Old Haunts #2: The Pembury Tavern

A collage of images of the Pembury Tavern.

The Pembury Tavern at Hackney Downs, one of the pubs where we learned about beer, has commenced a new phase as the Five Points brewery tap.

When we were first beginning to develop a serious interest in beer, in around 2005-06, we ended up at The Pembury because friends who knew more than us told us it was a must-visit pub. After years of neglect it had been bought and refurbished as a proto-craft-beer-bar — clean, plain, with a vast range of hand-pumps, and bottled beers from Germany and Belgium.

It was also a non-smoking pub before the ban was introduced, sending a very clear signal about the clientele it sought or, rather, wanted to exclude.

Circa 2006 Hackney Downs was posher than it had been 20 years before, but still less posh than it is today, with a lingering sense of wildness. For typical Pembury customers — overt CAMRA types, board-game nerds, hippies, and assorted oddballs not quite cool enough to pass their idiosyncrasies off as hipsterism — the scurry to and from public transport could be an anxious business. That people kept putting themselves through this ordeal is a testament to how welcome a bolthole The Pembury was.

When we left London in 2011, though, the shine had gone. The beer range diminished and what was left no longer seemed terribly exciting in the age of the Craft Beer Company, and with hipper venues popping up all over Hackney. When we checked in a couple of years ago, things were worse again — a dreariness, weariness, had settled over it all and we struggled to find anything decent to drink.

When we heard earlier this year that Five Points had taken over the pub we immediately thought, oh, that’s good news. It’s a beautiful building in a great location and it makes sense for it to be tied to a local brewery rather than one in Cambridge, and we were also excited at the idea of being able to taste all of Five Points’ beer in one place, presumably presented at its best.

On Saturday last, working around some personal business, we managed to find a couple of hours to investigate in person.

First impressions: the pub has been brought back to life. The whitewashed walls are now either rich green or vibrant red creating a sense of intimacy that used to be lacking. Heavy curtains dampen the once troublesome acoustics, and well-worn wooden furniture underlines the impression that this is a Proper Pub, only updated, rather than an outpost of Craftonia.

We were pleased to see, too, that the gamer geeks haven’t been driven away, and that locals (both posh, and less posh) are still using the pub. If any constituency has reduced its presence its the hippies, but perhaps that’s true of London in general these days, or of 2018.

The staff were energetic and efficient, serving Five Points’ beer in what we’re sure must be the best condition possible, in beautiful branded glassware, at what felt like reasonable prices for London. There is also unfiltered Budvar and a range of guest beers on keg, cask and in packaged form. All of the Five Points beers we tried were at the very least good, and it’s such a pleasure to be able to buy a pint of cask porter in East London.

The standout for us, though, was Five Points Pils. We enjoyed the canned variant  but the draught is on another level — so fresh tasting, hazy but not dirty, and full of blossom and perfume.

We would say, based on this trip, that The Pembury is once again worth going out of your way to visit if you’re a visitor to London, or rarely make it out east, especially as it is only 15 minutes out of Liverpool Street on the train.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 2 June 2018: Flanders, Erith, Easterly Road

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from D&D to WWI.

First, a great story by Liam Barnes that just missed the cut off for last week’s round-up, about the part pubs and bars are playing in the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons:

On first glance this branch of BrewDog in Nottingham might seem like your typical hipster hangout, but one thing gives it a slightly different air: numerous hand-drawn maps, some character sheets, and voluminous bags of 20-sided dice…. It’s the bar’s monthly tabletop gaming night – and regulars love it…. “I think the escapism is the best bit,” says 27-year-old gamer Hannah Yeates. “For a few hours you can become a completely different person living a completely different life, making decisions you’d never make and forgetting what’s happening in the real world…. It’s liberating.”


German troops sharing beer during World War I.

For All About Beer Christopher Barnes has written a long, detailed, heavily illustrated account of how World War I affected French and Belgian breweries:

The monks of Westmalle and Achel were forced to flee to The Netherlands. The Belgians, in their defense of Antwerp, destroyed a tower at Westmalle to prevent it being used as an observation post by the approaching Germans. Achel was occupied by the Belgians and shelled by the Germans until they were able to solidify their hold on Belgium. To keep citizens from going back and forth over the border with The Netherlands, the Germans erected an electrified fence along the border. Since Achel straddles the border of The Netherlands and Belgium, the fence bisected the abbey’s lands. When the call went out from the German War Department, the monks of Achel were able to sadly watch as their brewery was dismantled. No beer was brewed at Achel until 2001.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads for 2 June 2018: Flanders, Erith, Easterly Road”

BOOK EXTRACT: The Birth of the Gastropub, 1990

In the summer of 1991 The Times’s food critic, Jonathan Meades, took a break from visiting upmarket restaurants to investigate a new eatery that was generating a strange amount of buzz.

He found it ‘chaotic-looking and very noisy’ and was lukewarm about the informal set-up: no bookings, order at the bar, lunge for any available seat before anyone else took it. The customers around him were young, though, and seemed to like this kind of thing. The food wasn’t refined but it was good value, generously portioned, very much in line with the ‘rustic’ style then in fashion. He duly filed a review of the Eagle in Farringdon Road, North London, which was not far from glowing. [1] Something interesting was afoot but, for the moment, the language lacked a word to describe this collision of gastronomy and the public house.

* * *

The above is a condensed version of the opening to the chapter on gastropubs from our book 20th Century Pub which came out last autumn. We’re sharing it, along with the extract below, because it was announced today that we’ve made the shortlist for best drinks book at the 2018 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards. The results are announced on 10 May which means we get a month to bask in the glory whether we win or not. The book is available in all the usual places at a recommended retail price of £16.99 and is on a 31-strong streak of 5-star reviews at Amazon, so please do buy a copy if you haven’t already.

The Eagle in 2016.

The founders of what is generally recognised as the first gastropub were Michael Belben and David Eyre. They had worked together at several restaurants, mostly recently Mélange in Covent Garden, Eyre as a cook, Belben in management. In a portrait photo taken in 1990 they look like members of a synth pop group – slim, moody, Belben in a dark suit, Eyre in cotton shirtsleeves. [2] Belben is older, born in 1952, while Eyre, born in 1961, grew up largely in Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), moving to Britain to attend university. [3]

They were both keen to start out on their own but, in the meantime, absorbed culinary influences, struggling to reconcile their taste in fine food with their limited funds. Eyre got married in 1989, but came out of that short-lived relationship after 20 months with very little except an idea, given to him by his ex-wife’s aunt: with a recession imminent, opening a restaurant would be foolish, she argued, so why not run a pub? She hadn’t meant a pub with food, but it was the spark Eyre and Belben needed. Why not open a pub with decent food, catering to people like them who longed, but couldn’t afford, to eat at places like the then super-hip River Café?

Fortunately for them, a catastrophic change to the British pub ownership model was underway. In 1989 the UK government passed a bill which meant that breweries owning more than 2,000 pubs would be required to dispose of half of the excess. This act, known informally as the Beer Orders, meant in the first instance that the largest brewers had no choice but to dump a large number of their worst-performing pubs on to the open market, or sell them en bloc to other firms. In this respect, as food critic Jay Rayner has said, ‘the gastro pub movement is a pure product of Thatcherism’.

The Eagle was an unremarkable Victorian corner pub in Farringdon, then a rather unfashionable part of London, and was owned by the astonishingly unfashionable brewery Watney’s. For a brief time in the 1980s it was a freakish hangover from the theme pub era – a ‘fun pub’ decorated with metal furniture, exposed pipes and bare breeze-blocking so as to resemble a nuclear bunker. [4] (Fun indeed.) When it was unloaded by the brewery in response to the Beer Orders, Belben and Eyre took it on, describing it as ‘the first and cheapest dead pub we found… But beneath the sad grime we could see an attractive, if small, room with huge windows and maple floor’. [5]

Portrait shot of a man with beard and white shirt.
Michael Belben at The Eagle, 2016.

They paid for it with a combination of bank loans and money borrowed from family, got the keys on 18 December 1990, and undertook renovation work themselves, scrubbing it back to an almost bare minimalism and letting the light flood in. Michael Belben fitted it out with, as food writer Diana Henry recalled in 2003, ‘mismatched china, battered furniture, sagging sofas and a few lamps with wobbly shades’. [6] They operated at first, from 16 January 1991, with an 8 by 5 foot kitchen containing a microwave, fridge, grill, two burners and a sink, none of professional standard. In the flat above the pub, where Eyre also lived, they used an oven to prepare one or two shareable dishes in pots, such as casseroles. Twenty years on, Eyre recalled their working relationship:

Mad Mike. Mike was prone to be a bit crazed at any time. But you see, he did get it and he was very good at… [pause] I got all the glory, but he was very good at trudging down to the bank and getting the float and spending hours and hours in the office… Not the best people person sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. I mean, we did have some blinding arguments… But we were good. It was that kind of opposites thing.

Belben and Eyre have always emphasised their democratic intentions, underlining what to them were key signs that the Eagle was still a pub:

It was important that a table could be used by people in muddy boots drinking lager as much as by people who’d come to the best place to eat ribollita. It was very egalitarian – a great leveller. You’d have the editor of the Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of-school graphic designer. [7]

There were no reservations for tables, no dress code and, they insisted when challenged, customers could just turn up for a drink – dining was not compulsory. ‘It was the Anti-Restaurant Thing that we sort of embraced wholeheartedly,’ Eyre would recall in a series of recordings made in 2011 by Niamh Dillon for an oral history project:

No uniforms, chefs wore fisherman’s smocks… Mismatched plates, the no starters, the no desserts, the one-course eating, the old fashioned portions of the food, the fact that there was no service – if you wanted to tip a member of staff you bought them a drink. [8]

The comedian and broadcaster Graham Norton worked with Eyre and Belben at Mélange and considered Belben ‘one of the most heterosexual men I had ever come across’ but ‘impossible to work for’,411 a friend and a mentor. He joined the waiting staff at the Eagle where, freed from the obligation to kiss-up to earn tips, he enjoyed being rude to customers:

‘A smile costs nothing,’ a customer who’d been ordering in dribs and drabs and therefore irritating me would say.

‘And intelligence can’t be bought,’ I’d retort. Why nobody rabbit-punched me I don’t know. [9]

From the customers’ perspective this kind of thing meant that the Eagle could sometimes be faintly intimidating, despite its founders’ avowed desire to create warmth and conviviality.

The dark interior of the Eagle.

In the same 2011 recording Eyre explained that the Eagle was able to operate with a lower mark-up on food than restaurants proper – 60 per cent gross profit rather than 70 or 75 – because there was no air-conditioning, no linen, and the kitchen staff, having less formal training, would work for less. Until 1997 even the most expensive items on the menu cost no more than £10 (about £20 in today’s money) and, Eyre said, students or younger office workers could go to the Eagle and have something substantial and well-made for only ‘twice the price of a sandwich in a sandwich shop’.

At its best, the atmosphere was lively and, at its worst, when hype brought crowds of would-be diners into a venue with no table bookings, it could be loud and chaotic. The background music was directed by Eyre’s older brother Robert, who worked there for a time and had a large, quirky record collection: ‘I really do believe my brother was the first person to buy Buena Vista Social Club.’ There was world music, jazz, blues, but definitely, pointedly, no guitar-heavy classic rock.

There was a problem with all this. In a January 2016 interview with Susie Mesure marking the 25th anniversary of the Eagle’s opening Eyre said: ‘We weren’t really pub-going people, because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs’. [10] And therein perhaps lies the source of much of the irritation that gastropubs would go on to generate in the decade that followed among those who were dedicated ‘pub-going people’: they were seen by many as middle- class colonisers taking over pubs and, in the process, denuding them of their essential ‘pubness’. In practice, to drinkers, the Eagle looked like an informal restaurant rather than a pub with food and, even if it was theoretically possible to turn up and just have a drink, the pub soon became so hip it was impossible to get in the door anyway.

Jay Rayner, reflecting on gastropubs in 2001, said, ‘It is hard to overstate the importance of The Eagle… When it launched in the early 90s, the idea was extraordinary, if not bizarre.’ He also pointed out that, though much of what the Eagle did had by then become to seem clichéd, in 1991 it seemed ‘nigh on revolutionary’, inspiring many imitators, often founded by people who had themselves worked at the Eagle. [11]

Sources

[1] ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Saturday Review supplement, p.27.
[2] Reproduced in the Independent, 9 January 2016, pp.20-21.
[3] Biographical details for Mike Belben from Debrett’s, retrieved 26 May 2016; and for David Eyre from 2011 oral history recordings, ‘Eyre, David (1 of 10)’, Niamh Dillon, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
[4] Correspondence with veteran pub-goer Ian Worden, 14 June 2016.
[5] Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.
[6] The Gastro Pub Cookbook, p.6.
[7] ‘20 Years of the Eagle Interview’, Liz Edwards, Clerkenwell Post, 2011.
[8] ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
[9] So Me, 2004, pp.74-75.
[10] ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gastropub celebrates its 25th birthday’, Susie Mesure, Independent, 9 January 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.
[11] ‘Fox Hunting’, Observer Magazine, 22 July 2001, p.49.

The First Cause Beer?

These days it’s not unusual for breweries to release beers intended to support a particular cause, but we reckon we might have pinpointed the first: ‘No Cruise Mild’, from 1983-84.

It was produced by Pitfield Brewery on a tiny kit in the basement of a specialist beer shop near Old Street in London and sold through one of David Bruce’s Firkin brewpubs, The Pheasant & Firkin in Islington. The name refers to US Cruise missiles, the installation of which was protested by women’s groups at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire during December 1983.

While the name of the beer certainly showed support for the Greenham Common protesters the short article in What’s Brewing for March 1984, which is the only reference we’ve been able to dig up, doesn’t make clear whether any of the profits from its sale also went their way. It does, however, reproduce Ken Pyne’s cartoon for Marketing Week which we hope he won’t mind us sharing here:

A group of women camps outside a pub offering No Cruise Mild.

Of course there were lots of beers before this that you can argue were political in one way or another — all those commemorative beers for the 1981 royal wedding and the Queen’s coronation, for example, are political in their own way — but we reckon this might be the earliest example of a beer whose branding was explicitly tied to a progressive cause.

If you reckon we’re wrong, or have more information on this particular beer, let us know in the comments below.

Further Reading

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from beer festivals to Friday skiving.

From Roger Protz comes a reflection on the London Drinker beer festival which has been organised by north London Campaign for Real Ale activists annually since 1985, but which this year is sadly winding up:

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible….

As interesting as the news itself, though, is Roger’s account of pioneering the very concept of tasting notes in the 1980s, and being jeered at for daring to suggest that there might be chocolate notes in a dark beer.


Illustration: fanzine style picture of a pint and a packet of crisps.

Phil at Oh Good Ale seems to have found an interesting voice lately — a sort of stream of consciousness that coalesces into commentary if you let it. This week he wrote with some panache about the passing culture of Friday lunchtime pints:

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three…. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen…. It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers”