On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qual­i­fy as some­where with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few require­ments, we reck­on:

1. Mul­ti­ple inter­est­ing pubs, bars or beer exhi­bi­tion venues. One microp­ub, tap­room or bar does not a beer scene make. And they real­ly do need to be with­in walk­ing dis­tance of each oth­er – the basis of a crawl. There prob­a­bly has to be at least one leg­endary, must-vis­it venue.

2. Pun­dit­ry. If you’re vis­it­ing Bog­gle­ton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s writ­ten a local guide, whether as a book, web­site or blog post? Have Matt Cur­tis, Jon­ny Gar­rett or Tony Nay­lor been in town tak­ing notes?

3. Events. Bot­tle-shares, meet-the-brew­ers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like events but there’s no deny­ing that they bring scat­tered beer geeks togeth­er, cre­at­ing and sig­nalling the exis­tence of a com­mu­ni­ty.

4. Fes­ti­vals, plur­al. Not just the local CAMRA fes­ti­val, although those are impor­tant, but alter­na­tive events organ­ised out­side that infra­struc­ture. Espe­cial­ly if they’re focused on par­tic­u­lar nich­es – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go our­selves, but…)

5. Faces. The peo­ple who make things hap­pen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civil­ian might and put their mon­ey where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-lev­el soap opera (Thingum­abob’s fall­en out with Woss­name; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next gen­er­a­tion of bars, brew­eries and beer busi­ness.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their hol­i­days around your town, city or region, it’s prob­a­bly got a bona fide beer scene. In gen­er­al, it needs to be a city or larg­er town. Fal­mouth almost pulls it off, as did New­ton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a sin­gle long week­end.

What do you reck­on? Any­thing obvi­ous we’ve missed?

News, nuggets and longreads 3 August 2019: Apollo, Bass, curation

These are all the stories about beer and pubs we enjoyed most, or learned the most from, in the past week, from Wetherspoons to museums.

From Jeff Alworth, an epic – a two-parter pon­der­ing the ques­tion of why we like cer­tain beers and dis­like oth­ers:

Let’s try a thought exper­i­ment. Select one of your favorite beers and think about why you like it. If I ask you to tell me the rea­sons, my guess is that you will talk about the type of beer it is and which fla­vors you like. Since you’re read­ing this blog, you might talk about ingre­di­ent or even process (Cit­ra hops! Decoc­tion mash­ing!). If I asked a casu­al drinker, some­one who drinks Mich­e­lob Ultra, say, I’d hear dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but prob­a­bly some­thing along the lines Eliz­a­beth War­ren offered: it’s “the club soda of beers.” No mat­ter one’s lev­el of knowl­edge, our opin­ions about beer appear to come from the liq­uid itself.

Part one | Part two


The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

Tan­dle­man has been observ­ing what he calls the “slight­ly tense calm” of ear­ly morn­ing in a Wether­spoon pub:

By 8.50 there is a pal­pa­ble sense of expec­ta­tion in the air. Eyes flick towards the bar. A few more arrive. Min­utes tick away and sud­den­ly there are peo­ple com­ing back to their tables with pints of beer and lager. One ded­i­cat­ed soul has two, which he arranges care­ful­ly in front of him, rims almost touch­ing. Over­all pints are even­ly split between lager and John Smith’s Smooth.


The Apollo Inn
SOURCE: Man­ches­ter Estate Pubs

Stephen Mar­land has turned his nos­tal­gic eye on anoth­er lost Man­ches­ter pub – the top­i­cal­ly named Apol­lo Inn in Cheetham Hill. Con­struc­tion, con­ver­sion, con­fla­gra­tion, col­lapse… The tale is famil­iar.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, nuggets and lon­greads 3 August 2019: Apol­lo, Bass, cura­tion”

Jarl vs. Citra – clipping in the treble?

We’ve been lucky enough to drink a fair bit of Fyne Ales Jarl and Oakham Citra lately, though not yet side by side in the same pub, and they’re both fantastic beers.

If we could eas­i­ly, reli­ably get one or the oth­er near where we live, we’d prob­a­bly not drink much else, at least for a few months.

But Al from Fug­gled asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion…

…it got us think­ing.

We con­clud­ed, quite quick­ly, based on gut feel­ing, that Jarl is a bet­ter beer. (Or more to our taste, any­way.)

Twit­ter agreed with us, too:

Again, to reit­er­ate, we love Oakham Cit­ra, as do many peo­ple who told us they pre­ferred Jarl.

For us, it’s per­haps still a top ten beer.

But what gives Jarl that slight edge?

It’s maybe that Cit­ra, when we real­ly think about it, has a sharp, insis­tent, almost clang­ing note that the more sub­tle Scot­tish ale avoids. It can get a bit tir­ing, even, four pints into a ses­sion.

We often find our­selves think­ing about beer in terms of sound and in this case, you might say Cit­ra is clip­ping in the tre­ble, just a touch.

An EQ meter.

There’s anoth­er pos­si­ble fac­tor, of course: we think most of the Jarl we’ve drunk has come sparkled, while the Cit­ra is usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed as nature intend­ed.

Laver’s Law, Victorian pubs and hazy beer

You start with Victorian pubs and end up pondering hazy IPA and mild – that’s just how this game goes sometimes.

One of the things research­ing pubs has made us think about it is how cer­tain things come in and out of fash­ion.

It’s hard to believe now but that heavy Vic­to­ri­an look peo­ple expect in the Per­fect Pub – carved wood, cut glass, ornate mir­rors – was seri­ous­ly out of fash­ion for half a cen­tu­ry.

Look through any edi­tion of, say, The House of Whit­bread from the 1920s or 30s and you’ll find sto­ry after sto­ry of mod­erni­sa­tion. In prac­tice, that meant ‘vul­gar’ Vic­to­ri­ana was out; and a plain, clean, bright look was in.

The Greyhound, Balls Pond Road, before and after modernisation.
SOURCE: The House of Whit­bread, Octo­ber 1933.

Slow­ly, though, Vic­to­ri­an style became cool again. We’ve writ­ten about this before and won’t rehash it – Bet­je­man and Gra­didge are two key names – but did stum­ble upon a new expres­sion of the phe­nom­e­non this week, from 1954:

Thir­ty years ago the Albert Memo­r­i­al was only admired by the extreme­ly naïve and old-fash­ioned; today, it is only admired by the extreme­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed and up to date. Thir­ty years ago the late Arnold Ben­nett was thought eccen­tric, and even a lit­tle per­verse, to take an inter­est in papi­er-mâché fur­ni­ture with scenes of Bal­moral by moon­light in inlaid moth­er-of-pearl. Today tables and chairs of this kind com­mand high prices in the sale­room and are the prize pieces in cul­ti­vat­ed liv­ing-rooms. It is, in a word, once more ‘done’ to admire Vic­to­ri­ana. The slur of the old-fash­ioned is merg­ing into the pres­tige of the antique.

That’s from a fan­tas­tic book called Vic­to­ri­an Vista by James Laver who turns out to be an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter. A his­to­ri­an of cos­tume and of fash­ion more gen­er­al­ly, he is best known for invent­ing ‘Laver’s Law’ which sought to explain how things come in and go out of style:

Inde­cent | 10 years before its time
Shame­less | 5 years before its time
Out­ré (Dar­ing) | 1 year before its time
Smart | ‘Cur­rent Fash­ion’
Dowdy | 1 year after its time
Hideous | 10 years after its time
Ridicu­lous | 20 years after its time
Amus­ing | 30 years after its time
Quaint | 50 years after its time
Charm­ing | 70 years after its time
Roman­tic | 100 years after its time
Beau­ti­ful | 150 years after its time

This cer­tain­ly works to some degree for pubs: Vic­to­ri­an pubs were naff in 1914, charm­ing by 1950 and the best are now prac­ti­cal­ly nation­al mon­u­ments; inter-war pubs have recent­ly become roman­tic after years in the wilder­ness; and we’re just beg­ging to col­lec­tive­ly recog­nise the charm of the post-war.

Nat­u­ral­ly, though, with trends a con­stant top­ic, we could­n’t help test this on beer styles.

For exam­ple, does it map to the rise of hazy IPA? We def­i­nite­ly remem­ber it seem­ing inde­cent and think we can now dis­cern it’s decent into dowdi­ness.

Or 20th cen­tu­ry dark mild, maybe? We’ll, not so clear­ly, because it reigned for years, even decades. But we could adapt Laver’s com­men­tary on Vic­to­ri­ana:

Thir­ty years ago mild was only admired by the extreme­ly naïve and old-fash­ioned; today, it is only admired by the extreme­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed and up to date. Thir­ty years ago CAMRA was thought eccen­tric, and even a lit­tle per­verse, to take an inter­est in weak, sweet, dark beer. Today beers of this kind are the prize pieces in cul­ti­vat­ed tap­rooms.

Mild might be in the roman­tic or charm­ing phase, then.

This works best for spe­cif­ic sub-styles and trends, though. IPA? Too broad. West Coast IPA? Maybe.

And for beer, in 2019, Laver’s lan­guage isn’t quite right. Maybe this is bet­ter:

Ridicu­lous | 10 years before its time
Bold | 5 years before
Hyped | 1 year before
Hip | ‘Cur­rent Fash­ion’
Main­stream | 1 year after its time
Bor­ing | 10 years after
Inter­est­ing | 50 years after
Clas­sic | 70 years +

It does­n’t real­ly work, does it?

But it’s a been a fun prod.

Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

In the absence of infor­ma­tion, peo­ple tend to take a price of the unfa­mil­iar prod­uct as a sig­nal of its qual­i­ty, so high prices do not dimin­ish the quan­ti­ty demand­ed very much. When infor­ma­tion is pro­vid­ed, the sig­nalling con­tent of the price dimin­ish­es. As a result, demand becomes more elas­tic. In par­tic­u­lar, informed con­sumers see no rea­son to pay more for the new prod­uct giv­en that it has the same ingre­di­ents as the famil­iar one. The effect of the infor­ma­tion is thus to encour­age more peo­ple to switch from the sub­sti­tute prod­uct to the tar­get one at low prices, and vice ver­sa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an aca­d­e­m­ic paper (PDF) on the behav­iour of pur­chasers of med­ical prod­ucts in Zam­bia, but you’ll encounter ver­sions of this argu­ment every­where from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to arti­cles in the busi­ness press.

The con­clu­sion often drawn is that, per­haps counter-intu­itive­ly, if you price your prod­uct high­er than the com­pe­ti­tion, many con­sumers will assume yours is bet­ter and worth the extra mon­ey.

Con­verse­ly, if your prod­uct is too cheap, it might seem sus­pi­cious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twen­ty years ago, we were cer­tain­ly aware of the aura that sur­round­ed Pre­mi­um Lager, and Pete Brown has writ­ten mem­o­rably about the dam­age Stel­la Artois did to its brand by reduc­ing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more infor­ma­tion to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop vari­eties to brew­ing loca­tion. All or any of these might over­ride price in the deci­sion mak­ing process.

And, of course the actu­al rela­tion­ship between price and qual­i­ty in beer is com­plex: there are lots of bad expen­sive pints out there, and some real­ly good ones that are rel­a­tive­ly cheap.

Our sus­pi­cion is that price might be a proxy for qual­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions where none of the brands are famil­iar, and the only oth­er infor­ma­tion is price; or (as this paper sug­gests) where the choice is between broad­ly sim­i­lar prod­ucts under the same brand name: Carls­berg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find our­selves once again think­ing about the Drap­ers Arms, where not only is brand­ing held at arm’s length but also the price struc­ture is flat. As a result, we’ve prob­a­bly tried a greater vari­ety of beer there than any­where else, even allow­ing for the fact this is where we do most of our drink­ing by default.