Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.

This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …

Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …

Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.

Continue reading Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

Rake’s Prowess

Co-incidence time again – I went to the Rake by Borough Market last night with Patto, who was over from Amsterdam, without knowing that it had just won the best bar award in Time Out‘s Eating and Drinking Awards.

It’s not the smallest pub I’ve ever been in but it’s certainly smaller than my living room, and if they ever got the 40 people I’ve seen claimed as the maximum capacity in there, then nobody would have much room for elbow-raising. Three people at the tiny bar and no one else can get served. I could understand how the manageress, as she showed us the award, now on a shelf behind the bar, was clearly in several minds about the accolade: it’s great to pick up a prize as the best in the capital, but not if you’re too small to cope with the army of new customers likely to be attracted.

Still, it’s good to see a bar recognised for having such a great beer range. The Rake is one of the few pubs that can offer a wider bottled beer selection than your local supermarket, and perhaps its victory will encourage other places to emulate it, and bars like The Lowlander in Covent Garden, and get in a more interesting beer selection. (Though admittedly the Rake has a big advantage in being owned by the people who run the excellent Utobeer stall around the corner in Borough market itself. My only complaint about Utobeer is that I can never carry away as many bottles as I want to, since I go there by train …) And if it does get overcrowded now it’s won an award, there are several other good pubs nearby …

Beer trivia alert – the Rake’s telephone number (and I bet the Utobeer guys don’t know this) reflects the beery history of Southwark, the borough in which it is situated. Back when I were a lad, London telephone exchanges all had names, like FLEet Street and WHItehall, and you dialled the first three letters of the name, plus the four-digit number of the individual subscriber. Southwark’s exchange was named HOP, to mark the fact that it was the centre for the hop-factoring industry: the hops would be brought up to Southwark from Kent, and sold at the Hop Exchange. When the telephone exchange names were changed to numbers, they were simply altered to the numerical equivalent of the letters on the telephone dial, so FLEet Street became 353, for example, and HOP became 407. Later all the central London exchanges has an extra 7 added to the front of their number, so 407 turned into 7407. The Rake’s phone number is 7407 0557 – or 7HOP 0557, if you like …

The potboy in history, literature and art

I was born, in what Carl Jung would have insisted was no coincidence, on the site of an old pub, the Upper Flask in Hampstead, near the Heath. The pub closed in the second half of the 18th century, and the building that housed it was replaced in the early years of the 20th by Queen Mary’s Maternity Home. Today it’s nursing accommodation for the Royal Free Hospital, but over the decades tens of thousands of babies must have been born there. I wonder if we all like beer.

If you walk down Heath Street from the site of the Upper Flask towards Hampstead Tube Station you come to the side-road called The Mount. In 1852 the painter Ford Madox Brown, who was lodging in Heath Street, spotted a gang of workmen digging up the road here to lay drains and decided what a marvellous picture these heroes of labour would make. It took him 11 years to complete the painting, which he called, simply, “Work”. But it is an allegorical masterpiece typical of the pre-Raphaelite period (though Madox Brown was not, strictly, a member of the pre-Raphaelites), where every character of the more than two dozen portrayed, from the gentleman earning £15,000 a year to the effeminate flower seller, has a back-story. It’s also still recognisably the same scene today, 155 years later, as you will see if you stand by the high brick wall on the left of the painting and look north: except the upper middle classes now go past in BMW X5s rather than on horseback.

Madox Brown wanted his painting to illustrate the nobility of honest toil, but labour needs sustenance and refreshment, and one of the navvies is draining a pewter pot of something uplifting and alcoholic – porter, probably, given the era. In front of the drinker, and shouting “beer ho!”, according to Madox Brown, who wrote notes about all the people in the painting, is the fellow who brought the navvy the beer, the potman from one of the nearby pubs. He is fancily dressed in bowtie and waistcoat, and wearing the apron of his calling, and in his left hand he carries the potboy’s beer tray or pot-board, rather like a carpenter’s wooden toolbox, which bore eight or ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted a smoke with their beer.

Continue reading The potboy in history, literature and art

There Are No Favourites in Our House

Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.

I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)

Continue reading There Are No Favourites in Our House

Top beer and cheese choices

As an example of truth in marketing, Charles Martell’s Stinking Bishop cheese is tough to beat – it really does stink enough to waken the dead, according to the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were Rabbit. which climaxes with Gromit reviving his master by waving a wedge of the cheese under his nose, whereupon the aroma of three-month-old unwashed socks drags Wallace back to life.

Stinking Bishop is the name of the pear, more properly called the Moorcroft pear, used to make the perry that is used to wash the rinds of the ripening Stinking Bishop cheeses at Mr Martell’s Laurel farm in Dymock, Gloucestershire. The washing with perry encourages bacterial growth on the rinds, and the bacteria produce the pong, though the cheese itself, made in part with milk from rare Gloucester cows, is delicious. It’s one of the few cheeses I’d hesitate to eat with beer: because of how it’s made, a sharp, dry perry is probably the best companion. However, a sulphury Burton bitter, particularly Marston’s Pedigree, also makes a good match: pong against pong.

Mr Martell’s other offerings include Hereford Hop cheese, covered in toasted, pressed hops, another cracking product just the crumbly side of firm. It makes excellent cheese on muffins, terrific for afternoon tea with Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter from Yorkshire, itself one of the most perfectly balanced matches of hop and malt flavours I know.

All beers go with cheese, the carbonation and the bitter hops preventing the palate from getting too clogged, though Yorkshire beers (and I say this as a southerner) do seem to pair particularly well with cheeses, especially with Yorkshire cheeses: try Swaledale with Black Sheep bitter for example (and if you can find the rarer ewe’s milk Swaledale, you’ll be eating sheep’s cheese with sheep’s beer …) Here’s half a dozen pairings, however, that include only one Yorkshire beer: some are not great beers, some are not great cheeses, but all are excellent combinations that are certainly grater than the sum of their parts.

Continue reading Top beer and cheese choices

A three-threads thread

Corrected June 20 2008 to adjust for more accurate information – see this post.

The economic values displayed on eBay sometimes bemuse me. Last October a copy of the first, 1974, edition of the Good Beer Guide went after frenzied bidding from what I assume were completists wanting to own a full set of GBGs, for a frankly breathtaking £310 – not bad for something that cost 75p when it was published 33 years ago. Yet a couple of months ago I was able to buy on eBay one of the most important documents in the history of brewing, a genuine example of The Gentleman’s Magazine dated November 1760, for just £20.

The reason why this edition is so valuable to brewing historians is because it plagiarises large parts of a long letter written in a rival publication, the London Chronicle, in the same month by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” on “The History of the London Brewery” (“brewery” used here in the 18th century sense of “brewing industry. , but with one small yet very significant difference.

In the London Chronicle version of the letter, Poundage, talking about the brews consumed in London between the years 1710 and 1722, wrote:
“Some drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale at fourpence per pot.”
However, The Gentleman’s Magazine‘s version of this sentence reads:
“Some drank mild beer and stale, others what was then called three-threads [my emphasis] at 3d a quart; but many used all stale at 4d a pot.”
Continue reading A three-threads thread

The nettle and the damage done

Another benefit of being a member of the Zythographer’s Union is that occasionally nice brewers send me beer through the post (and, since I don’t live in Maryland, I don’t have to be registered to receive it.) The only hitch is that Parcelfarce are a cretinous collection of cack-handed clowns, which means that when the package finally arrives, it won’t necessarily be in the state it was when it left the brewery. Surprise was absent, therefore, when I picked up a parcel that Hall and Woodhouse, owners of the Badger brewery, had sent me via Britain’s least-favourite delivery company and heard the sound of broken glass from inside.

Happily Parcelfarce had led itself down badly and smashed only one bottle, and the half-pint glass that accompanied the beers, while in the three attempts it made to deliver the package to me the spilt beer had dried out. Even more happily, the two bottles of Stinger, H&W’s new organic brew made, in part, with nettles (can you get unorganic nettles?), a beer that I haven’t been able to find in my neck of Middlesex, were still intact.

Humanity has been good for nettles, so it’s unkind of them to repay us by stinging so painfully. The plants need soils rich in phosphates, and, as Richard Mabey wrote in his marvellous Flora Britannica, “Human settlements provide phosphates in abundance, in cattle-pens, middens, bonfire sites, refuse dumps and churchyards.” Even long-abandoned human habitations continue to have nettles growing around them when there might not be any other nettles for miles, according to Mabey: “The wooded sites of Romano-British villages on the Grovely Ridge near Salisbury are still dense with nettles subsisting on the remains of an occupation that ended 1,600 years ago.”

Continue reading The nettle and the damage done

Pale Stout

Plugging different beer-related key words into the search facility in the Times newspaper archive 1785-1985 is continuing to turn up gold. In June 1843 a series of small ads began to appear in the newspaper for Bavarian Pale Stout – put that one in your BJCP guidelines – brewed, not in Munich, but by Beamish and Crawford of the Cork Porter Brewery in Ireland

… under principles personally explained by Professor Liebig to the manufacturers, and is remarkable for its purity and agreeable flavour, and produces a grateful and cheering effect, without exciting any irregular actions in the stomachs of persons even of the most delicate constitutions, or inducing the least drowsiness in those of sedentary or studious habits.

This is a late mention for pale stout, but it would not have seemed as surprising to early Victorian beer drinkers as it does to us. For 150 years or so after the word stout first began being applied to beer it was used simply as an adjective to mean “strong”. A poem from Scotland in the latter half of the 18th century called “The ale-wife’s supplication”, which urged George III to cut the taxes on malt and ale, included the lines:

Continue reading Pale Stout

Celebrity Big Brewer

What do the following people have in common: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef and TV presenter; Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar-nominated film actress; Lord Brocket, failed insurance fraudster and I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here contestant; and Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of the television programme Location, Location, Location?

Continue reading Celebrity Big Brewer