Everything we wrote in May 2020

Another funny old month. Busy at work, distracted by distractions, but still drifting back to our keyboards to type up the conversations we have over pints in imaginary pubs.

This month, a lot of our energy went into a single post – 2,000+ words for #BeeryLongReads2020 on Usher’s of Trowbridge:

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear… What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

We rounded up all the other entries here.


We also joined in with Al Reece’s revival of The Session with notes on how we were handling what was then a much stricter lockdown:

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

You can read Al’s round-up of the other entries here.


After a prompt in our email inbox, we got curious about whether any historic recipes for Bass might be in the public domain:

We know it has an ABV of 4.4%. According to this commercial wholesaler’s catalogue, it uses Golding, Fuggles, Progress, Challenger, Styrian Golding, Hercules and Admiral hops – can we assume this information came from the brewery? And from drinking it, we know it’s, well, brown – somewhere around 10 SRM according to analyses by home-brewers.

This prompted Ron Pattinson to share more details from his collection of Bass specifications.


Yarn

Jess wrote a piece that’s been brewing for a while. There’s something about the way she and other knitters manage their stashes of wool that has echoes of how people think about beer:

…specifically that sense of not wanting to knit/drink what you have, because it’s either not exactly what you want, or because it’s too precious to use up… Yarn, like beer, might be a limited edition – you may never be able to get that exact same colour/recipe again.


The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

In 1963, Egon Ronay published his first guide to English pubs, covering London and the South East. It’s a fascinating historical document, for many reasons:

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.


As the month wound-up, we reflected again on our ways of coping with lockdown, specifically the absence of pubs. Our solution involves a kind of self-hypnosis, and lashings of Jarl:

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world… Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.


And, uh, just now, Jess posted a piece on pub cricket, a game she played with her family on long car journeys as a child.


We also put together our usual Saturday morning round-ups of news, nuggets and longreads:


On Twitter, we shared a lot of stuff like this, our most popular Tweet of the month:


We also put together 1,000+ words of fresh stuff for our newslettersign up here!

Brooke Clear Kennett and other delights in 1830s London

The novelist and historian Walter Besant’s 1888 book Fifty Years Ago is an attempt to record the details of life in England in the 1830s, including pubs and beer.

Of course this doesn’t count as a primary source, even if 1888 is closer to 1838 than 2020. Besant was himself born in 1836 and the book seems laced with rosy nostalgia – a counterpoint, at least, to contemporary sources whose detail is distorted by temperance mania.

Still, there are lots of interesting details, and lines of research that beg to be chased down. Take this note on beer styles for starters:

Beer, of course, was the principal beverage, and there were many more varieties of beer than at present prevail. One reads of ‘Brook clear Kennett’— it used to be sold in a house near the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road; of Shropshire ale, described as ‘dark and heavy’; of the ‘luscious Burton, innocent of hops’- of new ale, old ale, bitter ale, hard ale, soft ale, the ‘balmy’ Scotch, mellow October, and good brown stout. All these were to be obtained at taverns which made a specialité, as they would say now, of any one kind. Thus the best stout in London was to be had at the Brace Tavern in the Queen’s Bench Prison, and the Cock was also famous for the same beverage, served in pint glasses. A rival of the Cock, in this respect, was the Rainbow, long before the present handsome room was built.

It doesn’t take much digging to find Besant’s source for this passage which was a guide to London nightlife published in the 1820s. The original contains this wonderful line which recalls Michael Hardman’s description of drinking bitter in the 1970s: “[In] many of the inland counties, the good folks like a hard, severe, cut-throat beverage”.

But what was Kennett Ale?

Our immediate thought, being based in the West Country, was that there must be some connection with the Kennett and Avon Canal.

And, sure enough, here’s the entry from an 1835 topographical dictionary for the Wiltshire village from which the canal takes its name…

This place, in Domesday book called ‘Chenete,’ was anciently a distinct parish, and was held by the church of St. Mary at Winchester. The village, which is pleasantly situated on the road to Bath, is noted for the celebrated Kennett ale, which is brewed only at this place, not from the water of the river Kennett, as is generally supposed, but from a fine limpid spring on the premises, which is soft to the taste, and slightly impregnated with magnesia. This ale first came into repute in 1789, and many thousand barrels of it are sent annually to London and to all parts of the country.

Looking in the newspaper archives, we find a reference from 1848 to “The Crown Tavern, and noted Kennett Ale house” at Pentonville, which suggests that there were indeed multiple pubs in London famous for serving this particular country brew. (Morning Advertiser, 14 June.)

In fact, The Crown even inspired a ballad, quoted in an article in 1874 but described as being from the 18th century:

Will you travel with your Bill
To the Crown at Pentonville,
Bonnet-builder, O!
Where the cove sells Kennett ale,
Which, like you, looks very pale,
I like it best when stale,
Bonnet-builder, O!

From 1845, there are also adverts for ‘Allsop’s & Butler’s Kennett Ale in find condition’ – had it, by this point, become what we’d now call a beer style, divorced from its geographic roots, being brewed in the Midlands? Butler’s, which we assumed is the same brewery that later became part of Mitchells & Butlers, was still producing a Kennett as late as 1868.

The recipe

Right, let’s keep pulling this thread – can we find more detail of what Kennett Ale might have tasted like, or what made it distinctive other than the source water?

Well, here’s what purports to be a recipe, from 1853:

Take 1 quarter of good amber malt and 8 lbs. of brown hops. Three liquors to make two boilings. First boil for ½ an hour— second ¾ of an hour. Use in the first wort in the copper when boiling 1½ oz. of coriander seeds and ½ an oz. of chillies. First mash set at 170°, with a barrel and a half of liquor: the second at 182°, with the same quantity of liquor; the third at 156°, with 2 barrels of liquor. Set it to work at 64°, and cleanse it at 74° with a good head; this will make rather more than 2 barrels. This much resembles Burton ale, but is not so strong.

Coriander and chillies!? Now, let’s take this with a pinch of salt (figuratively speaking – we don’t want to make this recipe any more complicated) because these home recipe books are often a bit peculiar, being based on guesswork more than insight.

Let’s assume, though, that the author of this recipe was trying to capture a certain spiciness that the beer seemed to have.

The most useful nugget, in fact, is that bit at the end which gives us a sense of how Kennett might have fit into the scheme of things, being rich and sweet but not overwhelmingly boozy.

From Reading to Ohio

There’s more to the thread yet: the above recipe is actually billed as ‘Kennett/Reading Ale’. What’s the story there?

And then there’s the Cleveland connection:

“The beer style originated in the Kennett/Reading area in England and came over here with some immigrant brewers,” [brewer Andy] Tveekrem said. “It was brewed by a few local breweries in the Cleveland area but I have yet to find anything on it being brewed elsewhere in the U.S. … although I haven’t really tried too hard.”

Before we keep pulling and digging, do let us know what you know about Kennett or Reading Ale in the comments below.

Getting away with it

You open your eyes, slowly.

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.

You definitely need to piss, and your mouth feels powder-dry, but it’s possible you might be able to address those needs without last night’s mixed seafood basket resurfacing.

Bathroom, kitchen, a glass of water absorbed rather than drunk, and then you go back to bed, because you don’t want to push your luck.

After a brief doze, you find yourself actively craving a cuppa, and… is that actually a hunger pang? Tea first. See if that stays down.

Seems OK.

Can’t be, surely?

The Orval for round five was pushing it, and then you then stayed for a sixth, enjoying it with the grim knowledge of impending doom.

Than again, thinking about it, you had sense enough to stop at the chippy on the way home, and drink two pints of water before going to bed, and to take another pint up to bed.

Or perhaps you’re still drunk. Yeah, might be that. Take it easy. Brace yourself for the coming storm.

A few hours later, breakfast and lunch conquered, you start to dare to believe that you might really have got away with it.

The thought of a pint later that afternoon is not actually unappealing.

But perhaps, as the Hangover Gods have smiled on you today, you shouldn’t push your luck.

Photo by Manu Schwendener via Unsplash.

The Portcullis, Clifton: peculiarly Belgian

It took a couple of visits for us to get The Portcullis in Clifton: as an English pub, it reads as peculiar, but it’s an excellent Belgian cafe.

It really does feel the kind of neighbourhood place you might find in some suburb of Brussels, or out along the route of the coastal tram from Ostend.

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.

The exterior of the Portcullis.
The Portcullis in 2013 – you want the cosy bottom bar, not the upper one.

‘Dogs on leads welcome’, says a sign on the door, and there were lots of dogs on leads, curled under tables or snarling at each other. One, a puppy,, broke a wine glass (“Bloody hell! Got any blue roll?”) then chewed through its lead and broke free, darting across the floor with a posh man in pursuit.

People knew each other’s names. A regular walked in (with dog) and the pulling of his pint commenced without a word being spoken. The hound received its usual order, too – a biscuit from the jar.

The licensees, Dee and Paul Tanner, were on duty, seeming to enjoy their own pub as much as the drinkers do.

Paul made a circuit offering chocolates from a box bought in Bruges only the day before, but otherwise perched on the end of the bar talking to a friend.

Dee was behind the bar, absolutely on it. Every time we ordered from the Belgian selection she said, quietly, things like, “Oh, that’s a fantastic beer,” and hurried off to find the right glass. Her method is to pour the beer at the bar and present both beer and glass with a logo forward. There’s something very Belgian – proud, a little fussy – in the subtle twist she gives the bottle to get it lined up.

“We like our Belgian beer, my husband and I,” she told us, as if it needed saying.

The Belgian beer isn’t cheap – £7 a bottle is standard – but of course there are good reasons for that. There’s also Leffe on tap at £4 per half-pint and ales from Dawkins and others at around £4.20 a pint.

As a little treat every now and then, an alternative to schlepping to Belgium at huge expense, it doesn’t feel outrageous.

We don’t plan to go often – we want it to stay a bit special, for days when we need picking up – but if you’re in Bristol and craving Belgian atmosphere as much as Belgian beer, it’s worth a detour.

The Black Cat, Weston-super-Mare: micropub or craft beer bar?

We’d be wanting to visit The Black Cat, Weston’s year-old micropub, for ages and then, with the promise of glorious sun the weekend before last, a trip to the seaside became irresistible.

Even as we approached The Black Cat, we got a sense of what it was about: quirky, somewhere between hip and Gothic.

Inside, the first thing that struck us was the midnight vibe: indigo walls, black porcelain cats, and a mural that seemed to hint at The Rat & Raven.

Then we noticed the craft beer bar trappings: tealights, posh pickled eggs, £2-a-bag crisps, a complicated menu of beers in different categories, bare wood and bare brick – well, sort of: it was actually, oddly, brick-patterned wallpaper.

Outside the Black Cat.

This strange hybrid is a thing we’ve seen a few times, now, in towns apparently not quite big enough or hip enough to support both a micropub (real ale, conservatism) and a craft beer bar (keg beer, trend-chasing). Sonder in Truro springs to mind as another example.

It sounds a bit chaotic but we immediately felt quite at home, as apparently did the customers: a handful of older men grumbling about football and a young couple with see-through frames on their specs grumbling, in plummier voices, about the difficulty of making a career in The Arts.

Details from the Black Cat.

We struggled, in truth, to land on a beer that we really loved, which happens sometimes in pubs with rotating beer ranges. Butcombe Underfall Lager (think Camden Hells) was very welcome given the heat, though, and Wylam Galatia (a 3.9% pale ale) was certainly good enough to warrant a ‘same again’.

The main selling point was the atmosphere and the chap behind the bar, Rich, who could not have done any more to make us feel welcome, help us navigate the menu, or accommodate off-menu requests for (a) cups of tea; (b) instant coffee; (c) a surface on which to play cards.

Ray’s dad, who is fussy about pubs, left with a loyalty card in his pocket and plans to come back.

It’s not the kind of pub we want to drink in every time but it’s certainly a good addition to Weston’s beer culture.