News, nuggets and longreads 25 November 2023: Space and time

Here’s all the standout beer and pub writing of the past week, from Burton upon Trent to Belgrade.

First, some (boring) news: there was a Budget on Wednesday and various measures relating to beer and pubs were announced. The summary by Darren at Beer Today did the job for us. TL;DR the Government thinks it’s been very helpful; industry bodies think it’s better than it could be, but still not enough; others think it’s a stitch up designed to help only the biggest operators. We could copy and paste this summary, to be honest.

The exterior of The Coopers Tavern, a Victorian pub in red brick.
SOURCE: Pellicle/Jack Spicer Adams.

Despite having been to Burton, we missed The Cooper’s Tavern, which is one of those cult pubs you need to visit before you die and so and so forth. For Pellicle Neil Walker, former beer blogger of the class of 2011, and now SIBA comms man, profiles the pub and explains its significance:

The Coopers Tavern is a true ‘public house’. Once a residential home with narrow doors and tight internal rooms, the large cream sign on the front reads ‘Bass & Cos Coopers Tavern’ in faded brown font, painted directly onto the Victorian brick and revealing its true purpose. Here since the early 1800s it was built to be a head brewer’s house, but a few decades later it was being used as overflow storage for speciality malt by the William Bass Brewery. By 1826 it was cellaring Bass’ famous Imperial Stout and by no small coincidence began being used by senior members of the brewery as their own personal pub.

Five Points brewery kegs piled high

For The Grocer James Beeson has written about what he calls “the ‘second wave’ of craft brewers” in the UK, providing an interesting perspective on the ebb and flow of the story of British brewing, with input from brewer founders and owners:

London’s Five Points, Brixton and Fourpure all came into being a decade ago, as did Berkshire’s Siren Craft Brew and Yorkshire’s Northern Monk… All five have – at various stages – been listed with national grocers. Two have been bought out by multinational brewers (with one returning to independence last year) and all have played a part in growing the reputation of small, independent British breweries in the last decade… The year 2013 was a good time to get into beer… Craft beer fever was taking hold, and all five of these businesses experienced rapid growth in their first five years of existence. Bermondsey’s Fourpure caught the eye of Australasian outfit Lion, which snapped up the business in 2018 (it returned to independence last year), while Heineken took 49% stakes in both Beavertown and Brixton the same year.

The city of Belgrade with baroque an modern buildings staggered up a hill from the river.
Belgrade by Nikola Aleksic, via Unsplash.

For The Guardian Camilla Bell-Davies has written about the Kafana pub culture of Belgrade, Serbia:

Kafanas are Serbia’s tavernas: a restaurant, pub and music venue operating from morning to late night. Regulars come for a lively breakfast before work, families throw weddings and celebrations here, business deals are cut and sorrow drowned in dark corners. They were so central to people’s daily lives that friends and the postman would come to find you at your local kafana, not your home… Sadly, many traditional kafanas closed down in the 2000s, partly because of their reluctance to prioritise profit-making over letting regulars sit at one table all day. However, much like struggling British pubs turning to gastronomy, kafanas have adapted their offerings to survive, heralding a culinary comeback.

Andrew Campbell's The Book of Beer, 1956.

A few years ago, we were all but obsessed with finding out more about Andrew Campbell, author of an important early book about beer called, er, The Book of Beer. Before the days of the British Newspaper Archive we struggled to find reliable information beyond a passing mention of someone involved in the theatre of the same name. Now Gary Gillman has pinned it down and settled the question once and for all. What a relief! (We can’t copy quotes from Gary’s blog, hence the odd break in format here.)

A watercolour of a brewery with men in frock coats, a woman in a bonnet, and a horse-drawn dray loaded with barrels.

Still on the subject of satisfying resolutions to niggling mysteries, Liam K at Irish Beer History has been trying to identify an Irish brewery from an old picture for years. The breakthrough he needed was to realise that it wasn’t in Ireland at all:

I was scrolling through a website when a painting’s image jumped off the cover of an old book at me. It was an angled photo but it was unmistakably ‘my’ Irish brewery. There it was, with the dray carts and tower, impossible for me to mistake for anything similar as I had spent so much time studying it… The arresting issue was the title of the book. It was a 1980s printed facsimile of A History of Southampton by Reverend John Silvester Davies… Southampton? In England?

Old London Pubs Calendar 2024 by Lydia Wood, with a drawing of the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping on the cover.
SOURCE: Lydia Wood.

Will Hawkes’s marvellous email newsletter about London pubs is also available online, a month behind. The October edition has lots of great stuff, including some gloves-off commentary on Cask Marque. But our favourite item was about Lydia Wood who is drawing every pub in London – quite a big job!

If you had to describe the archetypal London pub based on the ones you’ve drawn so far, what would it look like?

A corner pub, slated roof, a couple of chimneys, bricks on the top half, painted bottom half, leaded windows, lantern lights, pub name signage, swinging sign, double doors, hanging flower baskets, a potted plant either side of the entrance, window reflections of the street opposite.

Finally, from social media, another Christmas gift idea…

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

cider Somerset

Good food and cheap cider on the Somerset Levels

Rich’s is a farm, a factory, a visitor attraction, and a great value family restaurant that feels as if it’s been transplanted from Bavaria.

Rich’s has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

My dad isn’t a committed cider drinker but, having grown up on the Levels, he sometimes gets the taste.

When I was young, he’d often turn up with a plastic jerry can of Rich’s medium to take to a barbecue or party.

Recently, he’s been a bit under the weather, and it was touch and go whether we’d be able to celebrate his birthday at all.

Then, last week, he decided he wanted to go to Rich’s for lunch.

It’s been a while since I was last there and what I remembered was a barn, piles of apples on the ground in the car park, and a kind of canteen in a Portakabin.

“OK, fine,” I said, with a baffled shrug.

As it happens, it underwent a refurb in 2020, and that canteen is now a substantial restaurant with (counts on fingers) seating for about 150 people.

When we entered, Jess immediately said, “This feels like a German beer hall.”

And she was right.

Not a historic one – the kind you find in a post-war block, or out in the sprawl, or in a neat little village.

It’s something to do with all the polished wooden surfaces, perhaps.

Or the pervasive smell of roast pork.

Or the people: there were plenty of sturdy looking country folk digging into heaped plates.

If it wasn’t Bavaria of which it reminded me, then it was one of those diners Guy Fieri visits on Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives. The type of place that “cranks out” hearty meals to the delight of contented regulars.

Good cider, as far as we can tell

We’re not cider experts. As with wine, we don’t really want to be, though we’ve dabbled. And I suppose, being from Somerset, I ought to try a little harder.

I’m vaguely aware that Rich’s isn’t considered to be in the top flight of scrumpy producers. Its reputation is for being accessible and commercial, without the challenging funk and dryness of some competitors.

What I do know is this: Dad was delighted with a pint of their Golden Harvest at 4.5%. It’s a bright, ever-so-slightly fizzy Thatcher’s competitor but with less sugar than the bigger brand and an extra dimension or two.

I found Vintage (7.2%) good for a half, with some toffee character and sherry notes.

Jess, who has the driest palate in the family, went for traditional dry scrumpy at 6%. It’s still clearly a farm product but with the mud scraped off its boots.

And get this: all of those were about £3.80 a pint, with even Vintage only creeping up to the round £4.

Boak & Bailey eat big dinners

Having got used to increasingly stingy portions in pubs in the past year or two, and based on the prices on the menu, we over ordered for the table. And, again, were transported to Bavaria.

A ploughman’s lunch (£14.95) was served on a hunk of wood the length of a cricket bat, with enough cheese for the whole table. A portion of lasagna (£12.50, I think) seemed to be… a whole lasagna. And the small carvery plate (£10.95) was, in fact, a large carvery plate.

Oh, yes: we wrote about carveries recently, observing their disappearance. At Rich’s, which is pleasingly behind the times, the carvery lives on, seven days a week.

When was the last time you got presented with the bill in a restaurant and felt compelled to check with the waiting staff that they hadn’t forgotten something?

An overwhelmingly filling lunch for six, with drinks and a couple of desserts, came to £120.

Now, we’re not restaurant reviewers, but the point is that this really brought home how diminished the offer has become in towns and cities.

Rich’s has some economic advantages, of course.

First, they own the land on which the sprawling restaurant sits. Planning permission was presumably the main challenge.

And, secondly, they produce the core product themselves, on site, with no middle men or delivery costs.

Thirdly, Rich’s received a grant from the European Fund for Agricultural Development, which contributed to development of the restaurant, farm shop and museum. Presumably nicking in under the Brexit wire.

What can publicans do to compete with that? Not much, really. Taprooms might get closer – but we won’t hold our breaths for a carvery at Lost & Grounded just yet.

And, yes, thanks for asking, Dad had a great time, even if he was a bit knackered after all the excitement and the challenge of a large-small carvery plate.

Rich’s Cider Farm is in Watchfield just outside Highbridge at TA9 4RD. The website has menus.


News, nuggets and longreads 18 November 2023: Pulp Fiction

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs we particularly enjoyed in the past week, from obscure hops to autumnal moods.

First, some news. At VinePair Dave Infante continues his detailed coverage of attempts by workers to buy San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing – or, at least, to buy the brand:

“We’re guessing [$2.5 million] is the lowest number the IP is going to be sold for.” If they can raise that sum from small-dollar investors, their thinking goes, they’ll be able to attract bigger sums from deeper-pocketed ones, or leverage it to draw a bank loan — or both, to be as competitive as possible in securing Anchor’s recipes, trademarks, and branding. Bringing back the old label, which SUSA replaced in 2021 in a widely panned rebrand, is a top priority for the co-op. As is reinstituting Our Special Ale, says [brewer Patrick] Machel. “That’s a ‘for sure.’”

The word hops with a simple illustration of two hop cones.

Pellicle has the semi-magical story of the emergence of a new hop variety in the Kent, as told by Adam Peirce:

So steeped is Little Scotney Farm in the traditional ways of picking and drying hops that the last thing you would expect are experimental hop varieties with very different flavours to what traditional English hops are known for. In 2015, David Goodsel, who has been working on the farm since before Ian took over, noticed a group of seven different looking hops at the end of a row of Whitbread Goldings Variety (WGV). It’s not known how long they’d been growing in the ground, nor how they came into existence so beyond this. The story is lost to the mists in the valley of the River Bewl.

Autumn leaves somewhere in Europe.

Adrian Tierney-Jones has been sitting in pubs again, thinking about the passage of time again, and letting his consciousness stream:

This is a consume-at-all-costs war, but is also an undemanding slumbering conflict into which it is easy to fall, as in the mall that one has uneasily and warily come to in search of goods that slam the cost of living crisis into a wall, with the ease of Joe Marler tossing aside Faf de Klerk. Yes, when you were young and the world seemed as bright as the light that lit up the family lounge and your parents were alive and still married, you really wished it could be Christmas every day and now your dream has come true and from early November it really is. But it is too late and love left on a boat without even a farewell sometime ago.

The word Kveik on a rough textured background.

Stan Hieronymus has written about one of his beers of the year – an American kveik beer inspired by the work of Lars Marius Garshol. Here’s what struck us as most interesting – the impact a good book can have:

A Better Burden is a collaboration between Narrow Path and Nine Giant Brewing, and Powers and Mike Albarella have brewed it together at Narrow Path the past three years… They had both read ”Historical Brewing Techniques” by Lars Marius Garshol right when the book became available. They wrote the initial recipe together and have subtly changed it each year. The base malt and the alder wood smoked malt come from Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Indiana. “We knew that Caleb (Michalke) had built a Såinnhus, and we wanted to use ingredients that were as local as possible and that were produced as traditionally as possible,” Powers said.

Guinness vintage-style cap.

Liam K at Irish Beer History continues his exploration of the objects that tell the national beer story by turning his attention to a 1970s Guinness bottle opener:

There is a relatively famous (in certain circles at least) archive film from RTE that reports on the ceasing of the cork-bunged Guinness bottle by orders of the brewery, as it was to be completely replaced by a seemingly unpopular bottle closer – the metal cap. In that piece of recorded Irish beer history from 1969, which incidentally shows both the insertion and extracting of corks, there are a few stout drinkers quite unhappy with this change from what was seen as the traditional method of sealing beer bottles in this country. The interviewees argued that cork-sealed stout bottles tasted better than those using a metal cap, with one drinker being shown to be able to pick out the one corked bottle from a row of poured stouts, allegedly based on taste alone. 

A view of Bamberg along the river with spires and old buildings.

Who likes a mystery? Andreas Krennmair has returned to Bamberg mapping the 41 breweries it had in 1876, and digging into the vague connection between Keesman and Mahrs:

Talking about Mahrs Bräu in Wunderburg, I came across something strange: the Mahr pub (building 702) is listed as “Brenner” with owner Ambros Mahr, while the “Brenner” brewery is listed with owner Karl Mahr (building 736½ on modern Holzgartenstraße, probably no. 29). But there is a second pub with the name “Brenner” listed, building 708, across the road from Ambros Mahr’s pub, with owner Adam Keesmann. Interestingly, Keesmann is not listed as a brewery (it was officially founded in 1867), and I still don’t understand the supposed connection of Keesmann and Mahr… Georg Keesmann, the person most often mentioned these days in connection with the foundation of Keesmann brewery (he was a butcher and allegedly finished his brewing education at age 51 to start his own brewery), is listed as a restaurant owner in a different section of the address book, not a brewery owner, for building 708. How are Georg and Adam related?

Finally, some photos, from a new book called East End Pubs by Tim George, as shared at Creative Boom:

The Old Ship, a backstreet Victorian corner pub with a prominent pride flag.
SOURCE: Tim George/Hoxton Mini Press/Creative Boom.

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


News, nuggets and longreads 11 November 2023: Fall Guy

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from old ale to Glasgow pubs.

When you’re trying to gauge the health of brewing and hospitality there are relatively few reliable sources of information. All you can do is look at the same regular reports and try to gain a sense of the general direction of travel. The latest Hospitality Market Monitor from CGA is one such marker and the most recent edition tells us that:

Britain’s number of licensed premises has fallen by 3.6% over the last 12 months to 99,916 sites… The total at the end of September marks the first time it has dropped below 100,000 in the Monitor’s history. The 3,766 drop over the 12-month period is equivalent to more than ten net closures every day… However, the pace of venue failures has slowed as the year has gone on… The report flags a particularly robust quarter for the managed hospitality sector. In the three months to September, this segment achieved 0.5% growth, in contrast to a 0.6% drop in the number of independently-run venues.

Gale's Prize Old Ale

For Good Beer Hunting Martyn Cornell has written about the history of Gale’s Prize Old Ale – or, rather, more interesting, its recent history. It’s a fascinating insight into how brewery takeovers work in practice and the financial factors that influence whether interesting, historic beers survive and thrive:

“COVID put a block on everything, and I was also terrifying Asahi by insisting that I wanted to have a wooden washback for this beer,” [brewery Henry Kirk] says. Much of the delay had to do with the cost of the new wooden vessel: some £15,000, or about $18,000. “That derailed the project for about two years, to be honest. But once everyone had calmed down, they said okay, and we brewed it, and mixed the old and the new, and we filled thirty-six hundred bottles, and sold out every time we put a new batch of bottles up, and Asahi went: ‘Hmm.’” 


Impressions of Köln: expansion pack

On our recent visit to Cologne we mostly ignored the Altstadt beer halls in favour of neighbourhood places, and found quite a different vibe.

We’re referring to this post as an expansion pack because it’s an extension of the one we wrote a year ago setting out our thoughts and feelings about Kölsch beer and Cologne drinking culture.

When we wrote that, a lot of people replied: “But you didn’t go to Lommi!”

And we said, relax, this won’t be our last visit to a city with which we’re increasingly enamoured.

The back bar at Lommi with nick-nacks, tea towels, postcards, glassware and so on.

Lommi, or Gaststätte Lommerzheim, is an unlikely Cologne landmark. It’s on the wrong side of the river, in Deutz, a few streets back from any main road, surrounded by apartment blocks.

The building is out of step with its neighbours, being older, darker and more decayed. Forbidding signs warn of a broken step and issue instructions about queueing. Signs advertise Dortmunder Aktien Bier (DAB) – which, of course, the pub does not sell.

We’re going to call it a ‘pub’ because that’s what it feels like. We entered nervously, expecting to be directed by a waiter, or barked at, but instead found ourselves in an alleyway full of smokers who wouldn’t look out of place in Bridgwater or Bolton.

Eventually, we drifted towards the bar where nobody stopped us taking stools overlooking the service operation. And it’s what we’d call a machine.

Being a small place, with a small staff, it has to operate efficiently. So, glass washing is a big deal.

Our seats were in the splash zone for a big double sink with constantly trickling warm water (left) and cold water (right).

Dirty 200ml glasses would pile up on one side and every now and then a waiter with a spare moment would start washing them by:

  1. Grabbing two by their bases.
  2. Slamming them into the warm, soapy water.
  3. Working them up and down on two round wire brushes fixed in place.
  4. Dunking them in cold water.
  5. Stacking them to dry.

By our reckoning, they were able to wash 50 or so glasses in about a minute and a half. The secret being, perhaps, the knowledge that these apparently dainty, thin-walled glasses can take rougher handling than one might think.

The filling of the clean glasses was also highly efficient: they’re thrown or dropped into a Kranz (a circular tray with holes to hold glasses) which is then held under the tap of the wooden barrel and spun as golden Kölsch gushes in.

They kept bringing us beer and we kept watching the floor show as the pencil marks multiplied on our beer mat bill.

One waiter never smiled. The other never stopped laughing. After a while, we began to wonder if this was a coping mechanism, because he laughed hardest when the customers were being most obstructive and obtuse.

An older man with the air of a cowboy (perhaps a long-distance truck driver) alternated glasses of Kölsch and cigarettes in the courtyard.

Two burly lads ordered a Halve Hahn (cheese and a  bread roll) and methodically dissected it so they’d both have a small cheese sandwich.

As the crowd thinned and the conversation became louder, and more sloppy, the laughing waiter passed through the bar with a plate of snacks. “Frikadelchen?” he shouted, waving their aroma over each table with a sheet of A4 paper.