Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Thwaites Brewing Division Takes The Knock

Marstons have bought Daniel Thwaites Brewing Division it was announced today:

Marston’s buys Daniel Thwaites brewing division operation:Marston’s has reached agreement with Daniel Thwaites to acquire the trading operations of Thwaites’ beer division. The acquisition includes two leading, premium brands: Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber ales. The total cash consideration is £25.1 million excluding working capital. Marston’s has been brewing Thwaites’ beers since early 2014. As part of this acquisition, it has entered into a long-term exclusive agreement to supply all beer, wine, spirits and minerals to Thwaites’ pub estate. Thwaites’ beer division is a high quality sales business of scale concentrated in the North West of England, including a 150-strong team of regional sales, marketing and distribution staff operating in the Independent Free Trade, National On Trade and National Off Trade channels. The business has shown good growth in recent years, including the acquisition of Hydes Brewery’s free trade business in 2012, which increased Thwaites’ business in Manchester. Thwaites’ two principal beer brands are Wainwright, one of the most popular golden cask ales in the UK and Lancaster Bomber, a premium ale. Both brands have won numerous awards in recent years and are highly complementary to Marston’s market-leading portfolio of premium craft and bottled ales. This acquisition is consistent with Marston’s brewing strategy to focus on popular premium ales with local and regional appeal, and provides an opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and wider consumer interest in the beer category. The transaction is expected to complete on 17 April 2015. In the 12 months to December 2014 Ebitda is estimated to have been around £7 million before overheads of approximately £2 million. The acquisition is expected to be earnings-enhancing in the first full year of ownership; in the current financial year it is estimated that the contribution to profit before taxation will be around £1.5 million. Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s, said: “I am delighted to welcome our new colleagues to Marston’s. We are acquiring a very high quality business with good people and brands, and with growth potential. The acquisition is consistent with our beer business strategy to focus on local provenance and premium brands, and provides opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and increasing consumer interest in the beer category.”

While extremely disappointing news in some ways, this hardly comes as a shock to those of us in the North West.  The writing has been on the wall since Thwaites first of all announced several years ago that it would move out of the Star Brewery Blackburn to a new green field site and sell the existing site to Sainsbury's. Years then passed with no progress and in 2012 the brewery was closed as "obsolete" without finding a new one.  With the exception of Crafty Dan brands, the beer was outsourced to, yes, you've guessed, Marstons. Thwaites then announced a new brewery after all and then maintained a deafening silence on the whole matter. I wrote about the brewery here in less than glowing terms and here in a lot more positive ones.  Seems my enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. Thwaites will continue as a Pub and Hotel Company though one has to wonder for how long?  The record of such Pub Companies is quick demise though admittedly these are changed times, so who knows? Maybe it is a smarter move than it first appears?

However, oddly, it seems that all is not lost brewing wise.  According to the Wolverhampton Express and Star (Thwaites beers are largely brewed in Wolverhampton by Banks')  "Thwaites has retained ownership of craft beer brands and other cask ale brands, including its seasonal ale range, which it will continue to brew and sell in its’ own properties. Daniel Thwaites’ chief executive Richard Bailey said: “This is a very exciting development which allows us to focus on our pubs, inns and hotels, whilst retaining a small brewery to continue to supply our own properties with our fantastic beers and opening up a wider drinks range to our customers through a long term supply deal with Marston’s.

So as you were in some ways, though where these beers will be brewed isn't clear.  We'll have to wait and see.

It is odd that Thwaites refer to their beer brands as "Third Party Brewing Business". Well they are now I suppose.

The Big Four-O

The local CAMRA Branch I chair and have done for twenty years, is forty this month.  We have been celebrating this with a series of piss ups thoughtful events to mark the occasion.  The first formal do was last Wednesday when we met at the Flying Horse in Rochdale to enjoy a few local beers (including one I had a hand in) and to view memorabilia of Branch happenings over the years.  We gathered together quite a lot of interesting stuff, including the minutes and attendance sheet for both the first meeting to establish interest in forming a CAMRA Branch in Rochdale,Oldham and Bury and the first meeting minutes having decided to go ahead.  Many photos of old gits when a lot younger were eagerly perused, as well as posters, beer festival lists and all sorts of other paraphernalia which had been gathering dust in drawers, lofts and garages for donkey's years.  Old colleagues attended and it was rather a cheery evening, with around fifty present.

While that was jolly nice for all of us, what occurred to me was that on an otherwise quiet Wednesday evening, a very large number of pints were consumed, giving the pub a pretty good boost to trade. It also occurred to me that similar events happen all the time and across the country there are countless CAMRA organised events that give local pubs much needed business at quiet times. Quiet midweeks are serendipitously the best time for us to hold meetings and the best time for pubs to host them and thus fill space.  Almost all CAMRA branches are no doubt doing the same kind of thing all the time and in our case, we'll have special events throughout the year and, as CAMRA was growing hugely forty years ago, there will be a lot of this kind of stuff going on. It's all good for pubs.

Some of us may be old and set in our ways, but we are still campaigning for real ale in the best way anyone can, by getting out and drinking the stuff.

My beer was brewed by Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. It was a chocolate, chilli stout of 4.5% and was a dark as possible. It had just a touch of chilli and a beautiful white creamy head. Lovely stuff. It sold out before it was ready for serving and will shortly be available in bottle conditioned form. Want some? Ask Matt here.

Photo (Top) shows me presenting a certificate to the Merrie Monk in Rochdale in 1997.  Alas, like the landlord, the Merrie Monk is no longer with us. I'm hanging on in there.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Ring My Bell

It is early doors in one of Milan's busiest craft beer bars.  The place is heaving, with Italian locals and our mixed group of Brits and Italians.  Service is appallingly slow, but the bar staff seem to be happily enjoying themselves, even if some of the desperate customers aren't.  A bell rings at seemingly random intervals, rung by a cheery barman and of course, Brits being Brits a chorus of "Last Orders" immediately strikes up. But closing time is hours away.  We don't know what the bell ringing is about, but it becomes background as we carry on supping and chatting.

Later, elsewhere, one of our party, a veteran of Milan - which unaccountably many seem to be - it isn't the most beautiful of Italian cities - explains to us that the bell is rung whenever a good looking girl enters the premises or approaches the bar. It's just what they do in some places it seems. To prove the point, it happens in another very busy craft bar the next day too.  Meantime, in the sports bar which is the pub nearest to the apartment in which we are staying, the busy place is run with incredible charm and efficiency almost entirely by young women.  They dispense beer and food at lightning speed and there is a smile for everyone. No bells are rung here.

Ordinary everyday sexism or just Italian charm? You judge, but I preferred to get my beer quickly, with a smile. I bet the women do too, though it was good to see so many young women happily drinking beer.

The more crafty the bar, the worse the service was.  These places are incredibly popular in Milan and maybe, just maybe, it goes to the head of those serving and operating the bars.  Staff were all male in the craft bars as far as I can recall.

Ever seen Carlsberg Special Brew on draught? Me neither and I didn't try it.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

To Milan Forthwith

In a few short hours I'll be whisked off to Milan by Mr Ryanair. Along with the Great Gonzo and sundry others from Bieres Sans Frontieres at GBBF we are meeting our Italian pals for our Annual General Meeting.

A great programme is promised, with visits to Birrificio Lambrate ​with headbrewer Fabio Brocca, dinner at Lambiczoon ​with owner Antonio “Nino” Maiorano. Then a bit of business with the BSF Annual General Meeting​ at the Birrificio Italiano restaurant in Lurago Marinone,  followed by a beer tasting  of special beers of Birrificio Italiano​ with headbrewer and founder Agostino Arioli and a visit to the brewery.  We then re-board our coach and we're off to Birrificio Menaresta​ to be greeted by  partner and founder Marco Rubelli.   If we are still alive after all that, we go by coach to Monza for a tasting and aperitivo at Birrificio Carrobiolowith headbrewer and founder Pietro Fontana.

I'll let you know how I get on. 

I'll tweet the odd thing too. My mobile company Three allow me to use my UK allowance in Italy. Top guys.  I'll even be able to ring the lovely E free of further charge.

We get a day off on Sunday. I might even see some sights. Apart from hungover BSF types that is. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Where's the Southern Blondes Then?

London is always an enigma to me. It contains some of the best pubs in the country, has some of the most go ahead brewers and new wave bars yet still thinks it is in the Second World War in terms of new inventions like refrigeration.  The problem of warm cask beer is one that I bang on about and will continue to bang on about. London has some of the best pubs - pubs you could happily drink beer in all day - if only the beer wasn't kept so bloody awfully. Even the lager is rarely as cold as it ought to be. London, it seems, likes warm beer.

Funnily enough though this isn't about that. I just like to stick that knife in whenever I can. So what am I banging on about this time?  Well the lack of pale, hoppy beer that's what.  In the North and by this I mean anywhere above Birmingham, it would be an odd situation indeed if, in a free house or even one that isn't, you didn't find something pale and hoppy on the bar.  It is a given Oop North but this just doesn't seem to happen in London and when and if you do come cross something pale, if it isn't Dark Star Hophead, it is likely to be sweet and it is likely to be the only one on the bar that that isn't brown. Going further south, on my recent trip to Broadstairs, there was again a distinct lack of hop forward blonde beers. Why is this I wonder?  Is it a matter of preference or perceived preference? Is it a lack of availability locally and local is big at the moment?  I'm kind of baffled.

Why is this? Any ideas?

The list of Northern Breweries producing a huge range of blonde beers is vast.  Those would be people like Phoenix, Saltaire, Elland, Pictish, Allgates, Wilson Potter, Goose Eye, Mallinsons, Ossett to name but a few.  These can be readily bought through beer distributors.  There is lots more.

And yes, I know some exist down South, but why don't we see them in London is the question.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Sort Out the Troublemakers Plod

I read with incredulity  - or should that be with a resigned sigh - that Mr Plod in the shape of London's Commissioner of  Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe is calling for fewer pubs in order to combat "alcohol fuelled disorder".  Clearly is has escaped his notice that we have lost 13,000 pubs since 2000 and that alcohol consumption has fallen by 18% in a decade. As a matter of fact, the number of arrests in the Metropolitan Police area for offences such as Drunk and Disorderly has remained around the 6000 mark since 2008/09.

Now I don't know about you, but I can't remember when I last saw a fight or other "alcohol fuelled disorder" - well not of the kind of any interest to the bizzies anyway - I don't think talking bollocks round the table counts - either inside or outside a pub.  Where such behaviour occurs it is usually in places where many mostly young people gather for late night drinking and loud music.Clearly, to this observer at least, it is these places, not those that most people normal people would regard as "pubs" that are the issue.  These are really bars or pseudo night clubs with late licences and are already well known to police and everyone else within a given local area as trouble spots.  It is instructive too that Hogan-Howe reckons that councils should disregard development of local economies when handing out more licences.  "It's the economy Stupid" clearly is of no concern to him.  Nor are the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003 - enacted in November 2005 - which restricts severely the reasons for refusing a premises license, but adds in the provision for restrictions to apply to a license and a complicated system of local licensing objectives. It also gives the police a role in objecting or restricting premises licences where a "negative cumulative impact on one or more of the licensing objectives." can be demonstrated.  In other words, as usual, there are enough existing laws and provisions for problems arising from licensed premises and criminal acts outside them to be dealt with.

Hogan-Howe should choose his terminology a lot more carefully. Pubs and local economies should not suffer because the police don't enforce the law. It is not licences to sell alcohol that cause problems. It is people.

One of my more serious posts. It really got on my nerves reading this.  In fact I might have to go to the pub now.


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Solving The Price Gap Dilemma

There is an obvious difference between the price of similar cask and keg beers in many of the hybrid craft pubs and bars. When I say hybrid I mean those that serve a mixture of cask and keg - a formula that I think works well as it happens. It brings crossover and a likelihood that there is more of an incentive to keep the cask well, both to compare with the less variable keg presentation - though there are many presentational and quality problems with keg - but just as much as anything, concerns about reputation.  These kind of pubs, often with high prices, don't want to be known for poor beer quality and though that yardstick isn't a sure one, it gives a reasonable probability of decent cask in most cases.

But I digress from my main point. A couple of weeks ago in Leeds, Tapped had the same beer on cask and keg with the keg being a £1 dearer.  This was not a strong beer I recall, but I have seen much wider differences than that on my travels. While you can argue all day why people might prefer to pay a premium for the same beer in keg, there is a undoubtedly a difference in the purchase cost, not least of which is buying the container (in the case of keykegs and petainers) and applying GP to it, as anything else, though there are other costs. I guess most are passed on to the customer. So equivalent keg will always be dearer than cask?

Last week in London I found one pub that seems to be solving this problem. The Hack and Hop was selling 4% cask beer for £4.50 a pint.   Is levelling upwards the start of something new and unwelcome?

Needless to say I didn't buy any and couldn't get near the bar anyway and went elsewhere. That's London for you. Not price sensitive and thankfully, not typical. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Small but Perfectly Formed

Micropubs are a growing thing I believe.  We are about to get the first in my area, but some say it all started in Kent where I went on Sunday last.   Although the owner of the micropub on Hartlepool Station is a mate, I haven't been there, so my only previous visit to one was in Newark, in the very delightful Just Beer, which I wrote about here. On Sunday last though, I had the experience of three in one day, in Broadstairs, just a short (albeit expensive) 81 minute journey from St Pancras. My guide on this visit was my friend Nick (@erlangernick)) who was holidaying there on a sabbatical from Bavaria.

After a walk on the sandy beach on what was a lovely spring day, we had a few beers around the town including the first micropub, the Thirty Nine Steps, quite a large one room affair, with the beer served at one end from a large refrigerated display cabinet kind of thing.   It was jammed with customers.  Further away, up a very large hill and through a lovely piece of suburbia beyond the railway station, Nick led us through the back-streets to two quite lovely little "micropubs". The irony of being guided through Broadstairs by a Germanicised Yankee was not lost on me, but Nick had been there before and give him his due, despite the twists and turns, we went straight to both. Both different too. The Yard of Ale has a definite farmhouse feel and a nice yard to sit in - with very attractive wrought iron gates - we chatted to the guy that made them - it's that sort of place - and the more pubby, on a street corner, Four Candles, where we received an absolutely tremendous welcome from both landlord and customers. Indeed the welcome in all three was splendid and noticeably warm.  They were all busy too and not at all cliquey, which you might imagine to be a danger.

Personally I loved the micropubs.  They seemed to me to take us back to a more intimate and personal pub experience. The basic theme is a one roomed pub with beer drawn directly from the barrels and no lager etc. Real cider was a feature too in all of them and all beer and cider seemed to be about £3 a pint. Food was of the pork pies and pickled eggs variety, but who really needs more while supping ale or cider?  I think they've a good chance of spreading and being successful. Potential owners will have to do their homework and pick locations carefully, and while they'll never replace "proper" pubs, they would certainly seem to me to have a deserved place in the drinking spectrum.

I am told set up costs can be around £10,000, so possibly it's a relatively cheap way to enter the free trade? So are micropubs a viable new craze?  You know, in the right circumstances,  I think they might be. 

What of the beer I hear you ask? Not so bad, though personally I'd go like Just Beer in Newark with handpumps.  I drank cider though mainly. It just seemed the right thing to do. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Microbrewing Bad Beer?

Boak and Bailey had an interesting thread a week or so ago about breweries that get more than their fair share of plaudits and those that don't and perhaps deserve to.  I did contribute to that but found that two of my key comments have vanished into the ether.  It has a habit of doing that to me has WordPress.  So, I'll continue what I was going to say here instead.

Buried in all the comments and unremarked was this "I am not concerned about brewers receiving too much, deserved, praise or others not gaining recognition. I would like to see a large number of micro brewers driven out of business and writers must tell the truth about the bad brewers and to metaphorically put the boot in. (For Northeners this would be just about any Dave Porter 3 day training course brewers)".  I think the writer of this - someone called Marwood that I don't know - is right about the number of poor microbrewers out there and also right about calling them out, though why he didn't take the opportunity to do so himself is a moot point. What caused me to respond though was the second bit about Dave Porter, which I suspect was not commented on because few understood it.

Dave Porter runs PBC who are the biggest supplier of microbreweries in the UK though they also supply worldwide.  (275 to date overall according to their website). They are based in Bury and Dave Porter, the owner used to run pubs in this area and supply them from his own microbrewery in Lancashire.  He is involved with Outstanding Brewing, is anything but modest,  but as sharp a businessman as you'll come across. He happens to be one of my CAMRA Branch members. He also brews good beer and teaches others how to brew.  What the commentator seems to be saying though is that Dave's plant and training produces bad beers. Now, were that so we wouldn't  be enjoying beers from, among others, Arbor, Bad Seed, First Chop, Ilkley, Kernal, Mallinson, Offbeat, Redchurch, Wilson Potter and Stringers to name but a few. Many of his other breweries aren't known to me, though plenty are. Far from all being in the North, they are nationwide and indeed worldwide. I don't of course know if all the brewers attended his training courses, but I do know the vast majority of his customers have done and acquired sufficient skills to produce excellent beers.  I don't doubt either that some produce a load of old rubbish.  That's the way of the brewing world.

Bad microbreweries exist because they have bad brewers, bad brewing practice and duff palates. Trust me Dave Porter has none of these.

In case you think this is inspired by Dave, it isn't. If he knew he wouldn't care and would probably tell me to eff off.  He has done so plenty times before in beery discourse.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

No Man Loves Life Like Him That's Growing Old

The quote that heads this post is from Sophocles. He was a Greek guy. Its truth was evidenced last week when in the company of blogger and Publican Jeff Bell and his pal (the guy who is opening the Piccadilly Tap - let's call him Mr PT - whose idea it was), we ventured into the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill, Manchester.

Winding back slightly, we had been in the Marble Arch with Mr PT when he mentioned a pub that he'd been in which was a smashing example of the kind of city centre pub that you rarely see any more.  Could we go there for one?  From his description, I couldn't quite place it, but as we approached the Angel, he said "It's just over there that pub" and all fell into place and I knew exactly where and what he meant.  The Hare and Hounds is a small three roomed, ex Tetley pub just opposite the Arndale Bus Station.  It attracts, shall we say,  a more mature clientèle to sup its keenly priced handpulled Joey Holt's Bitter and various smooth beers. You'll often find it jammed from end to end. Despite their age, there is much vertical drinking and the place positively buzzes with conversation and noise. There used to be (and may still be) a piano and a bit of informal singing. Yes, sometimes they sing.  If you want to see how Northern pubs used to be, there's probably few better places.

The back room and bar were heaving when we arrived and squeezed into the hatched snug on the right as you enter. It gives you a kind of railway tunnel view of proceedings. There was a geriatric karaoke in full swing. At the far end an oldish guy on an electronic music box was squeezing out old time tunes accompanied by even older types giving it laldy on the microphone. Others sang along or watched happily.  Some cheerily awaited their turn on the mike. No-one was being shy here. Supping Holt's Bitter, we three watched transfixed from the hatch. Jeff loved it and Mr PT remarked as if in a dream, "Some of these guys are pretty good."  And they were at that. We cast our eyes over proceedings until our pints were finished and  left, the merry din ringing in our ears. 

Mr PT is right. It is the kind of place I remember from my time in Liverpool many years ago and which sadly is all too rare nowadays.  It cheered us up immensely to think of the pleasure these senior citizens were getting from the simple act of singing together, though no doubt lubrication played its part.

For sure, these cheery customers aren't dead yet.And this pub is very much alive too.

These days impromptu singing is likely to get you chucked out of most places. I don't think it does here.  I thought the Holt's Bitter on good form. Other opinions may have varied slightly.

Sophocles who was a bit of a philosopher on the side also said “If you were to offer a thirsty man all wisdom, you would not please him more than if you gave him a drink.” Mine's a pint!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Pure Dead Brilliant

What is? Leeds is. That's what. Following on from my full of praise blog post for the city here, I had a much closer look on Saturday when CAMRA's Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch descended on it mob handed. Many pints and half pints were drunk and there wasn't a single beer in any pub that was less than exemplary in its presentation.  From the first pint in the Leeds Brewery Tap to the last in Tapped (which we visited twice it was so good) cask conditioned beer was presented as the brewer would have loved it to be and, more importantly - because it is the customer that really counts - it was presented in a way to delight the drinker.

The pubs were a delight too - busy and cheerful, reasonably priced, with a positive attitude to customer service which really stood out.  The area around the station is a cask beer drinker's paradise with probably around fifty different beers in total in the pubs we visited and we didn't have time for them all. It is no exaggeration to say that within two hundred yards of the station, if you wanted tip top real ale, you just couldn't go wrong. Even in Bundobust, a keg only cafe bar place, my enquiry as to whether they sold cask was dealt with in a lovely manner, with a "Sorry, No" and then a quick run through the beers on offer to find me something I liked.  The icing on the cake was that the manager then approached our table to explain that they just don't have the facilities for cask in such a small outlet.  A really nice, friendly touch which was very much appreciated.

When I worked in Leeds, I thought beer quality was great. Thankfully it still is. Go there. You won't regret it.

I was very impressed with the Head of Steam too. Well done to Cameron's Brewery, the owners. And well done to Oakham for Inferno, the best pint of the day (Tapped) in what was a very closely contested competition - in my head that is.

The photo shows my tipple in Bundobust. Rather decent it was too.  British lager is improving in leaps and bounds

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Not Pure Dead Brilliant

Scotland is still somewhat of a desert for real ale, though it is improving greatly. There are certainly pockets of glory such as Edinburgh, where you can sup as well as anywhere in the UK, but over in the West, this is less so. Where cask isn't king, you may well run into problems in the quality of the beer served, particularly as less busy times.

Sadly my visit last week was a succession of lows with very few highs. I won't bore you with too many details except to say it rarely reached the heights that perfect cask conditioning, combined with quick turnover will give. Bad samples were encountered over four days in the Drum and Monkey, the Counting House, Camperdown Place, the Captain James Lang, the Henry Bell, the State Bar, Hengstler's Circus and the Horseshoe Bar.  None of the beer in these places was undrinkable.  In CAMRA National Beer Scoring Scheme parlance, it varied for between and 1 and a 2:

1.  Poor. Beer that is anything from barely drinkable to drinkable with considerable resentment.
2. Average. Competently kept, drinkable pint but doesn't inspire in any way, not worth moving to another pub but you drink the beer without really noticing.

Now it wouldn't be fair not to mention the honourable exceptions.  The Bon Accord in keeping with its venerable tradition of serving real ale* provided beer in excellent condition and a special mention must go to the Dunbartonshire CAMRA Pub of the Year, the Ashton in Helensburgh which, on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, supplied top notch beer from the nearby Loch Lomond Brewery despite me being the only customer drinking it. Top marks too for friendliness, though you could add that praise to quite a few of the Glasgow pubs. The beer might have let me down but the customers certainly didn't. People DO make Glasgow.

So, what's the cause?  Lack of turnover in the midweek most likely and  Tennents Lager. In every pub, even the two I praised, everyone (more or less) was scooping the old TL down for fun. And it looked fun too.  You'll struggle to keep real ale well where the demand is so slack.  In addition, too many of the pubs had too many beers on and not enough people drinking them. I don't envy the job the Campaign has to do in Scotland. They've made great inroads, but it is a bit of an uphill task you know.  They've been drinking lager there for more years than most.  The history of lager drinking in Scotland goes back a very long way indeed.

It seems to have a bright present too.

* I had my first ever pint of cask beer in here in 1974 and no apologies for banging on about beer quality yet again. I will continue to do so. It is an obsession of mine.

In JDW pubs the beer was cheap. As low as £1.49 in Dumbarton, £1.79 in Helensburgh and just above £2 in Glasgow.  And it still wasn't shifting.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tapping in to Leeds

More serendipity for me. Reading about the new(ish) Tapped in Leeds one morning in Beer Magazine and visiting it unexpectedly the next day.  This is getting spooky.  I used to work in Leeds and still visit it now and then. One such time was a couple of Saturdays ago while E was having her hair done. I accompanied her and had three hours to myself. A pleasant 45 minute walk from Headingley through student territory took me to the City Centre. Plenty of people watching on the way added to an interesting downhill stroll.

Friends of Ham, much lauded in various Leedsy blogs was a tiny place when I last visited it, but now it seems to have doubled or more in size. At just before one o'clock it was packed with a mixed crowd scoffing Iberian porcine products and not a few drinkers.  There was around three cask beers and a number of keg ones and brisk, friendly service. I didn't notice any obtrusive music and the place was abuzz with conversation. Big ticks all round. A bonus was bumping into two of my lads scouting out the place for our forthcoming CAMRA Branch crawl of Leeds. The dedication of these people knows no bounds. I joined them for a quick half of something dark and delicious. It was in peak condition as you'd expect in Leeds. OK they served it in those daft dimpled mugs, but one can't have everything.

However delightful as Friends of Ham was, I wanted to visit Tapped, just across the road in Boar Lane. This is a large beer hall sort of place. Large windows out front let in (surprisingly little) light. There are tall tables in rows, a long bar, subdued lighting and a small, shiny brewery down one side along the wall.  It was again bustling, but service was quick and pleasant and the beer choice was good.  I didn't count the taps, American style against the bar wall, but I'm sure in mid twenties, evenly distributed between cask and keg.  Beers were competitively priced and the cask in immaculate condition. I enjoyed Brewsmith Pale Ale from my own area and Anarchy, brewed on the premises which was "unfined" but clear as a bell. Any bum notes? Only the ghastly "chick chick" bass music that was both unwelcome and unnecessary. Still great though and well done.

Time was drawing on though. I had to be outside the Palace (my old Leeds local) to meet the newly coiffured E in an hour and I still had to visit that venerable and excellent institution, Leeds Market for some vittals. That done it was time for a couple of swift halves in the Palace. Alas no Ind Coope Burton Ale, but I was able to contrast and compare London's Redemption Pale Ale served Northern style with what happens to it in its native territory.  It was like drinking a different beer, subtle hops, good malt base, well conditioned, sparkled and cellar temperature. Tick, tick, tick. The Palace was busy too, the beer was good and I left for my lift in good cheer.  I'd tried around eight beers and all were different and all were good. I'm looking forward to our day out there at the end of the month. These days I always look for some kind of conclusion to draw from my all too few days out. This time it is that Leeds is still great for well kept cask beer. The people behind the various "Taps" really know what they are doing and that the Manchester one(s) will be a great success when they open in the next couple of months.

It also reinforces in my mind that there is nothing difficult at all in keeping and presenting cask beer well. You need a cellar between 10 and 13C, insulated beer lines and beer which has not been over-vented. And above all  you actually need to know what you are doing, but you can learn the basics in ten minutes and then build on it.

Brewers of  "London Murky" style beers please note that unfined beer is not enhanced by the electric soup approach. Unfined does not have to equal murky.  See photo.

I didn't try any of the keg beers. Why bother when the cask is so good?  It is still a distress purchase for me by and large. Lager excepted.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Dark Doings

It a bit of neat symmetry, I read the article in the most recent Beer Magazine in which two different CAMRA members argue the case about the merits of supporting beer styles like mild with their own promotion etc. just before I visited JW Lees Horton Arms, a neat pub tucked under the motorway bridge in leafy Chadderton, a two-bus bus ride away from my house. Now the Horton Arms is an old haunt of mine from years ago and it was often referred to when in the Good Beer Guide, as a bit of a country style pub. It attracted a staunchly local crowd and was traditional in internal appearance, with horse brasses and paraphernalia on the walls, a separate room at the side as you went in which often showed sports, a beer garden used mainly by smokers and internally consisted of a number of distinct drinking areas attracting different customer types. It was always bright and gleaming and popular with a mainly beer drinking crowd, although food was available lunchtimes. It has been a Lees tenancy for years.

We'd arranged to meet some friends there as none of us had really been there since it was done up not that long ago - well I had on a busy Sunday where you couldn't really see much of the changes, such was the crowd - and anyway, it just seemed worth checking out. It isn't a million miles form my own local and we all know some of the Horton regulars from our visits there and their visits to our gaff, so an amenable visit was in store. Unusually this pub used to be a bit of a bastion of "mixed" where mild and bitter, half of each, is served in a pint glass. Talking to one of the locals, it still is it seems and back to my original theme, it means that cask mild is available. I decided to have a pint of mild to start with, or rather Brewer's Dark as it is known now. Things started badly with the barmaid starting to pour me Dark Smooth. That was easily sorted out, but here's a tip for publicans selling cask and smooth versions of the same beer: always serve cask if the customer doesn't specify (I did by the way, but you win some, lose some). Not only will it increase cask sales, but it means you sell the more perishable product first. Tell your bar staff this, save money and increase beer quality.  Obvious and simples really?

Now Lees Mild is a former Champion Mild of Britain and this renamed beer is the same recipe.  Boy did it show up well here. Rich, luscious, full bodied with a tight creamy head, it was Guinness like in appearance, though a mile ahead in taste. We got chatting to some old friends and as time passed and the buses were only hourly, hung on longer than intended. I certainly can't remember when I last had six pints of mild in a row, but that was a night I did  - and every one was delicious too. What of the re-vamped pub? Not so much to my taste to be honest and both the rather intrusive "musak" and the vast array of "reserved" signs showed that the emphasis had changed from drinking to eating, with all of the pub, apart from one small area in the corner, now being eating territory only. Reserved signs and knives and forks on the tables ram home the message. The non eating locals and visitors alike were restricted to the allotted non eating corner, or to a row of poseur tables in front of the bar, which just seemed to get in everyone's way. But this, funnily enough,  isn't a criticism as such. I bear in mind that it was a Friday evening and things may well be less prescriptive at other times. You also have to take into account that this is a tenancy and before you blame the brewery, have to bear in mind that changes will be as much the will of the tenant as anything else.  If  it  works for them, pays the rent and leaves some money over, then that is a sound decision.  It is a business after all and while it may not entirely suit me or some others, it clearly suits plenty of folks looking for a good value, good quality place to eat. If tables have to be reserved, its popularity cannot and should not be denied and the food looked great too.

So what conclusions do I draw? Well that mild is still a tremendous and under-rated drink that deserves to be more widely available and if kept as well as it was here, an absolute joy.  So I come down on the side of CAMRA supporting it. Secondly, that while change may be unwelcome in a pub you liked just as it was, it doesn't do to forget that a pub is a business that needs to make money for those that invest in it.  It can't stand still or it will surely close its doors.

Both licensees and customers should overlook that at their peril.

We did, unwisely, step off our bus home (the second of two) a couple of stops early for more beer. A veil should be drawn over that error of judgement.

There is overwhelming support for the changes at the Horton on review websites. 9th out of 212 on Tripadvisor I'd say is a point proven.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Advent at Forchheim

Forchheim isn't just one of those charming Franconian towns that dominate the area between Bamberg and Nuremburg.  It is though, like many, picture postcard pretty, but in addition it has great interest to the beer traveller as the home of no less than four breweries.  But we aren't here for the beer - well not entirely. We are here to watch the unveiling of the Town Hall Advent Calendar window. The venerable Rathaus uses its many windows as the Schönster Adventskalender der Welt (“World’s Loveliest Advent calendar”). And, lit up with Christmas lights, in a fairy tale setting, it is indeed lovely. A decent sized Christmas Market, the inevitable mulled wine and bratwurst stands, an easy going and expectant crowd and a small funfair all add to the feeling of bonhomie - or rather gemütlichkeit.  The fairly large crowds, jostle for views in that polite but determined German way. There are happy children snaking around the stand up tables and there is even beer - not as common as you might suppose at Christmas Markets in Germany. No rip off prices here either, with a half litre of local pils at €2 and 50 cents back when you return the bottle.  There was a band too and an over cheerful MC who attempted to whip the crowd into a frenzy. At the appointed time, spotlighted from another building, a local schoolgirl, dolled up to the nines, opened the appropriate Rathaus window, waved to the crowd and made a charming speech to much good natured applause. The air was full of sizzling sausages, wine, donuts, pizza and Christmas cheer. In the cold, crisp December air, it was just perfect.

But man does not live by such bucolic scenes alone. We made our way to one of my favourite hostelries for proper beer.  The pub and brewery, Brauerei Neder,  is typically German. Seemingly small on the outside, but with a Tardis like interior. The side door to the main room was locked, so we made our way through the noisy corridor where it seemed everyone was smoking furiously and probably illegally, to the far door where we fought our way in.  We were immediately taken in hand by the female server, who said one word: "Zwo?" I nod and she snakes her way through the throng to the front of the pub and orders a group of drinkers to make room.  They do and we are told where to sit - edged against the locked door with a perfect view of the beer servery and the whole room. A prime spot.  Two beers are brought without further ado. Broadly in the kellerbier style, totally delicious and a mere €1.90 a pop.

Outside it is cold, but inside it is steamingly warm.  A couple of accordion playing dudes are giving Deutsche Blasmusik their all, while the crowd - some of them at least -  sing along, or tap their tables enthusiastically. Along the front of the pub, which somehow seems like the back wall, a group are playing Skat - or it could be Schafkopf, both of which are popular German card games of impenetrable rules, that, whichever it is, involve a lot of noisy shouting and table thumping.  Some play and others bawl encouragement or derision at the players from the sidelines. They compete happily with the accordionists and nobody seems to care. In the midst of all this good natured chaos, our matronly saviour slaps down half litre stone pots of beer as soon as an empty one is laid on its side - the signal from the thirsty that another is required. She is kept very busy.  Our tablemates, by now used to our presence, nod to us. Another one arrives and squeezes in, tapping with his knuckles on the table at our position. The unspoken greeting of Franconia.

We look at the crowd and having been there before, the odd face starts to look familiar.  There are some, shall we say,  rather individual types in this town that aren't easily forgotten. One or two raise their steins to us and we beam back. I'm watching the mystifying card game when E nudges me. "I've pulled!"   An elderly gent smiles and winks at her. She smiles and toasts him.  It is harmless fun. And great fun it is too.  Soon we are lucky enough to hear a song we know on the squeeze box. Along with the crowd we roar out "Eins Zwei Zuffa". This is more commonly sung in the Hobraühaus in Munich and here the words are adapted to be local, but we know the tune and sort of know the words, so we sing.  It is so German, so Franconian and just a sheer pleasure to be a small part of it. We are the only two there that aren't local, yet we feel welcome. And happy.  My stein is placed on its side more than once. This beer slips down easily.

All too soon though the musical duo cease their merry din.  The set and indeed the act is over. I come across them at the back, when going for a pee. Now off duty, but still with their instruments strung across their chests as if ready to swing back into action, they are knocking back the same beer as everyone else, young or old, male or female. That's just how it is. We look on this interlude as a cue to depart, though we don't go far. Almost next door is Brauerei Hebendanz where there is a much more sedate crowd, but again, no obvious seats. We are once more taken in hand by the Boss. He finds us a corner and brings us, unbidden, two beers.  We sup contentedly and are nodded to cheerily by our table companions.

Social inclusion. That's the secret to it all. Even when you aren't obviously part of it, you are. 

Forchheim is on the main Nuremburg - Bamberg rail line. It is about 20 odd minutes from Bamberg and half an hour from Nuremberg.

We also chalked up the only brewery I hadn't visited before as it has always been closed, Brauerei Eichhorn, but that was early doors and it was almost empty.

Friday, 30 January 2015

You Can Only Please Some People a Bit

You may or may not have noticed a Twitter spat between me and a guy called Mark Johnson.  Who's that then? He writes a blog called Beer Compurgation - no I don't know what the word means either.  What's the big deal? Well not a lot in many ways and certainly not as much as has been made out on Twitter. It arose by my response to Matt Curtis and his fulsome praise for a blog piece about the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival for which I am the Deputy Organiser.  Now this wasn't an overly critical piece (but see below) and apart from repeating rubbish about being "lied to" at the previous year's festival, was fairly innocuous.  Given that the writer actually said some nice things too, why am I bothering with this then?

Among other things, it's that thing about being lied to again.  Accusing people of being mistaken, or just plain wrong or daft is one thing, accusations of lying are another. It was toned down a little this time to "pretence" - one of the dictionary definitions of which is "lying", but there you go.  What was our offence this time you ask?  Well it seem that our arrangement with Henshaws Society, a charity for blind people, has caused a red mist to fall once again. It seems that it was suggested to Mr Johnson by those selling the programme, that the money went to charity.

"Secondly, the programmes were being sold to people under the pretence that the money goes to charity. The latter has all the credibility of a BBC phone-in donation.

The actual arrangements were that the charity got 10p per programme for the first 3000 sold and 25p thereafter. This was the deal they negotiated with us. They sold the programmes on our behalf and no doubt wished to maximise numbers sold. From their point of view it was "for charity".   Funnily enough, as the person responsible for the foyer, I didn't hear anyone say once that it was all for charity, but there you go. Even though we handed over the responsibility for programme selling to the charity, we will ensure in future that they brief their volunteers correctly. (As an aside, the programme, no less that 64 (high quality paper) pages, was sold for a bargain £1. Hardly a rip off given the effort that went into it and the extensive tasting notes. Its costs were not all covered by adverts by any means as suggested and a fixed amount per programme goes to the publisher too - these are complicated deals.) The cloakrooms were operated by Henshaws again.  The Velodrome has only one. We bought or acquired the kit for a second, including the racks and hangars. Out of each pound spent, the charity got 80p. The rest covered our costs.  The implication that CAMRA decided to deceive over this is just not true.

 It doesn’t sit right with me, sorry. I’m sure Henshaws raised a lot of charity money this year. I bet another organisation earned more" 

I don't actually know who made most from these two activities, but since the entire operation was handed over to the charity, we'll have to wait and see.  Not that it would actually matter, as long as that was what was negotiated and agreed upon.  Even if we did make money from it, that's our aim.  No apologies for that. Our expenses are enormous, as is our exposure to risk. The charity was happy with their cut and our aim in involving them was to delegate a task or two and to allow them to make more money for charity than just shaking buckets under noses.  They are in their second year with us and are very happy indeed with the relationship.

We weren’t lied to over tannoy systems this year and they actually remembered to sell beer too. I told them at the end of last year’s post to come back and be better and it worked. They listened to many and learnt from all. They can be taught.

There we go again. Last year's comments about lying are slipped in again, even though they were systematically rebutted at the time. Let's make it clear one more time. Firstly Metrolink always closes the Velodrome Tram Stop for an hour after Manchester City's home games. That's what we announced last year. Metrolink did the same this year. It is their Standard Operating Procedure. Secondly, we ran out of beer last year, because more people turned up than we'd expected and budgeted for. This year we didn't run out - at a pretty big cost to us in discarded beer - because we knew we'd need more - a fact we didn't know the year before, never having been there.   Mr Johnson was pleased though we had plenty of beer, but it isn't that simple. Judging the amount of perishable cask beer is not an exact science. Nobody wants to run out and nobody wants to send hundreds of gallons of good beer down the sluice, which is what we have to do if we get it wrong. Selling cask beer in volume to an uncertain audience is squeaky bum time for us all.  We take it very seriously and certainly try to run that fine line between too little and too much.

Despite his (tongue in cheek I hope) claim of influence, Mr Johnson told us nothing that we hadn't figured out for ourselves. It was better because we used our experience of the first event to make it so, and will use our experience of this event to make it better next time.  We will also listen to the large number of constructive comments too - including the charity one above - which when you strip the insinuation out, is actually a lesson learned. Thanks for that at least.  We'll know more next time too. Continuous refinement and improvement is the name of the game for us.

Moving on. If you read the article I mildly complained about, you'll see it is full of snide remarks.  I for one don't let such things go unanswered when I have had a hand in the event criticised and know how complicated it is. (As a further aside, an event that expects 11,000 people is fiendishly difficult to organise). I am concerned that the few that read Beer Compurgation and didn't attend the event, might be incorrectly influenced by it.  That is why I said "Hmm. Not really" and why I am putting the record straight now. 

A good example of a snide remark is this:

How was the beer not available at the beginning of the festival? "We haven’t finished setting up yet." Oh for God’s sake…

Shocking isn't it that in this huge logistical operation, that we can't get everything done on time and provide Mr Johnson's first choice beer, from over 500, from the get go.  Never mind that people had slaved away for five days to set it all up.  "Oh for God's sake"  is the kind of thoughtless throwaway remark that just makes you want to give up and frankly the whole piece is littered with such sarky asides.

Finally Mr Johnson's allegation that CAMRA seem to be making money out of the festival is absolutely true. Astonishingly, we do try and make money and any we do make goes straight to CAMRA HQ to, err, campaign for real ale.

Despite this, no less than 360 beers were sold at £3 a pint or less, CAMRA Members had free admission at all times except Friday night and apart from Friday, it was just £3 to get in. (£2 with a Metrolink ticket).  Average price of a pint was £3.07,  way cheaper than comparable free houses in Manchester. We'll try and fix these over-measures too - thanks for pointing it out.

Two more tweets to think about:
Point one: I hope this is constructive enough and point two: That's good in principle, but sometimes you need to look a little deeper, read between the lines and check the record too.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Live From the Velodrome

Well it is all getting there. Setting up a big beer festival like Manchester Beer and Cider Festival - see links  in previous post - is a marathon rather than a sprint. When you expect over 12,000 people, there is a huge logistical operation.  In fact serving the customers is the relatively straightforward bit. Getting a few thousand pieces of kit to click together really isn't straightforward at all.

There is always something new too, just to throw you a bit. This year we have to contend with, for example, the new laws on allergen advice.  Given that no-one is an actual expert on the 14 different categories, we have to do our best to get it right. And we will, but it is just one more thing sent to try us.  Today is (nearly) final set up and then we have to tidy away all the boxes, spares and other gubbins we don't need or need later. Bar Managers will make final adjustments, stalls will stock up, coolers will be checked and a million other things. I'll be doing the Health and Safety check later today and again tomorrow to finally ensure we are safe to go.

The good fun starts tomorrow with the trade session which to me is the best of all simply because it is a chance to meet up with old friends from the trade and have a natter and a pint.

I'll hopefully keep you all informed.

I really do recommend it and it will be great fun.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Few Minor Things

Given that Manchester Beer and Cider Festival is for us that are seriously involved in it, a constant companion, I am likely to have even less time to blog, considering the beer deliveries start this Friday.  However, as I'm waiting for yet another festival related phone call, here's a few beery matters that have caught my interest this week.

Firstly, readers may remember this post from September 2010 where I complained that I dislike being greeted at the bar when approaching by "You all right there?" in lieu of actually saying something along the lines of  "What can I get you?".  Despite it grating for the last two years since I first wrote that it got on my nerves (allowing things to get on your nerves is one of the few joys of growing old by the way) I have borne repeated manifestations of it with dignity, forbearance and patience.  I tried a new tactic though in a well known local hostelry last Friday night.  It was the same one mentioned in the original post where it has become endemic.  When asked this I responded "I'm fine thanks. How are you?"  The slightly taken aback barmaid responded with "I'm great thanks. What can I get you?"   It was a victory of sorts and I may try it again or just lapse back into unspoken resentment. Not sure which.

On Saturday I was in rather a nice pub to chair the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival Organising Meeting. The Deansgate had very pleasant staff, a good atmosphere, lots of nooks, crannies and distinct drinking areas and the beer was spot on temperature and condition wise. I rather liked it, but since other comments on the web indicate it is a free house, I wonder why there was just three Thwaites beers on at a rather hefty £3.70 a pint.  Incidentally, talking of Thwaites, has anyone else found that the Banks' brewed Wainwright is rather an improvement on the Wainwright that Thwaites brewed in Blackburn when they brewed it themselves?  I know from conversations with the now retired Head Brewer who designed it, that it was meant to have a degree of sweetness throughout. My findings are that Banks has dried the beer out somewhat giving a much more refreshing drink.  For me at least, it is improved - which is rarely the case when a beer is contract brewed - but then again, I regard Banks' as one of the best breweries in the Marstons Group.

Another pub I hadn't been to for ages was the Knott Bar more less across the road. This is under a railway arch and is a mix of traditional and trendy which is evolutionary rather than contrived. It works well and I'd forgotten just how good it is. Excellent beer there from a number of breweries (I enjoyed Acorn Blonde but Marble Ginger less so). All comfortably under £3.70 a pop too.  I'll be back. Of course no trip to Manchester is complete without a trip to the Marble Arch.  It wasn't my idea, as we'd really enjoyed a stout (can't remember whose) in the Angel and I would have liked another, but I was dragged there by companions.  A singer was just setting up, which I found odd as I'd never known it to be a place that has live music. It was jammed - though whether that was the attraction of the singer or not I don't know.

None of us enjoyed the beer that much though. Maybe we'd just had enough? I'll try it again soon and report back.

It was good to see all the pubs I visited on Saturday so busy. Dry January? Not on this evidence.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Real Ale at Home

I usually have a small party for family and friends over the holiday period and when I do, I always put a nine of beer on.  Given that I am somewhat involved in the beer business, I don't have any problems getting more or less any beer I care to and I have the kit to serve it.  I also like to think I know enough about what I'm doing to serve it in tip top condition.  But you know it is a worry. I've looked after countless casks of beer, including in pub cellars, but the one you are serving to friends is always the one you fret over.

It was a trifle colder than I'd have liked over the period it was conditioning, but I had time and the beer did condition well and drop bright too.  The day before the gig, it seemed slightly flatter than I'd like, but a rise in temperature and a little heat in the garage  brought it to a fine peak for the event itself.  In fact the condition was perfect which was a relief.

Clearly it's a better way to do things than have a few tinnies or bottles and folks love it, not only because it is better to drink draught beer, but they get the pleasure of pouring their own pint, a feat that seems to give satisfaction way beyond the simple act itself.  Naturally the beer was served through the tightest of sparklers and you know what? Spillage into the drip tray was less than a pint.  My usual drinking buddies of course had done it before and had no issues, but even those unused to it managed well.  I suppose Northern ale drinkers have observed it so often that it is more or less bred in the bone. It was supped in no time of course, but I noted the constant trail in and out of the garage and ensured I got the odd pint myself.

Cask beer at home. Lovely. I recommend it if the circumstances permit. And you only have one empty to get rid of.

Wilson Potter Tandle Hill was the beer of choice. A really good pale, hoppy beer and local.  Easy to get and to return the empty container.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Savings and Bargains

I called in to the JDW owned Regal Moon in Rochdale after chairing my CAMRA Branch Meeting on Tuesday. ( 47 attended including five members for the first time. Not bad at all eh? Well it gratified me at least.) I entered at 11.20 pm with just enough time for a half pint and a chat before my bus, I found they'd stopped serving. Manager Chris explained that throughout January, as it is relatively quiet, last orders are half an hour earlier.  This actually brings quite astonishing savings in staff hours and helps his staffing budget no end. What's the point of staff being there if there is no-one to serve being the logic I suppose.  Does this happen elsewhere? I don't know actually. Maybe others do too?

As I and my chums also go there on a Wednesday I was able to forewarn the "boys" though it was nice that the Duty Manager came over to us a just after eleven to ask if we needed another drink before he closed the tills. We didn't, but it was a good and thoughtful bit of customer service.  Another feature - of this Spoons at least - was a rather good "January Sale". Most beers, even rather strong ones, were £1.99 a pint and we enjoyed some excellent stuff, Hawkshead Windermere Pale and Oakham JHB being pick of the bunch, but one of our part enjoyed a pint of bargain Exmoor Beast..

I was on the 11.11 bus and back home and in bed by quarter to twelve. (We meet at nine). Not Dry January by any means and I'm not sure it counts as TryJanuary either, but still doing my bit you know.

I hadn't had JHB for ages. Not forgotten how good it is though and it was certainly in top form.  A bargain indeed at £1.99

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Sad Demise of an Iconic Beer

I read without much surprise about Carlsberg withdrawing the availability of Draught Burton Ale. It was formerly Ind Coope's Draught Burton Ale and once upon a time a Champion Beer of Britain. In 1990 in fact, though it had been around a fair length of time before that. Since 1976 in fact.  The 1977 edition of the Good Beer Guide describes it as "pale and well hopped". It had an Original Gravity  of 1047.5 - no alcohol by volume then - and by the time that became the norm, in 1990, it had settled at 4.4%.    It wasn't always described as a pale, hoppy beer, but sometimes as "sweet and malty" or "pale and fruity". It gains some rather grudging praise in 1990 and 1991's guides, but much more generous comments in 1992 when, such is the lead in time for the Good Beer Guide, it was the current (for that edition) Champion Beer.  By then the alcohol content had risen to 4.8% and praise was much more fulsome, though I for one take the 1992 description with more than a pinch of salt.

Now I have a relationship with ICBA that goes back quite a few years.  When I worked in Leeds it was the premium beer in quite a few Tetley houses, including the Palace Hotel near my office and where, of a Friday, I used to go for a few lunchtime pints.  Long before I retired though, the lunchtime pint was frowned upon, but these were halcyon days. My lass worked in the same building at the time and was, (not always entirely willingly) able to drive me back over the Pennines when, with other reprobates, I had (over indulged) in a few pints of Burton Ale. Pale, perfumed, spicy from the Styrians and with a lovely, delicate, fragrant bitter, flowery, hoppy finish, it was simply divine.  One was never enough, but it went for you. Many a Friday lunchtime was extended by "flexitime" to an afternoon session and we all left pretty much the worse for wear. For me, it wasn't so bad. I was in charge of my area and my bosses were in Edinburgh. Should I be ashamed of that little abuse of power? Not a bit of it. Those were the days my friends.

Sadly over the years I encountered ICBA less and less, though when I did it was always consumed with relish. When Tetley's closed and as part of the deal for JW Lees to brew Carlsberg under licence, Burton Ale, now shorn of its Ind Coope name, was moved to Greengate.  They didn't make a bad fist of it at all and I sometimes had a taste of it in the Head Brewer's sample room, where a cask of every beer in trade is kept.  Michael Lees-Jones, Head Brewer of  JW Lees had told me that volumes were falling away, but I wasn't aware it had gone. If I had been I'd have nipped down to Lees for a sentimental last pint, but maybe such things are best left in the memory.

There has been some surprise expressed about the sadness with which some commentators have described the demise and loss of this beer. Those expressing sadness are right to say so. I don't think it too generous or fanciful to describe Draught Burton Ale as iconic and the loss of any icon is a moment for regret and reflection. I am grateful to Boak and Bailey for the information here about the early beginnings of ICBA, though I do think their conclusion about it being a "sop to CAMRA" seems more than a tad wishful.  Perhaps I would, wouldn't I, but I did enjoy the tales of how Ind Coope buttered CAMRA up so as not to dismiss this big brewer's beer out of hand. It had the ring of truth, though nowadays that would just be seen as "sensible marketing."  Sadly though ICBA was a victim of a changing brewing industry and uncaring owners. It's death was slow and lingering, but it is good to remember it in its heyday. All pomp and swagger.

Goodbye Old Friend. It really was good while it lasted.

And no. In historic terms, it wasn't a Burton Ale, but an ale, made in Burton. An IPA in fact.  I used to see the drays from Burton coming into Tetley's, no doubt loaded with ICBA.  I can picture them yet, Dark Green, with Ind Coope on the side and front.

The photo is from my own study where this plaque is on the wall.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Minesweeping At Its Finest

Minesweep - The Urban Dictionary - To "minesweep" is to wander through a location where people are drinking, such as a bar or a party, and drink the partially-finished beverages that people abandoned.

On Frantic Friday or whatever the last Friday before Christmas Day is called, as I mentioned before here, my oldest mate and I did a little tour of some of Manchester City Centre's more traditional pubs. There can't be many more so than those that we picked and all gratifyingly close together. First up was the tiny Grey Horse where Hydes Bitter was very decent. We sat in a corner for three pints watching punters come and go and stay. Most were middle aged to old and obviously regulars, given that they were greeted by name. A few younger people squeezed in including a table full of very attractive women - we are male and we liked that. It was cosy and comfortable and we had to tear ourselves away.

A few doors away is Holt's Old Monkey. A bit of a more boisterous crowd there and amiable enough bouncers on the door. We stood at the short end of the bar as a great array of people swept in and out. Holt's IPA was very decent, the barstaff worthy of our tips and the punters, in full Christmas cheer, happy to exchange banter with us as we moved aside to let them get served. Great stuff again, with an almost entirely male clientèle, but in that moment, none the worse for that.  We did also brave Wetherpoons Waterhouse for a couple, as they had a great selection on and despite the crush at the bar, I astonished my mate Mike by having two pints in hand by the time he'd returned from the bog.  All my old elbowing skills, an eye for a gap and blatant queue jumping standing me in excellent stead.  This was more clearly full of occasional drinkers, but none the worse for that, even if judging by the decibels, a few young ladies present had clearly imbibed well, if not wisely.

Back to traditional in the shape of the City Arms, next door to JDW.  Greatly liked by a more mature, middle class crowd, we managed to get a couple of pints and jump into a bench as two others left.  Beside us was a rather elderly, down at heel gent - possibly homeless - who had a flat looking pint in front of him and who was taking surreptitious spoonfuls of bio yoghurt from a big pot which he held under the table. Astonishingly he also had a punnet of strawberries which he ate from time to time while winking at us who couldn't help but observe.  As we supped our Jaipur, we noted his occasional forays across the pub to nab half finished pints from those that left. This was done quite openly and he simply topped his glass up with whatever was to hand.  He seemed quite at peace there really and didn't draw attention to himself as such. I don't know if the barstaff knew here was there, but I suspect they did and took pity on him.

By the time we left my mate Mike had had enough. He donated around a half of Jaipur to our companion. True Christmas spirit indeed.

Note to drunks. Bio yoghurt and strawbwrries may not be the nest bar snack to ward off  pissedness, but it has a certain touch of class.

I kind of thought minesweeping a dying art. Anyone else spotted it recently? 

Friday, 2 January 2015

More Stouts Please

Porters seem very fashionable these days and when we talk of fads (or trends if you like) in beer, there is IPA, saisons, sours etc. but you do see an awful lot of porters. Or a lot of awful porters -  but they rarely seem to get a mention.  Now I like stouts and though the line between a porter and a stout can be a blurry one, I tend to subscribe to the view that porters are sweeter and less roasty and stouts are bitter and include much more by way of roasted barley.  They should also in my view at least, be hoppier, particularly with a bit of hop resin to finish. It counters the other flavours within the beer and makes you want more. Stouts too should be full of mouthfeel. Nice and thick.

When I brewed a stout with Allgates Brewery some time ago - with others - we wanted to produce a stout that ticked all these boxes and I believe we did though perhaps we could have got more of a resinous finish. But that's probably just me.  Yesterday I tried JW Lees Archer Stout - one of their seasonal beers and just released yesterday.  Now Archer Stout is named after those Middletonians that went to Flodden Field in 1513 to fight the Scots. Their weapon was the bow and arrow, hence Archer Stout.  Their feats are commemorated in our local Parish Church here in Middleton by a venerable stained glass window, reputed to be the oldest war memorial in the world.  (A war memorial has to have the names of those that fought). I have seen it and it is rather fine, as is the (partly) Norman Parish Church. Worth a visit if you are ever in this neck of the woods and in need of culture.

But what about the beer, not those misguided souls that killed so many innocent Scotsmen? Well the brewery describes it thus: "A ruby/black beer made with five different malts and Target hops to a roasted molasses nose and a roast chestnut and liquorice taste." It weighs in a 4.6% and it has been some years since it was last on Lees seasonal list, though its brewing origins go back to 1951. I remember though it as a bottled sweet stout of much more modest strength. It disappeared when Lees stopped doing their own bottling a good number of years ago.

Yesterday at the Tandle Hill Tavern, in atrocious weather, I went to try some.  John, the landlord greeted me warmly and around me were many trying this dark brew. "It's going well" said John.  The beer is rich and dark, with a bitter-sweet taste that melts into a roasty, liquorice middle and a fairly short finish.  I didn't detect the chestnuts, but it was a good beer, with enough body and taste to make you want a second. I could have done with my favoured resinous, hoppy finish, but you can't have everything. It is a very decent stout and I reckon it will do well judging by the positive reaction in the THT.

It was served through a tight sparkler to give a tight, creamy head and trust me, it had condition. 

The previous seasonal, Plum Pudding is though to me the pick of Lees seasonals. Glad to say they are now making them so much different in taste to the bitter and it is telling in excellent sales. I have nagged them on this point over the years, so claim, if not credit, foresight.