Beer bloggers want you to drink keg, says Camra chairman

Excuse my intemperate language, but I’ve just been reading some total lying crap by the chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale about beer bloggers. Apparently we’re the “bloggerati” (eh?), and we’re “only interested in new things”, and for beer bloggers, Camra’s “40 years of achievement means nothing, as the best beer they have ever had is the next.”

Unfunny Valentine

What utter bilge. Colin Valentine’s presumably not a stupid person, but he’s evidently never heard of the Straw Man fallacy– or maybe he has, but he thinks his audience is too stupid to spot it. The Straw Man fallacy involves setting up a totally distorted and easily demolished version of your opponent’s proposition, demolishing the distorted version without tackling any of the points in the real proposition, and finishing with a smug grin and – if your audience has failed to see the deceit – a standing ovation.

What has rattled Colin’s cage so badly that he felt the need at the Camra AGM to attack with lies and distortions a group of people that includes not a few Camra members who have given, over decades, a great deal to the campaign and to the promotion of proper, tasty beer? Apparently it’s because some members of the “bloggerati” (a name chosen, presumably, to make us sound like a shadowy secret organisation up to some Dan Brown-ish plottery) have been “making calls for Camra to embrace craft beer”.

Continue reading Beer bloggers want you to drink keg, says Camra chairman

How old is the term ‘session beer’?

Session beer: it’s an important plank in British pub culture, the 4 per cent abv or less drink that enables the British pub goer to down multiple pints during the evening without falling over. “Sessionable” is (rightly) a praiseworthy quality in a beer in Camra circles, and there are Americans dedicated to spreading the idea of the session beer in Leftpondia. But when did the term first come into use? As a style it may now be older, at least, than its first drinkers (what with them being dead), but as an expression it may only date back not much more than a couple of decades, to the days of Big Hair and leggings. Nor is it obvious exactly where the term comes from.

My personal recollection is that it wasn’t a term-of-art found in the earliest days of the Campaign for Real Ale, and it only sprang up as a way of describing beers that could be drunk for a whole “session” in the 1980s at the earliest. Indeed, the first uses I have found of the term both come from 1991, just 20 years ago, one in Britain, where someone in the magazine of the Institute of Practitioners in Work Study, Organisation, and Methods wrote:

A good tip is to pour it into a jug first, leaving the sediment in the bottle, thus enabling you to share the contents with your colleagues, which I would certainly commend, as this is definitely not a session beer

and one from the US, where Steve Johnson, in On Tap: The Guide to US Brewpubs, wrote:

Session beer: Any beer of moderate to low alcoholic strength

Now, I don’t believe for a femtosecond that those really ARE the earliest discoverable mentions of the term “session beer”, and I’m sure that somewhere in What’s Brewing or London Drinker or Tyke Taverner or some other Camra publication is a use of the term that predates 1991 by at least five years. (Update: earliest mention now 1982, albeit in a German context, and referring to 4.8 per cent abv beers, by Michael Jackson, and 1988 in a British context – see comments below. Earlier sightings still welcome …) I’m also sure there are readers of this blog who have stacks of back copies of Camra newsletters and pub guides that they can search for early mentions of “session beer”. I give you chaps (and chapesses, no sexism here, Denny) a challenge: supply a properly referenced and verifiably dated example, and there’s a good chance we can get the term “session beer” into the Oxford English Dictionary.

The history of “session beers” certainly predates the term by decades, though they are still, in the form celebrated today, a 20th century invention. The lightest table beers and family ales in the 19th century would have been 4.5 per cent alcohol or more, and “modern” light-but-tasty beer– that is, anything under about four per cent that still had flavour and drinkability – probably only began in the First World War and the government-imposed restrictions in Britain on beer strength, which lowering of strength stayed on after the war because of steeply regressive tax rates, which made beers of pre-war strength too expensive to sell.

The same wartime restrictions, unrepealed when hostilities ended, kept pub opening hours to two sessions, one at lunchtimes and one in the evening. Does “session beer” come from the idea that it’s a beer you can have right through one or other of these opening sessions? Strangely, the expressions “lunchtime session” and “evening session” only seem to appear a couple of decades or more after the Defence of the Realm Act 1915 brought the concepts into existence to try to cut alcohol consumption and keep munitions workers from spending all their wages down the pub. The earliest reference to “evening session” I have found is in, of all places, Samuel Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy, published in 1938 and set in London, when one of the characters is trying to find a place to dump some unwanted material (I won’t give the ending away by saying what that material is):

He was turning into the station, without having met any considerable receptacle for refuse, when a burst of music made him halt and turn. It was the pub across the way, opening for the evening session. The lights sprang up in the saloon, the doors burst open, the radio struck up. He crossed the street and stood on the threshold. The floor was palest ochre, the pin-tables shone like silver, the quoits board had a net, the stools the high rungs that he loved, the whiskey was in glass tanks, a slow cascando of pellucid yellows. A man brushed past him into the saloon, one of the millions that had been wanting a drink for the past two hours. Cooper followed slowly and sat down at the bar, for the first time in more than twenty years.

Lovely writing, and you don’t have to know what “cascando” means to understand what it means. (actually, it’s Italian, and means something like a jumble – it appears to be one of Becket’s favourite words, since he used it as the title of both a poem and a radio play. For what “the whiskey was in glass tanks” meant, see the picture of the bar here, where there’s a big glass container filled with whisky in the bar counter. Oh, and another snippet of social history – note that, this being the 1930s, the pub was playing the radio, not the television.)

Continue reading How old is the term ‘session beer’?

Ant Hayes

Late last year I was contacted by Ant Hayes, a home brewer from Kent – and originally South Africa – of some renown who had been an occasional commenter on this blog. He was writing a piece for Zymurgy, the American homebrew magazine, on Burton Ale – would I, he asked, be interested in adding the historical notes to his own “How to brew a Burton Ale” recipe? I was flattered, and happy to agree – after all, he could have simply ripped off something about the history of Burton Ale from the relevant chapter in Amber Gold & Black and not bothered giving me any credit.

It was an enjoyable collaboration, and I suggested to Ant that perhaps we could take this further: write a whole book with recipes for historic beers, written by him for the homebrewer, accompanied by historical notes about those beers by me. I was too busy over the past few months to do much about putting the idea into action, and now it’s too late. Earlier this week I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn from Jeff Renner in the US that Ant had taken his own life. He was 41, and he leaves behind a wife and two small children, aged eight.

Which leaves me wondering about some of the odder aspects of our collaboration together. Ant called his recreation of the beer that was Burton upon Trent’s other great contribution to British beer styles (alongside the classic gypsum well-water India Pale Ale) “Absent Friends Burton Ale”, and in his description of a typical Burton Ale he told Zymurgy readers:

“When brewing a Burton Ale, it is best to remember the things that comforted you most as a child; your teddy bear or blanket perhaps, and then to aim for a beer that will evoke similar emotions. Drinking a Burton Ale should take you back to a safe, comfortable place, not for you to drown your sorrows, but to help you deal with life’s little knocks. It is a personal beer, and is best brewed for the brewer. If others benefit – so much the better.”

Nothing, it appears, could comfort Ant enough in the end, and life’s knocks became too great even for Burton Ale to soften. And now, for too many, he’s an absent friend. I’m very sorry I never got to know him better: I never even got to meet him in person, we remained “e-friends” only. You can read some tributes from others who DID know him well on the American Homebrewers Association website here . Leonora, his wife, has set up a memorial JustGiving page in his name, which is accepting donations for the charity Holding On, Letting Go, a bereavement support programme for children and young people aged between 6 and 16 years old. When I looked just now it had already raised almost £1,000: if you knew Ant, if you ever exchanged emails with him, if you read and enjoyed our Burton Ale article in Zymurgy, why not send some money in his name.

Beer writers wax their lyricals

Two thousand pounds is about eight times the current going rate for a 1,500-word article on beer in most of the journals I ever get commissioned by, and twice as much as the top prize in the BGBW Beer Writer of the Year competition. So the news that two grand had been slapped down as the carrot in the first ever Bombardier Beer prize for writing on “the joys and jolliness of beer”, a piece of up to 1,500 words on the subject of beer’s role in society, and as a social lubricant, saw a field full of many of the country’s best writers about beer leap to their keyboards. I know this because, now the winner has been announced, several well-known beer bloggers have bravely put their own losing entries up on their blogs.

You can read the man who ran off with the £2,000 cheque, Milton Crawford, here, Adrian Tierney-Jones’s entry is here, for Zak Avery’s take on the subject click here and Mark Dredge’s entry can be read here. After that it’s instructive to read Pete Brown, one of the competition’s judges, on the experience of reading more than 40 essays all singing Ale-elluia – click here. And my own losing entry is right here. Continue reading Beer writers wax their lyricals

Progress from Pimlico to Euston

A short Victoria Line pub crawl from Pimlico to Euston confirmed an impression I had gathered over the past year during which time I have, for economic reasons, mostly had to spend my time outside England, with only too brief visits back: the London beer and bar scenes are changing considerably, and for the better, in a way we have not seen since – well, certainly the riot of activity after the passing of the Beer Orders 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, guest ales burst up across pubs everywhere, and for a short while cask beer sales rose while those for lager declined, and small brewers able to supply those guest beers thrived.

That phenomenon was, sadly, brief, stifled by the rise of the big pubcos, who had no economic interest at all in promoting guest ales in the outlets they owned other than the beers they were able to buy cheaply in bulk, and no legal obligation (unlike the big brewers, busy divesting themselves of their pubs) to provide a variety of cask brews.

The changes being seen today are based on three developments that are not restricted to London – they look to be common in large cities across the UK – but London’s is the pub scene I know best, so you’ll forgive me for talking about them in a London context. One change is the increasing realisation by pub chains – and brewery pub chains especially, it appears – that the “old-style” tenant-pub relationship is no longer a one-size-must-fit-all solution. They have discovered that returns on a poorly performing pub can often be transferred by an innovative lease with an operator who will be – horror – selling beers other than the ones you buy in for the rest of your pubs, or brew yourself, but who will boost turnover so much they’ll be able to pay you a far higher rent than some poor tenant struggling, with no unique selling proposition, to sell a beer selection little or no different from all the other pubs in a half-mile radius.

The next development is the existence of entrepreneurs with the vision to take advantage of the opportunities those new sorts of pub lease, with much freer beer ties, can provide. It remains a fact that the pub tenancy is by far the cheapest way to set up a business with virtually guaranteed instant income in Britain: the initial capital outlay can be less than £20,000, whereas you will need at least five times that much to be a franchisee with McDonald’s, or KwikPrint, or whoever. There appears to be a group of people in their late 20s and 30s with a knowledge, appreciation and understanding of beer – not just cask beer, but the wider “new brewery” American and European beer scenes – who want to bring those beers to their fellows, and who are bold enough to put their money where their taste buds are.

Third, and most vital, of course, there is now a market for good beers of every description and with a global provenance, a market that, again, from what I’ve seen, appears to be in its late 20s and 30s. How big that market is, I’m not sure anybody knows. It’s different, certainly, from the older (in all senses) cask ale market, and it may be a bit too “Hoxton” (you’ll tell me if I’m wrong on that: but “hipster” Hoxtonites have a history of beer trendiness: Hoxton was the first place in the UK I saw Okocim in a bar, 20 years ago). However, this “eclectic beer appreciation” movement appears to be powering not just a rise in specialist beer bars that are different from the “14 handpumps in a row” cask ale emporia, but also a rise in specialist beer retailers. My home in West London now has two off-licences in the immediately neighbouring suburbs that have outstanding bottled beer selections, from Europe and the US as well as the UK, good enough to make trips up to Utobeer in Borough Market only an occasional necessity, rather than the regular journey it used to be.

Many readers will have guessed correctly from the title of this post that my journey went from Cask in Charlwood Street to the Euston Tap (and yes, that’s Zak Avery you’ll see if you click on that link), though I also stopped halfway, at Oxford Street, to call in at the Old Coffee House in Beak Street, Soho. Cask – properly Cask Pub & Kitchen – was a failing, run-down pub called the Pimlico Tram, about 10 minutes’ walk south of Victoria Station, when in 2009 the owners, Greene King, of all people (because Greene King have never seemed to be the most imaginative of companies), decided to let Martin Hayes have his way with the place. Less than two years later, Cask picked up the title of “tenanted and leased pub of the year”, against competition from across the UK, in the annual awards handed out by the trade magazine Publican: let’s hope this encourages Greene King to be brave with other “failing” pubs.

Continue reading Progress from Pimlico to Euston