Categories
beer in fiction / tv

Amazon’s Beer Masters: overall, good, with some off flavours

One of the things we did during our recent period of Covid isolation was to work our way through the Amazon reality show Beer Masters. It wasn’t a difficult task – there are only five episodes.

Ed Wray’s neat review has prompted us to add a few thoughts.

First, kudos to the producers, Electric Robin, for coming up with a way to make the Bake Off format work for a product which is slow to manufacture.

Our tongue-in-cheek post about TV formats from more than eight years ago was really intended to make the point that we couldn’t see how this could be done.

But, in the end, they found quite a clever mechanism: by keeping all the contestants in until the end, it simultaneously solves the issue of maturing time, while making for a gentler and what feels like a fairer format than the weekly elimination model that we’re all so used to.

This could lend itself to other crafts, too – The Great British Knit Off?

We also really liked that the final challenge required the contestants to make the same beer twice, testing their ability to deliver consistency.

The international cast was also a selling point, despite some occasionally awkward attempts to make the contestants banter in English.

It almost felt like a travel show at times with sequences at homes in France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as filming in breweries in Belgium and Holland. In these sequences, the visuals switched to the slick Netflix documentary style, all drone shots and depth of field.

A typical location shot from Beer Masters. SOURCE: Amazon Prime Video.

Jaega Wise made an excellent presenter, not mincing her words when the beer wasn’t up to standard, but always feeling kind and constructive.

Her co-host, James Blunt, filled a thankless role adequately, making the odd joke and asking daft questions on behalf of the layman viewer.

Some commentators have argued that the format removed all tension from the show, and indeed, it did feel at times as if drama was being contrived around, for example, a stuck sparge, or a slightly leaky tap.

Each episode also includes an on-the-day challenge, too. None of these were as interesting as the brewing but did provide a race-against-time quality and allowed the contestants to gather round and look nervous while being judged.

We wondered several times who this was pitched at. As (very) occasional homebrewers, we didn’t feel patronised, or out of our depth. The obvious wasn’t stated too often and there were some interesting insights into other people’s home brewing setups. And there were some extremely relatable moments, such as when one team lost their hop filter in the boiler.

Perhaps, however, they could have spent less time on the somewhat laboured descriptions of what makes an Abbey beer, or a pilsner, and told us a bit more about the contestants’ kits. We could see some interesting gadgets and arrangements that were never really discussed.

If the aim is to spark a home-brewing revolution, as was suggested at a couple of points, then this probably won’t do it.

Of course, you could say that who it was pitched at was the general beer consumer, in a clever piece of stealth advertising by AB-InBev.

All of the commercial beers featured are AB-InBev products, with carefully managed stories designed to highlight their ‘authenticity’ (Camden Hells, Tripel Karmeliet) and/or consistency (Stella Artois).

Some of this was interesting in itself, and it’s hard not to be impressed by professional brewers being professionals. In fact, we thought the explanation of how global quality control was enforced from the Stella Artois mothership was one of the most interesting nuggets in the whole show.

But, ultimately, the presentation of the stories of these beers was downright misleading at times.

We understand why the producers would work with AB-InBev: instant access to a whole raft of brewers and breweries without having to juggle multiple commercial partners. But it was a bit weird that the parent company wasn’t, as far as we noticed, mentioned even once.

Overall, the fact that we’re still talking about it suggests it’s got something about it. Concerns about transparency aside, we hope there’ll be a second series, with some tweaks to the format.

Beer Masters is available free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the UK.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv london pubs

Lose Bunny Lake, find a pub

The 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing was set in London and, of course, features a scene set in a pub – The Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale.

Bunny Lake was a flop on its original release, and an obscurity for decades. Now, like many lesser-known films of the period, it’s been beautifully restored and released on Blu-ray.

That gives us an opportunity not only to see the pub as it looked almost 60 years ago but also to freeze the frame, zoom and enhance, to see what details we can pick up.

First, a disclaimer: this is a real pub, not a studio set – there are enough clues to be sure of that. But, of course, it is filled with studio extras, not real drinkers, or so we assume.

That means some of what we see is sort of real, and some sort of isn’t – although the film is intended to feel real rather than presenting that romantic fantasy version of London so often seen in American productions.

In fact, Laurence Olivier, as Superintendent Newhouse, makes that point very well, in dialogue written by novelists Penelope Mortimer and John Mortimer:

“Ever been in a pub before? Here it is, the heart of Merrie Olde England. Complete with dirty glasses, watery beer, draughts under the doors, and a 23-inch television.”

Oh, yes – the television. A novelty in pubs in the 1950s, by 1965, it’s a fixture – almost the centrepiece, in fact, front and centre above the bar. It shows the news first, then a performance by The Zombies. Middle-aged and elderly drinkers seem transfixed by it.

A pub television.

Never mind the TV, you’re probably thinking – what about those bottles beneath it.

In this shot, and others, we’ve got:

  • Babycham
  • Courage Brown Ale
  • Worthington Pale Ale
  • Guinness
  • and some others we don’t recognise, but you might

There’s also some very prominent point-of-sale material for SKOL lager.

Bottled beers

What about draught beer? There’s a very obvious Courage Tavern Keg Bitter font in several shots, a draught Guinness font, and a single lonely cask ale pump-clip advertising Flowers.

Tavern Keg Bitter
Guinness
Flowers

That last one is a bit confusing because Flowers was a Whitbread brand by 1961 and this pub was definitely a Barclays (Courage) pub. Perhaps this is a bit of set dressing by a production designer who – can you believe it? – didn’t especially care about brewery ownership.

There’s also some background detail for students of pub grub to enjoy. Jars of pickles. Boiled eggs. Pies. Miserable sandwiches. And a full but unconvincing steak, seafood and oyster menu.

Pickles
Sandwiches
Full dining menu

What’s also clear is that this was a handsome building. Green and White’s The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs from 1973 says:

A dominant building at the north end of Warrington Crescent… the Warrington is a glowing example of faded splendour, possibly due to the fact that it has never really been taken up by the Maida Vale elite. It has one of the most imposing pub entrances in London, with its own ornate lamp-standards and a coy lady holding a torch in a niche on your right as you go in. Fascinating interior with some art nouveau stained glass, only slightly marred by some more recent murals, a salmon-pink ceiling hung with chandeliers, and a crescent-shaped bar with a brass footrail. Probably the best example of an Edwardian pub in London.

The exterior of the Warrington
Painted sign on the door: LOUNGE
Art Nouveau windows

Apparently, it’s still worth a visit. Next time we’re in London, plagues and regulations permitting, we’ll try to pop in for a sad sandwich and a bottle of brown ale.

Categories
beer in fiction / tv featuredposts

Dreadful welcome: pubs on film

Old Hollywood was a town overrun with homesick British expats, making films that reflected a particular vision of the old country – nostalgic, parodic and often with a Gothic tint. That was reflected in its portrayal of pubs, too, skewing their image for decades to come.

Consider 1943’s Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, one of the better entries in the run of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, which gives us The Rat & Raven.

The film is set in Northumbria, not that you’d know that from the cast of assorted Brits, Antipodeans, Irishmen and Americans, all speaking stage cockney or Transatlantic English.

The pub, which appears 35 minutes in, is located in the country town of Hurlstone – instantly recognisable to students of horror film as the standing ‘European village’ set at Universal Studios, built c.1920 and reused endlessly to stand in for everywhere from the Western Front to Wales to the fictional ‘Visaria’ where Frankenstein’s monster rampaged in his later post-Karloff career.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv pubs quotes

Pubs in novels: The Vodi, John Braine, 1959

John Braine’s 1959 novel The Vodi is set in a fictional northern town where every other conversation takes place over a beer, or in a pub.

Of particular interest is the portrayal of a large, modern pub – a theme you might remember comes up in another social realist novel from the same year, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar.

Braine’s treatment is succinct and direct:

[He] didn’t like the Lord Relton very much. It was a fake-Tudor road-house with a huge car park; even its name was rather phoney, an attempt to identify it with the village of Relton to which, geographically at least, it belonged. But, unlike the Frumenty, unlike even the Ten Dancers or the Blue Lion at Silbridge, the Lord Relton belonged nowhere; it would have been just as much at home in any other place in England. It even smelled liked nowhere; it had a smell he’d never encountered anywhere else, undoubtedly clean, and even antiseptic, but also disturbingly sensual, like the flesh of a woman who takes all the deodorants the advertisements recommend.

Pubs in general are presented as a kind of erotic playground, all flirtatious barmaids and “goers” – frustrated wives, lonely war widows and other women no better than they should be. It’s no wonder, then, that the (angry) young men in the book practically live there, talking endlessly about sexual adventures, ambitions and the relative attractions of the women they know.

A black and white image of a roadhouse type pub.
The Three Tuns at Mirfield, ‘A Famous Yorkshire Roadhouse’. SOURCE: A Second Look at Mirfield.

As for older people, though, Braine also gives notes on the lads’ parents’ drinking habits. Here’s a bit about the protagonist’s family:

[Dick’s] father [preferred] the Liberal Club (one pint of mixed, one large Lamb’s navy rum, every evening at nine-twenty precisely, except Wednesday and Sunday) and his mother rarely touched alcohol at all, much less visited a pub.

(‘Mixed’ is a blend of mild-and-bitter.)

There’s also a surprising amount of drinking at home, given the idea sometimes conveyed in commentary that this is a new and disturbing phenomenon threatening pubs.

Dick and his father share bottles of Family Ale after they’ve done the weekly accounts for the shop, and Mr Coverack, Dick’s best friend Tom’s Dad, is an expert pourer of bottled Tetley’s Bitter:

He opened another bottle of beer and filled his glass with his usual competence; none frothed over and there was exactly the right amount of head on it to make it immediately drinkable. Tom had once commented to Dick with some bitterness on this trait of his father’s. “My Old Man,” he said, “can do any little thing you can mention, from mending a switch to pouring a glass of beer, like a professional. It’s the big things, the important things, he messes up.”

There is even a brief description of a specific beer – quite unusual in fiction generally. It’s in a passage set in a pub which is filling up with the evening crowd, developing a warm atmosphere and buzz:

The sun was setting now; the faces at the far side of the room glimmered palely, the faces nearest the fire were dramatically lit in red and black, the bitter in the tankard of the old man at the table next to Dick’s was changed from straw-yellow to near-amber sown with glittering specks of gold; when the girl, bringing in Tom’s round, switched on the light there was an element of annoyance in the glances directed for a split-second towards her; the transition from an atmosphere as cosy as a Victorian ballad had been too abrupt and the room seemed, during that transition, drab and mean.

Straw-yellow is interesting with the history of northern beer in mind but this passage is also a reminder of the importance of light in both the mood of a pub and the appearance of any given beer.

We won’t go through every pint, bottle and saloon bar in the book, but take our word for it, there are plenty – further evidence that acknowledging the pubs existence of pubs was a key factor in giving post-war British fiction its sense of startling realism.

For more on inter-war pubs, roadhouses and the post-war response to them, check out our book 20th Century Pub.

Categories
beer in fiction / tv Blogging and writing Generalisations about beer culture

Reasons to be Cheerful

We don’t generally cast ourselves as cheerleaders but today, with the sun shining, we wanted to take a minute to ac-cen-tu-ate the positives.

1. There are loads of great pubs and bars still to discover. We’re 143 pubs into our #EveryPubInBristol mission and still finding gems like The Beaufort

2. And new ones are opening or re-opening all the time in unexpected places, such as The Pursuit of Hoppiness in Exeter, or the Barrel at Bude.

3. Even with our Every Pub mission, and having been in various small towns, suburbs and villages, we haven’t had a really rank pint in months. We can’t recall the last time we felt the need to complain and ask for a replacement.

4. There’s more choice of beer and beer styles than most of us have the time to do anything about, even outside the hippest centres of craft beer culture. For example, Marks & Spencer announced a new beer range this week which includes a Saison from St Austell, and our local CO-OP has a choice of canned session IPAs, all perfectly decent. The average small-town Wetherspoon can usually do you a double IPA, a choice of standard IPAs, a choice of wheat beers, one or two Trappist beers, and that’s without even looking at the taps.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

5. It’s nearly beer garden season! The evenings are drawing out, the grass is growing over the muddy patches, and the picnic tables are being sanded down. If we don’t get to sit in the sun drinking pints of lager in the next fortnight, something will have gone dreadfully wrong.

6. There are people out there just discovering how interesting and exciting beer can be, drifting towards the thrill-ride of becoming a Five. Someone out there will drink their first Westmalle Tripel today! (Further reading: ‘Dare I Say Wine for Wives?’)

7. Adnams, Fuller’s, Harvey’s, St Austell, Timothy Taylor and a ton of other respected family breweries are not only still going strong but (a) continuing to brew classics such as ESB and Landlord and (b) brewing genuinely interesting side project beers, including a flood of porters.

8. There is beer on TV. It seemed impossible a few years ago but now there’s beer most weekends on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, brewer Jaega Wise has joined the crew on ITV’s The Wine Show, and ‘Jolly’ Olly Smith is currently working on series 3 of Ale Trails for the Travel Channel.

9. Every weekend for the past few years we’ve managed to find enough interesting writing about beer and pubs to populate a blog post with links. There’s more good stuff in 2018 than there was in 2014, covering a wider range of topics from different perspectives. Recently, for the first time, there was so much going on we had to resort to bullet points to get it all in.

10. Beer in general continues to be really tasty, and getting tipsy with friends and family is still great fun.

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