News, Nuggets and Longreads 16 March 2019: Potatoes, Preston, Pubs

Here are all the blog posts and news stories about beer that seized our attention in the past week, from potato beer to ancient Irish pubs.

First, some food for thought: SIBA, the body that represents a significant chunk of the UK’s independent breweries, has published its annual report. (Unfortunately, in flippy-flappy skeuomorphic online booklet form. UPDATE: Neil at SIBA sent us a link to a PDF.) Some of the key messages:

  • The public perceives craft beer to be from small, independent producers, and made using traditional methods.
  • Young people do seem to be pulling away from alcohol, with only 16% of 25-34 year olds drinking beer more regularly than once a week, down from 26% in 2017.
  • The number of breweries producing keg beer has increased, and craft lager especially is on the up.

Preston
SOURCE: Ferment.

Better late than never, having finally got round to reading it in a hard copy of Ferment, the magazine from beer subscription service Beer52, we wanted to flag Katie Taylor’s piece on the beer scene in Preston, Lancashire:

A former Victorian textiles giant left to the fates of so many Northern towns, the city sits patiently on direct rail routes to nearly every UK city you can think of; it’s two hours from London, two hours from Edinburgh. Deprivation has cast its shadow for some time, but after over a decade of diligent local action and positive steps towards self-sufficiency it feels like recently, Preston’s time might finally be arriving… The hipsters of Preston are made of different stuff though. For a start, they’re not interlopers searching for cheap loft spaces – instead they’re local, young and they’ve never left.

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Brewery Life, St Helens, 1920s: Free Beer and Vitriol

What was life like in a large regional English brewery in the years between the wars? Fortunately for us, Charles Forman asked someone, and recorded their answer.

We picked up a copy of Industrial Town, which was published in 1978, from a bargain bin somewhere and have previously flagged its commentary on spitting in pubs.

The observations of a nameless brewery worker, born c.1902, are no less interesting, describing life at Greenall Whitley’s St Helens outpost:

In the brewery the day turn used to be on at six in the morning. You had to get malt out, which came in hundredweight sacks, and put it in the dissolving tanks. You got a dipstick out which stated the quantity of water that was wanted to dissolve the malt in. When you go that quantity you let them know on the mash tuns where the malt is left. The mixture is pumped up to the coppers, where they used to put the malt and hops to boil. There were three copper boilers altogether – the biggest one held 500 barrels.

When they’re satisfied they’ve got enough hops, they shut that manhole and put the steam on to get it to a certain heat for boiling the brew. They’re supposed to boil it just over an hour, but sometimes you were waiting for empty vessels, so you had to boil it longer. There were only two of us there, so you couldn’t go away and leave it.

There is a bit more detail of the brewing process given – the brewery employed hopbacks, and sent the beer into vessels at 70°F before fermenting for a full week.

One especially interesting detail (well, to us; well, to Jess) is a brief discussion of excise inspections:

There’s a certain gravity to work to in the beer. Once they get it to the gravity they want, you can’t do anything till the excise officers come along and check it… On the job, if you got it wrong, there’d be an enquiry about it. If it was too high, they’d break it down with boiling water to make sure it was the right gravity that they’re tied down to.

Cleaning is the less sexy side of brewing but, by all accounts, takes up a huge amount of most brewers’ time. The subject of this oral history recalls cleaning vats as a job for brewery juniors: “It was repetition work – just do the job till it’s done. We used sand and mixed it up with with vitriol…”

But what was Greenall Whitley’s beer like in the 1920s? It’s always exciting to find historic tasting notes of any kind, but this one is only brief and vague: “The beer was all right”.

[They] had different strengths. They don’t brew any stout now – it’s only bitter and mild. We used to get beer free at half past ten and half past two in the afternoon. The chap dished it out in the cellar. You’d have to take a can with you. Two pints a day, that’s what it used to be. One chap got sacked for pinching it – they were very keen on that.

You can pick up copies of this book for very little and if you’re interested in St Helens, industrial history, or working class life, it’s certainly worth a couple of quid.

Main image: the St Helens brewery in the 1930s, via the Brewery History Society Wiki.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 28 July 2018: Blackburn, Belfast, Banked Bass

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that caught our eye in the past week, from the colour of pre-WWI beer to the mysteries of fermentation.

First, though, an admission: we put this together on Thursday evening and scheduled it to post automatically. If anything exciting happened on Friday it might not be reflected.

Right, down to business.


Blackburn

For Ferment, the promotional magazine for subscription service Beer52, Katie Taylor has written about the pubs of Blackburn, Lancashire:

“If you asked anyone in here what craft beers they enjoyed, they’d probably think you were on about bottles,” said [bar manage] Hilary [Carr]. “And they don’t drink those.”

I ask what a local drinker would call a beer brewed in a local microbrewery. She answers: “Real ale.”

So with all this love for good, local real ale, what’s stopping northern craft beer brewers from moving in? I ask Hilary to join me for a sit down and she brings her coffee mug – it says “Prog Forever” on it.

“It’s the price,” she says. “All our beers are £2.50 a pint. Nobody will pay more than that and to be honest, they don’t need to!”

(This is actually from last week but we missed it then.)


Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

For Good Beer Hunting Stan Hieronymus writes about the fermented food guru Sandor Katz and how his evangelism is leaking into the world of beer:

“Mixed culture is probably the most annoying buzzword right now,” says Todd Steven Boera at Fonta Flora Brewery in North Carolina. “And we use it on our menu boards, labels, everywhere. If you asked 10 random people, I think you would get 10 different answers what it means.”

Mixed culture may not tell consumers as much about what to expect in a glass as Boera would like, but it makes sense in the context of the first of two beers Boera and Katz collaborated on.


The John Hewitt pub in Belfast.

At An Seisiún Mac Siúrtáin (a pen name) has written a long piece about the experience of trying to drink any stout other than Guinness in Belfast:

Before independent beer was a thing in Northern Ireland (prior to this decade, the only independent breweries were Hilden and Whitewater)’ Guinness was my session beer of choice. It had a hint of satisfying roastiness, there were no evil flavours or wateriness like you’d get in macro lagers and the nitro serve – while it stripped some flavour out – meant it went down smoothly without making you feel gassy and bloated like the carbonated beers. It’s therefore the ultimate session beer – enough taste to be morish but not enough to be sickening, and the nitro means it goes down easier and leaves room for more. While Yardsman and Belfast Black are objectively better beers with more flavour, they are not quite direct substitutes in terms of the purpose they serve the drinker.

There’s a fascinating little ‘ouch’ in there for craft beer advocates, too: what if the craft clone of your favourite big brand beer isn’t an improvement but merely the equivalent of supermarket own-brand cornflakes?


A clear pint of Bass pale ale.

On his travels in Stockton-on-Tees Martin Taylor found the tradition of ‘banking Bass’ alive, if not quite well:

“Do you still sell Bass ?”  I squeaked.

“Of course”  Next time I’ll ask if they’re actually open or something daft like that.

I was directed to the other side of the bar.  But where was the famous bankers fridge ?

Still there, but with just four bankers cooling down, rather than the twenty of a decade ago.  Still looked the business though.


Beer glasses.

Just in case you missed it when we Tweeted it last week, do check out this magnificent find by Gary Gillman (@beeretseq): a chart from the period before World War I depicting in full colour various types of European beer, each in their typical glassware. (Detail above.) Gary has now tracked down the source of the image in the Toronto library and found that it came with a table of figures.


If you want more, check out Alan McLeod’s thoughts from Thursday and Stan Hieronymus’s Monday round-up.


Finally, here’s one to provoke some thought: