All posts by Martyn Cornell

Beer educator, beer consultant, author, journalist and beer historian. Winner at the British Guild of Beer Writers' annual awards five years running, 2011-15

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.

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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:

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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?

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RIP MJ

In January 1988 I was sitting in the back of the Brugs Beertje in Kemelstraat, Bruges (rightly called by Tim Webb “one of the finest beer cafes in the world”) with an assortment of other zythophiles including Roger Protz, Webbo himself, who got the idea for his Good Beer Guide to Belgium that night, Pitfield Brewery owner Martin Kemp, Brian Glover and Ted Bruning. We were being taken through a tutorial on Belgian beer – and Belgian cheese – by the bar’s hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic owner, Jan de Bruyne, on a trip organised by the West Flanders Tourist Board for the just-formed British Guild of Beer Writers. As we began the tutorial, a man from the tourist board came in, and said Michael Jackson, even then probably the most famous beer writer on the planet, would be joining us later: he was flying in from judging at a beer festival in Finland …

I believed we all cheered ironically, while secretly thinking: “What a fantastic job!” However, when Jacko did arrive, he immediately showed how hard-working he was: taking extensive notes on every beer, photographing those bottles he hadn’t already got pictures of, while the rest of us were happy just to slurp and trough. Later I learnt that he made notes every time he drank a beer, and stored the notes in filing cabinets in his office in Hammersmith, so that he could track whether a particular brew was changing over time …

Now Michael is dead, and the beer world will miss him enormously. As others have said, his influence cannot be overestimated, in Europe, in America and elsewhere, after a river of books and articles over the past 30 years. Rightly, he won more tankards in the annual BGBW awards – 13, including three golds and two silvers and the guild’s first “lifetime achievement” award – than anybody else. It has to be recorded that not only was he a great beer writer, he was a fine essayist as well: I remember a beautifully written piece he wrote about being trapped at an obscure airport in the United States with nothing to drink in the airport bar except American Budweiser, and how he decided that, out of duty, he really ought to try a glass to see if it was as bad as he kept telling everybody it was … I was given his World Guide to Beer in 1979, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it since: 28 years ago it opened for me windows on brews I had hardly heard of before, from gueuze to Bavarian Weisse, and I still refer to it today.

Because of the enormous range of his beer writing, Michael found himself widely plagiarised, something he would dismiss with a shrug: despite all the fandom he received, and his own vast enthusiasm for the pleasures of beer, Michael was a quiet man, without an ounce of “side”. It’s a little-known fact about Michael that he was the first editor of the UK advertising trade magazine Campaign, and when he discovered that I had worked on Campaign too, he would speak with wry humour of the magazine’s earliest days. I remember being hugely flattered when he namechecked me in his book The Beer Companion in 1993 for something I had written on the origins of the name AK – he didn’t have to do that, but it was typical of Michael that he would give credit to others. Sorry you’re gone, Michael – along with the rest of your millions of fans, I’ll be raising a glass of something hoppy to you this lunchtime … and probably another one tonight …

Young’s makes me feel you so

There are not many pleasures as fine as good, real, live beer, but one of them is good, real, live jazz.

Luckily, for the 25 years I’ve lived back in London, in eight homes and four different boroughs, I’ve never been more than about 15 minutes’ drive from the Bull’s Head at Barnes. Young’s beer on handpump in the music room itself, almost invariably great performances from the stage by terrific musicians: it’s one of the regularly available delights of the capital that make up for the hassle, the noise and the expense of living in London.

Last Saturday, for example, the band at the Bull’s Head was a quintet led by the piano player Stan Tracey, a man justly called by the BBC “the godfather of British jazz”, with Stan’s long-time collaborator, the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Stan’s son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Guy Barker on trumpet. Terrific modern jazz, played with panache and passion – and all for £12 at the door. Frankly, I feel guilty paying so little for something so good – it would cost you more for a not-very-good bottle of wine in the restaurant next door.

Seeing Guy Barker reminded me that I have an LP (remember those?) released exactly 30 years ago by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, called In Camra, and featuring tunes “inspired” by real ale and real ale breweries. Guy was in the trumpet section, and I’ve been trying to spot him on the cover, which shows the entire NYJO in the brewery yard at Young’s Ram brewery, with Ramrod the sheep front and centre and a fully loaded horse-drawn dray in the background.

Continue reading Young’s makes me feel you so