Thursday 30 May 2024

A double helping of brewery history, plus a 50-year old mystery is finally solved

Those of you who thought we'd seen the last of Salisbury are going to be disappointed, although some of you might relish a final look at the city. But before returning one last time to the second largest settlement in Wiltshire I first want to tell you about a real gem of a pub I discovered, when I arrived back in London.  On the train back from Salisbury, I had been flicking through What Pub, the comprehensive, CAMRA hosted guide to every pub and bar in the United Kingdom. I was looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary that wasn’t too far away from where my train home would depart from, and this is where What Pub came to the rescue.

Tucked away, down a quiet side street, just a short hop from Waterloo mainline station, lies the White Hart, an attractive looking 19th century pub situated on a corner of terraced, yellow-brick cottages. Although some might think it rather trivial, the thing that really appealed to me about the White Hart was the lettering around the periphery of the pub, advertising Wenlock Ales & Stout. Wine & Spirits also get a mention, but it's the beer that we're particularly interested in here, because Wenlock is a long-lost London brewery of some repute, which ceased production in 1962.

The brewery was located in Wenlock Road in the Hoxton district of the London Borough of Hackney. For the brewery history buffs amongst us Wenlock Brewery was acquired in 1953 by Worthington & Co, who were already a subsidiary of Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton. At the time of the takeover, Wenlock operated 164 pubs, most of which were situated in the capital, although there were six outside the Greater London area.

Marcuswenlock, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>,
There isn’t that much information out there about the company, and even on the Brewery History Society’s website there is little more than a couple of paragraphs, plus a selection of old bottle labels.  Some memorabilia, or evidence of past ownership still exists, such as signs or etched windows, and the best example is the Wenlock Arms, the renowned and award winning, cask ale pub just off the City Road on the fringe of London’s East End, which formed the brewery tap for Wenlock Ales.

That's the history part over, but what about the White Hart itself?  Well, on a hot and rather sticky Friday evening it was bustling with people congregating there for an after-work pint or three. Many were standing outside on the pavement, enjoying a beer and a chat with their friends or work colleagues. Internally the pub appears to have been hollowed out, with little trace of former separate drinking areas or partitions. So far as the beer was concerned the range was Timothy Taylor's Landlord, St. Austell Proper Job, plus a “coming soon” beer.  To come across such a pleasant pub tucked away, down a quiet residential backstreet, proved there are still good pubs to be found all over London, provided you know where to look.

Right back to Salisbury, and the first place I want to mention is this photo, displaying the name Gibbs Mew & Co’s Sarum Ales.  Sarum was the old name for Salisbury, and Gibbs Mew were one of approximately 100 family breweries that were still around at the time CAMRA’s foundation. The company didn’t exactly tick all the right boxes, so far as CAMRA were concerned, in fact the campaign’s first national Good Beer Guide, published in 1974 dismisses the brewery and it's beers as “a disaster.” Brewery descriptions were brief and to the point back then, and the reason Gibbs received the thumbs down was because during the 1960’s, the company had converted all its production to keg beer, with not a drop of cask in sight.

Founded in 1750, at Haslemere, in Surrey, as Bridger Gibbs & Son, the company moved to the Anchor Brewery, in Salisbury in 1858, before merging with the neighbouring brewery of Herbet Mew, in 1898, to form Gibbs Mew & Co. In June 1960, they bought the Lancashire Clubs Federation Brewery Ltd to produce keg beer for Northern clubs, and this is probably the origination of their flirtation with keg beer. Three rather indifferent keg bitters, Special PA, Blue Keg, Anchor Keg, plus Super Mild, an old school dark mild, that was also keg, were produced. Then, in 1976, following a complete reversal of policy, a strong and rather sweet barley wine, called Bishops Tipple was introduced into some of their pubs. The following year a range of not very exciting bitters was introduced, which were probably the keg beers in cask form.  

In 1994, Gibbs purchased pub company, Centric Inns, which added an additional 197 pubs to their 121 tied estate, a move that was followed three years later, by the closure of the Salisbury brewery. This seemed a strange move coming, as it did, just a year before their 100th anniversary.  Gibbs Mew became a pub company, and their beers were initially brewed by Ushers of Trowbridge. In 2011, the company with its 310 tied houses was sold to Enterprise Inns.

I initially thought that the building depicted in my photo, was the original frontage of the brewery, especially as the double doors in the middle, leading to the upmarket apartments at the rear, are signed as “The Old Brewery”.  However, after digging a little deeper I discovered this white painted building was the Old Coach House, a Gibbs Mew pub which was also a Berni Inn.  Hands up if you’re old enough to remember Berni Inns, but if you are not, click on the link and all will be revealed.

My research also revealed that Gibbs Anchor Brewery was situated in nearby Gigant Street, but with most of the brewery buildings now demolished, very little remains now of this once thriving enterprise. The company’s beers aren’t exactly missed by today's’ discerning drinkers, but if there ever was a brewery that lost not just its way, but its whole rationale for existing, then Gibbs Mew was it.

Anyway, I trust you enjoyed that little look back in time, but it’s surprising what you can find just be walking through the streets of an unfamiliar town, and we’re not quite finished yet. In my Salisbury re-visited post, I mentioned stopping off for a pint in the city as a 17-year-old schoolboy, whilst on my way by coach, to Cornwall, for a geology field studies course. I said that I had no idea as to the pub my friends and I called in at, but as someone who enjoys a challenge, I think I have found which one it was.

The logical approach was to look for the location of the main coach park in Salisbury, and then look on Google Streetview for the nearest pub. My pals and I wouldn’t have walked too far into the city, for fear of getting lost, so after a bit more searching, I have come up with the George & Dragon, in Castle Street. This 16th Century pub has a garden backing onto the river, low beamed-ceilings, and the right sort of feel one might expect from a historic, period, city-centre public house. It is also just a short walk from Salisbury’s Central Coach Park, at Millstream.

I can’t be 100 percent certain, but the George ticks all the right boxes, and I still have a vague picture, in my mind’s eye, of me, plus a couple of mates, standing at the bar and knocking back a pint of some bitter or other. An old photo found online, shows the pub painted out in Usher’s livery, and as we found out earlier, Ushers took over the brewing of Gibbs Mew beers for a while, following closure of the brewery. So, could the G&D have been a Gibbs’ house, half a century ago? and was it beer from that company that my companions and I were knocking back?


Monday 27 May 2024

Stepping back in time at Salisbury's Haunch of Venison

After leaving the Wig & Quill behind, along with piegate, I should have continued along New Street to check out the New Inn, the Hall & Woodhouse pub that I’d originally intended eating in.  The pub was further along New Street, so it would have made sense to call in their first. What I actually did was to head off in the direction I’d originally come from primarily because I’d spotted a Mountain Warehouse store, leading off from Catherine Street, and I was keen to call in there.

I’ve been looking, so far unsuccessfully, for a light-weight water-proof jacket, and whilst there are plenty of online offers out there at the moment, it makes sense to view the item, and try it on, if possible. It would perhaps, have made sense to double back there after the New Inn, but I wasn’t thinking straight that afternoon, so missed the opportunity. I actually missed visiting Mountain Warehouse as well because I couldn’t find it – too lazy to get my phone out, of course, and check its location on Google!

The long and the short of it was, I ended up back in the city centre, close to Market Square and the historic heart of Salisbury. And there, just a short distance away, was the Haunch of Venison, the oldest pub in the city, dating back to the 14th century. It also possesses an interior that’s in keeping with its historic origins, which beckons to visitors with a magnificent exterior of beams and plaster, and a similar interior of oak panels and yet more beams. With a three-star rating on CAMRA’s register of pubs with interiors of outstanding national, historic, importance, the Haunch is a must-visit destination on any visit to Salisbury, as well as anyone who loves old, and unspoilt pubs.

I stood outside for a while, waiting for the best photo opportunity, feeling slightly bemused at the confrontation unfolding between the driver of a double-deck bus, whose progress was impeded by a carelessly parked delivery vehicle, that was blocking the road. A few choice words were being exchanged, with neither party seemingly aware that the narrow streets in this historic part of the city, were not designed for 21st century traffic. White van man certainly caused quite a jam, inconveniencing bus passengers and local motorists alike, but once he had finished his delivery, and departed in a huff, my view of the pub exterior was uninterrupted and I was free to snap away to my heart’s content, with my phone.

Stepping inside, the Haunch of Venison certainly lived up to my expectations with plenty of oak beams and panelling, a pewter topped bar, and two rows of small brass taps which at one time were used to dispense spirits and fortified wines. 

According to What Pub, there are three small bars inside the pub, known locally as the “Horsebox”, “Death Row” and the “House of Lords”. I’m assuming that the tiny snug bar, at the front of the building and accessed by a door to the right of the main entrance, is the Horsebox.  The cosy, oak-panelled upstairs room, with its own fireplace, that I only discovered when I nipped upstairs to the Gents, must be the Lords. The rather stern portrait in the corner, of Sir Winston Churchill – complete with signature cigar, rather gives the game away! Meaning that Death Row, must be the main bar downstairs.

It was here that I based myself after purchasing a pint of Downton New Forest Ale. The latter is a new brewery for me, and this bronze-coloured 3.8% best bitter certainly hit the spot. I looked the brewery up online, because I knew that Hop Back also brew at Downton, but whilst the two companies are based on the same industrial site, they are not connected.

The bar was looked after by a very pleasant girl, who in between serving customers – there weren’t that many, busied herself clearing tables, and re-stocking various items behind the bar. There was a definite "bohemian" look about her which, if I’m allowed to say, I found quite attractive. I also warmed to her local accent, which had a soft west-country twang to it, without being over-done, like the Wurzels, for example. I noticed quite a few people out and about in the city, with a similar look and I was left with the distinctive impression that Salisbury has an “alternative” feel to it. This is probably not surprising, given the city’s proximity to Stonehenge, although it reminded me of Lewes as well.

When I arrived, the small, snug bar at the front - Horsebox? Was quite full, or as full as it could be. It reminded me of a number of old pubs from my younger days, when my introduction to the world of beer and pubs was just beginning. Following the departure of the group from there, I was almost on my own in the pub, until the arrival of a late, middle-aged couple, one of whom (the bloke), stood out immediately as an Australian. The leather, Indiana Jones hat was a dead giveaway. We soon got chatting, and it turned out the couple were on a five-week holiday in the UK, and had already been to Oxford and Edinburgh, along with the obligatory visit to London.

I wished them a pleasant time for the remainder of their stay in Britain and left them to enjoy their drinks. I was tempted to find another pub, but not before taking a look at Salisbury’s most famous landmark, the magnificent 13th century cathedral, with its crowning glory, the 405 ft high, spire. Set in an area of parkland, on the fringe of the old part of the city, the cathedral understandably attracts thousands of visitors each year.

I made my way back to the High Street, and then continued in a southerly direction, eventually passing through the ancient, and rather narrow, High-Street Gate. This opens up into Chorister’s Square, an area of grassland, flanked by a number of attractive houses, in the shadow of the cathedral itself. As expected, the area was thronged with visitors, and with an entrance fee of £11, I decided not to go inside. Instead, I had a wander through part of the cloisters, their sense of calm contrasting with the bustle of tourists outside.

I walked back along the other side of the square, spotting Arundells, an attractive house, described as one of the finest houses in Salisbury. From 1985, until his death in 2005, the property was the home of former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, although there were no clues as to where “Grocer Heath”, as Private Eye used to call him, acquired the money to purchase and maintain such a property.

Time was getting on by now, so I decided to head back to the station, treating myself to an ice-cream on the way. The train back to Waterloo was relatively busy, although once we reached Overton, most of the boisterous school kids had departed. I stopped off for another pint, once we reached London, and later on, you can read about the smashing pub I found in the quiet back streets, close to Waterloo station.

I really enjoyed Salisbury, finding it both attractive and appealing, which means I will definitely make a return visit to the city, and will take the lad with me as well. If we travel on a Saturday, we can take advantage of the much cheaper, cross-country route, via Redhill and Guildford, without being bound by the time restrictions that prohibit travelling during the peak rush-hour period.




Saturday 25 May 2024

Good beer at the Wyndham, followed by "piegate" at the Wig & Quill

Continuing the account of my recent visit to Salisbury, you left me, in the previous post, at the legendary Wyndham Arms, the original home of the Hop Back brewery. Capacity constraints at the pub led to the brewery relocating to an industrial unit in Downton, just to the south of Salisbury, in 1992. This left the Wyndham Arms free to concentrating on serving Hop Back beers at their best, to beer lovers from both near and far, drawn to this pleasant, back street local, just a short walk from the centre of Salisbury. 

I had planned on a bite to eat at the Wyndham Arms but looking on the pub’s website, I noticed food was not available, so lunch would have to wait. The main entrance door to the pub, located at the corner of the building, led into a small lobby which opened up into the bar area, and it was here in front of the bar, that the pub regulars were gathered. I suppose you expect that in a local, but it did mean I wasn't able to take the photos I would perhaps normally do. My son likes to chastise me for snapping away with my camera phone, especially in the presence of others, so despite the friendliness of the locals I did feel uncomfortable at doing so. It also seems rather geeky at times, so apologies for the lack of interior photos.

Apart from the obvious Summer Lightning, there were several other Hop Back beers on sale, and the one I went for was a pint of GFB. These letters are an acronym for Gilbert's First Brew, John Gilbert being the pioneering brewer who set up Hop Back at the Wyndham Arms, back in 1986. This was after cutting his teeth by running a couple of breweries in southwest London (Battersea and Brixton). GFB is brewed to a sensible strength of just 3.4% abv, and is like a slimmed down, session strength version of Summer Lightning. My well-presented and well-conditioned pint certainly slipped down a treat. Hop Back run eight other pubs, scattered across Wiltshire and Hampshire with the odd outpost further afield (Sultan – Wimbledon, and Archer – Staffordshire). They also have another pub in Salisbury – the Duck Inn. 

I took my pint of GFB, along with a packet of crisps, into the small, cosy snug room, just off the bar. It also enabled me to respond to an email from work, that required my immediate attention – boring! Whilst I was tempted to stay for another beer, I had several other pubs to visit, one of which would also provide my stomach with something more substantial than the bowl of cereal, I’d consumed, several hours previously. However, had Hop Back’s excellent Entire Stout been available, I may well have stayed for a glass of it.

Consequently, I departed the pub, but not before returning my glass to the bar and engaging in a brief chat, with a couple of the regulars. They were keen to know whether I had I enjoyed my stay, and why wasn’t I stopping. I explained I was in Salisbury on a brief visit and had other pubs to visit. They appreciated this and quickly came up with a number of suggestions. One of these was the Haunch of Venison, an obvious choice perhaps, and one already on my list. It’s the oldest pub in Salisbury, and from the descriptions I’d read, one definitely worth visiting.

Upon leaving the Wyndham Arms, I headed off back into the city centre, passing through a park whilst enjoying the pleasant May sunshine. I was making for New Street which runs from east to west, intersecting at one point with Salisbury High Street. There were two pubs in the street that I'd pencilled in as possible candidates for lunch. The first one was a Hall & Woodhouse house, called the New Inn, where the food menu looked particularly good, whilst the was a Wadworth pub, called the Wig & Quill, and the direction I had just walked from brought me to this hostelry, first.

After admiring the attractive exterior of this historic pub that dates back to the 14th Century, and perusing the menu displayed on the wall, outside, I decided to eat there, as one of the choices was “Pie of the Day.” I stepped inside and was surprised to find the place relatively quiet, which seemed odd for a Friday lunchtime. Adorning the bar counter was a bank of hand pumps, dispensing a range of Wadworth beers, but the pump clip for Henry’s IPA had been turned round; a pity as that was the beer I was looking forward to.

You may be surprised to learn that after 50 years chasing around the country, and enjoying beers in many different locations, this visit to the Wig & Quill represented the first time I'd set foot in a Wadworth tied house. I’ve obviously drunk many pints of 6X, over the years, although Wadworth seem to be pushing Horizon in the free-trade these days, at the possible expense of their best-known cask ale. The other beer on tap at the Wig & Quill, was Swordfish, an unusual “Rum infused ale.” I played it safe and went for a pint of 6X, which was full-bodied, malty and whilst not quite on top form, was still very drinkable.

It's worth mentioning briefly, that the pub is divided into three drinking areas, with oak beams aplenty, overhead and a number of open fires to warm customers in the winter. There was no need for these the other Friday and given the fine weather I took my beer outside into the attractive and secluded, walled garden at the rear of the building, but not before placing my food order. I, of course opted for pie of the day, after being told that it was Beef and Guinness. 

It was very pleasant sitting outside, waiting for my food to arrive, and the only other person present was a lady of slightly advanced years, who was enjoying a glass of lager, whilst eating what were obviously her own sandwiches. Perhaps she knew something about the quality of the food that I didn't, although I would soon find that out! It took slightly longer than anticipated for my meal to be served, which was a little surprising given there was only a handful of customers in the pub. When the pie arrived at my table, I was warned that it was very hot, although I took this as a good sign. On closer inspection though, the pastry casing did look quite dark in places, particularly around the crimping, an appearance I would subsequently describe as “well-done, bordering on burnt.”

On cutting through the rather hard pastry, and into the pie, I was surprised to find the meat content dry, stringy and definitely overcooked. The complete absence of any “gravy” within the pie provided further cause for concern. Trying some of the beef inside confirmed it was over-cooked, as the meat was charred at the margins, stringy, in both appearance and texture, and certainly not the tasty, pleasant, and mouthwatering pie I was expecting and looking forward to. I brought this to the attention of a member of staff, who agreed that the pie looked both over-cooked and dried out. He went off to fetch the chef, who in turn came over, took a look at the food on my plate and said that the pie was perhaps drier that it should have been.

He offered me a partial refund, but not the full refund I was expecting, but that turned out to be a problem, because he claimed the pub’s new till system – recently installed by Wadworth’s, was not set up to process refunds. I found this strange, as I had paid by card, but after talking to the lady behind the bar, who had originally served me, the chef offered me a voucher instead. I explained that I was just visiting Salisbury and didn’t live locally.  He seemed rather surprised when I said I had travelled across from Kent that morning, although I'm not sure why, and was unlikely to be returning in the near future.

After chatting to his colleague, I was offered a partial refund, which amounted to a cash payment of £3.75. I had paid £15 for the meal, so I don’t know how that figure was arrived at. I stated at the time that this wasn’t satisfactory, but mine host didn’t seem open to further negotiation. Not wishing to cause a fuss, in front of other customers in the bar, I pocketed the token payment and left the pub, but have since emailed Wadworth expressing my dissatisfaction, particularly at the way my complaint was handled.

I am currently awaiting a reply, and whilst like most Brits I don’t like making a fuss, there comes a time when such action is necessary.  The experience didn’t overshadow what was a most enjoyable visit to Salisbury, although it obviously took the shine off the pub lunch I'd been looking forward to. A look at reviews of the Wig & Quill on Tripadvisor, something I seldom do, revealed the pub to be something of a “Marmite” establishment, as some of the comments were glowing, whilst others seemed to match my own experience.

There’s one more pub to go, along with the cultural bit, and I will, of course, keep people updated about "piegate", as soon as I hear back from the brewery, or even the pub itself.


Tuesday 21 May 2024

Salisbury re-visited

As many of you will probably have gathered, I've been spending some of the free time between my part time job and family commitments along with working on house and garden projects. Every now and then I like to take a trip out somewhere further afield, although the furthest I've managed this year, was a visit to the Black Country. However, if you've read the posts I wrote, you'll know it was one of the best trips so far as classic pubs, good beer and equally good company are concerned, that I've enjoyed for a long time. I've been meaning to travel further north with perhaps a visit to Leeds or even Newcastle, but with a lot going on the home front at the moment, I decided upon somewhere closer to home, and with less travailing involved.

Salisbury fitted the bill nicely, as it's a city I’d been wanting to visit for a long time. Son Matthew had also been keen on a trip there, although the cost of the train fare, put him off somewhat, (unlike me, he doesn't have a rail card.) I too couldn't understand the inflated price of traveling there by train, so I looked at the alternative, cross-country route via Redhill, Guildford, and Woking. It wasn’t quite half price, but still promised a considerable saving by not traveling via London. Our capital city really is a stumbling block when it comes to long distance train travel, as any journeys passing through London, not only tend to be more expensive but also involve the hassle of traveling across the metropolis to another main line terminus.

Unfortunately, the first available ticket on the cross-country route, where my railcard was valid, meant not reaching Salisbury until after 1pm - an arrival time not particularly conducive to exploring the city. So, despite the additional cost, I chose the London route, and after hopping on the 09:37 train from Tonbridge, there was a possibility of connecting with 10:20 train from Waterloo. It was going to be tight, but the train halting for a few minutes at a red signal, just outside Hither Green station, was sufficient to throw that idea out the window. With hindsight it would have been tight anyway, because despite walking at a fast pace, it still took 5 minutes to walk from Waterloo East to the mainline station. Once there, I was then faced with a choice of 24 platforms, along with hordes of people milling around all over the concourse.  Consequently the 10:20 train was unfortunately beyond me.

No matter, I boarded the 10:50 South West Trains service to Salisbury and settled down to enjoy the journey. Trains on this line are diesel operated, as the electrified lines end at Basingstoke. Back in the 1930s the Southern Railway embarked on an ambitious programme to eventually electrify all their lines, and certainly the mainline ones, but the intervention of the Second World War, the austerity that followed, the nationalisation and then privatisation of the railways, meant some of this work never happened. None of this affected my journey, even though diesel powered trains are rather noisier than their electric counterparts, but I thought I'd throw in that little snippet of information for your entertainment.

As the train gathered speed on its journey through south London suburbia and into the pleasant countryside of Surrey and Hampshire, I was reminded that this would be my first visit to Salisbury since stopping there as a 17-year-old schoolboy on route to Cornwall. I was with a party of fellow sixth form geography/geology students traveling to St Austell for a field studies course. With much of the UK’s motorway network still to be built, our charted coach followed a south-westerly cross-country route, making a welcome stop in Salisbury.

This gave the driver a break, and afforded teachers and pupils the chance to stretch their legs. A small group of us decided to stretch our legs in the direction of the nearest pub, which deep-down I knew would be a mistake. There was nothing wrong with the pub or the beer, but traveling the next stage of the journey, whilst nursing a full bladder, wasn’t exactly a bundle of fun! However, when you're young, buoyed up by the camaraderie of your schoolmates, and looking forward to the prospect of a week away from home, stopping for a pint seemed the most natural thing in the world.

That was 50 or so years ago, and I've no idea of which pub we stopped in, or what beer it sold - I didn't take an awful lot of notice about such things in those days, but it wasn't far from the coach stop, and I vaguely remember walking through some picturesque narrow streets to get back to the coach. Now, half a century on from that brief stop in Salisbury, I watched through the carriage window with a growing sense of excitement as the train pulled into the station. That was the end of the line, as far as that service was concerned, although some trains continue on to Exeter St Davids. Apparently, the line between Salisbury and Exeter is mainly single track, with passing loops of course. That's a hard fact to fathom for a mainline, and probably an unwanted hangover from years of penny pinching by British Rail and substantial under investment by successive governments.

As the train disgorged its passengers onto the platform, and out of the station, I made my way into centre of Salisbury using a map I’d downloaded and printed off. I attempted to locate the Tourist Information Centre but despite a number of signposts pointing the way, I still managed to miss it. For some reason my family take the mickey out of me because I invariably head to the nearest TIC, whenever I’m in an unfamiliar town, but the family forget they are an invaluable source of local information, as well as a decent, and normally free, street map.

I had a brief look around, primarily to get my bearings, but I did see the historic Guildhall, along with several other historic places of interest. I of course planned to visit the city’s majestic cathedral, with its 404-foot-high spire, but the cultural side could wait until later, as first I had a number of pubs to visit.  The first hostelry on the list, was also the one that was furthest away, but it’s all relative, and the Wyndham Arms was only 15 minutes’ walk away. This legendary pub is the original home of the equally legendary Hop Back Brewery, which in 1987 commenced brewing a distinctive range of pale, hoppy beers, including the award-winning Summer Lightning. The latter was one of the first pale coloured, golden bitters to entice and excite the taste buds of local drinkers, and the beer continues to be brewed to this day.

It didn’t take me long to find the pub, and it was one that I recognised because back in the mid-90’s, whilst on the drive home from a holiday in Dorset, the Bailey family drove past the Wyndham Arms, with me at the wheel, and wife, small child, family dog plus a car full of luggage. We’d driven up from our rented cottage, just outside Blandford Forum, and were taking the A36 ring road around Salisbury, as we headed north towards the A303. I don’t think that a drive past counts as a visit, although if it does that brief encounter with the city, represented my second visit to Salisbury.

I was sorely tempted to stop, on that occasion, although as I noticed the other day, it’s not that easy, due to railings separating the Victorian streets from the parallel A36 ring road (Churchill way). Mrs PBT’s wouldn’t have been that impressed either, what with a small boy and boisterous dog in tow, but some 30 years after that sighting of the Wyndham Arms, I was physically able to set foot in the place. We’ll leave the narrative here, for the time being, and continue with the second part, in a few days’ time.


Sunday 19 May 2024

Cask - the real story of Britain's unique beer culture, by Des de Moor

Earlier in the week I finally finished reading Cask - the story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture. Researched and written by top beer writer Des de Moor, and published by CAMRA Books – hardly surprising, given its subject matter, Des’s book sets out to be the definitive work on the complex subject that is cask conditioned ale. Along the way the author takes a look at the ingredients and brewing processes that go into the beer which CAMRA likes to describe as, the “pinnacle of the Brewers art,” along with the cellar practices associated with looking after it. That latter statement is rather a bold one for CAMRA to be making but given that cask ale is the raison d'être for the campaign’s very existence, and the group’s undoubted success over the last half century, in saving this uniquely British type of beer, it's understandable that they should do so.

Before going any further, I must confess that I’m not the best book reviewer in the world, because I lack the dedication and highly organised mind necessary to complete the task, and even if this wasn’t the case, it’s difficult to remain completely objective especially given such a complex subject as cask. These days, I rarely read reviews prior to getting stuck into the main body of the book, and whilst this particularly applies to novels and other fictional works, it also holds true with a publication such as this. With hindsight, I did read two reviews of “Cask,” but in mitigation they were both written by bloggers who I happen to know, and whose views, by and large, I respect. So, for two thoughtful and unbiased write-ups of Des’s book, please see the links here to Tandleman and Ed Wray, both of whom seemed to get to the crux of the matter  about what the author is trying to say.

On a baking hot August day, in the late summer of 2022, I joined a tour of Hukins Hops, at their Haffenden Farm home, near Tenterden. The event was organised by Dom Bowcutt from UK Brewery Tours, who not arranged the visit but also and acted as our guide. There were several people I knew on that tour, including writer Bryan Betts, who sadly passed away at the beginning of February this year. Also present were two other writers whom I had only met on a couple of previous occasions. One was David Jesudason, author of the award-winning "Desi Pubs" and the other was Des de Moor. The latter’s 2012 CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars, whilst a little out of date now, certainly opened many people’s eyes to the diverse and vibrant beer scene that had grown up in the capital, so CAMRA’s decision to commission Des to write the definitive book on Cask, came as no surprise.

Extending the name-dropping theme a bit further, I’d met Des previously at a Beer Writers Guild event a few summer’s previously, so after he explained to the rest of our small group, that he’d come along to Hukins Hops, as part of research for his forthcoming book on Cask, everything clicked into place. “Nice work, if you can get it,” I thought but after reading the book for myself, I realised that Des must have spent countless hours, days and weeks gathering research material, on the subject, as well as tracking down the right people to speak to, and interview. Perhaps, not such nice work, after all?

A year later, and just in time for the all-important Christmas book market, Des’ magnum opus hit the bookshops and on-line retailers. Now, after treating myself to a copy, and then spending much longer reading it than I’d originally intended, I have to say that this meticulously researched, and well written publication is a real labour of love. It’s almost certainly the definitive book on cask conditioned beer, or "real ale" as CAMRA still like to call it, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to read, and from a casual readers point of view, the book is far too long.

In fact, even a confirmed beer geek like me found it hard going at times, especially as it makes the same mistake that virtually all authors who write about beer make, which is to go right back to basics, when there really is no need to. I've read countless books on beer, each taking an in depth look at the ingredients that go into producing glass of beer and the brewing process behind it. Consequently, I could tell you everything you need to know about malted barley, hops, and pure water for brewing. I could go further by describing in some detail the various stages of mashing, boiling, cooling, fermentation, racking, maturation, clarification and finally drinking. The last thing I needed to read then, was yet another in depth review of brewing.

What I did need to read was what goes on in the pub cellar, once the beer has been delivered from the brewery. I knew quite a lot of this, of course, having run my own off-licence selling cask beer, by the pint, for customers to take away and drink at home, and it is here that Des’s book comes into its own. It is also here that many of the problems associated with keeping cask ale are laid bare, and the means by which they are overcome, are laid out in full. The main problem, and the one which refuses to go away, is that of spoilage, because once broached a cask should ideally only be on service for three days, although with some care that can be extended by a further day or so.

The fact that it took me such a long time to read the book, meant there were topics and areas that I'd forgotten about, and yet somehow Des manages to not only cover them in detail, but weaves them into the main thread of the narrative. Despite all this there is one area that where no satisfactory explanation is put forward, and this is why did the rest of the beer drinking world ditch cask conditioning and opt for filtration to clear their beers and CO2 gas to dispense them? That’s if cask conditioning was that common in the rest of the world, in the first place. Pasteurisation is often involved as well, and again this process is incompatible with cask conditioning.

These issues aside Cask is still a very knowledgeable, interesting, and entertaining read, that is so packed with facts, comparisons, and derivative ideas, that it's hard to single out a single section that sums up the intriguing history of this complex beer. You’ll understand then if I won't even attempt to produce a synopsis of the book. I could recommend you buy a copy, regardless of however long it does take to read, adding if you only ever read one book on British beer, then this is it.

The proviso to this, is only do so if you’re a dedicated "beer geek" not just because, as stated earlier, Des’s book is hard going at times, but more so for the simple truth that, despite what the author claims, Cask is a dedicated piece of work for the real beer enthusiast, rather than the casual reader. I say this, without wishing to come across as elitist, or as a "beer snob", but this book really is a serious publication and whilst those wishing to learn more about what Des describes as "Britain’s greatest gift to the world of beer," will undoubtedly do so, they might have to pick their way through lots of peripheral stuff, in order to do so.

Finally, a couple of points to conclude this review. This book is well illustrated throughout, as we have come to expect from CAMRA Books, so there are plenty of photos, reproductions of old drawings and prints, alongside various tables and diagrams. These illustrations are both timely and relevant, and help break up the text

The other point goes back to the name dropping theme, towards the beginning of the post, and involves yours truly. In the chapter on cellaring & dispense, Des refers to my blog, and a post I wrote, back in 2013, where I quoted from a 1966 book on Kent Pubs, in my possession. The licensee, of a long-closed Kentish pub, told the book's author, "That the secret of keeping beer and ale,is to order it in advance, so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it." You can read that post, here.