News, nuggets and longreads 22 June 2019: Birmingham, Bottle Shares, Books

Here’s everything that struck us as interesting, amusing or eye-opening in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Burning Soul to the future of CAMRA.

First, some sad news: Mordue Brewery has gone into administration. Founded in North Shields in 1995, Mordue was best known for its Workie Ticket real ale. The Newcastle Chronicle includes some telling lines from co-founder Garry Fawson:

“We have been looking to get investment over the last 12 months but with no luck. We then put the brewery up for sale and again no serious interest, which was particularly disappointing to Matt and I… If you have won the amount of awards that we have and still no interest in buying the business then we are just lost for words, to be honest… [The] market has changed dramatically. It has shrunk whilst at the same time there are now more breweries than there ever have been before.”

(Via @robsterowski.)


Old sign: B'HAM (Birmingham).

For Pellicle Nicci Peet has produced a profile of Birmingham’s Burning Soul brewery with side notes on the city’s beer scene. You may think you’ve read enough of these origin story pieces to last a lifetime but, seriously, this is a good one:

Chris Small: I used to work for the NHS. The job was fine and I was pretty good at it. It was money and I had a little place in Edgbaston but I had quite a bit of debt and I didn’t really have any savings to make this work, so I sold close to everything. I sold the flat, all the furniture, everything that I had at the time. I had four things: a van, my clothes, my mobile and I had…I’m not sure what else, there was definitely a fourth thing…

Nicci Peet: A brewery?

Chris Small: Half of a brewery!

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 22 June 2019: Birmingham, Bottle Shares, Books”

J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.

We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:

Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.

Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.

At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force  if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.

The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.

For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.

A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

“The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the question John Merilion asks at the opening of a substantial article published in the arts supplement of the Birmingham Post for Saturday 30 November 1968.

Merilion was a design consultant working in the Midlands and a lecturer at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, and was apparently still around as recently as 2014. He was professionally involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admiral on the Sutton Hill estate at the new town of Madeley in Shropshire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s butterfly for The Red Admiral, Madeley. SOURCE: Madeley Matters.

His article for the Post offers a summary of the development of the design of the English pub with a strong line of argument: Victorian town pubs were beautiful, offering a bold, glittering contrast to the slum houses around them; but when breweries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own architects’ departments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lacking atmosphere and distinction, as homes came up in quality to meet them.

What’s really interesting to us about this piece, though, is that Merilion offers a considered, balanced, occasionally surprising view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most people and they seem to want atmosphere – the only universal plea – with comfort running a close second. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evidence of the CAMRA tendency well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actually says they desperately want to drink in a hunting lodge in Harborne, or beer cellar in Bearwood, or a galleon on the Ringway. However, most people do not actively dislike these surroundings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their existence. They are surely preferable to the pseudo-traditional Georgian or Tudor chintz tea-room versions.

Despite seeming to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Merilion goes on to stick the knife in:

This extension of the name of the pub setting the theme for the entire interior decor is a comparatively recent innovation and is being employed extensively where new urban pubs are concerned. Any why should the brewers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obviously popular with the customers? After all, the opportunities are fantastic – why not a Dr Who space-fiction set, or the labyrinth from Barbarella… Only that all these things are sheer gimmickry, equally suitable for coffee bars, restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. They represent lost opportunities for the daring and exciting use of contemporary methods and materials to maintain the specifically public house atmosphere.

Too many theme pubs were excessively literal, working the theme throughout the whole pub, literally “turning the building into a fake castle, paddock or barn”. This pressure, according to architects and designers he spoke to, came from the breweries, and the over-the-top, over-literal theme elements were sometimes applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birmingham were any good, in his opinion,  failing to achieve a state of “friendly but not freaky”, though he does have a couple of kind words to say about The Outrigger in the city centre where “a good atmosphere exists in the pseudo-galleon (complete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Outrigger, Birmingham, posted online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birmingham Forum.

Merilion’s argument hereafter is a smart one: putting aside specific Victorian style and method, why shouldn’t a modern pub designer seek to achieve the same essential effects of light, reflection and “glitter” using up-to-date materials? Suburban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad lighting — “an all-embracing orange gloom” which fails to provide highs and lows — why not take advantage of modern technology to vary the colour and intensity throughout a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with something we could have used a couple of years ago when we were writing 20th Century Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drugstore.

The Drugstore, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendiest, most self-consciously modern pub, which opened in West London in 1968, and famously appears in A Clockwork Orange as the futuristic hall-of-mirrors shopping boutique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drugstore. SOURCE: RIBA.

Merilion says:

One could dismiss its decor as trendy and fashionable… but nevertheless is has much of the traditional atmosphere, with its glittering air of excitement, vibrant clientele and robust self-expression.

Returning to Birmingham, then under heavy redevelopment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the breweries give the right architects and designers a freer hand to produce exciting and appropriate solutions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sinking Barge.

If you wan to read the entire article it’s available via the British Newspaper Archive here.

In general, the BNA is a service we highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history, nostalgia or British culture; it’s about £80 a year, or alternatively, you can probably access it at your local library or archive.

The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 25 March 2017: Morse, Ma Pardoe, Mild

Here’s all the writing on beer and pubs that’s stood out in the last seven days, from Inspector Morse to the provocative nature of lists on the Internet.

The crime novelist Colin Dexter died this week which prompted veteran beer writer Roger Protz to dig out an interview he conducted with Dexter back in 1990, in an Oxford pub, naturally. Although it first appeared in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper, it isn’t primarily about beer, but that’s a thread throughout:

When he was in hospital a few years ago he dreamt he was winning a cross country race but he was more concerned with getting a pint of beer after finishing than being lauded as the winner. When he woke, slavering for a drink, he saw the dreaded message above his bed ‘Nil by mouth’.


Interior of the Old Swan.

The Wench at Black Country Pub takes us on another jolly, this time to The Black Swan, AKA Ma Pardoe’s, where the local dialect is as thick as the doorstop sandwiches, and every detail has a story to tell:

You may think me a little strange, but one of my favourite things about Ma Pardoes is the worn carpet that leads you to the bar. Now it’s not one of them fancy Weatherspoons carpets like those featured in Kit Calesses book and blog, however I imagine the many Black Country folk who’ve wearily trod that same path in search of fine ale, and the tales they have told.


Detail from a vintage ad for Tetley mild.

Ron Pattinson has a recipe for a Tetley mild from 1946, with this interesting aside:

It’s typical of a type of Mild brewed in Yorkshire, lying somewhere between pale and dark. Weirdly, all those years I drank it, I never realised that it wasn’t really that dark. More of a dark red than brown.


The Eagle Hotel.

Tandleman has joined the welcome trend of Epic Pub Quests (e.g. Cambridge, Bedford) with a mission to visit all 30 Samuel Smith pubs in the catchment area for his local CAMRA branch. Only four sell real ale but this kind of endeavour isn’t really about the beer — it’s about going to and observing places that might otherwise get overlooked. The second report so far filed has passages that would seem at home in a 20th Century social realist novel:

The Irish woman walked over and warmed her arse on the roaring coal fire adjacent to the card players. She asked no-one in particular if the clocks go back or forward this weekend.  There was some dispute about this, but it was finally agreed that the clocks go forward. The Old Irishwoman sniffed at this.‘Forward or back, you shouldn’t interfere with the fecking clock,’ she announced, eliciting no opinions either way.


A scared, angry mob.

For Good Beer Hunting Bryan Roth shakes a weary head at people arguing online with a US Brewers’ Association list of ‘The Top 50 Breweries’ by beer sales volume — an act as futile as debating the iTunes Top 10. Tying it into the buzz-phrase of the day, FAKE NEWS!, Roth says:

The backlash was swift. Pushback came over social media as commenters offered their hot takes while ignoring the factual basis of the list—it was, as it has been for at least a decade, organized by production levels. Even still, these internet denizens repeatedly asked, as if they were debating a listicle on Reddit, ‘how can you leave [My Favorite Brewery Name Here] off this list?’


Detail from Ansell's beer mat, 1970s: "Brewed in Birmingham".

News from Birmingham via Dave Hopkins at The Midlands Beer Blog Collective: The Birmingham Beer Bash is dead (or at least in stasis); long live the Birmingham Beer Bazaar! This replacement event has different organisers and, we suspect, might prove controversial — there’s already a bit of muttering on social media. At any rate, we’ll be adding this to the register of good and bad news, along with…


…the announcement of Leicester’s new specialist bottle shop, the awkwardly-named Brewklopedia:

The idea for the shop came about after the owners of 23 Wine & Whisky on Granby Street decided to introduce some local beers into their range… Manager of Brewklopedia, Kunal Kapadia, said: “We had a really good response, so we started introducing more beer from around the globe… ‘Customers quite liked the idea of having a separate shop in the city centre, so we decided to take the risk and jump right in.’

(Reported by Hayley Watson for a local news website rendered barely readable by intrusive ads — sorry.)


Finally, here’s a some soothsaying from one of the authors of the World Atlas of Beer which, we suspect, has the weight of inside info behind it:

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 July 2016: Root Beer, Lisbon, Pub Habits

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related writing from the past seven days that’s tickled our fancy or piqued our interest, from a hard look at hard root beer to the meaning of the pub.

Canadian beer writer Jordan St. John wanted to write tasting notes on hard (i.e. alcoholic) root beer but noticed that lots of other beer folk seemed to be struggling with the same task because they lacked the frame of reference for describing the flavours. So, before he got to the boozy variant, he got to know the soft stuff:

The last time I had one of these was when I got a Papa Burger at the Eglinton Station food court and at the time it seemed watery and may be in fountain service. There is a vaguely barky presence on the finish, a marshmallowy aftertaste here and an herbal kind of presence on the burp. I would describe the flavour as sweet, but balanced and relatively mild. It’s sort of a weird idea. What do you want with your drive in burger? A vanilla, mint and root bark soda, please, and throw a marshmallow at it.

(Related: Next time you have a Coca Cola look out for the lime note — hard to miss once you know it’s there.)


Duque craft beer in the sun.
SOURCE: Rebecca Pate.

London-based beer blogger Rebecca Pate has been to Lisbon where she observed the signs of a nascent craft beer scene:

Up until 2014, it was nearly impossible to source craft beer in Portugal. The first taproom and bottle shop to open its doors was Cerveteca Lisboa in Lisbon and the city’s first microbrewery, Duque Brewpub, opened in February this year. Duque boasts 10 taps where Portuguese breweries are represented- including offerings from their on-site microbrewery, Cerveja Aroeira, and an expansive selection of bottles.  

(See also: Craftonia.) Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 July 2016: Root Beer, Lisbon, Pub Habits”

Impressions of Birmingham Pubs

We had a less than satisfactory time on the second part of our recent sort-of-holiday, which we spent in Birmingham (of which more in our monthly newsletter), but there was plenty of fun to be had down the pub.

We had a hit list of places we wanted to visit, either because we’d heard they were good, or because they were of historic or architectural interest. That’s just as well because — generalisation alert — it’s not the kind of city where playing it by ear works especially well. It seemed to us that the city centre is largely the domain of chains. Largely but not entirely, of course: The Wellington and The Post Office Vaults, both five minutes walk from New Street Station, between them have more than enough beer to keep the snootiest of drinkers happy for a weekend. We did also pop into Purity’s craft beer bar, Purecraft, and didn’t take to it — it was like drinking in Pizza Express — but we’d had a long day and others seem to like it.

To get to the rest of the interesting stuff, though, you have to brave the ring road (we spent what felt like hours waiting at traffic lights or wandering in subways) after which you find yourself very quickly in the kind of post-industrial streetscapes which can feel a bit ‘sketchy’ to an outsider.

Tower blocks, Birmingham.Local favourite The Craven Arms, for example, is only just beyond the very centre of the city, but it’s not a pub a visitor would ever stumble upon, being up a side street, past a concrete car park, what looks like a half-collapsed estate pub, some wasteland, and those beauties above. But it’s not actually dodgy, as far as we can tell, and the leap of faith is totally worth it for the sight of this gorgeous exterior against the grey:

The exterior of the Craven Arms.

Continue reading “Impressions of Birmingham Pubs”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 28 May 2016: Ancient Beer, DIY Pubs, Panhead

Here’s all the beer-related reading of note from the last week, from Birmingham pubs to New Zealand brewery takeovers, via ancient Chinese home brew kit.

First up, Bob and Dave at the Midlands Beer Blog Collective have produced a long profile of one of the city’s primary beer destinations, The Craven Arms, in which publican Chris Sherratt talks about the various aspects of running a specialist pub:

I drink my own product, so I want it to be good.  I just enjoy it, and want to aspire to have something that’s worth drinking. It’s not rocket science, so it still puzzles me as to why places can’t get it right.  They’re not difficult to look after, it’s the basics – keep your lines clean!  I know a lot of people blame the brewers or the beer, when it so often isn’t the brewers’ fault if the beer is bad – there’s more to it than that and how it’s kept is so important.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 28 May 2016: Ancient Beer, DIY Pubs, Panhead”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 March 2016

Here’s the best of what we’ve read about beer and pubs around the internet in the last week, from London to Lisbon.

→ Des de Moor has published a free update to his book The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars accompanied by some state-of-the-nation commentary on London’s beer scene:

London breweries continue to expand whatever their size, with Moncada and Redemption among those in the midst of long-needed upgrades. The startup rate has definitely slowed, though, and the brewery total in my latest update is down to 75 from 78 last July: a handful of closures include the last remnant of the 1970s Big Seven in London at the Stag, Mortlake, and a number of would-be brewpubs that evidently found it easier to sell other people’s beer.

→ For the Midlands Beer Blog Collective Bob Maxfield and Dave Hopkins interviewed the people behind Birmingham’s craft beer and pinball bar, Tilt, eliciting a great case study of what’s been going on in British beer in the last decade or so:

I fell out of love with CAMRA when, some years later, while following a Ramstein tour, we decided to visit the Brewdog Bars we had been reading about. I then found Stirchley Wines who did a half decent selection at the time and had a bit of Great Divide and some Mikeller. They had all the Brewdog stuff and it was at that point that I started to get really excited, and begun to get more involved with Beer Advocate again, and started trading beers with others.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 March 2016”