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pubs quotes

Michael Innes depicts temperance tensions in Scotland

John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, 1906-1994, was a respected Scottish novelist and academic who also wrote crime novels under the name Michael Innes, featuring Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard.

Lament for a Maker from 1938 is a fascinating piece set in the Scottish Highlands. It has a beautiful, snowbound Gothic setting and, of course, a depiction of a pub.

Actually, you could pull the passages about the pub and stitch them together into an effective short story.

The angle is the tension between Roberts, landlord at the Arms, Kinkeig’s one hotel, and Mrs Roberts, who serves behind the bar: she is a sly temperance campaigner, always trying to convince customers to forego whisky and beer for tea or ginger beer.

Here’s the best bit, cleverly woven through and enlivening an expository passage in which the locals discuss the eccentric Laird of Kinkeig:

Once in a while, you must know, I take a look over to the private bar – most of the better-thought-of folk of the parish think it a decent enough space for a bit crack of an evening. Will Saunders was there, and Rob Yule, and whiles in came the stationy… And behind the bar was Mistress Roberts, banging the pots about to show she was real unfriendly to the liquor and had never thought to come to the serving of it; a sore trial she was to Roberts but not undeserved, folk said, for all the time of their courting had she not been slipping him wee tracts about the poisonous action of alcohol on the blood-stream, and might a publican not have taken warning from that? Mistress Roberts said never a word until in came wee Carfrae, the greengrocer. Carfrae never touches, only he comes into the private for a gossip and Mistress Roberts keeps him a special ginger beer; at one time she put a row of the stuff behind the bar with a notice: Sparkling, Refreshing and Non-Injurious, but at that Roberts put his foot down, everything had its place, he said, and the place for a notice like that was in the sweetie-shops. As I say, wee Carfrae came in for this dreich drink of his, and it was him restarted the speak about Guthrie… Mistress Roberts made a shocked-like click with her tongue and poured herself out a cup of tea: she ever has a great tea pot at her elbow in the private and anyone comes in she I like enough over a cup to, gratis; it makes Roberts fair wild.

[…]

Rob walked over to [carfrae] and took the glass of ginger beer from his hand and emptied it, careful-like, in Mistress Roberts’ nearest aspidistra. ‘Carfrae, he said, ‘the Non-Injurious is wasted on you, man. It’s over late for such precautions: you’re nought but a poison-pup already.’

It wasn’t you could call an ugly situation, for the greengrocer was far from the sort would put up a fight against Rob Yule, there was just no dander to rouse in him. But it was fell uncomfortable; Carfrae was looking between yellow and green, like one of his own stale cabbages, the stationy was havering something about its being technically an assault, and Mistress Roberts had taken up her teaspoon and was stirring furious at the teapot – which was what she ever does when sore affronted. And then Will Saunders, who had been holding his whisht the same as myself, thought to cut in with a bit diversion. ‘Faith,’ cried Will, and look at the aspidistra!”

I don’t believe the plant had really suffered any harm from the Non-Injurious, but the way Will spoke and his pointing to the poor unhealthy thing in its pot fair gave the impression it had wilted that moment. I mind I gave a laugh overhearty to the decent maybe in a man of my years and an elder of the kirk forbye, Rob gave a great laugh too and then we saw that this time Mistress Roberts was real black affronted, she rattled her teapot like mad, herself making a noise like a bubblyjock with the gripes. After all, the Non-Injurious was some sort of sym bol to the wife of her struggle against Roberts and the massed power of darkness that was the liquor trade she’d married into.

Note the aspidistra – a fixed feature in early to mid-20th century pubs, hence the inclusion on the playlist we put together for our last book of Gracie Fields singing ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’.

I get the impression Innes was fond of pubs and beer – the couple of other Appleby books I’ve read also feature little moments like this, which you don’t tend to get in Agatha Christie.

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Blogging and writing

Book review: Lars Marius Garshol on farmhouse brewing – Kveik and beyond

Here’s another example of great beer writing emerging from singular obsession: Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing, published earlier this year by Brewers’ Publications.

It sets out to explain everything currently known about arcane, hyper-local brewing practices lingering in rural communities from Norway to Russia, based primarily on Lars’s own fieldwork and archive research.

On the surface, it’s a 400-page technical manual and the cover design certainly suggests a dry textbook rather than, as it should, a new philosophy of brewing wrapped in a tale of adventure. The sweet spot where painstaking obsession with detail translates into magic.

This book is insanely detailed and single-minded and hundreds of pages on yeast genetics or malting techniques with diagrams might not float your boat.

And if you’re affronted at the idea of sour, hazy, gritty, grainy beer sometimes brewed with peas or carrots, this might not be for you. Lars’s tasting notes on specific farmhouse beers include phrases such as ashy, smoky vanilla fudge, male sweat, dung and barnyard – not everyone’s idea of a good time, perhaps.

Who will enjoy it, then? Hardcore geeks, and brewers eager to leave the safe path, will find this a tonic. It puts beer into broader, deeper context, as if the view has suddenly expanded into widescreen and 4D, and gives us permission to break the rules.

Lars’ subject matter was, until recently, the kind of stuff of which footnotes are made. Here, commercial brewing of the type that dominates globally is the footnote, or at least the over-familiar postscript to a much longer story that is rarely told.

For thousands of years, people all over the world have been making beer using methods they learned from their ancestors and the ingredients at hand. They don’t always know why they do things the way they do, only that those methods seem to work. Lars introduces us to brewers still working like this today, producing small batches of beer for community consumption or as barely commercial local enterprises.

From the off, certain sacred ideas are challenged. These brewers rarely measure or test anything, except with their own eyes, hands and palates. They don’t brew to style or strive for absolute consistency. A recurring theme in the book is the author’s own astonishment or disbelief at what he is being told, or surprise and delight at how delicious something tastes when logic says it shouldn’t.

Though Lars sets out to demonstrate to the world that these practices and folk products live on, the shadow narrative is of their endangerment. He frequently hears of a practice in some rural community that has died out within recent memory, or is told that jars of some obscure yeast strain have just been thrown out.

The farmhouse brewers themselves are under constant pressure to modernise and standardise. Why use that dirty old yeast your grandfather passed on when I can sell you a nice lab-grown dried variety designed for brewing? Making your own malt is a waste of time – just buy some.

In that context, this book – and the half-decade of research that led up to it – feels like a just-in-time intervention. Stick to your traditions, Lars seems to be saying; you’re right, the modernisers are wrong; don’t let this die.

So, if you want to brew, say, Stjørdalsøl, what do you need to do? Well, first get hold of some of some of Sigmund Gjerne’s family yeast from Voss in Norway and some local juniper branches. Then, build yourself a small kiln… Oh, by the way, you’ve never tasted this beer and have no frame of reference for it, so you’ll have no idea if what you’ve produced is technically correct.

Home-brewers used to other books from this publisher, such as Stan Hieronymus’s excellent Brew Like a Monk, might expect clear instructions: to recreate this commercial product, follow these steps, with these ingredients. Lars has tried to do that as far as possible but, really, the point is not to think of this as a step-by-step how-to guide so much as a challenge.

Ultimately, what this book presents is an antidote to “millimetre brewing” – a phrase used by one of Lars’s interviewees to describe the pernickety tendencies of home-brewing nerds. Here, you’ll find an entirely new philosophy and language of brewing.

What it says is that there is no right way or one true method. And if you’re doing something because someone told you it was ‘the done thing’ you might be missing out on a chance to brew something truly unique.

Give yourself permission to try new (old) methods. Mash hot. Don’t boil your wort. Use bread yeast.Throw some potatoes in the mash. Use juniper branches – but take care, because picking the wrong plant might kill you.

Do things that don’t make sense.

Scream at your beer.

Find a little farmhouse in your soul.

Categories
Blogging and writing

Self-published eBooks are the future of beer writing

Books about beer seem to be evolving in ways we like quite a bit: getting more specific, exploring fresh territory, enjoying the freedom of new business models.

When it comes to beer, most publishers seem hung up on the same handful of topics and formats: lists of beers you must drink, beginners’ guides, compilations of trivia and the occasional breezy personal memoir.

But perhaps things are changing.

Mark Dredge’s rather good Lager felt significant, specifically because a decade ago it probably wouldn’t have been published. In the age of Camden Hells and pilsner hipsterism, however, Mark was able to convince someone to take a risk with it. It’s a good book – we hope it’s sold well.

Not needing to sell well is one of the great advantages of eBooks, however. If an eBook doesn’t sell, it’s disappointing. If a print publication is slow to move, that’s someone’s office or warehouse or spare bedroom piled high with boxes for years to come.

(On an unrelated note, does anyone want to buy a copy of 20th Century Pub?)

Years ago, we identified the publication of Evan Rail’s Kindle-only eBook Why Beer Matters as a turning point. It was short, heartfelt and somewhat un-commercial – the kind of beer book you’d never find in Waterstones. And yet, it seems to have sold tolerably well and because Evan self-published via Amazon, the bulk of that money went into his pocket.

In a similar vein, two new eBooks published in the past month take full advantage of the medium to offer deeper takes on niche topics.

Craft: an argument by Pete Brown

Veteran beer writer Pete Brown used lockdown to challenge himself: could he write and publish a book in 13 weeks? He chose the topic of ‘craft beer’ – what, if anything, does it mean? And why is it important?

Speed of production is another advantage of self-published eBooks. A traditional publisher might have commissioned this in March 2020 for release in May 2021. The speed of writing, editing and publication gives this book an underlying urgency and currency – the very qualities which make blogging so exciting.

Disclosure: Pete unexpectedly sent us a PDF of Craft: an argument, but we’d have bought it anyway – £6.99 as an eBook via Amazon UK, £9.99 as a print-on-demand paperback.

It amounts to 200 pages of what you might call thoughtful belligerence – perhaps a fair summary of Pete’s personal brand – and feels a bit like being told to sit down, shut up and drink your beer while I explain this whole bloody mess. At points, it even feels as if Pete is arguing with himself.

Does craft beer exist? If so, what defines it? Could another word or phrase do the same job? Roaming through archive sources, summarising online debates and conversations he’s had with brewers, Pete valiantly strives towards a coherent answer.

We can’t imagine this book will change the minds of many people who think craft beer is meaningless, or hate the term, or have a fixed idea of what it ought to mean. But, as it happens, Pete’s view seems to chime with ours: it’s too late to bury or change the term; craft beer definitely exists and has meaning; but if you’re after a simple, rules-based definition – tough shit.

Beer geeks will tell you they’re bored of this debate. Traffic to any blog post on the topic suggests they’re fibbing. If you enjoy thinking about the language of beer, this summary of a decade’s-worth of debate and reflection is well worth £7 and a couple of hours of your time.

Anton Dreher

Vienna Lager by Andreas Krenmair

Andreas has several advantages when it comes to writing about Vienna, one of the early lager styles but now a minor one. First, he is Austrian. Secondly, because he is Austrian, he has access to sources in German. Third, he is as meticulous in his approach to research as he is in his home-brewing.

This eBook, available for £4.99 at Amazon UK, and worldwide via your local Amazon store, is a must-have reference for anyone with an interest in brewing an historically accurate Vienna beer, and benefits enormously from its self-published status.

A traditional publisher would have told Andreas to be ‘less generous’ to his research – in other words, to cut out 60% of the detail he’s worked so hard to dig up. They’d also have told him it needed a narrative, so he’d have been forced to trek across Europe in a camper van, or some such nonsense, as a framing device.

As it is, this is a book by a geek, for other geeks – a repository of information rather than bedtime reading.

The most detailed account in English of the trip to Britain made by lager pioneers Sedlmayr and Dreher in the 1830s? It’s here. The story of the rise and fall of the Dreher brewery? Every date, fact and event you could possibly wish to know about.

For brewers, though, it’s the practical information that will have the most value. Where other authors might say ‘close enough’ or ‘impossible to know’, Andreas keeps digging. The water chemistry of Klein-Schwechat, the family tree of the Dreher yeast, the exact colour of Vienna beer c.1870 – there’s nothing shrugged off or guessed at.
The recipes, the meat of the book for many, are both historically accurate and achievable for the modern home-brewer.

In fact, you might think of this as a single perfect beer recipe – the 1870 Dreher clone – with 200 pages of background notes.

Highly recommended and, if there’s any justice, the inspiration for a Vienna Lager revival in 2021.

* * *

Self-published eBooks might be scrappy – both of these contain the odd typo, as do our own efforts in the same field – but that’s a price we’re willing to pay for something different.

These are precisely the books both authors wanted to write, not something tweaked or tamed by an editor with an eye on the mainstream.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer and food pubs

A survey of a certain type of pub, 1963

In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.

Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.

Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.

They’re not as interesting as old editions of the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide – Ronay and his team weren’t especially interested in beer – and lack the entertainment value of those Batsford guides. Still, there are nuggets of gold to be found.

Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:

I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’

We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.

It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.

There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’

Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)

The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.

Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:

At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.

That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?

Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.

One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:

Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.

Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:

During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!

Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.

Historic pub crawl
One of a handful of pub crawls included in the book, illustrated by Michael Peyton.

In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:

A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.

The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:

One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.

We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:

This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.

We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’

And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

A Texan in England, 1943-44: pub trivia and pints of bitter

In 1943, American writer J. Frank Dobie was offered a post at Cambridge University. He used the opportunity to observe English life, including the central role of beer and pubs.

We mentioned Dobie’s 1946 memoir A Texan in England in our recent post about Ray Oldenburg. We then managed to track down a copy, printed in 1946 on thin austerity paper, for just shy of £6, delivered. It has no dust jacket but on the upside, it is signed by Jack Barrett, landlord of The Anchor Hotel, of whom more later.

The material on pubs is primarily confined to a single chapter, although they’re mentioned in passing at various points. Beer also makes a cameo early on in the book in a description of the culture of university societies:

I went to the monthly meeting of a historical society presided over by a genial tutor. Only about a dozen men belong to it. After coffee one of them began reading a paper on Punch. As soon as he opened his mouth there was a bolt of all other members to a case of brown bottles I had observed in a corner of the room. It is a part of the formalism of the society that beer shall be drunk while the programme is in progress but that nobody shall touch beer until the speaker begins… Most of the men drank two or three bottles apiece during the course of the evening. A large proportion of University men drink beer, and think no more of it than of drinking coffee. I have not seen any undergraduate intoxicated beyond gaiety.

This perhaps explains why there are so few mentions of beer or pubs in writing from before about 1960 – because it was utterly and literally unremarkable.

J. Frank Dobie
J. Frank Dobie from the US National Portrait Gallery.

The chapter on pubs is actually about one specific pub, The Anchor on Silver Street, overlooking the river where the punts park. It opens, however, with a quick rundown of others in the city:

The Baron of Beef, out of bounds for American soldiers; The Angel, where soldiers are too thick for anybody else to get in bounds; The Castle, where the matured barmaid combines dignity with easy welcome; The Jug and Bottle, where citizens take their pitchers to be filled; The Red Cow, too cavelike for cheer; The Bun Shop, often in stock when other pubs have run out but too garrulous for conversation; The Hat and Feathers, too far away; The Little Rose, just what is should be.

As you’ll know if you’ve read 20th Century Pub, Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell or any number of other sources, beer wasn’t rationed during World War II but was in short supply, hence the comment on The Bun Shop.

Dobie’s poetic introductory description of The Anchor is lovely, and one in which you might want to wallow in these pub-deprived times:

The time I began finding it a refuge was when darkness came early and black curtains shut off the view from the river, but the ingle fire was ‘bleezing finely’. Then the days lengthened, and from the seat by the window that I always seemed to find – by being prompt at the six o’clock opening – I could see the mallard duck with her little ones, which grew up and practised skimming. In the elm trees beyond the river and a bit of fen, the rooks talked about their nests, their eggs, their young ones and other things until they all went away.

Jack Barrett, Dobie tells us, had a sideline renting boats from the wharf attached to the pub. After hours were restricted by the Government, he let regulars continue sneaking in at the usual time by the back door, pulling their own pints of bitter on the way. ‘Jack is a philosopher,’ writes Dobie, ‘kind of partridge-built, quick as a cat on his feet, light always dancing in his eyes.’

Per the quote that appeared in the previous post, Dobie was fascinated by the British innkeeper’s attitude to money:

The good English publican is certainly not averse to making money, but he is content with making a living. His pub has likely been a pub for generations without appreciable growth. The pictures on its walls go back sometimes as far as the walls themselves. They are quiet, inclining to landscapes, coaches, cheerful faces… This is the very opposite of the American bar pictures, which are designed to inflame all the lusts. The absence of silence-murdering noises from radios, nickelodeons and slot machines harmonizes with the pictures. In all the pubs you can play darts free. The proprietor is not trying to peddle sidelines…

We can’t help but wonder if Dobie ever came back to Britain and thought, oh, that didn’t last, as radios, TVs, fruit machines, jukeboxes and so on began to appear with greater regularity during the 1950s and 60s.

His idealising of the pub continues with a passage on attitudes to alcohol, which seem rather at odds with the notes taken by the Mass Observation crew in Bolton only a few years before:

These pubs do not try to make drinking ‘attractive’. Ideally, they are just homey spots among a very settled and not at all Bohemian population. They are more cheerful than merry… Neither ale nor beer – they are the same thing – taken moderately is highly potent as ‘conversation juice’. I have watched a labourer sip at his pint for an hour without saying a word, just sitting and thinking or maybe just sitting.

The bulk of the chapter is given over to a record of the pub conversation between Dobie and his cronies, the underlying point being the extent to which trivia rules. One, for example, has a list of Assyrian names for girls in his pocket to prompt a discussion about which is the prettiest. They touch on politics, but lightly, and there are competitive bouts of did-you-know about Henry VIII, the burial practices of Burmese priests, jellied eels and judicial wigs.

As one perspective among many, it’s a useful thing to have, but Dobie is clearly a romantic, writing about a particular type of pub, in a very peculiar city.