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opinion

The best beer writing of 2021 according to us

There’s been lots of good stuff to read in 2021 and plenty of big subjects to be tackled – from cultural crises in the brewing industry to colonialism to the ongoing problem of COVID-19. And that’s before we get into the thousands of years of beer history, much of it still to be explored.

Here, we’ve picked a few pieces that appeared in our weekly round-ups and stuck with us.

Perhaps they captured a moment.

Maybe they found a new angle on a familiar subject.

Or simply told us something we didn’t already know.

Cantillon
A History of Brussels Beer in 50 Objects #1: Cantillon Coolship

Eoghan Walsh | Brussels Beer City | July 2021

“Starting today, an article will appear each Friday until Brussels Beer City’s fifth birthday in July 2022. Each object will tell a different aspect of Brussels’ interconnected beer and urban histories – from the city’s early medieval founding, its emergence as an economic, political and ecclesiastical centre, tumultuous centuries of war and occupation, and its rise, fall, and rise again as an industrial, economic, and brewing powerhouse.”

A show of hands
This is our place: behind misogyny and bullying in the craft beer industry

Charlotte Cook | Ferment | June 2021

“The recent reckoning in beer was the outpouring of distressing accounts of the abuses that women and non-binary people working within craft beer face daily. I’ve worked in craft beer for a decade and at some of the most highly regarded breweries on the planet, including BrewDog, Põhjala and Cloudwater, so for me the recent revelations of horrific sexism that came out on the Instagram account of Brienne Allan (@ratmagnet) were not surprising at all. I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it, and I’m bloody sick of it, and I want to let those of you outside of the bubble know where it stems from, and how you can help.”

Empire State of Mind – Interrogating IPA’s Colonial Identity

David Jesudason | Good Beer Hunting | August 2021

“My father’s love of empire, and his belief that Britain was a civilizing force, was mirrored in the drink he called his own: the India Pale Ale. Of all of his beliefs, this one was particularly confused. His friends were Lager drinkers, and his adoption of IPA was a way of pretending to be refined in the days before the craft revolution had taken hold. But where he saw a drink that was emblematic of genteel, colonial India, I see something very different: Owing to the beer style’s association with the East India Company and its brutality, I can’t help but think of bloodshed, oppression, and enslavement.”

Keeping it in the family: brewing dynasties, hopes and strife

Jo Caird | Ferment | January 2021

“There’s something reassuring about the idea of a family-run brewery in these unsettling times. Family members working away side by side, pulling together to fulfil the hopes and dreams of their forebears. Developing knowhow down the generations. Doing their part to keep the great tradition of British beer making going strong. Warms the cockles, doesn’t it? The reality is a little less rose-tinted.”

SOURCE: Bar Corto/Katie Mather.
The Bar at the End of the World

Katie Mather | Good Beer Hunting | March 2021

“Clitheroe is a pretty market town somewhere near the center of the Ribble Valley… This is the land of the pint of Bitter… It takes years for even the most pervasive beer trends to reach our town… Working in the drinks industry here means using a bit of imagination. People of all ages drink cask-conditioned Ale, poured through a sparkler to create a perfect, foamy head. Over the past five years or so, the craft beer exception to this rule has gradually become more commonplace, and whenever the two meet, they sit comfortably side-by-side at the bar.”

Henry Weinhard
Henry Weinhard. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons.
Epilogue: Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve

Jeff Alworth | Beervana | August 2021 

“On Monday, Molson Coors… announced it was cleaning up its portfolio and dumping some of the more marginal off-off-market stuff… One name, however, really stood out: Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve… To be clear, the 45-year-old brand was a zombie beer, having died decades ago when Miller shuttered the old Blitz-Weinhard plant on Burnside Street in downtown Portland. The company moved production to Full Sail for a time and then I don’t know what happened to it. But the beer received the full Mickey’s Ice treatment in time, becoming a mere label on a bottle of generic mass market lager. One could still locate the bodies of Private Reserve on a few grocery shelves, but the soul departed long ago.”

Folk Round Here: The Blue Anchor Inn and Spingo Ales in Helston, Cornwall

Lily Waite | Pellicle | October 2021

“Inside, the Blue Anchor looks every bit its 600-or-so years old. Its rooms are divided down the middle by a flagstone alleyway, worn concave by centuries of footsteps; the two on the right connected by a cramped bar bedecked in tankards and lined up with hand pulls. Beams strut from side to side on the looming ceilings, occasionally adorned with curios – in at least two places hand-carved signs read ‘Ye Olde Special Brew’ – and on the walls are standard snippets of history: late-Victorian photographs and newspaper clippings. One framed certificate recognises the pub’s inclusion in the first 10 editions of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.”

Finland
Brewing with Olavi the champion

Lars Marius Garshol | Larsblog | May 2021

“Olavi is known for being the most successful brewer in the history of the Finnish sahti championship, having won it three times, and come second twice. But, it turned out, his daughter Tuula is also a sahti brewer, and a very capable one: in last year’s championship she placed second… Olavi said he learned to brew from his father and a neighbour back in the old days when they made their own malts. He took up brewing again around 1990, as a hobby. Then in 2003 Tuula suggested that he should join the local championship, and the second time he actually won the national championship. His recipe is no longer exactly the original one, because he’s adopted some tricks from his neighbours. As he says, ‘you can steal knowledge.’”

A label from the Pupko Brewery
Jewish Breweries in old Belarus. Part I, Pupko Brewery

Gary Gillman | Beeretseq. | April 2021

“It had been my impression that between 1880 and 1980, Jews generally did not engage in commercial brewing, modern Israel apart of course. They were well-represented in brewing science, and in retailing and wholesaling beer, but not in production… I then turned my mind to Eastern Europe, which I had not considered before, initially the Pale of Settlement. This opened my eyes to a different reality about Jews and brewing.”

Two men at the bar
Notes from a small pub

Chris Rigg | The Bay Hop website | March 2021

“To put it into context, the pandemic has resulted in us being open for just 76 days over the past year. When you break it down into hours, we have been open for just 18% of the time we would have expected to have been open. All of that time has been under various restrictions too, so far from the potential we might otherwise have reached. I’m not going to whinge though – the fact that we are still here at all is a miracle… Looking back to the approach towards the first lockdown a year ago, it still gives me shivers.”

A beer garden table.

Inbetweenland

David Hayward | A Hoppy Place website | August 2021

“A consequence of that is I spend a lot of time thinking to myself: What do I want to do now? But even more so: What do I think my customers want me to say I want to do now… I do not think I am alone in this. A huge swathe of hospitality businesses are treading the difficult path of working out how to vocalise their stance without ostracising or polarising their customers. You really can’t win. It’s just such an inflammatory subject. We’ve all suffered. We’re all quick to anger. Especially if we feel that our struggles are undermined. Not heard. Whitewashed. That we should get over it… So let’s not pretend this is fine.”

The Evening Star, Brighton, in 2009
Pouring Light into Ashes: The Evening Star, Brighton

Phil Mellows | Pellicle | February 2021

“July 4, 2020, 1.30 p.m. Hesitating at the kerb outside Taboo, Brighton’s premier adult store, anxiously peering across the road at the Evening Star. Someone said they were open… Approaching the door, and that awkward, familiar, brick pillar stuck two paces inside, wondering just how you go to the pub this strange day… An arm gestures me forward.”

How one Irishman’s ginger beard helped launch an entirely bogus style of beer

Martyn Cornell | Zythophile | August 2021

“If a mediumweight French brewery had not been looking for another beer to add to its portfolio in the early 1970s, and if the owner of a drinks distribution company in County Wexford had not also owned a striking ginger beard, we probably would not now have that totally fake beer style, Irish Red Ale.”

* * *

Hopefully you’ll find something interesting to read among that lot. It goes without saying that it’s not everything we enjoyed reading this year, and of course it’s totally subjective.

You’ll note that Good Beer Hunting, Pellicle and Ferment get quite a few entries between them. The fact is, they pay talented people to tackle big subjects at length and for that we thank them.

If you want these publications to keep going, support them if you can, via Patreon, by buying merchandise, or even just by sharing their links.

* * *

Other writers don’t have stand out, standalone pieces in quite the same way but rather produce a steady flow of interesting stuff throughout the year.

Martin Taylor in particular deserves a shout out for his ongoing chronicling of the minutiae of pub life.

We’re always pleased to see new posts from Tandleman, too, as one of the few other survivors of the class of 2007.

You know we always read The Beer Nut for sharp, snarky tasting notes.

And, on the beer history front, we love the work Liam is doing to demystify Irish brewing.

Categories
opinion

The strange case of the 40 litre limit

There’s been a bit of debate in the wake of last week’s Budget: was the Government’s decision to set a 40 litre eligibility threshold for ‘draught relief’ a sinister plot, or evidence of carelessness?

Though we’re by no means experts on the workings of Treasury and Number 11 Downing Street, between us, we have accumulated a bit of experience in this area.

During our time as civil servants, we were both involved in spending reviews and Budgets; Jess has been on teams auditing HMRC; and Ray spent the past three years writing about tax, including editing technical reports on budgets and fiscal statements.

With all that in mind, we reckon this is more cock-up than conspiracy but driven, in part, by biases built into the system.

First, in our experience, Treasury officials are by no means all mathematical geniuses and seasoned veterans, as you might imagine. They’re often careerist twentysomethings who studied arts subjects – assertive, confident, but not necessarily focused on detail.

Secondly, the extent to which budgets are put together in a panic shouldn’t be overlooked.

The details of the speech are often being finessed minutes before the Chancellor stands up in the house.

Policies are often announced before they’ve been fully worked up or, conversely, fully worked up but not announced at all, only coming to light when tax nerds read the background paperwork.

And the driver is very often “I need something that sounds generous I can announce – and I need it pronto!” (See also: veteran political adviser Damian McBride’s account of how Small Brewers’ Relief came to be back in 2002.)

Thirdly, we reckon we can guess how the 40 litre threshold was arrived at: someone at Treasury or on the Chancellor’s team asked someone at HMRC to tell them the usual size of a beer keg. 

Based on the fact that the vast majority of beer duty collected in the UK comes from national and multinational suppliers they said, “Well, usually 50 litres, I suppose.”

And how much is in a standard ale cask?

“That’d be a firkin at just over 40 litres. But it’s more complicated than…”

That’ll do, no time for fussing over details, need to get the dogs ready for Rishi’s photoshoot.

Or it’s possible they just Googled it, like most people would, and got directed to Wikipedia.

If they did check these numbers with anyone in the industry, the chances are that they reached out to those with connections to the Government. That is, we’d guess, Conservative-supporting national brewers who ship most of their beer in larger containers.

Again, that’s not a conspiracy, as such, but, if true, shows why government-by-network can cause problems.

A further indication that this wasn’t carefully worked out to the Nth degree is how tentatively the policy has been stated. It’s not due to take effect until 2023 and what was actually announced in the Budget was a consultation.

Cynics will say “Consultations are meaningless – they’ve already made up their minds!” Again, in our experience, that’s not necessarily true.

It’s likely that this policy will be implemented in some form but there is an element here of the Government asking other people to do its homework.

That means it’s well worth lobbying and responding to these consultations.

Under this government we’ve already seen quite a few policies being rethought when the public responds with anything other than delight. They do like to be liked.

Categories
opinion

News, nuggets and longreads 9 October 2021: of data and donkeys

Here’s all the booze and pub writing that grabbed us in the past week, from hop substitutes to Pubtober.

The news that BrewDog’s mobile app left the personal data of more than 200,000 ‘Equity for Punks’ open to exploitation isn’t all that interesting to us in its own right. What is interesting is the sense that it’s yet another blow for a brewing company which is not, it seems fair to say, having a great year. ‘Move fast and break things’ doesn’t seem to be working. Which makes us wonder how long can it be before the founders think, sod this, and exit with their big comedy buy-out cheques.


Another bit of news: Brains is selling 99 pubs, including the famous City Arms in Cardiff. It had already entered into a partnership with Marston’s for the management of its pub estate. Again, not that interesting in its own right, perhaps, but indicative of the direction of travel for an old brewing company of a type which seems increasingly endangered.


Mark Johnson has emerged from a period of silence with an exasperated admonishment for those who bang on about how “you can’t get normal beer anywhere these days”:

Jarl is a good beer. Have I mentioned Jarl before? I like Jarl. I could see Jarl in every pub up and down the land and never tire of it. Am I repeating myself? I like Jarl… But still… I don’t actually want to drink Jarl all the time, despite previous suggestions. I like the variation and the choice. I like the current beer climate of irresistible opportunity… The idea that brewers could start pushing the idea of beer to the limit, in the ingredients used and the method undertaken to get there, was what drove the beer scene forward. Endless openings – the antithesis or even antidote to the rapidly declining pub scene.


For Craft Beer & Brewing Ryan Pachmayer provides an overview of the use of ‘liquid hop terpenes’ as an alternative to hops in brewing:

While many brewers are just trying to keep up with demand for their IPAs, Brandon Capps has had great success in using hop terpenes in some limited-release IPAs. The owner and founder of New Image Brewing, in the Denver suburb of Arvada, combines the terpenes with more conventional hops (in T-90 pellet form) to achieve the final flavor in several of his popular IPAs… “I’ve been using this as more of a finishing salt to date,” Capps says. He uses terpenes for up to 20 percent of the hop bill, focusing on the unique flavor contributions they bring to the base beer, in conjunction with conventional hops.


We’re not necessarily going to link to all of Eoghan Walsh’s ‘50 objects’ pieces but, frankly, this is one of the most interesting runs of beer writing we’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to be turn into a book, right? This week, he turned his attention to Schaarbeekse Kriek:

Schaarbeek is famous for two things: donkeys and cherries. The Brussels municipality, now largely residential, was once farmland. From the 12th century, donkeys (ezels in Dutch) were driven down the Ezelweg road, carrying produce for central Brussels’ food markets. The clacking of their hooves on cobblestone streets caused the people living there to shout “Daar zijn de ezels van Schaarbeek!” – “There go Schaarbeek’s donkeys!” Schaarbeek was the Ezelstad, Donkey Town, and its residents nicknamed ezels.

(Forget it, Jake – it’s Donkeytown.)


We’ve long said that the trick to maintaining or reviving a blog is to get a project. At Bring on the Beer Michael has declared this ‘Pubtober’ and is writing about a new pub each day, such as The Old Arcade in Cardiff:

The Old Arcade is a monument to the game with the odd-shaped ball. It is a celebration in pub form of rugby’s players and of the nations and clubs that have played it over the past 150 years. Every great day in Welsh rugby can be found here somewhere, and some of its darker ones too.

This is proper, old skool blogging which adds to the sum of human knowledge. We’ll certainly be checking these posts out next time we go exploring in Newport, Cardiff and around.


Mining historical sources, as ever, Gary Gillman highlights an interesting nugget: did brewery workers in Burton drink sour beer on the job?


Finally, from Twitter, a plug for this book, which we’re in, and have finally seen in the, er, pulp:

You can read more about it in the Guardian.

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday and Stan Hieronymus’s from Monday.

Categories
News opinion

News, nuggets and longreads 4 September 2021: Limbo, Dodo, Eko

Over the past week, we’ve bookmarked all the new writing on beer and pubs that struck us as especially interesting, from quiet pubs to treasure maps.

First, though, notes from the frontline. Dave Hayward, of the shop and bar A Hoppy Place in Windsor, has written about the challenges faced by the trade in this strange time when things are open, but not normal:

This August Bank Holiday just gone has helped us to finish off the summer school holiday period of trading. The great unlocking. The first 6 weeks “restriction free”, wherein everything would go “back to normal”. How do you feel that went for you? It was an interesting time, certainly. But was it the reopening that so many in hospitality hoped for? I think that for nearly everyone – this inbetweenland has been pretty underwhelming… I think we should be talking about what’s left of our pubs – and what we need to do to recover things. I think we should be talking about how hundreds of breweries are cutting their noses off to spite their face. I think we should be talking about the damaging shift in consumer habits and how we should absolutely not be encouraging them.

And here’s another point of data, from The Dodo Micropub in West London:

We suspect lots of people are trying to second guess when other people are going to be in the pub so they can pick ‘the quiet night’. Things have yet to settle, for quite understandable reasons.


SOURCE: Eko Brewery.

At Hop Culture Hollie Stephens has profiled Anthony and Helena Adedipe’s Eko Brewery in London:

Eko Brewery derives its name from Eko, the original name of Lagos, the most populous city in Africa and Anthony’s family’s home. From the beginning, the pair both wanted the beers to reflect their heritage. Anthony is from West Africa. Helena is Congolese. “We wanted to incorporate that into what we do,” says Anthony. “There’s an element of risk in that because it hadn’t been done before. We were so keen to try it and [to] try and see if there was a market for African-inspired beer.” And now, thanks to Anthony and Helena’s tenacity, Eko Brewery is making huge waves in a sea of sameness… In homage to their African heritage, Anthony and Helena focus on brewing with classic African components. Traditionally brewed with ingredients such as maize, sorghum, and cassava (a starchy root vegetable, popular in Latin American, Caribbean, and African cuisines), African beer typically forgoes the hops. This means the beers are often sweet or sour. And they are sometimes fuller in form.


SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh/Brussels Beer City.

Eoghan Walsh’s epic tour through the history of Brussels beer continues with entry number 8 on the statue of Karel van Lotharingen in the Grand Place:

At 7pm on August 13, 1695, the skies above Brussels commenced to rain fire down on the city. French king Louis XIV, frustrated with the progress of his Nine Years’ War, determined to make an example of Brussels. For three days the Sun King’s troops pummelled the city with a barrage of cannonballs and firebombs, stopping only once, briefly, to reload. To keep their aim true they used the ornate spires of Brussels’ Town Hall, on the Grand Place, as their target… The buildings around the Town Hall were obliterated, including the one that used to stand at number 10: the Maison de l’Arbre d’Or (“House of the Golden Tree”), known locally as the Brauwershuys and home to Brussels’ brewers’ guild.


Three pints of beer, each slightly different.

There’s been a lot of chat about beer styles in the past week or so – this being one of those topics that comes up on the beer blogging randomiser every couple of years. This time round, among familiar arguments, there are some new angles and interesting nuggets:


SOURCE: Franz D. Hofer/Tempest in a Tankard.

Franz D. Hofer has shared detailed notes on Augsburg and its beer at Tempest in a Tankard. We visited Augsburg in 2007 and this post, as is often the case with Franz’s writing, makes us want to go back:

No one knows how Die Drei Königinnen (The Three Queens) got its name, not even the owner. But the patrons who flock to this lively Wirtshaus don’t seem much bothered by these arcane details of local history, devoting their attention instead to the beer and satisfying food on offer at this chic tavern… Located in a quiet neighbourhood just beyond the southern edge of the Fuggerei, Die Drei Königinnen also conceals a secluded treasure of a beer garden in its courtyard. You’ll feel like you’ve been let in on a secret as you drink in the autumn sunshine shimmering through the leaves of the majestic trees rising up over this small oasis of calm. Near the back of the garden is a covered seating area held aloft by slender iron columns. This was once an outdoor bowling alley, a historical remnant that stands as a testament to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century leisure pursuits.


SOURCE: Martin Taylor/Google Maps.

Pub ticker Martin Taylor is one of the most consistent bloggers in the game and we often find ourselves referring to his back catalogue when we want to know what a pub in a strange town is really like. Now, he’s started to put together a map so you can more easily find what he’s written about particular places.


Finally, from Twitter, notes from the holiday we wish we’d had…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday and the one Stan Hieronymus shared on Monday.

Categories
opinion

BOOK REVIEW: 50 Years of CAMRA

The decision by CAMRA to commission a warts-and-all official history by Laura Hadland made something of a statement: it is keen to balance celebration with reflection – and perhaps ready to show its sensitive underbelly to the world.

50 Years of CAMRA (RRP £16.99, 245 pages) will be most interesting to CAMRA members, either nostalgic or curious, and to scholars of British beer history.

It is built around a combination of archive research, with special emphasis on What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper; and interviews with longtime CAMRA members, both in leadership positions and the rank-and-file.

Until now, we’d have said our own Brew Britannia offered the most detailed and balanced account of the early years of CAMRA, but Hadland’s book benefits from the space to zoom in on certain details that we had to summarise.

She also has input from founder member Graham Lees – something we never achieved, despite many grovelling emails.

Before opening the book, we had a particular test in mind: what might she say about the founding date of CAMRA?

Researching Brew Britannia we worked out that the official founding date didn’t tie in with another detail of the story – that the founders read a story in the Mirror about the poor quality of British beer on their way home from the trip to Ireland on which CAMRA was formed.

It’s a minor detail, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the grand narrative, but it is a flaw in what for decades was the accepted origin tale.

In a footnote to Brew Britannia we suggested that the trip must have been a week later than supposed and that the article probably prompted the founding of CAMRA; Hadland, based on new testimony from founder member Michael Hardman, argues otherwise.

What matters to us, really, is that this point is considered at all. It’s a sign of due diligence.

Throughout the book, similar rigour is displayed in terms of pinning down the facts, with reference to original sources and first-hand testimony.

Elsewhere, criticisms of the Campaign, arising both internally and from outside, are clearly set down and thoroughly interrogated.

“With nearly 200,000 members it is not surprising that CAMRA cannot always present a united front”, she writes. What it does present, through this book, is the ability to look at itself with clear eyes.

From institutional sexism to the constant debate over the organisation’s focus (is it ale, pubs, or something else?) and the failure of the CAMRA Revitalisation project, Hadland makes space for thoughtful comments from veterans, newcomers and objective outsiders.

Most talk sense, even if they often contradict each other, giving the sense that the instinct to debate and to compromise are among CAMRA’s strengths, not its weaknesses.

Although clearly and engagingly written, the book isn’t a narrative history to be read from cover-to-cover. Instead, it is arranged around big themes, each chapter or section bouncing the reader back and forth through the decades like a tiddly timelord.

We were particularly pleased to see space given to topics such as the role of women in CAMRA over the years and to a note on the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers Group (LAGRAD) in 1995.

If you’re interested in the history (and future) of CAMRA, you’ll want this on your shelf. Every time you dip into it, you’ll learn some new detail; and as a reference, it will prove invaluable.

We bought our copy from the CAMRA bookshop. It’s also available via, for example, bookshop.org.