Craft and graft

Pete Brown muses on class, craftsmanship and the fool’s gold of ‘authenticity’ – all while enjoying a pint of Sheffield smoothflow Stones bitter


It’s autumn 2021, and I’m in one of the greatest beer cities in the country. It’s eighteen months since I was last here, enjoying a craft beer festival followed by one of those gentle hangover Sundays that unexpectedly ends in you buying rounds of imperial stouts and stealing bottles of Henderson’s Relish – you know how it is. 

A week after that epic Sunday we were in lockdown. This is the first time I’ve been on a train and stayed in a hotel since. And though I’m closing my isolation loop in the last city I left, I’m in a very different drinking establishment, with no imperial stout in sight. 

Covid’s scars are still fresh. The long bar is entombed in Perspex, its serving areas marked out by black-and-yellow hazard tape. (Imagine that: ordering a pint is denoted as a hazard to your health, let alone drinking it. The neo-prohibitionists must have loved the pandemic.)  

I brave the risk, and order a beer that has strong local roots, one of those legendary pints that has become a symbol of local pride even among non-beer drinkers. It’s one of the first beers I ever served in a pub when I worked behind a bar as a teenager. In this gentle afternoon in a north Sheffield working men’s club, the smoothflow Stones bitter goes down a treat.  

This is my first pint of smoothflow in about twenty years, and it’s… really not bad at all. The stale, papery, dead taste I usually associate with these beers is absent. Sure it’s too cold, deadened and flavour-masked for fool-proof consistency. I’d let it warm up in my hands to let the flavours develop. Trouble is, the bastard keeps evaporating from my glass before I get a chance to do so, and I have to order another, and then another, worried I’ll be judged by the barman at how quickly that last one went down. 

I’m going to take a mental leap here and imagine that you, gentle reader, did not open this esteemed magazine expecting to find praise for macro-brewed, dumbed down, mainstream keg beer. It’s the drink of old men in flat caps – except even the old men have moved onto Carling, Foster’s and Carlsberg now. John Smiths, Tetley’s and Stones are half-forgotten relics of a bygone age – just like working men’s clubs themselves.

This whole scenario is as far away from the exciting, vibrant, hip world of craft beer as it is possible to get while still drinking a beverage derived from water, yeast, hops and malted barley. This suspicion is confirmed later in the evening, when I tweet that there’s something to be said for drinking simple beer in a plain environment, and one of my followers tells me he agrees with me in principle but insists I’m wrong about the beer, that I can’t have enjoyed it, because it was macro smoothflow. I may be an international beer judge and award-winning writer on the topic, but this guy I’ve never met is so committed to his ideology that he’s prepared to argue he knows my own palate better than I do.

Give the craftsperson back their dignity, and you have to pay them more than the person on the production line

Any craft industry is by necessity elitist. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was no concept of “craft” as opposed to mainstream – it was just the way things were done. Industry created a new way of doing things that robbed craftsmen of their dignity and job satisfaction, while at the same time making shoes, or furniture, or bread, affordable for people who’d only been able to steal or inherit them before. For millions, cheap, dull and unimaginative was better than bare feet, sore arses, empty stomachs – or transportation to a penal colony.

Craft as we understand it can only exist in opposition to a base-level industrial norm. Give the craftsperson back their dignity, and you have to pay them more than the person on the production line. They probably want to use better or more ingredients and raw materials, and take longer over it, to make something better than a factory churns out. That’s all good – so long as you’re happier that the finished product then simply has to cost more. We may not want to admit it, but anything “craft” is the preserve of those who have a bit more money than most other people.  

So what if that cheaper option is all you can afford? 

Working men’s clubs originally formed in the late 19th century as an alternative to pubs. After a few false starts, they were owned and run as co-operatives by their members, and came together in a union of clubs, pooling their knowledge and experience to help each other thrive. 

PHOTO: Crookes Social Club

In many different ways, the clubs showed the practical can-do spirit of men who were often talented, but rarely given the opportunity to show it. When breweries saw clubs as a threat to their own tied pubs and started to mess them around on beer supply terms, many banded together to brew their own beer instead – the most infamous being Newcastle and Gateshead’s Federation Brewery.  

While working men’s clubs began life in London, once they sorted out their democratic structure, they thrived in the north of England more than anywhere else. These hard-working, industrial communities were largely homogenous, with most men doing similar jobs and most women having a similar time running their households. They lived, worked and played as one. And the clubs provided them with the perfect framework.

A sociological study in Huddersfield, published in 1968, revealed that the town boasted seventy clubs. But in the words of the author, “there is nothing here on the scale that takes place in South Yorkshire.” One local drinker recounted a visit he’d made to a club in Barnsley, just before 2pm: “Ah thought the barman had gone mad. He started drawing pints and he went on until he had over a hundred standing on the bar. Then the miners came in. Straight back it went – to wash the coal dust out of their throats. Only four of them stayed.”

Being community owned, all the profits from these colossal beer sales went back into the club. Instead of funding dividends to rich brewery owners, they paid for everything from snooker tables and trophies, and concert halls boasting ‘turns’ from the biggest names in light entertainment of the day, to convalescent homes for their members, baths and showers for their families, and trips to the seaside for their kids.  

While researching the history of working men’s clubs, I belatedly realised that, when I turned eighteen in 1986 and never even thought about joining any of the three local clubs (now down to one) in my village, I was playing my part in the end of an era. Margaret Thatcher, who always despised the idea of working class people enjoying communities in their own right, did far more damage than my generation of image-conscious (and yet, somehow, mullet-sporting) teenagers. But changes in society pre-dated her annihilation of Britain’s industrial base. The exclusively white, male-dominated club world already looked wrong to white working class kids like me.  

In the twenty-first century, the role of the working men’s club has been largely appropriated by Wetherspoons. This, so I’m told, was a deliberate strategy of Tim Martin’s – finding clusters of clubs and smart-bombing them with a big new Spoons opening. 

Crookes Social Club in Sheffield opened itself up to the local student population

Even many woke, ideologically sound craft beer drinkers seem to have no problem openly mocking the clientele of a typical Wetherspoons – these shiny-suited old soaks, queuing up for “breakfast” at opening time. They’d probably do the same to the septuagenarian smoothflow drinkers clinging on in the last surviving working men’s clubs if they were even aware of them. 

But these clubs still perform a valuable function. Especially when you’re older, getting out of the house and seeing people becomes fundamental to happiness – even to survival. 

Stripped of its historical associations, if you re-imagine the idea of community owned member’s clubs ploughing their profits back into lowering prices and providing entertainment, and support, it feels achingly urgent and appealing, no matter what generation you belong to. 

Some clubs are still clinging on. Others are doing better, reinventing themselves along contemporary lines. Crookes Social Club in Sheffield opened itself up to the local student population, and has hosted gigs by, in the traditional language of Clubland, “a talented local female vocalist” called Rebecca Taylor – known more widely these days as Self Esteem.  

Beer aside, clubs in some form have existed as long as society. Even as the nature of communities changes, we still have a need to meet up and feel relaxed in each other’s company. 

And if the beer is flowing so quickly it doesn’t have a chance to go stale in the pipes, and if the drinking of it is simply the foundation on which a great night (or afternoon) is built – in a cost of living crisis, maybe that £2.20 pint of smoothflow bitter is starting to look just a bit more attractive than an underwhelming £6 can of NEIPA.

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