Monday, 14 September 2015

Weird pubs in Brighton and Hove: The Neptune

I've been living thirty seconds away from the Neptune for the past six months. Now, with just a few days to go until I move house, I thought I’d better satisfy my curiosity and finally take a look in the first in an occasional series of weird pubs around the city.

Several weird things about the Neptune are noticeable in a glance. The cool ornate sign is one, and the general weather-beaten appearance (it’s just off Hove’s seafront) another. When the front door is shut, which weather dictates it usually must be, you can’t see in very clearly. Pubs like this always look shut even when they’re open, and always have me anticipating an American Werewolf in London-style entrance. The Neptune also bears the branding of a Courage tied pub, intriguing since this brewery no longer exists. I had assumed that there were no more Courage pubs, though an internet search suggests there are – the Courage beers are, after all, still available, now brewed by Wells & Young. But none of them are on sale here.

Not that I was interested in drinking them anyway, especially since the cask selection in the Neptune is pretty solid – ignore the Abbot Ale and you can choose from Harvey’s Best or beers from Kissingate and Franklins, also local. My pint of Franklin’s Smoked Porter isn't brilliant – there’s a little acidity that I'm not convinced should be there, even if the smoke flavour is bang on – but whatever this says about my prejudices, I expected a rancid pint of unlovingly selected, uncarefully kept, twiggy brown beer, so I was happy.

The place is small. Not too dingy, not too much stale beer smell. Harvey’s towels not doing much to soak up the spilt beer on the bar. Reasonably busy – mostly locals, I guess, since most seem to know each other. Lots of saucy Sid James-style laughter around the room. The bloke next to me has something to say to his mate about my beer selection, but I can’t quite catch it. At first I think he’s saying its expensive - £3.50 a pint – and then that it’s a strange choice for a first pint. I'm just having the one, which might put me in the minority in this venue. The atmosphere isn't unfriendly anyway. I take a seat at the bar, far from the only singular male drinker adopting this position, whilst half-reading my book and soaking up the ambience.

I've been sat there a while, minding my own business, when the lights behind me dim. A lady in silver trousers has stepped up to a microphone on a corner stage.  There’s  live music here twice a week. “Hello”, she says in a thick Irish accent, “is everybody feeling alive?” The following account of what happened next is pasted verbatim from a text conversation I had with a friend immediately afterwards. It’s not my best writing but I feel the breathlessness of the prose communicates the situation well;

“They had some Irish woman about to sing on stage in there and she said “is everybody feeling alive?” and then some bloke said “we will be”. Then the barman said really loudly “we will be when you get that kit off” and I drank my drink really quickly and left.”

This is the thing with these slightly down-at-heel locals pubs – the people romanticising their existence and role in the community and the people defending them from the threat of closure of pubco buyouts aren't, I suspect, often the same people drinking in them. I want places like this to exist, but I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable here. In any case, pubs need custom to survive, and the Neptune has plenty of that this Sunday afternoon, so I doubt they could care any less whether I'm in there with my head in a book, killing the vibe. 

10 Victoria Terrace
East Sussex

Monday, 7 September 2015

A brief history of brown ale

In my last post about brown ale, I mentioned a post on Ron Pattinson’s Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog which alluded to certain historic brown ales as bottled versions of mild. Most beer books will contain a fairly brief summation of brown ale’s past, but this was a new one on me, and made me realise how little of the style’s history I actually knew. What details I stumbled across were initially confusing and hard to piece together. The answer was, obviously, to search the term ‘brown ale’ on Ron’s blog and sift through the results. If you want to know the facts about the evolution of a historic beer style, Ron Pattinson really is your man. His research is based on extensive trawling of brewer’s records and, whilst some interpretation may occasionally be required, I think it’s safe to assume any information posted at Barclay Perkins is documented fact.

For my own benefit, I decided to compile a brief history of brown ale as I now understand it, based on Ron’s blogs on the subject. I may have misinterpreted certain things, and I don’t claim to understand the tables of numbers or certain technical information he posts, but the basics I’ve discovered there have helped straighten the story out in my own mind and are hopefully fairly accurate. If you’re a more seasoned beer expert than I or have a head for figures, Ron’s work will be right up your street.

Brown ale began life in the 18th century, when it was available as either Common Brown Ale, or the stronger Stitch. At this time, ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were distinct from one another – beer was stronger, and heavily hopped to prepare it for a keeping period of 9-12 months. Ale was lightly hopped, and drunk as soon as the cask cleared. Common Brown Ale and Stitch were both made from brown malt. Around the turn of the century, the increasing popularity of porter saw these styles died out. Brown ale ceased to exist for around a century.

Mann’s were the first brewery to revive the style, and it returned to the mainstream again in the 1920s. Though all were very different to the original brown ales, these modern versions were stylistically diverse. The commonly accepted split between weaker, sweet beers from the South and strong, drier beers in the North is quickly debunked by Ron’s findings – many Northern brown ales were low in alcohol and Southern beers strong. Newcastle Brown Ale was one of the few stronger brown ales to survive, whereas Mann’s, one of the strongest brown ales in the 1930s, ended up with an AOV of just 2.8%. When writers like Michael Jackson later came to write about the style, these were the principle examples on the market, which may have contributed to this imagined divide.

There is a link between brown ale and mild, especially in the South.  Many breweries bottled their dark mild as brown ale, though the beer was primed differently for the bottle. This could explain why brown ale was almost exclusively bottled, and mild usually draught. Exactly why bottled dark mild wasn’t simply called dark mild isn’t clear. Brown ale is absent from the brewing records of certain breweries who are known to have sold them, and this is because it was brewed exactly as the breweries’ dark mild. This was far from the case for all brown ales, though – many were far stronger than any mild and brewed to their own recipe. Some breweries also brewed a stronger version known as Double Brown Ale. The colour of these modern brown ales was not imparted by brown malt, nor roasted malts, but from dark sugar or caramel. In cases where mild was bottled as brown ale, caramel may have been added.

And finally, an expression that always confused me - Nut Brown Ale, which appears on beer labels to this day. This describes the colour of all kinds of brown beer - it does not specifically refer to brown ale, and is certainly not a distinct sub-style - and was used in traditional poems and songs, especially those heard at public feasts.

Conversation for your next dinner party, eh? I've often noted how vague the definitions of brown ale are and how different one can taste from another, and it would seem it has always been this way. Please do let me know if I'm confusing any of the details here, and thanks to Ron for his invaluable research.