Everyone, surely, has a soft spot for a pub snug. Those cosy corners, the fugg of cigar smoke from years ‘BTB’ (Before The Ban) still greasily staining walls and furniture, in what can only be described as ‘Farrow & Ball shades’. The Bridge in Topsham, with its wood-lined snugs, one with a small direct serving hatch through to the bar; the Pianola room at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low; the back room of The Cooper’s Tavern in Burton on Trent with its tall-backed pews lining the walls, undoubtedly hiding misericords venerating Burton brewers Great and Good beneath. Yet snugs seem a feature of the past – no place in the huge drinking establishments built by the likes of Marstons or Mitchell’s and Butler today. Snugs make way for ‘covers’ and easy access for the table service and the Hunters’ Chicken.
There’s hope though. A new generation of micro bars, or craft snugs is opening up. Freed from the capital needed for cellars, kitchens and cooling, these bars tend to focus on bottles, spirits and nibbles. And because they’re small, they don’t need to be on the High Street or City Centre circuit, with their requisite ‘high footfall’. They don’t need to think about being chameleons, serving early breakfasts, frothy lattes or renting out to the local Slimming World group. They can just be a bar, with low rent, lower overheads and hours to suit.
Saying that, one’s opened in our village that goes in the other direction. It started as a cafe, working with the exposed beams and quarry tiles laid to earth; making the most of the sagging lintels and trip-hazard floor levels, all in the aid of ‘character’. And now it’s become an after hours drinking snug. What was once someone’s front room, what was once a scullery is now a series of inter-connected shadowy snugs, serving cocktails, cake, crisps and craft beers from wherever takes their fancy. So it was I enjoyed a Nelson Sauvin Pale Ale from The Kernel (Bermondsey), a Snakecharmer IPA from One Mile End (Whitechapel), and a Queen of Diamonds from Wild Card Brewery (Walthamstow). Oh, and there were beers from local brewers too, like Slater’s (Stafford) and Freedom (Abbot’s Bromley), but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ‘go exotic’ now, was I? And only one bottle of lager – a rather lonesome Nastro Azzurro peeped out from behind the fridge door. Which seems right – somehow, lager seem less well suited to these snugs of warmth, intimacy and close friends.
Our U.S. beer trip – well, I say that, but actually it was a holiday to Disney and the Gulf Coast with the kids – but you know what I mean – the beer trip, started with a wind up.
We were going to tell the kids at Christmas, but frankly their behaviour on the day didn’t warrant it, so we held the news back. And somehow, with the deft touch of time, the idea metamorphosised into a trip to Germany. Handy, that indirect flight via Frankfurt. But Germany? For two weeks? At Easter? “But dad, why do we need swimming trunks and beach towels?” asked my eldest. “Errr… there’s the largest indoor water park in Europe” I lied, unconvincingly. And damn, if she didn’t look it up on the internet too, but we brushed it aside and stealthily had a new Center Parcs built to accommodate my Pork Pies. “But what is there to actually do in Germany, Dad?” probed my youngest, incredulously, a weak seam obviously evident. “It doesn’t sound very exciting.”
But somehow the answer was much easier, and excitement veritably bubbled up from me. “Bier and pretzels”, I confidently replied. “Yes, bier and pretzels – or pretzelN,” – I stressed, always eager to fit in some extra curricular essential learning. And I meant it. Well the baked goods part in particular, them being below the legal drinking age and all that.
And they could see I really was excited. I told them of Mr. Jeffers, my first German teacher, who changed from the standard first language lesson from numbers 1 to 10 and ‘hello’s’ to how to order a beer. What would the number crunchers at Ofsted think today? But I remember it to this day and that’s surely the most important thing. I told them of a trip to the Rhine valley when I was a teenager and seeing the bäckerei with their gold leaf pretzel signs outside and glass shelves overflowing with wonderful rye breads, pumpernickel and amazing cream cakes. I told them about my first visit to Germany, also on the Rhine valley, and going to a würst and senf festival in the town we were staying in. A country where the festival is the sausages and mustard, not the accompaniment to something else. And these were not those briney, skinny, industrially squeezed sausages you buy in tins and plopped in a fluffed up white roll. There were sausages of all colours, shapes (well, not all shapes; they were mostly sausage-like) and manner of meaty flavours, cooked over wood barbecues. I can still smell the tingle of the appley charred smoke in my nostrils and picture it drifting down the bunting clad street. And then, to top it off, the creamy, vinegary soft, spiciness of the mustard. This wasn’t street food: this was beyond that; this was deeper, more heartfelt; this was passion, German food culture and love served up on a plate. And I told them about the vine shaded beer gardens sloping down to the Danube in Regensburg with yeasty, clovey wheat beers and the accompanying oven bottom, bready sweet, dampfnudeln to fill up holes in the stomach, all presided over by a clucking Herr Ober who ruled the roost like his own front room, all clucking and full of pride. I told them too about the Cannstatter Volksfest and the Oktoberfest, but omitted many essential details.
Well, that served me right. My contagious enthusiasm was passed on, and suddenly the kids are researching things to see and do in Germany (distance no object). The Black Forest; the Eifel mountains; Cologne cathedral; a boat trip on the Rhine or Mosel. Oh, and the biggest indoor swimming centre in Europe, naturally.
In the end, the secret remained safe right through to the transfer desk at Frankfurt airport, where we had to check the Gate number for Orlando. My youngest was both delighted and upset. “Does this mean I won’t get to try a proper German pretzel?”. Tears were welling up and everything. So there we were, in the transfer terminal. Me with a glass of local Licher Pils, beautifully served of course, in a simple, stemmed glass and pretzeln all round: crisp, dark outers with the slash of double cream coloured dough poking through; lightly pebble dashed with rock salt for that crunchy bite.
No more wind-ups now: time to get back to Germany proper.
It seems to be an Immutable Law that beer has an inferiority complex about its relationship with food. Inferior, of course, to wine.
In the late ‘80s, Michael Jackson used wine as a comparator to help people understand the breadth of beer styles around the world – a clever trick as comparison and copying is how we make sense of the world right from our formative years. So it was remarkably successful but with unintended consequences. The main one is that the same comparison – a comparison with wine – is a tough one. Wine & food has decades of normalisation, decades of unchallenged drinker acceptance, and decades of reinforcement by media, restaurateurs and word of mouth.
I protest too much. Beer need not worry: the breadth of beer styles, the flavour variations that come from the grist, the hops, the fermentation, maturation, the carbonation, and the interplay between these, mean beer should be confident. There are as many breathtaking food partnerships for it as for wine. Let’s rejoice and move on.
Breathtaking partnerships brings me back to the subject of ‘kickers’¹. The magic in a chat over a pint arises from that combination of slowly-slowly inebriation (that only a high volume, low alcohol product can deliver); the beer itself: its tastiness, its presentation; and the kickers – the chaperones of the beer experience. We have a couple of great pubs near me; one is a local CAMRA award winner, but another does amazing kickers – in fact, in our socially responsible times, they don’t run a ‘Happy Hour’ with discounted booze but offer free kickers instead, a nice range, nicely presented, simply put out on the bar. Hands down winner.
To my mind, if the kickers are great there’s no need for a meal. I’m going to eat them anyway, and if they’re good quality, why hold back? So recently I’ve been pushing the boundaries to discover new combinations. And pickles are the latest discovery: pickles as in chutney, and pickles as in whole pickled veggies as an American might say. Not just pickled veg neither – pickled fruit too; even a – whisper it – pickled egg perhaps? (There’s a kicker in need of a rebrand if ever I saw one). Look out for them, pickles are the accompaniment of choice in food telly land at the moment, so presumably in the real world too. Barnsley Chop with Pea Mash and Pickled Beats. Pork Belly with Pickled Baby Veg and Crushed Jersey Royals.
But pickles deserve to be more than mere accompaniments and with beer they make surprisingly great kickers. In our Summer Retreat in Mallorca, the Tinted Family enjoyed a glass or three of pale beer that were served with gherkins (Cornichons? What’s the difference?) and pickled roasted tomatoes. The latter were a jaw dropping combination: tomatoes, despite their ubiquity can be tricky buggers to pair with, but this was a riveting success, with smokiness, tartness and sweetness rolled into one. It was an ironic shame that the beer was quaffable but bland.
It has sparked pickling madness: Kilner Jars are being acquired on ebay. Unusual ingredients are being snuck into the shopping basket. Questions are being asked about why we need industrial quantities of white wine vinegar. But the real revelation is that you can pickle with beer (forgive me if I am slow to the party!). I have some refrigerator pickles maturing now that feature a malty glug of aged White Shield. And this weekend saw a chutney being concocted featuring another White Shield Brewing Company beer – ‘E’. Fresh from the pot, it was spicy and sharp but with a rich, chestnutty smoothness that comes from the beer, whilst the spices still ring through. The rest is now sitting in the cellar, maturing nicely with any luck. Next weekend features refrigerator pickles, ideal to be eaten straight with a glass of pale ale, or porter perhaps. If I sound surprised by all this, I suppose I shouldn’t; surely it’s natural that a fermented product should sit well with another?
So when you have a small dish of smoked pickles to accompany your pint next time, remember. You heard it here first.
So Vince Cable is finally going to do something. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the man. Through prescient knowledge or serendipity, he was one of the few voices of sense as the banking crisis hit and the world plunged into what seems to be a generational recession. And his Ballroom isn’t bad. But he seems to be a provoker – someone who critiques, and does so ably, but seems less comfortable when it comes to having to make decisions. Years in opposition, perhaps.
But now he is going to clamp down on some of the nefarious practises of the pub cos. And about time too. I once sat in a pub in the Lake District chatting to a two brothers about their respective businesses. One was a pub manager. He could survive, just, complaining that whilst he could buy the brewery’s beer from a wholesaler cheaper, overall he didn’t get a bad deal on rent and the brewery looked after the pub. Not so for the Licensee (or Lessee) – he had a pub owned by one of the big PubCos and was on his knees. He broke his back building the business up and his reward for increasing turnover? Higher rent – significantly higher rent. His beer was even more expensive that the Managed Pub and the PubCo had installed a system to stop him from ‘buying out’ (buying from suppliers other than the PubCo). On some bottled brands, they even had PubCo specific labels so the local management could spot if he’d bought his Bud from Tesco or whereever. The same in my village – still blessed with 5 pubs but one, the jewel in the crown until recently stood empty and decaying precisely because the entrepreneurial couple who had built it up got screwed over by the pub company with ridiculous rent rises (and in fact, in recent weeks, a second one, from a different company stands empty for a similar reason).
Look, Beer Tinted isn’t Rose Tinted about this. My firm belief is that a smaller pub ‘universe’ in the UK will be a good thing. We can’t ignore the fact that the way we spend our lives and social time is changing. We can’t ignore the fact that whilst 100 years ago, people wanted to escape their homes, today they don’t. Today, in the main, our houses are comfy, warm, have entertainment, feature indoor toilets and running water. The night soil man no longer has to call. We take it for granted how much we have moved on in a staggeringly short time.
Yet it doesn’t mean that our pubs deserve the behaviour of many of the PubCos. In fact, most are not pub co’s at all. They’re property companies and when the balloon was inflating they were raking it in, but now it’s popped. The sure knowledge that they could run a crap pub but still pay a healthy dividend has gone too – thank goodness. The b’stards now need to work for their money and I for one only hope that Mr Cable’s reforms enshrine the law in favour of the free house. Of course, just like the Beer Orders, there will be unintended consequences for the intellectually swift and action orientated business type, but at least we’ll get Pub Companies and Publicans who care about their Public.
This month’s communal beer blog is about ‘Hype’ in beer. Well it got me thinking about one of my favourite texts on branding – a little, easy to read book by David Taylor entitled, ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ With a name like that, it would be easy to classify it along with classics like ‘Who Stole My Cheese?’, ‘Kiss That Frog’ and other such daftly named tomes with zero afterlife, but no. ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ has a serious, memorable and most of all common sense message: in all your marketing efforts, if you build your brand on dodgy claims and weasel words, if you believe the hype so to speak, then you are building your house on sand and at some point it will all come crashing down. Or, as a wise old sage of a boss once put it to me, ‘If you put red diesel in the tank son, don’t suck on the exhaust’. In the case of ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ the exhaust sucking is committed by a Marketing Director (ex advertising agency, as they always seem to be), who forgets the proud porky legacy of this particular butchery concern, and ambitiously moves them into sausage (read: “Meat Feast!”) pizzas. And Italian sausage at that. In so doing, the distinctiveness, the quality and most importantly, the truth is lost. Without spoiling this future Hollywood hit for you, the day is saved by a couple of old boys who snuffle in the truffles to find out what the company did best, and make it appropriate for the market today.
And sausage is an appropriate metaphor for beer on two counts. Firstly, some beers actually taste of sausage. No, really. Empirical evidence, of one, has demonstrated that Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (a Bavarian smoked beer) does taste of spicy salami amongst other things (car tyres?)
Secondly, there’s the act of slicing the sausage. Classic brand building thinking has you hunting for unique selling propositions for your brand. For finding a new slice on the category. To demonstrate this, and in deference to my friend and ex colleague Chris, let us at this point refer to the case of the humble tomato. It was not that long back that you went to the supermarket and you bought a bag of tomatoes. Snooker ball size. Round. A shade of red, generally. Typically loose, but sometimes pre packed in 6’s in to a tray with plastic wrap round it. Then the hype begins: ‘Tomatoes sales are growing, how do we increase them further?’ A creative session is organised. Suppliers are invited in. Growers get together. Bigger multipacks. Smaller mulitpacks. Smaller tomatoes. Bigger tomatoes.
‘We need to make them more glamourous, give them more appeal!’ ‘Beef tomatoes’ ‘Cherry tomatoes’, ‘Plum Tomatoes’ (fresh not tinned), ‘Mini Plum Tomatoes’.
‘Sales are slowing, we have to make the tomato sexy.’ ‘Santos Plum Tomatoes’, ‘Sicilian Mini Plum Tomatoes’, ‘Vine ripened tomatoes’ ‘Green tomatoes’
And on, and on.
For a while sales increase. And like blood around a floating corpse, sharks begin to circle. More supermarkets get involved. Growers swap from unfashionable crops (like hops, or apple trees) and build greenhouses for their tomatoes. Yet at the same time, imports increase as the Dutch and the Spanish eye our supermarket aisles longingly. Then the Americans pitch in the off season, and before too long the Chinese too.
And the result?
Sales begin to flatten. Shoppers don’t know where the hell to find tomatoes. You know, the ones that are snooker ball size, round and red… lost in a sea of senseless packaging and niche offers that you only buy at Christmas. So competition increases, prices come down (‘Great news for the consumer’ chime in the Government, productively), growers lose their margin and ultimately sales drop away as interest in tomatoes falls away.
So be careful what you wish for beer world. Look at lager brands in the UK:
Sausage: you start with Skol and Long Life. Slice 1: sales begin to grow, incomes Carling Black Label , Carlsberg and Heineken. Slice 2: we need to add more appeal: Fosters, Holsten Pils, Becks. Slice 3: we need to sex it up: Grolsch swingtops, Stella Artois, Carlsberg Export.Slice 4: we need to get adults drinking on more occasions:stubbies, embossed long neck bottles, Slice 5: we need bigger packs for Christmas: 8s, 12s, 24s, 18s, 16s, Slice 6: what if people could give our brand as a present? glass packs, collector schemes. Slice 7: I don’t want sex, I want lust! Peroni, Peruvian beers, Thai beers. And the result? Death by 1000 cuts, or at best, one of those part segmented saveloys you buy at the chippy… a supermarket range you don’t know where to start with and boxes of beer priced cheaper than bottled water.
My advice: heed the warning of history. Cask, craft and bottled ale may be a reactionary response to the slicing of the sausage. We can enjoy it now, bathe in the revolution. But at what point does the magnetism of the knife begin to take hold? More slices? More claims? More weasel words? Less truth?
London’s Drury Lane is famous for its theatres of course. The Theatre Royal, The New London, all in their time have witnessed the great and good of thespianism grace their boards. Up at the top end, towards High Holborn, are the interesting sights though. Narrow buildings made from small blackened-buff handmade bricks, with that vertiginous sense of perspective as your eye tracks them upwards. Here, strangely enough, was the original Sainsbury’s store, and here too, inspired perhaps by the visual echoes of Amsterdam, is Lowlander.
It’s a favourite bar of mine. Inspired by a Brussels Grande Café, every attempt has been made to authentically reproduce and convey that feel. From the long bar with the wide aperture beer taps with glass washers below; to the enamel wall plaques advertising and celebrating some of the glotally tongue-twisting brands like Delirium Tremens, Echt Kriekenbier and Trippel Karmeliet; to the reverential alter of glassware behind the bar, celestially lit and tempting you to order one of the bottles to fill them: Westmalle, Trappiste Rochefort, Rodenbach Grande Cru. And the tables: I’m just a sucker for these long tables, forcing you to sit next to a stranger; inviting you – threatening you perhaps – to strike up a new dialogue or forcing a little smile as you observe groups play out the unspoken dance of rule-finding around who can invade personal space and to what level.
Perhaps Drury Lane is the right location: because ultimately it’s all a faҫade – authentically fake if you will. But as I refamiliarised myself with a smooth De Koninck last night, I was transported, albeit momentarily, to a real homeland of beer, and was all the happier for it.
There’s a chap in the world of Scottish advertising who is famous. Normally, when you think of ‘famous’ people in advertising your mind goes to the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell, John Hegarty, David Ogilvy or Trevor Beattie. I’m thinking of someone who should be much more exalted though…. Les Watt.
Les is a big man in many, many ways. There’s his size for one, he’s an ex rugby player with calves bigger than most people’s thighs; there’s his reputation; particularly amongst directors and advertising producers. Les learnt his trade (the production and ‘traffic’ side of advertising – actually making the ads if you will) from the bottom up and he didn’t bull shit. He didn’t pretend to know it all. At first those on the opposite side of the table found this charming and disarming. Later though, rather like Annikin Skywalker on his path to the dark side, they soon realised that because of this approach, generally he did know it all – and generally therefore, he knew where the margin was, the workarounds and the tricks of the trade. He earned, in short, respect. So Les brings in high quality advertising at a fraction of the cost of big London agencies, and some great stuff there is too (have a look: www.leith.co.uk – and check out their beer).
But Les is famous for something different in my book, handy though it was to have him on your side. No, for me, Les is famous for his ‘kickers’.
The world of advertising, especially for aspiring marketeers is seen as glamourous; larging it with creative types and getting to chat to the Producer and the ‘DP’; mixing it with known faces from the acting world and often in exotic locations.
In reality though, it’s a grind. Early starts, a lot of sitting around; multiple takes with actors who should know better; a workforce that work to rule, and more typically stroppy directors who give the impression that they’re only filming your advert because Hollywood have put them on hold (again). So it’s a blessing to get to the end of the evening and be able to have a couple of hours to yourself without hearing ‘Cut!’ yet a-bloody-gain.
And typically the evenings involve hunting out a meal, often at unsociable hours, and grabbing a few beers.
Now with Les, even if it is well beyond the bewitching hour, restaurant staff chuntering under their breath with the desire to head home, it is still never to late to take your time over a meal. You go through the menu; order your starter and main; a few beers. And then the inevitable words. “How about a few kickers to get us going?”.
The intonation alone says, “Och no, these are on top of everything else” without it actually being said. And only Les chooses the kickers. With menu laid out in front of him like the first reading of the Magna Carta, he works his way through with an increasingly slack-jawed waiter jotting them down.
And they arrive. Plate after plate of whatever the local vicinity specialise in. My first shoot with Les was in Barcelona, so you can imagine…. tapas galore. There were a dozen of us at the table, and I kid you not, enough kickers for 50. But we cleared them, every last one. And then the starter arrived…..
I tell you this little tale because ‘beer and kickers’ for me are now part of my lexicon. I actively hunt them out. When I’m abroad in particular, it’s a great opportunity to seek out something a little bit special to go with your first beer. Tapenade and slow cooked bread? Sardine and caper on a basil & plum tomato salad? Any form of cheese. Oh yes, Les would be proud (although if he saw the quantity I order, he’d probably be a little mocking too).
But in the UK it’s more troublesome – more troublesome because we have our own rituals. Crisps of course – and frankly there are few poor crisps in the UK. Ready Salted Walkers are never disappointing, and some Pipers, Burts or Kettle Chips are a bonus. Phileas Fogg used to do little bags of their tortillas (in the days before Doritos, these were the genuine article), and we used to get the train to The Bridge in Topsham, rip open the bags in the middle of the table to share them out over pints of Bass or Broadside. Or at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low, there the whole food offering consisted of (and likely still does) pies. They were kept on the bar under a glass cloche, and when you ordered one you were asked if “You want a bit of muzzy with that?”. Fantastic.
But there’s only one snack that I find invariably lets you down, and it is the epitomy of British Snackology: pork scratchings.
Have you tried any recently? Typically the versions you get nowadays seem to use popcorn technology. They are so light and fluffy and aerated that they have lost the whole point. Where are the layers of skin and fat? Where are the short bristly bits of pig hair that sizzle off in your mouth? Where is the heavy spicing?
I realise now that I was spoiled in the way of the Scratching. A friend of mine from Primary School was the son of a butcher on Stoke market. Their stand is still their today under the Potteries centre, and we used to get discount bags of scratchings which were bigger than your head. We’d then go round to Dave’s house and eat the lot with his infernal home brew. But by heck, they were cracking scratchings. Long, thick, bristling with hair and fat, you had to fight them with your teeth just to make an impression. They were, in short, awesome.
And at last someone is trying to make scratchings of this quality available more widely. You may have heard of the three chaps (including Matthew Fort, ex Guardian restaurant critic and now Great British Menu judge) who organised a whole meal where each course (including pud) featured scratchings. Their creation, Mr Trotters, are jolly good (mrtrotter.com). They’re actually made just up the road from me in Rugeley, and frankly any scratchings that come from the Scratching Belt of Staffordshire to the West Midlands will be good. These are made from all British pork (a rarity if you think about it, most of the bacon and ham we eat has come on a Viking Raid from Denmark), and are ‘slow cooked’. I think this latter claim is is a bit of marketing nonsense, because ultimately the product speaks for itself. They’re grand – keep a look out for them and support them if you see them. (My only gripe is that they have been cut a bit too short and the bags are too small – this has clearly been done to reduce the calorie intake, but let’s be honest, calories are not top of mind to those of us who partake in scratchings). I’m sure range extensions will follow, and they should certainly consider some with even bolder spicing, then we will have a British ‘kicker’ to be truly proud of.
Mr Trotter. You might be looking proud now Sir, but you won’t be after the abattoir.