Categories
pubs

Ordering by app makes you look at the pub differently

We’ve now been to the pub three times since lockdown lifted, not counting various visits to the Drapers for takeaway – twice to a St Austell house and once to the Highbury Vaults, which is a Young’s tenanted pub.

In all visits, we’ve sat in the garden and used an app for ordering. The two apps are pretty similar and easy to use, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s the same underlying software.

This technology has been around for ages and is pretty affordable. When I was indirectly involved in running a large pub-hotel in Cornwall, I recall being offered a similar product during an EPOS update in about 2012, but not taking it up because, well, honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to order like that.

But now, I can definitely see more places doing this in the near future, even quite small places.

This weekend, as we drank our electronically-ordered pints, we considered some of the ways apps might change pub habits.

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.”

Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps.

Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.

We don’t tend to think about the Highbury Vaults as belonging to Young’s. It’s not as if they hide the fact but they have managed to preserve a distinct identity thanks to a quirky interior, home-cooked food and the fact the landlord’s been there for 25 years.

Now, all of a sudden, it immediately feels more of a corporate, homogenised space, even if the pub itself is still its lovable old self.

On a similar note, we expect that many Bristolians outside the beer bubble will be surprised to discover over the next few months that Bath Ales is owned by St Austell.

Thirdly, there’s an obvious points about transactions being potentially easier for some people (people on their own, those unable to stand at bars or place orders verbally) and more difficult for others who may not feel comfortable with the technology.

As long as app-based ordering isn’t the only option, and in both places there are waiting staff with notepads on the floor, then apps should enable rather than impede.

Finally, as social distancing continues – remember that as we write this, in England, you are only supposed to socialise with other households at a distance – remote ordering might provide a nice way to buy your mates a pint, whether you’re in the same pub or not.

There’s precedent for this: when the Wetherspoon app launched, there was a spate of stories about people soliciting drinks by sharing their table number on social media, only to get sent plates of peas.

If there’s one obvious improvement to be made, it’s the addition to apps of real-time information on how busy a given pub is. This might help reassure more nervous customers and match punters to pubs that need them.

Categories
Beer history pubs

Pub culture: the tower of pennies for charity

Looking through old brewery in-house magazines from the 1950s and 60s, one recurring image is inescapable: a monstrous pile of pennies on a bar, in the process of being toppled by a celebrity.

Investigating this oddity of pub culture has been on our to-do list for some time but John Clarke (@beer4john) raised it with us recently which prompted us to dig into the archives.

First, we started with our own collection of magazines from Whitbread and Watney’s. Between them, they give a clear idea of when this trend took off and explain the mechanics.

How it worked

The House of Whitbread for spring 1955 has the earliest reference with a wonderful photograph of Mr. R. Back, tenant of The Trooper Inn, Froxfield, Wiltshire, and a customer placing a penny.

Towers of pennies in a pub.

Publicans with a tower of coins.

The Red Barrel for August 1955 has another early reference, with more detail:

Congratulations to Mr and Mrs George Jones of The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, [London] WC2, who, through their efforts and the generosity of their customers collected a tower of coppers, totalling 4,602, and amounting to £19 3s. 5d. The amount netted was given to the Spastics, and the pennies, stuck with beer, nearly reached the ceiling. The ceremony of ‘Pushing the Pennies’, that is tumbling over the tower, aroused considerable interest, including that of Alan Dick of the Daily Herald who reported the event.

The key detail there: the coins were glued together with beer.

It’s also worth pointing out that the National Spastic Society, founded in 1952 to support parents of children with cerebral palsy, and now known as Scope, was a frequent recipient of funds raised from penny towers. We wonder if this was something they suggested to publicans as part of their fundraising activity?

The next entry from the Red Barrel, from October the same year, concerns The Northumberland Arms in Isleworth, West London, offers more info on how these towers were structured and on the fund-raising tactics surrounding them:

The pyramid of pennies shown in the picture was built on a half-pint glass, and so large did it grow that it overtopped the tall figure of Wag Carbine, a regular customer, as he stood on the bar beside it. Carbine craved the favour of pushing over the pyramid of pennies christened ‘Little Willie’. Jack Cannon, the publican, consented, with the proviso that he had £5 to the pennies for the privilege… During the evening of ‘Little Willie’s’ demise shillings were paid for the opportunity to guess the amount collected.

Wag Carbine! What a name.

In total, they raised about £70 which paid for the old folk of the Isleworth Silver Threads to spend a day at the seaside.

When did it start?

Elsewhere, we’ve found reference to this trend having begun in 1954, specifically at The Masons Arms in London’s Fitzrovia district. And here’s evidence that, yes, that pub did have a coin tower at that time:

But it didn’t take long to find earlier examples via the marvellous British Newspaper Archive, such as this from the Birmingham Mail for 10 August 1943:

This is not a Fasces – the symbol of the defunct Fascist regime – but a pillar of British money collected in two months from June 1 to July 31 by patrons of The Corner Cupboard licensed house, Union Street, Birmingham. Including two 10 [shilling] notes and a reinforcement of half-crowns in two layers, the ‘pillar of wealth’ contains about £40 with a pint glass base on which it stands full of silver and octagonal [threepenny] pieces and a V for Victory sign made up of shillings and sixpenny pieces.

There are also earlier references to ‘pyramids of pennies’ outside pubs, at market town carnivals, from the 1930s. As ever, if you know of an earlier example of a tower of coins in a pub, we’d be delighted to hear about it.

For now, though, we’ve got a hazy chronology: it began between the wars, crept into pubs in the 1940s and became a full blown craze in 1954-55.

The celebrity connection

The presence in the film clip above of actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles shows that celebrities were connected with this almost from the beginning.

There are accounts of publicans inviting the Queen to knock down their towers (she didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh sent a cheque) and no shortage of photos like this absolute corker:

Or films like this in which former Goon Show star Harry Secombe does the honours:

In fact, go and spend a few minutes lost in this carefully calibrated Google Image search.

When did it stop?

The short answer is, it hasn’t. When we asked on Twitter, people told us they’ve seen this happen in recent years and here’s an account of a penny-pile pushover event from 2018.

But it’s fair to say its heyday was the 1950s to the 1970s and that its popularity began to tail off after that, perhaps as pubs became more corporate and less characterful.

Or maybe it just began to seem a bit naff with fruit machines and jukeboxes competing for that loose change.

There’s also the fact that on at least one occasion, the vast weight of one of these towers caused material damage to the pub, as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 16 December 1966:

A pile of pennies – £90-worth of them, collected for charity at the Old Mill Inn, Baginton, was so heavy that the stout oak bar counter cracked under the weight. When two members of Coventry City football team ceremoniously pushed the pile over, it was found there were 2,160 pennies, weighing over three hundredweight. The manager of the inn, Mr. Harold Smith, said today: “Towards the end, we noticed a dip in the counter. Then we could see a crack.”

When you think about it, a precarious tower of metal covered in sticky stale beer doesn’t seem entirely safe or hygienic, does it?

Categories
News

News, nuggets and longreads 25 July 2020: beer duty, Babbity Bowster, brettanomyces

Here’s all the reading about pubs and beer that caught our attention in the past week, from heavy duty politics to pubs in 3D.

First, more on the week’s big news: announced, but not quite final, changes to small brewers’ duty relief:

  1. A summary of the story for Good Beer Hunting by Jonny Garrett.
  2. Further impassioned commentary from Jim at Beers Manchester.

More news: in what feels like a sign o’ the times and a taste of things to come, Beer Ritz in Headingley, Leeds, is closing. (Though the online store is to continue trading.) It was one of the earliest specialist beer shops and played a key part in giving Leeds its thriving beer scene a decade or so ago.


Sign: "mild ales".

Something short but sweet from Ron Pattinson next: when exactly did the phrase ‘dark mild’ emerge?

In the first half of the 19th century there would have been no need for the term. Because Mild Ale was all relatively pale, being brewed from just pale base malt. Only when some Mild Ales began to darken – sometime at the end of the 19th century – would there be any need for it… [Google Books] turned up the first mention: in 1897.


A brain.

Jordan St. John has been thinking about beer social media, Marx and Baudrillard:

In a world where there are tens of thousands of breweries making hundreds of thousands of beers, the representation of any product through your social media presence becomes, of necessity, a matter of jockeying for position. Hundreds of thousands of ways to say “Look at what I have” and intimate that your status is higher than that of other people because they don’t have what you have. Social or cultural status always comes at the expense of someone else’s social or cultural status because at least in the community that values an individual signatory fetish item, there is an ever more minute and rigid hierarchical system in which objects jockey for position on the basis of people’s estimation. It’s why people ask, “what’s the best beer in the world?”


Babbity Bowster sign

The newest blogging micro-genre of the summer of 2020 is ‘I went back to the pub after several months’. Robbie Pickering has contributed a low key but evocative account of a pint of Landlord at Babbity Bowster in Glasgow:

Babbity Bowster dates from the mid-1980s when legendary publican Fraser Laurie took on the then-derelict eighteenth-century building and turned it into something quite new for Glasgow. Though decried at the time as a yuppie pub, it has developed into an institution with a formidable reputation… It seems much the same on entering, less regimented than some pubco establishments and I just have to fill in a slip of paper and put it in a plastic tub, then sanitise my hands. I choose to sit outside and my pint is brought out to me. I pay in cash because the machine isn’t working yet; I think this is the first time I have used cash since March.


Bruxellensis label.

For Beer & Brewing magazine, Joe Stange has written about the evolution of funky, wild, Brettanomyces powered Belgian beer, providing us with an updated shopping list:

Brettanomyces bruxellensis, after all, is named after Brussels. It also lends its name to a beer from that city called Bruxellensis, brewed by the Brasserie de la Senne. It’s a dry, bitter pale ale that gets some Brett for conditioning, developing pronounced notes of leather and pineapple… In an example of influence vectors that cross the Atlantic and come back again, Senne brewery’s Jester Zinne is a mixed-culture collaboration with Jester King, whose house blend of yeasts and bacteria comes to the forefront with age.

(It’s actually a couple of weeks old but we only spotted it this week.)


Finally, from Twitter, there’s this mesmerising video of a pub in 3D:

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

Categories
News opinion

Small Brewers’ Relief – why tinker with it now?

Image: Nick Kane, Unsplash.

This week, the Government announced its intention to reform the small brewery relief scheme (SBR) in ways which will significantly disadvantage some smaller breweries.

The news of this step was dumped alongside a bunch of other fiscal policy on the eve of parliamentary recess. It came less than a fortnight after a ‘mini-Budget’ at which, under a regime less inclined to chaos and knee-jerk responses, you might have expected a proper announcement, debate and supporting paperwork.

The history of the policy is interesting. It wasn’t introduced with the lofty intention of boosting the number of breweries but to provide then Chancellor Gordon Brown with something positive to announce in the spirit of ‘Have a pint on me!’ It wasn’t brilliantly designed or carefully thought through – its success has been an accident.

But changing it now will destabilise the industry or, rather, cause turbulence on top of turbulence. It’s likely that dreams will come crashing down and businesses will fold. (What does that feel like? Here’s some new evidence from a much-missed voice.)

People are understandably concerned – even furious and upset in some cases, and not without justification.

We believe the breweries lobbying for it have made a strategic error; and we, like others, might be less inclined to buy their beer or speak positively of them as a result.

And we don’t really buy the ‘Poor us – we’re being undercut by these upstarts’ argument. It sticks in the craw somewhat to see breweries who own hundreds of tied pubs, to which they often sell their beer at above the market price, complaining about distortions in the market.

It’s also a bit confusing as to which breweries support this policy. Several breweries have already distanced themselves from the initial pressure group, suggesting that what might have been portrayed to the government as a significant industry grouping is more like a handful of very specific interests. Beer Nouveau is keeping an updated list to help consumers identify who exactly has been pushing for this.

We’ll be using this list as a reference point, although we’ll stop short of an outright boycott of the supporters of this policy, for the following reasons.

  • This behaviour isn’t surprising. We’ve never thought of, say, St Austell as anything other than a ruthlessly commercial and politically conservative.
  • It might be unappealing, selfish and hard-nosed but it isn’t immoral or illegal. Breweries are businesses and this is how businesses behave.
  • We believe their grabbiness is borne out of anxiety. One of the great flaws in the system is that even the biggest, most successful businesses are only ever one short step from failure. And family breweries especially have proven vulnerable in recent decades.
  • Some of these breweries are culturally important. It’s in nobody’s interest to see Taylor’s or Harvey’s, among the last of their kind, go out of business.

And yes, we happen to really enjoy products from some of these breweries.

But maybe, when we’re thinking about where to go this weekend, we’ll be more inclined to go somewhere that supports the hard efforts of smaller breweries to compete in these difficult times.

What we might also do is write to our local MP – a calm, personalised, heartfelt letter explaining why this policy causes us concern. (If you send copy-and-paste letters they tend to get categorised as part of a campaign and are treated differently in the system.)

And we hope industry bodies – or perhaps newly formed coalitions of affected breweries – will make their case persuasively to the Government.

It would also be good if the larger breweries who have pushed for this think long and hard about what they’re doing and what sort of message this sends out to consumers.

Despite the tone of the announcement, this is still a policy under consultation. It’s not too late to turn this around, especially with a government so prone to changing its mind in pursuit of short-term applause.

Further reading
Categories
Brew Britannia

FAQ: What was the first UK microbrewery?

This is another in our new series of short posts attempting to give straight answers to direct questions.

In our book Brew Britannia, we dedicate a chapter to mini histories of a number of breweries that we think have a claim to be the first modern microbrewery.

We specify ‘modern’ because most breweries began as microbreweries.

For much of its history, beer was brewed in domestic settings – either in ale houses for sale to the public or within country houses, colleges and other larger institutions.

Withi in the 19th century came bigger breweries, and then consolidation and mergers led to the situation where in the mid-1960s, most beer was being produced by one of the ‘Big Six’.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a number of pioneers began to brew their own beer, independently of each other but all finding a niche and space to operate within an increasingly homogenised market.

The first of these, by a long way, was Traquair House, Scotland. Beer had been brewed on site for years, and at sufficient volume to warrant purchase of a 200 gallon boiler in 1739. In the nineteenth century, the house and brewery fell into disrepair. In 1965, the then Laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart, found the brewing equipment as part of his renovations, and started to brew Traquair House Ale. What began as an experiment became a product sold on site and then shipped elsewhere. It’s still available, and brewing continues under the lady Laird Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who grew up brewing alongside her father.

The next brewery that we cover in Brew Britannia is the Selby brewery, which had fallen dormant but survived into the 1970s as a bottling outlet for Guinness. Martin Sykes was living there when his uncle decided to close the business, and persuaded him otherwise, “mainly to safeguard my living accommodation”. He had the idea to restart brewing, and was fortuitously approached by Basil Savage, then second brewer at John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, who was looking for other opportunities. Sykes and Savage began brewing in November 1972, and enjoyed some success selling to student bars and local pubs.

Both Traquair and Selby operated on existing sites, although with newer equipment. The first microbrewery to open in a new location was the Miners’ Arms at Priddy, in Somerset. This was the brainchild of an eccentric scientist, snail farmer and restaurateur, Paul Leyton. In 1961 he took on the running of the Miners’ Arms. In 1973 he decided to add beer to his list of home grown products and brewed beer in 40 pint batches, which he bottled in nip bottles and sold alongside meals.

So, in conclusion:

The first of the modern UK microbreweries was Traquair, which began (or rather, re-started) brewing in 1965, and is still brewing today. The first microbrewery to produce beers for the wider market was the Selby Brewery, which began brewing in 1972, again, on an established site. The first ‘new’brewery microbrewery, that is the first one to be established in a new location was the Miners’ Arms in Priddy, in 1973.