Saturday, 20 May 2017

Returning to Roots

I think it fair to say that I was as surprised as anyone by the announcements that Charles Wells had decided to sell the majority of its brewing interests to Marstons.  Looking at the press release it can be summed up as selling all its major brands, including the flagship Bombardier, as well as the brewery and its free trade accounts to Marstons, but importantly, not the pubs or the John Bull brand, used mainly overseas. There will be a supply and licensing arrangement for Martons to sell into the Charles Wells estate, controlled one assumes by Wells themselves as far as what the pubs can buy.  The deal includes UK distribution and brewing under licence of Kirin and Founders and distribution of Erdinger (the blandest wheat beer ever) and Estrella Damm products.  It includes the brewing and supply of Young's beers as well as the moribund McEwan's range and the more or less dead in the water, Courage brand. So quite a portfolio, but maybe not so shiny when you look at it closely.  £55 million of your UK pounds is probably as good a price as could be had for it.  On the other side of the deal, Charles Wells will be building a new smaller brewery to supply its 200 or so pubs with its own branded beer. That's a good thing.

While I was mildly surprised by this move - after all who, these days,  can get too taken aback by breweries being sold - but what did surprise me more than a little was the reaction from some. "Sellout" cried Roger Protz, the doyen of British beer writing, along with several inaccuracies which he later corrected:
J Mark Dodds, a well known - pub campaigner wrote grumpily in response to comments:
You will also see a pertinent and useful quote from Melissa Cole.  More of which later.

So why did Charles Wells sell a large part of their business?  The most likely explanation is a low margin volume business of declining brands, a cut throat market where the company was too small a player against others such as Marstons, Greene King, Carlsberg and Heineken who can cut margins to the bone to get business.  If you look at what is being sold, Young's is relatively small beer - pun intended - and in Scotland, most people won't touch McEwan's products with a bargepole. The Courage brands are more or less dead in the water and even the mighty Bombardier is hardly the legend it used to be. That leaves supermarkets and the free trade, both of which are low margin and highly competitive. I'm guessing the family looked at it all and judged that the real, lasting and tangible value of the business is in the pubs they own. The value of a portfolio of brands which they likely saw as decreasing value assets, was something they could and should sell while the going was good.  In a dog eat dog world, they decided to rationalise for a more secure future.

Despite what people reckon, most family brewers who are still in the game know their onions.   They haven't survived this long without knowing what is what and understanding their place in the brewing world.  In their heart of hearts that they know they can't compete any more on a nationwide basis. The future of family brewing, to a large extent, relies on doing what you do best - local pubs and local beer. To survive hard headed decisions have to be made. We have seen McMullens and Thwaites retrenching and this, to me, seems almost like a mirror of the Thwaites situation and Thwaites are doing very nicely at the moment, with their new brewery, servicing only their pubs, being built as I write. If Melissa is to be believed and I have no reason to doubt it, the Wells brewery itself may need, shall we say, considerable attention.  That's another other reason to think about a different business model, but sadly, it does cast considerable doubt about the long term future of brewing on the current site, though Marstons do have a pretty good track record of keeping breweries they buy going, so there is hope.

All in all, looking ahead and considering the options and the market, I can see why a family led board came to the conclusion they have. Large scale brewing has its place, but competing on price in such shark filled waters is a nil sum game for Wells and they have realised it. They tried it and it didn't work out. By building a smaller brewery and concentrating on their pubs, they are safeguarding their core pub business, while realising assets which are only likely to fall in value. Reverting to vertical integration with just pubs and a brewery is how they started in the first place.  I don't call that a sell-out, but a sensible business decision in a difficult brewing world. They have sold well and and main assets and income stream are protected.

Going back to where they started may or may not secure Charles Wells' future, but one thing is for sure. Soldiering on unchanged was just as risky and being family owned, the future is still in their hands.  

I am sad for the employees though. I know from personal experience how loyal to the owning family they tend to be. That would have been a tough call for Wells.
Marstons are clearly number one in the super regional game now.  Greene King and Marstons are now the sole brewing giants outside the multi nationals.

Friday, 5 May 2017

It's the Offer Stupid

It is a decent 20 minutes walk from the excellent Laurieston Bar (see below) to Macgregors Pie and Ale Howff, the next recommendation from@robsterowski for my recent trip to Glasgow.  The walk is very relaxing, taking you as it does back over the river, through a little of the main shopping area and then into one of the oldest parts of Glasgow, the Trongate - which is well worth a look from anyone - and hence into High St and after a wrong turn, into Blackfriars St.  The pub itself impresses from the outside, but inside it is a bit poky and gloomy.  Still I have nothing against poky and gloomy, as that could easily describe my beloved local and I like that rather a lot.

Inside three people were at the end of the bar chatting noisily to the barman, who took his time to disengage and come over. I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Ossian from the four, or was it five handpumps and noted with approval that the barman was one handedly splashing beer from the pump into a glass balanced on the drip tray. "Good" I thought "he's clearing the line of old beer as nobody is drinking it."  Mistake. He wasn't. This unappealing liquid was my (short measure) pint. Before I could summon up the words to say anything I was relieved of around four quid and the barman returned to his pals. The beer was insipid and I left a fair bit of it and slunk out, glancing back as I did so. Nobody noticed. I hadn't really existed for them in the first place, a fact I was all too aware of.

Reading various reviews of this place, I realise two things. Most of the praise is for the pies, which get a very good press and which, along with a choice of cask beer, is the main focus here and indeed inspires the pub's name.  Now I realise fully that I may just have been unlucky and it was that quiet spot in the mid afternoon, but I shouldn't have felt so unwelcome.  The barman wouldn't of course have known that he'd play host to a blogger on a day out, but then shouldn't he show just a little more interest in the only customer who was there other than his pals?  Maybe talk me through the beer or something? I reckon so.

So, nothing much to see here at all. Most of all the "offer" was absent. I won't be back. Why would I?  They didn't even ask me if I fancied a pie?

I won't say for a second "Don't go there".  Hopefully it was just a one-off but it wasn't a remotely pleasant experience.  Fortunately my next two recommendations from Rob were excellent.  Three out of four isn't that bad.

The pies do look very good on various websites. I rather fancy a breakfast pie, or the haggis neeps and tatties one.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Pure Dead Brilliant

Following a recommendation by @robsterowski I thought it was about time I visited the Laurieston Bar in the South  Side of Glasgow. He is always banging on about it, so time to see if it lived up to its billing.

The bar is easy to find. Should you be lazy, or, more likely if it is teeming with rain, the Subway will take you to within a quick dash of its front door via Bridge St Station, or if the weather is clement - and it was for me - it is a an easy 15 to 20 minute stroll from Queen St Station and even less if you arrive in Glasgow Central.  Just head downhill to the river, cross Glasgow Bridge pausing to admire the views of the Clyde and the pub is about 150 yards on the right, on a corner, as good pubs often are.  The outside is pretty unprepossessing, but note the blue tiles and the very old fashioned lettering picking out the name. It is strikingly out of time, even retaining the old Scottish Brewers' sign and the McEwan's Cavalier.  That certainly took me back a bit.

I paused at the door for a second. The door to the right said "Lounge" and to the left "Public Bar".  No contest. I went left. Inside the pub is astonishingly eclectic.  I was struck immediately by the pink formica topped tables and the huge array of memorabilia pinned, stuck and otherwise attached to almost every part of the walls.  The bar is a traditional horseshoe shape, veering off to the right where you can see part of the lounge and allowing one bar to serve both areas.  This being around two o'clock in the afternoon, the pub was fairly quiet with a couple of gents sitting at the bar chatting, another old fella sitting quietly with his pint and that was about it. I received a friendly nod from the barflies as I took a place near them at the bar.  The barman was busy at the end of the bar, but immediately I entered he stopped what he was doing and came over to serve me.  The customer clearly comes first here. Other pubs please copy. My choice of beer from three handpumps was Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack which was excellent, though unsparkled. Was that Rob's malign influence I wondered as I sipped?

It would be hard to pick out what is what in the ephemera adorning almost every nook and cranny. Books, photos, newspaper clippings, old signs, a framed Scotland football jersey and more. You could easily spend an hour reading though it all.  After a few moments the barman came over and chatted easily to me about this and that. It was very relaxing.  I watched a much younger than me couple came in and ask what there was to eat. The friendly barman indicated the pie warmer on the bar and mentioned that if they wanted something else there was a good café a short walk away. "No". Pies were fine for these two, but I thought that a nice touch. I supped up and as I was leaving the barman came over and said he hoped I'd  enjoy my curry. (My intended later curry with my Old Mum had been one topic of our earlier few words.) Another lovely touch.

This is one fine pub. I can see why Rob loves it. It is unchanged from the sixties  - a bit of a time warp in a good way if you like - and can be regarded as a living, working museum of an otherwise disappearing Glasgow.  If you have anything about you at all, you'll love it. I'll be back when it is a lot busier, just to get the full atmosphere, but I bet it will be just as good, if not better.

Note the sign from a bygone era about women and the witty rejoinder written below. Click to see a larger photo.

It is Glasgow Bridge, not Jamaica Bridge. I checked

Regrettably Rob's next Glasgow recommendation, didn't go quite so well. More soon on that.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A Perfectly Nice Pub

Well it had to happen didn't it? "What?" I hear you ask? A good, old fashioned, clean, bright, Sam's pub with no oddballs whatever, that's what.

The Roebuck is bang in the middle of Rochdale, set off two main thoroughfares down a ginnel - a passageway to anyone not from the North reading this.  I called in last night pre Regal Moon, having failed in the same endeavour last Wednesday when it was unaccountably shut, though the lights were all on. A mystery that one, though I'm told the same thing happened at the same time in a couple of other Sam's pubs locally. I guess we'll never know, but with Samuel Smith there are lots of things you will never know. That's just a fact of life. Accept it and move on.

One thing to say though is that in this case I have been here before. Several times in fact, but not for some years and anyway in this case I was looking at it through fresh and critical eyes on your behalf Dear Reader.  The pub is very well laid out. A central bar with a cluster of brightly lit boxes, a well appointed room to the right of the main door and a comfortable, wooden floored main bar area with an adjoining lounge sweeping gracefully through to the right and another door to the rear. All this area has leather bench seating and the whole place gleams with cleanliness. It works.  There is the usual Sam's quirkiness with a prominent notice above the bar advising that the brewery has decreed a no tolerance policy on swearing throughout its estate. The punishment is unstated, but the threat is clear. Swear and you'll be chucked out on your ear. I therefore didn't swear and no-one else did either. See? You just have to ask.

The pub was relatively busy. In the room on the right a guy stood at the hatch to the bar, alternating his desultory chat to the barman with a seat at a nearby table.  At the bar, some women were finishing off their drinks, Coronation St Factory style - that is after work as they all had overalls and badges. At the partition which demarcated the bar from the lounge, a couple of respectable gents, chatted on the lounge side, while in the public bar, a table was occupied by two men and a woman, all drinking beer. All were similarly respectable looking.  This was just as it should be really.

I ordered a pint of stout and the barman called me "Sir" without smirking at all. Another couple wandered in and ordered pints of cider. The orderer was similarly addressed.  This was very civilised. I scrutinised the bar - all keg. There was though a kind of new one on me - Sam Smith's Best Bitter at 3.7% dispensed from a red font.   In addition to the stout, there was OBB, Taddy Bitter, Sovereign,Taddy Lager, Alpine and Cider. I don't think Double Four was on though it might have been. There was no mild, light or dark and the two glass fronted fridges contained no bottled beers at all, just mixers and a packet of opened chocolate digestives. Nice.

As I supped up one of the table occupants came to the bar and pointed out politely that his glass, which he had just finished, had a slight chip on the rim. This was acknowledged equally politely and the man took out an old fiver and scrutinised it. He remarked to me that he was in the habit of checking new fivers for the additional etching that can be found in rare cases and described to me the "winners" so far. We talked about this pleasantly while I drained my pint and he took possession of his newly poured pint of bitter. With a smile he rejoined his companions.

As I left he wished me goodnight. The barman was nowhere to be seen, but I'm sure he would have too.

I must go back to the Roebuck on a Saturday afternoon when town is busy.  It was a nice pub, but I'd like to see it in full swing.  It would have looked better too with a couple of handpulls.

This is a Quiz League venue and the pub's success is celebrated with some gleaming trophies. I checked them to see if my name was on any, but alas no. Such cups do exist though. 

Click on images to enlarge.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

New, New and New

It isn't often I have three new things, one after the other, to report, but I have this time.  So, let's get on with it.

Up first was an invitation from J W Lees, to attend the official launch of their collaboration beer with Seven Bro7hers Brewery of Manchester.  I had previously been invited to "help" with the brewing of the beer and as I was unable to visit the brewery for a behind the scenes tasting, due to being at the CAMRA AGM in Bournemouth, I was looking forward to seeing how it had turned out. The beer is called 2 Tribes, the idea being based on the two different family brewers involved coming together. The beer itself is a ruby/dark ale with coffee added, using Bramling Cross and Goldings hops.  At the launch, which took place in Seven Bro7hers' splendid tap in the Northern Quarter, the great and the good were assembled and the beer was presented in both cask and keg form, giving a chance to compare and contrast. I tried the cask first, though I feel it wasn't quite presented at its best, as a black rather than a white sparkler was used, thus loosening the traditional Lees tight, creamy head.  Nonetheless the beer was smooth, easy drinking and malty, with a subtle note of coffee coming through at the end.  The keg version was gassier and less smooth, but more refreshing, though the coffee didn't show up nearly so much. Both were enjoyable, though as it often is at these events, I enjoyed the company and the chance to talk to various people just as much.

We left as the public flooded in and walked downhill to Redbank and Manchester's newest brewery, Beatnikz Republic, based, you've guessed it, under a railway arch. Now it isn't often I'm at the cutting edge of such things, but here I was on the very first day at a new brewing venture. Well, I should say the first day the Tap was open, but it still counts.  This is a spacious and spotless place, high ceilinged, with a lovely shiny floor and the yet to be commissioned vessels down one side and German style tables and benches down the other.  A wall of taps served four beers, all brewed elsewhere (and not in the same place) until owner and brewer, Paul commissions his kit.  All beers are keykeg served at the moment at least.  I tried three of the four beers, the Pale Ale probably being my favourite, though the "Koelsch" with sweet orange peel showed plenty of promise, but made the Germanophile within me bristle slightly at the use of the name.  I really enjoyed the visit though, the chat with Paul and I'll certainly be back when he has full control of brewing on his own kit.

On Saturday a few of us met up in the newest venture to open in my area - the Royton part of Oldham in fact. The Secret Sip is in space terms a micropub, but eschews the usual set up you tend to find in such places. Space is tight with a tiny bar and room for around twenty five, including standees.  It is pretty tight though there is another space upstairs by the toilets which are small air raid shelter type affairs, which I think are unisex.  There are five keg taps and one cask, with a partial tie to Outstanding Brewery, from where the cask beer came. The keg taps varied from Beavertown to Outstanding and all points in between. Some some of my more knowledgeable craft maven companions thought the prices more Central Manchester than Royton, but I'm guessing it discourages a certain kind of customer if nothing else.  In addition, a large fridge is well stocked with bottles and cans.  I certainly enjoyed the time I spent there and again I'll be back, this time trying to avoid the seat by the door, which rewarded me with an icy blast each time the door opened. It was packed out, so that happened a lot.

So there you have it. A new beer, a new brewery and a new pub. Balanced or what?

I've since has Two Tribes served through a tight sparkler and in GBG condition. It really improved it. So much so, that at 5% some of the Tavern lot got quite merry on it. Or, rather, pretty pissed.

My good friend Beers Manchester also wrote here about Beatnikz Republic and no less an idol than @Beers4john  has praised it too.

I understand that the Secret Sip was drunk dry over Easter, so that's going well too.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Where's Humph When You Need Him?

One thing that can generally be said about Sam Smith's pubs is that while they are often rather bare looking, they are always spick and span.  That's a good thing. A nice clean pub means, in the main, nice clean beer.

The Corporation Inn is a pub I've noticed before when on my way to the nearby Curtain Theatre in Rochdale, or the odd time when sampling the delights of the curry shops on Milkstone Road, but I've never been in before.  This predominance of eateries, sari shops, kebab houses and small grocers, tells you that the pub is in an Asian dominated area, relevant only because they don't tend to frequent the boozers. (Well not officially anyway, though one hears tales.) But I digress. On a windy and wet night recently, I popped in.  Now the pub has the usual Sam's job lot of paint and no sign of ownership. Well I say popped in, but I couldn't open the door. From within came a chorused shout of "LATCH". The penny dropped and I lifted the latch and stumbled in. Three grinning faces met me. I reckon they'd observed this scene playing out a number of times, but were still enjoying it. As I would if I was them.  I sussed out one was the landlord, the other his better half and a sole customer stood at the bar.  In a small side room half a dozen other denizens were playing crib - another regular feature of Sam's pubs - and the whole place smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. I reckon the smoking area was directly outside this room, but it was so gloomy I couldn't see exactly where.

I scanned the lit plastic boxes before me, their false brass edges tarnished by years of neglect. Behind the bar I could see a room with various junk. It wasn't exactly tidy this place.  I chose Dark Mild. "Haven't got any" quoth the barman, a sort of Chauceresque rogue. The other choices were Taddy Lager, Cider or Old Brewery Bitter. "Why not have one of each? suggested my bar companion. Deciding to disregard that advice I had a pint of OBB. It was fine.  "Heading for the station?"  I replied in the affirmative, not feeling it wise to say "No actually, I've just come for a nose at you lot and your manky pub".

Looking behind me there was a rather soulless room on the left as you come in with nobody in it and on the right a carpeted and benched seating area which had two customers. One, a fairly young woman sat on her own with a half of lager, while the other, older guy sat reading his paper and supping his pint.  The landlord and his wife had gone to watch the crib players. My fellow barfly asked me what train I was getting, which put me in a difficult position, as I wasn't. This is how lies multiply, but in for a penny, I said I was meeting someone there and that seemed to satisfy.

Nothing else happened. The crib players hadn't looked in my direction once. Nor had the woman or the newspaper reader. My bar mate was lost in his own thoughts and as my pint went down, the landlord returned and watched hopefully, no doubt willing me to have another. When I finished and didn't I was given three goodbyes as I left, not forgetting to keep up appearances by turning left to the station, even though it was quicker to go right.

I again overlooked the bloody latch on the way out, but nobody shouted this time.

This pub reminded me or an old Liverpool boozer or two from 30 years ago. A few locals and year upon year of neglect. Pity, as actually with a few touches and a good clean, it could be a lot more appealing.  Wonder if Humph would approve? I suspect not, but it was a pub where you are treated well enough and that's not so bad at all.

The pub sign was flickering epileptically as I took the photo. Apparently this is not a recent thing.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Think About This

There's a tendency among, shall we call them for talking's sake, "new wave" brewers to push the envelope, discard the tried and tested, do things just because they can and to generally cock a snook at those old fashioned enough to produce beer by the pint that the large majority actually want to drink. Indeed, in some cases, to be plain, downright insulting about those that travel roads more traditional.  I can think of one or two like that, though clearly they are the minority. 

On a similar tack I noted today in Phil's blog a bit of the same concern about the direction of travel, concentrating in this case on the tendency to lump odd things into beer - peanut butter and biscuit anyone? - and positing that the main point seems to be to chuck into the brew, things you wouldn't expect to find generally speaking. So, experiment with off the wall ingredients and flog it to the (admittedly) willing for £8 a pop. Nice work if you can get it. After all, who can complain that is is "off".  "You just don't get it Man".  Now Phil's not making the same point as me actually - wait I'll get there in a minute - but it's a digression that I happen to agree with by and large and not unconnected with another point that Phil makes and leads me on to mine.

I tweeted an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser, sadly to no response, by one of these pesky traditional brewers, this time Marston's MD, Richard Westwood.  In a fairly wide ranging interview Richard made the point, as I often do, about excellent cask beer being ruined at the point of dispense by too many beers and poor cellar practice.  I agree with his contention that there is a need to balance the customer requirement for choice with resulting (lack of) quality issues.  What caught my eye though was his contention that keg doesn't really solve that problem, as it only keeps at its best when opened, "one or two days extra".

Now of course you can regard Richard as a craft knocking dinosaur despite his 40 years in the industry - he isn't at all by the way - read the article - but he makes a point, often overlooked by most of us, that keg beer goes off too and maybe goes off a lot sooner than we'd like to think. The answer of course is to ensure, keg or cask,  that you only sell what your turnover justifies. Does that always happen in the craft world? It doesn't in the cask one.

Mind you, if having just paid £8 a pint, you have no idea at all whether your beer contains odd tasting exotica, or is just plain "off", for peace of mind, best convince yourself it is the former.

Have a go at working out the GSP on Phil's blog. Some dodgy arithmetic methinks

I like @Robsterowski's wine analogy too, though I reckon that most wine makers don't make it up as they go along and charge their customers top dollar for their experiments.


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Alpine Gasthof

Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith's pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup.  This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don't do that.

Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town. One has to wonder if Sam's wanted to cement its (expired) relationship with Brauerei Aying whose lager it used to produce, why it didn't choose somewhere, more, shall we say appealing?  Somewhere with a nod to rolling Alpine meadows? Haven't they got a few in that Yorkshire place? But they didn't. It's in Rochdale, so we live with that. You will see though from the accompanying photo that the old German looking geezer forever trapped in plastic beer founts, has been released in XXL format as the pub sign. It was nice to see him again, so that's a bonus.

The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam's, sort of on the cheap. It all looks kosher enough, but isn't so substantial. A bit like a film set version. It was deadly quiet when I called on the first sunny Saturday of spring.  One guy sat on the bench seating regarding the bar solemnly, playing with his loose change and supping something lagery. That was it until a barmaid appeared, cheerfully announcing she had seen me approaching on the CCTV. That's another given in almost every Sam's pub - CCTV - with warnings about it posted prominently. I shouldn't be at all surprised if they are all linked to Smith Towers as evening entertainment for Humphrey.  It certainly appealed to our barmaid who regarded it hopefully as if to a crystal ball, looking for customers - or maybe Mr Smith?  I ordered a pint of Samuel Smith Stout. Very tasty it was too and a mere £2.30 a pint for a 4.6% beer. A bargain.  I sat at the bar, munching own brand pork scratchings and waited for something to happen. It didn't for ages then the customer who had shown no sign at all of knowing the barmaid, burst into life, went to the bar and remarked about the weather, calling the barmaid by name while his mix of Taddy Lager and Alpine was dispensed. What excitement.

This hectic pace was maintained when two "lads" in shorts with a child toting a fearsome looking plastic knife came in. Two pints of "half n half" were ordered.  Yes, the local drink again. Taddy cut with Alpine, or is it Alpine beefed up by Taddy? Either way, they spookily knew the barmaid too - and the sole customer. This was great end to end stuff.

The barmaid engaged me in dental conversation about the detrimental effect pork scratchings can have on your gnashers, while remarking that it was always busier on Sunday, presumably having noticed me prowling around the other deserted rooms, though not the balcony, which I felt might be going too far.

I should also mention the lass from the kitchen appeared and gave me a cheery "Hello".  There is lots of restaurant seating in the back, on the balcony and in a variety of rooms - all deserted.  That's very German. The barmaid mentioned that the pub had been done up a few years ago in exactly same colours as it had always been, so it is original I suppose. I think the carpet was the same as the one in the Eagle, so perhaps another job lot?

So, to sum up, the bar and cold shelves had the following. In bottle, Chocolate Stout, Pale Ale, Pure Brewed and Cherry Beer. On the bar, Taddy Lager, OBB,  Sovereign and Alpine Lager (2.8%).   Disappointingly Wheat Beer was absent.

In a nod to passing hipsters, Sam Smith's Stingo ale is priced, I noticed, at a reassuringly expensive £9.30 for 500ml. Well it is bottle conditioned and 8.3%.  I don't think they had any though, but don't let that put you off.

The chatty kitchen lass assured me it wasn't always this quiet. Hmm. Roll on Sunday then.

Next up:  The Corporation Inn. One to look forward to.  Trust me.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Get the Basics Right!

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Well that's another Oldham Beer Festival over and it's time to reflect on a few things beerwise.  Firstly it was a tremendously successful and we expect that the Mayor of Oldham's Charity Appeal, on whose behalf CAMRA run it, will benefit greatly from it.  It was in effect a sellout.

As always in these things I was mainly involved with the beer side, though I didn't manage the bar. I was however intimately involved in set up and given the severe soaking I got from one brewery's cask of beer, secondary fermentation is alive and well.  There are those that reckon most cask beer is inert these days. I'm not so convinced at the micro end that this is true. So many were vigorous - but we don't buy in national brands anyway, as they simply wouldn't sell.  The jury is out on those usual suspects of course, but like many, I "hae ma doots" every time I drink one.

It was also noticeable that the beers that sold out first were mainly local. That may not surprise you that much when we have breweries of the quality of  Pictish and Brewsmith to name but two and as always there are local favourites which fly out. It wouldn't be Oldham Beer Festival without Serious Brewing's Moonlight Stout and true to form, it soon went. If your beer is good, local definitely works, so there is plenty to play for there.

We always aim to have a leavening of beers that we don't see that often in our area and this time, the Beer Orderer went for an East Midlands theme. Now some were good and some, frankly weren't that brilliant, though that could be applied to lots of beers that you stumble across in the pub. Having had a lot of experience of these things, my advice to the small brewer is simple. Get the beers, clean with distinct appropriate flavours and no odd or "challenging tastes" - at least until you have managed the basics and repeatedly reproduced them. If you have the wish to start off with juniper, lime, exotic spices etc, my advice is just don't. The drinking public aren't daft and you will get slow sales and little repeat business. And brew for your customer, not yourself. Just because your muddy mess of odd ingredients appeals to you,think on. It is unlikely to achieve broad appeal.

The beer of the festival, Tryst Chocolate and Coconut Porte might seem to contradict my musings. Not so. Tryst know what they are doing in the first place. Luscious and moreish, it was a worthy winner. 

All the 62 beers were clear and bright or as near as dammit. 

My focus now shifts to Bournemouth and the CAMRA AGM and Members Weekend. This will include three nights in my London gaff, so fingers crossed all round.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mr Smith Decrees

This on the face of it, located as it is on the corner of a main road,  an awkwardly situated pub if you approach it, as most do, going to and fro to nearby Rochdale Infirmary. (Indeed as your hero does when the kindly surgeons inject my arthritic knee with God knows what, every six months or so.) This time, instead of zooming by, I'm approaching more slowly and realise if I turn up the hill beside it there is plentiful parking.  Good to know as you scarcely notice that when driving past.

The Brownhill Hotel is a typical Sam Smith's pub for the area. Clearly Humph has bought a job lot of off-white paint to do all his pubs - or most of them - and the pub is tricked out accordingly externally.  Inside there is a typical vestibule area and short corridor, and a main bar area with bench seating and  a games room to the right. Running the length of the pub a more well appointed lounge area looks inviting enough in that typical Spartan way that Sam's pubs have, but is empty save for one couple.  I see them from my vantage point at the bar, contentedly sipping lager.  In this instance, nobody looked round to check out the stranger, because they are having too good a time to bother. Around a dozen people, men and women mixed, have pole position under the main window facing the bar and they are exchanging banter and laughter with an ease that suggests they all know each other well.  The barmaid greets me with a slightly quizzical smile, possibly wondering why I'm there. I have the feeling she is the landlady.  I detect a Welsh accent and this is confirmed by two things - one an obviously Welsh husband or partner - and two - a scarf hung behind the bar sporting the legend "Cymru am Byth".  An open fireplace in the bar, already set, but in this first warm day of the year, not (yet) lit, completes the picture.

I choose a pint of Light Mild, which is 2.8%, but has the body and taste that many stronger beers would envy. It is astonishingly a mere £1.34 and really very good.  To accompany it, I buy a packet of Sam Smith branded pork scratchings which are comparatively expensive at 90p. Looking round I see behind me in the Sports Room a number of young lads are playing darts, a throwback (see what I did there) to the 70s or 80s.  I wonder idly, as a former darts player myself, if they have a league hereabouts, but there is nothing by way of notices on the wall to suggest it.  In fact there seems to be no notices or much decoration on the walls at all. I suspect this is some kind of decree from the autocratic Humph.  There is one appropriate exception.  The sole notice advises customers that "Mr Smith" has decreed that the pub must be cleared within a half hour of last orders being called and lists the times. Ominously it warns that "doubling up at last orders will not be allowed."

The bar has the usual array of brightly lit boxes. They are pretty standard here, with Cider, OBB, Sovereign and Taddy Lager, with Light Mild and Double Four lager bringing variety.  Oddly the cool shelves have no bottles whatever other than Scintilla mixers.  Almost everyone is drinking Taddy lager, though one renegade, without specifying, is served Double Four.  In fact nobody in the pub orders a drink by name, instead approaching the bar and being served with what I assume is their standard tipple.  The banter continues with the landlord observing a four playing cribbage (again) and chirruping from the sidelines when one hand was over "Winner, winner, chicken dinner." - and why not?

This was a lovely visit. It was great to see folk enjoying themselves with people they knew. I wasn't unwelcome as such, though you can't help but feel a little that you've gone to the wrong party by mistake.

I reckon though if I came in a few times, my Light Mild would also be served to me automatically.

I didn't date take any photos of the inside. I just felt that would not have been appreciated.  A local pub for local people? Yes, but in a good way.

There is an odd bare feel to Sam's pubs. I reckon the Welsh scarf was pushing the boundaries a bit and was the sole and welcome splash of colour.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Who's That Then?

The Eagle is rather an imposing building and viewed from the outside, all lit up, it looked rather fetching as I trudged towards it in the rain.  I opened the door and everyone turned round to look at me. "That's a typical welcome in a Sam's house"  I thought.

Number two on my wander round all the Sam's pubs in my area was the Eagle on, well Eagle St. Which came first I wonder?  I looked round after astonishing the company by my appearance. The bar was on my left, but was unpersoned. One of a group of four, playing cribbage shouted that he'd be with me in a minute, which gave me an opportunity to look round.  This is quite a big pub, but has clearly been diverted from its original layout more than somewhat.  The two large windows on each side of the door had obviously fronted two separate rooms at one time, but these had been knocked into one and the corridor removed, which gave a big sort of vestibule area with bench seating, reminiscent of a dentist's waiting room from the seventies.  It was rather Spartan, but clean and tidy with quite a busy red carpet, some dark wood and walls painted in magnolia or similar. An "L" shaped bar with brightly lit beer founts completed the picture.   A middle aged couple stood at the short end of the "L" drinking and chatting in low tones.  Behind them two old lads threw darts in a sort of large alcove dedicated to the purpose. In addition to the crib players, an old Irish biddy wandered around engaging with crib players and another two customers were sitting down opposite the bar. That was it. All studiously ignored me, or had cancelled me from their conscious minds.

The barman finished his hand and wandered over apologising for my wait. On the bar was Old Brewery Bitter (keg), Sovereign Bitter (ditto), Alpine lager (unavailable) and Taddy Lager. Taddy it was and bloody fizzy it was too.  I sipped and watched. Everyone clearly knew each other, though I was undecided about the couple at the bar who took no part in proceedings at this point.  The Irish woman walked over and warmed her arse on the roaring coal fire adjacent to the card players. She asked no-one in particular if the clocks go back or forward this weekend.  There was some dispute about this, but it was finally agreed that the clocks go forward. The Old Irishwoman sniffed at this. "Forward or back, you shouldn't interfere with the fecking clock" she announced, eliciting no opinions either way.

From the back of the pub another person entered. It wasn't clear to me there was another entrance, but hey ho.The old lady had returned to her lair by the bar and the newcomer took his turn to warm his bum at the fire. In a different but similar broad Irish accent, he asked the pub at large if they liked his coat, which he had seemingly bought for twenty notes in the sales. This brought the two at the bar to life and as they pronounced. It was clear they too knew everyone.

The circle thus completed (I make the assumption the darts players were locals too) I drank up and slunk out. Did I imagine a collective sigh of relief as I left? 

The chill cabinet contained bottles of Sam's Perry and Cider, plus a lone bottle of Pure Brewed Lager.

There was a picture of the pub in the old days on the wall, but the other couple were sat underneath it, precluding closer study. It looked similar though with its large scale sign on the roof.  I imagine too, the dart are was a snug at one time.

A Touch of the Unusual

It isn't often I get invited to a "do" at a foreign embassy or indeed a non foreign one, so when the Embassy of Ireland invited me to The Spirit of Sharing, an exhibition of Irish produced drinks sponsored by Bord Bia who promote Irish produce abroad.  On a night I happened to be in London anyway, I jumped at the chance.

Half past five arrival said the invite, so as I didn't want to be the first there, I wandered around the area abounding Green Park where there are many embassies of varying grandeur and arrived at 17.40. Fashionably late I thought, only to find the event already going like a fair. They clearly operate different rules here.  I bumped into an old pal, the 1970s boy himself Justin Mason and ascended the stairs to the inner sanctum with him.  Very large and rather perfect gins and tonic were smilingly thrust into our hands and we entered the merry throng to be met by Sid Boggle and not many minutes later by London Beer Guide man, Jezza, so at least I knew some people - not that it would have mattered such was the warm welcome from the assembled stall holders.

Canapés flowed - Irish produce of course showcasing, black pudding (gorgeous) and equally good ham and salmon and much more and I went for a wander to see what was there. Now the beer area was handily near the entrance, but most of the stalls were for spirits, with gin and vodka to the fore, but plenty of whiskey too and even poitín, still widely illegally made within Ireland I believe, but here, legally produced by specialists.  Irish strawberry wine too (Jason loved it), cream liqueurs and of course cider, all produced in Ireland by small outfits.  There was even two cocktail bars where you could try (I didn't) more exotic mixes.
While I'm a beer man,  I must admit to partaking of several different, excellent gins, including a wonderfully earthy potato one from St Patrick's Distillery, but given that I have few opportunities to try Irish Craft beer - I mostly get my fix vicariously through the Beer Nut - of course I gave those a try.  The main stands were from Metalman and Kinnegar, where contrasting dispense was evident, with Metalman - rightly given the name - in cans - and Kinnegar in bottle.  Kinnegar had a range of around 14 or so (Jezza assiduously tried each and every one) and there was a few stunners from this Donegal outfit whose aim is "to produce clean, crisp, full-flavoured farmhouse beers."  Now clean is music to my ears and they were.  No muddy impreciseness here, but beers where you could pick out what was going on. Impressive and all beers are naturally carbonated and clear. I particularly enjoyed Yannaroddy Porter, though if they'd called it stout, I wouldn't have argued.

Metalman Brewery from Waterford seemed to have a bigger crowd around it for some reason and I enjoyed tastes of several of their beers, with the Pale Ale probably being the best of their show to me. I didn't take to the Equinox wheat beer which confirmed the difficulties that some brewers have in nailing this style. I'm still to be convinced about canning though.

One abiding memory of the evening was the sheer, cheerful enthusiasm of the stallholders and their obvious enjoyment of what they were doing. As well as the excellent craic, it was delightful to talk to such pleasant and committed people.  They simply couldn't have been nicer.
I get the impression that Ireland is shaking off the dominance of big brands at least in availability terms.  What I tried was of the highest possible quality. I do wish the producers that exhibited at this fine event the best of luck in the future.

Disclosure: I had a thoroughly good time.  I must also admit to trying more gin than beer overall. But I like gin and these were very good. I did see the ambassador too - didn't meet him sadly.

Great to meet some fellow writers and bloggers too. Jezza, Sid and Sharona. Justin I already knew.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Highly Rated Pubs

With many pubs already facing difficult trading conditions, more misery is being heaped on the pub trade with huge rises in the amount of business rates to be paid following a revaluation exercise.  This can amount to as much as an extra 300% a year according to the Morning Advertiser. This could in fact be the last straw for many pubs and will certainly affect the viability of many more.

This is illustrated in my area by a tweet by Simon Crompton, owner of the Baum in Rochdale, a former CAMRA National Pub of the Year who revealed his charges would go up from £26,000 a year to £60,497.70 a year and those for the Healey Hotel, his other Rochdale pub which he leases from Robinson's, from £7,623 to £32,667.80.

Clearly such huge increases put business viability under severe strain. As remarked in the Morning Advertiser by another licensee, this time in London and facing a similar hike "We won’t have any pubs left".  Part of the problem is that rates are levied on turnover rather than profit and turnover in the licensed trade does not often give a true indication of viability as overheads are huge.  Rochdale On Line gives the exact breakdown of what this means for Simon's two pubs and for those interested in such things, it makes a good if sobering read.

The already hard life that independent operators have has just got harder and of course, in the end, the customer will be asked to pay.

I also urge you to follow the link to the Morning Advertiser. 

The Baum is Greater Manchester Pub of the Year. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Keep the Home Fires Burning

What has Admiral Lord Nelson got to do with Rochdale? Nothing it seems, other than I suppose being a national hero a long time ago.  So the Nelson Hotel in Rochdale, we can safely assume, is not actually connected to the one armed sea dog, but his likeness adorns the pub's sign nonetheless.  Until fairly recently the pub was run for many years, until his death, by a motor bike loving landlord who loved the TT races.  I often wondered as I went by on the bus, why the pub flew the Manx flag, but now I know.  Pubs can be interesting that way.

Anyway in pursuance of my endeavour of visiting (or visiting again in some cases) every Sam Smith pub in my CAMRA Branch area, I popped in on Wednesday night.  First problem was actually getting in. The door and passageway was blocked by an old geezer on a mobility scooter of bus like dimensions.  There was a bit of a stand off as we both considered the problem. He wasn't about to move and clambering over him would have been undignified, so I grabbed his handlebars and dragged him out onto the pavement.  Well I considered it, but he (somewhat reluctantly) turned his chair a little sideways and I scrambled around him with great difficulty and entered the inner sanctum.

It turned out to be quite a nice little boozer, with the bar facing you as you come in, a room on each side, one of which was nicely appointed, with a roaring fire and two old Asian gents, each dressed in a shalwar kameez, who appeared to have come in for a warm. Drinkless, they were arguing loudly in their native language. Kind of unusual even though this is a pretty Asian dominated area.  Inside the bar was another roaring open fire. Not often you see two in such close proximity. Even more so since there was only one other old codger within, soon to be joined by the door guardian who nearly ran his pal down as he reversed up the passageway into the bar, giving his companion's table a resounding knock as he did so. A few frank words in Lancastrian were exchanged, concluding with the traditional "Fuck Off."

No real ale here, so instead the somewhat 1970s illuminated plastic boxes favoured by Sams, showed three lagers, a mild, Keg Old Brewery Bitter and a cider.  I chose Double Four, but there wasn't any, so Taddy Lager it was, pleasant enough in its own way and a mere £2.20 a pint. Very reasonable for a 4.5% beer.

As I stood at the bar I surveyed the pub and decided I liked it. It was how pubs used to be and I reckon with a few in, it would be great fun.  I remarked to the barmaid who was busy putting more fuel on the fires that I wouldn't like her coal bill. Wisely she observed that as she was only the part time barmaid, that wasn't her problem. "Fair enough" I thought as I basked in the heat, taking in some rather good old photos of Rochdale and a decent tiled image of a sailing ship in the passageway.

Before I left my Asian companions did, and as I supped up, thanked the barmaid and departed, only the two old Rochdalians remained.  I could still hear them arguing as I walked down the road to the Regal Moon and Draught Bass.

I am pretty sure there is quite a step into this pub. God knows how the guy on the scooter got in.

This review here is worth a read. 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Lots of Sam's

One of the things you can do on the background system to CAMRA's WhatPub, if you have the right permissions, is download all the data for your own CAMRA Branch area.  I gave it a go and did some number crunching, though I am fairly hobbled by being pretty unaccomplished at Excel.

Now I expected a lot of JW Lees and there is. They have a total of 86 of their pubs in our area.  What fascinated me though was the number of Sam Smith's pubs we have. No less than 30, most of which, if not all, must have been acquired by Sam's when they bought Rochdale and Manor Brewery in 1948 and closed it in 1968, though it continued to be a Sam's Depot until the seventies. (Funnily enough one of my friends from the Tavern worked at the brewery itself). I reckon we (Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch) must have one of  best concentrations of Sam's pubs in any CAMRA Branch area.  In fact our geographical area may well be the top one in the country, depending of course on how you choose to define such things.

Now like Mudgie I have quite a fascination for Sam's though unlike that esteemed commentator, I spend little time in them, apart from when in London and I want a cheaper pint - or just a good old fashioned boozer.  I have though met Humphrey Smith and briefly exchanged pleasantries with him - well I was pleasant and he was sarcastic - but it all counts.

Sadly though we have 30 Sam's pubs, only 4 sell real ale, which is a great pity, but the brewery is very careful about which pubs get cask. Too careful some might say and something we, CAMRA, must talk about. In fact it was querying the removal of cask from the Yew Tree that my odd encounter with Humph occurred, but I digress. It seems though to me that a bit of fun can be had by visiting the remaining Sam's pubs I haven't been to. After all they are mostly handy enough.

I'll let you know how I get on. It might take me a while though. I really don't get out enough.

I must write up my Christmas tour of a few London Sam's pubs at Christmas. I'm a bit behind on that one.

Trip Advisor has interesting reviews of the food at the Yew Tree. You can pick out Humphrey's failed centralising the food experiment easily enough. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Original and Best?

OK. That's Barr's Irn Bru, but when it comes to pilsner style lager, Pilsner Urquell is the one that begat all the others.  It has been the original since 1842 and the brewery makes much of its history. As for taste it describes the beer as refreshing, clean and balanced, but the beer is much more complex than that. Deeply satisfying to drink, it has rich malt, spicy hops, hints of toffee from the trademark diacetyl finish - one that most brewer's wouldn't want in a lager, but is there in this one by design - and a very smooth finish. It belies its modest strength of 4.4% and its natural carbonation makes it very easy drinking.

I was in London last week to see the Hockney Exhibition at the Tate and by good fortune it co-incided with an invitation by PU to visit the new Draft House in Plough Place and sample, under the tuition of  Beer Master Robert Lobovsky, the three different, approved pours that give different taste experiences. Along with Robert, Artisan Butcher Alex Sharp, talked about the prime Galloway beef cuts that we were to sample with each pour, fresh in tanks, unpasteurised and direct from Pilsen.

However this event wasn't about the taste of PU, as much as the mouthfeel and appearance of it, and there the complexity deepens. The head is absolutely paramount. The Czech classic Hladinka is a smooth, creamy serve, Na dvakrat has a crisp body topped with a thick foam and finally the Mliko is presented as virtually pure foam giving the most aromatic and sweet of serves.  It was all rather fun and the beers certainly did taste different. One interesting point to me was that the Hladinka pour is so reminiscent of the pour you get when a sparkler is correctly applied to well conditioned cask beer, with the head being formed at the bottom and the beer poured through it to keep it away from air. Think of that when someone carelessly pours you your next pint of flat cask.

Robert was a great host as was Alex. I did decline an offer to try pouring one myself. I doubt if it is as easy as it looks. Now my family comes from Galloway, so the meat was of particular interest and it was good to have an expert talk us through the cuts.  It was also good to bump into fellow invitees the Crafty Beeress and her husband and enjoy a couple of pints of PU afterwards with them.

So lessons learned - or in my case reinforced? Treat beer with respect and learn how to pour it properly and buy the best beef you can afford, even if it means less of it.

Tankovna beer is pretty widely available in London and elsewhere, particularly Albert's Schloss in Manchester which sells more than the rest of the UK put together. Thanks to PU for the invite.

The new Draft House has the same awful music as Seething Lane, but is a pretty good spot really.

Monday, 6 March 2017

It Didn't Happen

I often look at old blog posts to see what I was writing about years ago. A sort of  "On this day..." kind of thing.

On this day in 2009 I wrote about the Bull's Head in a village called Boreham Street which according to the BBC was being closed by Harveys. It is an interesting and detailed little piece by the BBC and just as relevant today with the same old reasons being given for closure.  Then six pubs a day were closing and now it is probably a fair bit less but still around three or four.

At the time Harveys hoped that a buyer could be found to keep it going as a pub, but said "Pubs have been adapting for the past 1,000 years, but to adapt as much as we've had to over the past few years is asking too much ................ The pub's been struggling for a few years now. We have to decorate every five years, and each time we do, it costs three years income - that's income, not profit." 

The article is still available on the BBC here and is well worth a read.  The whole sad story is laid out with a pointed reference to the fact that villagers bemoan  the loss of the pub but don't actually use it.  I finish my article by saying "You really do have to use it or lose it."

Reading my blog post again, I wondered what had happened to it. Eight years later would it be trading still? It seemed unlikely given what was said at the time, but I looked it up all the same. Amazingly it still is and even more amazing is that it is still owned by Harveys,  Judging by the website it is doing rather well which is good to hear.

What happened to change Harveys mind I wonder? Does anyone know?  Whatever it is, one thing still remains true. "Use it or lose it."

The pub is listed in the current Good Beer Guide and serves food every day. Looks all right too. It must be doing something right.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Thin Times Ahead?

Is it a sign of the times that London’s latest craft brewery is to focus entirely on low and no alcohol beer?  Nirvana Brewery Co, is a new craft brewery based in East London, is aiming to produce “great quality, full flavoured craft beers, but with low or no alcohol.”  Steve Dass, Co-Founder of Nirvana Brewing and said: “We want to create a range of alcohol free beers in a way without compromising on quality or taste. Ultimately, we want to produce a range of beers that can be enjoyed by those looking to cut down – as well as craft beer fans. The aim it seems is to target specialist craft bars etc in London and around the country.

 Interestingly the brewery mentions “We’ve already seen a huge rise of people wanting to drink non-alcoholic beer as part of a healthier lifestyle in both the UK and Europe.”  Now funnily enough I was reading yesterday in the German press about the fall of beer consumption, down by roughly a third since the seventies. “For years this number has slowly been going down,” Walter König of the Bavarian Brewers’ Association explained. As well as the fall off in lunchtime drinking Herr König mentions the public’s changed perspective on beer. "In people’s minds, beer is not healthy. Consuming anything that seems unhealthy has decreased… There is more health awareness, though with a false understanding - beer in moderation is healthy.”

The goes on to mention another aspect, not reflected in the statistics, is that more Germans are drinking alcohol-free beer. The nationwide German Brewers’ Association wrote in their annual report for 2016 that there are now about 400 different brands of alcohol-free beer - 50 more than the previous year. And every 20th litre of beer brewed in Germany is alcohol-free. So is Nirvana Brewery on to something?  The first thing to say about that is that Britain isn't Germany and it doesn't follow what happens there will happen here.  The history of no and low alcohol beers (NABLABS) in this country isn't exactly a glorious one. Frankly beers such as Kaliber and Whitbread White Label were pretty poor and nowadays while you may encounter the odd bottle of Beck's Blue or Clausthaler, you'd probably be advised to check its "best before" date before handing over your dosh.  You'll be just as unlucky if you fancy a low alcohol beer. When the Government reduced the duty on low alcohol beers it encouraged a rash of them, the vast majority of which lasted a few months before sinking without trace. That isn't to say that there aren't honourable exceptions, but you'll be unlikely to find them down your local.

The problem with low/no alcohol beers is that typically, they just don't taste very nice - ales taste thin and even German ones taste a bit odd when the alcohol is taken away.  The ambition of providing "a good quality craft beer that is full in flavour" as Nirvana hopes has proved to be a Will o' the Wisp for the industry as a whole. It would be a brave man that thought this will have a different outcome, though of course I wish them well. Nirvana aims to export their beer, but wait. Let's return to Herr König. "We can compensate for what’s not being drunk inland with export increases and alcohol-free beer,” he said. Looks like a fair bit of competition for Nirvana then.

Is history of NABLABS about to be overturned? Will this venture fly or are there thin times ahead?

I suppose that there are exceptions to the rule and one variable would be where you draw the line in deciding low in alcohol is low. 2%? 3 or more?  That will make a difference.  I still reckon that for no alcohol beer, there isn't a rosy outlook taste-wise. There will also be more possibilities if you drink at home rather than the pub though it will still be a hard find to source them. As usual, I talk from a pub perspective.

If you do want to take a punt on these kind of beers, the Independent and the Telegraph have some advice. Good luck.


Friday, 3 February 2017

A Different Version of Truth

Many of you will have read Mark Johnson's blog post on sexism and his "unfair" treatment at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival under the provocative title of "What Men Did Next".  The men in question being me and my good friend Graham Donning, Organisers of the said festival. In this hard hitting piece Mark explains how he was unfairly shut up when he wanted to ask the panel, which I chaired, that was discussing beery matters, for their views on sexism in the beer industry. It's a serious subject which Mark takes, well, very seriously.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

The underlying, implied but unspoken charge being that in objecting to his intervention that Graham and I are a couple of old unreformed sexists. Well we are over 60, so we must be mustn't we? Oh and of course we had chosen an all male panel, so guilty as charged.  Except it wasn't quite like that, but a little background first.  A bit of a case for the defence. Graham and I first met around 35 years ago at a Trade Union Education Seminar at what was then UMIST in Manchester. We have been friends from that day to this. We were both active trade unionists of long standing and both Chairmen of our respective branches, him in Barrow and me in Liverpool. The 1980's were a bit of an interesting time for trade unions and in Liverpool in the febrile Derek Hatton days, a lot was going on.  Of course representing members isn't all strikes and picket lines. It involved the mundane and the important, side by side. One of the things we sometimes had to do in those much less enlightened and male dominated times, was to represent female members who had been discriminated against on grounds of gender in cases such as lack of promotion, unfair treatment when needing to look after children, wishing to work part time or job share and other such instances of gender based bias.

That was the responsibility and it comes with the job. When you head up anything, when you represent people, you put your head above the parapet and lead. It doesn't bring you much thanks on a broad level, but that isn't the point.  The point is that from a very early stage in my adult development I was immersed in an organisation that rightly breathed and taught at courses such as the one mentioned above, the fundamental importance of gender equality. In short Graham and I have been involved in gender equality since before our accuser was born. And actually, we can prove it.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Even during these days Graham and I were both involved in the Campaign for Real Ale and have been active in it ever since. We have been at the progressive end of the campaign for years and been responsible for many modernising changes. We have organised beer festivals galore and latterly - well for the last seven years large beer festivals such as the one in which Mark was stopped in his tracks. During that time we have tried hard to make the festival a forward looking one. We have tried to ban sexist materials and won't knowingly allow such stuff. We got rid of the T Shirt man and his dubious apparel, we have an active equality outlook and many of our bar managers and management team are women. We aren't perfect in an imperfect world, but we do what we can. We like to think that we get most things right given our background and we certainly always try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Of course though, in the real world things don't always work out. Mark scoffs at an all male panel and implies sexism again. Not that simple I'm afraid. It is fiendishly difficult to get such a panel together in the first place. One tends to look to people that you know will fit the bill and while I know lots of people in the trade, I don't necessarily know lots of people who are suitable and willing. I had one female brewer in mind, but she is no longer in the trade and I did put out an appeal on Twitter with no takers. Of course I could have done more, but funnily enough there are a million and one other things to do in organising a large beer festival. But for the record, I did try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

So why did I not allow Mark to put his reasonable question "What does the panel think about sexism within the beer trade?"    (or similar). The simple answer is that he didn't say that or anything like that when chosen (by me) to speak.  At the beginning of the debate, following on from last year's experience of speechifying from the audience on their pet subjects, I made it clear that the audience should only ask the panel a question and that speeches from the floor instead of questions wouldn't be allowed. Instead Mark related an incident about a pump clip that his girlfriend had found offensive and extremely upsetting. As his story went on, I cut him off as he hadn't asked a question, just as I had done with two others earlier.  As I understand it, Graham's intervention from the side was complaining that Mark hadn't drawn the incident to any organiser's attention when it happened on the Wednesday when it could have been dealt with.  (Wouldn't that have been reasonable? Confront the sexism when you come across it rather than days later?)  Mark ran from the debate, shouting many things as he stormed off, telling Graham who offered to discuss the pump clip with him, to "Fuck Off (or similar)."  Other words were uttered too, but not all decipherable.

 "Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

By the way, if I had been trying to gag Mark, I 'd hardly have invited him to put a question. I've chaired thousands of meetings and know how to ignore those I don't want to hear from. So why didn't I give Mark a second chance? There wasn't a chance to do so as this all took a matter of a minute or so - and there he was - gone. (I have to say that Matt Curtis did indeed grab a mike to say that sexism was a very important subject worth discussing as indeed it is - though I should point out that contrary to what is alleged,  Matt knew exactly who was on the panel well beforehand and raised no objections to it. Indeed he praised it.)

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

I've chaired enough meetings to know that unless you want the meeting hi-jacked, you may well have to curtail those that want to exercise a hobby horse even if that hobby horse actually does need a trot out.  That's the Chair's responsibility to the audience. As mentioned before I did that with two others who wanted to give speeches. They didn't ask a question of the panel either, but they accepted being told it wasn't allowed. Throwing a strop and unfairly implying it is due to sexism when you don't get your own way is as distasteful as sexism itself. This wasn't an attempt to stifle debate, but simply a response to a member of the audience ignoring the conditions set by the person who chaired the debate. Losing self control, storming out shouting and swearing is rank bad behaviour and more importantly, it doesn't advance the cause.

This was all most unfortunate, depressing and unanticipated. I hope I have recalled it correctly as it was over in a flash. I will say however that when people with a long and proud record of representing other are branded sexists in public, there is a need to put the record straight. 

I thought long and hard about writing this, but given the circumstances, I felt I had to. There's plenty more I could add, but this'll do.

The pumpclip instance is a hard one to have got wrong.  The fact that it is approved by a female brewer shows just what a minefield this area is. No we didn't spot it - our bad - but we don't order from many breweries on distasteful pumpclip grounds and have told them so. As I said, we are not perfect and can no more control volunteer staff to the nth degree, than we can change human nature. But we do what we can, while still trying to organise a massive beer festival.
Point of Information: I also met my partner of 30 years at a Trade Union Meeting in Preston.   

Friday, 27 January 2017

Too Many Breweries? Probably.

Before I was diverted from sitting on my arse doing sod all by Manchester Beer and Cider Festival (MBCF) - more of which soon - I put up a little poll about whether there are too many breweries in the UK.

Now I had a kind of idea that the answer would be "Yes" and indeed that proved the case with 57% of the respectable 103 respondents agreeing that there are. Only 28% thought that there aren't too many breweries with 14% undecided. most respondents have a pretty good interest in beer and pubs I imagine and likely a fair knowledge of the issues, so I'm reasonably confident that the result reflects a general feeling of unease about the seemingly unstoppable growth of new breweries in the UK.

While at MBCF I took the opportunity to ask brewers big and small what they thought. Tellingly they more or less all thought there are too many and a shake out is ahead. Not them of course though. It is hard to be sure, but with dog eat dog at the lower cask end, regional brewers as the squeezed middle and too many brewers chasing too few opportunities you can't help but think something must give. Whether you are big or small, one thing is for sure, if you have found a niche or market that suits you and makes you money, stick to it and nurture it.

And for those that aren't in such a happy place, better find one quickly or you might be heading for the rocks.

One thing though. Brewers are the most amazing optimists. They have a propensity to find a way round problems which is wholly impressive.

Oh. And you must make good beer. There is a feeling around that quality needs to be upped and the smart ones recognise that. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Live at MBCF (3)

Well it's all happening or happened here. A great crowd, fantastic beer and the two biggest days still to go. OK, my knees are knackered but today's highlights include a very tasty brekkie from Greggs - don't knock it you snobs - seeing loads of friends and my lass laughing a lot with cask beer in her hand - the wonderful apple and pork pies from the Crusty Pie Company, a very inadvisable hat photo and last, but by no means least, the couple who were chucked out for shagging in the toilets.

Now you may think the latter outcome was unfair and  I must admit the rules of the festival are silent about sexual intercourse in the privacy of trap one of the ladies - we'll learn from that one - but in fairness to the complainant, her pint, carefully placed on the floor of the adjacent cubicle while she did her business,  was knocked over by the vibrating wall of the trap next door. That was a step too far. This is a beer festival after all. You can't have rampant passion at the cost of someone's ale.The complaint was upheld and the miscreants ejected - albeit grinning widely.

This was a tricky situation, but looking at this as a whole, two very satisfied customers - albeit taking no further part in proceedings - can't be a bad thing. Please don't try this at home though. Keep your beer well away from such shenanigans.

I understand that the stewards called to this unpleasant scene decided to wait until events had reached their natural conclusion. Discrete or what?
Just been called to another Health and Safety incident. A guy fell off a chair while blowing up a balloon. "I'm alright" he said," but the balloon got away as I fell over."


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Live from MBCF (2)

Two and a half hours to go before the Trade Session and it is looking good. Site teams are finishing some of the bespoke stuff like brewery bars, Bar Managers are getting pumpclips on, doing price signs, checking quality and much more. The place now has the appearance of a beer festival though there is some tidying up to do. Most of the food stalls have set up, beer judging has started and we are getting there.

Update. Events overtook me and it is now less than half an hour to opening. We are now though much more ready. Hi Viz off, hall inspection with Security passed. Health and Safety good to go.  We might even have a few hundred beers available

I need to go now. Duty calls, but I could do with a pint. Now less than 25 minutes!

Eventbrite - our ticket people - intervened. God they are complicated in many ways and hard to contact in every way.

Now 20 minutes to that beer.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Live From MBCF

Or the "Big Cold One" as it is now.  This is the first of a number of posts live from Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. If I have time of course.

Today is day three of set up and it is starting to look like a beer festival. The bars are mostly built, the beer is all up, cooling is starting to flow and there are fewer of the myriad of jobs left to do.  The odd thing is that it is the little things that take time such as signage, pricing and cask end cards and many more - such that these are the things you suddenly run out of time on. The food stalls have started to arrive led by the Crusty Pie Company, familiar to anyone who has experienced GBBF. The various brewery bars are being built, keg walls being set up, containers being shunted into cold stores and bottle fridges put in place. Foreign beers have arrived, the foyer is coming together and the cider lads have started grading the cider.  Now Cider grading is a mysterious tasting ritual driven no doubt by the need to ensure the cider producer knows what he or she is talking about when they describe the appley delight as dry, medium or sweet and points in between of course. I am assured that it is nothing to do with getting a head start on the supping.

I have been busy with various stuff including Health and Safety and a load of more mundane items as well as spending time with a university student who is studying Event Management. She seemed impressed by the scale of things. It is a big place.  Oddly she doesn't drink beer but says she is looking forward to trying some to see if we can change here mind.

We'll try and that reminds me. The membership stand is setting up too!

The photo shows the festival from the inside. Literally. Behind some of the many bars.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Sticking to the Knitting

Being a moaning man I've mentioned that over the festive period I've not been well. I'm still not 100% and one of the casualties in this has been beer. In the last four weeks I haven't really felt like drinking any and on the few occasions times I did, the after effects knocked eight bells out of me.  Not that I got particularly pissed or ill, but it made me even less inclined to have some the next day.  Fortunately that's receding.

Now I may have mentioned my local brewer is JW Lees. Or have I? Maybe  not. Well it is - or they are -  and it is that brewery that has provided me with liquid sustenance on the times when I felt like a beer and on Sundays when I went to my local to meet my friends even when I didn't fancy it.  Man does not live by Lemsip (or generic equivalent alone.)  Now I like Lees beer. Frankly, living where I do, if you don't like Lees then get out of town and while I have my ups and downs with the output - and who doesn't - over all the years I've lived here, despite my nearness to Manchester, it is still Lees I sup mostly. I'd guess these days around 4 in every 5 pints is one of John Willies. It is rarely a hardship.

Fortunately Lees Bitter is going through a bit of a purple patch. The beer is clean, bitter-sweet and moreish.  I had a couple of pints with Paul Wood, Lees Brewhouse Manager who lives near me last week and when I remarked that everyone was praising the beer at the moment, he replied that "the yeast is behaving itself". That apparently is the real secret. If the yeast is being a good lad, then your beer, if all other processes are followed precisely, will be as you intend. That bitter interspersed with the seasonal Plum Pudding - a brilliant incarnation of a perennial favourite - has sustained me, throughout my feeling unwell.  That and being in the company of people I know in my local and one or two others - all Lees pubs - where I do most of my supping. Much is said about wonderful micros, but when you just need good beer and good cheer, traditional breweries and their pubs have a lot going for them.  Their commitment and passion is every bit as strong as the feistiest new brewer and when you want to swoop a few well made, easy drinking beers, then there is little better.

At this year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival there will be an Independent Family Brewer's of Britain Bar. I'm not sure how many we have, but certainly around 20. Don't overlook them amongst all the exotics and you know there may even be a surprise or two.

One surprise is cask conditioned Lees Harvest Ale, a cheeky little 11% number which is a bit of a cult beer in the USA. It is nearly always bottled, so a lot of a coup.

We'll also have Cloudwater's last cask production too. That might be a bit of a draw as well.

The photo is of course of JW Lees himself. John Willie to his friends.