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Beer: The High Art Of The Low Countries

April 7, 2013 3 comments

Andrew Graham Dixon’s new BBC4 series The High Art Of The Low Countries started this week with an episode on Flemish art. You can’t understand the history of art in isolation from the social and economic factors that influence it, so the programme is also a fascinating and enjoyable general background for anyone considering a beery trip to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels.

Andrew Graham Dixon

Partly to introduce the importance of religion and monasteries to the development of the Low Countries, Andrew also visited the abbey at Orval and discussed beer with Brother Xavier.  You can view that short section from about the 9 minute point on the BBC iPlayer at this link, which will be available for the next 18 days.  However, I would encourage you to watch the whole programme.

AGD2

Whilst we’re on the Low Countries, I missed North Bar’s Lowlands Beer Festival, but when I called in this week the fridges were still packed with great Belgian and Dutch bottles, both traditional and modern.  We enjoyed an Emelisse TIPA and Viven Imperial IPA and finished off the keg of De Dolle Bos Keun, all of which took us back to our trip to Bruges, as recorded in these posts.  Andy Mogg has also posted about his trip to Bruges here.

First image from The Arts Desk.

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The “Round” In History: Rules, Comradeship, National Security and Venereal Disease

June 27, 2012 5 comments

Caught in a “round” system, drinkers can either find unwanted pints of beer stacking up in front of them like a firing squad, or sit around resentfully staring at their empty glass as the one whose turn it is next nurses their beer.  The former always used to happen between a group of us at a rural pub in County Antrim called The Wayside, so that the unstarted pints stacked in front of the slower drinkers at the end of the evening were described as a “Wayside Pile-up”.

The rules of the round can be more complicated and applied more restrictively than a newcomer might think. “Rules are rules”, say people with no imagination. Sometimes exceptions  and “sitting out” may not be permitted:  you may not refuse my generosity nor deny me yours.

There was a particularly strict attitude in certain pubs in my homeland, where I was once told a story of a visiting Englishman who didn’t automatically get a full round, but instead would ask each of his colleagues if they fancied another one.  Quiet offence was initially taken, but he was not to blame – as it was explained to me by the self-appointed pub anthropologist – that was just what English people did.

The Edwardian equivalent of the Wayside Pile-up was regarded as nothing less than a threat to national efficiency and, therefore, wartime security. Rounds were banned by “No-Treating” provisions made under the Defence Of The Realm Act in 1915 and revoked on 4 June 1919 (“and it is generally expected that this date will be made an annual, public holiday in Scotland” – Punch).  Lloyd George attributed an initial reduction in drunkenness convictions to the effect of the Order.

There’s a great example of the application of the No-Treating Order in a 1916 newspaper article here, where a sailor buying a round of drinks and the Cardiff landlord he bought it from were both prosecuted.  The landlord’s silk raised an interesting argument in his defence:

Mr Lewis Thomas K.C., for the landlord, said that the real reason for the order was to hit the person treating, and the person who was treated.  Supposing, said counsel, he and his friend, Mr. Whitely (appearing with him), before going into a hotel formed a joint-stock company and contributed 6d. each, and he went in and paid for two bottles of Bass. (Laughter.) If then his friend drank one there would be no offence.

The Lord Chief Justice: You don’t say really that, when going in to take refreshments, you form a joint-stock company in which you each contribute half of what is going to be spent?

Mr Thomas: It depends on the confidence you have in each other.

The Glasgow Herald reported in March 1944 on calls from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for a No-Treating Order to be brought in during World War 2:

Many attempts, he said, had been made to get the Government to pass such an order, but so far without result.  He for one thought it was too soon yet to give up the battle – and he believed it was also in the mind of the Church he represented – to bring further pressure to bear on the Government in this matter.  There was no doubt that inebriation, immorality, and the incidence of venereal disease were very closely related to each other, and that it was difficult to deal with those problems separately.

The last point reveals what appears to be behind many for the calls to ban “treating” in 1944: a desire to prevent men buying women drinks in an attempt to arouse their affections, rather than simply to prevent groups of workers “getting a round in”. The same point was raised by Viscountess Astor in the House of Commons in the same month:

Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that something ought to be done to relieve the anxiety of people who are deeply worried about the treating of young girls in public houses? Would not a no-treating order help in this very important matter?

As far as I’m aware, the “round” currently escapes any blame in the ongoing debate about alcohol and public health, as the arguments are generally restricted to pricing, duty, measures, ABV and age.  Perhaps it is because pubs are now thought of as a preferable, supervised drinking environment.

Or perhaps it is acknowledged that the system is one of those long-standing British traditions born of an obsession with rules and fair play, along with cricket, grammatical pedantry, writing outraged letters to broadsheet newspapers and queuing. Furthermore, the general ability of  men to buy women drinks doesn’t just spread VD, but rather is pretty much essential for the British to procreate at all.

History is not a nightmare: Whitelocks Ale House, Leeds

June 18, 2012 3 comments

We appreciate the old despite the new and also because of it. James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 when he lived in Paris: it was about, and set in, the Dublin he had left in 1904. It had taken him eight years to write the novel, during which time Ireland saw a great war, an Easter rising, a war of independence and the signing of the treaty establishing the Irish Free State, and was standing on the brink of yet another civil war. So Joyce’s intensely modernist, taboo-breaking and anti-traditional novel is, nonetheless, also an important and evocative historical document of a particular time and place.

 

Listening to Radio 4’s adaptation of Ulysses, with its sensual descriptions of porter, stout, lager, cider, burgundy, steak and kidney pies and cheese and mustard sandwiches in Dublin hotel dining rooms and pubs, made me want to visit Whitelocks, Leeds’ oldest pub/luncheon room. For Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For Whitelocks, though, history is its bread and butter.

I’ve written about it before, but the historic alley pub, filled with copper, tiles, wooden partitions, mirrors and nostalgia, has recently been taken over by Mason & Taylor. The noticeable improvements consist of a good scrub, a slightly fancier evening menu, new staff and an improved selection of beer (still Yorkshire beer, but better, more interesting Yorkshire beer), with the aim of reversing the fading and withering of age.  The policy, it seems, is as much one of restoration as it is of reinvention: making Whitelocks a pub that lives up to the considerable local goodwill.

For lunch I enjoyed a simple but good pork and apple sandwich with a half of Ilkley Siberia, the 5.9% cask rhubarb saison brewed with Melissa Cole. The Siberia had a lighty fruity, almost white wine aroma and a full soft mouthfeel, being in great condition. That gentle and pleasant marshmallowy taste that seems to characterise many of Ilkley’s pale ales held up a tartly sweet and sour bitterness. The savoury and sweet pork and apple sandwich, which was much as it had been when I last visited, was a perfect match.

Turks Head Yard, the narrow alley dominated by Whitelocks, now finds itself surrounded by the redevelopment of Leeds’ “Trinity Quarter”, due to complete in 2013. Leeds City Centre is already a bizarre mixture of the old, new and once-new. I hope that these careful and respectful improvements in beer and service will quietly move Whitelocks from being a pretty museum piece just about kept in business by nostalgia, to a pub that, in its own stately way, is once again as integral and relevant to the beer scene in Leeds as more modern contenders such as the craft beer pioneer North Bar. Although, now I come to mention it, even North Bar is no spring chicken these days.

I highly recommend these two articles about the history, recent decline and new ownership of Whitelocks by Leigh Linley and Simon Jenkins.  You can now follow Whitelocks on Twitter at @WhitelocksLeeds .

The Carlsberg Experience, Copenhagen: Art, Craft, Tradition and Ruthless Capitalism

May 30, 2012 3 comments

Whereas J.C. Jacobsen, founder of the Gammel Carlsberg brewery, had a great interest in science, his son Carl left his mark as a patron of the arts.  The Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, an art museum in the centre of Copenhagen, was established by Carl and built around his collection, which had originally been housed in a gallery on the brewery site.  The Ny Carlsberg brewery buildings that he commissioned also reflect his interests.

The most striking feature of the brewery is the Elephant gates, where four granite elephants hold up a tower like Hindu world-elephants, or more recently the giant elephants who stand on the back of an even more enormous turtle to support Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

One of the elephants wears a swastika, as can also be seen the wheels of Thor’s chariot, on a dramatic statue on the roof not far away.  As Carlsberg is at pains to point out, this innocent use of a Norse/Sanskrit good luck symbol as a trademark was abandoned by the merged Carlsberg brewery when it became tainted by associations with Nazism at the time of the war.

As the people of Leeds know, the recent history of Carlsberg can also be characterised by cold rationalisation.  It closed the Tetley brewery in Leeds last year, but not before decommissioning the historic breweries in Valby in favour of a brewery site in Frederica, on Jutland.  As a result, the Carlsberg district was oddly quiet when we visited on a weekday morning.  However there are still healthy-looking cart horses in the stables, unlike the Tetley dray horses, a 184-year old traditional Carlsberg did away with in 2006.

However, unlike in Leeds, at least Valby is left with its architecture and a visitor’s centre.  Further, there’s even a “speciality” brewery on site (read “macro-does-craft”): the Jacobsen Brewhouse.  After we wandered around the Old Brewery, we claimed our two free drinks each in the Jacobsen bar.  Jacobsen Dark Lager had a rich apple and red berry smell, if a relatively muted taste.

Carl’s Special was another dark lager from the group, presumably brewed at Frederica.  It was easy-drinking, slightly sweet and nutty, but nothing to write home about.  A standard Carlsberg pilsner was as refreshing and slightly watery as you would remember.  In fact the standout of the four beers was a Tuborg Påskebryg (Easter brew), a strong pilsner with a tongue-tingling spicy hop character. It went well with the marmitey beer-roasted almonds.  Carlsberg bought Tuborg in 1970; the original Tuborg brewery in Hellerup area of Copenhagen was closed in 1999.

There wasn’t a guided brewery tour on offer when we arrived.  Much as I enjoyed the visit and the beer, I did come away with the impression that the visitors to the Carlsberg Experience probably have slightly more esteem for the heritage of the brewery than has recently been displayed by the Carlsberg Group itself.

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