewers happy satiated yet sober while on the job, they began making non-alcoholic carbonated hop flavored water, a concoction that was spearheaded by homebrewer Paul Tecker in the mid-2000s.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

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

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 6 February 2021 | Brixton, Brighton, blandness

Here’s everything about pubs and beer from the past week that told us something we didn’t know, made us pause and think or simply entertained us. It includes pieces on the blanding of beer and the impossibility of ever really, truly tasting stout.

First, a small news story, updating a big one from a couple of years back. In 2017, Heineken acquired a big stake in Brixton Brewery; this week, it took on the remaining 51% and thus full ownership. The interesting detail is in the statement Brixton’s management issued:

There’s no denying the fact that the next few years will be challenging for many reasons, so we’re happy to have the opportunity to secure the future of Brixton Brewery for our team, our families, our community and fans of our beers, who’ve been hugely supportive of our success.

In other words, it’s been prompted by COVID-19 instability. We can probably expect more of those 49/50 ‘partnerships’ to crystallise into full takeovers, can’t we?

Meanwhile, at Ferment the Rich, Oli has thoughts, with the promise of more to come:

Put simply: to Heineken, what Brixton represented was a brand that was literally representative of a specific location, which came with all of the esteemed historical attachments and cultural signifiers of its namesake in both the local and national British psyche. A piece of London that they could buy… The brewery’s claims to its being firmly situated in Brixton as a place is obvious from its branding. Each bottle and can bears ‘LDN SW9’, while the brewery’s logo, which takes inspiration from the local arcades’ art-deco style is emblazoned with the words ‘SOUTH LONDON’. And, while the main brewery is now technically inside neighbouring postcode SE24, the business’ branding aims to retain its authentic Brixton identity through the more recognizable postcode maintained by its commitment to its original location maintained by its SW9 railway arch taproom.


A Hall of Fame in the USA.

At Beervana Jeff Alworth has produced a crowdsourced list of beers that might feature in a ‘hall of fame’. He got enough responses to do some interesting slicing and dicing of the numbers:

A majority of you chose a descendant the most successful extant example of the first international style (porter), and an equal number of the originator of the second international style (pilsner). A lot of you also noted the importance of hops in our current marketplace, and either chose the original pale ale (Bass) or the one most responsible for launching the American style (Sierra Nevada). After that, there’s a pretty big drop-off, but a logic is emerging. You favor classics of a style that have been around a long time and are regularly regarded as exceptional beers.


The bar at the Evening Star.
SOURCE: Grace Helmer/Pellicle.

Phil Mellows has, like most of us, been yearning for pubs and has written a piece about The Evening Star in Brighton for Pellicle, reflecting on its history and place in the rise of British craft beer:

[Many] chose the Evening Star for their first post-lockdown pint of cask. While the pub stayed open, before tiers and lockdowns forced it to close again, it was hard to find a socially-distanced table… “They know it’s guaranteed to be good,” Mark explains. “Drinkers understand the quality here and that’s down to all the work people have done here in the past.”… The Star has maintained that reputation with hardly a flicker over nearly three decades. It brightens a drab little street rumbling with motor traffic parallel to the main road where, on sunny days, the DFLs (Down From London) parade from the station to the sea, oblivious to the pub that hides behind the hoarding advertising Taboo.


Text illustration: LAGER

The Beer Nut has observed a phenomenon that has emerged as breweries learn to trade during pandemic lockdowns – a new focus on lager:

Ahh, The Pivot. With no sign of pubs re-opening any time soon, the breweries who relied on the draught trade have had to small-pack their beers in order to sell them. It’s entirely understandable and much better than the alternative. Today’s post is three lagers, at least two of which, I suspect, owe their existence to The Pivot.


Boddington's advertisement from the 1980s: 'Everybody Loves someboddies sometimes.'

At Shut Up About Barclay Perkins Ron Pattinson has turned his great brain and even greater knowledge of the archives to a question we’ve nibbled at in this past – when and why did Boddington’s Bitter lose its distinctive and much-loved quality?

Boddington really upped their output in the 1970s. In 1973 and 1974 they added new 500 barrel fermenters. As their brew length was 125 barrels, it meant they needed to make four brews to fill these vessels. They did retain the 125 barrel and 260 barrel fermenters they already had. In April 1977 they changed their brewhouse as the brew length increased to 250 barrels. Though they did for a time to continue to brew on the older, smaller plant. The new brew house coincided with the change in the recipe where the wheat and maize were dropped.

In the same series (there are five or six posts and counting) he wonders more generally why British beer got blander in the 1980s, making the excellent point that you could put all of this down to nostalgia and fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-beism if Harvey’s Sussex Best didn’t exist in all its mad glory.


A pint of stout.

For Craft Beer & Brewing Randy Mosher has written about the psychology behind our perceptions of the flavour of stout:

In the case of stouts, the sensory elephant in the glass is color. We’re supremely visual creatures. If we see something meaningful, our brains will try to find a way to support it even if it’s not actually there. This has been studied over and over in many contexts, and it’s inescapable. The wine people have just given up, often judging red wines in black glasses to avoid polluting their evaluations with erroneous visual cues… There is relatively little we can learn from the appearance of a beer. As Michael Lewis, the legendary brewing-science professor of UC Davis, is fond of saying, “Color is not a flavor outcome.” This is doubly true for stouts. Dark color is highly correlated by our experience with roasted and even burnt things and, of course, chocolate and coffee.


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

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