The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.

A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

Mild in Manchester

It turns out to be difficult to stumble upon cask mild in Manchester these days — you need a few clues as to where to look.

We have a theory that we’ve been testing for a few years now that there’s a sort of corridor running from the Midlands to Manchester where you can expect any halfway decent pub to have some kind of mild on offer, even if it’s only keg. (Keg mild can be quite decent, but it’s distinctly different.) When we’ve floated this thought before people have pointed out that it might extend down as far as Cambridge and up to Leeds, so something like this:

Mild map of England
Adapted from images at Wikipedia.

We’re not interested in pubs that sometimes have a guest mild, or left-field interpretations of mild. In fact, we’re sceptical of many micro-brewery milds which, through misunderstandings over how the style evolved, are too often really baby stouts. No, what we’re intrigued by is the idea that there are still pockets of the country where you could, if sufficiently perverse, be a Mild Drinker, day in day out, in roughly the same style as your parents or grandparents before you.

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DETAILS: Performance Enhancers

Item: the pills they sell in pub toilets that definitely aren’t Viagra.

The other week in Munich with friends I mentioned how funny I found the various ‘blue pills’ they sell in gents toilets alongside condoms and other useful items such as a novelty penises that expand when you put them in water. The women in the group were astonished by this revelation, as was Boak when I mentioned it to her the other day.

So, because this leads me to believe other people may not know about this either, here’s an example:

Solid Gold vending machine in a pub toilet.This one is unusual in that it doesn’t have ‘blue’ in its name but otherwise the characteristics are typical:

  1. A vague suggestion of potency (extra strong) without any indication of what the active ingredient might be, if any. A quick search online suggests these ones are ‘herbal’ which leads me to conclude that you might as well eat a vegetable stock cube.
  2. Some iconography of ‘adultness’ — in this case, a simple nod to the BBFC’s 18 certificate logo, although it’s often an elaborate illustration of a ghostly blue naked woman.
  3. And a word that hints at what it is supposed to do to your physique without being open to challenge under Trade Descriptions — solid, if you catch my drift, nudge nudge, know what I mean?

Who buys these? The condoms I can understand but non-specific pills that might do… something? Then again, perhaps someone gullible enough to spend their cash on ‘medicine’ in a pub bog is also highly susceptible to the placebo effect.

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.

A Landlady Complains

Illustration: moody London pub.

What a nice pub, I say. Authentic, cosy and characterful, full of little quirks. ‘Ha!’ says the landlady, bitterly. ‘It’s a dump.’

The sloping bar top is hilarious: if you put your glass anywhere but on a drip mat it drifts towards the precipice. A customer makes a dive to save his lager, catching it just in time, and everyone laughs, except the landlady.

‘We lose a few pints that way,’ she says. ‘We’ve asked time and time again for it to be fixed but, no, they don’t care about us — we’re only tenants. If this was a managed house they’d be all over it, but not us.’ She prods the floor behind the bar with her toe, steps with theatrical care over a gap in the floor I can’t see. ‘This is all rotten. They want us to spend our own money on it. Well, you can forget that.’

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Rough Pubs: Snobbery vs. Experience

Stink-eye bar-fly.

I admit that I’m over-cautious when it comes to guessing whether a pub is rough, but that hasn’t come out of nowhere.

For a start, there’s my family. My Dad — and I hope he won’t mind me saying this — was himself a major cause of roughness in pubs when he was a young man. My parents met in a pub in Bridgwater as youngsters but Mum had heard of Dad and his brothers long before that:

Your Uncle Ernie especially had a reputation as a real hard man. Your dad never started anything. They’d look at him and because he had red hair they’d see how far they could push him. And you could push him quite a long way but then…. He’d just snap. He got banned from pubs for fighting.

Dad himself is a bit embarrassed by it all now but…

Basically, we went out to pubs for two reasons: either to score, or for a punch-up. Get a few bevvies, have a punch up. That was part of the evening, part of the entertainment. Young men strut about, I’m the bees knees, don’t mess with me — they have a hard man attitude. Back then, the boys from North Petherton, boys from Woolavington, the Bridgwater boys… They were hard boys. And you didn’t mix until you got the bus into town and saw each other in the pubs, so there were tensions. Fights started either because people got pissed and rowdy, or because there was a feud — long-running feuds, sometimes — and it would just spark. You didn’t go looking for it, exactly, but you didn’t back away, and you were always ready. The landlords usually dealt with it themselves: they’d come out from behind the bar with a mallet, a bat, a stick, or a bloody big Alsatian. Swinging their sticks, get ’em out quick, into the street. Some of them used to employ local hard men as their bouncers, like the Starkey brothers on the door at The Newmarket.

I grew up with stories likes this, and similar tales from my late and much-missed Uncle Norman, Mum’s brother, who was in the Army for years. And my Mum could look after herself, too, come to that.

My parents, being experienced pub-goers and briefly publicans themselves, at a pub that wasn’t rough but wasn’t genteel either, were adept at reading them. And in Bridgwater they knew which ones were no-go at any given time and always made sure I knew, too. The pubs on the estate where I grew up were non-starters as far as they were concerned — too dodgy altogether, much better to walk a bit into town.

Living in New Cross in London in my early twenties I tested the boundaries and worked out that I could have a good time in almost any pub. On balance, though, I rather preferred the ones where I didn’t have to watch what I said, or where I sat, and where I wasn’t being stared at. (And that goes for posh pubs, too, actually — it’s a general rule.)

A friend of mine once said that there are two types of people in life: those after a roller-coaster ride, and those who want peace and quiet. I’m very much the latter and so I’ve simply never shared the glee that some seem to find in ambient aggro.

That does mean, however, that I — and therefore we — have missed out on some decent pubs because, at first pass, my spidey sense registered a false positive for roughness. There’s a fine line between rough and characterful and perhaps I need to re-calibrate my instruments, just a little.

Porter for Breakfast, 1924

Bottle of stout w. glass.

The following passages, for obvious reasons, grabbed my attention in the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, about a young Hamburg man exiled to an Alpine sanatorium before World War I:

So he grew up; in wretched weather, in the teeth of the wind and mist, grew up, so to say, in a yellow mackintosh, and, generally speaking, he throve. A little anaemic he had always been, so Dr. Heidekind said, and had him take a good glass of porter after third breakfast every day, when he came home from school. This, as everyone knows, is a hearty drink — Dr. Heidekind considered it a blood-maker — and certainly Hans Castorp found it most soothing on his spirits and encouraging to a propensity of his, which his Uncle Tienappel called ‘dozing’: namely, sitting staring into space, with his jaw dropped and his thoughts fixed on nothing at all.

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Hot Pubs, Cold Beer?

allsopps_pilsner_1920s

Here’s an explanation for the rise in popularity of cold beer, especially lager, that we’ve not come across before: pubs got hot.

Why did Guinness equate room temperature with 57 to 63 degrees Fahrenheit [13-17ºc] when it was obvious that the room temperature of pubs… could be higher than that?… I requested that Benson’s various resources go into action. We had long held the Blue-Band Margarine account, and that gave us a view on desirable room temperatures. I also asked the Brewers’ Society how many pubs had installed central heating… The answers were revealing. The room temperature of Public Houses had risen by at least 10% over the previous few years while the preferred ambient temperature of everything from Coca-Cola to canned beer in the home had gone down…

That’s from ‘Cool Guinness’, a short article by advertising man Brendan Nolan published in The Guinness Book of Guinness in 1988.

Could it be as simple as he suggests?

It certainly seems more plausible than the idea that people picked up the habit on holiday in Spain or doing National Service in Germany.

Whichever Keg IPA They Have, Please

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

Last Friday in London I went out for a session with one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, and was frankly a bit startled when he ordered a pint of BrewDog Punk IPA.

The thing is, as long as we’ve been going to the pub together (about 20 years) I’ve known him as a Guinness drinker. He’d never touch cask-conditioned beer, AKA ‘real ale’ — his fall-back was always lager.

Now, it turns out he’s ditched Guinness and drinks kegged American-style IPA or, at a push, pale ale. (By the pint, by the way — he’s a big lad, my mate, quite capable of drinking ten pints without seeming much the worse for wear, and he likes that these beers are on the strong side, getting him pissed at about the same rate as a little Hobbit like me drinking bitter.)

It’s only one case, of course, but we reckon it says something about (a) the continuing decline in the status of Guinness as The Alternative Beer Brand; (b) the rise of aromatic hoppy beer as a mainstream product and (c) the increasing availability of kegged PA/IPA in non-specialist pubs.

Whether this is good news probably depends on whether you hate Guinness or BrewDog more.