Saracen’s Head Hotel

by Steve Richardson

As I read about the build-up to the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, I remembered seeing a plaque on a wall in the High Street. It commemorates the Saracen’s Head Hotel, “a favourite watering hole for thousands of RAF and allied airmen and women who served on Lincolnshire airfields in World War II”.

During the War, pubs played an important role in maintaining the morale of the civilian population and military personnel. Demand for beer was very high and, even though it was never rationed, there were shortages and reports of landlords holding back supplies for regulars.

The original Saracen’s Head dated back to the Middle Ages. In Tudor times, it was a rambling, timber-framed building and, at the start of the 19th century, a new facade was added. Behind the compact frontage on the High Street were stores, yards and stables. Part of the rear of the building and another entrance were on Saltergate, but the hotel site stretched behind other High Street buildings, down to a related pub, the Saracens Head Tap, on Waterside North.

Until the arrival of the railways, the Saracen’s Head was a main stop for coaches to and from London, Peterborough, Hull, Manchester, Leeds and York.

For many years, the hotel was the headquarters of the local Tory party. On the opposite side of the street was the Whig party stronghold at another inn, The Reindeer (long ago demolished to make way for a bank). On election nights, this area could often become the scene of drunken riots.

Around 1850, the American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, stayed at the Saracens Head and recorded his impressions. “It received us hospitably, and looked comfortable enough, though like the hotels of most old English towns, it has a musty fragrance of antiquity.”

In December 1924, the old coaching inn was transformed into a “Hotel de Luxe” by new owner Mr H. H. Leven. The improvements were said to have cost between £15,000 and £20,000, a huge sum for the day. His intention was to give Lincoln “a hotel worthy of the city”.

In 1946, the Saracen’s Head Hotel is listed as being owned by Lincoln Hotels Ltd. Perhaps it had not been the pre-war success Mr Leven intended. The financial depression of the early 1930s, and then the disruption of the war years would have been very difficult.

It finally closed in 1959. Part of the building is now occupied by Waterstone’s, and if you study old images of the Saracen’s Head Hotel, it is remarkable how little has changed on the upper exterior of the building. Even the old balcony railing seems to have survived pretty much intact.

And what about the beer? Mild accounted for 70% of all beer sold until well after WW2. It was the cheapest draught beer available, the drink of the public bar and the working man. Delivered to the pub “bright”, it was intended for rapid sale within 2 or 3 days. Well-hopped, pale ales (bitter) had been around since the 1840s, and were the staple of the saloon bar. Such beer required cellar conditioning, and was more expensive. Bitter was associated with a wealthier class of drinker, and remained a minority drink until the 1950s. Bottled beers were commonly sold in all pubs at this time, whether drunk alone, or mixed

The premium beer style was “Burton”, a strong, dark, sweet ale, like a modern winter warmer. It’s said that “Gone for a burton”, the poignant euphemism used by aircrew to refer to fallen comrades, implied that they had just stepped out for a beer.

Read about Dambusters pubs in the new edition of the Lincoln CAMRA magazine, ImpAle.

Community Pubs Month

by Steve Renshaw

A few weeks ago, I took part in a radio discussion. Apparently, there are now almost as many coffee shops in the city centre as pubs. The question was whether a coffee shop was now the place of choice to meet up with friends for a chinwag.

It was a fairly light-hearted exchange, but it did start me thinking. CAMRA is always banging on about the number of pubs closing but, actually, why do we bother going to pubs at all?

The price of a pint in many Lincoln pubs is now well over £3. So why don’t we all just sit at home with our cheap supermarket beer and let pubs go the way of high street record shops?

Well, for real ale drinkers, the answer is simple. We can’t get our favourite tipple anywhere else. However, not everyone who goes to the pub is a real ale enthusiast, so there must be other reasons.

Food – there’s one. Lots of pubs do excellent meals, and eating out remains popular, despite the recession. But there’s more to it than that. There are all the intangibles that contribute to the local community. There are the games’ teams hosted, the football teams sponsored, the meeting places provided for special interest groups, the charities benefitting from money raised, the village services provided, the local musicians showcased. And, of course, there’s the controlled environment in which to enjoy alcohol and, on occasions, a barmaid’s shoulder on which to cry.

That’s why, this April, CAMRA is celebrating Community Pubs Month again. We want to raise the profile of pub-going and increase the number of people using pubs regularly. It’s all about reaffirming the vital importance of local pubs, and the essential role they play in many people’s lives.

There are lots of locals I could have visited to illustrate my points, but I decided on the Dog and Bone on John Street. This little gem was voted Best Community Pub in Great Britain in 2009. That was under the previous landlady, so I went along to see how Sarah and Chris Sorrel are settling in.

As soon as I walked through the door, I could tell that the changeover had been seamless. The gentle background music was almost drowned out by the conversations of groups of drinkers at the tables clustered round the real fire. And it was clear that this traditional back-street pub has something to offer to all age groups.

Sarah and Chris had fallen in love with the pub as customers and were desperate to take it on when the tenancy came up. There are no major changes planned – why change a winning formula? But they’re not resting on their laurels. They have music events booked and a summer beer festival planned.

Sarah summed up their initial feelings, “On Sundays we look round to see groups of friends playing board games by the fire, enjoying the simple pleasures of good ale and good company. There really is a place for a traditional community pub where people can meet to form friendships and enjoy companionship.”

I’ll drink to that!

And what about the beer? Batemans introduced Yella Belly Gold (3.9% ABV) last year to tap into the popularity of golden ales and try to win over lager drinkers. I find XB and XXXB a bit too sweet, but Yella Belly Gold is much more to my taste. The Chinook hops give it a dry, citrus flavour initially, with the typical Batemans maltiness coming through.

Let’s all celebrate the great British pub this April.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em

by Steve Renshaw

Here’s a good way to start an argument amongst a group of CAMRA members. Ask them what they think of Wetherspoon’s pubs. Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.

JD Wetherspoon is known for cask ale, low prices, long opening hours, and no music. The chain is also famous for converting large premises such as cinemas, post offices and banks, into pubs. Tim Martin, founder and chairman, opened his first pub, Martin’s, in Muswell Hill in 1979. The company is now the UK’s largest managed pub chain, with over 860 pubs and bars.

Mr Martin is well known for his outspoken views on a wide range of topics. The JD Wetherspoon name comes from one of his teachers in New Zealand who said that Martin would never make it as a businessman.

The company plans to open 30 new pubs across the UK in 2013. In the early days, it was difficult to acquire ready-made, licensed premises. Hence, the classic ‘Spoons is a large pub in a converted bank or cinema. However, now that cash-strapped pubcos are looking to offload real estate, Wetherspoons are taking some of these sites on. One such is the New Angel Hotel on the harbour at Whitby, which is due to open at the end of March.

The price of a pint in a Wetherspoons is significantly less than that in most other pubs. This is the result of high-volume sales and tight margins. For most breweries, the company is a good customer. Whilst they do not pay the best prices, brewers’ invoices are paid on time. However, some breweries, for example Castle Rock in Nottingham, will not deal with Wetherspoons on principle.

So if they’re opening new pubs, serving cheap real ale and giving CAMRA members discount vouchers, why don’t we all love Wetherspoons? Well, some people are concerned about the market dominance of the company. They liken their impact on town centre pubs to that of supermarkets on local shops.

We have three Wetherspoons outlets in the city: the Forum, the Ritz and the Square Sail. Clearly, these impact on nearby pubs, but this need not be terminal. The competition has to work hard to provide the things that a Wetherspoons doesn’t, such as a homely atmosphere or live music. The Treaty of Commerce and the Jolly Brewer are examples of what can be done.

Of course, Wetherspoons are not just in competition with pubs. I’m guessing that some of the cafés in Whitby are very concerned about the cheap meals and coffee that the New Angel will be serving.

My personal view is that Wetherspoons has a very successful formula and a large and loyal customer base. Although their pubs inevitably impact on nearby businesses, good pubs can still prosper if they can offer an alternative. Having such a major chain supporting real ale and local microbreweries certainly keeps our traditional British tipple in the public eye.

So off I went to the Ritz for my beer tasting. This iconic city landmark is a good example of the company’s use of an unwanted building, with the interior celebrating its former glories.

And what about the beer? It was a cold day, so I chose Winter Warmth (4.6% ABV) from the Great Newsome Brewery in East Yorkshire. This ruby-coloured ale is a classic, seasonal brew with raisin and spice flavours and a bitter finish. Well, if my mum could drink a cup of tea in the summer to cool her down, I can have a beer to warm me up.

To find out more about the Campaign for Real Ale in Lincoln, visit www.lincolncamra.org.uk

Are Lincoln drinkers losing out?

by Steve Renshaw

Pubs in Lincoln are expensive and don’t support local microbreweries. These are common observations by visitors to the city. Clearly, they are generalisations and there are notable exceptions. But, based on my travels, I find it difficult to disagree. The reasons are complicated, but one of the major factors is the ownership of our pubs.

In the good old days, most pubs belonged to the local breweries. They were tied houses – they only sold their brewery’s beer. Independent pubs became known as free houses, and could buy their beer from any brewer,

Things changed after the second world war, when brewery mergers began. By the 1980s, the Big Six brewers owned more than half of the country’s pubs and produced 75% of its beer. Mrs Thatcher’s government was concerned about the lack of competition and, in 1989, issued the Beer Orders. Brewers were not allowed to own more than 2,000 pubs, and had to give landlords the option of selling at least one guest beer produced by a rival.

Because the big brewers weren’t prepared to open up their pubs to other brewers’ beers, they came up with something new – pub companies – to which they sold all their pubs. As these “pubcos” didn’t brew beer themselves, they were exempt from the legislation.

So, today, we have a situation where around half of pubs in the UK are owned by pubcos. These pubs have to buy their beer only from the pubco, at a price up to 50% more than a free-of-tie publican pays. Alongside this, pubco licensees often find themselves paying rents that are above the market rate.

Around Lincoln, we have very few free houses, so there isn’t the same level of competition as in many other towns. Hence the higher prices in our pubs. And, as the pubcos broker deals with the bigger brewers, microbreweries have found it difficult to get beer into their pubs.

For some years, CAMRA has campaigned against the unfair practices of pubcos. This came to fruition last month, when the government announced a new, statutory code to ensure fair practices for a number of issues, including rents and the prices publicans pay for beer. It will enshrine the fundamental principle that “a tied licensee should be no worse off than a free-of-tie licensee”.

The Code is expected to apply to all companies owning more than 500 tied leases. Regional family brewers, such as Batemans, who have used the beer tie for over a century to guarantee a market for their beer, will be exempt.

One development that has benefitted microbreweries is the Society of Independent Brewers’ Direct Delivery Scheme. A number of pubcos, including big boys Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, allow some of their licensees to source beer brewed within 30 miles of the pub, via the scheme.

I visited The Strugglers Inn, a Punch pub on Westgate, to find out what can be achieved within the constraints of a pubco lease. Apart from snacks, there is no food on offer, so the pub stands or falls on the quality and diversity of its beers.

There are eight handpumps on the bar. By using Punch’s core and guest beer lists and direct delivery to the best advantage, landlady, Anna, managed to serve 386 different real ales during 2012. And the quality has been recognised with the award of CAMRA’s Lincolnshire Pub of the Year in 2010 and 2012.

And what about the beer? 8 Sail Brewery’s Victorian Porter (5% ABV) is produced in the shadow of Heckington’s famous windmill. It’s a full-bodied, beer dominated by dark malt flavours, but with hints of berry fruits and some bitterness at the end. Perfect after a winter’s walk.

Find out more about CAMRA’s campaigns at www.camra.org.uk/campaigns.

Football and Beer

by Steve Renshaw

Do football and beer go together? Well, not if you’re playing. However, there’s certainly a very close relationship between them.

Football sells beer. That’s why the global brewers spend millions sponsoring clubs and tournaments. The Champions League is sponsored by Heineken, and we’ve now got the FA Cup with Budweiser. (Does anyone else feel uneasy about our oldest cup competition being linked to an American brand?) And pub landlords pay thousands to Sky so they can screen live matches to attract drinkers.

However, the relationship between beer and the beautiful game has not always been so straightforward. In Victorian times, churches and, in particular, the influential temperance movement, saw football as a way of attracting young men away from the demon drink. When the factory hooters sounded at noon on a Saturday, the workers would go to play or watch a match instead of spending all afternoon in the nearest pub.

William McGregor, who founded the Football League in 1888, was a committed Christian. Of the twelve original clubs, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers had started out as church teams.

But pub landlords also recognised the business potential of the increasingly popular game. Pubs had rooms for club meetings and, in many cases, adjacent land that could be used for pitches. Pubs soon developed close relationships with local teams.

When the game turned professional and clubs became businesses, wealthy local brewers were often on the management boards. In 1892, John Houlding, a prominent Liverpudlian brewer, fell out with fellow board members at Everton. As a result, Everton moved from their Anfield ground and Holding established Liverpool FC. Closer to home, Lincoln City played on the John O’Gaunt’s ground provided by brewer Robert Dawber, prior to moving to Sincil Bank in 1895.

Although church involvement in professional football diminished, it continued at local level well into the 20th century. As a boy growing up in Sheffield, I would go to the rec on Saturday afternoon to watch the local chapel team playing in the Bible Class League.

But, from the 1960s, Sunday league football began to take hold. Pub leagues, as they were called, sprang up across the country. As church-going declined and licensing hours changed, young men could play a game on Sunday morning and then retire to the local for a reviving ale or two. Today, Sunday leagues are ubiquitous, while bible class leagues have long since folded.

Looking at the tables of the Lincoln Sunday League, it’s clear that the links with pubs are still strong. As I was doing my research, one result caught my eye. In a top-of-the-table Division One clash, Anglers FC had beaten Metheringham to maintain their 100% record.

The Anglers in Saxilby is a regular in the Good Beer Guide and landlord, Mike Brown, has recently won a long-service award from the pub company, Star Pubs & Bars (formerly the Scottish & Newcastle Pub Company).

The pub is at the heart of the village in all senses. The football club is one of many groups based there. On the evening we visited, they were getting ready for a poker session. And, as with all good community pubs, raising money for charity is a big feature. Over the years, Mike has helped raise thousands of pounds for St Barnabas Hospice.

And what about the beer? Good Elf (4.3% ABV) is a seasonal special from Thwaites Brewery in Blackburn. It’s a dark brown ale with hints of cloves and cinnamon, and just a suggestion of apple in the aftertaste.

Look out for the new edition of our magazine, ImpAle, coming to a pub near you soon.

Keeping to the Strait and Narrow

by Steve Renshaw

At the beginning of last month, CAMRA announced the latest pub closure statistics. And the bad news was that pubs across the country are now closing at the rate of 18 per week, compared with 12 a week six months ago.

But, in the same week that these figures were released, we in Lincoln had a very unusual occurrence – a brand new pub opened. But the Strait and Narrow, in what used to be a catalogue shop at the bottom of Steep Hill, isn’t an ordinary pub. It describes itself as a continental-style beer bar. If you’ve been to the Pivni Bar in York, you’ll be familiar with the concept.

Yes, I know that CAMRA champions traditional British beer, but we’re very happy to celebrate the brewing traditions of other countries. That’s why we have an international bottled beer bar at the Lincoln Beer Festival.

“Wait a minute,” I hear someone saying, “most pubs have a selection of international beers. There’s draught beer from Belgium, Holland, Australia and Ireland, plus bottles from Mexico, Italy and the USA.”

Not so! Most of the familiar beer brands belong to the huge, multinational brewers. For example, AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois and Becks, to name but a few. Even Draught Bass, a favourite of many real-ale drinkers, has been brewed under contract by Marston’s for AB InBev since 2005. And as for Guinness, there’s enough for a full column on that subject.

Most of the global-brand beer drunk here is produced in large, UK brew-factories. And, despite what the PR men try to tell you, they may not have remained true to their original recipes. Because of the British penchant for gulping beer from pint pots, rather than the more delicate glasses used in European bars, a number of popular draught lagers are lower in alcohol than the original versions.

So, on a rainy Monday evening, we went to the Strait and Narrow to try an authentic, continental beer. The well-designed interior is open plan, with drinking areas on different levels. There’s standing room near the bar and plenty of comfortable seating. The exposed brick walls and wooden floor give a minimalist feel which contrasts with the chandelier light fittings.

The choice of beers is extensive, with five real ales (including two from Lincolnshire microbreweries) and a selection of UK and continental keg beers. But it was the bottled beer menu, with its 100-plus entries, that I was interested in.

I was looking for something from Belgium, the beer centre of the universe. As the menu didn’t specify the countries of origin, I had to rely on my hazy memories of a long weekend in Brussels. The terms Trappist and gueuze were familiar, but then I picked out a brand you wouldn’t forget.

Kwak is produced by Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium. The brewery was founded in 1791 and is still owned and operated by the same family. In Belgium, it’s served in a round-bottomed glass which comes with a wooden stand. So many of these glasses are stolen that some bars ask you to leave one of your shoes as a deposit. Sensibly, the Strait and Narrow has not invested in these receptacles.

And what about the beer? Kwak is deep amber in colour and tastes of buttery caramel and malt, with almost no hoppiness. At 8.4% ABV, it’s a beer to be savoured at a very leisurely pace. Which is just what I did, while watching pedestrians trudge along the rain-lashed Strait.

To find out what’s happening in pubs in and around Lincoln, follow us on Twitter @Lincoln_CAMRA.