Exactly when it started happening I’m not sure, but bitter, once the glory of the British beer scene, is disappearing. In the place of all those marvellously hoppy, complex bitters and best bitters we once sank by the pottle and quart, we now have brews sold under the same brand names, made by the same breweries, very probably to the same recipes, with the same ingredients – but describing themselves as “amber ales” instead.
Take London Pride, for example. Until very recently Fuller’s was delighted to call this classic beer exactly what it was and is, and has been for more than 60 years, since it first appeared on bartops – a best bitter. Now it’s an “original ale”. Let’s stifle the pedantic retort that an “original ale” would be brewed without any hops at all, and merely ask ourselves: WTF?
Similarly with Wadworth’s 6X, formerly a “traditional draught bitter”, now a “crafted amber ale”. It would take Jacques Derrida to deconstruct what the word “crafted” is doing in that description, but he’s dead, and since he was French I doubt he drank English beers of any sort anyway, so let’s have a stab ourselves and suggest it’s been stuck in there in an attempt to add some unneeded “authenticity” to a beer that has been around for more than 90 years and needs no help from clueless marketeers.
The word “bitter” is disappearing from bartops and bottle labels across the country. Marston’s Pedigree, “The King of Bitters” once, now just another amber ale. Shepherd Neame Spitfire – “premium bitter” when it launched, “Kentish amber ale” today. Hook Norton Brewery’s Hooky bitter – now just “Hooky”, “amber and well-balanced”. Brain’s SA, formerly proud to call itself a best bitter, now just a “premium cask beer”. Arkell’s BBB, which is actually short for “best bitter beer”, is now branded simply as “3B”, with no clue as to where that comes from. Wells’ Bombardier, “English premium bitter” until recently, today a “British hopped amber beer”. Again, WTF? Unless the Scots and Welsh have started growing hops again, and as far as I am aware the last hop gardens in those countries closed in the 19th century, what will be going into Bombardier will be English hops. Is “English” another word, like “bitter”, that cannot now be mentioned in the context of beer marketing?
Not all bitters are dark cornelian-amber, of course, particularly those from the North West of England: thus Robinson’s Unicorn Bitter from Stockport is now Robinson’s Unicorn Golden Ale. JW Lees seems to be resisting, but even its bitter, while still proudly branded “Bitter”, is described today on the pumpclips bottle labels as an amber ale (though, while you CAN get amber that pale, that’s not what I’d call “amber-coloured. And incidentally, Lees, that claim on your website that “our all-malt amber bitter was first brewed in 1828” – I doubt that very much. Nobody was brewing well-hopped bitter ales outside London and Burton for decades yet.)
If you think this is just the big guys trying to move their beers away from cloth caps and roll-ups, I’m afraid not. Woodforde’s Wherry bitter, which stunned me when I first drank it more than 35 years ago – today, another amber ale.
Not everybody is doing it, of course, and it still looks to be only a minority that have ripped the page with “bitter” on out of their dictiionaries: there are plenty of brewers, hurrah, large and small, still proud to call their beer a bitter, a best bitter, even an extra special bitter. But it worries me that some brewery marketing departments seem to think “bitter” is a dirty word, and the way to sell a classic, traditional English product is to call it an “amber ale” instead. It’s dumb, it’s dumbing down, and it’s insulting to the beers and to drinkers, suggesting that they would skitter away from a word that they might associate with their granddad, and refuse to drink something called a bitter lest they sprout a fuzzy grey beard and their Converse sneakers turn into sandals.
It is as well the Portman Group wasn’t around when Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was fitting out his expedition to the Arctic in 1852 to try to find out what had happened to Sir John Franklin and his gallant men, lost on their voyage in search of the North West Passage seven years earlier. The Portman Group would have tried to tell Sir Edward that the Arctic Ale he was taking with him to sustain his men, brewed by Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent to around 11.25 per cent abv and shipped in “reputed quarts”, a whistle under 75cl, smashed its guidelines, being 8.4 units of alcohol in a single container, or more than twice as much as was permissible. Sir Edward would doubtless have replied in sailorly fashion, leaving everybody’s ears severely scorched.
The Portman Group’s “Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks”, which has just been updated, is fundamentally an exercise in arse-protecting by the drinks industry, an attempt through “self-regulation” to persuade the government not to listen to the nanny-state neo-prohibitionists who would like, in lieu of total prohibition, as many restrictions on the sale of alcohol as possible, accompanied by as much tax as the market will bear. The group, the self-styled “drinks industry watchdog”, is there to assure politicians that the makers of alcohol are doing sufficient to prevent harm caused by alcohol for there to be no need for any more government legislation.
Unfortunately you can never satisfy the wowsers enough without banning alcohol altogether, and the Portman Group appears to be incapable of standing up to people like the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and pointing out that whatever harm alcohol does, it brings much pleasure to a far greater number of people than it hurts. The result is the pursuit by the group of policies that will actively reduce the legitimate pleasure possible, in particular, from the consumption of strong beers such as barley wines and imperial stouts, with their massive depths of flavours, apparently under the misapprehension that the only people who want to drink a beer over seven per cent ABV are tramps sitting on park benches, and that tramps need to be prevented from getting drunk
SIBA, the small brewers’ group, has been getting seriously upset at changes in the new guidelines over the strength of beers, with its chief executive, Mike Benner, declaring that they “threaten new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles,” and “SIBA is disappointed the Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.”
But this isn’t new at all: the attack on strong beers has actually been Portman Group policy for years – the guidelines already specifically stated that “putting in excess of four units in a non-resealable single-serve container indirectly encouraged immoderate consumption of alcohol, contrary to rule 3.2(f).” Carlsberg was found in breach of the guidelines in 2015 over its 500ml cans of nine per cent abv Special Brew, which contained 4.5 units of alcohol, which is why it is now only available in the UK in 440ml cans at 7pc abv, which is three units.
That ober dicta was based on the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, which, at the time, suggested no more than four units of alcohol for men per day. When the CMOs came out with new guidelines in 2016 which dropped the daily limit in favour of a weekly one, the rug was tugged sharply from under the Portman Group’s justification for ruling against Special Brew, since producers could argue that as long as a drinker wasn’t having a can every day, there was no problem. They haven’t said so, but I’d bet what worried the Portman Group after the CMOs changed their line was having to argue in court in support of a four-unit limit per can or bottle if they were challenged.
In its summary of the responses to the consultation document it put out before the new guidelines were formulated – I recommend reading it – the Portman Group declared that it has decided that in future “containing more than four units becomes a contributory rather than an absolute factor: if the producer is able to demonstrate that mitigating factors should be taken into account – for instance, premium quality of the product, whether the product is typically decanted/shared, price at which it is typically sold, accompanying promotional material, et cetera.” In other words, convince us you’re an aspirational, upmarket product, preferably designed to be shared, and not tramp juice meant for solitary sipping while surrounded by pigeons, and we’ll think about letting you off. So in fact the new guidelines represent a slight relaxation of the previous restrictions, and if Carlsberg were to print “please share responsibly” on cans of Special Brew it might, perhaps, get away with putting the size of the cans back to 500ml and the strength up to nine per cent again. (Errr – though probably not …)
However, the Portman Group is still declaring that “single-serve, non-resealable containers that contain upwards of six units will be difficult to justify, even with mitigating factors,” with this upper limit “in line with UK binge drinking measure which is currently set at six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women.” It says its research shows that while nearly two thirds of people think a 75cl bottle of wine is for sharing, fewer than half think the same about a 75cl bottle of beer, making that bottle “single-serve”, according to its rules, and thus a container that should not have more than six units of alcohol inside. If a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, this would rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle.
Among the beers that break the new Portman Group guidelines, and therefore face a potential ban, by being stronger than eight per cent and sold in 75cl bottles, are beautiful brews from the US, such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops, or Local 2, Rogue’s XS Old Crustacean barley wine and Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments; a rake of great beers from Italian craft brewers, who go for 75cl bottles in a big way – pun semi-intended – including the wonderful Xyauyù Barrel from the Italian brewer Baladin; and a fair number of beers from the Netherlands and Belgium, including Chimay Grand Reserve, De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (and several other De Molen beers), Duvel Barrel Aged (I had some of the third iteration of that earlier this week: excellent beer, like oak floorboards smeared with blood oranges), and Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux.
There are not so many examples of big beers in big bottles from the UK (indeed, not the least problematical aspect of this policy is that since it vastly disproportionally affects overseas producers, and the Portman Group is funded by UK producers, there is a very good argument for saying that it represents an attempt at an illegal restraint of trade – not that that may matter so much in a post-Brexit world). Sadly, unlike Belgium or the Netherlands, Britain has long lost that tradition of hefty strong stouts and barley wines in anything but nips: 33cl at best. Even a 12 per cent beer in a 33cl bottle just misses a rap on the knuckles from the Portman Group, at 3.96 units. But half a degree over that and you’ll be on the carpet and asked to explain yourself: what mitigating factors are there that we should wave you through and let your beer be sold to responsible adults perfectly able to make their own purchasing decisions without nanny hovering?
And if you’re thinking of reproducing great beers from the past such as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, in the original style of bottle, to give a good change of some bottle-age (because smaller bottles age worse than larger onea, for a variety of reasons), fuggedaboutit: you’ll be red-carded as soon as some do-gooder spots your beer on the shelf and grasses you up to the lasses and lads at 20 Conduit Street. The result is, indeed, as Mike Benner says, that innovation by British brewers is being cramped: we had a long history in this country of super-strong beers, from the thumping pale ales that the squirearchy used to brew on their estates in the 18th century as a substitute for bandy during our many years of war with France to the huge Burton Ales we exported to Russia and (somewhat surprisingly) Australia, and, of course, all those thumping stouts that eventually earned the name “imperial”. But if the Portman Group prevails, anyone trying to reproduce those beers from the past in any bottle size worth laying down will have to prepare a lengthy brief justifying themselves for daring to exceed four units a bottle. It seems clear the “watchdog” is hoping its barking will scare away strong beers entirely.
I cannot avoid seeing a strong streak of snobbism in this. The Portman Group gives the impression that it still sees beer as an inferior drink, and beer drinkers as people who need protecting from themselves. My local off-licence will sell you two 75cl bottles of 12 per cent abv Spanish red wine for the equivalent of £5 a bottle. If someone were selling large bottles of 11.5 per cent Arctic Ale at that price, there would be howls, from the Portland Group to the Daily Mail. But it’s OK: wine drinkers are nice people like us, and don’t need to be policed.
I have a huge amount of respect for John Cryne, who had done vastly more for the cause of cask beer than I have, over four decades as an activist in the Campaign for Real Ale that includes a stint as Camra national chairman and a long period as chairman of Camra in London. I’ve known him since at least the early 1980s, when he and his wife Christine (who has also, of course, worked tirelessly to advance appreciation of cask ale, in particular as organiser of the Great British Beer Festival for many years) were pillars of the Mid Beds branch of Camra, while I was chairman of its North Herts branch. John is a highly intelligent fighter for what he believes to be right, strong and undeviating in pursuit of his aims, with fools not suffered and the faint-hearted treated with scorn. But he’s entirely wrong in his call for a picket outside the EGM that has been called by Fuller, Smith & Turner for its shareholders to vote on the take-over of the London company’s brewing operations by the Japanese giant Asahi.
We all have emotional bonds with the brands that we love – that’s exactly what brands are designed to do, to make us have a passion for the product. But turning up at an EGM with placards and banners to protest at a take-over is like turning up outside your ex-girlfriend’s house with placards and banners to protest at her dumping you. It also fundamentally misunderstands the real relationship between consumers, brands and the companies that produce them. It may feel like love to you. But to the brand owner, it’s entirely a monetary transaction – and it couldn’t, shouldn’t be anything else.
In his call for a picket of the EGM, John said the sale of Fuller’s brewing side was “a betrayal by the family shareholders who we thought were committed to brewing in London for the next two hundred years.” This really is the language of Jilted John:
I’ve been going out with a girl
Her name is Fuller’s
But last night she said to me
When we were watching telly
(This is what she said)
She said listen John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you
So it’s the end for you and me.
Fuller’s is not your girlfriend, shouting “Asahi’s a moron!” will get you nowhere,and the decision of the family shareholders to sell is not them betraying you: indeed, the prime and pretty much sole responsibility Fuller’s shareholders have to have is to themselves – why should it not be, they’re risking their own money in the company – and the betrayal would be turning down the £250 million that Asahi offered. If anyone felt Fuller’s owed it to its drinkers to keep independent, they don’t understand how business works. As I already pointed out, even after costs and et ceteras, that represents all the earnings Fuller’s might expect from the beer division until 2038. In the meantime it still has the pubs and hotels side of the business, which is making 87 per cent of the profits anyway.
I have great sympathy with everyone whose reaction to the news of the sale was sadness at the thought of the loss of a historic link to which they had a big emotional attachment: I have a big emotional attachment to Fuller’s myself, although I can’t agree, again, with John Cryne in declaring that “this is not an action we expected from a brewery we have respected and supported since Camra was founded.” I’m not just talking about the enormous amount of slagging Fulle’s gets from Camra members on, eg, the Camra Facebook page (“brown twiggy pish”). To my father’s generation – and he grew up in West London – Fuller’s in the 1950s was a brewery to avoid, nicknamed “Fuller shit and turds”. It took a long time for Fuller’s to reach Camra cult status: in 1974, just a few years after the Fuller’s board had scrapped a proposal to close the Griffin brewery and move production of all the beers to a new greenfield fizz-factory near Heathrow, the Good Beer Guide found “only a handful” of Fuller’s pubs selling cask beer. By 1975 that was just ten out of 116 tied houses. The following year the number of pubs with handpumps had risen to 16, it was 38 out of 112 in 1979 and 66 out of 122 in 1981 – still barely more than half of all the tied houses with “real ale” in them.
The numbers were rising steadily, but even in 1984 a third of Fuller’s pubs did not sell cask beer, and four years later one in ten Fuller’s pubs were still keg-only. Only by 1990 had that dropped to “a handful”, five out of 149, at which point Fuller’s had picked up a Usain Bolt-style haul of medals at the Great British Beer Festival. The brewhouse was redeveloped in the early 1990s, increasing capacity by 50 per cent, while the number of tied houses was climbing too, up past 200 by 1994. Fuller’s head brewer, Reg Drury, and his young assistant, John Keeling, were starting to experiment with new brews: 1845, based on a 150-year-old recipe, for the 150th anniversary of the Smiths and Turners joining the Fullers in the business, and Vintage Ale, a strong bottle-conditioned beer designed to be laid down and matured for years, first produced in 1997. Vintage Ale, in particular, has continued to amaze and fascinate beer commentators: the vertical tastings of different brewings of Vintage Ale in the Hock Cellar at the Griffin Brewery have been some of the finest evenings of beer I have ever been involved in.
Still, if as Jim Armitage of the Evening Standard said, “We must mourn the passing of the last great London-owned, brewed and bred beer,” it’s a process that has been happening for 120 years, since Watney’s merged with their porter-brewing rivals Reid’s of Clerkenwell and Combe’s of Covent Garden in 1898. There were 90 breweries in London in 1904, and just 10 in 2007. Tick off the great London breweries we have lost since the 1974 Good Beer Guide: Charrington’s of Mile End in 1975, Whitbread in Chiswell Street in 1976, Mann’s of Whitechapel in 1979, Courage by Tower Bridge in 1982, Truman’s in Brick Lane in 1989, Young’s in Wandsworth in 2006. Indeed, tick off the 80 or so family-owned breweries listed in the 1974 GBG: 45 have now closed, more than half, and another seven are still open but under different ownership. That’s exactly one closure a year. Of those closures, I can tell you at least a dozen that I miss deeply: Rayment’s in Hertfordshire, Hartley’s in the Lake District, Higson’s of Liverpool, Paine’s in St Neots, Ruddle’s … all gorgeous beers. And that doesn’t count the many breweries owned at that time by the Big Six that were still producing great brews: the former Fremlin’s brewery in Kent, Wethered’s in Marlow and the ex-Starkey Knight and Ford brewery in Devon, for example, all, under the Whitbread umbrella, making beers that I loved when they were around and mourned when they disappeared.
So forgive me, then, if I’m a bit mourned out, having to cope with the disappearance of dozens of beers over the decades that were all certainly up to the high standards that Fuller’s has set. That’s life. At least Fuller’s is still brewing – and there are 2,000 other breweries in Britain now, against the fewer than 200 we had in 1974. That, at least, should cheer us all up.
The Japanese beer giant Asahi has made a massive vote of confidence in the future of the real ale sector in the UK with its £250m purchase of Fullers’ beer business.
And if that’s not the angle you took away from the story, you’re not thinking this through properly.
The beer business earned Fullers £10.6 million before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the 12 months to March last year. The net cash going into Fullers’ pockets after the deal with Asahi is completed is expected to be around £205 million. So the purchase price means, effectively, Fullers receives all the earnings it might have got from the beer business (assuming nothing had changed) for the next 19 years, until 2038, in one lovely big cheque, right here and now.
At the same time, Asahi has to cover its £250m payment for the business out of the profits it expects to make from it, and preferably in not too long a time: its current return on invested capital (ROIC) is apparently 7.34 per cent, which would pay off the purchase price for the Fullers beer business in just under 14 years. In other words it expects that business to be at least as profitable as it is now for at least the next decade, in order to cover the cost of buying it, given the returns it normally gets.
Nobody bungs a quarter billion big ones at a business unless they think that business has a future, and they’re going to get a decent return on their money. Fans of cask ale, and Fuller’s beers, should be cheering until the pint glasses rattle on the shelves at the confidence Asahi is showing in the sector.
Inevitably, of course, the usual army of whingers has come out and shown the usual failure to understand how business works, and what the strategies of the two companies involved in the deal are. Some seem to think Fullers should have turned the Japanese offer down: this would, of course, have been both stupid and illegal. It’s the job of a company’s board to maximise the returns for that company’s shareholders: if they are offered a risk-free way to bring in today all the earnings a part of the company might see for two decades, and they push it away, they would rightly be sued for not acting in shareholders’ best interests. In Fullers’ case, the division it is selling represents only 13 per cent of operating profits. It intends giving between £55 million and £69 million of the cash from Asahi to its shareholders straight away, and putting a bung into the company pension scheme as well, but that still leaves a substantial sum – over £120 million, certainly – to spend on new pubs and hotels, which bring in much more money than brewing does. The City is certainly clear on what a great move Fullers has made: the shares closed up 15.5 per cent, and Douglas Jack, a vastly experience City analyst, declared: “This transformative deal provides the foundation for many years of strong growth. We are moving our recommendation from ‘Add’ to ‘Buy’.”
Asahi clearly thinks there is profit to be had in the business of supplying beer to British pubs,. With Fullers’ emphasis, still, on cask beer brands it obviously believes buying the rights to brew cask beer is worth a substantial wodge of corporate cash and there is a hearty future ahead. Meanwhile, on the “oh no the accountants will ruin London Pride” front, as part of the fall-out from the AB Inbev-SAB Miller merger, Asahi ended up with Pilsner Urquell and Meantime in London, among other Western beer brands. I’ve heard no moans from either of those two concerns about how the Japanese are treating them. If you pay a lot of money buying a product that sells on its premium image, you don’t mess about with that image.
The keyboard warriors who wave their anti-corporate credentials, declaring that now Fullers’ beers are going to be brewed by a multinational conglomerate they won’t be drinking them, are particularly nauseous: they’re typing their rants on a computer, or a phone, made by a multinational, using electricity from an energy supplier that is probably also a multinational. A fair few years back I was in the wood-panelled boardroom at the Griffin brewery, all heavy oak tables and oil paintings of bewhiskered Fullers, Smiths and Turners from Victorian times on the walls, and I asked Michael Turner, then the company’s managing director, later its chairman, if he didn’t occasionally feel oppressed with all these ancestors staring down at him. “Frankly,” he said, in his forceful Old Etonian accent, “I don’t give a fuck.” I would be confident that, whatever the whingers are saying, Fuller’s is currently not giving a fuck all the way to the bank.
Finally, let’s offer many congratulations to Twickenham Fine Ales, my local craft beer brewery, which finds itself, just 15 years after it started, now London’s oldest independent brewer. That won’t be something founder Steve Brown ever expected to happen.
The Tipperary, in Fleet Street, has a fair claim to “oldest pub in London” status. You wouldn’t know this from the information you will find about it on the web, in books and magazines, and even the noticeboard outside the pub, which makes much of its storied past. Unfortunately, almost everything written about the history of the pub – including, shamefully, that noticeboard – is wildly, utterly wrong, a staggeringly inaccurate macedonie of untruths, misunderstandings, made-up nonsense, fake news and pure bollix of inexplicable ancestry. What is particularly tragic is that the pub actually has a fine back-story, which has become entirely submerged by layers of invented garbage.
Let’s begin by deconstructing the noticeboard that hails customers as they enter this charming, if cramped, old Fleet Street boozer, with its delightful, slightly shabby shamrock-decorated mosaic floor and dark wood-panelled walls. (We’ll ignore, as much as we can, the grammatical infelicities and spelling errors on the board, though they constitute in themselves a grievous insult to the hundreds, or more, of newspaper sub-editors who, in the times of Fleet Street’s glory as more than just a metaphor for Britain’s national press, walked through the Tipp’s front door in search of liquid relief.)
“The pub was built on the side [sic]of a monastery which dated to 1300 where, amongst other duties, the monks brewed ale.” – it was a friary, not a monastery. They were friars, not monks. A house for the Carmelites, more fully the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, was founded by Sir Richard Gray in Fleet Street in or about 1241, not 1300. (The Carmelites, as an aside, originated in the 12th century, and took their name from Mount Carmel in northern Israel, supposedly the home of the prophet Elijah. They were known as the “white friars”, from the white cloaks they wore, in contrast to the black-cloaked Dominicans, the “black friars”, whose main base in London was just across the Fleet river, and whose name is commemorated in a bridge, a railway station and one of the finest art nouveau pubs, inside and out, in the world.)
“This site was an island between the River Thames and the River Fleet which still runs under the pub that is now little more than a stream” – utter steaming garbage. The Tipperary is half-way up the hill that rises from what was once the west bank of the Fleet, which was 250 yards away to the east, not “under” the pub at all. The Fleet ran south along the line of what is now Farringdon Street – indeed, it still does, though now underground and converted into a sewer, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
“‘The Boars Head’ which was built in 1605” – wrong again, though a rare example of a pub claiming to be much younger than it actually is, since “Le boreshede in Parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete” was mentioned in the same grant to the Carmelite friars in 1443 as the Bolt and Tun inn next door. (This means, incidentally, that the Tipperary/Boar’s Head is at least 575 years old this year: there are only two or three other pubs in London that can reckon to be older.) “It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. This is because the property was of stone and brick whereas the surrounding neighbouring premises were of wood.” More ahistoric nonsense. The fire destroyed all of Fleet Street to a point just past Fetter Lane, some 160 yards west of the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which was one of the 13,000 buildings consumed in the blaze.
“In approx 1700 the S.G. Mooney & Son brewery chain of Dublin purchased ‘The Boars Head’ and it became the first Irish pub outside Ireland … The pub also became the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft.” I cannot fathom how or why anyone would invent this stuff, or have it so totally wrong. There is actually a gorgeous old mirror, probably more than 100 years old, on the wall inside the pub which gives the proper name of the pub chain – not “brewery chain”, whatever one of those is — that formerly owned the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which makes getting the incorrect name outside the pub particularly inexcusable. It was JG Mooney and Co, not “SG Mooney & Son”: the company developed out of the licensed wholesaler and retailer business James G Mooney was running in Dublin from at least 1863. The Tipperary was not only emphatically NOT “the first Irish pub outside Ireland”, it wasn’t even JG Mooney’s first pub outside Ireland. The company acquired its first licensed outlet in London, on the Strand, in 1889, its second on High Holborn in 1892 and a third in Duke Street, on the south side of London Bridge, shortly afterwards. Mooney’s acquired the lease of the Boar’s Head, its fourth London pub, in November 1895. That’s not “approx 1700”, unless you think being nearly two centuries out is “approx”. (Mooney’s was to grow to at least 11 London outlets by 1940, all, or almost all, called “Mooney’s Irish House”: the one in Duke Street was known as “Mooney’s Dublin House”.) Nor, of course, was the Boar’s Head “the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft” (sic, again). Guinness was exporting to Bristol from at least 1825 (and to the West Indies earlier than that), in both cask and bottle.
“1918 At the end of the Great War the printers who came back from the war had the pubs [sic] name changed to ‘The Tipperary” from the song ‘It’s a Long Way’ [sic], which name it retains to this day.” But it was being called “Mooney’s Irish House (late Boar’s Head)” in 1895, and Kelly’s directories make it clear that the name of the pub was The Irish House right up to 1967. Only then did it change to The Tipperary. There are no references that I have been able to find to the pub as The Tipperary before this: it was certainly being referred to as “Mooney’s Irish House in Fleet Street” in the 1950s. (Strangely, there is a strong Fleet Street link to the song “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”, but it is nothing to do with returning printers. The song’s popularity with the British Army in France in August 1914 was spotted by a Daily Mail reporter, George Curnock, who cabled back to his news editor, Walter Fish that the soldiers were all singing the song as they marched from Boulogne to the front. According to Fleet Street mythology, “Fish visualised ‘Tipperary’ as a great national stimulative, the possible British counterpart of the ‘Marseillaise’, and to his delight found Lord, Northcliffe [owner of the Mail], with his fine flair for judging the public taste, equally enthusiastic. The words and the music of the pantomime song were secured and prominently displayed in the Mail, and from that day on it was on everybody’s tongue.”)
So: four paragraphs, at least 11 clunking, ludicrous errors, all of which could have been avoided with little effort. It took me two to three hours on the interwebs, and an hour in the Guildhall library looking at microfilms and consulting a couple of books, to put together the corrections above, and uncover a more accurate history of 66 Fleet Street. People, this is really not difficult. Don’t just repeat stuff you read – do your own research, because “stuff you read” is quite likely to be wrong.
The Boar’s Head originally faced onto Whitefriars Street (named, of course, for the Carmelites, and originally, until at least the 1830s, known as Water Lane). To the south was an inn called the Bolt-in-Tun, with both premises having back entrances dog-legging out on to Fleet Street, at what would later be numbers 64 and 66. (To the east, at what would become 67 Fleet Street, was a tavern owned by Royston Priory in Hertfordshire called the Cock and Key.) In a licence of alienation to the Friars Carmelite of London of certain premises in the parish of St Dunstan, Fleet Street, in the Patent Roll of 21 Henry VI – that’s 1443 to me and thee – “Hospitium vocatum le Boltenton” is mentioned as a boundary. This would have been a building attached to the friary for accommodating guests. The hospitium, or at least a building on its site, was quite probably at least a century older than this, because the wording of an ordinance of King Edward III in council dated 1353 suggests that the road from the bridge over the Fleet to Temple Bar, where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, was by then already lined with dwellings and well-inhabited.
The inn’s name is a pun on “Bolton”, and its sign was a bolt – a crossbow arrow – sticking though a tun, or cask. How or why it was give that name remains unknown. (At least two sources try to claim that the inn’s name is ” derived … from Prior William Bolton of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield”, which is more nonsense on stilts, because while Prior Bolton certainly used the bolt-in-tun as a badge, he was born around 1450, after the first known mention of le Boltenton. It’s more likely, in fact, that Prior Bolton stole the idea of using a bolt sticking through a tun as his badge from the Carmelites’ inn.)
It looks as if the Carmelites used the premises to brew, because after Henry VIII nationalised their friary in November 1538, the list of buildings surrendered included “a tenement for brewing called ‘le Bolte and Tunne'”, and “a brewhouse called Le Bolt and Tunne in the parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete, which belonged to the late Carmelite Friars there” was leased to one of Henry’s household officials, John Gilman, in 1541. As the only inn on Fleet Street, and thus effectively the first inn on the Great West Road, the Bolt-in-Tun developed into an important base for coaches travelling to Bristol, Plymouth and South Wales. In September 1665 a boy was found dead of the Plague in its hayloft. The Fire of London the following year at least cleansed the city of plague-carrying rats, and by 1704 regular coaches for Windsor were starting from the rebuilt inn. In 1741 services from the inn included “A Handsome Glass Coach and six able Horses” travelling regularly to Bath. Destinations from the Bolt-in-Tun in 1805 ranged from Cardiff to Hastings, and Newbury to Chichester, and in 1817 26 coaches a day left the inn for towns and cities across the south and south-west.
About 1822 the Water Lane side of the premises was renamed the Sussex Hotel, but the Bolt in Tun continued as the booking office and coach destination in Fleet Street. You could still get a drink there: in 1830, John Richardson, 38, was nabbed by a police officer in the Bolt-in-Tun tap for stealing a horse-blanket worth eight shillings from the Bolt-in-Tun’s stables. (His defence was that “I was very tipsy”: he was fined one shilling and discharged.) The stables still had a hayloft, of course, and in March 1838 a fire broke out in the Bolt-in-Tun hayloft which “extended its ravages with great rapidity”, destroying all the hay, while the adjoining house, “occupied by many poor families,” was also “considerably damaged”. The proprietor in charge of coaching operations was Robert Gray, whose partner was Moses Pickwick – a surname that a young Fleet Street reporter called Dickens found a use for.
The coaching era, however, was nearing its end. From 1838 onwards, London was increasingly connected to the rest of Britain by railways, and in the 1840s the Bolt-in-Tun was described by its proprietor as a “Mail, Coach, and Railway Establishment”. Gradually the railway side took over, and by 1859 the Bolt-in-Tun was purely a booking office and parcel collection point for the railway companies. Eventually, in late 1882 or early 1883, most of the Bolt-in-Tun was demolished, ending a history of more than 440 years.
Timothy Richards and James Stevens Curl, authors of City of London Pubs, published in 1973, thoroughly screwed up the history of the Bolt-in-Tun, completely confusing it with the Tipperary, and claiming that “shortly after 1883 the Irish house of Mooney erected a new pub on the site of the Bolt-in-Tun, and it is this building that now stands.” This is, of course, as egregiously wrong as anything on the Tipperary’s signboard. Mr Curl is an extremely distinguished architectural historian, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects of the City of London. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture and Design, Ulster University, Professor Emeritus at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a former Visiting Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written more than 30 books. Let us say that the entry on the Tipperary in City of London Pubs was not his finest hour.
The Boar’s Head led a comparatively quiet life compared to its neighbour. Boar’s Head Alley, alongside the pub, is first mentioned in 1570, and two inhabitants of the alley had to appear at a ward inquest in 1595 for not having chimneys in their houses. The first known licensee was William Hayley or Healey, there in 1664 and 1665. The next year the pub was destroyed in the Great Fire, but Hayley was back in business within a couple of years, and issuing a trade token bearing the words “William Healey at the [picture of a boar’s head] in Fleet Street • 1668 • His Halfe Penny”. How much of today’s pub dates from the post-Great Fire rebuilding I don’t know, but the City of London’s own “Fleet Street Conservation Area Character Summary and Management Strategy” paper from February 2016 named it as one of only “a handful of survivors immediately post-Great Fire” in the conservation area. The report dated the pub building to “circa 1667”, saying that the “slightly crooked window details” hint at its age, and adding that it has a “later, traditional pub frontage and stuccoed upper floors on a narrow historic plot.”
Behind the Boar’s Head, the rectangle of land bounded by the Thames, the walls of the Temple, Fleet Street and Water Lane/Whitefriars Street was known in the 17th century as “Alsatia”. It still had some of the privileges of sanctuary left behind from the days when it was the site of the Carmelites’ friary, which privileges were confirmed and enlarged by a royal charter issued by James I in 1608. The rule of law thus did not run in “Alsatia” as firmly as it did in the rest of the city, so that it was a refuge for on-the-run debtors, and “a hiding-place to cheats, false witnesses, forgers, highwaymen and other loose characters who have openly resisted the execution of legal process”, until the privileges of the liberty of Whitefriars were extinguished by William III in 1697.
The district continued to be lively. The Boar’s Head had all its windows smashed by a Jacobite mob during the “mug house” riots of 1716, because the landlord, Mr Gosling, was “well-affected to his Majesty King George and the present Government.” (It was described in news reports as an “ale house”, putting it one rung down the ladder from an inn like the Bolt in Tun.) Gosling was lucky: the mob’s real target was Mrs Read’s Coffee House in Salisbury Court, the next street east from Water Lane, which was a centre of Whiggish support for Britain’s new Hanoverian ruler. The Jacobite supporters stormed the coffee house, and when the landlady’s husband, Robert Read, shot dead the leader of the rioters, Daniel Vaughan, they smashed their way in, mad with fury. While Read and some of the coffee house clients escaped “with some difficulty” out the back, and others sheltered behind a barricade on an upper floor, the rioters trashed the downstairs rooms, smashing all the furniture to sticks and drinking all the ale, or letting it pour onto the floor. The Sheriff came and read the Riot Act, passed only the year before, and when that failed to have any effect, mounted troops were called in. The tumult finally ceased, arrests were made, and five rioters were later hanged in Fleet Street opposite Salisbury Court. Read, meanwhile, was found not guilty of Vaughan’s murder. You don’t get THAT kind of thing happening in Starbucks …
Gosling and the Boar’s Head were given a page in Ned Ward’s rhyming pub guide to London, A Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, written around the same as the mug house riots. This makes the Tipperary today one of the few among the 200-plus pubs Ward wrote about in the Vade Mecum and its companion, the Guide for Malt Worms that are still open. Ward described the Boar’s Head’s landlord as “justly prais’d/and by his Courage and good Drink emblaz’d/Is to some height of reputation rais’d.”
He had a better reputation than a later landlady. In 1775 there was a complaint by the wardmote inquest against Sarah Fortescue, widow and victualler of the Boar’s Head alehouse in Fleet Street, for keeping her house open at unseasonable hours, frequently the greatest part of the night, and for harbouring and entertaining “lewd women and other infamous and disorderly persons to the great disquietude and disturbance of her neighbours.”
Some time after the premises had risen from mere alehouse status: in 1812 the Boar’s Head was described as “That well known and long established first rate Wine Vault and Liquor Shop,” brick-built, four storeys high, and in the occupation and on lease to Mrs Geary at “the very low rent of 50£ per annum.”
The Boar’s Head survived the demolition of its neighbour, the Bolt-in-Tun, and then became the fourth of the Mooney’s Irish House chain in London in 1895, four years after the death of JG Mooney himself (the company continued under his sons Gerald and John Joseph, the latter a nationalist MP and, in 1900, the youngest member of the House of Commons.) The Mooneys brought in an English architect, RL Cox, to refurbish the pub, and it was presumably under his direction that the mosaic floor was put in, and the front step installed that still says “Mooney’s”. A fifth pub, near Piccadilly, was bought in 1896. The original premises in the Strand were closed when Kingsway was built, but a new bar was opened at 395 The Strand in 1900 which, until it shut around 1967, was famed for having the longest bar in London. At one point the company had another pub in Fleet Street, at No 154, formerly the Portugal, which closed in 1910. The serving staff in all its pubs were all male and Irish – no barmaids, apart, apparently from a brief experiment around 1963 – and Mooney’s Irish Houses were known for excellent service, excellent prices and excellent food.
Through the 1960s the company began to retreat from London, with the former Boar’s Head disposed of in about 1966-67, which is when the name change from Mooney’s Irish House to The Tipperary looks to have taken place. At the same time the name The Boar’s Head seems to have been resurrected for the upstairs dining room, as indicated on the signboard outside the pub: I am sure I can remember that the name “The Boar’s Head” used to be visible between first and second-floor level on the pub’s fascia in the 1980s or 1990s. Greene King is supposed to have taken the pub over in the 1960s: I haven’t researched this particularly, but the 1979 Camra “real beer in London” guide shows the Tipperary selling Everard’s Tiger and Wethered’s bitter, which suggests this is as inaccurate as the rest of the signboard’s claims about the pub. It apparently closed for a couple of years around the start of the 1980s, I believe, for a refurbishment, and it was certainly a Greene King pub in 1986, when it was listed for the ’87 Good Beer Guide as selling IPA, Abbot and the much-missed (by me) Rayment’s BBA. I am middlingly sure I drank Rayments in the Tipperary about that time, since I would have hunted out a rare central London outlet for one of my favourite beers, though that was 32 years ago. GK looks to have sold the pub a few years back, and it is now under independent ownership.
That’s it: a vastly, vastly more accurate history of one of London’s oldest pubs than you will find anywhere. What are the chances of promoting the correct version of events over the one on the signboard? Not good, I fear: there are at least five books, a number of newspaper and magazine articles (including one from the Daily Mirror which was, again, wrong in every sentence) and dozens of websites repeating the total nonsense version, including one book published a couple of years ago that talks of “the famous Dublin brewer SG Mooney & Sons” – they can’t be that “famous”, mate, you’ve never heard of them before, because THEY DON’T BLAHDY EXIST. And the more observant of you will have spotted that this particular author can’t even copy inaccuracy accurately: the signboard outside the Tipperary says “& Son”, not “& Sons”.
(Astonishingly, should you have £46 to throw away, you can buy a Tipperary pub Christmas decoration, 7.5cm high, to hang on your tree – down from £82, apparently.)
Of all the multiple nonsenses written about the acquisition of a minority stake in Beavertown Brewery by Heineken International, perhaps the stupidest came from someone called Kirk Hilton on Twitter, who declared this week that Logan Plant and his crew had “chosen to turn their back on the craft beer community” and “should know about the effect” its “sell out” had had on “the community as a whole”.
Let’s be clear. There is no “craft beer community”, any more than there is a “Stella Artois community” or a “Nescafe community” or a “sourdough bread community”. I drink craft beer, whatever “craft beer” is, but I certainly don’t regard myself as part of a “community” as represented by Kirk and his pals on the Facebook UK Craft Beer Forum, where, as part of the general tedious posturing, cask beer is regularly dismissed as “twiggy” and “boring”. That’s not a “community”, it’s a group of snobby elitists with their heads so far up their bottoms they can probably see their own tonsils. The laugh is that the hop-laden brews they love (and indeed I love many of them too) sprang from beers developed originally by people like Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam and Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada that were themselves inspired by the “twiggy” bitter beers of England: Anchor’s Liberty Ale, the first highly hopped Cascade-driven West Coast pale ale, sprang directly from a visit Fritz Maytag made to Keighley in Yorkshire around 1974, where he sampled Timothy Taylor Landlord.
What is particularly crass about the reaction from Hilton and the rest of the UKCBF crew is their demand that Beavertown must stay small, or else it is guilty of “betraying” the “craft beer community”. What they ought to be doing, of course, is cheering until the rafters shake at the success of one of the best four or five start-ups in the UK beer business, which will now be able to bring its beers to even more drinkers.
Logan Plant, like all successful businessmen, wants to see his business grow even larger: only a fool, frankly, sits on something that could potentially become massive and declines to allow it to grow as big as possible. (The reason why that’s foolish, in case you can’t work it out, is because what will happen is that someone else with fewer scruples about making a fortune will come along and replicate what you’ve done, overtake you, steal your market because they’ve grown big enough to have the marketing clout to do so, and put you out of business.)
However, like others – Meantime, Camden Town, even BrewDog – Plant discovered that there are few or no ways to bring in the money required to step up to the next level without shaking hands with Big Capital. The £40m Heineken is pumping into Beavertown will enable it to build (if the Caterer’s figures are correct) a 275,000-barrel (450,000hl) brewery on three acres of land, tn tims the size of their current plant, creating 150 jobs. For a company founded only in 2012, that’s fantastic. But as Plant told the Caterer, when he first looked at how to get the cash for that project, “Crowdfunding simply couldn’t achieve the funds we need, so that option came off the table quickly. We then started looking at private equity, which initially looked solid. However, the more we looked at the offers, it became clear that it was only an option for the short to medium term.
“That was when we concluded that the most sensible and stable option was the one that sat furthest away from our minds at the start of the process, one that at first glance felt alien but on closer and more detailed inspection offered us boundless opportunities to grow and develop in the right, safe business manner: finding another like-minded brewery as a partner.”
The finance people Plant used in the negotiations with Heineken, incidentally, are Arlington Capital Advisors of Georgia in the United States, who were the same gang that advised BrewDog last year when the Aberdeenshire lads sold a £213m stake in themselves to TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn San Francisco-based private equity firm that owns Pabst, the American “industrial” lager brand. You might think that as a result James Watt is being a tad hypocritical in declaring that BrewDog will no longer stock Beavertown beers after Heineken bought a minority stake in the East London firm – I couldn’t possibly comment.
What too few people in the craft bubble fail to grasp is that the overwhelming bulk of beer sold in the UK – nine pints in 10 – is mass-produced, and if we want that to change we have to cheer on those successful craft beer brewers who are attracting investment to grow larger, and expand the craft beer market. Ah, but as Kirk Hilton tweeted to Beavertown: “You’re not craft beer any more.” Silly Kirk thinks he can spot the change in the taste of a pint of beer the moment someone else buys a stake in the brewer that made it. Fortunately the UK Craft Beer Forum represents perhaps 0.08 per cent of all British beer drinkers, and Beavertown, I am sure, will succeed and thrive without its approval.
Where does the UK stand in the league table for consumption of alcohol per head? You’re probably saying to yourself something like, “oooh, we must be pretty high up – not as much as the Czechs, surely, they’re notorious for knocking back the pilsner, and I bet the Poles still drink lots of vodka, and doesn’t little Luxembourg have some weirdly high consumption per head figure because all its neighbours pop across the border to buy cheap booze? So, I dunno, fourth?”
If you’ve caught any of the neoprohibitionist nonsense from organisations such as the Institute for Alcohol Studies – descended directly from the International Order of Good Templars, a campaigning temperance group founded in the 1850s – and the Alcohol Health Alliance, both currently crowing because they have managed to persuade the Scots to adopt minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and both pushing hard to have the same policy adopted in England and Wales, then you’ve probably subconsciously absorbed the idea that here in this green and sceptical isle we drink lots and lots, enough to have a problem about it, and certainly more than most others.
In fact, on average, we don’t. And in fact, on average, the UK comes 25th out of a list of 27 European countries for alcohol consumption per head (*). Third from bottom. Not “qualifying for the Champions League” levels at all – “relegation into the Championship” levels. Of the other nine leading economies in the world, only three – China, Japan and India – drink less alcohol per head than the UK does. The Germans drink more than 40 per cent more alcohol per head than we do. The French drink 24 per cent more. Even the United States drinks slightly more, at 7.1 litres of pure alcohol equivalent per head, against the UK’s 7 litres (all 2015 figures).
Other statistics also show that the UK today is a relatively sober nation. Overall alcohol consumption is 9 per cent down on 2001. Convictions for drunkenness are barely a third of the level they were even in the Second World War, when beer was weak, wine and spirits unavailable and your local pub, if it hadn’t been bombed to bits, was shut because of rationing; and only a tenth of what they were in 1973, when we all had long hair and loon pants and a pint cost 15p (though current statistics have probably been affected by the rise in fixed penalty notices). The number of positive breath tests has dropped two thirds since 1980, and more than halved since 2000. The percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who have ever had an alcoholic drink is down by more than a third since 2001, and the percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink “in the last week” had plunged by more than two thirds.
None of this matters to the wowsers of the Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, however. They point to the fact that some people abuse alcohol, and they have convinced themselves that the answer to that is the nonsensical “whole-population model”, which claims that if you lower total alcohol consumption, then “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to show this is true.
What is more, the figures from the Sheffield Alcohol Pricing Model, which was put together by academics at the University of Sheffield, and has been used to justify the introduction of minimum unit pricing, look instinctively ridiculous and untenable: the model claims that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol (a unit being 10ml/8gm of pure C2H5OH) would result in a “harmful” drinker, defined as someone who drinks 50 units a week (equivalent to just under three pints of medium-strength beer a day) cutting back consumption by half a pint a day, or increasing their spending by £2.88 a week. That’s less than the price of two corner-shop sandwiches: some deterrent.
The Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, of course, say it’s not just about the heavy drinkers, that minimum unit pricing will also make the moderate drinker cut back, by two thirds of a unit for men and half a unit for women, per week. That’s cutting back by a fifth of a standard glass of red wine for women, and just over a quarter of a glass of wine for men. Per week. This, they claim, will “slash” the occurrence of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
“This is really all about symbolism and control. Once government becomes the ‘price-giver’ for the licensed trade, the image of alcohol as ‘no ordinary product’, and as something dangerous that we all need protecting from, becomes official policy. The Medical Temperance view of alcohol is in the ascendance. Their view chimes with government – not least because it gives [governments] a health-concern smokescreen behind which they can introduce what is nothing more than a sin tax.”
Minimum unit pricing is apparently now under consideration for England. If you want to stop this nannying and pointless nonsense, support Drinkers’ Voice, follow it on Twitter, and help campaign to be able to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, moderately and sensibly.
Daughter, Mrs Zythophile and I played a new game as we negotiated the M1 last week (or at least I did): spot other saloon cars laden to the roof with the finest Ikea supplies for fitting out a new undergraduate’s bedroom and kitchen. I won’t lie, I was slightly disappointed that Daughter did so well in her A levels she was able to spurn an offer from Liverpool University and flutter her eyelashes at York instead, which swiftly threw open the gates of the city. Sorry, Scousers: it’s not you, it’s us. I had many happy hours in the pubs of Merseyside when I was not that far out of studenthood myself. But the rest of the family were delighted that York was now the destination, and I could at least explore the pubs and bars of a city I’m ashamed to say, soft southern Jessie that I am, I hardly know.
First impressions were good, apart from all the bouncers on the doors at 3pm. What time does it usually kick off in Tykeland? In London we like to leave it until well after we’ve had our cocoa before we need the A&E. It’s desperately infra dig to lump anybody before 11pm, unless there’s a footie match in the vicinity.
Mind, I felt like lumping someone when I saw the pump clip pictured here, in an otherwise very pleasant and friendly craft beer bar in the middle of the city. It’s from Eye Brewing, based near Leeds, which claims to be “the UK’s first wheat brewery”, an assertion the white ale brewers of Devon and Cornwall in the 19th century and before would have forthrightly rejected, as would the monkish brewers at establishments such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where ale was being brewed on a considerable scale in the 13th century using wheat and oats, as well as barley.
Worse, of course, was the claim that the beer, sold under the name Kleiner Wasted, was a “session white IPA with tropical fruits”, which squeezes four oxymorons into just six words, surely a record. OK, I know “session IPA” is now supposed to be a thing, but the beer’s specs, according to Eye’s website, include an abv of 3.6 per cent and 30 EBUs. That’s both weaker and less bitter than Eye’s own “wheat best bitter” (35 EBUs) and well below the US norm for a “session IPA” (around 4.5 to five per cent abv).
It’s deja bu time again in the world of Big Beer, with the return of excited prognostications for the no alcohol/low alcohol sector. All the marketing “experts” involved in the last round of predictions about how fast sales of no alcohol/low alcohol beers were going to expand have now retired or died, apparently – to be fair, it was 25 years ago – and a new generation is again falling for the fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.
The Dutch giant Heineken is leading the charge, with the launch in the UK of Heineken 0.0. Currently no-alcohol beer has a tiny one per cent slice of the UK beer market, but David Lette, head of premium brands at Heineken, is popping up in the trade press declaring that he expects to see the alcohol-free beer category double in the next three to four years, and announcing that to make sure Heineken gets its share of this, it is putting £2.5m behind the launch of 0.0, with a £1.5m consumer advertising campaign breaking in July.
If they had given me a tiny one per cent slice of that marketing spend – just £25,000, chaps, very reasonable against what other consulting companies will charge you – I could have saved them all the rest of their money by assuring them that it ain’t going to happen: there will be no doubling of no-alcohol beer sales. And I hate to pour icy water all over young entrepreneurs, but the message is the same for the team behind Nirvana Brewery, East London’s latest, which started at the beginning of this year as the country’s first dedicated no/low alcohol brewery. The no alcohol/low alcohol beer market didn’t take off back in the early 1990s, for a variety of reasons, and for just those same reasons it’s not going to take off now.
In 1987 beer marketeers were even more optimistic about the future of alcohol-free beer, after it had apparently doubled sales in a year, to be worth £45 million, with predictions that it would grow tenfold by 1999. Barbican, the market leader, made by Bass, which had been launched in 1979, was spending £2.5m on an advertising campaign to fight off new entrants such as Kaliber, from Guinness, and Swan Light, from Allied, the first draught low-alcohol beer. Barbican’s first television ad campaign had featured Lawrie McMenemy, then the highly successful manager of Southampton, declaring: “It’s great, man.” McMenemy was later prosecuted for drink-driving, suggesting he perhaps didn’t think Barbican was quite as great as he had been paid to claim. Kaliber had signed up comedians Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly, and the actor Michael Elphick, to act as spokesdrinkers: another example of the dangers of celebrity endorsers, since Elphick was to die in 2002 of a heart attack not helped by his drinking up to two litres of spirits a day.
Thirty years on, that £45 million the alcohol-free beer market was valued at in 1987 pounds is equal to around £180 million in 2017 pounds – which is more or less what today’s alcohol-free beer market in the UK is worth. In other words, in three decades the sector hasn’t grown at all, in real terms. But 30 years ago, David Lette, today head of premium brands at Heineken UK, was studying for his International Baccalaureate at college in Singapore, according to his LinkedIn biography, and he didn’t join Heineken until 2002, thus missing out on the first great failure of non-alcoholic beer to live up to the extrapolations, and probably explaining why he is so optimistic today that the extrapolations for the no/low alcohol beer market are going to come true.
This is the Craft Bier Bar. It’s a craft beer bar. The Craft Bier Bar is the first ever craft beer bar in Hanover, apparently. It claims to have the largest selection of craft beers on draught of any bar in the whole of North Germany. The Craft Bier Bar ticks off all the craft beer bar signifiers: back wall with 24 draught beer taps sticking out; back-lit, numbered list high behind the bar, hand-written in marker pen, of draught craft beers from at least three continents; glass-doored refrigerators with brews in bottle and can even more exotic than those on tap (OK, Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout may not be exotic where YOU live, but it is in Niedersachsen); no mainstream brands; unplastered walls decorated with neon signs and ads featuring beers from Belgium to Oregon; Edison light bulbs; and prices at least twice as high per glass as anywhere else local.
Should business take you to Hanover, the Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, in the Ballhofplatz in Hanover’s Old Town, is worth a call-in: you will certainly get an opportunity to try beers you won’t have had before. And some you have, of course: I’m not sure I have been in a craft beer bar anywhere that hasn’t been serving at least one brew from To Øl, and the Craft Bier Bar did not end this run. But be sure your wallet is well-stuffed before you step in. On my way to the Craft Bier Bar I popped in to a locals’ local to (a) get a decent wi-fi signal to recheck Google Maps (21st century problems) (b) see what the score was in the Germany-England match (0-0 at the time) and (c) wet my dry throat with a perfectly acceptable glass of Ratskeller pils from Gilde, Hanover’s AB InBev-owned big brewery. It cost me €1.90. Soon after in the CBB I was drinking a similar-sized glass of a fine, fruity American-style IPA from a small brewery in Berlin, Heidenpeters. It cost me €4.50: around £6.40 a pint.
Which left me musing: I was just about enjoying my first experience of a German craft beer bar, mostly because it WAS my first experience of a German craft beer bar, and worth savouring for that reason, but that apart, where would I rather be, back in the locals’ bar surrounded by a community of drinkers watching the footy, and paying nearly 60 per cent less for my beer, or trying to decide which of the other 23 draught beers available might be worth getting a bank loan for. Of which, and this is sad, just four were from German brewers.
In the final analysis, I decided the Craft Bier Bar was disappointing because, although being apparently perfectly well-run, with an excellent selection of beers, it was fundamentally a clone, a copycat experience, as ersatz as all the “Irish” pubs that bloomed briefly on British high streets in the 1990s, a repetition of an originally American style of drinking that you can now get around the globe, like McDonald’s, or, to be slightly fairer, Five Guys, and having as little real link with genuine beer culture, or my idea of genuine beer culture, as even Five Guys does with genuine gastronomy. I want a craft beer bar that doesn’t look as if it could be anywhere, in any city, I want it to have a beer selection that reflects the local scene more than it nods to the wider world. And I don’t want to feel its pricing policy takes the Michael.
And now, rant over, something else I pondered while in Germany: the largely unrecognised contribution Hanover has made to the iconography of the British pub. I don’t suppose many people from Hanover (or Hannover, as the locals prefer – emPHAsis on the middle syllAble) know there are still hundreds of British pubs – possibly a thousand or more – whose names have Hanoverian associations. It’s a reflection, of course, of the fact that Britain and Hanover shared rulers from 1714 to 1837. At least three pubs in England are actually called the Hanover, or Hanover Arms. The Hanoverian arms are the white horse on a red background that still appears on the flag of the German Land of Niedersachsen (“Lower Saxony” – I sometimes claim I live in Mittelsachsen), of which Hanover is the capital: and of the many pubs in Britain called the White Horse, a large number were first so named because their landlords wanted to show loyalty to the new royal family that arrived from North Germany after Anne, last of the Stuarts, died without managing to leave any surviving heirs, dozy tart.
How many pubs called simply the George are named after the run of four Hanoverian kings of the same name and how many after St George, mythical Turkish dragon-killer and patron saint of Catalonia, is probably impossible to disentangle, but there are plenty of pubs where a specifically numbered King George is commemorated. Strangely, George I never seems to have made it onto a signboard, but Georges II, III and IV did, the last more often as the Prince Regent. Pubs called the Brunswick are often named for the Prince Regent’s wife, Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick, who was dumped by her husband within a year of their marriage. Others of George III’s sons to get themselves on signboards was Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (the two pubs currently called the Duchess of Cambridge are named for the wife of the much more recent incarnation of that title).
The Prince Regent’s brother, William IV, was king when the Beerhouse Act was passed in 1830, which brought tens of thousands of new licensed premises into existence, and large numbers of new beerhouse keepers named their business after the new king. This means despite his comparatively brief reign, seven years, William IV is still the British king with the biggest number of pubs named after him, not counting the half dozen or more called the Duke of Clarence, his title before he was king, while his wife, Queen Adelaide, appears on around a dozen innsigns. (Until a few years ago she actually appeared on two pub signs in Teddington, Middlesex, the Adelaide, and the now closed Queen Dowager, her title after William died in 1837: she and William had lived next door in Bushy Park.) William IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, last of Britain’s Hanoverian monarchs, is the queen with the largest number of pubs named for her, of course. Her husband, Prince Albert, also has his face on pub signboards: but he’s a Saxe-Coburg, not a Hanover, and doesn’t count …