Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Black Country

I'll leave other to argue whether a beer community exists or not. I do know that beer has made me many friends. It seems that everywhere I travel there's someone I know. How useful those local contacts can be.

My Birmingham area mates are Mark and Sarah. We've met plenty of times over here, but never on their home turf. After dropping several very heavy hints about the Swan in Chaddesley Corbett, they offered to drive me and Dolores out into the wilds of the Black Country and beyond. Helping me cross off a couple of pubs I've been longing to visit. For literally decades.

My foreign readers may not have heard of the Black Country. "Why's it called that, dad?" "Because immigrants from the Caribbean settled there." The kids are getting to know me better: "What's the real reason, dad?" It's grimmer than my joke explanation. Because the soot and smoke of industry turned everything black.

The Black Country is an industrial area to the west of Birmingham, encompassing such exotic places as Wolverhampton, Dudley, Brierley Hill, Cradley Heath and Netherton. Not sure how industrial it is any more. Factories don't fit in with Britain's post-industrial economy.

The more clued-up amongst you might recognise some of those names. Because the Black Country is an area with a long history of small-scale brewing. An area where many pubs still brewed well into the 20th century. And where home-brewing never died out*.

In my early drinking days back in the 1970's, Netherton was a name to stir the heart. It was home to the Old Swan, one of the last four homebrew pubs. I've always wanted to visit but had never quite made it. Until last Tuesday. It wasn't a disappointment.

I love pubs. Especially pubs that look, feel, smell and taste like pubs. Coal fires, etched glass windows, handpumps proudly parading on the bar, pork scratchings lurking behind them. And straightforward beer, without pretensions or pomp in any circumstances.

The Swan used to only brew one beer. An ordinary Bitter that now seems as fashionable as clogs and watch chains. Back in the 1970's, no-one thought much about how fashionable a beer was. Geeks and hypes and viral marketing were decades away. The Swan's range has been expanded. But not with anything dull and trendy like a Triple IPA or Imperial Doubt. No. They've gone the other way, adding a Pale and Dark Mild and another Bitter.

My subtle hint of passion fruit days are behind me. You'll have to make do with suicidally drinkable as a description of the Old Swan's beers. Beers that let you talk quietly with friends rather than irritatingly tapping you on the shoulder or punching you in the ribs. Beers that oil conversation instead of becoming the subject of it. A reassuring background hum of booze, that, unless you listen for it, slips from notice.

That I couldn't stay longer was my only regret. But the Old Swan was but one of four pubs we'd pencilled in. The next was another I couldn't miss. Another Black Country beery landmark. About which I'll tell you next time.

* It's a myth that home brewing wasn't legal in Britain until the 1960's. It was legal, as long as you bought a licence. Right up until the requirement was abolished licences to brew at home were issued. We went around the Birmingham Back to Back museum while we were over. I wasn't that surprised to hear the communal washhouses called "brewhouses".

The Old Swan Inn
89 Halesowen Road,
West Midlands DY2 9PY


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, were you able to have a look at the brewery? If so, what kind of fermenters do they use? Any other comments on the equipment in there?

Also, would you say the beers, by virtue of being home-brewed, are "different" in some way? Thanks as always.


Bailey said...


There are quite a few pubs with breweries down here in Cornwall, too. One claims to have been brewing continuously since the 15th century; others are newer but in the same tradition, i.e. a few straightforward beers brewed for sale in the attached pub. On paper, the beers sound unremarkable but they are quietly arresting -- grainier, perhaps, than the products of bigger breweries? Spingo at the Blue Anchor in Helston has been a touch 'wild' when we've had it, but in a good way.

Martyn Cornell said...

I was lucky enough to get to all three of the West Midlands/Welsh Borders "last of the originals" home-brew pubs in the 1970s - my favourite was the All Nations, an utterly unassuming, plain pub selling just one beer, a light mild, made on the premises, just as hundreds of other pubs must have been doing in the region as late as the 1920s. (Didn't get to the Blue Anchor until the 1980s …)

Gary Gillman said...

Interesting about the grainy and possibly wild quality of the Spingo.

I guess what I am wondering is, do these beers bear hallmarks of the "home-brewed ales" which were so admired by, say, Thomson & Stewart in the 1800's? Was/is there something particular about a very small scale of production and one obviously taking place over a very long period?

It may depend on the type of equipment, e.g., wood vs. metal vessels, conicals vs. open fermenters, the type and degree of (any) cooling, etc.

I can't recall now where I saw this, but an observer in the pre-Second World War era wrote that he could always tell an estate-brewed ale from a commercial one: he meant one brewed at a great house or a college. I was always curious what he meant by that and whether that is true of the surviving, long-established home-brew pubs.


chriso said...

I remember making a pilgrimage to the Old Swan in about 1975. Guess it's really time I paid a return visit. Unless my memory has gone wonky, they also carried a Simpkiss beer as well as their own stuff. We also visited another pub in Dudley which served Old Swan beer on that trip - the White Swan. We were expecting something similar to the Old Swan but it turned out to be a modern place with a less than welcoming atmosphere. But the phrase "friendly local" in the GBG could often be something of a warning sign back then.