On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qualify as somewhere with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few requirements, we reckon:

1. Multiple interesting pubs, bars or beer exhibition venues. One micropub, taproom or bar does not a beer scene make. And they really do need to be within walking distance of each other – the basis of a crawl. There probably has to be at least one legendary, must-visit venue.

2. Punditry. If you’re visiting Boggleton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s written a local guide, whether as a book, website or blog post? Have Matt Curtis, Jonny Garrett or Tony Naylor been in town taking notes?

3. Events. Bottle-shares, meet-the-brewers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t particularly like events but there’s no denying that they bring scattered beer geeks together, creating and signalling the existence of a community.

4. Festivals, plural. Not just the local CAMRA festival, although those are important, but alternative events organised outside that infrastructure. Especially if they’re focused on particular niches – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go ourselves, but…)

5. Faces. The people who make things happen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civilian might and put their money where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-level soap opera (Thingumabob’s fallen out with Wossname; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next generation of bars, breweries and beer business.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their holidays around your town, city or region, it’s probably got a bona fide beer scene. In general, it needs to be a city or larger town. Falmouth almost pulls it off, as did Newton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a single long weekend.

What do you reckon? Anything obvious we’ve missed?

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 25 May 2019: Hyperlocal, Global, Superfresh

Here’s all the beer and pub writing from the past week that made us pause to think, with something of a common thread emerging.

For Ferment, the magazine published by beer subscription service Beer52, Katie Mather has written about the beer-drinker’s equivalent to the book group:

What’s especially grand about these hyperlocal communities is that they’ve all grown out of necessity and pure enthusiasm. Even large groups like Craft Beer Newcastle, Ladies That Beer and the long-running Twitter community Craft Beer Hour started off as ideas sparked by pub conversations between beer lovers who wanted to hang out more. Now, most areas have at least one super-small community for you to take part in, whether they’re local CAMRA groups or self-started clubs like Beer Merseyside, Glasgow Beer, Midlands Beer Blog, South Dublin Brewers, North Coast Bottle Share, Leeds Beer Bulletin or CRAP (Cumbria Real Ale Postings).


Oompah band at the Hofbrauhaus.

There are four First Class Beer Countries, argues Ed, where the beer and drinking culture is just better than anywhere else:

1. Britain

A well kept pint of cask ale is indeed the greatest beer in the world. It has only been when drinking cask beer that I’ve felt the magic come and angels dance on my tongue. Served as god intended without artificial carbonation, there is no better beer. And to back it up it will be found in pubs, the greatest places that can be found to drink beer, where you can relax and unwind in a comfortable and cosy environment.


Barcelona in 2007.

Now, segueing well, here’s a month-old article that barely mentions beer: Rebecca Mead writing for the New Yorker on Airbnb and its impact on European cities. The apartment rental service, she argues, is driving the homogenisation of culture as part of ‘a global trend in urban gentrification’, focusing on Barcelona as a prime example:

We crossed the Ronda de Sant Pau, a boulevard that separates the Raval from its more middle-class neighbor Sant Antoni. Quaglieri wanted to show me a café, Federal, which Australian expats had opened a few years ago. We might as well have been in Hackney or the Mission District or anywhere else that hipsters gather: signs, in English, requested that visitors with laptops confine themselves to a large common table, every seat of which was occupied by a young person using the Internet. We ordered drinks: a warm ginger infusion for me, a turmeric latte for Quaglieri.


Dom Cook.
Source: The Takeout/Tiesha Cook.

And another segue: what are the alternatives to generic, cosmopolitan white hipster culture? For The Takeout Kate Bernot has interviewed Dom Cook, author of This Ain’t the Beer That You’re Used To:

Dom “Doochie” Cook is also not the beer writer that you’re used to. I’ve read a lot of beer books, and I’ve never seen proper beer and food pairing described as “like Jadakiss and Styles P going back and forth on a Swizz track in the early 2000s.” Cook and his Beer Kulture collective have set out to change the way urban black America thinks about beer, and vice versa. They’re out to deliver a wake-up call.


Jaipur can
SOURCE: Thornbridge.

This one is about global or local beer culture… Or is it? Josh Farrington at Beer and Present Danger was moved to come out of a year-long blogging hiatus by a can of Thornbridge Jaipur from his local supermarket which made him rethink his attitude to freshness:

Cracking it open ready to enjoy a simple glugging beer, I was stopped in my tracks, even before I took a swig – the aroma leapt out of the tin, a tuft of fruit salad chewiness, and the taste was perfect, part Nordic Fir and part marmalade shred, decidedly bitter but without being harsh or drying. It was sublime, a platonically good beer, and a perfect revelation when I’d expected merely fine. I checked the can – and discovered it was three days old.


And finally, an interesting looking book with a great title:

 

For more of this kind of thing check out Alan McLeod’s round-up on Thursday; Stan Hieronymus’s Monday links are on hold.

Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug

A Bass pale ale advertising lantern.
The William the Fourth, Staple Hill.

Here’s a thing: the perfect Bristol pint doesn’t have foam. It comes up to the very brim, and the merest  hint of scum might draw a tut.

At least that’s what we’ve been told by several different people on several different occasions that this is the case, and that Bristol historically likes its pints ‘flat’.

A few months ago we had to negotiate heads on our beers with a member of staff in a pub more often frequented by elderly men who angled the glass and trickled the last inches with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been working here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”

At which point, an interruption from a grey-hair with a sad-looking decapitated pint: “Yeah, proper Bristol style, we’re not up north now.”

To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a general preference for completely headless pints in East London before about, say, 2005.

There, it often seemed to be tied to the question of value, and a refusal to be at all influenced by the superficial: foam’s a marketing trick to make mug punters pay for air, innit?

In Bristol, we wonder if it’s a combination of that, plus the influence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.

But we can’t say that in practice we’ve encountered many flat pints in Bristol, though, and one of the few handy sources, Fred Pearce’s 1975 guide to the pubs of Bristol, features plenty of shots of white-capped glasses.

Maybe we’re having our legs pulled, or perhaps this is more complex than we’ve realised  – maybe only certain brands or styles get the millpond treatment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a genuine bit of local beer culture has been lost.

Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much prefer a bit of dressing around the top of the mug.

As you might have guessed, this is really our way of flushing out more information. Do comment below if you can tell us more.