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.

News, nuggets and longreads 24 August 2019: Greene King, Kveik, Wellington Boots

Here’s everything on beer and pubs from the past seven days that struck us as especially noteworthy, from Suffolk to Thailand.

The big news of the week – or is it? – is the takeover of English regional brewing behemoth Greene King. Roger Protz, who has been writing about brewery takeovers for half a century, offers commentary here:

In every respect, this is a far more worrying sale [then Fuller’s to Asahi]. Asahi will continue to make beer at the Fuller’s site in Chiswick, West London. It’s a company with a long history of brewing. CK Asset on the other hand has no experience of brewing and its main – if not sole – reason for buying Greene King will be the ownership of a massive tied estate of 2,700 pubs, restaurants and hotels. The Hong Kong company, which is registered in the Cayman Islands, is owned by Li Ka-Shing, one of the world’s richest men. He has a war chest of HK$60 billion to buy up properties and companies throughout the world.

This didn’t make quite the splash the Fuller’s sale did for various reasons: it wasn’t a brewery-to-brewery sale, for one thing, so is harder to parse; and Greene King is far less fondly regarded by beer geeks than Fuller’s.

We’re anxious about it not because we especially love Greene King but because it’s potentially yet another supporting post knocked out from under British beer and pub culture. See here for more thoughts on that.


Mystery yeast.

Lars Marius Garshol has been trying to get to grips with a mystery: is the yeast strain White Labs sell as Kveik really Kveik? If not, what is it?

If this yeast was not the ancestral Muri farm yeast, what was it doing in Bjarne Muri’s apartment? It very clearly is not a wild yeast, but a mix of two domesticated yeasts. It doesn’t seem very plausible that the air in Oslo is full of those. On the other hand it doesn’t seem at all plausible that this was the ancestral Muri yeast… Two things seem clear: this is a domesticated fermentation yeast, and it’s probably not the ancestral Muri yeast. The latter simply because it doesn’t seem well suited for that particular brewing environment.


A tea room.
Lyons Corner House, 1942. SOURCE: HM Government/Wikimedia Commons.

Not about pubs, but adjacent: Thomas Harding has written an account of the history of his family’s business, J. Lyons & Co, which is reviewed in the Guardian by Kathryn Hughes. We became fascinated by Lyons while researching 20th Century Pub, because of this kind of thing:

From the 1920s you could pop into a Lyons tea shop to be served by a “nippy”, a light-footed waitress got up like a parlourmaid. If you were a working girl of the newest and nicest variety – a secretary, teacher or shop assistant – you could eat an express lunch on your own in a Lyons without risking your respectability. If you were feeling particularly smart, you could go up to “town” and stay in the art deco-ish Strand Palace or Regent’s Palace hotels, vernacular versions of elite institutions such as Claridge’s or The Savoy. In the evening you might venture out to the “Troc”, or Trocadero, in your best togs, where you could enjoy a fancy dinner and dance to a jazz band.


Wellies
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Johnson has written an account of a weekend spent at Thornbridge Brewery’s Peakender festival with a typical dash of acid:

I just can’t understand anybody being disgruntled about a little mud. We have worn our wellies on our last two visits to Peakender and not needed them. We wore them in 2019 because, guess what, it is still a festival and this time we happened to need them. Wading through the showground site for two days was not an issue to us at all. Maybe it is because of where we live, I don’t know, but when I see people muttering to themselves about the state of the ground, whilst trying to make it to the toilet wearing FLIP FLOPS… heaven forbid… I don’t know…


Buffy's Bitter.

Paul Bailey (no relation) has some interesting notes on the demise of Buffy’s Brewery (one we’d never heard of) and the problem with ‘badge brewing’:

The closure was blamed on there being too many breweries in Norfolk, and with over 40 of them all competing for a slice of a diminishing market, something had to give. Like many industry observers, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Buffy’s had gone to the wall, but Roger Abrahams, who founded the brewery, along with Julia Savory, claimed that the micro-brewing sector was close to saturation point, and that competition between brewers “had become very aggressive.”


We don’t know anything whatsoever about brewing in Thailand but it turns out to be a complex business, according to this article from the Bangkok Post:

No one but the ultra rich are allowed to brew beer for sale in Thailand. The law is as unjust and outrageous as that. And no lawmaker has suffered the bitter taste of inequality in the brewing industry quite like Future Forward Party MP Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, who in January 2017 was arrested for brewing and selling his own craft beer… On Wednesday, Mr Taopiphop, 30, took Deputy Finance Minister Santi Prompat to task over his ministry’s regulation that stops brewing start-ups from exploiting the growing thirst for new flavours.


Finally, much to the amusement of British commentators, American pop superstar Taylor Swift has been writing about London, including a passing mention for pubs:

 

There are more links from Stan Hieronymus on Monday most weeks and from Alan McLeod on Thursday.

News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings

Here’s everything that struck as particularly interesting in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Carlsberg to Cambridge.

First, some news: those Redchurch rumblings from the other week are now confirmed – the brewery went into administration and is now under new ownership. This has prompted an interesting discussion about crowdfunding:


More news: it’s intriguing to hear that Curious is expanding. It’s a brewery you don’t hear talked about much by geeks like us – in fact, we’re not sure we’ve ever tried the beer – but it does turn up in a surprising number of pubs and restaurants.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings”

The Best Beer Writing of 2018, Sez Us

Beer magazines are in trouble and the Session is dead but, still, most weekends for the past year we’ve found between five and fifteen interesting things worth linking to.

From personal reflections to historical analysis, from portraits of pubs to profiles of people, the depth, breadth and quality of beer writing only seems to increase.

The following list is our personal selection of the very best, with a bias towards ‘proper’ blogs over paid outlets, and also towards voices we think deserve a signal boost.

We’ve omitted some great stuff that rather lost its power when it ceased to be topical, and there are some blogs which are best approached as bodies of work rather than through individual posts, so this is by no means everything we liked in the past year.

Continue reading “The Best Beer Writing of 2018, Sez Us”

British Beer

The Great British Beer Hunt —
Jester, Ernest, Olicana and Godiva
On a rail replacement bus.

Beer and queuing —
A British thing in a British stadium,
A beer at the British Museum.

There was lots of good beer here before —
Malty British beer, living fossils,
Standard British quaffing beer.

Iconic symbol of all that is great,
What is truly great,
About British beer —
A bottle of mild on the shelf.

British beer is not like its past.
British beer is best,
British beer is too strong —
This is where British beer is and will go,
Or you’ll upset the Queen.


This poem, and we use the word in the loosest sense, was put together from phrases found by searching the Tweets of people we follow for the phrase “British Beer”, and is our small contribution towards marking Beer Day Britain.

Tell Us About Your Local Beer Mixes

The cover BEER magazine #40

Our feature on traditional beer mixes — dog’s nose, lightplater, brown-split, and so on — is in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine.

We know we didn’t capture every single regional speciality or all of the many local names for the mixes we did list, and we were prepared for the steady trickle of “But what about…?” messages that have been coming our way on Twitter.

The thing is, this is the kind of stuff that people often know but don’t often write down — a general problem with studying the history of beer and pubs — and we’d love to get more of these on record.

So, with that in mind, here’s your chance to tell the world about  the beer mixes you know, and/or the names by which they go in your neck of the woods. Just comment below, specifying:

  • What the mix is called.
  • How it’s made.
  • And the specific pub, neighbourhood, town or region to which it belongs.

No variant is too minor, and duplicates are fine — useful, even.

It would be interesting to know, for example, whether simply ‘mixed’, which has come up a few times, always refers to mild and bitter. We guess it’s synonymous with half-and-half, and changes depending on which two beers (one light, one dark) that are most commonly mixed in any given region.

Everything We Wrote in March 2018: Devon, Michael Jackson, the Good Beer Guide

That was a pretty productive month with more posts than in any other month for some time, perhaps because the snow and cold kept us indoors near the books and the computer.

We started off gently with a bit of Pub Life, observing the dainty manoeuvres that take place around a communal pork pie which everyone wants to eat, but nobody wants to be seen to want to eat.


The topic of last month’s edition of The Session was ‘Hometown Glories’ so we separated into our constitutional parts to think about Walthamstow and Bridgwater respectively. It doesn’t look as if the host has put together a round-up of the entries yet but when he does, it’ll be here. (No pressure, Gareth.)


We flagged a new favourite book, 1949’s A Scrapbook of Inns, picking out some highlights, and then came back for another go at one of them in this post about the mysterious lost style ‘Ashburton Pop’:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself…


BrewDog have been embroiled in some brouhaha every other day for the last month, it seems. We had some thoughts on the Pink IPA business, the reaction to which seemed like another win-win for the Scottish behemoth.


In a biggish post we looked back on what we learned about Devon’s beer scene while writing our Devon Life column for a year and a half:

If you think brown bitter is endangered, spend more time in Devon. Time after time we spoke to people who expressed mild frustration at the conservatism of the county – at the aversion to things pale, bitter or aromatic – and of the need to dial things back and down if they want to sell any of it in local pubs. There are too many potentially interesting beers that feel compromised, and too many brewers who know it.

This was one of our most popular posts for the month, though 99.9 per cent of the traffic was from one particular geographical region.


Women in work clothes smiling.
Women posing beside the bottling machine at Mitchells & Butlers bottling depot, Birmingham, c.1950.

For Internation Women’s Day we put together a gallery of images of women working in breweries and pubs from our collection of mid-20th-century in-house magazines.


One thing we weren’t very good at last month was tasting new beers and writing up the notes. We did get round to trying one of the beers suggested for us by our Patreon subscribers, though — De Molen Not For Sale Ale, about which we were rather enthusiastic.


While researching the IWD post (above) we came across several articles about malting and decided to put together a gallery of pictures from those, too.


Then came a cry of despair from the pub: what’s the point in breweries producing decent beer if it’s exactly the same as everybody else’s decent beer? What’s your thing?


Butting into somebody else’s mystery took us down an interesting line of research around Bristol’s mining history and take-away-only beerhouses. There’s a further update from the original poster in the comments on Instagram: “The Rock Tavern / Rock House appears around 1899 and disappears in the late 1960s. One of the entries is asterisked to indicate it was off-sales.”


There’s a whole lot of politics going on in and around SIBA, a lot of it rather hard to follow. We piped up to say that, actually, we understand why small brewers might not want medium-large brewers in their club. (Note: Neil from SIBA popped up on Twitter to point out that St Austell aren’t so much “muscling in” (our phrase) as trying to get back in, having been bumped out when they grew too big.)


Watney's Red -- detail from beer mat.

Nick Wheat acquired and uploaded a rare Watney’s training film from the launch of the reviled Red keg bitter in 1971 and kindly allowed us to share it. Do give it a watch if you have a spare 10-15 minutes, if only to marvel at the impenetrably plummy accents.


Last year CAMRA published our 2,500-word article on the origins of the Good Beer Guide, using only the words of those who were there. Now, so everyone can read it, it’s available here on the blog.


We weren’t expecting to like that beer, which we didn’t expect to find in such good condition, or in that pub, which we didn’t expect to find on that street, in that part of town. Surprises all round!


In 1983-84 Pitfield brewed a mild in support of the women of Greenham Common — was it the first ‘cause’ beer? Check out the comments for some other suggestions, and a telling off.


Illustration: Micheal Jackson peers from behind his glasses.

This was great fun to write, and a great example of where having two writers helps rather than hinders: someone asked us what Michael Jackson would have made of NEIPA so we invented two scholars and had them debate it using only his writings for ammo.


For a long time Orval was a beer alone; now, it has company, as a new style is in the process of being born. We’re calling it DHBA for now. And here’s a footnote via Twitter:


It was a long month which meant five rounds of News, Nuggets & Longreads, including one that was so full of good stuff we resorted to a list of bullet points at the end to fit it all in:

3 March 2018 — Norway, Nitrogen, Nanas

10 March 2018 — Lemondrop, BrewDog, Hardknott

17 March 2018 — London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

24 March 2018 — Glitter, Ilford, AK

31 March 2018 — Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness


There was also an email newsletter (sign up!), lots of Tweets, photos of pubs on Instagram, a bit of Facebook stuff, and a three-hour Reddit AMA.

If you think all this lot is worth anything please consider signing up to support us via Patreon (where there are also exclusive posts for $2+ subscribers) or maybe just buy us a pint via Ko-Fi.

The Curse

I’ve been noticing worse hangovers for the last few years and put it down to ageing — I’m looking down the barrel end of 40. Whereas in my twenties I could happily go on a vodka crawl in Krakow and be up for work the next day, whistling and merry, these days, my limit is somewhere between one pint and three.

What struck me as odd, though, is that though Ray’s tolerance is also dropping (better that way than the other…) it’s consistent: he can drink about five pints in a session without having to write off the next day. Whereas on some occasions, a single pint is enough to induce an entire day of nausea in me.

So I started to do a bit of tracking on this, and began to notice a possible correlation: I appear to have much worse hangovers when I’m on or approaching my period.

My first thought was that I was actually less tolerant to alcohol during my period and this is very much the folk wisdom you’ll hear on the subject: during menstruation, the thinking goes, our blood is (a) thinner and (b) there’s less of it. However, from reading around a bit more, there isn’t clear medical evidence on this point (it would have a pretty negligible impact on blood/alcohol ratio, particularly if you keep up other fluids). However, interestingly, there is a potential link between oestrogen levels and pain perception, so it could be that the hangover symptoms simply feel a lot worse (as if that is any consolation). There is also a suggestion that you might drink more, or more quickly, while pre-menstrual (slough of despond and all that) – although I can rule out the former as I have been quite careful about recording amounts drunk, it is possible I might be boshing it at a different rate.

As someone who likes systems, processes and clear rules, it’s frustrating to me that there’s no consistency to it – some months are better than others. So I’ve started to record things in a lot more detail (e.g. looking at food intake, speed of alcohol absorption etc) and I’d be really interested to know if others have observed any trends or discovered any mitigation, other than sticking to fruit tea for half the month.

Tinkering With Casks

Casks at a beer festival.

In a comment on yesterday’s post reader AP said: ‘I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on.’ Well, having put AP’s point to Twitter, it turns out there’s quite a bit.

First, we know that the people behind our local in Bristol, the Draper’s Arms, have acquired a brand new wooden cask from the White Rose Cooperage which they are hoping to get filled by local brewers, putting a subtle twist on familiar beers. This is a similar model to the Junction at Castleford, West Yorkshire, which specialises in ‘beer from the wood’, and has its own casks which filled with beer from all sorts of breweries, including some on the Continent, that don’t normally use wooden vessels.

Various people came forward with tales of casks laid down in cellars to age for varying periods of time. Steve at Beer Nouveau recalled his days as a cellarman in Ipswich ageing Adnams Tally-Ho barley wine for up two years and then selling three different ages side-by-side. He also mentioned his habit (c.1998-99) of ageing Greene King Abbot Ale for six months before serving, without advertising it as aged or otherwise special. Hali and Brian, both former team-members at The Grove in Huddersfield, recalled keeping a cask of Bass P2 Imperial Stout in the cellar for 8 years before serving.

Susannah at the Station House micropub in Durham said (slightly edited):

We love experimenting with ageing. Mostly just, as previously noted, cellar till it’s ready. But Taylor’s beers usually get a minimum of a week, ideally two. There’s the Bass we aged for a month and sold as a mystery beer for our birthday last year (winner got a prize)… Currently ageing is a cask of Fortification from Cullercoats Brewery. Brewed in January, I think. Going on sale this week.

Angus from Mad Hatter Brewery recalled his time at the Wapping Brewery:

[We] used to keep a firkin or two back of our Winter ale for the following year as Vintage Winter. As long as you don’t fine on racking and your sanitation is up to scratch (and the cellar has the space) you’re all good… the spices mellowed out and the beer seemed richer.

One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)

But, still, we see what AP is getting at — it would be interesting to go to, say, a Fuller’s pub and find two different ages of ESB on offer, or vintage London Porter alongside fresh.

We’ve often wondered what effects might be achieved by adding the dregs from a bottle of Orval, or even a commercial Brettanomyces culture, into a straight cask ale and leaving it for a few months. This might even make Doom Bar interesting.

There are also plenty of opportunities for bold experiments with dry-hopping in the cask, with the permission and perhaps even guidance of brewers.

And this business of Guinness on hand-pull fascinates us — what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them into clean casks, and throwing in some fresh yeast with some priming sugar? Perhaps only the faff of the paperwork and the risk of being told off by the brewery.

It strikes us that this kind of thing could help to convey the complex fascination of cask-conditioning and might add a bit of fun back into something which, at the moment, is largely the preserve of berks like us muttering about ‘subtle magic’ and ‘sessionability’.

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole

Is there any point in another beginners’ guide to beer, especially one that is, by its own admission, ‘Little’, and pointedly lightweight?

That we felt moved to buy a copy (via Amazon for £8.45; RRP £10) suggests that there is something in the proposition that sets it apart from other such volumes. That something is, in large part, the voice of the author, which is one we happen to appreciate a great deal. Melissa Cole is a visible, highly vocal presence on the beer scene, notable as much for her refusal to let incidents of sexism pass without comment as for carving out of a middle ground between daytime TV fluff and extreme beer nerdiness.

In line with that tightrope act this book has not so much hidden depths as artfully concealed ones. Though she makes a point of saying in the very opening lines that this book is not for experienced beer geeks, it is clear that Cole herself is sitting on a vast mine of experience and knowledge. The greatest challenge for knowledgeable writers is resisting the urge to drop it all, everything they’ve learned, in a great torrent — to batter the reader into submission with facts, dense detail and footnotes. Cole is sparing with the science and history but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there — it’s just boiled down to the absolutely plainest, briefest of English, and balanced with humorous asides and personal anecdotes.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Craft Beer by Melissa Cole”