Sunday 18 April 2021

Pies, Pints and Capitalist Realism

I assume by this point that most people subscribe to Vittles? But for those who don't, this week's article was a rumination by Jonathan Nunn on his (and his cockney dad's) complex relationship with traditional Pie and Mash shops.

A central point of the piece is that a key problem for modern pie and mash shops is that the food is, fundamentally, just not that nice. Or at least, not that well adjusted to modern tastes, which expect mashed potato to be pepped up with butter and seasoning, and which sometimes enjoy sauces that aren't green and gelatinous. But it's the refusal to move with the times, the strict adherence to a formula that evolved for a very different era, that also makes the pie and mash shops so important to the people who love them.

There's an obvious parallel to pubs here. The basic British boozer - dingy, tatty, wet-led, mostly uninterested in drinks that aren't beer, almost completely uninterested in in drinks that aren't alcoholic - seems like more of the same thing: a business from the mid twentieth century soldiering on in the twenty first, simultaneously treasured and threatened because of its refusal to evolve. While I wouldn't describe them as "not that nice", I can't help suspecting that a lot of my favourite pubs would actually do better, financially, if someone spruced them up a bit and tilted the offer more towards family meals instead of sessions on pints.

I think this points to something more complicated in our affection for these places than the simple nostalgia that the Vittles piece talks about. It goes hand in hand with the lionising of the sort of dictatorial landlord who bars punters for looking at a chair the wrong way and of a general "like it or lump it" attitude to giving the customer what they want: "please do not ask for draught lager as a punch in the gob often offends". I think that part of what appeals to us about these places is the refusal bow to the customer-is-always-right adapt-or-die logic of modern capitalism. They seem to contradict the Capitalist Realist assertion that every business must necessarily be on the lookout for ways to adapt to maximise revenue, and demonstrate an escape from an all-pervading competitive ethos that even the biggest proponents of free-market economics must occasionally get tired of. In this sense, you could see a traditional boozer or a pie and mash shop as a sort of Temporary Autonomous Zone for middle-aged white men.

The question, though, will always be whether the logic of modern capitalism can still be kept at bay when the rent comes due or the bills need paying?

Friday 1 January 2021

2020 - The Good Bits

Right, 2020.

It goes without saying that a lot of fairly terrible stuff has happened this year. I'm not going to dwell on that more than is necessary. Weirdly, from a personal point of view we've had one of the best things that ever happened to us too, with the birth of our tiny baby Robbie at the beginning of October. COVID turned our lives upside down, and then the new arrival turned it - more upside down?

Anyway, I've never been the biggest fan of the strictly categorized Golden Pints format, so I'm just going to run through the best beer stuff that I can think of from the year, and then the best other stuff.

Probably my top brewery of the year was Duration, whose stuff we've been getting via their webshop and from Thirsty. They're basically just very good at brewing, with excellent takes on both the obligatory hoppy pales and a good range of more diverse styles - Belgian Wit, American Stout, Pilsner and so on. We're really hoping that once everything's a bit more sensible we'll be able to get up to their brewery in North Norfolk, which sounds like it's going to be an amazing destination.

My favourite new discoveries were Three Hills and Pastore. The beers that I've had from Three Hills have mostly been big, juicy NEIPAs, a style that I'm not always blown away by, but Three Hills seem to absolutely nail it, combining the massive fruity hop thing with a drinkability that a lot of other examples seem to miss. I also had a fantastic barrel aged Imperial Stout from them as my big silly drink to see in the New Year. Waterbeach-based Pastore, on the other hand, are mixed fermentation and sour specialists, something that I was always going to go for. Their Wild Saison was particularly enjoyable.

For obvious reasons, it's been harder than ever to talk about "pubs of the year". We have had a load of great stuff in deliveries from Thirsty in Cambridge. When it's felt safe enough, we've been for outdoor food and drinks at the Castle, the Maypole and the Blue Moon, although our trips out have been fairly limited - we've applying some extra level of paranoia on accounts of the whole pregnancy / baby thing.

In terms of beer writing - or at least, writing by people who write about beer - a couple of things have really stuck in the memory: Lily Waite on going for a nice walk and a pint, and Katie Mather on the Proustian associations of burger vans.

My homebrew theme of the year has been rebrews and tweaks of recipes that I've brewed before. I'm not sure whether it's a function of lockdown (the lack of homebrew club meetings or the increased tendency to just be around the house and fancy a pint of something drinkable) or whether I've just hit the point in my brewing progress where I've got a slightly shorter list of crazy new ideas to try out and a longer list of past brews to mine. I've also been brewing a lot of session-strength beers - this is probably also related to the parenthood thing? Hop of the year has been HBC-472. It's kind-of Sabro-esque in a pale, but it really shines in a dark beer, bringing a sort of coconut-and-bourbon flavour that's strangely reminiscent of barrel-aged character. I'd be surprised not to see a lot more of this over the next few years.

Other new stuff that's kept me going this year: