You’ll have seen, I’m guessing,
the row that has exploded over the ban just announced by the Portman Group, the alcohol industry’s
self-appointed regulatory body, on the Bristol-based brewery Lost and
Grounded’s “India Pale Lager” Running with Sceptres for breaching
paragraph 3.2 (h) of its code by appealing to children.
The problem is the
artwork, which features cartoon animals, and despite Lost and Grounded
insisting that these were NOT cartoon animals but ” artistic illustrations”, the Portman
Group disagreed, declared that “the prominence and anthropomorphic
character of the animals on this specific packaging created a particular appeal
to children,” thus offending against its Code of Practice on the Naming,
Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks. As a result, the on and off-trade
has been asked not to order Running with Sceptres until the packaging is
changed. More than 150 companies are signed up to the code of practice,
covering almost all the drinks industry.
I am certainly no fan of the Portman Group and its frequently nonsensical decisions. But I suggest that if you want to try to fight its actions against brewers it deems are breaking its code, Running with Sceptres is NOT a good ditch to die in. Can you honestly say their tiger bears no resemblance to Shepard’s Tigger? Is it not the case that the whole illustration looks like an homage to Where the Wild Things Are?
Indeed, the artwork for Running with
Sceptres could hardly have broadcast the message “report me to the Portman
Group for appealing to kids” more loudly if those words had actually been
printed on the can.
The reason for the Portman
Group’s existing is to prevent any statutory body being set up to oversee
alcohol advertising and marketing, and the Portman Group will thus always act
tough, to forestall criticism, and to avoid having itself replaced by a regulatory
committee imposed on the industry by the government.
Having just come back from
Norway, where alcohol marketing is so restricted by law – banned completely,
basically – that some places even ban tap handles with beer names on, and
brewery T-shirts, I can tell you: actual civil servants and government
employees telling you what you can and cannot do to promote your beer is NOT
something you want.
Though we can agree that the
decision in this case is stupid, wrong, restrictive and nonsensical, I cannot
say, when I saw the illustration on the can, that I was surprised at the
decision the Portman Group made. Angered, yes. Surprised, no. This is a game of
appearances, and it can’t be denied there’s a massive similarity of appearance
between the Running with Sceptres artwork and the kind of artwork found in
Pete Brown wrote in a tweet: “Guidelines state [artwork] shouldn’t have particular appeal to under-18s. Of the people into Winnie the Pooh, and then the subset of those who have been exposed to the style of illustration [on the can], what data exists that can show they are mostly under 18?” Logically, of course, he’s absolutely correct. The complaint, and the Portman Group’s response, are nonsense. But actual facts are irrelevant here.
There is a legitimate position in declaring: “Why
shouldn’t we use whatever artwork we like on our cans and bottles? What actual evidence
is there that such artwork will encourage under-18s to drink the
contents?” And you’d be right. But in the real world, there will always be
those wowsers who will declare that such images COULD encourage children to
pick up the can or bottle and sample what’s inside, and the Portman Group will
always head those people off and ban such images, in the frankly justifiable
fear that if it isn’t seen to be banning such images, then some politician will
declare that industry self-regulation has failed, and state regulation will be
brought in instead.
So: if you don’t want state regulation of the advertising and
marketing of alcohol, don’t give the wowsers reasons to complain by using
cartoon images on your cans and bottles that would not look out of place in the
children’s section of a bookshop. And if you feel that restricts your artistic
liberty, I really don’t have any sympathy: I’d rather see cartoon teddies and
tigers banned from beer bottles than a Norwegian-style total prohibition on any
sort of advertising or marketing.
I had a small Twitter spat yesterday with Duration Brewing after
they said they were installing a coolship and foeders at their brewery in
Norfolk. A wave of grumpy old mannishness washed across me, and I tweeted that
we don’t have coolships and foeders in Britain, we have coolers and vats. Why
use a foreign word when we have English words that mean the same thing?
Indeed, “coolship” is not even a “proper” foreign word, but a calque, or literal translation, of Kühlschiff or koelschip – in fact a classic example of what is called a paronymous calque, an incorrect “literal” translation, where a word in language A that appears similar to a word in language B is wrongly used to translate that similar word. Schiff in German means “ship”, yes, but also “vessel”, in the sense of “container” (as in “cooking vessel”, and “fermentation vessel”). So Kühlschiff and its Dutch equivalent, koelschip, should be literally translated as “cool-vessel”, not “coolship”.
However, we already have an excellent translation for Kühlschiff into English: “cooler”. What a German brewer calls a Kühlschiff, and a Dutch or Flemish brewer a koelschip, a British brewer calls a cooler. I have stood next to the koelschip at the top of the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges, and next to the cooler at the top of the Hook Norton brewery in the Cotswolds, and they are identical vessels. (Well, except that the Belgian one is as gloriously shiny as a very large new penny and the English one was dull, dirty and covered in turquoise-blue streaks, but apart from that …) A cooler in a brewery is exactly the same as een koelschip in een brouwerij or ein Kühlschiff in einer Brauerei.
As for “foeder”, let me quote from the Dutch Wikipedia entry
on that fine Belgian brewery, Rodenbach:
“Het aanvankelijk bovengistende bier rijpt in grote eikenhouten vaten (‘foeders’) en krijgt daar door gewenste infectie met de melkzuurbacterie een licht zurige smaak.”*
You don’t, I think, need to actually speak Dutch to understand that it’s saying THE NORMAL DUTCH WORD FOR THE SPECIALIST BREWERY TERM “FOEDERS” IS VATS. Sorry, got a bit shouty there. So even in Dutch, the words foeder and vat are synonyms. And since we already have the word vat in English, we don’t need to import the word foeder.
Duration Brewing (and as the brother of another Norfolk brewer I would like to wish them every good success in their new venture – I hope to try their beer soon) tried to defend themselves by insisting: “Vat means long-term storage, foeder means primary or long-term fermentation, which is what we plan to do. Cooler means cool your wort, much like both Germans and Brits did and still do, not a koelschip for inoculation like Belgian brewing.” Multiple problems there: while SOME Belgian brewers now use their koelschepen for wild yeast inoculation, ALL Belgian brewers once, at least, used their koelschepen for what they were designed to do, as coolers, for cooling their wort. And as we’ve seen, in its home language foeder is another, and more obscure word for “vat”. In addition we’ve talked about “fermentation vats” in English since at least the 18th century: English brewers built hundreds, probably thousands of vats for the long-term maturation of beer, mostly porter, during which maturation that beer underwent a slow secondary fermentation. So “vat” has been used in English for centuries as the word for a vessel in which beer undergoes a long-term fermentation. So has “tun – and another synonym for foeder in Dutch is ton, in English “tun”: the online Nederlanse Encyclopedie defines foeder as
Ton met een grote inhoud (200 tot 300 hectoliter) bestemd voor het opvoeden van de wijn.
Which translates as “Tun with a large capacity (200 to 300 hectolitres)
intended for maturing wine.”
Dutch also had the word foederzaal – zaal is a cognate of the English word “saloon”, so in the spirit of paronymous calquing that gave us “coolship” for koelschiff, we perhaps ought to translate that as “foeder saloon”. The definition of foederzaal in Dutch, according to the online Nederlanse Encyclopedie, is
een (grote) ruimte, speciaal ingericht om met meerdere foeders (houten lagertanks) te herbergen.
Which means “a (large) room, specially equipped to accommodate several vats (wooden lager tanks).” So clearly another synonym for foeder in Dutch is houten lagertank, “wooden lager tank”.
There are occasions when importing a new word into the English language is necessary because it perfectly covers a concept that English hasn’t previously had to have a word for, but now needs. The Norwegian dialect word kveik, for example, has speedily joined the English language brewers’ dictionary, because there isn’t a simple English equivalent for “Norwegian farmhouse yeast strains”. John “Beer Nut” Duffy suggests that coolship is a useful word because it means “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, and is therefore performing a function that the word “cooler” doesn’t cover. I’m semi-demi swayed by that argument, but koelschip, from which “coolship” was calqued, doesn’t mean “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, it means “cooler”. It’s just that some Belgian brewers used their coolers to inoculate their worts with wild yeast strains. So if the Belgians don’t need a separate word to distinguish between “cooler” and “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, why do English-speakers? If the Belgians use the same word to describe something that can be used for two different functions, why can’t we?
(There’s an argument, incidentally, that no one has used against me, so I’ll use it myself: American brewers come from a tradition heavily influenced in the past by German brewing customs and practices – indeed, the major brewing organisations in the US conducted much of their business in German in the 19th century – and undoubtedly those many German brewers in the US translated Kühlschiff as “coolship”, so why should they not do the same now? That’s a good argument if you’re in the US. I’m not.)
As for foeder, the Dutch call foeders vaten (or tonnen, tuns), a foeder doesn’t perform any function that a vat (or tun) doesn’t and hasn’t: English will survive very happily calling a vat a vat. The giant vessel full of maturing porter that collapsed at the Meux brewery in 1814, killing eight people in the Great London Beer Flood, wasn’t a foeder, it was a vat. It’s not the Giant Foeder of Heidelberg (which actually, in Dutch, is called De Grote Heidelberg Tun [sic]…) As Ed Wray commented in the Twitter spat, it would be very odd to call the vessel at Greene King in Bury St Edmonds that is used to mature 5X a foeder. You may think me a curmudgeonly old Canute: I prefer to regard myself as a fighter against the unnecessary and pretentious expansion of technical vocabularies. We don’t need to call a vat a foeder, particularly when the Dutch themselves are happy to call a foeder a vat.
(Etymological aside: the German for vat is Faß, and as Fuß in German became “foot” in English, so Faß in German should have become “fat”. In Old English the word was “fat”, but it was replaced by “vat” in Modern English. Etymological dictionaries will tell you “vat” is from the West Country English dialectical voicing of “f” as “v”. It seems to me, however, much more likely that the replacement of Old English “fat” by “vat” is down to immigrant beer brewers from the Low Countries, who brought us not only hops but words such as firkin and gyle. In Dutch, Fuß became voet and Faß became vat. That Dutch vat then, I suggest, replaced its Old English equivalent, “fat”, when Flemings and other Lowlanders began working in English breweries from the 15th century onwards. So “vat” in English is already a Dutch word …)
Final note: why does “gyle” appear in the headline
at the top? For several hundred years the Anglo-Irish word for “adding
some fresh still-fermenting wort to your beer to give it extra
carbonation” was “gyling”. As that practice died out, in the
1960s in Ireland, long before in Britain, so the word – originally Dutch, as it
happens, and doubtless imported because we didn’t have an equivalent word in
English – disappeared. When the practice reappeared, it came in via the US
under the name “krausening”, from a German word meaning, roughly,
“fizzy”. I’d like to see brewers in these islands (nod to Irish
sensibilities in difficult times there) reject “krausening” for
*But if you don’t speak Dutch and can’t work it out, it says: “The initially fermented beer matures in large oak vats (‘foeders’) and gets a slightly sour taste due to the desired infection with the lactic acid bacterium.”
Rule number one in the history writing biz is: don’t just
copy-and-paste stuff off the internet (or from anywhere else), because the
chances are high that what you have copied is wrong, and some fecker (me, in
this case) will come along and hold you up to ridicule and abuse.
I’m talking about you, today, Carlsberg, for some egregious copying-and-pasting with no original research at all on your corporate website, which claims, vis-à-vis the Lion brewery in Sri Lanka, a fair slice of which is owned by the Danes, that
“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1881 by Sir Samuel Backer as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. With its cool climate and natural spring water, Nuwara Eilya was the ideal location for a brewery. It acquired limited liability company status in 1911.”
Let us deconstruct this nonsense. The man they are talking about as the alleged founder of the Ceylon Brewery was actually Samuel Baker, not Backer. He started a small brewery at the hill station of Nuwara Eliya, high in the mountains of what was then Ceylon, around 1849/50, which closed a few years later. It was not built to cater for tea plantations, because there were none in Ceylon at that time: the first tea field on the island was only planted in 1867. Baker’s brewery was nothing to do with the brewery that opened 26 years after he left Nuwara Eliya. That brewery did not rely on spring water, but a stream that flowed down through the brewery site from the Lover’s Leap waterfall nearby. The brewery founded in 1881, which was, of course, the second on the island, after Baker’s, became a limited company in 1910.
Mind, even at five errors in four sentences, that’s not the worst pile of nonsense on the internet about what is now the Lion Brewery, famous today for an award-winning strong stout that is one of the last links with British colonial brewing in Southern Asia. The Lion Brewery’s own website is full of rubbish (and bizarre random capitalisation) as well:
“It is in 1860 that our story Begins. British Planter Sir Samuel Baker decided to establish a home brewery in the cool climes of Nuwara Eliya, although it was in 1881 that the facet of commercial brewing is evidenced, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. Ownership changed in 1884 to Murrey Brewery Company Rawalpindi, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, helmed by the pragmatic J B Hampson and later G W Lindsay White, who founded The Ceylon Brewery Limited in 1911.”
At least that doesn’t claim that Baker actually founded the concern that became the Ceylon Brewery Ltd, but there are still some very odd errors there. Baker had left Ceylon for Britain in 1855 (and he wasn’t knighted until 1866), so our story doesn’t begin in 1860 at all. “Pa Bavary” is a bizarre mangling: this was actually a young Belgian brewer and chemist called Auguste de Bavay. The brewery he started with a Nuwara Eliya planter named Mountsteven Bremer in 1881 suffered from a serious lack of capital, and collapsed early in 1884, and it was subsequently bought by the Murree Brewery Company (not Murrey) of Ghora Gali, 30 miles from Rawalpindi. (De Bavay left Ceylon in March 1884 to take up a position as brewer with T & A Aitken’s Victoria Parade brewery in Melbourne, Australia. He went on to have an extremely successful career as a brewer, chemist and yeast scientist, building on the work of Emil Christian Hansen at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen to develop the first pure yeast used commercially in Australia, and joined Foster’s brewery in Melbourne as chief brewer in 1894, later acting as a consultant for, among others, the Swan Brewery in Perth and the Cascade brewery in Tasmania. He also had success in areas as diverse as bacteriology, metallurgy and paper making.)
The Murree Brewery Company ran the brewery in Nuwara Eliya for
nine years, before pulling out, and the concern was acquired around April 1893 by
a consortium led by the former transport agent for the business, an Irishman
called George William Lindsay White, who was managing director of the Ceylon
Brewery for nearly 30 years until a year or so before his death aged 77 in 1922.
Under Lindsay White the Ceylon Brewery became a limited company in 1910. I have
no idea how “the pragmatic J B Hampson” got
into the story so early: John Bagshawe Hampson was a child, at best, when
Lindsay White died. He was a student brewer at Samuel Smith’s in Tadcaster in
1939, and had moved to the Ceylon Brewery by 1950 when the first of his three
children was born and christened in Nuwara Eliya. Hampson was manager at the
brewery until 1963, when he returned to England to work for Porter-Lancastrian.
So that’s six errors by the Lion brewery, five new and one repeated.
I used to slag off Wikipedia for its multiple errors, but the general level of accuracy has improved greatly over the past ten or 12 years. However, the entry on the Lion Brewery repeats most of the inaccuracies on the Carlsberg and Lion websites and adds some extra, just for you:
“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery established in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1849 by Sir Samuel Baker (1821–93) as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya was the ideal location for a brewery, with its cool climate and natural spring water. It wasn’t however until 1881 that it began brewing on a commercial basis, with the Ceylon Brewery Company, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. In 1884 the brewery was taken over by the Mohan Meakin Brewery of India, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, operated by John Bagshawe Hampson. In 1911 the brewery was acquired by G.W. Lindsay White and received limited liability company status, as the Ceylon Brewery Limited.”
That’s ten errors, including the Murree Brewery Company inaccurately and anachronistically being called “Mohan Meakin”: not only did the name Mohan Meakin not exist until the 1960s, but the Murree Brewery Company was always (and remains) a separate concern from the constituents of what became Mohan Meakin. Anyone digging into the history of brewing in India ought to know that. I also struggle to understand how anyone could look at “Pa Bavary” and not think: “Hang on, that can’t be right.” This is really not at all difficult to research: the British Library can give you web access to scanned, OCR’d copies of the Ceylon Observer, where you can speedily find the facts about De Bavay, Bremer, the Murree Brewery Company and the rest. Some trifling online detectiving, and gaps in the narrative, such as De Bavay’s and Bremer’s first names, can be filled in. It took me a morning.
Of course, the appearance of “Pa Bavary” in the
Wikipedia entry means this invented individual now pops up in a host of
different places. “Rewrite the Wikipedia entry!” you cry – thanks,
but I don’t have the time right now to mess with Wikipedia’s templates, only to
have some clown revert it later because it’s “original research”. I
am also reluctant to help Wikipedia while it maintains its indefensible stance
that it knows better than the Manners family how to spell the title of the
Marquis of Granby: while “Marquess” is the spelling preferred by many
families in Britain who use that title, the Manners family is one of those that
uses the spelling “Marquis” in the courtesy title of the Duke of
Rutland’s eldest son. Wikipedia, however, has decreed that its style for the
title is “Marquess”, and in the face of all the evidence insists on
calling the man who gave his name to so many pubs the “Marquess of
Granby”. It’s rich when a pub sign is more accurate than an on-line
I was thinking of ignoring the “what does sessionable
mean” debate, even through I was dragged into it by my ear by having my
research quoted. Then I saw a tweet yesterday from someone talking about “a sessionable 5.5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout”,
and the world swam and dissolved before me as I plunged screaming and twisting
into a hellish, tormented pit of dark despair.
Let me make this as clear as I can. This is an egregious and
unforgivable total failure to understand what the expression “sessionable”
means, is meant to mean, and was coined for. A 5.5 per cent alcohol beer is
not, and cannot be, “sessionable”. A smoked oatmeal stout, while I am
sure it can be lovely, is not and cannot be “sessionable”. Nobody
ever spent all evening drinking four or five, or six, pints of smoked oatmeal
The rant you are now reading springs less from that particular beer review than a piece this week by the British beer writer Lily Waite on the American website Vinepair headlined “It’s Impossible to Define ‘Sessionable’ in Craft Beer”. I don’t think Lily wrote the headline, which looks to go further than her article does, but her piece, which references my research back in 2011 into the origins of the term “session beer”, raises a number of potential difficulties around a definition of the term “sessionable”, not least the existence now of beers called “session barley wine” with eight per cent alcohol and 75 IBUs, and “session double IPA“, again at eight per cent abv.
I try not to
be prescriptivist about language, but for me “sessionable” is a very
useful word with, actually, yes, a precise meaning, and if people are going to
start being stupid with it by releasing something called a “session barley
wine” or “session double IPA”, even as a “joke”, then
we are in great danger of destroying an important descriptor, and losing an easy
way of summing up one of the fundamentals of British pub culture.
It’s entirely possible to define “sessionable”, but only if
you understand what the expression was coined to describe, which many American
beer drinkers – and brewers – apparently do not. A large part of the problem is that the word springs from a very British
practice, the “session”, and Americans don’t really understand what
the “session” is about. Britons and Americans are fooled into
thinking that, because they speak the same language (more or less) and drink
the same sorts of beers (more or less) in places that are called
“bars” (even if the British “bar” is actually a room in a
pub, rather than the descriptor for the whole establishment), then their out-of-home
drinking cultures are entirely similar and compatible. They’re not. “Sessionable”
means “beer capable of sustaining a session”, and “session”
means “extended period of three or four hours drinking pints and engaging
in conversation with friends”. That is why the fundamental definition of a
session beer has to be that it has a comparatively low gravity and is comparatively
unobtrusive. Americans, in my experience, do not generally spend entire
evenings in one bar drinking pints. (See also the bizarrely tiny glasses used
at American beer festivals.)
Another problem is that
people are confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. The
two are very much not the same. An eight per cent barley wine may well be
“drinkable”, in the sense of that great beer-reviewer’s cliché,
“dangerously drinkable”, that is, it slides away down the throat very
easily. But “sessionable” means “you can drink several and still
walk out the door without bumping into the frame.” An eight per cent
barley wine is therefore NOT “sessionable”.
Lily Waite’s piece is specifically looking at “sessionability” in the context of terms such as “session IPA”, and the craft appropriation of a term than applies much more to mainstream, non-craft beer drinking in the UK, and beers such as Carling, Fosters and the like. She interviewed some people with – ahh – interesting takes on sessionability, including James Rylance who helped create the now highly popular Neck Oil, Beavertown Brewery’s “session IPA”, which comes in at 4.3 per cent abv, and “masses of hop additions during the whirlpool and a huge dose of dry hops” (I quote from the brewery’s website). I’ve never tried a session on Neck Oil, but while 4.3 per cent is just on the edge of sessionability, I’m not sure about “”masses of hop additions”, even ignoring ” a huge dose of dry hops”. The classic British session beers are milds and light bitters, which generally have low hop rates. High hop rates are, I suggest, the antithesis of sessionability: too many hops, and you really can’t drink more than a couple of pints without hop overload.
James Rylance told Lily Waite that sessionability was less
about abv than “balance”, and insisted: “I think ‘sessionable’ is a
beer that can be drunk repeatedly, multiple times, in its correct volume.
There’s a lot of Belgian beers that are super sessionable, like Saison Dupont
at 6-point-something percent — that’s sessionable, but I’m just not drinking a
pint of it.” No, sorry, couldn’t disagree more. You’re confusing
“sessionable” with “drinkable”. You might be able to drink
several small Duponts, I’m sure, lovely beer, and one is certainly not enough, but
a true session beer has to be gulped in pints, not sipped. And probably I drink
too fast, but after a four-hour session, I wouldn’t even be able to find the
bar if I were drinking something that was 6.5 per cent. So no, Saison Dupont is
NOT “sessionable” either.
I can’t agree, either, with another of Lily Waite’s interviewees, Chris Hannaway of the London-based alcohol-free beer venture Infinite Session (see what he did there?), which launched last year with a 0.5 per cent pale ale brewed at Sambrooks in Battersea. ” “A ‘session’ is no longer about everyone ordering the same 4 to 5 per cent lager rounds for everyone in the group,” he says – but it never was. It was about people drinking 3.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent milds, bitters or lagers, depending on what they wanted, and drinking them all night long.
So: what’s the definition of “sessionable” and does it apply to craft beer? Sessionable means a beer you can drink over an extended period without getting too drunk and without growing tired of it and wanting something else. And yes, clearly that can apply as much to craft beer as it does to macro, mass-market beer. (Indeed, personally I find mass-market beers entirely unsessionable because they bore me after half a pint. Dull is not sessionable either.) A sessionable craft beer is going to be one that is not too strong, and not too challenging in terms of massive hop flavours or other flavour attributes such as roastiness, sourness or whatever. There – not impossible at all.
I apologise for greeting the new edition of Camra’s Good Beer Guide, with a spittle-flecked rant. A little. But not much. Because SIX YEARS after I pointed out that the “British beer styles” section of “the UK’s best-selling beer and pub guide” was choked with errors, the 2020 edition of the guide, just out, is STILL printing paragraph upon paragraph of nonsense about practically everything, from IPA to porter, and barley wine to mild.
It is also seriously misleading by what it omits to say: failing to point out, for example, that today’s American-style IPAs, with their emphasis on fresh, fruity, flowery hop flavours using modern varieties of hops, are radically different beers from the aged IPAs of the 19th century, or the debased IPAs of the mid-20th century; and that modern interpretations of porter and stout, frequently adding a wide range of ingredients from coffee to vanilla to blackberries to peanut butter, are again very different from the versions that sustained the street porters of London in the time of the Georges.
Inside sources tell me that suggestions for changes to the “British Beer Styles” section for the 2020 edition were made, but were ignored. That’s shameful, frankly: of the many thousands who buy the guide, all those who knew little to nothing about beer styles will now be utterly misled into believing nonsense, while all those who DO know about beer styles will be deeply under-impressed by an obvious lack of knowledge in a book that purports to be the country’s leading pub guide, published by an organisation that purports to be the country’s leading organisation for beer drinkers.
It’s not as if all the information on beer styles that the GBG gets wrong isn’t out there in easily discoverable forms: there are now a considerable number of books, blogs, magazine articles and so on giving the true facts about how the beer styles we know today developed. And yet the 2020 GBG still prints utter nonsense such as “a true pale ale should be different to bitter,” and “From the early years of the 20th century, bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” I wrote an article 15 years ago – FIFTEEN YEARS AGO – for What’s Brewing, the Camra monthly newspaper, detailing the history of bitter, and pointing out that bitter and pale ale were and always have been synonyms for the same drink, and that brewers have never differentiated between them. To claim that there is any difference, and that at some time ” bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity”, is total made-up spherules. Here’s something I wrote 12 YEARS AGO about why saying otherwise is historically totally wrong.
Since the guide screws up “pale ale” so badly, unsurprisingly it gets the section on bitter wrong as well. It starts off talking about “running beers”, but running beers only began appearing at the end of the 19th century, and the first bitter beers appeared 40 or more years earlier, a cut-price, lower gravity response to the popularity of India Pale Ale, which was always a premium beer. It also claims that the rise of “running beers” (most of which, anyway, were mild ales, not bitters) was connected with the growth of brewers’ pub estates, which is more nonsense. It was a consumer-led desire for less alcoholic, lighter beer that saw the formerly well-aged “stock” bitters disappear. All the same, bitter/pale ale was a minority, middle-class drink until the early 1960s.
The section on IPA repeats the canard that the original “pale ales as prepared for India” were high in alcohol, a fallacy which I thought Ron Pattinson and I had stamped out, again, 15 or more years ago. At six per cent to 6.5 per cent abv, 19th century India Pale Ales were lower in strength than 19th century milds, which were up to seven or 7.5 per cent abv. It also gets the history of the entire brewing industry wrong, claiming that IPA “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, as “new technologies of the Industrial revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to produce paler beers.” It was always possible to produce pale malt, but developments in the 17th century – not the 19th – made pale malt production easier, and pale ales began growing in popularity from the end of the 1600s. (It’s a curious fact that the first known mention of the expression “pale ale” came in 1706.) What these were, however, were unhopped, or very lightly hopped pale ales: the more hopped “export” kind were an 18th century development.
Those lightly hopped, sweetish pale ales were what the brewers of Burton upon Trent specialised in before they started brewing the more bitter IPAs, and those sweetish pale ales became known as Burton Ales. It’s a style that has almost vanished now: Marston’s Old Rodger and Young’s Winter Warmer are two of the very few survivors. The 2020 GBG beer styles section actually mentions Burton Ale, but screws it up unforgivably by claiming that the beer launched in 1976 under the name Ind Coope Burton Ale was a Burton Ale of the sort once popular around the country until the 1950s. This makes me really want to smack someone hard, because I have again been pointing out for years that the 1976 beer was an IPA, with a recipe derived from what was once Ind Coope’s premium India Pale Ale, Double Diamond, and it was the marketing department at Allied Breweries that decided to mess with beer historians’ heads by giving their “new” cask bitter/pale ale the name of an older beer of a completely different style. So allow me to shout it out: IND COOPE BURTON ALE IS NOT A BURTON ALE. Thank you.
Let us continue with cataloguing the mistakes. This is very tedious, because I detailed these errors in 2013 and NOBODY TOOK ANY NOTICE, which makes me today VERY SHOUTY. Old ale was not called “stale” by drinkers because of the lactic acid and tannic flavours that developed as it aged, it was called “stale” by brewers because “stale” formerly indicated something that had “stood” (the word is related to “stall”), and thus meant merely something that had been around for a while, as opposed to fresh ale or beer, which was called “mild”. The same ale (or beer) would be “mild” when first brewed and “old” (or “stale”) after it had aged.
Mild was NOT “drunk primarily by industrial and agricultural workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who needed to refresh themselves after long hours of arduous labour.” That role was filled very specifically by porter, which actually gets its name from the workers who were its first big fans, the street and river porters, coal porters, and the like, of London. Mild ale never took off in popularity until the second half of the 19th century, though after it replaced porter in popularity, mild remained THE working class drink, urban and rural, until the 1950s
Barley wine does NOT date “back to the early 18th century”, and nor was its development anything to do with “thumbing a nose at France”. Very strong “doble-doble” beers were being brewed when Elizabeth I was complaining about them, and ales that had been aged for up to ten years were around in Queen Anne’s time. It is claimed that such ales became more popular when brandy was unavailable during Britain’s frequent wars with France. But the expression “barley wine” as a term for such strong brews is extremely rare until the end of the 19th century.
I suppose I should be happy that the worst of the myths that were once repeated about the origins of porter do not appear in the GBG 2020, but there is nonsense enough: the development of porter did NOT “herald in the commercial brewing industry”, since we had had a thriving brewing industry in Britain for more than 350 years before porter. Nor were there special restrictions on dark malt during the First World War: and the dominance of “Irish brewers” (why the coyness? If you mean Guinness, say so) was grounded in developments happening long before the Kaiser kicked off in 1914. Nor, I suggest are stouts jet-black and roasty while porters are dark brown and sweeter: I do not believe there are any generalisable differences between beers brewed today called porter and beers brewed today called stout.
At least the 2020 GBG has the decency to admit that it is “an urban myth that Scottish beers are less heavily hopped that English ones”, a myth that it was spreading in the 2014 edition, but it still claims that Scottish beers “tend to be darker and maltier than those south of the border” – not true – and insists that “Wee Heavy” was a style of beer. It was not: it was the nickname for a particular brand, Fowlers’ Twelve Guinea Ale.
There we are then: two pages on beer styles, more than a dozen silly mistakes, with the true facts in each case easily available for years. The blurb on the 2020 guide’s back cover claims that it is “fully revised”. Can I suggest that for the 2021 edition the “British beer styles” section is not “revised”, but thrown right out the window, and a completely new version written by someone who has taken on board research done into the history of this glorious brewing nation’s beer styles over the past 20 years.
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 dictionaries: 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 (unofficial) 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.)