Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s in the Draught Lines

Christina Wade has written an accessibly scholarly book about women in beer that offers a refreshingly different lens on the world.

It tells us, with overwhelming heaps of evidence, that women have always been involved in brewing, and still are.

But more than this, it shows us that it’s possible to write a 180-page book almost without citing or talking about men at all.

Women are the centre of the stories told. Academic texts by women are cited in every other paragraph – many of them, more than most of us could digest in a lifetime. And when punditry and insight are required, Wade is able to call on a cast of sharp, experienced experts, all of whom are women. It feels effortless, too, and natural. Who else’s opinion or experience could possibly have more weight or authority?

Despite its clear focus, as a result of when it was researched and written, this is also a vital text about brewing and hospitality during the pandemic. Wade draws parallels between COVID-19 and historic plagues, which also affected the brewing industry, and women’s roles in it.

One particularly eye-opening argument is that the Black Death reduced the population, increased wages, increased demand for better beer, and thus gave men an incentive to muscle into the brewing trade, displacing the women who’d dominated it for centuries. Then, whoosh, we’re back in the 21st century and Wade asks, will COVID-19 have a similar effect? Post-pandemic trading conditions, she suggests, favour larger, better-funded breweries… which happen to be run by men.

One of Wade’s hobby horses, explored in blog posts and articles, is the muddled mythology around brewing and witchcraft. That is, the pervasive story that ‘alewives’ inspired the modern image of the witch. Fun and empowering as these stories might be, and easy as it would no doubt have been to sell a book on the strength of these stories, Wade is as rigorous in debunking them as Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell have been in correcting the popular understanding of the histories of porter and IPA.

Structurally The Devil’s in the Draught Lines resists the simplicity of chronology. Instead, each chapter covers a different angle and whizzes us back and forth through hundreds of years, from the mediaeval world to the 21st century.

There’s also room for stories around race, culture, gender identity, with names and faces unfamiliar to us, like Lizzie and Lucy Stevens of Closet Brewing, and Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela of the Tolozaki Beer Company. In fact, there’s the equivalent of about 25 Pellicle articles hidden throughout the book – and we mean that as a compliment to both parties.

This helps leaven the wholemeal archival research that underpins the book. Any time we start to suspect we’re being fed a chunk of thesis we’re given an interview with a woman working in beer today. These are often cleverly chosen and placed to underline what has changed since the historical examples were recorded – and what has not.

It’s clear Wade put a lot of effort into finding the balance between academic style and plain language – something she’s practised rather brilliantly on her blog for many years. Sources and authorities are named in the text, but not with scary foot- or endnote numbers. Then more detail for each is provided at the back of the book.

If you want to understand the deeper history of brewing in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it’s a readable survey of previous research. And it’s a must-read if you want your world view shaken up a little – something which is good for all of us to do from time to time.

We bought our copy from CAMRA Books for £15.99 delivered with a member discount.

Blogging and writing

The best beer writing of 2023, according to us

There’s been a lot going on in 2023 and it was difficult to whittle this list down to just 15 pieces.

We started with a long list of something like 45 substantial pieces of writing which seemed, to us, to have made a useful contribution to the conversation, or have lasting value.

Collect them all and you’d have one heck of a yearbook.

It’s worth saying that, once again, this could probably have been a list of the best articles from Pellicle.

There’s also only one writer who made our list twice, via pieces for Pellicle, and that’s Rachel Hendry.

It’s consistently commissioning and publishing exactly the kind of stories we want to read. If you want to support good beer writing from a range of voices, do consider supporting it via Patreon.

What didn’t make the cut

Reviewing our weekly ‘news, nuggets and longreads’ posts we found quite a few pieces that were either:

  • long and a bit baggy (AKA “kind to their research”) and in need of an edit
  • short or fragmented – research nuggets, or thinking aloud, rather than complete stories

Of course we enjoy reading those kinds of things throughout the year and, heck, we write enough of both types of posts ourselves.

They can be vital steps along the way to creating finished products such as articles or books… but they’re not neat, meaty and complete like the standout material suggested below.

Nine ways of looking at a pint of Guinness

Ana Kinsela, Vittles, January 2023

“What makes a good pint of Guinness? Ask this question next time you get a round with a group. One of them will say it’s necessary that the lines between keg and tap are clean, which happens naturally when the bar serves a lot of the stuff. Another might add that it needs to be cold, someone else that it should be room temperature at best. One person, the contrarian of the group, will maintain that there is no difference between one pub’s Guinness and the next – it’s all psychosomatic, a trick of the marketing light.”

Gotlandsdricke: Sweden’s Elusive Smoked Ale

Lars Marius Garshol, Craft Beer and Brewing, January 2023

“If you really want to try gotlandsdricke, your best option is the annual championship in gotlandsdricke brewing, usually held one weekend in early October. Finding out exactly when and where it is requires some serious online sleuthing, but it’s definitely possible. Usually, it’s held in some remote country inn as an open party for anyone who shows up. There’s accordion music, dancing, rivers of gotlandsdricke, and dinner… The dinner is an attraction in itself: the local specialty of steamed, smoked sheep’s head, complete with tongue and eyeballs—perfect, I imagine, with some smoky gotlandsdricke.”

Cut To The Feeling – The Anatomy of Smith’s Scampi Fries

Rachel Hendry, Pellicle, January 2023

“I’ve been staring at the block of chartreuse-coloured card hanging on my kitchen wall for weeks… The concertinaed columns of pale lemon plastic hanging neatly from it have looked so peaceful I haven’t had it in me to disturb them. But it is time. I take a deep breath, reach for the packet two across and three down and carefully pluck it from its home… There is a framed illustration on its front, an image I’ve never really paid attention to before. A table is situated by a window, providing me with a picturesque view of a fishing harbour – two creels sit ready and waiting, boats float patiently, and a seagull is mid-flight.”

British Drinking Culture, Meet Cost of Living Crisis

Lauren O’Neill, Vice, January 2023

“The received wisdom is that young people – particularly Gen Z – aren’t drinking as much as their older counterparts, and recent stats from the OECD show that the UK is no longer one of the ten heaviest drinking countries in Europe. But considering that ‘getting absolutely battered’ is all but an unofficial national hobby of millions in the UK, I’ve been curious as to what impact the economic situation has so far had on this time-honoured tradition, particularly in the first year post-lockdown… So a few Saturdays ago, I decided to conduct what I believe is scientifically known as a ‘vibe check’. I hit up high streets in south London’s Clapham… and Soho to ask punters how the cost of living crisis is affecting the way they go boozing, and whether in times of hardship – perhaps especially in times of hardship – there is anything at all that can get in between Brits and their love of drinking.”

Bradley’s: Lager and Shots in No-Man’s Land

John Bull, London in Bits, April 2023

“‘I’m disappointed everyone here isn’t more… you know… Spanish.’ The man in the expensive suit says, with slight confusion, to the towering figure behind the downstairs bar. Jan, the Belgian manager of Bradley’s Spanish Bar gives him a look of faint amusement… Rich, who had been working behind the bar until a few minutes before, is now propping up its end, a glass of cider in his hand… ‘If you’re disappointed here mate,’ he interjects, in his broad Irish accent, ‘then you’re going to be really disappointed when you get to the Unicorn down the road!’”

Hop Merchants and White Doves – Rediscovering Jewish History in the Beer Capital of Bamberg, Germany

Tasha Prados, Good Beer Hunting, May 2023

“In Bamberg, Jewish families came to govern the hop trade in what was then one of the main nodes of the global hop business. Markus Raupach, the Bamberg-based author of Bier: Geschichte und Genuss (or Beer: History and Enjoyment), says that Jewish hop traders in his city benefited from their international contacts, which gave them a highly productive network that transcended language barriers. This allowed them to quickly implement innovations from abroad, he notes, and gave them the means to make up for poor regional harvests with imported hops… Christian Kestel, economic historian at Weyermann Specialty Malting, says that over 100 Jewish firms and families dominated Bamberg’s hop trading business by the end of the 19th century”

Understanding Early Modern Beer: An Interdisciplinary Case-Study

Susan Flavin, Marc Meltonville, Charlie Taverner, Joshua Reid, Stephen Lawrence, Carlos Belloch-Molina and John Morrissey, Cambridge University Press, February 2023

“Beer was a crucial part of diets in sixteenth-century Ireland, as it was in most of northern Europe. It fuelled manual labour and greased the wheels of social life from grand dining rooms down to raucous alehouses in towns and villages. This drink was in many ways comparable to its modern counterpart – it used hops, was lightly bitter, and was produced using similar processes – but it was also distinctive, employing pre-modern varieties of grains, brewed with heavy quantities of oats as well as barley, and reliant on less precise equipment. To understand more deeply beer’s significance as an intoxicating and energy-providing foodstuff, it is vital to move beyond theoretical calculations and rough approximations with present-day equivalents. This can only be achieved by attempting to recreate an early modern beer, following the practices of past brewers, and employing the most accurate ingredients and technology possible.”

God Bless Your Transsexual Heart – The Pub As An Unlikely Sanctuary

Lily Waite, Pellicle, April 2023

“I felt safe here in the Joiners: I struck up a friendship with one barman, an almost-caricature of a London geezer who in the same breath told me how he’d thrown someone off a multi-storey car park whilst telling me if anyone had a problem with my being trans, he’d “sort them out”. My hackles were (are) always up: I’d expected, via my own prejudices as a sheltered middle-class kid from the Cotswolds, hostility from him because of who I was, and indeed, who he was. Instead, I had fierce support from a supposedly violent bloke who regularly offered us disco biscuits by the bagful. He called me Princess; I couldn’t tell if he wanted to fuck me or just found me intriguing. We drank Guinness together.”

Translucent Style: Cut & Etched Glass in Pubs

Dermot Kennedy, Pub Gallery, July 2023

“Cutting, etching and embossing glass was perfected by the Victorians and put to excellent effect in many of the hundreds of pubs they built towards the end of the 19th century. It was considered inappropriate for people to be able to peer through pub windows at the people inside, and in any case the magistrates would not have allowed clear glass. Translucent glass in the lower panes was the ideal solution, as people couldn’t see in and it allowed the creation of the ornate and decorative designs beloved of Victorian pub architects… Almost all Victorian and Edwardian urban pubs had decorative translucent glass and although most of it has been torn out, much still remains. Etched glass was still popular in the 1920s and 1930s, although the intricate art nouveau patterns had given way to simpler geometric designs. Pubs continue to add etched glass windows today, often to replace glass that was removed in the clear glass craze of the 1990s and early 2000s, and sometimes to replace original glass with modern copies.”

Steam beer from Yukon to Nevada and the strange link with Flat Beer

Martyn Cornell, Zythophile, July 2023

“One of the problems in trying to unravel the history of steam beer is that for at least the first 30 years or so after the Gold Rush began in California and entrepreneurs rushed in to supply the hundreds of thousands of miners with their needs and wants, brewers on the Pacific coast generally called what they were brewing ‘lager’, though it was not cold-brewed, since ice was almost impossible to obtain. It was not until ‘real’ lager arrived in the 1880s that a differentiation started to be drawn between the sort of warm-fermented beer made with lager yeast brewed, not just in San Francisco, or California, but up the Pacific coast from Nevada through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to Alaska and Yukon, and even as far away as Quebec, and the cold-fermented lager beer brewed east of the Rockies.”

Eclectic Avenues – How London’s First Black Pub Landlords Changed the City’s Drinking Culture

David Jesudason, Good Beer Hunting, July 2023

“Many of the so-called Windrush Generation fought in the war, and afterwards they arrived in the U.K. to slog away in manual jobs or become nurses in the newly established National Health Service… The conditions they experienced in Britain were often brutal and hostile: Racism was common in the workplace, on the street, and especially in the pub, where the colour bar was widespread. Many had to travel far to find a safe, unsegregated space to drink in… In the area of Southeast London where I live now, none of the pubs would serve non-white customers… Instead, from the 1960s onwards, they traveled west to the Jamaican-owned pubs in and around Brixton. These venues were frequented by British-Caribbean customers, and were run by a series of trailblazing Black landlords. They were busy, raucous places where customers could drink, sing, and play dominoes, free from other pubs’ racist policies.”

The Centre

Will Hawkes, London Beer City, August 2023

“Dockley Road Industrial Estate in Bermondsey has changed since I was last here. Then, pre-Covid, it was a scrappy collection of industrial units occupied by some of London’s best small food producers; now the same space is filled by soaring blocks of black and beige flats, with glass-fronted shop units at ground level housing many of those same producers… Some elements, though, are unaltered. The Kernel Brewery, which inhabits a sizeable chunk of the pre-Victorian railway arches running along the north side of what is now called ‘Dockley Apartments’, is much as it was before, physically at least. That’s satisfyingly appropriate: there’s a feel of permanence about The Kernel that increases as London’s brewing world becomes ever more precarious.”

The Bitterness Problem

Joe Stange, Craft Beer & Brewing, September 2023

“It’s a fascinating evolutionary quirk that we can both taste and enjoy bitterness. It’s long been thought that our ability to detect it was a defense against poison, but the evidence for that is mixed—plenty of bitter things are healthy. Consider the argument put forward by Yvan De Baets, founder-brewer at the Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels and one of the finest bitter-beer brewers in the business. He likes to say that our enjoyment of bitterness sets us apart from our animal selves—it’s a sign of culture and civilization… As people who taste and evaluate a lot of beer, we’re used to thinking about bitterness in a nonlinear way. Besides noticing how much bitterness, we tend to taste and describe different kinds and qualities of bitterness… Oddly, how our taste buds detect bitterness may be much simpler than that.”

Flavour Track – A Culinary Crawl On Belgium’s Coastal Tram

Eoghan Walsh, Belgian Smaak, September 2023

“Beer is everywhere at Het Botteltje. The bar has the booths, brass fittings, and polished brewery-branded mirrors of an old-style pub. The walls are covered in memorabilia from breweries past and present. There’s even a fingerpost near the entrance marked with the distances to famous breweries. It smells like a pub—unemptied slop trays, degreaser, and disinfectant—and those English tourists that came in the 1980s would easily recognise it as a pub… Together with his father Jean-Pierre, James Desimpelaere has grown the beer list for the hotel’s now-extended bar to include somewhere between 280 and 310 entries. It’s a thick folder featuring explanatory texts about different beer styles and a compendium of beer-themed jokes.”

It Works Wonders! – The Legacy of Double Diamond Burton Pale Ale

Rachel Hendry, Pellicle, November 2023

“Peter Probyn was an illustrator and cartoonist whose work was described as “gently humoured”. It was Probyn who created the infamous character of the Double Diamond Little Man, a chicly dressed character adorned with a toothbrush moustache, bow tie, pinstriped trousers and never to be seen without his pocket watch, briefcase and cane. The Little Hat Man – as he came to be known – went on quite the adventure with Double Diamond… From heroically apprehending a bank robber, to winning the heart of a mermaid by fishing a Double Diamond out of the sea during an angling competition, to defying the laws of physics using only an umbrella as a parachute there was simply no scenario in which The Little Hat Man – with the help of Double Diamond, of course – would not succeed. The message was clear; Double Diamond doesn’t just make everything better, it makes you better.”

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: Desi Pubs by David Jesudason

Desi Pubs by David Jesudason provides a new angle on pubs (and British culture) and acts as a practical guide for finding good grub.

It opens with a long essay (or a series of short ones) synthesising, sharpening and developing award-winning articles the author has written for various publications.

If you’ve been following his career for the past few years, you’ll already know many of the arguments and stories from this section.

Tied together, though, they present a unified account of the British-Indian experience, with pubs as a powerful lens through which to view it.

We’ve observed a tendency to talk coyly about ‘demographic change’ as one of the challenges facing pubs. Jesudason challenges this from multiple angles.

First, he asks us to think about what Asian means. It’s a word that covers a whole range of different cultures, religions and nationalities. He explores the meaning of Desi, of British-Indian, of South Asian, of brown and black, providing an informal crash course in the language of race and ethnicity in the UK.

Secondly, he makes one point very clearly: if British-Indians don’t visit pubs, it’s at least in part because they haven’t been made welcome.

From racist ‘banter’ to colour bars, white publicans and drinkers have said, “No, you do not belong here.” (We touched on this ourselves in a 2016 blog post.)

Thirdly, Jesudason introduces us to a whole cast of British-Indian people who love pubs, and enjoy drinking. Not as a stunt. Not as a protest. As part of everyday life, as natural as breathing.

The Desi pub, he argues, is neither new nor contrived. The earliest example he has been able to pin down dates back to 1962 and was opened by Soham Singh, a working class crane driver.

There is also one final, more hopeful challenge: why can’t everyone feel at home in these pubs, and even feel pride in them?

“When I first visited Smethwick in the West Midlands, I was taken aback, not only by how this was an Asian-majority town dealing with a post-industrial world, but how the white population loved their – and ‘their’ is crucial here – desi pubs… They lived lives far removed from gentrified areas, with many friends who were Asian, and even knew a smattering of Punjabi. Instead of running away or complaining about ‘immigration’ these ordinary people embraced change and discovered their lives could be enriched by it.”

We saw something similar first hand when we visited the Island Inn in West Bromwich, where both white and Asian people go to (a) watch football together and (b) eat great, good value food.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s a sense of an author struggling with his own feelings about the topic. Has he quite worked it out in his own head yet?

He is scrupulous about balance, almost as if engaged in an argument with himself.

And, at times, with critics whose comments he is anticipating, such as those who might query why CAMRA Publishing is promoting pubs that serve mostly lager.

That provides credibility in terms of journalism and history, but conflicts with the celebratory tone the book otherwise strives for.

It works for us – this is a book we can trust, exhibiting depth of thought – but don’t read it expecting tweeness or surface-level cheery-beery jollity.

As a guidebook, it’s exciting, adding a new layer to cities we thought we already knew.

It makes you itch to visit Southall, Smethwick or, closer to home, Fishponds, and go somewhere new. Perhaps somewhere you’ve previously ignored because the signals it sent weren’t ones you were primed to read.

Each guide entry tells a story about the origin of the pub – how did it become ‘Desi’, why, and when? (Jesudason is a journalist and is strong on the 5Ws.)

We get stories from the publicans, from the punters, and from Jesudason himself.

And, of course, we get detailed notes on the food. From momos (dumplings) to scarily spicy fries, there’s an endless parade of enticing dishes that you probably haven’t seen on the menu at your more traditional local curry house. (Just don’t get him started on the subject of ‘authenticity’ in British-Indian food.)

Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years.

We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA for £12.99 with a member discount.

Blogging and writing

Our favourite beer writing of 2022: It Lives!

Every Saturday morning we put together a round-up of the best writing about beer and pubs from the previous week. And once a year, we sift through that to find the best posts and articles of the year.

In 2022, Pellicle and Good Beer Hunting (two households, both alike in dignity) continued to dominate.

They provide platforms for heavier bits of beer writing – stuff that might take some time, effort and money to put together – and present it beautifully.

Close behind is Ferment, the widely respected magazine that comes with the monthly box from a widely disliked beer subscription service. In particular, it provides a platform for Matt Curtis, who edits Pellicle, but doesn’t tend to feature his own writing there.

Where does that leave blogs? As in, proper blogs, written by enthusiasts, or semi-professionals, and published on platforms they own.

They’re still about, and they’ve been joined by a new beast: newsletters on Substack, or similar, which perform essentially the same function, but right up in your inbox. Will Hawkes’s excellent London Beer City is one notable example.

We try to feature as much of that stuff as we can, and would love to see more. Let us know if you’ve got a beer blog we don’t know about.

Putting this piece together, we totted up which writers had featured most often in our round-ups.

Forty-three got mentioned in more than one round-up, and these people all ended up in more than five:

Eoghan Walsh15
Jeff Alworth12
Courtney Iseman11
Martyn Cornell10
Liam K8
Pete Brown7
Mark Johnson7
David Jesudason6
Will Hawkes6
Ruvani de Silva6
Gary Gillman6

We’ve got our own preferences and biases, of course, but what these people all have in common is that they:

  • sit their arses down and write, regularly
  • tell us things we don’t already know
  • take us to places we’ve never been
  • show us new perspectives
  • tell compelling stories
  • have their own unique voices

Now, here’s a list of 20 substantial pieces of beer writing from 2022 that, looking back, we especially liked.

There’s also a focus on writers who didn’t feature every week. It’s all too easy for that one fascinating one-off contribution to The Discourse to come, go, and be forgotten.

They’re ordered chronologically, earliest to most recent, and each writer is limited to one entry.

Magic from the Baltic coast | Charlotte Cook | February 2022

“When most people think of Estonia, their minds tend to conjure up images of a post-Soviet wasteland inhabited by concrete tower blocks and spluttering Ladas. That, or they imagine an icy landscape filled with impenetrable pine forest and permafrost. Most people don’t know what language they speak in Estonia, never mind much about its culture and people, and least of all about its burgeoning and unique craft beer scene.”

The Campaign for Real Architecture | Matthew Bliss | February 2022

“CAMRA obviously conducts architectural preservation as part of its mission, since preserving the function of a building necessarily preserves the building itself. Buildings and their functions are awfully hard to separate most of the time. If you change the function, you usually have to change the building… But CAMRA’s architectural project, along with that of the ‘pub’ itself, is a profoundly nostalgist one. It, like the branding of most British beers (you don’t find this with, for instance, East Asian beers), is reliant on notions of the Good Old Days.”

Why bootleg Moe’s Taverns are all over Latin America | Tamlin Magee | March 2022

“For anyone in Latin America, visiting one of these unlicensed bars is a lot cheaper than flying to California or Florida to the official Moe’s Tavern at Universal Studios. ‘For many, our bar is the only chance to live the Simpsons experience, since our customers often don’t have the means to visit the official Moe’s Tavern,’ says Nicolás González Milano. In 2017, he and a group of friends at ‘differing scales of Simpsons fanaticism’ opened a Moe’s Tavern in the Ituzaingó district of Buenos Aires, which has served fans who can’t travel across the globe.”

The pub with no beer (fiction) | Kevin Barry | April 2022

“He took up the cloth and dampened it in the sink and ran it along the bar top. He brought up a quiet shine. The intention of the polishing was to approximate soft labor. Daily the bar top was polished to show its grain and the nicks and scratches of its great age. The pub had been his father’s for the long shift of four decades. His father in turn had taken it from a bachelor uncle. For three generations behind this bar much the same set of thick, knitted eyebrows had insisted on a semblance, at least, of decorum. The sunlight crept by slow inches across the floor. It was the moment, in more usual times, of the primary school’s letting out and he missed the high excited chatter from the yard across the way. Neither loudness nor drunkenness in this barroom had ever been tolerated.”

I want to see mountains again: the banked beers of Teesside, North East England | Reece Hugill | April 2022

“Unique and beautiful things rarely come from boring places… In the industrial glow of lower North East England, along the banks of the River Tees, a tiny handful of pubs still serve beer the way my grandad, and his dad used to drink… Half-full glasses are pulled from the bar-back fridge, topped up feverishly from the hand-pull. Placed in front of me are two ridiculous looking pints of ruby-red cask beer. Foam cartoonishly mounded a full four inches higher than the brim of the glass. Wobbling and bubbling, alpine peaks and whips of pure white.”

Chloé | Katrina Kell | April 2022

“Chloé, the French nude by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, is an Australian cultural icon… [In] 1908, Henry Figsby Young bought Chloé for £800 and hung the famous nude in the saloon bar of Young and Jackson Hotel, opposite Flinders Street Station in Melbourne… Enjoying a drink with Chloé at the hotel has been a good luck ritual for Australian soldiers since the first world war… The ritual of having a drink with Chloé at Young and Jackson Hotel, opposite Melbourne’s busiest railway station, began after Private A. P. Hill, who was killed in action, put a message in a bottle and tossed it overboard…”

‘ Makes Me Want to Shut Down, Cover Up’ | James Green | May 2022

“This article seeks to provide a detailed account of emotional labour adopted by female bartenders when faced with unwanted sexual attention at work. In the field, I implemented an ethnographic research design and maximised opportunities for data collection through the use of interviews with eight participants and participant observations while employed at the same venue. Drawing on previous theoretical thought, the data gathered will outline the learnt, and most common, forms of display rules barstaff demonstrate while engaging with unwanted interactions, and, from the viewpoint of the female barstaff, the expected display rules envisioned by some male customers.”

Why we should all be raising a glass to the 160th birthday of the working men’s club movement – even if they aren’t | Pete Brown | June 2022

“On 14th June 1862, Unitarian Minister Henry Solly convened a meeting which founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. At the time, philanthropists and reformers of all stripes were desperately trying to ‘improve’ the working man – some out of genuine concern for his plight, others because millions of men were about to get the vote for the first time and therefore needed to be ‘civilised,’ so they voted for the ‘right’ people… Solly recognised that if he wanted to attract working-class men after a gruelling, monotonous, ten- or twelve-hour shift, they needed a place where they could relax as well as being lectured to. A club, rather than an austere institute, was his model.”

A History of Brussels Beer in 50 Objects // #48 Support Local Breweries T-shirt | Eoghan Walsh | June 2022

“Brussels’ hospitality industry has a long history of entanglements with public health emergencies. In 1866, 2732 people died in Brussels’ last deadly cholera outbreak (1.5% of the population), with city authorities forced to cancel that autumn’s annual festivities. Their contemporary successors had to deal with COVID-19, arriving with a bang on March 12, 2020. That evening the Belgian government announced the nationwide closure of hospitality businesses, as the country registered its first COVID-19 deaths and case numbers rose exponentially… The reaction of many in the industry was panic.”

Beer Myths on Beer Mats? A Closer Look at the Legendary Marketing of Smithwick’s and Kilkenny Ales | Liam K | June 2022

“Smithwick’s brewery – or the St. Francis Abbey Brewery to give it its proper name – is an establishment that I am mildly obsessed with for a number of reasons… But is there a nagging issue, a grey murkiness that muddies its history, which means that the brewery has lost more than it has gained in the promotion of ‘Brand Smithwicks’ and becoming for the most part a single product within the portfolio of a much larger global company? This is a subject I have written and commented about before, both in a short history on brewing in Kilkenny and in a piece on the dubious history of Irish Red Ale, but I have never explored these legends one by one…”

The Ten Pubs That Made Me Part 1: Fernandes’ Brewery Tap | Mark Johnson | July 2022

“Wakefield operates under the famous One Degree of Separation system when it comes to locals. You cannot have a volatile break-up with a partner in this city as they will always be in your life through others. You either remain friends with your ex or you leave the city for good… That is the crux of Wakefield; it never really wanted you anyway… There is a pub here, however, that makes my top ten list of pubs that aided my beer journey.”

The broon dog that walked so that others could run: celebrating 95 years of Newcastle Brown Ale | Emmie Harrison-West | July 2022

“‘Bottle of Broon, please,’ I said, smiling nervously to the barman, hoping he wouldn’t ask for my (clearly fake) ID. He didn’t seem bothered I was dressed as a cowgirl… I was 17 and on my first night out in my hometown, Newcastle upon Tyne, when I first tried the fabled Newcastle Brown Ale… To locals it’s known as ‘Broon’ or ‘ah bottle ah dog’ (pronounced ‘derg’) – lovingly named after the saying “I’m off to walk the dog,” which naturally meant ‘I’m off to the boozer,’ instead. To everyone else in the UK who felt a fool for attempting to imitate the Geordie dialect (trust me, you can’t) it was a bottle of ‘Newkie’.”

Britain’s most remote mainland pub | Daniel Stables | August 2022

“Our journey began at the end of the road. The longest dead-end road in Britain, in fact. It took two hours of knuckle-whitening jags around hairpin bends and past sheer descents, on a 22-mile taxi ride from the town of Fort William in the western Scottish Highlands, to get to our starting point of Kinloch Hourn… In the company of two friends, Carl and José, I was embarking on a journey to the most remote pub in mainland Britain. Accessible only by sea ferry or by a two-day, 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands from the small settlement of Kinloch Hourn (or an even longer, 28-mile yomp from the hamlet of Glenfinnan), the Old Forge sits in the village of Inverie, on the southern coast of the Knoydart peninsula. ‘Walking in’ to the pub is a rite of passage in the outdoors community, and one we were keen to tick off, thirsty in equal measure for adventure and the extreme satisfaction of a pint well earned.”

Campaigners face uphill battle to save two BS5 pubs from redevelopment | Alex Turner | August 2022

“Walk down Church Road from St George Park and it feels as if this part of Bristol is bucking national trends towards pubs closing. As you leave the park there’s the recently opened Red Church, then the Fire Engine, Dark Horse and George and Dragon… But wander through the sidestreets towards Barton Hill and a different picture emerges. Within 10 minutes you pass the former Three Crowns, Hauliers Arms, Hop Pole, Swan and Russell Arms. All have closed within the last decade or so, with most turned into housing… Now, two of the area’s most recently departed pubs face the same fate. They are St George’s Hall on Church Road, and the Rhubarb Tavern in Barton Hill.”

Go West: resistance, Ricky Reel, and the real Southall | David Jesudason | August 2022

“Southall is so varied, so personal to me, that it is hard to describe it to people who are unfamiliar with it. The best I can say is: Imagine a town that has somehow managed to recreate many aspects of daily life in South Asia – it’s often dubbed “Little India” – but appears distinctly harmonious, with Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian residents all living side by side… Southall is, unsurprisingly, the place to buy South Asian ingredients in London – you can find everything from huge bags of spices to Indian spirits like Old Monk. Large-scale wedding celebrations regularly spill out onto the streets. And it’s also the place to eat a hearty, South Asian meal, whether at traditional restaurants or British-Indian “Desi” pubs, even though it’s overlooked by many Londoners in favour of Brick Lane’s heavily commercialised curry houses.”

The essential guide to IPA | Matt Curtis | August 2022

“To the educated beer connoisseur – very much a minority, even among beer drinkers themselves – the language of IPA comes instinctively. They know their Citra from their Nelson Sauvin. But to the majority of people, labels like NEIPA, DDH, and the other myriad terms associated with one of beer’s most argued-over styles, are ultimately meaningless. You could even go a step further and suggest they’re a form of gatekeeping; if beer is truly for everyone, why go to such great effort to make it so fucking complicated? IPA used to mean ‘strong and hoppy’, now it could mean pretty much anything. Today’s breweries are as comfortable using it to label what is essentially an alcoholic fruit smoothie as they are for a beer that tastes like licking a goat.”

No one gets to tell anyone they’re tasting beer wrong, actually | Courtney Iseman | September 2022

“It seems like every few months someone thinks (incorrectly) that the world desperately needs to hear his (because let’s be honest, it’s probably an older white dude) opinion on some beer descriptor, and will log on to Twitter-dot-com to fire off some embarrassingly overzealous judgement on the word in question. It’s one of the gross but stubborn elements of craft beer culture that seems like it will just carry on until we’re all on our deathbeds wishing we didn’t waste so much goddamned time on arguing about adjectives.”

Dual identity, death, and decolonization | Ruvani de Silva | September 2022

“English IPA should, by all logic, stick in my throat, yet I continue to devour and praise them. I know full well the excessive damage the British East India Company, purveyors of said IPA did to the Subcontinent, how rich they became from plundering our resources and labour, and how that wealth still circulates among the British elite… How can I, armed with full awareness of the damaging nature of its marketing, enjoy a bottle of Bengal Lancer? And yet not only was it one of the first English IPAs I really rated, I still regard it as an excellent example of the style. Can we separate the beer from its history, its heritage? Can I disconnect my love for it from my own history and heritage?”

‘Beer for all, or for none’: The Busch-Lasker controversy of 1922 | Brian Alberts | October 2022

“It was May 1922, and August A. Busch Sr. needed a break. A long one. So he did what America’s wealthiest dynasts do, and treated the word “summer” like a verb… Reaching the coast, Busch boarded the SS George Washington, a passenger liner about half the size of the Titanic. However, as soon as the ship passed into international waters and out of United States jurisdiction, something peculiar happened. The staff threw open cabinets stocked with European beer, liquors, and wines, and opened not one but five bars throughout the ship. It was as if Prohibition never existed at all… As you might imagine, this upset Busch more than a little.”

Gay men drink craft beer, too: on lad culture, stereotypes, and beer’s cultural barriers | Damian Kerlin | November 2022

“My first introduction to beer was through my dad: When I was young, I used to ask for a sip from a freshly opened bottle. I liked it cold – the colder the better. But as I got older, I stopped drinking beer and instead ordered what felt representative of me: vodka and Coke, gin and tonic, wine… I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but now that I’m older, I understand why my drinking preferences changed. It’s not because I stopped liking beer—instead, I wanted to fit in with my peers, those who I drank with and wanted to emulate. I came to see beer as macho, laddy and rough, just like vodka and Coke was chic, sophisticated. Even the glasses in which the two were served seemed to confirm that: one a chunky pint glass, the other a small, light tumbler.”

For more, do check out the backlog of our weekly round-ups. Stan Hieronymus has put together a list of his favourite writing of the year and Alan McLeod has done the same, with additional thoughts on the state and future of beer writing.

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: An uneasy journey into Clubland with Pete Brown

Pete Brown’s latest book is really three-in-one: a history of working men’s clubs, a portrait of clubs as they exist today, and an emotional memoir of a life spent struggling to navigate the English class system.

Like Pete, I’ve got a strong connection to working men’s clubs. Although my parents tended to prefer pubs – better beer, better atmosphere – they were also members of The Railwayman’s Club in Bridgwater, and of The Royal British Legion.

But my maternal grandparents, Lancastrians who moved to Somerset in the 1960s, were club people by nature. Grandpa had a strict three-pint limit and liked the fact that, at the club, it felt OK to nurse a half-pint of mild for an hour or two. Nan liked bingo.

The club I think of when I think of The Club is Highbridge Social Club where my grandparents drank for several years and which for a while my cousin actually managed.

A social club.
Conservative Club, Bath.

In Clubland Pete writes about the difficulty of knowing whether he really likes clubs or is appreciating them through a middle class filter. Is it nostalgia? Or, worse, ironic detachment?

Personally, I think it’s both of those things, but also completely sincere. I remember visiting the former railwayman’s club at Truro for the first time (it’s now just a pub, albeit one in a Portakabin) and feeling deeply, wonderfully at home.

Drinking a brown split, in lieu of mild, sitting on a bench under fluorescent light, I was eight-year-old me again, but also my own father and grandfather and uncles, but also a writer thinking: “There’s content in this.”

Pete Brown navigates this awkward space with the confidence you might expect from a man who has been writing about beer and pubs for 20-odd years and seems to win Beer Writer of the Year most years he’s eligible.

A particularly mean-spirited review of one of his previous books, by Jonathan Meades, of all people, dismissed Pete as a “professional northerner”. Still smarting from that, perhaps, Pete has nonetheless leaned into it: good point, Mr Meades – but what does that actually mean? Let’s not shy away but, rather, dig deeper into it.

How does a man from Barnsley – whose identity is built on being A Man From Barnsley – feel when he walks into working men’s clubs in Newcastle or Sheffield, knowing that he is also now a middle class writer from North London?

In the introduction to the book, he recalls how, as a student, he visited the hometown club with his father and, suddenly, didn’t fit in:

“I’m at college,” I said proudly (‘college’ being the catch-all term for any education after the age of sixteen. You just didn’t say the word ‘university’).

“What’s tha study?”

This was brilliant. A follow-up question! A real conversation with the lads. ‘Management Studies,’ I replied proudly.

An embarrassed silence fell immediately around the table. After a while, one of the other blokes, without lifting his eyes from his pint of John Smith’s, muttered, ‘Tha can’t study management.’

And that was the end of it.

Elsewhere, he runs himself in circles trying to work out if it feels right for him to join his local working men’s club in Stoke Newington. On the one hand, he’s helping it survive. On the other hand, he has a reflexive dislike of “middle class twats” appropriating working class culture.

Of course you might prefer your history with less personality, less emotion, and more footnotes.

The fact is that the facts are all here, in the service of a story about how the British working class has struggled against attempts to dictate how it ought to live, and enjoy itself.

Pete traces the origins of the club movement as an effort by well-to-do, well-meaning people who wanted to provide an alternative to the pub. At first, there was no beer, but the working man won that battle.

They then, after much wrangling, won control of the entire movement. In so doing, they wrestled free of the influence of brewers (real competition, cheap beer) and of moral arbiters – late opening, the development of a unique clubland culture behind members-only doors.

Tales of clubs in the north in the 1960s and 70s have a flavour of the novels of David Peace: an attempt to transplant the glamour of Las Vegas to a landscape of moorland and mines. Did you know Roy Orbison met his second wife while performing at a club in Batley?

A recurring point is that people underestimate the importance of clubs, overlooking their role in the history of everything from music halls to improved pubs, and the extent of their reach.

In 1974, he tells us, there four million people were members of Club & Institute Union (CIU) affiliated clubs.

Interior of the Buffs club, Penzance.
The Buffs Club, Penzance.

In the past we’ve referred to clubs as “shadow pubs”, invisible in many towns and neighbourhoods. Perhaps, as Pete suggests, they’ve flown below the radar in terms of cultural commentary too.

Pete’s accounts of visits to clubs still in operation today are distorted by the strange effects of the pandemic. Soldiering on, though, he talks to treasurers, committee members, bar staff and drinkers, making keen observations on the way.

For example, he is repeatedly told that the secret to the success of clubs is cheap beer. But it’s cheaper again from the supermarket so there must be something else that draws people in. It’s company, he suggests, and live music. (And the relatively cheaper beer doesn’t hurt.)

At the same time, Pete keeps checking himself for rose-tinted-glasses. He reflects on the sexism that blighted men-only working men’s clubs for decades, even as he seeks to understand it as a response to the accumulated trauma of successive world wars. Sheila Capstick, who campaigned to abolish the practice of second-class club membership for women, gets some well-deserved attention in a dedicated chapter.

Pete also forces himself to look long and hard at Bernard Manning who, for many people, epitomises the clubland comedian.

Throughout, the writing is frank, witty and warm. I particularly enjoyed the casual use of northernisms throughout the text – another “fuck you” to Jonathan Meades, but also mimicking the way your accent returns when you spend time with the folks, back home. “As the nature of being working-class shifts, and t’world continues to open up…” he writes at one point. Is it an affectation, or could he just not help himself? Either way, it’s a welcome touch of seasoning to the prose.

He concludes with some advice for clubs which are struggling to survive, including the very basic step of making it easier to join. After more than a century of exclusivity, some have simply not adapted to a world in which they need to attract members, rather than find excuses to turn them away.

Our nearest club is St Anne’s Board Mill Social Club, originally serving workers at a long-demolished cardboard factory. Maybe we’ll join, if they’ll have us.

Clubland: how the working men’s club shaped Britain is published by Harper North, RRP £20, but we got our copy for £15. There’s also an eBook and an audiobook read by Pete Brown himself.