A premium pie deserves a distinguished drink. You open up the bottles Tom had handed you: a Big Drop low alcohol stout to match your Steak & Ale pie. And Ascension Cider’s ‘Pilot’ (from Polegate!) for your partner’s sausage and onion. (Tom loves the challenge of match-making).
Ah – now we’re feeling Weekendish.
On Saturday, we pop back in to fill up a growler and notice how many of the customers are obviously coming in for the first time.
Someone is exclaiming happily that the wine they “always drink when they’re in New Zealand” is available here. Someone else is stocking up for Christmas on alcohol-free beers (it’s a growing big thing): IPA, lager and – amazingly – stout. A couple are discussing which particular bottle of Sussex wine to bring to a party table as novelty.
I ask who comes here – and how they find it – and am told that when they opened the Bottle & Jug in May 2018, 70% of customers were regulars from the Brooksteed over the road, but that these days people are finding them via word of mouth and social media.
Tom moved into Worthing 4 years ago from Brighton, where he was on the FOOD, BOOZE & REVIEWS team. We chat a bit about the B’town – Worthing contrasts and agree about how very far the wider public image of Worthing is from the reality we know and live here. WoBy can’t resist the old question: is this because Worthing is the New Brighton? Tom is sure that’s not it. He says that, while people moving in from Brighton and London were used to buying quality food, beer and wine, it’s not all about the newcomers; he argues that longer-standing Worthing people too are very much part of the changes around here and the yearning for good stuff. Businesses like Piccola Italia have been here for years, for goodness’ sake, while the Food Pioneers are impeccably local!
I ask about all the bottles labelled as ‘natural wine’. This turns out to be an interesting path around the twin problems of over-restrictive labelling schemes and the persistence of substances such as sulphites even in many organic wines. ‘Organic’ covers what happens in the field, but does not necessarily promise integrity in the factory, where additives promise consistency and profit for producers. The production process of organic wine can be pretty chemically-laden, then, while ‘natural’ wine promises a living – and hence annually variable – drink. I learn that Sussex is especially strong in the production of natural wines. This is lovely to hear and a happy 3rd millennium carry over from the area’s past in market gardening.
Snuggling within the ‘natural wine’ group, there’s some very unusual and interesting bottles: qvevri wine. This traditional natural method from Georgia, Caucasus, using clay pots, is now also being used by Sussex winemakers. Extraordinary. Sod terroir and its restrictive snobbery: we have Sussex qvevri, yes we bloody do. As food anthropologist Harry West points out, the terroir concept and associated ideas of static unchanging places, people, products, was always a fantasy. Movement is what brings peoples and cultures alive and thriving.
Tom reckons 50% of his customers come in knowing exactly what they’re looking for, while the other half come to browse and discover – hence the super-detailed labelling and the relaxed chatty vibe. B & J is part of the movement to take the snobbery or fear out of good eating and drinking: Tom tells us that he totally does not expect people to know anything about drinks or even to know what they want, and he definitely does not want them to feel intimidated. That sounds very Worthing.
(While we can spot man-buns, faux-vintage bicycles and all the other alleged signs of hipsterdom around town, what we don’t have so much of here is the ‘cooler-than-thou’ pomp that will freeze you out in Hoxton – or parts of B’town).
Tom goes on to say something we’ve heard a few times now: Worthing doesn’t want to be the new Brighton and never will be: The town is happy with its own strong identity. The underground and artsy scenes here are vibrant – and this is not a new thing. There are several subaltern and alternative histories of Worthing’s past (WoBy will get round to them). Then there’s the groundswell of a ‘People’s Republic of East Worthing’ in the present. And here we have some especially vibrant, socially embedded, ways of doing local small business. We’re small enough to hold our networks and connections close and strong. All of this underpins hopes for our future.
Sussex qvevri? Oh yes. And more surprises to come.