Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Not So Traditional Ale?

Stonch always gently hints that I am a stick in the mud, dyed in the wool, traditional, Luddite kind of geezer who is likely to be bearded, wearing an arran jumper, sandals and festooned with leather drinking vessels and the like. I'm not, but you know the kind of thing.

So he will be surprised to hear that I quite like Greene King's attempt to reach out to younger drinkers, which you can read about in the good old Morning Advertiser . While it is aimed at Old Speckled Hen which I can take or leave - preferably the latter - it is good to see the trade doing something about attracting younger drinkers to ale drinking. One caveat. It doesn't actually say cask ale, rather, it markets it as "the not so traditional ale" so they might be pushing the smooth version.

Nonetheless it is a step in the right direction. Ale drinking needs young people. We'll see if it leads anywhere.

Stonch will also be glad to know I am wearing some knitwear today. A nice olive green vee neck with a t shirt showing in the vee. I better not wear it with my new Lees fleece I suppose!

Hop Rocker Doesn't Rock for Me!

When I visited Zak Avery's shop in Leeds, I bought a bottle of Brew Dog Hop Rocker, described as "Statuesque Lager". Last night I decided to try it.

I have heard a lot of good things about Brew Dog, but my sole experience of it (and I can't remember which it was) was underwhelming. Would this fare better? Alas no. The beer is a hazy to muddy pale orange in colour. It matches the label very nicely! It opens with an appetising aroma of bready malt and sweetness. This sweetness is a bit of a recurring feature I'm afraid as it's all downhill from here. The beer has rather low carbonation, a sweet malty taste with some subdued vanilla edged citrus, ending with a fairly sticky sweetness and a little bitter hops. The whole thing reminded me of unfermented wort. I didn't like it one bit.

So the search for good Brew Dog goes on! At least the label was nice!

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Pub or Restaurant?

In discussing the CAMRA Pub of the Year (not the “Best Pub in Britain”) which has just been announced, my fellow blogger Stonch mentions that he finds the landlord of said pub, the Old Spot in Gloucestershire, misguided as he prefers his pub to be a community based pub that does home cooked food and sells jolly good beer and accuses him of being "hostile" to what he calls "fine dining". This seemingly worries him. Stonch also thinks that pubs have to fit a traditional stereotype to be considered for this prestigious award. The fact is that such pubs will naturally appeal to the Campaign for Real Ale, not because they are twee, but because they are the heart of their local community and selling good home cooked local produce and local cask ales. In CAMRA, as well as real ale, we campaign for excellent traditional pubs. That's because they are most likely to sell excellent traditional ale, so why on earth not?

Stonch may just be banging on about stereotypes to provoke a reaction (fair enough) but having listened to the landlord talking on the link he kindly provided, I don't see any hostility to anything. Be that as it may, the point behind this is worth debating. What is a pub and what should it be doing food and customer wise?

I won’t do the history lesson bit here. Others are far better at that, so let’s look at now. Pubs can't, on the whole, exist without food these days whether it is the humble filled roll or pie and peas, through to the "gastropub" where the whole focus is on high end food with tokenism being shown to beer. Then there is the ghastly “family” pub, stinking of chips, with unruly children running riot and keg beer, or at best, a couple of handpumps dispensing tired Greene King IPA or Courage Best. There are all points between of course. Most steer a middle road, with food being available at certain times, to sustain the drinker and to provide much needed income.

But when does the line between food and drink become one that leaves the drinker uncomfortable and unwanted, or those whose pockets are not lined with gold, dismayed by haute cuisine and "hauter" prices, when all he needs is a wholesome butty to soak up the ale? Who hasn't been made to feel like an unwelcome cheapskate in some pubs, merely because you just want a drink? Let’s not forget. A pub is for drinking in. If it is not then I'd contend it isn't really a pub. It may well be fashionable for pubs to become virtual restaurants and good luck to those that do, but when the line between the two becomes so blurred that you feel you are no longer in a pub, then surely these establishments that pretend to be pubs should be recognised as restaurants and we should just call them that? The whole point of a pub is its inclusiveness. When it fails to deliver that, whatever it is, it is not a pub in the way most of us like to think of pubs.

There is a cultural thing going on here as well. Pubs have always evolved. There have always been differences between “spit and sawdust pubs and those aiming to attract a more up market clientèle, but it is relatively recently that we have seen “pubs” aimed at particular segments of the market rather than merely aiming for "a better class of customer". Most, but not all are aimed at youthful lager drinkers. This is what has brought us "destination" places like Walkabout and other such drinking barns. Some like Pitcher and Piano and All Bar One are aimed at the affluent set, or women. All are cavernous and most are aimed at the young circuit drinker in towns, all clustered together, all belting out loud music while the scantily clad clientèle feed the binge culture image by getting arseholed on cheap bottled lager and alcopops sold expensively. However these are not pubs. They are “bars” targeting segments of the market, to the exclusion of others. The true pub aims to be inclusive and embrace all.

Returning to the food theme, I believe that pubs can still deliver value. What the majority of us want is interesting, home cooked food delivered with a decent pint at reasonable prices. That's what pubs that serve food should deliver. Those that want "fine dining" should go to restaurants in the vast majority of cases. At best they are missing the point if they don’t and at worst they are stealing our pubs.

When a new "pub" is built these days, it may have exposed pipes, plasma screens and loud music, but it will rarely attract a good cross section of people. It will rarely be the hub of a community. It will rarely feel “right" and it will rarely win awards. If it can be different, but inclusive, modern and attractive and sell decent beer, it will win awards. Unfortunately these are few and far between.

We shouldn't feel ashamed to defend traditional pubs. They have served us well for many years. They are uniquely British and they work well with a little effort, foresight, imagination and flair. A few will fall by the wayside, but these will likely be at the bottom end of the market. Most pubs will adapt to survive as they always have done, will attract customers by offering them a traditional pub atmosphere, will welcome all and mostly will be based in the original pub buildings we have. And what's wrong with that?

I'll conclude with a point of agreement. Like Stonch I think the Old Spot sounds a cracking boozer which hopefully one day I'll visit.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The Other Side of the Bar

Yesterday I did a ten and a half hour shift behind the bar in my local. I don't work there as such, but when they are short handed, I step in. Last time I was cooking meals in the kitchen, the time before looking after it when the tenants took a short break. Yesterday I was front of house. I think most drinkers would have their experience enhanced by being on the staff side of things for once. For me though, apart from a few stints here already, it isn't exactly new, having worked in a pub part-time for a few years and of course, having pulled countless pints at beer festivals.

Things started quietly enough around twelve with a few locals drifting in, having a pint and a natter, then wandering off. This is the social side really. We knew each other and it was cosy and easy going. Then as things got quiet, a large influx of customers arrived more or less all at once. Ah. Yes! The rugby internationals were being shown live on TV. This was a fairly easy part of the day too, with steady pint pulling for an appreciative and cheerful rugby crew. Wales having seen off Italy, things changed. The rugby fans drifted off to be replaced by a younger more shaven headed mob. Some not so young. Man Utd were on live. There were plenty locals too, in for the game. The atmosphere was boisterous and noisy. This was hectic stuff with large rounds and to me at least, a gratifying number of bitter drinkers. Having said that, I had to change the Lees Golden Original, their own lager which still sells well. That involved a frantic dash to the cellar and a wrestle with a recalcitrant connector then straight back to the thirsty hordes. Other FoH duties, include taking food from the kitchen to the punters, collecting glasses and dirty plates, clearing and cleaning tables, washing glasses, selling eggs - yes we do - and generally ensuring everything ran smoothly.

There was no respite. England were on live in the rugby next. Some of the Man U lot stayed and more joined. The beer flew out thick and fast. I had no time to eat all day, other than a chip muffin hastily grabbed in what passed for a lull, though I confess to the odd glass of mild. Later while it was all in full swing, four under age drinkers crept in to the snug. Bad tactics folks. It gives the game away. You should have marched boldly up to the bar! They were promptly shown the door by the landlady, with me riding shotgun to see them off the premises.

Finally the various fans were gone and the locals returned. Mostly older, all regulars at this lateish time of night. It was back to banter, checking lottery tickets, swapping tales, meeting old friends over a nice buzz of conversation and a cracking pint. We could relax, have a couple of pints and review the day. There had been two of us behind the bar and two in the kitchen. We were a good team and basked in the glow of success. E joined me for a couple of drinks too. We knew everyone and all was well with the world. We finally wended our way home around half past midnight, leaving the farmers and the others to it.

I had enjoyed observing the dynamics of it all. The reluctant girlfriends, the bored designated driver, the ale causing the boisterousness to increase with each round, a worrying feeling that surely they couldn't be polishing off beer this fast (and the nagging concern that sometimes I do). I had missed a CAMRA pub crawl of Liverpool to do it, my feet were aching, I was tired, but I had enjoyed it.

I'll be back again today on the customer side of the bar!

The picture shows the beers we had on handpump last night.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Special London Disaster!

A few years ago I did a review on Young's Special London Ale for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database. In fact it was April, 2001. In it I mention that I had another couple of bottles I was going to lay down for a year or so. Well doesn't time fly? A mere six years 10 months later, I thought I'd better see how they are doing. I dug one out last night and intended to drink it, but as usually is the case, I went off the idea. This afternoon I opened it after it had had a few hours in the fridge. Had it lost its condition. No!! It went off like a bomb, covering me and my kitchen in a spray of foam that had me cleaning up for ages.

There isn't a happy ending. The few remaining inches were only good for chips. Still I have one left so I'll try that soon. Maybe it has a better seal? I live in hope, but I'll be putting a towel round the next one before I prise it open!

The bottle was best before September 2001 according to the "nicks" on the back label

Liefmans Set to Resume Production

Duvel Moortgat has been granted temporary production rights at its bankrupt fellow brewer Liefmans Breweries in Belgium according to business information company just-drinks. It has been confirmed that the "receivers have permitted it to utilise production on a temporary basis, on condition that Duvel prepare an offer to buy all or part of Liefmans' operations. Duvel has subsequently tabled an offer for what it called "a substantial part" of Liefmans' activities."

Famous for its paper wrapped bottles, the iconic brewer was declared bankrupt in December and production was stopped.It also appears others are interested in the business, but neither the receivers nor Duvel have revealed either who they are or the state of any bids.

So we need to wait and see on this one but cautiously, this seems like fairly good news.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Good Old Days?

Last night I attended a lecture on 'Chemists, Brewers & Beer-Doctors' by University of Manchester Historian of Science, James Sumner. He turned out to be a bright and personable professor who delivered his talk with enthusiasm and aplomb. More of this later.

First of all liquid refreshment was needed, so I met my companions for the evening in the Knott Bar. This is under a railway arch near Deansgate station and you can wonder at the Victorian, brick vaulted ceiling while hoping the train thundering above doesn't fall though it. There was a few beers to try. I was a little disappointed with my Skipton Brewery Copper Dragon Golden Pippin. It was slightly off the boil and probably getting a bit too far down the cask. Much better was Salamander Mud Puppy which had failed to impress me in Leeds and finally a rather good Marble Bitter on Bernie's recommendation. Sue tried the Ginger Marble which had her cooing happily.

Then a short stroll to the venue, the Briton's Protection, a marvellous, Victorian, multi roomed, tiled wonder. We all chose Jennings Cumberland which was very good indeed.

The talk was given upstairs by the rather young looking prof. He explained the close relationship both Victorian and pre-Victorian brewers had with chemists, how the thermometer changed brewing and went on to describe that many different substances were added to beer, some of them such as caramel, relatively benign, but most of them were at best noxious and at worst highly toxic. The reason for all this chicanery? As the prof said, "when in doubt, follow the money!" If they weren't added to save money, they were added to increase appeal and thus sales or to disguise watering down etc.

A number of substances were passed around, all of them legal, for us to sniff and add to either our beer or handy little glasses of water. Compounds that weren't handed round but which you might find in your 18th or 19th century pint included, arsenic, strychnine, sulphuric acid, various sulphates of iron, copper and many more. At best you might not notice them or would attribute your fearsome hangover to strength and excess. At worst, you'd wake up dead!

Most of the substances were added to bring beer back to how it should taste, its taste having been monkeyed about with in the first place to make more money. A couple of interesting points: one, it seems our drinking forebears liked a head on their beer and the ability to re-create a lasting creamy head using various salts and cream of tartar was demonstrated to us by the prof creating a lasting head on a watery, flat, caramellly beer sample. Two: the press and public opinion saw the end to most of these practices in the mid 1800's. This was illustrated by a particularly good cartoon showing all the contaminants as demons being poured into beer by the very fat brewers, while the twin angelic nymphs of malt and hops were forlornly at the back of the queue for the mash tun.

The last point I'll make on this one is that the brewers blamed the publicans for the adulteration, while the publicans blamed the brewers. In fact they both had a hand in it. Some just things don't change!

All in all a fascinating and different night out.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Footnote to My London Trip

As I emerged blinking into the Manchester sun at Piccadilly Station, a thought occurred to me. Was my mate Graham around? I phoned him. He was a few hundred yards away having a coffee. Despite my thoughts of "no beer today" we met in the Fringe Bar. Two beers tried, Full Mash Seance (4%) was pale, hoppy and thirst quenching. Slightly less hoppy, but as good, was Blackwater Afterlife (4.5%) which was pale, full bodied with a bitter finish. Both Midlands beers by the way. Then across the road to the Smithfield where the very pale brown Phoenix Jack the Lad (4.3%) was astonishingly good, with resiny bitterness throughout and a strong bitter finish. All three beers were spot on, cool, full of condition and fresh as a daisy.

I reflected on the tired, stale, over vented, oxidised, warm and frankly poor beer I had had in London. It was good to be home!

Phoenix Jack the Lad is one of six beers Phoenix are brewing for tickers. I'll cover tickers here very soon!

Less Challenging Beer Anyone?

After dropping Bock Artois, InBev UK has revealed the beer which will replace it. It will be "Eiken Artois". The 4.6% lager will be made from "an original continental recipe." While that load of marketing nonsense subtly hints at heritage and dusting off some ancient and revered recipe from the past, all it really means is that it will be made from a recipe no-one has yet used. That's the real meaning of "original" in this case.

Apparently it will utilise a " new oak-aged maturation technique to produce a “distinctively different style of lager”, with subtle floral notes and hints of vanilla." Enough of the sales bollocks. Here's the nub of this beer. Steve Kitching, from InBev UK, said Eiken (Flemish for “from oak”) is a less challenging brand” than other premium styles, such as speciality beer.

So there you have it from the company itself. It will be bland. That my friends is what less challenging means in market speak. Another dumbed down load of rubbish.

Eiken Artois is God help us, the first in a “rolling cycle” of premium beers from the recently invented "Artois family" .

Monday, 18 February 2008

Ending on a High Note

It was a lovely day so a walk was required. Now our walks always involve a pint somewhere along the way. Where to go? We decided to walk along the Thames towards the west, enjoying reading the various historical plaques as we went. We ended up in Westminster. Now didn't Boak and Bailey mention a beer festival in a pub?

Two things. The Speaker is a quaint throwback to the 60's or at best the 70's and none the worse for that. I half expected Harold Wilson to be sitting in the corner, puffing his pipe and sipping a half pint of bitter while nodding to Simon Templar standing at the bar. It was pleasant and friendly and had the feel of a local. The second thing? Well hardly a beer festival, rather the two guest pumps had two beers from the South West. Ah well.

I'd like to tell you how good the beer was. I really would. But I can't. The guests were Glastonbury Mystery Tor at 3.8%. This wasn't quite clear (top marks - a warning to that effect was given before purchase) and was cloyingly sweet and a bit watery. It tasted as though Caramac Bars had been added during fermentation. Not my sort of beer at all. Next up was RCH Double Header at 5.3%. I love RCH beers. I always used to order them for our beer festivals, they always drop bright and are always chock full of condition. Um. What happened here? This was flowery in the nose, thin, dry, papery and just awful. I couldn't finish it. Damn. Was this a rogue sample? I don't know, but I do feel both beers needed a few more days conditioning, So I liked the pub and didn't like the beers. The story of my London drinking life!

We headed back to Trafalgar Square for our bus back, avoiding noisy Kosovans celebrating escaping the clutches of Serbia and felt we had to have a successful drink. OK hands up, again we went to JDW. Lord Moon of the Mall always has around six guests and they are nearly always good. Yesterday was no exception. I enjoyed a half of Vale Pale despite definite signs of acetaldehyde (green apples). I enjoyed Titanic Full Steam less. It tasted of corks. Taking the Titanic theme too far? I reckon this brewery has lost its edge a bit. I didn't have any Okells - I do rate this Manx brewer highly - or Lees John Willies(coals to Newcastle).

E, wisely chose Oakham Inferno. This was Oakham at its best. In fact this was beer at its best. Pale, fresh, bursting with condition, hoppy, full bodied with a wonderful refreshing oriental fruit and grapefruit flavour, through to a lingering hoppy finish. It was one of the best beers I have had this year. Hell it might well be the best beer I have had this year. Three pints were scarcely enough.

So looking back there were some highs and too many lows. It is always enjoyable to try new pubs and new beers, but mistakes either by me in choosing, or careless licensees are particularly expensive in London. It makes me, a thrifty Scot less inclined to experiment than otherwise I might be. Until the next time that is!

Now home for a much needed rest!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Heimat Meets SE1

"Zeitgeist" refers to the ethos of a select group of people. It is hard to define but encompasses the idea of time and place in a very Germanic context. No. I don't fully understand it either, but getting back down to earth, I suppose the aim of the German run Zeitgeist within the confines of the former (or is it present) Jolly Gardeners in which it is situated, is to recreate a little bit of "heimat" or homeland in deepest SE1. That is the zeitgeist and that'll do for the philosophy. Let's talk about the pub.

It isn't at all far from the Albert Embankment, along a gloomy road,under a railway bridge and if you don't get murdered on the way, you are there. It's a fifteen minute walk from the Palace of Westminster, to an area which reminds me yet again not all London is paved with gold, but seriously, like Boak and Bailey said, it seems safe enough. The pub is a big, clean, dark walled, open and minimalist place. There is little by way of decoration and a few nice framed posters or brewery enamels wouldn't go amiss, but that's a small point.

The pub attracts a shedload of Germans customers, the staff are all German, all the beer is German and so is the food. German is spoken. It is a little piece of Germany transported to the South Bank.Touchingly, there is a lot of the usual German traits that any visitor, familiar with Deutschland, will know and love. The smiling waitresses - well bar staff in this case. The complete disdain for all attempts at speaking German by non Germans, even though you are trying your best and a remarkable patience with two local scrotes that seemed hell bent on disturbing the otherwise calm scene.

What of the beer. These are pasteurised keg beers, but not at all bad really. They are fairly mainstream German, though draught Flensburger Pils was unusual and satisfying. Koenig Pils provided the hops and confusingly the menu listed both Weihenstephaner and Paulaner as "helles" without mentioning the fact they are wheat beers. I tell you this because I was caught out by it! I particularly enjoyed Gaffel Koelsch which travelled well. On the minus side the Weihenstephaner Pale Weizenbier tasted stale and the Paulaner Weisse was a touch ordinary. I finished on Kostritzer Schwartz which was a rare find and good. Quite a few bottles are available too, including Jever, and, if you must rauchbier. All the beers were around £3.50+ a pint.

We ate too. Perhaps we were unlucky, but while the food was authentic enough, it wasn't that well cooked in my case, with dried out leberkase and burned fried potatoes. E enjoyed her schnitzel which was freshly cooked and tasty. Her chips were a dried out abomination. Not that authentic in terms of portion either. The small plates didn't disguise it was more Southern Jessie than Southern Bavaria. I'd probably not eat here again on this showing.

Overall, this is an idiosyncratic place but it was likeable enough. It was good to hear a buzz of German voices, interesting to watch the odd English person having the concept explained to them and overall a worthwhile visit with some decent and unusual beers. Pick of the bunch for me was the Koelsch and the Kostritzer. I certainly gave it a good go, having around six pints and leaving much poorer than when I arrived ! It isn't a cheap night out.

To sum up if you've been to Germany you'll probably find it wanting. If you haven't, you'll love it. Actually, go there, you'll probably love it anyway!

Friday, 15 February 2008

Warm Beer in February. WTF?

The beer in the Pembury was warmish, but I didn't know how warm. I did have in my pocket a beer thermometer which I bought two years ago from Cask Marque. I have been too embarrassed to use it. "Rightly You Saddo", I hear you say.

I won't go into too many details but I went down to Smithfield area next. Nothing took my fancy. I passed Stonch's haunt the Betsey Trotwood which E and I used to visit ten years ago when we first had our London flat. Then to the Jerusalem Tavern which had a dozen or so customers in. I tried the Mild which was inoffensive with chewy malt and some roast in the background, the Best Bitter (a decent bitter beer spoiled by lack of condition - it was flat as a fluke), the Golden was sticky and malty with some hops. The Grapefruit was grapefruity, the red sort actually. All the beers were warm. I (surreptitiously) got my thermometer out. It was 16.1 C. The Grapefruit having been left for 10 mins was 16.9C! I have had warm beer here before, but such warm beer in the coldest month of the year is a major concern, as was the lack of condition.

The fourth nearest pub to our flat is the GBG listed Old Dispensary. I called in fresh out of the adjacent Aldgate East Tube on the way home from Farringdon. Two guests on offer here. Harvey's Kiss and Dark Star Original. Both were decent enough beers, but again temperature was an issue. The Harvey's was served at an astonishing 18.4C (that's 65F) and the Pitfield at 16.7 C. This just isn't good enough. The Manager came over to see what I was up to. I told him. He said the cellar cooling must be malfunctioning. Huh. Sure it is.

This is the coldest month of the year, yet in London, a flagship pub of a prestigious micro brewery and a current GBG pub are serving up beer so warm you could poach an egg in it! It simply isn't good enough.

Pembury Perspective

When you read about "must visit" pubs in London the Pembury Tavern in Hackney always gets a mention. Good enough for me, so I went there today. Now everyone thinks London is a rich place. Go to Hackney and you might just think otherwise. Leaving the station you encounter LCC flats that escaped the Luftwaffe and in the middle distance loads of high rise flats which presumably took the place of those that didn't. The general ambience is Toxteth or inner city Leeds. It would take an optimist to think this into the next place to invest.

The Pembury is easy to find. Turn right out of the station and at the bottom of the road, there it is, built in 1930's Stalinist style. Its a big bugger inside with a long bar sporting about 14 handpumps of which 10 were on the go. Decor is minimalist. The wooden floor is a wonder. Truly. It is a beauty.

I stumped the very friendly barman right off. I asked for something pale and hoppy. Not possible. Out of 10 handpumps, none, most from the owning company Milton of Cambridge, could oblige. What? I decided to go dark instead. The Minotaur Mild was dark and inoffensive. Earthy, dry and charcoal tasting. The Nero Stout was curious with an odd , chalky, malted milk taste leading to a dry charcoal, milky finish. A strange beer. Next up was Pegasus, a brown, malty beer with stewed rhubarb and gooseberry notes. A tart short finish mercifully ended this experience. Lastly, by way of a change, I had Milestone Loxley, a sweet lychee and apricot tasting beer that needed a kick up its arse to perk it up.

I tried to like the Pembury and didn't dislike it, but it is dominated by an ordinary brewery and was almost deserted. The condition of the beer was OK, but on the warm side. Maybe when it is heaving it would be better. I am not sure I really think so though.

Flat Fullers Fails to Impress!

It's been a bad week. My RSI has returned with a vengeance, I have lost my bank card and TuiFly have cancelled my outbound flight to Hannover in April, completely buggering up my arrangements, so my trip to London is a very welcome diversion. Change of scene and all that.

On the way I called in the the JDW near Piccadilly Station - yes I know Jeff - and once again there was a large 3 Rivers theme going on. I settled on a half of their Old Disreputable and of the weaker Tom Wood's Old Timber. (There's another daft name!) I liked the OT. It was American Brown Ale in style minus the Cascade finish. A competent enough beer but I wouldn't want a lot of it. The OD was a different kettle of fish being oily and phenolic with a scouring medicinal edge. It was essentially a lot of clashing jaggy edges which just didn't fit together. Not a good beer at all.

Hoping for better things in London, I met my lass in the Ship in Crutched Friar. This is a neat little one roomed free house that keeps its beer well. Not a great choice available, with Courage Best, Wadworth's 6X, Butcombe Bitter and Sharp's Doom Bar. The Sharp's was - well - Sharps. Decent but unexciting. This pub ought to look at the beer range. All beer was around 4% and all were mid brown and malty. Hello? Anyone awake in there?

Across the road to Fuller's Hung Drawn and Quartered. This is a smashing pub inside and out. Porter my choice, Discovery for E. Both were flat as a witch's tit and very disappointing. Then towards home and Shep's Princess of Prussia. Well kept beers, but if Shep's beers aren't high gravity brewed then watered down to suit, I'll eat my hat.

Lastly, the Brown Bear in Leman St. I tried the new Wadworth's Golden beer, Horizon. First time for me and I liked it. Bitter, full bodied and satisfying, so a good end to the night!

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Misleading or What?

On Tuesday I did some pub surveys for the Good Beer Guide and then, the car having been dumped, Graham and I went to my home town Middleton for a few pints of Lees. If you don't drink Lees in Midd, basically, you have to get out of town.

Thus, Lees having been done to death, in hope more than expectation, we went to the local JDW. This has all the faults of the worst of JDW with little of the aspirational or redeeming stuff. Two guests were on offer. The Deuchar's IPA was chosen. Yes. Boring I know but the other was Nethergate Old Growler, so we thought we'd try the weaker beer first. It was off. A few tugs of the handpull gave only a few spits of froth. Why didn't the bar staff know? Well, see above. I told you it was at the bottom end of the JDW spectrum.

The Old Growler was surprisingly good. In top condition, dark, chocolatey, malty with balancing bitter hops. It was very moreish. Incidentally there's a beer name that could be looked at by the pumpclip police or, conversely, sold in the sort of stripper joint frequented by certain other bloggers!

However it was not this that caught my attention, but a sign proclaiming "Pricewatch at JDW". This is alleged to show how much cheaper JDW is for the same drinks bought in nearby establishments. Now in this rundown pub in a suburb of Rochdale, the comparison was with a number of destination pubs in Manchester City Centre, five and a half miles away. Do you think this is reasonable? That's the trouble with JDW. It aims for high standards but the reality is so very different. In this case I would say, as my old boss said elsewhere more famously, they are being at best, "economical with the truth".

Sorry for the grainy photo. the third comparison (not shown) was with Kro Bar in Piccadilly Gardens.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Beer Ritz Headingley

Stonch recently commended this off licence to readers. Or rather he commended the guy that runs it to his readers. I was in Headlingley today getting my hair cut - I know, a long way from Manchester, but that's where the lass that has cut my hair for the last eleven years has her new shop - and realised that the offie was a mere half mile away. I called in and met Jez who seems a fine and interesting fellow. We had a chat about beer, acquaintances and beer festivals. The shop is on a corner, just off the A660, in rather a nice area and is quite small, cosy and well laid out. There is a lot of beer to go at for the discerning drinker. His range of British bottled beers is impressive, as is the foreign selection. I commend it to readers!

My main purpose was not really to buy beer but I couldn't resist a John Martin's "Belgian" Guinness (Special Extra Stout) and a Brew Dog Hop Rocker Lager, the latter on Jez's recommendation. I'll let you know how I get on with these, but for those who want to know about Guinness Special Extra Stout, my review is here:

I forgot to take a picture of the shop, but I'll be back in about a month!

Correction: The very nice man that runs the shop is called Zak. Forget Jez whoever he is!

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

London Bound

On Thursday I'm off to London for the weekend. I like to have Friday free while my partner is at work. She is a little less keen than me in traipsing round pubs, so I'll put it to good use. We have already agreed to visit Zeitgeist, following the suggestion of Boak and Bailey. It will fit in nicely either after our theatre trip on Saturday, or maybe Sunday if it is open. Stupidly the website doesn't mention opening hours. This brings me to a brief rant. What is the bloody point of a pub having a website if it doesn't cover the basics?

So if anyone has any suggestions of pubs in London that I ought to go to, please let me know. I am hoping to visit the brewery at the Cock and Hen before it goes tits up, but that depends on what else takes my fancy.

I might even make a return to the Jerusalem Tavern.

The GBG Matters to Publicans

I had an irate phone call from one of our publicans following our Good Beer Guide Selection Meeting held last Saturday. He is a current GBG entry but he'd heard he hadn't been voted in for 2009. Why? This is a tricky situation, but I answered him honestly. He hadn't got enough votes. There was no slur on his beer keeping, it was just that on the day, those voting were persuaded better of the merits of others. He wasn't a happy bunny at all and took the view that he'd bar all CAMRA members if he wasn't in. Plenty drink in his pub he said. That I said, was up to him.

I do understand his frustration, but we operate a democratic system. Every member is entitled to come along and vote and each gets a personal invitation by post. He simply lost out to that democratic process. Maybe he will bar CAMRA members that drink in his pub, but he'd have been better off joining himself and corralling his regulars to support him. It is when democracy is left to others that you suddenly realise that another definition of democracy is "everyone gets what nobody wants!"

CAMRA'S GBG 2009 will be out later this year. All CAMRA Branches are currently engaged in the selection process. If you are a member, please join in. If you are not, please join then join in!

S&N Close Reading

In a move that surprises no-one, the S&N keg only plant at Reading is to close with a loss of 360 jobs. Is this the start of the fallout from the Carlsberg/Heineken takeover? No is the answer. The writing has been on the wall for Reading since the packaging plant was closed last year and much production (anyone know of what?)*was contracted to Coors last year. The takeover consortium has been aware of this as part of "due diligence".

S&N produces mainly Fosters and Kronenbourg there. Both brands, Fosters in particular, seem to be in terminal decline. Interestingly, overcapacity is cited as a main reason for closure. The production will be moved to Tadcaster, Manchester and Dunston.

This underlines that brewery closure and consolidation has a way to go yet. The overcapacity for production of "standard" lager and the sharp decline in tired old "brands" has yet to fully play out. With Coors bringing in a 4% Dutch brewed Grolsch and Becks Vier already established, previously sacred cows will go. No-one in their right minds will miss them.

The Reading Brewery is the last of the "old" Courage breweries to close. It was opened in 1979.

* Seems it was 3 million hectolitres of Fosters and Kronenbourg!!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

SAB Miller Takes Over at the Top

London Stock Exchange listed, but South African owned, SAB Miller has, with the agreed purchase of Grolsch of the Netherlands, just become the world's largest brewer, knocking InBev into second place and Heineken (assuming the S&N deal completes) into third. This leaves the American giant Anheuser- Busch in fourth place.

You might not have known that. None of them brew any truly exciting beers. Bet you knew that though!

f you want to know which "brands" to avoid, most conveniently list them on their web sites!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Manchester Born and Brewed

That's the strapline of Hydes, one of the big four family owned independent brewers in Manchester. Perhaps less well known than Lees, Holt's and Robinson's, nonetheless it has been around since 1863. Behind the Fort Apache exterior deep in Moss Side, it looks very traditional, but it houses a very modern and flexible brewing plant producing mainly traditional ale. It brews currently well over 100,000 barrels a year including the cask version of Boddington's, once the Cream of Manchester and now, sadly, irrelevant to any serious beer drinker. The brewery trips are superb and generous.

Our CAMRA meeting last night was held in the Merry Monk in Rochdale, a GBG pub selling three of their beers. Most of us drank the luscious Mild, Owd Oak Dark (they also do a light mild) though some were on bitter and one or two on Jekyll's Gold. The Owd Oak was superb. Dark, creamy headed with some hops and fruit and a slight lactic edge. Very moreish. Greater Manchester is one of the last places in the UK where you can get good mild fairly easily. I drink it a lot and know how lucky I am to be able to do so.

Around the Beer Blogs

This is the first of an occasional look at other blogs and what they are currently concerned with. I've stolen the idea from elsewhere!

Stonch, after lighting the blue touchpaper about the state of Hart Brewery's pumpclips and being branded a "Southern Jessie" for his trouble by the owner, has turned his thoughts to a real woman, though regrettably a fully clothed one. He is genuinely astonished when the beery types that read blogs haven't actually heard of his fantasy women, which does give a generational indicator or two. Beer wise he gives the once over to a couple of very decent pubs, one of which I'd like to visit someday and the other, I already have. Last night he shook his liver awake with a 12.5% beer. I always enjoy this blog which somehow manages to set the cat among the pigeons one way or another.

Boak and Bailey whose blog grows on me, are concerned with complaints about late delivered home brew supplies and duff pints. They admit to a reticence about complaining, which must make them popular with non deliverers and bad publicans! A decent piece about family brewers deserved a few more comments I thought. Comments, like pies, are nice! Today they wish they were in Cologne. I wish I was too! A Swift One has a lovely ranty story about Lees daft new beer glass. Great stuff. Not at all "cheery beery". He also has a claim that Huddersfield serves the best cask ale in the UK, which given the source for this claim is "Cask Marque", I suppose is tongue in cheek! Maeib seems taken with Cask Marque's dodgy claims too, but makes some very good points about Sainsbury's 26p a pint cider.

Pete Brown found himself in hot water when he took the hump about an anonymous comment and was then accused of "hypocrisy" by other bloggers and those who comment on blogs. His fellow professionals rushed to his rescue and a bit of a squabble ensued. "Real bloggers v professional writers (aka paid hacks) masquerading as bloggers seemed to be the theme, with accusations being implied rather than actually bandied about. Should those who make their money from beer writing refrain from blogging? A case can be made, though not on balance a convincing one. But the furore highlighted that not all would necessarily agree with me on this.

I enjoyed the Beer Nut's piece about An Brainblásta and Porterhouse Brewing. I had the full tour of this little fella when it was in the eaves of the Dublin outfit a good few years ago. You couldn't get me out of the place (the pub not the eaves) and I still enjoy a pint of Wrassler's 4X in Covent Garden from time to time. Finally for this round up, the Southport Drinker tries to harden his heart against smokers. He doesn't quite fail, but he weakens. I am sorry to say that I see their current misery as payback time. Pubs are just so much better to go into now and I don't stink of smoke any more, any time ever!

If I have missed your blog, don't worry, I probably won't next time in about a month. Final point, I try and comment on posts of other bloggers. I know it encourages me when I get comments. I hope it encourages them!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Booming Micros!

It has been widely reported that beer sales are falling in the UK with the Beer and Pub Association recently reporting a 9.7% year on year drop in sales. Now, according to a report by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) just released a couple of hours ago, beer from local breweries is bucking the trend. They say "In 2007 locally brewed beers saw an average volume growth of 10.7% year-on-year, despite being sold in just four in 10 pubs. The report claims that the introduction of local cask ales can increase total beer sales by as much as 20% when compared with pubs that don’t stock local beers.".

The report goes on to remark about limited access to the market being a bar to further progress and that SIBA also found that more than a quarter of pubs (29%) that do stock local brews price them at an average 6% to 7% premium over their usual cask ale.

Well surprise surprise, local beer is popular and increases sales. It can command a premium. Its availability is restricted and that while beer sales might be falling, good beer isn't. It is tired old lager and smooth that is heading downhill. So come on landlords and pub companies, especially those who stock only the boring big brands. Give your trade the boost it needs. Buy in some local beers, make us drinkers happy and watch the profits roll in.

I first used this headline in The Summer 06 edition of More Beer, my local CAMRA mag, when refering to our local micro scene. Good to see the national picture concurs

Taking on the Supermarkets?

I notice from the "Morning Advertiser", that Tony Brookes of the Head of Steam chain has teamed up with Sam Smith's to offer customers a better deal on takeaway beer. They did this over Christmas too, though not with Sam's. Then in addition to buying unusual bottles, you could earn free bottles by drinking lots of cask beer.

The aim this time is to "get the take-home trade the supermarkets can't get" by offering quality ales not generally available elsewhere. They are keenly priced too at £19.99 for twelve.

It is a nice idea but a mere pinprick, though an enlightened and helpful comment was made by a publican contributor who said "
RE: Pub chain takes on supermarket booze deals. I tried the free bottles to take home idea over Christmas, but found most of the breweries reluctant to help. Only one did - Thwaites. I don't have the clout, even as a free house because of volumes, nor the resources for POS etc . Perhaps if Tony were to invite other independents to join the scheme, buying power could be shared and the campaign gain momentum. Just a thought."

Maybe "just a thought", but maybe not a bad one. At least you'd have to visit a pub to take it up.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Cask Axed In Favour of Smooth!

I was saddened to learn that Robinson's will shortly drop the cask versions of both Wards and OB Bitter. These brands were bought largely to gain club free trade accounts and were expected in the main, to be smooth beers, but cask versions were made available too. I should mention at this point for my Southern readers that in this case "club" refers to "social", not "night". Regrettably, few of these club outlets are cask.

It seems that sales of the cask versions can no longer justify their continuance. So the brands will continue as "smooth" only. This is a very unfortunate outcome and one that causes me to re-think.

I wrote about OB here some time ago and said "Purists will no doubt argue that the brand should have been allowed to die, but while it may not be an exact copy of the original due to yeast changes, it is a good beer in its own right and satisfies a local need. The beer is going great guns and is permanently listed by Robbies. It has gained a good foothold in Oldham."

Looks like I got it wrong and the purists were right!

Punch bid for stricken M&B

In what might be seen as an opportunistic bid, Punch Taverns have proposed a 50/50 merger with M&B, still reeling from the losses I reported on last week. This revives news I first reported on in November here, where you can read my views.

Is it really in anyone's interest for one pub company to own 10,000 pubs? For most of us, not involved in financial speculation, a resounding "no" is the answer. Given Punch's lack of support for small brewers, expect choice to contract in the (unlikely) event that this bid succeeds.

Of course this will have to be financed. Who'll pay for it? At least in part, we the drinker will.

If you want to read more about the shenanigans that got M&B into this sorry state, this is good!

Friday, 1 February 2008

Micros Fail to Impress

I was in Leeds yesterday to meet some former colleagues and had the opportunity to try some beer in four of Leeds premier free houses, the Scarborough, The Prince of Wales, The Duck and Drake and the Palace.

The Scarborough

A fairly shambolic Mini Beer Festival was kicking off in this well known free house by the station. This involved going to the festival bar, being told it was token only, then going back to the packed ordinary bar and buying a token. Bollocks to that! The bar featured all the current beer list from the fairly new Leeds Brewery. I tried the Leeds Best, a 4.3% pale beer with good body and a decent hop finish. Midnight Bell (4.8%) was an earthy, imprecise beer with a strange malt taste. Not enjoyable. Giving up on Leeds Brewery for the time being, I tried Outlaw (Roosters) Dry Irish Stout at 4.7%. This does what it says on the tin, being bone dry and roasty, but where on earth were the hops? A disappointing beer. Finally, a pint of Salamander Mud Puppy was pale dry, hoppy and tasty, but kind of died in the glass, leaving me (and my mate Andy who was also drinking it) less than satisfied. I intended to call back later, but this was not to be.

The Prince of Wales

Just a few yards away, another Leeds Brewery Festival was promised here by a large banner outside. Inside only one Leeds beer was ready. You've guessed. Leeds Best! It was much better here though, with all previous attributes harmoniously delivering. Enjoyable and moreish. I forewent the Taylor's beers and went to:

The Duck and Drake

This is an old haunt of mine from my 10 years working in Leeds. It hasn't changed a bit. In this case that's not a compliment, as it is all looking very shabby indeed. You could film an episode of "Life on Mars" here without changing a thing. A huge selection of beers were on offer. Apart from Theakstons Bitter and OP, York Guzzler, Dent Aviator, Abbeydale Absolution, Rudgate Viking, Oldershaw Caskade, Landlord. Hambleton Goldfield, Goose Eye Barmpot and Hobgoblin were on offer. I tried halves of the Goose Eye and Hambleton. I liked neither. The Goose Eye which was new to me smelt of unwiped bum, tasted like plasticine and was just downright poor. I do know Goldfield though. This was a very poor sample with grape pip bitterness and a sharpness throughout. I left most of it. Time precluded trying any more though I could have had pie and peas for two quid!

The Palace

Another old haunt and where I was meeting my friends. In contrast to the nearby Duck and Drake, this former Melbourne and Tetley House, is clean, shining and welcoming. I hit a bad patch on the beer though. Saltaire Blonde was hazy. I've yet to see it otherwise and was honeyed, sticky and hard going. Now Coach House aren't one of my favourite micros either and here I had a new one on me, Cheshire Gold 4.1%. This had the typical Coach House slight smokiness, good body, but malt, malt, malt, malt malt! No bloody hops! I passed on Rudgate Viking. I don't really care for Rudgate beers either and had a half of Saltaire Hazelnut Coffee Porter (4.6%). This was mid brown with a strong espresso nose, a sharp/sour hazelnut overlay and a harsh sharp finish. It was a deeply unpleasant beer. My friends tried it and their expressions of disgust told of their enjoyment. Roosters Yankee was thin, one dimensional and lessish if you know what I mean. In desperation I ordered a pint of Tetley Bitter. This was in great nick, with that typical sour /sweet / bitter palate that Tetley can have when on form. With the brewery being only 300 yards away it ought to be! It was a good beer and I had a few of them.

We finished up, not at the Scarborough as I'd hoped, but in the Prince of Wales where pints of Leeds Best restored my battered faith in micros somewhat, before I returned to the right side of the Pennies on a freezing cold wreck of a train. Cheers Northern Rail.

Maybe I chose poorly, but on the day at least, micros failed the test. What conclusions if any should I draw from this? One really I think. Micros like major players, need to consistently deliver. Sometimes they just don't!