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 restriction. 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.