should you help save pubs you don’t know?

A few days ago, I got a message in my inbox. Here is an edited version (SADC stands for St Albans District Council):

URGENT – WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!

“to all our members in St Albans and Harpenden
(….) over a year ago we successfully obtained an Asset of Community Value designation (….) on the Red Cow pub in Harpenden which was under threat. Unfortunately the owner has appealed against this decision (….)
The council have asked us to provide the names and addresses of at least 21 of our members who are resident in SADC to support our opposition to the appeal (….)
The Council have assured us that nobody listed will be contacted by the council or by the appellant.
So all I need is your permission to give them your name, address and postcode. No emails or telephone numbers are needed (.…)”

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Should I lend my weight to help save a pub I’ve never been in? Or am I unwittingly colluding in a practice that will blow a major hole in saving pubs or granting them ACV status in the future?

As evidenced in the email, the council currently takes no steps in contacting anyone putting their name to an appeal like this. But could this change? Will the time come when the local council has to actually question each signatory on a petition? I get the feeling it might.

Over the past few years, the number of petitions has soared. This is mainly for two reasons: the popularity of e-petitions that can be signed from the comfort of the sofa, and umbilically, 2010 government legislation whereby petitions of 100,000 signatories automatically get debated in the Commons. Without any discussion on the issue, 100,000 names can easily be gathered in a few minutes

Following on from the June EU referendum, the government was swamped by petitions calling for a second referendum. This in turn provoked internet petitions for the football match between Iceland and England to be replayed, the Battle of Hastings to be refought and the National Lottery draw to be recast as the participants didn’t like the result. There are even online petitions calling to ban online petitions.

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I wouldn’t fight to save this hideous pub sign though. Is that the Dairylea cow?!

Fun and mischief was being had with those latter examples, but they do illustrate the ease, whimsy and apathy that petitions – especially online – can potentially nurture.

I’ve often suspected that if the signatories were contacted after a campaign, many of those who added their name might have forgotten they ever signed it, did it just to get the canvasser to go away, because the rest of the students signed, because their friend or partner got them to et cetera. This is part of the reason petitions are often ignored or given a token debate in Parliament at around 4am.

Now admittedly this is very different to the case being fought by South Herts CAMRA. For a start, unlike many e-petitions, it won’t be cancelled out by a rival e-petition trying to push matters the other way. Also, the people signing this will be local (as it’s addressed to the South Herts branch), will have an interest as dedicated pub-goers and genuinely want to see pubs stay open.

I decided to give my permission to send SADC my name and address as it stipulates nothing else is required. A knowledge of the threatened pub isn’t essential but I’ve given my details with a feeling of hypocrisy. Not only have I never been into the Red Cow, but up until this point I’d never even heard of it.

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the doomed battle for the Camp. Photo source: South Herts Advertiser

Something else decided me too: there was recently a petition in St Albans to save a pub called the Camp which I didn’t get involved in because I thought it couldn’t survive as a public house. I now regret this as other pubs I wrote off at the time have successfully turned themselves around. The Camp closed.

In my opinion, petitioning to save pubs has been a huge success so far (though obviously this doesn’t mean all of the pubs have been saved). But my fear is that very soon, the owner who wishes to sell or develop the pub will have lawyers to cite evidence based on the shortcomings of petitioning itself. If it can be proven that very few of the signatories had any historical connection to the campaign, it could undermine appeals like the one for the Red Cow.

the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

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One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

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I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

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I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

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This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

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I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

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The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

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In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

the trials of an inbetweener

the trials of an inbetweener

Today I turn 39 and it was almost a year ago I wrote “Caught between the Revolt and the Revolution” where I talked of being too young to remember CAMRA’s inception but too old to be “down” or possibly “up” with what’s going on in the more general sense. Little’s changed since then apart from growing older.

Maybe a couple of examples from 2016 could help illustrate some of the trials of being an inbetweener – of not completely swallowing the benefits, bias or even the bullshit of either tribe.

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On a dulcet spring afternoon I visited one of my favourite breweries in Bermondsey. Though I’ve stomped that ground enthusiastically for the past several years, the gathering popularity of the beer mile and the warming climate meant that a twenty minute queue snaked out of the entrance supervised by a zealous bouncer who shoved and prodded at people to keep in line. It was like being a sheep corralled towards the dip. I had come alone and was a quarter of an hour from actually seeing what was on tap (to nip inside to scan the badges would be to lose one’s place in the queue). Once at the bar, I ordered two glasses – I had to – otherwise once I’d finished one, I’d have to start from scratch at the back of the line.

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this brewery image is for illustration only. The experience I’m moaning about didn’t happen here

The two glasses (both two-third pint measures) came to over ten pounds. For a moment I thought I’d been charged for the drinks of the guy standing next to me too. But no. Something about these drinks had cost the earth. Neither beer was of a rocketing ABV – both around five per cent. Neither had a rare botanical ingredient that necessitated scaling the reaches of Machu Picchu to obtain it, either. Both beers were brewed in London! Why were they so expensive? The moment to reject the drinks was there and then at the head of the queue. Stupidly, I let that moment pass and went on to stand awkwardly in the corner with my two stem glasses. Because the railway arch was standing room only, I was unable to put my cargo down anywhere. The bouncer glowered, ensuring my spine was flush with the wall so none of my limbs projected outwards to cause a fire hazard. I actually remember re-evaluating my life from the shock.

Objectively, the beers were nice. They were both cool, carbonated and hoppy as is the modern new world wont. They’d have tasted nice for five pounds but not possibly enjoyable for over ten. I observed the other customers in small huddles not seeming to smart from this daylight muggery. The contingent in cycling gear was enjoying itself. The group of Americans reminiscing was too. The gents with chequered shirts and immaculate beards were beaming. Or that’s how it felt and their enjoyment increasingly seemed in spite of the lack of mine.

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I longed for the comfort and hospitality of a real pub and without finishing either beer, I placed the glasses back on the bar and tramped sprat-like from Bermondsey to Covent Garden to the uterine warmth of The Harp on Chandos Place. She cradled me and lifted me to her bosom where I was nourished by an institution perfected over generations. I had my faith in social drinking restored. Because of her, that day ended with everything being okay with the world.

With mature pub-goers, I understand everything they say but might miss historic cultural references. With pub-goers of my age, I get the vibe but haven’t got a clue what anybody’s job title means. With some younger drinkers, I might understand the words individually but not when they’re strung together. My next recollection reinforces the negatives of the Bermondsey trip but does so at a different kind of price.

I wandered up to one of my locals in the summer. I saw Gerard (not his real name) through the window sitting at the bar before I’d even entered the pub. I recognised the barnet of white candyfloss that marks out an elder member of CAMRA. Glowing, it hovered over the bar like a small lampshade in the comparative darkness. I heaved the door open and faced a troop of pump clips, the young guy serving and the back of said swiller’s head.

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look closely and you can just make out Gerard’s luminous hair in the right hand window

There was to be no avoiding each other – I’d have to speak in a second to order and get rumbled anyway so I chose to salute him in the way I address all Watneys Red Barrel veterans:
“evening young man”
Eyes wide, Gerard swivelled around on his bar stool. His cheeks blazed the same auburn as his Twang brewery T-shirt (not the brewery’s real name either). It looked like he’d been steaming for some time.
“Allo matey. ‘Ow’s it going?” He struggled to recall my name.
We’d first met several years ago behind the Hertfordshire bar of the St Albans Beer Festival during a quiet shift so we’d had the time to chat. We’d glimpsed each other through various throngs many times since. And so we got to talking.

dscf4620The conversation inevitably moved onto what beer was around and I made the mistake of mentioning that a popular DIPA was currently on keg at St Albans’ “craftiest” pub. By way of precaution, I added that it was quite dear. This was misguided. It sparked Gerard to recount an experience he’d recently had in Soho whereby a barman had warned him that a pint of London-brewed beer would be seven pounds. The battle cry went out:
“Seven pahnd! I’m not paying seven pounds for a pint!’’ This salvo was launched lengthways down the bar of the pub we were in and caused heads to turn – many as luminously white as his. I was in an awkward position: I loved the DIPA. I wanted to enthuse about the beer but knew everything about it would be prohibitive in present company. One of the permanent bar staff appeared in time to hear Gerard add
“One day there’s gonna be a revolution!” He was still referring to the seven pound Soho pint!

To make me squirm even more, barman Ted (you know the score) let on that the exact same Manchester-based Double IPA was due to come on in that very pub during an upcoming beer festival and he pointed out that seven pounds is what it would sell for. It cost a lot to buy; if they sold it for any less they’d be giving it away. Ted shot me an annoyed look as it was me that had brought this spotlight upon him.

I regarded Gerard. He looked like he might start a march. I toyed with coming at this appreciation from a different angle: maybe I could ask how much he’d be prepared to pay for a half pint of red wine but the analogy was too strained. My point was that a half of this particular number was a sipping beer. It wasn’t a cask ale – more of a hop nectar – a completely different experience to downing a pint. In fact I’d been having a daily dose of it five days running at the other pub. I was given no option but to stare at the carpet for a while until the conversation moved on.

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To many of the older generation, beer only comes in pints and should always be sold at the lower price bracket regardless of style, strength or any other underlying factors. Reading the letters page of What’s Brewing, it sometimes seems volume to pound Sterling is the bottom line. However amongst younger drinkers, there seems to be literally no upper limit to pricing and they don’t seem to mind what they pay as long as the beer and the brewery’s “on message” in an alt cultural way.

Like a charged particle, I still find myself drawn towards the rubbings of both the older clusters and younger hipster “collectives”. But increasingly, I find it easier to mingle in age upwards rather than downwards even if I’m closer by vintage to the younger generation.

So in 2016, have I taken one step closer to the older mindset – to codgerhood and drifted further from youthful enthusiasm? I’ll keep a running update as the years go by.

core strength

core strength

Until recently, when a new brewery opened in Britain, it started with a bitter. It might then go on to brew a best bitter, a pale ale or even a stout but then several years ago something changed. Though some new breweries still follow what could be called the traditional path (mostly brewpubs and rural breweries), it’s becoming increasingly outdated.

On Thursday 13th October I went to a Siren Craft Brew tap takeover in London along with a craft beer Meetup group. To me, Siren Craft Brew was the first new brewery to create completely different beers not just as specials but as its core range. This confident new chapter in beer started in 2012 and never deviated back toward the norm. As a nation, we were obviously ready for this new stage in our drinking culture.

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Siren Craft Brew inhabits the countryside of the home counties. It’s situated in a business park in Finchampstead, Berkshire but unlike rural names like Chiltern, Hall & Woodhouse, Exmoor, St Austell, Timothy Taylor or Hook Norton, it eschews the traditional. There are no wheat sheafs, anchors, clergy or ploughs to be seen on the pump clips. The nostalgia for the maritime and the agricultural has been replaced by a more Mediterranean guiltless pleasure.

 

dscf4832The recipes aren’t about tradition either but indulgence. The basic range consists of silky oat bodies, fragrant aromas and citrussy new world flavours. The mainstay also sees the return to Britain of the rich chocolatey breakfast stout once beloved by labourers, and at the other end of the spectrum, the sour dry-hopped Calypso.

 

The artwork on the bottles is reminiscent not of session beer but of luxury. The siren depicted is a cross between a pre-raphaelite female, a Klimt muse and the character Durham Red from the comic 2000 AD. She even has a touch of the Starbucks logo about her. To my mind, a possible forerunner could’ve been the reclining figure that represents Brewsters Brewery. These women are a world away from tired British smut – the swollen women’s anatomy on Hobgoblin pump clips, naughty seaside postcards, the confessions of a plumbers mate.

Instead, it brought to mind imagery more commonly associated with high-end desserts, perfume or even wine. The website itself alludes to fine wines and some of its aged beers fulfil the analogy: I can imagine someone leaving his guests to reappear from the cellar blowing the dust off a bottle of Siren Craft Brew he laid down several years earlier and announcing the vintage.

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Now on the badges, the artwork still represents sirens but also drops of oil/blood dispersing in liquid like unfurling tendrils with the hop flowers opening out at the edges. I think this was a part of an artistic meme later taken up by breweries like Cloudwater whereby those primary splashes have been deconstructed again into component parts: they’ve become the abstract shapes representing a synaesthesia of taste and aroma in Cloudwater’s own branding. Or maybe it’s just what I read into it.

Siren Craft Brew and its evolving beer range isn’t the only thing that causes me to pause in my tracks, however. There’s also the venue the tap takeover is happening in.

dscf4826The Draft House on Tower Bridge Road is part of a small chain of pubs that beer lovers could only have dreamt of a few years ago. Not only does the beer occupy centre stage like a burlesque act under the bar’s seductive red glow, but there are beer menus too – a phenomenon once known only to Brussels.

 

I pace around the inside. In some ways it’s less comfortable than a pub. It’s certainly less intimate. The bar doesn’t have a landlord or landlady but a shift manager. There aren’t any dogs sprawled out on the floor, and yes, there is a lot of neon which I hate whether in its pre-ironic, actual ironic or post-ironic form. It also has hideous 1970s style goblet patterns on the wallpaper. Some of the seating is like an American diner. The signage for food and events is like a cinema foyer. The dimmed lights bathing each section are the hue of the coloured bulbs of an underground laboratory. Somehow these flights of ague and distemper balance each other out into a welcoming warmth

Along with the tested comfort of Sound Wave, Broken Dream and Liquid Mistress on tap, there is their chilli beer 5-Alarm, Pompelmocello – a grapefruit IPA, Amigos Britanicos – a farmhouse ale with lime, honey and chilli, and Tidal Wave – a 10% IPA based on a barrel aged cask of Sound Wave.

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The grapefruit IPA didn’t taste like the Citra hop as I’d imagined, but is refreshing like the oval cells in citrus flesh are exploding on the tongue. It’s cool and sharp like zest spray. The Tidal Wave reminds me of the orange cream centres in chocolate assortment boxes combined with the cool freshness of orange peel.

From Siren’s vast portfolio, I’ve drunk beers aged on cedar wood, gorged on the clay-like depth of Ryesing Tides and wrestled with their braggot Uncle Zester. I’ve been soothed by their tea-infused beers, tantalised by their peach cream IPA and been given a wedgie by their black Brett Gose. I’ve downed seaweed and cloudberry beer, sipped a dessert of cacao nibs and cypress wood and kept vampires at bay with their blackberry IPA.

Could it be that these challenging and, frankly, mad beers become the core range of other breweries in a few years time? They could be the new norm just as the bitter, best bitter and stout were of the recent yesteryear.

Contortionism & Diplomacy

Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.

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But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.

Mass Observation 113: 02.07.16

 
DSCF3576 Mermaid St Albans
 
On Saturday I took notes in a local for the Mass Observation Study hosted by Boak & Bailey. This visit took place from around 6pm to 8pm in the Mermaid, St Albans.
 
There’s around 30 customers in the pub when I arrive though it does steadily decline over my two hour stay. Most folk are over the age of fifty. The gender distribution at the busiest peak is 24 male and 6 female. The general dress is jeans and a shirt or T-shirt. Most people are British Caucasian though there are also British Asian. Beards amongst the men are rare – it’s generally clean shaven faces and heads. I discern three couples in the throng. The youngest – who look like they’re in their early thirties – sit next to each other on a settle scrolling through something on their smartphone. Whatever they’re viewing keeps making them laugh. Two men are playing darts. Most people are standing or sitting around the bar chatting. I see one man outside smoking.
 
The inside of the Mermaid has a stripped wooden floor. The bar is also wooden and horseshoe-shaped. Dimpled pint mugs and German Krugs hang glinting over the taps. There is a slate six-beer tasting flight hanging on the wall. The main decorative hangings are of old Worthington, Hammerton (not the new Islington brewery but its familial ancestor), Guinness, Maryport and Holt brewery mirrors. There are also depictions of the pub’s eponym – mermaids as well as framed photographs of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. There’s also an historic Blaeu wall map. Last but not least, there’s a mounted document issued by Oakham Ales to pubs that stock their beer – the Oakademy of Excellence certificate. 
 
The furniture is comprised of wooden stools around the bar’s arc that are paired with coat hooks under the bar’s lip. In the lounge are wooden settles with heavy iron tables, small stools and several soft-topped seats chased into the large window recesses. There are also oblong communal tables that can easily accommodate eight people. There’s a couple of carpeted areas – one has a communal table and one contains a bookshelf, fruit machine and dartboard. Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock) . The pub has outside seating both in front and behind. During my stay I watch people out front but can’t report on anybody in the back garden which contains picnic tables and a pagoda with astroturf.
 
The pub has one small television. It was showing the Tennis when I entered but went on to show football – Italy v Germany in the European cup. 70s soul music is playing in the background until the football match starts. Media wise, there is also a huge range of regional CAMRA publications from across Britain and a table with a newspaper/magazine rack. The Times, the Guardian and Private Eye are all tucked into it.
 
There is a lot here to drink. On cask is Citra by Oakham Ales, Slippery Jack by Brandon Brewery, Queen Bee by Slater’s Brewery, Fabric by Ashover Brewery, Cotswold Way by Wickwar Brewing, Booze Hound by Gun Dog Ales and Stowford Press Cider by Westons. On keg dispense there is Pilsner Urquell, Old Rosie, Guinness, Carling, Stella Artois, Amstel and Bitburger. Behind the bar is a wide range of bottled Belgian beers. The cider range here is huge, best covered by an image:
 
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With regards to what the punters are actually drinking, two of the cask ales are a stout and a dark ale so I can tell that few people are drinking them (though I have them both). The most popular beer is the Citra; it’s also the house beer that’s permanently on. Stella Artois goblets are also in evidence, then the choice seems to be cider and both red and white wine. One woman has a branded glass of Pisner Urquell too.
 
Apart from crisps, nobody’s eating. Cold tapas style dishes are available but this is by no means a food pub.
 
The topics of conversation I hear aren’t entirely impartial as someone notices me perching at the end of the bar and asks my opinions on the CAMRA revitalisation project; a consultation will soon be happening in St Albans. With the barman joining in, this debate then segues surreally into a conversation about how Nicola Sturgeon looks like Jimmy Krankie. This is because one of us shows a photo they took in an airport of them standing next to the first minister of Scotland. The barman once saw Father (Ian) Krankie in Dartmouth. 
 
There is some referendum banter across the bar about which side bullshat the most. Another thing I hear (without being involved) is “why is the England team so shit?” Two people debate whether Portugal or Wales will win the European cup. I also hear Michael Gove’s name mentioned but can’t hear whether the talk’s for or against him. The barman brings up the death today of writer and comedian Caroline Aherne and I also hear him ask an older patron if he was around in the 1960s and whether he knows why the Who song My Generation is sung with an enforced stutter.
A couple of details to end on: there is a Mermaid pub T-shirt worn by staff with the following slogan printed on the back: “The Mermaid: Always giving you head the way you like it” In the gents, a ceramic demijohn has been rigged up to make it seem like it’s integral to the urinal’s plumbing system. A Carlsberg label has been affixed to it.

Mass Observation 113: 27.06.16

The Boot, St Albans
 
DSCF3562 Boot St Albans
the tapered blue and yellow flags above the bar represent St Albans
I first read about mass observation when I read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston. People were interviewed following the end of the Second World War as Britain tried to pick up and move on from were it left off five years previously. 60 years on, beer writers Boak and Bailey are hosting a mass observation about pubs 
 
 
I’m very happy to share an intimate little slice of St Albans.
 
The Boot has 19 taps – 9 cask and 10 keg. On cask are:
 
Over the Bar – Tring Brewery (Herts)
1 – XT Brewery (Bucks)
Mr Squirrel – Red Squirrel Brewery (Herts)
A.P.A – Mad Squirrel Brewery (the craftier side of Red Squirrel Brewery)
Tribute – St Austell Brewery (Cornwall)
Golden Ale – The Three Brewers of St Albans (Herts)
JHB – Oakham Ales (Cambs)
Landlord – Timothy Taylor (W Yorks)
Old Rosie Cider – Westons (Heref)
 
On keg are Fosters Lager, Guinness, Peroni, Aspalls Cider, Addlestones Cider, Vedett, Estrella, Becks, Meantime Pale Ale and Stella Artois.
 
The majority of drink being consumed is from the cask range. Most of the beers on tap are golden in appearance and it’s difficult to know which was which though JHB and Tribute are popular and they’re always on. The golden hoppy range has been influenced by the hot weather. Otherwise the most prominent drinks seem to be Stella Artois (as it’s served in its distinctive branded goblet) and glasses of Pimm’s.
 
There are about 40 customers and virtually all are watching England v Iceland in the Euros on one of the two televisions. The only ones not involved are one man at the bar with his back to the room, one man sat at a table reading from his smartphone and me. I get a few puzzled looks when I discreetly take pictures.
 
The pub has a bare wooden floor and a low ceiling with vertical black-washed timber supports. Because it’s situated in the middle of Market Place in the town centre, it has no beer garden but a few wooden chairs outside for the smokers. There are none during the match but about ten people go out during the interval in shifts so as not to lose their seats. I don’t see any vapers among them.
 
DSCF3558
 
Just visible in the photo above are some of the pictures of music stars like the Beatles. There is a particular emphasis on Bob Dylan. The pub’s ageing chocolate Labrador (not present as time of observing) is named Dylan after him. There are also historical prints – one can just be seen to the left of the monitor above. The pub claims to be a battlefield pub. The first battle of The War of the Roses from the 15th century is depicted next to a plaque. Another memorable thing about this pub is on the wall above the urinal in the gents: it displays covers from satirical institution Private Eye. Half of them are changed regularly to keep up with current events but a few are black and white and go back to Margaret Thatcher’s time in office.
 
The Boot doesn’t have a Pool table, jukebox or dartboard but it does have a collection of boardgames heaped in a corner I’ve never seen played.
The match pretty much did for conversation but during half time the punters became reacquainted with their smartphones and all their faces lit up. I did hear one question: “As ‘e resigned yet?” That’s all I got but I’m absolutely certain it was about the current leader of the Labour party (at the time of writing) Mr Jeremy Corbyn. This is in relation to Britain voting to leave the EU in a referendum and the whole shadow cabinet resigning under his leadership. England went on to suffer defeat against Iceland (I wasn’t still in the pub at that point) so I don’t believe it was about England manager Roy Hodgson who later resigned.