Category Archives: Book reviews

If you buy one book on pubs this year …

The “we ran a pub” category of published biographical reminiscence is small, but still includes several classics: John Fothergill’s An Innkeeper’s Diary, for example, arch and snobby, with dropped names covering every page like drifts of autumn leaves – “Ernest Thesiger turned up for the first time … the D’Oyley Cartes came with their usual big party” – and George Izzard’s One for the Road, about the Dove at Hammersmith, which is less snobbish but almost equally rammed with famous customers (“Alec Guinness came in and ordered the drink most appropriate to his name … Dylan Thomas never drank heavily at the Dove. His usual order was a pint of mild and bitter.”)

Now another behind-the-bar tell-all has arrived, doubly unique because it’s about a female mine host, rather than the usual landlord’s tale, and it has been written by the grand-daughter of the main character, not the person whose name was on the licence. But The Last Landlady, by Laura Thompson, deserves your attention for more than its celebration of women running pubs: it is both a paean to a particular successful and charismatic female publican, and an elegy that, ultimately, commemorates and mourns what Thompson clearly feels is a fading, vanishing, dying version of pub life, where landlord/landlady and customers were willing actors in a daily drama, each knowing their parts and performing them for the satisfaction of themselves, their audience and the others in the cast. Thompson’s grandmother Violet Ellis was, it is clear, one of the great bar owners, barely known outside her small section of rural England, but queen of all that lay under the shadow of her innsign and at the same time – if I may mix myself a metaphor – ringmaster of the circus that performed twice daily between 11am and 2pm, and 6pm and 10.30.

But the book is called “The Last Landlady” because, Thompson clearly believes, the sort of landlady Violet was, the sort of pub that Violet ran, no longer exist, can no longer exist, when fewer people visit their local regularly – fewer people even have a local – and the opportunities for women like Violet to be the stars in their own long-running show, an attraction in the daily theatre of the pub deserving of higher billing even than the drink and the craic, have vanished in an era where the idea of the pub as a club that anybody can be a member of, that having the price of a pint in your pocket empowers you to lift the latch of the public or saloon bar door and enter a separate world where everyone is, or should be, on their best and brightest behaviour, has itself vanished, and the pub is simply a place to get cheap food and watch top sporting action on a screen probably only a little larger than the one in your own living room.

Thompson does not name the pub that her grandmother ran, saying only that it was “in the rural Home Counties”, but there are enough clues in the book to identify it as the Cross Keys, in the village of Totternhoe, close by Dunstable Downs, and some six miles to the west of Luton. She does not name the pub that her grandmother’s father, John (or Jack) Solomon, had run, either, called in the book “the old pub”, which her grandmother had expected to take over when her father died. But again there are enough clues given to identify it as the Richard III in Castle Street, Luton.

The Richard III, Luton, after its rebuilding in the 1930s, when Violet Solomon would have been working behind the bar

John Solomon has a terrific back-story: he was born in Sidney, Australia, and – or rather, because – his great-grandfather was Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, one of the most notorious criminals and fences in early 19th century England, and the man that Charles Dickens based the character of Fagin on. Ikey Solomon had escaped from custody in London in 1827 and fled to America, but his wife Ann had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, where she arrived together with several of their children. Ikey learnt of this and travelled to Tasmania himself to be with his family but was eventually arrested by the colonial authorities and shipped back to England for trial. The punishment the court in London imposed, somewhat ironically, was transportation back to Tasmania. Ikey Solomon’s third son, David, who was only nine when his mother was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, settled in Tasmania, and married. One of his sons, Alfred, moved to Melbourne, and then Sydney, before emigrating back to London around 1877, living in Paddington with his family, including the young John, who was aged two. None of that is in The Last Landlady – probably because it doesn’t really fit the narrative, rather than because it’s embarrassing to say “I’m descended from the man who inspired Fagin.” But I’m a journalist, and I love a story that will make readers go “Wow!”, whether it integrates smoothly into the plot or not.

John Solomon is supposed, according to one source, to have “played for Queens Park Rangers in the first year they turned pro,” which would have been 1889, when he was only 14 – no record can be found to substantiate this, though he was living in the right part of London, Paddington, to be a QPR supporter – and to have “spent a number of years as head foreman to a London brewery.” He does, at least, appear to have worked at a brewery, since his occupation is described in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as “beer cellarman” and the industry he worked in as “beer bottling”. He was still living in Paddington in 1914, when Violet was born, the first girl after five boys to John and his wife Alice, who came from Bristol. In October 1916, however, John had the licence of the Richard III in Luton transferred into his name, the existing licensee, Ambrose Holland, telling licensing magistrates that he was now a soldier and his wife was unable to carry on the pub.

The Richard III (still open today, under the name O’Sheas) was originally a row of cottages, converted to a public house in 1846, and was rebuilt by its brewery owner, JW Green’s of Luton, in the 1930s in a very neo-Georgian style, with a red brick frontage extending up above the bottom edge of the roof. By 1939, aged 25, Violet was a manageress there, along with her husband, Charles Ellis, and their five-year-old daughter Josephine, while John Solomon, then 64, was the licence holder. Alice Solomon died in 1943, and with her husband apparently called up into the armed forces and her father now in his late 60s, Violet was effectively, as Thompson calls her, the châtelaine of the Richard III, running the pub on her own. Ellis seems to have disappeared out of the door (he and Violet were divorced in 1944 – Thompson says the divorce took place “just after the war”, but reveals that it was granted on the same day that the actress Jessie Matthews was divorced, which allows it to be dated to the month after D-Day). When her father died in 1952, aged 77, Violet must have had the expectation that the brewery would allow the licence of the Richard III to be transferred into her name. She had, after all, lived at the pub for all but two of her 38 years, and been involved in running it for a fair slice of that time, much of it with only an elderly father to help.

The Cross Keys, Totternhoe no later than 1938, when it was being supplied by Benjamin Bennett’s brewery in Dunstable

However, the brewery would not let her have the licence: according to Thompson, it was because she was a daughter, and not a wife – or a son. It was a knock-back, but strings, apparently, were pulled for Violet by influential friends, and Whitbread’s brewery in London eventually offered her the licence of the Cross Keys, which it had acquired from the owner four years earlier. The pub had literally just been designated a Grade II listed building, on the grounds that it dated from at least the 16th century (claims have been made that it is even older, first appearing in the 1420s), but it was run-down, with no proper bar, no bathroom, no real upstairs floor – the pub sitting room stretched up to the height of the thatched roof – an outside privy and a customer base of ruddy-faced local farmers and dominoes enthusiasts. Whitbread sent the builders in, the sitting room was given a real ceiling, with a bathroom installed above, a bar was built, the “cellar” (actually an outside shed) revamped and thatched to matych the main building, and Violet, “black-haired, bejewelled, bohemian”, installed herself behind the bar, where she would graciously accept whiskies from admirers, surreptitiously tipping them out onto the floor by her stool.

According to Thompson, Violet was “the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own right, that is to say, as neither a wife nor a widow.” As it happens, the history of the Cross Keys itself destroys this claim. The name of the pub, incidentally, is both easy and difficult to explain. Totternhoe was home for hundreds of years to quarries that dug out the soft local clunch, or chalk, easily worked, which make great building stone for the interiors of churches. Henry I founded the Priory of St Peter, Dunstable, in or just before 1124, and endowed it with, among other riches, the quarry at Totternhoe. The badge of St Peter is, of course, crossed keys. The pub’s sign thus strongly suggests a link with the Augustinian foundation of St Peter in Dunstable, through the priory’s ownership of the nearby quarry. But the priory was dissolved by another King Henry in 1540, and whatever the age of the building it occupies, the pub is first named as such only in 1808, in an advertisement in the Northampton Mercury. Is it credible that folk memory kept the link between Totternhoe and St Peter’s Priory alive for more than 250 years, to give the Cross Keys its name? Anyway, returning to the main tale: by 1824 the landlord was John Clements, who was born around 1799. He ran the Cross Keys for more than 40 years, but by 1871 he was dead, and his eldest daughter Mary, then aged around 37, was listed as the licensee at the Cross Keys. Mary, known as “Miss Clements”, was still in charge in 1890, but by 1902 her younger sister Hannah, then 61, was the licensee. Hannah died “in harness” at the Cross Keys in February 1909, aged 68. So the Cross Keys had female licensees who weren’t wives or widows, but daughters. for a stretch of at least 37 years, almost half a century before Violet.

The Cross Keys, Totternhoe circa 1902-09, when, the sign above the pub door shows, Hannah Clements was the landlady

This is not the only story in the book to make the fact checkers twitch. Thompson says Violet would speak of another pub a few streets away from her father’s:

“The daughter of this pub’s landlord was a few years older than my grandmother, equally attractive although in pure English style. In youth she too served behind the bar, and received the adoration owing to the dauphine; this, however, was not enough for her. She went to London, became a C.B. Cochran chorus girl, married one of the biggest film stars of the day and ended up the wife of an earl.”

This would be Sylvia Hawkes, and the real story is even more spectacular than Thompson’s version. Sylvia was step-daughter (rather than daughter) of the landlord of the Painter’s Arms in High Town Road, Luton from at least 1925, Frank Swainson, and one of the most successful serial brides of the 20th century, married to not one but two of the biggest film stars of the day, as well as a baron, a prince, and, not actually an earl, but the eldest son of an earl.

Sylvia was born, like Violet, in Paddington, in 1904, and worked as a lingerie model in the early 20s, before becoming a dancer in the productions put on by the theatre impresario CB Cochran, starting with the Midnight Follies, and swiftly, beginning in 1924, moving into acting. Despite claims, it is not clear if she ever did appear behind the bar at the Painter’s Arms: one source reckons she “ran away from home at the age of 15”. In 1927 Sylvia made her first marriage, to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Lord Ashley, eldest son and heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury: it was one of the year’s great scandals, as the Earl and Countess fought to dissuade their son from marrying the actress, threatening to disinherit him and cut off his allowance. The day before the wedding, the Earl was denying that it would take place, while Lord Ashley’s sister was declaring: “Such an alliance is unthinkable. An Ashley-Cooper can never marry a Follies girl.” When a telegram arrived at the Shaftesbury’s 17th century ancestral pile in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset announcing that the wedding would be happening that morning, the earl and countess threw themselves into a limousine and ordered their chauffeur to break all speed limits to get to the church in Knightsbridge, 120 miles away, to try to stop the ceremony. They arrived only in time to see the newly weds leaving the church, to the cheers of a huge crowd, with women, it was reported, fighting to see the bride.

It was also reported that Lord Ashley had been in such haste to organise the marriage that he had not bought a wedding ring large enough to fit his bride, and “was obliged to hold it at the end of her hand, looking rather foolish. This detail does not affect the legality of the ceremony, but superstitious people say it brings bad luck.” So it proved. Less than 18 months after the wedding, Sylvia and Lord Ashley had parted, the actress apparently unhappy with life on a farm in Worcestershire. She moved to Hollywood, as “Lady Sylvia Ashley”, though if she ever made any films there they appear to be desperately obscure. However, she became a big hit with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of Hollywood’s superstars, starting an affair with him that led to his separation from his fellow Hollywood star Mary Pickford, in 1933, and Sylvia’s divorce from Lord Ashley the following year. Sylvia and Fairbanks married in 1936, but he died of a heart attack only three years later. The widow Fairbanks then returned to England, where in 1944 she became the second wife of Edward John Stanley, 6th Baron Sheffield, 6th Baron Stanley of Alderley and 5th Baron Eddisbury. That marriage lasted just four years, and Sylvia was back in Hollywood, where in 1949 she married her second movie superstar, Clark Gable: it has been said that she reminded him of his previous wife, Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942. Within three years Sylvia and Gable had also divorced: undaunted, in 1954, Sylvia picked up her fifth wedding ring, marrying Prince Dimitri Djorjadze, a Georgian nobleman, racing car driver, racehorse owner and hotel executive. This time the now Princess Sylvia Djorjadze stayed married until her death in 1977, though she was apparently separated from her new husband within less than a year. She died in Hollywood, and is buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It was a tremendous career for a former Luton publican’s stepdaughter.

A drawing of the Cross Keys from 1942

There are also a few missing facts in The Last Landlady more pertinent to Violet’s story: no mention of the fire at the pub in April 1966, which destroyed the thatched roof and upper storey, nor her second husband, Roy Barrett, who was running the pub with Violet at the time: the pair lived in a caravan in the grounds until the Cross Keys was repaired. Again, like Ikey Solomon, Barrett and the fire are most likely omitted because they would interfere with the flow of the narrative. Never, as journalists like to declare, let the facts get in the way of a good tale.

Because this is a good tale, a great tale, filled with terrific, well-presented anecdotal evidence of how one woman, through her will, her charm and her innate talent as a landlady, turned a run-down rural inn into a PUB in capital letters, a place with personality in every brick and beam – and how the kind of pub Violet ran is evaporating away, doomed, Thompson fears, to disappear:

“The process whereby pubs ceased to be the cornerstone of people’s lives was slow … They were still loved. They still are loved. But gradually they ceased to be intrinsic to society …Without the ballast of unquestioned love, the knowledge that it was wanted, the pub faltered.”

Decline, Thompson says,

“did not begin in the 1980s, yet there was something about that time that was inimical to pubs … It was the aspirational quality that was unleashed by money-centricity, all that Sloane Ranger Handbook and property porn and Filofax-flaunting, which in different form is still with us … Put very simply, the pubs that moved with the times, that acquired wine lists and logos and a matte veneer, became a part of that brighter new world. The pubs that were left behind, that retained their connection to the bench and the sawdust, that for all their roughness remained innocent – they were implicitly the habitat of the unevolved, the victims, those who had failed to aspire … The notion of a pub as a place where people simply congregated, a social hub that did not need to be named as such because nobody would have doubted it, or even thought about it, all this was evaporating.”

This is a thesis that rejects the smoking ban and greedy pubcos as the major causes of the scything down of pubs over the past 30 years, and points instead to deeper changes in society, in people’s needs. It suggests that the pub, as we knew it, is no longer wanted, and ultimately doomed. I wish I could deny this with total confidence.

Last-minute Christmas beer book recommendations

Postcard from 1906 showing the ‘largest and smallest employees’ of Watson Brothers’ Wembley brewery, Sudbury, Harrow, North London. The brewery closed in 1910. There’s no particular reason for showing this picture, except that it’s great

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.

Pied Piper, Stevenage, 1959, designed by Messers Moore, Simpson & Cleverly for Simpson’s Brewery, Baldock

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).

The Twin Foxes, the first pub to open in Stevenage New Town, built by Stevenage Development Corporation and leased, at first, to three brewers jointly: one local, McMullen’s of Hertford, and two from London, Whitbread and Mann’s

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?

The public bar at the Twin Foxes, the first pub in Stevenage New Town. Note the five handpumps on the bar

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?

The ‘mixed bar’ – that is, the ladies were allowed in – at the Twin Foxes, Stevenage in 1953, before furniture was installed

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

Best-selling business advice from a BrewDog

As the only beer writer on the planet with an MBA (probably), it falls to me to give a business school-style review on behalf of beer drinkers to Business for Punks, the just-published “how we succeeded and how you can too” guidebook from BrewDog co-founder James Watt.

Not that any review is likely to make much difference to the book’s popularity: it is already the number-one best seller in the “entrepreneurship” section of Amazon’s UK website, and in the top 350 best-selling books on the site overall, despite only being published last week. The book, it appears, is as popular as the beer.

Thanks, James we get the idea
Selling like hot … um … ale … James Watt and book

Business manuals from stars of the American craft brewing scene have been popping up like mushrooms in the past few years: Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Tony Magee of Lagunitas, Steve Wagner and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Jeremy Cowan of Schmaltz have all written books about how they started and grew their businesses, Calagione has a second book out in December, Off-Centered Leadership: The DogFish Head Guide to Motivation, Collaboration and Smart Growth, and Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, has his “how I did it” book out in April 2016 .

Britain’s craft brewers have been slower to get their experiences on paper: maybe they’re too busy brewing. It’s not as if we lack an audience for how-to-be-a-successful-brewer books: large numbers of people apparently want to brew commercially. Some 200 new breweries have opened in the UK in the past 12 months, and the country now has more than twice as many breweries per head as the United States: 1 to 38,000, against 1 to 80,000. More likely, we lack the “superstar” brewers that the US has, people whose name on the cover will attract the buyers. I doubt that Watt wrote the book and sought a publisher: much more likely that someone at Penguin Random House approached Watt with the idea

Watt, of course, and his fellow founder of BrewDog, Martin Dickie, are among the very, very few candidates for “star brewer” in the UK. More than 6,000 people turned up to BrewDog’s annual general meeting in Aberdeen in June. Six thousand people. In Aberdeen. Admittedly this is not so much an AGM as a beer festival-cum-love in, with something on the order of 40,000 pints of beer consumed. But there isn’t another brewery in Britain that could hope to attract that level of support. And as Pete Brown once pointed out, when even his Stella-drinking mother in Barnsley has heard of BrewDog, you know you’re looking at a powerful brand.

So: what’s Watt’s book like?

Continue reading Best-selling business advice from a BrewDog

In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

Why oh why am I still having to write lengthy corrections to articles about the history of India Pale Ale? Well, apparently because the Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, is happy to print articles about the history of India Pale Ale without anybody doing any kind of fact-checking – and William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, appears to be one of those writers who misinterpret, make stuff up and actively get their facts wrong.

The article Bostwick had published on Smithsonian.com earlier this week, “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name”, is one of the worst I have ever read on the subject, crammed with at least 25 errors of fact and interpretation. It’s an excellent early contender for the Papazian Cup. I suppose I need to give you a link, so here it is, and below the nice picture of the Bow Brewery are my corrections.

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London
The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Museum of London

“The British Indian army” – most of the British troops in India in the 18th century were in the three private armies run by the East India Company. There was no such thing as “the British Indian army” at that time. Continue reading In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?

Errrr …

Me.

OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller's Book of Beer
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer

Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who works freelances for Jacqui Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.
I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …

Continue reading How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Guinness …

 

Mein Fröther
Mein Fröther: the image even Guinness probably wouldn’t have tried to get away with, Hitler with a pint-of-stout moustache

There are some images that are just wrong: uncanny, creepy. One of them is a poster of a smiling, steel-helmeted Nazi-era German soldier holding a pint of stout, with the words in Gothic script: “Es ist Zeit für ein Guinneß!” What makes this poster even weirder is that it’s by John Gilroy, the artist who produced so much classic Guinness advertising imagery, from the flying toucans with glasses of Guinness on their beaks to the Guinness drinker carrying the huge girder. Even people born decades after those ad campaigns ended know the posters.

The German soldier saying: “Time for a Guinness!” is one of a number of images Gilroy produced in 1936 for the advertising agency SH Benson in connection with a campaign in Germany that never went ahead. Today those putative posters look – well – naïve. Guinness-bearing toucans flying over a swastika-draped Berlin Olympics stadium? More Guinness toucans flying escort to a swastika-decorated airship? “Guinness for strength” demonstrated by a mechanic lifting a German army half-track single-handed? Guinness toucans zooming past the Brandenberg Gate, as a man who looks like the Guinness zoo keeper dressed in what appears to be the uniform of the SS Feldgendarmerie stares up, alarmed? (Bizarrely, these were the very first use of the “flying toucans” image, which did not appear in Britain until 1955, and the famous “toucans over the RAF aerodrome” poster.)

Guinness German soldierThey all appear in a fascinating new book by David Hughes, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, which features a mass of material from the SH Benson archive in London that mysteriously vanished in 1971 and, just as mysteriously, semi-surfaced in the United States a few years ago, when canvases from the archive started appearing on the art market.

As well as the German material, there are a host of other draft posters by Gilroy in the book, mostly painted in oil on canvas. Many are for other overseas campaigns that never actually appeared: toucans flying over the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Brooklyn Bridge and the Kremlin; Greek and Israeli farmers pulling the cart with the horse in (changed to a donkey) to illustrate “Guinness for Strength”: men popping out of manholes and holding up Russian and Israeli steamrollers. There are illustrations of cars, used to advertise Guinness on posters and in calendars, which show what a fine automobile artist Gilroy was – although, again, seeing a picture of Hitler’s six-wheeler Mercedes staff car with “Congratulations from Guinness” underneath, or one of another iconic German vehicle over a pint of stout with the words “VolksWagen – Volks Bier” is weird, weird in an alternative-universe, “What if Germany had won the war?” way. Some are for domestic campaigns that, again never saw daylight: a series of posters for the 1948 London Olympics on the theme of “My Goodness – My Guinness (a sprinter running off with the timer’s pint, for example), and “Guinness for Strength” (a Guinness-powered javelinist hurling his javelin way out of the stadium).

Hughes, who produced the excellent A Bottle of Guinness Please, an extensively illustrated and thorough round-up of the history of Guinness bottling with lots of Guinness-fact goodies (spoilt only by the lack of an index), gives the fullest account I have seen of Gilroy’s life and art in Gilroy was Good for Guinness. I wasn’t going to buy it (on the grounds that I already have far more books on Guinness than any sane man should own) but I couldn’t resist the Nazi Guinness pics.

Guinness halftrack

Guinness German Olympics

Guinness Brandenburg Gate

Guinness airship

The book has a good account of Gilroy’s portrait-painting, which included several members of the royal family, and politicians and military men, such as Churchill and Eisenhower. The trouble is that the pictures in the book show Gilroy wasn’t a very good portrait painter, in the sense that his paintings, while technically excellent, just fail to hit the target: they appear to be of entrants in a famous-person-lookalike competition, rather than who they are actually meant to be. If you don’t know who the person is, then nothing appears to be wrong. If you know that it is meant to be, say, Prince Charles, you can see that it isn’t quite right.

It also contains one revelation I certainly didn’t know: that when Benson’s lost the Guinness advertising account in 1969, and thus Gilroy was no longer producing ads for the stout brewer, Guinness felt it owed the artist so much for all the pints and bottles of stout his artwork had helped to shift that it offered him a £2,000-a-year honorarium for life, a sum worth perhaps £27,000 in today’s money: not a huge amount for a man who was a member of the Garrick Club and living in Holland Park Road, Kensington, but much better than a poke in the eye with a paintbrush.

It also attempts to detail the story of the Benson advertising agency’s archive after Benson’s was sold to Olgilvy and Mather in 1971. Somehow the archive, including the Gilroy Guinness collection of original artwork for poster campaigns both used and unused, was sold to, or acquired by, an anonymous American. Parts of the archive began to appear on the market in the United States in 2009. Subsequently more and more of the collection appears to have been disposed of, with canvases selling for up to $14,000. Unfortunately the parts of the story of the archive are scattered through what is an unfortunately frequently bitty book, which could have done with a good editor to pull it all more tightly together. That same editor could have prevented the occasional infelicity and error, such as spelling the name of the actor Kenneth More incorrectly.

All the same, if you’re interested in Guinness, or in breweriana, Gilroy was Good for Guinness is probably worth its £20 price tag. In many ways, it’s Guinness porn at its best. And those German posters really are disturbing.

Update: hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for this – there’s a far better account of the mystery millionaire who bought the Benson’s archive than the book gives, and lots more great illustrations from the book, on the Collectors Weekly website here.

Last words on the Oxford Companion to Beer

It’s a year since the Oxford Companion to Beer arrived to some small controversy over the number of inaccuracies in its 860-odd pages. Time enough for some calm reflection, perhaps.

I apologise for lifting the lid again on what became, at times, a heated ruckus between the OCB’s defenders, proud of the achievement that had pulled together more facts about beer than had ever been assembled in one place before, and those of us that felt there were a few too many of those facts that failed to stand up under scrutiny. But yesterday was the day I finally put up the last of my own contributions to the excellent OCBeer Wiki, the “comments and corrections” website organised by the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod, which means I can now give a proper reply to Clay Risen, who complained after the OCB corrections wiki had been up for less than a month that the OCB’s critics had really not found very much to complain about:

The Wiki has only about 40 entries, and most of them deal with matters of interpretation. In a book that may have upwards of 100,000 factual statements in it, the presence of a few dozen errors, while regrettable, is pretty impressive.

If only. One year on, and thanks to the efforts of more than 30 contributors, the Wiki now has corrections to more than 200 entries in the OCB, almost one in five of the total. The corrections add up to, so far, just under 32,500 words. Some corrections – to “pale ale”, at more than 1,000 words, and to “Pilsner Urquell”, at almost as many – are as long as or longer than the original OCB entry.

Some of the errors in the OCB are actually rather funny. Ed Wray of the Old Dairy Brewery in Kent found a great one that, somehow, everyone missed. Under “cask” the OCB says: “After filling, a plastic or wooden stopper called a shive is driven into the large bunghole on the belly, and a smaller one called a keystone is driven into the tap hole.” However, as Ed points out in the Wiki, the keystone is actually driven into the tap hole before filling the cask – otherwise the beer would pour out onto the floor. My own “gotcha!” is in the entry for “California” (page 204), which says that “[T]he state of California’s influence on American beer culture cannot be underestimated.” It certainly CAN be underestimated. What it cannot be is OVERestimated. (For the widespread problem of overnegation see eg here) Continue reading Last words on the Oxford Companion to Beer

The Oxford Companion to Beer: how the temperature became raised

I was going to blog about the London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis last Saturday (great event, let’s see more like it), but since my comments on the Oxford Companion to Beer have driven Garrett Oliver into apoplectic rage, infuriated Pete Brown, and apparently sent waves crashing around the beery blogosphere, I thought it would look odd if I don’t acknowledge all that. Particularly because I’ve been accused, through criticising the OCB’s accuracy in, admittedly, quite a fierce fashion, of being “hell-bent on destroying the conviviality of the beer world”. But this is NOT the clubbable, comfortable beer world – this is scholarship, and commercial publishing, and boosting people’s reputations by being associated with a prestigious project, and selling an expensive product that the OUP intends to make a considerable profit on.

Garrett Oliver, editor of the OCB, who took my criticism very badly, accused me of McCarthyism (eh?), and declared that “in essence” I referred to him “as a dupe, a cretin and a liar, piloting a project populated by lazy idiots”. I didn’t refer to him at all, actually, and I certainly didn’t use any of those words.

Garrett also reckoned that my criticism was “intemperate and inconsiderate”. But the OCB lays claim to being “an absolutely indispensable volume for everyone who loves beer”. If you make that sort of boast, you ought to expect a vigorous kicking if you appear to be falling short of the high standards you have set yourself.

Was I angry when I wrote that a quick glance found enough errors to suggest the OCB could be a disaster in the battle for historical accuracy in beer writing? Yes. Why? Because I spent seven years researching a book that had, at the end of it, one chapter detailing a long list of beer history myths that were regularly repeated in books and magazines, but which, after I had tried to verify them, I found were all demonstrably untrue, unproveable or extremely dubious. A trawl though those parts of the OCB available on the net shows at least seven of those myths have been printed in its pages as “facts”. Given the OCB’s inevitable status as a product of the Oxford University Press, those errors I believed I had killed off are now going to be repeated again and again. And I thought: “Why did I spend seven years researching a book, while trying to maintain the most rigorous standards of accuracy, and not let any story I had been unable to verify get through, only to have the OUP come and piss over my work?”

Should I have been angry? I make errors – I know I do. There’s an appalling howler in my first book, on breweriana, involving the comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, that still makes the back of my neck turn red when I recall it. And cock-ups happen: having been involved in newspaper and magazine production most of my working life, I can understand just how the OCB managed to print a picture of the Marble Arch pub in Manchester in a montage supposedly of pubs of London. On the other hand there appears to be a certain I-don’t-know in, eg, the OCB misidentifying a beer label from the Silver Spring Brewery, Victoria, British Columbia as “English”, presumably because it’s a label for “English-style Burton-type ale”. Or the OCB describing one of the stained glass Windows Of Privileges from Tournai Cathedral as “C 19th century” when it is from the end of the 15th/beginning of the 16th century. (Mind, I once put the wrong date on another one of the Windows Of Privileges myself. If you bought Beer: The Story of the Pint, please turn to p48 (hardback edition) and correct “The view inside a 14th century brewhouse” ” to “late 15th century/early 16th century brewhouse”.)

And I cannot imagine what went wrong in the editing process at the OCB to produce the statement under the “Distribution” entry that

“There are about 9,000 managed pubs in the UK. These are pubs owned by a brewery.”

Certainly the writer credited at the end of the entry never wrote that, because he’s a very senior British beer journalist and knows there are thousands of managed pubs in the UK not owned by brewers. In 2007, in fact, there were indeed 9,000 managed pubs in the UK, but 6,500 were owned by pub companies, and only 2,500 by breweries.

Continue reading The Oxford Companion to Beer: how the temperature became raised

The Oxford Companion to Beer: a dreadful disaster?

My copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer is currently on its way to me from the US, but, alerted by the comments of others, I’ve been dipping into the book using the “look inside” facility on the Amazon.com website, and … well, here’s one tiny quote from the entry on “Bottles”:

In the United Kingdom the imperial pint (568 ml) remains a popular size …

This completely invented “fact” appears in an entry that was a mash-up of several separate pieces on bottles, including a couple by me, put together into one article apparently for space reasons. I was sent the revised entry to comment on, I pointed out the error, and still it went into print.

Unfortunately the “pint bottle remains popular in Britain” factoid looks to be appallingly far from an isolated example of “information” in the OCB being either made up or out of date or just wrong. Here’s a very small part of the entry on “Britain”:

Continue reading The Oxford Companion to Beer: a dreadful disaster?

A Christmas present for a beer lover


Looking for the ideal present for the beer lover in your life? Or maybe the beer lover in your life is you, and you want a simple, satisfying answer to that annual question from spouse/parent/child: “What do you want for Christmas this year, then, you awkward old get?” The Zythophile blog has the perfect answer: Amber Gold and Black, the history of Britain’s great beer styles, the first and only book to cover the story of every type of British beer from IPA to stout, from mild to porter. For Americans it’s available via here, if you’re in the UK you can get it here, and if you don’t want to use Amazon you can buy it from Beer Inn Print here.

Amber Gold and Black shows the routes each British beer type took as they evolved into the beers we know today, and details some of the top examples in each style. If you want to know just how the pint in your hand came to be the way it is, whatever it’s a pint of, Amber Gold and Black is the book to tell you.

The book reveals, among other fascinating stories, how bitter, regarded around the world today as the typical British working man’s pint, was born as a drink for snobs in the early years of Queen Victoria; how mild, the biggest-selling beer style in the country when the Beatles released their first LP, was originally strong and pale rather than weak and dark; how porter, the British beer style that once swept the world, owes its success to the 18th century equivalent of a Ferrari-driving City smoothie; how stout became “good for you“; how India Pale Ale was a lucky accident that came about because of the greed of several dozen ships’ captains; how Britain lost its wheat beer tradition because James II lost his throne; and how a weed that infests thousands of British lawns was once just one of dozens of herbal flavourings in British ales. It looks at the important role British brewers played in helping two young men from Munich and Vienna develop modern lager; it charts the invention and rise of golden ale and wood-aged beers, two of Britain’s newest beer styles; and it details long-vanished British beers such as broom ale, mum and West Country white ale.

Here’s a selection from some of the latest reviews of Amber Gold and Black:

Continue reading A Christmas present for a beer lover