Book Review: 20th Century Pub by Boak and Bailey (Part 2)

This is a difficult review to write. Even if it is only part two so therefore half a review. I don’t like to come across as all fawning… but I have a hard time finding anything other to write other than I think this is the best book about beer I have ever read. See what I mean? How dull is that? Think of Jesus in Paradise Lost. That dull. How can I illustrate this problem in such a way that is actually helpful to you, that bit of the reading public who stops by here from time to time? Let’s see.

First, voice. One of the most interesting things about this book is how at quite specific points – but only at quite specific points – the writers breach what in TV is called the fourth wall. In sitcoms and crime dramas, we all assume, unconsciously sitting in our rec rooms on our sofas, that we are a camera, in a room with the actors and that the view of the lens is the view of the person viewing at home but somehow also in the room. Or when we read a book we forget we are interacting with an author and get lost in the suspension of the disbelief that one hope a good book offers as we are brought along by the storyteller’s pace. As is fully the case with this book – except when the authors interject themselves into the commentary about either the subject matter or the process of writing at certain points. It is deftly managed. Interspersed amongst long passages of excellently research and absorbingly described history. The authors are not there in view until they are and only when it is helpful.*

Second, structure. One of the most appealing things about this book is now it is not derivative. Beer books too often take the structure of other beer books** and maybe event a large part of its content and replicates it with a supposed update in terms of geography or the passage of, say, 18 months since the publication of a book roughly on the same topic. How many intro style manuals, food and beer pairing texts or geographical guides have come out? How many more will? Many.*** But structured histories leading through an important period? Few. THEN, add into the fact that it leads up to and creates the theoretical foundation for understanding many of the drinking establishments you have ever visited – more likely the case in the UK but not at all dislocated from the modern North American experience given how this micro brewing era began in the late 70s and early 80s in large part as an homage to UK brewing traditions. This gets a bit shocking as you realize you are reading whole chapters organized around disassembling elements of social patterns you just accepted were there. Consider just the chapter on gastropubs. It’s good enough on its own to be something you might read in that magazine that accompanies the Sunday edition of The New York Times. It also explains the milk paint in certain pubs and craft beer bars, where all the out of pattern plates and dishes came from and why a pile of salad is next to your shepherd’s pie – or more likely not shepherd’s pie but something a bit nicer. I actually looked up when I was done the chapter and thought to myself “what a good chapter” which is about as high a level of praise as I give out, chapterwise.****

Third, detailed research. Using primary sources contemporary to events! Footnotes. We get so numbed by fictive influencers, promoting pundits and the otherwise compromised that original research comes as a surprise. But there it is. Especially heartening is the presence of original transcriptions or newspaper interview of people who are – wait for it – still alive. Which means the authors have consciously made the determination that records contemporary with an occurrence are to be preferred to the recollection of the occurrence many years later. They got themselves into public libraries and perhaps even private business records. This is something which the entire history of craft beer in North America does not seem to have come to grips with yet. While oral history projects are certainly valuable, have we an effort out there to archive original records related to US craft in the 1980s? At the moment I am more confident that we could create a documented understanding of the state of American brewing in the 1880s. Not so now with the 20th century English pub.

Fourth, envy. This book is extremely appealing in its simple presentation of a well researched topic pushed along by a compelling narrative. Having co-written books myself, I was even thinking of how I might allocate bits to being more Boak than Bailey but gave up almost immediately. I have to be honest with myself. I have hacked away at this writing stuff for years. In relation to just beer about 26.6% of my life. I like to think what I have written is useful and entertainingly stated***** but, holy moly, is this stuff both strong and subtly put. As I recall, there is no more than two pages on how US black servicemen were received in English pubs during WW2 but it is so well placed and quietly left that you can’t help but contemplate the implications. Conversely, the massive and loud noise that was imposed on the UK market by the creation and expansion of that which is J.D. Wetherspoons is presented in great detail but without any bluster. Another well controlled, satisfying chapter.

So, there you have it. I have little more to add. A very solid bit of work.  I told you it was good. And it is. Get it.

*There. That’s not too fawning. I think I am off on the right track. This book is not just a patched together bunch of blog posts. It’s a book.
**They themselves first nicked from wine.
***Yes, we know that it is all publishers want but really.
****Fine, yes… fawning. Fine. Still true.
*****Especially this stuff about beer and brewing from the 1600s which I am not sure you are all appreciating as much as you should.

The Two Year Dead “Craft” Is Still Dead And Might Be Expecting Company

This graph… err… table to the left right was posted on the internets today by Jeff Alworth. It is tied by him to the piece in GBH by Bryan Roth about the meaning of IPA – which has the wonderful and likely most accurate thing about IPA or even craft I have read: “IPAs are what people want from me, you kind of have to give them what they want…” Jeff posted a piece himself on the now stone cold demise of of “craft” – an event I sent my funeral wreath and condolences in relation to over two and half years ago. Oliver Grey wanted it put out of its misery even further back.

The main point to focus on today, however, is not the disutility of the terms but the disutilty of the graph. It goes to a notion of abstraction and levels of abstraction. The graph offers a fabulous illustration of the failure to align levels of abstraction. You will see, yippee, that IPA wins in the race to top the craft beer style race.  The problem is not whether this is correct or not as we all know people who know nothing about craft beer who ask for an IPA. It’s the chardonnay of white wine circa 1999 in that respect. Code for (i) something that the drinker will like (ii) that the bartender will understand (iii) because the bar likely stocks it. Because “…you kind of have to give them what they want…”

The problem is that IPA is an umbrella term, even if a useful one. Consider the other terms in the list. “Craft Scottish,” “craft porter,” “craft dark beer” and even “craft amber” might for the average person reasonably all fit into “craft brown beer” as an umbrella term. “Craft IPA” on the other hand is known to include unspecified styles like IPA itself, DIPA, TIPA, BIPA, WIPA and any number of other Franken-styles designed primarily to ram the three letters “I” and “P” and “A” onto the label to ensure that the code speaking person in the bar orders one thus making the sale. Does this mean IPAs are not the most popular category? No. Does it mean I always know what I will get in the glass when I order one? The answer, compared to say pilsner, is also no.

As the ripples on the lake into which “craft” was flung a few years ago spread out to their limit and fade, we should be aware of how its fate was tied to it becoming an abstract concept prone to influence, interest and malleability. For me, IPA is half way down that same slippery slope.* I look for other words to guide me beyond the relative hop intensity flag that it waves. As has happened over and over, hop intensity itself fades as either or both an offering or a preference. You see it starting in the fruity murk that I have been, frankly, fooled a few times into ordering. As in the past, what is an IPA might be now or in the future be quite forgotten for the very reason that graph unintentionally demonstrates.

*…because, see, before badly used words are flung into the lake they slide down a slippery slope. Presumably there is a ramp involved near shoreline.

Book Review: 20th Century Pub by Boak and Bailey (Part 1)

It should be no secret that I have looked forward to the publication of 20th Century Pub by Boak and Bailey ever since the project was hinted at on their blog. The feeling reminded me of the release some years ago of Pete Brown’s Hops And Glory which I reviewed over four blog posts in 2009. What I think I find most similar between my expectations for these two books is the anticipation of work by authors who have proven themselves to be creative and committed in their previous books. I am only half way through 20th Century Pub but it has already exceeded even these expectations – so much so that I want to jump queue to tell you about their methodology and why I think you should just to email them and buy this excellent bit of work.

This book reminds me a bit more of their neither long nor short work, 2014’s Gambrinus Waltz: German Lager Beer in Victorian and Edwardian London than their perhaps more well known first book, later that same year’s Brew Britannia. I say that because the historical narrative is driven a bit more by the greater context of society than just the players involved. One of the odd things about the history of micro brewing and later craft beer is how personality drives the discussion. That is fine for early days when there were a few people (although sometimes not necessarily the same few people, the successful survivors, who self-identify) who were the actual pioneers. And, to be fair to those involved, the early days of craft appear to not have generated as many records considered worth retaining as we keeners today might have wished.* However, while it is fun to learn about these people and (as sometimes occurs) associated vicariously with them, it is far more interesting to understand how brewing and beer and pubs and taverns actual existed and exist in the greater context of society based on records which were created contemporaneously. For larger events it is best to seek out authority elsewhere.

Thankfully, their tale of micro brewing and craft’s origins in the UK, Brew Britannia, did just that and relies on primary documents from the time in addition to interviews of persons involved looking back from three decades later.  This book repeats that process and explores the subject matter from the wider range of sources. This is detailed and time consuming work – and the work undertaken shows in the result set out on these pages. An example. I have just read the chapter on 1950s estate pubs. To understand what an estate pub is you need to understand estates and to understand estates you need to understand British municipal planning principles of the first two-thirds of the 1900s.

I am somewhat familiar with this. I am a municipal lawyer. And some of you may have picked up that I am a dual national, Canadian and British. Many of my UK family when I was young lived in what we here in Canada would call “public housing” but in the UK the word for much of it was “estate” and they look at lot like what we might consider a condensed post-WWII subdivision when it wasn’t a low rise apartment building. My grannie, aka Bailee M’Leod aka Dad’s mother, as a municipal Labour politician was actually involved actively in the 1930s to 1950s in destroying slum neighbourhoods of the 1840s and building these sorts of forms of public housing. These events fed my bedtime stories, tales of the old country when they were not about Nazi bombings of the Clyde.**

Knowing that bit of the background, I am able to trust the point being made. Placing the particular point in its context is one of the great successes of this book. Boak and Bailey weave the the meaning of estate as they explain the estate pub, a somewhat sterile slightly spare Scandinavian set up that were allocated strategically through these new living spaces by municipal planning processes. Likewise, earlier in the book they contextualize the end of the Victorian gin palace and how it was responded to by the State Management Scheme of pubs introduced after WWI without the too common uninformed slag upon slag over the temperance movement. Judging from a seat in the future is one of the worst faults of a historian. Almost as bad as disobeying chronology. The authors here simple gather up sources and then unpack the narrative. Fabulous stuff. And not that simple at all.

I am taking my time, reading slowing. I am in the chapter on theme pubs, which related to the photo at the top of the page. In 2012, I wrote about the politician’s mother, my paternal great-grannie who goes by “Grannie Campbell” in our family. She loved drink and pubs and apparently she most loved the Suez Canal pub in Largs,*** which was coincidentally my mother’s hometown. The image I am guessing is from the 1940s and the bartender was former world boxing champ, Jackie Paterson. Given the book is about English pubs and not British ones, my submission of the photo did not make the cut. Saddened I was but then heartened by the rigor being imposed by the authors.

Buy this book.

*Somewhere I have an email discussion with Stan about the lack of records even from the early GABF days. Can’t find it. Probably deleted it.
**Including the story of the cousin who claimed Hitler saved his life when the air raid sirens woke his family up, got them running to the shelter only to witness the building explode before the bombs started dropping. Apparently someone had left the gas on.
***I only have one quibble with the book so far in fact – a Largs based quibble. B+B claim that the first espresso machine came to Britain in 1951. Being a child of a child of Largs I am well acquainted withe Nardini’s which opened in 1935. Uncle grew up as pals with Aldo. His Dad had a famous run in with one of the owners over an invoice for pebble dash. Italian ice cream parlours and cafe’s were an established thing even in 1935. Pretty sure they would have had espresso from day one given it also had an American soda bar and an electric dish washing machine.