Studying Beer History – Hoarding, Stealing, Learning to Let Go

Various books and magazine from the last 40+ years of CAMRA.

Even if you’re the first to share a nugget from the archives on social media doesn’t mean you discovered it, and almost certainly doesn’t mean you own it. And sharing is good for the soul.

We spent a large chunk of Sunday scanning documents from the Guinness collection we’ve been sorting through so we could share their contents with a scholar working on a book about stout.

For us, there’s a thrill in setting this information free, not least because we know that when it comes to technical brewing history, we’re far from being the best people to interpret sources.

But perhaps if this scholar wasn’t someone we sort of know, and admire, we’d feel differently.

In the course of researching two books, only one person refused to share source material with us. Though it frustrated us in the moment, we do understand: serious historians are too used to having years, even decades of research repackaged, and usually misrepresented, by dilettantes, TV production companies and hacks.

Both academia and publishing are competitive worlds, too, so there are all kinds of reasons people might unearth something juicy and want to stake a claim, at least until after the next paper or book is published.

And the internet in particular swims with parasites, saving and reposting and stealing and reposting until there are no pixels left in anything.

Only this week we saw Liam’s hard work investigating the history of Irish brewing exploited by a copy-and-paster and felt his pain.

We quite often notice things we’ve shared here turning up elsewhere with not so much as a ‘via’ or a link, sometimes with the SOURCE watermarks we painstakingly added snipped off or blurred out.

We might tut a bit but we can’t really complain. After all, even if we spent money and time acquiring the source material, and even more time scanning, tidying up and uploading it, we still don’t own those images or words, or the history they encapsulate.

Interpretation, commentary and narrative – those you, or we, can rightly stake a claim to, but the source material ought to belong to everyone.

Even then, we’ve learned to let a bit of pilfering  go, perhaps with a vague belief in the idea of karma: the research we take is equal to the research we make and all that.

So, if you’re sitting on original documents relating to beer and brewing, such as magazines, business papers, original photographs or brewing logs, we’d urge you to do what you can to share some or all of them.

It might just be a blog post flagging their existence, or something more substantial. Just get it out there.

And if you draw on someone else’s research do try to be generous with links and shout-outs and thank-yous. It doesn’t take a moment or cost much, it helps people trace sources back to the root, and, again, that karma thing applies.

Finally, if you think we might have something in our collection that could help with your research, do drop us a line.

A partial list of what’s in our library
  • What’s Brewing, 1972-1977 (partial); 1979-1997, complete
  • A Monthly Bulletin, 1953-1956, 1960-1972
  • The Red Barrel, Watney Mann, various editions 1950s-1970s
  • The House of Whitbread, various editions 1940s-1960s
  • Guinness Time, various editions 1960s-70s, plus scans of individual articles 1950s-60s
  • numerous odd issues of other brewery in-house magazines 1920s-1970s
  • CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1976 onward

The Penultimate Session, #141: The Future of Beer Blogging

Ugh, blogging about blogging… But, then again, we’ve not indulged for a while, and the news that the Session is expiring seems like a good moment.

The Session started a month before we commenced our (calendar check) 11 year, 7 month beer blogging adventure, and has been a reassuring constant.

There have been times when, slightly lost and disengaged from blogging, the Session pulled us back – part creative writing prompt, part warm hug.

When it nearly died a few years ago we were forlorn, but then everyone seemed to rally and it was saved. Kind of.

Like one of those TV shows that comes back for a weird final season on some streaming platform or other, it never quite felt the same.

As Jay Brooks says in his call to arms for this month’s Session, fewer and fewer people took part, and hosts seemed hard to find.

So, as Jay and Stan sail off to the west in one of those elf boats, here we are for the second to last time, doing our duty: Jay wants to know what we think about the future of beer blogging, and we’re going to tell him.

First, we refuse to be gloomy. Every Saturday morning we find plenty of great posts that we think are worth sharing, and those pieces seems more adventurous, stylish, erudite and varied than much of what was around a decade ago.

More often these days, though, great blogs arrive, blossom, and then wither when their authors abandon them to go professional. Yes, it might feel as if all the magazines are closing but we reckon there are more paying outlets for beer writing in the UK now than a decade ago. That’s good for writers, but bad news if you’ve a preference for driven, ambitious blogging.

In general, we’d say the feeling of global community has diminished, but that’s not a whinge. It’s been replaced (probably for the best) by many active, more locally-focused sub-communities: the pub crawlers, the historians, the tasting note gang, the podcasters, the social issues crew, the jostling pros and semi-pros, the pisstakers, and so on.

That can be mildly disconcerting if you don’t want to pick a tribe, we suppose.

And broader community activity does continue, just not often in the form of laboriously interlinked blog posts. Instead, it centres around social media hashtags, sometimes gently commercially driven: check out #BeerBods, #CraftBeerHour and #LetsBeerPositive for a few examples.

These are light in tone, easy to engage with, and don’t require anybody to set aside an hour under the anglepoise with a jug of coffee and a thesaurus. You can respond from the sofa, in front of the telly with a can of pastry stout, or while you’re at the pub.

So, on balance, we see the future of blogging as being much like its past – sometimes supportive, sometimes bad-tempered, over-emotional, churning like primordial soup as blogs are born in fits of tipsy enthusiasm and die of ennui – but also more fractured, more varied, and less cosy.

And less about blogs.

Everything We Wrote in October 2018: Guinness, Pub Lists, BrewDog

October was another manic month in the real world but the urge to blog was strong throughout and we managed 19 posts here on the blog proper, and 11 on the Patreon feed.

We started the month, as we often seem to do, with a ‘Pub Life’ piece on bar staff being trained in the art of dispensing strong beers: “As long as they’re not rat-arsed, and not acting the arsehole, you can serve them pints. Obviously, if they’re absolutely arseholed, don’t serve them anything.”

In philosophical mood, we reflected on whether another way to arrange the line-up of beers in a pub might be Classic | Standard | New/Local, e.g. Old Peculier, London Pride and Bristol Beer Factory Nova.

How Guinness is made.
1970s leaflet: ‘How Guinness is Made’.

This was a big one: over the course of 2,000 words we digested an internal document from Guinness dating from 1977 when the firm was in agonies over dropping sales and image problems:

“No survey of beer in the seventies would be complete without mention of CAMRA…. CAMRA has undoubtedly been successful as a movement, in that it has become more than a national beer-drinker’s talking point. CAMRA claims credit for the introduction of 18 cask conditioned beers, and the withdrawal of advertising support from kegs tells its own story…”

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in October 2018: Guinness, Pub Lists, BrewDog”

On Lists

Collage: nine pubs.

We contributed to a list that appeared in the Guardian yesterday in a special travel supplement billed as The 50 Best UK Pubs.

As these things always do, it has generated some passionate commentary – why only three pubs in Scotland? Why only one in Birmingham, or the whole of Sussex? Why not my local, or the pub run?

And we haven’t dared look a the comments section online – that’s just what we’ve gleaned from Twitter.

Although we’ve written plenty of lists ourselves…

…this is the first time we’ve been involved in one of these big pieces in a national publication and it’s been interesting to see the workings from the inside, so we thought we’d share a few observations.

Fifty pubs isn’t many

Why only one pub in [LOCATION]? Why only [NUMBER] in [REGION]?

Interesting questions. We took a moment to do the sums on this: it’s because 50 pubs equates to about half a pub for each UK county, or 0.6 pubs for every town/city with a population over 100,000.

That means that inevitably some places are going to get left out, and even those that are listed are going to feel underrepresented to people who know them well.

The list has to be manageable, too. Most pubs are important or special in some way, to someone, but sooner or later you have to get off the fence and give a straight answer: if you’ve only got so much time, don’t go there, go here.

And that’s before you take into account other requirements of a list like this, i.e. the need for geographical spread, and to cater to a range of tastes.

Not ‘the best’

Even if the headline says The Best, and the accompanying social media, and even if that’s what we’re all conditioned to assume a list represents…

Scott Aukerman's chronological list of Star Wars films to which someone replies "WRONG" assuming it is a ranking.

…people who write these things never intend them to be that, because how could they be? Pubs are even more subjective than, say, films, or books.

They can feel different on Wednesday lunchtime than Friday evening. Some are great in tourist season but terrible out, and vice versa. Between a reviewer’s visit and publication they can change beer list, staff, management or ownership.

But The Best is just how headlines and titles work, like it or not – full of superlatives and hyperbole, bold and punchy.

When we’re writing here on the blog, where we are our own editors, we can afford to be more subtle, using “our favourites” and other codes intended to convey that your mileage may vary.

But we’d get more clicks if we said The Best, and probably more again for The Worst. National newspapers, which rely on traffic and clicks, can’t afford to be so snootily high-minded.

Not just about beer

If you think it’s all about beer, most lists like this are going to disappoint you. We think a pub with no exciting beer can still be a great pub. It can certainly have a great view, or a great Sunday roast, or deep history, and so on.

Articles in national newspapers aren’t aimed at hardcore beer geeks.

The usual suspects

There’s a reason the same pubs crop up on these lists time and again: they are pubs that lots of writers genuinely like, and that there’s therefore good reason to suspect lots of other people will also like them.

We’ve been to lots of pubs we kind of liked, and found kind of interesting, but we wouldn’t dream of sending anyone else there without a lot of caveats.

Write your own list

It’s become a bit of a cliche to bat away criticism with a variation on: “This is my list. If you don’t like it, write your own.”

But that is literally a thing anyone can do.

Not enough Birmingham pubs on the list? We’d love to read and bookmark any take on Top Ten Birmingham Pubs.

(But a list of every halfway decent pub in Birmingham is basically useless – you have to be cruel and leave some out or it’s just the Yellow Pages.)

Not enough “unsung pubs”? That’s a great idea for an article – which are the best pubs that never get on to these lists? And what is it about them the prevents them achieving wide acclaim?

Lists are nonsense

We never take lists seriously. They’re fun, a particular angle on the world that you can enjoy for a moment, then ignore.

Or, of course, rail against. That’s the most fun of all.

Everything We Wrote in September 2018: Munich, Memoirs, Market Research

September 2018

September was, as it often is, relatively light on posts because we spent a week of it on holiday, pointedly not writing, or even thinking all that much.

Still, a few of the things we did post were (a) substantial and (b) attracted a bit of interest.

We started the month with a ‘Pub Life’ post, giving a (deliberately vague) paraphrasing of a conversation about an impending refurbishment overheard a few months ago. By way of an update, we have since been back to the pub in question and the refurb was… Not as bad as it could have been. The old regulars were still there, at any rate.

The Gamekeeper, Harlington.

Having acquired a particularly jam-packed issue of Watney’s Red Barrel magazine we decided to scan almost all of it and share the pictures. (@Pubs_Of_Mcr liked some of them especially, and provided additional context.)

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in September 2018: Munich, Memoirs, Market Research”