News, nuggets and longreads 21 October 2023: Berlin Game

Even on holiday we’ve been keeping an eye on what’s going on in beer writing. Here’s our pick of the best reading from the past week, including micropubs, pub etiquette and Bavaria in Berlin.

First, some interesting news: a new survey suggests that hospitality businesses are still struggling to recruit while, at the same time, 42% of hospitality workers are thinking of quitting the industry.

This tracks with our experience in the past few months where pubs and bars feel quietly wrong: closed when you expect them to be open; understaffed; or staffed by people who don’t know the ropes.

And the most competent bar staff, we notice, seem to turn up at different venues every other week, presumably because they’re able to pick and choose where they want to work.

(Via @BeerNouveau on Bluesky.)

The exterior of a pub on a busy London street.
SOURCE: Lily Waite/Pellicle.

For Pellicle David Jesudason has profiled a micropub in South London, The Shirker’s Rest, which we’ve heard of but never visited, despite New Cross being an old stamping ground:

The Shirker’s owners (Duncan Hart, Dave Crewdson, Graham Dodds, Andy Stockbridge, Andy Grumbridge and Ben McNamee) love micropubs despite my valid concerns… These are the ones inspired by Martyn Hillier, who opened Butcher’s Arms, also in Herne in 2005 in a formerly unlicensed premises, such as the Walmer’s Freed Man (a former post office) or the Four Candles in Broadstairs—but the Shirker’s owners wanted their version to be more inclusive. More modern… “They were bastions of ‘un’ modernity,” Andy Grumbridge tells me. “You weren’t allowed to use your phone—some micropubs would have phones nailed to the walls. And, even though they won’t admit it, they started as predominantly male spaces. Some grew up a bit and became more open, such as the Fez in Margate.”

Roadworks in Brussels.

We’re passing through Brussels tonight and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t conscious of it being a sometimes chaotic city. It’s the only place we’ve ever caught a pickpocket in the act, for example. After a shooting incident earlier this week Eoghan Walsh wrote a heartfelt reflection on the city’s nightlife and how it has been affected by this and similar incidents in the past decade:

I realise I’m sitting more or less in the same place, doing the same things, I was the first time the Belgian government told us to stay indoors and be alert for possible terrorists in the streets of Brussels. November 2015 was when “lockdown” entered the Brussels lexicon, in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris. I remember wild rumours circulating on Twitter about possible attacks happening or about to happen in Brussels. I remember following at a distance the clear-outs of bars and streets in the centre of town, checking in regularly with Ryan Heath’s feed for updates about what was going on. I remember the gallows humour on twitter as people checked in on each other and shared photos of their and other people’s cats as fear sublimated into a kind of giddy anxiety and everyone tried to keep the dread at bay.

Four large steins of Spaten lager (detail from a poster c.1920s.)

As we said last week, we love inspiring other people to write blog posts. This week we nagged Andreas Krennmair to write down some of the fascinating things he was telling us over a few beers in Berlin. The result was a post about Bavarian beer halls in the German capital which might feel like manifestations of chain-pub culture but are, in fact, historic in their own right:

An 1891 tourist guide to Berlin lists a number of “beer palaces”, many of which were owned by or at least serving beer from Bavarian breweries… Similarly, the 1898 Baedeker guide to Berlin lists several more… Some contemporary publications commented on this as a “Bier-Kulturkampf” (beer culture war) between the classic Berlin beer culture of top-fermented white and brown beer and the newfangled Bavarian beers that made an impact on Berlin architecture. The most prominent beer palace in that regard was probably Spatenbräu on Friedrichstraße 172.

(See also: London, which had its own Spaten beer hall, and others.)

Illustration: a quiet corner in a quiet pub, with table and stools.

James at The Last Drop Inn has notes on how to be a good citizen in the pub. He’s called it ‘The Unwritten Rules’ and provides a list of mildly irritating behaviours, like this:

Sampling a beer should be reserved for people who want to enjoy the same beer over the course of a couple of hours. Sampling a beer to decide whether you want to sample a beer is exploiting a loophole. Particularly when you’re going to have a sample of six beers, which you’re then going to have a half of each of anyway. What you’re really doing there is having seven halves for the price of six.

There are things in this post that will make some of you bristle. If you’re a CAMRA member or serious cyclist, and sensitive about some of the negative stereotypes, perhaps give it a miss.

We enjoyed this long piece on ‘48 Hours Drinking and Eating in Lille’ by Grace Weitz for Hop Culture. Sure, it was a sponsored trip, and we generally ignore those, but the fact is that we (a) added a few items to our to-visit list off the back of reading this piece and (b) learned some things from the article, like this:

Aurélie Baguet, co-founder of L’Échappée Bière, a beer event and tourism group in Lille… says she now counts 250 breweries in the region and thirty-five in the metropolitan city identified as “héritage bière,” an earned label that designates the brewery or beer bar as taking steps to welcome tourists… Moreover, within the last decade, the original families of both Motte Cordonnier and Célestin bought back or revived their breweries, starting from scratch and recreating a modern identity for their historic family breweries.

Finally, from Instagram, another glance downward in a branch of Wetherspoon…

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


News, nuggets and longreads 14 October 2023: The Changes

Every Saturday we round-up the best writing about beer from the past week. This time, we’ve got taproom taxidermy, freshness and oompah.

First, some worrying news: a new study suggests that European hops could be in trouble because of climate change. And it’s going to affect the taste of our beer:

[The] study, which looked at how the average yield of aroma hops changed between 1971 and 1994 and between 1995 and 2018, found that in some key hop-growing areas, there was a drop of nearly 20% in output… The scientists, from the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Cambridge University, put the reduction in crop down to drier conditions – probably due to climate change – in recent years… The scientists also found the alpha bitter acids of the hops – which influence the beer flavour – had reduced, due to higher and more extreme temperatures.

The original paper is available via Nature and Jeff Alworth has further commentary at Beervana.

Sticking with Jeff Alworth we’re delighted to have inspired a post about the politics of American craft beer. The other day, we pondered on the politics of cask ale. Now, Jeff has asked, is US craft culture liberal, or conservative?

Over the weekend, I visited a brewery in an exurban town on the edge of or in Trump country (I can’t find stats local enough to tell me). Situated in an industrial park, it had a very suburban feel, and the only way to visit was via car. The inside was decorated with stuffed elk heads and geese. The flickering light of a football game illuminated one wall. Nearly every table was occupied by families, in ages ranging from infants to 80 plus. And on the door was a sign announcing it was a safe space free of bigotry and welcome to all… Was this a conservative environment? Liberal? Neither?

An oompah band in the middle of a performance.
Musicians at the Hofbräuhaus München

The September edition of Will Hawkes’s excellent London Beer City newsletter is now available to read online. This edition features notes on a German beer hall chain which has real provenance:

On the face of it, organising an Oktoberfest event doesn’t seem too complicated. What do you need? Lots of German beer, bratwurst and pretzels, a crowd of thirsty punters willing to dress in lederhosen/dirndls and crash glasses together, and long tables for them to sit at/stand on. Otto’s your uncle… Not so fast! There’s another crucial element that’s harder to secure, particularly on this side of the North Sea: an oompah band… How many oompah bands are there in London good enough to entertain crowds for hours on end? “There’s so much demand now,” laughs Helen Busch, Beer Sommelier at German Kraft, which operates four venues in London, three of them (Elephant and Castle, Mayfair and Dalston) with breweries attached. She’s understandably cagey about the name of the band booked for German Kraft’s celebration.

Hops against green.

What makes a beer taste ‘fresh’? It’s a tasting note we use all the time in reference to a subtle but powerful quality we can’t otherwise describe. At Craft Beer & Brewing Randy Mosher has attempted to crack “the freshness code”:

Beer is a fragile product that’s in absolutely pristine condition for only a brief window of time. Maybe you’ve heard a friend come back from Europe and say (or maybe you’ve come back from Europe and said), “It’s so different over there; it’s not even the same beer.” It’s true. Any beer, no matter how well brewed, that’s made a weeks-long trip by ocean freighter, truck, and other means, is absolutely different from the one that left the brewery, both in terms of its flavor and its chemistry. Time, temperature, and vibration all take their toll. This is an inviolable law… Stale beer is a big issue for the industry and for discerning drinkers. Over the decades, more research money has been poured into staling than probably any other problem in brewing.

A bar selling Budweiser.
SOURCE: Dan Diav on Unsplash.

Say what you like about the rice in Budweiser but don’t think it isn’t a choice. At Appellation Beer Stan Hieronymus has written about the long history of Anheuser-Busch using the grain, often at additional expense, and the process behind it. He draws upon research for his book Brewing Local back in 2015:

First thing after arrival, a worker would take a composite sample out of each compartment in a rail car. “If there is a taste issue we will reject the whole car,” said David Maxwell, then brewing director at Anheuser-Busch InBev… “We don’t want grassy (like fresh-cut grass),” Maxwell said. “Mold will jump out at you, like walking into a basement.” They are looking for a starchy taste. Rice has a higher starch content and lower protein content than any other cereal adjunct. “We want quality starch,” Maxwell said, and freshness is the key.

A bookshelf against the window of a pub: "The Victoria".

We like this idea: instead of a book group, why not a short story group that meets in the pub? Author Laura Jean McKay argues that it’s more efficient, more fun, and leaves more time for chat, food and booze:

[We] gather at a hippy pub clutching a slim volume or tapping on a link. One published short story, one hour, once a month (or so). Arrive, order chips and beer, rip through the story, done. Raymond Carver said of the form: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” We’re sprinters. And after each session I feel buzzed, already looking forward to the next race… I have tried to take part in the rite of passage that is a proper book group. The first one I went to was more about wedding planning than literature. The book was The Time Traveler’s Wife. The cake was to be chocolate. Finger food and, after much discussion, a hired photographer. There was no book discussion and no invitation to this “wedding”.

Finally, from Instagram, an enigmatic message:

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

bristol pubs

The Siren’s Calling, Portishead: nautical

The supposed best pub in Bristol for 2023 isn’t in Bristol, it’s in Portishead. And it is, indeed, very good.

We decided to visit The Siren’s Calling a few months ago when we saw a sign in The Merchants Arms in Hotwells which said something like: “The pub CAMRA says is the best in Bristol isn’t really in Bristol so actually, it’s us.”

We’d also heard of the pub because Ray’s dad’s band played there back in 2021 and Ray designed the poster.

Unfortunately, our previous experience of Portishead meant we had to work hard to find the enthusiasm for the schlep. Last time we went it rained and the buses were totally unreliable. Not Portishead’s fault but these impressions linger.

This time, we decided to walk from Bristol, and get the bus back. The frustrating thing being that long stretches of the path run alongside what looks like a perfectly serviceable railway line, which was closed in 1967.

At any rate, walking in unseasonal October sunshine, we arrived at Portishead Marina with a thirst. The atmosphere was that of a sunny seaside town, with people eating chips on the rocks and yachts in the lock.

The Siren’s Calling is in the ground floor of a new block of flats surrounded by coffee shops and a branch of Co-Op. It’s not a promising location, architecturally speaking.

But then The Cockleshell at Saltash makes something similar work, as do any number of German beer halls installed in grey post-war blocks.

What was promising at The Siren’s Calling was the atmosphere on the terrace outside. The pub was covered in delightfully tacky Oktoberfest décor and there were groups of people in Alpine hats drinking lager by the two-pint Maß.

The interior of the pub with big glass windows, long shared tables and a view of the crowded, sunny terrace.

Inside, we found a single large room scattered with tables and benches, all decked out with blue and white plastic tablecloths.

Despite our reservations about the style, we ordered Festbiers front the Dirndl-clad bar staff, both served in appropriate glassware, and found a corner.

It was quiet mid-afternoon but still had a decent atmosphere – peaceful rather than dead.

“We should come back in the winter,” said Jess. “I bet it’ll be like one of those bars on the Belgian coast.”

Everyone was drinking German beer in two-pint mugs, even a group of dainty older ladies in designer deck shoes.

There was also a party of cyclists in Lycra debating Fleetwood Mac; a pair of hefty lads with, apparently, hollow legs; and one or two serious drinkers hovering round the bar.

What struck us with round two was how reasonably priced it was. A bottle of Jever and a pint of Ayinger Hell came to less than £10. The split turned out to be £4.60 for the Helles and £5 for the Jever.

A chalkboard also advertised a hundred Belgian beers. Without a printed menu we couldn’t verify that but we certainly spotted all the beers we could think of wanting to drink in the fridges behind the bar.

“It’s a proper old skool beer list,” said Jess.

“Why doesn’t Bristol proper have a pub with a list like that?”

“With all those new flats going up, maybe it will get one at some point soon.”

The pub got busier and busier until there was a bona fide queue at the bar.

As the live band struck up at 4pm, with accordion and mandolin, we finished round three (Duvel and another pint of Ayinger Hell) and slipped out to walk, or wobble, towards the bus stop with the low sun in our eyes.


News, nuggets and longreads 7 October 2023: Village Green

Every Saturday, we round-up the best writing about beer from the past week. This time, we’ve got ancient beer, cork mats and village life.

First, a trailer for a film that John ‘The Beer Nut’ Duffy tells us is as good as it looks, having seen a screening in Dublin:

In the accompanying press release Dr Susan Flavin of the School of Histories and Humanities at Trinity College, says:

“Historians have long understood that beer was integral to social life and a vital source of nutrition in early modern Ireland and across Europe. However, until now our understanding of the calorie and alcohol content of historic beer has been based on theoretical calculations. We didn’t know what that beer looked and tasted like. How much alcohol it contained. Or how nutritious it was… To answer these questions a team of historians, archaeologists, scientists, craftspeople and filmmakers built a brewery and using heritage technology and grains we faithfully replicated a beer from Dublin Castle brewhouse recipes in the 1570s.”

A stand selling hats and toys at a beer festival.
A stall at Oktoberfest 2022 by Kimia on Unsplash.

We enjoyed Em Sauter’s piece about Oktoberfest for Forbes because it answered some questions we have which have prevented us from ever going. Questions such as “Is it as tacky as it looks?” and “Isn’t it just full of obnoxious drunk tourists?”

Six friends and I walked around the event. Many in the crowd were either in great spirits or had clearly had too many beers. The beer is only served in large, one-liter mugs (called masskrug or “mass” for short; that’s essentially a quart of beer!) and there’s only one style of beer served in the tents—a stronger version of golden lager called festbier that’s usually around 6% ABV. Our first encounter with drunkenness came in the form of two people passed out next to a carnival ride. A man about to vomit ran past us looking for a safe place to throw up. I understood immediately why people I knew had told me not to come here. Once I was inside the tent, though, I would tell them they were wrong; what I experienced was something so joyous that I wish I were there right now.

BrewDog bar sign.

At Oh Good Ale Phil has a confession to make: on weekday afternoons after work, he prefers drinking in BrewDog to drinking in the independently-owned bar that he’s supposed to like. It’s about atmosphere and consistency, as he explains:

In short, the bar owned by the CAMRA-baiting headline-chasers in bed with private equity delivered a better, more reliable and more consistent experience than the independent bar which I’m not going to name, and it did so precisely because it was a larger-scale operation with a more ‘corporate’ style: longer opening hours, multiple lines devoted to ‘silly’ options, in-your-face music, staff who keep shtum when they’re not trying to sell you something. My experience reminds me, to my embarrassment, of the South Park episode where the residents boycott a new chain coffee bar in favour of the longstanding independent coffee shop, only to find out when they actually try “Harbucks” that its coffee is far better (“Hey, this doesn’t taste like mud!”).

U Fleku sign, 2008.

At Beervana Jeff Alworth offers a deep-dive into a single beer, which is one of our favourite formats. This time, it’s U Fleků dark lager from Prague, which we remember fondly from our one encounter with it more than a decade ago:

U Fleků is… one of the most interesting breweries in the world, possibly the oldest, and absolutely the most important example of a tmavý brewed today… You’d think the recipe and formulation would be a state secret, but in fact, there’s not even a fixed recipe—and it’s not a secret at all. [Spokesman Martin] Plesný wrote: “Every master brewer has his own way to brew the beer, and there is no exact written recipe. The method is basically inherited generation by generation, and the outcome should be always the same: a 13° dark beer of a smooth taste and a bitterness which is agreeable, not excessive.”… Fleků’s basic recipe is well-known: 50% pilsner malt, 30% Munich, 15% caramel (or “toffee”), and 5% roasted malt.

Had it ever occurred to you to even think about who makes those big mattresses they drop beer kegs onto when they’re unloading them from the delivery truck? It turns out to be an interesting story, as revealed in a piece by Sam Tranum for The Dublin Inquirer, which opens with some atmosphere:

On Temple Lane South on Tuesday morning, a big Guinness-black flat-bed truck was stopped outside the Temple Bar… It was stacked with rows of silver kegs, hemmed in by a fence at the edge of the truck bed, to keep them from falling off… About 9.30am, Christopher Doyle jumped down, plopped an industrial-looking pillow – not the kind you’d want to lay your head on at night, much rougher – on the footpath and went to work… With help from Daragh Murphy, who was still up on the truck among the kegs, Doyle began dropping the kegs off the truck onto the pillow one by one – thump!

(Via The Beer Nut.)

Tom Canning’s most recent piece for Beer in Berkshire is in praise of village beer festivals, which occur up and down England with little fanfare every week of the year. Tom was inspired to write about this by Burghfest at Burghfield near Reading:

[Volunteer] run events are hard work when you’re on the other side of the bar, but it makes a massive difference when you know every penny you spend is going toward something, the people you are being served or helped by are enthusiastic and passionate about the event and businesses involved are almost always sole traders or doing their bit for a community… Maybe we should all stop going to mass corporate events, paying £7 for a pint of Greene King (I’m still angry at you The Oval) and get stuck into what’s on our doorstep…

An illustration of a man drinking a pint of beer with his hand obscuring his face.

Also from a Substack newsletter (where lots of interesting stuff lands these days) comes another portrait of customers at the imaginary Last Drop Inn from James the barman. The bar might be fictional but the regulars are drawn from life:

If you live in the local village, and needed something doing around your house, or if you’ve had children attend scouts, you’ll almost certainly have met Andy. Not only is he the local handyman, he’s also a prominent scout leader, and a committed member of Tea Time Club. He also has a good line in humorous t-shirts… The best of which take the form of a tick-box question: ‘are you drunk?’, with boxes reading ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and a large red cross nowhere near either box. He also has special outfits for each day of our annual beer and music festival. Or rather, he has as of this year. Sunday has been Hawaiian shirt day for several years.

Finally, from Instagram, a photo from a project about life in Europe…

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

opinion pubs real ale

How ‘conservative coded’ is cask ale?

Is cask ale right wing, left wing, both, or neither? Is cask, in American terms, ‘conservative coded’? It’s complicated.

Last week a row blew up when an industry body concerned with cask ale announced plans to promote its newest campaign on the right wing GB News channel.

The controversy was more intense, perhaps, because this happened in a week when even GB News seemed to concede that some of its presenters had gone too far.

Observing this news from across the Atlantic, American drinks writer Dave Infante asked for context via social network BlueSky:

any british drinkers on here that could weigh in on how ‘conservative’ cask ale is coded in the uk?

Travelling on a bus across Somerset, we did our best to answer in a series of quick replies.

But, actually, this feels like a topic worth digging into in more detail, and now we’ve had more time to reflect.

What do you mean by ‘cask ale’?

Literally, cask ale refers to a method of dispense, as explored in-depth by Des de Moor in his most recent book.

But here, we’re talking about its place in British culture. What it means, or signifies.

For many people, cask ale is synonymous with brown bitter, produced by companies hundreds of years old, such as Arkell’s or Shepherd Neame.

It’s horse brasses, Inspector Morse, dimple mugs, shire horses, blazers with badges, regimental ties, red trousers, vintage cars, cricket, golf, Alan Partridge with his big fat shot of Director’s.

A pint of your finest foaming, if you please, stout yeoman of the bar.

This version, or view, of cask ale is distinctly ‘conservative coded’, for one particular idea of what conservatism means.

What do you mean by ‘conservative’?

In Britain, as in the US, conservatism is fractured.

The Conservative Party, AKA the Tories, was for many years the party of the landed gentry, the military and the Church.

They were literally conservative, as in, resistant to social change, and supportive of existing social hierarchies.

Then, in the late 20th century, the Conservatives pivoted under Margaret Thatcher to a more radical form of conservatism.

It prioritised deregulation, low taxes and free market economics, with less emphasis on social class and tradition.

Especially if it got in the way of growth.

You might almost categorise these two factions as (a) cask ale Tories and (b) lager lout Thatcherites.

The latter group, to deal again in broad stereotypes, were less about shire horses and tweed, more Porsches and pinstripes.

There’s no doubt that the late John Young of London brewery Young & Co was a conservative.

Indeed, it’s been suggested he was somewhat further to the right than that gentle word might suggest.

He was also a dogged traditionalist who clung to cask ale throughout the 1970s, arguably playing a large part in saving it.

Then, on the other hand, you might look at the families behind Watneys, Whitbread and the rest of the Big Six.

While supporting the Conservative Party, they were entirely unsentimental about cask ale.

In pushing keg bitter, then lager, throughout the post-war period, they were regarded as the enemies of cask ale.

It was in that context that the script got flipped and cask ale became an element of the counterculture.

An old photo of people marching with a brass band.
CAMRA marches against the closure of the Joules brewery at Stone, 3 November, 1973, with CAMRA chairman Christopher Hutt at dead centre.

Cask ale as a radical cause

Whether the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was left or right wing was something we researched in depth a decade ago while writing Brew Britannia.

Early members of the campaign included “everyone from National Front members to Maoists”, as one interviewee told us.

People who wanted to preserve tradition and turn back the clock found themselves campaigning alongside those who wanted to give Tory brewery owners bloody noses and champion ‘small is beautiful’ principles.

Broadly speaking, though, CAMRA was about challenging powerful capitalist interests (Watneys) and was sometimes talked about as a sort of beer drinker’s trade union.

It seems to us that many of the newer generation of microbrewers shared this rebellious, challenger mindset, even if their owners’ personal politics varied widely.

In the 21st Century

As we keep saying, cask ale’s political image is complicated, and only got more so in recent years.

As ‘craft beer’ arrived in the UK, cask ale came to be regarded by some as a relic, and CAMRA as an obstruction.

Self-declared rebels and revolutionaries like BrewDog (we know, we know – check out chapter 14 of Brew Britannia) made keg beer their cause.

For a stretch there, that meant even small scale cask ale was perhaps regarded as ‘conservative coded’.

Even though BrewDog, Camden and other successful keg-focused UK craft breweries proved to be the most purely capitalistic of the lot.

And much to the irritation of radically-minded cask ale brewers, especially in the North of England.

But in these days of the supposed culture war ‘conservative’ isn’t just about your attitude to economics. It’s also about your stance on feminism, gender, racism, Brexit, vaccination…

Nigel Farage, the most prominent champion of Brexit, made pints of cask ale part of his personal image, and the preservation of the crown-stamped pint glass a key talking point of the ‘Leave’ campaign.

As beer writers are fond of pointing out, cask ale is uniquely British (terms and conditions may apply) and so lends itself to nationalist posturing.

Cask ale is also associated with ‘proper pubs’. For many, a proper pub is the very dream and ideal. For others, it’s an idea loaded with danger signs: doesn’t it just mean white, male and possibly, or probably, racist?

CAMRA has also struggled to convincingly counter suggestions that racism and sexism are baked into its culture – though perhaps headway is finally being made on that front, at the cost of alienating members who liked that.

One final test

If you were writing a fictional character who is a conservative (right wing) what would you have them drink?

Depending on the flavour of their conservatism, it might be Champagne, wine, port or brandy.

If they’re a filthy rich City type, they might go for the most expensive lager on the bar – or a keg IPA, these days.

But in most instances, it would be a pint of cask ale, right?

That’s certainly what Conservative Party politicians like to be photographed holding, even when they don’t drink.

Look, we know it’s almost a decade old, but do give Brew Britannia a read. It goes into much of the above in plenty of detail and should help you work out your own answer to this complex question.