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Generalisations about beer culture

The enigma of variation: how important is consistency in beer?

If you’ve ever spent any time with brewers at larger breweries, or reviewed archives, you’ll know that frequent tasting of the product to ensure quality and consistency is a key feature of the process.

For example, we know from talking to his daughter that a former head brewer at Guinness’s Park Royal brewery in London used to get through a crate of beer a week, not because he enjoyed it – he stopped drinking it when he left the firm – but to check the quality.

Then at the other end of the scale, we had an interesting insight into life at a more experimental, but regionally established craft brewery which we won’t name. We had occasion to hear the marketing manager talk to an audience of non-beer geeks about the challenges of fulfilling a then new supermarket contract:

“We now have to try to be consistent with this beer and hit the same flavour profile each time, whereas we know that when we’re selling to pubs, people just ask for our beers by brewery name – they don’t really care which one it is or how it tastes.”

We’ve been quite sneery about this attitude at times. It seems to confirm our prejudices about newer breweries not having the same technical skill or infrastructure as those which are better established.

But is that entirely fair?

If your market is craft beer bars, where people will tend to be trying lots of new things at once, does it matter if two brews under the same name have discernible differences in flavour over the course of weeks or months?

It gets more complicated again when you consider that even using the same recipe will give you essentially different beers over time.

Hop profiles change with each harvest, for example, even assuming you can get the same varieties of hop from year to year. We often think about Pete Elvin at the Star Inn getting seriously stressed about trying to recreate the hop character of Potion no 9 without access to Amarillo. Brewers have to tinker with their recipes constantly to maintain the sense of consistency –  it isn’t just a question of doing the same thing with the same ingredients each time.

Finally, there is the added dimension that putting a beer in a cask brings. We can all think of examples of beers that taste really different depending on where and how they’re served and, crucially, for how long they’ve been exposed to oxygen.

A key driver towards keg for craft beer pioneers like Alistair Hook was unwillingness to trust their beer to the cellarmanship of others.

For us, a little inconsistency introduced on the front line, in pubs, is part of the way we get to really appreciate a beer we love – not beer being served in poor condition here, just the difference say in drinking ESB that’s been on for one day as opposed to two, three or four.

It feels to us (classic fence sitting position coming up) that there is a happy medium between an industrial product that must always taste the same, and a wildly inconsistent beer. Or perhaps “medium” isn’t helpful here, as we’re much more aligned to the former end of the axis than the latter.

We want things to be consistent enough that we know what we’re going to get if we order the same thing twice, while still having scope to surprise us, just a little, in the subtle details.

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pubs

The meanings of pub

There is no universal understanding of what ‘the pub’ means – no single image that materialises in the mind at the sound of the word.

For us, it’s a space with low light, nest-like corners and the murmur of conversation. Though not right now, of course. Together with the world but separate. This is the George Orwell ideal, about contentment more than excitement.

Some hear ‘pub’ and think, oy oy, here we go, lads! It’s going-out clothes, perfume and lippy, aftershave and flash the cash. It’s laughing, shouting, hugging, tumbling into cabs, he’s not worth it, babe, I love you mate, you know that, don’t you, like a brother? Crawling, ranging far and wide, biting into life like a hot kebab.

For others, watching from outside, the pub is chaotic and dangerous – a place where people lose control, behave badly, practice a form of self-harm. They get pickled, get gout, disappear into the fog. Maybe they fight, or fall over, or superspread – “Please sell no more drink to my father…”

Some see the pub as a place where they’re not and never can be welcome – “He smelt of pubs/ And Wormwood Scrubs/ And too many right wing meetings…” Opaque windows, a glare from the doorway, no incentive to ever step across the threshold.

For our ruling politicians, up above the clouds, the pub is where you go for your down-to-earth-chap photo op, or to eat an informal meal in the Cotswolds, pointedly tieless in chinos and deck shoes. It’s a prop. Abstract. A line in a spreadsheet.

In suburbs like ours, there are those for whom the pub is the only manifestation of The Community. It’s where they see the couple with the poodle most Sundays and Nick the Electrician and Pete the Widower who keeps dropping his stick down the back of the radiator. The pub connects them to the world and makes it all make sense, for an hour or two, which is why it’s worth the risk.

All this is why when we talk about pubs, we’re often at cross-purposes – how can you keep them open/let them close? How can you love them/hate them so much? Won’t somebody do something.

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pubs

Could all this help the neighbourhood pub?

Is it wrong to poke around in the ruins looking for something to be optimistic about? Maybe, possibly, all this will help revive the neighbourhood corner pub.

Of course we can only ever be tentative and won’t be remotely surprised if things go in the opposite direction, towards disaster, but indulge us.

First, we know that city centres are struggling as many people continue to work from home.

The narrative has coalesced around coffee and sandwich shops but central pubs, too, rely on commuters hanging around for a pint or two with colleagues.

Without birthday drinks and leaving drinks and fuck-it-it’s-Thursday drinks, they’re reliant on determined, deliberate pubgoers.

The few times we’ve been into town lately, pubs and bars have seemed quiet – handy for distancing purposes but not if you want to pay staff, pay suppliers and keep the lights on.

Local pubs out in the suburbs, meanwhile, though also struggling, seem to be doing a little better.

After all, sticking your nose in at the local is low commitment: you wander round and if there’s space, you stay; if not, you wander on, or get takeaway. And if it gets uncomfortably crowded, you can go home.

The Foresters Arms, a pub near us, has struggled through the last few years with periods of closure, changes of management and a basic Guinness-n-sport offer in an area which has all but fully gentrified.

Now, though, it’s buzzing seven days a week. We’ve never seen it so busy or so alive. Peeking through the side door on our daily walks we’ve noticed quite a few of the regulars from The Drapers Arms in the (sensibly distanced) crowd – not their first choice, perhaps, but maybe somewhere they’ve come to appreciate in recent months.

We’ve certainly become less fussy. On Monday, at the end of a long walk to Keynsham, we ended up drinking Peroni in an edge-of-town pub and loving it. Well organised, spacious and friendly beats central in 2020.

On that note, we’ve also wondered if this might be the saving of some of those big inter-war pubs you find on the outskirts of towns.

A year ago, people talked about ‘rattling round sterile barns’.

Now, as our ideas of busy and close have been forcibly re-calibrated, that’s distinctly more appealing.

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pubs

The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

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.

Categories
pubs

When the first, second and third place are all the same

The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.

The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.

Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.

For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:

My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.

It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.

Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.

Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.

New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.

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.

Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.

Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.

For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.

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.