Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil’s in the Draught Lines

Christina Wade has written an accessibly scholarly book about women in beer that offers a refreshingly different lens on the world.

It tells us, with overwhelming heaps of evidence, that women have always been involved in brewing, and still are.

But more than this, it shows us that it’s possible to write a 180-page book almost without citing or talking about men at all.

Women are the centre of the stories told. Academic texts by women are cited in every other paragraph – many of them, more than most of us could digest in a lifetime. And when punditry and insight are required, Wade is able to call on a cast of sharp, experienced experts, all of whom are women. It feels effortless, too, and natural. Who else’s opinion or experience could possibly have more weight or authority?

Despite its clear focus, as a result of when it was researched and written, this is also a vital text about brewing and hospitality during the pandemic. Wade draws parallels between COVID-19 and historic plagues, which also affected the brewing industry, and women’s roles in it.

One particularly eye-opening argument is that the Black Death reduced the population, increased wages, increased demand for better beer, and thus gave men an incentive to muscle into the brewing trade, displacing the women who’d dominated it for centuries. Then, whoosh, we’re back in the 21st century and Wade asks, will COVID-19 have a similar effect? Post-pandemic trading conditions, she suggests, favour larger, better-funded breweries… which happen to be run by men.

One of Wade’s hobby horses, explored in blog posts and articles, is the muddled mythology around brewing and witchcraft. That is, the pervasive story that ‘alewives’ inspired the modern image of the witch. Fun and empowering as these stories might be, and easy as it would no doubt have been to sell a book on the strength of these stories, Wade is as rigorous in debunking them as Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell have been in correcting the popular understanding of the histories of porter and IPA.

Structurally The Devil’s in the Draught Lines resists the simplicity of chronology. Instead, each chapter covers a different angle and whizzes us back and forth through hundreds of years, from the mediaeval world to the 21st century.

There’s also room for stories around race, culture, gender identity, with names and faces unfamiliar to us, like Lizzie and Lucy Stevens of Closet Brewing, and Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela of the Tolozaki Beer Company. In fact, there’s the equivalent of about 25 Pellicle articles hidden throughout the book – and we mean that as a compliment to both parties.

This helps leaven the wholemeal archival research that underpins the book. Any time we start to suspect we’re being fed a chunk of thesis we’re given an interview with a woman working in beer today. These are often cleverly chosen and placed to underline what has changed since the historical examples were recorded – and what has not.

It’s clear Wade put a lot of effort into finding the balance between academic style and plain language – something she’s practised rather brilliantly on her blog for many years. Sources and authorities are named in the text, but not with scary foot- or endnote numbers. Then more detail for each is provided at the back of the book.

If you want to understand the deeper history of brewing in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it’s a readable survey of previous research. And it’s a must-read if you want your world view shaken up a little – something which is good for all of us to do from time to time.

We bought our copy from CAMRA Books for £15.99 delivered with a member discount.


Zine review: Service, Please! by Burum Collective

We’re used to pubs being written about by consumers and commentators – what if hospitality workers had a voice, without a commercial filter?

They don’t, traditionally, because a core function of hospitality is pandering to customers.

Said customers expect to be made to feel welcome, and appreciated. They need to believe that the places where they eat and drink are little paradises. Don’t harsh my buzz, man!

Hospitality workers writing about how annoying we are, or the indignities and injustices of their jobs, amounts to bad PR.

As the editor of the c.40-page zine Service, Please! Rachel Hendry says in her introduction:

“[There] has been something tentatively radical about creating this zine written and illustrated entirely by people who work or who have worked in hospitality.”

We might challenge that word “tentatively”. About half of the zine is dedicated to explicit calls for hospitality staff to join unions, or to show solidarity with other unionised workers.

Less directly, Douglas Nelson’s short essay ‘Hypocrisy’ highlights the difficulty of working for employers who say the right thing, and champion justice… only not for their own staff.

Other pieces express irritation at the bad behaviour of colleagues, such as those who disappear to the alleyway for a mid-rush cigarette.

There’s also a strand of depressive melancholia: accounts of derailed creative careers, repetitive shifts, and the pressure to perform cosy cheeriness on loop every single day.

Even when we’re not being utter dicks, we customers are a wearying lot. In one cartoon, by Ceara Colman, a barista is slowly ground down by one customer after another calling them hun, babe, love…

It’s good to see another piece acknowledging the existence of the colour bar in British pubs in the 20th century. Yasmin Begum’s article is about Cardiff Bay and its lost pubs, expressing nostalgia but also prompting us to think about who was welcome, and who was not.

Between heavier pieces, there are amusing illustrated snippets such as ‘Things I Have Cleaned up With Blue Roll’ and ‘Chef’s Menu Du Jour’ which starts with “Pasty De Gregg En Route”.

After reading Service, Please! on Saturday morning we went out to the pub. We ordered a half of a fancy keg beer from out of town and the person behind the bar said:

“Just to let you know, that’ll be £5.”

“That’s fine, but thanks for the warning.”

“No problem,” they replied. “I’m skint and I’d be furious if I paid a fiver for a half.”

As pubs and restaurants become ever more a premium product, is it right that those who work in hospitality should feel locked out of what they sell by low wages and tight terms and conditions?

We paid £10 for our copy of Service, Please! as a pre-order. We’re not quite sure where and how you can buy a copy yourself but will add a link here when we find out. In the meantime, start by visiting Burum Collective. You can order a copy from Burum Collective.

real ale

BOOK REVIEW: Cask by Des de Moor

With Cask: the real story of Britain’s unique beer culture, Des de Moor has found a new angle, rather to everyone’s surprise. Why hasn’t CAMRA published a book like this before?

It’s not a beer or pub guide but an attempt to think about cask from every angle: its history, the culture that surrounds it, the science, and the appreciation of the beer itself.

It is largely successful, pulling together numerous sources as it grapples with big questions like why, exactly, so many beer drinkers prefer cask ale to any other form.

The author hasn’t simply relied on books and online archives. He has travelled up and down the country speaking to publicans, cellarkeepers, brewers and other experts. They’re often not the usual suspects, either.

Alice Batham, the next generation of the Midlands brewing family, is a particularly insightful voice. Her account of being fed teaspoons of yeast from the brewery as a child is the kind of detail that adds magic and romance to this story.

Several wooden casks on racks with a complicated system of pipes and tubes.
Wooden casks in the cellar of a Benskin’s pub.

Cellar keeping in particular is made to sound delightfully complicated, more of an art form than a process. He uses the phrase “creative cellar keepers” at one point, highlighting just how much room there is for the beer to change between brewery and glass.

In particular, there’s the idea that a good pub will let cask ale sit for around a week before it is tapped, and then aim to sell it within a few days, depending on its strength and durability.

Mark Dorber, who perhaps does count as a ‘usual suspect’ at this point, gives a fascinating account of sourcing his own hop plugs for dry-hopping Bass in the cellar when the brewery decided to abandon this practice.

The flipside of this is a tension between commercial aims and the romance of variability. De Moor explains how breweries have continued to try to find ways to sell beer that is technically cask ale while being shipped in an essentially stable state.

And, of course, for every “creative cellar keeper” there are perhaps a hundred careless, poorly-trained or lazy ones. Do we want them to have any influence on the beer before we get to drink it?

Lovers of the arcane language of beer and brewing will enjoy the way interviewees and correspondents talk about cask ale. The idea that it can be “tired” is an important one.

And we especially liked the suggestion that Scottish air pressure dispense creates beer that is “smoother, more knitted together”. We think we know what that means!

Why is cask better?

As the book winds on, de Moor’s argument begins to cohere: what makes cask special, he argues, is its lower carbonation and slightly higher temperature. And that’s about it.

It should never be flat and he suggests that the perfect pint should “effervesce on the tongue” without being fizzy.

Unfortunately, most cask ale isn’t sold in this condition, and de Moor has the stats to back it up based on analysis from beer festivals. (Admittedly, not cask ale’s ideal habitat.)

He suggests that it’s a problem in pubs because too many publicans find it easier to handle beer when it is flat, without all that troublesome foam. What they don’t consider, he adds, is that “they’ll likely end up pouring it less frequently as fewer customers will want to drink it”.

Two other lesser factors are acknowledged as influencing the distinctive character of cask ale. First, one of his experts says that “The absence of filtering also makes a difference”, contributing flavour complexity and more proteins, making the beer “richer, more mouth-filling”.

Then staling, our pet theory, gets a passing mention via brewer John Keeling, formerly of Fullers, who says that some drinkers of London Pride prefer it when it is just beginning to show the early signs of oxidation, after day two on the bar.

When it comes to the thorny question of sparklers, he deploys words like ‘slightly’, ‘some’, and ‘typically’ to gently argue that, really, there’s not much in it, and it should probably be up to consumers to choose, if they’re really that bothered.

Though clearly a passionate fan of cask ale, he isn’t an unquestioning cheerleader and points out that it doesn’t work well for every style. American-style IPAs and sour beers, he argues, rarely benefit from cask dispense.

He comes right off the fence when it comes to the price of cask ale:

[If] cask beer is to have a sustainably healthy future, its average price will have to rise in comparison to the pub prices of other drinks… One argument for cheap cask is that it helps drive sufficient turnover to keep the product fresh, but that effect has surely reached its limits when price becomes a barrier to maintaining quality.

For balance, he quotes others who disagree, and who worry about cask ale becoming an expensive, niche product, rather than an everyday pleasure.

As a reference guide, it’s likely to be our go-to whenever we need information on the technicalities of dispense, types of beer pump, cellaring, and so on.

A tighter focus on cask

The book isn’t perfect, though. It’s more than 300 pages long and might have been better with a sharper focus at 200.

The bloat comes from sections we’ve read time and again in other beer books. We don’t need another account of how beer is made, how to taste beer, glassware, how to pair beer with food, and so on.

These sections are to some degree tailored with cask beer in mind but often feel as if they’ve come from a more general book about British beer.

And, most crucially, the book feels as if it’s missing a passionate opening essay to help readers understand why they should care.

By the end of the book, the case has very much been made, but the casual or sceptical reader needs their imagination firing from the off.

Even in its current form, we suspect it might inspire some publicans to take cask more seriously and reflect on how they can turn good cellar practice into a selling point.

We bought our copy of Cask from CAMRA’s online shop for £14.99, including delivery, with a member discount.

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: Desi Pubs by David Jesudason

Desi Pubs by David Jesudason provides a new angle on pubs (and British culture) and acts as a practical guide for finding good grub.

It opens with a long essay (or a series of short ones) synthesising, sharpening and developing award-winning articles the author has written for various publications.

If you’ve been following his career for the past few years, you’ll already know many of the arguments and stories from this section.

Tied together, though, they present a unified account of the British-Indian experience, with pubs as a powerful lens through which to view it.

We’ve observed a tendency to talk coyly about ‘demographic change’ as one of the challenges facing pubs. Jesudason challenges this from multiple angles.

First, he asks us to think about what Asian means. It’s a word that covers a whole range of different cultures, religions and nationalities. He explores the meaning of Desi, of British-Indian, of South Asian, of brown and black, providing an informal crash course in the language of race and ethnicity in the UK.

Secondly, he makes one point very clearly: if British-Indians don’t visit pubs, it’s at least in part because they haven’t been made welcome.

From racist ‘banter’ to colour bars, white publicans and drinkers have said, “No, you do not belong here.” (We touched on this ourselves in a 2016 blog post.)

Thirdly, Jesudason introduces us to a whole cast of British-Indian people who love pubs, and enjoy drinking. Not as a stunt. Not as a protest. As part of everyday life, as natural as breathing.

The Desi pub, he argues, is neither new nor contrived. The earliest example he has been able to pin down dates back to 1962 and was opened by Soham Singh, a working class crane driver.

There is also one final, more hopeful challenge: why can’t everyone feel at home in these pubs, and even feel pride in them?

“When I first visited Smethwick in the West Midlands, I was taken aback, not only by how this was an Asian-majority town dealing with a post-industrial world, but how the white population loved their – and ‘their’ is crucial here – desi pubs… They lived lives far removed from gentrified areas, with many friends who were Asian, and even knew a smattering of Punjabi. Instead of running away or complaining about ‘immigration’ these ordinary people embraced change and discovered their lives could be enriched by it.”

We saw something similar first hand when we visited the Island Inn in West Bromwich, where both white and Asian people go to (a) watch football together and (b) eat great, good value food.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s a sense of an author struggling with his own feelings about the topic. Has he quite worked it out in his own head yet?

He is scrupulous about balance, almost as if engaged in an argument with himself.

And, at times, with critics whose comments he is anticipating, such as those who might query why CAMRA Publishing is promoting pubs that serve mostly lager.

That provides credibility in terms of journalism and history, but conflicts with the celebratory tone the book otherwise strives for.

It works for us – this is a book we can trust, exhibiting depth of thought – but don’t read it expecting tweeness or surface-level cheery-beery jollity.

As a guidebook, it’s exciting, adding a new layer to cities we thought we already knew.

It makes you itch to visit Southall, Smethwick or, closer to home, Fishponds, and go somewhere new. Perhaps somewhere you’ve previously ignored because the signals it sent weren’t ones you were primed to read.

Each guide entry tells a story about the origin of the pub – how did it become ‘Desi’, why, and when? (Jesudason is a journalist and is strong on the 5Ws.)

We get stories from the publicans, from the punters, and from Jesudason himself.

And, of course, we get detailed notes on the food. From momos (dumplings) to scarily spicy fries, there’s an endless parade of enticing dishes that you probably haven’t seen on the menu at your more traditional local curry house. (Just don’t get him started on the subject of ‘authenticity’ in British-Indian food.)

Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years.

We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA for £12.99 with a member discount.

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: An uneasy journey into Clubland with Pete Brown

Pete Brown’s latest book is really three-in-one: a history of working men’s clubs, a portrait of clubs as they exist today, and an emotional memoir of a life spent struggling to navigate the English class system.

Like Pete, I’ve got a strong connection to working men’s clubs. Although my parents tended to prefer pubs – better beer, better atmosphere – they were also members of The Railwayman’s Club in Bridgwater, and of The Royal British Legion.

But my maternal grandparents, Lancastrians who moved to Somerset in the 1960s, were club people by nature. Grandpa had a strict three-pint limit and liked the fact that, at the club, it felt OK to nurse a half-pint of mild for an hour or two. Nan liked bingo.

The club I think of when I think of The Club is Highbridge Social Club where my grandparents drank for several years and which for a while my cousin actually managed.

A social club.
Conservative Club, Bath.

In Clubland Pete writes about the difficulty of knowing whether he really likes clubs or is appreciating them through a middle class filter. Is it nostalgia? Or, worse, ironic detachment?

Personally, I think it’s both of those things, but also completely sincere. I remember visiting the former railwayman’s club at Truro for the first time (it’s now just a pub, albeit one in a Portakabin) and feeling deeply, wonderfully at home.

Drinking a brown split, in lieu of mild, sitting on a bench under fluorescent light, I was eight-year-old me again, but also my own father and grandfather and uncles, but also a writer thinking: “There’s content in this.”

Pete Brown navigates this awkward space with the confidence you might expect from a man who has been writing about beer and pubs for 20-odd years and seems to win Beer Writer of the Year most years he’s eligible.

A particularly mean-spirited review of one of his previous books, by Jonathan Meades, of all people, dismissed Pete as a “professional northerner”. Still smarting from that, perhaps, Pete has nonetheless leaned into it: good point, Mr Meades – but what does that actually mean? Let’s not shy away but, rather, dig deeper into it.

How does a man from Barnsley – whose identity is built on being A Man From Barnsley – feel when he walks into working men’s clubs in Newcastle or Sheffield, knowing that he is also now a middle class writer from North London?

In the introduction to the book, he recalls how, as a student, he visited the hometown club with his father and, suddenly, didn’t fit in:

“I’m at college,” I said proudly (‘college’ being the catch-all term for any education after the age of sixteen. You just didn’t say the word ‘university’).

“What’s tha study?”

This was brilliant. A follow-up question! A real conversation with the lads. ‘Management Studies,’ I replied proudly.

An embarrassed silence fell immediately around the table. After a while, one of the other blokes, without lifting his eyes from his pint of John Smith’s, muttered, ‘Tha can’t study management.’

And that was the end of it.

Elsewhere, he runs himself in circles trying to work out if it feels right for him to join his local working men’s club in Stoke Newington. On the one hand, he’s helping it survive. On the other hand, he has a reflexive dislike of “middle class twats” appropriating working class culture.

Of course you might prefer your history with less personality, less emotion, and more footnotes.

The fact is that the facts are all here, in the service of a story about how the British working class has struggled against attempts to dictate how it ought to live, and enjoy itself.

Pete traces the origins of the club movement as an effort by well-to-do, well-meaning people who wanted to provide an alternative to the pub. At first, there was no beer, but the working man won that battle.

They then, after much wrangling, won control of the entire movement. In so doing, they wrestled free of the influence of brewers (real competition, cheap beer) and of moral arbiters – late opening, the development of a unique clubland culture behind members-only doors.

Tales of clubs in the north in the 1960s and 70s have a flavour of the novels of David Peace: an attempt to transplant the glamour of Las Vegas to a landscape of moorland and mines. Did you know Roy Orbison met his second wife while performing at a club in Batley?

A recurring point is that people underestimate the importance of clubs, overlooking their role in the history of everything from music halls to improved pubs, and the extent of their reach.

In 1974, he tells us, there four million people were members of Club & Institute Union (CIU) affiliated clubs.

Interior of the Buffs club, Penzance.
The Buffs Club, Penzance.

In the past we’ve referred to clubs as “shadow pubs”, invisible in many towns and neighbourhoods. Perhaps, as Pete suggests, they’ve flown below the radar in terms of cultural commentary too.

Pete’s accounts of visits to clubs still in operation today are distorted by the strange effects of the pandemic. Soldiering on, though, he talks to treasurers, committee members, bar staff and drinkers, making keen observations on the way.

For example, he is repeatedly told that the secret to the success of clubs is cheap beer. But it’s cheaper again from the supermarket so there must be something else that draws people in. It’s company, he suggests, and live music. (And the relatively cheaper beer doesn’t hurt.)

At the same time, Pete keeps checking himself for rose-tinted-glasses. He reflects on the sexism that blighted men-only working men’s clubs for decades, even as he seeks to understand it as a response to the accumulated trauma of successive world wars. Sheila Capstick, who campaigned to abolish the practice of second-class club membership for women, gets some well-deserved attention in a dedicated chapter.

Pete also forces himself to look long and hard at Bernard Manning who, for many people, epitomises the clubland comedian.

Throughout, the writing is frank, witty and warm. I particularly enjoyed the casual use of northernisms throughout the text – another “fuck you” to Jonathan Meades, but also mimicking the way your accent returns when you spend time with the folks, back home. “As the nature of being working-class shifts, and t’world continues to open up…” he writes at one point. Is it an affectation, or could he just not help himself? Either way, it’s a welcome touch of seasoning to the prose.

He concludes with some advice for clubs which are struggling to survive, including the very basic step of making it easier to join. After more than a century of exclusivity, some have simply not adapted to a world in which they need to attract members, rather than find excuses to turn them away.

Our nearest club is St Anne’s Board Mill Social Club, originally serving workers at a long-demolished cardboard factory. Maybe we’ll join, if they’ll have us.

Clubland: how the working men’s club shaped Britain is published by Harper North, RRP £20, but we got our copy for £15. There’s also an eBook and an audiobook read by Pete Brown himself.