J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dipping in and out of this book, with H.V. Morton’s In Search of England as a companion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dipping, each chapter covering a different part of the country and complete as standalone essays.

In ‘To the West Riding’, Priestley lands in Bradford on Sunday evening as heavy drizzle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town centre: ‘“But there isn’t anything,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warning accurate: there’s a Salvation Army band playing, a couple of cafés shutting up, and some shop window displays to look at, while young people ‘promenade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remember, elderly citizens have been protesting against this practice of promenading on Sunday nights. They have always been disgusted by the sight of young people monkey-parading in this fashion. It is, however, the same elderly citizens who have seen to it that nearly all doors leading out of the street shall be locked against these young people. They cannot listen to plays or music, cannot see films, cannot even sit in big pleasant rooms and look at one another; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mating, whatever elderly persons may think…

Priestley’s pub crawl is depressing. He finds the first one he visits very quiet with ‘five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter’ and bothering the barmaid. ‘Nothing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stupid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] cannot see why playgoing, listening to music, watching films, even dancing, should be considered so much worse – or at least more secular – than boozing with prostitutes.

The third pub is the liveliest, large and crowded, with some ‘little coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; nothing else, not even reasonable comfort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was taken. Fifteen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gaiety, this was life; and so the place was selling beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sexes. I do not think any of these people – and they were mostly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an older couple – could really be said to be really enjoying themselves; but at least they could look at one another, giggle a bit, talk when they found something to say, and admire the carnival splendour of the coloured electric lights.

Priestley’s conclusion is that it would be better for supposedly religious towns to permit the breaking of the Sabbath if it meant ‘a choice between monkey-parading and dubious pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has landed on, in analysing one Sunday night in one town, is a diagnosis of the whole problem with pubs: they were the default for many people not necessarily because they were lovely, but for lack of any alternative.

As houses got better and bigger, more people stayed at home. As opening hours relaxed and the range of businesses in towns broadened (coffee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monopoly came to an end.

For more on pubs, including prostitution, fighting, spitting and riots, do check out our book 20th Century Pub. For more on Bradford pubs in particular hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970, published in 1995. Main image above adapted from one supplied by Bradford Libraries on Flickr.

Scotland #4: the familiarity of Fort William

When we arrived at Fort William we recognised the atmosphere of the town immediately: it’s like Penzance.

Drizzle, mist, guesthouses, council estates and, of course, pubs.

The tricky thing about running a pub in a town like Fort William is that for half the year, there’s too much of a particular type of business: tourists who often don’t know how it all works and probably want dinner.

Then, for the remaining six months, there’s not enough business. You’re left with a handful of locals rattling round mostly empty pubs, if they can afford to go out at all given the seasonal nature of the employment market.

Also, a focus on local breweries, potentially laudable, too often means mediocre beer, or worse.

In this kind of environment, proper pubs can struggle to find a real identity, or deliver consistent customer service.

After a quick recce, we decided we might as well tackle #EveryPubInFortwilliam and we think we managed it.

A collage of pubs in Fort William.

The one everybody recommended was The Grog & Gruel. We didn’t have a good time on our visit between grumpy service, farting dogs and pass-agg encounters with Canadian tourists determined to nab our space. But it’s certainly a nice looking, pubby pub, and we can imagine having fun there under different circumstances.

The Volunteer Arms has a neat, traditional pub exterior with notes on the architectural significance of the interior. In fact, inside, we found it pretty plain and pleasingly down-to-earth. A friendly welcome on the first visit brought us back twice more, even though the beer was nothing special (a great excuse to drink Tennent’s). The appeal, we think, was that it felt like a city pub transplanted to the Highlands, and the balance of visitors and locals felt right.

The Ben Nevis kept trying to make us Dine but when we caved into pressure and ordered food, brought us the wrong stuff. We came twice, though, lured by a view over Loch Linnhe and a nice, manageable selection of whisky served in fancy glassware.

The first time we tried to visit the Maryburgh we were all but chased off by a strange man who blocked the alleyway to the door and stared us out with an unnerving Pennywise grin. The second time, we had to dash through a curtain of water from a broken gutter above the entrance. It wasn’t really worth the effort – this windowless basement isn’t a pub for out-of-towners and we only spoiled the mood with our anoraks and English accents. Still, more Tennent’s.

The Crofter was a bit Wetherspoony, but less slick. Someone growled at us because we blocked access to his vaping kit on the bar for two seconds while we ordered our drinks. The bar staff seemed to have end-of-the-season ennui despite it being early June. We drank Tennent’s.

Cobb’s is a strange looking modern pub by the railway station, above an outdoor supplies shop. We didn’t expect much from it but found not only good beer (Cairngorm Trade Winds) and friendly service but also a high standard of performed bar chat among the regulars: “He was an engineer before he retired. Any bridge you’ve ever heard of that fell down, he designed it.” The interior wasn’t anything special except that when the sun hit the skylight just right, it picked out one old gent at the bar with a heavenly beam.

Garrison West fancies itself a bit – all gin, craft lager and boardgames. We visited in the afternoon lull and found it friendly enough, if half asleep. The large range of beer seemed to have been chosen based on localness and the ‘craftness’ of the branding rather than any assessment of quality.

Finally, the elephant in the room: the local Wetherspoon branch, The Great Glen. It was permanently busy, from breakfast to closing, with locals and tourists. What did it do well? A huge sign in multiple languages explaining the ordering process by the door. Vast amounts of seating, albeit cramped in places. Huge windows avoiding that sense of leaping over a cliff-edge on choosing to enter. Orders by app, avoiding the need to speak to staff at all – handy if your English isn’t great. On the downside? It could have been in Teignmouth or Tenby, despite the typically careful application of Gaelic on signs.

Overall, we’d say Fort William isn’t a place you come especially for pubs or beer, though there’s enough choice that you’re bound to find one or two that will do the job between rambles.

The thrill of the new

For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.

Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.

The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.

The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.

We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.

“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.

Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.

In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.

After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)

They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.

For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.

Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.

Scotland #2: A tiny taster of Edinburgh

We spent a day in Edinburgh – just enough time to be intrigued but not enough to claim that we’ve even begun to understand it. But, anyway, here a few impressions.

First, Edinburgh’s pubs, based on the two we drank in and a few more we peered at, feel more like English pubs than those in Glasgow.

The Stockbridge Tap, with two reformed vikings behind the bar, could have been in Bristol, not least because of the presence of Tiny Rebel, Electric Bear and other familiar names on draught.

The Stockbridge Tap.

There were some Scottish beers – Swannay Island Hopping on cask, for example, and Crossborders Heavy on keg – but we got the impression those were for the benefit of visitors like us. The Heavy was our favourite beer of the day, though, bundling cherry with chocolate with the dark crust of a day-old rye loaf.

Crashing a get-together of local beer geeks we heard English, Australian, American and French accents, and contributed our own chat about the West Country and Walthamstow to this off-brand blend.

The Guildford Arms.

On the way back to the station, tanks dangerously full, we stopped at the Guildford Arms which had caught our eye as we rushed past it earlier in the day. It’s at the junction of a passageway and a backstreet, like many of the best pubs, and projects a distinct gin palace energy. A handy board outside tells the story:

In the period 1880-1910 a unique breed of luxurious pubs were built. This coincided with major changes to the city including the demolition of old buildings like The Turf Hotel and The Bridge Hotel… Curiously, and perhaps as a reaction to it, pubs like The Guildford Arms were built during the height of the temperance movement: their opulent character was in marked contrast to the dark and dingy bars of Edinburgh where the ceilings were not often beyond the reach of a man’s arm.

Though we chickened out of trying to cover Scotland in the 80,000 words of 20th Century Pub that really does seem a familiar narrative.

Inside, it felt like a London pub: a bar at the back, not horseshoeing through the centre, as we gather is the standard in Scotland; large windows with ornate detailing rather than frosted slits; with all the carpet and brown wood you could wish for.

And Fyne Ales Jarl in fine condition. This is what lured us through the door, if we’re honest, and we stopped for a couple of rounds, watching locals and German tourists navigate around each other at the bar and bargain over table space.

“Shame you didn’t make it to…”

Well, here’s the thing: we’re at peace with the idea that we can’t get to every pub in every city on every visit.

Cramming ten pubs into a single day just isn’t much fun for us anymore; we’d rather than spend two hours in one pub and three in another than just 20 minutes each in every stop on a crawl.

We also know we’ll go back to Edinburgh sometime and have another go.

That’s what we have to tell ourselves, anyway, or these kind of drive-bys would break our hearts.

Wetherspoons as public forum

We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.

Lately, we’ve been consistently disappointed by the experience of drinking in them. They seem tatty, the quality of the offer declining, presumably as they struggle to retain the all important bargain prices as the cost of products go up.

But every now and then we’re reminded why they’re so popular: as truly public spaces, ordinary pubs and working class cafés disappear, Spoons fills the gap.

A week to so ago we found ourselves in a branch in east London with a few hours to kill, beginning at breakfast time.

It was quiet, you might almost say tranquil, full of natural light and the smell of ground coffee.

One man was there before us, and left after, leaning on a posing table, steadily downing pints of lager, conducting business on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Perry’s coming in next week, and another load of them summer shirts – yeah, yeah, perfect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an older bloke.”

Another man came in, ordered coffee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub showing off a watch in cellophane, part of a new line. We couldn’t hear his patter, just the responses: “Lovely. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tuesday.”

An elderly man ordered his breakfast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a member of staff brought it over, adopted a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jolly good, Jeeves! Any messages for me with the porter?” The waiter-barman laughed politely.

A gang of construction workers arrived, head to toe in orange, and apparently exhausted. They ordered full English breakfasts, teas and energy drinks, and colonised a corner.

A student bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her laptop.

A party in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch complete with slide deck.

People charged their phones, read newspapers and books, used the toilet, and generally treated the place as if it were a library or community centre.

The manager didn’t seem to object to the relatively small amount of money going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of reminding us that a £1.60 cup of coffee was bottomless.

What’s the idea here? To send a message, we suppose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. Whatever the occasion, whatever you want to eat or drink, whatever the time of day, wherever in the country you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be hassled or judged or, indeed, paid much attention at all.

It’s clever, that. Other pubs – proper pubs – might learn something from that.

Scotland #1: Glimpses of Glasgow

We were in Scotland for ten days. It was Ray’s first ever visit and the first Jess has made for pleasure rather than work. We took a list of pubs recommended by the Good Beer Guide and social media but otherwise, as usual, let instincts and the advice of friends guide us. What follows are some impressions – snippets and moments – and we apologise in advance if we’ve put our feet in it culturally speaking.

Our train arrived in Glasgow towards the end of Friday night, and Glasgow, it turns out, goes big on going out.

Convoys of young women and scrums of young men stumbled by, all gym-buffed and contoured, dressed for Los Angeles rather than drizzle; parties of police officers stood by, detached and dour, with vans ready to be filled.

The tang of vinegar on hot chips, iceberg shreds scattered like confetti from kebabs, chicken nuggets straight from the sack, and Buckfast from the bottle in an alleyway, by the bins.

Laughter, mostly, and yelled into the night heckles, propositions and instructions from the nightlife brigadiers who keep their gangs on course from pub to club to bar.

Indoors, bolts shot, we drifted off to the late-stage of the party, the lullaby of smashing glass, distant four-four kicks drum loops, sirens and final kerbside murmurings.

The next morning, under tweed-grey cloud and seagull bombardment, the streets were silent, but here and there were lost shoes, disgorged dinners and shards of green glass.

This is going to be fun, we thought.

Glasgow Bars.

Wandering about, we got the distinct feeling we’d missed our opportunity to explore the traditional Glasgow bar.

It’s as alien to us as the Tabac – another culture’s way of drinking that’s a cousin to the English pub but absolutely distinct.

Insofar as we know them at all, it’s from Scott Graham’s blog, Old Glasgow Pubs and the odd bit of research we’ve done into, for example, Alex Ferguson’s brief career as a publican. And, of course, from portrayals on TV.

Here’s pub historian Michael Slaughter on what distinguishes Scottish pubs, from the 2007 edition of Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs:

One of the most distinctive exterior features of thousands of Scottish pubs and also the most noticeable difference between them and pub in other parts of the UK is that they occupy the ground floors of tenement blocks of flats alongside a variety of shops… This means that many Scottish pubs are often little different from adjacent shop-fronts, while pubs in other parts of the UK tend to be the only building on the plot, whether freestanding or part of a terrace. In Scotland, most pubs do not have living accommodation for licensees, due to early 20th-century legislation that made Sunday opening illegal. As a result, pubs were known as lock-ups.

And that’s what we saw in Glasgow beyond the city centre: flat-faced, blank, fortified bunkers that gave little indication from outside as to whether they were still trading.

Sometimes, it seemed, the buildings into which the bars had once been integrated had disappeared, leaving only the bar, one-storey high, flat-roofed and diminished.

John’s Bar and the Empire Bar captivated us in their romantic dereliction but the closest we got to drinking anywhere like this was the sanctified, certified-safe Laurieston.

Continue reading “Scotland #1: Glimpses of Glasgow”

A Nice Cold Pint at the Winchester

“Take car. Go to mum’s. Kill Phil, grab Liz, go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”

The above line in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, accompanied by a cartoonish wink and the raising of a pint of lager by Pegg, spawned a meme and summarises a whole (pointedly flawed) philosophy of life.

Shaun of the Dead is one of the all-time great pub films. Few others feature a pub so prominently as both a location and in dialogue; hardly any make a pub so pivotal to the plot. Shaun’s attitude to the pub, to this particular pub, defines his entire personality and directs the course of his relationships.

It has an added resonance for me in that, for several years in my own flat-sharing twenties, I lived around the corner from The Winchester.

And, to be clear, I don’t mean that I lived near a pub that was like The Winchester: the actual pub you actually see in the actual film was about four minutes walk from my house in New Cross, South London.

It was called the Duke of Albany and I never went in.

Why? I was too scared.

I was, in general, fairly brave, regularly drinking in several pubs near my house that others might have balked at – the kind of down-at-heel, last-legs places where it was a choice of Foster’s or Stella, and everything was ripped, stained, broken, or had initials carved into it.

The Duke of Albany always seemed next level scary, though, perhaps because it was a Big Millwall Pub. Or maybe because it was on a backstreet rather than the main road – the only street, in fact, where anyone has ever tried to mug me. I have a faint memory of there always being dogs outside and I don’t mean 10/10 floofy internet doggos – real face-chewers. You couldn’t see in, either, which meant walking through the door would have been a pure gamble.

And that fortress character is, of course, exactly why Shaun chooses it as his base for the zombie apocalypse.

The pub In Shaun of the Dead, though it is The Duke of Albany, isn’t the Duke of Albany. It represents every decent but unpretentious, tatty but not grotty, functional neighbourhood pub in London.

As such, it is lovingly, carefully depicted, Edgar Wright’s hyperactive camera swooping in on resonant details: a cowboy boot tapping a brass rail, the fireworks of the fruit machine, textured wallpaper varnished with nicotine, and frosted glass that speaks of privacy and mischief. TV screens, flaming sambucas, glasses that only just barely look clean…

It’s an attempt to depict a real backstreet, outer-rim London pub, not the romantic Olde Inne of popular imagination. An ideal, sure, but not a fantasy.

It picks up on threads laid down in Spaced, the cult TV show that launched the careers of Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. One episode in particular, ‘Back’, the opening to series two from 2001, features a Matrix-like fight sequence in a very real-looking, unglamorous pub.

You might discern a progression, in fact. In Spaced, about post-adolescence, pubs are important, but just part of the mix alongside nightclubs, raves and house parties. By Shaun of the Dead, with characters staring down the barrel of 30, pubs have become the default, with fancy restaurants and dinner parties the threatened next step. And in The World’s End, pubs have definitely become a problem, something to be shaken off with maturity.

Simon Pegg has said as much outright, in fact, acknowledging last summer that he had stopped drinking, and describing The World’s End as a way of admitting his problem with alcohol.

Re-watching Shaun of the Dead recently both Jess and I were struck by the extent to which the specific pub culture depicted has already begun to fade out of existence. The portrayal of a lock-in, for example, gave us a rush of nostalgia for the world of drawn curtains, low muttering and conspiratorial glee.

The Duke of Albany closed a few years after the film came out and is now flats. When I visited New Cross last year I found that other similarly rough-and-ready pubs had also disappeared, either re-purposed, demolished or gentrified into something fundamentally different.

The Windsor had some of the old Winchester atmosphere, though, with chat about pool cues being broken over people’s heads (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) and elderly drinkers whose faces told stories.

But would I hole up there during the end of the world? No chance. After all, man cannot survive on scratchings and Extra Cold Guinness alone.

The unwritten rules of round-buying

There are few things as odd as reading an observed description of your own culture’s unconscious habits, such as the buying of rounds of drinks.

When we arrived in Glasgow last weekend we browsed the guidebooks supplied in our flat and stopped short when we found a note, aimed at visitors to Scotland, on how to buy rounds:

Like the English, Welsh and Irish, Scots generally take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for the whole group, and everyone is expected to take part. The next round should always be bought before the first round is finished.

It was that last line that gave us pause.

We’ve never really thought about how rounds are paced, even though we’ve sometimes been aware of struggling to keep up with fast-drinking friends and family members, and  on other occasions of sitting with empty glasses waiting for the round-buyer designate to make a move.

Our Twitter followers offered varying points of view:

  • The fastest drinker sets the pace.
  • The slowest drinker sets the pace.
  • If you drink especially quickly, you should buy the odd pint on your own to fill the gaps.
  • The round-buyer should go when there’s a window of opportunity at a busy bar.

Which suggests that if there are rules, they’re flexible, and vary from place to place, and group to group.

We also looked at Passport to the Pub, a brilliant piece of work by sociologist Kate Fox from 1996 which attempts to break down in exquisite detail every aspect of pub culture for the benefit of non-Brits. She writes:

Don’t wait until all your companions’ glasses are empty before offering to buy the next round. The correct time to say “It’s my round” is when your companions have consumed about three-quarters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have finished their drinks when you have barely started.)

She also adds, however:

Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you cannot keep up with the drinking-pace of your native companions, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Nothing for me, thanks”. If you alternate accepting and declining during the round-buying process, you will consume half the number of drinks, without drawing too much attention to yourself. Avoid making an issue or a moral virtue of your moderate drinking, and never refuse a drink that is clearly offered as a significant ‘peace-making’ or ‘friendship’ gesture – you can always ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.

There’s also a lot of good stuff on round-buying in the 1943 Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, including a note on how drinkers in Bolton in the late 1930s kept pace with each other to avoid awkwardness:

[All] our observations show that the majority of pub-goers tend, when drinking in a group, to drink level; and very often there is not a quarter inch difference between the depth of beer in the glasses of a group of drinkers… The simultaneous emptying of glasses is the most frequent form of level drinking. And it is (for reasons connected with the ritual of standing rounds) the most likely form of level drinking that is due to ‘anticipation’.

We suspect a fair bit of this still goes on today even if, again, those doing it don’t know it’s happening. Or maybe this is a bit of a lost art?

In practice, of course, all of these rules or customs are understood without being spoken, and possibly completely unconsciously. We moderate our behaviour based on the group we’re with, our knowledge of people’s financial situations, or their capacity for alcohol.

The only time strict rules are likely to be enforced is when we’re drinking with complete strangers.

Another thought: in a good pub, there are plenty of options for keeping pace without getting excessively drunk. For example, Pally makes the pace with pints of strong ale; Matey, drinking a bit quicker than they’d like, is on best; and Wossname, who keeps having to chug the last third of every pint, takes ordinary bitter at 3.7%. They all end up about as pissed as each other.

At our local, the Drapers, a further refinement can be found in the four-pint jug. First, choosing the beer is a real team exercise, leaving no room for fussiness. Secondly, sharing, while not strictly equitable, does solve the pacing problem: if your glass is empty, have a slug more; if the jug is empty, someone needs to get a round in.

Finally, Kate Fox also makes the point that it’s as bad to make too much fuss about equality in round-buying as it is to be seen as stingy. After all, it generally evens itself out across multiple sessions, or over the course of a lifetime of friendship – a boozy take on the concept of karma.

Only once that either of us can remember have we encountered someone who really broke the unspoken rules of round-buying, almost seeming to make a game out of avoiding paying their way over the course of months. Eventually, after about a year of mounting irritation, there was an intervention and they were forced to buy a reasonably-priced round in a Sam Smith’s pub in central London. This was, as you might imagine, an awful thing to witness.

News, nuggets and longreads 1 June 2019: Bubbles, Boozers, Business

Here’s everything that struck us as noteworthy, informative or entertaining in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from worrying to Wegbier.

Writing, oddly, for the blog of beer industry marketing agency Mash, Matt Curtis offers a balanced, detailed rundown of the state of UK brewing in a week when there has been much discussion of brewery closures:

About five years ago, if I was given a pound for every time I was told that the “beer bubble” was about to burst, I’d have, well, several pounds. Enough for a round of “London murky” in a trendy craft beer bar at the very least. At the time, it felt as though beer was reaching its apex. As it turned out, it still had further to climb before it did.

Now, however, I’m beginning to think that, although some of those hot takes came far too early, that in today’s market, they might be right.


Augustiner bottles

For VinePair Evan Rail writes about the German culture of Wegbier – literally beer that you drink on your way from A to B.

“A Wegbier is a simply a beer that you drink while you’re walking,” Ludger Berges, owner of the Hopfen & Malz bottle shop in Berlin, says. “Actually, ‘Weg’ means ‘way,’ so it’s a beer for the road. If you’re on your way to a party or on your way home from a party, maybe it’s 10 minutes by foot, many people in Berlin will walk that distance, and many people will drink a Wegbier along the way. It’s cool, it’s relaxed. Everybody does it.”

The concept of Wegbier seems fairly specific to Germany. Despite the country sharing a border and lager-brewing (and -drinking) history with the Czech Republic, there is no Czech-language equivalent of Wegbier. Nor is the concept in neighboring countries like Belgium or Poland.


Pubco advertisement for landlords.

In another area of the industry, the Guardian has a piece by Rob Davies on how the Market-Rent-Only option is working out for publicans whose pubs are owned by the much-reviled pub companies:

Pub tenants and MPs have been “duped and betrayed”, according to the British Pub Confederation, which said the MRO was little more than a myth.

It accused pub companies of seeking to scupper MRO applications by any means necessary, including spooking them with eviction notices. The group also cast doubt on the independence of assessments used to set rents.

The BPC chair, Greg Mulholland, who pushed the MRO option through parliament as a Liberal Democrat MP, said that in its current form “tenants do not have the rights they were promised by ministers”.


Thornbridge, 2013.

Reason, a conservative American publication which sits in around the same space as the UK’s Spectator, has an interesting piece by Alex Muresianu on how the imposition of steel tariffs has affected the US brewing industry:

The justification for import taxes is usually that they will protect American jobs from foreign competition. Tariffs on a specific good, like aluminum, might help workers in the industry which produces that good. However, workers in industries that use that good as an input suffer.

“I have heard from brewers large and small from across the country who are seeing their aluminum costs drastically increase, even when they are using American aluminum,” Jim McGreevy, president and CEO of The Beer Institute, said in March, when the group released a separate report detailing $250 million in higher costs created by tariffs and tariff-associated price increases.


We haven’t had chance to watch this yet but the Craft Beer Channel has produced a 70-minute documentary about beer in New England which is clearly a labour of love.


Historic England is trying to save a revolutionary 18th century building in Shrewsbury that was built as a flaxmill and converted into maltings in the 1890s. They call it ‘the first skyscraper’. You can find out all about the Flaxmill Maltings at the History Calling blog.


And finally, there’s this eloquent account of why you might start a brewery, and what might move you to stop:

For more, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday. (Stan Hieronymus is taking a break.)

Geoffrey Fletcher on Victorian Pubs, 1962

Geoffrey Fletcher (1923-2004) wrote and illustrated a lot of books – observations of the unglamorous end of London life, from pie shops to street markets.

His most famous book is The London Nobody Knows, published in 1962 and the basis of a cult documentary from 1969.

We’d previously only read it in libraries but finally got our own copy last weekend – a 1965 Penguin edition that cost £2.50.

Though most of Fletcher’s books mention pubs in passing – we quoted a couple in 20th Century Pub – it’s in chapter eight of The London Nobody Knows that he really sets out his manifesto:

One of the striking characteristics of London pubs is the way in which different pubs have an appeal to different kinds of patrons.

To underline his point he goes on to list various types of pub, from legal pubs to “homosexuals’ pubs… where queers meet queers”.

Like Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Roddy Gradidge and other contemporaries, Fletcher believed that Victorian pubs were the pinnacle of the form:

London pubs are rich in the trappings of the Victorian age, which knew exactly how a town pub should appear. A fine one is illustrated here – the King and Queen in the Harrow Road. This is nineteenth-century Baroque at its most florid. Grey marble columns riser from a mosaic floor, raised a step above the pavement. There is splendid ironwork – iron letters and wrought iron – over the door. The words ‘Saloon Bar’ have a bucolic abandon… The architects of the late Victorian pubs and music-halls knew exactly what the situation demanded – extravagance, exuberance, and plenty of decoration for its own sake.

The King and Queen
The King and Queen, Harrow Road, as drawn by Geoffrey Fletcher.

Other pubs Fletcher mentions by name as good examples include the Lamb in Leadenhall market (still worth stopping to look at today), the Black Friar at Blackfriars, and the Crown on Cunningham Place, St John’s Wood/Maida Vale. The latter is still there, apparently with a nicely preserved interior, but as a gastropub/bistro called, for some reason, ‘Crocker’s Folly’. Fletcher also provides drawings of The Lamb and The Black Friar.

Beyond fixtures and fittings, Fletcher has views on pub culture, too:

Although… the East End is losing some of its strongly focal character, the old life of the pubs in those parts of London still persists. A weekend pub crawl in such places as Shoreditch, Stepney, and Hackney is the way to see it at first hand. Here the East End ‘ma’ continues to flourish, the large sized, perhaps even pneumatic specimen who was no stranger to Phil May and Albert Chevalier, joins in the chorus, supported at the bar by a buttoned horsehair seat and at the front by a large Guinness. Such period characters must disappear sometime – that is where the funeral parlour comes in; if so, however, they are at once replaced by replicas, presumably on a system known only to the East End.

That’s yet more evidence of the link between women and stout, by the way, which we’ll file away for future reference.

You can find copies of The London Nobody Knows knocking around in second-hand book shops or online, or there’s a fairly recent reprint and eBook edition from the History Press, with a foreword by Dan Cruikshank.