News, nuggets and longreads 4 July 2020: table service, jug and bottle, colonialism

Here’s everything on beer and pubs we spotted and took note of in the past week, from government guidance to the appeal of the universal stout.

At the time of writing, some pubs will have been open for a couple of hours – or at least could have been, legally. Today is the day (some) pubs will be returning (in a limited way) for people to drink in. For reference and interest, here are some of the key bits of guidance and legislation published (worryingly close) to the deadline for re-opening:

The main thrust is, keep it simple; and it all assumes (rightly, in our view) that both pubs and citizens have a strong interest in making this work, so not everything needs to be nailed down in law. And existing laws around licensing and data protection provide options for sanctions anyway.

An Elizabethan inn.
SOURCE: The Conversation/English Broadside Ballad Archive.

The academics have been busy during lockdown. At The ConversationJames Brown from the University of Sheffield has written about the historic tradition of table service in English pubs:

Standing at the bar is one of the most cherished rituals of the British pub experience – and many people are worried that the new rules could be the beginning of the end of a tradition that dates back centuries. Except, it doesn’t – the bar as we now know it is of relatively recent vintage and, in many respects, the new regulations are returning us to the practices of a much earlier era…The bar as we know it [emerged] from the introduction of a new commodity in the 18th century: gin.

Stained glass in a pub: Jug & Bottle.

On a similar note, at the blog of the Drinking Studies Network Magnus Copps writes about how the provision of takeaway beer by pubs under lockdown is a revival of the old jug-and-bottle model:

To most of us living through the Coronavirus crisis the socially distanced retail experience has become ubiquitous. We have developed new social rules to manage the shuffle-dance of maintaining distance on the pavement or in the supermarket aisle, and such things are also played out in pubs making off-licence sales. Either limited numbers of customers are allowed in at any one time, or drinks are sold from the door directly onto the forecourt or the street. Two metre (and soon-to-be 1m) queuing guidelines are taped onto pub forecourts. Furniture (unused whilst internal and external drinking spaces remain closed) is used to partition off sections of space and offer a much diversified range of products for sale.

Detail from a vintage India Pale Ale beer label.

Sam Goodman specialises in writing about the history of food and drink in the context of the British Empire. This article on ‘Spaces of intemperance in the British Raj 1860-1920’ was published in April but was locked behind a paywall but is now freely available for all to read. It is about, not to put too fine a point on it, where people got pissed in colonial India:

As with the voyage out, a significant aspect of barracks life and routine was the administering of the soldier’s ration. Records vary as to how much alcohol was issued in differing presidencies of Madras, Bombay, and Bengal and amounts fluctuate further in relation to availability of supply, type of beverage, and the kind of service engaged in, but it appears that between 1800 and the late 1840s a standard issue of between 1/3rd -2/3rds of a pint of raw spirits per man per day was common, and typically provided at two points in the course of a day under the instructions that it was diluted with ‘two waters’ and consumed immediately. Later records indicate that 1–2 pints of beer was still a common ration until its abolition in 1889, and, in exceptional circumstances, until after the First World War.

1930s style picture of a pint of beer.

Adrian Tierney-Jones has been thinking about stout – not any particular stout but the Universal Stout:

It looks like a gentle sleep, beautiful in its shadowless sleekness, a mirror held to the soul, a soothing, soft and yielding shade that you immediately want to be friends with. If this is a stout, this is a stout, it is a stout, a stout that looks like a masterpiece in the glass. Let us now pass onto to the array of aromatics that emerge from the glass: the luxury of vanilla, the softness of childhood, the remembered laughter of a young child; the caressive nature of chocolate and coffee, the bittersweet memory of a long-lost espresso in a sweet-smelling cafe hidden away beneath the streets of Milan; the heft and weight of roastiness, the bracing bitterness of roasted malt that crackles with the intensity of a bonfire smelt several fields away on a still day.

If you fancy a break from all that reading, why not check out this episode of The Bowery Boys podcast about the Yorkville district of New York, once known as Kleindeutschland. The discussion of George Ehret’s Hell Gate brewery is the highlight, of course.

Finally, from Twitter…

For more good reading, have a look at Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

Beer history pubs

What is the oldest pub in England?

This is an interesting question with all kinds of philosophical implications: is a pub a building, or an entity?

When people ask this, we think they want to know about the oldest historic pub they can go for a drink in – not an old building that was converted to a pub in 1983, or a building that used to be a pub but is now a private home.

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…”

In their book Licensed to Sell, published in 2005 and revised in 2011, pub historians Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter dedicate a chapter to the myth of ‘Ye Olde Englishe Pube’. They dismiss waspishly claims to great antiquity from several of the best-known contenders, which arguments we’ve drawn on below.

It’s a great book – do buy a copy.

Some contenders for oldest pub

(Ye Olde) Fighting Cocks, St Albans | Claim: 8th century | Brandwood et al are very snarky about this one: the building dates from the 17th century, the licence from the early 19th, and the claim to antiquity is a 20th century development.

Eagle & Child, Stow on the Wold | Claim: 10th century | Not recorded as a pub until the 18th century, the building is from c.1500.

Bingley Arms, Bardsey | Claim: 10th century | Brandwood et al confidently state that this is an 18th century building with no evidence to suggest an earlier founding.

(Ye Olde) Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham | Claim: 1189 | The famous cellars may have been used for brewing at around this date but the pub building dates to the late 17th century.

(Ye Olde) Man and Scythe, Bolton | Claim: 1251 | Supposedly mentioned by name in the town’s market charter of 1251, except… it isn’t, according to this 1892 history of Bolton. The present building is mostly from the 17th century.

The George Inn, Norton St Philip | Claim: 14th century | “Believed to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built inn, it was erected in the late 14th century… [and] refronted about 1475-1500.” – Brandwood et al.

So, the oldest pub is…

The George Inn seems to have a pretty convincing case, only strengthened by the fact that it isn’t called Ye Olde George Inn. If it’s good enough for Big Geoff B, it’s good enough for us.

If you know of other contenders, and can point to evidence to support the claim from a source other than a board inside the pub or a souvenir booklet, we’d be interested to hear more – comment below!

Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in June 2020

It felt as if we didn’t get much blogging done in June but, looking back, we managed about as many posts as usual. Which is, of course, partly why we undertake this little stock-taking exercise.

The month began with a bit of philosophical pondering on the important question of which is the best seat in the pub and the degree to which the choice is subjective:

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.

The Comet, Hatfield.

Do you know The Comet in Hatfield? It’s a beautiful Art Deco pub particularly beloved of retro bloggers. Here’s our attempt to tell the story of this gorgeous, significant building.


News, nuggets and longreads 27 June 2020: All eyes on 4 July

Here’s everything on the subject of beer or pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from the re-opening of pubs to taproom culture.

The big news this week was the announcement by the UK Government that pubs will be permitted to re-open from Saturday 4 July, following new guidelines. Reactions to this have been mixed, it’s fair to say.

Some fear it is too much, too soon, and don’t trust the industry or drinkers to behave themselves.

Others think it’s too little, too late, and see the guidelines as fatally restricting and/or pointlessly vague.

Here’s a small selection of the commentary:


Will Hawkes continues his excellent series of of lockdown beer business vignettes with notes on a conversation with Andy Smith of Partizan Brewing and the future of the Bermondsey Beer Mile:

“A lot of Bermondsey is in very close quarters,” he says. “It’s a bit of a cattle market. If you try and extend queues, they’re going to be really long queues, stretching down those roads. And then there are the toilets: that’s a big challenge… For me, it depends on how well it is policed. It is a really challenging decision to be open on that Saturday … Why have they done it on a Saturday? Everyone is going to be so geared up. It’s good for restaurants, where you can get everybody seated properly. But the Bermondsey Beer Mile? It’s a real challenge, but I don’t want to close – it’s not good for the business, and I don’t want to be responsible for creating more carnage elsewhere.”

Illustration: "Odd One Out".

For Good Beer Hunting Stephanie Grant has written about the experience of being the only black person in all-white American brewery taprooms:

I remember the first time I stepped into a brewery about 10 years ago, unsure and precautious as I waded through the sea of White people dressed in white and blue polo shirts and khaki pants. My husband and I made our way through the crowd and ordered with some guidance from the server behind the bar… With my glass in hand, I became more intrigued by the surrounding atmosphere. Everywhere, there were groups of young, White men who looked like the frat guys who roamed the halls of my college. Their postures conveyed how comfortable they were in an environment that was foreign to me. I felt like an outsider, an unwanted guest encroaching on someone’s private space.

Virtual events
SOURCE: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

Though not directly related to beer, there’s lots for beer people to learn from this piece at the AV Club on the recent surge in online events. Its three contributors together argue that for disabled and marginalised people, virtual festivals and conferences aren’t a compromise but something close to ideal:

For some, events like concerts, drag shows, and comedy open mics being moved online… has been a windfall, with more live entertainment than ever before now at their disposal. There are a number of reasons why someone might struggle with attending, say, a concert: The venue may not be ADA-compliant, for example, or they may have trouble standing for hours at a time, or they may simply be located far away from a major city without the funds or free time to travel.

Here’s an interesting new development for Bristol: an off-licence dedicated to stocking and serving booze made by women. There’s a piece on Bristol247 explaining the concept.

And finally, from Twitter…

For more good reading, have  a look at Alan’s selection of links from Thursday.


The pub is somebody else’s house

Part of the fun of going to the pub is giving up control and submitting to the taste of your host.

That’s why, as part of our increasingly elaborate pub-at-home rituals, we’ve taken to listening to Spotify playlists we didn’t put together ourselves.

We love our own playlists – they’re labours of love – but they’re also predictable, reliable… part of being at home.

But other people’s playlists are mad. The absolute state of some of them, honestly.

Why does everyone seem to love Roy Orbison so much? What’s with all the Oasis? How have we never even heard this Bon Jovi song before?

This is exactly what being in the pub is like, where you’re subject to the preferences of the publican, bar manager or bar staff.

Songs you’d never choose yourself, or don’t know, or don’t like all that much, form part of the background texture, along with the lampshades and naff nick-nacks.

This week, though, we worked out an even better trick: as more pubs use Spotify to supply their music, there are more playlists available from real pubs.

Here’s the daytime playlist for The King’s Arms, Borough, for example:

You can find these by searching common pub names or even the name of your local.

When we Tweeted about this, a few publicans and bar managers told us where to find their playlists, too.

But we reckon there’s another step yet: simulating the sheer crowd-sourced chaos of a pub jukebox.

With that in mind, here’s a quid.

A pound coin.
SOURCE: Steve Smith on Unsplash.

You can all choose five songs – comment below!

We’ll put them all on a playlist and, next time we’re pretending to be in the pub, play it on shuffle – raising a glass to you, or maybe rolling our eyes, asking, Christ, who put this on?

Updated 22 June 2020

Thanks for your suggestions, everyone. Here’s the playlist!