News, nuggets and longreads 8 September 2019: Stevenage, Sheffield, Sam Smith

Better late than never, here’s everything that grabbed us in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from the Faroes to Wetherspoon.

One of our favourite sub-genres in beer writing is the nostalgic pub crawl and Martyn Cornell has delivered a classic of the form, revisiting his youthful haunts in the new town of Stevenage in Hertfordshire:

When I started going into pubs regularly, about 1968/69, the drinkers at the Chequers were mostly Old Towners whose ancestors had lived in North Hertfordshire for, probably, 500 years or more, and who spoke in a noticeably different accent from the tens of thousands of New Towners, like my parents, who had moved to North Hertfordshire in the early and mid 1950s from North London suburbs such as Willesden and Burnt Oak, 30 miles to the south.

Craft beer in Sheffield
SOURCE: Kirsty Walker.

Kirsty Walker at Lady Sinks the Booze ended up on an organised pub crawl in Sheffield and used the opportunity to make some typically sharp observations of the local pubs and bars:

Kommune… is your typical HWP or Hipster Warehouse Project. The following are signs you may have entered one: you try to pay with cash for something and you get a look as if you’ve tried to barter a live chicken; chips cost five pounds; periodically a loud person starts shouting that the puppet show/comedy improv/ritual killing will start in five minutes; every third person is either a dog, a child, or has a beard.

The Sportsman, a strange-looking modern pub.
SOURCE: Gerald Reece/Brownhills Bob.

Via @pezholio on Twitter, here’s a collection of vintage photos and notes on the pubs of Brownhills in the West Midlands from ‘Brownhills Bob’, with images supplied by Gerald Reece.

The Faroe Islands.

For Pellicle, veteran writer and industry commentator Phil Mellows reports from the Faroe Islands where craft beer (definition 2) is making inroads:

The rock in Søren Antoft’s hand is pitted with tiny holes like a black sponge. Once, it was the bubbling volcanic lava that solidified halfway between Shetland and Iceland to form the Faroe Islands. Now, it’s going to be reheated to 800 degrees centigrade before being plunged into the mash for a spicy, mineral-edged ale called Rinkusteinur.

An image from the Gazette.

Exciting news for beer historians: the excellent British Newspaper Archive has added editions of Holmes’ Brewing Trade Gazette for the years 1878 to 1886:

During the Victorian era, temperance was one of the biggest moral, social and religious debates of the day… This debate, played out in the pages of the Gazette, is a fascinating one, with Victorian morality coming into direct conflict with Victorian enterprise. The debate was to only escalate with the coming of the twentieth century, and was to reach a head across the Atlantic with the introduction of prohibition in the United States. You can find out more about this debate by searching for the word ‘temperance’ in the pages of Holmes’ Brewing Trade Gazette.

Sam Smith logo from beer bottle.

Tandleman reports from the front line of Humphrey Smith’s war on his own pub customers, visiting one of his locals, The Pleasant in Royton:

Then horror on horrors. A mobile phone rang in the bar and in hushed tones, after exchanging endearments with his/someone else’s wife/girlfriend or whatever, the callee, said words to the effect of “I have to go. I’m in The Pleasant and mobiles aren’t allowed.” Seems Humph has put the fear of God into his customers on that one. Less so on the effing and jeffing I’d suggest, but all of it was in the context of fitting bathrooms, exchanges about how the day had gone and so on, so to my mind at least, harmless enough. One lad called through to me saying that he didn’t care (“couldn’t give a fuck”) about Humph’s rules. Sooner or later he’d shut the pub anyway, like he had the Yew Tree, he observed.

We’re all sick of (addicted to) Brexit news, of course, but this Wetherspoon story is so odd we have to mention it: the pub chain has cut the price of Ruddles by 20p a pint this week, apparently as proof of the freedom a no-deal Brexit would bring. Except… there hasn’t been a no-deal Brexit, not yet. Rumours on social media suggest this stunt was planned to land during a general election, currently in limbo, which might make some sense.

And, finally, from Twitter…

As ever, for more selected beer reading, check out Stan on Monday and Alan on Thursday.

Everything we wrote about beer and pubs in August 2019

A bit of a low score this month – just 13 posts in total, although, to be fair, one of those was an absolute whopper.

Leeds has played a pivotal role in the evolution of British beer, as covered in our first book, Brew Britannia. We kicked off last month with an in-depth, in-their-own-words look at the city’s beer scene, featuring insight from veterans such as Barrie Pepper and relative newcomers like Gareth Pettman. This piece ended up running to 3,000 words and seemed to meet the general approval of Leodensians, to our great relief.

An update: Antony Ramm at Leeds Libraries (@rammalibrary), who first suggested this article, is working on an archive project around beer in Leeds in the past decade or two. If you’ve got original memorabilia or ephemera – leaflets, flyers, programmes, papers and so on – he’d love to know about them for possible inclusion in the collection.

We also did some pondering on beer scenes more generally – what makes a scene as opposed to just… some good pubs and beer? This prompted some prickly but interesting reactions, both below the line and on Twitter.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote about beer and pubs in August 2019”

News, nuggets and longreads 3 August 2019: Apollo, Bass, curation

These are all the stories about beer and pubs we enjoyed most, or learned the most from, in the past week, from Wetherspoons to museums.

From Jeff Alworth, an epic – a two-parter pondering the question of why we like certain beers and dislike others:

Let’s try a thought experiment. Select one of your favorite beers and think about why you like it. If I ask you to tell me the reasons, my guess is that you will talk about the type of beer it is and which flavors you like. Since you’re reading this blog, you might talk about ingredient or even process (Citra hops! Decoction mashing!). If I asked a casual drinker, someone who drinks Michelob Ultra, say, I’d hear different reasons, but probably something along the lines Elizabeth Warren offered: it’s “the club soda of beers.” No matter one’s level of knowledge, our opinions about beer appear to come from the liquid itself.

Part one | Part two

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

Tandleman has been observing what he calls the “slightly tense calm” of early morning in a Wetherspoon pub:

By 8.50 there is a palpable sense of expectation in the air. Eyes flick towards the bar. A few more arrive. Minutes tick away and suddenly there are people coming back to their tables with pints of beer and lager. One dedicated soul has two, which he arranges carefully in front of him, rims almost touching. Overall pints are evenly split between lager and John Smith’s Smooth.

The Apollo Inn
SOURCE: Manchester Estate Pubs

Stephen Marland has turned his nostalgic eye on another lost Manchester pub – the topically named Apollo Inn in Cheetham Hill. Construction, conversion, conflagration, collapse… The tale is familiar.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 3 August 2019: Apollo, Bass, curation”

Everything we wrote in July 2019

This was a pretty good month in terms of productivity with more posts than we’ve managed in a single stretch for some time.

We started with a hangover from June and a report on our week in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands:

The tricky thing about running a pub in a town like Fort William is that for half the year, there’s too much of a particular type of business: tourists who often don’t know how it all works and probably want dinner… Then, for the remaining six months, there’s not enough business. You’re left with a handful of locals rattling round mostly empty pubs, if they can afford to go out at all given the seasonal nature of the employment market.

We shared some notes by J.B. Priestley on the pubs of Bradford and the bleakness of English towns on Sundays before the war:

Priestley’s pub crawl is depressing. He finds the first one he visits very quiet with ‘five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter’ and bothering the barmaid. ‘Nothing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stupid.’

Continue reading “Everything we wrote in July 2019”

Everything we wrote in June 2019

Despite a ten-day holiday at the start of the month we managed to write a little more in June than in May. Or, rather, to find time to type up some of the things we’ve got on the big list of stuff to blog about.

We started the month with a reflection on the unwritten rules of round-buying which seemed to sneak outside of the bubble and got shared by a few people who aren’t beer geeks but are, presumably, interested in how Britain works.

Next, Ray went solo with some thoughts on The Winchester, the pub from the 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead:

It has an added resonance for me in that, for several years in my own flat-sharing twenties, I lived around the corner from The Winchester… And, to be clear, I don’t mean that I lived near a pub that was like The Winchester: the actual pub you actually see in the actual film was about four minutes walk from my house in New Cross, South London.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote in June 2019”

Everything we wrote in May 2019: Guinness, pubs, tea gardens

Oof, this was not a highly productive stretch… Let’s just say we were running low on energy in the run up to the holiday we’re now on. Anyway, slim or not, the month was not without interesting stuff.

First, there was a long piece actually published at the end of April, but after the cut-off for our last monthly round-up: the story of Guinness’s brewery at Ikeja in Nigeria told through an interview and archive research. One reader kindly wrote to tell us it was ‘far and away the best beer blog of 2019’ and that it reflected his own experiences of working in Africa (not in brewing) in the 1980s, which was nice.

We announced our new bookBalmy Nectar, which we’re pleased to say has been selling quite well. If you haven’t bought a copy, do take a look; and if you have, please leave a review.

Several months ago, someone asked us if we knew the origins of an apparently unique pub name from Leicestershire and after weeks of digging, we think we’ve cracked it. Spoiler: freemasonry!

One of those periodic debates about sparklers popped up on Twitter and, watching the conversation play out, we thought we’d achieved clarity: they’re neither good nor evil, it depends on the underlying condition of the beer.

We picked some bits of about beer from a 1945 magazine for British armed forces stationed in India, like this:

Advertisement for Dyer Meakin Breweries and their Solan brand beers.

We finally made it to Beese’s Tea Gardens, a Victorian institution on the outskirts of Bristol, where you can drink beer in the shade of ancient trees on a riverbank:

Last Saturday, we approached from Broomhill, cutting from a council estate into a sloping park where teenagers flirted on the climbing frame next to a basketball court. A short walk down a wooded path brought us to a gate that might have been transplanted from Bavaria…

Camden Hells didn’t seem that big a deal in 2011; we’ve now come to realise that there was a time before Camden, and a time after, and the post-Camden beer scene is an alien planet:

What we should have paid more attention to was that our friends who weren’t especially interested in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switching from Foster’s, Stella, Peroni, and (perhaps crucially) drinking Hells just as they’d drunk those other beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

The cover of 'Pub', 1969.

Osbert Lancaster was an illustrator and writer with strong opinions about pubs, especially Victorian ones, as set out in a 1938 book:

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century it was assumed, and rightly, that a little healthy vulgarity and full-blooded ostentation were not out of place in the architecture and decoration of a public-house, and it was during this period that the tradition governing the appearance of the English pub was evolved.

Another mid-century writer and illustrator, Geoffrey Fletcher, set out similar views in his book The London Nobody Knows in 1962. We picked out a few choice lines, like this:

The architects of the late Victorian pubs and music-halls knew exactly what the situation demanded – extravagance, exuberance, and plenty of decoration for its own sake.

We also put together our usual round-ups of news and good reading from beer blogs, newspapers and magazines:

At Patreon we gave $2+ subscribers rundowns of the best beers of each weekend plus a few extra nuggets, such as an account of a (no-injuries) car crash outside a pub that turned into a serious spectator event.

Our monthly newsletter was a proper whopper with notes on tea in pubs in the 1920s and links to archive footage of pubs in action. Sign up here.

We Tweeted a ton, too, especially from Tewkesbury:

A new book: Balmy Nectar

A mockup of the book.

Balmy Nectar is a collection of all the longer pieces of writing we’ve produced for CAMRA, magazines such as Beer Advocate, and here on the blog.

It also includes a foreword by Tim Webb and a new piece pulling together into a coherent whole the best of the many ‘pub life’ observational posts we’ve been writing since 2015.

In total, it runs to about 80,000 words, a similar length to Brew Britannia and 20th Century Pub. Which is to say, it’s a proper chunky book, unlike Gambrinus Waltz which was only ever what they used to call a monograph.

And though collating and editing it all has been hard work, it’s also been really lovely to be reminded of how much good stuff we’ve turned out. We’re especially proud of the voices we put on record, from beer festival volunteers to publicity shy brewers.

If you want a copy, and of course you do, Balmy Nectar is available from the Amazon Kindle store now for £7, or $9.22 in the US.

It would be a handy thing to have loaded up when you go on your summer holidays, or just to have handy in the free app on your phone for dipping into if you find yourself waiting for a mate in the pub.

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Canada | Germany | Australia

A print-on-demand paperback version is also available for the traditionalists among you, priced at £11. (Confession: the main reason we went to all the trouble of compiling, correcting and updating this stuff is because we wanted one of these for our own shelf.)

And here’s what the collection includes, to save you a click or two: Foreword | Introduction | Beer geeks in history | Brew Britannia: the women | A pint of Old & Filthy | Only a northern brewer (David Pollard) | 1974: birth of the beer guide | The pub crawlers | 1975: birth of the beer festival | The Campaign for Unreal Ale | Craft before it was a thing (Williams Bros) | Michael Jackson | Belgophilia | Lager louts | Cornish swanky beer | The Quiet One (Peter Elvin) | Newquay Steam | Spingo | Bitter | Watney’s Red Barrel | Boddington’s | Doom Bar | Guinness in decline | Pale and hoppy | The mystery of Old Chimneys | Mixing beer | The pubs of Boggleton | German Bierkellers in Britain | Welcome to Adnamsland | The Good, the Bad and the Murky | Don’t Worry, be (mostly) happy | Pub Life

Everything we wrote in April 2019: mostly barley wine

The blog turned 12 this month, did you know? It’s not a major anniversary but, still, we’re astonished that it’s still going and that we’re only 150 posts off 3,000.

April 2019’s contribution to that ridiculous total amounted to 17, including this one.

Mind you, almost all of them were reviews of barley wines, old ales or strong ales.

Collage of barley wines.

We tasted:

Not bad for a month associated more with spring-signalling golden ales. What we didn’t find anywhere except a supermarket was Gold Label, the classic mass market barley wine.

Which was our overall favourite? It’s a tough call but probably… The Bristol Beer Factory effort, with Marble shortly behind, and Fuller’s Golden Pride behind that.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote in April 2019: mostly barley wine”

Everything we wrote about beer and pubs in March 2019

We managed about the usual number of posts in March, despite trips to London and Penzance, with a handful of real good ‘uns among them.

Before we get to the round-up, though… If you like what we do, and want to give us some encouragement to keep doing it:

We began the month, as we so often have lately, with some notes from the Guinness archives, this time on the stout brewer’s attempts to appeal to female drinkers in the late 1970s. Even if you saw this first time round, it’s worth clicking the link again as Jon Urch was kind enough to send us a scan of the glossy magazine ad we hadn’t been able to track down when we first published the post.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote about beer and pubs in March 2019”

Anatomy of a Rumour

If you are at all engaged with beer social media, you will be aware that there have been rumours, or at least rumours of rumours.

Though we don’t recall signing up to a code of ethics on this, there are certainly good reasons to be cagy about sharing or discussing such rumours.

First, there’s the risk of things getting a bit ‘lawyery’. We don’t know if this is a real issue, or a borrowed trouble, but who wants to find out the hard way?

Then there’s the question of people’s feelings. Imagine you’re negotiating the sale of your company but haven’t finalised the deal; there’s a non-disclosure agreement in place so you can’t tell your team anything until it’s done; and, anyway, you wouldn’t want to say anything in case it falls through at the last minute. Then imagine how those team members feel learning the news from Twitter, or on some poxy beer blog.

The American food reporter Farley Elliott recently described how, in the early days of his career, he would sometimes turn up at restaurants he had heard were closing down and, over-eager in making his enquiries, accidentally break the news to frontline staff that they were about to lose their jobs. He felt bad, they felt bad… There are better ways.

Finally, there’s the risk of embarrassing yourself if the rumoured takeover doesn’t happen. Rumours are just rumours, and are sometimes just lies. Five or so years ago, we heard a cast-iron rumour of a takeover that was definitely about to happen at any minute now… but didn’t. And still hasn’t.

And anyway, unless you are working for an outlet that thrives on scoops – that relies on being first with the breaking news – there’s no particular need for anyone in beer to be rushing to talk about this stuff.

The only difference a rumour makes, really, is that it allows time to mentally prepare. It can be a jolt to learn that a brewery you like or are interested in has been taken over when 300 hot-take Tweets land within a minute of each other.

Given how things are, though, shouldn’t we all be mentally prepared, all the time, for any brewery of decent size and market reach to sell up? We all know how to spot the pre-eruption tremors these days.

Sure, we’ll still jump when the balloon pops, but at least by now we’ve learned to discern the balloon, and to see someone standing there with pin in hand, grinning, waiting.