The Session – quarantine edition: where we are at

Al of Fuggled has revived the Session, the monthly beer blogging jamboree that sputtered to a halt more than a year ago.

He’s asking us to think about our drinking habits in this weird, publess age – are we drinking more? Less? When? And what?

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

At the same time, we were also conscious of wanting to do something to show a bit of solidarity with local breweries, so we ordered a couple of cases of cans from Moor. When it arrived, we wondered if we ought to disinfect the boxes, or leave them for a couple of days. We wiped them down, washed our hands, fretted.

Needing little treats to get us through each day, we started drinking on more days of the week. But because beer was a bit of a pain to acquire, we drank less of it overall. One or two six times a week rather than two or three sessions over the course of the weekend.

Eventually, the Drapers closed for good, and Bottles & Books went delivery only, and our Twitter timeline began to fill with tempting offers and pleas: “Support us! Support them! Do your bit!”

We ordered cans from Thornbridge (excellent), more from Moor, more from Thornbridge, more from Moor.

As the situation got more serious, our brains adjusted – great things, brains – and the fight or flight panic passed, and with it the need for daily treats.

The regular dry days returned but the big weekend sessions didn’t.

So, overall, we’re drinking less, but savouring what we drink all the more.

Probably just as well, really, as hangovers and the depressive effects of alcohol aren’t all that helpful when everything else is so bleak.

One little ritual that has emerged, though, is a Sunday night homage to the Drapers: cheddar cheese, pickles, biscuits and ale, face to face over the table with the TV off. It’s mostly fun, mostly a pleasure, but with a bitter aftertaste.

Session #142: Funeral Beer

Guinness.

This is our contribution to the final edition of the Session hosted by Stan Hieronymus: “Pick a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship. So happy or sad, or something between. Write about the beer. Write about the aroma, the flavor, and write about what you feel when it is gone.”

Funeral beer is whatever beer they have on at the pub near the crematorium, or the social club in town.

That usually means big brand lager or smoothflow bitter. Auntie Joan on the sherry, let’s raise a whisky in memory, it’s what they would have wanted.

Or Guinness.

And, let’s face it, Guinness fits a funeral best of all, permanently dressed in that old black suit.

It feels as if Ireland owns funeral drinking in some sense born of stereotypes and heavy literature, so even if you aren’t even slightly Irish on your mother’s side, Guinness fits.

It is dark, slow, bitter.

And these days, a little sad, too.

A monochrome beer for a monochrome mood, sitting on your stomach like a raincloud.

The Penultimate Session, #141: The Future of Beer Blogging

Ugh, blogging about blogging… But, then again, we’ve not indulged for a while, and the news that the Session is expiring seems like a good moment.

The Session started a month before we commenced our (calendar check) 11 year, 7 month beer blogging adventure, and has been a reassuring constant.

There have been times when, slightly lost and disengaged from blogging, the Session pulled us back – part creative writing prompt, part warm hug.

When it nearly died a few years ago we were forlorn, but then everyone seemed to rally and it was saved. Kind of.

Like one of those TV shows that comes back for a weird final season on some streaming platform or other, it never quite felt the same.

As Jay Brooks says in his call to arms for this month’s Session, fewer and fewer people took part, and hosts seemed hard to find.

So, as Jay and Stan sail off to the west in one of those elf boats, here we are for the second to last time, doing our duty: Jay wants to know what we think about the future of beer blogging, and we’re going to tell him.

First, we refuse to be gloomy. Every Saturday morning we find plenty of great posts that we think are worth sharing, and those pieces seems more adventurous, stylish, erudite and varied than much of what was around a decade ago.

More often these days, though, great blogs arrive, blossom, and then wither when their authors abandon them to go professional. Yes, it might feel as if all the magazines are closing but we reckon there are more paying outlets for beer writing in the UK now than a decade ago. That’s good for writers, but bad news if you’ve a preference for driven, ambitious blogging.

In general, we’d say the feeling of global community has diminished, but that’s not a whinge. It’s been replaced (probably for the best) by many active, more locally-focused sub-communities: the pub crawlers, the historians, the tasting note gang, the podcasters, the social issues crew, the jostling pros and semi-pros, the pisstakers, and so on.

That can be mildly disconcerting if you don’t want to pick a tribe, we suppose.

And broader community activity does continue, just not often in the form of laboriously interlinked blog posts. Instead, it centres around social media hashtags, sometimes gently commercially driven: check out #BeerBods, #CraftBeerHour and #LetsBeerPositive for a few examples.

These are light in tone, easy to engage with, and don’t require anybody to set aside an hour under the anglepoise with a jug of coffee and a thesaurus. You can respond from the sofa, in front of the telly with a can of pastry stout, or while you’re at the pub.

So, on balance, we see the future of blogging as being much like its past – sometimes supportive, sometimes bad-tempered, over-emotional, churning like primordial soup as blogs are born in fits of tipsy enthusiasm and die of ennui – but also more fractured, more varied, and less cosy.

And less about blogs.

The Session #139: The Good Life

For this month’s edition of the Session Bill Vanderburgh at Craft Beer in San Diego asks us to think about ‘Beer and the Good Life’.

There’s no doubt in our minds that beer is one of the good things in our lives, and probably all the more so since it has settled into a quiet kind of obsession.

Back when we were eager fives it probably did more harm than good.

We wasted a bit too much time chasing novelties and rarities, spending entire days on holiday hunting obscure beers purely because they were obscure beers. (But even this gave our wandering purpose and took us to interesting parts of strange towns.)

There were times when sometimes online arguments about beer rolled and replayed in our heads when we wanted to be asleep. (But those arguments informed two books and more than a decade of blogging so silver linings and all that.)

Hitchcock style poster: OBSESSION.

And we had some bad hangovers which cut weekends in half and ruined entire days.

These days, though, beer is a fun thing we enjoy together, and with family and friends. We’re both more fussy (we know what we like with ever greater precision) and less — the choice of beer is definitely now less important than people and pubs.

Stopping for a beer on the way home helps break the routine, forces us to take a moment for ourselves between work and domestic business. There’s a sweet spot about halfway down drink number one where we lighten and sigh.

Beer is conversation — not only a loosener but in its own right a pleasingly unimportant thing to have absorbing, pointless conversations about.

It’s a hobby, too, but these days one that is more about admiring pubs and reading than it is actually drinking — a far cry from those decade-ago evenings spent pairing beer and cheese, or earnestly tasting bottles of American IPA.

If beer disappeared from our lives tomorrow, would we cope? Yes, probably. Between knitting and architecture and music and films and exploring we’d have plenty to occupy ourselves, and tea ain’t so bad as drinks go either.

But we’d certainly miss it and, if it’s all the same to you, we’re happier with it in our lives.

Session #138 — Return of the Wood Part II: Woody’s Revenge

A sea of wooden casks.

For the 138th edition of the Session Jack Perdue at Deep Beer has asked us to reflect on the wonders of wood.

Back in 2013 we wrote a post reflecting on the role of wood in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, observing that it was making something of a comeback:

More significant, perhaps, is the recent obsession with ‘barrel ageing’, derived from Belgium via the United States. Though it is not always used quite as Arthur Millard and the other founders of the SPBW might have hoped, hip young brewers positively fetishise wood. At the Wild Beer Company in Somerset, barrels — their source a closely guarded secret — are cooed over like newborn babies: ‘This one was used for Pedro Ximenez — smell it!’

In the past five years, that trend has continued.

It is now all but compulsory for substantial, ambitious UK craft breweries (def. 2) to have permanent wood-ageing facilities on the side: Beavertown, BrewDog, Cloudwatereveryone is doing it.

Wild Beer Co, with wood at the centre and ‘normal’ beer almost as an afterthought, has gone on to win major awards, carving a niche which it shares with an increasing number of other wood-first breweries such as Burning Sky and Little Earth.

In pure marketing terms, wood is a godsend — what better way to signal rustic authenticity? (Even if you fiddle it.)

But what’s interesting to us about all this is that it represents not just a growth in variety but a broadening of the palette (as in artist’s) — another variable, another way to add complexity and depth to even quite simple beers.

Imperial stouts are great and all that but it would quite suit us if the end-point of all this experimentation was a growth in the number of drinkable cask porters and IPAs with just a bit of something funkier blended in, Greene King 5X style.

Session #137: “Banana Beer”

This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh

This month’s host is Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter and he has asked us to tackle, in any way we like, the subject of farmhouse brewing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brewing section a particularly interesting exhibit is the equipment from a Suffolk farmhouse where this once domestic art was practised as recently as 1934. Included is a mash tub, vat, stillions and a heavy old copper, the removal of which almost necessitated dismantling that part of the building in which it was houses. Other items allied to home brewing include examples of malt scoops from Suffolk and Berkshire, a Suffolk mash stirrer, a Berkshire horn mug and kegs of various size from Somerset, Essex and Worcestershire once used by farm labourers to carry their beer and cider into the fields, particularly at harvest time.

Insofar as we’ve given British farmhouse beer — or let’s say rural beer — a great deal of thought there’s a point hinted at here that rings true for us: we reckon it ought to be quickly, cheaply, easily made, and probably drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fermenting.

That is, like ‘Cornish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advocate a couple of years ago:

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

Or, if you prefer pictures to words, along the lines of this ginger beer recipe from a strangely compelling YouTube channel which is part exploration of 18th century American cooking techniques, part advertising for a firm that sells historic kitchen equipment:

The Brewing Trade Review article gives details of the slightly larger scale, more elaborate communal brewing method of one Suffolk village via the testimony of an 81-year-old woman interviewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fermented for a maximum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems — or who perhaps found seven days too long a wait to quench their impatient thirsts — often tapped the casks before the lapse of this period.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone making this kind of beer commercially viable in 2018 so these days farmhouse, as a label, must mean something else. Lars Marius Garshol may have it when he suggests that most commercial beers commonly labelled as ‘farmhouse’ are actually “farmhouse ales that have been imported into the world of commercial brewing, undergoing some changes on the way”.

Session #135: Sepia-Toned Pubs

The Session, when bloggers around the world get together to write on the same subject, is a fragile thing, only ever one dropped ball away from disappearing altogether. This month’s was looking dicey until Al at Fuggled stepped in heroically to save the day, proposing for Session #135 the topic ‘Sepia Tones’. Here’s our contribution.

Over the past few years we’ve spent a lot of our time thinking in monochrome, thumbing through decaying papers, and staring into the eyes of long-dead brewers and pubgoers. But something about Al’s particular choice of words made us think not of archives but of a particular category of pub that we’ve sometimes struggled to describe.

The Blue Bell, York.

We’ve sometimes used the shortcut ‘proper pub’ but calling them sepia toned is rather more poetic, and also implies less of a judgement against other less ‘proper’ pubs.

The Marble Arch, Manchester.

These are places dominated by shades of brown, from the dark wood of the bar to walls either stained with nicotine or painted to look that way. The prints on the walls are yellowed, the paintings dark and varnished to death, the photographs jaundiced.

Swan With Two Necks, Bristol.

The beer probably sits somewhere on that stretch of the colour spectrum, too — perhaps Courage Best, Bass, Tetley, or some other brand from a long-gone brewery frozen in the flash-bang of nostalgia, fading away with mishandling and neglect.

Two pints of Courage Best.

They have them on the Continent, too, where the clue is in the name: brown cafes, or brown bars.

A Belgian Brown Cafe.

Here’s one test: take a photo in a sepia-toned pub and compare it to one  of the same place from a hundred years ago — can you see much difference?

Session #134: Zum Biergarten

For the 134th edition of The Session, in which beer bloggers around the world write on the same topic, Tom Cizauskas has asked us to think about beer gardens.

A good beer garden is a kind of fairy tale that allows you to wallow in summer, and to imagine yourself above or outside the modern world.

We first became aware of how magical a German beer garden could be after Jessica went to the World Cup in 2006 and came back in love with the Englischer Garten in Munich where she saw thousands of football fans served litre after litre of Helles with unruffled efficiency.

A sunny beer garden.

When we think of Germany, we think of beer gardens: the high altitude majesty of the garden at the top of the Staffelberg; the backup garden of Würzburger Hofbräu we found by accident, which feels as if it’s deep in a forest despite the ring road on the other side of the hedge; or the riverside idyll of the Spitalbrauerei in Regensburg where this blog was born.

Continue reading “Session #134: Zum Biergarten”

Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.