“They served it ice-cold in Alex…
For the moment that he shut his eyes, he could see every detail of that little bar in the lane off Mahomet Ali Square; the high stools, the marble-topped counter, the Greek behind it. The sound of the place came back… the purr of the overhead fan, a fly, buzzing drowsily, the muffled noise of the traffic seeping through the closed door…
Then he thought about the beer itself, in tall thin glasses, so cold that there was a dew glistening on the outside of them, even before they were put down on the counter; the pale amber clearness of it; the taste, last of all.”
I like to look at how writers who don’t normally write about beer treat it when it crosses their path – some of the best ‘beer writing’ doesn’t come from beer writers at all. They’re starting from a different perspective and with a different frame of reference. If they’re good, they can make even the most knowledgeable and experienced beer enthusiast think again about the essence and the role of great beer.
Christopher Landon served as a ‘Desert Rat’ in North Africa in the Second World War. In 1957 he fictionalised his experiences for a novel that went on to become one of the most famous war films of all time: Ice Cold in Alex. It contains possibly the most iconic beer drinking shot in the whole history of cinema – but we’ll come to that later. A few months ago I spotted a reprint of the novel in a bargain bookshop. Tempted by the cover illustration of a tall, full, pilsner glass, I decided to give it a go.
The opening passage above forms the opening of the book. Captain George Anson is a man ‘with too much sun, too much sand, too much of everything to bear.’ Stuck in Tobruk as a circle of Nazi armour closes around it, he’s succumbing to alcoholism, cauterizing his senses with a repetitive, metronomic swigging of the whisky bottle.
As the fall of Tobruk becomes inevitable, all non-essential personnel are shipped out to Alexandria before the noose closes. Anson is charged with getting two nurses in an ambulance to safety. He takes with him his faithful mechanic, Sergeant Major Tom Pugh, and on the way they pick up Zimmerman, a stranded South African officer who is not all he seems.
(Oh alright, he’s a German spy.)
Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. They’re forced to detour deeper and deeper into the desert to avoid the German armour. At one point a German armoured column fires on them, killing one of the nurses. As the Germans decide whether or not to let them go, Anson’s old self emerges, and he swears off the whisky for the duration of their journey:
“Anson’s voice went on, it was different, held a faraway, dream-like quality. “If he has… I’m going to tell you something right now, Tom. It will be a sort of peace offering. Do you know the next drink I’m going to have? A beer, Tom. A bloody great, tall, ice-cold glass of Rheingold in that little bar off Mahoment Ali Square in Alex… and I’ll buy you one, all of you one, because I’m bloody well going to get you there.”
Rheingold was an American lager, from a New York brewery founded in 1883 by a German Jew called Samuel Liebmann. Anson calls it “The best and coldest Yankee beer in the Delta”. But reading about it in this context, its German name and ancestry says something in and of itself about war’s bitter ironies.
The biggest character in the book though is the desert itself. Landon’s descriptions of the mirage – a solid, shimmering wall throwing all manner of illusions at them – the blazing sun and the unyielding, hostile but ever-changing sand, render North Africa as a different planet. As the book forces you to consider the desert from the point of view of the average Briton in the early 1940s – it strikes you that it might as well have been.
Anson, Tom Pugh and Diana the surviving nurse figure out that Zimmerman’s a kraut spy pretty quickly. But the desert forces them to unite against a common enemy, survival coming before the war against Nazism.
Anson rallies and his inspirational leadership galvanizes the other three. The beer has become totemic to him, not just for the alcoholic hit he’s denying himself until they reach safety, nor for the promise of near-orgasmic refreshment after the parched dessert: he’s promised to buy them a beer. And to buy them a beer, he has to get them to Alexandria.
One night, Anson and Diana are talking on watch, under the stars:
““Let’s talk about something else… Beer.”
“But I thought that was out.”
“It is – until that date in Alex. Do you know – I’ve been thinking about that one particular drink all day. I’ve told you about the bar, haven’t I? But that Rheingold – it’s so bloody cold that there’s a sort of dew on the outside of the glass. I always run my finger up and down – to make a sort of trail – before I have my first sip.””
Beer is hope.
I wrote in Man Walks into a Pub about some ancient myths in which beer is a gift of hope to humanity, a consolation prize for having to cope with knowledge, sin and inevitable mortality. Here it’s a rock that Anson can cling to, to prevent himself from falling apart.
“He was not hungry, not thirsty – but once when the captain said, “I hope that beer’s bloody cold,” his mouth started watering uncontrollably.”
Finally, they make it. The bar is just as Anson described it, empty because it’s still early. The barman sees four unwashed, filthy tramps until Anson rouses him with a parade ground bark.
““Get cracking, Joe. FOUR VERY, VERY COLD RHEINGOLDS.”
When they came up, again they were as he said they would be, pale amber in tall thin glasses, and so cold, the dew had frosted on the outside before he put them down. They stood in a row now, but Tom waited, as he knew the others were waiting, for Anson to make the first move. He stared at his for a moment, looking all round as if it were a rare specimen, then ran his finger up and down the side of the glass, leaving a clear trail in the dew. He said, “That’s that,” and lifted the glass and tilted it right back. Tom watched the ripple of the swallow in the lean throat, and there was a tight feeling inside him and his eyes were smarting and he knew that in a moment he would cry. So he lifted up his own glass and swallowed it fast.
When Anson put his glass down it was empty. “I quite forgot to drink your healths,” he said. Then to the barman, “Set ‘em up again.””
It’s ready-written to be the climactic scene of the film adaptation. This is the ultimate thirst, the best beer you’ve ever tasted, a reward for the hardest day’s work imaginable. It works perfectly in the film – so perfectly, in fact, that all it took was one editor’s snip, one line of dialogue and a title to turn it into the second-best beer ad of all time.
Of course, the fact that for some reason the filmmakers switched Rheingold for Carlsberg detracts a level or two from the meaning. But without that bit of corporate chicanery, there’d have been no ad. And if there hadn’t been an ad, I would have forgotten about the film. And if I’d forgotten about the film, I would never have read this powerful, moving little book.
I can’t find the ad itself on YouTube, and blogger won’t let me upload the mpeg I have of it from my laptop, but here is the piece of film Carlsberg later used in the ad, without title and voice over:
Long ranty post alert – apologies in advance, but this all needs saying…
One of my character flaws (I promise you I only have two, maybe three max) is that I can sometimes come across as arrogant. I never feel arrogant on the inside, but things I say or do can sometimes make it look as though I am.
When it happens, it’s not because I think I am superior – quite the opposite. It’s because I feel insecure and need reassurance. I over-compensate. Curiously enough, as I’ve become more successful as a beer writer, my ‘arrogance’ has declined as my inner confidence has grown.
The same is probably true of many other people who come across as arrogant. I guess it’s a kinder explanation than thinking that these people truly do believe they’re God’s gift.
But sometimes, I’m not so sure.
This is something that’s been tickling my brain since the scheme of pub discounts for CAMRA members was announced. It’s become quite controversial. Tandleman, as ever, gives a very reasonable argument in defence of CAMRA. (If only more of its prominent members were like him, there would be far fewer rucks like the one I’m about to prompt.) He claims that any organization is free to negotiate discounts for its members. If they put the effort in, and they succeed, fair play to them.
I can’t possibly disagree with that argument – I’ve worked in offices before now where HR have negotiated a staff discount in local shops – so why is it that the CAMRA discount winds up so many?
I was in the Sheffield Tap a few weeks ago, nursing a half of Thornbridge St Petersburg at the bar. In came two middle-aged guys with – and I swear I’m not making this up – plastic carrier bags full of VHS videos of locomotives, which they were swapping with each other. They went to the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and said, loudly enough for all the pub to hear, “We should get a discount in here!”
“Why’s that?” asked the barman.
“Because I’m a CAMRA member! And we spread the word about places like this!”
Now. Solipsistic as I am, I can only judge this by my own actions and experience. I’m Beer Writer of the Year. It seems that what I say carries a certain measure of influence in some misguided corners of the world. Sometimes in the Sheffield Tap the staff recognize me and insist on buying me a drink or giving me one on the house. If they do, I thank them as graciously as I can (being a Yorkshireman it’s hard, but I try) and accept.
I hope it’s not too arrogant of me to suggest that I “spread the word” about pubs more widely than Mr Deltics 1975-82 on VHS. But I have never – in my life – walked into any pub and either demanded or expected a free or discounted drink because of who I am, or what I do. If I did, I would expect and deserve to be called a complete and utter fucking twat by anyone who witnessed it.
But with some CAMRA members there’s this sense of entitlement. It has nothing to do with head office having negotiated a commercial discount; it’s about this or that individual believing they deserve special treatment simply because they are a CAMRA member.
They know that a local branch can choose to make or break a pub over some perceived slight that has nothing to do with the quality of the real ale on offer. Similarly, CAMRA’s brewery liaison officers know they carry a great deal of influence. I’m sure many branches and many BLOs do their jobs conscientiously and responsibly. But I hear regular stories of others who let the power go to their heads.
When the bloke in the Sheffield Tap said his piece, he said it with a threatening tone. “We spread the word about places like this” was delivered with the protection racketeer’s implicit threat that ‘the word’ could just as easily be bad as good if his demands weren’t met. The Tap needn’t worry – no word this pathetic little man could spread would have anything like the power of the positive buzz coming from the vast majority of decent, sensible people – CAMRA members and non-members alike – who are raving about the pub.
So all this was buzzing around my head when we sat down to a free dinner in the National Brewery Centre last week. Master Brewer Steve Wellington had chosen a beer to go with each of the three courses we were served, and he stood up to introduce and explain each match.
Every time he took the microphone, the specially invited CAMRA members on my table heckled him, bellowing “P2 stout! Give us some P2 stout!” Now, this is a remarkable beer. But it wasn’t available. The first time they demanded it, Steve explained that there was none available because it hasn’t been brewed for a while. This didn’t put them off. The first time it could be excused as good-humoured banter. As the evening wore on, it just became fucking rude.
The final course was served with Kasteel Cru Rose. Like most beer geeks, it’s not a beer I care for that much, but Steve had his reasons for matching it with the dessert. Not a single one of the CAMRA guys would even touch it. They were disgusted, insulted, seemingly forgetting that this was not a CAMRA dinner, and that CAMRA has not financed the £700,000 reopening of the brewery centre. A private leisure company had, and Molson Coors – license owners of Kasteel Cru – had.
The demands for P2 stout grew louder. Finally, Steve went out into the driving rain, ran across to his office and found five bottles from his personal stash. He placed them on our table, and the CAMRA members, without a word of thanks to Steve, proceeded to divide these bottles among themselves, not offering to share them with anyone else. The guy sitting next to me told me that I could have some of his if I could get the bottle opened. Why he felt he was in a position to decide whether I was entitled to drink some of Steve Wellington’s beer speaks volumes.
While we were enjoying a dinner that had probably cost the NBC in the region of eighty quid a head, for CAMRA members to show such visible and audible disgust at the beer choice of a brewer they and everyone else has huge respect for, to barrack and heckle in such a way, and to display such a sense of entitlement when they got what they had so rudely demanded, was not just grossly disrespectful; it was the behaviour of sugar-rushed ten year-olds at a birthday party.
I hope that every decent CAMRA member reading this is appalled by the behaviour of people who were there in their name, representing them. These were not some junior local branch hangers-on; they were senior members with significant responsibility for pursuing the aims and objectives of the organization. But they acted just as obnoxiously as the inadequate trainspotter in the Sheffield Tap.
From their point of view, there had been a perceived slight in the speeches when CAMRA had not been thanked adequately for their role in the brewery centre being reopened. Personally I don’t think there was any such slight. But even if there had been, it didn’t excuse this behaviour. And the perceiving of a slight in the first place is yet another manifestation of what I’m talking about. (As soon as the reopening of the centre was announced, CAMRA members were phoning up demanding free/discounted entry.)
This culture of entitlement is – as far as I can see it – arrogance in its truest form, a genuine belief that simply by being a CAMRA member you are somehow superior, more deserving than other paying customers.
The Brewing Industry International Awards are back. They were last held in 2005, but are happening again on 9th – 11th February 2011 in Burton on Trent, hopefully in the new National Brewing Centre (grand opening tonight – I’ll be there!).
Writing this on my way home from the SIBA annual conference, on a cold, draughty train with no tables, no refreshment trolley, no power sockets. Wedged sideways on a hard, narrow seat, developing pins and needles in my left leg which is curled up to provide a surface for the laptop, the cold grey light, bare branches and churned, muddy fields gliding past the window, everything conspiring to accentuate what was a surprisingly mild hangover, draw out the nuances of it, develop the waves of pain and nausea like a symphony orchestra playing variations on a theme, and turn it into something that forces me to seriously contemplate tearing my eyeballs from their sockets. But it was worth every groan, whimper and noxious whiff. I first went to SIBA two years ago, to present a summary of the first Cask Report. They treated me well, looked after me, and I said yes like a shot when they asked me back to present on the second cask report a year later. But three years running felt like overkill, so this year I wasn’t invited to speak. It got to Monday and I thought, sod it, there’s no actual reason for me to go this year, but it’s such a good crack I’ll go anyway. Not for the speeches and presentations – even though some of them were quite good, they weren’t really aimed at me – but for the chance to be in a room full of brewers sharing their beers. Every year a local MP or mayor will open the conference and inevitably talk about how real ale is not a binge drink, and everyone will nod furiously, and throughout the day the theme will be referred back to in presentation after presentation – real ale drinkers are moderate drinkers, responsible drinkers, you can’t really binge drink real ale, and we all nod every time it comes up, and then at 5pm the speeches finish and we charge the bar and get riotously, deliciously hoonered on real ale. SIBA conference drinking is drinking with gusto, with relish. It’s hearty drinking, lustful for life drinking, and more importantly, it’s only £1.50 a pint. The conference (or just ‘conference’ without the definite article according to the people running the thing – it makes it sound more important) also sees the announcement of the winners of the SIBA National Brewing Competition, which is becoming a serious contender to CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain. The overall winner was Triple Chocoholic from the Saltaire Brewery in Bradford, also winner of the speciality beer category. Brewed with chocolate malt, actual chocolate and chocolate syrup towards the end, it’s a very easy beer to write tasting notes for; a very difficult beer to write good tasting notes for. It’s very, very chocolatey and very, very gorgeous. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Saltaire also won their category for their Cascade Pale Ale. People have been murmuring about Saltaire for a while now, they’ve won a bagful of awards already, but this felt like a coming out party for them. Definitely a brewery to watch, and after chatting to the brewer after dinner I’m looking forward to arranging a visit as soon as I can. Thornbridge Lord Marples, Bank Top’s Dark Mild, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Green Mill Big Chief Bitter, Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale, Blue Monkey Guerilla and St Austell Proper Job were the other category winners. And Christ, I’ve laughed a lot in the last two days. Sometimes I laughed at someone’s expense (I’m sorry, but even if the bloke selling stillaging units has never seen Swiss Toni on The Fast Show, he still can’t be forgiven for that haircut, moustache and grey suit combination) but mostly I laughed because the people I was in conversation with were extremely funny. The theme of the conference was people – working with people, valuing people you work with, getting the best out of them. It brought home just what a people business the beer business is. That’s a rubbish thing to say, because every single business on the planet is a people business, but what we mean is that it’s a sociable business. Someone on my table at dinner last night told a story about when he was at another conference in a hotel, and in the bar afterwards he was sitting enjoying a few beers with some of the other delegates. There was another conference in the same hotel – packaging or IT systems or insurance or something – and the guy in charge of that conference decided to – ahem – ‘work the room’. He came over to our brewer’s table and said, “Hi, what do you guys do?” “We’re brewers,” replied the brewer. “Right! Cool. Which brewery?” “Well… we all work for different breweries.” The guy was incredulous. “I’d get fired if I did something like that! There’s no way we could simply sit round a table having a laugh with our competitors. It just wouldn’t happen.” This is one of the things I love most about beer. You doubtless have a pile of stories yourself that illustrate the same point. And it’s why I get so bleeding angry when the infighting starts. We’re better than that. We have something no one else has. SIBA has its critics, as do small brewers generally (I was in a room recently where one big brewer turned a small brewer he’d only just met and said “You lot are all parasites.”) And SIBA itself has its own share of infighting and politicking. There are always issues and genuine areas of disagreement, competing priorities and conflicts. And I’m lucky that I can stay half in, half out of such conflicts, not being a brewer or pub owner myself. But the sociability and the common cause are much greater, much more important. Which is why I’ll be at ‘conference’ again this time next year.
I’ve blogged in the past about how Tetley’s was my trainer beer, my local pint, and how even though its star has fallen, it retains a special place in my heart.
In 2008 Carlsberg UK announced that the brewery in Leeds would be closing. Today they’ve announced that from 2011, Marstons will brew Tetley’s Cask in Wolverhampton, while Smoothflow will be brewed by Molson Coors in Tadcaster. Carlsberg say they are delighted that most of the volume brewed will be remaing in Yorkshire, and that with cask, they looked into every option for keeping it in Yorkshire but this proved not to be possible.
I’ve just had a chat with Darran Britton, Carlsberg UK’s marketing director, and got a bit more background. I’ll scribble down what he said first, and reserve some personal reflections till the end of this post.
The most contentious part of the whole deal is the move of cask out of Yorkshire. Was there really ‘no other option?’
“It may not be as fashionable as it once was, but Tetley’s is a still a very sizeable cask ale,” replied Britton, “it needed somewhere with enough excess capacity. But it also needed someone who is experienced in brewing other people’s beers, someone who is technically excellent.”
Lots of names have been speculated – Black Sheep, Timothy Taylor’s, Heineken (as in John Smith’s in Tadcaster) but if you agree with those criteria – and it’s hard not to – then it’s difficult to disagree with the conclusion, however unpalatable it may be.
So why Marston’s?
“They have a great reputation for their ales, and they’re an experienced contract brewer. In Wolverhampton they have traditional square fermenters, which Tetley’s has always been brewed in. We’ll work with them to keep the same recipe, the same ingredients, and we’ll continue using Tetley’s unique two-strain yeast.”
And what about Leeds? What are the plans for the brewery site?
“Production in Leeds will end mid-2011. We’ll be transferring the brewing earlier in the year. We’re in talks with Leeds council about their plans for the city, but there are no plans for the site yet.”
Tetley’s – like its counterparts Worthington’s, John Smiths and Boddington’s – has been in a phase of managed decline for several years now, ceding the cask ale market to regionals and local brewers. Now that cask ale is back in growth – tiny, tiny growth, but growth nonetheless – will this move coincide with renewed support behind the brand? To be clear, Carlsberg is retaining ownership of Tetley’s for the foreseeable future, with Molson Coors and Marston’s brewing on a contract basis. Despite this, I’m reminded of when Courage brands moved from S&N, who clearly didn’t want them, to Well’s & Young’s, who did. In that case there was a change of ownership, but it saw the beers being revitalised to a dramatic extent. As I said, this move for Tetley’s is different, but after reports of new investment and the return of the huntsman to the brand’s identity, I wondered if this was a cue for somer kind of relaunch.
Britton refused to be drawn, saying more that this was “business as usual”. Rather than there being any renewed energy behind the brand, he insisted that there wouldn’t be any less support behind it, that investment will continue, and that there’ll be a new sampling campaign later this year.
So there we go.
In my job, I get to see both sides of stories like this. Sometimes I’m with the marketers when difficult decisions have to be made, when the harsh realities of modern business and the demands of shareholders make unpalatable choices inevitable. Other times I get to be a beer fan, and to be able to say “Fuck the shareholders, this is beer we’re talking about! A short term view not only betrays the core drinkers of the brand, it actually doesn’t make sound business sense in the long view.”
In this case, I’m torn. I am grief-stricken at what has happened to Tetley’s, appalled that the link between the brand and the city of Leeds will be broken. (“Tetley’s will always have a relationship with Leeds”, insists Britton, but that relationship will only exist in an abstract, emotional sense). I’m frustrated that for one of the biggest beer brands in the country, Carlsberg seems unable to make the huge power of provenance and place of origin make commercial sense for them. Lots of people will say that Tetley’s can never taste the same if it’s brewed in Wolverhampton but I’m not one of them – it’ll taste exactly the same. But it’s not about that – it’s about the story, the soul of the beer.
On the other hand, I feel we have to accept the commercial reality that it no longer makes business sense for big breweries to sit on lots of expensive land in city centres. We don’t have to like it. We can rage against it. But that doesn’t stop it from being true. It’s difficult enough to make money in brewing.
I think that to fairly criticise Carlsberg for what they’ve announced today, you have to be able to suggest something they could have done instead.
Keeping the Leeds brewery open was not an option. Moving cask to another brewery in Yorkshire was – if we take Britton at his word – not an option.
The one thing I think may have been an option, and which I’m disappointed by, is not keeping a small part of the space in Leeds and continuing to brew cask there. Most of the land is a massive distribution centre, which would be way better somewhere else. It doesn’t make much difference at all where Smoothflow is brewed and I’m not sure any0ne cares. But if you sold off all that lot, and kept hold of the old brewery bit or redeveloped a new purpose-built cask ale brewery for a few million quid, this could only have enhanced whatever plans Leeds will eventually have for the space (I’m guessing “luxury apartments” with the odd Starbucks and panini shop.) It would add heritage, character and romance, something uniquely Leeds, to what is sure to be a development that will look identical to any city in the UK. This would have sent the right signals to the ale community, given the city a stake, mollified hardcore Tetley’s fans. Maybe they looked at this option and found reasons why it wasn’t viable. Maybe not. But the fact that it is not happening is a crying shame.
I have no problem whatsoever with Marston’s – they certainly know how to brew beer.
I think Britton is right – it will be business as usual. Nothing will change in the beer itself. And it has always been a decent cask pint, brewed with love and care, no matter what anyone thinks.
But I had hoped that this would be more than business as usual. It’s emotional and sentimental because that’s what beer is, but when Tetley’s cask is no longer brewed in Leeds, I for one will have one less reason to drink the beer. I’d rather been hoping for new reasons to drink it instead. Sadly, I’ve heard nothing to suggest that there will be.
Dropped out of circulation for a few weeks there while I was rewriting Man Walks into a Pub. Just got final rewrites off to the editor and am now resuming normal service.
Every quarter, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) releases a quarterly ‘beer barometer’ that gives you a snapshot of how beer sales are doing in the UK.
- Total beer sales down 3.6% in October to December 2009, the lowest 4th quarter fall since 2006
- Beer sales for the whole of 2009 fell by 4.2%, compared with 5.5% for 2008
- Sales in pubs and bars for the final quarter of 09 were down 5% – compared with 9% in 2008
- Beer was down in supermarkets and shops in the final quarter by 2.1%, compared with 6.4% in 2008
- However, over the year a a while, off-trade beer sakes were down 3.1% – the largest annual fall since records began in 1978. This at least raises questions about the received wisdom that the main problem facing pubs is cheap beer in supermarkets
- Based on these figures, despite Alastair “A barman nicked my girlfriend when I was 18 and my entire economic policy is based on extracting a slow and humiliating revenge from an industry I have learned to hate” Darling having raised duty on beer by more than 20 fucking per cent in the last two years, and having done so purely as a revenue raising measure (anti-binge drinking etc was not a consideration), government revenues from beer have in fact fallen by an estimated £258 million. Nice one, Thunderbirds-boy.
So. People are drinking less beer, and it’s looking like the recession has been a key cause of that. But as BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds comments, “As the economy moves into recovery, so will the beer and pub sector. In fact, as in previous recessions, it may emerge first and fastest.”
London was positively Dickensian yesterday. The Beer Widow and I a couple of friends spent the afternoon in the Elk in the Woods, a Swedish restaurant in Camden Passage, Islington. We were sitting near the window by the Christmas tree watching the snow come down and it was just perfect.