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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in July 2020

We kept up the usual pace this month, somehow, turning back to our long-term to-do list and the frequently asked questions at which we’ve been chipping away.

We started the month with a brief note on a perennial question: which is the oldest pub in England? We had this on our list anyway but moved it up when Ewan gave us a nudge via Patreon:

The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”


For the first time in ages, we reviewed some books. First, we looked at a pair of self-published eBooks by Pete Brown and Andreas Krenmair, drawing some conclusions about the future of beer writing:

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… 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.

There are some related thoughts from Jeff Alworth here.


Next, we reviewed Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing by Lars Marius Garshol. We liked it quite a bit:

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.


On 19 July, we highlighted the apparent dominance of family brewers when it comes to bitter, based on a numbers from a conversation on Twitter:

The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble)… If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.


Then, on 23 July, we had to tut at the very brewers to which we’d given a big shout out when news broke of proposed changes to small brewers relief (SBR):

We believe the breweries lobbying for it have made a strategic error; and we, like others, might be less inclined to buy their beer or speak positively of them as a result… And we don’t really buy the ‘Poor us – we’re being undercut by these upstarts’ argument. It sticks in the craw somewhat to see breweries who own hundreds of tied pubs, to which they often sell their beer at above the market price, complaining about distortions in the market.


Back to the FAQ list, we revisited the research we did for Brew Britannia to give a straight answer to the question ‘Which was the first UK microbewery?


Tower of coins.

A thing that used to be popular in pubs, but has more or less disappeared, is piling pennies on the bar to make a huge tower in aid of charity. We finally did the research to work out (a) when it started; (b) how it worked; and (c) when and why it died out.


Having visited some pubs, finally, we’ve found ourselves thinking about the apps many of us are now using to order our pints. Jess wrote up some thoughts on this drawing on her own experience working for a business that ran a large hotel-pub in Cornwall:

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.” Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps… Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.


We’ve also started to ramp up posting on Patreon again with regular posts on our favourite beers of each weekend, sharing an article on saudade we wrote for Original Gravity in 2018 and adding some footnotes to posts we shared here on the main blog.


We wrote our usual 1,000+ words for our monthly newsletter – sign up here to get next month’s.


And, of course, we were all over Twitter with stuff like this mystery and satisfying crowdsourced solution:

And that’s it. Next month, we’re actually going somewhere which might inspire something. We’ll no doubt be sharing a work-in-progress diary on Patreon as we go, anyway.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in June 2020

It felt as if we didn’t get much blogging done in June but, looking back, we managed about as many posts as usual. Which is, of course, partly why we undertake this little stock-taking exercise.

The month began with a bit of philosophical pondering on the important question of which is the best seat in the pub and the degree to which the choice is subjective:

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.


The Comet, Hatfield.

Do you know The Comet in Hatfield? It’s a beautiful Art Deco pub particularly beloved of retro bloggers. Here’s our attempt to tell the story of this gorgeous, significant building.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in April 2020

Here’s everything we wrote from our underground bunker in suburban Bristol, surrounded by stacks of toilet paper and crushed beer cans, during the month of April.

We kicked the month off by asking when and how pub quizzes became a standard component of British social lives. The answer turned out to be, to our surprise, the 1950s:

BIG Jim Traynor, a pint of beer at his elbow, settled down in a corner of a Liverpool tap-room, opened a packet of crisps, and began to study an encyclopaedia. Across the table, Charlie Vipond, from the local gasworks, eagerly flicked through the pages of Whitaker’s Almanack. ‘Hey, mate,’ he shouted, ‘what year did Henry VIII lop off Anne Boleyn’s head?’ No one batted an eyelid. It was just part of the latest pub craze… QUIZ MANIA.


For obvious reasons, we’ve been thinking about the part pubs play in society, which led us to go back to Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place. First, we interested in exploring his idea of ‘the third place’ at a time when many of don’t even have a second place:

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect… As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.

Then we thought about one of the suggestions Oldenburg makes in his chapter on English pubs – that intimacy (smallness) is what makes them special:

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in the perfectly normal month of March 2020

Because March 2020 has been totally normal – perhaps the least remarkable month on record? – we managed to turn out a decent number of posts, albeit with an odd emphasis on the past.

We kicked off with a write-up of a remarkable document from 1944: the Mass Observation projects notes on young people’s attitudes to alcohol, with bonus commentary on how the sex lives of young adults in London revolved around pubs. It’s full of stuff like this:

The Saloon Bar is packed with young people some 60—100 strong. To order drinks people just elbow their way to the counter. Nobody minds the pushing and shoving. Lots of young girls, very well-dressed and heavily made up, come into the pub unescorted. Soldiers and Sailors are present, but it is mostly a young civilian crowd. 17—18 age group, although a small percentage of older people (not more than 30-40 years) are present. The room is hot and the fat man at the piano looks hotter still. The room is too packed for dancing, but girls hum the melodies the fat man plays.


Moving back in time, Jess wrote about her great-grandfather and his run in with the great London brewery Barclay Perkins:

There’s an interesting insight into how these things worked: my great grandad bought beer from the brewery and also paid a royalty of 2d per dozen bottles of non-company beer sold. They were rather sniffy about his business generally; “…[Company] purchases were small and the royalty only amounted to some £12 per annum”. Also, the implication in the minutes is that Barclay Perkins would probably find another site and trade the licence.


Another piece from Jess was this reflection on the recent rise in the number of breweries in Walthamstow, east London, where she grew up, with input from Des de Moor and Jezza:

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife… And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

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Blogging and writing

Everything we wrote in February 2020

Will February 2020 go down as the most exciting month in this blog’s history?

Probably not. But we somehow managed to post 14 times, around side projects and day jobs, so not bad, all in all.

And we expect to hit our 3,000th post in March or April, by the way – bonkers, that.

Anyway…

We had Belgium on our brains in February and started the month with a post about the appeal of Belgian beer and Belgian beer culture to people just starting to get excited about beer:

When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.


Perhaps because storms kept us stuck in the house a bit more than usual, we spent a fair bit of time digging in online archives in the past few months, which is how we stumbled across an 1856 survey of London pubs. Apart from pointing people to the book, we wanted to highlight in particular the stats on mid-Victorian pub names:

“A wonderful display of tapsters’ ingenuity occurs in such signs as Blade Bone, Coffee-pot, Essex Serpent, Knave of Clubs, Lilliput Hall, Naked Boy and Woolpack, Old Centurion, Pickled Egg, Prospect of Whitby, Tippling Philosopher, Widow’s Son, Valiant Trooper, Sun in Splendour, Running Footman, Experienced Fowler, Good Man, Kentish Wag and World Turned Upside Down.”


You can’t judge a pub on one visit, we argued, perhaps with The Portcullis in mind, of which more later:

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.


We shared details of a 1963 document from Guinness setting out the itinerary for a carefully managed press tour, including briefing notes on questions likely to be asked:

How can you expect to do well with beer now that wine and spirit drinking is a “done” thing?
It is true that wine sales are going up quickly but only a comparatively small amount is drunk by a particular section of the population.

What about failure of Common Market Negotiation?
This has not changed our picture. Our main trade within the European Common Market is with Belgium and France where Guinness has always been regarded as a speciality drink commanding a higher price than regular beers.


We put into words our feelings about The Portcullis, which at first we thought was a peculiar pub but eventually realised was actually a misplaced eccentric Belgian cafe:

On Saturday evening, we sat at a shelf, facing a canvas print of Prince, against a backdrop of red-rose boudoir wallpaper… We drank Belgian beers chosen from a printed menu, each served in correctly branded glassware – Chimay, Straffe Hendrik, Orval, De Ranke, with more on offer… Pink Floyd played softly in the background.


Next came a piece directly inspired by our visit to The Portcullis, on which we drank more than our physical limits would usually permit, but which, miraculously, we got away with:

Not too bad.

No instinctive shying from the light.

There doesn’t seem to be any nausea, although you won’t really know until you try to get up and do something.


We didn’t think we’d ever want to write about the origins or meaning of the term craft beer again but, having noticed conversations about it on Twitter, lately, felt the need to provide some raw information for reference. The post takes the form of a timeline running from 1883 to 1995, by which time the phrase was in regular use.


Molly Figgures lived and worked in the same Gloucestershire village pub for 50 years. Fortunately for we booze historians, she was given a nudge to write a short memoir – an eccentric volume full of amazing details. For example…

Sometimes the spittoons were turned into a form of entertainment when a well-known character, who had served in the Navy, would go down on his knees and slide them around the floor accompanied by an appropriate song. This was known as Holy Stoning.


We also produced five editions of our regular Saturday morning round-ups of news and links:


We posted some bits and pieces on Patreon, including a pub life vignette and notes on the controversy around people asking for samples in pubs. Do consider signing up.


Our newsletter was a whopper, covering our plans to index What’s Brewing, the necessity of nicheing and more. To get next month’s, sign up here.


And on Twitter, there was a bunch of stuff like this:

Now then – let’s crack on with March.