News, Nuggets and Longreads 30 March 2019: Magic Rock, Bottle Shop, Light Ale

Here’s all the news and commentary on beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from takeovers to light ale.

First, some big news which would be more exciting if it hadn’t seemed inevitable, and if we hadn’t been through this cycle multiple times in the past decade: Huddersfield’s Magic Rock has been acquired by multinational brewing company Lion.

We’ve always found Magic Rock’s Richard Burhouse to be a frank, thoughtful sort of bloke, and his statement strikes home in a way these things often don’t:

Of course, I realise that this news will not be universally well received but I’m also conscious that internationally renowned brewing companies don’t invest in Huddersfield every day, and I’m delighted that the journey we started eight years ago has got us to this point… I’m proud that we continue to be a good news story in the town; the deal with Lion secures growth and longevity for Magic Rock, genuine job security for our employees and enables us to hire more people and contribute more to the economy of the local area going forward.

It’s interesting that of the four breweries involved in the founding of United Craft Brewers in 2015, three have now been bought by multinationals. We said at the time that UCB represented a statement of ambition, which ideas seems to have been borne out by the passage of time. Anyway, that’s one rumour down, leaving one more (that we’ve heard) to go…


More news, not perhaps unrelated to the above:


Light split (HSD and Light Ale).

Justin Mason at Get Beer. Drink Beer. has been researching and reflecting upon one of the most popular 20th century beer mixes, light and bitter:

Light and Bitter is, as you might expect, a half of Bitter (usually a bit more, three quarters wasn’t uncommon) served in a pint glass or mug with a bottle of Light Ale as an accompaniment. This was to be mixed as you saw fit, either in measured stages but more usually as half the bottle, taking it almost to the top, and the other half when you were down to the half pint level again… I couldn’t remember the last time I saw anybody order or drink a Light and Bitter in any pub I was in for at least ten years…


A mural in south London.

Staying in the realms of the old school, Deserter has been touring the working men’s clubs of south London:

Have you ever walked past those huge old buildings that have a Courage sign from another epoch, but offer no encouragement to enter? They’re members’ clubs, where the beer is as cheap as fibs and ‘refurb’ means a new snooker table. Liberal Clubs, Working Men’s Clubs, Social Clubs. A mystery to most. A sanctuary to some… Roxy and Gail had become members of a CIU club and that entitled them to visit any of their 1800+ clubs in the UK and take in their special ’70s-ness, low-price pints, massive function rooms and strong cue-sports presence. I borrowed a card and kicked off our club tour at the Peckham Lib.


J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002 & 2009.

Archive article of the week: can you imagine a newspaper today publishing anything as niche and geeky as this set of vertical tasting notes by Michael Jackson on J.W. Lees Harvest Ale from 1995?

The exact influence of age is open to argument. Ninety-nine out of a hundred beers will go downhill. Only the strong and complex might improve. Before this tasting, I would have said that Lees Harvest Ale might develop favourably for three to six months. Now, I think six or seven years. Beyond that, oxidation creates Madeira-like notes, which can become dominant. From day one, the herbal floweriness of the hop can recede, but it was still definitely evident in the 1990.


For more good reading, check out Alan on Thursday and Stan on Monday.

Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

Penzance’s 19th Century Beer Shops

From the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol II (1839):

Not any families of this [labouring] class brew at home. The number of beer-shops at the same time in both places [Penzance and Madron] was 37. The number of public houses in Penzance has not varied during the last five years, with the exception of one new house opened about two years ago near some extensive rows of houses recently built. In Madron they have increased during the same period from 3 to 5. The number of beer-shops in the town and parish has been in each of the same five years, respectively, 28, 36, 41, 41 and 37… In Penzance there are only about half-a-dozen skittle-ground, called “kayle-alleys,” all of which are attached to public-houses or beer-shops; but out of the town, most of the beer-shops have them. It is stated by a person who frequents the public-houses in Penzance, that no periodical publications are taken in there exclusively for the labouring classes, and that the newspapers which are to be found in them are the provincial journals, and such of the London papers as are generally read by all classes of society.

Give or take a couple that have closed, we reckon (counting on fingers) that, these days, there are about fifty pubs in Penzance and Madron, so slightly more than in the 1830s, but then the population has tripled.