I have a huge amount of respect for John Cryne, who had done vastly more for the cause of cask beer than I have, over four decades as an activist in the Campaign for Real Ale that includes a stint as Camra national chairman and a long period as chairman of Camra in London. I’ve known him since at least the early 1980s, when he and his wife Christine (who has also, of course, worked tirelessly to advance appreciation of cask ale, in particular as organiser of the Great British Beer Festival for many years) were pillars of the Mid Beds branch of Camra, while I was chairman of its North Herts branch. John is a highly intelligent fighter for what he believes to be right, strong and undeviating in pursuit of his aims, with fools not suffered and the faint-hearted treated with scorn. But he’s entirely wrong in his call for a picket outside the EGM that has been called by Fuller, Smith & Turner for its shareholders to vote on the take-over of the London company’s brewing operations by the Japanese giant Asahi.
We all have emotional bonds with the brands that we love – that’s exactly what brands are designed to do, to make us have a passion for the product. But turning up at an EGM with placards and banners to protest at a take-over is like turning up outside your ex-girlfriend’s house with placards and banners to protest at her dumping you. It also fundamentally misunderstands the real relationship between consumers, brands and the companies that produce them. It may feel like love to you. But to the brand owner, it’s entirely a monetary transaction – and it couldn’t, shouldn’t be anything else.
In his call for a picket of the EGM, John said the sale of Fuller’s brewing side was “a betrayal by the family shareholders who we thought were committed to brewing in London for the next two hundred years.” This really is the language of Jilted John:
I’ve been going out with a girl
Her name is Fuller’s
But last night she said to me
When we were watching telly
(This is what she said)
She said listen John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you
So it’s the end for you and me.
Fuller’s is not your girlfriend, shouting “Asahi’s a moron!” will get you nowhere,and the decision of the family shareholders to sell is not them betraying you: indeed, the prime and pretty much sole responsibility Fuller’s shareholders have to have is to themselves – why should it not be, they’re risking their own money in the company – and the betrayal would be turning down the £250 million that Asahi offered. If anyone felt Fuller’s owed it to its drinkers to keep independent, they don’t understand how business works. As I already pointed out, even after costs and et ceteras, that represents all the earnings Fuller’s might expect from the beer division until 2038. In the meantime it still has the pubs and hotels side of the business, which is making 87 per cent of the profits anyway.
I have great sympathy with everyone whose reaction to the news of the sale was sadness at the thought of the loss of a historic link to which they had a big emotional attachment: I have a big emotional attachment to Fuller’s myself, although I can’t agree, again, with John Cryne in declaring that “this is not an action we expected from a brewery we have respected and supported since Camra was founded.” I’m not just talking about the enormous amount of slagging Fulle’s gets from Camra members on, eg, the Camra Facebook page (“brown twiggy pish”). To my father’s generation – and he grew up in West London – Fuller’s in the 1950s was a brewery to avoid, nicknamed “Fuller shit and turds”. It took a long time for Fuller’s to reach Camra cult status: in 1974, just a few years after the Fuller’s board had scrapped a proposal to close the Griffin brewery and move production of all the beers to a new greenfield fizz-factory near Heathrow, the Good Beer Guide found “only a handful” of Fuller’s pubs selling cask beer. By 1975 that was just ten out of 116 tied houses. The following year the number of pubs with handpumps had risen to 16, it was 38 out of 112 in 1979 and 66 out of 122 in 1981 – still barely more than half of all the tied houses with “real ale” in them.
The numbers were rising steadily, but even in 1984 a third of Fuller’s pubs did not sell cask beer, and four years later one in ten Fuller’s pubs were still keg-only. Only by 1990 had that dropped to “a handful”, five out of 149, at which point Fuller’s had picked up a Usain Bolt-style haul of medals at the Great British Beer Festival. The brewhouse was redeveloped in the early 1990s, increasing capacity by 50 per cent, while the number of tied houses was climbing too, up past 200 by 1994. Fuller’s head brewer, Reg Drury, and his young assistant, John Keeling, were starting to experiment with new brews: 1845, based on a 150-year-old recipe, for the 150th anniversary of the Smiths and Turners joining the Fullers in the business, and Vintage Ale, a strong bottle-conditioned beer designed to be laid down and matured for years, first produced in 1997. Vintage Ale, in particular, has continued to amaze and fascinate beer commentators: the vertical tastings of different brewings of Vintage Ale in the Hock Cellar at the Griffin Brewery have been some of the finest evenings of beer I have ever been involved in.
Still, if as Jim Armitage of the Evening Standard said, “We must mourn the passing of the last great London-owned, brewed and bred beer,” it’s a process that has been happening for 120 years, since Watney’s merged with their porter-brewing rivals Reid’s of Clerkenwell and Combe’s of Covent Garden in 1898. There were 90 breweries in London in 1904, and just 10 in 2007. Tick off the great London breweries we have lost since the 1974 Good Beer Guide: Charrington’s of Mile End in 1975, Whitbread in Chiswell Street in 1976, Mann’s of Whitechapel in 1979, Courage by Tower Bridge in 1982, Truman’s in Brick Lane in 1989, Young’s in Wandsworth in 2006. Indeed, tick off the 80 or so family-owned breweries listed in the 1974 GBG: 45 have now closed, more than half, and another seven are still open but under different ownership. That’s exactly one closure a year. Of those closures, I can tell you at least a dozen that I miss deeply: Rayment’s in Hertfordshire, Hartley’s in the Lake District, Higson’s of Liverpool, Paine’s in St Neots, Ruddle’s … all gorgeous beers. And that doesn’t count the many breweries owned at that time by the Big Six that were still producing great brews: the former Fremlin’s brewery in Kent, Wethered’s in Marlow and the ex-Starkey Knight and Ford brewery in Devon, for example, all, under the Whitbread umbrella, making beers that I loved when they were around and mourned when they disappeared.
So forgive me, then, if I’m a bit mourned out, having to cope with the disappearance of dozens of beers over the decades that were all certainly up to the high standards that Fuller’s has set. That’s life. At least Fuller’s is still brewing – and there are 2,000 other breweries in Britain now, against the fewer than 200 we had in 1974. That, at least, should cheer us all up.
In view of recent events, I thought people might be interested in a short history of Asahi Breweries …
Beer was introduced into Japan by the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed to trade with the country after the expulsion of the Portuguese early in the 17th century, and who would take biiru with them when they made their compulsory once-a-year trip from their base in Nagasaki to the Emperor’s palace in Edo (now Tokyo). However, it was not until Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan in the 1850s to try to push the shogunate into opening diplomatic relationships with the United States that the locals made any proper analysis of this new drink, after the American delegation on Perry’s second trip to Japan in 1854 presented officials with gifts including three casks of beer. Japanese opinion was divided: one called it “magic water”, while another described the beer as “bitter horse-piss wine”.
The treaties signed between Japan and the US saw Yokohama opened from 1858 as a place for European traders to settle, and in 1863 military forces from Britain and France arrived in Yokohama to protect the increasing numbers of their nationals based in the city. Two years later, according to an article published in the China Mail newspaper in Hong Kong on October 19 1878, two foreigners, one an Englishman called Campbell and the other an American called Langthorne, began to brew beer in Yokohama, at the first commercial brewery in Japan. Campbell and Langthorne are deeply obscure and nothing more seems to be known of them, not even their first names. Their business did not last long, according to the China Mail, at least in part because of increasing imports of beer from Europe and America: the newspaper wrote that “either because in those days the foreign denizens of Yokohama were so rich or so extravagant as to despise any but the produce of the famed distant vats of Burton, Edinburgh and Dublin, or because the projectors had not sufficient knowledge of their art to make their liquor palatable, or capital enough to work and wait until it had created a reputation and a market, they soon abandoned their enterprise; and the buildings they erected were subsequently pulled down.”
In 1868, however, the wonderfully named Marinus Johannes Benjamin Noordhoek Hegt, born in the Netherlands in 1821, a sea captain and merchant who came to Yokohama in 1860, opened a small brewery at No 46 Bluff, part of Yokohama’s designated European district, where there was a deep well on the site. Hegt hired as his brewer Emil Wiegand, a brewer from Germany who had emigrated from Hessen at the end of 1853, aged 19, via Bremen, arriving in New York on January 6, 1854. Wiegand was apparently naturalised in Philadelphia in 1856, and looks to have spent 11 years in the eastern US, presumably working in local German-run breweries, before leaving New York on December 1 1867 to travel to California via Nicaragua. He spent barely a year in San Francisco before moving to Japan, arriving there, according to a deposition he made later in a tribunal at the US consulate general, in 1869 after signing a contract to manage the “Japan Yokohama Brewery”.
Hegt’s brewery inspired a man called William Copeland, born Johan Bartinius – sic– Thoresen in Tromøy, in southern Norway, in May 1834, to build a brewery of his own on the site first used by Campbell and Langthorne, No 123 Bluff, which had as its chief attraction a source of “singularly pure” water, and which became known as the Spring Valley Brewery. Copeland, who had arrived in Japan in 1864 (and whose middle name changed to Martinius at some point) made his first brew in January 1870, shortly after Hegt had moved to larger premises at Bluff lot 68 in 1869. The two rival breweries ran in competition with each other until June 1876, when the owners agreed to a merger, and Copeland and Wiegand brewed at the Spring Valley Brewery site, using Bluff lot 68 as a maltings, until the maltings were destroyed by fire in 1877.
The Spring Valley Brewery made lager during the summer, and “‘English ale’, ‘Bock’ and ‘Bavarian’ beer, demanded by the better sort of customer” during the winter. The beer was exported to Tokyo, Nagasaki and other Japanese towns, and as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Copeland and Wiegand brewed together as co-partners until the end of 1879, when Wiegand filed a bill with the US consular court in Yokohama for a dissolution of the partnership, alleging “fraudulent acts and other irregularities” by Copeland. The American consul general, who had the legal right to hear cases in Japan involving American citizens, found Copeland not guilty, but it was agreed that the partnership should be dissolved anyway and the firm wound up, with its assets sold. The brewery was estimated to be worth some £32,500, and Wiegand, who had bought much less to the partnership than Copeland, was due $6,250 of that. Unfortunately the only bidder for the brewery was Copeland, who bought the business back in February 1880 for just $12,000, which meant that not only did Wiegand not get anything, he now owed Copeland several thousand dollars. Wiegand eventually died in San Francisco in 1887, aged 47.
In 1880, meanwhile, Copeland was involved in another lawsuit between himself and his head clerk, which was again settled by the US consul in favour of Copeland. However, the suit bankrupted the Spring Valley business, and though Copeland continued brewing by himself until 1882, the business went under in an economic recession. Two years later, on July 1884, the Spring Valley brewery was sold by the US Marshall by order of the US Consular Court for $11,500. The London and China Telegraph of September 22 1884 wrote that “this property is estimated to have cost the late proprietor over $60,000.” Who bought it remains unclear, but on April 27 1885 the London and China Telegraph reported that two fires had recently broken out at the premises of the Spring Valley Brewery on the Bluff, Yokohama, and in the first, which began at 8pm on March 13, the block was destroyed which housed in its lower portion the “extensive” brewery plant. The plant and buildings were insured for $5,000 in the Lancashire and the City of London Insurance Companies, but “the brewery plant could not be replaced for at least three times that amount.”
Two months after the fire, in May 1885, the first meeting was held of resident foreigners in Yokohama that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Japan Brewery Company Ltd, set up with mixed Japanese and foreign investment. This company quickly acquired the Spring Valley brewery site to build its own brewery, taking advantage of the site’s water supply. The new concern eventually launched its “Kirin beer” in 1888, and changed its name to Kirin in 1906.
By now the Japanese brewing industry had become thoroughly “Nipponised”, helped by men such as Nakagawa Seibei. Nakagawa (in Japan, surnames are given first) travelled at his own expense from his homeland to Germany in 1872, hoping to learn a foreign skill he could use back in Japan. He was advised to study brewing, and spent more than two years, from 1873 to 1875, at a brewery in Fürstenwald owned by the Berlin brewery Tivoli.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Nakagawa, who was only 24 when he arrived in Germany, where everything – the language, the architecture, the food and drink, the clothing, the entire way of life – was utterly alien to all he had known previously. On his return to Japan with a certificate of study from the Tivoli brewery, Nakagawa was hired by the Japanese government to build a brewery in the newly founded city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which was being rapidly developed in response to a possible invasion threat from Russia. The brewery made its first German-style lager in 1876, and was sold by the government to private investors ten years later.
Between 1869 and 1872 there were more than a hundred brewery start-ups in Japan, most being small and deeply obscure, with very little now known about them. All, or at least all those about whom sufficient details are known, concentrated on producing German-style beers, mostly because Japanese beer drinkers needed the reassurance that domestic brewers were using the same techniques and ingredients as foreign brewers in order to buy Japanese-brewed rather than imported beer. Among the start-ups was one begun by Torii Komakichi, a well-known sake brewer from Sakai, south of Osaka, a city in the south-central region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. In 1888 Torii’s Osaka Beer Brewing Company sent Ikuta Hiizu to Germany to study brewing at the brewery school in Weihenstephan, Bavaria. Ikuta returned to Japan in 1889, where he was appointed manager and technical director of a new brewery built at Suita Mura, on the edge of Osaka, which was completed in 1891. The plans for the brewery were drawn up in Germany, although it was built by an Osaka constructor, and all the brewing machinery was from Germany, though most of the malt and hops was imported, initially, from the US west coast.
In 1892 the company launched a beer under the name Asahi, meaning “morning sun”. The Osaka brewery showed its beer at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it was noted that the company was using Japan-grown barley of the Golden Melon variety, which stood up to the hot and humid climate of Honshu, and which had been introduced into the country from the United States in 1885. The same year Osaka was reorganised as Osaka Breweries Ltd. An “Asahi Beer Hall” was opened in nearby Kyoto in 1896 to promote the company’s beer to thirsty tourist. By 1901 it was the second biggest brewery in Japan, at 53,500 hectolitres, well ahead of the Japan Brewery Company/Kirin at 28,500hl and Sapporo at 24,517hl, but behind the Nippon Beer Co of Tokyo, whose main brand was Yebisu, on 59,450hl.
The same year the Japanese government introduced a “brutal” new beer tax, which hammered the smaller brewers. The “big four” battled on, but in 1906, in an attempt to reduce competition, which was damaging profits, Sapporo, Osaka Beer Co and Nippon Beer agreed to merge under the name Dai Nippon (“Greater Japan”) Beer Company. From then until after the Second World War, the Japanese beer industry was almost totally dominated by Dai Nippon Beer and Kirin, both producing – until 1941, at least – heavily German-influenced beers. However, the pair were unable to stop retail outlets conducting a vicious price war. This only ended in 1933, when the two giants of Japanese brewing signed an agreement to form the “Co-operative Beer Sales Company Inc”, a deal brokered by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which gave Dai Nippon 70 per cent of joint sales and Kirin 30 per cent. In the total market, Dai Nippon had a 56 per cent share and Kirin 28 per cent, giving the Co-operative Beer Sales Company 84 per cent of the domestic Japanese beer market. Through the 1930s Asahi and Kirin fought each other for the title of Japan’s best-selling beer brand, with Asahi on an average of 30 per cent of the market and Kirin on 27.5 per cent. Meanwhile Dai Nippon Beer’s Asahi division was opening new breweries, in Hakata, Fukuoka, on Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, in 1921 and Nishinomiya, a few miles from Osaka, in 1927.
When Japan went to war with China in 1937, a conflict which eventually widened into bitter conflict with the United States and the UK in 1941, the beer industry in Japan became more and more tightly controlled by the government, not least because through taxation it generated essential funds for the war effort. In 1939, sake was still the dominant alcoholic beverage in Japan, selling 4.5 times as much as beer, which was largely an expensive middle and upper-class luxury. But as rice production was diverted into foodstuffs, sake production was halted by the end of 1940. Beer took its place, since barley was only a grade-B foodstuff. At the same time, with supplies of hops no longer available for import from Germany, Japan’s brewer began to make their beers less bitter. Small brewers disappeared completely, leaving only Dai Nippon and Kirin by 1943.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, in the seven-year occupation that followed, much effort was made by the occupiers to break up Japan’s economic conglomerates, the zaibatsu. Dai Nippon did not wait to be broken up, instead putting forward its own arrangement in which, in 1949, it split into two, one side taking the Asahi brand, the other, initially called Nippon Breweries, the Sapporo and Yebatsu brands. Asahi had 36 per cent of the market, Nippon Breweries 38.7 per cent and Kirin 25.3 per cent. The three operated an informal cartel that eliminated price competition, while Japan’s ministry of finance kept import duties on foreign beers high, with an (under world trade rules, illegal) agreement that the three brewers would, as a quid pro quo, buy expensive Japanese-grown barley rather than much cheaper foreign barley.
Until the middle of 1949, the occupying forces had barred Japanese from going to restaurants, bars or beer halls. The reopening of the “on-trade” saw beer sales boom: one bar in Osaka was selling 120 wooden crates of 24 bottles each night, an entire truckload in a day. In 1954 Asahi began to pull ahead of its rivals, capturing 37 per cent of the market, after leading the way in marketing efforts that included sponsoring radio and television programmes, films (including Gone With the Wind when it returned to Japanese cinemas in 1952) and boxing matches. In 1958, Asahi introduced Japan’s first canned beer. Meanwhile the Japanese alcohol market was changing, with sake falling from 71 per cent of all alcohol beverages sold before the Second World War, against beer’s 16 per cent share, to 29 per cent in 1959, against beer’s 44 per cent.
As well as canned beer (which today has more than 60 per cent of the Japanese market), Asahi also pioneered the first outdoor fermentation and lagering tank, the “Asahi Tank”, launched in 1965 and soon licensed to a German brewery construction firm, Ziemann.
By now Asahi had seen its share of sales drift down, leaving it with just 27.9 per cent of the Japanese market in 1961, barely ahead of Sapporo on 27.8 per cent, while Kirin had 41.7 per cent. Kirin’s dominance enabled it to set prices that hampered its rivals’ attempts to match them and still be profitable, and by the mid-1980s its share of the market was more than 60 per cent, with Sapporo on 20 per cent and Asahi on 11 per cent, while Suntory, a distiller that had entered the beer market in 1963, had seven per cent.
At the same time, the beer produced by the three firms continued to be the comparatively light, lightly hopped drink Japan’s brewers had been forced to change to during the Second World War, a style of beer which both proved popular with the increasing numbers of women drinkers, and beer rapidly left sake sales far behind. While the trend in the 1950s and 1960s towards less-bitter beers could be also seen in, for example, the United States, from the 1970s, Japan’s brewing industry began to exhibit some peculiarly Japanese developments. One was the introduction of “beer-like” brews, or happoshu (literally “sparkling spirit”), containing little or no barley, a reaction to both the high price of barley itself and the high taxes on barley brews in Japan. Another was the rise of “draught-style” bottled and canned beers from the late 1970s, with Asahi launching its own Draft Beer brand in 1986.
This did not stop Asahi striking deals with brewers elsewhere in Asia: in 1971 it signed an agreement with United Breweries of New Guinea that saw a brewery built in Port Moresby to make Asahi beers, and in 1986 another contract was signed with San Miguel to start brewing Asahi brands in Indonesia. In 1990 Asahi bought just under 20 per cent of the Australian beer giant Foster’s Group (sold in 1997 back to Foster’s).
What saved the company, however, was the introduction of “dry beer” in 1987 to try to compete with Kirin, which by then had 63 per cent of the domestic market, with Asahi far behind in third place on just 10 per cent. In 1982 one of Japan’s leading banks, Sumitomo Group, which held 12 per cent of Asahi’s shares, sent in a bank executive specialising in corporate turn-arounds, Murai Tsutomu. Murai made the brewery conduct market surveys which came back with the message that 98 per cent of beer drinkers surveyed wanted Asahi to change the taste of its beer. Drinkers said they wanted a beer that was rich but left no aftertaste. Asahi’s brewers told Murai that was not possible. Murai insisted that it had to be done, and the result was Asahi Super Dry, stronger, at 5 per cent alcohol, than most Japanese mainstream beers, generally 4.5 per cent, but with less sugar, sharper and with no aftertaste. It became instantly popular, particularly among younger drinkers. The launch doubled Asahi’s share of the domestic beer market in a year, and sent it to 37 per cent by 2001. This was the only Japanese brewing initiative to have any impact overseas, with US and European brewers also introducing “dry” beers: by 1990 there were more than 20 “dry” beers on sale in the US market.
Japan’s brewers had been protected for many years from new entrants into the market by a law that required a minimum annual output for anyone wanting a brewery licence of 20,000 hectolitres. In 1994 the country’s Ministry of Finance cut that requirement to just 600 hectolitres, making it viable at last for new microbreweries to start up. The first opened in Japan in 1995, and by 1999 the country had 242 new small breweries. In an attempt to head off this new competition, in 2001 Asahi opened its own “microbrewery” operation, Sumidagawa Brewing, a brewpub in Tokyo.
Super Dry was launched Canada in 1994 and the United States in 1995. It went into in 12 European countries in 1997, and in 2000 Asahi struck a deal with Bass in the UK for a Czech subsidiary of Bass to brew Super Dry under licence. But with the UK becoming the biggest market for the beer in Europe, in 2005 production was switched to Shepherd Neame in Kent. Meanwhile at home beer sales were falling, with the “big four” of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory suffering a volume decline between them of 23 per cent between 1994 and 2000. At the same time, sales of the cheaper happoshu were climbing, hitting 30 per cent of the Japanese beer market in 2001, the year Asahi finally launched a happoshu of its own. Two years later sales of happoshu for home consumption passed those of “real” beer.
Asahi had regained the number one spot among Japan’s brewers in 1998, and its share of the “real” beer market rose past 50 per cent by the end of 2008, though its share of the total “beer-like” market was only 37.8 per cent, barely ahead of Kirin on 37.2 per cent. Domestic beer sales were badly hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and took several years to recover, but Asahi was seeing big rises in sales to China, where increasing affluence was powering what was becoming the biggest market for beer in the world. It began acquiring shares in five Chinese breweries in 1994 and 1995, and entered into an agreement with the then largest brewer in China, Tsingtao Brewery, to build a brewery in Shenzen, near Hong Kong, which opened in 1999. In 2009 it bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Tsingtao Brewery, reviving a link from before the Second World War, when Dai Nippon Beer Company owned Tsingtao.
An Australian craft beer brewery, Cricketers Arms, in Melbourne, was acquired in 2013, followed by a second in 2015, Mountain Goat Beer in Richmond, Victoria. The next year, as part of the fall-out from AB InBev’s acquisition of SAB Miller, Asahi bought SAB Miller’s beer business in Western Europe, including Peroni in Italy, Grolsch in the Netherlands, the St Stephanus “abbey” brand from Belgium and, in the UK, Meantime Brewing Company, for a total of $2.9 billion. Meantime, based in Greenwich and founded in 2000, had only been bought by SAB Miller two years earlier, for £125 million. Early in 2017 Asahi swallowed SAB Miller’s Eastern European business as well, including Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic; Dreher Breweries in Hungary; Ursus Breweries, the biggest beer brewer in Romania; Tychy and Lech in Poland; and Šariš in Slovakia, for another $7.8 billion. The deal made Asahi the third biggest brewing company in Europe, with 9 per cent of the market, after Heineken and Carlsberg. The same year it sold off its interest in Tsingtao for $844 million, as part of a general pull-out from the Chinese market to concentrate on Europe.
Earlier this week it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing assets of the London-based craft ale specialist, family brewer and pub and hotel owner Fuller, Smith & Turner, for £250 million. The deal includes the brewery in Chiswick, but not, it is speculated, the entire brewery site. It gives Asahi ten breweries in Europe, against the eight it runs in Japan, including the Hokkaido brewery in Sapporo, opened in 1970; Ibaraki, on the coast north-east of Tokyo, opened in 1991; and on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, opened in 1998. It is currently the biggest brewer in Japan, fifth biggest in Asia and seventh biggest in the world.
The Japanese beer giant Asahi has made a massive vote of confidence in the future of the real ale sector in the UK with its £250m purchase of Fullers’ beer business.
And if that’s not the angle you took away from the story, you’re not thinking this through properly.
The beer business earned Fullers £10.6 million before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the 12 months to March last year. The net cash going into Fullers’ pockets after the deal with Asahi is completed is expected to be around £205 million. So the purchase price means, effectively, Fullers receives all the earnings it might have got from the beer business (assuming nothing had changed) for the next 19 years, until 2038, in one lovely big cheque, right here and now.
At the same time, Asahi has to cover its £250m payment for the business out of the profits it expects to make from it, and preferably in not too long a time: its current return on invested capital (ROIC) is apparently 7.34 per cent, which would pay off the purchase price for the Fullers beer business in just under 14 years. In other words it expects that business to be at least as profitable as it is now for at least the next decade, in order to cover the cost of buying it, given the returns it normally gets.
Nobody bungs a quarter billion big ones at a business unless they think that business has a future, and they’re going to get a decent return on their money. Fans of cask ale, and Fuller’s beers, should be cheering until the pint glasses rattle on the shelves at the confidence Asahi is showing in the sector.
Inevitably, of course, the usual army of whingers has come out and shown the usual failure to understand how business works, and what the strategies of the two companies involved in the deal are. Some seem to think Fullers should have turned the Japanese offer down: this would, of course, have been both stupid and illegal. It’s the job of a company’s board to maximise the returns for that company’s shareholders: if they are offered a risk-free way to bring in today all the earnings a part of the company might see for two decades, and they push it away, they would rightly be sued for not acting in shareholders’ best interests. In Fullers’ case, the division it is selling represents only 13 per cent of operating profits. It intends giving between £55 million and £69 million of the cash from Asahi to its shareholders straight away, and putting a bung into the company pension scheme as well, but that still leaves a substantial sum – over £120 million, certainly – to spend on new pubs and hotels, which bring in much more money than brewing does. The City is certainly clear on what a great move Fullers has made: the shares closed up 15.5 per cent, and Douglas Jack, a vastly experience City analyst, declared: “This transformative deal provides the foundation for many years of strong growth. We are moving our recommendation from ‘Add’ to ‘Buy’.”
Asahi clearly thinks there is profit to be had in the business of supplying beer to British pubs,. With Fullers’ emphasis, still, on cask beer brands it obviously believes buying the rights to brew cask beer is worth a substantial wodge of corporate cash and there is a hearty future ahead. Meanwhile, on the “oh no the accountants will ruin London Pride” front, as part of the fall-out from the AB Inbev-SAB Miller merger, Asahi ended up with Pilsner Urquell and Meantime in London, among other Western beer brands. I’ve heard no moans from either of those two concerns about how the Japanese are treating them. If you pay a lot of money buying a product that sells on its premium image, you don’t mess about with that image.
The keyboard warriors who wave their anti-corporate credentials, declaring that now Fullers’ beers are going to be brewed by a multinational conglomerate they won’t be drinking them, are particularly nauseous: they’re typing their rants on a computer, or a phone, made by a multinational, using electricity from an energy supplier that is probably also a multinational. A fair few years back I was in the wood-panelled boardroom at the Griffin brewery, all heavy oak tables and oil paintings of bewhiskered Fullers, Smiths and Turners from Victorian times on the walls, and I asked Michael Turner, then the company’s managing director, later its chairman, if he didn’t occasionally feel oppressed with all these ancestors staring down at him. “Frankly,” he said, in his forceful Old Etonian accent, “I don’t give a fuck.” I would be confident that, whatever the whingers are saying, Fuller’s is currently not giving a fuck all the way to the bank.
Finally, let’s offer many congratulations to Twickenham Fine Ales, my local craft beer brewery, which finds itself, just 15 years after it started, now London’s oldest independent brewer. That won’t be something founder Steve Brown ever expected to happen.
If you’re having friends over for a new year’s eve meal this evening, you’re wondering what to make for dessert and you have a bottle of super-strong ale or stout in the house, can I suggest – zabeerglione!
This is a spin on zabaglione (or zabaione), the classic Italian dessert made with whipped egg yolks, sugar and marsala, the fortified, generally sweet wine from Sicily. Using beer instead of marsala, or sherry, pushes the dish in the direction of the ale flip, a traditional British winter hot drink using beaten eggs, heated ale, spirits and spices.
Any strong (over 10 per cent abv) well-flavoured beer will work. I’ve employed Thomas Hardy Ale with success, but I particularly like the results of using Fuller’s Imperial Stout: the roasty, bitter flavours of the beer meld well with the sweet, creamy egg-and-sugar mixture, and if you follow the suggestion of placing cooked peach slices at the bottom of the glass you will get a hit of acidity from the fruit at the very end that rounds the experience off. It’s filling, warming, settling and satisfying, and will leave your guests with a gentle glow as this – interesting – year comes to an end.
Zabeerglione needs to be served as soon as it is made, but it should take no more than 10 minutes, and your guests can come and watch if they like: the transformations are fun.
Metal mixing bowl
Pan large enough to fit the mixing bowl in without the bottom of the bowl touching the simmering water below
Large wine glasses or stemmed beer glasses
8 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar*
250ml strong ale or stout
2 peaches, sugar
Serves four (greedy) to eight
*Vanilla sugar is made by keeping vanilla pods in a jar of sugar for at least a month, and should be in every good cook’s store cupboard. If you don’t have any, adding a drop of vanilla essence into the mix will do, I suppose …
Slice the peaches (or nectarines), boil just enough water in a saucepan to cover the peaches, adding two tablespoons of sugar, and cook the peach slices in the boiling water until soft – perhaps five to ten minutes. Set aside. (This can be done early.)
Set a pan of water to simmer. Whisk the yolks, sugar and vanilla sugar together in the metal bowl until the mixture is a light lemon-yellow colour. Whisk in the ale or stout, pouring slowly. Place the bowl over the pan of simmering water and continue whisking vigorously until the mixture has rise in volume and is smooth and fluffy.
Arrange four to six slices of cooked peach in the bottom of each glass and pour the mixture on top. Serve straight away.
Enjoy! And the very best in 2019 to you all: it’s going to be an interesting year, beer-wise, at Cornell Towers, I can tell you now.
The Swedes have had a fondness for porter since at least 1780, when the Swedish botanist Bengt Bergius claimed that in Sweden “a lot of English beer varieties have started to be seen on some of the wealthy tables, especially English porter, which is now brewed as good here in Stockholm.” Nothing seems to be known about who might have been brewing porter in Stockholm at that time, but nine years later a Scot called William Knox opened a porter brewery in Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast. There were several other small porter brewers in the town over the following decades, but in 1817 a trader from Hamburg, Abraham Lorent, opened what would become the country’s biggest and most successful porter brewery in Klippan, on the edge of Gothenburg. Lorent died in 1833, and after a tricky few years the brewery was bought in 1836 by another Scot, David Carnegie. The Gothenburg brewery eventually closed in 1979, but Carnegie porter is still brewed today in Falkenburg, about 60 miles south of where it was born.
One Swedish Christmas speciality is a mixed drink called Mumma, made from porter, lager, soda water or lemonade, a shot of sherry, or Madeira (or even Burgundy), perhaps a touch of honey or sugar and, sometimes, a pinch of cardamom. The name, presumably, comes from the herbal beer brewed in Brunswick, Germany, called Mumme. It’s a tasty pre-dinner tipple, though sometimes people drink so much of it that they fall asleep, an event commemorated in the old Swedish folk song “Does Your Mumma Know that You’re Out?” *
Here are three recipes for Mumma, should you wish to have a go yourself: plenty of others can be found on the interwebs, though watch out for Google Translate: confused by etymology, perhaps, it seems to think that “porter” in Swedish means “gates” in English, and “lager” means “stock”.
Make your own Mumma (1)
500ml stout or porter
250ml lemonade or soda water
A splash of gin (optional)
A pinch of cardamom powder
Mix together in a jug and pour from a height into your glass to get a lovely big head
Four teaspoons sugar
50 ml sherry
500 stout or porter
250ml soft drink of your choice
Put the sugar into a jug and pour in the sherry. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour in lager, stout or porter and sugar drink.
500ml porter or stout
1 teaspoon of ground cardamom
Two tablespoons of honey
Two tablespoons of Madeira
Grind the cardamom, mix in a jug with the honey and a splash of water. Heat in a microwave or saucepan so that the honey becomes runny. Pour the Madeira into a pitcher and add the cardamom and honey. Pour the lager and porter into the pitcher, carefully, as it easily foams. Lightly stir around with a spoon. Serve ice cold.
If you don’t want an Abba song as the accompaniment to your Mumma, and like me you used Budweiser Budvar as the lager, here’s something rather more Bohemian:
Mumma! Mixed a beer today,
Pils and porter in a jug,
Add Madeira, find a mug.
Mumma! I had just begun –
Put some lemonade and gin into it too.
Mumma! Ooh, it’s so good it made me cry.
I think I’ll make this drink again tomorrow!
The “we ran a pub” category of published biographical reminiscence is small, but still includes several classics: John Fothergill’s An Innkeeper’s Diary, for example, arch and snobby, with dropped names covering every page like drifts of autumn leaves – “Ernest Thesiger turned up for the first time … the D’Oyley Cartes came with their usual big party” – and George Izzard’s One for the Road, about the Dove at Hammersmith, which is less snobbish but almost equally rammed with famous customers (“Alec Guinness came in and ordered the drink most appropriate to his name … Dylan Thomas never drank heavily at the Dove. His usual order was a pint of mild and bitter.”)
Now another behind-the-bar tell-all has arrived, doubly unique because it’s about a female mine host, rather than the usual landlord’s tale, and it has been written by the grand-daughter of the main character, not the person whose name was on the licence. But The Last Landlady, by Laura Thompson, deserves your attention for more than its celebration of women running pubs: it is both a paean to a particular successful and charismatic female publican, and an elegy that, ultimately, commemorates and mourns what Thompson clearly feels is a fading, vanishing, dying version of pub life, where landlord/landlady and customers were willing actors in a daily drama, each knowing their parts and performing them for the satisfaction of themselves, their audience and the others in the cast. Thompson’s grandmother Violet Ellis was, it is clear, one of the great bar owners, barely known outside her small section of rural England, but queen of all that lay under the shadow of her innsign and at the same time – if I may mix myself a metaphor – ringmaster of the circus that performed twice daily between 11am and 2pm, and 6pm and 10.30.
But the book is called “The Last Landlady” because, Thompson clearly believes, the sort of landlady Violet was, the sort of pub that Violet ran, no longer exist, can no longer exist, when fewer people visit their local regularly – fewer people even have a local – and the opportunities for women like Violet to be the stars in their own long-running show, an attraction in the daily theatre of the pub deserving of higher billing even than the drink and the craic, have vanished in an era where the idea of the pub as a club that anybody can be a member of, that having the price of a pint in your pocket empowers you to lift the latch of the public or saloon bar door and enter a separate world where everyone is, or should be, on their best and brightest behaviour, has itself vanished, and the pub is simply a place to get cheap food and watch top sporting action on a screen probably only a little larger than the one in your own living room.
Thompson does not name the pub that her grandmother ran, saying only that it was “in the rural Home Counties”, but there are enough clues in the book to identify it as the Cross Keys, in the village of Totternhoe, close by Dunstable Downs, and some six miles to the west of Luton. She does not name the pub that her grandmother’s father, John (or Jack) Solomon, had run, either, called in the book “the old pub”, which her grandmother had expected to take over when her father died. But again there are enough clues given to identify it as the Richard III in Castle Street, Luton.
John Solomon has a terrific back-story: he was born in Sidney, Australia, and – or rather, because – his great-grandfather was Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, one of the most notorious criminals and fences in early 19th century England, and the man that Charles Dickens based the character of Fagin on. Ikey Solomon had escaped from custody in London in 1827 and fled to America, but his wife Ann had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, where she arrived together with several of their children. Ikey learnt of this and travelled to Tasmania himself to be with his family but was eventually arrested by the colonial authorities and shipped back to England for trial. The punishment the court in London imposed, somewhat ironically, was transportation back to Tasmania. Ikey Solomon’s third son, David, who was only nine when his mother was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, settled in Tasmania, and married. One of his sons, Alfred, moved to Melbourne, and then Sydney, before emigrating back to London around 1877, living in Paddington with his family, including the young John, who was aged two. None of that is in The Last Landlady – probably because it doesn’t really fit the narrative, rather than because it’s embarrassing to say “I’m descended from the man who inspired Fagin.” But I’m a journalist, and I love a story that will make readers go “Wow!”, whether it integrates smoothly into the plot or not.
John Solomon is supposed, according to one source, to have “played for Queens Park Rangers in the first year they turned pro,” which would have been 1889, when he was only 14 – no record can be found to substantiate this, though he was living in the right part of London, Paddington, to be a QPR supporter – and to have “spent a number of years as head foreman to a London brewery.” He does, at least, appear to have worked at a brewery, since his occupation is described in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as “beer cellarman” and the industry he worked in as “beer bottling”. He was still living in Paddington in 1914, when Violet was born, the first girl after five boys to John and his wife Alice, who came from Bristol. In October 1916, however, John had the licence of the Richard III in Luton transferred into his name, the existing licensee, Ambrose Holland, telling licensing magistrates that he was now a soldier and his wife was unable to carry on the pub.
The Richard III (still open today, under the name O’Sheas) was originally a row of cottages, converted to a public house in 1846, and was rebuilt by its brewery owner, JW Green’s of Luton, in the 1930s in a very neo-Georgian style, with a red brick frontage extending up above the bottom edge of the roof. By 1939, aged 25, Violet was a manageress there, along with her husband, Charles Ellis, and their five-year-old daughter Josephine, while John Solomon, then 64, was the licence holder. Alice Solomon died in 1943, and with her husband apparently called up into the armed forces and her father now in his late 60s, Violet was effectively, as Thompson calls her, the châtelaine of the Richard III, running the pub on her own. Ellis seems to have disappeared out of the door (he and Violet were divorced in 1944 – Thompson says the divorce took place “just after the war”, but reveals that it was granted on the same day that the actress Jessie Matthews was divorced, which allows it to be dated to the month after D-Day). When her father died in 1952, aged 77, Violet must have had the expectation that the brewery would allow the licence of the Richard III to be transferred into her name. She had, after all, lived at the pub for all but two of her 38 years, and been involved in running it for a fair slice of that time, much of it with only an elderly father to help.
However, the brewery would not let her have the licence: according to Thompson, it was because she was a daughter, and not a wife – or a son. It was a knock-back, but strings, apparently, were pulled for Violet by influential friends, and Whitbread’s brewery in London eventually offered her the licence of the Cross Keys, which it had acquired from the owner four years earlier. The pub had literally just been designated a Grade II listed building, on the grounds that it dated from at least the 16th century (claims have been made that it is even older, first appearing in the 1420s), but it was run-down, with no proper bar, no bathroom, no real upstairs floor – the pub sitting room stretched up to the height of the thatched roof – an outside privy and a customer base of ruddy-faced local farmers and dominoes enthusiasts. Whitbread sent the builders in, the sitting room was given a real ceiling, with a bathroom installed above, a bar was built, the “cellar” (actually an outside shed) revamped and thatched to matych the main building, and Violet, “black-haired, bejewelled, bohemian”, installed herself behind the bar, where she would graciously accept whiskies from admirers, surreptitiously tipping them out onto the floor by her stool.
According to Thompson, Violet was “the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own right, that is to say, as neither a wife nor a widow.” As it happens, the history of the Cross Keys itself destroys this claim. The name of the pub, incidentally, is both easy and difficult to explain. Totternhoe was home for hundreds of years to quarries that dug out the soft local clunch, or chalk, easily worked, which make great building stone for the interiors of churches. Henry I founded the Priory of St Peter, Dunstable, in or just before 1124, and endowed it with, among other riches, the quarry at Totternhoe. The badge of St Peter is, of course, crossed keys. The pub’s sign thus strongly suggests a link with the Augustinian foundation of St Peter in Dunstable, through the priory’s ownership of the nearby quarry. But the priory was dissolved by another King Henry in 1540, and whatever the age of the building it occupies, the pub is first named as such only in 1808, in an advertisement in the Northampton Mercury. Is it credible that folk memory kept the link between Totternhoe and St Peter’s Priory alive for more than 250 years, to give the Cross Keys its name? Anyway, returning to the main tale: by 1824 the landlord was John Clements, who was born around 1799. He ran the Cross Keys for more than 40 years, but by 1871 he was dead, and his eldest daughter Mary, then aged around 37, was listed as the licensee at the Cross Keys. Mary, known as “Miss Clements”, was still in charge in 1890, but by 1902 her younger sister Hannah, then 61, was the licensee. Hannah died “in harness” at the Cross Keys in February 1909, aged 68. So the Cross Keys had female licensees who weren’t wives or widows, but daughters. for a stretch of at least 37 years, almost half a century before Violet.
This is not the only story in the book to make the fact checkers twitch. Thompson says Violet would speak of another pub a few streets away from her father’s:
“The daughter of this pub’s landlord was a few years older than my grandmother, equally attractive although in pure English style. In youth she too served behind the bar, and received the adoration owing to the dauphine; this, however, was not enough for her. She went to London, became a C.B. Cochran chorus girl, married one of the biggest film stars of the day and ended up the wife of an earl.”
This would be Sylvia Hawkes, and the real story is even more spectacular than Thompson’s version. Sylvia was step-daughter (rather than daughter) of the landlord of the Painter’s Arms in High Town Road, Luton from at least 1925, Frank Swainson, and one of the most successful serial brides of the 20th century, married to not one but two of the biggest film stars of the day, as well as a baron, a prince, and, not actually an earl, but the eldest son of an earl.
Sylvia was born, like Violet, in Paddington, in 1904, and worked as a lingerie model in the early 20s, before becoming a dancer in the productions put on by the theatre impresario CB Cochran, starting with the Midnight Follies, and swiftly, beginning in 1924, moving into acting. Despite claims, it is not clear if she ever did appear behind the bar at the Painter’s Arms: one source reckons she “ran away from home at the age of 15”. In 1927 Sylvia made her first marriage, to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Lord Ashley, eldest son and heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury: it was one of the year’s great scandals, as the Earl and Countess fought to dissuade their son from marrying the actress, threatening to disinherit him and cut off his allowance. The day before the wedding, the Earl was denying that it would take place, while Lord Ashley’s sister was declaring: “Such an alliance is unthinkable. An Ashley-Cooper can never marry a Follies girl.” When a telegram arrived at the Shaftesbury’s 17th century ancestral pile in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset announcing that the wedding would be happening that morning, the earl and countess threw themselves into a limousine and ordered their chauffeur to break all speed limits to get to the church in Knightsbridge, 120 miles away, to try to stop the ceremony. They arrived only in time to see the newly weds leaving the church, to the cheers of a huge crowd, with women, it was reported, fighting to see the bride.
It was also reported that Lord Ashley had been in such haste to organise the marriage that he had not bought a wedding ring large enough to fit his bride, and “was obliged to hold it at the end of her hand, looking rather foolish. This detail does not affect the legality of the ceremony, but superstitious people say it brings bad luck.” So it proved. Less than 18 months after the wedding, Sylvia and Lord Ashley had parted, the actress apparently unhappy with life on a farm in Worcestershire. She moved to Hollywood, as “Lady Sylvia Ashley”, though if she ever made any films there they appear to be desperately obscure. However, she became a big hit with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of Hollywood’s superstars, starting an affair with him that led to his separation from his fellow Hollywood star Mary Pickford, in 1933, and Sylvia’s divorce from Lord Ashley the following year. Sylvia and Fairbanks married in 1936, but he died of a heart attack only three years later. The widow Fairbanks then returned to England, where in 1944 she became the second wife of Edward John Stanley, 6th Baron Sheffield, 6th Baron Stanley of Alderley and 5th Baron Eddisbury. That marriage lasted just four years, and Sylvia was back in Hollywood, where in 1949 she married her second movie superstar, Clark Gable: it has been said that she reminded him of his previous wife, Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942. Within three years Sylvia and Gable had also divorced: undaunted, in 1954, Sylvia picked up her fifth wedding ring, marrying Prince Dimitri Djorjadze, a Georgian nobleman, racing car driver, racehorse owner and hotel executive. This time the now Princess Sylvia Djorjadze stayed married until her death in 1977, though she was apparently separated from her new husband within less than a year. She died in Hollywood, and is buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It was a tremendous career for a former Luton publican’s stepdaughter.
There are also a few missing facts in The Last Landlady more pertinent to Violet’s story: no mention of the fire at the pub in April 1966, which destroyed the thatched roof and upper storey, nor her second husband, Roy Barrett, who was running the pub with Violet at the time: the pair lived in a caravan in the grounds until the Cross Keys was repaired. Again, like Ikey Solomon, Barrett and the fire are most likely omitted because they would interfere with the flow of the narrative. Never, as journalists like to declare, let the facts get in the way of a good tale.
Because this is a good tale, a great tale, filled with terrific, well-presented anecdotal evidence of how one woman, through her will, her charm and her innate talent as a landlady, turned a run-down rural inn into a PUB in capital letters, a place with personality in every brick and beam – and how the kind of pub Violet ran is evaporating away, doomed, Thompson fears, to disappear:
“The process whereby pubs ceased to be the cornerstone of people’s lives was slow … They were still loved. They still are loved. But gradually they ceased to be intrinsic to society …Without the ballast of unquestioned love, the knowledge that it was wanted, the pub faltered.”
Decline, Thompson says,
“did not begin in the 1980s, yet there was something about that time that was inimical to pubs … It was the aspirational quality that was unleashed by money-centricity, all that Sloane Ranger Handbook and property porn and Filofax-flaunting, which in different form is still with us … Put very simply, the pubs that moved with the times, that acquired wine lists and logos and a matte veneer, became a part of that brighter new world. The pubs that were left behind, that retained their connection to the bench and the sawdust, that for all their roughness remained innocent – they were implicitly the habitat of the unevolved, the victims, those who had failed to aspire … The notion of a pub as a place where people simply congregated, a social hub that did not need to be named as such because nobody would have doubted it, or even thought about it, all this was evaporating.”
This is a thesis that rejects the smoking ban and greedy pubcos as the major causes of the scything down of pubs over the past 30 years, and points instead to deeper changes in society, in people’s needs. It suggests that the pub, as we knew it, is no longer wanted, and ultimately doomed. I wish I could deny this with total confidence.
Man walks into a pub – or is it a bar? Is there a difference? Can you walk into any outlet for the retail of alcoholic refreshment on the premises and declare immediately, without discussion, disagreement or deviation: “This is a pub, not a bar!” or, conversely and contrariwise, “This is a bar, not a pub!” Is it possible to draw a line and say: “Everything this side is a pub, and everything that side is a bar“?
If you think this is a meaningless distinction, let me ask you this: does the idea of a list of Britain’s ten best pubs suggest something rather different from a list of Britain’s ten best bars? Would you expect those two lists to be identical? I don’t believe you would.
Note that little of what follows is relevant to anywhere outside Britain, and even in Scotland the line between a pub and a bar will be drawn rather differently, I suspect, than in England and Wales.
All the same, in Britain, I propose, pubs are different to bars, even if, on a Venn diagram, we might see considerable overlap. But how are they different, exactly? We’re not helped much if we try to drag the dictionaries into this argument. The OED defines “pub” as “a building whose principal business is the sale of alcoholic drinks to be consumed on the premises”, and “bar” (in the sense larger than merely “counter”) as “an establishment where alcohol and sometimes other refreshments are served.” There’s a small clue as to possible differences between pubs and bars in those almost identical definitions: a pub is “a building”, a bar “an establishment”, hinting that a bar as a separate business need not be occupying the whole of the building in which it is found. But Merriam-Webster, giving an admittedly transatlantic take on the meanings of the two words, refuses to be quite so nice: a “pub”, it says, is “an establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed”, a “bar” is “a room or establishment where alcoholic drinks and sometimes food are served”. OK, it looks as if the heirs of Noah Webster think a pub can’t be just a room, though a bar can be: but they seem to allow that a pub does not have to be a separate building. Apart from that, little difference.
To me, however, there is one simple test that will tell you probably 90 per cent of the time whether you are in a pub or a bar as soon as you walk through the door: where is the counter at which you stand to be served? If it’s in front of you, against the far wall, you’re in a pub. If it’s to the left or right of the entrance, at right-angles to the front of the building, you’re probably in a bar. This basic difference springs from the different origins of pubs and bars. Pubs come from the “dwelling house” tradition, where the building, often originally someone’s home, is likely to be shallower in depth than it is wide, and the longest orientation is parallel with the road or street. Thus to maximise the length of the serving area, the bar-counter runs across the back. Bars come from the “shop” tradition, where the building is more often deeper than it is wide, to maximise the number of frontages along the street. Thus the greatest length of bar-counter is achieved by running it down one of the side walls.
Of course, there are very many occasions when you’ll know without having to think very hard whether you’re drinking in a pub or a bar: if it’s a stand-alone building that looks as if, without much alteration, it could be turned into a home, it’s a pub. If it’s in a shopping parade, it has huge plate-class windows and it could easily be turned into a Starbucks or Costa, it’s a bar. But the rise of the micropub movement means it’s now less easy to declare definitively: “Pubs are descended from houses, bars are descended from shops.” Many micropubs have been converted from disused shops. Should we call them “microbars” instead? And come to that, many disused pubs, most of them stand-alone, have been converted into shops.
Not that it’s entirely true to say without elaboration that “pubs are descended from homes”. The pub as we know it today is essentially of 19th century origins, born of a four-way mating between the alehouse (strictly for locals and regulars; mostly working class; mostly rural/semi-rural, or backstreet urban; most likely to have started as somebody’s private home), the gin palace (strictly urban; showy; for both locals and strangers, working class and middle class; most likely to have been deliberately built as an outlet for drinking by a developer or entrepreneur), the tavern (High Street urban; middle class; food-oriented; original uses varying from drinking outlets attached to religious establishments to cookshops to wine retailers) and the inn (rural or urban; on a main road; mostly for travellers and occasional visitors; food important; origins in farmhouses, if rural, and private homes, if urban).
Pubs developed to cater for a broad swath of society but still, until the 1970s, kept a strict class divide between different parts of the same building, with different rooms for different social groups, so that the working class, those who had earlier gone to the alehouse would now frequent the public bar, while middle-class drinkers, those who would once have drunk in the tavern, had taken up seats or stools in the saloon bar. But with this amalgam of different traditions, the pub architect Ben Davis said in 1961, arrived what he called “pubness”. Three of the elements of “pubness”, Davis suggested, came from the inn: a home-like character; a personal sense of welcome; a sense of permanence and continuity. Two, Davis said, came from the tavern: “an accent on good-fellowship”, by which he meant, I think, something folded into the concept the Irish spell “craic”, the idea that taverns (and pubs) are places for conversation and the enjoyment of others’ company; and “a decided affinity with Christian traditions and principles”.
Though I was brought up going to Sunday School, and with hymn singing and prayers every term-time morning before classes for 13 years of primary and secondary education, I’m not entirely sure what Davis was trying to say here: possibly that every man is equal in the eyes of the (land)lord, more likely that in the tavern (and pub) all should strive to follow the Golden Rule (the name of an excellent hostelry in Ambleside, Cumbria), that is, treat others as you would wish to be treated: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Acknowledge your fellow pub-goer’s right to space, to consideration, and to get served at the bar before you if he was there first.
Are there any of those elements of “pubness” you won’t find in a bar? It would be a very poor bar that did not have an atmosphere that included a sense of welcome and “good-fellowship”, and which oozed hostility between drinkers. But while “a sense of permanence and continuity” is not at all essential in a bar, it helps make a pub feel like a “proper” pub: the reason why the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell is so popular is because, although it is only 22 years old, it looks inside and out like a genuine 18th century establishment. (The serving bar at the Jerusalem Tavern, as it happens, is at right-angles to the street, just to show me up.) In the New Town where I grew up, all the estate pubs had been built to look like New Town homes on steroids, following the “pub as a home from home” idea, but their newness stripped them of any of the “sense of permanence and continuity” that all the pubs in the Old Town had dripping from every brick and beam, and they felt like zombie pubs, lifeless and without character. A bar, in contrast, never feels “homey”: indeed, I’d suggest that the slightest pinch, jot or iota of “a home-like character” turns a bar into either a pub or a teashop.
Pubs have regulars; bars only have customers, generally. Bars have owners, or managers; pubs can have managers, but they are often better when they have landlords, publicans or tenants, names that suggest a more proprietorial relationship with the establishment. Bars are run by people called Kenton; pubs are run by people called Sid (although this can change). Pubs have dartboards, meat raffles and piles of coins stacked up on the bar that will be pushed over by a minor celebrity one well-attended evening just before Christmas, to raise money for a local charity: these are part of “pubness” because pubs are rooted in communities in a way bars are not. Bars are places you call in to on your way home from work; pubs are places you go out to after you’ve got home from work.
The 200th anniversary next year of the “Peterloo Massacre”, the assault by mounted troops on a crowd gathered in Manchester to hear speeches in favour of parliamentary reform, has been marked by the release of a film by Mike Leigh starring Rory Kinnear as Henry “Orator” Hunt, the main speaker at the meeting in St Peter’s Field, whose arrest by the authorities sparked the events that led to at least 15 people being killed. Rory thus joins the short list of people, including Bob Hoskins, who can be the answer to the question: “Which actor has played a brewer on screen?”, since for a couple of years Hunt ran a brewery in Bristol – an episode which is significant in the history of porter, since Hunt’s memoirs contain some important evidence on porter brewers’ attempts to make a dark drink while brewing with the far more economic pale malt.
In April 1802, a month after the Treaty of Amiens had ended 10 years of warfare against revolutionary France, the British government put up the tax on strong beer by 25 per cent, to 10 shillings a barrel, and raised the tax on malt by almost four fifths, to 2s 5d a bushel. At the same time, the Act of Parliament introducing the higher taxes, the Duties on Beer, etc Act 1802, also put into statute law a specific prohibition against making beer or ale with anything except malt and hops.
Matthew Wood, a City of London-based druggist (and, from 1804, hop dealer) with a clientele of brewers decided that since it was now apparently legal to put anything made from malt into beer, then a colouring made from malt extract should be permissible, and in May 1802 he duly registered a patent process for “Preparing a colour from malt for the purpose of colouring spirits wines and other liquors.” The fact that Wood’s patent application, which described mashing the malt, boiling the extract until most of the water was driven off and then roasting it in iron pans “until the saccharine quality is destroyed, and the whole is nearly reduced to a calx,” did not mention beer specifically may be because he did not want to tip off anyone too early that he was attempting to patent something that the Excise authorities had long declared was against its regulations. He invested £2,000 in the patent, apparently having been given a guarantee from the senior Secretary to the Treasury, Nicholas Vansittart, that his malt colouring would be regarded as lawful, since it used an ingredient, malted barley, upon which tax had been paid.
The Commissioners of Excise disagreed. They instigated prosecutions and seizures of casks of porter colouring materials against brewers who bought Wood’s product, on the grounds that they were adding an illegal adjunct to their porter. The excise commissioners insisted that the “malt” that the Duties on Beer Act 1802 had defined as one of only two permitted ingredients in beer and ale meant only those products customarily made by maltsters, not Wood’s patent colouring. Allowing druggists to supply brewers with beer colouring would “open the widest Door for introducing Ingredients forbidden by Law,” they declared. However, the brewers, and Wood (who became a City of London alderman in 1807), fought back, with the colouring continuing on sale.
Henry “Orator” Hunt, the radical politician who was the main speaker at the meeting in Manchester in August 1819 that turned into the “Peterloo Massacre”, had a run-in with the revenue over Wood’s colouring in 1808. Hunt ran a brewery at Jacob’s Wells in Bristol, the Clifton Genuine Beer Brewery, from at least 1807 to 1809. It had been started when a brewer friend called Racey – evidently the son son of the James Racey whose brewery in Bath went bust in 1804 – asked Hunt to put up the money to convert a former distillery at Jacob’s Well into a brewery. Hunt claimed he had designed the whole layout of the brewery himself:
I took advantage of the declivity of the hill, on the side of which the premises were situated, to have it so constructed that the whole process of brewing was conducted, from the grinding of the malt, which fell from the mill into the mash-tun, without any lifting or pumping; with the exception of pumping the water, called liquor by brewers, first into the reservoir, which composed the roof of the building. By turning a cock, this liquor filled the steam boiler, from thence it flowed into the mash-tun; the wort had only once to be pumped, once from the under back into the boiler, from thence it emptied itself, by turning the cock, into the coolers; it then flowed into the working vats and riving casks, and from the stillions, which were immediately above the store casks into which it flowed, only by turning a cock. These store casks were mounted on stands or horses, high enough to set a butt upright, and fill it out of the lower cock; and then the butts and barrels were rolled to the door, and upon the drays, without one ounce of lifting from the commencement of the process to the end. This was a great saving of labour.
However, according to Hunt, Racey turned out to be fraudulently raking off cash from the brewery, and when challenged he “sailed for America, bag and baggage”. (It seems highly likely that this is the James Racey who married Anne Hull in New York in 1810 and then settled in Canada, buying the distillerie de Beauport just to the east of Quebec City the same year, and converting it to a brewery.) Hunt found himself having to run the brewery in an attempt to get back at least some of the money he had invested, and described his subsequent clash with the Excise over Wood’s colouring in his memoirs, written while he was in jail in 1820 for “sedition” after the events at St Peter’s Field:
When the act was passed, making it a penalty of two hundred pounds to use any drug, ingredient, or material, except malt and hops, in the brewing of beer, Alderman Wood obtained a patent for making of colouring, to heighten the colour of porter. This colouring was made of scorched or burnt malt, and it was mashed the same as common malt, which produced a colouring of the consistency of treacle, and having nearly its appearance. As this patent was very much approved of, almost every porter brewer in England used it in the colouring their porter; and amongst that number I was not only a customer of the worthy alderman for colouring, but I was also a considerable purchaser of hops from the firm of Wood, Wiggan [sic—properly Wigan] & Co in Falcon Square. I had just got down a fresh cask of this colouring, and it was standing at the entrance door of the brewery, where it had been rolled off the dray, when news was brought me that the new exciseman had seized the cask of colouring, and had taken it down to the excise office. I immediately wrote to Wood, Wiggan & Co to inform them of the circumstance; upon which they immediately applied to the board of excise in London, and by the return of post I received a letter from Messrs Wood, to say, that an order was gone off, by the same post, to direct the officers of excise in Bristol to restore the cask of colouring without delay; and almost as soon as this letter had come to hand, and before I could place it upon the file, one of the exciseman came quite out of breath to say that an order had arrived from the board of excise in London, to restore the cask of colouring, and it was quite at my service, whenever I pleased to send for it. I wrote back a letter by the fellow, to say, that as the exciseman had seized and carried away from my brewery a cask of colouring, which was allowed by the board of excise to be perfectly legal to use, as it was made of malt and hops only, unless, within two hours of that time, they caused it to be restored to the very spot from whence it was illegally removed, I would direct an action to be commenced against them. In less than an hour the cask of colouring was returned, and the same exciseman who had seized it came to make an apology for his error. His pardon was at once granted, and so ended this mighty affair; and I continued to use the said colouring, as well as did all the porter brewers in Bristol, without further molestation, as long as I continued the brewery; never having had any other seizure while I was concerned in the brewery.
The story appears in Hunt’s biography because he was responding to an attack on his brewing career by one of his political enemies, Dr John Stoddart, the editor of the “ultra-Tory” New Times newspaper, in an article in July 1819, just before Peterloo. The newspaper claimed that despite Hunt advertising in the Bristol Gazette in January 1807 that his beer was “wholly exempt from any other ingredient whatever” than the best malt and hops, “a very few months after the date of the above advertisement, seventy gallons of other ingredients were seized from Henry Hunt of ‘the Clifton Genuine Brewery;’ and were condemned in Michaelmas Term 1807.” The result of “this awkward little accident”, the New Times claimed, was that it “gave the Bristol men a sort of distaste for Hunt’s genuine beer … and the consequence was that he shut up his Brewery.” The New Times’s attack was reprinted word-for-word by more than a dozen other local newspapers of the Tory persuasion, from Inverness to Cornwall, the following month, after Peterloo, and turned into a pamphlet circulated in Manchester.
Curiously, 11 years earlier Hunt had given a completely different version of the story to his local paper. He had already made himself unpopular with the establishment in Bristol in 1807 when he popped up at the hustings for the general election that May and attempted to interrupt the cozy stitch-up of the city’s two parliamentary seats by the Tories and Whigs by nominating a third, more radical candidate. When his bid to put another name on the list was refused Hunt’s supporters pelted the Tory candidate “so vigorously with mud and sticks that he was forced to leave his gilded car and beat a retreat.” The mob was only diverted, it was claimed later, by Hunt offering to distribute two free butts of beer at his brewery. In 1808, replying to an accusation that “unlawful ingredients” had been seized upon his brewery’s premises, Hunt said:
When the last act of parliament passed, prohibiting the use of “any ingredient or material. except malt and hops, to be made use of tin the brewing of beer or porter,” Messers Wood, Wigan and Co hop-factors, in London, obtained a patent for making a colouring for Porter with burnt malt only. Two casks of this Colouring was [sic] sent to me, but before I admitted it into my brewhouse, I sent to the Exciseman to know if it were legal to make use of it for colouring porter, shewing him the permit or certificate that I received with the casks. His answer was, he did not know, but he would go to the supervisor and enquire. On his return, he said that they had no authority to permit it to be used, and they must take a sample of it. I desired that they would take the whole, as I should not, under such circumstances, suffer it to be placed in my brewery: my horses took it for them to the Excise-office. I immediately stated the case to the Commissioners of Excise, from whom I received no answer. Mr Wood’s patent colouring has never been returned to me, nor have I since heard any thing of it.
Whichever story of Hunt’s was accurate, it is clear Wood’s beer colouring was still not definitively legal even in 1808. The brewing trade was evidently split over whether Wood’s colouring should be supported or not, with the largest porter brewers, such as Whitbread, Barclay Perkins and Felix Calvert, opposed, apparently for fear that allowing sugar and malt colouring would take some of the pressure off their smaller rivals, and others, such as Meux Reid and the big Windsor brewer John Ramsbottom, in favour. The battle was fought in parliament, where the porter brewers had eight MPs at the time and the country brewers four, but victory for the colourists only came with an alliance with the West Indies sugar plantation interest, who were keen to find a new outlet for their product (and helped by the Treasury, which wanted to see more pale malt used, as this was apparently easier to supervise by the excisemen than brown malt, and thus less likely to avoid tax). In June 1811 an Act was passed allowing the colouring of porter (but not ale or pale beers) with “burnt brown sugar and water” (but not molasses), with a licence to make porter colouring costing £5 and duty charged on each barrel of colouring of 10s a time.
The Colouring of Porter Act lasted just half a decade before it was repealed and a new Act passed, in June 1816, banning even burnt sugar from being used for colouring beer from July 6 the following year. Licence fees and duty from burnt-sugar colouring had brought in £82,000, but the excise authorities declared that there was evidence that other illegal ingredients were being sneaked into porter along with the colouring. Cometh the hour, cometh the inventor: in March 1817, four months before burnt sugar colouring became illegal, Daniel Wheeler, who had been making sugar colouring at his premises off Drury Lane in central London, unveiled via a patent application a new method of manufacturing colouring from malt, upon which duty had been paid (thus making the colouring legal). His process heated the malt to 400ºF and more, to produce “a substance resembling gum and extractive matter of a deep brown colour readily soluble in hot or cold water.”
Wheeler told the 1818 House of Commons committee on the quality of beer that with brown malt, “thirty-two parts of it to forty-eight of pale,” or 40 per cent, “gives about the porter colour.” However, “The high-dried brown malt, from the heat to which it has been exposed, has lost a considerable quantity of its sugar. I have made many experiments upon it myself, and … that high dried malt will not produce, or has not, from any experiments, produced more than one fourth of the spirits compared to that of pale malt.” Using his invention, though, “one part of the patent malt will give as much colouring as thirty-two parts of the malt I have been speaking of” – in other words, brewers needed less than 2½ per cent of Wheeler’s patent malt to give a satisfactory colour to their porter.
Dr Thompson’s Annals of Philosophy for December 1817 declared of Wheeler’s invention: “There are few patents that promise to be of such great national importance.” To get the “deep tan-brown colour” and “peculiar flavour” of “the best genuine porter,” two parts of brown malt were required to three parts of pale malt. “The price of the former is generally about seven-eighths of the latter; but the proportion of saccharine matter which it contains does not, according to the highest estimate, exceed one-half that afforded by the pale malt, and probably on an average scarcely amounts to one-fifth…it follows that the brewers are paying for the colour and flavour of their liquor one-fifth of the entire cost of their malt.” The savings that brewers could make with Wheeler’s patent malt meant the end of temptations to use illegal materials such as cocculus indicus, and “The revenue will be benefited by the increased consumption which will necessarily result from an improvement in the quality of the porter; and both the revenue and public morals will derive advantage from the greatly diminished temptation to fraudulent practices.”
The big porter brewers quickly took up his invention, with Whitbread recording stocks of patent malt in the same year, 1817, and Barclay Perkins by 1820 (though curiously, in 1819, Rees’s Cyclopedia claimed that “In Mr Whitbread’s works no colouring matter is employed, as he uses a portion of brown malt”), and the Plunkett family opening a plant in Dublin in 1819 to supply Irish porter brewers. But alas for Wheeler, his patent was swiftly challenged. A coffee roaster based in Northumberland Alley, off Fenchurch Street, in the City of London called Joseph Malins began roasting malt himself and selling it to “various” brewers for colouring, to the “considerable injury” of Wheeler’s business. Wheeler sued Malins for patent infringement and the two sides clashed in the Court of Chancery in August 1818, with Wheeler claiming his patent had been “pirated” and Malins insisting that there was no piracy, since the brown malt he sold to porter brewers had been heated in “a common coffee-roaster,” which had been in use for more than a century before Wheeler’s patent.
Unfortunately for Wheeler, the case was bumped to a higher court, the Court of King’s Bench, to decide whether his patent was actually valid, and at a hearing in December 1818 the newly appointed Lord Chief Justice, Sir Charles Abbott, directed the jury to find that it was not. Wheeler’s patent application had been for “A new and improved method of drying and preparing malt.” But, Abbott said, the process the application described was not, in fact, “preparing” malt, it was a process for making malt more soluble and colouring the liquid. With the patent declared void, in March 1819 Wheeler’s case in the Court of Chancery was dismissed with costs.
The victory over Wheeler was a welcome win for the Malins family in the courts: in May 1818 Joseph Malins’s father, William, had been fined £100 by the Court of Exchequer for having on his premises more than 1,500lb of roasted and ground peas and beans with the intention of passing them off as coffee, and a month later William was fined the huge sum of £2,000 by the same court after being found guilty of manufacturing 100lb of imitation tea, from hawthorn and blackthorn leaves plus colouring, and selling it to grocers in London. Daniel Wheeler continued to describe himself as a “patent malt manufacture,” though by January 1819, when he had moved from Bloomsbury in central London to Croydon in Surrey, he had been declared bankrupt. Cheekily, perhaps, William Malins was calling himself an “anti-patent malt maker” in 1823, when he was based in Upper Fore Street, Lambeth.
However, although Wheeler was unable, as he must have hoped, to turn “patent malt” into a personal fortune, its adoption did indeed swiftly revolutionise the brewing of porter, as the use of brown or blown malt shrank or disappeared. (Ironically, malt roasted to Wheeler’s specifications continued to be known as “patent” malt for more than a century, even though the patent had been overturned.)
Hunt, meanwhile, left the brewery business in 1809, ten years before Peterloo. By 1811 the brewery at Jacob’s Wells was being run by a J Highett from Weymouth, who was brewing strong beer, porter, Burton ale and table beer. It was up for sale early the next year, and again in 1813, when the equipment included “a new copper furnace, containing 20 barrels, never used.” It seems to have had several subsequent owners, but by early 1827, when the site was put up for sale, it was being described as a “late Brewery”.
I wasn’t even mean to be in Brooklyn on the Tuesday. I had originally booked to go round the Brooklyn brewery on the Monday. But after I announced that I was going to be in New York, I was contacted by the American beer journalist and writer John Holl, who asked if I would like to appear on the beer podcast he co-hosts, “Steal This Beer”, which is recorded in a bar in Manhattan on Monday nights (of which more later.) So I switched the trip to Brooklyn to the following day – and on the Tuesday morning an email popped up saying that right after my visit that evening the Brooklyn Brewery was launching a collaboration imperial porter made with the Norwegian brewery EC Dahl’s, in honour of the Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg, and would I like to hang around to sample that, and a few other EC Dahl’s beers as well.
Carpe cerevisiam – if chance is going to put an opportunity like that in your path, it’s rude to step aside. Strangely, I had already drunk beers made with EC Dahl’s yeast: the homebrewers of Stjordal, whose brews were among those I sampled last year at the Kornøl festival in Hornindal in Western Norway, get their yeast from the Dahl’s brewery in Trondheim, though they make, and sometimes smoke, their own malt.
I have to own that the Brooklyn Brewery tour is not the best I have been on: it’s a small, cramped, working brewery, about all you get is a quick look at some fermenting vessels and some beer sampling, and most of the beer is produced elsewhere anyway. There’s a good big brewery tap, with a fine range of beers (including “London Black Gose” [sic] from London Fields, which, like EC Dahl’s, is a Brooklyn Brewery/Carlsberg joint venture now) and the brewery shop sells several rare (if expensive) beers, but if it hadn’t been for the EC Dahl’s launch, I might have had a disappointing trip.
That, however, was definitely worth the journey. The collaboration beer, named, simply, Gullvåg, had been matured in casks that had previously been used for Linie aquavit. I’m a big fan of Linie, which is matured by being shipped in ex-sherry casks from Norway to Indonesia and back, the four-month journey, crossing the equator twice, rounding and maturing the spirit, which is made from potatoes and flavoured with, among other herbs and spices, star anise and caraway. It has a flavour that seems to match very well with beer – one of my favourite long summer drinks is a mixture of dark ale, lemonade and a shot of Linie. The Linie influence was definitely noticeable in the Gullvåg imperial porter: liquorish/aniseed underneath the dominant dark roast. If you see it, definitely worth buying.
And then, while I was enjoying the beer, and admiring the paintings on the taproom walls that Håkon Gullvåg had created on old cask ends (you could still, just, make out the names of the distillers on some of the casks), someone cried: “Martyn!” Stap me, it was Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. I didn’t know he knew me from a hole in the floor, but I worked out later that we must have met on one of the Carlsberg trips regular readers of this blog will remember. “Would you like a beer?” he said, and you don’t turn down a man in his own brewery: nor do you have to wait long to get served, whatever the queue, since the brewery chairman can just walk round behind the bar and help himself, while the servers smile benignly.
The only awkward moments were when Steve asked me if I had spoken to Garrett Oliver yet. I’m still not sure Mr O, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has forgiven me for my attack seven years ago on the Oxford Companion To Beer, which he edited, because of its very many errors. I always tried to make it as clear as I could that I did not blame Garrett, whom I admire greatly as a brewer and a writer and speaker about beer, for the problems with the OCB. He was badly let down by the publishers, left seriously under-resourced, and also let down by a tiny minority of the 140 or so people who wrote entries for the book that were seriously badly researched. So I had deliberately stayed out of his way –and yes, that IS a wide yellow streak up my backbone. Still, we had a reasonably friendly conversation, I think, about how the Kornøl festival is a must-visit event: watch out for Brooklyn Brewery brewing with kveik some time soon …
That was the second embarrassing moment on my first trip to New York (yes, shameful: not sure why I had never got there before). John Holl had asked me to bring along two beers to the podcast, since a regular part of the show is John and his fellow presenter, the New Jersey brewer Augie Carton, blind-tasting beers their guest brings along, using the black glasses of the kind breweries use professionally for tasting sessions, so that colour cannot affect opinion. I decided to bring them over two different views of British best bitter: the very traditional Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and one from my local small brewery, Twickenham Fine Ales’ Naked Ladies, which is a “best bitter” with one or two American hops in it, for a more up-to-date take. Unfortunately it was obvious straight away that the Tim Taylor’s was skunked. Ach. Still, Augie and John are pros, and were able to find plenty to say even about skunked Landlord. And they liked the Naked Ladies a lot, though they were dubious about the name, nor were they convinced by my explanation that the Naked Ladies are a much-loved set of statues in a Twickenham park. (You can listen to the podcast here – episode 187.)
had asked people for suggestions of bars to visit in New York, but I didn’t get round very many: busy doing other things. Part of the aim for the trip was to look at old newspapers in New York library: while the British Newspaper Library’s holdings can be accessed anywhere, for a lot of early American titles, particularly those before 1776, and even more particularly those from New York before that date, you have to be physically in front of a computer screen in one of the Five Boroughs to get to call them up. Still, it did also give me the opportunity to see the original Winnie the Pooh, who lives with Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga in a glass box in the children’s section in the main New York library building on Fifth Avenue: you have to go to the children’s library to pick up your library card (I have no idea why), so it didn’t look too creepy that an elderly bearded git was hanging around the kids’ books. I had always imagined that Christopher Robin’s toys would be in a big mahogany-and-armoured-glass case in the centre of a huge high-ceilinged room, possibly with a couple of armed guards in black uniforms looking suspiciously at people taking selfies with the Immortal Bear. In fact it’s a comparatively small display, and I’ve seen bigger children’s libraries in provincial English towns than the one in the Schwarzman.
Something called the “New York craft beer festival” was happening my first two nights in the city, so I thought that would be worth checking to try to see what was trending. Sour beers, no surprise; lots of cloudy IPAs, no surprise; wacky fruit goses and similarly wacky saisons (hibiscus?), no surprise; cider, that WAS a surprise; cucumber beers – utterly, utterly vile; double dry-hopping, very much a trend of the moment, for sure, even if every brewer you might speak to has a different take on what double dry-hopping involves (one bar I did get to was the Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street, and every other beer on tap seemed to be “DDH”); and surprise, no “brut” IPAs, which I had been expecting to see, having read that they were a big trend: I didn’t spot one the whole week. I’m ashamed to say that one of the beers I enjoyed most was Sweet Baby Java, an “espresso bean infused chocolate peanut butter porter” from DuClaw Brewing in Maryland, a coffee’d-up version of the same brewery’s Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter. Normally I don’t like “dessert” beers, particularly – PARTICULARLY – with peanut butter, but DuClaw seemed to have matched the sickly with a pleasing dryness: a check on the brewery’s website reveals that the hops here are Fuggles and Goldings, which may explain all. However, that was in the usual US beer festival two-ounce glass: even a third of a pint might have had me considering my verdict.
One minor beerfest hiccup: as I presented my ticket on the first night, the very large security dude at the door insists on seeing my ID. While I fished for my UK driver’s licence, I said something about my false bead being the giveaway, to which he responded with the line I’m sure he was taught was the correct response to all surly old gits cutting up about being asked to prove they genuinely were as old as they looked: “I respect my elders, sir.” I really, really wanted to say: “No you clearly don’t, or you and your employers wouldn’t be putting me through the ludicrous nonsense of having to prove I’m not actually a terribly haggard 20-year-old.” But as Paul Simon sings, “the man was large, a well-dressed six-foot-eight,” and I needed that wristband …
Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs, despite the existence since 1971 of a consumer organisation dedicated to beer quality – before most pub staff were born – and the existence of a trade organisation dedicated to raising the standards of draught beer, Cask Marque, since 1998, two decades ago?
The answer is actually ridiculously simple. Almost nine out of ten pints of cask beer sold in Britain are sold after the cask they came from has been open for at least three days. According to CGA, almost 90 per cent of cask ale brands sold at below the rate of 18 pints per tap per day required to maintain quality. The typical cask of beer is still on sale seven or more days after it has been opened. This is exactly the same as making a sandwich on Monday, and still having it on sale a week later. The bread will be stale, the filling long past its best. Anybody buying that week-old sandwich is unlikely, after trying it, to buy a sandwich from you again. Cask beer is a perishable product: it loses its best qualities very quickly, certainly within a few days. Most pubs ignore this, and as a result most cask beer is sold a long way off from peak condition.
Paradoxically, there is also a big problem of pubs selling beer too young. Almost three in five publicans confess to putting beer on sale before the recommended three days of cellar conditioning. So there is a fair chance that just as your pint is finally coming into condition, it’s already past its best because the cask has been open too long.
Adding to the problem of poor quality caused by age, the evidence clearly shows most pubs keep their cask beer too warm. This is obviously more of a problem in summer, but cellar air conditioning has been available for many decades: that picture at the top shows a pub cellar from 1947, with aircon units. However, in July this year, Cask Marque found that almost seven out of ten pints of cask ale were served warmer than the recommended 11ºC to 13ºC. Two per cent were served at an alarming 20ºC – almost 70ºF. How is this possible?
Hilariously – or not – more than 90 per cent of pub landlords insist that they are aware of the advise on how to keep cask beer well, advice which strongly recommends arranging turnover so that a cask is emptied within three days, and they claim either that they do their best to follow that advice or don’t actually need it because they are expert cellarmen. And two thirds of landlords insist their cask ales never stay on sale for longer than three days. Unfortunately, the evidence shows clearly that this is totally untrue. Vianet, a company that monitors what happens in pub cellars, found that the majority of pubs sell less than a cask of beer per tap per week. Let’s be generous and say that half of each cask is sold within the recommended three-day period after the first pint is poured. That means half of all pints from the majority of pubs are going to be four days older or more. Would you reckon to buy a sandwich from a place where half the sarnies on offer were between four days and a week or more old?
One underlying reason for all these problems is that too many publicans are either indifferent to or don’t like cask beer. To quote Pete Brown, in the latest Cask Report, out yesterday, “Among publicans who love drinking cask themselves, every single quality measure is significantly better.” Perhaps we should be saying: “If you don’t actually adore cask beer, please don’t sell it.”
In the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market has fallen by just over nine per cent. At that rate of decline, cask ale will effectively have vanished in a few decades. Meanwhile “craft” beer, defined for the purposes of this argument as non-mainstream keg beers made by small brewers, has leapt from nowhere ten years ago to six per cent of the on-trade beer market in 2018. I drink “craft” beer in a pub occasionally, but I do not believe I will ever have a pint of “craft” as wonderful as the very best cask ale can be. If cask ale disappears, then to misquote Hilaire Belloc, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the best of England
The Cask Report has a number of tips to try to stop this apocalyptic scenario. Here are mine:
1) Every pub or bar that sells cask ale must have a cask ale champion whose specific job it is to ensure that every pint is perfect. If this is not the publican, it should be someone else senior.
2) Every pub company, too, must have someone in the organisation to champion cask beer and ensure every outlet is selling the best cask ale it can.
3) Pubs should be taught that a big range of different cask beers on sale at the same time is not automatically a bonus, but a likely contributor to quality problems.
4) Before any pub gets Cask Marque accreditation, it should be able to show a record of how long every cask beer has been on sale, and also a record of every customer complaint about the quality of a pint, and what action was taken about that complaint. Pub companies should also regard this as best practice.
5) If “craft” drinkers are avoiding drinking cask because they perceive it to be all “boring brown bitter”, pubs should urge “craft” beer drinkers to try those modern cask beers closest in flavour to the most popular sorts of craft ale – American pale ales and the like. Then use those beers as a gateway to the joys of traditional cask ales. Staff need to know enough to be able to explain that, actually, the earliest American Pale Ales were directly inspired by Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
6) Camra members over 65 (and yes, I fall in that segment) should STFU about how awful Doom Bar is, and should be taken behind a wall and shot in the head if they utter the phrase “Remember Watney’s Red Barrel!” Nobody except you DOES remember Watney’s Red Barrel, grand-dad, and it’s the image you and people like you bring to cask ale – slippered, cardiganned, smelly – that is part of the reason why under-30s would rather drink “craft”.