“What are the best places to find stout in central London?” asks Stuart via Patreon. It’s a good question.
London is strongly associated, historically, with porter and stout but these days it’s hard to find, apart from Guinness which is, of course, almost everywhere.
Anthony Gladman recently wrote about the resurgence in London porter for Good Beer Hunting. That’s worth a read if you want to understand the broader context. It’s interesting how few examples he was actually able to point too, though.
Some that were around a decade or so ago have all but disappeared, too, such as Meantime and Fuller’s. The latter is a bottle-only product these days – and even so, rarely seen in pubs.
On our recent tour of classic London pubs we didn’t notice much dark beer on offer at all.
The Sutton Arms had a dark lager; The Carpenter’s Arms was all bitter and golden ale; and The Pride of Spitalfields had nothing darker than Fuller’s ESB.
We know that The Pembury Tavern, one of our favourite pubs in London, always seems to have Railway Porter, one of our favourite dark beers, on cask. But it’s hardly central.
The Royal Oak at Borough, still maybe the best pub in London, full stop, had Harvey’s wonderful porter on cask when we visited a couple of weeks ago. If not that, there are always bottles of Harvey’s wonderfully funky Imperial Stout behind the bar. We think this counts as central, even if it’s not West End.
Samuel Smith pubs, of which there are many in London, have an own-brand Guinness clone that’s we’ve always enjoyed. They may also have bottles of Oatmeal Stout, Taddy Porter and Imperial Stout in the fridge – but at a premium.
In general, visiting pubs with wider-than-usual beer ranges will probably pay off, especially in autumn and winter. Cask in Pimlico, for example, or The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green. If there’s going to be a guest stout or seasonal porter, this is when and where you’ll find it.
If you know of a London pub that always has porter or stout on offer, let us know in the comments below. ⬇⬇⬇
Does Britain do regional styles?
Stuart also asked a related question: “Can you visit a city and find places that specialise in a particular style of beer? What does this say about the UK if we don’t have the same definable geographic association as German cities?”
Every Saturday we round up the most interesting stories about beer and pubs we’ve encountered in the past week. This time we’ve got Belgian Pils, Munich Helles and Indian lager.
The Jennings’ brewery at Cockermouth, Cumbria, has arguably been on borrowed time since it was taken over by Marston’s in 2005. With Marston’s itself being taken over by Carlsberg in 2020 the expected has now happened, as Roger Protz reports:
The decision to axe the brewery stands in sharp distinction to the action taken by the then independent Marston’s group in November 2009 when the brewery was wrecked by floods in Cumbria. The chief executive of Marston’s, Stephen Oliver, phoned Jennings’ manager Gaynor Green and told her the brewery would be rescued and restored. £1 million was spent and the brewery reopened in February 2010… Now [Carlsberg Marston] says the brewery has not been running at full capacity and its beers will be transferred to Marston’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent. This shows a complete lack of support for Jennings, which, in common with all brewers of cask beer, saw sales hit badly during the lockdowns caused by the Covid pandemic.
On a sparkling morning in late September three years ago, I arrived in Vichte, West Flanders, to tour the wonderful old Verhaeghe family brewery, where they make the classic Flanders roodbruin, Duchesse de Bourgogne. Tour guide Katrien Martin and owner/brewer Peter Verhaeghe showed me the brewery and cellars, and we tasted through a line-up of their beers – all of them, or so I thought. Yet when I was preparing to leave around lunchtime, Martin mentioned a café nearby where I could have a glass of their pils… Pils? I had just toured the whole brewery, and nowhere did I see any mention of a pilsner… The beer had a curious quality – sweetish malts, zesty hops, a mineral note, and a quick, dry finish. It bore some resemblance to German pilsner, but the malts, the minerality, the finish – they were unusual. It was excellent, and I wondered why they didn’t talk about it.
Who was the first woman to brew commercially in America? Probably not Mary Lisle, argue Brian Alberts and Kate Bernot in a piece for Good Beer Hunting:
Miller Lite chose Mary Lisle because she’s regularly cited as the first recorded woman to brew beer commercially in American history. Google it, read popular beer history books, or dare to crack a few dry academic ones, and Mary Lisle’s story of inheriting her father’s Philadelphia brewery in 1734 appears time and again. But Lisle’s title as the first recorded woman brewer is a misconception, one of those assumed truths that gets repeated because it’s believed and believed because it gets repeated… In fact, records from early colonial America name many women who produced and sold beer before Mary Lisle.
It’s good to set yourself a challenge sometimes. Gary Gillman set out to discover the earliest lager brewed in India and has managed to push the date back from 1946 to 1928:
The reference to a Nathan system, and its start-up in 1928, point clearly to brewing lager. Nathan fermentation, the very process followed today around the world by the majority of breweries of any size, facilitates lager-brewing through strict temperature control and the cone-shape that collects precipitating yeast… An advert in the Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore), August 27, 1928, introduced Murree’s “Lion Brand Pilsener Beer”. It showed a drawing of the bottle, with anodyne ad copy touting the beer’s “delicate flavour” and “light and sparkling texture”.
Steffen, 45, may share a surname with a certain German political thinker, but unlike his namesake, he is 100% capitalist. Since 2006, he has deployed considerable guile and audacity to guide this brewery from a Giesing garage to a €20m (£16.8m) structure on the northern fringes of Munich, where the neighbours include BMW and Bayern Munich football club… His piece de resistance is inside a concrete box in the yard. It’s a well, costing €1m (£840,000) and plunging 152 metres into the earth, from where it extracts pure Munich water. Given that he could’ve used tap water, it seems a bit extravagant—except that, to produce Münchener Bier, a term protected under EU Law since 1998, he needed real Munich water (the tap stuff comes from the Mangfall Valley in the countryside). So he built the well and produced his first Helles in 2021.
We’ve enjoyed Phil’s check-ins during the past few years, giving honest readouts of his own feelings about pubs and beer at various stages of plague and lockdown. In his latest piece he writes about being ready to get out and about having finally had COVID himself, while also reflecting on what this means for his at-home beer stash:
50 beers at last count. Run out of Westmalle Tripels, too – ought to do something about that… Bulk buying is a habit that’s going to die hard, and for some beers I can’t see myself giving it up at all: I don’t know if there will ever be a time when I don’t want to have a De Ranke XX-bitter to hand. Or a Westmalle Tripel; or an M&S Czech lager; or an Orval… As it happens I’ve been bulk-buying Orval – and reordering before my stock runs out – since the first lockdown. As a result I’ve ended up with, oh, more than one or two bottles of it, including…
Finally, from Twitter, a nerve-shredding Avant Garde film…
Smiles Brewery came and went, leaving small traces of itself all over Bristol. As is so often the case, however, it is the breweries that failed in living memory whose stories are hardest to trace.
This post isn’t intended to be definitive. We just want to put together the facts that are available, with a little digging, so that others can find them – and perhaps tell us more.
Why does it matter? Because Smiles was one of the first UK microbreweries, founded in the CAMRA-led boom of the 1970s.
And because – it does not feel an exaggeration to put it this way – it was the pride of Bristol.
It’s also a story familiar to those who’ve tracked the craft beer boom of the past decade or so, with idealism eventually giving way to commercial pressure.
Let’s go back to the start, to the back room of a restaurant, at the tail end of the 1970s.
Smiles Brewery and Bell’s Diner
“It began as a plastic bucket effort,” John Payne, founder of Smiles, told beer journalist Brian Glover. “I ran a vegetarian restaurant with my girlfriend, and we thought we might as well sell decent beer with the meals.” 
Payne was born in Scotland in 1953 and came to Bristol later in life. When? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know. If you know, let us know in the comments below. And actually, was he Scottish? This is only mentioned in one source.
What we do know is that from November 1976 he was running Bell’s Diner alongside his partner, Shirley Anne Bell, and by 1977 was brewing on the side.
Another source, a 1980s promotional video for the brewery, of doubtful provenance, says in its voiceover that he “started brewing at university” and then got a “brewing bucket” for Christmas. (The video says this happened in 1978; it was more likely 1976.)
This makes sense. Home-brewing was booming in the late 1970s, with features in national newspapers and equipment increasingly easy to buy in high street shops.
In all accounts of these early days, there is a common theme: the reaction of restaurant customers to Payne’s homebrew was positive. That encouraged him to stick at it, and to think about going professional, on a larger scale.
He asked some pubs, free of any tie to the dominant local giant Courage, to try selling his beer over the bar and report back on customer reaction.  The response was good. It was time for phase two.
Smiles Brewery at Colston Yard
The back page of CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing for November 1977 contained a small story under the headline ‘Bristol Ale’:
The West country is to get its second new brewery within six months… John Payne has produced his traditional Smiles Bitter for his restaurant, Bells Diner, York Road, Bristol, for the past year. Now he has got permission to set up a new brewhouse in the heart of the city at Colston Yard. Production will be about 30 barrels a week and Mr Payne says he already has strong interest from the local free trade.
‘Bristol Ale’, p.12
Colston Yard was a Victorian industrial space off Upper Maudlin Street, behind a row of shops, where there is currently an Indian restaurant called Haveli.
Permission to brew was one thing but paying for the building of a new brewery was another. Payne mortgaged his house to find the £6,000 needed – about £30,000 in today’s money. 
The new brewery was ready by 1978 and Payne set about learning how to brew in this new, more professional environment.
In a 1981 interview he said:
In the early weeks I relied heavily on a friend of my father’s, a brewing chemist… He was like a doctor. I would tell him everything I had done and when I had finished he would tell me where I had gone wrong.
‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Payne, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.
By April that year, he was happy with the quality and consistency of the beer being produced.
That first beer, Smiles Best Bitter, was brewed without sugar or malt extracts, with an original gravity of 1040 (about 4% ABV). It was fermented with yeast from the Courage brewery in Bristol. 
In November 1978, with winter coming, Payne added a second beer to the line-up: Champion, at 1051 (around 5.3%).
He took on his first employee, Harry Mansfield, the former cellarman at the Bristol Student Union, initially as a part-timer. 
They worked flat out through 1978 and 1979, including a particularly hectic Christmas in 1979, which saw them working 18-hour days to brew “265 barrels” in four weeks. 
Payne claimed to have drawn no salary himself in this period  but it was clear the business was on the right track.
As Brian Glover wrote in his decade-on retrospective:
By 1981 demand had out-stripped production, and the self-made brewery was completely re-equipped to increase capacity three-fold, backed up by a new laboratory.
New Beer Guide, 1988.
In 1982, Smiles acquired its own pub, The Highbury Vaults at the top of St Michael’s Hill. This was a response to the disappearance of freehouses in Bristol as larger brewers such as Allied, Marston’s, Eldridge Pope and Devenish snapped them up.
Payne was especially frustrated by CAMRA’s decision (or rather, that of CAMRA Real Ale Investments) to sell its own Bristol pub to Marston’s:
[They] said they were pulling out of The Old Fox as their job was done. But they sold out just when they were needed as the free trade was beginning to disappear then.
‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, David Jarvie, What’s Brewing, October 1983.
Until this time the brewery’s de facto brewery tap had been The Sea Horse, across the main road from the brewery. When it began to seem under threat, Smiles entered a bidding war with Marston’s and Allied for The Highbury Vaults instead.
They were rumoured to have paid £125,000 for the pub – a shocking price for a small neighbourhood boozer at the time. 
Payne doesn’t seem to have wanted to buy a pub, or to have much enjoyed being responsible for it. “It diverts a lot of our attention,” he told CAMRA’s David Jarvie in 1983.
But it was vital because, according to Payne, there were only four other suitable outlets in the city.
A glance at copies of the Good Beer Guide from the period backs this up: almost every pub listed was selling beer from Courage, or was tied to an out-of-town brewery such as Wadworth or Davenport’s.
Real People making Real Ale
The brewery continued to grow through the 1980s, as recorded in this rather marvellous artefact – a promotional video apparently from 1984:
There’s not much information on its source, why or exactly when it was made, or who uploaded it. Enjoy it while you can.
It tells us that by the mid-1980s Smiles was brewing more than 3,000 gallons of beer each week (about 83 barrels) with Harry Mansfield now as full-time head brewer.
We also meet three other new employees: Sue Pinnell, a brewery assistant; Nicholas Martin, a spectacularly bearded drayman; and Peter Taylor, a rather dashing marketing and sales executive.
There are various clues to the brewery’s brand identity in this video: old-fashioned barroom piano music; the vintage Bedford dray of c.1950; and faux-vintage hand-painted graphics on every surface.
The slogan at the end is: “Smiles – real people making real ale.”
A second video from the same source is an out-and-out advertisement, attempting to compete with those from, say, Courage, or Whitbread.
This has more of the same, including flat caps all round, knitted vests and ten-sided pint glasses. Smiles, the advert implies, has been serving Bristol for years – for generations, even.
Never mind the facts.
The Pride of Bristol
In 1992, when the brewery was approaching its 15th anniversary and owned multiple pubs, John Payne gave a rare interview to Stephen Cox for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing.
Cox was a fan of Smiles and the piece is celebratory, not only of Smiles 15 years’ of success but also of Payne’s approach to the business of beer.
“I dream of locking some brewery executives in the Tap for a week with John Payne”, he wrote. “But I doubt the common sense would rub off.”
In the interview, Payne attempted to articulate “the Smiles Way”:
All you can do is be committed to a quality product, put out your stall, and let them decide. If it’s any good, it doesn’t need advertising.
A colleague, Martin Love, expanded on the idea: “It’s something to do with not forcing things down people’s throats.”
We learn that Smiles’ pubs didn’t serve stout or draught lager on principle, only the brewery’s own beer, along with guest ales from other independents.
Nor did they have gambling machines.
“If you measure the space they take up,” Payne is quoted as saying, “and fill that space with drinkers, you make as much money. Besides, pubs are about talking to people.”
This preceded similar policies and rhetoric from the micropub movement by about 20 years.
All of these principles were put into practice in a brand new pub, The Brewery Tap, constructed in front of the brewery premises on Upper Maudlin Street in 1991. (It was later known as The Colston Yard.)
It was notable for opening at 8am to serve breakfast, extending the business’s viable hours beyond those when it could legally sell alcohol. 
In 1992 it won CAMRA’s pub design award – the first time any pub had proved worthy of the prize since 1985. An article in What’s Brewing described its “clean cut, attractive appearance”:
Ash wood and a slate bar, together with a black-and-white tiled floor, give an impression that is reminiscent of a good Belgian café. The Brewery Tap manages to be in the mainstream of the traditional pub without resorting to tiresome alehouse clichés.
Behind the scenes, though, the brewery was struggling.
The management buy-out trend
A month after Stephen Cox’s gushing interview with John Payne, and in the same month the design award victory was announced, Iain Loe’s regular column in What’s Brewing for February 1992 included this item:
The first brewery news to reach me is another brewery takeover – the first of 1992. But the deal doesn’t feature a well-known company whose shares are traded on the Stock Market but a micro-brewer who has sold his company to someone who liked the brewery enough to stump up £2 million… The purchaser, Ian Williams, has an accountancy background… and has financed the £3 million deal, which includes covering bank borrowings of £1 million, with the help of a £½ million input from [private equity firm] 3is.
Williams had worked for the accountancy firm which managed Smiles’ accounts and he knew the business well. So, although not part of the Smiles management team, this was nonetheless reported as a form of ‘management buyout’.
Management buyouts were a big thing in the 1990s – see the Redruth Brewery for another example.
More usually, they involve people already working in a business to acquire it from either the founder (perhaps a hippy hipster brewer) or a larger corporate owner (such as Whitbread) which had lost interest.
They offered a route for businesses that were stumbling or failing to go on, with new leadership that was either more money-minded or more passionate about the product, depending on circumstances.
Smiles continued to expand under Ian Williams until it eventually had 17 pubs – a substantial estate for a regional independent less than 20 years old.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable. In November 2000, most of the pub estate was sold to London brewery Young’s for £5.8 million. 
Thereafter, what was at that point Bristol’s only remaining brewery seemed to be in retreat, though local real ale drinkers continued to regard the beer fondly.
The brewery was sold again in 2003 to City Centre Breweries Ltd, a new company run by Ron Kirk, formerly managing director of Mansfield Brewery.
Then, in December 2004, it was announced that the brewery had gone into administration. Staff were laid off and production of Smiles-branded beer was moved to the Highgate Brewery in Walsall. 
Smiles-branded beers seem to have disappeared from the market altogether after 2007, at least as far as we can tell from online beer review websites.
Just about remembered
There are still occasional reminders of Smiles to be seen around Bristol, most notably at The Highbury Vaults.
Beneath 20-plus years of Young’s branding can be seen the odd bit of Smiles signage – and a photograph from that early 1980s promo shoot still hangs on the wall in the snug.
We’re frustrated by the bittiness of the story we’ve been able to tell above. It feels unfinished – and we’re certain people are going to have additions and corrections.
To which we say, bring it on!
We’d love version two of this post to have more human voices, more pictures, and more detail from the frontline.
If you worked at Smiles, or, indeed, founded it, we’re contact@boakandbailey, or @boakandbailey on Twitter, if you want to get in touch.
New Beer Guide, 1988, p.52.
‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Pryce, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.
‘Selling beer: it’s Payne and Love’, What’s Brewing, January 1992.
Promotional video, 1984.
‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, 1983.
CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1992, published in 1991.
The Times, 17 November 2000.
‘Smiles Brewery Closed’, Richard Brooks, Pints West, Spring 2005.
This year, there was no “August Surprise” for European hop growers, whose crop was saved last year by unusually good weather just before harvest… Estimates made as harvest began — late, in many cases — indicate that the German crop will be down about 20 percent from 2021, and 18 percent below an average year. The Czechian crop, which is almost entirely Saaz, will be down 43 percent from last year’s record crop.
In The Drapers Arms last night all anyone wanted to talk about was the energy crisis. People are anxious and, as yet, there’s been no concrete policy response from the Government. The Pub Curmudgeon has been pondering on the idea of ‘warm rooms’ – public places where people can hang out during the day – and whether pubs might fulfil that function:
Licensees, with good reason, have always been resistant to the idea of allowing freeloaders to spend extended periods in the pub without putting any money across the bar, and to not being able to exercise control over who is allowed entry. It would not be reasonable to expect already cash-strapped pubs to extend this welcome out of the goodness of their own heart, but if this role was formally recognised it could be a reason for pubs to receive additional financial support.
Courtney Iseman has been reflecting on the language we use to describe flavour in beer and other beverages. It’s a long piece that reflects a lot of fretting over inclusivity. Ultimately, though, there’s a point about intent – are we choosing our words to lock people out, or bring them in?
Taking valid terms that capture the essence of a beer or wine well and deciding they’re the only “correct” terms instead of using them as jumping-off points for interpretation and expansion cuts entire cultures out of the conversation and keeps beverage alcohol small, narrow, homogeneous, exclusive. It tells consumers they won’t like this because they won’t get it, which, as Miroki points out, is just bad business—it obviously behooves any brand to connect with as many people as possible. It tells people that they could never be sommeliers or brewers. It others the brands that do exist, based on rigid Westernized constructs.
[The] pub was operated by [R.D. Courtney-Browne] (d. 1994), a Briton who took up residence in Kobe after the war. Apparently he was a former British Army major with war service in India and elsewhere in the Far East… It was built as an express tribute, including in architecture and décor, to a traditional, English country public house… Edmund Blunden, the poet, composed verses in its honour, referenced in the film. The full poem may be read in Sumie Okada’s 1988 book, Edmund Blunden and Japan: the History of a Relationship.
This 2021 Twitter thread on pubs in Japan is also worth a read:
At Tempest in a Tankard Franz D. Hofer takes us on a tour of Murnau in Bavaria, famous for its light which inspired artists, and which also has plenty of beer:
Small as Murnau is, it’s home to two breweries. And for folks who like to combine imbibing with wandering, Murnau is ideal. The hike around the fascinating Murnauer Moos wetlands is worth the trip alone, while the shorter Drachenstich loop with its rewarding views of the Murnauer Moos makes for a nice afternoon walk… Brauerei Karg is one of those rare Bavarian breweries like Schneider Weisse, Erdinger, Kuchlbauer, and Hopf that focuses its attention on wheat beer. And it does so to great effect… Karg has been a family enterprise since its founding in 1912, when Andreas Karg took over the Hirschvogel brewery and turned it into a wheat beer brewery. Now in its fourth generation, the brewery and its Wirtshaus is a fixture in the center of Murnau’s old town.
Being openly queer is very much still a radical act, and being openly queer in a group of over a dozen other queers is even more so… I started Queer Beer Drinkers to get more people interested in beer, to diversify the scene, and to provide a safe, sociable setting for those who want to try more tasty bevs. But, it was also to create a community where queer folks can feel supported and accepted, and drink freely in ‘regular’ establishments rather than feeling like they can only hang out in ‘gay bars’…
CF Industries is halting ammonia production at its UK plant, in Billingham. This, in turn, will reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) supplies… The plant is the main source of the country’s CO2 which is used throughout the food and drink industry. A temporary closure of the plant last year led to many shortages in the supply chain. Closure now is being blamed on soaring natural gas prices.
A favoured haunt of Michael Collins, Cleary’s is said to have had its electricity bill taken care of by Irish Rail to balance the inconvenience of having had a railway bridge pass over its roof. Evidently, the time that would have been spent on the administrative task of paying the electric has been better spent perfecting their pint purveying abilities- they’re unrivalled between the canals, as far as we’re concerned.
(Price: €5.20 as of Summer 2022)
Dave, founder of A Hoppy Place, a bottle shop in Windsor, has written in some detail about the process of crowdfunding the opening of a second outlet in Maidenhead:
I think there is an issue of credibility when it comes to some crowdfunders, and especially non-equity crowdfunders. A great many of us have been sold a dream, some snake oil, or invest in a brewery only to see it fail months later. My great friends at Weird Beard for example raised a very respectable £46k only 6 or so months before their brewery in Hanwell was closed… A question is always going to be “why do they need MY money – don’t they have it / can’t they get it?”… Both answers to that can be galling. Either the owner has access to his own funds and doesn’t want to invest them, or worse for the health of your investment: Doesn’t, and the banks are saying no.
We had been recommended The Crown Liquor Saloon for cask and food by many people, and during pre-trip planning, I was excited to update my Nicholson’s Pub app so that we could order from our eventual table (especially handy when you have a hungry child in tow). Although their dining room was closed and it was a bit crowded in the bar area as a result (soooo many people looking for the perfect Instagram shot without even getting a beer), we did manage to score one of the very pleasant snugs and ordered away… As an aside, my Grand Unified Theory of Everything is that the world would be a more pleasant place if we could replace all ‘Spoons with Nicholson’s pubs, but maybe I simply haven’t been in enough of the latter to have had a bad experience.
Munich’s beer gardens have a checkered history. The Löwenbräukeller in Stiglmaierplatz, for example, hosted Nazi meetings in the early years of the Second World War, until a Royal Air Force bombing raid severely damaged half the building in 1944. Other beer halls and gardens, such as the Hofbräukeller in Wiener Platz, can tell similar stories… This is not, though, the Löwenbräukeller’s only history of note. It opened in 1883, when Munich was the “City of Beer and Art,” a glorious moment of growth and cultural richness. Its appearance reflects that, even if its iconic stone lion, gazing moodily into the middle distance from its perch above the entrance, was added in 1911.
(You might be unlucky with the paywall but we had no trouble reading this piece.)
My friend Elliot Comanescu works across hospitality, design and architecture, so I asked him about the sinful, sought after nature of the booth seating… “I think you can draw lots out of this notion of public and private spaces. Booth seating creates a sense of privacy and intimacy simultaneously,” says Elliot. “The increased height of the back creates more privacy than your regular chair,” he adds, which is something I’d never considered before. A space within a space. Interesting.
Whatever the reason, the same psychology must also be behind the undignified argy-bargy over ‘table seats’ on the train.