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.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Very Light Mild

May is Mild Month according to CAMRA, so when I spotted one just coming on in the Regal Moon, I thought I'd give it a go.  Milds, these days at least, are dark. Right? Not so this one which was bang in the middle of in the golden ale ballpark and way off the usual dark brown to black.  It was, as John Torode might say, "a lovely, lovely thing." both to look at and to sup.

Naylor's hail from Yorkshire - Keighley in fact - and their beers are frequent visitors to the Regal Moon. Not hugely hoppy beers, but very well made and they usually have that elusive drinkability that many brewers haven't yet stumbled across.  Northern Mild was just such a beer. Malty and light bodied, it weighed in at 3.8% and was brewed, according to the brewery website, with Maris Otter malt, Crystal Malt and torrified wheat.  The crystal was thankfully well hidden and the beer itself was of the swoopable kind with the Maris Otter providing a deep biscuity lusciousness.

It was a shame I was driving, so one and a half pints was my lot. Recommended.

I do like a dark mild too, but haven't seen much of that locally recently, but the old boys in my local swear by Lees Dark Smooth.   

The beer was crystal clear. Just my crappy photo that gives it the haze and it looked even paler than the photo shows.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

New Attitude?

I spent most of yesterday editing (that means writing a lot of it) my local CAMRA Branch Magazine, so didn't get a chance to go out shopping. I decided though that I couldn't be bothered cooking, so a rare takeaway was called for. I'd been given a tip about a good local curry house I hadn't been to and knew that opposite it was a pub where I was advised on Sunday by one of its regulars, a new landlady had just taken over a few days ago.  Seems like a good opportunity to try a different curry shop out and say hello to the new people in the pub at the same time. As a long standing Branch Chairman, one of the things I do like to do when I can, is to keep in touch with the trade. It helps a lot. Both me and them too hopefully.

Curry duly ordered, I had 20 minutes while it was being cooked, I nipped over the road. The pub was empty apart from three locals in a far corner and me at the bar. There was one person behind the bar that I recognised from her bearing as much as anything else, as a barmaid of long standing - and three others - mother, daughter and son I'd guess from the resemblance -at the far side of the bar. They obviously weren't local but seemed to have a vague air of being in charge. They didn't look up as I came in.  My pint of bitter duly purchased I glanced around.  The locals were talking quietly as locals do, pausing only to borrow a pen from behind the bar.  The new team (for it was they) carried on doing what they were doing. I looked over hopefully, but nobody looked back. The beer was good. I ordered a half to top it up and the young lad served it tentatively, the barmaid having gone out for a smoke. He didn't know how to work the till. The new team confirmed.

A few minutes later as I was about to leave,  conversation (not including me I must clarify) started about how they could attract customers at the quiet time between five and eight.  It was about half seven by then. It fizzled out as I left, my shouted goodbye being thankfully returned. At least they spoke then.  I could have given them one tip. Talk to the bloody customers.  To not to talk to a sole customer standing at the bar on his own for 20 minutes when you took over just a few days ago, is more than a faux pas.  No matter who it was, you could have learned a lot.

When I started work in a pub many, many years ago the first thing the Boss said, was always say "Hello" and "Goodbye"  or equivalent - well he said a lot more than that - but these were a must.  He reasoned that the hello made people feel welcome and the goodbye made people feel appreciated. It made them look on the pub kindly and made them think "I'll go back". It is enduring logic and complete business sense. Now I don't want to be too hard on anyone new to the pub game, but you know, it is hard enough without making basic mistakes. Now you'll likely say " Why didn't you introduce yourself?" Well I could have of course, but it wasn't my place. If I'd been spoken to I would have and really it might have been a useful thing. I know the area the pub is in well and the pub too. A chance was missed.

So a plea to all licensees and bar staff. Just say "Hello" to customers. It can and does make all the difference.

I do mean "Hello" or similar. Saying "You all right there?" even with a raised inflection at the end, doesn't cut it.

The curry - cooked Bangladesh style - not English - chicken samber was pretty good. I'll be back, but will I have a pint in the pub? Of course. Second chances and all that.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Should Porter Be Sweet?

After attending CAMRA's Revitalisation meeting I needed, er, revitalising.  In the Crown and Kettle I spotted a porter. I was in the mood for dark beer, so ordered a pint. It was very sweet. "Hmm". Later in the Marble Arch I ordered a different porter, again a touch on the sweet side, so I tweeted that.  Beers incidentally were from local brewer, Squawk  and the other from Summer Wine, both great brewers I hasten to add. Nothing wrong with either as such, but just too sweet for me. Another "Hmm". I don't really like beers that are too sweet and wondered if porter should be. Now "should be" is a bit pejorative I suppose and when I tweeted about the sweetness, Squawk Brewing responded by saying "That's just how we brew it". Fair enough (up to a point) and if it sells that way, why not?

But should it be sweet? When you want to know anything about Porter, you really need to consult the oracle. Well in this case the oracle's blog. Here's what Ron Pattinson has to say. Basically if you look at the apparent attenuation of porters when porter really was a thing, it just couldn't have been as sweet as some of the examples around nowadays. Is there a genuine misunderstanding going on here or is it something else, namely the dividing line between what is perceived as fashionable these days - porter - and what isn't fashionable at least by its availability at drinking strength - stout? Of course, nowadays, brewers call it a stout or porter to suit themselves it seems, but the artificial dividing line can often be one that falls between the degree of blackness and the degree of roastiness, though Ron's myriad of tables suggest no such thing. If you do want to know the difference between porter and stout, see Ron.  As far as I can tell there isn't really any, at least in historical terms.

Talking to a new brewer, Ken Lynch from Serious Brewing in Rochdale, he reckons that there is a gap in the market. His first cask beer is a stout at a drinkable 4.5% and a lovely black bitter and roasty drop it is too.  He, like me, likes stout and often can't find one.  His beer - and I have witnessed it happen - flies off the bar.  My two recent collaborations have been dark bitter stouts and they too have sold so well they are repeated. So, not many bitter stouts around, but they are popular when available.

Are brewers missing a trick here?

The only issue in using Ron as a source is that there is information overload, but nowhere that I have found does he suggest that porters are sweet.  I am far too lazy though to read very single article, though I gave it a fair shot until my brain rebelled, all tabled out.

The poorness of modern Guinness also presents an opportunity for stout brewers I would suggest. The photo is a pint of Serious Moonlight Stout.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Same New!

Barcelona we are told is an up and coming craft beer destination. And so it is. Craft beer bars are popping up everywhere and there is even a BrewDog and, gasp, a Mikkeller bar, more of which later. Fortunately for me my craft bar guidance was in the safe hands of our friends - let's call them Jack and Jill - who are very much taken with the craft beer scene generally and therefore had a list of craft beer destinations to tick off. Yes indeed, craft beer bar ticking is a thing - and why not?  It is certainly as valid as many other list ticking things and of course you get a drink of sorts, if not thrown in, at least guaranteed.

On our first full day, after a strenuous hot but pleasant walk up to the Olympic Stadium and some spectacular buildings and views, we needed liquid sustenance.   Now one thing about craft beer bars in a big city, is that unlike curry houses and the like that tend to huddle together, they seem to take perverse delight in being miles apart and thus needing public transport connections.* Fortunately Barcelona's Metro is a bit of a marvel, but it does mean spending rather a lot of valuable drinking time bashing track. Now up at the Olympic Stadium it was hot and sunny. Down by the sea shore in Barceloneta it was sunny and windy and the wind had a chill to it. We sat outside BlackLab Brewhouse, more out of bravado than common sense and perused the beer menu. There was a bit of a Stone Brewing theme going on and the house brewed beers were mostly in the pale ale genre. Sadly, no dark beers were available, so I tried El Predicador, El Cunado and Punto de Rocio and all were fine, if uninspiring. 20cl glasses were the standard measure and were reassuringly expensive.  It was an OK place and was rather nice inside, but I don't think in fairness we saw it at its best.

Over the next few days we went to a fair number more. Here's a brief run-down, though not in any particular order:

Biercab: A nice enough bar with a large number of beers shown on two screens so you can see what was what. Again dominated by Stone in both its US and Berlin incarnations. I also soon realised a theme that was going to be repeated, repeatedly, is that Barcelona Craft Beer Bars tend to feature a number of IPAs, a choice of Porters, Imperial Stouts and the odd oddity thrown in. Where you do get a pilsner it will likely be the worst tasting beer available. As E found out.

Garage Beer Co:  A slightly grungey and dim brewery tap. The equipment can be seen at the back and when we went there it was only us four and a couple who sat canoodling on a settee. The barman seemed to find us an intrusion and the beer was at best ordinary. For a more positive review I suggest you look here, but I really didn't like it at all and I suspect, apart from the joy of people watching - not the cannoodlers I emphasise - I doubt if I'd have liked it much more when full.

Mikkeller: Scandinavian chic, uncomfortable seating and eye popping prices. Not very big really and again as we called in fairly early, it was pretty deserted.  Most of the beers are from Mikkeller with one or two from elsewhere.  I think I tweeted that I was paying £10 a pint. It was probably more than that I think once you multiply it out. Beers well made but well expensive. Not my sort of place and as soulless as Dracula in his coffin, but maybe the place you'd take a posh lass to impress. Or then again, maybe not.

La Cervecita Nuestra De Cada Dia: Bottle shop and bar which I quite liked. One handpumped beer, reasonable prices and a bottle shop within. Slapdash service, but it was a pleasant place if you want to try more obscure Spanish beers at good prices or, indeed large Belgian bottles to share. OK it was just by our hotel, so that was a plus too.

 A Birra Dero:  Also known as the Barcelona Beer Institute, I wrote on Twitter that I seriously liked some of the beers, in particular ICA Green Pilsner.  Also known as the Barcelona Beer Institute. It was another fairly neat modern bar. But I liked it, so go there.

  Kaelderkold: Nice little Danish bar just of the Ramblas run by a very personable and chatty Danish guy. This was a likeable place with the usual choice of IPAs (various), Porters (ditto) and imports from all over. Along with Ale and Hop, probably the best balanced beer list of any I went to. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Homo Sibaris:  In a very nice local square a ten minute metro ride from the Ramblas. Small but perfectly formed, but if you have the weather to sit out on the square you get lots of spillover vibes from the seven or so other bars that surround it and provide atmosphere. Run by a very nice guy. For beer choice, see elsewhere. Same old really.

Ale and Hop: Did you know Barcelona has an Arc De Triomf? It does, it's bloody handsome and that's the metro stop for this back street boozer. Unlike many of its brethren, it was bustling and busy and I knew something better was afoot as the young crowd were mainly drinking pints.  That told me the the beer was both good and affordable. And it was, including two cask beers which I didn't buy, but had a taste of. Very balanced list of beers too, so fine really. A more neighbourhood bar vibe too which gave it a really good feel.  Recommended.

Now there may have been others, but I didn't write anything down as usual, as I was with friends and not as it were, on duty.  But one or two thoughts.  By and large it seems, craft beer bars in Barcelona have,  shall we say, an air of sameness about them. Nothing is hugely Spanish or indeed Catalan. You could be in any city in the world given the rather repetitive environment and the same old bearded staff and customers.  Customers of UK craft beer bars would fit in seamlessly. That isn't really a good thing for the likes of me, but I'm not the target audience. In my view it would be better to bring craft beer into a more local setting though I can see many difficulties in doing so. Beer lists were astonishingly similar, mostly on the really strong side. 

On the other hand,  though there was a chance to sample the offerings of various Spanish Breweries - or I should say, in most cases, Catalan Breweries - they are very picky about that with "Cat" being denoted on the beer boards for Catalan and "Esp" for beers from other parts of Spain. All seemed to have a go at American beer styles with varying degrees of success.  Prices did vary and there was an oddness about measure - I think Mikkeller and the A Birra Dero offer 18cl (just under a third of a pint) as standard, though most had 20cl.  So I guess that most beer was around €7 - €10 a pint, but some in Mikkeller for example, went quite beyond this, the cost being justified neither by the taste nor the experience.  It may well be that as the craft scene matures here - if it does - it will develop a more native feel. I do hope so.

This was probably the most craft beers bars I've been to over such a short time. It isn't really for me. I found the sameness of the beers depressing and the bars formulaic and expensive.  I did enjoy it as a one-off but as I walked between each thinking of another taste-alike IPA or Imperial Stout, I cast envious glances at the buzzing Spanish bars, traditionally decorated, exuding warmth, chatter, welcome and enticing tapas, just demanding to be sampled.

A lovely glass of swoopable Estrella wouldn't have hurt either.  Sipping just isn't me.

* There is a small crawl of Biercab, Garage and Mikkeller which is easily done by foot. 

I also quite liked  Fabrica Moritz, the oldest brewery in Barcelona, though the beers were pretty mainstream. It had nice kit to look at, was buzzy and cheerful, with a great shop attached. The picture here is from there.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Cervecería El Vaso de Oro

The harbour in Barcelona isn't perhaps the most attractive in the world, but the adjacent promenade and beach if nothing else, shows to good effect the hardiness of the natives. I felt quite chilly as we strolled along, but the beach was rather busy with Catalan sunbathers. Good for them.  Near the end of this walk is the harbour with many shiny yachts and just around the corner, down a very anonymous side street is perhaps one of the finest of Barcelona's many - and I mean very many - tapas bars, El Vaso De Oro.

Our first attempt to enter was thwarted by the simple fact that it was so full that we couldn't get in.  It was late lunch and the place was so rammed that all we could see was an array of backs accompanied by the very jolly buzz of people having a great time. Disappointing, but it bode well for later. We weren't going to give up that easily. A quick wander round the back streets later and one large glass of Estrella better off, we returned. It was busy but we found four seats at the bar. Game on.

This is a very narrow bar served by two doors, one at the end and one in the middle. The space between the wall and the bar is just wide enough for a row of high backed chairs and enough room for a skinny type to manoeuvre the resulting two feet or so. It can be done as we observed, but only with goodwill and a lot of wriggling from both sides. I wouldn't like to give it a go myself mind.  At each end the bar widens out enough to allow a few tables, but the bar is the prized spot. The waiters are known for their hard work and good humour and their rather ragged singing and whistling, but they are certainly a cheery lot and the atmosphere as they josh with locals and visitors alike is wonderful.  It was a sheer pleasure just to sit there and take it all in. At the bar there is the usual array of Spanish tapas and there is a wider menu available too with the steak and foie gras, a much sought after delicacy, both for its succulence and reasonable prices. 

Apparently they used to brew their own beer here, but now the beer comes from Cerveza Fort and as far as I could tell, was all that was offered.  The waiter happily described the beers to us and we ordered small glasses of porter for me and American Pale Ale for our friends. E had the pilsner which she didn't like much, but actually on reflection, it may have been the Summer Ale. The American Pale was very highly thought of, but it was me that hit pay dirt. The porter was a revelation. It was jet black, toasty and roasty with a gorgeous mouthfeel from the oats. This was a seriously good beer. My next order was for a bigger glass and a portion of Spanish Black pudding which was a perfect match. A couple more rounds ensued as we watched the waiters run up and down and people come and go, shouting banter, calling to the kitchen, serving up plates of tapas and generally enjoying their work.

It was certainly the best establishment that I had a drink in during my trip and  I had to be dragged out. If in Barcelona, go there.

The reason I allowed myself to be dragged out was our appointment at Edge Brewing later that day - See previous post.

 El Vaso can be located at Balboa, 6, Barcelona

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

This Tanked

Fresh beer is the thing and that is good. Just round the corner from our hotel in Poblenou Barcelona, along a lovely tree lined street, we tumbled out of the restaurant we were eating in around 1a.m. and decided, as you do, that a nightcap was required.  It was early season and most places were closing, but one bar was still going like a fair - well it had people in it and wasn't closing, so near enough.  Inside we ordered beers, noting that the brewer was Mahou who are in fact the owners of San Miguel and Alhambra. Spain, like everywhere else these days has a rather concentrated brewing industry. (Despite many thinking otherwise, the Philippines end of the San Mig operation was bought out by Mahou in 1970.) The group is 100% a Spanish company.

As we sipped our beer we noted (eventually) that above us in the ceiling, were two large yellow tanks. Yes, we had Tankovna Mahou.  It didn't really impress, but then again, it was most likely a drink that wasn't really needed, so unlikely too really. But it didn't taste that much different to those I drank in Gaucin last year.. 

We returned two nights later in similar circumstances, but glasses of vino blanco were ordered. Probably a good decision.

They used to hide tank beer in the cellar in the UK.  Now the are a feature. Progress?  Almost certainly.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

On the Edge

In Barcelona, new breweries are getting kind of thick on the ground, but one of the biggest and best equipped is Edge Brewing, which just happened to be on the same (very long) street as our hotel, so being well prepared we - well one of our friends - arranged a visit. Also attending were some sundry Swedes, a small number of Scots including a very young brewer from Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh and a lone Geordie.

The brewery itself is set in a very anonymous building in, the part in which the brewery is located at least, a very anonymous street.  But once inside it is all somewhat different. It's industrial heritage is clear, but it has been put to sensible use with a warehouse and cold room at the front and behind, a tasting room and the brewery itself protected behind a glass wall.  It is a veritable cathedral (well more  a church) of stainless steel, which, at the time of our visit was being obsessively cleaned.  They take great care of such things here.  The brewery was immaculate and has rather a good back story, having been designed, built and shipped from the USA, together with its American owners. This is very much an American brewery, transposed to Catalonia.

Our tasting session consisted of around 20cl of six different beers (it is usually four) but in my usual feckless way, I neglected to write them down as I was enjoying talking about them to my friends and the tour guide. This is I admit a bad habit for a beer writer, but then again I was out to enjoy myself, so hey ho, sorry if my memories are a little hazy. First up was a hefe-weizen which had been "improved" in its refreshingness - is that a word? - by the addition of lime - which I personally found a little overdone, but I can see how, on a hot Barcelona day, you'd gulp one down. A saison was next but with little saison character to speak of, with an odd "Old English Spangles" taste (you need to be old to remember them). The main characteristics were mint, pear drop, aniseed and treacle.  Not at all unpleasant, but I feel it needed more work to bring it into style.  We all liked Hoptimista a lot better. Described as an American IPA, it ticked most of the boxes with pine resin, caramel and a good bitter finish. I could have drunk a pint of that one even at 6.6%.

We followed these up with an amber ale with oats, honey and oranges which was pretty good, American Rye Pale Ale and a Porter with vanilla.  Well I think we did - not that I was drunk on 3 x 20cl - but because I didn't write it down.  We also were given as a treat, an experimental beer which should stay just as that.  Nobody liked it much at all.  The brewery tour, which split the tasting into two, was interesting just to see how they worked. They even have one of these giant hop gun thingies that batter hops into the beer, though really you couldn't tell from the ones the ones we had.  The brewery produces a large number of styles and looking though them, there are many I'd rather have tried than the ones we did, but that's just the luck of the draw. You get what you are given and certainly none of the beers, the experimental one apart, were bad by any means, but none really stood out either, though as always, it is the joy of talking to beer people about beer that really gave me the most pleasure.

Of equal interest to me is that around 90% of Edge Brewery's production is sent overseas, mostly to Scandinavia and the USA. Yes American brewers in Spain sell a lot of their beer back to America where they mimic the styles produced there. That's an odd juxtaposition, but explained by the fact that the market for craft beer in Barcelona while growing, is tiny.  It seems export is the only way to keep it all on the rails in the hope of a more widespread Spanish craft beer breakthrough and to repay the cost of the operation. Somewhat "coals to Newcastle" you might think and you'd be right.

At the end of the day this is a good brewery, with interesting beer, ambition, great kit and branding, produced by nice beery people.  It was a good evening out.

It is also of note that Edge Brewing was named the top new brewer in the world, as well as top brewer in Spain in 2014. Hoptimista, part of the Edge core line up, was also voted a top 50 new beer in the world out of 60,000 beers.

Edge also have barrel aged beer. Seems somewhat de rigeur these days.The top photo show the Hop Blaster.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Carry On CAMRA

Tempting though it has been, I have refrained until now from writing about CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, but having read yet another treatise on the subject, I though I might as well chip in what I think. I'm not exactly an insider, you'll find that CAMRA has quite a few layers of influence above me, but I do know how many beans make five real ale wise and to some extent CAMRA wise, so here goes.

Firstly, what has prompted this consultation exercise?  Is it internal pressure to change? No, it is very largely external, but there is one vital change that has prompted this. It isn't the fanciful idea that CAMRA is frit about craft beer  - though there is a perception that's the case -  or that there is a membership concern about our lack of support for craft keg - there isn't  - and of course many of our members supplement their drinking by having the odd craft beer or three.  Crikey, even I drink lager and craft beer from time to time and apart from a small minority, I reckon most CAMRA members do.  It can't really be a hatred of keg then surely? Or non real ale - I repeat our members by and large drink it. So what is behind it?  My perception is that the answer, at least in part, is that we have a new Chief Executive (Tim Page) that wants to look at the Campaign with fresh eyes and ensure that under his tenure that CAMRA is doing the right thing, that it is taking its members with it and is fit for purpose.  Ah these words.  Some may recall that I was involved in the last review, the Fit for Purpose Review and I was pleased that Tim mentioned, when he spoke to me in Liverpool this weekend, that he had thoroughly read the Fit for Purpose Review document and its recommendations on taking up appointment and that he saw the Revitalisation Project as very much an extension of the work of that committee, of which I was a member. 

Bloggers have been banging on about this for a bit, but here's a thing.  By and large they don't really influence anyone but other beer bloggers and fellow travellers - aka readers.  Most CAMRA members aren't blog readers. Hell, I'm sure most of my 1800 CAMRA members have never read my blog despite me banging on about it from time to time. In short, we don't really matter and the pressure exerted by most of us, no matter how well written or closely argued, can safely be ignored.  CAMRA needs to set its own course and it is the members that are most important here and to whom this review is really addressed. Ultimately they will decide. It is their campaign, but that isn't to say that blogs haven't generated some interesting stuff. They have, but reading through some of the blogs on this subject, I am struck repeatedly that most people, CAMRA members or not, seem to lack any real insight into why most people within CAMRA don't just see the light and campaign for all beer. A Campaign for Good Beer if you like.  The answer isn't all that complex. It is simply that on the whole, by preference, they drink and support real ale, like it better and are worried that it will disappear without CAMRA.

So as it has all been done for me, I'll quote a few bits from blogs which I think get to the heart of things:

Oh Good Ale

Phil made this rather pertinent comment in his blog:

"At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours."

The Beer Father

Ed wrote:   A common criticism of CAMRA is that it was a big mistake to focus on dispense method rather than beer quality. On this, like so many other things, the critics are wrong.  By tying their definition of real ale to cask conditioning CAMRA made real ale easily recognisable in any pub in which it is served: just look for the hand pumps. This has served well as an indicator of what to drink in a pub for decades now, and continues to do so today. No specialist knowledge is required, and people with only the faintest interest in beer nerdery can easily pick out the real ales.

He went on to say, tellingly: "Craft beer on the other hand is in a horrible mess already. In Britain attempts at defining craft beer have been even less successful, and many beer geeks have had to settle for "I know it when I see it", which I'm sure if of great help to the average beer drinker.  In a local supermarket craft beer is now another ill defined category like world lager."

Boak and Bailey

Chip in with that most pernicious and incorrect of arguments: "Personally, we think the battle over cask-conditioned beer has been won — most people who want a pint of cask ale in decent condition know where to find one, and the situation is better than that in many parts of the country."

This is the old CAMRA has done its job argument. It hasn't. Real ale is not in as much danger as it was for sure, but the continuance of real ale requires eternal vigilance. Paul Spearman writing a comment on Zythophile's Blog wrote a very good counter to that notion here and as I’ve argued elsewhere, all the pressure for change within CAMRA is external. I detect little real wish within, other than tweaking around the edges. And the battle for real ale is never won. We are just at a fairly high point in the war. Quality is still the key at both the brewing and dispense end of things and we still haven't got this remotely right.


Is taken with a notion expressed on Boak and Bailey's blog:" I was also much struck by this comment by Ian H on Boak & Bailey’s blog: "CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA. 

He is right to be so taken.  The link Ian outlines between the various strands of CAMRA is neatly summed up and  gathered into a cohesive whole as written above. Maybe, just maybe, CAMRA isn't nearly as far off the mark in its current campaigning as some allege. 

CAMRA started out as a single focus organisation, but has acquired many more bits and pieces as it went along. But it has never really lost that single focus and that's what gets on the nerves of those outside that say we should change. Most members say no such thing. It is focus that brings relevance and I am pretty sure that most CAMRA members will see it that way. The Campaign is its members and if the members want to continue that single focus that's just what we'll do. It is also worth pointing out that with nearly 180,000 members, CAMRA isn't going anywhere soon and members provide relevance by their sheer weight of numbers.  Focus on what you can identify, define and defend and you will gain followers. A woolly message doesn't do that. It is the single focus that has made CAMRA the organisation that it is. To change it might be suicidal. To paraphrase Mao about the French Revolution "It is too early to judge whether that single focus has worked or not!

Now of course my critics will say I have just chosen quotes to suit my own stance. Well too true I have, because they actually make sense. While it is certainly wise for CAMRA to review its activities from time to time and make adjustments - and I have been involved in the making of a few of them - but it is too glib to simply say CAMRA should campaign for all types of good beer. What is good beer? Define it. My best attempt will be "Beer I like" but if you include beer most people like - and why wouldn't you? - we'll have to include the most popular beers in the UK. Those are massed produced lagers. Unless you drink basic commodity lager, in the UK, you are a minority drinker. We shouldn't overlook that. 

Finally for now, I wrote this on Stonch's Beer blog and I'm happy to stick with it:

"All the pressure for change within CAMRA is external. I detect little real wish within, other than tweaking around the edges. I personally want to move CAMRA to be more concerned about the quality of real ale at the point of dispense and to protect traditional pubs and, yes cask conditioned beer. We shouldn't worry about the rest too much. And the battle for real ale is never won. We are just at a fairly high point in the war. Quality is still the key at both the brewing and dispense end of things."

So we carry on and if we eventually disappear up our own arseholes as we all die out, so be it. I've enjoyed the ride and so have most of our members.

Now of course it may not all pan out this way, but I reckon I won't be far off the mark. There is a possibility that the campaign may change in a way that will cause it to implode. What won't happen I'll bet, is that we become a Campaign for Good Beer. It isn't what the members want and in a members organisation, if you don't take your members with you, then you are scuppered.

And I repeat. Most CAMRA members drink all kinds of beer, but they campaign for real ale.  As always, the clue is in the name.  Should a major change take place, I imagine that a much weaker campaign for real ale would emerge. So maybe CAMRA is in a bit more of a cleft stick than Tim Page realises.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Getting it Right

Our AGM was held at the Sheffield Tap. We had a private room in the part where the in house brewery is and beer, kindly provided for us by owners Pivovar, was on tap on a help yourself basis.  So we helped ourselves.  The room itself is magnificent and we were told it had been closed for over 30 years when taken over and was in a filthy state. It isn't now as you can see from the picture and provided a great backdrop to a very lively discussion.  A wheat beer produced in the brewery was very highly thought of, as was a Vienna style lager. I can vouch that the cask beer was top stuff too.

Once this aspect was over, it was an enthusiastic and slightly oiled bunch that set off on a coach to Thornbridge Brewery, deep in the Derbyshire countryside.  The Riverside Brewery is a neat set of modern buildings which we reached after the driver and some of our chaps worked out how to get over the river which separated the road we were on from the one the brewery was on. That sorted - not without false starts - we arrived and got stuck in to a the beers provided, both in cask and on keg.

The brewery itself is a multi million pound cathedral of stainless steel. "Italian designed therefore twice as costly" as our guide joked. Well not joked, more ruefully explained.  It has been extended from its first incarnation a number of times and will be extended more. The brewing kit is a mixture of types including multi purpose vessels and gives a great deal of flexibility to the brewers.  We also had a tour of the lab which has every kind of device imaginable to test, calibrate and control beer, including a sort of "mini brewery" in a test tube kind of affair that can mimic fermentation outcomes in a very short time. Nothing is left to chance here and it is the minute attention to detail, that to me, sets Thornbridge above many of its rivals.  That isn't to say that every beer will be to your taste, but it won't be muddy, murky and imprecise. It will be clean and there is a very, very  high degree of probability that it came out exactly as intended both process and outcome wise.

For those that like aged beer, we also visited a separate building housing beer maturing in various wooden casks. All done on a very carefully controlled basis and all very neat, functional and well laid out.  Back in the bar, I was particularly pleased to see one of the brewers Dominic Driscoll, an old mate from his Marble Brewery days and all round good egg and enjoyed the beery discussion with him and fellow BSF members. Probably a little more than Dom who had not of course been drinking.

Thornbridge does so many things right. They are beers to seek out for the quality of the ingredients, but also for the care and attention to detail that goes into their making.  I recommend them highly.

Sadly there was no Cocoa Wonderland around at this visit, but you can't have everything. 

The photo of some of the vessels at the brewery is a fraction of them and doesn't really do it justice.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A Cocoa Wonderland

The Annual General Meeting of the Foreign Beer Bars (BSF) from the Great British Beer Festival took place earlier this month in Sheffield.   We meet to plan how we'll do things next time and review what we did right and what didn't go so well at the last event. Like all these things, it doesn't just happen, but is thought through as much as it can be and it all takes place through considerable human effort.  I haven't told you about it as I've been ill ever since. Not through too much beer, but caused by a viral infection from which I am slowly recovering. Still, I am better enough to mention a couple of things before they fade like all endearing charms tend to.

There were three of us attending from Manchester, but one didn't make it out on Friday. He was ill with a viral infection. You can see where this is leading can't you?  Still, a mere 50 yards from our rented front door was, glory be, a Thornbridge pub, the Bath Hotel. Now how's that for lucking out?  The pub itself was a delight and even luckier was that it had two rather unusual and excellent cask beers on. We called in with the aim of trying a couple of halves. Melba IPA (5.2%)  had more peach juice flavour than most peaches do. If you like a beer that is just peachy, well this is your man. It was peachier than a peachy thing, but still refreshing and tasty, though perhaps just a little overdone. We enjoyed it but moved on to Cocoa Wonderland (6.8%).  Now it isn't at all often a beer stops me dead in my tracks, but boy did this do so.  It was stunning. Like a bitter chocolate ice cream with so much depth and complexity, we were rendered speechless.  The brewery describes it as "a full bodied, robust porter with natural mocha malt flavours from the complex malt grist, complementing the decadent additions of real cocoa beans to the maturation process".  Well, if they say so. It was just a chocolate infused dream of a beer. Those that reckon that cask conditioning can't handle this strength of beer needed to be there. No carbonic bite, just a tight creamy head, a melting chocolate malt body and all that wonderful flavour.  Truly magnificent. The best beer I've had this year by a considerable margin. We had to stay for more and indeed returned for more later.

I'll tell you about other aspects of Sheffield in another post, including our trip to Thornbridge Brewery itself and a bit about where the meeting took place, but I must first mention another fantastic pub.  The Red Deer, an unspoilt traditional pub just off West Street.  Not only is it a lovely multi roomed boozer, but it has the kind of easy going atmosphere and mixed crowd that makes you want to stay for more than one. So we did of course. We sought the barman's advice on some of the local brews and he knew his stuff and couldn't have been more helpful.  We settled on Stancill Stainless after being reassured by said barman.  Described as "Unfined, vegan and naturally hazy." our antennae were finely tuned into trying to discern something decent amid the murk. Instead we were presented by a perfectly clear, beautifully balanced best bitter, lush with malt and with a big Cascade hop hit. Poise, balance and elegance.  Class in a glass in fact.

So, three things if not learned, reinforced. Cask conditioning can be just the dab for rather strong beers if the brewery and cellarman know their stuff. Unfined beer does not have to look like chicken soup if the brewer and cellarman know their stuff and good pubs and good beer, when mixed correctly in the right proportions, attract the right crowd and are a winning combination.

Simple stuff really, but highly recommended for great beer and great pubs.

Note the Gilmour's Brewery window in the Red Deer photo.  I understand too that the Bath Hotel has its interior listed as being of national importance. I can see why.

I won't mention the very unwise kebab, or how messily it was eaten either.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

PopUp for a Drink

Somewhat perversely I suppose, I left London before the main piss up of Craft Beer Rising started on Friday of London Beer Week.  I had arranged to go to London long before I had even thought about that and I couldn't stay on as I had an important CAMRA meeting on the Saturday.  A pity as I think I'd have enjoyed it.  Next time, I'll try and be there.  Such is the business of my better half, that I like to come when she has a little less to do, then I get the pleasure of taking her out for an overpriced pint, but this time she had a little free time and I had access to a little free beer. Hooray.

Many readers will know that the vast Truman's Brewery in Brick Lane was more or less abandoned when the brewery closed in 1989. It is now home to many arty type projects and a hub of London Beer Week.  Two pop up brewery led bars were of interest and I had an invitation, as a guest, to one. Sharps had a neat little pop up bar, open to the public, with a fair number of their lesser spotted ales on cask as well as, of course, Doom Bar.  It was good to try Cornish Coaster, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Special. All were pretty good actually, though hardly enhanced by being served in flimsy plastic glasses.  The fun bit was an invitation to Sharp's Secret Bar, where spoonfuls of various foods were matched to Sharp's Connoisseurs range and boy did it work. This range of beers is excellent and I have to say that the Vintage Blend, described by the brewery as "Five beers of diverse styles and vintages – a Trappist Dubbel, a sweet barley wine, a Quadrupel fermented with yeast, a soured honey wheat beer and a US dry-hopped double IPA – aged for one month and blended with a base beer for truly unique results" was as stunning a beer as I've had in a long time.  The experience was great fun and while I won't divulge details in case anyone gets a chance of going, if the opportunity ever arises, jump at it.  We all trooped out with immense grins on our faces and you can't say fairer than that.  It was interesting too to talk to Sharp's (surprisingly young) brewer Andrew Madden who was a really good sort.  All in all it was a great afternoon out and you learn, if you hadn't already, that big brewers can brew bloody good beer.

Just around the corner was the Guinness PopUp.  This was clearly aiming to promote their new lager Hop House 13.  All the founts bar one were for this beer and much memorabilia and clothing was on sale. Along with my pack from London Beer week, I had a voucher for a free half, so I tried it. Not bad really, rather thin bodied and weedily bitter, it was certainly a little more tasty than many, but not likely to be my go to lager. Ever.  Of much more interest was that they were selling one off beers from the Open Gate Brewery. I won't go into this Guinness experiment here, rather, I suggest you turn to the Beer Nut who wrote about it all in his blog in early December.  Talking to the delightful guys behind the bar, they were sent a different beer three or four times and the current offering was Milk Stout. Now surprisingly to me at least, this 6.4% beer was served on plain old CO2, not nitrogen like Draught Guinness and it displayed all the negative qualities I associate with that kind of serve for ales and stouts, most notable of which was a fierce carbonic bite and the fact that the head lasted seconds.  This rendered the beer into sugar water. Not great and annoyingly sold at £3 a half while the lager was £3 a pint. Bonus was the great staff and welcome, a free bag of the best pork scratchings I've had in  along time and the fact that all the beer was served in proper glasses.

Last up in this little trio of reports was another invitation, this time by Goose Island.  This was a closed event and we were offered  three different bottled beers to go on with, Honkers, an English style Pale Ale, Goose Island IPA and a lighter wheat beer, 312. Now is that Goose Island IPA dumbed down? This was the talk and even though I have supped it at source, I couldn't say for sure, but the consensus, which I probably go along with, is that it has lost something in up-scaling it.  Nonetheless all the beers were very enjoyable in the context. There was plenty nice seafoody stuff too and a chance to scoff rather a lot of Dungarvan Oysters which certainly wasn't a hardship.  Slightly citric, salty sweet and a real treat, they were good to wash down with a swig of 312.  Later on we were invited into a holy of holies where the Goose Island Innovation Brewer, Tim Faith, talked us through tastings of Goose Island Bourbon County in its "ordinary" and aged incarnations.  All in all a good night too, though I preferred the straight Bourbon County by far.

It was great too to hook up with the Beer Father, Justin Mason and @tabamatu Andy. Great company for a good night out at any time.

E and I also went to the Pilsner Urquell pop up which was more or less next door to the Guinness one. Rather dingy inside, Tankovna PU wasn't enhanced one bit by plastic glasses though E liked an old favourite of hers, Kozel, also served from a tank, but with the same reservations on plastic. Can't remember the prices though sadly.

Read Ed's Report here too.