First, we asked on Twitter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Predictably, lots of people wanted a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we deliberately omitted because we were after a decisive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the optimistic side — Dark Star seemed in the doldrums to us and this is more likely to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 people who did feel strongly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:
“There will be some overlap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redundancies, which we will hope to keep to a minimum. However, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the overriding point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat people.”
When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.
And Roger Protz, who is generally critical of takeovers and sensitive to corporate skullduggery, but here says:
The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions…. These takeovers have been driven to a large extent by rapidly declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the other hand is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline. But working with Dark Star and creating collaboration beers with Moor Beer of Bristol and Marble has shown the kudos that can be gained by identifying with a craft sector that has such appeal to younger and discriminating drinkers.
His summary of the background to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is helpful, too: an uninterested family, a decrepit brewery, and little choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lingering local resentment all the same.
* * *
Some people seem puzzled or even irritated at the focus on this story, especially those who don’t live in or anywhere near London and the Home Counties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star — it’s a case study in what might happen elsewhere in the country.
If you want to play the prediction game perhaps start by looking for a brewery with a convincing modern craft beer identity and high profile, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the example at hand, lost its superstar head brewer, Mark Tranter, in 2013, after which its beer was widely perceived as having dipped in quality. It also seemed to be struggling to maintain its relevance in a world of Cloudwaters and BrewDogs, always one rebrand behind the zeitgeist.
Or, to put all that another way, breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.
Those who have studied their British beer history, or happen to have lived through it, will perhaps wonder if this is Fuller’s moving into Whitbread territory. Back in the post-war period Whitbread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of smaller breweries until they had become a national operation — the precursor to the rather faceless international brewing firms we know today.
The difference, it seems to us, is that back then (to generalise very broadly) Whitbread were after pubs, not brands. They wanted outlets for their own products — a hundred pubs here, a hundred pubs there — but did away with local brands and closed down local breweries, which maximised the impact of national advertising campaigns and kept things simple, if bland.
Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pressure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, owning a portfolio of smaller breweries or at least brewery names is a great way of doing so while controlling margins and simplifying supply chains. Some people call this ‘the illusion of choice’ which is accurate if you define choice as the ability to decide where your money ends up. But often it really is choice, at least in terms of styles and profiles, to a degree. Better than nothing, at any rate.
Fuller’s has tried selling its own craft brands, with some success, but Dark Star really is something different. Fuller’s has golden ales and summer ales but no Hophead of its own and we imagine that’s the specific beer this deal has been done to secure. (Perhaps based on sales figures from The Harp, a central London freehouse acquired by Fuller’s long-regarded as an unofficial town tap for the Sussex brewery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are neither here nor there — probably more trouble than they’re worth — and Fuller’s is not Whitbread circa 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to general outrage, and we’d be very surprised if production of Dark Star beers moves to west London anytime in the next decade, given increased interest in provenance and transparency among consumers.
Here’s everything that grabbed us in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from inclusion to IKEA.
Before we start, though, here’s a reminder that other links round-ups are available: Stan Hieronymus posts every Monday (latest) and Alan McLeod has nabbed Thursday. Do take a look if our list below leaves you hungry for more.
Alcohol was never a feature in our family household. My British-born Jamaican mum never kept lowly bottles of brandy hidden in the kitchen cupboards and we weren’t accustomed to anything more than a non-alcoholic “Buck’s Fizz” at Christmas time. As a small kid, Sundays were for church. As a bigger kid, I was too preoccupied with school. And as far as I was concerned, alcohol was something that was out of sight, and therefore entirely out of mind. I knew of it; I knew other people that liked it and drank it, but the only education I had about such a big part of the culture I was born into was from those borderline hilarious Channel 4 documentaries about people binge-drinking and puking up onto the street.
Koduõlu is one of the few farmhouse styles that you can actually buy right now, thanks to the commercial brewery Pihtla Õlleköök, in the village of Pihtla on Saaremaa island…. What surprised me was that it never seemed to be the same beer twice. That is, you can recognize the beer when you taste it, but major components of the flavour seem to be different each time. Which is perhaps the way it should be for a true farmhouse ale…. As for the beer itself, the head is white, and the body is always a milky opaque yellow. This is typical of raw ale, because all the protein is still in the beer.
For those of us who love Czech pub culture, tmavé pivo has long been something of a local secret. The style wasn’t even listed in the guidelines of the Beer Judge Certification Program, a set of style descriptions for homebrewers and pro brewers alike, until a revision in 2014…. When I stop by U Supa to ask [Ivan] Chramosil for a basic tmavé pivo recipe, he spells out the answer like it should be obvious: about 50 percent Pilsner malt, between 30 and 40 percent Munich malt, up to 15 percent of a caramel malt like CaraMunich, and at most 5 percent of a very dark malt like Weyermann’s Carafa II Special.
These posts have been slow and steady, I’ve sat back somewhat in a bid to see just what’s going on, but the pace hasn’t slowed, in fact the scene has just about exploded and it’s been hard to keep up with it at times…. The county has lost some pubs and breweries too. In fact, the highlights of bottled and cask beers that appeared at the start of this series now contain redundant info. Naked Beer Co, Turners, Hastings and King Beer are no longer with us.
440 ml cans, I mean we’ve all seen those, we know about those, but for me it comes back to the same thing, the same question: have you seen some of the stuff they’re putting in them these days? Have you seen how strong it is? Ten per cent! Twelve per cent! Twelve per cent alcohol in a 440 ml can – I tell you, you’re not going to pile into a few of those on the train, are you? That’s like a pint at nine per cent – all in a nice handy can! Putting all that booze in a can, it’s ridiculous. Why would you want that? Pointless.
A bit of brewery closure news: Welsh brewery Otley, which got into trouble and changed hands back in 2016, has unexpectedly shut its doors, possibly for the last time, according to Wales Online. It sounds like a strange situation:
It was sold by its founder Nick Otley in February 2017 to a firm he understood to be called All Beer Company Ltd…. However, Companies House records indicate no evidence of a company of that name. A firm called All Beer Ltd was dissolved in January 2016, and was based in Sheffield…. In the months following the Otley sale, brewery staff said they received no contact from their new owners, and were never introduced.
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Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.
We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.
We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.
Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.
1. “There are over 400 pubs in Bristol (one for every thousand of population)”. This line from the introduction is interesting because it roughly matches our estimate for the number of pubs in 2018. Mr Pearce and his co-author David Wilson are talking very specifically about the city, not the wider urban area, but, still, it’s suggests there’s not been such a shocking collapse in pub numbers as might be assumed. (Our observation: many inter-war suburban pubs may have closed but they’ve been replaced by new-builds on nearby retail parks; and large areas of Bristol were fairly under-pubbed to begin with.)
2. Class distinctions. The entry for The Drawbridge on St Augustine’s Parade next to the Hippodrome says it’s a “working class watering hole… middle class go to The Bunch of Grapes”; the entry for the Bunch has an F — “more than a rudimentary range of food”. The American Eagle (great name) was a “Working class husband and wife” pub with a “cramped spit and sawdust bar” while up the hill The Portcullis was all “deerstalkers, polonecks and Oxford voices… aging Clifton trendies”. The Cambridge Arms on Coldharbour Road was for “jacket and open neck shirt characters…. in flash cars”. Then, right across town, there was the Criterion on Ashley Road with “a collection of elderly, infirm, pissed, and otherwise derelict humanity”. (In 2018 there are all sorts of code words and phrases for getting across the same information.)
3. Period decor. The Quay Bar on Broad Quay has “brightly-painted pipes emanating from seats, bars, the ceiling, etc., before making a couple of U or S bend and disappearing into any convenient object” — how very PoMo! The Shakespeare on Prince Street had “old bits of lino for beer mats”. Bristol Fashion (at the base of what is now a Premier Inn) had the SS Great Britain “painted onto the bar itself… In the centre of the room is a mast with red plastic seats all the way round and a rope ladder with four rungs up the middle!” At The Horse & Groom “Copper kettles hang from the beams — including an electric one!” The Midland in Barton Hill had
Gaudy decorations: orange and brown wallpaper, purple and white curtains, yellow and grey paintwork, red, black and white tiles…. green ceiling, neon red and white sign over the bar.
Well, it was the 1970s.
4. Price of a pint. The Naval Volunteer is singled out as expensive with Worthington E at 26p a pint. The Standard of England, an estate pub at Southmead, charged “1p or 2p a pint over city centre prices in spite of having higher turnover” — a strange inversion of what we might expect to find today. (Related: it was two songs for 5p on the jukebox at The Star Inn, Fishponds.)
5. Pub grub. The Bank Tavern, a current cult favourite in Bristol, offered chicken pie, two veg and chips for 50p; the Bridge Inn had German sausages dangling from the ceiling; you could get sausage and mash for 20p at the Greyhound on Broadmead; steak for 80p a The Bear; and The Seven Stars on Thomas Lane had a microwave oven. There were jellied eels and cockles at the Air Balloon in Two Mile Hill — some sort of cockney ghetto?
6. Breweries and beers. The Bay Horse on Lewins Mead, now a bland chain place, was the only Davenport’s pub in Bristol and Messrs Pearce and Wilson were very impressed by their “gas-free” bitter and “continental” lager. The Rummers had “Market Gibbs Bitter”. The Rose of Denmark boasted George’s Glucose Stout, a beer from before the Courage takeover. The Kings Arms, Stokes Croft, had Devenish. The Railway Inn, Stapleton Road, was notable as one of the few houses selling mild anywhere in Bristol. The Bridge Inn was a proper free house with beer from Truman, among others, as was the Phoenix with beer from Ansells, Wadworth, Brickwoods and Cobbs, among others. Throughout there are mentions for Colt 45 malt liquor “seen by [Courage] as a long-term rival to lagers”.
The landlord of The Jolly Colliers, Bedminster.
7. Gay pubs. “Under its old landlord the Elephant was one of the premier folk music pubs in Bristol…. But he’s gone now removed under a cloud by Courages who then decided they wanted another gay pub in the centre. Customer is now solidly gay — as are most of the bar staff…. And trade is booming. Looks like wily Courages were right.” The other gay pubs were The Radnor and The Ship on Upper Maudlin Street.
8. Race relations. It’s quite startling to find race discussed so frankly. At The British Queen, St Pauls, Pearce and Wilson met the “only black landlord… in all of Bristol… a big sharply dressed guy who runs a small but very lively house… you can hear the reggae music…. from the end of the street.” The Swan, Stokes Croft, was “one of the few which attracts black customers”, while The Duke of York, Montpelier, had “a mixture of whites, blacks and Asians”. The nearby Gloucester House was a “white pub with an immediately hostile atmosphere”. The Duke of Cambridge on Lower Ashley Road had “young blacks and old whites” while The Prince of Wales on Ashley Road was effectively segregated: “Main public bar is dominated by whites, black customers tend to use the corridor”. At the Rummers there were, Pearce and Wilson reckoned, “black guys looking for white girls”, which brings us to…
9. Girls and Boys. The Bell on Prewett Street was “a young kids pub” with “lots of groups of girls looking for a pick-up”; The Crown & Cushion had “lots of 15-year-old girls sitting in pairs looking at 17-year-old boys”. At the Eastfield, Henleaze, “for misogynists the private bar is for gentleman only”, but on the other hand The St Nicholas House in St Pauls was “a friendly middle aged old ladies pub”. The music of Barry White is mentioned three times in the guide as an indicator that the pubs in question were for trendy, amorous young people, and therefore best avoided. And brace yourself for this bit of period sexism: The Bull in Two Mile Hill had “the biggest busted barmaids in Bristol”.
10. Real ale. In general, there was lots of bad beer — “they never clean their pipes” — but also some good. The Port of Call had fake casks concealing pressure pumps, a big problem for CAMRA in the 1970s. The real ale at The Phoenix was so good that it was beginning to attract “student and trendies” — apparently very bad news. The Old Fox, of course, gets a chunky entry: “[CAMRA] managed to buy it because nobody else wanted it…. a bizarre mixture of locals and real beer pilgrims.” Our favourite bit in the whole book though might be this from the entry for The Portwall:
“We’re in the CAMRA guide through pressure of circumstance,” quipped the barmaid. “The cellar’s completely unusable so we can’t put keg barrels in.”
12. Animals. The Cornubia had “a very fat cat” while at the Greyhound on Princess Victoria Street there was “a cat that sits on the one-armed bandit”. The Coach & Horses on Old Market not only had a “big alsatian called Toots” but also “a stuffed monkey shaving a stuffed cat in a display cabinet on the wall”. The White Horse, Lower Ashley Road, had a mynah bird, “and a talker as well”, but The Essex Arms and King’s Head across the road from each other in Two Mile Hill both had chatty parrots — what rivalry did that represent? The mynah bird at The Black Horse wouldn’t talk and the bird cage at The Bell in Bedminster was empty. The Post Office Tavern, Westbury Hill, had “fish (1) in tank”.
* * *
It’s hard not to plough through that lot and think that things are better now than then, on the whole. There was boring keg Watneys and Courage, or vinegary cask Courage and Bass, but not much beer that really seemed to excite them. Suburban and estate pubs seem to have been busier than they often are today but city centre pubs sound almost uniformly dreadful — either plasticky or dreadfully tatty. There’s the odd exception, of course, but it doesn’t read like a golden age. But perhaps Fred Pearce was just jaded after visiting 400 pubs.
Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”
(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)
We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.
But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.
Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)
So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.
Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.
We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.
First, there’s what we think of as ‘honeyish’ golden ales. Exmoor Gold, reckoned by some to be the first golden ale of the modern era, is one example; Timothy Taylor Golden Best might be considered another. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s really a light mild. And you’re on to something there, because mild is a much better word than bland, which we used to dismiss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some residual sweetness, ending up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ really works, suggesting as it does richness and a certain weight.
Then there’s the pale-n-hoppies. These descend from Hopback Summer Lightning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pallor and high perfume. They’re usually light-bodied, too — spritzy. Oakham Citra is a good example, or Hawkshead Windermere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all quinine and air freshener, but tastes change.
Finally, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the austerely bitter Manchester pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ancestor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last weekend all abuzz about Thornbridge Made North; Northern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was another excellent example. English or other restrained European hops, used primarily to create bitterness, are a defining feature, as is a certain dryness, and evident wholemeal maltiness.
So where does Summer Lightning sit? We reckon these days it’s got more in common with the Manchester sub-style (German hops, not hugely aromatic, but by no means honeyish) than the pale-n-hoppy revolution it inspired, via Rooster’s Yankee. Young’s Bitter AKA Ordinary, depending on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Certainly when those northern lads who founded CAMRA ended up in London, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Boddies.
The problem is for the consumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know people less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some combination of colour and ABV. If you like Golden Best and end up with Oakham Citra because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice versa, you might feel disappointed. And without knowing the context it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hoppy from a noted producer of aromatic beers is a bit dull.
Perhaps what we’re hoping for is some sort of convention in naming and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: honeyish beers are often called Something Gold or Golden Something, and Boddington’s clones seem invariably to have ‘Manchester’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that middle lot… They always specify which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?
If a lesson in hops, malt and yeast is Module One in learning about beer, then perhaps tasting these three sub-styles could be one branch to follow for Module Two.
A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.
To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.
If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.
Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.
But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.
SOURCE: David Bruce.
The national brewing firms, flying in the face of their own big-and-central tendency, copied this approach and launched their own chains. For example, Grand Metropolitan (incorporating the hated Watney’s) put a young woman called Kim Taylor in charge of a basement brewkit at The Orange in Pimlico in London. This was such a success that they opened four more under Taylor’s supervision, including one in Northampton. Whitbread and Allied joined in too until, by 1986, there were 76 new brewpubs operating up and down the country.
The Bruces’ influence spread far beyond the UK, however. Charlie Papazian, one of the godfathers of the American craft beer movement, has described the Firkin model as the direct inspiration for ‘the worldwide brewpub revolution’. At the 1982 conference of the American Homebrewers’ Association David Bruce gave a talk entitled ‘The English Brewpub and the Resurgence of the Small, Local Brewery in England and America’. This, as Papazian recalls, ‘electrified the audience’ and within a year the first wave of American brewpubs had appeared. There are now almost 2,000 brewpubs in the US.
In Germany, too, the availability of smart-looking, compact, often semi-automated brewing equipment led to a boom in brewpubs, especially in those parts of the country where the native small brewing tradition had died away through consolidation and industrialisation. In places such as Stuttgart and Hamburg you will find vast, folksy dining rooms built around gleaming vessels. They generally serve up remarkably similar, often quite unexciting beer, which nonetheless offers an alternative to big regional or national brands. Where those tend to be yellow, fairly bland, and perfectly clear, German brewpub product often comes in a variety of shades from black to gold, and is often hazy – good for the digestion, the blurb implies. Wholesome and natural. In France and Spain, too, most cities have one or two brewpubs, which distinguish themselves by offering rustic British, Belgian and German style beers as an antidote to the standard big brand lagers sold elsewhere.
The site of Mash & Air as it looked in 2014.
In Britain, however, the 1980s brewpub boom withered away. The Bruces sold up and Allied took the Firkin brand national, sucking away its charm in the process, and winding it up at the end of the 1990s. The Whitbread and Grand Met chains folded too. The orphaned brewkits found second lives in the blossoming microbreweries of this century’s boom but the brewpubs reverted to being simply… well, pubs.
At the same time, a new wave emerged, distinguished by its rejection of homely pub-like features and its embrace of ‘brewery conditioned’ beer – that is, not CAMRA-approved real ale. Brewmaster Alastair Hook, best known as the founder of Meantime Brewing, made a splash in the late 1990s when he helped restaurateur Oliver Peyton establish Mash & Air in Manchester. Inspired by American brewpubs more than any English tradition it occupied a former industrial building and put sexy space-age brewkit at literally the very centre. Through heavy duty portholes behind the bar drinkers and diners could see the Kubrick-esque bright orange fermenting vessels where the peach beer or blackcurrant porter they were drinking was born and bred. Writing in 1997 journalist Peter Haydon suggested that this was something distinct from a brewpub:
The latter is a pub with a brewery attached. The brewery may or may not be visible… A boutique brewery, however, is an integral part of the pub. Possibly made of steel or clad in copper, the visual appeal of traditional brewery plant is incorporated into the structure of the premises, in such a way as to form a centrepiece or add to the ambience.
A London branch of Mash later opened under the name Mash 2 and the high profile of the Peyton-Hook project, along with its pointedly modern approach, surely inspired what is now the longest surviving chain of brewpubs in the UK, Zero Degrees. It was founded in South London in 2000 by entrepreneur Dipam Patel starting with a single bar-brewery in Blackheath. Despite the Victorian gentility of the surrounding neighbourhood the bar itself was almost brutally industrial, all grey and polished metal, rough surfaces and girders. The brewkit faced on to the street through the huge picture window advertising to the world that this was something special. Also different was its emphasis on German-style lagers, setting it apart from the world of real ale which was by then entering comfortable middle age and distinctly lacking in youth appeal. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was popular with crowds of twenty-somethings who on any given weekend evening could be found spilling out of the doorway in their best shirts and clubbing clothes. In the decade that followed the chain expanded at a rather sensible rate, gaining branches in Bristol, Reading and Cardiff.
Zero Degrees was, however, a rare exception in a field of failures. Both branches of Mash closed within a decade of opening. Another 1998 opening, Bünker in Covent Garden, limped on to 2009. Meantime’s own brewpub, the Old Brewery in Greenwich, looked magnificent and prompted plenty of coverage, but that managed only five years before brewing ceased and it was sold on. Other ventures have been announced, brewkit even being purchased and installed, only to be scuppered by bureaucracy, cost and planning issues. Occasionally what starts as a brewpub morphs into a ‘proper’ brewery at the first chance – this is exactly how the now feted Beavertown began, in the basement of founder Logan Plant’s barbecue restaurant in Hackney, east London.
Brew Wharf was part of the Vinopolis restaurant-bar complex at Borough Market which operated from 2005 until 2014. Phil Lowry was part of the brewing team there and now runs his own brewery, Breakwater, in Dover, Kent. We asked him why brewpubs seem to struggle in Britain while they thrive elsewhere:
Fundamentally, this is a small island where real estate is extraordinarily expensive compared to other places like America and Germany. There’s a general lack of suitable spaces, too – they’re often too small, or already in use more profitably as shops or restaurants. With a brewpub, you’re basically putting a manufacturing setup into a valuable retail space. Brewpubs work in the US for various reasons. The tax framework there is much more generous than in the UK for one thing. There are incentives for breweries and brewpubs to open where once there was a suspicion around businesses that brew and sell alcohol. American civic bodies see brewing as OK – as an asset to a community – whereas here, you get no help or support. Opening Breakwater was a frustrating education in the civic machinery.
He also confirmed our suspicion that brewing with customers hovering around has its downsides:
At Brew Wharf it used to be practically a full-time job in its own right to handle the customers who wanted an impromptu tour or to ask questions. It’s much safer to get the brew done and out of the way before the customers arrive, and to keep it behind glass. I don’t just mean protecting them from the industrial process – I mean protecting the brewery from them.
In other words, operating a brewery in a place where food and drink are also consumed is a risky business. When we interviewed him in 2013 David Bruce recalled that in the Goose & Firkin cigarette ends from the gents toilet would fall down into the damp basement brewery forcing him to scramble to cover the vessels. By the same token, a brewery permanently on display has to look spotless or risk damaging customer confidence. Even a mop and bucket or a cloth left in the wrong place can give a bad impression. In other words, a working brewery cannot afford to look too much like a working brewery and requires a certain level of pretence. Pete Hughes, AKA ‘Swazi Pete’, head brewer for a chain of 17 Brewhouse & Kitchen pubs from Chester to Portsmouth, acknowledges this tension diplomatically:
The constant scrutiny means that only good brewers can cope. We do have to make sure that the brewery is always looking spotless and that we’re personally well presented at all times but any good brewery should be the same behind closed doors too.
This perhaps explains why it’s so rare, in our experience, to actually see any brewing underway on visits to brewpubs. The kit usually sits there, often behind glass, bright and clean but slumbering, its work completed long before the doors opened to admit the lunchtime crowd.
At Zero Degrees in Bristol the brewery is a dominant physical presence even when dormant forming a backdrop to the bar – an art installation in polished metal. During service it is further enhanced by ever-changing ambient lights which turn it green, then purple, then yellow, always drawing the eye to the space-age surfaces and endless pipework. It’s so cold and so clean it feels almost eerie, like a set from Doctor Who lit by Mario Bava.
Across the city, at the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Cotham, the vibe is warmer – more like one of those German brewpubs but with touches here and there of the 21st century craft beer bar. Again, the brewkit had been put to bed on both of our visits, thus resembling a museum exhibit more than a living brewery. Still, there is something pleasing about the sight of burnished copper and malt and hops in jars and sacks – a sense of a connection to the brewing process, of sizzle to go with the steak.
Casting our minds back to the early days of our own serious interest in beer we remember being particularly fascinated by brewpubs for this very reason. Quite as much as theatre there is education to be found there: where else can you look at a mural depicting the brewing process (a common decorative touch in such places) then compare it to the real life brewhouse, before taking a sip of the product itself. And for beginners the stylistic diversity of those products can be helpful, too. Tap East at the Westfield Shopping Centre, for example, is one of few places in London regularly serving dark mild, brewed a few steps from the bar. (Disclosure: Jessica’s little brother works there.) And Zero Degrees makes one of a handful of dark lagers in regular production in the UK, alongside accessible but interesting fruit beers and IPAs.
Accessible but interesting – if brewpubs have a niche in the UK, that’s it. The crowd at Tap East, at the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Bristol, or at the Zero Degrees bars we’ve visited, is not made up of the kind of serious beer geek you might find at a specialist multi-tap craft beer bar or real ale pub. Rather, they tend to be people of various ages out in groups, drawn by the novelty of the surroundings and the easy-to-sell premise: ‘They make their own beer, you know.’ Phil Lowry again:
The type of people that enjoy brewpubs are what I would call slowly adventurous, floating past rather than being seriously into beer. They’re ‘normals’. Let’s not forget, it’s easy on Twitter or wherever – just like in politics – to mistake a hardcore of loud individuals as being representative of the wider world, when they’re not. There are a lot of people who want a beer with a bit of something extra on the side, whether that’s nice food, or it being local, or whatever.
Phil has a lot of admiration for Zero Degrees in particular. To obsessives (like us) it sometimes seems like a relic of the Britpop era, despite recent bar makeovers and rebranding, but Phil says: “They’ve stayed on target, not chased the zeitgeist, and I think that’s to be applauded.”
From the brewers’ perspective there are advantages too. “Brewpubs are great because the beer is as fresh as it can be,” suggests Pete Hughes. “The brewer has direct control of the beer from grain to glass.” And at the Sheffield Tap, in the gorgeously renovated Edwardian refreshment rooms at Sheffield station, the products of the onsite Tapped Brewhouse supplement the already wide range of draught beers on offer, and at relatively competitive prices too.
Ironically, given Phil Lowry’s observations about property prices, developers increasingly semm to see the value in brewpubs as they add ‘soul’ to building projects and generate positive PR. Tap East was a developer-led initiative, for example, and in south London the installation of a microbrewery to be run by the Laine’s chain is a key part of plans for the restoration of the Fellowship Inn, a colossal, semi-derelict inter-war pub on the Bellingham estate.
The water has been muddied in recent years by the emergence of brewery tap rooms, a more or less alien concept in the UK where licensing laws, until recently, made them difficult to set up. They aren’t pubs – most open only sporadically, occupying bare makeshift spaces, in the shadow of serious brewing kit designed for heavy use rather than as ornamentation – but the appeal is similar. In Totnes in Devon the New Lion taproom amounts to little more than a picnic table or two and opens for a few hours after brewing is done for the day, but there is something magical about drinking a fresh pint of Pandit IPA served by one of the brewing team as evening light cuts through the steam rising from still-warm, just-cleaned brewing equipment.
Whether the UK will ever have as many brewpubs as America, or whether all of the current crop will survive, remains to be seen. Still, they keep coming, with a slew of new openings in the last year and more on the way. The London Beer Guide keeps the most accurate hands-on count of London breweries and, at the time of writing, it reckons there are 23 brewpubs operating in the capital alone.
Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you’re so far down your own rabbit hole that you don’t know what they don’t know. A large percentage of drinkers aren’t invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don’t understand what they’re buying. A lot of drinkers aren’t actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes – some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision – truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It’s time to admit it: we’re answering the wrong questions about beer.
It’s the result of a collaboration between restaurateurs Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, who run 10 Greek Street, distributor Nick Trower of Biercraft and Stephan Michel, the owner of Mahr’s Bräu, the craft-beer world’s favourite traditional German brewery…. The result is a kellerbier, an unfiltered and unpasteurised amber lager inspired by Mahr’s world-renowned ‘Ungespundet’ (known as ‘U’). It’ll be made with German malt and hops, fermented with Mahr’s yeast, and brewed in the traditional way, including a single decoction step and four weeks’ lagering.
SIBA have created an expensive box-ticking exercise that replicates what breweries already have to do legally. They’ve removed a route to market for non-members, are taking money from PubCos intent on dropping cask from local breweries, and are risking further reducing choice for drinkers whilst also increasing profits for PubCos at the expense of brewers and drinkers alike…. I really can’t see how they can claim to represent the interests of independent breweries, and I can’t see how CAMRA can continue to use Flying Firkin [which SIBA recently acquired] as a recommended wholesaler whilst it runs the very real and emerging risk of reducing consumer choice.
This week saw the release of statistics from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggesting that though beer consumption overall is up, sales of beer in pubs and bars (the on-trade) was down by 2.4% based on the previous year, equating to some 88 million fewer pints. Tandleman has some thoughts here: “For those with jobs and ‘just about managing’, choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.”
For Beer Advocate Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro offer a portrait of a new wave Belgian ‘nano-blendery’. As well as a discussion of the cultural significance of a new blendery charging what by Belgian standards are eye-watering prices for challenging products (cinnamon Framboos!) it’s also full of interesting details on the process:
Souvereyns combines three inoculated wort components for all of his beers, relying on relationships with three Lambic producers: Girardin, Lindemans (in Vlezenbeek), and De Troch (in Wambeek). In particular, he believes the De Troch influence is key to his flavor signature. “De Troch is one of those breweries that is so underrated. The Lambic [it] makes is phenomenal but people only relate that brewery to sweetened products,” he laments, referring to quickly-produced fruit beers which subsidize the old brewery’s limited Oude Gueuze production.
(We’re not quite sure when this piece appeared online but we only noticed it this week.)
We’ll finish with this archive film from the BBC on the boom in northern clubs during the 1960s. It contains lots of shots of foaming pints.
#OTD 1965: "It's like seeing theatre again, except I can have a pint." Panorama ventured up north to Greasborough, to report on the evolution of working men's clubs. pic.twitter.com/aApxMotVD3
We admit it: the rhetorical “Where’s the outrage?” winds us up.
What it so often means is, because you forgot to mention This, you must now shut up about That, AKA ‘whataboutery’ — a means of shutting down rather than adding to an ongoing discussion.
In relation to beer we’ve seen this argument rolled out a few times lately as part of the renewed discussion around sexist beer labels. Here’s the latest nod in that direction (a very mild one, it must be said, and hardly malicious) which directly prompted us to post today:
At this point, we chipped in: people do talk about this label. We’ve seen them do it. We were involved in a Twitter discussion about it ourselves just before Christmas prompted, of course, by someone asking “Why is nobody complaining about Cantillon’s classic Rosé de Gambrinus woman getting touched up on a bench?”
But, yes, it’s true it isn’t one of the top beers on the hit list, and we can’t find any really impassioned posts by any of our fellow beer bloggers calling for that particular label to change or be removed from shelves.
In fact if you go back far enough you’ll find various people sticking up for it and, indeed, citing criticism of the label as evidence of humourless puritanism. Here’s Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin, for example, writing in 2006 about US censorship of the RDG label: “I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.” Here’s the one that will probably most surprise people, though: Melissa Cole saying something quite similar a decade ago. It’s so at odds with Melissa’s current stance that we felt compelled to ask her about it via Twitter DM:
I was wrong. I also didn’t realise it was a pattern of wider misogyny in the naming of the beers at Cantillon, I only found out what Fou’ Foune meant relatively recently and given that they are happy to change their mind for commercial reasons in the US, how about they change their minds for the sake of coming into the 21st century too?
I was probably also a bit worried about taking aim at one of the ‘untouchables’ as well. At that time I had taken about six months of quite serious stick and was being denied information and quotes by a cabal of brewers who were closing ranks and trying to keep me quiet by making it very difficult to do my job – fortunately most of them have now retired or folded.
I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person or a perfect feminist (if either of those things actually exist!) and I’m happy to say I got that one wrong and I’ve been quite happy to be vocal that it needs changing recently partly because I don’t worry about being bullied any more and partly because, even if people do come at me, I feel I’ve got a far better way to communicate my points these days – a decade of challenging issues of inequality in the industry, even imperfectly, will do that for you!
The bar has clearly moved and the boundaries are continuing to change. Things that seemed fine a decade ago, or even a couple of years back, have acquired an unpleasant stink. The Rosé de Gambrinus label isn’t violent or sweaty; it’s so soft it seems almost abstract; and the beer doesn’t have a baldly suggestive name to go with the picture. In 2018, though, none of that quite washes, and we suspect there will be more direct criticism of Cantillon in the next year or two. And, yes, we suspect Cantillon probably were given a bit of a pass because they are cool, interesting and mysterious in a way microbreweries in middle England rarely are.
But it does seem to us that we’re reaching a point where there are (per Melissa’s very honest admission) no longer any untouchables, and rightly so, at least in part because of people asking “Where’s the outrage?”
In the meantime remember, if you think this label or that is particularly nasty, there’s nothing stopping you from writing about it. You don’t have to wait for Melissa or Matt Curtis to do it.
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Having said all that, there are plenty of good reasons why British commentators might choose to concentrate on British beers. First, this is our turf and we feel entitled to a say in what goes on here, whereas it feels somehow presumptuous to put pressure on brewers operating in different countries or cultures.
Secondly, as consumers and commentators in this ecosystem, we stand a faint chance of influencing the decisions of brewers and retailers, so it feels worth the bother. Or, to put that another way, the folk at Castle Rock might just care what we and others think, whereas we doubt the aloof enigmas of Cantillon, who can’t brew enough beer to meet global demand, give a flying one. If someone did want to pressure them, how would they do it? When Cloudwater drops a clanger its Twitter feed blows up; Cantillon isn’t on Twitter, and is barely on Facebook.
Finally, there’s the fact that Rosé de Gambrinus might as well not exist in our world. We don’t remember the last time we had it or saw it for sale, and if we did we probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price. For us, and probably for many other, it simply doesn’t come to mind. Teignworthy Bristol’s Ale or Castle Rock Elsie Mo, on the other hand, are beers we have actually encountered in a pub in the last month.
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There’s also, of course, an argument for not mentioning particular breweries at all. There’s not much here that can’t be discussed in terms of general principles, is there?
For some years now we’ve been repeating one message: old family brewers should be focusing on their heritage, not trying to keep up with BrewDog. So we were delighted to hear that Greene King has upped its historic beer game.
Their new limited edition bottled heritage range doesn’t quite approach the full-on authenticity of Fuller’s Past Masters series being, as far as we can tell, only vaguely ‘inspired by’ archive recipes rather than painstakingly recreating them. What is notable is their use of a once near-extinct variety of malting barley, Chevallier, the revival of which you can read about here:
Starting a few years ago with only a handful of seeds, by 2013 half a tonne was available for brewing…. Now the 2015 harvest is nudging 200 tonnes and there’s Chevallier malt aplenty. With another 15 tonnes reserved for seed, the expectation is that similar harvests will be possible in future years…. “People that have tasted it say that it has a very rich, malty flavour. We’ve had comments back from the States such as, ‘It’s the most aromatic malt that I’ve ever brewed with.’ … There’s a perception of a difference, of richer maltiness.”
We bought one bottle of each of Greene King’s heritage beers at our local Tesco supermarket for £2.49 each. That’s a touch pricier than many bog standard supermarket ales but then the bottles are full-pint sized and the beers are both relatively strong.
Suffolk Pale Ale at 5% ABV knocked our socks off. We found it vigorously bitter, almost too much so, with a remarkable freshness that suggests the pop of just ripe gooseberries. (It’s bottle-conditioned which perhaps helps.) It has a beautiful aroma which is hard to pin down — a certain sappiness might be the way to describe it, with some suggestion of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing of the new world about it though the use of German hops (obvious once you read the label) offer a subtle twist, herbal rather than fruity. If you can’t bothered to brew one of the 19th century pale ale recipes from Ron Pattinson’s book this is a decent substitute. It’s delicious, thought provoking, and perhaps the best Greene King beer we’ve ever tasted. In fact, it’s one of the best beers we’ve come across in recent months.
Vintage Fine Ale at 6.5% less brilliant but it’s still very much a step in the right direction for Greene King. Deep red-brown in colour it has a distinct autumnal feel. On the plus side there were the various facets of richness — golden syrup, Christmas pudding and plums. The only things holding it back were a husky stale note (which we suspect might disappear with a few months ageing) and the fact that Fuller’s already makes similar but better beers in this style. On the whole, though, we liked it and would — indeed probably will — buy it again.
Let’s hope these sell well, that the Pale Ale becomes a regular, and that there are more heritage beers to come. But, seriously, when do we get the funk? Bring out the nip bottles of 5X and let’s get some blending going.