The Session #139: The Good Life

For this month’s edition of the Session Bill Vanderburgh at Craft Beer in San Diego asks us to think about ‘Beer and the Good Life’.

There’s no doubt in our minds that beer is one of the good things in our lives, and probably all the more so since it has settled into a quiet kind of obsession.

Back when we were eager fives it probably did more harm than good.

We wasted a bit too much time chasing novelties and rarities, spending entire days on holiday hunting obscure beers purely because they were obscure beers. (But even this gave our wandering purpose and took us to interesting parts of strange towns.)

There were times when sometimes online arguments about beer rolled and replayed in our heads when we wanted to be asleep. (But those arguments informed two books and more than a decade of blogging so silver linings and all that.)

Hitchcock style poster: OBSESSION.

And we had some bad hangovers which cut weekends in half and ruined entire days.

These days, though, beer is a fun thing we enjoy together, and with family and friends. We’re both more fussy (we know what we like with ever greater precision) and less — the choice of beer is definitely now less important than people and pubs.

Stopping for a beer on the way home helps break the routine, forces us to take a moment for ourselves between work and domestic business. There’s a sweet spot about halfway down drink number one where we lighten and sigh.

Beer is conversation — not only a loosener but in its own right a pleasingly unimportant thing to have absorbing, pointless conversations about.

It’s a hobby, too, but these days one that is more about admiring pubs and reading than it is actually drinking — a far cry from those decade-ago evenings spent pairing beer and cheese, or earnestly tasting bottles of American IPA.

If beer disappeared from our lives tomorrow, would we cope? Yes, probably. Between knitting and architecture and music and films and exploring we’d have plenty to occupy ourselves, and tea ain’t so bad as drinks go either.

But we’d certainly miss it and, if it’s all the same to you, we’re happier with it in our lives.

Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Saturday, for logistical reasons, we ended up in a gin-and-dining waterside pub a bit off our usual beat where we saw a remarkable queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cutting right across the main service area and towards the front door.

We Tweeted about it…

…not meaning to convey any particular judgement, only that it was unusual. As is often the case, that kind of minimalist openness elicited an interesting range of responses.

“It’s a sad reflection of the lack of experience in “real” pubs by millennials. It’s not McDonalds #FFS”

“Have people forgotten how bars work?!”

“I think anywhere with this automatically loses their pub status.”

“I ignore it and do what I’ve always done — go to the bar.”

“I’m a big fan, saves having to concentrate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

“Excellent Britishness on display. Makes you proud.”

“I’d prefer queuing to having to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most efficient and fairest service of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every other aspect of British life it is considered practically sacred.

But the pub… The pub is supposed to be a jumble. And when we say “supposed to be” we mean “is usually portrayed as”. Look at this famous painting, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tradition of gleeful disorder.

In response to our Tweet Terry Hayward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this subject which contains the following stirring story:

I decided to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a comment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burgers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just wanted a good pint of fine foaming ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen people queue like this in a pub before. They conceded it was unusual but used the Homer Simpson defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

“Ah”, said I, “but by standing there you’re only making the situation worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each other nervously, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we started to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being naturally polite, we made sure we took others with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that centuries of tradition were not being thrown out of the window.

But, again, check that nostalgic instinct: what if, as one person hinted on Twitter,  queuing might make the pub more of a level playing field for women? (It’s interesting that Mr Hayward’s story uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for anyone other than large, confident people with sharp elbows?

It’s perhaps no surprise that the current spate of pub queuing seems to have started at branches of Wetherspoon which, for all its down-to-earth reputation, is also often a step ahead when it comes to making previously excluded groups (and their spending money) feel more welcome.

On balance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we visited on Saturday. Places that aren’t in historic pub buildings, with little history about them, and where the number of punters greatly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adherence to an ideal wage-percentage. In fact, it was pretty convenient, keeping things clipping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before moving on to a Proper (queueless) Pub.

But something would certainly be lost if queues started appearing at, say, The Royal Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvious queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to service. It’s just invisible, managed by staff and customers between them, through a system of eye contact, deference and polite murmuring.

Stella, Doom, Punk

A dog.

We had one of those moments this week that shines a light on the health of a brand: we saw BrewDog on the beer list at a new local cafe and thought, “Oh, it’s not really a beer place, then.”

It’s not as if we think BrewDog’s beer is bad. We spent a happy hour at its Bristol bar on Sunday and probably have a more positive view of Punk IPA than many of our peers. (It ain’t wot it used to be, and so on.)

It’s a sign that BrewDog beers have become one of the go-to cash-and-carry products along with Stella Artois and Doom Bar, which changes their status in the marketplace. (Here’s Pete Brown on Stella.) It is no longer a treat, no longer worthy of an appreciative “Ooh!”.

You might say this started years ago when they first turned up in supermarkets, or in Greene King and Wetherspoon pubs, and that’s probably true.

And we’re not complaining, really. After all this was the dream a decade ago — a supply of strong, bitter, furiously hoppy IPA on every street corner.

It’s just interesting to us that whereas once the presence of BrewDog on the menu indicated a beer geek working somewhere behind the scenes, it now means no such thing.

Crossover Event: Beavertown & Heineken

Heineken sign

Beavertown has sold a substantial stake to Heineken  — they’re not specifying how much but 49 per cent seems a reasonable assumption — and our Twitter mentions have gone a bit mad.

That’s because a few weeks ago, you might recall, we wrote a piece reflecting on signs one might look out for to indicate that a brewery is readying itself for sale, pointing to Beavertown as an example of a firm that seemed to be glowing hot.

Now, let’s be clear: our post was actually pretty tentative — might this, possibly that — and, though we named AB-InBev as a possible suitor in the quick Tweet we fired off before the post, we didn’t specify any names in the post proper because we didn’t have a clue.

Even if we’d guessed Heineken would have been low down the list given its fairly recent acquisition of another London brewery, Brixton.

(Although within minutes of our posting multiple people had messaged us to say, “It’s Heineken”, and proper journalists soon ferreted out the story.)

So, yes, we’re feeling pleased that our logic was tested and seems to have held up but, no, we don’t feel like soothsayers or a pair of Mystic Megs. What we came up with was half educated guess, half luck.

In the PR around today’s news Beavertown has addressed a few important points head on, admitting to having swerved telling the truth because (as we acknowledged in our post) businesses don’t generally talk about deals while they’re being negotiated and, indeed, are usually legally prohibited from doing so:

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks as speculative rumours have been flying about.  The reality is that sometimes in business you can’t share everything and I’m a true believer in not talking about anything unless it is a done deal, and up until this very day there was no deal.

It’s at this point, though, that we’ll refer to an even older post of ours, from May last year: breweries could avoid a lot of the criticism and high emotion that hits on takeover day, and lingers for months and even years after, if they made a point of saying from much earlier on in the cycle something like, “We sometimes talk to potential investors and would never rule out selling a stake in the company, just so you know.”

People will probably understand if you have to keep the specifics of particular deals quiet, as long as the very idea that you might be talking to whichever global giant isn’t a nasty surprise.

Whatever the logistics behind the decision, however good the news for the company, regardless of whether the beer stays the same, there will always be people who feel stung when a company which was selling a set of values as much as pale ale decides that one of those values doesn’t matter any more.

That’s Not a Drink, This is a Drink

Because Jessica has been on call over the weekend (office job, not a surgeon or anything) she couldn’t drink, so we both decided to do the whole thing dry, which got us thinking about what constitutes a Drink, capital D.

On Friday night, needing to put a full stop on the working week somehow, we gathered the makings of ‘mocktails’ from the shops and spent a couple of hours experimenting.

Sourcing or devising recipes was was absorbing; working with ingredients — zesting lemons and limes, pounding mint leaves, crushing ice, salting the rims of glasses — was fun; and there was a real pleasure in beholding the pretty end products, even before we got to taste them.

It was the ginless tonic that really got us thinking, though. What made it look, feel and taste like a real, composed Drink, even though it was mostly just tonic and ice? A big, stemmed glass helped. The twist of lemon peel added some magic, as did the tablespoon of ginger beer, teaspoon of elderflower cordial, and squeeze of lemon juice. But really it was about the fact that we’d taken care and a little time, treating these simple components with a little care, expressly intending to fool ourselves.

Of course this eventually made us think about beer.

Beer, you might think, is a simple drink. You don’t add ice, and the habit of dropping chunks of fruit into wheat beer feels like some relic of the 1990s. But we keep thinking of a phrase Alastair ‘Meantime’ Hook uses when describing how beer is treated in Germany: “universal reverence”.

You can dump warmish beer into the first scratched, half-clean glass you lay your hands on. That’s certainly a beer. Or you can spend a few seconds choosing just the right vessel, cleaning it until it sings, and filling it to achieve the correct degree of clarity, with the perfect head of foam. That is a Beer.

It why sparklers are debated so endlessly — their use, or not, is a choice, and an act of reverence. It’s why, whatever the practicalities, the pint as a measure is so irresistible. It’s why even mediocre Belgian or German beers seem to taste that little bit better than they might in blind tasting — because chalices and doilies announce the arrival of something special. It explains marketing-driven pouring rituals, too: because they make you wait for it, a pint of Guinness retains a certain mystique, even when your head tells you it’s a pointless performance.

A pint of Courage Best served in a pub that has been selling the same beer (or at least the same brand) for 50 years and is proud of it, with spotless branded glassware and tasting as good as it ever can, is a Beer, even if the product and setting are humble and it costs less than £3.

Giving beer the VIP treatment isn’t free — sexy glassware gets stolen, and careful staff ought to cost more — but it is, in the grand scheme of things, cheap, being mostly a state of mind.

* * *

  1. NAIPA — 1 part BrewDog Nanny State NA beer, 1 part apple juice, one slice very finely pureed banana, squeeze of lime juice, ice.
  2. Spicy Thing — one part ginger beer, one part soda water, tablespoon maple syrup, one slice green chilli (crushed), ice.
  3. Ginless Tonic — tonic, ice, twist of lemon peel, squeeze of lemon juice, tablespoon ginger beer, teaspoon elderflower cordial, ice.
  4. Fauxjito — soda water, juice of 1 lime, sugar syrup to taste, crushed mint leaves, crushed ice.