Just saw the news that the legendary Harry Belafonte has died. He was the subject of one of my favourite stories I was told while researching my last book. It’s fucking hilarious. It also reveals the extent to which he was a progressive activist as well as a gifted singer. I shall be eternally in Ian Clayton’s debt after he shared with me not only the story, but also the means of verifying it.
American singer Harry Belafonte wrote to Arthur Scargill to say that he was coming to England and would like to meet up. Arthur invited Harry and his wife to come and stay with him and Ann Scargill. Before he arrived, Arthur went to the Swaithe Working Men’s Club in Monkspring, near Barnsley, to ask if the Concert Secretary would like to have Harry Belafonte sing a few songs. The Concert Secretary thought for a bit and said, “Ooh! I’m not sure about that Arthur. I’ve got plenty of top turns booked up well in advance. I can’t just make exceptions at the drop of a hat. Arrabella who, did tha say?”
There’s only one question in my mind the first time Ian Clayton tells me this story. I think you can guess what it is. How the hell did Harry Belafonte know Arthur Scargill, and why did he want to come and stay with him?
“The Scargills were guests of Fidel Castro at the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Cuba in 1978, explains Ian. “While they were there Arthur sat with the dignitaries; Joshua Nkomo, Yasser Arafat, who was carrying a silver pistol, and Harry Belafonte, who was there as some sort of cultural ambassador. Ann went swimming with Belafonte and his wife every morning. Arthur tells a brilliant story about how at the closing ceremony they were all sat close together on a podium. He leaned over to Belafonte and said ‘It’s to be hoped if any snipers are thinking of having a pot at Fidel today, that they’re a good shot!’”
The paperback of Clubland is published on 8th June.
Hoxton Mini-Press collects beautiful old photos thematically. I was delighted to be asked to write the intro for a gorgeous new collection on London Pubs, published today.
What’s better than reading about pubs? Looking at gorgeous, evocative photos of pubs (while also reading about them.)
Hoxton Mini Press is an independent publisher based in East London. They make collectable photography books, based mainly, but not exclusively, on the people and geography of East London. I find they make phenomenal last-minute Christmas presents for people you want to impress.
From their website:
“In an age when everything is virtual, the book as an object is more important than ever. But all too often big art books are aloof and expensive. We want to make books that both the collector and the non- specialist can enjoy – and that everyone can afford.”
This new book is a collection of photographs of pubs from about 1910 to some time in the early 1970s. I was delighted when they asked me to write the introduction – about 1200 words commenting on the importance of pubs in London life – and some of the captions. Here’s an extract from the intro:
“London has always been a diverse city brimming with strong characters. It breeds people with a thirst for life, and acts as a magnet for thirsty people born elsewhere. Throughout the twentieth century, they made the city’s pubs blaze with light and life.
“Everyone is here: Pearly Kings and Queens revelling in the spontaneous subculture they have created; sailors home on leave; courting couples stealing kisses over tables full of empty glasses; sharp-suited men from the Caribbean introducing their music and dance moves to their new neighbours; old ladies holding court, staring down the myth that pubs were male-only spaces. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards prop up the bar like two blokes at the end of a hard day at the office. Suzi Quatro takes time out from being the Queen of Rock and Roll to play a game of snooker. Teddy Boys hog the juke box while men old enough to remember the Boer War play pool. Meanwhile, dogs wait stoically at the bar, and children hover somewhat less patiently just outside the door. “
Like one of those aged celebrities who hits the news on their birthday when you thought they’d died a long time ago, the working men’s club may be frail and half-forgotten, but we need it now as much as we ever did.
Today, the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (CIU) celebrates its 160th anniversary. Or rather, it should be doing. There’s a statement on the CIU website, a piece in their member’s magazine The Journal, and that’s about it. As far as I can tell, there’s no coverage at all in mainstream media. You can’t really blame them though – the CIU has no press office or bespoke media contact, and only seems interested in talking to its dwindling band of member clubs. It probably never occurred to anyone to issue a press release to celebrate the occasion.
Should we be bothered?
It’s twenty years now since clubs troubled mainstream media. Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights ran for two series from 2001 to 2003, and has remained the reference point for any scattered mentions working men’s clubs have had I local newspapers since then. Kay brought his trademark mix of fondness and ridicule to clubland, and while there was some genuine warmth there, the humour derived from working men’s clubs being presented as an anachronism in the newly-minted 21st century.
This cheesy public image of the club is rooted in the 1970s, because that’s when clubland provided a significant chunk of the talent on TV and in the charts. More than one in ten British adults was a member of at least one club. When trends in entertainment and culture changed, the club disappeared from public view. Like someone you last saw as a kid ten or twenty years ago, in the public imagination, they still look like that.
But this was never a complete picture of what clubs did.
On 14th June 1862, Unitarian Minister Henry Solly convened a meeting which founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. At the time, philanthropists and reformers of all stripes were desperately trying to ‘improve’ the working man – some out of genuine concern for his plight, others because millions of men were about to get the vote for the first time and therefore needed to be ‘civilised,’ so they voted for the ‘right’ people. (This is a big part of why women were initially excluded from membership. Those who worked in service were already being ‘civilised’ by being exposed to their social superiors, and anyway, the vote for women was still decades away, so they mattered less in the thinking of reformers.)
Solly recognised that if he wanted to attract working-class men after a gruelling, monotonous, ten- or twelve-hour shift, they needed a place where they could relax as well as being lectured to. A club, rather than an austere institute, was his model. In the long run, he wanted these men to be able to run there clubs themselves. So the Union was an umbrella organisation that helped clubs set up and thrive. It created model rules and articles of association. It introduced a pass card, meaning a member of one club could drink in any other club in the Union. If one club fell foul of, say, licensing laws or contract law, the Union represented them, and shared any new learnings with all member clubs.
When – against Solly’s wishes – the clubs started selling beer, profits were invested back into clubs, improving their facilities, adding billiards rooms, concert halls, and much more.
Pints and empowerment
By the 1890s, clubs were being run by working men as well as for them. Middle-class patrons who believed that, without their enlightened input, the clubs would just descend into drinking dens were proved wrong. Working men did want a chance to improve themselves. But they wanted to do so on their own terms rather than those of people who thought they knew better.
Working men’s clubs gave uneducated working class men another chance to do something more than the jobs they had been prepared for. Those who joined the committees that ran clubs got a taste for politics and public service, with thousands going on to become local councillors, magistrates and MPs. Concerts allowed people to sing, dance, tell jokes, or design and build scenery and props.
As the money flowed in, the clubs widened their vision. They provided services such as baths and showers for people living in slums with no bathrooms, summer seaside trips for kids, scholarships for members who had had no choice other than to leave school at 12 or 14, welfare schemes for those who couldn’t work due to accident or illness, and convalescent homes when members could no longer live by themselves. Working men’s clubs provided a welfare state for those who needed it decades before the real thing came into being.
Writing about the CIU in 1987, George Tremlett remarked that most of these services were no longer needed, now the actual welfare state provided them. 35 years later, with 14 million people in the UK living in poverty, that’s no longer the case.
Join the club
After more than a decade of austerity, community assets are disappearing across the board. Libraries, youth clubs and community centres are all closing. So are many working men’s clubs. Those that remain open are often anonymous – you wouldn’t know they there there if you weren’t already a member.
Inside anonymous-looking buildings like this all across the country are bars, concert rooms and meeting rooms that would be perfect for coffee mornings, jumble sales, record fairs, dance classes, yogas classes, mother and toddler groups, slimming meetings, youth clubs, book events, WI meetings, band practices and such more. On a more prosaic level, as the price of a pint soars, they’re good places to get cheap drinks without giving your money to Tim fucking Martin. Yet for much of the week, they stand empty. The community often has no idea they’re there. And the committees who run these places – often now well into their seventies – have no idea how to market themselves. The CIU should be helping them, but it’s just as clueless about the modern world as they are. No one in the organisation seems aware that communities today live online.
Working men’s clubs could once again be vital and multi-faceted community assets. They have now mostly dealt with the problems of sexism that once blighted them – most successful clubs have women on their committees these days. Many are rebranding as social clubs. But not enough have benefitted from the injection of energy that younger people bring.
A significant anniversary such as your 160th is the perfect time to raise awareness of clubs, the roles they once played and could play again. Sadly, no one seems to be making that case.
This is a big reason why I wrote Clubland, and why we published it last week. The final chapter outlines what both the CIU and individual clubs could be doing to thrive once more. There’s a lot of humour in the book, but this is one of the serious bits. If you have a fondness for clubs, see if there’s one local to you and see if you can join. They need you – whether they know it or not – and we need them.
Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, is published by Harper North as a hardback, kindle and audiobook (which I read myself!) It’s available for pre-order at Amazon or, if you prefer buying from an independent bookshop, bookshop.org.
Can I have order all around the room? Thank you, please. The book I’ve been wanting to write for eighteen years is finally here.
What does the phrase ‘working men’s club’ evoke for you?
Anything at all?
If you’re under fifty, I’m guessing the first place it will take you is Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Looking back at that series twenty years later, it’s obvious there’s a deep fondness for clubs at its heart, but even back then, some of its humour came from the fact that clubs seemed anachronistic in the 21st century, a humorous throwback to a previous age that had outlived its relevance.
If you’re a bit older, you might remember the Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club. Shot in 1974, when clubland was at its peak, it’s already taking the piss (Colin Crompton, who plays the clubs concert secretary, was later overheard describing club-goers as ‘peasants.’)
It is – obviously – very easy to laugh at working men’s clubs. They’re old-fashioned and northern (except that’s not quite accurate), and that’s enough. Dig a little deeper, and they are also weighed down by accusations of sexism (the clue is in the name) and racism (subtly poking its head into the programme below at least once).
Next Tuesday, 14th June, marks the 160th anniversary of the Club & Institute Union, an umbrella organisation that was founded to help clubs work together to support each other and thrive. The clubs themselves were designed to provide working-class men with an alternative to the pub or music hall, where they come could come together and relax without being pressured into drinking to excess – something which temperance campaigners at the time saw as the cause for men stumbling home and beating their wives and families (the welfare of women has always been at the heart of the working men’s club movement in one way or another – which is not to excuse the inarguable sexism that did colour much of its history.)
I first became aware of this broader, deeper history of clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub, my first book. Clubs obviously exist as an alternative, a rival to pubs, and some establishments blur between the two. But I soon realised that clubs were much more than, as George Orwell described them in The Road to Wigan Pier, “glorified cooperative pubs.” Owned and run by their members, there was no need for them to make a commercial profit. Beer could be sold more cheaply than pubs, which meant they were busy, and still made money.
That money was invested back into the clubs, building concert rooms, snooker and billiards rooms, and then, as their scale and ambition grew, services such as baths and showers for people living in slums with no bathrooms, summer seaside trips for kids, scholarships for members who had had no choice other than to leave school at 12 or 14, welfare schemes for those who couldn’t work due to accident or illness, and convalescent homes when members could no longer live by themselves. Working men’s clubs provided a welfare state for those who needed it decades before the real thing came into being. As the welfare state is dismantled, there’s an argument that clubs are needed once again.
Later, as those concert halls grew and club members got a bit more money in their pockets, the biggest stars of stage and screen were brought to the doorsteps of miners and steel-workers. When clubs weren’t booking major celebrities, they were creating their own – from the 1960s to the 1980s, pretty much any comedian, gameshow host or presenter on TV had come up through the clubs. Singers and musicians from Very Lynn and Tom Jones to The Jam and The Fall all played their clubland dues.
The important role that working men’s clubs played in shaping 19th- and 20th-century culture and society has been erased from history books – there’s just one other book in print on the subject apart from this one. Clubs are ignored in any history of working class leisure or British light entertainment. This project was a working of thrilling discovery, stretching way deeper and broader than I ever thought when I started it.
In the book, I speak to snooker legend Steve Davis, who credits clubs not only with the start of his career, but the survival of the entire sport. I talk to Les Dennis and Bernie Clifton, who went from club stages to being household names, and to the campaigners who fought for equality for women in the club movement and eventually won it – decades later than you might expect.
So, please buy my new book. It overlaps with writing about beer and pubs but covers so much more. It’s political, social and cultural, and at times, deeply personal too. In writing it, I think I finally resolved my conflicted feelings around being born into a traditional working class community and deciding to leave it as soon as I could – a decision that, it turns out, was shaped significantly by my own interactions with working men’s clubs.
Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, is published on Thursday, 9th June by Harper North as a hardback, kindle and audiobook (which I read myself!) It’s available for pre-order at Amazon or, if you prefer buying from an independent bookshop, bookshop.org.
I’ll be hosting an online launch party for the book tomorrow, Wednesday 8th June, via Zoom. Tickets are free but places are limited – book yours here.
Advance praise for Clubland:
‘Pete Brown is a brilliant master of ceremonies as he brings the history of these fine institutions to life and demonstrates their importance in working class communities across the country.’ Alan Johnson, author of This Boy
‘A compelling mixture of social history, vivid reportage and candid autobiography, Clubland makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of Britain in the last century and a half.’ David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain
‘Leave any flat-capped clichés at the door: Brown offers an earnest exploration of this crucially formative area of British social history.’ John Warland, author of Liquid History
‘Pete Brown writes poetically and with great authority on a slice of culture that has been ignored or derided for many years. He illuminates these arts centres, debating halls and palaces of carefree delight with love and care.’ Ian McMillan, author of Neither Nowt Nor Summat
‘At last the working men’s club gets its turn in the cultural spotlight. Pete Brown has written an important history and a heartfelt tribute to the friendship, organisation, humour and community to be found in these remarkable institutions.’ Ian Clayton, author of It’s The Beer Talking: Adventures in Public Houses
Sixteen years ago I developed an idea for a social history of the Working Men’s Club movement. Last year, a publisher finally bought it. Here’s why I have an eternal fascination with an overlooked aspect of British social history.
One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed.
I know the memory is genuine because it’s disjointed; a sequence of random impressions that only make sense in retrospect, now I understand things I didn’t at the time.
It was Christmas, and in a community like Barnsley, you don’t do Christmas by halves. Every wall, every inch of ceiling, was covered by hanging decorations made from shining metallic paper. Tinsel adorned every corner and ledge. And behind it, the brass bar tops and beer fonts gleamed a fiery, welcoming glow. Perhaps it was fairy lights, possibly candles, but everywhere there was light, and the surfaces in the pub caught this light, refracted and amplified it, until it seemed that the very air shone. I had no understanding of alcohol, no concept of why we were here, but it was a magical place.
And this wonderland transformed the people within it. Faces that were normally grey and drawn were now shiny and red, adding to the colour. They looked each other in the eye as they laughed. They were ostentatious in their generosity. The women were gorgeous, all long frocks, dangly earrings and blue eye shadow, and the men were open and expansive, generous and warm, somehow thawed out in the midst of the winter chill.
For a long time, I used to associate this memory with the pub. But my parents hardly ever went to the pub. My dad, when he drank at all, was a club man.
Pub versus Club
I first became interested in the story of working men’s clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub in the early noughties. These establishments were first created for rather than by working men, essentially to keep them out of pubs and “improve” them in the eyes of well-meaning and progressive, but ultimately naive, clergymen and noblemen.
But clubs didn’t really take off until upper class people realised working men needed to determine their own destiny. A separate club licence had been introduced, which meant that politicians could introduce licensing laws forcing pubs to close, but still go to their gentlemen’s clubs and carry on drinking afterwards. Working men proved they had been underestimated when the realised they could get club licenses of their own, defying the hypocrisy of their supposed betters.
Working men’s clubs, when run by working men, were a form of emancipation. A man could work in a factory or mill during the week, and then go and be on a committee at his club, responsible for a turnover that rivalled the company he worked for. Many committee members went on to be mayors or even MPs. Or he might go onstage and be a comedian, a ventriloquist or singer. Clubs provided libraries, financial support, clothing banks and washing or showering facilities decades before the welfare state began helping people who didn’t have enough.
In terms of entertainment, as variety theatres disappeared, clubs became the launchpad for what TV execs would later call ‘light entertainment’. Everyone from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to comedians like Les Dawson, Little & Large and Cannon & Ball got their first breaks on the club circuit. Talents as diverse as Paul Weller, Noddy Holder and Steve Davis all played in working men’s clubs before they played anywhere else – Davis getting his first break in a very different sense than the others.
There is of course the issue of women, especially given the name of these organisations. Some clubs were more progressive than others, and the story of how women gain equal rights in clubs is both shocking (it didn’t happen until 2007) and inspiring, beginning with a woman being banned from playing snooker and going on to form a campaign called “A woman’s right to cues”, and essentially breaking new ground for female representation in sports more widely. It’s one of the best stories in the book. Many clubs have dropped the “working men’s” bit from their names, and women now play a key role at every level of club organisation.
A long and winding road… to the north
I started discussing an idea that captured this remarkable, hidden story with editors around 2005. I pitched the idea seriously in 2012 and again in 2016. It got nowhere. People in London publishing houses would see it as no more than a nostalgia fest for people who went to clubs in the 1970s, or would get that it was more than that, buut say, “Well I’d read it avidly, but I don’t think enough other people would.”
Then, in July 2020, I got an e-mail from an editor at Harper North, a new, Manchester-based subsidiary of Harper Collins. Did I have a book idea that would suit a list that had a northern tilt to it?
Yes I did.
“Clubland” will be published by Harper North in June 2022, to coincide with the 160th anniversary of the Club and Institute Union (CIU). It probably won’t be called “Clubland” by then. It will be my twelfth full-length published book and I am enjoying researching it enormously.
Tell me your story
Some of the stories in this book have already exceeded my wildest hopes when I began researching it. The many different ways in which clubs have influenced people, communities and society as a whole are mind-boggling, sometimes very moving, often utterly hilarious.
In early July I’m going to be visiting clubs around the country and talking to people who run them and use them. If you think there’s a club that has particular historical or contemporary interest, one that has a remarkable story to tell, please let me know. And if you have your own stories that deserve to be told, tell me now!
(For information: I’ve already had at least three people tell me the tale of Shirley Bassey and the backstage sink and claim it was them.)
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The case of beers I put together with mail order company Best of British Beer to accompany my next book club event is designed to reflect the mercurial, elusive character of the craft beer world’s favourite beer style.
IPA is the most popular – and most argued over – beer style in craft beer. Everything about it, from its hazy origins to its colour, character and (increasingly murky) appearance, is debated passionately across social media and print publications. Its story has been mythologised, misunderstood, and endlessly redefined. Like the broader concept of craft beer itself, I’m not just fascinated by it, I’m fascinated by the fascination around it, by the varying degrees of passion, agitation and disdain it inspires.
This is why, for my third book, I undertook the frankly stupid endeavour of recreating its legendary journey by sea from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta. This project almost broke me, in many ways, but hey – I got a great book out of it, and we’re discussing that book, and the story behind it, at my third Beer Book Club on Wednesday, 12th May.
For each of these book clubs, I’m attempting to put together a themed case of beers (or ciders, where relevant) that people attending may choose to order to drink along to the chat. Best of British Beer volunteered to help me out with a case for this one, and sent me a bottle of every beer they had in stock with “IPA” on the label. From that, I chose six beers that tell a potted history of the beer that used to be known as India Pale Ale – all quite different from each other, each excellent in its own way.
IPA was never ‘invented’ as such – it evolved from strong beers meant for keeping, and it has continued to evolve ever since. According to contemporary reports, in the 1780s it was quite dark, murky, and very bitter. In nineteenth century India, it was bright and sparkling, compared to champagne more than anything else. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, changes in taxation and drinking habits saw a steep drop in its alcoholic strength. A few years ago, beer geeks would rage that a beer such as Greene King IPA was not a “proper” IPA because it was only 3.6% ABV. Those critics should know that a few years ago, the original 1928 recipe for GK IPA was discovered, and it’s hardly changed in the almost century since. If you could go back to the mid-twentieth century, any British brewer would have told you that it was typical of what “IPA” was at that time. And anyway, the rise of “session IPAs” means that the strength argument can no longer be coherently made by craft beer scenesters.
The American reinvention of IPA only really took off in the UK a little over a decade ago, and since then the pace of evolution has sped up dramatically. What we now think of as ‘West Coast IPA’ is referred to by some as ‘Old School IPA’. If a beer style that can only be traced back in any meaningful sense to the 1990s is now ‘old school’, what does that make IPA’s 200-year-odd history up to that point?
In a very meaningful sense, the dominant style of the moment – New England IPA – is the opposite of what IPA was before it came along. India Pale Ale became the definitive beer style of the nineteenth century, and cast its shadow over the next, because it was designed to be stored and/or to survive a long sea journey in which it was subject to massive fluctuations in temperature, which contributed to its unique character, in which hop bitterness was assertive.
Now, IPAs have next to no bitterness at all, and we’re told that we must keep them cold from packaging to consumption and drink them fresh, because their delicate character disappears after a few weeks.
The British soldiers and clerks drinking IPA in Calcutta in the 1860s would have spat out a NEIPA claiming that it was too green, that it hadn’t ‘ripened’. The modern NEIPA fan would (and often does) dismiss traditional IPA as not being IPA at all, because it is not pale enough, not juicy enough.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), commonly regarded in the craft beer world as the arbiter of beer styles, goes so far as to state: “The term ‘IPA’ is intentionally not spelled out as ‘India Pale Ale’ since none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren’t pale.”
So there we have it: IPA isn’t actually India Pale Ale at all, but an acronym without a home, or even a new word in its own right, a word commonly pronounced “eepa” by beer drinkers who’s first language isn’t English.
In 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont threw his hands up and said, “Fine, let’s face it, every beer is now an IPA.” With that in mind, here are the six beers I’ve chosen that all stake a claim to the title of IPA. I like them all – otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen them – but because of my age and experience, my heart will always be in the Old School.
Wold Top – Scarborough Fair – true to the traditional British style – crisp, bitter and balanced
Hafod – Freestyle – A great take on what we now call West Coast IPA, resiny and piney with a firm malt backbone
Mor – Ish – Mid-twentieth century-style IPA, gently bitter and clean, lower ABV.
Windsor & Eton – Conqueror – The tautology that is a Black India Pale Ale – a blend of fresh hoppy aromas and deep, chocolatey malt.
Loch Lomond – Zoom Time – Hazy, juicy and with low bitterness, a perfect example of the New England IPA style.
Stonehouse – Vanilla Milkshake – Brewed with vanilla and lactose for an even smoother, creamier body – is this the future of IPA?
The Hops & Glory six-pack is available to buy at £21.95 from Best of British Beer. Ticket-holders for my Hops & Glory book club event on Wednesday 12th May can claim a 10% discount code. Sadly the beers are for UK delivery only, but the event is on Zoom so you can come along wherever in the world you are, and bring your own IPAs, whatever colour, clarity, strength and character they happen to have.
Most people who follow me online do so because they enjoy my books. So I thought I’d organise a beer book club on Zoom to revisit my backlist.
I’ve largely enjoyed Zoom events – I’m lucky, I haven’t had to do too many during the day at work, so they’ve remained a bit of a treat. I’ve also spoken to people at online beer events who actually prefer these chats to meeting up in real life – either because they can get to them more easily and cheaply, or because they feel more comfortable attending from the safe space of their home. I can’t wait to do physical events again, but even when we’re back at pub gigs and festivals, I still plan to both attend and run events online in addition to IRL.
Last week, I pushed an idea out on social media – what if I do a Zoom book club? Each session, we focus on one book from my backlist. I do a talk or presentation about it, then open it up to a Q&A. After we get to the end of the formal bit, if anyone wants to stay on and chat longer, we can. It got a great response, so here we go.
I’ll be going through the books in chronological order, starting with Man Walks into a Pub on 28th April. I’m charging a small ticket price of £3.50, and tickets are on sale now.
Obviously, we thought it might be nice idea to do this with a drink in hand. You don’t have to drink through the talk, but you may well want to.
My intention is to link up with an online retailer and try to come up with some kind of offer for event attendees. I want to try to make these, in an idea world, bespoke cases that fit with the theme of the book.
For Man Walks into a Pub, I have the perfect case ready to go, with a special offer for event attendees that’s a bit complicated, but very good. I’ve done a series of cases with Beer52 for a Master Beer Taster qualification. There are four cases in total, covering the classic beer styles associated with four great brewing powerhouses: the UK and Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and the USA. Each case comes with a short book covering the history, beer styles, quirks and trivia of brewing in that country. The UK case makes the perfect accompaniment to Man Walks into a Pub and is available here.
Beer52 would like to support this project but are not set up to give a discount on this case specifically. However, if you buy a ticket for any Book Club event, you’ll be given codes for some great discounts on other Beer52 stuff.
Here’s my provisional schedule for all the events. I’ll update details on this blog post as we go, and also post them on the events page of this website. In case you’re not familiar with my full backlist, the links on the book titles below take you to more information on each of my books.
The Apple Orchard – Wednesday 9th June, 7pm. My celebration of this overlooks, magical fruit.
Miracle Brew – Wednesday 16th June, 7pm. The natural history astonishing stories behind the four main ingredients of beer. There’s a range of beers put together with Bath Road Beers. Tickets on sale now.
Pie Fidelity – Wednesday 23rd June, 7pm. My exploration of nine different classic British dishes, and why they deserve two be celebrated. Tickets on sale now. Accompanying range of beers put together by Bath Rd Beers, with a 10% discount for ticket-holders.
Craft: An Argument– Wednesday 30th June, 7pm. My lockdown book about why the term ‘craft beer’ is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood, and absolutely essential. Tickets on sale now. Accompanying range of beers put together by Bath Rd Beers, with a 10% discount for ticket-holders.
Beer By Design – Wednesday 6th July, details TBC. My visual celebration of the evolution of and recent revolution in how beer is sold to us on the shelf. Drinks offer still being finalised. Tickets on sale now.
I’ll probably play around with the format, maybe invite guests, and will always intend to have some kind of special offer on a beer or cider tie-up. Hope to see you there!
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In the late nineteenth century, a Romantic textile designer from Walthamstow invented the modern concept of “craft”. Yeah, it’s all his fault.
William Morris was born on 24th March, 1834. If you could have asked him him about that a few years later, and he would have told you this was 600 years too late. As a kid, he had his own suit of armour and would run around his family’s big garden pretending to be a knight. As a young adult, he vehemently rejected contemporary aesthetics in favour of medieval nostalgia.
Morris wasn’t alone. The Industrial Revolution may have started long before the Victorian era, but by the time Morris was at university the pace of progress was so rapid, and the human and environmental cost so great (it could also be argued that Morris was the godfather of the Green movement) that some people began to question whether it was “progress” at all.
He believed industrialisation had robbed people of dignity and purpose. Before factories and mills, if you made bread, or shoes, or chairs, or beer, you were a baker, a shoemaker, a furniture maker or a brewer, and your work was your own. Your craft involved the mastery of a number of different skills, and if you were any good, the way you combined them meant the end result of your skill and labour was unmistakably yours.
By contrast, when you went to work on a production line, you were reduced to doing one task over and over again, while the person next to you did another task, and so on, until at the end of the line, all the shoes or chairs looked exactly the same, and your contribution, your mark, was as invisible as everyone else’s.
Morris created workshops where skills were recombined, and individual craftspeople were allowed to make their own products as they saw fit. The craftsperson was given autonomy, control, job satisfaction, and ultimately, a sense of dignity that were not available to their counterparts in factories. The workers, the ideas they presented and the products they created became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The word “craft” goes back to at least the 10th century, but its specific meaning today was invented by Morris. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship was just the way things were done, the way they’d always been done. Arts and Crafts arrived at a time when industrialised productions had become the normal way things were done. “Craft”, in its modern sense, is an alternative, a choice, a reaction against mainstream industrial production, against the way things are normally done.
As we sit here, reading and writing on our personal electronic devices while sitting on comfortable chairs in heated rooms, it’s a point of view many of us might feel sympathy with. But Morris and his work exposed the problems and contradictions at the heart of the idea of craft.
The reason industrialised production took off is because it allowed products to be made quicker and cheaper, and therefore more affordable. Factory workers may have been miserable at work, but at the end of the week they could actually afford to buy a pair of shoes, or a loaf of bread. (A new chair used to be something out of the reach of most people. Now you can buy an IKEA IVAR chair with the proceeds of two hours working on minimum wage.)
If you’re going to allow individual craftspeople the time and space to make things themselves, how they want to, and pay them fairly for doing so, their products can only be more expensive than those made in factories. The great irony of the Arts & Crafts movement was that pretty much the only people who could afford to buy what they made were the wealthy industrialists who they stood against. The movement eventually fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
But Morris’s ideas stuck around. The idea that something produced by a craftsperson was somehow inherently better that something made in a factory takes many forms. We assume it will be better quality than something mass-produced – even though this is by no means always true.
(Mainstream lagers may be bland and insipid, but craft products are far more variable.)
But many people also believe there’s a moral dimension to it – it’s better for the maker, who has a more fulfilling, meaningful job, but it’s also better for the consumer, because they’re supporting a small producer rather than big corporation, a more sustainable and less moral dubious form of business, one that isn’t big enough to bully its competitors, strip-mine the planet of resources, or exploit poorly paid workers.
(“Craft beer people are good people” and all that.)
Interestingly, Morris had a revival of interest in the 1970s – precisely when CAMRA began campaigning in the UK and what would later be called craft brewers started mashing in in the United States. Today, as interest in what we loosely refer to craft beer shows no sign of abating, interest in arts and crafts more broadly is booming again – FFS, even macramé is currently hip.
The picture of Morris above was taken when he was 53 – a year older than I am now. I suspect I could get away with using it as a picture of a middle-aged writer about craft beer today and no-one who doesn’t recognise him would suspect me of foul play. Not only does William Morris look like an ageing craft beer hipster, he would recognise all the contradictions and frustrations at the heart of craft beer, the discussions around it, the incessant need to define it, to own it or protect it, and, increasingly, the desire among producers to abandon the term.
His legacy shows why that might be a bad idea. Arts & Crafts, like craft beer, was easy to criticise, easy for those who wanted to to exploit it and manipulate it to do so, easy to dismiss as being expensive and over-hyped. But a century after its supposed demise, both it and its founder remain culturally vital. As long as we have cheap, mass-market, industrialised production making goods for everyone, we’re going to have niche craft versions produced as a counter-cultural alternative – available for anyone who can afford to buy them.
Enjoyed reading this? There’s a much fuller discussion of the relationship between craft beer and the broader origins of craft in my book Craft: An Argument – named Best Beer Book at the 2020 North American Beer Writers Awards.
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Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate brands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. This folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other craft beer pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was over forty years ago, though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh, there’s no doubt about that. Having accepted that, there are two basic stages to the process:
Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design in a crowd. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as ‘Anchor Steam Beer’ and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the recent Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
The second reason is that I think Anchor has drawn the wrong conclusion from the correct analysis, that conclusion being: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to look like one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
It’s the same for other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, who all remain contemporary and yet true to their roots at the same time.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the key elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making them stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference to Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.”
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name, which is by no means certain). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice.
The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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