GALLERY: Women Working in Pubs and Breweries, from the Archives

It’s International Women’s Day which seems like a good reason to share this collection of pictures of women working in breweries and pub we’ve been bookmarking in old brewery magazines.

There’s an editorial choice being made here, of course: to find these pictures of cool women doing cool stuff we had to wade through a lot of photos of secretaries sitting on men’s laps, booth babes, hop queens, cheese maidens, and bikini competitions. Don’t think from what you see below that Whitbread, Watney’s or any of these other firms were bastions of feminism.

You’ll also note that the pictures back up what we said in the post we wrote on women in British beer a few years ago: there’s not much evidence of female brewers in the post-war period, women being generally confined to administrative functions, bottling lines and laboratories. In fact, why not start in the lab?

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Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

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Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a really solid view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encountering it (that is, when we were paying attention) was at the Castle Hotel in Manchester where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Wellington in Bristol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Belgian kriek or framboise — tart, and dominated by the hot crumble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a second round.

When we Tweeted about it, acknowledging what we understood to be its mixed reputation, here’s some of what people said in response:

  • “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Consistency seems dubious.” — @olliedearn
  • “WHAT?! In what world is it divide opinion? Everyone I know loves it.” — @Jon_BOA
  • “My bete noire, was always dubious about it (even though I love other Titanic brews) – perhaps I need to revisit…” — @beertoday
  • “Having lived in Stoke + covered the Potteries beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flagship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” — @LiamapBarnes

So, pretty balanced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsher comments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in particular. In general, we find Titanic’s beer rather middling — not bad, not great — but it is nonetheless a major presence in the Midlands and North West, and on supermarket shelves nationwide, and ubiquity breeds contempt. For some time, too, its owner Keith Bott was chairman of increasingly controversial industry body SIBA, so perhaps the beer tastes a bit of politics, the nastiest off-flavour of all.

This made us think about other beers that strike us as fundamentally decent but whose reputations might be similarly weighed down. Copper Dragon Golden Pippin, for example, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed — good value, straightforward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some others in the same category. When we expressed this enthusiasm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a suggestion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brewery has engaged in some complicated and newsworthy business practices.

And St Austell Tribute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Walthamstow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost interchangeable with, the exemplary Timothy Taylor Landlord sold in the same pub. (Further reading: ‘The Landlord Test’.) But these days, even though Tribute is probably  better than its ever been in technical terms, it elicits groans from many enthusiasts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very interested in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the country by keen sales teams and big distribution deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under random rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face national presence is not only annoying in its own right but also makes it harder to find a pint that has truly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and interesting with it.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the people that make them are good eggs, or underdogs, or have a good story to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever really gets to know them, and is too excited when they do find them in the wild to be objectively critical.

It’s impossible to be objective, obviously, but it’s good to try — to attempt to blank out everything else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.

The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.