The pub: centre of conviviality, the place to meet old friends
and new friends, an open, welcoming, warm, communal space free from the
stresses of work and the confines of home, where people gather to relax,
mingle, talk, laugh, enjoy companionship, exchange news, views and jokes, revive,
support and celebrate.
But what about that fellow on his own there, slowly emptying a
pint glass, occasionally flipping a beermat in the air and catching it before
it lands on the table, sometimes reading the newspaper he brought with him,
sometimes apparently listening in to the conversations of others: he came in on
his own, he talks to no one, except briefly to the barman to order his drink
and accept his change, and nobody talks to him: should we not go over and drag
him out of his solitary state and into our conversations?
If that solo drinker is me – thanks very much for the kind
thoughts, but no thanks. I’m entirely happy here in my own head, sitting and
thinking, people-watching, enjoying my pint, getting a vicarious buzz from all
the social interaction around me, and I will get up after a beer or two and go
home having had all the contact with people I need right now.
Of the thousands of hours I have spent in pubs over the past
half a century, in a fair proportion I have been on my own, and I’ve enjoyed
them all. I love the sociability of pubs, I love the interplay between people,
the crack, in groups small and large: I married the woman who is the mother of
my child in part because she was the person I most enjoyed going down the pub
and chatting with. But I also love being a solo pub goer, sitting, sipping and
thinking. It relaxes me, it lets me explore my thoughts, run through and
rearrange memories, have conversations with myself about problems I am facing,
work out plans: if I have a tricky piece to write, I try out in my head
different ways to arrange the narrative, to construct the intro and the opening
paragraphs. If I have a meeting or an interview or a journey coming up, I
rehearse in my head what might happen. And all the time there is a buzz around
me that I can tune into or tune out, if I want, that keeps me feeling connected
with the rest of humanity, even if I don’t desire one-on-one contact with
another human right then.
My daughter, who is in her last year of university, has an app
on her phone that recreates the background noise of a coffee shop. She puts
that on when she is writing an essay, and she says it helps her get into
“the zone”, where she can concentrate on getting her thoughts out
through her fingers and the keyboard and onto the screen in front of her. When
I’m in “the zone”, however, I don’t notice any noises around me at
all: sometimes I have to be shouted at loudly to drag me back into the real
world. No point in having music on while I’m working: once in the zone, I don’t
hear it. The background buzz of a pub, however, I find both mentally relaxing
and mentally stimulating: sitting on my own in a bar I can think, and muse, and
work on problems, and spent an hour or two looking at issues from different
angles in a way that I could not while on a sofa at home, even with a beer by
my side. And if that gets too much, I can people-watch, a terrific pastime in
Now, some of you are saying that as an older white male, I’m privileged in a way that others are not: nobody is going to be bothering me if I sup alone, even if they might be feeling (unnecessarily) sorry for me. Women, of course, need to have reached “the age of invisibility” before they can sit at a pub table by themselves and remain unmolested. Which is wrong. A good pub should be a welcoming place for all.
And it’s also true that some solitary drinkers really do want to be bothered, are actually hoping that someone will bring them into a conversation, really have gone down the pub to try to make new friends. How do you tell those people from people like me, who are enjoying the solo drinking experience? I don’t know. But don’t let the fact that people like me exist put you off reaching out in friendship to the genuinely lonely.
How many people in Britain ever waited until their 18th birthday before they ordered their first alcoholic drink in a pub? Not you, I bet, and not me, certainly.
In fact this year marks half a century since I started regularly drinking in pubs, and as I’m still a little shy of 68, you may assume, correctly, that my earliest out-of-home pints were seasoned with the spice of illegality. Not that it was much of a spice: 50 years ago bar staff, and the authorities, bothered even less about not-quite-legal under-aged drinkers than they did about drink-driving, which was not, shamefully, taken very seriously at all.
Not that I drove to the pub: strictly public transport. Onto the 801 bus, my throbbing green diesel-powered Routemaster to pleasureland, and away to Stevenage Old Town, where the High Street, once part of the Great North Road, offered a sufficiency of pubs, all ancient and characterful, to satisfy the keenest crawler. (And all a total contrast to the soulless boxes that were the pubs on the new town estates. But that is another essay, for another day.)
Not, either, that I crawled that much back in 1969: there were two pubs out of the eight on the High Street itself where most of my pals would be found, so those were the two where I did most of my drinking. Generally Friday and Saturday evenings those pubs would be rammed almost to bursting with, largely, under-20s drinking pints (or brandy-and-babycham for the teen females: at least, that was what they always seemed to be drinking when I was getting the rounds in). I don’t recall any trouble or violence: the physical aggro was restricted to the only two pubs in Stevenage’s vast pedestrian shopping centre, and mostly to only one of those, the Edward the Confessor, know universally as the Ted the Grass..
I moved from the town almost four decades ago, back to London, where I was born: grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts have died, other friends have moved away, and now my brother has sold his house in Stevenage to move permanently to enchanting Norfolk, cutting the last big link I have with the town I moved to when I was two. I went up a few months ago for a last look round, a couple of weeks after Lewis Hamilton, who also grew up in Stevenage, infuriated most of its inhabitants by calling it “the slums” on the BBC (he did correct himself immediately, but Twitter, of course, was already ablaze). No better way to say goodbye, my brother and I decided, than one last pub crawl down the High Street, starting at the bottom and moving north until we’d had enough.
Stop number one, the Chequers, was not, in fact, a pub that featured regularly on my nights out, being out of what today would be called “the circuit”. It was once, until the middle of the 20th century, the first drinking place travellers saw as they entered Stevenage proper from the south up the main road from London to York. The building of the new town’s huge pedestrianised shopping centre obliterated a long stretch of the old Great North Road at the gateway to the Old Town, and left the Chequers down what had become a largely unhurried cul-de-sac. It’s a quietly attractive, faintly arts-and-crafts influenced building, rebuilt in 1889 at a cost of £500 by its owners at the time, the Lytton family of Knebworth House, a couple of miles to the south, who were the big local landowners. (Edward Bulwer “dark and stormy night” Lytton was a big friend of Charles Dickens, which is why there was once a pub about 400 yards down the Great North Road from the Chequers called the Our Mutual Friend, after one of Dickens’s novels, which opened a month or so after the novel was first published: that pub is now demolished, but the name was transferred to a newly built pub in the New Town, close to where I grew up.)
When I started going into pubs regularly, about 1968/69, the drinkers at the Chequers were mostly Old Towners whose ancestors had lived in North Hertfordshire for, probably, 500 years or more, and who spoke in a noticeably different accent from the tens of thousands of New Towners, like my parents, who had moved to North Hertfordshire in the early and mid 1950s from North London suburbs such as Willesden and Burnt Oak, 30 miles to the south. (A few years ago I met a work colleague of my wife, and recognised her accent immediately: turned out that she had grown up in a village about two miles outside Stevenage.) Today the Chequers is probably one of the best pubs in Stevenage: its two bars, almost inevitably, have become one, but the deep black, hefty, solid oak serving area, surrounded by black and white floor tiles, the settles and oak table, have a comfortable pubby authenticity as welcoming as a hug from your favourite aunt, and although it is still owned by Greene King (who took over the local big brewer, Simpson’s of Baldock, in the 1950s) the beer range is excellent: the first place I can remember finding two dark milds on sale, one Greene King’s own, the other from the Tring Brewery away over the other side of the county.
Teenage me, beamed forward half a century, would still probably not come in here, since there continued to be no other teens in the place, even if there would not be the slightly hostile vibration there was in 1969 from middle-aged small-town working class pub-goers against somewhat feminine-looking 17-year-olds with wavy hair down to their shoulders. (My father, a bricklayer, once told me that one of his fellow brickies, astonished by his toleration of his sons’ long hair, asked him why he did not take the scissors to us while we slept.) Teenage me knew next to nothing about beer, except that he liked the taste, and he had not yet realised that there was good beer and bad beer (that would only come a couple of years later, at university in a town dominated by Watney’s). Teenage me went to the pub to meet friends and chat, in particular try to chat to girls (with almost no success). The Chequers in 1969 was not a place to find girls to try to chat to. Old man me, however, now with very much less hair, was entirely happy to be drinking in the Chequers, however. Still no teenage girls in there, but, of course, they’d be even less interested in me today than they were 50 years ago, and the lack of interest among girls in the 1960s in getting to know spotty teenage me better was an almost solid thing even then.
I have always enjoyed the atmosphere of pubs, what Iain Banks in one of his novels calls the frague, the almost indefinable vibration that a good pub has going on between its walls, the interaction of multiple people intent on having an enjoyable experience, the surroundings (which should be a barely heard basso ostinato of warmth, comfort and security), and friendly, attentive service, that makes even sitting in a bar on your own a pleasure. I still enjoy the crack that comes with good company in a good pub, too. Now, however, the beer is probably the most important part of the mix, up from something that didn’t matter at all when I was a teen. Great pub, poor beer or poor pub, great beer? Today it would have to be a really great pub, a “not to be missed”, to make up for the beer not being up to scratch. Fifty years ago, teenage me would have considered that an incomprehensible question.
It was poor pub, poor beer at the next stop on the anniversary crawl, another place I rarely visited 50 years ago, the Coach and Horses. Despite being quite attractive on the outside, a solidly built 19th century brick-and-red-tile inn that, as the sign suggests, catered for travellers until the railway arrived in the town in the early 1850s, this never had much appeal to teenage me, being, like the Chequers, mostly full of people then twice my age or more, and an early example, if I recall correctly, of the banquette and padded Windsor chair style of pub furnishings. In 2019 the interior is now darker and more basic, and the large pool table in the knocked-through bar attracts exactly the sort of customer you would expect to be attracted to a large, dark bar with a pool table. The one handpump had the clip turned round, so it was a half of Hop House 13 (strange how Guinness still provides the one fall-back for a discerning drinker in a pub with no properly acceptable beer, but now in the form of a flowery pale lager-like beer rather than a bottle-conditioned stout) and off up the road.
Pub number three on the anniversary crawl is probably the one I spent most time in during 13 or so years of drinking beer in Stevenage, the Marquis of Lorne. A converted 17th or 18th century cottage built of now worn red bricks, it is named for the man who married Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, in 1871, and thus ought, pedantically speaking, to be the Marquess of Lorne. I doubt the signboard has ever carried the correct version of the name. The Marquis is a rare example of a pub that still retains its original two drinking spaces, a “tap” or public bar at the front and a long, narrow saloon or lounge bar at the side. For reasons that remain unknown to me, I and my teenage friends drank exclusively in the lounge bar, though, this being the 1960s, when the distinction still remained between public and saloon, we were probably being charged a couple of pence or more per pint for the privilege of carpet on the floor and cushions on the seats than the drinkers in the more basic, bare-boarded tap. Nevertheless, the lounge bar of the Marquis was hugely popular, and frequently, on a Friday or Saturday night, more rammed with teens than a telephone box filled with rag-stunt students. This is not an exaggeration. Sometimes it was almost impossible to move.
The draught beer in the Marquis 50 years ago was, I now know (and certainly didn’t then), top-pressure: cask ale, brewed at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade, up the road in Bedfordshire, but served up from the cellar with the help of a cylinder of CO2, the taps on the bar shaped like miniature porcelain handpumps. Greene King IPA was the most popular choice, but nobody called it “IPA”: the order was always for “a pint of bitter”. Nobody, that I can recall, drank lager: there might have been a Harp fount on the bar counter, and there were bottles of Satzenbrau, Guinness’s attempt at a pilsner, on the shelves behind. Teens, of course, did not drink mild (that was what your dad drank), and I don’t recall seeing Greene King’s excellent dark mild on sale in any Old Town pub, though since my beer consciousness was minimal in 1969, consider me a deeply unreliable memorialist. Other Greene King pubs in the Old Town still had proper handpumps, though teenage me failed to notice any difference in the quality of the beer. What did I know? Forgive me, at the time I had probably drunk the products of fewer than half a dozen breweries. (It would, in fact, be another nine years or so years before the Marquis got its handpumps back, as Greene King finally caught up with the real ale revolution that began in 1971: by that time I was vastly more beer-aware, and on the local Camra branch committee, and we recorded these changes.)
Today the Marquis seems pretty much unchanged, the alterations in 50 years minimal: of all the pubs on the 50th anniversary crawl, it is the one teenage me could step into today without blinking. It has kept the pubby vibe, the smart but comfortable feel that would have made it worth visiting even if it had not been so popular with my teenage peers. Unlike the Chequers, the beer selection is entirely GK, but while nobody’s heart leaps today at the sight of a GK IPA handpump the way we did in 1978, when it meant another gain for the anti-fizz cause, when it’s looked after, GK is entirely acceptable: the Marquis wouldn’t, now, be my first choice of Stevenage pub as it was in 1969, but if you suggested it, I wouldn’t insist on going somewhere else.
The next pub going north 50 years ago, the White Hart, closed in 2010, and is now an Indian restaurant. I spent more time here after I became beerily “woke”, around 1975, than I did as a teen, since it was a rare local outlet for Ind Coope of Romford and, thus, their Burton ale and KK light mild (and, later, the revived Benskins bitter, named for the former Watford brewery), and I miss those vanished beers more than I do the pub.
Happily, the Red Lion, smallest of Stevenage’s former coaching inns and third call on the anniversary crawl, is still open: this was the other Old Town pub deeply popular with teens half a century ago, and it still seems popular with their grandchildren. Teenage me might have been slightly puzzled by the music being played over the sound system today, late 1970s heavy metal and its derivatives, but not that puzzled: I was an early fan of Led Zeppelin (I owned, and gave away, one of the first copies of Led Zeppelin I, with the turquoise lettering on the cover, which would be worth several hundred pounds today: ho hum) and I remember being deaf for at least an hour after sitting in row E for a Zeppelin concert circa 1970 at the Albert Hall. The pub is now properly a music venue, with regular rock band appearances at weekends and an annual “Redfest”, and it is with intense amusement that I note one band due to perform there this October, Gridlock, does a version of “Whole Lotta Love”, a song itself 50 years old this year. (There’s a theme for another essay: it’s like 1969’s teens and early 20s listening to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. What is the continuing attraction of granddad’s music?)
The Red Lion’s interior has been worked over, the back bar extended sideways into the courtyard where coaches once pulled up to have their sweating, tired teams of horses changed, and it is now possible to walk from the front bar to the back without going outside and through the arch that connects the courtyard with the High Street. The unbelievably manky men’s urinals, with their strange bright green mossy growths on the walls, have vanished, and so have the bar billiards table, and the darts board, where George Newberry, the tall, thin, elderly landlord, and a former News of the World darts champion, would occasionally come out from behind the bar and demonstrate how to hit treble 20s with six-inch nails, a performance even more remarkable since he had artificial legs. The walls, at least in the back bar, are now painted black rather than the nicotine-stained light caramel they were 50 years ago. (When the pub was decorated in the late 1970s, the brewery – Greene King again – actually chose a shade of paint almost identical to the effects of 40 years of cigarette smoke on white emulsion: perhaps Farrow & Ball should try adding “Public Bar” to its shades of cream and off-white.)
I find it hard to explain why the pub, in particular the back bar, was so popular with 1969’s teens: it was a classic Old Town boozer unchanged, at that time, since at least the Second World War, and should have been full of cloth-capped middle-aged Old Towners drinking the probably well-looked-after hand pumped bitter, or Abbot, and smoking roll-ups with, in the front bar only, their wives drinking Babycham or a small sweet sherry. Likely it was because George the landlord (his wife was known, inevitably and semi-accurately, as the dragon) was entirely laissez-faire about under-age drinking, provided you bought him the occasional rum-and-pep. Once it became a. place for teens to meet, and drink, then it stayed a place for teens to meet, and drink: we went there because we knew our friends were likely to be there. We might have driven the locals out, but we packed the place, and drank, very likely, as much as they would have.
After George and his wife retired to a home for ex-publicans, the Red Lion became more biker-oriented, and eventually music-oriented, and in half a century it has not lost its attraction to that apparently constantly renewing demographic in its 20s which enjoys shaking its hair to very loud guitar solos. Would teenage me still enjoy going down the Red Lion? Yes, I’m sure I would think it was tremendous. What about 50-years-on me? I have no problems still with loud music designed to make the audience bounce up and down – the last concert I went to, in June, was the fabulous Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans, which was strictly standing room only – but Led Zep covers, perhaps not.
However, we have a pub crawl to finish, so drain that pint and on up the road, past the two bars in the High Street that have opened in the past 50 years, balancing the two that have closed (the new pubs are a Wetherspoon’s in, inevitably, a disused bank and another large outlet in a former hardware shop, which at one time was selling a beer called Four Candles) to what was once Stevenage’s leading coaching inn. This thrived under the sign of the White Lion for more than 400 years: Greene King, with the thoughtless ignorance that characterises the company’s attitude to its heritage, decided to toss that in the skip four years ago and rename the inn the Mulberry Tree, for no known reason.
It’s another attractive old red-brick 18th century building on the outside, and another that I didn’t use that much as a teen: this was the most up-market of the Old Town pubs, popular with young couples on their tenth date, and my only reason for revisiting was to see how much it had altered. Teenage me would not have recognised the interior: the bar had been completely repositioned, the layout chopped about, walls demolished, and the entire set-up now making it clear this was a place expecting you to dine rather than drink: pub dining, of course, is a phenomenon that became widespread only in the past 30 years. The Mulberry Tree, like the White Lion, probably remains popular with young couples on their tenth date: teenage me would hate it, and modern me was pretty underwhelmed.
Conclusions? It was a surprise to me to realise, reflecting on the changes in the pubs, how much I had altered myself as a pub-goer in half a century, without losing a love for pubs. Thank heavens, frankly: going down the pub played a large and enjoyable part in my life 50 years ago, and I still enjoy it greatly today, but for wider and, I think, deeper and more considered reasons. I have no idea how many pubs and bars I have been in, from Sydney to San Francisco, since I first started drinking in Stevenage, but the ordinary British boozer remains my favourite place to have a beer, after 50 years.
This is a glass of something called Herr Axolotl, from Ale Browar of Poland, bought in a bar in the charming city of Wrocław. It is described as a Berliner Weisse with guava. I struggled very hard to find anything at all about it that might deserve the name “beer”. It looked like cloudy apple juice. It tasted a lot like very sour cloudy apple juice. It certainly didn’t taste as if it had ever been in the same postcode district as a hop. As I went further down the glass, there was something nasty lurking in the background, harshly sharp and unpleasant. I have become Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beer.
Nine days in Poland, on a return visit four years after I first travelled to the country to check out its craft beer scene, involved meeting large numbers of friendly, enthusiastic Polish craft brewers, beer geeks and bar owners and drinking considerable quantities of beer in an expansive range of styles, almost all of it of it well-made, some of it absolutely fascinating, rare and thrilling, and some of it pushing the envelope so hard it rips. I used to think I was on the far-left libertarian wing of the beer world, able to accept pretty much anything brewers came up with. But after walking into several Polish craft beer bars, looking at the menu on the wall, filled with opaque sours, fruit ales, vanilla ice-cream IPAs and the like and wondering if I should ask: “Um – do you have any beer-flavoured beer?”, I realise that I’m not actually as liberal as I thought, and that there is a line which, once crossed, I find myself saying: “You may be a brewer, but that’s not a beer.” Too many brewers, it appears, are chasing novelty at the expense of a decent drink.
Much of the reason for this realisation arriving in Poland rather than, say, Hoxton comes from the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is driven far more, I think, than other countries’ by novelty, which in itself is an artefact of the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is hugely enthusiastic but tiny – still less than one per cent of what is, admittedly, the third biggest beer market in Europe – which itself is down to the cost of craft beer compared to mainstream beer. A 50cl bottle of Tyskie is three or four złoty, when it’s 4.8 złoty to the pound. A bottle of craft beer is four times more expensive. Poland is still not a rich country, and most people can’t afford craft beer. Meanwhile those craft beer drinkers who do exist want something different every time they go up to the bar, which puts pressure on bar owners, who put pressure on brewers, who are aware enough about what goes on in places like the US to use trends such as New England IPA and barrel-ageing and souring and fruit beers to come up with an ever-changing variety of new products flowing from the fermenting vessels.
I was lucky enough to visit Browar Palatum, now three years old, the only proper brewery actually in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people, where the owner, Łukasz Kojro, told me he makes more than 300 brews every year, each one different, because that’s what the market demands. Almost all of Palatum’s production is draught – the brewery has only a small hand-bottling side – and Łukasz is able to sell all he makes across Poland, even though the market is comparatively so small, and there are now some 250 actual craft breweries open and another 150 “cuckoo” or contract brewers using other people’s kit. Something helping Polish craft brewers is that because of the price problem, there is very little craft beer imported into Poland from outside: it’s too expensive.
But constantly having to think up new beers means that, inevitably, you’re going to get some that aren’t beers at all: at least not beers according to the definition I now find myself formulating after my Polish experience. This is, of course, pretty majorly subjective, and based almost entirely on what I like about beer and why I drink it, but it does have some grounding in measurable facts. A hopped cider, for example, is not, I hope, by anybody’s definition, a beer: nothing wrong with hopped cider, I’ve drunk some and it was good, but no grain, so not a beer. Similarly, just because it contains grain and hops, that doesn’t make it a beer automatically: if you can’t taste either grain or hops in the glass then I am very reluctant to call it a beer. If it tastes mostly of fruit juice, if you’ve put 600kg of mango into the fermenting vessel, as one Polish brewer boasted to me, then what you’ve got is fermented mango, that is, fruit wine, and not beer. If you drink it and enjoy it, fine, but I reserve the right to say: “No thanks, I like drinking beer.”
Let us not, however, give the impression that the Polish craft beer scene is entirely the preserve of the wild and the weird. There are plenty of straight-up, solid brews, from very good pilsners to fine pale ales. I particularly enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pinta brewery’s Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), 6.1 per cent abv, 69 IBU which was the first ever commercial “Polish craft beer”, in 2011, and which, when it appeared, blew every Polish beer drinker’s socks off their feet and away over the horizon. It’s now venerable enough to be described as “old-fashioned” after only eight years, but it’s an excellent American pale ale, and a safe call in any bar selling it while you contemplate what weirdness to try next.
Pinta, based way down in the south of Poland, 40 miles south-west of Krakow and 11 miles from the Slovak border, has grown from being a contract brewer to one of the largest independents in Poland and one of the thriving stars of Polish craft beers, along with Stu Mostów (“Hundred Bridges”) and Profesja of Wrocław, both of those only five or so years old, both, like Pinta, producing very well-made beers.
There are newer brewers doing impressive stuff too: Cześć Brat! (which means Hello Brother!, and which, surprise, is run by brothers Grzegorz and Michał Malcherek in the town of Jelcz-Laskowice, 15 miles south-east of Wrocław), for example. You’ll find one or two handpumps tucked over in a corner in many Polish beer bars, and one of the beers I kept finding being served on handpump when I was there was Cześć Brat’s 4 per cent abv tonka bean milk stout, Coś na Wieczór?, which means “Something for the Evening?”. Interesting beer flavouring, tonka beans, they contain a big hit of coumarin, which gives a similar taste and aroma to woodruff, and they’re also quite bitter, which in this case nicely counteracts the sweetness of the milk stout. (Cześć Brat!, as an aside, is another Polish brewer with terrific graphics, produced by a well-known Polish graphic designer: the brothers loved her work and wrote to her saying: “We’re only a small, poor brewer, but what do you charge?”, and she wrote back saying: “I like the idea of working for a brewery, so I’m not going to charge you very much at all.” Don’t ask, don’t get.)
The Hopium brewery, from the village of Nowy Drzewicz, south-west of Warsaw, won my unofficial prize for “best beer name of the Wrocław beer festival”, with Michaił Jakson, a “white Imperial Russian Stout”, not, you’ll conclude, a nod to the late beer writer. The beer was a bit of a Thriller, too: a strong (8.5 per cent abv) pale ale with coffee infused in during maturation, which I wouldn’t have expected to work had I not tasted it and enjoyed it. Hopium gives all its beers “celebrity pun” names, such as Al Apacino, an APA, Danny De Wheato, and Kwasko Da Gama, a fruit sour ale, kwas, pronounced “kvas”, being the Polish for “sour”. Quite a few of the beer names are puns on Polish celebrities unknown across the Oder, which puns obviously don’t travel. At least one, a mango fruit ale called Vincent ManGogh, is based on a mispronunciation I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about (for Americans reading this, it’s Van GOFF, not Van GO).
The beer I was most thrilled to discover, though, was one I had travelled to Poland specifically to find: Jopejskie, a revival of an obscure, strange, fascinating Polish beer style, more than 500 years old, which, bizarrely, was brewed in the North of England under the name Black Beer until 2013. I knew the Polish contract brewer Olimp had a version on sale in 100ml bottles, but as I wandered the Wrocław festival, where the 50-plus stalls are almost all run by the brewers themselves, I spotted that the Świdnica brewery, from the town of the same name some 30 miles south-west of Wrocław, was selling Jopejskie on draught – at 35 złoty (£7.30) for 10cl, when other beers were 10 to 13 zloty for 50cl. To save you turning on your calculator, that’s 13 times more expensive, and the equivalent of £41 a pint!
Not that you could possibly drink even half a pint: it was “only” 9 per cent abv, but had started out at a barely believable 50º plato, which if my maths is right is all of 1233 OG, and suggests a FINISHING gravity of around 1164, higher than almost all other strong beers begin at. Olimp is apparently very secretive about how it brews its Jopejskie, but Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica was entirely happy to tell me all: he starts with a strong Russian Imperial Stout wort and then boils it for 24 hours (24 hours!), to end up with something closer to tar than wort. This is then pitched with a standard lager yeast – the well-known 34/70, I believe – and left until the lager yeast cells wave the white flag, after which the brew remains in an open vessel for any wild yeasts to have a go if they think they’re hard enough. Finally the beer is kegged: the batch at the festival had been made in October last year, and was thus eight months old..
Even the wildest of wild yeasts eventually give up, however, and what is left is still sweet and treacly – and delicious. I confess to a tingle in my feet when I drank this: liquid history, chewy, powerful, filled with dark, deep flavours, simply fabulous. One of my best beer experiences of the past few years. Later I managed to find the Olimp version on sale in a shop in Krakow (39 złoty per 100ml bottle: I saw it in a bar for 49 złoty), and a very kind Polish-based home brewer, Tomasz Spencer, gave me a bottle of his home-brewed Jopejskie. So that’s three different versions of a beer I never thought I’d see: amazing.
There were some disappointments, and ironically the worst beer I had was in a brewpub in Krakow that claims to brew the finest British-style cask ale. Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the inspiration for a white RIS) held to a philosophy that it wasn’t his job to be unpleasant to people, but to encourage everybody, so perhaps it might be kindest to draw a discreet bartowel over these failings. But frankly, if you’re selling a “cask-conditioned bitter” you call “England’s Glory” to Poles, it really needs not to taste of unfermented wort and lack all condition. I tried the porter, to see if this was just one poor cask, and it was barely better: thin, little condition again, sweetcorn on the nose and something nastily sharp lurking in the background.
But apart from that, I had a terrific time: if you like beer tourism, Poland is now an absolutely must-visit destination. The Wrocław beer festival, outside the football stadium a tram-ride from the city centre, is one of the best in Europe, well-organised, a great selection of dozens of different Polish breweries, and a fine range of Polish street food to mop up the beer. The beer bars, in Krakow and Warsaw in particular, are almost uniformly excellent, and if the selections of beers are almost entirely Polish, well, those beers are good enough, and varied enough, that you won’t miss anything. Among the places I particularly enjoyed were Hoppiness, in the aptly named Chmielna (“Hop Street”) in central Warsaw and Maryensztadt in Warsaw Old Town; and Omerta in Krakow.
Many thanks to the guys at Crookham Travel for organising the travel around Poland and brewery trips in Wrocław and Krakow, and Tony Fox-Griffiths in particular for his impeccably researched guides to bars in those two cities; to Tomasz Kopyra and the crew at Festiwal Dobrego Piwa for the free beer and hotel accommodation in Wrocław (and more brewery trips); and to Tom Spencer for giving up his time to take me on a bar crawl of Warsaw. and organising yet another brewery visit. See you all again soon, I hope.
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.
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.)
I 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 …
The Tipperary, in Fleet Street, has a fair claim to “oldest pub in London” status. You wouldn’t know this from the information you will find about it on the web, in books and magazines, and even the noticeboard outside the pub, which makes much of its storied past. Unfortunately, almost everything written about the history of the pub – including, shamefully, that noticeboard – is wildly, utterly wrong, a staggeringly inaccurate macedonie of untruths, misunderstandings, made-up nonsense, fake news and pure bollix of inexplicable ancestry. What is particularly tragic is that the pub actually has a fine back-story, which has become entirely submerged by layers of invented garbage.
Let’s begin by deconstructing the noticeboard that hails customers as they enter this charming, if cramped, old Fleet Street boozer, with its delightful, slightly shabby shamrock-decorated mosaic floor and dark wood-panelled walls. (We’ll ignore, as much as we can, the grammatical infelicities and spelling errors on the board, though they constitute in themselves a grievous insult to the hundreds, or more, of newspaper sub-editors who, in the times of Fleet Street’s glory as more than just a metaphor for Britain’s national press, walked through the Tipp’s front door in search of liquid relief.)
“The pub was built on the side [sic]of a monastery which dated to 1300 where, amongst other duties, the monks brewed ale.” – it was a friary, not a monastery. They were friars, not monks. A house for the Carmelites, more fully the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, was founded by Sir Richard Gray in Fleet Street in or about 1241, not 1300. (The Carmelites, as an aside, originated in the 12th century, and took their name from Mount Carmel in northern Israel, supposedly the home of the prophet Elijah. They were known as the “white friars”, from the white cloaks they wore, in contrast to the black-cloaked Dominicans, the “black friars”, whose main base in London was just across the Fleet river, and whose name is commemorated in a bridge, a railway station and one of the finest art nouveau pubs, inside and out, in the world.)
“This site was an island between the River Thames and the River Fleet which still runs under the pub that is now little more than a stream” – utter steaming garbage. The Tipperary is half-way up the hill that rises from what was once the west bank of the Fleet, which was 250 yards away to the east, not “under” the pub at all. The Fleet ran south along the line of what is now Farringdon Street – indeed, it still does, though now underground and converted into a sewer, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
“‘The Boars Head’ which was built in 1605” – wrong again, though a rare example of a pub claiming to be much younger than it actually is, since “Le boreshede in Parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete” was mentioned in the same grant to the Carmelite friars in 1443 as the Bolt and Tun inn next door. (This means, incidentally, that the Tipperary/Boar’s Head is at least 575 years old this year: there are only two or three other pubs in London that can reckon to be older.) “It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. This is because the property was of stone and brick whereas the surrounding neighbouring premises were of wood.” More ahistoric nonsense. The fire destroyed all of Fleet Street to a point just past Fetter Lane, some 160 yards west of the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which was one of the 13,000 buildings consumed in the blaze.
“In approx 1700 the S.G. Mooney & Son brewery chain of Dublin purchased ‘The Boars Head’ and it became the first Irish pub outside Ireland … The pub also became the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft.” I cannot fathom how or why anyone would invent this stuff, or have it so totally wrong. There is actually a gorgeous old mirror, probably more than 100 years old, on the wall inside the pub which gives the proper name of the pub chain – not “brewery chain”, whatever one of those is — that formerly owned the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which makes getting the incorrect name outside the pub particularly inexcusable. It was JG Mooney and Co, not “SG Mooney & Son”: the company developed out of the licensed wholesaler and retailer business James G Mooney was running in Dublin from at least 1863. The Tipperary was not only emphatically NOT “the first Irish pub outside Ireland”, it wasn’t even JG Mooney’s first pub outside Ireland. The company acquired its first licensed outlet in London, on the Strand, in 1889, its second on High Holborn in 1892 and a third in Duke Street, on the south side of London Bridge, shortly afterwards. Mooney’s acquired the lease of the Boar’s Head, its fourth London pub, in November 1895. That’s not “approx 1700”, unless you think being nearly two centuries out is “approx”. (Mooney’s was to grow to at least 11 London outlets by 1940, all, or almost all, called “Mooney’s Irish House”: the one in Duke Street was known as “Mooney’s Dublin House”.) Nor, of course, was the Boar’s Head “the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft” (sic, again). Guinness was exporting to Bristol from at least 1825 (and to the West Indies earlier than that), in both cask and bottle.
“1918 At the end of the Great War the printers who came back from the war had the pubs [sic] name changed to ‘The Tipperary” from the song ‘It’s a Long Way’ [sic], which name it retains to this day.” But it was being called “Mooney’s Irish House (late Boar’s Head)” in 1895, and Kelly’s directories make it clear that the name of the pub was The Irish House right up to 1967. Only then did it change to The Tipperary. There are no references that I have been able to find to the pub as The Tipperary before this: it was certainly being referred to as “Mooney’s Irish House in Fleet Street” in the 1950s. (Strangely, there is a strong Fleet Street link to the song “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”, but it is nothing to do with returning printers. The song’s popularity with the British Army in France in August 1914 was spotted by a Daily Mail reporter, George Curnock, who cabled back to his news editor, Walter Fish that the soldiers were all singing the song as they marched from Boulogne to the front. According to Fleet Street mythology, “Fish visualised ‘Tipperary’ as a great national stimulative, the possible British counterpart of the ‘Marseillaise’, and to his delight found Lord, Northcliffe [owner of the Mail], with his fine flair for judging the public taste, equally enthusiastic. The words and the music of the pantomime song were secured and prominently displayed in the Mail, and from that day on it was on everybody’s tongue.”)
So: four paragraphs, at least 11 clunking, ludicrous errors, all of which could have been avoided with little effort. It took me two to three hours on the interwebs, and an hour in the Guildhall library looking at microfilms and consulting a couple of books, to put together the corrections above, and uncover a more accurate history of 66 Fleet Street. People, this is really not difficult. Don’t just repeat stuff you read – do your own research, because “stuff you read” is quite likely to be wrong.
The Boar’s Head originally faced onto Whitefriars Street (named, of course, for the Carmelites, and originally, until at least the 1830s, known as Water Lane). To the south was an inn called the Bolt-in-Tun, with both premises having back entrances dog-legging out on to Fleet Street, at what would later be numbers 64 and 66. (To the east, at what would become 67 Fleet Street, was a tavern owned by Royston Priory in Hertfordshire called the Cock and Key.) In a licence of alienation to the Friars Carmelite of London of certain premises in the parish of St Dunstan, Fleet Street, in the Patent Roll of 21 Henry VI – that’s 1443 to me and thee – “Hospitium vocatum le Boltenton” is mentioned as a boundary. This would have been a building attached to the friary for accommodating guests. The hospitium, or at least a building on its site, was quite probably at least a century older than this, because the wording of an ordinance of King Edward III in council dated 1353 suggests that the road from the bridge over the Fleet to Temple Bar, where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, was by then already lined with dwellings and well-inhabited.
The inn’s name is a pun on “Bolton”, and its sign was a bolt – a crossbow arrow – sticking though a tun, or cask. How or why it was give that name remains unknown. (At least two sources try to claim that the inn’s name is ” derived … from Prior William Bolton of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield”, which is more nonsense on stilts, because while Prior Bolton certainly used the bolt-in-tun as a badge, he was born around 1450, after the first known mention of le Boltenton. It’s more likely, in fact, that Prior Bolton stole the idea of using a bolt sticking through a tun as his badge from the Carmelites’ inn.)
It looks as if the Carmelites used the premises to brew, because after Henry VIII nationalised their friary in November 1538, the list of buildings surrendered included “a tenement for brewing called ‘le Bolte and Tunne'”, and “a brewhouse called Le Bolt and Tunne in the parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete, which belonged to the late Carmelite Friars there” was leased to one of Henry’s household officials, John Gilman, in 1541. As the only inn on Fleet Street, and thus effectively the first inn on the Great West Road, the Bolt-in-Tun developed into an important base for coaches travelling to Bristol, Plymouth and South Wales. In September 1665 a boy was found dead of the Plague in its hayloft. The Fire of London the following year at least cleansed the city of plague-carrying rats, and by 1704 regular coaches for Windsor were starting from the rebuilt inn. In 1741 services from the inn included “A Handsome Glass Coach and six able Horses” travelling regularly to Bath. Destinations from the Bolt-in-Tun in 1805 ranged from Cardiff to Hastings, and Newbury to Chichester, and in 1817 26 coaches a day left the inn for towns and cities across the south and south-west.
About 1822 the Water Lane side of the premises was renamed the Sussex Hotel, but the Bolt in Tun continued as the booking office and coach destination in Fleet Street. You could still get a drink there: in 1830, John Richardson, 38, was nabbed by a police officer in the Bolt-in-Tun tap for stealing a horse-blanket worth eight shillings from the Bolt-in-Tun’s stables. (His defence was that “I was very tipsy”: he was fined one shilling and discharged.) The stables still had a hayloft, of course, and in March 1838 a fire broke out in the Bolt-in-Tun hayloft which “extended its ravages with great rapidity”, destroying all the hay, while the adjoining house, “occupied by many poor families,” was also “considerably damaged”. The proprietor in charge of coaching operations was Robert Gray, whose partner was Moses Pickwick – a surname that a young Fleet Street reporter called Dickens found a use for.
The coaching era, however, was nearing its end. From 1838 onwards, London was increasingly connected to the rest of Britain by railways, and in the 1840s the Bolt-in-Tun was described by its proprietor as a “Mail, Coach, and Railway Establishment”. Gradually the railway side took over, and by 1859 the Bolt-in-Tun was purely a booking office and parcel collection point for the railway companies. Eventually, in late 1882 or early 1883, most of the Bolt-in-Tun was demolished, ending a history of more than 440 years.
Timothy Richards and James Stevens Curl, authors of City of London Pubs, published in 1973, thoroughly screwed up the history of the Bolt-in-Tun, completely confusing it with the Tipperary, and claiming that “shortly after 1883 the Irish house of Mooney erected a new pub on the site of the Bolt-in-Tun, and it is this building that now stands.” This is, of course, as egregiously wrong as anything on the Tipperary’s signboard. Mr Curl is an extremely distinguished architectural historian, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects of the City of London. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture and Design, Ulster University, Professor Emeritus at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a former Visiting Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written more than 30 books. Let us say that the entry on the Tipperary in City of London Pubs was not his finest hour.
The Boar’s Head led a comparatively quiet life compared to its neighbour. Boar’s Head Alley, alongside the pub, is first mentioned in 1570, and two inhabitants of the alley had to appear at a ward inquest in 1595 for not having chimneys in their houses. The first known licensee was William Hayley or Healey, there in 1664 and 1665. The next year the pub was destroyed in the Great Fire, but Hayley was back in business within a couple of years, and issuing a trade token bearing the words “William Healey at the [picture of a boar’s head] in Fleet Street • 1668 • His Halfe Penny”. How much of today’s pub dates from the post-Great Fire rebuilding I don’t know, but the City of London’s own “Fleet Street Conservation Area Character Summary and Management Strategy” paper from February 2016 named it as one of only “a handful of survivors immediately post-Great Fire” in the conservation area. The report dated the pub building to “circa 1667”, saying that the “slightly crooked window details” hint at its age, and adding that it has a “later, traditional pub frontage and stuccoed upper floors on a narrow historic plot.”
Behind the Boar’s Head, the rectangle of land bounded by the Thames, the walls of the Temple, Fleet Street and Water Lane/Whitefriars Street was known in the 17th century as “Alsatia”. It still had some of the privileges of sanctuary left behind from the days when it was the site of the Carmelites’ friary, which privileges were confirmed and enlarged by a royal charter issued by James I in 1608. The rule of law thus did not run in “Alsatia” as firmly as it did in the rest of the city, so that it was a refuge for on-the-run debtors, and “a hiding-place to cheats, false witnesses, forgers, highwaymen and other loose characters who have openly resisted the execution of legal process”, until the privileges of the liberty of Whitefriars were extinguished by William III in 1697.
The district continued to be lively. The Boar’s Head had all its windows smashed by a Jacobite mob during the “mug house” riots of 1716, because the landlord, Mr Gosling, was “well-affected to his Majesty King George and the present Government.” (It was described in news reports as an “ale house”, putting it one rung down the ladder from an inn like the Bolt in Tun.) Gosling was lucky: the mob’s real target was Mrs Read’s Coffee House in Salisbury Court, the next street east from Water Lane, which was a centre of Whiggish support for Britain’s new Hanoverian ruler. The Jacobite supporters stormed the coffee house, and when the landlady’s husband, Robert Read, shot dead the leader of the rioters, Daniel Vaughan, they smashed their way in, mad with fury. While Read and some of the coffee house clients escaped “with some difficulty” out the back, and others sheltered behind a barricade on an upper floor, the rioters trashed the downstairs rooms, smashing all the furniture to sticks and drinking all the ale, or letting it pour onto the floor. The Sheriff came and read the Riot Act, passed only the year before, and when that failed to have any effect, mounted troops were called in. The tumult finally ceased, arrests were made, and five rioters were later hanged in Fleet Street opposite Salisbury Court. Read, meanwhile, was found not guilty of Vaughan’s murder. You don’t get THAT kind of thing happening in Starbucks …
Gosling and the Boar’s Head were given a page in Ned Ward’s rhyming pub guide to London, A Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, written around the same as the mug house riots. This makes the Tipperary today one of the few among the 200-plus pubs Ward wrote about in the Vade Mecum and its companion, the Guide for Malt Worms that are still open. Ward described the Boar’s Head’s landlord as “justly prais’d/and by his Courage and good Drink emblaz’d/Is to some height of reputation rais’d.”
He had a better reputation than a later landlady. In 1775 there was a complaint by the wardmote inquest against Sarah Fortescue, widow and victualler of the Boar’s Head alehouse in Fleet Street, for keeping her house open at unseasonable hours, frequently the greatest part of the night, and for harbouring and entertaining “lewd women and other infamous and disorderly persons to the great disquietude and disturbance of her neighbours.”
Some time after the premises had risen from mere alehouse status: in 1812 the Boar’s Head was described as “That well known and long established first rate Wine Vault and Liquor Shop,” brick-built, four storeys high, and in the occupation and on lease to Mrs Geary at “the very low rent of 50£ per annum.”
The Boar’s Head survived the demolition of its neighbour, the Bolt-in-Tun, and then became the fourth of the Mooney’s Irish House chain in London in 1895, four years after the death of JG Mooney himself (the company continued under his sons Gerald and John Joseph, the latter a nationalist MP and, in 1900, the youngest member of the House of Commons.) The Mooneys brought in an English architect, RL Cox, to refurbish the pub, and it was presumably under his direction that the mosaic floor was put in, and the front step installed that still says “Mooney’s”. A fifth pub, near Piccadilly, was bought in 1896. The original premises in the Strand were closed when Kingsway was built, but a new bar was opened at 395 The Strand in 1900 which, until it shut around 1967, was famed for having the longest bar in London. At one point the company had another pub in Fleet Street, at No 154, formerly the Portugal, which closed in 1910. The serving staff in all its pubs were all male and Irish – no barmaids, apart, apparently from a brief experiment around 1963 – and Mooney’s Irish Houses were known for excellent service, excellent prices and excellent food.
Through the 1960s the company began to retreat from London, with the former Boar’s Head disposed of in about 1966-67, which is when the name change from Mooney’s Irish House to The Tipperary looks to have taken place. At the same time the name The Boar’s Head seems to have been resurrected for the upstairs dining room, as indicated on the signboard outside the pub: I am sure I can remember that the name “The Boar’s Head” used to be visible between first and second-floor level on the pub’s fascia in the 1980s or 1990s. Greene King is supposed to have taken the pub over in the 1960s: I haven’t researched this particularly, but the 1979 Camra “real beer in London” guide shows the Tipperary selling Everard’s Tiger and Wethered’s bitter, which suggests this is as inaccurate as the rest of the signboard’s claims about the pub. It apparently closed for a couple of years around the start of the 1980s, I believe, for a refurbishment, and it was certainly a Greene King pub in 1986, when it was listed for the ’87 Good Beer Guide as selling IPA, Abbot and the much-missed (by me) Rayment’s BBA. I am middlingly sure I drank Rayments in the Tipperary about that time, since I would have hunted out a rare central London outlet for one of my favourite beers, though that was 32 years ago. GK looks to have sold the pub a few years back, and it is now under independent ownership.
That’s it: a vastly, vastly more accurate history of one of London’s oldest pubs than you will find anywhere. What are the chances of promoting the correct version of events over the one on the signboard? Not good, I fear: there are at least five books, a number of newspaper and magazine articles (including one from the Daily Mirror which was, again, wrong in every sentence) and dozens of websites repeating the total nonsense version, including one book published a couple of years ago that talks of “the famous Dublin brewer SG Mooney & Sons” – they can’t be that “famous”, mate, you’ve never heard of them before, because THEY DON’T BLAHDY EXIST. And the more observant of you will have spotted that this particular author can’t even copy inaccuracy accurately: the signboard outside the Tipperary says “& Son”, not “& Sons”.
(Astonishingly, should you have £46 to throw away, you can buy a Tipperary pub Christmas decoration, 7.5cm high, to hang on your tree – down from £82, apparently.)
So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.
If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.
There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.
All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.
Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.
Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …
However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.
Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.
You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which looks to be a cracker.
Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.
I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.
Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well, it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.
As a man who owns 14 different books just on the subject of hops, I am not, perhaps, the target market for such recent volumes as The Little Book of Beer Tips,Yet Another Atlas of Beer, or even 1001 Beers to Try Before Your Liver Explodes and You Have to Spend Three Years on a Dialysis Machine Waiting for a Transplant. I buy guides to beer like 1001 Beers cheaply, second-hand, in charity shops, because as they age they become good records of what was happening in beer in a particular year, which is very useful if, as has just happened, I write something on the recent history of a particular beer style. The 1984 Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer by James D Robertson, £5 in a second-hand bookshop in Chiswick four years ago, was out of date within, probably, two years but is now invaluable as a picture of the world of American brewing (and what it was doing with porter) just before it underwent Big Bang-style super-inflation, when there were fewer than 100 operating breweries in the US, across only 28 states. And not a single one in Vermont. I buy new books on beer only when I think I’ll learn something I didn’t already know, and, ah, yes, this is big-headed, but that doesn’t happen very often. So that means I’m not the best person to make recommendations about possible beer book Christmas presents for your ale-loving mum or dad.
However, I CAN still recommend two books that came out this year, one because it’s probably the most comprehensive in-depth look at the subject of beer and its ingredients as you’ll find anywhere right now, so that all but the most nerdily knowledgable will definitely have their beer education levels lifted, and even better, it’s entertainingly well-written; and the other because it’s on one of those subjects that, until you read a book about it, you probably hadn’t realised you needed to read a book about it: the history of the pub in the 20th century, or How We Got from Lloyd George to Tim Martin (not the actual sub-title, which is “From Beer House to Booze Bunker”, though perhaps it should have been …).
Pete Brown’s Miracle Brew (sub-titled “Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer”) is a book whose time had come, in that at least two other beer writers, to my knowledge, had been contemplating a “history of the ingredients” before Pete announced what his next book project would be about. Astonishingly less than a quarter of the population could tell you what all the ingredients of beer actually are, even though it’s still, by total number of glasses consumed, easily the biggest-selling alcoholic drink in the UK. As awareness of those ingredients grows, however – led, of course, by the increasing narrative around hops and hop varieties powered by the craft beer movement – curious drinkers do seem to be finally wishing to educate themselves more thoroughly on what goes into their beer, judging by the numbers (almost 600) who pledged money to the crowd-funding that paid for Miracle Brew to be published. That may not sound a lot in advance sales, but it’s better than many books do in total.
Pete is a travel writer as much as – or possibly more than – he’s a beer writer, and Miracle Brew explains how the ingredients that go into beer work with a series of journeys: to Warminster in Wiltshire, and to North Norfolk, to see how barley becomes malt, and to Bamberg, to talk about speciality malts with the people from Weyermann, whose name you will see on bags in the malt store of most breweries you might get to visit; to Dublin, Bohemia and Burton upon Trent, to investigate the biggest ingredient in beer by far, and the most under-appreciated, water; to Bohemia, again, and Kent (where he meets, and hails, a man who is also one of my heroes, Dr Peter Darby of the British Hop Association – amateur enthusiasts love professional enthusiasts) and Slovenia, and Oregon and Tasmania, to try to understand the allure of hops; and back to Burton, to Copenhagen, to Brussels and Amsterdam, and finally to Munich, in pursuit of yeast.
I don’t think it’s possible to write any fact-crammed non-fiction book without getting some of those facts wrong – I never have, and I was kicking myself only recently as I reread one of my early books and wondered why I had written that a butt of beer contains 120 gallons (it is, of course, only 108 gallons – three barrels). Miracle Brew does pretty well: there’s a howler on page 10 where the date that the Fuggle hop was discovered is given as 1785; the London & Country Brewer was indeed published anonymously in 1736 (p59) but we’ve known for around half a century at least that the author was a Hertfordshire farmer called William Ellis; Guinness didn’t start adding roasted barley to its stout as soon as it could (ie 1880), but waited around 50 years (p117); unhopped, unherbed ale isn’t automatically sweet, but has a tannic dryness and probably would have had a woody smokiness too, from the way the malt was dried (p174); the surname Hopkins most definitely does NOT mean “children of the hop” and was NOT given to babies born nine months after the hop harvest who ended up in orphanages, even if Dr Darby says so (p265) – it’s fundamentally the same origins as Robertson; and “kvaic” (it’s properly spelt “kveik”) is from Norway, not Finland (p354). And that’s it. Six small stumbles in 407 pages: well done Mr B and/or his fact checkers.
Pete is, no question, the most stylishly dextrous and verbally entertaining writer about beer in the English language right now, and because of that, Miracle Brew is a great read even, probably, if you’re barely interested in beer at all. Buy it for a pal you know likes beer: buy another one for yourself, you’ll enjoy it.
I was slightly surprised to find just how many people I knew of those mentioned in the pages of Miracle Brew, though beer is a small world. I was more surprised to find how many of the outlets mentioned in Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s 20th Century Pub I also knew: indeed, Chapter Four majors on a discussion of one pub I knew well from the age of six, the Pied Piper in Longmeadow, Stevenage New Town, which was a short walk from where my grandparents lived after they moved out from Burnt Oak, North London, and which had a large garden where children could run around and choke themselves on the blue bags of salt that used to come in packets of crisps, while their elders drank pints of mild and bitter from Simpson’s brewery in nearby Baldock. B&B use the visit by the Queen to the Pied Piper soon after it opened in 1959 as peg from which to hang a discussion of the 4,000 or so new pubs built in the decade or so after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.
Probably a couple of hundred of those new pubs were built, like the Pied Piper, in the first wave of New Towns, from Crawley to Glenrothes. It would be interesting to know how many of those New Town pubs have now closed: of the 15 pubs that were built in Stevenage New Town, at least seven have shut, including the very first one to open, in 1953, the Twin Foxes (named for a pair of notorious early 20th century Stevenage poachers, Albert Ebenezer Fox and his identical twin Ebenezer Albert Fox) in Bedwell, which is now flats. For comparison, the original Old Town of Stevenage, once a major coaching stop on the Great North Road, and the surrounding hamlets and villages the new town swallowed, had around 20 pubs and beerhouses in 1953, of which eight have disappeared: the New Town has thus lost 47 per cent of its “original” pubs, the Old Town and surroundings just 40 per cent (while gaining two more).
It’s that kind of question which 20th Century Pub constantly provokes: it is comprehensively researched and excellently footnoted, and will be a book I know I will be turning to whenever I have a question about recent events in British pubs, just as I turn to Brew Britannia, their equally comprehensive and deservedly award-winning survey of the past four decades of British brewing, whenever I want to check a fact. Run down the index, and it ticks off almost all the more obscure subjects I would wish to find in such a survey of pub history 1901-2000: the foundation and growth of the Trust House movement, Thomas Nowell Parr, Levy & Franks and the Chef & Brewer chain, the roadhouse movement, the ploughman’s lunch (thanks for the hat tip to my own Strange Tales of Ale, chaps!) Everything seems to be covered: the pre-First World War battle between brewers and the temperance parties about the very existence of the pub, the problems of the First World War, the “improved pub” movement of the 1920s and 1930s, “modern pubs”, estate pubs and theme pubs, gastropubs and superpubs, the threat to the community pub, and the concomitant rise of the micropub. And yet: I’d have liked more in-depth discussion of the history of many of the topics that flash by, such as Chef & Brewer, founded some time before the Second World War, probably the longest-lived “non-brewer” pub brand still going, albeit now under its fourth or fifth owner, Greene King, still with 145 pubs operating under the brand, but not one in central London, where the brand began: indeed, there are now only four Chef and Brewer pubs inside the M25. What happened to all the former Levy & Franks Chef & Brewer pubs? Are they closed, or running under other names?
I would also have liked more discussion on a topic that, as someone who grew up in a town that had large numbers of brand new pubs competing against large numbers of pubs that had been open for hundreds of years (the oldest pub in Stevenage, the White Lion – recently renamed, with no good excuse, the Mulberry Tree – has been around since at least 1652), continues to fascinate me: why were all the new pubs so soulless? B&B quote an Architects Journal piece from 1964 on “the post-war pub” which says of the sort of estate pub that dotted Stevenage, at one end of every parade of shops, with a church at the other end: “… in their architectural decoration [they] tend to reflect the type of house which surround them … often the pub could in fact be another house except for the inn sign and car park.” But if you look at New Town pubs, while they often do indeed reflect the surrounding estates in architectural style, namely blandardised “neo-Georgian”, they look more like a New Town corporation house after a huge intake of steroids: swollen and bloated. The family resemblance is still there, but if you took the innsign away, you still wouldn’t mistake this for a normal dwellinghouse. They were cold-looking and unwelcoming outside, and the insides were no friendlier. Nobody I knew drank in a New Town estate pub: Friday and Saturday nights it was on the bus and away to the Old Town. But why? What were those New Town pubs missing, and could they have been injected with it?
Those criticisms of 20th Century Pub apart, the error rate, again, appears to be commendably low: the original Stevenage was a town (since it had a market), not a village; the Bear and Baculus is not a “curious” name for a pub in Warwick, since “baculus” means “rod or staff”, and the Bear and Staff has been a badge used in Warwick and Warwickshire since the middle ages; craic is not a Gaelic word, but an “Irishisation” of the old North of England dialect word “crack”; table service was not an Irish oddity, but something that could certainly still be found in pubs in the North of England in the 1970s, where staff could be summoned to take orders via a bellpush on the wall; the bust of Carl Jung in an alcove at Flanagan’s Apple in Liverpool was not installed as a “whim” but in homage to the dream Jung had in 1927 in which he found himself in a mystic Liverpool, interpreting the city’s name afterwards as symbolising the “pool of life”.
If you have any interest in pubs (and I assume that since you are reading this blog, you do), this is a book worth buying: buy a copy for any friends interested in pubs, as well. And if reading it inspires you to answer some of the questions the book raises via some research of your own, all the better.
Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water Yeast and the Nature of Beer, Pete Brown, Unbound
20th Century Pub: from Beer House to Booze Bunker, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, The Homewood Press
This is the Craft Bier Bar. It’s a craft beer bar. The Craft Bier Bar is the first ever craft beer bar in Hanover, apparently. It claims to have the largest selection of craft beers on draught of any bar in the whole of North Germany. The Craft Bier Bar ticks off all the craft beer bar signifiers: back wall with 24 draught beer taps sticking out; back-lit, numbered list high behind the bar, hand-written in marker pen, of draught craft beers from at least three continents; glass-doored refrigerators with brews in bottle and can even more exotic than those on tap (OK, Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout may not be exotic where YOU live, but it is in Niedersachsen); no mainstream brands; unplastered walls decorated with neon signs and ads featuring beers from Belgium to Oregon; Edison light bulbs; and prices at least twice as high per glass as anywhere else local.
Should business take you to Hanover, the Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, in the Ballhofplatz in Hanover’s Old Town, is worth a call-in: you will certainly get an opportunity to try beers you won’t have had before. And some you have, of course: I’m not sure I have been in a craft beer bar anywhere that hasn’t been serving at least one brew from To Øl, and the Craft Bier Bar did not end this run. But be sure your wallet is well-stuffed before you step in. On my way to the Craft Bier Bar I popped in to a locals’ local to (a) get a decent wi-fi signal to recheck Google Maps (21st century problems) (b) see what the score was in the Germany-England match (0-0 at the time) and (c) wet my dry throat with a perfectly acceptable glass of Ratskeller pils from Gilde, Hanover’s AB InBev-owned big brewery. It cost me €1.90. Soon after in the CBB I was drinking a similar-sized glass of a fine, fruity American-style IPA from a small brewery in Berlin, Heidenpeters. It cost me €4.50: around £6.40 a pint.
Which left me musing: I was just about enjoying my first experience of a German craft beer bar, mostly because it WAS my first experience of a German craft beer bar, and worth savouring for that reason, but that apart, where would I rather be, back in the locals’ bar surrounded by a community of drinkers watching the footy, and paying nearly 60 per cent less for my beer, or trying to decide which of the other 23 draught beers available might be worth getting a bank loan for. Of which, and this is sad, just four were from German brewers.
In the final analysis, I decided the Craft Bier Bar was disappointing because, although being apparently perfectly well-run, with an excellent selection of beers, it was fundamentally a clone, a copycat experience, as ersatz as all the “Irish” pubs that bloomed briefly on British high streets in the 1990s, a repetition of an originally American style of drinking that you can now get around the globe, like McDonald’s, or, to be slightly fairer, Five Guys, and having as little real link with genuine beer culture, or my idea of genuine beer culture, as even Five Guys does with genuine gastronomy. I want a craft beer bar that doesn’t look as if it could be anywhere, in any city, I want it to have a beer selection that reflects the local scene more than it nods to the wider world. And I don’t want to feel its pricing policy takes the Michael.
And now, rant over, something else I pondered while in Germany: the largely unrecognised contribution Hanover has made to the iconography of the British pub. I don’t suppose many people from Hanover (or Hannover, as the locals prefer – emPHAsis on the middle syllAble) know there are still hundreds of British pubs – possibly a thousand or more – whose names have Hanoverian associations. It’s a reflection, of course, of the fact that Britain and Hanover shared rulers from 1714 to 1837. At least three pubs in England are actually called the Hanover, or Hanover Arms. The Hanoverian arms are the white horse on a red background that still appears on the flag of the German Land of Niedersachsen (“Lower Saxony” – I sometimes claim I live in Mittelsachsen), of which Hanover is the capital: and of the many pubs in Britain called the White Horse, a large number were first so named because their landlords wanted to show loyalty to the new royal family that arrived from North Germany after Anne, last of the Stuarts, died without managing to leave any surviving heirs, dozy tart.
How many pubs called simply the George are named after the run of four Hanoverian kings of the same name and how many after St George, mythical Turkish dragon-killer and patron saint of Catalonia, is probably impossible to disentangle, but there are plenty of pubs where a specifically numbered King George is commemorated. Strangely, George I never seems to have made it onto a signboard, but Georges II, III and IV did, the last more often as the Prince Regent. Pubs called the Brunswick are often named for the Prince Regent’s wife, Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick, who was dumped by her husband within a year of their marriage. Others of George III’s sons to get themselves on signboards was Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (the two pubs currently called the Duchess of Cambridge are named for the wife of the much more recent incarnation of that title).
The Prince Regent’s brother, William IV, was king when the Beerhouse Act was passed in 1830, which brought tens of thousands of new licensed premises into existence, and large numbers of new beerhouse keepers named their business after the new king. This means despite his comparatively brief reign, seven years, William IV is still the British king with the biggest number of pubs named after him, not counting the half dozen or more called the Duke of Clarence, his title before he was king, while his wife, Queen Adelaide, appears on around a dozen innsigns. (Until a few years ago she actually appeared on two pub signs in Teddington, Middlesex, the Adelaide, and the now closed Queen Dowager, her title after William died in 1837: she and William had lived next door in Bushy Park.) William IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, last of Britain’s Hanoverian monarchs, is the queen with the largest number of pubs named for her, of course. Her husband, Prince Albert, also has his face on pub signboards: but he’s a Saxe-Coburg, not a Hanover, and doesn’t count …
Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.
The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.
Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.
Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery? Continue reading How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen→