News, nuggets and longreads 24 April 2021: Pub/Notpub

Here’s all the beer and pub writing from the past seven days that we liked, bookmarked, Retweeted or otherwise noted – from the return of hospitality to Victorian pubs.

The verdict is in: the first week of being (sort of) open pubs have done a miraculously massive amount of business. For the Guardian Molly Blackall has spoken to publicans about the experience:

At the Flying Horse in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, a “mega marquee” capable of holding 350 people was installed in front of the pub in time for Monday’s reopening… Tom McNeeney, who works for Lancashire Hospitality Company, which owns the pub, said the week had been positive and uplifting – if tiring… About 1,400 people turned up on Monday, alongside a number of staff members who had been furloughed. “Everyone was clocking about 30,000 steps a day,” he said. “We’re burning off our lockdown weight.”

Pub yard.

Counterpoint: Mark Johnson has broken ranks to say, meh, it’s not much fun sitting in beer gardens, is it?

The doors are open. The gabble of chatter can be heard from the street. The sky is an undisturbed blue. The anticipation has been building for hours as the seats are taken, the orders received and the first glass is placed on the table. The moment is finally here… At least, that is the romanticised version of events that had played in my head for the months leading to this time… Yet as the sun moved across the sky and the pints of beer I wouldn’t normally choose were ordered, the novelty began to wear thin quickly… I have become institutionalised. The way my working days are structured. The walks that I take at the weekend. The time that I spend at home. They have become my normality but they can only exist in a publess world. Coming out of that is proving more difficult.

Suburban back gardens.

For Ferment, the promo magazine of a beer subscription service, Jo Caird has written about an increase in people building pubs in their sheds as a result of being denied the real thing:

Mark and Daniel originally built their garage pub, an age of piracy-themed boozer named after a 17th-century warship, so as to be able to indulge Mark’s father’s pub-going habit as he became less mobile. Before the pandemic hit, Mark would drive over and pick 87-year-old George up every Saturday evening. They’d make a night of it at The Royal Sovereign, often inviting other friends over too, before entrusting the friendly cabbies from the local taxi rank to see him safely home… Mark is missing the sociable side of those evenings but the pub certainly isn’t sitting empty. “You go in there if you’ve got any quiet work to do, it’s a lovely calming situation,” he says. 

Tatty pub tables.

At Brewing in a Bedsitter Dave S has been inspired by a piece about pie shops in food newsletter Vittles to reflect on ‘capitalist realism’:

The basic British boozer – dingy, tatty, wet-led, mostly uninterested in drinks that aren’t beer, almost completely uninterested in in drinks that aren’t alcoholic – seems like more of the same thing: a business from the mid twentieth century soldiering on in the twenty first, simultaneously treasured and threatened because of its refusal to evolve… I think this points to something more complicated in our affection for these places than the simple nostalgia that the Vittles piece talks about. It goes hand in hand with the lionising of the sort of dictatorial landlord who bars punters for looking at a chair the wrong way and of a general “like it or lump it” attitude to giving the customer what they want: “please do not ask for draught lager as a punch in the gob often offends”. I think that part of what appeals to us about these places is the refusal bow to the customer-is-always-right adapt-or-die logic of modern capitalism.

Dave Line

We’ve written about home-brewing pioneer Dave Line on several occasions, including a chunk of our book Brew Britannia. Now, at Fuggled, Al Reece has decided to revisit Line’s 1970s brewing manuals and see how the recipes hold up:

Dave Line’s Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy was a well thumbed tome during my dad’s homebrewing years, and I remember dipping in and out of it as a teenager. There was something intriguing about all these foreign beer recipes, their strange sounding names, exotic ingredients, and in some cases recently revolutionised countries. I couldn’t in all honesty tell you what I found interesting about the book, but when I started brewing my own beer back in 2009, I knew I wanted to hunt down a copy of my own, dad’s having been lost in any one of a series of moves… I decided that it would be fun to go for a recipe from a much reviled brewery, thus the first beer to get the VelkyAl treatment was Watney Mann Special Mild.

The Melbourne Hotel

The archivists at the London Borough of Sutton have been sharing detailed histories of pubs in the area illustrated with glass plates from a recently digitised collection. This week, they provided notes on The Melbourne Hotel, Wallington:

The most likely scenario for the Melbourne’s construction dates it to 1850 on the initiative of Edmund Batley Beynon. He was a J.P. and rector of St. Leonards in Chelsham. The name chosen derived from Lord Melbourne, who died in 1848. He was a favourite P.M. of Queen Victoria and also known as the cuckolded husband of Lady Caroline Lamb who famously portrayed Lord Byron, with whom she had an affair, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”… More certainly, by 1855 the Melbourne had been built and sub-leased to James a.k.a. Thomas Pellett. The lease included the land with inn, stables, coach-houses and outbuildings. He and his wife Sophia moved there from the Black Horse in Reigate Heath… [In] 1856, Edwin Winder purchased a 300 year lease for the Melbourne. At that time it was described as having “good Coffee and Club and Sitting-rooms, and every convenience for doing a first-class business, together with good stabling, coach-house and everything complete”… Edwin became instrumental in the rise of music hall. The Mogul Tavern, where he lived, was converted into Middlesex Music Hall and he subsequently took over the White Lion on Edgware Road to create the Metropolitan Music Hall.

On a related theme, via Twitter, historian of Victorian Britain Lee Jackson highlights the availability of high-resolution scans of some gorgeous 19th century photographs. There are pubs and brewery advertisements in almost every picture and a whole set of galleried inns.

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

marketing opinion

Startups and the runway to buy-out

Some businesses are founded with the intention of being sold for big money in five, six or seven years’ time. How can you spot them?

This isn’t a post about a specific brewery – though clearly Cloudwater has been on our minds this week. Perhaps our observations don’t apply generally. And maybe they don’t apply in brewing at all. But let’s have them out anyway.

We’ve both ended up with day jobs where we’ve been working with or on behalf of a number of startups recently. They’ve been across a range of businesses including food production, professional services and technology.

What we’ve noticed is that, despite the range of sectors and business models, they all have certain characteristics in common.

Six tell-tale signs

First, they tend to have a c.5-year business plan which acknowledges the business may not make a profit for several years, if ever.

Secondly, they have external funding from private sources – either founders and family, or venture capitalists. Funding from the latter is usually raised in multiple stages with late funding being dependent on hitting certain targets relating to sales, number of customers, market share and so on.

When late-stage startups make surprising decisions, this may well be what’s driving it.

Thirdly, they put sales to the fore. While it’s nice for them to be able to show that eventually the business will be profitable, the sales-growth trajectory is more important.

Consequently (item four) marketing will be conspicuously important to the business early on. There will be highly sophisticated marketing collateral from an early point in the business’s life, such as a cutting-edge website, a full suite of professionally-designed brand assets and a strong social media presence. It’s not unusual for these companies to have permanent marketing staff before they have an in-house finance team, or even their own manufacturing capability. 

Underlying all that there will be (five) a remarkably clear brand position and proposition, often focusing on an exaggerated difference between their product and established competitors. This is the essence of ‘disruption’ – at last someone is going to do this properly, cut through the bullshit and show the complacent dinosaurs what’s what!

This isn’t to say the product isn’t important. You certainly have to believe in it and be able to talk about it with convincing passion for several years. So, six, there will probably be a focus on new product development and heavy investment in it, at least in the early years.

What’s the endgame?

The final goal for this type of startup is usually a buyout of some description, in a set period of time – often five years.

Even if the founders want to stay in the business after that, they need to repay capital to early investors, so there’s always a ticking clock built in.

In the final stretch, you’ll often see a flurry of activity as they seek to maximise the value of the brand and of the company, which is what we were getting at when we last tackled this topic back in 2018:

There might be surprising partnerships with ‘evil’ companies; there may be contracts to supply supermarkets; or plans to have beer produced under contract, with more or less transparency… This kind of thing usually comes with a rush of blurb explaining how, actually, this way is even crafter because it widens access to the product, challenges the status quo, and so on, and so forth… The tying off of loose ends is another thing to watch out for, e.g. the sudden settling of legal disputes… The emergence of a dominant beer in the portfolio might be the biggest red flag of all.

The thing is, these companies will rarely, if ever, admit to their customers that the endgame is to sell it. After all, it’s a bit awkward when your marketing messages are all about what makes you distinct, different and superior.

That, we think, is why buyouts always seem to land as a massive surprise to customers and suppliers.

Contrary to what you might hear, people get just as narky about independence in other sectors as they do in beer. For example, we’ve both observed surprise and fury among boutique software users when products they love are bought out by a much bigger competitor. “I chose Quirple specifically because I liked their different approach and didn’t want to work with X-Corp,” they say, “and now I’m an X-Corp customer whether I like it or not? Quentin has betrayed me!”

It’s also worth saying that many businesses of this type never make it past the early stages. There is a high rate of failure with startups and even industry experts may never have heard of the ones that didn’t work out, or will forget them quickly.

What’s the alternative?

What does a growing business look like if it wasn’t built with that planned five-year-on payday in mind? Well, these businesses can still be successful, and still sell for big money, but their growth will tend to be organic, showing…

  • Lumpy sales growth and production – growing in fits and starts instead of on a smooth curve. 
  • A reluctance to invest in slightly intangible things like marketing because it all hits the bottom line.
  • A tendency to be behind the curve with new technology and production methods – they want to see it works before they invest hard-earned cash reserves.

As we said at the start, this isn’t really a post about breweries. We don’t work with breweries and it’s possible that not a single brewery has ever been founded as a startup with the aim of eventually selling to a larger competitor.

Perhaps every single one of those success stories (“Wow, great work guys, and well deserved!”) is a genuine surprise to the founders.

But it seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?


News, nuggets and longreads 17 April 2021: Beer gardens, Cloudwater, black IPA

Here’s all the beer and pub news, commentary and history that caught our attention in the past week, from beer gardens to beer in Tesco.

This week has been defined by the reopening of pubs in England – or at least of pub gardens. Monday was apparently a good day for the trade, at least in terms of takings. Some have reported seeing crowded venues with little evidence of social distancing which, after a year on high alert, might understandably cause some anxiety amongst people who’ve been living on high alert for more than a year. With our own eyes, we’ve seen outside drinking areas full and lively but looking very much under control. There’s no reason to believe that socialising outdoors is particularly risky – especially when you consider how many people of all age groups now have antibodies compared to three months ago, and the current low community prevalence of cases. We’re certainly enjoying all the lovely photos of pints on social media – tempered with sympathy for those living in places where this feels a way off yet.

Supermarket beers

Manchester brewery Cloudwater made two announcements this week. The first was that they would be supplying a range of standard beers contract-brewed by BrewDog through Tesco supermarkets. This feels like something of a U-turn on previous commitment to independent retailers and cold-chain supply but, more importantly, it signals that Cloudwater is taking an important step on the Beavertown path. It’s not inevitable they’ll reach the same destination, of course, but it’s a series of compromises that will get you there.

Yvan Seth, owner of beer distributor Jolly Good Beer, speaks calmly and eloquently on behalf of the indie trade – “the gross margin on core Cloudwater sales covers the wages of perhaps as much as 2 whole JGB employees.. [and we] are now going to lose sales volume to Tesco”.

The second announcement concerned a Tesco-exclusive four-pack of beers produced in collaboration with minority-owned brewing companies and, again, contract-brewed at BrewDog. The owners of those businesses were understandably excited at this opportunity to get their brand names and ideas in front of mainstream consumers. Lily Waite of The Queer Brewing Project explains:

Why does this matter? Craft beer as a sector has prioritised diversity and inclusion as a topic of discussion for about as long as I’ve been working in beer, though efforts beyond discussion aren’t as common as the industry would like to believe. Craft beer is still overwhelmingly white, male, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender. It is inclusive perhaps in spirit, though not so much in practice, and its audience and consumer base reflects this… By stepping outside of the common routes to market with this collaboration pack, we’re putting beer brewed by people underrepresented in craft beer in front of a different audience—an audience that may feel excluded by craft beer’s homogeneity, or by its insularity. Not only are we putting great beer in front of different communities, we’re also providing visibility and representation on a bigger scale than we’ve ever worked at before.

Stacey Ayeh of Rock Leopard, one of the few black-owned breweries in the UK, has little time for grumbling about independence or Cloudwater’s business practices when, as he sees it, only Cloudwater has actually done anything other than talk about diversity:

Brewdog bar.

Speaking of BrewDog, for Vinepair, Dave Infante has summarised various issues bubbling up around the Scottish brewery with regard to its track record on LGBTQ+ issues:

“I really feel like BrewDog is intentionally deceptive to its employees about this,” Jordan Dalton, another of the Indy ex-employees in question, told me. “We had to go through an orientation that was a lot of hyping up of BrewDog and also James Watt and the other founder specifically … so for me to kind of do some digging and find something so shocking and disgusting to me, it definitely made me want to pursue this further.”

“If I knew about those things, I would have never gone to this company, being a trans woman myself,” added Kyrrha Myers, another fired worker. “I’m sure BrewDog and James Watt didn’t want us to know about that. It’s not a good look for BrewDog, and now it comes back to … I see why people have issues with BrewDog.”

Reserved sign

Now, back to the reopening of pubs: for the Guardian James Greig mourns the loss of spontaneity as booking becomes the norm for everything from a morning swim to an evening cocktail:

I don’t believe the advance bookers really enjoy going to the pub at all. It’s just an activity, a day out, an opportunity to socialise with their loved ones after several months of enforced isolation. For me, on the other hand, it is a way of life. They merely adopted the pub; I was born in it, moulded by it (note: I was not born in a pub). I have nothing against these people, this demographic I’ve just invented, but the point is they are already life’s winners. They already have so much. Can’t they leave the rest of us to our grotty, spontaneous little nights out?

Question marks

Now, yet another heavy question: “What if the craft beer story is wrong?” asks Jeff Alworth at Beervana:

While a myth can give events a structure, it also edits out discordant information. In choosing a myth, we reject other factual arrangements. By selecting a framework of craft beer that echoes the frontier myth, we miss other stories right in front of us. After hearing the story of how Jack McAuliffe “started the revolution” at New Albion dozens of times, I was so struck in hearing about his partner—a woman. In so many ways talking only about Jack follows the contours of that old myth: a man with a singular vision, irascible, irrepressible—maybe even a little unlikable—defies all convention to build the first brewery and change beer forever. Except that the story is really one of two founders, Jack and Suzy Denison. Suzy’s story is not Jack’s. She was the junior partner, yet she was very much a partner. And remarkably, it illustrates how early women were a part of craft brewing. Her part in that story may complicate the narrative, but she makes in far more interesting.

Black IPA

We’re not sure how it happened but our RSS reader decided we didn’t want to read Jonny Garrett’s story for Good Beer Hunting on the origins and history of black IPA. We did but only spotted it via Twitter too late for inclusion in last week’s round-up. So, a bit late, here it is:

Black IPA was arguably the first viral craze of the craft beer revolution. While beers like the American Pale Ale and IPA gained traction over decades, the Black IPA went from regional curiosity to global phenomenon in a relative blip. There were more breweries around the world than there had been for a century, and for a time, the style spread unabated—then fizzled out nearly as quickly… That’s because, despite being common in brewery core ranges from roughly 2008 to 2014, the style had a persistent image problem. How can an India Pale Ale even be black, detractors wanted to know? Don’t roasted malts clash with fruity hops, or add excessive bitterness? And if a heavily hopped Dark Ale is a Black IPA, then what’s a Cascadian Dark Ale—and where does that leave Export India Porters?

Finally, from Twitter, what actually amounts to a bonus article, from satirical literary magazine (is that what you’d call it?) The Fence, on the mediocre pubs of London:

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


The door is open a crack

A dark street, an open door and a carpet of light rolled out in welcome… Come on in, hang your coat, find a spot. Pint?

It’s been an emotional year and it doesn’t take much right now to trigger a lump in the throat. The latest thing to catch us out was an episode of Hazell, a 1970s ITV series about a private detective in London.

In ‘Hazell works for nothing’ our hero, played by Nicholas Ball, is given the job of finding a man on the run in London’s docklands. Summoning his sidekick, his cousin Tel, he sets out the plan: “The London, and The Dickens, The Moorings, The Old House at Home, The Grapes, Chequers, Prospect and The Four Colts.”

The montage that follows is all wet Wapping cobbles and frosted windows as Hazell and Tel fall in and out of one pub after another. What got us specifically was the sight of a pub door from afar; its opening; and the surge of music, light and laughter.

It made us think of approaching The Royal Oak on Tabard Street on a winter’s evening, The Marble Arch in Manchester or The Merchant’s Arms here in Bristol. Lively pubs in quiet neighbourhoods, home fires burning.

In the finale of the TV series Ashes to Ashes light spilling from a pub door onto an otherwise deserted city street is an image of heaven – yeah, go one, just one more pint, for the rest of eternity.

In reality, that open door is a promise. A tease. An invitation.


Craft beer – ‘ripe for parody’?

Every now and then someone decides that “craft beer is ripe for parody” – is it really?

Earlier this week the comedian Alistair Green posted a short video in which he played both the part of Matt, CEO of Punk Squirrel brewery, and Matt, Matt’s business partner and head of marketing.

Mr Green is one of those people who can make merely passable material seem good through the strength of his performance and his commitment to the bit. It’s part Vic & Bob outsider awkwardness, part Victoria Wood observation.

His piece from last year about Adam and Eve discovering the concept of death was particularly brilliant, we thought, somehow conjuring three characters and the Garden of Eden into being with a single talking head and a blank white room.

So when we saw Punk Squirrel pop up on our non-beer Twitter feeds, we watched it, and sure enough, it made us laugh out loud a couple of times. The line “I’m 43!” seemed particularly funny, perhaps because Ray is, indeed, 43 and recognised the look of despair in poor Matt’s eyes.

The punchline also rang true. We know people who weren’t remotely interested in beer until they hit 40, moved to the suburbs and had kids. Now they’re all over Cloudwater and Camden and definitely will order “a two-thirds of that, please” at the local craft beer festival, yeah, yeah, yeah, cool, cool, cool.

We’re also always fascinated to see commentary on beer from outside the ‘beer community’ and the response to this video was interesting, too, with hundreds of people replying with variants on, “Ugh, craft beer wankers… I swear I know these guys.”

So, without overthinking it, we gave it a Retweet from the Boak & Bailey account.

We were then surprised later in the day to find that other people were less amused.

Some were even, it seemed, a bit angry and upset. We won’t embed those Tweets here but they were impassioned: “Fuck that guy” said one.

This made us pause and reflect. For one thing, we think we understand where this pushback is coming from.

We’ve lost count of the number of times some godawful Twitter account called, e.g. ‘The Craft Beer nobhead’ has popped up, managing twelve weak Tweets about checked shirts and IPA before running out of steam.

And Matt Curtis in particular has been the victim of some limp, mean-spirited ‘parody’ over the years for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to us – “He’s just zis guy, you know?”

It also made us think about how this latest two minute swipe fits into a long history of taking the piss.

We could go digging into the far past – Falstaff, Pickwick, all those mid-20th century books which caricature the kinds of people you find in pubs and so on.

But the recent example that’s probably most useful is the ‘Real Ale Twats’ from Viz, whose creator, Davey Jones, told us the full story a few years ago.

What’s interesting there, with The Beer Nut’s comment in mind, is that the RATs debuted in 2001 – about 20 years after the bearded real ale bore stereotype first evolved.

People are often surprised by that, assuming the strip dates from the 1980s, but it does take a while for these things to breach the bubble.

Rewatching Mr Green’s sketch, we find ourselves reaching a few conclusions.

First, this is not an attack on craft beer drinkers or brewers, if you can call it an attack at all. It’s about the privileged founders of a certain type of big money, brand-led operation – specifically Camden, Beavertown and BrewDog. It’s punching up, not punching down.

Secondly, when a professional comedian notices your hobby, it means it has broken into the collective consciousness. That’s potentially pretty exciting.

And, debate aside, it did make us laugh – that’s a fact. Comedy is one of the few areas of creativity whose effectiveness on an individual can be measured with any degree of objectivity. Did they crack a smile? No? Then they probably didn’t find it funny. If they did, however, it worked and was therefore, kind of, in some way, good.

Finally, we don’t, as it happens, think craft beer is particularly “ripe for parody”.

What is there to say about hipsterism that wasn’t covered in Nathan Barley 20 years ago, or more recently by Portlandia?

And most of the people involved in the business of brewing seem to us to be earnest Heriot-Watt types trying to make a living.

Of course if people think there’s an angle, we’ll certainly always be interested to see what they come up with. We just can’t promise to laugh.