The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Found­ed by Tony Brookes in the North East of Eng­land in 1995, the orig­i­nal propo­si­tion of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bot­tled beer, flavoured vod­ka, and so on) would be near city train sta­tions, occu­py­ing rail­way prop­er­ty. In 1998 there were branch­es in New­cas­tle, Hud­der­s­field and at Euston in Lon­don.

In 2009 when region­al giant Cameron’s took over, with back­ing from Carls­berg, there were sev­en pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, most­ly in the Mid­lands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my expe­ri­ence in Birm­ing­ham, the approach is to try to con­vince you you’re step­ping into an indi­vid­u­al­is­tic place with per­son­al­i­ty and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Con­cept. The signs are all ther, though: dis­tressed and mis­matched fur­ni­ture, walls that’ll give you splin­ters, but with all the cru­cial bits kept con­ve­nient­ly wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclec­tic Playlist, of course – breathy indie switch­es to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto – deliv­ered through a state of the art Hos­pi­tal­i­ty Back­ground Music Solu­tion.

And the food looks like stan­dard pub grub dis­guised with a sprin­kling of kim­chi.

Now, all that might sound a lit­tle sour but actu­al­ly I didn’t dis­like the place at all.

There was an inter­est­ing selec­tion of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chat­ty bar­tender who for all his pat­ter knew when to pitch a rec­om­men­da­tion and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turn­around I only had a cou­ple of small ones – Hori­zon by the Shiny Brew­ing Com­pa­ny, which did­n’t touch the sides – hazy, refresh­ing, tart, and bit­ter; and an import­ed Ger­man lager, ABK, which struck me as pret­ty decent, too, in a lit­er­al­ly non­de­script way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb mon­ey on ensur­ing there are plug points at prac­ti­cal­ly every table which in this day and age is a not insignif­i­cant fac­tor in decid­ing where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d gen­er­al­ly choose to go again but actu­al­ly I had to con­cede that it made a good pit-stop while chang­ing trains, being less than five min­utes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a lit­tle fur­ther: if I lived in Birm­ing­ham, I reck­on I’d prob­a­bly end up there quite a bit.

I can imag­ine it appeal­ing to non-beer-geek friends and fam­i­ly with its clean­ness, friend­li­ness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can cer­tain­ly deal with the whiff of the cor­po­rate when there’s a cage of Orval and West­malle to be enjoyed.

The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Final­ly, months lat­er, we got round to vis­it­ing to check out what was in her col­lec­tion. Based on a quick audit the answer is: every­thing.

We’ve agreed to take pos­ses­sion of the whole lot, cat­a­logue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrange­ments to have the impor­tant bits tak­en into appro­pri­ate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the hand­ful of doc­u­ments we brought away with us on Wednes­day night: insid­er info on how Guin­ness gained its once leg­endary com­plex­i­ty at the blend­ing stage.

This comes from a typed doc­u­ment in a plain brown wrap­per writ­ten in 1939 and updat­ed to take account of wartime brew­ing restric­tions. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in appar­ent­ly still in cir­cu­la­tion in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brew­ing Guin­ness’ and the 46 pages that fol­low offer detailed notes on the basics of beer mak­ing (how hops are dried, for exam­ple) as well as specifics about Guin­ness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the sec­tion on ‘Mak­ing Up’:

Beer in stor­age vats [after fer­men­ta­tion] is quite flat and is cloudy and bit­ter and unin­ter­est­ing to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six dif­fer­ent brews forms the basis. These are cho­sen in such pro­por­tions that when mixed with unfer­ment­ed beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to fer­ment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fer­mentable mat­ter of the gyle will give a suit­able ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fer­mentable mat­ter in beer after mak­ing up just as ‘Residue’ is the fer­mentable mat­ter as the beer enters the stor­age vat. It is mea­sured as the dif­fer­ence between the present grav­i­ty of the beer and its per­fect pri­ma­ry.

In addi­tion to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skim­mers with the yeast and is sep­a­rat­ed from the yeast in a fil­ter press. It is intense­ly bit­ter but adds very mate­ri­al­ly to the flavour of the flat, unin­ter­est­ing stor­age vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer stor­age is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the fin­ished beer although it is itself very unpleas­ant.
  3. Draw­ing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade with­out fur­ther treat­ment. It is exact­ly sim­i­lar in com­po­si­tion to made up beer.
  4. Fin­ings: this is a solu­tion of isin­glass in stor­age vat beer. Only minute traces of isin­glass are required but it brings about the very rapid sed­i­men­ta­tion of all the float­ing par­ti­cles which make the beer cloudy.

All the con­stituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Rack­ing Vat’ togeth­er and there allowed to stand for 24–48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explic­it expla­na­tion of the process we’ve seen in writ­ing from a pri­ma­ry source, we think.

Old Haunts #1: The Brunswick, Derby

I was nervous about revisiting Derby’s famous brewpub The Brunswick, so happy are my memories of our last visit almost a decade ago.

My wor­ry, I sup­pose, was that any­thing less than a great expe­ri­ence in 2018 might wipe out the warm glow around the mem­o­ry of 2009.

But I sim­ply could­n’t resist when the oppor­tu­ni­ty arose to acci­den­tal­ly-on-pur­pose arrange my trains to allow for a stopover in Der­by. Too many times in the past few years we’ve sailed through, seen the pub from the train, and day­dreamed about jump­ing off and run­ning across the road.

I just could­n’t watch it sail past again.

So off I came, through the bar­ri­ers, and out on to the road by the sta­tion (which is as love­ly as most roads by sta­tions), from where I com­menced a ter­ri­bly long walk over the short dis­tance to the pub.

What if it has got worse? I won­dered. What if it’s just the same but my tastes have changed so I can no longer appre­ci­ate it? What if I’m sim­ply fussier now than I was then?

Approach­ing the door was odd, like being  yanked back a decade into a pre­vi­ous phase of my life, twen­ty-some­thing and full of beans: the pub looked iden­ti­cal, as if it had been wait­ing with breath held all these years.

Inside, noth­ing seemed to have changed either: slate floors, well-worn wood, the buzz of con­ver­sa­tion in local accents with beau­ti­ful­ly twist­ed vow­els.  A choice of rooms to park your­self in. Above all, the thing that made it great then was still out­stand­ing­ly good now – the wel­come from the staff. I felt like I belonged there, even though I was an obvi­ous stranger with my south­ern accent and enor­mous ruck­sack.

Sat there on my own, I looked up our tast­ing notes from 2009 and, yes, they still apply: “[Not] espe­cial­ly com­plex or clever, but… unbe­liev­ably fresh. When peo­ple say cask ale is alive, this is what they mean… The pale and hop­py White Feath­er (3.6%) was the stand out — it was easy to believe that it hadn’t long stopped fer­ment­ing.”

I’m so glad I revis­it­ed this won­der­ful pub and I cer­tain­ly don’t intend to leave it until 2027 before going again.

The Curse

I’ve been noticing worse hangovers for the last few years and put it down to ageing – I’m looking down the barrel end of 40. Whereas in my twenties I could happily go on a vodka crawl in Krakow and be up for work the next day, whistling and merry, these days, my limit is somewhere between one pint and three.

What struck me as odd, though, is that though Ray’s tol­er­ance is also drop­ping (bet­ter that way than the oth­er…) it’s con­sis­tent: he can drink about five pints in a ses­sion with­out hav­ing to write off the next day. Where­as on some occa­sions, a sin­gle pint is enough to induce an entire day of nau­sea in me.

So I start­ed to do a bit of track­ing on this, and began to notice a pos­si­ble cor­re­la­tion: I appear to have much worse hang­overs when I’m on or approach­ing my peri­od.

My first thought was that I was actu­al­ly less tol­er­ant to alco­hol dur­ing my peri­od and this is very much the folk wis­dom you’ll hear on the sub­ject: dur­ing men­stru­a­tion, the think­ing goes, our blood is (a) thin­ner and (b) there’s less of it. How­ev­er, from read­ing around a bit more, there isn’t clear med­ical evi­dence on this point (it would have a pret­ty neg­li­gi­ble impact on blood/alcohol ratio, par­tic­u­lar­ly if you keep up oth­er flu­ids). How­ev­er, inter­est­ing­ly, there is a poten­tial link between oestro­gen lev­els and pain per­cep­tion, so it could be that the hang­over symp­toms sim­ply feel a lot worse (as if that is any con­so­la­tion). There is also a sug­ges­tion that you might drink more, or more quick­ly, while pre-men­stru­al (slough of despond and all that) – although I can rule out the for­mer as I have been quite care­ful about record­ing amounts drunk, it is pos­si­ble I might be bosh­ing it at a dif­fer­ent rate.

As some­one who likes sys­tems, process­es and clear rules, it’s frus­trat­ing to me that there’s no con­sis­ten­cy to it – some months are bet­ter than oth­ers. So I’ve start­ed to record things in a lot more detail (e.g. look­ing at food intake, speed of alco­hol absorp­tion etc) and I’d be real­ly inter­est­ed to know if oth­ers have observed any trends or dis­cov­ered any mit­i­ga­tion, oth­er than stick­ing to fruit tea for half the month.

Crimes Against Tea

I’m as fussy about tea as I am about beer, but perhaps in a slightly different way.

I start­ed drink­ing tea when I was about 2‑years-old – weak and milky, then, out of a bot­tle. The not so fun side of this is that by the time I reached my teens I was on about ten cups a day and suf­fered with­draw­al symp­toms (migraine, faint­ness) if I missed a dose for some rea­son. Tea is, after all, a pow­er­ful stim­u­lant and vehi­cle for caf­feine, despite all the Great British Bake Off twee­ness that comes with it.

Over the years I’ve got to a health­i­er place with a gen­er­al cut­ting back and the odd decaff place­bo, though I can still be knocked out the next day if I don’t have a cup­pa mid-after­noon. And that’s one rea­son I often end up drink­ing tea in pubs, between or instead of pints.

There are oth­er good rea­sons too, of course: it’s a ter­rif­ic pick-me-up; it gives the palate and the liv­er a break; it’s warm­ing, which can be use­ful on a win­ter pub crawl for icy-fin­gered folk like me; and (per­haps not uni­ver­sal­ly applic­a­ble) it’s entire­ly his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate in an inter-war improved pub. (Espe­cial­ly for a lady­like lady like wot I am.)

So, here are my thoughts on the qual­i­ty and pre­sen­ta­tion of tea, some of which apply to pubs, and some more gen­er­al.

  1. Just as with beer, how it’s treat­ed mat­ters. Fresh­ness and stor­age con­di­tions are the most impor­tant fac­tors: fan­cy teabags stored in a glass jar on a shelf in the sun for six months won’t taste as good as basic ones refreshed fre­quent­ly and kept in an air­tight con­tain­er in the dark.
  2. Let me put in my own milk. You are putting in too much, too ear­ly. Remem­ber, tea for me is a sub­sti­tute for espres­so, not bed­time Hor­licks.
  3. ‎Relat­ed: don’t rush it. Either leave the bag in, or let it brew for four or five min­utes.
  4. Fan­cy leaf tea is fine and can be tran­scen­dent (I remem­ber fond­ly a place in the City of Lon­don whose tea had an almost hop­py flow­er­i­ness) but, real­ly, bags prop­er­ly looked after taste great to me. So don’t put your­self out on my behalf.
  5. Sup­pos­ed­ly arti­sanal tea brands can do one. Many of the teas with the sex­i­est brands, biggest claims and fan­ci­est pack­ag­ing seem to be utter­ly mediocre – all about the upsell.
  6. Organ­ic tea, unlike organ­ic beer, is still a thing and, just as with organ­ic beer, seems to taste worse than the pes­ti­cide-laden vari­ety.
  7. ‎Local tea? Don’t be daft. You can grow tea in the UK but why both­er?
  8. The worst crime of all is tea that has some­how been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with cof­fee. I quite like cof­fee, I love tea, but the ghost of a stale cof­fee in my tea? Blech!

Now, to be fair, in my expe­ri­ence most pubs do a bet­ter cup­pa than the aver­age high street chain cof­fee shop, which might be worth remem­ber­ing next time you’re in a pub and, for what­ev­er, want some­thing oth­er than booze.

And, now I think about it, some of this isn’t that dif­fer­ent to how I am with beer after all: a basic prod­uct in decent con­di­tion trumps a fan­cy one that’s treat­ed and pre­sent­ed like rub­bish.