Here’s the problem: when a pint of beer costs more, and you’ve got less, you don’t have much tolerance for duds.
When a pint of dark mild cost pennies, perhaps you didn’t object to being given slops every now and then.
But if you’ve gone to the pub intending to drink, say, three pints, because that’s what the weekly budget will permit, you want each one to be at least decent. Perfect, really.
At the same time, people running pubs or breweries might hope that they’ll be cut a bit of slack. These are challenging times all round, with energy prices, staff shortages and poor quality blue roll.
Beer businesses are popping out of existence, or getting mothballed, left, right and centre.
Is now the time to be pernickety about beer quality, full measures and service standards?
Well, it’s never the right time to be a dick about these things, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect a £5+ luxury – that’s what a pint has become – to spark joy. Pubs which can continue to provide that will do better business in the coming months.
One option is to reduce the range rather than risk a dip in quality.
“Taking off three or four brands will make the cooler system a bit more energy efficient… I don’t want to restrict the choice, but customers would prefer the pub to still be here in December, January and February having a smaller choice, than have a larger choice and possibly not being here in the new year… I’ve got to do it for the longevity of the pub.”
Some cask ale enthusiasts have been arguing for years that pubs ought to do this. Three great ales are better than five slightly tired ones. And a single cask hand pump, serving decent volumes of one beer, is better than none at all.
If we walk into a pub and it’s got one great beer on cask, we’re certainly happy. A decent pale-n-hoppy, a proper plain stout, Butcombe bitter on form – that sort of thing.
We think we’ve seen this happening in various pubs in Bristol.
One pub, The Swan With Two Necks, had only one cask ale on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago.
It was, as it happens, cask mild. And very good too.
Situated at the foot of Steep Hill, where it meets the top of Lincoln High Street, for me, the Strait is a pub like no other in the UK. It’s not traditional, it’s not a micropub, it’s not a family pub, it’s not a foodie pub, a brewpub, or a sports pub. So what exactly is it? Well… it’s a Strait and Narrow thing… Immediately upon entering, it feels like you’re transported to another country. The long bar dominating the room’s left took me back to San Diego and the Monkey Paw Brewpub (sadly now extinct). The room—riddled with cosy nooks—is dimly lit by chandeliers, spotlights and Tiffany lamps—an odd mix that somehow just works. The background music hits that sweet spot of being loud enough to lose yourself while being comfortably able to hear conversations.
There’s no particular angle or remarkable story here, but sometimes, it’s just good to read someone being enthusiastic about a place you’ve never been.
Martyn Cornell has provided an in-depth review of a new book by Raf Meert about the history of Lambic beer. It’s interesting, and controversial, because it “puts a big bomb underneath all the marketing efforts of of companies such as Boon and Lindemann’s”. Reviewing serious history books is hard work – how do you verify their accuracy, especially when the sources are obscure, and in languages you don’t speak? Martyn treads appropriately carefully but concludes:
If you’re at all interested in the history of lambic and gueuze, and especially if you are ever going to write about the history of lambic and gueuze, this is a book you are going to have to read, because its alternative take on the story of these two fascinating and important beer styles is so radically different compared to the story that HORAL and the big lambic/gueuze makers put out that you are getting only half the picture if you don’t read it.
Martyn’s review prompted a bit of discussion on Twitter about the grumpiness of this kind of history writing and Martyn says: “The tone is sometimes polemical – I thought I was occasionally a little rough on people who get their facts wrong, but Meert has no fear of sticking the clog in hard.” We tend to prefer our history dispassionate, so that’s not a selling point as far as we’re concerned.
You might imagine that along [the 3,000 miles between Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine] you’d find differences in the way people make their beer. That was the initial idea behind this article—to document those differences in the ways that brewers in different regions make their hazy IPAs… Yet, when I set out to investigate this question, speaking with brewers and writers across the country, they kept describing the same kinds of beers. As a control, I polled my readers on social media and my blog about their preferences. I was astounded to find that not only did drinkers from different regions prefer pretty much the same things, but they also agreed with the brewers, too… Americans may be riven by political and cultural divisions, but in this one small area, we seem to speak with a single voice.
The strength of the Good Beer Guide, and what makes it different from, and in many ways better than, competing guides, is that the people picking the entries are so close to the ground… This is also a weakness. A pub can fall out of favour with these individuals for all kinds of reasons that may be obscure to the occasional visitor. And there must be, it seems to me, a growing pressure on the decision-making resulting from the limit imposed on the number of entries allocated to each county or region… While each Camra branch has its own way of doing things, Strawbridge suggested that rota systems are common. Regular entries may take turns dropping out for a year to make room for others – though they can hardly now leave out any of the Big Five on that basis.
In 1923 (or 1918, as some sources claim) the Moortgat brewery released its special strong ‘Victory Ale’ to celebrate the end of the First World War. To do so, one of the Moortgat brothers, Albert, went to Scotland searching for proper yeasts (and had found them either at William McEwan’s or William Younger’s brewery — the sources are again inconclusive). More importantly, he brought not only the yeasts, but the recipe as well: in fact, Victory Ale was a Belgian interpretation of the classical Scottish Ale (which was, in turn, the Scottish interpretation of the classical English barleywine) and had an impressive 8.5% ABV. So impressive that the local shoemaker named Van De Wouwer reportedly called it ‘the real devil’ (‘nen echten Duvel’ in the local dialect) — and the Moortgats unhesitatingly renamed ‘Victory Ale’ into ‘Duvel’.
Welcome to Dark City. Welcome to Gotham. The two serrated spires of the Dom, trademark and waymarker, slide across the horizon as the train circles the drain at Köln-Deutz. From train to tram and over the Rhine where large barges slide by, knickers drying on their rotary lines. Side streets, cornershops, dive bars with flyblown window papers, IKEA-grey cafes with airs and graces. And all the time, green parakeets make their bombing runs between the apartment blocks.
We couldn’t find a comprehensive list of all the Kölsch brewers. Anthony Gladman put together a great summary of the issue in 2020 including a plea for more information. He linked to the same primary source we used for our trip – the Kölner Brauerei Verband (Cologne Brewers Association) – but it falls apart when you test it in the field. It definitely isn’t up to date. For example, Brauerei zur Malzmühle has recently taken over Sünner. There are some breweries brewing what seems like traditional Kölsch, and serving it in a traditional way, that aren’t on the list, such as Pfaffen. Furthermore, there are two breweries listed, Bischoff and Erzquell (Zunft), which seem to be located well outside Cologne. We did see a Zunft van in town and got excited for a moment but we never spotted an outlet that was open or trading.
From outside, it’s a post-war, post-Luftangriff bunker. A breeze block. Grey as an October sky. Inside, it’s 1902, or a simulacrum thereof. There’s a stained glass skylight in convincing Jugendstil, wood panelling by the mile, and hat pegs for all those hats nobody wears these days. Catch a glimpse of the right Köbes – one with a moustache and a paunch, still clinging to the strings of the regulation blue apron – and it could be the past. The 1980s, perhaps, if not quite the turn of the 20th century. A soft black pencil scrapes the edge of the beer mat, scratches the table top, laying it on thick.
They’re struggling to recruit in Germany. Every shop, cafe and beer hall was advertising for staff. Most beer halls were training new waiters. The grizzled veteran Köbes looked awfully young – you can’t make an old one overnight, we suppose – and there seemed to be many more women working as Köbes, too. We spent quite a bit of time wondering what might be going on and concluded that it was probably about 50 different things all at once, including older people deciding, post-COVID, that they don’t want to work until they drop if they can possibly help it. Hardest game in the world, beer hall work.
I’m sorry, this table is actually reserved. I’m training a new colleague, you see, and he didn’t know he was supposed to put the signs out. You can sit here until six thirty. That OK? Are you Dutch? Oh, I could have sworn you were Dutch. I speak pretty good Dutch, but my English is better. Well, it’s a long story. You see, my best mate’s mum was from Oxford, “Nice cup of tea, love?” and all that, and then I worked in an Irish bar for three years. You know what to do when you don’t want any more beer, yeah? Just pop the beer mat on top of the glass. Two more, comin’ right up.
We decided on a rule: you need a minimum of three beers per pub on a Kölsch crawl. The first one will taste weird because it isn’t the same as the last you were drinking. You gulp that one down. Get the city scum out of your throat. The second, as you acclimatise, allows you to pick up distinct aromas and flavours. How is it different? Why is it different? The third allows you to appreciate what’s in front of you in its own right, and decide whether you want to turn this into a real session. Or walk on. Because you’re never far from another.
In the afternoon lull, between lunch and dinner, the Köbes loosens his tie and takes a plate of something hot to the quietest corner of the beer hall. Collapsing into the seat, he looks up at the ceiling and blows out his cheeks in a long sigh. He winces as he rubs his calf. I’ve got my 10,000 steps in already, that’s for sure. He lines the plate up on the table and places his cutlery. Then he crosses himself, casts his eyes to heaven and kisses his thumb. Finally, he falls on the food, twirling his fork like an Italian.
The best time to hit one of the big city centre beer halls is late afternoon on a weekday. You’ll be able to find a decent seat and then enjoy the buzz as it fills up with post-work drinkers. Oddly, the service is slower when it’s quiet because the Köbes can’t get into his rhythm. He has to get the right number of beers for each round rather than just filling his Kranz and patrolling, handing them out to whoever wants them, on repeat. When it’s quiet, you also risk getting a beer that’s more than a few hours old. We think this happened at Päffgen where our first beer seemed noticeably rougher than the fresher ones that followed. When it is really busy, as Gaffel am Dom was on both occasions we tried to visit, you need to remember that you, the customer, are just another piece of the puzzle for the Köbes – a nugget for the machine to process.
…why the fuck would you sit there, this whole area is reserved, that whole area is free, why the fuck would you sit there, yes, I speak a little Spanish, yes, English too, Senf, does the sausage come with Senf, oh, bread, sure, yes, no problem, I’ll make it happen, just two people, that’s a table for four, eating or just drinking, I’ll find you a better table, yes, over there, underneath the big TV, speak to my colleague, that’s his section, yes, noch zwei, don’t you worry, I’ll keep ‘em coming, yes madam, English menu, no problem, yes sir…
We don’t have a favourite koelsch. Every time we go, we find different things to enjoy about the beers from each brewery. On our very first trip, more than a decade ago, we liked Gilden the best. That now seems to be practically extinct. And back then, we found Früh dull – it was just lager, wasn’t it? On a subsequent trip, we declared Peters our favourite. Then the Päffgen brewery tap seduced us. On more recent visits, though, we’ve come to appreciate the simple delicacy of Früh. This time, Pfaffen was the stand out, hitting the sweet spot between characterful and clean. Päffgen, Peters and Malzmühle struck us as the most distinctive. Reissdorf, which didn’t interest us much at all in the past, also won us over: a little lemon, a touch of elderflower. Sion, too, seemed much better than we remembered, hinting at the bitterness of Pils. Has it improved, or have we?
Little bars on back streets and side streets have bartenders, not waiters. They’ll deliver your beer but only because they don’t have far to go. A lonely man sits at one bar rocking on his stool, checking the price before he accepts another Kölsch. He stops at three, counting out the right coins from a featherlight velcro wallet. His jacket is at least thirty years old and he isn’t wearing socks with his faux-crocodile skin shoes. In another bar, bathed in red light and plastered with anti-racist anarchist punk stickers, the barperson is an ageing punk with pink fingernails. They serve glasses of perfect Kölsch to extravagantly individualistic students: one neat, identical beer after another.
This piece took a couple of days to put together and was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Peter Sidwell and Doreen Barber. Do consider signing up.
Every Saturday we roundup the best of the past week’s writing about beer and pubs. This time we’ve got ships, sours and Scottie Road.
The issue of the week for CAMRA is plastic beer glasses. Specifically, it has called for the Government to let publicans decide whether to serve beer in plastic glasses rather than allowing local licensing authorities to make it compulsory. This sounds like a good idea to us. Quite apart from the environmental issues around single-use plastic, there are few things as disappointing as finding a lovely beer, and a lovely beer garden, and then being forced to sip out of a cheap-feeling beaker.
At Good Beer HuntingBrian Alberts has done what he does best: found a story from the history of American brewing we haven’t heard before, and told it well. This time it’s about an American brewer struggling during prohibition discovering that his own government, through one of its agencies, was selling beer brewed in Europe:
[The] Shipping Board… appealed unsuccessfully to U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty for permission to sell liquor in international waters. If U.S. jurisdiction ended three miles from the coast (today the boundary is 12 miles), they argued, surely Prohibition should too. The Justice Department disagreed, ruling that American laws applied to American ships wherever they sailed. Congress, dominated by prohibitionists, refused any legislative recourse. Foreign ships, meanwhile, operated without alcohol restrictions… This was very bad for business… American travelers, it turned out, were not so patriotic as to choose a dry American ship when they could drink freely aboard a British ship instead.
For Ferment, the promo mag of a beer subscription service, Matt Curtis has written about the increasing use of the German term Helles to describe all sorts of British lagers. Is it a problem that they don’t stick to a particular style? And why are they using it?
In serious beer terms, Pilsner refers to a specific style of pale lager that emerged from the city of Pilšen, in the Czech Republic. It is generally characterised as being bold in flavour, with a robust backbone of malt balanced by a sharp bitterness, giving it both palate-priming and thirst quenching qualities. Around the 1990’s, “Pilsner,” often shortened to “Pils,” became a pervasive term in the marketing of British lager. This was not done to specifically reference the original style, but because it sounded cool. It felt sophisticated to be among friends, enjoying an ice-cold pils. And if you ordered a “pilsner” you knew damn well you were going to be served a cold lager… Why does this matter? Because I believe lager is once again shifting its identity to maintain its dominance in the UK.
Rhodes likens the distinction between drinking traditional mixed-fermentation sours and fruited sours to “going from listening to classical music to pop.” Sonia B. echoes this sentiment, describing fruited sours as “fun and easygoing … a more everyday, every-person drink.”… With hundreds of U.S. breweries now producing the style in volume, it’s only a matter of time before most drinkers encounter their first fruited sour. Yes, these really are beers, and yes, they are here to stay. Drekker’s Bjornstad quotes Arthur O’Shaughnessy and Willy Wonka; “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Beer, he believes, “is whatever we can dream it to be.”
This is a point we’ve made in the past: cynics think of these beers as way out there when, actually, they’re extremely accessible to people who find the beeriness of beer off putting. We don’t mind them existing. You don’t have to drink them.
Previously surrounded by rows upon rows of tenements, ice cream parlours, tailors, grocers, pubs and cinemas and a stone’s throw from the childhood home of one of the city’s most famous daughters, Cilla Black, the Throstles Nest is now a lone outpost from a bygone era… On the night Liverpool faced Rangers in the Champions League, the sort of football match that would have previously seen thronging fans pack into the pub, just three people were in its saloon bar… Landlord Kevin McMullen, who has owned the pub for 40 years, has vivid memories of its heyday… “You wouldn’t be able to see the door for people,” the 78-year-old said… Referencing the bustling Barcelona street of bars, he said the road had been like “a poor man’s Las Ramblas”.
The few tiny pieces of bread he found upstairs are soon eaten and his ever-present thirst rises – his need for drink urgent and greedy. He goes to the part of the cellar where the barrels labelled ‘XX Stout’ are kept and removes an old piece of twine from around his neck, on which is tied his most important possession. It is a long narrow tool, pointed and with curved threads at one end, and a handle on the other – a gimlet. He pushes the tool into the hard timber of the barrel and twists it from side to side before turning it clockwise and letting the threads find purchase as the tool drags itself into the oak until it pushes through the stave and spins freely. He removes the tool and quickly puts his mouth to the spurt of black frothy liquid that erupts from the hole…
While in Cologne we woke up one morning and decided to go to Düsseldorf for the day. It was one of the best decisions of the holiday.
We have been to Düsseldorf before, in January 2008, and we wrote five posts about the experience, concluding that…
“the alt itself would not be the key draw… It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.”
If we’re honest, we were probably of the view that we’d ‘done’ Düsseldorf, but that just goes to show how daft you can be.
For a start, there are a bunch of new Altbiers to try, and some of them definitely add something to the mix.
The Alter Bahnhof is a lovely brewpub and garden in the upmarket suburb of Oberkassel, over the river. The Gulasch Alt is coppery, earthy and bitter, with a hint of piney hops. There was a pungent hop-tea flavour at the end which added interest without making it seem gimmicky or anything other than a traditional Altbier. We stayed for a couple here.
Also on that side of the river was Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, which is part of a bigger chain. We visited the Hamburg branch many years ago. Their Alt was almost like some of the Rotbier we’d been drinking in and around Nuremberg. It was also rather murky and earthy. Fine, but… Actually, maybe not even fine. Bearable. Certainly not worth going out of your way for unless you’re an obsessive ticker.
Then it was back into town to check in with Uerige, our favourite from last time, to calibrate our tasting notes against an acknowledged classic. It’s as bitter as we remember, but there are also subtle hints of plum, or maybe blackberry. It reminded us on this occasion more of a British winter warmer than a trad bitter. Great stuff, multi-layered, and hard not to just keep drinking.
Brauerei Kürzer was also new to us. It had a lovely smell of brewing when we came in but was otherwise a little cold, both literally and in terms of atmosphere. Their Alt had smoky notes which was an interesting twist on the style… though we weren’t certain it was deliberate.
Finally, we revisited Schumacher on the way back to the station. This Alt has a strong barley sugar flavour – not sweet, as such, but leaning into the caramel and malt. And the Oststraße tap is also a great pub, regardless of the beer. It has brown wood, murky stained glass, and a fascinating mix of customers.
Overall, there is clearly more to Altbier than our IPA-addled palates were able to detect more than a decade ago. We got back on the train determined not to leave it 14 years until the next visit.