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.