Here’s all the best reading about beer and pubs from the past, including pieces on racial equity and robot waiters.
First, a bit of what looks suspiciously like good news: people are still opening interesting pubs and bars.
The bit of Bristol where we live (for the moment…) has just got its first proper, full-on craft beer bar. Sidney & Eden is a spin-off from local specialist beer shop Bottles & Books and opened a few weeks ago. Every time we’ve walked past, it’s been as close to rammed as current circumstances permit.
For Vittles, Paul Crowther provides a neat summary of what went wrong with the 1989 anti-monopoly Beer Orders, focusing on how it all but destroyed three beloved regional beers:
You might think the disconnection of Newcastle Brown, Boddingtons and Bass from their birthplaces was a justified casualty in the breaking up of the Big Six because it would surely lead to smaller, local breweries taking their place, de-monopolising the market? Well, that’s not what happened; in fact, the opposite happened… Allied Breweries merged with the Danish company Carlsberg, the fourth largest brewer in the world responsible for 6% of all beer sold worldwide. Grand Metropolitan merged with Guinness to form drinks giant Diageo, which now focuses on its spirit brands and is the world’s second largest distiller.
An award-winning sahti brewer. SOURCE: Lars Marius Garshol.
Several people claimed that out in the countryside some of the sahti brewers sell their beer illegally, and that this trade is of considerable proportions. Some of the illegal brewers sell as much as 50,000 litres a year, they claimed. Even though it’s illegal the locals tend to quietly accept it, and usually there is a code of honour involved. No selling to under-age drinkers, for example.
For Ferment, the promo mag of a beer subscription service, Katie Mather reflects on what we can learn from the suggestion that robot waiters should have been deployed during lockdown:
What a great idea, if all you credit serving staff with is the physical act of bringing your food and drinks to the table without major incident… Do bar staff enjoy their work? I can’t speak for everyone, but I do. But can it also be the worst? Absolutely. And does it pay well? Hahahaha.
Prof. Sir Geoff Palmer — Professor emeritus in the school of life sciences at Heriot-Watt University and human rights activist: A black person is sometimes not even aware of the options. I wasn’t. I got my A-levels and I took a degree—I took botany because I thought it was easy! The most dangerous place for racism is in the interview room. Somebody could look at that [Edward Colston] statue and say they defaced my statue, I’m not going to have them in my place. That’s how racism works, it’s as simple as that. The fact is all the prejudices of the person who is interviewing will influence that decision.
Tandleman provides an honest account of the fretting and excitement that surrounds every pub trip these days, especially if there’s any travel involved:
I was the only one that had been to Bridgnorth before, but my tales of Black Country beer, cheese and onion cobs the size of a baby’s head and pork pies convinced them that this fine market town in Shropshire was the place to be. To sweeten the deal we stayed at the Golden Lion, run by Holden’s Brewery, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing actually. This is a tale of more or less unfettered joy. Of ale supped and food scoffed.
Finally, from Twitter, an extremely tickling image:
Just realised it's 25 years to the day since I became a resident of Dublin. That calls for a tiny celebration. pic.twitter.com/gqh2jYw4N3
In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.
First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.
In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.
You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.
With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.
The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.
They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.
They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.
It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:
[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.
This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.
If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.
As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.
In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.
The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.
This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:
His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)
Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.
Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.
Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.
Not everyone welcomed this new development.
“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.
The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:
A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.
And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)
In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.
Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.
For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.
SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.
We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:
The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.
Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.
In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)
Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)
In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”
With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.
So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.
The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.
What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.
But that’s pop culture for you.
This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.
In 1954, Barclay Perkins commissioned architects and designers Sylvia and John Reid to bring it up to date by taking it back to the newly fashionable 19th century… Accordingly, they told the brewery that they didn’t intend to create a straightforward pastiche or reconstruction of a Victorian pub. Instead, their plan was to identify what made pubs feel pubby and then achieve the same atmosphere with modern materials and craft.
The game in 2020 is all about confidence and reassurance and there was plenty of that at The Magnet. There were enough staff on to intercept every guest and cheerfully direct them to the sanitiser and guestbook, along with table service that felt as if they were doing you a favour rather subjecting you to a restrictive regime. Personality goes a long way, doesn’t it?
We posted a few bits and pieces on Patreon including notes on brewers playing cricket, Watney’s in New York and struggling pubs.
There were quite a few Tweets, like this:
“On the corner of East India Dock Road and Stainsby Road stands the Stainsby Tavern, Watney house, and one of the few buildings in the area which survived the blitz… it's tenant, Miss Winifred Wilson, has held her licence for 30 years… pic.twitter.com/0dUNQ5Bja0
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the fathers of English romanticism, had opinions on beer and pubs, it turns out.
I ought to have known this. Growing up in Somerset, where Coleridge lived for a few important years of his life, you get a decent dose of him, not least because every other building has a plaque saying he stayed or preached there.
Then I ended up studying him formally from the ages of 16 to 21, and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on… Er, actually, I can’t quite remember. I know I had to slog through the Biographia Literaria and every scrap of poetry, even the unfinished bits, to make what I’m sure was a very compelling argument about something or other.
The problem is, I was very much done with bloody Coleridge after all that and my interest in him and his work didn’t overlap with my fascination with beer.
That is until a couple of weeks ago when my little brother very kindly sent me a book in the post – a copy of Coleridge Among the Lakes & Mountains, a selection of the poet’s letters and journal entries, published in 1991.
As often seems to happen these days, I opened it at random and at once saw a reference to beer:
Saturday, May 11th, 10 o’clock, we left Göttingen, seven in party… We ascended a hill N.E. of Göttingen, and passed through areas surrounded by woods, the areas now closing in upon us, now opening and retiring from us, until we came to Hessen Dreisch… They were brewing at the inn – I enquired and found that they put three bushels of malt and five large handfuls of hops to the hogshead. The beer as you may suppose, but indifferent stuff.
My immediate thought was, wait, was Coleridge some sort of proto beer geek? Am I going to find beer on every other page of this book?
Well, we’ll get to that, but, first, let’s unpick the quotation above and see if we can find the place he drank at.
Coleridge wasn’t, it turns out, very good at German place names. There is nowhere called ‘Dreisch’ north east of Göttingen, although there is a Dreiech near Frankfurt. In the same entry, he mentions ‘Rudolphshausen’ and ‘Womar’s Hausen’, neither of which seem to exist either, even on older maps.
Kathleen Coburn identifies the latter as Wollbrandshausen, though, which does make sense, especially when you plot a route from Göttingen to Wollbrandshausen on Google Maps and it happens to take you through Radolfshausen.
Tracking back through the route Coleridge describes, through ‘coombes very much like those about Stowey and Holford… [with] great rocky fragments which jut out from the hills’ via ‘a lofty fir grove’, we reckon Röringen might be the place where Coleridge stopped for his mediocre lunchtime pint. But that’s a bit of a guess. And there’s no obvious old inn there.
So, further suggestions are welcome, especially from Göttingen locals, German speakers who might be able to make sense of Coleridge’s mangling of the local place names, or experts in German history.
While Coleridge was exploring, his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth were hanging out in Goslar, which they hated. Coleridge passed through and wasn’t impressed either and, though this book doesn’t include his thoughts on Gose, it turns out he did translate a bit of German doggerel on the subject:
This Goslar Ale is stout and staunch;
But sure ‘tis brewed by Witches!
Scarce do you feel it warm in paunch,
‘Odsblood, ‘tis in your Breeches!
Just in case you’re not a trained literary analyst like wot I am, it’s suggesting that Gose makes you shit yourself.
As for the recipe, I’ve got no idea why Coleridge thinks it ought to be obvious that beer would be ‘indifferent’. Bushels of malt, handfuls of hops – is he saying it’s not hoppy enough? Too sweet?
Coleridge on British beer and pubs
The next big question: does Coleridge have lots to say about beer elsewhere? Well, no, not really. He was much more into laudanum and laughing gas, which he got from his mate Humphrey Davy.
But there are some nuggets.
In Llangynog, Wales, in July 1794, he had lunch at the village inn, enjoying ‘hashed mutton, cucumber, bread and cheese and beer, and had two pots of ale – the sum total of the expense being sixteen pence for both of us!’ Note the distinction between beer and ale, there.
In 1801, he briefly became obsessed with the idea of making productive use of acorns:
I am convinced that this is practicable simply by malting them… last week as I was turning up some ground in my garden, I found a few acorns just beginning to sprout – and I ate them. They were, as I had anticipated, perfectly sweet and fine-flavoured… I have no doubt that they would make both bread and beer, of an excellent and nutritious quality.
In the same year, he went walking around Sca Fell in Cumbria, and on 4 August stopped at a lonely alehouse at ‘Bonewood’ (Boonwood) above Gosforth where he ‘drank a pint of beer’. And that’s it – that’s the review. You might expect better tasting notes from a poet, mightn’t you? I wonder if the pub was what is now The Red Admiral.
In August 1802, he stopped at The Blacksmith’s Arms, Broughton Mills, where he ‘Dined on oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries’, which sounds pretty good.
Finally, in August 1803, he went to Gretna Green:
A public house with a gaudy daub of Hope. ‘To crown returning Hope’ – no beer! – What then? Whisky, gin and rum – cries a pale squalid girl at the door, a true offspring of whisky-gin-and-rum drinking parents.
It’s been nice to get reacquainted with Coleridge and to be reminded of the pleasure of dipping into a randomly chosen book with beer in mind.
Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from curfews to critical theory.
First, the big news in the UK has been the rather sudden introduction of a 10 pm closing time for pubs, as part of a tightening of restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. There must be a belief that this will help but the scientists say it wasn’t their idea.
And it might have been good to see the Chancellor announce additional support for pubs in his not-a-Budget speech on Thursday; as it is, an extension of the VAT cut, which doesn’t apply to booze, was about it.
Unfortunately, the latest data (PDF) does seem to indicate that eating out is a problem:
Since 10 August, people who test positive are also asked about places they have been and activities they have done in the days before becoming unwell; eating out was the most commonly reported activity in the 2-7 days prior to symptom onset.
Still, at least the contact tracing app that was due in May has finally arrived. It seems pretty slick, the privacy setup is sound and when we used it to check into The Drapers Arms last night, it worked like a dream.
For Good Beer HuntingLily Waite has generated a lot of excitement with a piece applying critical theory to beer. Now, frankly, we struggled to follow some of the arguments, but the sense of bewilderment was enjoyable in its own right. And it was certainly fun watching Beer Twitter enthuse about something, rather than grumbling. Anyway, here’s a taster:
Broadly, postmodernism is characterized by skepticism toward reason. It’s seen as a reaction to the thoughts and values of modernism, which was a late-19th-century and early-20th-century philosophical, intellectual, and artistic movement… Postmodernism manifests differently in different fields, but broadly, it’s a school of thought that wields irony, distrust, and even anarchy against the authoritative “truths” of modernism… And that’s where Lucky Charms IPA comes in.
Proof that Lily’s piece is thought-provoking can be found in the fact that it provoked thoughts from Dave S at Brewing in a Bedsitter. He wonders if the Sarah Thornton’s concept of subcultural capital might apply to beer as well as clubbing:
This is inspired by the idea of cultural capital, which the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced in the 70s to describe the accumulation of knowledge, cultural artifacts, behaviour and social contacts that can help “the right sort of chaps” to smooth their way through life, particularly in the public and professional spheres, even without needing to be particularly rich in cash. Thornton’s subcultural relocation of the idea refers to tangible and intangible stuff that makes a clubber “hip” – the clothes, the dance moves, the hairstyle, the collection of white-label vinyl, and the stock of stories about legendary clubs and raves they’ve been to and scene insiders that they’ve hung out with.
Veteran beer blogger Al Reece has decided to invite guest posts from beer writers whose voices need raising up. First up it’s Ruvani on her experience as a second-generation South Asian immigrant discovering the British beer scene in the 2000s:
Back in 2005 I liked beer, but was honestly a bit more of a wine gal. Walking into Earl’s Court that day, something began to change. That huge cavernous space, not a pretty events arena by anybody’s estimation, but so alive and buzzing with the hubbub of beer nerds poised over their programmes, clamouring at each of the endless progression of bars, full of questions, specifications, speaking – or so it felt – their own language. I was fascinated. I wanted to be on the inside, to learn how to navigate this enormous room full of more beer, more types of beer, more breweries than I could ever have imagined could exist in the geographical confines of Great Britain.
US magazine Craft Beer & Brewing magazine has polled its readers to find out how their buying habits have changed during the pandemic. It turns out they’ve become more conservative in their tastes.
Finally, from Twitter, there’s this sign of the times:
Strange sight – City Inspectors, working through Soho, looking for illegal speakeasies open after the 10pm cutoff. pic.twitter.com/BpfOhCgUfD