Going places the civilians don’t

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

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

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

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

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

London & Dublin Stout at the Porterhouse

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

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

The actual venue for the conference was another pretty much unique bar/restaurant complex, The Church, which is, yup, a converted church: not just any old converted church, but the church where Arthur Guinness married his wife Olivia in 1761, two years after buying the brewery in St James’s Gate that later became rather well-known. It was an excellent choice by the organisers, since it provided space for receptions/parties/beer tastings in the cellars and a large room for the different conference sessions.

Bust of Arthur Guinness in the Church restaurant and bar, Mary Street, Dublin

A bust of Arthur Guinness I in the Church restaurant and bar, Mary Street, Dublin

Hands up, I probably wasn’t as interested or attentive in the different sessions as I should have been, except for the first, by Declan Moore, “consulting archaeologist”, on the early centuries of Irish ale: fascinating stuff, and it was great to meet him for the first time. Indeed, the social side of the conference was as important as any other: it was also good to meet face-to-face, among quite a few others, Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known, who was extremely generous with beers he’d brought along, and to find new friends too: I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Rossa O’Neill, trombonist and home-brewer, and a fine chap – you can read his take on the conference here.

And what about the stuff civilians don’t (normally) get to do? Well, there were the two opportunities to try unfiltered and unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell tapped straight from the wooden cask, with PU’s master brewer Vaclav Berka doing the tapping: a vastly superior brew to the standard version. And the chances to chat to loads of new Irish brewers. But the event I was most hoping for was the trip to the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate. This is simply not something that happens any more: while once Guinness would let visitors look around the site, the public today is allowed only into the Guinness Storehouse, at €18 a head, which is, I’ll grant, a praiseworthy presentation of the story of one of the world’s great drink brands, but I’ve got all the books – I know all that stuff.

Foreign Extra Stout-marinated burger with Foreign Extra Stout

Foreign Extra Stout-marinated burger with Foreign Extra Stout

I don’t know who among the organisers of the EBBC talked to whom at Guinness, but they did a wonderful job of persuasion. Guinness, led by its hugely knowledgable master brewer Fergal Murray (it amused me to be able to startle him by saying: “Hello – you won’t remember, but I interviewed you in an Irish pub in Hong Kong a couple of years back”), welcomed us in, fed and watered us magnificently (see left for just part of it), walked us through the 19th century tunnel that connects one side of the brewery to the south of St James’s Gate to the side nearest the Liffey (which few if any civilians ever get to do) and, mirabile dictu, let us have a look around their lovely brand new £128m brewhouse, Brewhouse Number 4, which has been built on what was formerly a keg storage yard. It’s so new it isn’t officially open yet, and when it is running properly it will be able to produce all the beer Guinness previously made at four different breweries around Ireland, including all the “Guinness essence” that is exported across gloebe for local breweries to make their own Guinness Foreign Extra Stout with.

If you like big and shiny – and I’m surprisingly impressed with that sort of stuff – then the new Guinness brewhouse is magnificent. The main room is a huge space filled with vast stainless steel vessels, which, like icebergs, have far more of themselves unseen below the surface/floor. The biggest of the mash tuns are 21 feet across, meaning you could fit most microbreweries into one new Guinness mash tun two or three times over, and they hold 23 tonnes of grain each. They are, unsurprisingly, the biggest of their kind in Europe. It’s an amazing sight.

Unfortunately, Guinness asked us all not to take any photographs of the new brewhouse interior. It would be entirely wrong of me, after their incredible generosity and friendliness, to spit on their hospitality and disobey their wishes, and I am sure it would also deeply disappoint and anger the organisers of the EBBC as well, who all did such a great job, and who would undoubtedly bar me from any future beer blogging conferences, were I to disobey that request. So I have to ask you not to look at the two photographs below, and if you do accidently view them, please pluck your eyeballs out immediately.

The interior of the new Guinness Brewhouse No4 at St James's Gate, Dublin. Please do not look at these pictures

The interior of the new Guinness Brewhouse No 4 at St James’s Gate, Dublin. Please do not look at these pictures

Interior Guinness Brewhouse No4(Guys – I’m a journalist. I don’t do ‘please don’t take pictures’.)

 

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

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

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

Brew Dock Amiens Street Dublin

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

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

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

That rare sight, a working handpump in an Irish bar, in this case JW Sweetman, a brew-bar in Dublin

That rare sight, a working handpump in an Irish bar, in this case JW Sweetman, a brew-bar in Dublin

What there seems to be in Ireland, thus, is a drinking population, certainly among the young (meaning under 35, I think) that is increasingly aware of the existence of this thing called “craft beer” and increasingly able to find it in a wider and wider variety of forms, but pretty much unused to seeing handpumps in operation and equally unused to drinking beer as delivered from a handpump: softly carbonated rather than sodawater-fizzy, and cellar-cool rather than chilled. Now, we may see the “Hong Kong effect” here, where young Hongkongers went abroad to study, became exposed to great craft beer in places like the United States, and came home to HK to demand the same exciting range of brews they had found in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Perhaps enough young Irish people have now crossed the Irish Sea and tried cask ale in Britain that their throats are desperate for it and the crowds will be pushing down the doors of the Three Tun pub in Blackrock when it opens on Tuesday, eager for a drop from the handpump. But I’ve now been in Dublin twice in the past two months, and despite seeing at least one “craft” beer on sale in many bars, there seems zero evidence of huge untapped (pun semi-intended) interest for cask ale..

Certainly, though, Wetherspoon’s is confident that the demand is there. John Hutson, the company’s chief executive, told Propel Info, the company I work for, earlier this week: “There will be 12 hand-pulls with real ale from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as local and regional beers. Cask ale is nowhere near as commonplace in southern Ireland as here. But it’s something that we’ve always championed. We’ve taken the view that Dublin is an international city and there is an expectation that we will serve cask ale. I was in Dublin last week and my taxi driver told me that he always drinks cask ale when he’s in Scotland and visits our pubs. I also remember opening our second or third Scottish pub in Paisley and a customer collared me and suggested we serve London Pride [rather than just local cask ale]. So the idea is to serve great UK cask ales.”

The pub won’t be selling draught Guinness, doubtless because Guinness charges too much, but it will have the two Cork stouts, Beamish and Murphy’s, and also a line-up of Irish craft brewers. Among the local beers on sale will be Tom Crean’s Irish Lager from the Dingle Brewing Company, Rebel Red from the Molson Coors-owned microbrewer Franciscan Well in Cork, and beers from Eight Degrees Brewing in Mitchelstown, County Cork, including Howling Gale, Knockmealdown Porter and Barefoot Bohemian Pilsner.

I was in Dublin last week for the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, an excellent event of which more later, and the general feeling among Irish brewers and commentators at the conference seemed to be that the Irish beer scene is still a long way from the sort of mature market that the UK represents in terms of consumer awareness and choice. Dean McGuinness of Premier Beers, who tweets as Beer Messiah, said craft beer in Ireland was still “in its adolescence”, and in the same position as craft beer was in the United States was in the early 1990s. Recalling my own visit to California in the early 1990s, I’d say it was still not as good as that: even in small towns in Northern California 20 years ago you could find great craft beer bars. I don’t believe Ireland has reached that stage yet. But it’s certainly far better than it was: as Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well, remarked, when he started out brewing in 1998, the Irish craft beer scene was “a barren wasteland”.

While Ireland has been seeing the same trend towards drinking at home rather than in a bar that the UK has, Irish people are still rather more likely to down their pints down the pub instead of behind their own front door than the British are. So it makes sense for Wetherspoon to move into the Irish market, in terms of potential customers: each new Irish ‘Spoons will have more pub-goers in a given radius than any new UK ‘Spoons. The Three Tun, which is costing £1.9m to develop, on top of the £1.27m it cost to buy the site in the first place, is only the first of what are likely to be many JDW pubs in the Republic: it is currently spending another £1.2m doing up the former Newport Cafe site in Cork, it has its eye on the 40 Foot, a pub in Dun Laoghaire, just south of Blackrock, and the company has claimed that it could open between 30 and 50 pubs in the Republic over the coming decade.

A view of the brewing kit from the bar at the JW Sweetman brewpub in Dublin

A view of the brewing kit from the bar at the JW Sweetman brewpub in Dublin

Ireland is not England, and it would be a big mistake to think that English pub culture will automatically work in an Irish environment, but Wetherspoon are far from stupid, and they have put in a manager at the Three Tun, John Hartigan, who previously ran a Wetherspoon pub in Islington, North London, but who is Irish by birth and upbringing – and thus, presumably, knows the important cultural differences between the two sorts of establishments, English pubs and Irish pubs. (You think there’s no difference? OK, here’s a genuine Irish joke for you. An American is staying in a hotel in Dublin, and he comes down in the morning and says to the young fella on the front desk: “Say, can I smell gas?”, to which the young Irishman replies: “That’ll be the gas – it smells like that.” Irish people find that hilarious. Other nations don’t get it.)

Northern Ireland has nine Wetherspoon pubs, of which a remarkable eight are in the 2014 Good Beer Guide. However, the biggest number of handpumps in any one seems to be the 10 in the Diamond in Derry, while the Bridge House in Belfast, the largest cask ale pub in the province, only has eight handpumps. So it looks as if when it opens this Tuesday, the Three Tun will have more handpumps that anywhere else in the whole island. Will they all be still dispensing beer in a year’s time?

You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Spitfire droptank fuelling

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45 gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”.

Save stoppers adSome of the first attempts to bring beer over the Channel after D-Day used the expendable drop tanks, or jettison tanks to give them their proper RAF designation, carried by aircraft such as the Spitfire and Typhoon and normally filled with fuel to give them extra range. These sem to have been semi-official efforts: the Air Ministry actually distributed a photograph to newspapers showing a Spitfire of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron at Tangmere airfield in Sussex having its 45-gallon jettison tank being filled with beer from two wooden casks supplied by the Chichester brewer Henty & Constable, while the pilot relaxed on the wing.

It was presumably 270 gallons of beer from Henty and Constable that was flown in drop tanks slung under three Spitfire Mk IXbs from Tangmere to an airfield at Bény-Sur-Mer in Normandy, some 110 miles south of England and three miles from the sea, on June 13 1944, D-Day plus seven: the first known landing of beer during the invasion. One of the pilots was Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Berryman of 412 Squadron, 126 Wing, Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force. The airstrip at Bény-Sur-Mer would not, in fact, be finished officially for another two days when Berryman’s boss, Wing Commander Keith Hudson, singled him out at a briefing at the wing’s Tangmere base to deliver a “sizeable” beer consignment to the airstrip, known as B4. Berryman recalled:

“The instructions went something like this, ‘Get a couple other pilots and arrange with the officers’ mess to steam out the jet [jettison] tanks and load them up with beer. When we get over the beachhead drop out of formation and land on the strip. We’re told the Nazis are fouling the drinking water, so it will be appreciated. There’s no trouble finding the strip, the battleship Rodney is firing salvoes on Caen and it’s immediately below. We’ll be flying over at 13,000 [feet] so the beer will be cold enough when you arrive.’

“I remember getting Murray Haver from Hamilton and a third pilot (whose name escapes me) to carry out the caper. In reflection it now seems like an appropriate Air Force gesture for which the erks (infantrymen) would be most appreciative. By the time I got down to 5,000 the welcoming from the Rodney was hardly inviting but sure enough there was the strip. Wheels down and in we go, three Spits with 90-gallon jet tanks fully loaded with cool beer.

“As I rolled to the end of the mesh runway it was hard to figure … there was absolutely no one in sight. What do we do now, I wondered, we can’t just sit here and wait for someone to show up. What’s with the communications? Finally I saw someone peering out at us from behind a tree and I waved frantically to get him out to the aircraft. Sure enough out bounds this army type and he climbs onto the wing with the welcome: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Whereupon he got a short, but nevertheless terse, version of the story.

“‘Look,’ he said, ‘can you see that church steeple at the far end of the strip? Well it’s loaded with German snipers and we’ve been all day trying to clear them out so you better drop your tanks and bugger off before it’s too late.’ In moments we were out of there, but such was the welcoming for the first Spitfire at our B4 airstrip in Normandy.”

Later, in the 1950s back in in Canada, by chance Berryman actually met the man who climbed onto his wing and told him to bugger off.

Four days after Berryman’s landing, on 17 June 1944, and 11 days after the invasion started, a Spitfire of 416 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force flew over from England to the newly built airfield at Bazenville, just three miles from Gold Beach, with a drop tank full of beer slung below its fuselage. The tank had been scoured out first with steam but “tough luck; it still tasted of petrol,” according to Dan Noonan, a Flight Commander with 416 Squadron.

The heftier Hawker Typhoon could carry even more beer. Pilots of the RAF’s 123 Wing, flying rocket-firing Typhoons and based from 19 July 1944 at Martragny, a few miles east of Bayeux, would run a “shufti-kite” across to Shoreham, 110 miles away, where a local brewery would fill two 90-gallon jettison tanks attached below each of the Typhoon’s wings with beer. Then the pilot would hurry back across the Channel and the RAF personnel at Martragny would drink it, quickly. There was one problem with transporting beer in jettison tanks: according to 123 Wing’s commanding officer, the New Zealand-born RAF ace Group Captain Desmond Scott, on the trip over to Normandy the beer “took on rather a metallic taste, but the wing made short work of it.”

However, the journey over the channel, at 15,000 feet or so, cooled the beer down nicely for when it reached those on the ground: indeed, according to newspaper reports, not only did Spitfires supply beer shortly after D-Day in jettison tanks made from vulcanised paper fibre, but P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, presumably flown by the USAAF, had carried iced custard, or ice-cream, in their drop-tanks to troops on the Normandy beachheads: “They flew at 15,000 feet and delivered their cargo iced in perfect condition.” (This is not as unlikely as it seems: the US army had mobile ice-cream making machines for the troops in the Second World War, and so did many US Navy ships.)

The Typhoons’ exploits were reported in Time Magazine on July 2 1944 under the headline “Flying Pubs”:

A great thirst attacked British troops rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust of Normandy. Thinking of luckier comrades guzzling in country estaminets and town bistros, the runway builders began to grouse. They wanted beer. They got it. Rocket-firing Typhoons, before going on to shoot up Nazis, landed on the runways with auxiliary fuel tanks full of beer. Swarms of the thirsty gathered round with enamel mugs. The first tank-fulls tasted bad because of the tank linings; this flavor was overcome by chemical means and later loads were delicious. Just like the corner pub at home.

Unfortunately, United States Army Air Forces P-47 Thunderbolts did for 123 Wing’s beer runs: the Typhoon was easily mistaken by inexperienced American pilots for the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and according to Group Captain Scott, “our aerial brewer’s dray was attacked by American Thunderbolts twice in one day, and was forced to jettison its beer tanks into the Channel … beer cost us money, and these two encounters proved expensive.” The Wing’s draught beer flights came to a sudden halt, and Scott had to arrange for an old twin-engined Anson to fly in cases of Guinness: “The troops mixed it with champagne to produce black velvet. It was hardly a cockney’s drink, but they appeared to like it,” he wrote.

It may have been 123 Wing’s experience that was covered in a publication called The Airman’s Almanac in 1945:

A possible peacetime use for the auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the underside of fighter planes in World War II to increase their range was demonstrated in the Normandy invasion of 1944. British ground crews, rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust and heat of the French province, complained of thirst. Their complaint being heard, rocket-firing Typhoons coming over from England on their way to German targets landed on the newly built strips with their military fuel tanks full of beer. The first tankfuls tasted awful because of the tank linings. Before the second ‘beer trip’ the tanks were treated chemically and the air-hauled brew was reported extremely palatable.

Ironically, Thunderbolt pilots learnt what the Typhoons had been doing, and copied it themselves. Lieutenant William R Dunn of the 513th Fighter Squadron, USAAF, the first American air ace of the Second World War, was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Normandy. He recorded:

During our brief stay at A6 airfield, we learned another trick of the trade from our neighbouring RAF allies, a Typhoon squadron based near Caen. Periodically they’d send a kite with a clean belly tank back to England, where the tank was filled with beer. A flight back to France at an altitude of about 15,000 feet and the beer arrived nice and cold. We soon followed their lead, with our 150-gallon belly tanks. Those British types sure know how to take all the comforts of home to war with them.

The other method used was to attach casks to the bomb racks. Pilots with the RAF’s No 131 (Polish) wing, flying Spitfire Mk IXs, (probably 302 Squadron or 308 Squadron, both fighter-bomber units) claimed to have invented the idea of the “beer bomb”, using casks that had home-made nose-cones fitted to make them more streamlined, which were fitted to the Spitfire’s bomb racks. On 3 August 1944 131 Wing moved from England to the airfield at Plumentot, near Caen, and “beer bombing” began:

Even more popular was the ‘beer-bomb’, invented and first used by No. 131 Fighter Wing when still stationed in England. The bomb has nothing atomic about it, so the details can now be divulged. The invention is, in fact, simplicity itself: it entailed a barrel of beer, a bomb-carrying aircraft, and a willing pilot (the three were available in increasing order of magnitude). The procedure, freely disclosed for the benefit of thirsty humanity, was for the aircraft to be carefully ‘bombed up’ with a barrel of beer, flown off with every precaution to Plumentot in Normandy and landed with equal care. Never were bombs more warmly welcomed. Not least because of the dust.

Pictures exist of the “beer bombs” being put together: presumably at Ford airfield in West Sussex, where 302 and 308 squadrons were based just before they were moved to Plumentot, in which case, again, the beer may well have come from Henty and Constable, eight or so miles away at Chichester.

'Beer bombs', wooden firkins being fitted with streamlined 'nose cones' for transporting in bomb racks underneath Spitfires by members of 131 Fighter Wing, probably in August 1944, possibly at Ford airfield in West Sussex. Pictures taken from Polish Wings 15, Wojtek Matusiak, Wydawnictwo Stratus, 2012 p26 and © Straus

Above and below, ‘beer bombs’, wooden firkins being fitted with streamlined ‘nose cones’ for transporting in bomb racks underneath Spitfires by members of 131 Fighter Wing, probably in August 1944, possibly at Ford airfield in West Sussex. Pictures taken from Polish Wings 15 by Wojtek Matusiak, pub Stratus, 2012, p216, and © Stratus

Polish beer bomb 2One Kentish brewery that apparently supplied beer for transport across by fighter plane was Bushell Watkins & Smith of the Black Eagle brewery in Westerham. According to Westerham villager Edward “Ted” Turner

I worked at a garage called Brittain’s Engineering in Peckham in London making Bailey bridges for sending to France for the invasion … We were also making ‘jettison’ auxiliary fuel tanks for fighter planes to carry extra fuel to enable them to fly further into Europe and still get back home. Once refuelling facilities were established over there, the Westerham brewery used to fill those auxiliary non-returnable petrol tanks with Westerham ales for our troops in Europe. Black Eagle lorries delivered it in barrels to Biggin Hill [four miles from Westerham] where the auxiliary dual-purpose tanks were filled with Bitter on one side and Mild on the other. We made them of 16 gauge metal with baffles for safe landing, the RAF’s version of the brewer’s dray.

There is also a photograph of a cask at the Black Eagle brewery with a sign on it declaring: ‘This Cask containing “Westerham” Bitter was flown to France “D” day, June 6th 1944, by the Royal Air Force’. Unfortunately there are problems with the Westerham claims. The three fighter squadrons that had been using the airfield departed in late April 1944 for Tangmere, where they would be closer to the Normandy beaches. In any case, Biggin Hill was abandoned by the RAF soon after the Normandy landings. On June 13 1944, V1 “doodlebug” flying bomb attacks on London began, and Biggin Hill – right in the V1s’ flightpath – was deemed too dangerous to continue to be used by aircraft, with Balloon Command taking the airfield over as part of the line of barrage balloons put up against the doodlebugs. Flying operations did not begin again at Biggin Hill until September 1944, and fighter aircraft do not seem to have returned until the October. However, one of the squadrons that had been based at Biggin Hill until April 1944 was 412 Squadron, which had made that first “drop-tank beer delivery” to Normandy from Tangmere on June 13. It is possible that the beer in the tanks might have come from the Westerham brewery, 50 miles away, which the pilots of 412 would have known very well.

Westerham D-Day cask

The Westerham Brewery’s ‘D-Day cask’. But were there any flights from nearby Biggin Hill over France on D-Day? © Westerham Brewery

Certainly, pilots were happy to fly long distances to pick up beer. Thorsteinn “Tony” Jonsson, the only Icelander to join the RAF, was flying North American Aviation P-51 Mustang III fighter-bombers with 65 Squadron, based at Ford, when the D-Day invasion began. On June 27 his squadron moved to the temporary airfield at Martragny, designated B7, five miles from Bayeux and only some 2000 yards from the German lines. However, Jonsson recorded:

Life in our camp was really quite pleasant and comfortable. Admittedly we missed the luxury of being able to pop into a pub at the end of a day’s work for a pint of beer, and to mix with the ladies that were usually to be found there to add spice to our existence. At the beginning of the invasion and for the next few weeks, beer was severely rationed in Normandy … But some bright lad in our Wing had an excellent brain-wave; why not bring beer over from England in the large auxiliary tanks that could be hung under the wings of our Mustangs? Each tank could hold 75 gallons – this would make an excellent addition to our meagre ration. Action was immediately taken.

Four tanks were sent to a factory for their insides to be coated with a substance to prevent the taste of metal, as is done with preserving cans, and taps were fitted. A contract was made with a brewery in London, and on an appointed day every week a Mustang flew with two empty ‘beer’ tanks to Croydon aerodrome and brought back two full ones; one containing mild and the other bitter. These tanks were placed on trestles in our mess-tent, which quickly became known as the best pub in Normandy. It did not take long for the word to spread to nearby military units that we had a good supply of beer, and our mess was frequently a very popular and crowded place in the evenings. The fact that nurses from a military hospital in the neighbourhood were regulars only helped to boost the attendance … It was not long before the beer trips were increased to two a week. Although most pilots likes to nip over to England whenever possible, to contact families and loved ones, the beer-run was not in demand. The reason was that a full beer tank could easily fall off if the landing was not perfectly smooth. The ‘beer kite’s’ arrival was watched by all available personnel, and woe to the poor pilot who was unlucky enough to bounce!

It was 150 miles from Martragny to Croydon (at the time the main airfield in London), making the “beer run” for 65 Squadron a 300-mile round trip. Croydon’s one brewery was Page & Overton, a subsidiary of Charrington’s brewery in Mile End, and it was presumably Page & Overton’s mild and bitter that flew back in the tanks of the Mustangs.

Confirmation that Henty and Constable supplied much of the beer to arrived in Normandy after D-Day comes from Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at Vickers, the parent company of Supermarine, maker of the Spitfire. Quill recalled:

After D-Day in 1944, there was a problem about getting beer over to the Normandy airfields. Henty and Constable (the Sussex brewers) were happy to make the stuff available at the 83 Group Support Unit at Ford, near Littlehampton. For some inexplicable reason, however, beer had a low priority rating on the available freight aircraft. So we adapted Spitfire bomb racks so that an 18-gallon barrel could be carried under each wing of the Spitfires which were being ferried across from Ford to Normandy on a daily basis.

We were, in fact, a little concerned about the strength situation of the barrels, and on application to Henty and Constables for basic stressing data we were astonished to find that the eventuality of being flown on the bomb racks of a Spitfire was a case which had not been taken into consideration in the design of the barrels. However, flight tests proved them to be up to the job. This installation, incidentally, was known as Mod XXX Depth charge.

Flying dray

A Spitfire IX fitted with the ‘Mod XXX Depth Charge’, modified bomb racks that could carry a cask of beer under each wing. Contrary to frequent claims, this is almost certainly a Vickers Armstrong publicity photo, and NOT Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson’s own aircraft

According to one source with a slightly different spin on the story, the job of designing fittings that would secure the kilderkins to the Spitfire’s bomb racks was done at High Post airfield, Salisbury, one of the final assembly centres for Spitfire manufacture, “more or less as a joke”. The plan to put beer in long-range tanks was abandoned “when it was found later that the practice contaminated fuel, so Strong’s, the Romsey brewers, supplied complete barrels of Triple ‘X’. This modification was given a fictitious number to conceal the operation from more official or officious eyes.”

There was already a link between Strong’s and Spitfires: after the Luftwaffe bombed Vickers-Supermarine’s headquarters in 1940, the company’s design and administration offices were transferred to Hursley Park, Winchester, a magnificent mansion requisitioned after the death that same year of its owner, Sir George Cooper, chairman of Strong’s. That Strong’s certainly was involved in the supply of casks to be carried on Spitfire bomb racks is confirmed by the existence of a photograph of just such a cask slung under a Spitfire wing, clearly branded “STRONG ROMSEY”.

Strongs under wing

A close-up of the “Mod XXX Depth charge” on the ground, showing clearly that the casks were supplied, at least occasionally, by Strong’s brewery in Romsey, Hampshire

The hint that Quill gave about the “flying drays” being replacement Spitfires ferried across to squadrons on the Normandy front line from England is given extra support by a newspaper story from the middle of August 1944:

With beer in their bomb racks, replacement Typhoons from England are sure of a specially boisterous welcome from the thirsty troops in Normandy. For the beer shortage is just as acute over there as it is in England. So at least one Typhoon has solved its problem by importing its own beer.

Whenever a replacement aircraft flies to Normandy the pilot takes a quantity of beer, carrying it in nine-gallon barrels with special streamlined nose fittings slung in the bomb racks. This system has been found to be much better than the original method of taking the beer in petrol tanks, which gave the beer a nasty flavour.

In the event of the pilot running into trouble, the barrels are jettisoned as if they were bombs. Then another kind of trouble awaits him at the end of his journey.

Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson had landed with his 127 Wing, two squadrons of Canadians, at a newly built airfield at St Croix-sur-Mer, designated B3, and just over a mile and a half from the landing beaches, on D-Day plus 3. After several days of tinned “compo” rations, Johnson sent a note to his favourite Sussex landlord, Arthur King at the Unicorn in Chichester, asking for help. Every day a twin-engine Anson flew into St Croix from Tangmere with mail, newspapers and spare parts, and King arranged for items such as tomatoes, fresh lobsters, newly baked bread and “a reasonable supply of stout”.

When news of the arrangement leaked into the newspapers, King was visited by someone from Customs and Excise, who warned him that if he carried on, he would need an export licence. However, Johnson recorded in his memoirs,

Since its introduction to the Service in 1939, the versatile Spitfire had participated in many diverse roles … Now it fulfilled yet another role, perhaps not so vital as some of the tasks it had undertaken in the past, but to us of supreme importance. Back in England some ingenious mind had modified the bomb racks slung under each wing so that a small barrel of beer could be carried instead of a 500-pound bomb. Daily, this modern version of the brewers’ dray flew across the Channel and alighted at St Croix. The beer suffered no ill effects from its unorthodox journey and was more than welcome in our mess.

Johnson’s memoir of the war, Wing Leader carried a photograph of a Spitfire IX in D-Day black-and-white stripes, carrying a kilderkin of beer slung from each bomb rack, and captioned “Our version of the brewer’s dray”. This seems to have given rise to the myth that the picture is of Johnson’s own Spitfire. But the photograph in the book is credited to Vickers Armstrong, and is almost certainly one of the aircraft manufacturer’s publicity shots, and nothing to do with Johnson.

A Spitfire IX bearing D-Day invasion stripes, and carrying beer casks beneath its wings, on the ground. It is probably significant that in none of the shots of beer-carrying aircraft can the identifying letters be seen: therse were almost certainly all publicity shots

A Spitfire IX bearing D-Day invasion stripes, and carrying beer casks beneath its wings, on the ground. It is probably significant that in none of the shots of beer-carrying aircraft can the identifying letters be seen: these were almost certainly all publicity shots

Eventually, organised supplies of beer for the troops supplanted the “flying drays”. In November 1944 the government actually ruled that supplies of beer for troops overseas should equal five per cent of total national production, meaning all stronger “export” beers, all naturally conditioned beers with a life of six weeks or more and all beers that could be pasteurised had to be put in the hands of the forces’ catering service, the Naafi. At the same time, breweries in liberated areas of France were being put to use.

By then it was the turn of the Home Front to be short of beer, however. Brewers blamed a shortage of labour, saying the women workers who had replaced men called up for the forces had themselves been evacuated with their children as the V1 and V2 threat increased. The Nottingham Evening Post reported that in some pubs there had been outbreaks of “panic drinking”, customers “gulping their beer and shouting for an encore lest their neighbours at the bar got more than they did.” At the same time, in “certain districts” only mild ale was available, because bitter, which kept better, was earmarked for the troops. Many pubs were only open for an hours and a half at lunchtimes and two hours in the evening because they had no beer to sell: and there was little relief even for those harvesting the grain that would be used to make the new season’s beers. In August 1944 it was announced that “In some parts of Lincolnshire the beer famine has become so acute that many inns have announced that they will not be able to continue the age-old custom of supplying harvest beer this season. Cups of tea will be provided instead.”

Flower's ad July 44

How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September.

Speidel Braumeister

The Speidel Braumeister – a lovely piece of kit, albeit expensive: I’ve bought cars for less money

First, though, we had a pep-talk from Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell, on the secrets of PU: soft water from the wells of Plzeň, a triple-decoction mash that heats part of the goods in direct-fired copper vessels, where hotspots on the walls create caramelising in some of the sugars in the wort, which adds to the mouthfeel and flavour of the final beer, and Saaz hops added at the start of the wort boiling for bitterness and just before the end of the boil for flavour. We wouldn’t be able to recreate all of that – no decoction vessels, for a start – but this, Václav said, was our chance to follow in the footsteps of Josef Groll, the Bavarian who brewed the very first golden lager in Plzeň in 1842.

Then we had a quick chat from Greg Tucker, an expert in people’s emotional and physiological responses to flavours, which held a number of interesting factlets – why we perceive the taste of the bitter element in a food or drink last, for example (because bitterness indicates something is poisonous, and our brain delays considering the threat indicated by bitterness so that it can analyse the good things – sweetness, indicating energy-giving sugars, for example – first.)

The design for the label for Citron Pilsner, knocked up at amazing speed by an extremely clever guy whose name I failed to record

The design for the label for Citron Pilsner, knocked up at amazing speed by an extremely clever guy whose name I failed to record

Finally we were divided into teams, told to put together a recipe using the available ingredients, choose a name for our lager and then start brewing. Fortunately for me, I was in an excellent team, with Andy Parker, a home-brewer of considerable experience and skill, and Justin “1970sBoy” Mason, and even more fortunately, we quickly discovered that we all had much the same idea about the kind of lager that we wanted to brew: something light and distinctly lemony. That gave us the name for our lager: Citrón Pilsner, after the Czech word for “lemon”.

We had been warned that if we wanted the sort of yellow-gold colour PU has, without the benefits of triple decoction caramelisation, we should be using a touch of coloured malt: but the team quickly decided that this would be subtracting from the lightness that we were after, and in fact, that pale-as-possible was what we wanted to achieve. So: nothing but Pilsner malt. But if you do that, you can have a mouthfeel problem: without some kind of caramelly or roasty underpinning, the beer often ends up too “thin” in the mouth. Andy’s brilliant suggestion was to add a small amount of rolled oats, to give the mouthfeel “rotundity”. (Oats also have the added benefit of giving better head retention, helping the “lemon meringue” effect we were after.)  I’m not sure anybody has ever made an “oat pilsner” before, but hey, there must always be a first time … and one quick trip to the supermarket across the road meant we were able to substitute 200g of our pilsner malt with Quaker Oats. (Václav’s only comment was: “In Czech we have a saying, ‘wheat is for cakes, barley is for beer, and oats are for horses.’” Thanks for that vote of confidence, mate …)

We had decided to use the traditional Saaz variety for our bittering hops, but to go for Kazbek, a medium-bitter Czech hop with lemon, grapefruit and spice flavours, added right at the end, and also some Sorachi Ace, the Japanese hop that also has a citrussy/lemony aroma, a pack of which Andy just happened to have about his rucksack, as you do. Unfortunately, Paddy Johnson, Windsor and Eton’s head brewer, who was also there, had to veto the Sorachi Ace, since a phone check confirmed that should we be lucky enough to win the competition, he would not be able to get hold of any for the scaled-up brew. So we went for the most light-fruit-flavoured hop we could find among those that Václav and his crew had brought along, Galaxy from Australian, a strongly bitter hop but with notes of passion fruit and peaches.

 Paddy Johnson (right) tells Andy Parker (left) 'Sorry, mate, no Sorachi Ace", while Justin Mason (centre) looks glum

Paddy Johnson (right) tells Andy Parker (left) ‘Sorry, mate, no Sorachi Ace”, while Justin Mason (centre) looks glum

These were to be added at flame-out, rather than, as is more traditional with a pilsner, five or ten minutes before the end, as we were looking for flavour and aroma rather than any more bitterness: because the Kazbek and Galaxy went in after boiling had stopped, we also raised the amount we were putting in by 20 per cent over what would be a “normal” amount of end-of-boil hops. Here Greg Tucker made an extremely useful suggestion: peach flavours, he said, drag lemon flavours “a long way back” in taste perception, so if we wanted the lemon side of the Kazbek hops to come fully through, we should ease off on the Galaxy. Our original plan for 25% of the final hops to be the Australians was therefore changed to 20% Galaxy against 80% Kazbek.

Andy tastes the wort: at least it's lemon-coloured

Andy tastes the wort: at least it’s lemon-coloured

The final hopped wort certainly seemed to have a lovely long finish, from the oats, and also the lemon notes we were looking for, though fermentation will change some of that: quite how, we will find out in mid-July. Paddy Johnson checked our OG: 1043.5, just the area we were aiming at. I was very impressed with the Speidel brewing kits, their “Russian doll” design, combining mash tun and brewing kettle, reminding me of the rather larger “Russian doll” brewing gear I brewed a wedding stout with at the former Pitfield brewery in Hoxton. At £1,250 a pop, though, you’d have to brew a lot of beer with your Braumeister to bring the cost per pint down to something reasonable.

Still, I wasn’t paying: and I had a huge amount of fun. Apparently this is the first time PU has tried this sort of “interactive brewing” experiment/competition: it will be very popular if they roll it out as an event around the world. It will also be fascinating to taste our brew when it is finished: Peter “Tandleman” Alexander was on one of the other teams, and he’s a man, I suspect, who knows his way round a brewing recipe, so the competition will be strong.

However, strangely, a beer I had some small involvement in has already won a competition to be brewed on a commercial scale by Windsor and Eton. Paddy Johnson asked the London Amateur Brewers to brew beers that would be suitable for commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta next year – the signing, of course, took place at Runnymede, near Windsor – with the promise that the best one would form the basis of W&E’s own Magna Carta anniversary ale, and one of the LAB, Manmohan Birdi, approached me for some historical advice. I suggested using ground-ivy and yarrow in the brew would at least be a nod to the sorts of herbs they might have used to flavour ale in 1215, Manmohan did that, and woohoo, his beer won the contest and will now be made and bottled at the W&E brewery. Very well done him.

Lowering in the wort cooler

Lowering in the wort cooler

Sparging the malt

Andy and Justin “sparging” the malt

Doing my bit for the Surrey hop-growing industry

I’ve been invited on plenty of brewery visits over the years, but never before has the invite come with the request: “Please bring wellies and a spade.” This, however, was a field trip in a considerably more literal sense than normal: to the two and a half-acre field right opposite the Hogs Back brewery in Tongham, just outside Farnham in Surrey, to witness – and take part in – a historic event: the first planting of the Farnham White Bine hop variety in its native soil since the last bines were grubbed up 85 years ago.

This is not just, however, a footnote in Farming Today magazine: this is, according to Hogs Back’s chairman, Rupert Thompson, an important step towards increasing the “localism” aspect of the brewery’s products. Once the new hop ground (the proper Surrey name for what elsewhere are called hop gardens or hop yards) are producing a healthy crop, those hops can then be used to flavour the beer being brewed just yards away: Surrey’s own hop variety, grown in Surrey, to produce Surrey beers.

Jeff Sechiari of the Brewery History Society, one of the volunteers at the Hogs Back hop ground planting,  with a Farnham White Bine rootstock prior to planting

Jeff Sechiari of the Brewery History Society, one of the volunteers at the Hogs Back hop ground planting, with a Farnham White Bine rootstock prior to going into its hole

A century and more ago, Surrey was an important hop-growing area, and for a very long time, up to at least 1850, Farnham White Bines were the most favoured hop variety in the land, described as having “a most delicate flavour”. Richard Bradley, Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, writing in 1729, called Farnham “the first capital Town for Hops in Britain.” Three years earlier, the Reverend John Laurence, in a book called A New System of Agriculture, said: “The noble Plantation of Hops at Farnham where for Regularity and Exactness the appear like Woods and groves cut into Vistaes is a beautiful Sight.” Arthur Young, the agriculturalist, said in 1798 that “they grow very large quantities” of hops around Farnham, and hop grounds were let in the district “from £3 to £9 an acre, which last price is very great.” In the second half of the 19th century, Kentish hops overtook those from Farnham in favour, but Farnham hops were still ranked second in quality after those from East Kent in 1890, and even in 1909, George Clinch could say: “The Farnham hops have long been famous for their excellent quality.”

In 1886, Surrey had 2,937 acres of hop grounds: half the size of the Sussex hop crop and a third that of Hampshire, but more than either Hereford or Worcester. Disease – to which hops in general and Farnham White Bines in particular are prone, especially downy mildew – hammered the Surrey industry, and the county’s own hop disappeared from its homeland in 1929, to be replaced by more disease-resistant varieties. But even in 1959, there were still 1,879 acres of Surrey hop grounds, which made up 9.2% of all the land then given to hop cultivation in Britain. The collapse of the industry since that time is encapsulated in one telling statistic: the planting of hop bines at Tongham this week doubled the number of existing hop grounds in Surrey.

Before the planting on Monday, Rupert Thompson said: “It will be wonderful to look out from the brewery and see the raw materials we use growing in the next-door field – that’s local! That is part of what makes the craft brewing revival so exciting.” Right now all you can see is a muddy field with, if you look carefully, row after row of angled pieces of metal sticking a few inches out of the ground, all carefully spaced one foot apart. Each marks where a hop plant was planted by a small but enthusiastic squad of helpers, including me. But in a few weeks, once the hops start to grow, the trellising will be going in: and a couple of months after that, the field should be a magnificent sight: two thousand or so hopbines (slightly fewer than half Farnhams, the rest the American variety Cascade), leafy and green, climbing 15 feet or more into the Surrey sky.

Ruepert Thompson, chairman of Hogs Back Brewery, instructs Roger Protz in the art and mystery of hop planting

Rupert Thompson, chairman of Hogs Back Brewery, instructs top beer writer Roger Protz in the art and mystery of hop planting

It felt good to be part of this literally ground-breaking operation, even if my own contribution consisted of not much more than digging a couple of dozen holes, dropping one hop plant into each hole and filling the hole back up with the rich, loamy, slightly flinty soil (indicating chalk below) that historically made the area so popular with hop growers.

I won’t go deeply into the history of the Farnham White Bine, since Ed Wray has done an excellent job of covering that subject here and elsewhere, except to say that the variety is, effectively, the grandfather of the Golding hop, probably the best known English hop variety, which sprang from Farnham hops taken to Kent around the middle of the 18th century.

Me, apparently trying to work out which way up the hop plant goes in the hole …

Me, apparently trying to work out which way up the hop plant goes in the hole …

Strictly, the hops that have gone into the ground at Tongham are not the Farnham White Bines that were so popular in the 19th century, the ones developed by Peckham Williams of Badshot Place, Farnham, around 1780, but Mathons, from Herefordshire, which are descended from White Bines taken from Surrey to the West Midlands before Mr Williams got going. But Dr Peter Darby of Wye Hops, probably the greatest expert on hops in the country, who looks after the National Hop Collection on behalf of the British Hop Association and provided the original rootstock for the White Bines I helped plant, was there on Monday and said that Mathons (named for the village of the same name near the Malvern Hills) show the same spectrum of hop oils as Goldings, which pretty much confirms that Mathon, or Mathon White Bine as it was called in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a synonym for Farnham White Bine.

Whatever, the planting of the first new hop garden in the immediate vicinity of Farnham for more than 50 years, on land that grew hops for almost 200 years, is a terrific story to tell, and sell. The Hogs Back brewery is a popular tourist halt with an almost perfect score on TripAdvisor for its brewery tours: 35 “excellents” out of 38 reviews, with the other three being “very good”. Soon visitors will have the hop ground as an additional attraction, and eventually, when they buy beer in the brewery shop, they will be able to feel they are genuinely taking away the taste of Surrey, with beer made from hops grown literally on the brewery doorstep.

A Farnham White Bine hop plant in its hole

A Farnham White Bine hop plant in its hole

Localism, in the context of the British pub, currently pretty much only means the Localism Act of 2011 and its introduction of the idea of “assets of community value”, through which campaigners have been trying to preserve pubs under threat of closure. But could “localism” in its rather older, more internationally understood sense, of local purchasing, sourcing what you consume as locally as possible, have any prospect of influencing the pub customer? The idea of the “locavore”, defined as “a person interested in eating food that is locally produced”, was invented in California just under a decade ago: but California is a place that can pretty much produce all the foodstuffs anyone would wish to eat, unlike rainy, frequently cold Britain, and locally sourced food is much more easily found in Los Angeles than London. However, with initiatives like Hogs Back’s, the “locaboire” – a word I just invented, meaning “a person interested in drinking beer that is locally produced” – may suddenly have a much easier time.

According to Datamonitor earlier this year (talking, admittedly, about the United States), “knowing where a product is from instils a sense of comfort and security for consumers. Origin and localism are strong consumer pulls in craft beer, which comes through in ingredient selection and product marketing, with origin and provenance featuring heavily in the sub-sector’s imagery.” I’m not sure that’s so true in the UK, but initiatives like Hogs Back’s, if taken up more widely, could help make local provenance much more important if been fans start to feel that drinking local offers a genuinely different taste experience, rather than just the warm glow that comes from pushing one’s money at neighbours, not international conglomerates.

Right now, however, Hogs Back is one of, as far as anyone seems aware, just three of Britain’s 1,100-plus breweries growing its own hops, the other’s being Iceni in Norfolk and, unsurprisingly, Shepherd Neame in Kent (Update: John Humphreys, communications manager at Sheps, tells me: “I’m not sure we could claim to grow our ‘own’ hops. We own the land that is home to the National Hop Collection (which we hope to brew with this year), but Dr Peter Darby does the leg work there, albeit with our financial – and moral! – support. We do, however, source 95% of our ale hops from Kent.”) Growing your own hops won’t be for every brewer, and it may be that in terms of added value for the consumer, it will turn out to be meaningless – the looked-for “locaboire” market could likely be a figment of wishful thinking. But I’d love it, personally, if the British locaboire really turned out to be a thing.

Tamping down the soil around the planted hop – trying not to step on the plant itself

Tamping down the soil around the planted hop – trying not to step on the plant itself

And if any brewers reading this are interested in growing their hops, but wonder if their part of the world is as suitable as Surrey, according to HS Corran’s A History of Brewing, “Hops were cultivated in no less than forty English counties, eight Welsh and five Scottish by the 1850-70 period.” Since there are, in fact, only 39 traditional English counties, I think this total must include Monmouthshire, which was often regarded as part of England, but still, the implication is that every county in England grew hops, two thirds of those in Wales, and, I’m guessing, most or all of the southernmost historic counties of Scotland. In other words: pretty much all of the island of Great Britain has seen hop-growing in the past: William Cobbett in 1832 found hops growing near the banks of the Water of Aven in Aberdeenshire, and was told of a hop garden in Lanarkshire that had been in operation “sixty years ago”, that is, about 1772.

Mind, the five hop-growing counties of Scotland in the middle of the 19th century must have been quite recent, and quite short-lived, since a publication by the Board of Agriculture in 1814 called General Report of the Agricultural State: And Political Circumstances, of Scotland declared: “There is no instance known of hops having been cultivated as a crop in Scotland except perhaps a few in gardens,” and according to Corran the Scottish hop-growing industry disappeared in 1871. (Welsh hop-growing ended three years later.) English hop growing survived outside the core areas of South-East England and the far West Midlands for rather longer: George Clinch in 1909 said Essex, Suffolk and “nineteen other English counties are recorded as having, at various times towards the latter part of the 19th century, small areas under hops.” So get growing …

Farnham White Bine rhizomes

Farnham White Bine rhizomes

The hopground laid out and ready for planting, May 2014: come back later …

The hopground laid out and ready for planting, May 2014: come back later …

Dr Peter Darby, right, hop expert, talking with Rupert Thompson, centre, and the Reverend Claire Holt of St Pail's, Tongham, who had come to bless the hops and the efforts of the hop-planters

Dr Peter Darby, right, hop expert, talking with Rupert Thompson, centre, and the Reverend Claire Holt of St Paul’s, Tongham, who had come to bless the hops and the efforts of the hop-planters

 

How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong.

To quote myself from Brewery History magazine: One of the crucial events leading up to the start of the First Opium War happened on July 12 1839, when seamen from two sailing ships owned by the British trading company Jardine Matheson, sheltering in the natural harbour between Hong Kong island and the mainland, were on Sunday shore leave on the mainland, Kowloon side. They were joined by others sailors, British and American, and got stuck into the “sam shu”, san shao, distilled rice liqueur, in a Kowloon inn. When that ran out, it appears, they moved on to what was then the neighbouring village of “Jianshazui”, today the district of Tsim Sha Tsui, in search of fresh supplies. Several houses were raided by the sailors, a Taoist temple vandalised, a fight broke out with the locals, in which, according to one report “many of both sexes, including children and women 70 years of age” were “desperately wounded” , and one villager, Lin Weixi, or Wei-hsi, was struck across the chest with a stick, dying the next day.

The British Chief Superintendant of Trade in China, Captain Charles Elliot, effectively London’s representative in the region, was with the merchant fleet, trying to negotiate with the Chinese over the opium question. He paid Lin’s family 1,500 silver dollars, put up $200 as a reward for evidence leading to the murderer’s conviction, and handed out $500 in general bribes to the locals. Elliot also held a court of inquiry into Lin’s death on board one of the ships off Hong Kong. Five sailors were tried for the affray and found guilty of riot, but on the evidence as presented, no murderer could be identified. The British sailors blamed the Americans, who, they said, had drunk more of the san shao.

British toops in Hong Kong 1846: undoubtedly hot and thirsty

British toops in Hong Kong 1846: undoubtedly hot and thirsty

The Chinese High Commissioner in Canton (today Guangzhou), Lin Zexu (or Tse-Hsu), had been sent in March that year by the Emperor of China, Daoguang, to stop the British bringing opium into the country, and had already destroyed more than a thousand tonnes of British opium. With the weight of a proud and ancient nation behind him, he demanded that the British hand over the murderer of Lin Weixi. Elliot refused to hand anybody over, saying it had not been possible to identify who struck the killer blow. In addition, Elliott knew that anyone who was handed over to the Chinese would quite likely simply have been summarily executed – which would have caused outrage back in Britain. In retaliation for this refusal, an angry Lin Zexu ordered his countrymen not to supply the British ships with food or water, poisoned wells known to be used by the British, and told the Portuguese authorities in Macau, the Portuguese-owned settlement on the other side of the Pearl River delta, not to supply the British either, and to drive all British ships there out of the harbour. The Portuguese, who had been in Macau since 1557, complied with Chinese orders, unwilling to upset the Emperor.

Lin Zexu’s orders resulted in several skirmishes between British ships and the Chinese fleet in which a number of junks were sunk. The rumbling argument broke out into an official declaration of war in London early the following year, in large part to secure compensation for the opium destroyed by Lin, with 4,000 marines and four steam-powered gunboats sent to the Pearl River delta from Singapore. As part of the subsequent fighting, Elliot, apparently deciding that the Portuguese in Macau could not be trusted and Britain needed its own territorial base in China, seized Hong Kong island in the name of Queen Victoria. This de facto land-grab became de jure in August 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War and handed Hong Kong officially to Britain.

It could, perhaps, be argued that if the sailors in Hong Kong harbour had had access to supplies of beer, they would never have gone drinking san shao in Kowloon, Lin Weixi would not have died, the Portuguese would not have been forced by the Chinese to bar the British from Macau, and the British would never have decided they needed Hong Kong as a secure home of their own to conduct trade with China from. On the other hand, the natural harbour between Hong Kong island and the mainland – quickly named Victoria Harbour by the British – was a prize worth seizing by anyone.

Whatever might have happened, on January 26 1841 the British took physical possession of Hong Kong. By April 1842, even before Hong Kong’s capture had been ratified by the Treaty of Nanjing, Alexander Matheson of Jardine Matheson was reporting that beer, porter and pickles were “pouring into this market, ten times as much as a whole army could consume”, with the company’s newly built godown in Hong Kong “full of the stuff”.

AllsoppsGuinnessBarclay 1867That was beer from Britain, almost certainly, and for the next 30 or 40 years, beer from the United Kingdom pretty much seems to have dominated the market in Hong Kong. Quite likely much of the beer in Hong Kong was being drunk ice-cold, as it was in India and mainland China: an Austrian traveller, Ida Pfeiffer, talking about Canton in the 1840s, wrote: “Portuguese wines and English beer are the usual drinks – ice, broken into small, pieces and covered up with a cloth, is offered with each.” Much of the beer drunk in 19th century Hong Kong was porter. The British forces were particularly keen to ensure supplies of beer for the troops stationed in Hong Kong, and a parliamentary select committee on “the mortality of troops in China” in 1866 was told that without beer being available the troops would go into town and drink “a deadly liquor called samshoo” (san shao again) which cost four pence for a “reputed quart”, a container the size of a 75cl wine bottle. However, the committee was told by Colonel William Sankey, who had commanded the 2nd battalion, 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot in Hong Kong in 1864/65: “When we were, in the middle of the summer, able to purchase porter or beer from the merchants in the town, we had in the canteen a large ice box, and we kept ginger beer and similar draughts, and the soldiers drank a great deal of iced ginger beer with porter or ale mixed with it, and at that time there was very little drunkenness among the men … As long as good and cheap porter remained at the canteen the men always drank there and not in the town.”

Lane Crawford Bass 1868By 1869 English beer “of excellent quality” was being brewed in Shanghai, 900 miles north along the coast, by “Messers Evans and Co, who during the season have sold between Shanghai and the outports over 50,000 gallons of beer”, that is, about 1,400 barrels. However, while it very well might have, there is no evidence that Evans’s beer reached Hong Kong. (This mention of Evans’s brewery, incidentally, knocks on the head the claim by Tsingtao to be the first Western brewery in China.) Meanwhile the colony’s tastes were changing: British ale and stout were being replaced by lager. As early as May 1876 the Hong Kong importer and retailer Lane Crawford was advertising “Danish beer from the Tuborgs Fabrikker”, Tuborg then being just three years old. In 1886, beer from the Brauerei Zur Eiche in Kiel, North Germany was being advertised for sale in the colony. By 1896 the Seattle Brewing and Malting Co had opened an agency for China and Japan in D’Agulier Street, Hong Kong, and was selling “Braun’s ‘Export’ Beer”. Lager beer from the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association (brand unstated), presumably imported all the way from St Louis, was on sale in Hong Kong in 1899. Two years later, in 1901, Hongkongers were being offered Kirin from Japan, “a delicate lager”, in quarts and pints.

Metropole Hotel 1905 HKThen in August 1903 the China Mail newspaper reported: “We hear arrangements have been made to start a Brewing Company in Hongkong. As Breweries have been conducted successfully in Manila [that was San Miguel, founded in 1890], Shanghai and in Japan for some years, there seems no reason why a similar success should not attend a Brewing Company in Hongkong, provided it is under able management. The amount of beer that is consumed in Hongkong in the course of a year must be tremendous, and the consumption is more likely to increase than decrease, in spite of the efforts of the Temperance Party.” The concern the China Mail had heard rumours about appears to have been the Hongkong Brewery Company Ltd, which held its first shareholders’ meeting at 15 Queen’s Road, Central on February 15, 1904. The shareholders were told that the company intended to erect a brewery alongside the Metropole Hotel, on the then Shaukiwan Road (now King’s Road) at North Point, some three miles east of what was then Hong King proper, and by what was then the seashore (land reclamation means that today’s shoreline is some 250 yards further north). The chosen site was “practically the bed of a watercourse”, shareholders were told, and via that watercourse, an “abundance of pure, good water, suitable for beer brewing purposes” ran through the site.

I was staggered when I read that: because the site of the former Metropole Hotel was literally right outside the front door of the apartment block where I was living in North Point. Indeed, the 26-storey block that now stands on the site, with shops on three floors and apartments above, is still called the Metropole Building. Could some strange Jungian synchronicity have brought me to live right by where Hong Kong’s first brewery was founded?

The site of the Metropole Hotel today: you can just see part of that tramway in the top picture

The site of the Metropole Hotel today: you can just see part of that tramway in the postcard above

Alas, no: although the Hongkong Brewery Company Ltd had found a master brewer in Germany who was “ready to come out and attend to the building and fitting up of the brewery as soon as we are ready for him to come out,” the company never seems to have raised the money to build the brewery, and in 1906 it was wound up.

In fact the first brewery in Hong Kong, I discovered, the Imperioal Brewery, opened the following year, 1907, in a converted house in Wong Nai Chung Road, Happy Valley. It only lasted two or three years: but meanwhile another new brewery had started up in the colony, across the water from Hong Kong island in Lai Chi Ko, New Kowloon, which began operations in 1908. The promoters behind the venture were led by an Englishman, Alfred Hocking, who was born in Cornwall, England in 1852 and emigrated to the United States as a young man. After several years he moved to Hawaii where he ran a lumber mill and a sugar plantation before starting the Honolulu Malting and Brewing Company around 1898, building a brewery on Queen Street in 1901 which became famous for Primo lager. The advertising slogan ued by the Oriental Brewery was “The Beer that’s Brewed to Suit the Climate”, and one of its brands was “Prima”, echoing the Honolulu brewery’s Primo brand. However, in October 1912, the Oriental Brewery Limited was in liquidation, and the following year its brewing equipment was dismantled and shipped to Manila, in the Philippines.Oriental Brewery ad 1911

That was the end of brewing for more than 20 years, until 1933, when a newly built brewery opened at Sham Tseng – a name meaning “deep well” – by the seafront on the Castle Peak Road, in the southern New Territories, and about 11 miles west of Kowloon. The entrepreneur behind the venture, the Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers Ltd, was Jehangir Ruttonjee, a member of a family of Parsee traders who had arrived in Hong Kong in 1884. The equipment was being supplied by the Skoda Works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, home, as the new company pointed out, to the original Pilsen lager, and the brewer, Mr V. Woitsch, a graduate Engineer Brewer of the Vienna Brewing Academy, was “for many years technical and commercial director of one of the largest breweries in Pilsen”, the Český plzeňský pivovar (which traded as Světovar, or the “World Brewery”), and later state superintendent of breweries in Czechoslovakia, and his assistant brewmaster, F. Drapal, was a former managing brewer in Czechoslovakia.

The brewery held its official opening ceremony in August 1933, an event attended by more than 600 prominent citizens from Hong Kong and Kowloon, driven out to the brewery site in more than 100 cars organised by the Hong Kong Hotel Garage. Catering – “teas, cakes, ices etc” was organised by Lane Crawford in a large open matshed erected for the occasion between the brewery (itself decorated with bunting and hung with flags) and the sea, while music was provided by the Band of the South Wales Borderers. Mrs Borrett, the wife of the General Officer Commanding (that is, commander of British troops in China), Major-General Oswald Borrett, formally opened the doors of the brewery with a silver key (which she was allowed to keep), after which her husband gave a “witty” speech.

The major-general was followed by a speech from the brewery chairman, Stanley Dodwell, who assured the crowd that “nowhere in the world is beer brewed in more beautiful surroundings,” while the picturesque hills behind “pour down to us a constant supply of ideal water for our purpose, water … found to be equal in quality to, and just as suitable as, the Pilsen water itself, where the famous Pilsener beer is brewed.”

HB Beer ad 1935Unfortunately, macroeconomic matters way outside the company’s control quickly brought it serious problems. It had paid for its plant at an exchange rate of 11.5 pence sterling to the British trade dollar (the then name of the local currency), but when Britain left the gold standard in September 1931, the pound slumped more than 30 per cent against the trade dollar, to one shilling and three pence. At the same time, for political reasons – pressure from senators representing the seven electorally important western silver-producing states – the United States government had been buying silver, which dramatically increased the price of the metal, sending it up almost threefold between 1932 and April 1935. Hong Kong and China were the last places in the world to still tie their currency to silver, and higher silver prices hammered their exchange rates. By the middle of 1935 the trade dollar was nearly two and a half times higher against the pound than it had been in 1930.

The rising value of the trade dollar made exports dear and imports into Hong Kong much cheaper, so that British beer was on sale at the same price as the local product, despite the cost of shipping it 12,000 miles by sea: Stanley Dodwell complained in June 1935 that “had exchange remained anywhere near where it was when the Brewery project was started, we could have supplied the Colony with very much cheaper beer than that imported from anywhere else except perhaps Japan.” Six months later, after the brewery had lost 300,000 (British trade) dollars, it went into liquidation. (Ironically, a week earlier the colony finally abandoning the silver-based British trade dollar and pegging its currency to sterling, introducing the Hong Kong dollar.)

The following year, Jehangir Ruttonjee incorporated a new firm under almost exactly the same name, the Hong Kong Brewery and Distillery Ltd, and bought the Sham Tseng brewery from the liquidators. In August 1939 the brewery celebrated its sixth anniversary, with a lengthy write-up in the Hongkong Telegraph. The Telegraph’s report revealed that the malt for brewing came from Australia, Canada and Europe, and the hops from Great Britain and “the Continent”. It described the landscaped garden, with flowers laid out to depict the words “H.B. Brewery”; the dormitories for the Chinese staff, “built on the plan of semi-European flats”, with messrooms and cooks; and the separate quarters for the “female operatives” who worked in the bottling hall. The women workers “live like girl students in a school dormitory” under a matron who was also the forewoman during working hours. All the female workers in the bottling hall were required to have “a complete tub bath” twice a day, before starting work in the morning and again in the evening when they left for their quarters.

The start of the Second World War seems not to have damaged the brewery’s ability to get raw materials too much, since it was still advertising its Blue Label “British Brewed” lager inside the Hong Kong Sunday Herald on June 9, 1940 when the front page of the newspaper was full of the evacuation of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk. At the same time Japanese beer was still being advertised in Hong Kong newspapers. But on December 8 1941 – in the centenary year of British occupation – four hours after the Japanese had struck at the American fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong found itself in the front line, when the 20,000-strong 23rd Corps of the Japanese Army threw itself at the 10,000 British and Commonwealth troops defending the colony. The Battle of Hong Kong lasted until Christmas Day, when the British finally accepted the inevitable and surrendered.

HK Brewery Blue Label lager 1940Jehangir Ruttonjee avoided being interned in Stanley Camp after the Japanese victory, though he supported the smuggling of food parcels into the camp, where Indians were interned along with Britons, Canadians and other nationalities, and he housed nearly the entire Hong Kong Parsee community in his home, Dina House, in Duddell Street. Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were badly tortured by the Japanese after they refused to encourage members of the Parsee community to collaborate with the occupiers. Meanwhile the Hong Kong brewery was one of a large number of local businesses, including Lane Crawford’s department store, that were “taken over” by the occupying Japanese under the new governor, General Rensuke Isogai, with the brewery apparently “farmed out” by Isogai himself to a businessman from Osaka called Inouye Yahei.

Japanese authority in Hong Kong lasted until August 1945, when, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, Japan agreed to end the war on the Allies’ terms. A British fleet under Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt arrived in Victoria Harbour on August 30, 1945, and the Japanese forces in Hong Kong formally surrendered to Admiral Harcourt on September 16. Four days before that, on September 12, Jehangir Ruttonjee, “accompanied by Royal Navy officers”, had travelled out to the Hong Kong brewery to see what sort of state it was in. Ironically, the worst damage had been caused by the United States Air Force “some months” earlier, when a bombing raid in the near vicinity had scored hits on the brewery site. The China Mail reported that “some barrels of recently brewed beer” were discovered by Ruttonjee and the RN officers, indicating that Yahei or his successors had been busy, “but these were found to have soured.”

The brewery seems to have recovered within a few months from the occupation, with Ruttonjee back in charge. By September 1946 its HB brand beer was on sale, since it appears in the official government list of price-controlled goods: HK$1.10 a pint in the shops, HK$1.50 a pint in a pub or bar. For comparison, Carlsberg, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, “Kangaroo” and Tuborg were all HK$1.70 a pint in a bar

In March 1947 Ruttonjee – who had been awarded the CBE in the 1947 New Year’s Honours List “for courageous and loyal services during the enemy occupation of Hong Kong” – was visited by the author Compton Mackenzie, who described him as “the owner of the Kowloon brewery, a wealthy and respected Parsee.” That year, however, the brewery was sold to the San Miguel Brewery Inc, the Philippines brewer. It looks to have taken some months to sort out the handover, because the inauguration of the new San Miguel brewery was not marked until the following year, on May 21 1948, with a reception at the Hongkong Hotel attended by “hundreds” of Hong Kong’s leading businessmen, along with David MacDougall, the Colonial Secretary (that is, head of Hong Kong’s civil service.) The first stocks of freshly brewed San Miguel beer would be coming onto the market “immediately”, the brewery revealed. First-year sales volume was 4,000 hectolitres – around 2,500 barrels.

HB ad 1947That same year, 1948, Ruttonjee, who was now 68, donated HK$500,000 to fund the building of a tuberculosis sanatorium at the former Royal Navy hospital in Wan Chai, Hong Kong in memory of his daughter Tehmina, who had died of TB during an outbreak in 1943. It was said to be the largest donation to charity in the colony’s history. Ruttonjee’s total donations eventually reached HK1.3 million. The sanatorium is now the Ruttonjee Hospital.

San Miguel carried on brewing at Sham Tseng until 1996, when it moved to a new brewery in Yuen Long, a few miles to the north, and where it still brews today. Meanwhile among the new breweries to have opened in Hong Kong in the past few months (that is, after I left to come back to the UK – blimey, I left London in 2009 and the place exploded with new breweries, I left HK in 2013 and ditto: what is this?) is one called Young Master, founded by Rohit Dugar, who was born in New Delhi – and who is clearly following the tradition set by Jehangir Ruttonjee.

The architects who designed the Sham Tseng brewery, Leigh & Orange, are still running today in Hong Kong, and while all their records of the original brewery were lost in the Secondf World War, I was thrilled to find they still have photographs of the brewery from when they worked on it after the war, which they were happy to copy for me. San Miguel, too, also had photographs of the interior and exterior, and if you want to see a fine selection of those, and read an even longer version of the brewery history of Hong Kong, you can find it in the Winter 2013 edition of Brewery History magazine. Oh, and thanks are due to Evan Rail, for fnding experts who could interprete those interior shots for me, and identify the various bits of 1950s lager-brewing kit.

A view of the mash tun at the Sham Tseng brewery in 1959, with the brew kettle visible on the left

A view of the mash tun at the Sham Tseng brewery in 1959, with the brew kettle visible on the left and the lauter tun in the background.

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

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

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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