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.

Blogging and writing

Fifteen years of blogging about beer and pubs

Fifteen years ago today the first post appeared on this blog. It wasn’t anything very exciting in itself – we just wanted to test how it all worked before committing – but was the start of something that has brought us a lot of fun and satisfaction over the years.

When work or real life has been tough, the blog has been somewhere to retreat. You can’t be depressed when you’re totally absorbed in writing something about gin palaces, or organising a tasting of bottled milds.

More than that, though, it’s taught us new skills, most notably how to write – and how to collaborate on writing.

The experience we’ve gained writing with each other translates well into writing with other people: don’t take those edits personally; it’s all about getting the best end product in the time available.

And, of course, it led to two published books, of which we’re very proud, and a few awards, too.

We’re not sure how we’ve stuck at it this long. Being a team helps but also, habit. We might not post as often as we used to but even now, if we don’t put up at least one post per week, we start to feel a bit twitchy.

That about 70 people think we’re worth supporting via Patreon, and several thousand more follow us on Twitter, is also a great encouragement to stick at it.

It can feel as if you’re throwing stuff out into a void – and we definitely were doing that for the first year or two – but it only takes the smallest echo to feel reassured that it’s landing somewhere.

Questions answered

To mark this little milestone, we put it to readers, followers and subscribers in various places that we’d be up for answering any questions they might have.

Here’s what we got, starting with a few questions from Andreas Krennmair, via Patreon.

What’s your most popular blog post by e.g. page views or comments?

In terms of comments, it was this piece from 2012 on ‘The Brown Bitter Company’ which actually got to something like 120 comments before the site was hacked. We tried to restore as many comments as we could from a backup but didn’t catch them all.

We don’t particularly monitor analytics these days but we do know that our piece about Watney’s Red Barrel is consistently among the most visited on the site. That’s not a surprise: we wrote it with the specific idea that it might be a helpful single source of information on this important beer, and it’s somewhat optimised to show up in Google search results for a range of searches on this topic. (This is another skill we’ve learned through blogging.) It got about 8,000 views in 2021 and continues to do steady traffic every day. We could probably make some money off that if we had on-page ads.

On a similar note, which blog post was the greatest unexpected success, and vice versa, were there any posts that you expected to be popular but then got a lot less resonance?

What we thought was a fairly minor bit of midweek pondering on brewery takeovers generated (a) several days of angry Tweeting, stroppy emails and not entirely welcome attention; followed by (b) a second surge of attention a couple of weeks later when it turned out our guesswork was more accurate than we could have known.

In terms of disappointments, it’s usually the longreads. When you’ve put a lot of effort into something 1,500 or more words long, you hope people might read and enjoy it. Our second piece following up on the story of Brew Britannia, ‘Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy’, runs to 6,000 words and took a lot of work, but didn’t grab people anywhere near as much as the first update, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Murky’. So maybe that one. Or it might be our interview with Simon Gueneau from Zero Degrees, which we think got overlooked because, first, that’s not an especially cool brewery and, secondly, interviewers with brewers don’t excite people all that much in general, we’ve found.

What is your whale topic? By that I mean something you’ve wanted to research but every time you tried, you have not been able to find any (usable) sources about it?

We’ve got one at the moment – the history of Smiles Brewery here in Bristol. We’ve cast around for information and sources a few times but can’t get hold of anyone with first-hand knowledge, or any documentation. That might be because it’s relatively recent history and people feel uncomfortable talking about it, or it could just be that there’s not much to tell. But we’ll keep at it.

Having just returned from Belgium, is there a Belgian beer that you’re surprised doesn’t get more recognition?

This question and the next are from Stuart Pritchard, also via Patreon. Our gut instinct is to say De Ranke. Beer geeks know them and in our minds, they’re up there with Duvel, Orval and Westmalle. But we wonder how many people outside The Bubble might think of them at all. Finding De Ranke XX on draught in Bristol the other week was a major cause of excitement.

Given the amount of hype around some beers and breweries, is there one subject of adulation that you have found warranted the attention?

We struggle with this a bit. Few breweries that appear from nowhere and generate lots of excitement in a short period of time have ever really worked for us. We sometimes feel out of step, wondering if we’re missing something. But, ultimately, we have to trust our own judgement. Sometimes those breweries get good, if they stick it out. Siren, for example, we recall finding underwhelming early on but now, well established and consistent, they’ve become a go-to for us. Generally, we prefer breweries that start small and quiet and build a buzz over the course of years. We’d never have called Elusive a hype brewery and yet we hear that other week a ‘meet the brewer’ event generated queues around the block. They’ve earned that following.

If you could resurrect one beer that has ceased being brewed, or the original brewery has ceased to exist, what would it be? – Ian Garrett, via Twitter

There are a couple of categories here. First, there are beers we miss from the last decade or two, such as Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter. This was a go-to, especially for Jess, and we still don’t understand the logic behind its disappearance. (“Poor sales!” Yes, but also poor marketing.) Then there are beers and breweries we regret having missed, from the perspective of beer history. Boddington’s, for example, which we’ve done our damnedest to get to know by reading and talking to people – but that’s not the same.

What’s your favourite flavour of crisps? What’s your favourite brand of crisps? Does your favourite flavour/brand become overall fave? Why do lots of ‘beer’ pubs sell Pipers Crisps? – ‘Reg Plates’ via Twitter

Ray’s given up crisps! But Jess says Pickled Onion Monster Munch. We’ve both been impressed by Piper’s ready-salted which are a bit more oily than some other brands and get really close to the experience of the bits from the bottom of a bag of chips. Which probably answers that final question, too.

The one/ultimate Bristol pub to visit for that a craft (summer) experience….. throw in a yard…or garden… forget the food…. though a pop up…. – DG, via Twitter

We don’t think there is one magical place that has it all. The Lost & Grounded taproom comes closest with its benches out on the car park, an always-interesting beer list and usually someone cooking pizza or whatever. When the weather is right, and the crowd is buzzing, it can feel quite like a German beer garden… despite being on an industrial estate in Brislington.

What is the answer to Life, the Universe & Everything?? – Granddad Greg, via Twitter

We’d have put money on some smart arse asking this. Anyway, it’s beer.

If you had to draw a pie chart showing importance for a good night with 3 factors, company, atmosphere/surroundings and beer quality what would it look like? – Chris Murray, via Twitter

First, pie charts are bad, and information can almost be displayed more clearly with another type of chart. But, anyway… These days, beer quality is much less important to us than it used to be. As long as there’s something on offer we can enjoy drinking – and that can be Guinness at a push – if the pub and/or company are interesting, we’ll have a good time. Here’s the chart, though, showing a 40/40/20 split.

A pie chart showing Atmosphere (40%), Company (40%) and Beer (20%)

Can you define the difference between porter and stout? – James B, via Twitter

We’ve already had a go at this one on our FAQ page: “Historically speaking, nothing: stout is to porter what best bitter is to bitter – a heftier version of the same style. Modern home-brewing competition guidelines set specific parameters but remember, those aren’t rules. And if a brewer makes both a porter and a stout they’ll usually, in our experience, make the stout denser and more bitter.”  From a personal perspective, we’d probably describe something rich and creamy as stout, and expect porter to be more smokey or fruitier.

Why do brewers still conform to the uniform of check shirts, beards, tattoos and beanies long after the fashion died? – Alcofrolic Chap, via Twitter

We don’t know if they do, to be honest. Especially not the women. But about 18% of British men had full beards as of 2017 and around a third of UK adults have tattoos. Given that part of the appeal of working in craft brewing must be that you’re not expected to be clean-shaven, wear a suit or otherwise conform to corporate dress codes, it’s probably higher again in the industry. And check shirts are just… standard clothes? Pretty practical for working in, too, as they don’t show dust or schmutz as easily as, say, a white or black one. And beanies are still very much in fashion, based on our observations of people going about their business in Bristol. What we’re saying is, they’re just normal men. They’re just innocent men.

Have your thoughts on what makes an ideal pub changed since you first started? – Lisa Grimm, via Twitter

Yes. When we started blogging, we were constantly irritated at pubs only having brown bitter on offer and would rate pubs more highly because of their beer offer even if the atmosphere wasn’t great. We were on a mission back then to try as many beers as possible and expand our knowledge. Now, we value variety much more. The ideal pub now will have personality, individual character and something unique about its offer – whether that’s cheese rolls in paper bags, a particularly good jukebox or, say, weirdly flat Bass. One of our latest thoughts, that we haven’t quite worked through yet, is that a great pub should make the regulars feel as if they’re at home without making incomers feel unwelcome.

We hear statistics about how many pubs have closed in recent years; but several that I know are now a lot bigger with extensions built and outbuildings refurbished. Has anyone studied how the overall hospitality area has changed? – Mark Swingler, via Twitter

We’ve thought about this a bit. Old-fashioned street corner beerhouses might have had space for 20 or 30 drinkers. A typical Wetherspoon pub has room for 200 or more. So there’s definitely some sort of consolidation process going on. At the same time, the micropub has arisen in the past two decades. Operators will always want bigger, more efficient premises; but maybe drinkers don’t; so huge pubs won’t necessarily be anyone’s favourite place to drink, even if they’re convenient. Pre-pandemic, we’d have said the medium-sized suburban local was most at risk but the pandemic has thrown everything up in the air, including where you’ll find people. So who knows what will happen in coming years.

Who is your favourite beer writer? – Tim Hickford, via Twitter

In our Golden Pints last year we named Eoghan Walsh and we’d stick by that, especially as we hear he’s turning his excellent posts on Brussels beer history into a book. But David Jesudason is having a hell of a year in 2022. Check out this list of our favourite beer writing from 2021 for more names. 

Will Scampi Fries, Cheese Moments and pork scratchings ever be surpassed? – Martyn Griffin, via Twitter

We’d make the case for pistachio nuts, salted cashews and Serious Pig ‘Crunchy Snacking Cheese’. The latter is the essence of oily, salty umami and does the job when (having gone veggie in the past year or so) we crave something like scratchings.

Thanks to everyone who asked us something for this post and, of course, to everyone who’s encouraged or supported us over the years.

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis

Modern British Beer (RRP £15.99, 256 pages) by Matthew Curtis comprises a series of short pieces covering 80 or so beers that the author feels reflects the breadth and range of beer on offer in the UK today.

As in our review of the official history of CAMRA, we’ll start with an observation that this is an interesting choice of book for CAMRA to commission and publish.

It suggests they’ve moved quite comprehensively past the debate about whether it is ever appropriate for the Campaign to support or endorse beer that isn’t ‘real’.

The book features a good spread of breweries, from the very new to stalwarts of the real ale scene such as Durham and Oakham. It’s fair to say, though, that the book leans towards those founded in the 21st century.

We often feel we’ve fallen out of the loop since writing Brew Britannia and all too often fall into the trap of writing off a lot of modern beers as hazy and/or sweet, and not to our taste. A book that provides a manageable hit list and helps us find our way to the good stuff in a crowded market might, we hoped, make us feel more on top of things.

This book delivers precisely that. Like the book we started out with all those years ago, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, it offers page after page of delightful descriptions accompanied by enticing photography.

Perhaps wisely, the choice of image goes beyond glossy product or pack shots and instead seeks to convey a sense of what ‘modern British beer’ means in practice. That is, lots of stainless steel, industrial units and taprooms.

We’ve drunk maybe only a third of the beers listed. There are a few breweries in the book we’ve never come across in the wild and which, having read Curtis’s impassioned tributes, will definitely be seeking out.

We know we won’t like everything he recommends but the hit rate is likely to be higher with a guide than without.

Particular kudos is due to the author for making the effort to list plenty of beers that aren’t hazy IPAs.

As with Michael Jackson, the tone is positive and uncritical – perfect for generating enthusiasm in the reader. There is a sense that the text takes the various breweries’ marketing lines and origin stories at face value, usually with a personal recollection of where the author first tasted Beer X or first met Brewer Z.

In a couple of cases, this highlights the weakness of books as a format for covering the here and now. For example, between writing and printing, the environmental credentials that form a large part of the BrewDog story here came under fire in the national press. And a passage about the head of one brewery who ‘has always done things her way’ prompts an involuntary cringe in the wake of bullying allegations which led to her recent resignation.

Books can only ever be snapshots, however, and capturing the moment is worthwhile, too. We can presumably expect a new edition of this guide every two or three years and it will be interesting to see who is in, and who is out.

One final quibble: we’re also not sure about the definition of modern British beer, or whether it even needs defining.

That is, we’re not convinced that being focused on ingredients, or being rooted in the local community, is something that sets the breweries listed here apart from, say, Bathams, or Adnams.

The point isn’t laboured, though, and is hardly that important. Really, it’s all about the list, the guiding hand and the sense of infectious glee.

The book is already well-thumbed and is, as we speak, informing our plans about where to go on holiday later this year.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA at a pre-order price of £13.00 plus delivery.