The back streets of Smethwick are Cash and Carry land. Long horizontals of white mortar shine out from glossy deep red brick terraces, whilst large shop signs of every hue and a hotchpotch of shapes scream out onto the streets. Behind though is the beating heart of Birmingham past and present: small industrial units on streets that hark back to smoky, metal-beating times: Suffrage Street; James Watt Industrial Park, Kelvin Way. Today the heart of another industry beats, that of independent retail, of Asian and African trade and neighbourhoods. True enough, Cash & Carrys’ may not be that inspiring an association with an area, but let’s face it, depending on your interpretation of the reality of those parts, it could be much worse.

In my early years in beer, I worked in the off license sector (or off trade) – the independent retail of alcohol sales. Last week, CGA Strategy, who measure this sort of thing, reported that off trade sales overtook on trade sales for the first time. Still someway off the global norm of 70-80% of the beer market being consumed at home, but getting there slowly. Only twenty years ago though, off trade sales were much smaller, the market immature. The supermarkets sold very little and their range was poor; in fact supply wasn’t brilliant – mostly keg brands canned. It seems incredible today to think that most sales went through the off licenses – either the big ‘specialists’, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett (all of whom had been the off trade arms of big brewers at some point) – or through independent corner stores. These were supplied by the Cash & Carrys – again, either the big chains like Booker or Nurdin & Peacock, Makro, to independent, more local, operators at the other. The West Midlands had a thriving Cash and Carry trade and the west side of Birmingham: Cape Hill, Winson Green, Smethwick had a profusion of the independents.

They were notorious: scale operators, run like fiefdoms, focused on volume, big deals, trunker* loads of beer coming in and out. And they performed the necessary evil of ‘clearing’ – taking the close to best before stock and shipping it through their network of retailers in double quick time at half the profit.

Given the sheer volume of beery traffic passing in and out of the loading doors, damages were inevitable. Typically, the offending cans or bottles would be removed and the remaining stock repackaged out back to be sold on, sometimes at a discount, often not. Damages – or to give it its butterily correct name – ullage – was a ludicrously lucrative business. The hope was that the brewer would credit them for the whole case, when in reality only one or two cans were damaged; they would then repack and resell the whole lot and effectively, double their money**. Usually, the Cash and Carrys gave the ullage a dedicated area; close to an unused loading bay or tucked out of the way of the key sales area. As you approached, there was the lactic smell of super strength lager turning to vinegar, oil-like spills on the floor, gel like in their viscosity, and beer flies (drosophila melanogaster, or the more common name bugus cerevesiae), who would drift and plummet in acrobatic displays then diving to feast on the sugars which the yeast were planning to consume in turn. It’s the same smell you get in a cellar where less than meticulous handling & cleaning practices are maintained.

Lindemans Framboise
The one that got away.

The back street Cash & Carry images came flashing back to me in an instant the other week, like rapid slide transitions in Powerpoint. We live in an old place, which has a small vault-like brick cellar below the room the dog sleeps in. You may justifiably ask what a bottle of Lindemans Framboise was doing in a fridge at all then, but let’s not get hung up here on the political correctness of beer storage. The point is that, made worse by a cold snap, the fridge temperature dropped and the beer made an escape for freedom. With surreptitious impact: what I found was a bottle essentially in tact: the cork still in; the crown in place, the foil seemingly undisturbed, but a huge plug of ice in the bottle and a spray of pinky-brown aging beery gloop covering the contents and inner sanctum of the fridge.

And my! The smell. Here was a characterful, already complex, heady beer, but given the chance to mature rapidly in contact with a room full of oxygen all for itself and probably some wild cellar yeasts snaffled up for good measure too. Vinegar, champagne, paint thinners or new emulsion perhaps, and fermenting raspberries – lots of fermenting raspberries in an advanced stage, über fruity yet sour and winey too. The memory, in short, of a potential great beer with a dash of Smethwick Cash & Carry.


*The term for a full 38 ton lorry of beer

** On one occasion, being full of youthful integrity, I refused to play ball and had to transport 20 cases of damaged Tennent’s Super cans, some of which were still spraying like a territorial cat through pinhead cracks, back to our depot. My Scirocco may have become The Zone Of The Piss Smelling Fly, but the Principle was worth upholding.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015



“It’s truly a 21st Century City now”, John observed. The evening before he’d gone for a walk with his wife down to see the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ – the display of poppies at the Tower, before they were removed. He and his wife had moved to the city from the west country almost 25 years before – not exactly the streets of gold perhaps, but when you’re from Plymouth you know the buildings must have a little more architectural merit than the post war concrete blocks that make up the port’s current urban skyline. And now we sat in a bar at St Pancras station, discussing business, but also reflecting on how this station, unbelievably threatened with demolition 40 or so years before was now a thrumming hive of connectivity and architectural dreaming writ large. A metaphor for the Capital’s transformation over the same few decades?

This same stretch of the Euston Road was certainly something of a journey from me. When I first worked in London, I was part of an itinerant ‘hit squad’ sales team, selling beer to off licenses throughout London from our base at the Posthouse on Carburton Street (I later learnt that it was ‘the’ prostitutes hotel but never saw any evidence to support this. Today it’s a very respectable Holiday Inn). I drive down, through the warren of streets around Swiss Cottage, along by Regents Park and down Albany Street past barracks and then menacing tenement style blocks and boozers to the top of the Euston Road. Although there were some grand buildings, Euston was squalid, St Pancras run down and Kings Cross best avoided. Today, hipsters are moving out to here and to Somers Town. The off licences we called on were nothing to be proud about: hundreds of Unwins, ‘Super’food and Wine (later, when running the London territory, my first sales call on a Monday was at a Superfoods on Shaftesbury Avenue, where there was already a queue formed before opening for the first chilled can of Tennent’s Super of the day). Pubs were either touristy or showy, or – in another sweep of generalisation – brewery tied, unimaginative and typically, pretty ragged. Grand Met and Whitbread carved up the market, the others fought for scraps. Most bars carried one of a couple of ranges of beer dictated by the national brewers. A foreign, imported lager was met with a surge of excitement. God, we even got excited about alcopops.

It may be stating the obvious to point out how much things have changed. But it’s worth underlining that this change is not simply dramatic, it’s revolutionary. Seeing small brewer IPAs or Porters on draught is nowadays nothing new, rotating casks with dizzying frequency. But for the same now to happen with kegs – and with the lager too – has really changed the rules, particularly if you are Carlsberg, Fosters or Carling.

Today, not seeing a Camden beer on the bar would be unusual down here, and the supporting cast is growing – London Fields, Brew By Numbers, Beavertown, a fridge full of Kernel – gosh, you’ll be as familiar with the beers as I am. And sure, not all are to my taste, but at least now I get the chance to try and swoon or gag from a huge and growing range of interesting beers, an option that wasn’t open to me in my 20s.

As an infrequent traveller to Larndon today, I get to see the city changes in stages not as an evolutionary curve but as the steps of change. And I get to keep my eyes open for the growing number of beer shops that would put Superfood to shame and make my memory of 9am super strength lagers a distant, and best forgotten, memory.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014