Tuesday, 30 June 2020

How will the Bermondsey Beer Mile manage next Saturday?

As someone who takes a keen interest in all things beer, brewing and pubs, one of the first things I do on a Saturday morning – even before breakfast and switching on “Saturday Kitchen Live,” is to log on to veteran bloggers Boak & Bailey’s site to look at their weekly review. Entitled,  “News, nuggets and long reads,” the review opens with the words, “Here’s everything on the subject of beer or pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week.”

Now I’m glad that the blogging duo have the dedication to read through all the beery stuff that’s published each week, as it saves the rest of us a job. I normally find at least one, and often several more, of the links referred to in their summaries, well worth clicking on to, so their labours are not in vain.

Last Saturday it was a link to Will Hawkes’s site which featured an in-depth interview with Partizan Brewing founder, Andy Smith that particularly caught my eye. For those not in the know, Partizan are one of the original pioneers of the brewing renaissance in London, having been around since 2012. Their brewery is housed in one of the numerous railway arches beneath the congested rail approaches leading into London Bridge station.

Partizan Brewery is one of the stops on the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” (BBM); a crawl which now takes in 14 brewery taps, although originally there were only half a dozen. The taps are normally only open to the public on Saturdays, as the owners are busy brewing beer during the rest of the week, but unfortunately, since its inception as a loose-knit brewery crawl, the BBM has become a victim of its own success. That is until the lock-down intervened and stopped play altogether.

With restrictions on pubs and bar being lifted next Saturday, Partizan’s owner was wondering how the brewery would cope with the expected influx of visitors, and this was one of the topics raised in Will Hawkes’s interview, and highlighted by Boak & Bailey last week. It’s something I want to discuss as well; not that I have any intention of  attempting the BBM next Saturday, or indeed  any Saturday, but then I’ve had previous experience of this crawl.

Son Matthew and I undertook the BBM back in June 2014. You can read about it here, and although we enjoyed the experience, even then it was far too crowded for our liking, attracting various groups such as rugby clubs or “stag do’s” in strange costumes, all out on a “piss-up.” What made it worse, were those moments when it ended up being a bladder-busting experience, and this area that I wish to concentrate on, especially as it was one raised by Andy Smith in the interview.

As you can imagine, the toilet facilities at most of these brewery taps, are pretty limited. They are perfectly adequate for the number of staff present during normal working hours, but are definitely not sufficient to cope with large numbers of visitors, all of whom will need to empty their bladders during some stage of the crawl.

A couple of WC’s, for use by both sexes, is pretty much the norm, with queuing more or less inevitable. This is bad enough during normal times, but with enhanced hygiene and social-distancing requirements  necessary to meet current pandemic restrictions, I can envisage nothing but problems for those wishing to undertake the BBM.

Partizan’s owner touched on this during the interview, but apart from expressing his concern over the issue didn’t really put forward any solutions to the problem. I know in the past several bloggers, most noticeably Pub Curmudgeon, have written about inadequate toilet facilities in establishments such as micro-pubs.

I have also highlighted the issue after visiting other “brewery taps;” last year’s stop-off at Cellar Head’s, Flimwell premises, is one fairy recent example, as is a visit made with friends to the Thomas Tallis micro-pub in Canterbury, last autumn, but it needn’t be like this.

Two years ago, I spent a few days in the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies that went on to become the United States of America.  This was whilst participating in the 2018 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference held at Sterling, just a short distance from Washington Dulles Airport. During my time at the conference, we visited several “brewery taps” and without exception they all had well-provisioned toilet facilities – sorry restrooms/bathrooms, for both sexes. So none of this breaking your neck for a slash whilst queuing for a single, and totally inadequate closet

If our American friends can do this, why can’t we? Is it because individual state laws, governing such places, are much more strict than they are here? Admittedly there is much more space in the US, and some establishments we visited were obvious “grand designs,” laid out to impress.

First and foremost of these was Stone Brewing’s Richmond facility, and if ever that most over-used American word “awesome” was an apt description, then Stone’s East Coast plant was worthy of  it, but in the main I am talking about much smaller breweries, such as some of the others we visited in the former Confederate capital. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, all were bustling places, full of life and all busy pouring a myriad of different beers from an array of taps. Contrast this to a pokey little English micro-pub, converted from a lock-up shoe repairs business.

I’m digressing somewhat and not really comparing like with like, but if one thing is really going to gall when our pubs reopen, it will be queuing for the toilets. So, back to Andy Smith and Partizan Brewery, who has mixed thoughts on the possible reopening of the Bermondsey Beer Mile.

Like other brewers on this mile and a half route (it’s rather longer than a mile, as your feet will tell you if you ever undertake it), the regular stream of Saturday visitors is an important revenue source, that was abruptly cut off by the lock-down. As referenced above, the BBM is crowded during normal times, with customers queuing to get served and find somewhere to sit and drink. Matthew and I found this ourselves, four years ago, so how will  the area cope with the dreaded “social-distancing” and other measures applied? And what about those dreadfully inadequate toilets?

Andy is obviously concerned, but fortunately branched out during lock-down by opening an online shop, and carrying out local deliveries. Sales have been 50 per cent higher per month  than the brewery was taking over the bar, so does he really need to reopen on Saturday?

Only he can answer that, as whilst online sales have been buoyant, sales to pubs and bars dried up completely. This side of the business could take some time to recover, so it’s a tricky situation deciding whether or not to open up for the thirsty hordes, this coming weekend.

Personally, I think people will remain wary and for the time being at least, will not return in anything like pre lock-down numbers.  I certainly won’t be amongst them on Saturday, but then the whole lack of adequate toilet facilities had already put me off. Like other observers though, I will be maintaining a close interest in what happens on 4th July.



Etu said...

Well Paul, whatever, I wish the micropub development well. In many ways, they represent a return to what the best pubs were about when I was young - that is, good beer and conversation.

This is down to what they don't do. They don't usually have televisions, nor wipe-clean menus, nor tables set out for dining. They don't have car parks for fighting, nor do they often sell Stella and alcopops. I've never seen "complimentary" - I personally don't find them a compliment in any way - red top newspapers in them either. Most of all though, they do not promote themselves as Safe Spaces, for tetchy loudmouths to maintain a continuum of hectoring bigotry, thereby suppressing more considered and enlightened conversation.

I'll forgive them their homely WC provision in return for all that, within reason.

I suppose that my comment applies similarly to microbrewery taps.

Britain Beermat said...

Great article Paul and really thought provoking...I am going out on Saturday but in day to a new outdoor brewery tap on a farm!!
I guess they've got enough space but will let you know re loos!
As an aside I've just thanked lots of people for commenting on my blog who have Twitter handle but not sure of yours!
Rest assured your comments hugely appreciated

Paul Bailey said...

Etu, I appreciate I may have come across as rather biased against micro-pubs, but it was only really their lack of forethought in the provision of adequate toilet facilities that makes me a bit tetchy.

I still have mixed feelings towards them though, despite agreeing with much of what you say. Yes, they can be good places for intelligent and thoughtful conversation, but there’s still nothing to stop the type of bigoted tirades you refer to, from taking place.

Of course, a decent licensee will nip this type of behaviour in the bud; otherwise it’s a case of voting with one’s feet, but I still don’t regard a micro as a proper substitute for a decent, old-fashioned boozer.

Hi Britain Beermat, glad you found the post interesting and thought provoking. It’s as issue that affects us as we get older; although I’m not yet in the same league as Private Godfrey, from Dad’s Army!

I don’t have a Twitter account and, because of all the negative stuff going around at the moment, have also more or less abandoned my Facebook page too. As it is, blogging is more than sufficient to keep me out of mischief, so I don’t miss social media at all.

Good luck with your trip to the new rural brewery tap you refer to. I will look out for details of the visit on your blog.

Dave said...

One thing we in the US do well is bathrooms! You are not wrong in thinking that😀

Paul Bailey said...

Yes Dave, I must hand it to you, the US certainly does a good job with its bathrooms/restrooms/toilets even. Spacious, clean and user friendly, with no toilet trolls hanging around waiting to take your spare change, as in Germany!

I do recall one particular bar, in the town where my sister lives, having TV screens in the gents, showing the baseball game. After I mentioned it to my sister, she replied Americans don't want to miss a single minute of a game. My reply was surely that's what ad breaks are for.

retiredmartin said...

Good read as usual, Paul.

I'll be in a queue in the rain on Saturday morning but no way would it be in Bermondsey 😉

NB Mrs RM and I guided the Southworth twins to Bermondsey a couple of years back after the Royal Oak. I THINK they enjoyed the experience but it wasn't Harvey's!

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the piece Martin, but like you there’s no way I’ll be visiting Bermondsey this weekend.

Even before Corona virus put the mockers on things the BBM had long been a victim of its own success – rather like that trans-Pennine crawl where there’s a pub (or several), at every station! Six years ago, five brewery taps was more than enough but now, with that number almost tripled, it’s an endurance test rather than a pub-crawl.

I imagine the Southworth’s enjoyed their visit to the Royal Oak, with its well-kept Harvey’s. It is a pint of the latter beer that I am most looking forward to, at or after next weekend.