Category Archives: Pubs

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The 1984 Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer by James D Robertson, £5 in a second-hand bookshop in Chiswick four years ago, was out of date within, probably, two years but is now invaluable as a picture of the world of American brewing (and what it was doing with porter) just before it underwent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

Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery, by the Mississippi waterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

Continue reading Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am
Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929
An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading Snug beers and snug bars

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Don’t move that WC!

When you’re enjoying yourself down the pub, there will generally come a moment when urgent necessities need to be taken care of. But increasingly, pub owners seem to be putting difficulties in people’s way – by shifting their ground-floor conveniences to somewhere decidedly more inconvenient, involving negotiating often steep and narrow stairs. I am happy to give the opportunity for a guest rant on the subject of upstairs (and downstairs) loos to my good friend Mr James Castle of the parish of Twickenham in Middlesex – take it away, Jim:

A brief list of pubs and restaurants now with “grade separated” toilets in the Twickenham area: the Prince Blucher, near the Green, the Osteria Pulcinella in Church Street, the Eel Pie, also in Church Street, and the Waldegrave Arms and the Railway in Teddington. Al this is ostensibly to increase seating space for punters which, I suppose, is for rugby days, as these new areas are never occupied. Other pubs which have been like it for some while have their own quirks. The London Road (or whatever it is called now) allows some drinkers to use the downstairs loo; the Fox in Church Street leaves the disabled loo open for all and sundry; as does Twickenham’s JD Wetherspoon pub, the William Webb Ellis, where I do notice old blokes sneaking into the “universal”/disabled loo, sometimes having to queue. I think the staff might not lock it as part of their customer service.

The fermenting room at Fuller's Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the "dropping" system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.
The fermenting room at Fuller’s Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the “dropping” system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.

To use these ground floor loos the pubs usually provide a key from behind the bar but I’ve also noticed that some of the big chains (in other areas) allow the “RADAR” key scheme for access. In Twickenham, the George on the main drag, the Brouge/Old Goat or whatever on the Hampton Road, the Three Kings, also in the centre of town, the Barmy Arms by the river and the Sussex Arms by the green are all fine places where a gentleman does not have to climb the stairs to find relief, as are most pubs in Teddington, Hampton Hill, Whitton, Richmond (except the White Cross) and Kingston. But all the pubs I used to go in Putney are now “grade separated” (the Eight Bells a proud exception). I let the White Swan by the river in Twickenham off this “naughty” list as I don’t suppose it ever had a gents’ loo on the level of the bar.

In terms of culprits for all this aggravation, Messers Fuller, Smith & Turner seem to be the main offender, and I’m hearing rumours about the Prince Albert in Twickenham, which I understand is to undergo a refurbishment The “destruction” of their decent pub in Isleworth, the Royal Oak, is appalling, although I suppose there was no room to move the loos upstairs.

Anyway, how “disabled” do you have to be to use the designated ground floor loo? As a sufferer from the after-effects of prostate surgery, I try to avoid unnecessary flights of steps, which can lead to embarrassment, but it’s not as though I use a stick. I am not really disabled (or am I?). In any case, all this extra space the pub companies/breweries have created by moving the loos upstairs/downstairs never seems to be full!

The other problem is the under-supply of cubicles in gents’ toilets. One is not enough. It seems more and more men are eschewing urinals, not just us victims with urological difficulties, but also those with fly-button trousers, small willies and drug problems.

And another thing, the 2015 budget took a penny of a pint. Basically it didn’t happen as most boozers saw it coming and raised their prices by ten pence before Budget Day, and then reduced them by a penny. Pubs are still increasing prices twice a year, although I am told we do not have any meaningful inflation. No wonder pubs are empty. There’s only a certain amount of overpriced second-rate food a pub can sell to compensate for the missing regulars put off by prices. We’re not all baby boomers on generous final salary pensions …

JC

Fuller's brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller's to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back a considerable expense as the brewery expanded
Fuller’s brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller’s to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back at considerable expense as the brewery expanded

Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

The Micropub Association should be absolutely raging with the Campaign for Real Ale. Because under the misguided idea that it is “saving” the British pub, Camra is trying hard to make sure no new pubs ever get opened again.

Once again this is a case of not properly thinking through the implications of a proposed policy. What Camra wants to do is to try to make it much more difficult to close pubs (more on why that’s a stupid idea later). So why will making it more difficult to close pubs also make it much more difficult to open new pubs, in the way that the Micropub Association has been doing so successfully over the past few years, at a rate currently running at two a month (a better new pub opening record, afaik, than any pub company is currently achieving.)

The problem is that the restrictions Camra wants to put in the way of anyone trying to shut a pub means that landlords will be extremely reluctant to let their property be turned into a new pub. And similarly banks, building societies and other lenders will be deeply unwilling to give anyone a mortgage to buy a property they want to turn into a pub. Why? Because if the new pub business goes nipple-skywards after a year or three, the landlord now has a property that, under Camra’s proposed rules, needs planning permission to be turned back into something other than a pub. So instead of speedily being able to find another tenant, the landlord now has to go through the expensive and time-wasting procedure of getting the building “depubbed” again before it can once more become a coffee shop, an opticians or whatever. Similarly the potential mortgage lender is not going to want to risk having to repossess the building that housed a failed new pub business, and, again, having to find the staff, time and money to put in a planning application (do you know how long it takes to get a planning application through?) for change of use so they can then flog the place to a non-pub user. So – finance for people wanting to open new pubs is going to dry right up, because Camra has a dumb idea it thinks will help pubs stay open.

Indeed, the first move should anything like Camra’s “planning permission to close pubs” idea approach the statute books will be a rash of pub closures, as pub owners shut their marginal pubs before they have to seek local councillors’ permission to do so. But even if such a law did come in, does anyone seriously believe it would prevent a single pub from closing? Of course it wouldn’t. And trying to preserve failing pubs in aspic is a remarkably dumb idea anyway, because the ultimate effect is to damage successful pubs by depriving them of business they deserve.

The whole idea that pubs need special protection is nonsense, anyway, as I have frequently argued. Pubs are not sacred. The rights of pubgoers do not trump the rights of property owners. The disappearance of any pub is not the same as, eg, the disappearance of a Saxon church. Pubs are, and have always been, “churned” all the time: one closes, another one opens. (It may surprise you to learn that JD Wetherspoon has closed more than 100 of the pubs it has opened over the years). If a pub is making less money for its owner than it would under another use, the owner must have the right to maximise their income. If a pub closes, and a community feels it needs a pub, let someone open a new pub, in a more viable site with fewer overheads. Except that if Camra has its way, opening that new pub will be much more difficult.

Camra can’t even get its own arguments straight. It complains about pubs being turned into shops and then declares that “69% of all adults believe that a well-run community pub is as important to community life as a post office, local shop or community centre.” So – shops are important, too! Indeed, the reason why so many pubs are being turned into shops is because to many communities, local shops are MORE important than pubs, in the sense that more people use their local shop and spend more money in it, than use their local pub. I would guarantee you that any pub turned into a Tesco now has a wider selection of the community crossing its threshold, more frequently, than ever happened when it was the Duck and Dive, or whatever. Most pubs have a remarkably low number of real regulars, and the importance to the community that Camra ascribes to them in the 21st century is a product of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the times before the last old maid bicycled to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning (G. Orwell).

If there is one single thing that would increase the chance of survival of the British pub – and I won’t yield to you, Camra or anyone in my desire to see our pubs strong and thriving – it would be a dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served in those pubs. Cask beer is (or should be) the unique selling point of our pubs, and Camra would do a far better job thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints than inventing stupid tweaks to planning laws that won’t work, and will actually have a seriously detrimental effect on the efforts of people like the Micropubs Association trying to open pubs of just the sort Camra members approve.

Going places the civilians don’t

I’ll be frank: one of the good reasons for becoming a beer blogger is the opportunity it gives to go places, meet people, do things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do. (Free beer too? Well, there is some of that, true, but I turn a fair bit of free beer down, because I don’t do reviews, much.) The chance to get into places the public doesn’t get to see is one big reason why I decided to go to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin: I suspected there would be a chance to see extremely interesting things normally hidden from public eyes, and as we shall see, I was absolutely right.

One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn't look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp's would like him to be …
One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers, at the EBBC in Dublin … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn’t look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp’s would like him to be …

Fortunately for me, I have relatives in Dublin, so I was able to stay in the city for free: and I signed up early enough to grab one of the “bursaries” Molson Coors was offering, which effectively refunded the €95 conference fee, so mostly all it cost me was my air fare from Heathrow. When I signed up to come to the conference, I hadn’t been to Dublin since my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday in 2006, and as I said in my previous blog entry, in the past eight years – in the past TWO years – the Irish craft beer scene has exploded, so I was also keen to see how the beer offer had changed in Dublin’s bars, and what these new breweries were like.

As it happened, I had to go on a mother-in-law-related trip to the city in May, and took a day off to visit places recommended by the ever-excellent Beer Nut, Ireland’s premier beer blogger. Thus the Thursday night pub crawl organised for EBBC attendees and led by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale was less of a revelation to me than it probably was to some of the other 30 or so people on the tour, since, unsurprisingly, the BN had marked my card with several of the places Reuben took us to.

London & Dublin Stout at the Porterhouse
My Wedding Ale, London & Dublin Stout, still on display at the Porterhouse

They were certainly as mixed a selection as you’ll find in any good city, from the basic – Brew Dock, part of the Galway Bay Brewery’s own chain of pubs, but selling much more than just GBB beers – to the more typically Dublin elaborate-mirrors-and-dark wood of Farrington’s/The Norseman (it keeps changing its name back and forth) in Temple Bar via another very Dublin concept, the three or four-storey pub, of which JW Sweetman (named for an old Dublin brewery) and the Porterhouse are good examples, to the “stripped pine and books on the wall” Black Sheep, another Galway Bay Brewery pub, rather more like a “normal” English-style craft beer bar than most craft beer bars in Dublin, to the Bull and Castle, a substantially sized “craft beer steakhouse”. Just as a point of comparison, the only two places you would have found craft beer in back when I was last in Dublin out of that list would have been Sweetman’s, previously a homebrew pub called Messers Maguires, and the Porterhouse (which still, I was delighted to see, has the bottle of my wedding ale I presented them in 1997 on display in one of the bars).

Continue reading Going places the civilians don’t

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump Wetherspoon’s?

The two Irish beer fans lowered their voices and spoke almost in awe. They had been looking through the windows of the new JD Wetherspoon pub in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Blackrock, due to open its doors for the first time this Tuesday. “It’s got TWELVE handpumps!”, they said. That is twice as many as any pub in the Irish Republic has ever had before – and even that pub only had four handpumps actually working at any one time. Indeed, according to one (unverified) estimate, the 12 handpumps at the new ‘Spoons, the company’s first in the Republic, will boost the total number of working handpumps in the entire country by 33 per cent.

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump ‘Spoons? I was last in Dublin all of eight years ago, when the beer scene was still pretty dire. Since then, the country has seen a London-like explosion in the number of craft beer breweries, from a small handful to around 40 (indeed, one of the newest – N17 – actually sounds as if it ought to be in London, though it’s named after the road that runs from Galway to Sligo, and the brewery is in Tuam, rather than Tottenham).

Brew Dock Amiens Street Dublin
The bar-top line-up of craft beers at the Brew Dock in Dublin

Accompanying that has been a boom in the availability of craft beer: yes, Guinness, Budweiser and Smithwick’s are still ubiquitous, but if you’ve got the excellent Beoirfinder app, you’ve got a good chance of tracking a pub or bar with at least something more interesting on tap. And there are now bars, such as Brew Dock in Amiens Street, Dublin, near Connolly station, where the bar top has more than 20 craft keg taps, selling beers from the United States and Britain as well as Ireland.

If you can discover a working handpump anywhere, though, it’s likely to be just the one, and you could find, as I did in the Alfie Byrne bar in Dublin last Sunday, that the beer on the one handpump is almost irritatingly familiar – in this case Fuller’s London Pride. I can drink that 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Ironically, many great old Irish pubs still have a row of “policeman’s truncheon”-style handpump handles on the bartop, but they’ve not been used for 50 years. As soon as Guinness perfected the nitro-serve for draught stout, in the early 1960s, keg beer immediately replaced cask from Bantry Bay to the Derry quay, and from Galway to Dublin Town. (It was that dire situation, of course, that helped inspire them four fellas on holiday in the Republic in 1971 to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.) Continue reading Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump Wetherspoon’s?

Micropubs: revolution in the making or just five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space?

The micropub movement – numbers now past 40 and rising, with new examples seemingly opening every week – seems to have avoided any sort of critical backlash so far, probably because it’s still very, very tiny (like the pubs themselves). But I fear it won’t be long before a definition of “micropub” appears based on a TripAdvisor review of the “original” micropub, the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent: “Five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London
The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

I say this as a card-carrying member of the Grumpy Old Man demographic myself, but that is the surprising aspect of the micropub “mini-boom” – it turns on its head every recently received wisdom about the way forward for the British pub, about how the wet-led boozer catering for old gits who are only interested in pints and chat is on its Last Orders, about how those pubs which fail to gastro-reinvent themselves are doomed to end up as supermarkets or blocks of flats.

The facts are, sadly, there to show that, across the board, places that stick to “LADs” – long alcoholic drinks – as their main attraction are putting up the shutters. It’s not just pubs: between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of social clubs in Britain fell by 417, or 3.1 per cent, a closure rate of eight a week (and with no help or hindrance from the pubcos, you’ll notice: you do NOT have to be a pubco tenants to find the current climate extremely chilly. ). But pubs are suffering, of course: over the same period, “wet-led” or drinkers’ pubs fell by almost 600, or 2 per cent, a rate of just over 11 a week. Many of those were town centre pubs, which are particularly feeling pain. Food-led pubs, meanwhile, nudged up slightly, from 11,334 to 11,357, while restaurants shot ahead, with a net gain for the year of 1,470 outlets. In other words, for every wet-led pub that closes, two and a half new restaurants open. That trend looks set to accelerate: between now and 2018 it has been predicted that the number of “wet-led” pubs will fall by 10 per cent, or about 2,900 boozers, while food-led pubs will increase in numbers by 7 per cent and restaurants by 5 per cent. (All figures from CGA Peach.)

Now, all the micropubs in Britain added together right now still don’t beat one month’s “wet-led” pub closures. But since a micropub – food-free, no keg offering, the sort of beer-only alehouse that was already disappearing before the Second World War, typically filled with unaccompanied men over 50, often in or near town centres – is a reversal of everything else happening in the pub market right now, we may eventually have to ask: “Is this just a few hobbyists, or have the big pub operators actually missed a trick?”

Indeed, the micropub movement looks to have produced its first home-grown entrepreneur, with James Mansfield, owner of the Medieval Beers brewery in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, opening a third micropub under the name “Beer Shack”, in the town that shares his name, to follow the first two Beer Shacks in Hucknall and Burnley respectively.

Could this be the sign that micropubs are moving from what could, even a few months ago, be dismissed as an eccentric hobby into the mainstream of British hospitality? There are, apparently, so many people now looking to open a micropub themselves that the Micropub Association has declared that “the micropub revolution is going bonkers”, and put a warning on its website that “due to the sheer numbers of enquiries we get from potential micropub owners, we are unable to give you any individual advice [or] enter into individual email discussions regarding the viability of the setting up of your micropub.”

The Association has just restated its definition of what a micropub is, moving from a declaration that it had to be small, in size, a conversion of an existing premises, primarily selling real ale, with “NO lager whatsoever”, and filled with “lively banter and chat with no music”. Today the Association says that “a micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Is the micropub as a route to running your own pub business a threat to the traditional pubco tenancy? As the Micropub Association’s website points out, the would-be micropub landlord has a fair number of advantages over those looking to start up a “traditional” pub. The small size of a micropub means low costs and maximum use of space; no music means no costly music licences and no expensive sound system to pay for; no food means less work, fewer skills required, less space needed, no hygiene exams to pass, no additional costs because of the potentially expensive oversight by environmental health officials, and no “scores on the doors” rigmarole to deal with; no keg lagers or other keg beers means no complicated equipment and no need for bar space; the potential for low rates due to being rated as a shop rather than a pub; from that, low water rates, which are traditionally based on the rateable value; and if you keep turnover below £75,000 a year, the chance to save on 20% VAT. What’s not to like?

We won’t, I don’t think, be able to tell if the micropub movement really is a revolution or a fad until micropub numbers get into at least low triple figures, and we don’t see a rash of closures. But the fact that the movement has gone from a very slow start – the Butcher’s Arms opened in 2005, there were no more micropubs until 2009 and still only a dozen by the end of 2012 – to what looks like a (still small) rocket surge suggests that something extremely interesting may be happening.

How will it affect the rest of the pub business if micropubs really do become mainstream? Well, it could certainly cut back on the number of people looking to run a pubco tenanted pub, if they think they can start up a micropub all of their own for, probably, less money than acquiring a tenancy would cost. But a pub that takes in a year what the average JD Wetherspoon outlet takes in a fortnight is probably not going to worry too many big operators. And the big operators – and most other pubs – probably won’t be losing much business to the micropubs anyway, since the customers micropubs seem to be attracting look to be those who stopped going out to “ordinary” pubs 20 years ago, and stayed at home instead.

On the other hand, since the micropubs seem to be proving that there is a demographic out there which is not currently being served properly by the “mainstream” pub industry, and since new business is always welcome, it may be that big operators start to consider the advantages of running micropubs themselves. In just the way that Tesco, having captured the “big destination shop” supermarket sector, moved into town centres with smaller Tesco Metro stores to mop up what remained, could we see someone like Wetherspoon, having captured so many high streets, decide to move into the suburbs with a chain of “Spoons Local” micropubs?

(A variation of this article appeared on the Propel Info site)

How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know

I don’t like people telling me what to do: very probably you are the same. I don’t just get angry at people telling me what to do: I also get angry when people try to tell other people what to do, arrogantly and without cause, people like James Watson, who holds the position of East London Pubs Preservation Officer for the Campaign for Real Ale.

I live in a nice Edwardian house that has a covenant in the original deeds which declares that it can never be used as licensed premises. Do you think that’s wrong? I think that’s wrong – it’s my house, and within the limits of the law, I should be able to do what I like with my own property. If I want to turn it into a freehouse called the Duck and Dive, then – provided I don’t inconvenience my neighbours more than is reasonable – that should be my right.

Turn that covenant on its head, and any major restriction on my right to do what I like with my property within the bounds of the law applies just as much – that is to say, if there were a covenant on this dwelling saying it could only ever be used as a pub, that it must be a pub for all time, that would be just as wrong. It’s mine, I own it – don’t tell me what to do with it.

James Watson, however, disagrees. A gentleman called Sandeep Johal has bought an old Victorian pub called the Prince Edward, in Wick Road, Hackney. I’ve never been in it, but from the outside it looks like a pretty typical East End boozer. Mr Johal wants to knock it down, and build a five-storey block of nine flats in its place. He owns it – it’s his property, and within the law, surely he should be permitted to do with it what he likes. Nine flats in Hackney – sit down now if you’re reading this outside London, but flats in E9 can go for anywhere between £500,000 and £750,000 each. I’d guess that even after the cost of acquisition and building, Mr Johal would be looking at a profit of £3 million or more, minimum. Is anyone going to pay him £3 million more than it cost him to acquire the Prince Edward, just to keep it open as a pub? Is he going to make £3 million in rent in any time under 30 years if it continues to run as a pub? (Clue – no, twice.)

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters
Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Mr Watson says otherwise. He told the Hackney Citizen “The only reason [Mr Johal] wants to bulldoze this pub and build flats is for short term financial gain for himself” – James, you’re saying that as if it’s a bad thing – “at the expense of this community, and as a representative of a consumer rights organisation that champions responsible drinking, I think that stinks.” As a member of that same consumer rights organisation, and as a strong supporter of responsible drinking, I can’t see what either consumer rights or responsible drinking have to do with someone’s right to do with their own property what they want to.

According to the Hackney Citizen, Mr Watson then went off on a rant against hipsters, apparently based on the fact that the Prince Edward’s customers are largely working class and, in considerable part, of West Indian origin. The Citizen quotes Mr Watson as saying: “The problem with gentrified hipster Hackney is that you leave other people behind. You leave behind working class, dare I say poor, downtrodden people. [You may dare say, James, but I fear you sound like a pretentious, patronising prat for so daring] These are salt of the earth people who are not going to pay £5.50 for a bottle of craft beer. They want to be in a place where they recognise the food offering. Many of these people’s parents and grandparents have been coming here and marking their life events here for years. They are almost the forgotten people of Hackney, but these people are council tax payers and they have been here a lot longer than the hipsters.” There you are, Mr Johal: the rights of the people to eat sausage, egg and chips and drink cheap beer trump your right to do what you want with something you bought.

I love pubs, and I hate pub closures just as much as James Watson hates pub closures. (I quite like hipsters, though – I like the way they’ve brought the dimpled beer mug back into fashion.) I’m as sorry as James Watson is that the people of Hackney look like losing a place that has been a part of their lives since the 1860s. But the idea that because a building is or has been used as a pub, that makes it special and privileged, and deserving of protected status is nonsense. It’s just the same nonsense that saw the self-styled “pro-pub party”, the Liberal Democrats, pass a motion at their spring conference in York a couple of weeks ago under the title “A Better More Sustainable future for British pubs”, proposing to give pub tenants the right to buy their freehold at an independently assessed market value if their pub company puts the site on the market. But “market value” as what?

A premises might have a market value of £500,000 as a pub, since the returns on its usage as licensed premises would only support that valuation, but a value much more as a supermarket, if the returns on its use as a supermarket supported that value, and a value of millions if it was a suitable site for conversion into a block of flats. If the law the Lib Dems want brought in says the tenant can only buy his pub’s freehold at a price that reflects its higher value as a supermarket, or a block of flats, then if he buys it, he is going to struggle to cover his costs trying to run it as a pub. If, on the other hand, under the Lib Dem proposals, he can buy it at its value as a pub, but it is still worth more as a supermarket, or a block of flats, the first thing any smart tenant will do is flog the pub to Tesco, or a property developer, himself, thus (1) transferring hundreds of thousands of pounds of value from pubco to tenant and (2) still losing the “community” an “asset”. Is this really what the Lib Dems want?

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing. A pub is not an irreplaceable asset, the way a Norman church is.

If a pub is truly an “Asset of Community Value”, as defined by the Localism Act of 2011, then the community will be showing how much it values that asset by walking through the door and spending enough money every week to dissuade any pub owner from closing it. Truly thriving pubs, pubs that make more money as pubs than they would do as anything else, don’t need protection. It will be argued that many pubs would thrive without the overheads of the pubco on their backs: but this ignores the very considerable support, visible and invisible, the pub receives from the pubco, and the fact that any tenant buying a pub from a pubco won’t be getting that support and will now have the overheads of his new mortgage-provider on his back instead. It will be argued that some pubcos, desperate for money because their bondholders are putting the squeeze on, will sell even a thriving pub to a supermarket if it can get that quick hit of much-needed cash from the sale. But again, just as nobody will run a pub if they can make more from it as a supermarket, a supermarket operator isn’t going to run a supermarket in premises that would genuinely make more as a pub.

It will also be argued that in places like Hackney, the price of property is a threat to every pub, that the money to be made from redeveloping each and any pub site into blocks of $500k-a-pop flats means even the most thriving pub is in need of protection. That may be true, though I note that even around Oxford Street, where rents are truly shocking (this is no hyperbole – I saw a room full of experts literally gasp a couple of weeks ago at the news that the rent on an Oxford Street restaurant site was £2.3 million a year), pubs still manage to stay open. But I still don’t believe that if a building is a pub, it must be a pub for ever: I cannot see how somewhere that was operating as a nail bar, for example, suddenly becomes privileged because it has been turned into a pub. And I strongly believe that the only results of the Liberal Democrats’ new policy would be either to persuade some pub tenants suddenly able to buy the pub a pubco wants to sell to try to keep unviable pubs going at their own expense, with every likelihood of failure, or to rob pub owners of much of the value of their pubs and hand it to tenants for nothing, while still ending up with a closed pub.

(Parts of this rant appeared on the Propelinfo.com site on March 14 2014)