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.

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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.

Session #132: Home Brewing Conversations

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

This is our contribution to the monthly exercise in collective beer blogging which this time is hosted by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site who asks us to reflect on home brewing.

We winced a bit at this one. Over the years we’ve written about why we love home brewing, why we stopped home brewing, and why we started again. But we haven’t brewed in ages, or felt the urgent drive to do so. Jon has prompted us to interrogate ourselves.

Question One: Why is the home brewing kit still in the attic six months after we moved to Bristol?

There are positive reasons. We’re in a new part of the world with limited time off work which we want to spend exploring, not watching a pot that never boils. We’ve been busy ticking pubs and getting to know the local breweries. And (this may or may not be positive depending on whether you believe it is the job of beer bloggers to sacrifice their health in the War on Prohibition) we don’t drink as much as we used to — we only need so much beer!

But there’s at least one poor excuse: we’re still sulking because the last few beers we made were duds. We read the books, we bought the apps, we procured the fanciest ingredients from the Malt Miller, and we sanitised everything within half a mile of our house. Twice. After all that, the beer was still basically crap — a bit rough, a bit acidic, a waste of time and money.

Homebrewing yeast, book, notes and bottle.

Question Two: So why bring the brewing kit at all?

We had limited space in the removals van and got rid of lots of stuff, including about 150 books, but for some reason we kept the boiler, the mash tun, and the thousand bits of easily lost copper and plastic. Clearly there is unfinished business. The itch lingers.

It might never get used again — there’s hardly a house in Britain that doesn’t have a load of dusty home-brew kit in the back of a cupboard — but it’s good to know it’s there.

If we find a particularly interesting recipe in the archives we can at least make a stab at brewing some version of it. (Our last really successful beer was a 19th century Whitbread pale ale from Ron Pattinson’s marvellous book which turned out funky and fascinating.) If we wake up one Saturday morning with the urge to brew we could be filling a fermenting vessel by teatime. (Bristol has actual bricks-and-mortar home-brewing shops.) And we sometimes daydream about using it to make some mad, strong, beastie-riddled keeping beer for mixing with stuff from the supermarket as we’ve done with Orval in the past.

Or maybe it’s just sentiment. You’d be surprised how many memories a plastic bucket can hold.

Session #131: Three Questions About Beer

Illustration: 2018 BEER, constructivist style.

For this 131st Session of the ever-fragile Session (a monthly event which sees beer bloggers round the world post on the same topic) co-founder Jay Brooks has stepped in as emergency host and poses three questions.

  1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

What Jay wants to know here, we gather, is which phrase we might prefer to ‘craft beer’, given the general derision that term elicits from beer geeks in 2018.

But here’s the thing: we don’t use the term craft beer all that often, but when we do want a shorthand phrase for These Beers which are different to Those Beers, with flexible criteria and vague category boundaries, craft beer still seems as good as any.

We don’t really care — boutique beer (pretentious), designer beer (sounds as if it wears a shiny grey suit with the sleeves rolled up), indie beer (a little more specific), or even Category X94, would all work just as well — but as craft beer does mean something (even if nobody agrees exactly what) and is in everyday use on the street, why bother fighting it?

‘Craft beer’ is fine, and we will continue to use it occasionally, if it’s all the same to you.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Jay set the bar high on this one: “everything they brew should be spot on”. We can’t think of a single brewery that meets that standard and most of those that come near aren’t underrated. But…

Maybe our brewery of the year for 2017, Bristol Beer Factory, gets a bit less attention than it deserves. It is a touch conservative by the standards of 2018; it lacks novelty value being more than a decade old; and it can seem somewhat faceless. Those beers, though. Oh, those beers.

And we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the small West Country breweries on rotation at our new local, The Draper’s Arms, many of which we’d never heard of and/or never tried. There are a few that might end up filling this slot, when we’ve really got to to know them. Kettlesmith, for example, or Stroud, or Cheddar Ales, all of which have now moved from Risky to Solid in our mental list of trusted breweries, with potential to progress further.

3. Which three kinds of beer would you like to see more of in 2018?

Mild. Dark, ideally, but with flavours defined by sugars rather than out-of-place roastiness. (Mild does not just mean baby porter.)

Pale-n-hoppy. It’s not there aren’t lots of them, just that we don’t come across them quite as often as we’d like. Ideally, every pub would have at least one on offer, just like they’d have one mild/porter/stout, but that’s not our experience so far in Bristol pubs.

Imperial stout. Although people complain ‘that’s all you get these days’, we still hardly ever encounter them in pubs. Bottles would be fine — this is one style that can sit in the fridge for months just getting more interesting. The funkier and scarier the better, but ideally fruit/chocolate/coffee free.