Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Belated Thoughts on IndyMan

I've been away, so haven't got round to writing this up. I went along to IndymanBeerCon on the trade day and had rather a good time. I spent a tenner.  A tenner you say? How could this be at the most expensive festival around?  Arriving around two thirty I was unsure who I'd know, so just bought a tenner's worth to keep me going until I decided how long to stay. First of all I spent a bit of time wandering around trying to get to grips with the place, or rather, get to grips with what beers were on sale. It was harder than you might think as the eclectic collection of bars were rather small and hard to get to, most being surrounded by festival goers, but that was part of the fun.  Of course I was delayed too by chatting to various people I knew and that was definitely part of the fun.

The first guidance was given to me by an eager beaver who had clearly been there since opening and who had also, clearly followed his own advice with some determination. "Buy the rarest and strongest" slurred my beaming sage, pointing me to a particular American beer, which I was assured was as scarce as hen's teeth.  It seems his advice had been taken up with abandon, as there was none left.  I suppose that kind of figures.

Of course though, with only a tenner's worth - four thirds in this gaff - I did follow the proffered advice, in part at least. The beers were all rare to me, so I just decided to have the darkest and strongest. This wasn't a bad decision at all, as I'm partial to an imperial stout or two. I was also offered and accepted a few tasters, both by servers and friends and this did help make my mind up.  Frankly I didn't have a bad beer - well the odd bad taster - though some were better than others. On my smallish samples, I enjoyed the clearer ones more than the muddy ones and as always at these events, I enjoyed the crack.  It is fair to say that the one price fits all way of doing things divided opinion more than somewhat, with quite a few going for the strongest purely on a VFM basis, while others weren't that bothered. Many seem to regard this event as one to be saved up for, like a concert or the like. I don't recall prices being a point of discussion last few times though, so clearly it had struck a chord with some. Beer for the people? Maybe not.

The crowd was the usual collection of trade types, hipsters, CAMRA types and Joe Public. I got the feeling that this session was likely to contain the oldest average age crowd of the event.  It was jolly enough for me though and being bought a couple of thirds by brewers (tokens used) helped me have a good time.  Has IndyManBeerCon gone wrong? I don't think so, but I'm not counting up all the kegs of weak beers left at the end.   I left after a couple of hours, slightly buzzed as our American friends might say, but that wore off on the bus. I'd had enough strong beer really and if I'm honest, wasn't keen to pay £7.50 a pint equivalent for the weaker stuff.

Of course I went for a drink when I got off the bus. Supping beer or sipping beer? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but if they are the same price, go sipping.

Others have written how the do was a good as ever. That's good news, but I seemed to know a lot less people than I usually do and some didn't stay long, but it was fine for a couple of hours. A few bemoaned the lack of cask (none on sale as far as I know at the session I attended.)  The servers were all pretty pleasant which is great. I didn't bother about food.

I had free entry as trade. That's quite a saving.  I took no notes and one photo (above).

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Two Local Bars

It is always good to try the local bars when abroad.  It is there you get the feel for a place, though if course it can be a matter of pot luck as to what you come across.  Near our hotel in Amsterdam there were a couple of bars our group of ten met up at for a couple of pre-dinner drinks, having gone our own way during the day.  Both were friendly and accommodating, rushing to make tables up so we could all sit together and generally being friendly and welcoming. But the beers were a bit shall we say, pedestrian?  Nonetheless they gave a great impression of the city as being a place that you'll be treated well. That's just what you need when away.

Now one of the things that you really must do in Amsterdam is going for a "Rijsttafel" in an Indonesian restaurant. These restaurants are a relic of the Dutch colonial past, much as Indian restaurants are of ours.We chose one carefully and bloody good it was too. It was outside the inner city and thus less touristy.  We walked back to our hotel, the night being lovely and of course fancied a beer on the way. We knew by now to avoid these at all costs, any Heineken sign boozers. The choice is pretty poor and the prices rather high for what you get. This meant a bit more walking, Heineken being everywhere.  We eventually came across a nice little boozer that was worryingly empty at around nine thirty in the evening, but the the Gulpener sign assured us we'd find a beer or two that we'd like. Our host, a young laid back Dutchman, was happy to see us. He explained what beers he had available, insisting on us trying a taste of each before we made our choices. Perfect. In typical British fashion, us men sat outside drinking beer and watching the cyclists whizz by, while the ladies sat inside drinking wine.  Our host kept us up to date, by helpfully advising us when the women ordered another round, knowing full well that we'd follow.  This arrangement suited us very well. We left after three or four beers as the bar started to fill up. Great stuff and again the welcome and care was outstanding.  Well done Café Cees.

We had though noticed another bar near the hotel. Again signed for Gulpener, it was tucked away behind the Concertgebouw. On our last night, we were eating in the area, so we called in for pre-dinner drinks.  Our host here was of the more taciturn type, but us ten filled a round table and got on with things.  On the wall was a poster advertising Van Vollenhoven's Stout.  Sounded good and a squint at the price list showed it to be on sale. At the bar, we ordered two from our less than talkative barperson.  He rummaged silently. He had none after all it turned out, but recommended a bokbier from the tap.  Now it wasn't what we wanted, so I asked for a taste. After all he had recommended it. He answered in authoritative style. "No."  One word, that's all. Hmm. Ah well, it might have been the best beer in the world, but bugger him, his recommendation and his lousy attitude, so we ordered Orval and carried on. I reflected we'd brought ten people, along for a drink and we all had two or three, so a taste wouldn't have hurt. In case you are wondering, it is Café Welling

So what does all this prove? Well, when you have a choice, go where the welcome is warmest of course.
 This advice of course is only good if you go to a place more than once, but I offer it up nonetheless. Would I advise you not to go to Café Welling? Actually no.  It is a nice place with pleasant customers and seats outside. Just don't ask for a taste of the beer, or depend on affable chit-chat.

Annoyingly it is a Dutch habit to lose a bit of beer on pouring. They sort of pour a bit down the drain before applying the glass. That bit would have done me as a taster.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Two Classics and One Less So

In early Autumn sunshine, Amsterdam is quite delightful. From our hotel near the rather grand Concertgebouw it was a nice stroll across the park to the Van Gogh museum (unmissable) and the Rijksmuseum (less so).  But man does not live by culture alone and after a visit to either icon of enlightenment, a spot of liquid refreshment is required.  Now of course you could repair to any number of local outlets for the ubiquitous Heineken, but if you want to drink in pubs of the company that put the lack into lustre, that's fine, but there are other options.

In what might roughly be called the centre of town, not far off Dam, is one of the most famous of boozers, In De Wildeman. The pubs own website describes it as "one of the best places in Amsterdam to taste new beers or simply drink your personal favourite".  That's exactly so.  I took our small party of six in after their visit to the hidden Catholic Church, a spot of culture I opted out of, preferring to sit in the sunshine at the canalside, watching the world go by.  This is an old fashioned boozer with multi rooms, a soothing atmosphere and a warm welcome from the barmaid, a Mrs Doyle look and sound-alike who was pleasantly helpful and gratifyingly, Irish.  My pals and E all drank Jever. OK it isn't Dutch, but it is good. I too avoided Dutch beer, not through any bias, but because I fancied some Weihenstephaner.  Cheesy and (raw) sausagey snacks provided the sustenance to see us through another couple of rounds.  It is that kind of place.

Two of our party left for different things and four of us decided, on my prompting admittedly, to visit another icon, Arendsnest. We asked a friendly local for directions. "Two canals over and on the left." Oddly, one canal over and the noise and bustle of the city receded. Two canals over and it had gone, giving way to a sedate residential area which was a pleasure to stroll in. The bar itself is in a handsome terrace and is beautifully appointed. It serves only Dutch beers. The greeting here couldn't have been better and the smiling barmaid insisted in giving us tasters and happily talked us through the draft beers. We stayed for two, or was it three?  Time ticked by gently and both the beer and welcome made you glad to be there.

A day later, E and I visited Beer Temple, an American beer bar on Voorburgwal.  This is described on t'internet variously as "cosy" or "relaxed". We both thought it a bit of a dump in need of a clean and although the beer was fine, it reminded us that there is more to a drinking establishment than a good beer list.

When did Heineken become so undrinkable? It used to be reasonbaly quaffable, but now seems sweet and turgid.

Beer in Amsterdam isn't cheap, but pick the right places and you still get value. Pick the normal places and you get Heineken at €5.80 a half litre. Top tip. If in a Heineken joint, buy Duvel.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Dispensary Beer Festival

A few weeks ago I was in London having a few pints with @erlangernick. I wrote about some of it here. For our last beers, I took him to one of my local East End pubs, the Dispensary near Aldgate East Tube Station.  I usually go there when I am down at our London flat, as it sells decent beer and is handy for me.   During this visit, Annie the landlady came to chat and ask if I was coming to their beer festival. As it happened I was going to be in London that weekend. She asked if I wouldn't mind checking over the state of the beers on her external stillage and for a bit of advice -  which I duly gave.  She was worried (among other things) that the beer on the stillage, served by gravity, wouldn't be up to snuff.

Fast forward to the night before the festival when I went in to see what was going on. The stillage was erected, twelve beers on board and all vented using a porous hard spile as I had suggested. All were untapped.  Cold water cooling was supplied by Adnams and the beer seemed cool to the touch, so all looked good.  I tapped all the beers and samples were spot on.  So far so good.  I called in the next morning all was well. No big leaks - a miracle in itself - and even better - no cask had spat its tap out overnight. That's always a fear.  The beer was cellar cool, well conditioned and mostly pin bright apart from those that weren't meant to be. Well we thought they weren't meant to be, but it is hard to know these days.  All tasted fine however and we disregarded the odd haze. None were soupy.

The festival was opened by Roger Protz who was, to say the least, surprised to see me, but we had a great time and the pub was busy. Roger drank some Londom Porter which he loved and gave a very amusing and interesting speech about beers in the East End and spoke fondly about his old favourite, Charrington IPA. Roger is a true East Ender and was happy to be back. We had a good two or three hours. Later, much refreshed after our gated community's annual residents party, we called in again. The pub was still busy and beer still good. On Saturday night after meeting friends we nipped in once more on the way home and again the beer on stillage was still in great form and the pub, not usually open on a Saturday attracted quite a crowd.  It was clearly going well.

As I keep saying, looking after cask beer is actually fairly easy.  Why do so many get it wrong?

The photo shows Annie and me after the beers were tapped. I didn't take any pictures of Roger. Or much else. Don't know why really.

Disclosure: Annie is a pal. I just helped her for a few beers. And to prove a point I suppose. Oh and David, her husband gave me an excellent sausage butty!  Assuming the event wiped its face at least, Annie and David will be doing this again. I might help.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Good Beer in London

Readers of this blog will know I can be a bit scathing about quality of cask beer in London. I don't do so lightly as after all it is easy to get right. But nonetheless to redress the balance in this quick post, here's some good news.

Last Saturday we met friends who had come down from Manchester for the day. Their plans, being Beavertown fan-boys - well craft fans in general really - was that we should go to Beavertown's Saturday opening. Alas it was not to be as instead of the usual open day, it was a ticket event which had sold out. So we arranged instead to meet in Soho for some more ordinary pub crawling.  Our first pub was based on nearness to Tottenham Court tube and you don't get nearer that Nicolson's Flying Horse.  Let's draw a veil over the awful beer there, but it was just a meeting place.   We had intended to have a look at the Fitzroy Tavern, newly renovated by Sam Smith's.  (As an aside, I found out when reading a book this weekend about the blitz, that the Fitzroy was a well know haunt of homosexuals during the war. That's where you went for a sure pick-up if one batted for that side. Or both.)  Alas entry wasn't to be either, as it is still closed for aforesaid renovations fifteen or more months after it started, so plan B was the Draft House across the road, also in Charlotte St. The beer there was fine and actually cool to cold, which is unusual if our local DH in Seething Lane is anything to go by. It wasn't Good Beer Guide standards in my view, but good enough to have a couple and it started an upwards trend.

Brodies' Old Coffee House was busy and the beer was pretty good. Again probably not quite GBG standard, but a notch up from the Draft House.  Food was required by now and so we went on that basis to the Queen's Head in nearby Piccadilly. Both the welcome and the beer were excellent, with Good Beer Guide quality beer and staff who seemed to actually like their job.  The rising trend continued.

Train time for our friends took us the the Euston Tap where the beer was outstanding. You expect this from them and good it is too not to be disappointed.  A two pinter most certainly and it was the sort of quality and choice that made you wish you'd come in earlier. Always a good sign.  GBG quality? You bet. Lastly for us was our London local the Dispensary in Leman St which had a beer festival on. More of that another time, but it was great to see the place buzzing, as they don't normally open on a Saturday. The beer was in great nick too. Again Good Beer Guide quality.

Good cask beer in London is good to find. It was an enjoyable day.

The photo was of a lovely old mirror in the Queens Head. London is great for old brewery mirrors.  

I borrowed the blitz book via E from Tower Hamlets Libraries. A good read if that sort of thing interests you.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Is That Too Much?

Out in Manchester the other day with my oldest friend, our first pint was in Sam's Chop House. There was a middle of the road selection available - think Black Sheep and Bombardier - but we both chose Taylor's Landlord.  Mike raised his eyebrows as the barman announced "£8.40 please".

We repaired to the beer garden and welcome sunshine at the back and viewed the clientèle while checking out the beer. Customers were mostly "Ladies who lunch" or businessmen drinking Becks. It was a rather upmarket crowd and the pub itself could be described in similar terms, at least at lunchtime. The beer was average to good, but better on the second round when it had become a bit cooler, our pints obviously being the first through. Being used to London prices, I didn't really bat an eyelid at the cost and actually I enjoyed the experience, the ambience and indeed the beer, but tweeting without revealing the location, the cost seemed to shock some.

The price of beer is difficult to determine these days, as is the value for money. We discussed this over the next two pints in Holt's Ape and Apple where the cost of the round was five pounds odd instead of eight pounds odd.  The quality of the beer in the Ape was way above that in Sam's and it had a good atmosphere too, though I'll deduct a point or two for the irritating music.

So three quid or so different, but two equally enjoyable experiences.  You pays your money and you takes your choice? What do you reckon?

Holt's Mild was absolutely superb - I do love a top form mild - but best beer of the day was in the City Arms in the form of Brightside Odin.  Lovely drop.

The beer was a bit clearer than it looks in the photo, but not pin bright by any means.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

A Lovely Canal Walk

Bank Holiday Monday, being uncharacteristically warm and sunny, E suggested we walk from our house down to the Rose of Lancaster, a Lees pub on the Rochdale Canal and a sometimes haunt of mine. Now the Rose is a managed Lees pub and if I may comment, one of the best run, with a landlord who is ever present and watchful. As my old boss in Scotland all these years ago would likely have said "He runs a good shop." And he does, though this isn't the point of this small post.

It is a downhill forty minute stroll from Tandleman Towers and we wandered down passing first JW Lees Brewery where there seemed to be a fair bit of activity going on and then, the second brewery in Middleton in the shape of Sarsons, where the smell of vinegar was fairly strong and I suspect is always so, whether they are brewing or not.  We even get the odd whiff of it  at our house. We arrived to the good news that the last cask of Lees previous seasonal, was on. Duly ordered, we took a seat in the beer garden and watched the world going by.  It was a mixed crowd, some eating, most just having a drink and many families and couples, whiling away a couple of hours in the pleasant sunshine even though the surroundings are urban rather than rural. Despite the canal being right underneath the beer garden and rolling hills and open countryside behind, the main views are of the Middleton to Oldham road, but it is still a decent spot and the pleasant scene was one we left with a bit of reluctance, especially as the beer was in top form.

We hopped down the steps behind the pub and turned right along the towpath, taking us by way of a further forty minute walk, to our next destination, the Ship Inn, also a Lees house and one of my regular pubs, where I know nearly everyone.  The walk along a fairly quiet towpath is marred only by two things in what is lovely countryside. One is cyclists who whizz along without warning bells, their presence only felt at the last moment when they are behind you and the other, the rather intrusive pylons along the route.  But these are minor points. The walk, particularly in good weather is truly lovely and recommended.  The original engineering has stood the test of time and enhances the open countryside.

The Ship is a pub I've mentioned before. I often drink Bohemia Regent in here, particularly when the weather is warm. Many of the locals and visitors sat canalside, though that requires drinking out of plastic for safety reasons, or crammed into the tiny courtyard where glass is permitted. It was pretty busy, as was the Rose. That's good.

So if you are ever in this area, both pubs are recommended, but do walk along the canal between them.

The Rochdale Canal was started in 1798, so is of course pre Victorian by quite some time, though somehow it seems Victorian. The canal was completed before her reign.

Where are the nice photos then you ask? I nearly fell in off a lock while taking one. It put me off. So go and find out for yourself!  The photo shown is from Pennine Waterways and shows the Ship on the right.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Quality versus Quantity

Readers of this blog and others will know that there is, knocking about and turning up like a bad smell, an irksome commentator called "py".  He spouts lots of anonymous inane comments to the extent that he has got himself barred from commenting here and there - but not here as it happens. I generally prefer to just give him it on the chin as required, rather than ban him, but I can see the point of those that do. However every dog has its day and occasionally, inadvertently really, a vexatious litigant can make a point that if you dissect it a little, may contain a grain of truth.  He says in a thread about the poor quality of cask beer/real ale in London:

py said...
Its by no means just a London thing. Wherever CAMRA is, then warm beer follows. Go to any CAMRA summer beer festival, the beer is always served as warm as day old piss. You wonder why its the foreign beer bar that always runs out first?

Deny it all you like, reply with some pointless childish insult if that is really the best you can think of, but CAMRA have done more than anyone over the years to damage the quality of cask ale.

21 August 2016 at 22:01

Now clearly much of that is nonsense, but while the writer doesn't expand his "thoughts", is there just a smidgen of what might pass for a reasonable comment there? Well, let's take his point about summer beer festivals. My branch simply wouldn't run one for the very reasons stated. That is, the danger of beer being as described.  Fortunately in Greater Manchester we have always had a heightened view of cask conditioning and beer presentation. We have strengthened that further, with our own cellar experts, who have developed cooling suited to the needs of smaller festivals. It may not be a complete answer, but I must agree that uncooled beer, in the height of summer is a very unwise business, could bring CAMRA into disrepute and my advice to CAMRA Festivals is "Unless you can guarantee the quality of the beer - don't do it."  The reputational risk is just not worth it. This advice should be followed not just by CAMRA beer festivals, but by all that sell real ale. If you can't provide top quality cask beer, just don't do it.

On a second point, Why do so many pubs insist in having a large number of below par beers on sale rather than two or three in top condition? Has CAMRA unwittingly made them think it is the only way to get in the Good Beer Guide? There is some evidence to suggest that might be the case, with the number of single or two beer pubs in the GBG diminishing severely. The current Good Beer Guide, somewhat astonishingly, shows only two such pubs out of 21 pages in Greater Manchester's entries. And even though we know in this area how to look after beer, can this really be wise?  Of course I know that sensible pubs will cut their ranges down at quiet periods, but are we in CAMRA encouraging, or at least not discouraging enough, this quantity over quality concern? On a brief look at this area, it kind of looks like it.  (The number of 3 beer pubs isn't that high either with "Beer range varies" being very common).

In the continual search for quality at the point of dispense, things such as cellar skills, venting practice, temperature and more are all at the top of the list, but when CAMRA looks to implement my motion bringing the quality of beer at the point of dispense into its Key Camapaigns, I reckon we need to include strong advice to pubs that too many beers on at the wrong time is just as bad for beer quality as some other more obvious faults.

Although he is unable to express it without giving offence, it may be that py has a case to argue. 

 I know from my own experience that persuading landlords of this isn't easy though and yes, I think sometimes the triumph of choice over quality can  be partially at least, placed at the door of CAMRA members voting for Good Beer Guide entries.

There needs to be sufficient process safeguards to challenge this at meetings, though of course, a lot of this stems from the pubs presenting too many beers in the first place.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Pub - Book Review

For a person that loves pubs as much as I do there can be few more pleasurable reads than a well written book about pubs, especially when the book is illustrated with some of the finest pub photography I have seen to date. The Pub, by well known author Pete Brown, is a stunningly well written and erudite excursion into the pub as a defining British icon, and with a little history and context thrown in, it draws you into the simple fact that a pub is not just a place to sell beer, wines and spirits, but in Pete's own words, "a cultural institution". Pete describes the book as a "personal journey" and while the book only mentions some 350 out of the 50,000 or so pubs in the country, you really do get the feel for why the pub, to many, is regarded with warmth, affection and a probably a touch of living nostalgia.

Now this isn't a small volume. It is coffee table sized, but the size is used to show in both words and photos, what Pete is driving at when he talks about the various pubs he has chosen for this book.  The book has a short introduction from Pete himself, pointing out that your own favourite pub may well be absent and that he has sought to represent the broad diversity and character of pubs, so if yours isn't included, he is sorry, but he had to be firm in achieving something manageable. This makes sense. Instead what you will find is a wonderfully representative selection of pubs and a neat and sensible set of chapters, dividing the pub into types  such as historic pubs; architecturally interesting pubs; coastal pubs; railway pubs and more. Here is the beauty of writing about pubs - you can use your own categories and chop it up in any way you want - and if written well - as this book is - you can be both personal and at the same time speak the familiar language of the pub buff, as well as reaching out to those who simply like to go to pubs on occasion.

Perhaps though the hardest thing of all is to describe in a way that can be easily understood, what pub culture is. Pete takes a bit of time over this and rightly so, for it is the culture of the British pub that makes it what it is. The backdrop may be its history or its architecture, but it is what goes on inside that makes it a pub. Here Pete excels. He "gets" pubs - and not everyone does - and this is reflected in his writing.  He identifies - correctly in my view - that it is that most difficult to pin down aspect, atmosphere that makes the pub what it is and his pubs are chosen to reflect that. No easy task that, but I think it fair to say that Pete has a pretty good bash at it, repeatedly (in a good way and with a sense of astonishment and wonder), describing local characters and landlords in a way that inspires you want to go and experience them yourself. If you don't believe that, read the description of the scene in either the Snowdrop in Lewes or the Hatchet Inn in Andover. Or any of it really.  You can just dip in and out and will find something to love, or a pub you make a mental note to visit sometime in the future.
Following his personal sub-division of pub types, Pete then does a run around the country by region. He astutely recognises that what the British pub is really like "often depends on which part of Britain you are in".  Each area is given a bit of  a pen picture and is then exemplified by picking a number of great pubs to talk about in detail and giving other pubs shorter descriptions under the "Also Try" banner.   It works.  London gets a large chunk of course, possibly reflecting the author's place of residence, though I did feel that the sections on Scotland and Wales could have been beefed up a little.

But these are minor points. Pete Brown's use of simple words, elegantly put and the clear enthusiasm for his subject, together with his sharp and witty observations, make this a book I recommend unreservedly. The superb photography is a wonderful bonus.

The Pub is published in hardback by Jacqui Small.  Price £22.00 

And for those interested in such things, Pete Brown is most assuredly a Pub Man.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

It's Meant to be Like That

You don't hear that any more when you buy real ale do you?  If you get a horrible warm, murky, flat pint and complain, nobody says that in response nowadays. Education of barstaff precludes it, that's the common position isn't it?  Or do they?

 So, @Erlangernick and I are in JDW's Willow Walk in Victoria, London and get pints (or was it halves - we'd been drinking) as above. I complain and get the classic "It's real ale - it's meant to be like that." I insist it is certainly not meant to be like that and we have the drinks exchanged for something slightly less poor.  In beer, like life, all things are relative.

This is why I moved a motion that CAMRA must include improving the quality of cask beer at the point of dispense as one of its key objectives. The motion was passed and it is time I think to find out what is being done about putting this motion into action.

For those that still think the fight for real ale is won, think again. It won't be until quality is assured and we should complain to make that more likely.

What is it with London and warm beer? Even lager there is usually just a bit too warm. Is this some kind of odd sub culture, or are they just too mean to turn the cellar cooling up / have it maintained / upgraded? London has always had warmish weather. This should be taken into account surely and is by some, but not nearly enough.

An extreme example. On a visit to the CAMRA North London pub of the Year the Bree Louise, again with Nick, his beer - as measured by him I must emphasise but I can confirm it -  was an astonishing 24.8C. WTF? 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Ma Pardoes

No visit to the West Midlands is complete without a visit to Ma Pardoes, or, as it is really called, the Old Swan Inn.  Set on a busy main road in Netherton, it is quite a wonder, being one of the original remaining four home brew pubs when CAMRA was formed.  Again I have been quite a few times, firstly on one of the Mystery Coach trips run by a noted CAMRA member in Manchester, Ken Birch aka Ben Chestnut. Now why these trips were down as "mystery" I don't know, as we always ended up in the Bull and Bladder and Ma Pardoes. Then the legendary Mrs P was alive and kicking, but alas no longer so. For those interested in the history of the pub, there is as complete a go at it as you are likely to come across - here.

The main difference between these far off days and now is that the pub was extended in 1986 and now has somewhat oddly, two front doors and a set of rambling rooms behind the famous bar where a huge cast iron stove, now behind protective mesh still dominates, along with the stunningly grand ceiling with its swan motif. The large snug on the left, complete with piano, would be a splendid place to take someone else's wife for a drink, as indeed would be any of this maze of marvellously old fashioned rooms. Wandering around it, with its faded Victorian and Edwardian grandeur made you want to settle in and wait for the sing song.  Atmosphere in buckets and you just can't manufacture that.  It comes through time and people.

We sat in the old main bar and listened to the thick Black Country accents bantering with each other. The beer is still brewed here, but perhaps doesn't reach the heights of Holden's or Batham's, though Ma Pardoe's Original at 3.5% is still worth drinking and the pub worth visiting for its own unique feel.  No particular warm welcome here, but an easy acceptance of us wandering round looking at the various rooms.  They must be used to it.

We only stayed for one here, but I still recommend it.

Back in the day when The Little Pub Company was still going, we used to visit here and the Vines for pre or post lunch pints when venturing out to eat in one of their pubs with friends from the area. Who can forget the Cradley Sausage Works, Desperate Dan Pie Factory or Mad O'Rourkes? Not me. They had a motto on all their receipts. "Please drink harder and faster" Wouldn't be allowed now.

Remarkably, the Old Swan is owned by Punch Taverns. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Red House Boutique Stourbridge

In Stourbridge for two nights, we stayed in the recently built - within the last two or three years that is - Premier Inn. This proved to be very handy for the Town Centre, just across the busy dual carriageway, past the Bus/Rail Interchange and you were there.  The walk popped you out via an underpass beside the Red House.

According to WhatPub this was formerly a Last Orders pub. Now these, on the whole, and I don't think I'm being unfair here, tend to be aimed at the lower end of the market. But this one had been done up very nicely, making the most of a modern design with a good mix of tables, high poseur tables and bench seating and seemed to all of us like a decent place to drink. A good range of beer from the wicket from the likes of Three Tuns, Holdens, Wye Valley and Enville among others didn't make us at all inclined to leave either -and we found out - a discount for CAMRA members.  For those requiring snacks, there were many exotics, including six different varieties of pork scratchings. It does have one little trick for the unwary of being up a small set of steps, but that kind of thing is only likely to trip you up on the way out. Now this was a Wednesday evening, usually a day of the dead for pubs, but a lively crowd stood outside about eight o'clock, supping ale and chatting happily. It was relatively quiet when we entered and once again we were greeted with great enthusiasm from the lone barmaid.  This smashing service from smart young women seems to be a Black Country thing and, you know, it is such a pleasure to see. We rapidly established her name was Frankie and as the pub got busier and busier, she flew up and down serving all speedily and with great charm.

We wandered on, as you do in a strange place, to the Duke William, which was another beautiful old boozer, owned and run by Craddocks Brewery, a new one on me. This was a great place which we all liked enormously. A mixed crowd and an unspoilt interior charmed us all - as did the smashing barstaff - all female - who again couldn't have been nicer. Alas though, into each life a little rain must fall. None of us cared for the beer that much. Well, you can't have everything, but I'd go back in a heartbeat for the pub itself and maybe we just caught it on an off day. I'd like to think so.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed the Red House once more. The crowd had grown, but many of the same stalwarts we'd passed over two hours previously were still there.  Naturally we nipped in for a nightcap. It turned out that the cause of the crowd was a leaving do for someone or other, as revealed by the heroic Frankie, still controlling things brilliantly.

I think it was still open when we left around midnight.  Make hay while the sun shines.

The beer was excellent too and as we wended our way to breakfast the next day, Frankie was there again, giving us a cheery wave as we passed.  What a girl. 

We did call in again on the Thursday for one and it was pretty dead. Our hostess must have been glad of the rest.  We ended up in the Waggon and Horses where we were well looked after in a tremendous pub by, you've probably guessed it,  a couple of very nice lasses.  As I said, they seem to specialise in it in the Black Country.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Bull and Bladder

The home of Batham's Brewery, officially the Vine, but known by many by its alternative name as above,  is a fine place indeed.  The interior has four rooms linked by a central corridor, with brown glazed tiles on the walls and a serving hatch to service the various different spaces.  Like many, when there, I tend to be in one of the rooms off the main corridor, as indeed, most visitors do, but it is the inner sanctum, the public bar (though I don't actually know how they refer to it locally) that really is the prize spot. But wait a minute. This isn't a big room and there is pub etiquette to think of. You don't just march in to a place like this and  plonk yourself down.  Locals use this space and yes, they have a right to some respect and thus it is, that although I'd poked my head round the door more than once, I don't recall ever sitting there for a couple of pints. Until now. We called in on a Thursday just before teatime and the public bar was nearly empty. We were in the sweet spot after which the lunchtime mob has long gone and the teatime regulars had scarcely started to drift in.  There was probably five or six within and with us four, ten at most. The bar wouldn't comfortably hold more than two and a half times that, so you see my point I hope. It looked reasonable to do so, so we entered the holy of holies and sat in the empty seats below the main bow window. We were given a friendly welcome by the (once again excellent barmaid - a Black Country speciality it seems - and nods from the locals. So far so good.

The pub itself has a history that can easily be discerned by our ubiquitous friend, Google, but of course I will mention its wonderful exterior, for this is that rarest of beasts, a pub that looks just as good outside as it is splendid inside. That's a lot rarer than you might think.  We parked in the handy car park opposite which gives a great view of the pub. While the others darted inside, I paused to observe and take in the place. It is a remarkably handsome building, two tone yellow and cream in colour, dark wood windows and its famous slogan painted at roof level in block capitals, "BLESSING OF YOUR HEART - YOU BREW GOOD ALE". Adjacent and attached is the brewery, with the proud words, "The Birthplace of Genuine Beer".  No false modesty here. They are proud of their pub, their brewery and their beer. And so they ought to be.

Batham's is a small company, with ten houses. That seems to suit them, though they do have a small free trade of around 20 accounts. I recommend having a look at the brewery's website which allows you to download, free of charge, The History of Batham's Black Country Brewery, a fascinating read, with many old photos.

Back in the public bar, we ordered pints of bitter and savoured this most traditional of brews, with its slightly sweet opening and bitter finish. Too good to have just one, we had another then left them to it.  The locals would be in soon.

Batham's is one of a very few breweries that still deliver beer in hogsheads of 54 Imperial gallons.

The Vine is situated at:

10 Delph Road,
Brierley Hill,
West Midlands.

Go there! 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Confidence or What?

I mentioned as a footnote in my latest blog that we had visited the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley on our recent Black Country trip. This pub is an old friend of ours, but I was taken aback to learn from our leader that we had last visited in in October 2009.  Gosh it didn't seem anything like as long ago. Doesn't time fly?

Much has been written about this pub and I recommend for those that wish to know a bit about its history to read Jeff Evans splendid piece here.  We entered the pub at about twenty five past two. Now this would not normally be a key piece of information, but here in the Black Country where they follow a different path in so many ways, it was important and it brought memories back.  We had just squeezed in before the pub closed for the afternoon at half past two.  We quickly ducked into the parlour and ordered beer from the odd servery hatch with its sections facing out into each of the separate drinking areas, pausing only order pints of Pale and to specify straight glasses as opposed to the handled jugs preferred here by the majority, not as a result of any modernity or nod to hipsters, but because they always have done. Well at least in recent memory.

We sat at the corner bench seating nearest the door and servery and promptly at two thirty, the shutters came down.  The pub was pretty busy, probably around thirty or more customers, all drinking beer on a Wednesday afternoon in a quiet part of the world, on the main Birmingham to Wolverhampton Road.  Unlike us, they all seemed to be local and quietly supped up and drifted away.  The barmaid emerged and grabbed many handled glasses in a bunch and disappeared with them.

As the pub emptied, we supped up too and left, me wondering how many pubs these days would call time on a busy pub at two thirty on a Wednesday. Not many I reckon, but that's the Black Country.

The very nice barmaid allowed me to take a photo of her with all the empties on the basis that I didn't include her face in the photo.

The other photo is of the closed servery. You have to trust me on the half past two bit.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Snacks. Again.

Are snacks in pubs a good thing? I'd say so, but in the never ending search for margin and profit - just look at the good old Morning Advertiser for tips on how to do so - are pubs missing a trick in not supplying simple, reasonably priced snacks to customers, who will then carry on supping?  Many of us just don't want a meal in a pub, but other than crisps, nuts and scratchings, there is little to sustain you if you are out for a few pints and feel a tad peckish.  A full meal will stop the most hardened pint drinker in his or indeed her tracks. Remember the days when you could get a sandwich or filled roll more or less anytime? Or the pie warmer with its last dried out pie finding a sure sale at 9.30 in the evening?

Now some London pubs have been doing this for some time with a more gourmet approach. Simple food such as Scotch eggs or pork pies, garnished with a few leaves and a sliver of tomato, served on a roof slate for north of five notes, but while that may be a port in a storm, it doesn't quite cut the mustard - pun intended.  No My Dears you want to get yourself to the Black Country where pubs are still an astonishing throwback to the seventies, without the smoke.  Here you can buy a pork pie in almost any pub at all, or a filled cob - cheese and onion only - for no more than two quid and often less. OK. No added garnish and no roof slate or board - just a plate and a pit of Colman's English Mustard -  but you do get a locally made pie, or a crusty, chewy cob, filled on the premises, with a hunk of cheese and a big chunky slice of onion to keep you going.  Matched with a peerless pint, what more could one want?

Of course, even in the Black Country,  there are plenty of pubs doing meals.  Our first stop, on a Tuesday lunchtime, in Sedgley, is a case in point. Busy with diners and with exceptionally kept beer, the White Lion was doing a roaring trade in meals. The Landlady, a veteran publican, chatted merrily to us as she rushed about and we joked about the Good Beer Guide entry remark of "You won't leave here hungry". "You definitely won't". she retorted.  This was a turnaround pub we were advised, something the Landlady and her husband - the beer man - specialise in doing.  Giving the people what they want still works. We were in beer mode so just had a couple of pints, but I bet we could have got a filled roll if we'd asked.

We did ask in the Bull's Head along the road. "All gone" quoth the barmaid "but hang on."  A quick shout out the back and a reply "How many? We'll make some fresh for you."  Cheese and onion of course, as big as a baby's head and £1.40 each. Of course we stayed for a couple more pints of Holdens, hopefully proving my point.

Reasonably priced and tasty simple snacks aren't the most sophisticated of things, but they do keep people in pubs. Cheap to produce, good mark up. Worth doing in the right circumstances I'd say.

I wrote about this before here nearly four years ago. At least I'm consistent. 

After we left the Bull's Head, we arrived at the famous Beacon of Sarah Hughes Mild fame, just before half past two, in time to get one pint before they chucked quite a crowd out. The Black Country is very old fashioned in so many ways. Half past two afternoon closing eh?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

More Craft Lager

On last week's trip to the Black Country I was more than surprised - taken aback might have been a better word - to find that most conservative of brewers, Holdens, selling their own Black Country Lager. In one of our first stops, the Black Bull in Sedgley, the very chatty Landlady heard us discussing it and offered me a taste. Very nice it was too, although that may have been different when scaled up. Oddly the brewery's own website makes no mention of it at all.

On the last day of our jaunt we stopped at Eccleshall and popped into the Royal Oak, a Joules House, and again there was an in-house lager on sale. This time the beer, Green Monkey, was clearly described on the website and interesting it was too.  "We are very proud to say Green Monkey will never be pasteurised or artificial carbonated, we like our lagers "Brewery Fresh", and this comes from being lagered for up to four weeks. This careful method develops a naturally carbonated drink, producing the most delicate of bubbles, creating a smooth finish on the palate. I didn't have time to try this, but it did set me wondering how many such examples are being brewed out there. Two rather small breweries doing so is interesting.  Now of course I know of the likes of Fullers, Lees, Shepherd Neame and probably more, but how common is this and are they readily available on draught?

Can anyone advise? Are there other such lagers out there? 

Of course the question I should have asked of Joules, is how this naturally carbonated lager is pushed to the bar.  

I also acquired a Joules T Shirt in the pub when the Landlord allowed us to add our drinks together to qualify for a promotion. Nice one. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Two Pints of Draught Bass

A couple of Saturdays ago I was out and about in Manchester with E and the erstwhile landlady, now a staffer at a local JDW and her husband, a manager with JDW. Both are old friends and having just started a couple of weeks off, were enjoying a beer or two. We joined them after they'd made a reasonable start on the ale and had a decent little crawl through parts of the Northern quarter, the sole criteria, stipulated by herself, being that the Landlady hadn't visited it before.

We started in 57 Thomas St, Marble Brewery's outlet in this trendy part of town. I hadn't been since they did up the upstairs and made that a cask bar. Nicely done, but I was surprised - not in a good way - to find the beers served by gravity behind a glass partition. Very micro pub.  My pint of Pint was completely knackered, my experience not enhanced by the barman tilting the cask forward by hand to give me a full pint. Surprisingly after that it was clear, but unsurprisingly, totally flat. I had it exchanged for another, but somehow I feel that gravity pours rarely work that well unless turnover is mighty fast.  I also wondered why they hadn't reversed their refurbishment by putting the keg upstairs and the cask on handpump below. To me, this way round, it didn't work.

Moving on we discovered that on a warm late Saturday afternoon, cellars were obviously not working to their optimum. We had disappointingly too warm beers in the Soup Kitchen and the Allotment Bar, but the side was held up by Pie and Ale which was spot on.  Resisting the blandishments and blatant pleading from one of our party to move on to Spinningfields and ruling out of hand a visit to Lees Millstone, which was packed to the rafters and a bit rough and ready, even for me - and I'm not that choosy - we compromised by heading to the Unicorn for that rarest of beasts, Draught Bass. Our JDW manager doubted its existence (he may have thought it a Robinsons House) and still muttering about the Millstone - he has managed quite a few Lees pubs in his time - we entered to the usual mayhem. The place was packed four deep at the bar, every seat was taken and the hubbub of conversation took us all back to pubs of many years ago, this time without the fug of cigarette smoke. All types were represented here. Middle aged couples arriving for a night out, a hen party, gaga with booze, but adding shriekingly to the already vibrant atmosphere, ne'er do wells in corners conspiring over Carling, well dressed gents having one before moving on, locals standing at the bar, guarding their usual spot with pained defiance and practised ease, despite the mob behind baying for beer.  It was all rather marvellous.

The staff bustled about dispensing lager and Worthington Smooth at top speed.  Unknown beer from the wicket was seen being cranked up and down and dispensed at speed. From our place in the crowd we could just about see the rear of the handpumps in the circular bar. Our JDW man glumly bawled to me above the merry din "Bet the Bass isn't on."  I caught a barman's eye and shouted out that rarely heard order "Two pints of Draught Bass please."

Not only was the Bass on, it was superb. In this time capsule, it seemed just the thing to drink. We had two pints each.

The Unicorn was a Bass House and Bass is still one of the permanent beers. The presence of Worthington Smooth is another clue. I wrote about it and Bass here a couple of years ago, but I liked the Bass less then. I wonder why?

Our JDW man will enquire if he can procure a trial cask of Bass for his pub. I do hope he obtains it. I reckon it will sell.

I squeezed through the crowd for the photo. Wouldn't want to do that twice.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Good News? Possibly Not.

The number of pubs closing each week is falling! From a high of 27 pubs a week six moths ago, to "only" 21 a week now. In 2014, the numbers closing weekly averaged 33. Significantly, the total number of pubs has fallen by a fifth in the last decade to around 52,000.  According to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, the closures have affected rural and suburban pubs in a disproportionate manner which is rather concerning, with suburban pubs suffering most with 317 pubs lost in the last six months.

While to some extent the rural losses are, if not understandable, at least explainable, but the loss of suburban pubs is particularly disappointing. I know from my own experience that here in Middleton, our Langley estate which had around 10 pubs around ten years ago, has dropped to, depending on how you attribute the area, to either one or none. This likely means that vast swathes of the country have no pubs within their immediate area. No nipping out for a quick one unless you catch a bus is unlikely to encourage on trade drinking or a casual pint just down the road.

The picture on the whole remains gloomy, with likely rises in food prices, national minimum wage, high taxes and increasing wholesale prices adding to the feeling that such gains as there have been being wiped out. In fact CAMRA boss Tim Page has said this could happen all too readily if there isn't another beer duty cut.  I wonder with all the uncertainty over Brexit if this is a realistic hope.

At the same time another worrying double whammy has been announced. The Yorkshire Post has an interesting piece about the numbers of pubs and bars in financial difficulty.  They say "An increasingly large number of pubs are going bust as landlords wrestle with a perfect storm of poor weather, England’s abysmal performance at Euro 2016, Brexit and the introduction of the National Living Wage, a report has claimed. Figures from insolvency specialist Begbies Traynor show that the number of pubs and bars which were dissolved in the second quarter increased 53 per cent to 831.
The research also reveals that one in five pubs and bars faces “significant financial distress”, also up from last year."

Now of course not all pubs that suffer financial failure will close, but the underlying precariousness of the pub game is highlighted by the difficulties landlords face.  Anecdotal evidence says that people are cautious about spending following the Brexit vote and with margins already tight, many more pubs are likely to face, at best, reduced circumstances. Around sixty percent of consumers expect the general economic situation to worsen in the next year. If that gloom does drive them to drink, it is likely to be at home rather than out in the local - if you still have one.

While CAMRA is right to highlight minor successes, it looks to me that unless things change dramatically - and that seems unlikely - that the bottom of this deep trench has not yet been reached. 

On a brighter note beer sales have stabilised somewhat following beer duty cuts, but much of that is in the off trade.

CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine rightly advises people to use their local pub as much as possible. More than ever it really is "Use it or lose it".  Mind you if you look at the photo, I was saying that over ten years ago in Issue 2 of our then new Branch Magazine.


Thursday, 7 July 2016

Children in Pubs

Boak and Bailey -  Gawd Bless 'em - suggested on Twitter that there should be a guide to pubs that are child friendly. I wondered why, as being childless, it didn't really occur to me that there might be such a need.  This set off quite a storm on Twitter with aggrieved parents defending their rights to bring their offspring into the pub, as and when they like and bemoaning the fact that some pubs don't take the same child friendly view. I quite liked this post, in answer to Boak and Bailey (who also seem to have suffered adversely from a "No Children" policy), which summed up one aspect of the argument succinctly, if not to my mind at least, persuasively.
I was, as recently as last Friday, in quite a rough pub. I was taken aback somewhat as I entered, to find ensconced in a corner of the small bar area, two young parents, a pram and a sleeping child.  I wondered somewhat idly why they felt the need to be there, rather than in the spacious lounge, as the cramped bar was rather reduced by their presence. But I forgot about them and the child slept on until departure. In the case of my own local, we most certainly are, if not child friendly, child tolerant and it does give me the opportunity to observe.  One thing. Children - and you can trust me on this one - don't sit still.  If there is more than one, they pinch each other, they chase each other and they run in and out of the door, which, if you are in my seat in winter is a right pain.  They get fed up. They wander around. They want to buy their own crisps at the bar. they play noisy electronic games with the sound up - a sound that parents have long since learned to tune out. They really, in most cases I'd venture, don't want to be there. They are bored by pubs. I reason though, that they bring money in and keep my boozer open, so all in all, no problem to me really and actually in the main, they don't run wild and parents do look after them properly.  But it isn't always so.

I was talking to one of my local pub managers recently about children when I was relating an experience of children running wild and unchecked in a different pub. He sighed and advised me that the issue is that staff are very wary about telling children not to run around and if they ask parents to do so, they are rarely co-operative and often abusive. The parents don't see any harm being done and are too busy enjoying themselves to think it a problem. They rarely see their own children with a detached view. If confronted, they threaten not to come back , but they are often high spenders on meals as well as booze and customers are needed. Simpler to turn a blind eye unless it gets really out of hand. Two sides of this argument are illustrated below:
  I could go on, but one thing is for sure. Pubs would not see the need to restrict children if they perceived that there are no problems with them.  Over the years they have realised that the issue is divisive and doubt if they can get the balance right, hence the plethora of restrictions, caveats, reluctant acceptance and outright banning.

The Good Pub for the Sprogged Guide might just suit all parties. Much need information for both sides of this vexing divide. Go Boak and Bailey. Answer the call.

A thought. Aren't all these Happy Eater,  Chef and Brewer, Toybox type places a better place for a child? They provide things for them to do, whereas an ordinary pub doesn't. And some sell decent beer too.

A second thought. Hasn't society changed so much that this sums up the matter too?

 Lastly. Sorry for quoting you so much Craig.but you have a firm and quotable point of view.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A Mean Time With Meantime

Up here in the Grim North there aren't many invitations to this or that beer-wise.  Very few in fact. It's all about London don't you know?  Thus, closely following on from my Budvar invite, through email came another, this time from London Brewer Meantime.  I quite like Meantime and E and I have been known to hop on the DLR down to Greenwich and sup some lager in the Old Brewery. In fact I've written about it here from time to time - quite often in fact - and I still think fondly of North Frisian Lager which I wrote about here. I don't know why they didn't make a bigger thing of that, but maybe it was just too bitter for most. This invitation (for "a beer or three") was to the launch of a new beer and, oddly a piece of furniture.  It also involved a tap takeover with a promise of several rarely seen Meantime beers.  Sounded like a good do, so on another lovely Manchester evening E and I went along. It was all kind of downhill from there sadly.

It is never that promising when you arrive at an event and are ignored by the PR people.  Thus it was, but after asking one or two of the T shirted lasses, we were checked off a list and given a couple of beer tickets. Worryingly and confusingly, the pub was still open to the public and an air of utter disorganisation filled the place. It soon became obvious that I was the only beer writer there. Everyone else seemed to be either Meantime Brewery,  random invitees, or friends of the furniture man who had designed a bar seat for two which no doubt cost a fortune. See attached photo but it looks a tad uncomfortable.  All types were mixed in with cash paying customers and only recognisable by presenting vouchers. We are arrived shortly after seven, but by nearly half past eight, there was no sign of any beer launch and my beer tickets had been supped.  I sought out our hostess with the mostess and enquired about the beer launch. She said not to worry that it would be "soon". My request for further beer tickets was declined. Hmm. So we bought a couple of pints - no big deal - but it isn't usual to be invited by PR and then pay yourself.

Behind us a whispered conversation took place. A guy in a Meantime T shirt was hissing loudly that he couldn't do the presentation as he knew nothing about the beer, but nonetheless, without warning to the audience, he was thrust to the front and talked us through from slides, the new beer, which as far as I could make out, none of the audience had. It was well after nine by then. So out of curiosity, I bought us a couple of halves of the new beer - after all, it, with the chair, was the main reason to be there. It was nothing special, so as the News of the World would have said, we made our excuses and left. Well no excuses really.  We just left before the promised grub was even laid out and went for a couple of pints elsewhere.

Now this may give morbid satisfaction for some, but actually if I want to spend my own money, I am unlikely to need or heed an invite from Meantime to do so on their beers.  There seemed to be no shortage of beer tickets for the Meantime types - well those wearing Meantime T Shirts - who were shall we say, enjoying the beers rather liberally.  If they were the target audience, then why invite me and a plus one and then not engage with us?

Now I thought long and hard about posting this, but hey ho - Good and bad. ("Freeloader gets Comeuppance" was my alternative title.)  There wasn't the usual PR follow up either. Hope Meantime thought the PR Co value for money.

I liked the Meantime Pilsner, Winter Sun and the Stout. I can't remember the name of the new beer though, but it was rather ordinary.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Budvar Tankové Pivo

Like some others I've been very impressed with the Tankovna Pilsner Urquell that is now sweeping some parts of the UK. It is one of the few things that makes the Draft House at Tower Hill remotely bearable when the suits are in and your head is being shredded by repeated tuneless bass music, comparable to being attacked, without anaesthetic, by a mental dental surgeon, with a particularly slow and buzzy drill of considerable width.  I digress, but feel better for getting that off my chest. Bastards.

I've been lucky enough to have tank beer in Prague and old enough to have had tank beer in the UK in one of its original incarnations, but done well, with top quality beer, it is really a rather good way to ensure the customer gets brewery fresh beer, as near as dammit as the brewer intended. (Mind you I don't always want things the way some brewers intend, but that's another digression.) I was therefore pleased to be invited to try Budvar Tankové Pivo shortly after its Manchester launch at the Oast House in Manchester's Spinningfields. Even better I had been asked to bring a plus one and my companion was the lovely E, fresh off the train from London and dragging her thirst behind her on what was a lovely day in early May

Now a word about the Oast House. This was opened as a ‘pop-up’ bar with temporary planning permission in October 2011.  It is a genuine 16th century oast house and was brought to Manchester from Kent, brick-by-brick and is now a permanent feature of Spinningfields, Manchester's business and leisure area, purpose built from 2000 onwards. It has a large beer garden and is attractively rustic, though not that big inside. I rather like it as it seems to always be populated by a very mixed and cheerful crowd.

Our hosts were Budweiser Budvar UK Beer Sommelier Jo Miller and (Oast House owners) New World Trading Company’s Beer Guru Warren McCoubrey.  I didn't know Jo before, but Warren is an old acquaintance, once being part of the famous Marble Arch Brewing team that brought you Manchester Bitter and Pint. He speaks (rightly) very highly of Dominic Driscoll, now brewing for Thornbridge and James Campbell, Head Brewer of Cloudwater, so we were off to a flying start. Jo turned out to be great fun and with a couple of local lasses joining us, it was a jolly little crowd that set about learning about Budvar and supping the beer.  For my part, though I had had tank Budvar in Prague, it was some time ago and I wanted to compare and contrast.  The beer itself is malty and bittersweet with a good Saaz hop finish. It is easy to drink and its 90 day maturation period does give a deeply rich and satisfying flavour.

So, did I prefer Budvar or Urquell?  Well, they are different beers entirely, but I would say that each has its place. I like Urquell for its sheer drinkability, its distinct spicy hoppiness and yes, even that slight diacetyl edge that somehow enhances the beer. Budvar is more sophisticated in its taste, maltier and somehow a little more steely.  Take your pick really. Neither will disappoint.

A big thanks to our hosts Warren, Jo (and Caroline from chip PR who ensured a constant steam of Budvar) for lots of wit and repartee. This wasn't so much a beer tasting as a natter among friends. We both enjoyed it enormously.

 Budvar Tankové Pivo is available in the Oast House at around a fiver a pop. When E and I called a couple of weeks later, it was flying out. Job done. People like it.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Improving With Age

No, not me. I'm falling to bits. Beer I mean. Well cask conditioned beer that is.  Does anyone remember that cask conditioned beer used to be called, among other things, cask matured beer?  Well it did and there was a reason for that. It tasted better if you left it for a bit before venting and serving it.

The landlord of our pub had a cask of JW Lees latest seasonal beer, Kaleidoscope, which he's kept in the cellar for an extra week.  It was rather good.  Too often beer is just dropped bright then served. If it has not undergone any maturation time in the brewery cellar - and that's unlikely these days in a lot of cases -  then it is likely to be thinner and less tasty that it might have been had it been given some time. I remember giving the Landlady such advice years ago when she was the Boss in our little boozer. 

So landlords, there are many tips I can give about keeping cask ale, but this one is easy, technically at least. If you can get get a week ahead in the cellar - and I know it costs - it is very likely that as long as you keep your cellar at the correct temperature, then you will serve much better cask beer.

Keeping cask beer is easy as long as you follow the basics. No real excuses for not doing so.

A local brewer of some repute sent me a direct twitter message last week to advise me that he had complaints from a pub about his beer. When he went to the pub, the cellar was at 20C.  See what I mean?

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

What's the Point?

I'm quite a fan of JD Wetherspoon though I'll readily admit its many faults, but on the whole, I quite like what they do.  People do call it a vast monolith that sucks the life out of other pubs, but I for one never forget that not so many years ago, there wasn't a single one. They have been built by one man and who can grudge such business flair that consistently gives a lot of people what they want? Not me.

Now back to these faults which can manifest themselves differently in different places. I'm not expert on the JDW pubs in Scotland outside the centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh,  but like their pubs in England, they vary and usually vary down to the competence or otherwise of the manager. As in all businesses, good managers bring flair, direction, purpose and enthusiasm. Take these away and you have a bad pub. Recently I was visiting my old mother in my home town of Dumbarton. Now Dumbarton isn't a wealthy town. The Wetherspoons there,theCaptain James Lang, only opened just over three years ago and it has added a lot to the town. Mothers and old ladies love it for coffee in the mornings. Old soaks like the prices, though I don't detect the same hard cadre of  9 a.m. John Smith's drinkers we get here in Middleton. It sells cask ale for the first time in Dumbarton since I left over 30 years ago and here's the point. No bugger drinks it.  I have tried when I visit and every time I have ordered a pint, I'm assailed by vinegar and the beer is "taken off". I'm offered a replacement with the same results.  Frankly if you don't drink Tennents Lager, get out of town  I shudder to think of the wastage rates.

On the following night I took the family for something to eat - no, not at the Captain James Lang despite the fact that there is less choice to eat in Dumbarton than you'd get in a Welsh Chip Shop - but to a carvery run by Crown Carveries, a subsidiary of Mitchells and Butlers.  The venue displays a Cask Marque sign outside, so all will be well? No, it won't. This time I asked for a taster. The Deuchars IPA was vinegar. The barmaid offered to pour some off as no-one had had any for "a few days". I declined and looking at the pumps, ordered a Heineken. No dice - "that's just for show".  So, a pint of Tennents was ordered.  The chatty barmaid explained that only Tennents and Guinness sell and that they have told M&B repeatedly that no-one drinks real ale, or Coors, or Heineken, but it seems it is a standard offer, so no changes. The barmaid said disparagingly "They are English - they don't get here. Just wasting their money."

The Pub Curmudgeon recently wrote about this subject here. I agree. What is the point of selling real ale where clearly there is no demand? There is none.  You have to grow a cask market and you won't do it by selling them vinegar and cask, in what is already stony ground for it, will get an even worse reputation. A downward circle of death.  That is not to say that you can't do something - you can - but you need to start off slowly, have offers and tastings, educate and encourage. If you don't do that you are lost.  Maybe M&B and Timbo should take a good look at their Scottish outlets. The market is different there and they should cut their cloth accordingly. 

As always, "It's the offer Stupid."

Why didn't I eat with the family in JDW?  Because I had an atrocious meal there when I had the duff beer. No prizes for saying which eggs were cooked by my 84 year old mother and which by JDW.
And no, I'm not saying either company should give up on real ale in Scotland, but apply a bit more individual thought and intelligence according to location. 

The carvery was really rather good and great value.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

A Quarter Ton of Hops

Manchester Beer Week to be held in June, has many different and attractive features, but will be underpinned by the brewing of an official beer, MCR FOLD. This beer, brewed by headline sponsors, JW Lees is somewhat improbably a collaboration between Lees, traditional to its roots and Cloudwater, new kid on the block and not in the least traditional.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, nothing much actually.

 My good friend Beers Manchester (Jim) has given his take on the brewing of the beer and also, thankfully, the facts and figures. I recommend you read his blog in conjunction with this piece to get the full flavour of the day.  So, who was there?  Well me and Jim obviously, me as Lees CAMRA contact and Jim, because Connor Murphy whose brainchild Manchester Beer Week is, asked him to come along. Completing this little posse was Paul Jones, Co-Founder of Cloudwater and James Campbell, Head Brewer at Cloudwater, and an old pal of mine. Our merry little gang was completed by Lucy Lovell from the Manchester Evening News, no doubt to put a bit of professionalism into the subsequent writing.

We met at the brewery gate and as we all knew each other (except Lucy) it was a cheery re-union.  We were greeted warmly by Lees marketing people - who I know well, so one up to me - and hence to - the Brewery Cottage (Lees Hospitality Suite) for coffee and to meet the brewing team from Lees led by Michael Lees-Jones, a family member and Head Brewer and Paul Wood, Brewhouse Manager.  The day was explained and without much further ado it was off to the brewhouse to start the brew. Now a recurring feature of Lees brewery, the main parts of which date back to the 19th century is a surfeit of stairs. We tackled these with diminishing enthusiasm as the day went on as we scaled them for the umpteenth time, but first time, we were like rats up a pipe.  The brew liquor had been prepared for a brew of around 180 British Brewer's barrels or, if you like, about 52,000 pints.  The malt was automatically added and we watched as under the control of Brewhouse Deputy manager, John Gillibrand, the numbers clicked away until the correct amount was added.  Then that was that for a little while as the malt, steeping away, started its work.

So what then? Bacon and sausage butties and a couple of pints of course. Although the pump clip for the beer was displayed on a handpump in the bar, clearly it wasn't available yet, but no matter. Climbing stairs is thirsty work and while it's unusual, for me at least, to have had two pints before a quarter to ten in the morning, in the circumstances, it would have been rude not to.  Not that any of us needed much persuasion. Perhaps not unexpectedly the majority of us had cask conditioned Brewer's Dark -  Mild to you and me - and despite being a former Champion Mild of Britain, relatively rare, even in Lees tied estate.  There was much smacking of lips. Bloody good beer that. Luscious, fruity and moreish. The Cloudwater lads were impressed. William Lees-Jones the Managing Director of Lees joined us and the brewers merrily chatted away. That chatting was a recurring feature, with the brewing teams from both breweries talking process and kit. Brewers love talking about kit and there was huge cheery grins on all the faces.  This was no forced marriage or marriage of convenience. Smiling faces were the order of the day.

So what else? We had a very comprehensive and well appreciated tour of the brewery. We scaled the outside of the highest conical and viewed the brewery and Manchester from on high (except Jim who isn't keen on heights), we added hops - lots of hops - more hops than Lees had ever put in a brew - and ascended and descended stairs to view yeast propagation, cellars, kegging and cask lines until the brew was ready to be transferred from the whirlpool to the fermenting vessel.  Now this was where John and Paul W had major concerns. A quarter ton of hop pellets leaves a lot of solids and even with a whirlpool as powerful as the Lees one, the worry was this would clog a system designed for the more modest hopping regime of JW Lees.  Thankfully it didn't and the transfer continued like clockwork until near the end when the transfer piping did clog and hop debris was drawn into the water heat exchanger causing a gasket to blow.  This was met by complete professionalism from Lees Brewhouse team.   Unfazed they stopped the transfer and while we retreated to the in-trade sample cellar for a beer, they sorted it out by dismantling the clogged piping and blasting out the blockage. The glycol heat exchanger would be used for the next brew until the cold water gasket was repaired by the brewery engineer. No problem and no time at all taken. I think they actually enjoyed it, but a few barrels were lost in the process which was a shame, as demand for this beer will be overwhelming.

So the beer itself? Jointly designed by James Campbell, Paul Jones, Michael Lees-Jones and Paul Wood, the beer is an all malt brew, bittered with Goldings and a little of the other hop used, Olicana.  Then, added in the whirlpool at 80 degrees C to eliminate isomerisation, a quarter ton of Olicana, hopefully bringing aroma and flavour rather than the bitterness the hops would have produced if boiled.  The final beer will be 4.8%  and though described as auburn, looked likely to be more mid brown if the wort is anything to go by.

And that was that. We all look forward to tasting the finished beer. But just think of it. A quarter ton of hops. Take that craft beer.

Olicana is 6.9% alpha acid hop developed by Charles Faram. It was first used in a commercial brew by Ilkley Brewery who named it after the Roman name for the town.

It really was pleasing that the brewers all interacted so well. Questions flowed like a river from Cloudwater to Lees and I'd love to see the reverse happen. Who knows, but I also hope Lees have the taste for future collaborations.

I was also present when Lees last did a collab brew - with Brooklyn Brewery - and watched Garrett Oliver pour the worst sparkled pint ever in the Brewery Cottage.