About Martyn Cornell

Author, journalist and beer historian

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

If we didn’t already know John Gilroy, creator of so much iconic beer advertising, was a genius, then the latest images to surface from the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson would surely convince us: marvellous pastiches of other iconic works of art, sadly unseen for the past 60 or so years.

I’ve already talked here about the mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971, and how items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These are oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval: if approved, a final painting would then be made which the printers would use to make the posters. Now they are being sold by a couple of art dealers in the United States on behalf of their anonymous possessor for tens of thousands of dollars each. It has been estimated that the 350 or so paintings sold so far have gone for a total of between $1 million and $2 million.

Van Gogh by John Gilrou

‘I’d give my right ear for a pint of stout’

Much of the stuff that has been turning up was never actually used in advertising campaigns, for various reasons. There was a series of posters featuring Nazi imagery, for example, commissioned from Gilroy because Guinness was thinking of exporting to Germany in 1936.

This week, David Hughes, who has written an excellent just-published book, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, about Gilroy that includes some 120 reproductions of artwork from the “lost” stash, gave a talk at the St Bride’s Institute in London on Gilroy and Guinness. During the talk he revealed that he had recently been shown something new from the Benson collection, too late to include in his book – a series of 21 takes by Gilroy on “Old Master” paintings, copies with a Guinness twist  of works by painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Michaelangelo, that had been commissioned in 1952 with the intention that they would hang in the Guinness brewery at Park Royal in London. They were never used, however, and instead ended up hidden in the SH Benson archive, vanished from (almost all) human ken.

Picasso by Gilroy

From Picasso’s ‘Brown (stout)’ period …

Now the paintings are on sale as part of the general disposal of the Benson Gilroy collection, they are being swiftly grabbed by eager collectors with thick wallets: the “Michaelangelo” went for $20,000. I would love to own the “Van Gogh” – somehow Gilroy has captured the essence of the mad Dutchman’s art even as he subverted it with a bottle of Guinness on the chest and a pint of stout on the chair – a humorous homage, done, I am sure, with love and affection. Note Gilroy’s signatures on that and the “Picasso” – cheeky takes on the originals.

A few others are in the “great but not fantastic” category, but the “Toulouse-Lautrec” really does look as if little Henri himself had been commissioned to design an ad for la fée noire. I haven’t seen any of the other 21 apart from those here, but they would have made a superb series of advertising posters, and would be as much loved now, I am sure, as Gilroy’s toucans, sea lions and men with girders. It’s a huge pity they never went into proper production. (Some of the reproductions on this page – the obviously rubbish ones – are from photos taken by me off the giant screen David Hughes was using at the talk, subsequently poorly “tweaked” in Photoshop – my apologies, but I thought you’d be more interested in at least seeing something now of these marvellous illustrations than waiting an unknown time until you could see them reproduced perfectly.)

In the audience for the talk was Edward Guinness, 90 this year, the last member of the family to hold an executive position on the Guinness board, and a man to whom brewery historians owe a huge debt: it was while Edward was chairman of the Brewers’ Society that the Society commissioned Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson to write their mammoth history of brewing in Britain from 1830 to 1980, a massive resource. He also helped ensure Guinness the company supplied the money to make John Gilroy’s last few months comfortable, after it emerged that the artist who had done so much to promote the Guinness brand was seriously ill and could not afford private health care. It appears that David Hughes is helping Edward Guinness write his reminiscences – bugger, that’s another Guinness book I’m going to have to buy.

Michaelangelo by Gilroy

The ceiling of the Sistine Saloon Bar – don’t you love the strategically placed shamrock?

Millais by Gilroy

Gilroy’s take on John Everett Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh of 1871: “Sod the potato, bring the world stout!’

Mondrian by Gilroy

Piet Mondrian’s hugely influential ‘Composition in Black and White’, painted after his death in 1944

Vermeer by Gilroy

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pint of Guinness”

Toulouse-Lautrec by Gilroy

Henri ‘Half-Pint’ Toulouse-Lautrec advertises Guinness in the Paris of the 1890s

Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

That’s not to say there were no ales brewed with herbs in Britain. I’ve tracked references to between 40 and 50 different herbs and plants that were added to ale at some time, both before and after the arrival of hops (you can read more in the “Herb beers” chapter of my book Amber, Gold and Black, from which a fair part of this post is nicked.) There are a couple of East Anglian recipes for herb-flavoured ale dating from around 1430, in the collection known as the Paston Letters:

Pur faire holsom drynk of ale, Recipe sauge, auence, rose maryn, tyme, chopped right smal, and put this and a newe leyd hennes ey [egg] in a bage and hange it in the barell. Item, clowys, maces, and spikenard grounden and put in a bagge and hangen in the barell. And nota that the ey of the henne shal kepe the ale fro sour.

In modern English: “For a fair, wholesome drink of ale, chop finely sage, wood avens [or Herb Bennet, Geum urbanum, a common perennial plant with yellow five-petalled flowers, found in woodlands and hedgerows], rosemary and thyme and place in a bag with a newly laid hen’s egg, and hang the bag in a barrel. Second recipe: grind cloves, mace and spikenard (probably ploughman’s-spikenard, Inula conyzae, an English perennial flowering plant found in scrubland whose roots have a strong, spicy aroma] and put in a bag and hang in the barrel. Note that the hen’s egg will keep the ale from going sour.”

I’d love to see either of those recipes reproduced. John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, printed a similar sort of recipe for sage ale in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, declaring: “No man needs to doubt of the wholesomeness of sage ale, being brewed as it should be with sage, scabious [probably field scabious, Knautia arvensis], betony [Betonica officinalis, a bitter grassland plant], spikenard [Inula conyzae again], squinanth [squinancywort or squinancy woodruff (Asperula cynanchica), a scented, white or lilac-flowered plant formerly used in the treatment of quinsy, a throat infection] and fennel seeds.”

Scurvy grass

Scurvy grass

Those “multi-ingredient” herb ales are similar to the two new ales bought out by the Pilot and Ilkley breweries, both of which have “foraged” for their ingredients, using herbs and botanicals than can be found near their breweries. The ale from the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith late last year, has been brewed at the request of the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith to celebrate the restaurant’s first anniversary. The restaurant has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus, and it supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for the ale – scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis, a relative of horseradish, used historically to brew “scurvy ale”, which was taken aboard ships for its high vitamin C content; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, Smyrnium olusatrum, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides; and juniper branches. Juniper branches are a traditional part of Norwegian home brewing: while there’s little or no evidence British ale brewers used juniper, I’d be surprised if they didn’t, at least occasionally.

Yarrow

Yarrow: you may recognise it from your lawn

The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common grassland weed, small and feathery-leaved. For pre-hop brewers it gave bitterness, a preservative effect and, if the flowering plants were used, strong herby aromas. Its taste is described by one brewer as astringent, and vaguely citrussy. It had a reputation in Scandinavia for making ale more potent, perhaps because it is said to contain thujone, the narcotic ingredient also found in wormwood. Too much yarrow is said to cause dizziness and ringing in the ears, “and even madness”. Bog myrtle/sweet gale has a similar reputation: I wrote about it here. Viking warriors, according to some authorities, consumed large quantities of bog myrtle to bring on hallucinations and, literally, drive themselves berserk before battle. But gale ale, made by adding leafy branches of bog myrtle to the hot wort, is an old Yorkshire tradition. Peyton also used rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor to flavour an ale made with six malts, Maris Otter extra pale, oats (6%), crystal, chocolate, brown and smoked, and a small amount of Fuggles hops, for preservative purposes, if not total historic accuracy.

Alas, I’ve not had this ale yet, but Luke Raven, sales and marketing manager at Ilkley Brewery, said: “The beer is delicious. The fragrant mixture of gruit herbs and heather from Ilkley Moor really packs a punch and yet it’s a beer you could happily enjoy with a Sunday roast or pheasant.”

Butler's Head

The Dr Butler’s Head near Moorgate in the City of London in the 1960s

I suspect it is called Doctor’s Orders in part as a nod to Dr Butler’s Ale, a medicated or “purging” ale that was the invention of William Butler, the court physician to King James I, who died in 1617. Inns that sold the ale often went under the sign of the Dr Butler’s Head, and there is still a Butler’s Head in the City of London (now owned by Shepherd Neame). Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink used for betony, sage, agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass, Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (Inula helenium, a dandelion-like bitter plant still used in herbal cough mixtures) and horse-radish, to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation. It was described in 1680 as “an excellent stomack drink” which “helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

It’s my suspicion, however, that when British brewers used herbs in the past, they were much more likely to use them singly than bung in three, four or more different types. There are only a tiny number of actual medieval references to herbs and spices used in ale: in William Langland’s long poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, written in the late 1300s Beton the brewster tempts Glutton away from his journey to church, telling him: “I have good ale.” When Glutton, asks if she has any “hot spices” to hand she replies:

“I have peper and piones [peony seeds] … and a pound of garlice,
A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyng-dayes.”

The “peper” would have been “long pepper”, made from the long rod-like structure made from merged berries that develops on Piper officinarum (from India) or P. retrofractum (from Indonesia). However, it is not until we get to Stuart times that we get more frequent mentions of herb-flavoured ales. One of my favourites is from The Bacchanalian Sessions: or The Contention of Liquors, by Richard Ames (1643-1693), a long paean to drinks of all sorts, which contains a submission to Bacchus from the ales:

Whether Scurvy-grass, Daucus, Gill, Butler, or Broom,
Or from London, or Southwark, or Lambeth we come;
We humbly implore since the Wine in the Nation,
Has of late so much lost its once great Reputation;
That such Liquor as ours which is genuine and true,
And which all our Masters so carefully brew,
Which all men approve of, tho’ many drink Wine,
Yet the good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline:
That we as a body call’d corp’rate may stand,
And a Patent procure from your Seal and your Hand,
That none without Licence, call’d Special, shall fail,
To drink any thing else, but Strong Nappy Brown Ale.

That’s five herb ales, of which only one, “Butler” (Dr Butler’s) is mixed. Scurvy-grass we have talked about. “Daucus” is wild carrot seed: William Ellis wrote in The London and Country Brewer, which first appeared in 1736, that when hops were dear “many of the poor People in this Country gather and dry in their Houses” daucus or wild carrot seed from the fields, which gave a “fine Peach flavour or relish” to their beer.

Ground-ivy

Ground-ivy or alehoof

Gill ale was made with ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea also known as alehoof (from its hoof-shaped leaves) or Gill-go-over-the-Ground, a creeping plant common in woods and hedgerows all over the British Isles: it can be used as a salad herb, and even cooked and eaten like spinach. The pre-Norman English cultivated ground-ivy, and a recipe in an Anglo-Saxon leechdom, or medical book, distinguishes between the wild and cultivated or garden varieties: another name for the plant, tunhoof, comes from tun meaning enclosure or garden rather than tun meaning cask. It was steeped in the hot liquor before mashing, and it seems to have been a widely used plant in brewing ale, even after the arrival of hops: John Gerard said in 1597 that “the women of our northern parts, especially Wales and Chesire, do turn Herbe-Alehoof into their ale.” It gives a bitter, very strong, tannic flavour to ale (described by Stephen Harrod Buhner as like black tea), but more importantly it helps fine the drink, clearing new ale overnight, according to Culpepper. Gill ale was being advertised on the signboard of the [Red?] Lion pub in Bird-Cage Alley, Southwark in around 1722, “Truly prepared and recommended by famed Doctor Bostock”, Bostock being the pub’s landlord.

The young green tops of broom, Cytisus scoparius (or Sarothamnus scoparius), were used in season to give a bitter flavour to ale. Among the bitter compounds found in broom is sparteine, a narcotic alkaloid which can cause hallucinations in very large doses, and probably gives a buzz even at low levels. Broom was one of the bittering agents specifically banned under the Act of Parliament in 1711 that imposed a penny a pound tax on English hops: the only let-out was that retailers could infuse broom and wormwood in ale or beer “after it is brewed and tunned, to make it broom or wormwood ale or beer.” Wormwood has been used to make bitter wine-based drinks since at least Roman times, and is the origin of the word vermouth. Maude Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, said that shepherds had long known that sheep who ate broom became excited and then stupefied, “but the intoxicating effects soon pass off”. Broom also contains tannins, which would help to preserve ale, and make it taste more astringent. Broom ale is another one I’d love to see revived.

The hop tax banned other bittering agents purely to try to crush tax-avoidance, despite a claim that it was done because “it had been found by experience that hops used in the making of malt drinks were more wholesome for those that drink the same and of greater advantage to the drink itself than any other bitter ingredient that can be used.” It did not stop home brewers using herbs: William Ellis said when hops were dear, some used “that wholsome Herb Horehound, which indeed is a fine Bitter and grows on several of our Commons.” This was white horehound, Marrubium vulgare, “extremely bitter” according to Stephen Harrod Buhner, rather than the nasty-smelling black horehound or Stinking Roger. Horehound is still used in herbal cough mixtures, and was sometimes used in a “beer for coughs”. The juice of horehound, according to Ellis, was also used to spruce up used hops and sell them to the gullible, when dried, as new.

Just over 20 years before the hop tax was imposed, Thomas Tryon, in his A New Art of Brewing Beer, Ale, and Other Sorts of Liquors, published in 1690, list 13 herbs that could be added to ale, and said there were “a great number of brave Herbes and Vegitations that will do the business of brewing, as well as hops, and for many Constitutions much better, for ’tis custom more than their real virtues that renders Hops of general Use and Esteem.” His two favourites, “noble” herbs, of “excellent” use in beer or ale, were balm, or lemon-balm, Melissa officinalis, an introduced herb from the eastern Mediterranean, and a relative of ground-ivy, and pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, a small-leaved member of the mint family, with a bitter flavour and a pungent odour, which grows wild on the muddy edges of ponds. Tryon said it made “brave, well-tasted Drink”; today, however, it is regarded as dangerously poisonous, not least because it can induce abortion. It is now an endangered species, known from only a dozen or so places. Don’t try (on) this one.

The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.

Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.

I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.

But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch?

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog's Ellon brewery

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog’s Ellon brewery

Still, if it isn’t ultimately about the beer, what is it? And I have to say that I came away from Ellon having seen the shiny big new brewery, and the rather less shiny, very much smaller original BrewDog brewery in Fraserburgh, having tasted large amounts of BrewDog beer, having heard Dickie and Watt talk about their vision, and having been given an excellent beer-and-food matching evening at Watt’s Aberdeen restaurant-cum-arts venue Musa, feeling that the hype almost certainly was secondary: that for Dickie and Watt the beer definitely does come first, and the marketing is there merely to promote the beer.

I think what probably finally persuaded me of that was discussing the brewery’s “hop cannon”, which fires 20 kilos of hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks, as BrewDog’s take on dry-hopping. Each 600-hectolitre conditioning tank gets 600 kilograms of dry hopping. The hidden cost is that 600kg of dry hops will soak up 20 per cent of the beer in the tank while it is releasing all those yummy resins and flavourings. That’s 120 hectolitres – 73 barrels – of beer that has to be, effectively, thrown away (although those used hops get used by the farmers of Aberdeenshire to fertilise their fields). In other words, BrewDog wastes (if you want to look at it like that) more beer a week than many other micros brew. If you’re prepared to sacrifice a fifth of your production to ensure you don’t sacrifice any of the taste you’re after, hey – you’re putting the beer first. And I have to say that I didn’t have a bad beer on the trip, while at least one, the new AB15, a 12 per cent abv imperial stout with added salt caramel, aged in both rum and bourbon casks, was exceptional, a lovely salty-sweet brew with huge depth of flavour.

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The new brewery may have wacky murals and exhortatory neon slogans on the walls, but its kit smacks of no-expense-spared: the brewery lab has a machine that will check the precise levels of diacetyl in the beer, for example, which saves on the time and trouble of having to send samples away for analysis and speeds up decision-making on whether a beer has reached maturity. A new water treatment plant has been installed, which will allow precise levels of oxygen to be maintained in the brewing water. BrewDog is the biggest buyer of Nelson Sauvin hops in the world. The brewery can currently produce 100,000 hectolitres of beer, with room to expand to 250,000hl – 150,000 barrels. In the new warehouse, pallets are stacked with ekegs and bottles to be shipped to more than 40 different countries: Greece, Sweden, Thailand, Belarus and so on. “Their beer is total shite”? I’m sorry, sir, there appear to be an awful lot of people who don’t agree.

Photo Gallery

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

BrewDog's head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer's Beard

BrewDog’s head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer’s Beard

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station at the BrewDog brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station The brewer’s sink at the BrewDog brewery – see comment below by MikeS for a fuller explanation

More underwater-themed murals for punks ...

More underwater-themed murals for punks …

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps ...

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps …

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

The bottling line

The bottling line

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Why Shakespeare liked ale but didn’t like beer

The trademark registered by Flower's brewery of Stratford upon Avon

The trademark registered by Flower’s brewery of Stratford upon Avon

An old friend of mine gained a PhD in the relative clauses of William Shakespeare, with particular emphasis on the later plays. Ground-breaking stuff, she told me, and I’m sure that’s true. My own contribution to Shakespearian studies is rather less linguistic and more alcoholic: I seem to be the first person in centuries of scholarly study of the works of the Bard of Avon to point out that his plays clearly show Shakespeare was a fan of ale, but didn’t much like beer.

To appreciate this you have to know that, even in the Jacobean era, ale, the original English unhopped fermented malt drink, was still regarded as different, and separate, from, beer, the hopped malt drink brought over from continental Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, 200 years earlier. It was made by different people: Norwich had five “comon alebrewers” and nine “comon berebrewars” in 1564. In 1606 (the year Macbeth was performed at the Globe theatre) the town council of St Albans, 25 or so miles north of London, agreed to restrict the number of brewers in the town to four for beer and two for ale, to try to halt a continuing rise in the price of fuelwood.

This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century, and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference by then was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare’s time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though this was uncommon. In 1615, the year before Shakespeare died, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, a handbook that contains “all the virtuous knowledges and actions both of the mind and body, which ought to be in any complete woman”. In it, Markham wrote that

“the general use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference between it and beere … but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrel of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops

.

The book’s recipe for strong March beer included a quarter of malt and “a pound and a half of hops to one hogshead,” which may be three times more hops than Markham was recommending for ale, but is still not much hops by later standards, though Markham said that “This March beer … should (if it have right) lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three and four years if it lie cool and close, and endure the drawing to the last drop.” In his notes on brewing ale, Markham said: ” … for the brewing of strong ale, because it is drink of no such long lasting as beer is, therefore you shall brew less quantity at a time thereof …. Now or the mashing and ordering of it in the mash vat, it will not differ anything from that of beer; as for hops, although some use [sic] not to put in any, yet the best brewers thereof will allow to fourteen gallons of ale a good espen [spoon?] full of hops, and no more.”

Markham was writing in the middle of a battle fought for more than two centuries to try to keep ale still free from hops, and separate from hopped beer. In 1471 the “common ale brewers” of Norwich were forbidden from brewing “nowther with hoppes nor gawle” (that is, gale or bog myrtle). In 1483, the ale brewers of London were complaining to the mayor about “sotill and crafty means of foreyns” (not necessarily “foreigners” in the modern sense, but probably people not born in London and thus not freemen of London) who were “bruing of ale within the said Citee” and who were “occupying and puttyng of hoppes and other things in the ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used.”

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Almost 60 years later, in 1542, the physician and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde wrote a medical self-help book called A Dyetary of Helth which heavily promoted ale over beer. Boorde, who declared in his book: “I do drinke … no manner of beere made with hopes,” said that “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” while beer was “a naturall drynke for a Dutche man” (by which he meant Germans), but “

of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men; specially it kylleth them the which be troubled with the colycke, and the stone, & the strangulion; for the drynke is a cold drynke; yet it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear by the Dutche mens faces & belyes.”

(There is a great story suggesting why Boorde hated beer so much: a rival writer named Barnes said that when Boorde was studying medicine in Montpelier he got so drunk at the house of “a Duche man” [which probably meant a German rather than someone from the Netherlands], presumably on the Dutchman’s hopped beer, that he threw up in his beard just before he fell into bed. Barnes claimed that when Boorde woke up the next morning, the smell under his nose was so bad he had to shave his beard off. For Boorde, the loss of his beard, in a period when a lengthily hirsute chin was the essential badge of every intellectual and scholar, must have been enormously embarrassing.)

A century on, another English writer, John Taylor, in Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude, “A Learned Lecture in Praise of Ale”, printed in 1651, agreed that “Beere is a Dutch Boorish Liquor, a thing not knowne in England till of late dayes, an Alien to our Nation till such time as Hops and Heresies came amongst us; it is a sawcy intruder into this Land.” Earlier, a poet called Thomas Randall, who died in 1635, made the same point, in a poem called “The High and Mighty Commendation of a Pot of Good Ale” that

“Beer is a stranger, a Dutch upstart come
Whose credit with us sometimes is but small
But in records of the Empire of Rome
The old Catholic drink is a pot of good ale.”

Mermaid TavernShakespeare, being a far subtler writer than Boorde, Taylor or Randall, never made such obvious statements about his preferences. But he was a Warwickshire boy, country-bred, and he brought his country tastes with him to London. In 1630 a pamphleteer called John Grove wrote a piece called “Wine, Ale, Beer and Tobacco Contending for Superiority”, in which the three drinks declared:

Wine: I, generous wine, am for the Court.
Beer: The City calls for Beer.
Ale: But Ale, bonny Ale, like a lord of the soil, in the Country shall domineer.

Shakespeare’s country-born preference for ale, and disdain for the city’s beer, pops up across his plays. Autolycus, the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, makes his appearance in The Winter’s Tale singing:

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

By which he means that he can steal the sheet someone has left out to bleach in the sun, and exchange it for a quart of excellent ale in a nearby alehouse (which were, alas, sometimes places where stolen goods could easily be disposed of). But if ale is a dish fit for a king, small beer, according to Prince Hal – soon to be a king – in Henry IV, is a “poor creature”, and he asks Poins: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” Similarly the malicious Iago, in Othello, declares that the perfect woman is fit to do nothing more than “suckle fools and chronicle small beer”.

Nor was Shakespeare impressed by strong beer, judging by the fate of the villainous Thomas Horner, the armourer, in Henry VI, written around 1590-92, who is so drunk on sack, charneco (a wine from Portugal) and double beer given to him by his supporters (“Here’s a pot of good double beer, neighbour: drink it and fear not your man”) that his apprentice, Peter Thump, is easily able to overcome him and kill him in their duel.

What was double beer? The 17th century writer William Yworth, in a book called Cerevisiarii Comes or The New and True Art of Brewing, published in London in 1692, said double beer was “the first two worts, used in the place of liquor [water], to mash again on fresh malt”, so that, in theory, the wort ended up twice as strong.

Certainly double beer was strong enough to keep well. Yworth gave a typical 17th-century pseudo-scientific explanation that the double wort “doth … only extract the Sweet, Friendly, Balsamic Qualities” from the fresh malt, “its Hunger being partly satisfied before.” He continued that double beer “being thus brewed … may be transported to the Indies, remaining in its full Goodness … whereas the Single, if not well-brewed especially, soon corrupts, ropes and sours.” (Ropey beer has a bacterial infection which results in sticky “ropes” appearing in the liquid. Note, incidentally, the implication that strong beer was being exported to hot climates even in the 17th century.)

Shakespeare pub signThe opposite of doubele beer was single beer. A recipe for 60 barrels of single beer printed by Richard Arnold in 1503, during Henry VII’s reign says: “To brewe beer x. quarters malte. ij. quarters wheet ij. quarters ootes. xl. lb weight of hoppys. To make lx barrell of sengyll beer”, that is, 10 quarters of barley malt, two quarters of wheat and two quarters of oats, plus 40lbs of hops, to make 60 barrels of single beer. It is very unlikely this would have produced a beer of anything less than 1045 OG, or four per cent alcohol by volume. A modern-day brewing to this recipe by the home brew expert Graham Wheeler, using modern yeast, modern malted barley (which would probably have given a higher extract than 16th century brewers could have achieved), malted oats and Shredded Wheat, came out at 1065 OG and 6.7 per cent ABV.

Unfortunately, this guide to the strength of single beer is completely contradicted by a declaration from the authorities in London in 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, regarding the amount of malt that should go into double and single beer. For “doble beare”, they said, a quarter of “grayne” should produce “fowre barrels and one fyrkin” of “goode holesome drynke”. To make single beer, twice as much drink should be brewed from the same quantity of grain. This would have produced double beer with a strength of around 1047 OG at the bottom end, perhaps 1058 at most (barely five per cent ABV), while the single beer could not have been stronger than around 1025 OG, less than two per cent alcohol.

Both these strengths seem far too low – indeed, they seem to use exactly half the malt one might expect, given Arnold’s recipe for single beer, and evidence from other writers. Recipes from the 17th century show beers of around 1035 to 1045 OG being described as “small beer”. Gervase Markham called a beer of approximately 1045 OG “ordinary beere”. Perhaps the London authorities in 1552 were deliberately trying to force the city’s brewers to make weaker beers.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Tudor ale was stronger than Tudor beer. Elizabethan commentators believed you could make twice as much beer from a quarter of malt as you could ale, because the hopped beer did not have to be as strong as ale to stop it going sour too quickly. Reynold Scot in 1574 said a bushel of “Mault” would make eight or nine gallons of “indifferent” ale but 18 or 20 gallons of “very good Beere”.

In London in 1574 (when Shakespeare was 10) there were 58 ale breweries and 32 beer breweries. But the ale brewers consumed an average of only 12 quarters of malt a week, while the beer brewers were on average consuming four times as much. The average Elizabethan London beer brewer’s output in pints was thus probably on average eight times larger than the average ale brewer’s production. Even the biggest London ale brewer was smaller, on this calculation, than the smallest of the capital’s common beer brewers. The biggest Elizabethan London beer brewer consumed 90 quarters of malt a week, enough to make around 14,000 barrels of beer a year, very roughly, which would be a medium-sized brewery even in the 18th century.

It is difficult to be precise without knowing what proportion of grain went into single ale and beer, which used less malt per barrel, and what proportion went into double brews. But very roughly, again, it looks as if, even though there were nearly twice as many ale breweries in the capital, Londoners were drinking four times as much beer from the common brewers as they were ale. Some ale and beer would still have been made by alehouse and inn brewers, but their output probably made little difference to the ratio of ale to beer drunk in the capital. When John Grove said in 1630 that “The citie call for Beere”, it looks as if beer was the city of London’s favourite since at least the 1570s.

It was drunk, generally, from hooped wooden mugs: Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, promising his supporters great bounties when he is ruler of England, declared that as well as seven halfpenny loafs for a penny, “the three-hooped pot shall have 10 hoops.” The wealthy used something grander than wood: the Frenchman Estienne Perlin, a visitor to London in the 1550s, wrote that the English drank beer “not in glasses but in earthenware pots with silver handles and covers”.

Many of the beer brewers were still immigrants from the continent. In St Olaph’s parish, Southwark in 1571 there were 14 Dutch brewers. One, Peter van Duran, who had emigrated from Gelderland 40 years earlier, employed nine servants whose nationalities were given as “Hollanders, Cleveners [from Cleves, on the German/Dutch border] or High Dutchmen [that is, Germans]”, and who included a brewer, three draymen, three tunmen and a boatman.

The size of the London brewing industry was causing pollution problems: in 1578 the Company of Brewers wrote trepidatiously to Queen Elizabeth saying that they understood Her Majesty “findeth hersealfe greately greved and anoyed” with the taste and smoke of the sea coal used in their brewhouses. The brewers offered to burn only wood, rather than coal, in the brewhouses closest to the Queen’s home, the Palace of Westminster.

Flowers IPA labelThe Queen herself was a considerable brewer: like her father, Henry VIII, she had both a beer brewer, Henry Campion, who died in 1588, and ale brewers, two men called Peert and Yardley. (Campion’s brewery, according to John Stow’s Survey of London in 1602, was in Hay Wharf Lane, at the side of All Hallows the Great church in Upper Thames Street, which puts it on the same site as the Calverts’ later Hour Glass Brewery.)

Elizabeth also had naval and military brewhouses in operation at Tower Hill, Dover, Portsmouth and, probably, Porchester by 1565, to supply the army and navy. The first royal beer brewery in Portsmouth was built by Henry VII in 1492, and its operations were enlarged by Henry VIII in 1512/13 at a cost of more than £2,600 to enable it to produce more than 500 barrels of beer a day. It seems quite possible this was one of the biggest breweries in the world at that time. But the beer consumption of the Tudor navy was enormous: perhaps 3,000 barrels a week. It was calculated that a ship of 100 tons, carrying 200 men for two months, needed 56 tuns of beer, (that is, around a gallon a man per day, one tun being equivalent to six 36-gallon barrels), 12,200 pounds of biscuit, three tons of “flesh” and three tons of fish and cheese. Water would turn brackish and unhopped ale would go off: beer would last the tour.

The Tudor army certainly ran on beer. In July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army was so short of supplies they had drunk no beer “these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging.” Relief arrived a couple of days later with 400 to 500 tuns of beer from Calais and ten of “the king’s brewhouses” (presumably mobile breweries) together with “English brewers”.

Thje last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

The last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

Whatever soldiers liked to drink, Shakespeare’s opinion of the hopped drink was so low, if we can assume he was putting his own thoughts into the mouth of Hamlet, that he could think of nothing more depressing than being used after death to seal the bunghole in a cask of beer. Referring to the practice of using clay as a stopper in a barrel, the gloomy Dane tells his friend:

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? … follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?”

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, Launce lists as one of the virtues of the woman that he loves the fact that “she brews good ale”, and tells Speed: “And thereof comes the proverb, ‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.’”

Centuries after his death, Shakespeare was adopted as a trademark by Flowers, the biggest brewer in his home town, Stratford upon Avon. (Flowers was founded, incidentally, by Edward Fordham Flower, who had emigrated to the United States, aged 13, in 1818 with his brewer father Richard. The Flowers settled in southern Illinois, near the Wabash river, on what later became the township of Albion – family legend says they turned down a site further north on the shore of Lake Michigan, believing it to be too marshy. Others were less fussy, and the city of Chicago was eventually founded there. Edward and Richard returned to England in 1824 and Edward began brewing in Stratford in 1831.) Fortunately nobody ever pointed out to Flowers that Shakespeare wouldn’t have liked the hoppy brew they were selling.

(A much shorter version of this piece appeared in Beer Connoisseur magazine in 2009. Other parts have been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint, published 2003, with additions

Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways

Did you see the news? It was in all the papers last week, and on TV and radio too. Apparently someone’s opened a pub within less than 750 yards of a road.

Journalists, I’m sorry to say, love a moral panic. If we can get someone to be vocally outraged, our day is made. And there were plenty of people delighted to be vocally outraged over the opening of a Wetherspoon’s pub at a motorway service station. You would think Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s bemulleted founder and chairman, had set up a stall on the hard shoulder of the M40 and was handing out free tequila shots and pints of wine.

A pub by a road

The Old Crown, Highgate, Middlesex, a pub alongside a road

Now, the point about this particular motorway service station is that it’s not actually ON the motorway – it is, indeed, all of 750 yards away, as the roadkill-sated crow flies. You have to pull off at Junction 2 and drive for a couple more minutes before you finally get to the Hope and Champion pub. It is because the pub is also accessible from the A355 that it was allowed to be built. Places serving alcohol at service stations only accessible from a motorway are still banned.

But the substantive point is, of course, that the Hope and Champion is no different from almost every other pub in Britain, in being by, near or actually on a road of some sort. Even mainland Britain’s most isolated pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, has a road running past the front door, though it doesn’t actually connect up to the rest of the country’s road system. Pubs have been opened alongside roads since Anglo-Saxon alewives stuck bushes on poles outside their hovels to indicate that a fresh brew was available inside. Plenty of pubs – hundreds, if not thousands – are still open alongside fast main roads, like the famous Ram Jam Inn near Oakham, a landmark on the A1 for generations of motorists. You can (or could – apparently it’s boarded up right now) drive out of the Ram Jam Inn’s car park straight into the A1′s northbound carriageway, where the speed limit is just the same (for cars, at least) as on a motorway: if you’re not paying attention, a 38-ton artic may leave its imprint on your boot. It’s a lot more dangerous than joining the M40 after leaving the Hope and Champion.

So where is the recognition that if you have hundreds of pubs like the Ram Jam Inn, then you can’t create a fuss about the Hope and Champion? Swamped in a sea of illogical spit-and-fury. The RAC declared that with a pub now open at a motorway service station, “the temptation to drink and drive can only be increased by easier access to alcohol,” without, apparently, considering that there is already easy access to alcohol for drivers in roadside pubs north and south, east and west. The safety campaign group Brake declared: “The opening of a pub on a motorway is deeply concerning, and presents a potentially deadly temptation to drivers,” without saying how the Hope and Champion is any more of a potentially deadly temptation than the Ram Jam Inn was to drivers on the A1, or the old Bull at Stanborough, near Welwyn Garden City, whose visibility from the A1(M) saw it featured in a 1980s TV ad, or the Royal Oak, Farnham, a Chef & Brewer pub about three minutes’ drive down the A355 from M40 Junction 2 and thus barely more inconvenient for motorway drivers tempted to get lashed than the Hope and Champion is.

The stupidest, most crazed response came from Sky News presenter Eamonn Holmes (well, the man’s an idiot anyway), who managed to call Wetherspoon’s PR spokesman, Eddie Gershon (very nice man, Eddie) the “devil in disguise” in a rant on TV, proclaiming that a pub would change a “perfectly nice” motorway services into “a scenario of hell”. It’s probably too cheap to say that for any rational human being, a motorway service area already IS a scenario of hell, but Holmes’s argument, apparently, was that coaches would pull up full of revellers from stag or hen’s parties, or football supporters. “One coach will pull in with a load of football fans, then a second coach will pull in with rival fans. What will happen then? You’re putting temptation in people’s way. You’re the devil in disguise – aren’t you? You’re offering a scenario of hell – are you not?” he frothed at Eddie G, who was far calmer than I would have been, and failed to call Holmes out for being an idiot who had apparently forgotten that coach parties of football supporters (1) have hundreds of other pubs with large car parks to meet their rivals in, and (2) won’t necessarily require alcohol for it all to kick off anyway.

The Spaniards, Hampstead

The Spaniards, Hampstead, another pub by a road

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.

Which means that another recent news item, one that ought to have been a powerful weapon in the fight against the sort of wowsers who rage against pubs being opened near roads, has been largely ignored, because it doesn’t fit the anti-drink message, and the pro-drink lobby seems too frightened of the puritans to pick it up out of fear that they’ll be accused of encouraging drinking whose primary purpose is other than being “responsible”. I’m talking about the discovery by the Medical Research Council in Scotland, reported two weeks ago, that a pint in the pub with friends is good for a man’s mental health. Well, of course, you are saying, that’s obvious. But having a proper study point up the positive sides of drinking is such a change from the torrent of negativity about alcohol normally corroding the public debate that the industry really should be making much more of it.

The researcher behind the study, Dr Carol Emslie, said: “We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships. If you ignore that part of it then you are not understanding the context in which people drink. You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.” Exactly. But could we ever see an ad campaign that said: “A pint with your pals – it’s good for your mental health”? It may be true, but nobody seems to want to say so.

Of course, the anti-alcohol army, unable to dismiss a properly conducted piece of research completely, still tried to sneer. Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, told The Scotsman newspaper: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems.” Please, Evelyn, lighten up. Have a drink.

Still, at least the public are generally more sensible than Sky TV presenters. A survey by the local newspaper in Bucks asked people: “Should the Wetherspoon’s M40 pub at Beaconsfield be allowed?” At the last looking, the response was 83 per cent saying “yes”, with just 17 per cent saying “no”.

A slightly shorter version of this rant appeared on the Friday Opinion page of the Propel Info websire on Friday January 24 2014.

The words nobody wants to hear about the on-trade

Get out the pitchforks and the blazing torches: I’m about to talk again on the subject of pub companies and their tied tenants.

Pint-holding lionThe trouble with trying to have a rational debate about the tied pub system, where pub tenants have to buy their beer from a list provided by the company that owns their pub, is that a fair number of pubco tenants have lost a great deal of money trying to run their pub, and, understandably, they’re angry – very angry. Naturally, they’ve looked around for someone to blame for their losses, and the obvious culprit, as far as they are concerned, is the pub company. Clearly, they say, if the pub company had not been charging them so much rent for the pub, and so much extra for their beer than that beer costs on the open market, then they would have been able to make a success of their business.

If anyone tries to suggest that maybe the pubco isn’t totally responsible for their failure as pub-running entrepreneurs, that person will be subjected to howls – screams – of outrage and fury. The pubco, its failed tenants will insist, is a scam, a conspiracy designed to rip off people who only want to make a reasonable living and who are prevented from doing so by the despicable activities of the company that owns their pub and conned them into signing a lease on it. You, however, for daring to suggest anything otherwise, are (and this is only a selection of the names I’ve been called in the past couple of weeks) a writer of “inaccurate, delusional gumph”, “peddling, paid or not, pubco propaganda”, a “lazy sofa-lounging beer blogger” (I like that one – I might have it printed on a T-shirt), “a zombie”, “a lazy journo who can’t grasp the subject”, someone who “very obviously [doesn’t] know what you’re talking about, either that or you are a liar”, “arrogant, patronising, blinkered and myopic”, and “a denier, a make believer, a fantasist”.

However, it’s clearly nonsense to suggest that the pubco model is responsible for every operator of a tied tenanted pub who goes belly-up, when you consider the following simple fact: one third of all small businesses – regardless of the sector that they are in – fail in the first two years. You would expect, therefore, even given the cushions that tenants of pub companies have around them (the cheap start-up costs inherent in someone else leasing you the premises in which a going business is already running, free training on how to run a small business, free advice on tap from the pubco BDM, or business development manager, assigned to them to help out, help with promotions, discounts on everything from insurance to Sky TV, and so on) that a considerable number are going to crash quickly, simply because that’s what small businesses do.

Even if they get through the first year and are beginning to succeed, counter-intuitively, perhaps, it is when very small businesses start to expand that they are most in danger. According to the credit monitoring company Experian, when a business grows to six to 10 employees, the flexibility it benefited from as a micro-business starts to disappear. Fixed overheads become greater and cash flow starts to cause more serious issues if not carefully monitored. From cases I have studied, it is cash flow that seems to do for most, if not all pub tenants whose businesses collapse: not having the ready money to pay the VAT man, the rent, the bill for the beer, the power companies and so on. Indeed, cash flow problems probably cause most small business failures: I had a mate who ran a micro-brewery in Hertfordshire, and his business went under because, although on paper it was profitable, his cash flow was wrecked by pubs not paying him for the beer he had delivered, and the taxman wouldn’t wait for his own slice.

Despite the fact that one in three new businesses of all sorts fails within 12 months even though it doesn’t have a pubco as its landlord, the idea that the tied pubco model is responsible for all the woes of the tied pubco tenant, and, if you believe some, all the woes of the pub sector, seems to be driving public policy. In parliament, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which has been extensively lobbied by the anti-pubco forces – made up, according to Ted Tuppen, boss of Enterprise Inns, one of the most hated men in the pub industry, of “a high proportion of failed or failing publicans looking for someone to blame”, but I suppose he would say that – is determined to push the government into reforms that would ensure “no tied house tenant is worse off than a free-of-tie tenant”. But there’s evidence that even if that were achievable, it wouldn’t make any difference. The survey of pub tenants by CGA for Camra earlier this year, regularly pulled out to show how poorly tied house tenants do in terms of income and viability compared with free-of-tie tenants, had one question, the answer to which is never quoted by those who hate the tied house model. Asked: “Is your business struggling financially?”, 53 per cent of tied house tenants said “yes” – and so did 52% of free-of-tie tenants. At the Wellington Pub Company, which owns almost 800 free-of-tie tenanted pubs, nearly 40% of its tenants – 300 or so pubs – were in arrears with their rental payments by more than 180 days. It’s not the tied house model causing them problems.

The problem is that if the government listens to those pubco tied-house tenants with a strong interest in blaming the pub companies for their problems, and brings in the reforms the anti-pubco campaigners want, there is a good possibility that instead of saving the pub industry, the reforms will hasten the closure of many hundreds – perhaps many thousands – of pubs already teetering on the edge of viability. That was the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills from the financial consultancy London Economics on the likely impact of the proposed reform of the tied trade. That report, which came out last week, has been extensively slagged by the anti-pubco activists, who declared it “full of inaccuracies and guesswork”. Their attack on the report, it seems to me, is because its verdict, distilled down, is that closures in the pub trade, and the problems of tenants, are pretty much due to this country still having several thousand pubs more than there is commercial room for. Since that, if true, wrecks the claim by failed pub tenants that it was the pub company, and only the pub company, that was responsible for the collapse of their business, naturally, they howl with rage, again.

Here’s what I said about the London Economics report over at the day job:

The words nobody wants to hear about the on-trade

In 1908, Herbert Asquith, the then Prime Minister, made a powerful and eloquent speech at a public meeting on the controversial Licensing Bill that his Liberal Party government was trying to steer through a hostile Parliament. After the speech, according to the Manchester Guardian in 1952, a lady on the speakers’ platform asked Asquith if she could have his notes as a memento. He handed her an ordinary envelope with a few words scribbled on the back of it. The only ones legible were: “Too many pubs”.

Move on 105 years, and one big message given to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills this week in the 44 pages of the report it commissioned from the financial consultancy London Economics on the likely impact of the proposed reform of the tied trade looks as if it could be summed up in the same three words as were on the back of Asquith’s envelope: “Too many pubs”.

The authors of the report appear to take a grim pleasure in declaring that, even after the decimation the pub industry has suffered in the past decade, “there is clearly surplus pub capacity, in quite a volatile market … with so many pubs on the margin of viability.” The report failed to give its own estimate of how many surplus pubs there are in the country, but happily quoted others’: “A number of stakeholders interviewed noted that the UK is probably still operating excess pub supply of approximately 6,000 pubs, suggesting a sustainable number of pubs of approximately 45,000.”

That 6,000 pubs – 12% of the current stock, one in eight pubs, an entire large pubco’s-worth – need to close to bring the sector down to sustainability is not a message anyone wishes to hear: not licensees trying to make a living, not pub customers who love their locals, not the communities already fighting to keep threatened pubs open, not brewers and other suppliers anxious to have as many outlets as possible for their products to be sold in, not pubcos keen to continue with the maximum possible advantages of scale, not anybody who loves the British pub for what it is, a unique institution and an important and vital part of British life.

Delivering that message, however, meant the report’s authors were able to make the main thrust of their report – that whatever choice was made among the various types of reform suggested, “although there is very great uncertainty about the precise value,” it was “our conclusion that the reforms proposed in the consultation will close up to 1,600 pubs” – seem almost a relief. After all, with 1,600 pubs out of the way, plenty of customers would move to the pub down the road, with the result, the report suggests, that “on average, pubs which remain will see footfalls 7.2% higher than present. This would be sufficient to turn a poorly performing pub into a more attractive prospect.” Would the many pubco tenants clamouring for the reforms to be brought in be happy if the result was 1,600 fewer pubs, but more custom for the ones that survive the cull?

The proposed reforms are meant to ensure that no tied-house publican is worse off, in the percentage of profit he takes from his pub, than a free-of-tie tenant. There are two big problems here: the first is calculating “no worse off”. As Bernard Brindley, chairman of the British Institute of Innkeeping, said in his evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on pubcos and the tie in June: “The difficulty I have is how you get to the point of proving or analysing the figures as to where a tied tenant should be no worse off than a free-of-tie tenant. I have spoken to several chartered surveyors who have told me that it cannot be done, because you cannot compare apples with oranges.” The second is that messing about with the tied house system could cause an implosion: as the London Economics report says: “There is a real possibility that each of the proposed policy reforms, except possibly the code without permitting guest beer, instead of delivering the policy objective of ensuring tied tenants are treated fairly, ie, ‘no worse off’ than free of tie tenants, may lead to the end of a large-scale tied pub system.” In other words, the big tenanted and leased pubcos might feel the attraction of their business model had been wrecked by the reforms, and simply pack up, in an Everything Must Go distress sale. Some might feel that no more pubcos would be a Good Thing. But here’s Bernard Brindley again: “There are a lot of free-of-tie tenants who would rather be in a tied-tenant situation. The equation works both ways.”

To quote the wise Phil Dixon, from his own evidence in June to the BIS committee: “The problem we have in our industry is, everything is about estimate.” The London Economics report runs a host of reform scenarios through the computer, and comes up with a wide range of estimated results, though all result in the closure of pubs: bringing in a statutory code on pubco-tenant relationships without the “guest beer” option many want could see between 1,500 and 4,800 pubs close in the short term, the report suggests, which for an estimate is pretty wide. Other options, including having a “guest beer”, and banning the beer tie completely, because those options make many already barely viable pubs unviable for pubcos trying to cover their own associated costs, could see between 4,600 and 6,400 pubs close. (Though the report suggests around a third of those would open again, run by operators without the pubcos’ financial burdens.)

With respected economists saying the inevitable result of proposed legislation is the closure of huge numbers of pubs, it should not be a surprise that the government has decided, as the Irish say, to put its decision on bringing in a statutory code to cover the pubco-tenant relationship on the long finger. Political memories are usually short, but this government remembers that the whole current mess is a result of the dreadful shambles its predecessor made 24 years ago of the Beer Orders, brought in to try to “solve” the problem of the dominance of five big pub-owning brewery companies. The unintended consequences of that piece of interference in the market were the collapse of the bulk of the British brewing industry into the hands of overseas competitors and the rise of those big pubcos who are now themselves the target of proposed market interference. As the London Economics report says, “irrespective of what changes may be proposed or considered … almost any policy reform may have noticeable and unpredictable effects.” The government knows that, and it wants as long a think about what it should do next as possible. Preferably, some might suspect, until 2015 and the next general election.

The other big point from the idea that there are, basically, 6,000 unviable pubs in Britain working on the edge of survival is that the problems faced by so many tenants may not be all down to the much-demonised pubcos, but too many knives chasing too small a cake. With a scenario like that, it is inevitable a number of people are going to get hurt. If that statistic is true, any proposed reform of the system is unlikely to lead to thousands of tied-pub tenants suddenly freed from the pubco shackles and laughing and smiling over glasses of champagne as the gold and silver pours through the pub front door. Instead, we face – at current rates of closure – six more years of pubs shutting, tenants in distress, communities angry at the loss of important and much-loved local assets, and buckets of vitriol being thrown about as people argue over whose fault it all is. I wonder what Herbert Asquith would think.

I don’t know what will happen if the proposed reforms of the pubco/tenant relationship go through – mind, neither does anyone else – but I fear the worst. I DO know what will happen after this blog appears: more spittle-flecked fury directed at me from the anti-pubco activists, with my intelligence, my motives, my honesty and possibly my parentage all questioned. In 40 years as a journalist, I have met many angry activist groups, from parents fearful that their children had been exposed long-term to health-damaging levels of atmospheric lead to people who bought their council houses with local authority mortgages, only to find the interest rates they were paying soar to levels that threatened their ability to stay in their homes, to democrats in Hong Kong determined to ensure the iron foot of Beijing did not crush all dissent in the city. Not one of those campaigning groups alienated the people whom they needed to be cultivating the way the anti-pubco lobby alienates its potential allies. Guys, if even Pete Brown, who is 150% on your side, says: “The anti-pubco campaigners can be a bit spiky,” you have an image problem.

If you want to gain support for your campaign, you cultivate journalists, in an attempt to use them to get publicity for your cause. You don’t publicly call the editor of the Morning Advertiser, the pub industry’s leading journal, an idiot, thus pushing firmly away someone who ought to be one of your biggest allies. You don’t declare that only someone who has run a pub can possibly comment on how the tenant/pubco relationship operates, because you sound like someone who ran a pub but can’t tell when they’re mouthing self-serving nonsense. You don’t make massive relativity fails like comparing Ted Tuppen to Pol Pot, because it’s not clever, it’s a stupid, unthinking and dismissive insult to suggest pubco tenants are as badly off as two million murdered Cambodians. You don’t tell a journalist/blogger who gets more than 20,000 visitors a month that he is a lazy fantasist, because if you do he’ll be more inclined to think you can’t have a case if you need to resort to insults, and you’ll be missing the chance to reach all his readers with your arguments.. Furthermore, you don’t dismiss his request for evidence to back your case by saying that it’s all out there on the web and he has to go and find it himself: if you’re serious about your campaign, you ought to have a dossier of case histories of pubco atrocities to supply to him and other journalistic enquirers. If the police arrested you for murder, would you insist you were innocent, but tell the police they had to find the evidence for your innocence themselves?

Meanwhile, are the pubcos innocent? Or are pubco tenants victims of The Great Pubco Conspiracy, a scam to rank with timeshare holiday schemes and “boiler-room” share frauds? Peter Martin of the Peach Report, who has been commenting on the general hospitality scene for many years, and whose views I respect greatly, told the Financial Times earlier this year that “There is something wrong with the relationship between some pubcos and their tenants.” There is clearly something wrong with the relationship between some pubcos and some of their tenants, and ex-tenants. Otherwise there would not be so many angry, angry tenants and ex-tenants about. And I’d think it likely that some BDMs have not been as good at their jobs as they should have been, with the result that some tenants have suffered injustices and losses that have not been their fault.

But I’m positive, from cases I’ve studied, that there are plenty of failed tenants who simply couldn’t do a good enough job. Running a successful pub is extremely difficult, especially today, because you cannot just be good at the front-of-house stuff, the bits the public sees: creating that ineffable “atmosphere” that distinguishes a great pub from an also-ran loser is not enough. You have to be able to run the pub as a business, get your cashflow and accounts right, ensure the money is there to pay the bills, be rigorously organised behind the scenes, as well as brilliant on stage. That is a rare combination, I suggest. I’m certain I don’t have it myself, and I feel pretty confident that if pubs fail it’s a combination of there not being enough custom to go round all the pubs we have, and there not being enough great publican talent to go round all the pubs we have, either. If the pubco conspiracy theorists eventually produce a whistleblower to back up their conspiracy claims, I’ll take it back.

Finally, I let everybody have their say after my previous blog on this subject, but I really don’t see why I should again provide people with a forum to insult me, so for this blog post, anyone calling me anything other than the wisest commentator on the pub scene in Britain, or anyone with form in offering me other than praise, will be barred. It’s my pub, and I’ll do what I like in it.