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opinion

What needs to change and what can consumers do?

It’s been an interesting, emotionally intense few weeks for the beer industry – first in the US, now in the UK – as stories of sexual harassment and bullying have come flooding out.

These conversations are important, even if nobody much enjoys having them. Much of the behaviour described by whistle-blowers is appalling and, in some cases, clearly criminal.

There’s a certain catharsis in the very act of sharing these experiences, especially for people who have doubted themselves. Comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

It’s also helpful, every now and then, to have a discussion that establishes a collective sense of where the boundaries lie today, right now. It feels as if the days when you could disguise insults and harassment as ‘banter’, or gloss over predation as ‘workplace romance’, might finally be passing.

Sifting the stories

There seem to be a few broad types of personal experience emerging in the Instagram stories and surrounding discussion and it’s perhaps worth shaking those into categories.

First, there are relatively minor irritations – a staple of the conversation around sexism in beer. Like the way when people meet us together, they often address questions to Ray rather than Jess. It’s good to air frustration about this and, again, remind people that it’s fucking annoying, but it doesn’t feel as urgent or serious as…

Category two, where individual employees have clearly behaved atrociously. We’ve all worked with people who were difficult or routinely inappropriate. But when it comes to talking about specific incidents like this, things get tricky. Is there a ‘two sides to every story’ situation in play? Were incidents reported and dealt with as they should have been?

Unfortunately, given that it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual HR cases, a brewery that has dealt with a specific issue will look, to outsiders, much like one that’s covering it up.

It’s category three, with regard to breweries or hospitality businesses with cultures that are fundamentally broken, where there’s most room to make substantial, far-reaching changes. These are organisations where:

  • There is a failure to deal with category two incidents and people like that keep getting hired.
  • Problematic behaviour is modelled by founders and senior managers, bolstered by a cult of personality which means they’re never challenged.
  • Getting things done is prized over doing things properly.
  • HR is not taken seriously and there is apparently limited investment in professional HR support.
  • Staff, perhaps young and in their first management roles, aren’t given the training and support they need to feel confident in tackling inappropriate behaviour.
  • The philosophy that ‘the customer is always right’ leaves staff feeling powerless.

What needs to change?

We hope that UK breweries which have been named in the stories Siobhan has collected take this seriously, even if their gut instinct is to say, “Hey, that’s just not true!” Or, “It’s more complicated than that.”

If you don’t recognise your company culture in the stories you’re hearing, talk to your team, or give them a way to give feedback anonymously.

If, on reflection, you can see where the accusations are coming from, do something about it – and that has to mean more than a mealy-mouthed non-apology on social media.

How are your working practices and policies actually going to change to prevent this happening again? Are there people in management who need to step back or step down? And could your management team benefit from being more diverse? If so, how will you make that happen?

Given that, again, it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual incidents, clear, unambiguous public statements of changes in policy are the best alternative.

What can consumers do?

Or, to put that another way, it’s hard to buy products only from successful businesses which have never hired a dickhead or two; which aren’t run by somewhat self-obsessed bigheads; whose staff don’t resent management and/or dislike their work some or all of the time; and which don’t work staff as hard as possible for the lowest wages the market will permit.

With that in mind, we just don’t think it’s really fair to expect consumers to carefully dissect the HR record and ethics of every brewery or bar they buy from.

If you conclude, from information you gather from trusted sources, that you don’t want to support a particular brewery – that you just can’t enjoy the beer knowing what you know – then that’s consumer power in action.

In a sense, this is a version of a conversation film and music fans have been having for years. Can you enjoy the Beatles if you believe John Lennon was abusive to women as a young man? Does the way Uma Thurman was treated on the set of Kill Bill mean your Tarantino box set needs to go in the bin?

Smart people have reached some interesting conclusions on this:

  1. It’s up to you, as an individual, to decide if knowing how the creator behaves makes it impossible for you to enjoy the work. That’s the only question you need to answer, for yourself.
  1. Like it or not, we do, consciously or subconsciously, make some allowances for the passage of time. If we only read, watched or listened to art created by people who never transgressed against modern standards, we’d have very little left.
  1. Films aren’t the work of a Single Great Man. Ditch Hitchcock (there’s an argument) and you throw out the work of an awful lot of brilliant, blameless people with him, including plenty of women.

It isn’t always possible to separate art from the artist, or beer from the brewer, but what we can all do is get out of the habit of repeating that Great Man narrative.

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14, we let ourselves get drawn into to an extent as we tried to pin down exactly who was responsible for specific important innovations or decisions. Even then, though, we did try to resist gushing, or suggesting that our subjects were heroes or saints.

Tell stories, sure, and paint portraits of people – the human angle is always interesting – but don’t think you know a person based on two hours of stage-managed PR flesh-pressing.

This conversation is already driving some interesting responses, from conferences to talk of unions to, we think, plenty of meaningful reflection. In the long run, that’s what we need.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 29 May 2021: Sahti, Grodziskie, Polish porter

Here’s everything interesting about beer and pubs we spotted and bookmarked in the past week, from bottle shops to brewing in Finland.

Two weeks into reopening of pubs for indoor drinking, there’s been a lot of talk about staff shortages in hospitality. We first noticed this not through Beer Twitter but via LinkedIn, of all places, as individuals raised red flags about their own ability to recruit. It’s now been reported at various places from Beer Today to the BBC:

Latest figures from global recruitment firm Broadbean Technology found that in April, vacancies in UK hospitality soared 77% from the previous month. However, compared with April 2020, the number of applications slumped 82%… “The decline in application numbers is a concern and could hinder the growth of the hospitality sector in the immediate future,” said Broadbean’s managing director Alex Fourlis… He said that, as work dried up during the pandemic many people chose to leave the sector and firms now face a challenge enticing them back… But he added: “Perhaps more concerningly, though, this drop in applications follows the UK’s exit from the EU and potentially suggests that Brexit has had a long-lasting impact on hospitality.”


The shelves in a bottle shop

For Pellicle Neil Walker has picked up a thread from conversations that have taken place over the past few months – what’s it like to run an independent beer shop in England in 2021?

I’m not alone in tracing my journey in beer back to stepping through the small wooden doors of Beer Ritz… This was why the news in July 2020 that its shop in Headingley was closing came as a gut punch. Even a well-loved shop such as this is not immune to the difficulties of making a living selling beer in the UK, with sales increasingly moving online, and supermarkets undercutting prices at every opportunity… The void in pricing between supermarkets and bottle shops is forcing independents out of business, and long-term could even reduce the range of beers available to us drinkers.


Lager beer in the 19th century.

At Good Beer Hunting historian Brian Alberts tells the story of how lager ended up on trial in 19th century America:

“It may burst a man, but it will not make him drunk.” So said Solomon Keyser’s expert witness. The Petersburg, Virginia saloon owner stood trial in summer 1855 for keeping a disorderly beer hall, a fancy way of saying he’d sold Lager beer the wrong way and violated local liquor laws. But the public wasn’t really interested in what Keyser had or hadn’t done. The real defendant in his tria – and the actual mystery everyone wanted to solve—was Lager beer itself. Keyser’s defense was straightforward, if a little strange. He claimed that liquor laws didn’t really apply to him because those laws regulated intoxicating beverages, and that Lager beer – the only alcoholic beverage he sold – didn’t intoxicate.

This line – that you couldn’t really get drunk on lager – was one we came across when researching our own short book Gambrinus Waltz, about the rise of lager in 19th century London. It’s interesting to contrast that with the panic, a hundred years later, over lager louts.


Olavi.
SOURCE: Lars Marius Garshol.

It was a treat to spot a new post from Lars Marius Garshol in the feed this week. In it, the author of Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing provides a glimpse into the world of Olavi Viheroja, a 70-year-old “known for being the most successful brewer in the history of the Finnish sahti championship”:

Once everything was in the fermentor, Olavi was ready to add the hops. He took a small saucepan full of hot water, adding one handful of hops to it. Tuula interjected that “I use two handfuls, since my hands are smaller.” Then Olavi used the lid as a filter and poured all the water out. So he was basically just scalding the hops in water to sanitize them. Then the hops were dropped into the fermentor, effectively dry-hopping his sahti. This handful of hops was the only spice of any kind added at any point… The fermentor had no lid, but was covered with a white blanket, which [his daughter] Tuula said was called kaljasaavinpeitto. Literally ‘beer cover’ or ‘beer blanket’. She chuckled and added that “if a woman’s shirt is really ugly you can say it looks like a kaljasaavinpeitto”. Sadly, throughout the rest of the trip I never had occasion to make use of the word.


Old map of Warsaw
SOURCE: Baedeker.

Gary Gillman continues to explore Eastern Europe, this week shining a light on an English-owned porter brewery in Warsaw:

[The] Hall brewery… endured for much of the 19th century. One advert claimed a founding year of 1821. This is credible as in 1822 a Polish journal of news and opinion, Rozmaitosci, mentioned the brewery… At various times, porter, double stout, double beer (which probably was stout), mild ale, March beer, and a malt extract are advertised. Perhaps the last was a no- or low-alcohol beer… No lager – as such – is mentioned, no pale ale. The ad from 1885 reads in part: “Porter double Stout, Gorzki. Piwo Angielskie, mild Ale, slodkie.” So, the porter is ‘bitter’, or gorzki, the English mild ale ‘sweet’, or slodkie. The address is given as 72 Nowolipie Street in Warsaw. During WW II Nowolipie was in the Nazi-dictated Jewish ghetto, as Nowolipie was mostly a Jewish district before the war. There seems no Jewish connection to the Halls themselves, however.

We’d be surprised if Martyn Cornell doesn’t cover this in his upcoming book on porter and stout which, as far as we can tell, is going to be a bit of a beast.


Piwo Grodziskie

Kevin Kain, meanwhile, has found a niche writing in loving detail about the vessels from which we drink our beer. His latest piece is on the distinctive but rarely seen Grodziskie glass:

In its heyday, some compared Grodziskie to Champagne, perhaps in an attempt to elevate its status. It did have a somewhat similar profile relating to color, clarity, and effervescence. Grodziskie was referred to as the “Champagne of Poland”, and the glasses that became associated with it in many ways resembled Champagne glasses of that era. They’re also quite similar to certain Pilsner glass styles. The similarity between these was so great that they were commonly listed next to each other in catalogs… Some historic examples include a groove feature at the bottom of the glass, which was common in glassware in the early 1900s. These are referred to in the German catalogs as “Rippen-Schliff” and “Pflaumecken”, which Google translates to “rib-cut” and “plum wedges” respectively.

Of course having seen Kevin’s pictures, we must now have one for our collection.


Finally, from Twitter, via Nick Goodwin, an interesting initiative to promote local pubs from Sevenoaks District Council:

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

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20th Century Pub bristol pubs

20th Century pubs in 21st Century Bristol

We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.

We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.

Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.

The excellent Historic England publication The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Public House in Bristol by Rebecca Preston and Fiona Fisher, from 2015, provides a helpful summary of how things played out here:

Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.

A Victorian-Edwardian pub.
The Cambridge Arms, Redland, by Edward Gabriel, 1900.

However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. The Cambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.

Categories
pubs

Pubs and beer all spick and span

With a week off work we finally managed to make it to a few pubs the week before last – and, more importantly, get our hands on some cask ale served as it should be. The experience has given us reason to feel optimistic.

First, the beer has been outstandingly good even in pubs where there’s no particular reason to expect that to be the case.

Perhaps it’s absence making the heart grow fonder, or the heart overruling the palate, but we don’t think so.

It might be a phenomenon observed by Martin Taylor and others last summer, though: cleaner than usual lines and everyone putting their best foot forward.

Boltmaker

The Butcombe Bitter at The Colston Arms was always reliably decent but, a couple of Saturdays ago, tasted like the showroom display pint with all the optional extras. Leafy hop character, cracker-crust malt, a hint of rustic mystery from the yeast… A great way to break the cask fast.

At the same pub, Timothy Taylor Boltmaker tasted as good as we’ve ever had it and Wye Valley WPA was polished, peach-perfumed, golden perfection.

It was on the Monday when we schlepped out to South Gloucestershire to meet Ray’s brother and partner, however, that we really started to notice some promising signs. Literally, that is.

We walked past pubs that had previously struck us as tatty, or on their last legs, but which had clearly received fresh coats of paint and smart refurbs – the one upside to being closed for several months, we suppose. And perhaps, in some cases, they’d also benefited from investing government support grants.

Tribute

Our destination was The White Harte in Warmley, an already-smart almost-country pub which has gained a large, sturdy teepee-type covering over its beer garden – a feature that helps it comply with COVID-19 regulations, of course, but which will also no doubt be helpful in English summers to come.

Though, as with Timothy Taylor, we’ve still got St Austell on the naughty step for last year’s beer duty reform shenanigans we were glad to be offered Tribute as the only cask ale. Again, it tasted like the Tributest Tribute that ever Tributed – flowery, fresh, full of electric energy.

Finally, towards the end of our week off, we walked across country from Pensford to Keynsham, hoping we might be able to find a pub with space for us on spec. The Lock Keeper, just outside town, is a Young’s pub. It has a large beer garden with grass, trees and the sound of a fast-flowing river – almost up to German standards. 

Masks, sanitiser and check-ins notwithstanding, there was a sense of business as usual. We’ve all got used to this and, at least in more sedate pubs, the processes have been nailed.

The pints of Young’s Ordinary we ordered arrived within about 30 seconds of hitting ‘Submit’ on the app. (Will table service disappear after all this?) And, what do you know, they were extraordinarily good – summery hops, a long train of fresh-bread malt and a pleasing terminal dryness.

Proper Job

St Austell Proper Job? Also outstanding. Clean is the word we keep coming back to. You know how you don’t think the windows need cleaning but then you get them done and suddenly there’s twice as much light? Something like that.

On our final Friday off work we took a train to Bath and walked for a few hours over the hills that look down on the city, re-entering via Lansdown and The Hare & Hounds. There, with a view of what felt like most of England, we came back to Butcombe Bitter. And, again, it was to exhibition standard – and certainly the right beer for that place, at that time.

Next up, we suppose, pints inside a Bristol pub. We haven’t braved it yet – we’re both first-dosers and quite happy sitting outside, even when the weather is rough – but we can’t deny we’re excited at the prospect.

Categories
News

News, nuggets and longreads 22 May 2021: war, capitalism, reckonings

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that struck as notable in the past week, from Przemysl to Zoigl.

In the wake of the recent expose via Instagram of sexual harassment in, primarily, the US beer industry, Siobhan is calling for stories from those working in the UK. Again, Instagram is the medium. Already, you can see why this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often in the UK, though: some people are naming breweries and individuals and those stories are being contested by others who were involved. While we can understand the desire to see names named, legally, it’s tricky – and we feel slightly nervous even linking to the Instagram story. What’s more important, arguably, is the universality of the experiences – sleazy older managers abusing their power; junior-ranking and/or early-career women feeling powerless and vulnerable; businesses whose HR function hasn’t kept up with their growth; and a belief in the principle that ‘the customer is always right’ leading to inaction when action is clearly called for.


A Zoigl star in Bavaria.
SOURCE: Tempest in a Tankard.

At Tempest in a Tankard Franz D. Hofer writes about the German beer tradition of Zoigl – what is it, really, and why does it matter?

Suffice it to say, Zoigl is much more than a kind of beer. Rather, it’s a cultural drinking experience like no other. It starts with the way Zoigl is brewed and extends to the convivial atmosphere of the Zoiglstube, a living room-like tavern where locals and out-of-towners gather to drink Zoigl beer that the proprietor serves straight from the cellar. Just look for the six-pointed star (Zoiglstern) hung outside of houses that are serving beer on that particular day… Zoigl begins life in the communal brewhouse, a brewing arrangement that dates back to the late Middle Ages. There, residents in possession of historic brewing rights take turns brewing beer that they’ll serve for a few days every month in their Zoiglstuben. Zoigl brewers fire the brewhouse with wood and cool their brew overnight in coolships. Early the next morning they haul it away in a special tank trailer for fermentation in their own cellars, often in open vessels. After several weeks of lagering, they serve their beer unfiltered and on draft straight from the lagering vessels. The result: a Kellerbier par excellence.


Craft beer shop

For Burum Collective Katie Mather gets into the heavy stuff: craft beer and ethical capitalism. She writes:

I have worked in marketing for over a decade, and in that time I’ve developed a talent for sniffing out social justice paint jobs. This in turn has allowed cynicism to grow where it’s not welcome — I desperately want to see beer businesses working to bring good into the industry, and to banish what’s rotten, and to believe that this is being done for the benefit of everyone who interacts with the industry. It’s difficult to see how anything that operates within a capitalist society could survive without adopting capitalist goals — and now I’ve started my own business, I’ve had to look at what exactly it is that I can achieve that works for good, while admitting I am aiming to turn a profit to support myself and my family.


A Belgian cafe

At Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh writes about being almost, but not quite, back at a favourite bar:

There it is. My usual spot. I can almost see it, there on the other side of the window. The scuffed green leather of the wooden bench. The dull brass cymbals hanging from the ceiling above the wobbly old table. I can almost hear my hips creak as they navigate the gap between bench and table. I can almost imagine the view, from the scratched blackboard above the brushed zinc of the bar and out through the blue window frame to the mass of tables under a rubenesque summer sky. Almost. But not quite. Instead, I’m on the outside looking in.


A pint of stout.

In the post-Brexit age, there’s something oddly resonant in Ron Pattinson’s account of the challenge of supplying Northern Ireland with beer during World War II:

The position of the Republic of Ireland was a weird one. It was neutral but, due to its proximity to the UK, couldn’t avoid the impact of the war… The trouble kicked off early in 1942, when the Irish government indicated that no licences would be issued for the export of Guinness unless the UK exported 200,000 tons of wheat to Ireland. The wheat was needed as Ireland was running short of grains for making bread… The short-term solution was to use 20,000 tons of barley which would have been used to brew beer for export and divert it to bread production. And to ban beer exports… This presented a huge problem for Northern Ireland, where between 70% and 80% of the beer sold was Guinness.


A random scattering of hops.

At Beer Food Travel Liam continues to mine the archives to paint a picture of hop-growing in Ireland with parts two and three of his chronicle, bringing us up to the present day:

What is very evident in all of this is how much we have forgotten of our hop-growing history – even those relatively recent forays into the industry. This is partially because regardless of the large-sounding acreage mentioned at times in these posts we really were operating on a tiny scale compared to other countries, but we did do it, and that is worth recording… The other reason we have forgotten so much is because we are poor curators of our edible and drinkable history. Perhaps too many history writers prefer to wallow in the endless tragedy of death, revolution and oppression than look behind those tall walls of woe into how we lived, what we ate or drank, and what we grew on our small island? I’m not sure, but I would argue we could and should do both.

We’re in a golden age for this kind of research; if you have a subscription to one or more newspaper archives, or a library card, you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it when it comes to the story of beer and brewing in your nation, county or town.


The phrases ‘untold’ and ‘forgotten’ are overused in blurb about historical writing – archivists and academic historians often tut disapprovingly and point at the work they’ve been doing for years. But, still, it does feel as if Gary Gillman is doing something important in marshalling information about the Jewish-owned breweries of Eastern Europe:

The JewishGen site reproduces the entry for Przemysl in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume II. This contains a good history of the city from a Jewish standpoint, and records the dire situation of the community in the 1930s, apart from the factories mentioned… This economic travail resulted from general interwar slump (1920s inflation, 1930s world depression), heavy taxation, anti-Semitic government actions, and the city’s inability to recover its prewar position in the field of military construction and supply. Many Jews had earned a living in that sector, and it substantially dried up between the wars… People were being squeezed, with many Jews departing for other cities in Poland or outside. One wonders what would have happened had the war not intervened, but anyway it did. It completely and forever destroyed the rich texture of Jewish life in the city and elsewhere in Poland.


Finally, from Twitter, a 20th century pub we’ve often swooned over:

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