Thursday, 15 February 2018

Pub Culture Songs: The Copper Top

Music is hugely important to me and so I thought this new series of blog posts could reflect that passion from a pub culture point of view. The thing is, most legendary songs are written in pubs. On the back of beermats, on torn up cigarette packets, noted in a phone, or just half-thought of and remembered in a haze of hangover the next day, these songs are the lifeblood of modern culture, and as real to us as our own lives. And they're not just written in pubs, they exist in pubs and they emulate them, taking personal experience and transplanting it into a shared one, so we can all enjoy its deeper meaning. We've all sat around a table, peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray, changing the world with our deep conversations, or avoiding life completely. Pubs are part of our lives. Understandably, there are a lot of songs about this.

The first track I've chosen isn't an easy one, but it's wrenched from a place that's easily and instantly understood but still unique in its own way. It's a song about new grief. There's no euphemism I could write to make it sound more chart-friendly, I'm afraid. It's about gently beginning to surface into reality in the hours after a funeral, and coping in the only way you can. Death and pubs, our two certainties.

The Copper Top by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat and jazz musician and composer Bill Wells is a song that arrests the world around you. Since I was little I've always loved story songs; songs that have a start and a middle and an end, that take you on a journey, no matter how mundane. Songs were the first place where I heard about what went on in pubs. I was the only kid who read the lyric booklets. The only 7 year old in Morecambe with a well-worn tape of Different Class. Like Jarvis, Aidan Moffat's storytelling is always breathtakingly on the nose, and I couldn't write about his work without mentioning the first time I heard his 1996 track "The First Big Weekend". It was a full transportation into his world. Deadpan delivery and hyper-realism the likes of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen would be proud of. No room for psychedelia. The real world's fucked up and unbelievable and boring and wonderful and depressing enough.

The Coppertop, Falkirk

The Copper Top is a bar in Falkirk, now offering European food and good beers, in 1996, it might have been a very different place. Immersing myself in Moffat's world, it seems that way.
The bar's busier than it should be on a weekday afternoon as the door swings shut behind me, but I'm the only one wearing a suit. No-one seems to notice my entrance though, I suppose they must be used to mourners in the nearest pub to the crematorium.
In two sentences, he sums up the strange out-of-routine sensation and the general heaviness of time that comes hand in hand with an unusual day off work. After the funeral, he's headed to the nearest pub for a quiet pint. His own private wake.
 I buy a pint and sit down.
The thing about escaping to the pub is that as well as being a place of enjoyment and togetherness, it can be a refuge. Moffat's sought out solitude in a busy bar, knowing he can enjoy the peace of a pint in comforting surroundings, where there are people but none of them will bother him while he drifts off into his own disparate thoughts. As he notes - they're used to seeing mourners in their local that they'll never see again. Like jetsam passing over their reef.

If you listen to the song you'll see that despite the gruff spoken-word monotone of Moffat's voice, the musicality of it is really magical. There are slight moments of reflection caught by brass and piano I really couldn't explain to you in words. All I can say is that they'll sound familiar, because you too have been sat deep in thought, mulling life over with a pint glass in your hand. After a brief interlude, Moffat interrupts himself.
Halfway through my pint and a text message from John says he's waiting outside, sooner than I'd expected. I down what's left and step out into the bright afternoon and get in the car. I look up and see the pub's once brilliant copper roof has oxidised over the years and it's now a dull, pastel green. Everything's getting older.
 A boring description of an everyday action. He steps into the street, slightly surprised by how light it still is, and gets into the car, his last moment of insular reflection resting on the now green roof of the pub. In his open and emotional frame of mind, it's a sign that although old and corroded, it's always been there for those customers inside, and it was there for him. A local that's always busy. A hideaway for crematorium escapees. One of our many immortal pubs.

Friday, 9 February 2018

You're answering the wrong questions about craft beer

If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know that I successfully completed my first bar shift in more than 7 years recently. No mean feat, considering my customer service and mental arithmetic skills have been made slow and lazy by desks. I'd been tentatively excited about it. Working behind a bar is something I remember with extremely pinkish lenses, despite knowing in my heart that, much like the fond memories of comradery I assume the Deer Hunter chaps felt about their first days in Vietnam, the fun and games were short-lived and tinged with tragedy, injury and lifetime-lasting scars. But that's working at Leeds Train Station Wethers for you.

As it turns out, working a cash till and pulling pints is like pulling on a comfy old pair of boots. The best part of working in a local pub is the conversation and the people watching, but this particular pub - The Ale House in Clitheroe - has a magical combination of folks from all walks of life. You'd be hard-pressed to spot a millionaire in there, or a sheep farmer, but I'm just saying, you'll probably pass both on the way to the loos.

Obviously, most of the conversations taking place centred around the range of beers on offer. When you've got a tiny bar and a clientele who demand only the finest hand-pulled ale, there's not much room for any other sort of talk. I'd brushed up on my knowledge of the stock we had in before my shift like a right old nerd and was expecting to get into one or two barneys about sexism on tap badges or the haziness of unfined IPAs. What actually happened was a bit of a surprise.

Yes please, what y'avin?
 It turns out, outside of the craft beer bubble, nobody really gives a shit. I'd learned the wrong facts. I was ready to have the wrong conversations. 30 miles north of Manchester, craft beer is just beer. How weird is that?

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you're so far down your own rabbit hole that you don't know what they don't know. A large percentage of drinkers aren't invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don't understand what they're buying. A lot of drinkers aren't actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes - some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision - truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It's time to admit it: we're answering the wrong questions about beer.

These basic misunderstandings keep the craft beer scene separate from the average drinker, and whether the intention is to add mystery or superiority or not, the truth is that most find it off-putting. I spent long, long transactions attempting to convince beer lovers that yes, all craft beer is for them. And bear in mind, these are people who stepped into a craft beer pub by choice. I felt guilty for being so heavily invested in a culture that relishes being so "other," that people who'd actually enjoy being part of it feel they're not knowledgeable, or cool enough, to join in. Call me sad, but I like it when everyone is included.

So, I collated a little list of the actual questions I was asked during my shift, from real punters, who genuinely wanted answers. Whether you pay attention or not is up to you, but what I want to do is show the disparity between beer fans and beer drinkers (which includes the Song of Ice and Fire that is CAMRA v The Craft Beer Folk) and maybe foster some sort of truce. If we can be a little less insufferably keen, maybe everyone will get along a little better?

What's the percent of that?

I would say around 80% of customers were concerned with the strength of the beer on offer, and most who weren't concerned about taste (we'll get to that) chose their drink based on ABV and nothing else. NOTHING ELSE. Not who made it, not what it looked like, not the hops, not whether it was light or dark, even. Strength, or weakness, was their sole priority. Make U think.

What's the strongest beer you've got?

Sensing a pattern? Most visitors who asked this were the after 8pm crowd, and they didn't want to waste valuable catch-up time drinking session pales. Some, it has to be said, quickly changed their mind when it turned out to be an 11% Noa Pecan Mud Cake Imperial Stout at £8.70 a bottle, however we did still sell one based on a combination of strength and colour. Happily, the customer who ended up with it told us later that it was the best beer he'd ever drank. Now that's customer service.

Which beers are local?

That's right - I got asked on more than one occasion which beers we had on from nearby breweries. I liked this question because supporting local breweries is obviously a great thing to do. It did seem that people didn't care much about what the beers were like though, just that they were from the village over the hill.

Is it like Magic Rock?

People have started deciding that they like beers based on the brewery. I heard somebody say the words, "You can really taste the Beavertown in that." I was modifying my recommendations based on brewery, rather than type or taste of beer. I can understand it, every brewery has their own style, but we all know that you can't really gauge whether you like a beer you've never tried from a brewery you've never tried based on whether they make beers like Magic Rock. This phenomenon is strange. It's exactly like when I was really into drum and bass and talked about music by label rather than artist. Is Beavertown RAM Records? Is Verdant Shogun Audio? Who, apart from me, would really get this analogy? I should quit while I'm ahead.

Why is this £5 per half?

A common complaint. Explaining the ins and outs of brewing expenses falls on deaf ears at 9pm in a small rural town and the best thing to say is, "It's just really nice. Would you like to taste it?" My only thought is to create a written menu people can look at if they want, that explains what's in each beer, to try and foster some sort of interest in the craft (and therefore cost) of making specialist beers for anyone who's interested. But not many people will be, because in all fairness, if one pint is £2.70 and another is a tenner, and you don't really know what you're drinking, which one are you going to go for?

Can I have a half?

Biggest surprise of the evening - a lot of people drink halves. It's not a fancy hipster pub I work at either. Northerners both male and female drink halves by choice and nobody mentions it. I need to do more research on this because I'm not sure if it's because people need less alcohol or if they just don't like drinking whole pints of liquid.

Can I try that?

Punters are ready to give things a go. They are open to guidance too - as long as you're not patronising about it. Even the stoniest-faced Lancashire auld boy wanted to test the liquorice porter.

"Oh, those are just the hops they used. Want to give it a go?"


Is this it?

Four cask pulls and two draft pumps looks like nothing when you compare it to the number of taps in a Wetherspoons, for example. I learned quickly that people are too hard-pressed to want to spend time looking in the fridges for something that takes their fancy, particularly if they don't know what they're looking for. One person wasn't interested in the cans because they didn't want anything "fruity." None of that mango shit. Again, totally understandable, the fridges at our place are home to a lot of weird and wonderful things but I didn't realise how offputting a wall of unfamiliar products is. They're just a customer, standing in front of a bar, asking for something delicious to enjoy on their night off. I think the key here is to be as approachable and helpful as possible, and not go into too much detail. I lost someone once I started talking about hop profiles. Down girl.

I'd be interested in hearing from you on this subject. It's hard to balance knowledge and passion with genuine helpfulness. There's a lot to be said for complete immersion in something you care about and trying to get other people to care just as much is only natural. But what if most people just aren't that into it?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Pubs of Dublin

Visiting Dublin was a revelation to me. The city breaks I normally take are in places where the sun shines and impromptu fiestas block roads and rouse plaza drinkers to take their tiny saucers of cubed snacks into the streets. To visit somewhere less than 200 miles away midwinter seems counter-productive - what for? Why not just stay in Manchester? - but it was my 30th birthday and I'd been told it was a special place.

It turns out that Dublin is the only place I can stand the drizzling rain. For two days I walked down sandstone and cobbled streets encased in hanging droplets of Atlantic Ocean with the worst hair I've ever had, without a care in the world. And it isn't that Dublin has some sort of whimsical charm about it - that's a myth. Dublin is a modern and vibrant city, bursting at the seams with independent retailers and exciting artistic diversions, as well as street after street of some of the most perfect shopping you've ever seen. If you're into that sort of thing. It's not so much a clash of old and new as a total reassessment of what a proud, old, historic city can be and it works. It just does.

Of course, in two days there's only so much you can do, and as a burgeoning beer blogger, it seems befitting to centre this post on pubs. You don't need me to tell you anything about Dublin's drinking scene, except perhaps the re-affirmation that it's very much alive and kicking, and far less staggy than you'd expect. Against the Grain, the first place on my list and the first place I visited, was a complete delight, offering craft enough to excite us even after a day of diazepam (bad flyers) and amazing quantities of Lebanese food. Dark, friendly and yes, okay, expensive - I'll happily pay it if I'm on holiday though - I blazed through my first-night birthday cash with abandon.

Before you visit, people talk about the Guinness as though it has miraculous properties. Their eyes mist over as they try to grasp the fading memory of it, before taking your hand to make you promise, hand on heart, that you'll have a pint for them. I thought it was all melodrama but the Stag's Head showed me that yes, Dublin Guinness is a joy, and yes, I can drink more than five in an afternoon and still be fit for a decent tea. A Victorian bolthole in Temple Bar, The Stag boasts aged brass chandeliers, stained glass and floor-length mirrors aged cosily with pipe-smoke-and-wear patina. I spent a long time in the snug looking at reflections bouncing around the room, thinking about the smartly-dressed men who would have checked their sideburns for accuracy in them more than a hundred years ago. It's that sort of place. I went back twice more during my stay.

Apologies for the wonky photo, I had had 16,000 pints of Guinness




During my stay, walking past pubs in Dublin became a hobby of mine, and I hope I return soon to continue the series of photos I started. I take photos of pubs in England too, but there's something about the places I saw there - including the The Temple Bar itself, even - that make even a late person sure they've got time enough in them to have a swift one. Because who hasn't got ten minutes for a short conversation?



I did commit one cardinal sin though, and it was that I didn't visit one single brewery or distillery. We just didn't have time. We walked to Jameson's because there was a church with crypts I wanted to see nearby, but instead of touring, we sat in the bar opposite and had a beer. Mine was a zingy dry-hopped lemon sour by The White Hag, based out of Ballymote, Sligo.

Maybe we'll try harder next time.