Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ordering by Numbers

So that's two visits to the Euston Tap and I still haven't been upstairs, but my scouting party (the lovely E), said "Nice room up there." That'll do for me then. Why traipse up the winding metal hill? I know now. What about it then - that there Euston Tap? Well it is small, but perfectly formed. The cask beers I had were excellent and I like the place. I even tried some Real Keg. Thornbridge Kipling it was and very nice too. Not as subtle as the cask version and it was spikily carbonated and very cold. E was more forthcoming, for it was her half that was the experiment, much against her will. (Retrospectively against her will, as I'm sufficiently versed in her habits not to ask beforehand.) It is fair to say she didn't like it, or see the point in it, or me for changing away from her original choice. But using the "fair" word again, in fairness to Kipling it was up against Fyne Ales Jarl, which was simply sublime, bursting with Citra hops and very dangerously drinkable. A train misser - if you have an open ticket that is. Incidentally this had been a recommendation from young Dredge to me at GBBF, but by the time I'd got there, there it was, gone. He isn't often wrong, but he was right again.

So return again Tanders? Too true. Just try and stop me. Nice little place, dead handy, great quality ales and for the cask efforts at least, fairly priced. Any negatives? Only ordering by numbers and only because I wasn't looking carefully enough. Well they were next to each other and I ended up with Piper's Gold instead of Jarl. My own fault, but I was over excited by the Jarl. E wasn't having any of it though. She re-ordered and the barman, sympathetic to my stupidity, gave me it on the house. Don't you just hate it when you have no-one to blame but yourself?

Piper's Gold* was good too, but a pale shadow of its stable mate. Much like the Thornbridge keg*, the problem for it was, that when you have Jarl* on top (cask) form, what's the point of it?

* Feel free to substitute your beer of choice here.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Write Stuff

It's nearly British Guild of Beer Writers do - my first one and I'm quite looking forward to it - though not to a night in my suit again. Since I wore one for thirty odd years (not the same one you understand), an evening in one doesn't much appeal any more. Suits, since I retired, are confined mainly to funerals, when really the attire isn't uppermost. Still, I'll put my best foot forward and see how it goes. I've been wondering about what beer we'll be served to go with our upmarket kebabs and a clue is offered on Stuart Howe's site. He mentions American style beer. Has he let a cat out of the bag? What is American style beer anyway? It suggests to this writer at least, hops, which is fine by me. I'll find out tomorrow. The lovely E will be accompanying me and is looking forward to meeting some of the writers of blogs she reads, so if you are there, be nice to her and me of course.

Of course this means a trip to London and a chance to see the Euston Tap for myself. I'm looking forward to that and expect good things. I also plan to recheck the Draft House, which didn't impress on my first visit, but which has had good reviews since. A return to the Jolly Butchers would be good too, now that the weather is cold and warm beer less likely, so a lot to pack in, as unusually, due to other commitments, we'll be returning on Saturday to the Grim North. Friday daytime will probably and inevitably involve a hair of the dog!

It makes for a busy day though today, but hopefully worth it. I've a feeling it will be.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


I wasn't going to enter Zak's competition, but this piece below (or a piece like it) has been in my mind for a while, so here it is:

It is one of those piercingly cold, but cloudless days. The low winter sun slants directly into my eyes with an annoying persistence, even though it is that self same sun that makes the day what it is. That and something new. Something different.

It is January 1979 and as I walk, I take in the unfamiliar surroundings. The yellow brick houses, interspersed with red, are tall and seen through my eyes, strangely exotic. The double deck buses sail past, green and cream, with destinations that are foreign to me. The air is different too, though the cry of seagulls is the same, an insistent, shrill and plaintive "ceeaw ceeaw" sound. If I close my eyes for a second, I am back in my own familiar High St, with the same call of the gull, but there accompanied by the sweet barley scent of whisky in the making.

Aware of the difference and the thrill of the unknown, I walk on passing pubs too which evoke interest, but the brewery names mean little. This isn't home, where I know everything and everyone; where pints appear at my elbow, acknowledged by a nod to my benefactor, whom I've probably known all my life. Here I feel slightly ill at ease and out of place. I know almost nobody, or much about this city, its people, its pubs, its history; but that will come and this walk is part of the process. At a large junction, I take in the view that is now below me. The river gleams in the distance, but the city, spread out before me is an unknown quantity. I don't know the landmarks, its districts or its people. I don't know how this place works. What makes it tick.

I hesitate. If I walk on I'll end up in the centre, but that isn't the aim. I look left and survey the imposing pub before me. "Gregson's Well" is picked out in white letters on a red background. I pause indecisively on the step. It is half past two and they'll be shutting soon. I take a breath and enter. It is almost empty and remarkably Spartan, with greying, scruffy floorboards and an imposing, unvarnished, wooden bar. The alien handpumps are clad in red vinyl. The barman is idly scanning the first edition of the Echo and glances over. "I indicate the pump." Pint please" I say as neutrally as possible. The beer is almost flat, and uncompromisingly bitter. I sip tentatively, standing at the bar. Nobody speaks to me and I speak to no-one. As time is called, I sup up and leave.

This first ever pint of Higson's Bitter was followed by countless, more convivial ones in the next nine years, as Liverpool became my home. Lamentably Higgies is gone now though and Liverpool just isn't the same without it. It would be my desert island beer and those who haven't drank it, have missed one of the classic bitter beers of England.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Taking a Stand

It's Bury Beer Festival time again. This time we (CAMRA) aren't running it, but hiring a stand from the organisers, so we can sell beer and recruit members. Back to the day job of persuading people that good old cask beer is worth a go and CAMRA is worth joining. There will be keg too, though not from us, but it will almost certainly just be lager from Outstanding, who are also having a stand - I think. It is all a bit arms length for us and a complete change. We just have a 16 ft bar with a 4 ft end and stillaging for 12 beers with 8 for handpump on the floor on sleds. There will also be ten ciders and perries and a membership area. It should be a piece of piss relatively speaking. No door to worry about, no glasses, tickets, cash or entertainment. Just serve beer, take the tokens and collect the cash later, minus the fee. It should be easy, but we'll see.

I've chosen the beer from a very tight budget. When you look at the prices that beer agencies charge, it is quite frightening. Still we have some good stuff. Beers from Mallinsons including a Chocolate Stout with Green and Black chocolate, Crown Brewery Stannington Stout, Nightmare on Henry Street from Steel City (featuring Magnum hops for bittering and Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial and Citra hops for aroma. Dry hopped with Citra and Amarillo.) Phoenix, Ossett, William Bros, Marble Ginger and Manchester Bitter, plus a few other beers from Greenfield, Riverhead, Fernandes, Holdens, Howard Town and Jarrow don't sound too shabby at all do they?

Should be fun. We open on Friday.

Bury Beer Festival, the Met Arts Centre, Market St , Bury. Friday and Sat 12 -11.
50% off for CAMRA members. Pay at the door.

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I notice I have crept up to 96 followers. It would be nice to have one hundred. If you have always been meaning to click that button, now is the time to do it.

Roll up. Don't be shy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

No Real Case to Answer

Pete Brown has stirred things up a tad with his piece about CAMRA and dogma. It contains a few assertions that I'd sum up as "CAMRA should change to encompass the new wave of brewers and brewing practice". Pete also says "Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers". Well, sorry Pete, it wasn't. It was founded as a protest against the poor quality keg beers that had by and large replaced cask beers. A small but significant difference. It also explains the Campaign's long distrust of keg in a way that your assertion doesn't. Now let's examine the issue in two ways: firstly this new wave of brewing sweeping the country and then: CAMRA itself.

The New Keg Revolution

There is a new wave of approximately three keg brewers sweeping the er, well, not country, but two or three selected outlets. Of these only one (Lovibonds) is actually a solely keg brewer, one of the other two (Thornbridge) sometimes kegs the same beer they put in cask or one off specials and seems to do it, not as as you might imagine, for those "hard to put cask in" places, but for the gratification of beer geeks, side by side with the cask version, where lots of other keg beers are sold. The other, BrewDog adopts a policy of saying their beers are better in keg. Go and try that theory out at Wetherspoons. Oh you can't. It's all cask BrewDog there, so somewhat confusing. Now at this point you'll be saying "Hang on Matey" you've just said that there is lots of keg beer being sold in some of these outlets". I did and there is, but it is all imported keg beers. Apart from British brewed smoothflow beers, British keg beer is as rare as hen's teeth. Quality British keg is even rarer. To all intents and purposes, as a nationwide drink, it doesn't actually exist, as you'll never come across it. Hold that thought. It is important when we come to part two.

CAMRA's Aims

What aims does CAMRA have? I'm guessing here that most readers don't have a clue. I'm pretty sure most CAMRA members are unsure, but here they are:
  1. Protect and improve consumer rights
  2. Promote quality, choice and value for money
  3. Support the public house as a focus of community life
  4. Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of our national heritage and culture
  5. Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry
The fact is that CAMRA has grown and changed from the organisation that was dreamt up by its founders many years ago. This has been an evolutionary process, democratically decided by its members. An important point, which I'll return to later. Some (mostly outside CAMRA) call for a return to those heady days, where a few fought the many to give us back decent beer from the tide of poor fizzy keg that prevailed and brought about the Campaign in the first place. These are the siren voices that suggest CAMRA needs to widen its base to include all craft beer.

CAMRA's Real Ale Success

You can of course argue that the main problem that CAMRA was founded to tackle has been completed. It has to the extent that we now have more breweries than for centuries, more cask ale availability and more consumer choice. CAMRA has always been about choice and it is still there firmly in aim number two above. Less appreciated is that CAMRA has always agreed with the right of keg beer to exist, while campaigning for wider availability of cask. That has always been policy and conflating the anti keg views of individuals with CAMRA as a whole doesn't alter the official position one bit. The Campaign isn't won though. As Pete Brown pointed out in the Cask Report, 3000 new outlets stocked it in the report period, which presumably means that before then 3000 pubs and bars stocked keg product instead, most likely John Smiths, Tetley or Boddingtons. As an aside, they sure as hell weren't selling quality craft keg. Why? To an overwhelming extent, there isn't any, that's why.

The Cask Breather

So we move on to the arcane arguments that seem to fascinate non CAMRA members and bother most CAMRA members not one little bit. The most contentious of these being the aspirator or cask breather. Now this is a complex argument but the main points run thus:

  • You don't need them
  • You need them sometimes
  • You always need them
  • Nobody can tell the difference anyway
Now if you sell enough cask beer and turn it over quickly, you don't need them is the clear and obvious winner, as otherwise you'll just be wasting your money and indulging in a pointless exercise. This is countered by those that say, "well, it extends the life of the cask and helps slow turnover beers." So does the Race spile which uses the CO2 produced within the cask to do the job. That's how the mild is served in our pub and it works. No argument with CAMRA, job done! In any event CAMRA will not exclude any pub from the Good Beer Guide on the basis of a slow moving mild or strong ale, or whatever being put on an aspirator. It will merely say along the lines of "Note: xxx Mild utilises a cask breather." There is a corollary to this, which goes along the lines of "if you need a breather on all your beers, you probably shouldn't be selling cask". I agree. Even a breather won't keep cask going forever. Quality will suffer.

The Hated Keg

CAMRA hates keg we are told. Well as I explained earlier, there is/was a good reason for this. That reason still applies in the main, though the beer sold as keg these days, tends to be nitrogen pushed and smooth. It is still, usually, pretty grim stuff though and apart from excess fizz, fits why CAMRA was founded "CAMRA was founded in the most Westerly pub in Europe - Kruger's Bar in Dunquin, Co Kerry, when four young men from the north west of England, Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin were on holiday. Fed up the increasing bad quality of beer in Britain that was too fizzy, no character and no taste they decided to form a Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale."

In any event CAMRA supports choice. The National Inventory of Heritage Pubs includes keg pubs; CAMRA recognises that certain non real ale types of beer such as bottled barley wines have particular value and should be supported; we recognise different foreign brewing traditions and support non cask brewers such as Budvar; we sell foreign non real beer at our festivals to promote diversity, awareness and choice; we campaign to retain threatened pubs even where no real ale is sold; we campaigned against closure of breweries even where no cask ale or very little was produced. I could go on, but you get my drift I'm sure.

The Need for Change

But modern keg isn't like that smooth stuff we are told. How does anyone at large know this? It is virtually unobtainable. CAMRA should embrace it all though and change its stance say some. Now why would we want to include a miniscule set of keg brewers and muddy our message? Who would that help? A strong message from CAMRA about what it believes in, is as needed today as it was when CAMRA was founded. If these new keg beers are that good - and I look forward to trying some - then they must stand or fall by their own merit. If they gain widespread acceptance, who knows? CAMRA can change its stance any time the members want it to. Those that aren't members have no legitimate say in what we believe in. Join and change it if you care so much about these things I say. That's democracy. (At least the Trots did join the Labour Party to steal it from its members - some want CAMRA to fall on someone else's sword? Why on earth should it? Its the members that decide.)

What Pete Brown Said

"Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston's, are "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn't exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated. "

The thin end of the wedge argument is perfectly valid. One thing can lead to another. That's not to say that every CAMRA members agrees with it, but keeping your definitions tight gives a reasonably straightforward message. Real Ale was slowly but surely being lost when CAMRA was founded. Who is to say it can't happen again?

Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.

Not true Pete, but see above

I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971. I don't think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA's image and credibility, or even cask ale itself. While I'm a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers. But this is an issue that won't go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA's official website:

Hmm. Who are these hardline people that I never seem to meet and Pete does? (The fact that this was a personal opinion from 12 years ago seemingly is neither here nor there to him) And why is the Euston Tap so important that it redefines things? Well it isn't of course and it doesn't do much more than sell the sort of beers, mostly foreign that CAMRA has quietly supported for years and that are mostly available elsewhere if you know where to look. (Look at the GBG again and you'll see frequently entries such as " Also sells a solid range of imported draught and bottled beers". We are already doing it Pete.

Have a look too at the latest Opening Times magazine, here in Manchester. An editorial supporting foreign non cask beers and a front page headline about them. CAMRA is a broad church, but it actually the moderates that prevail. These are the guys you bump into in Bamberg, Brussels and Prague, or at the Great American Beer Festival, or wherever. They seek out beers to enjoy whatever the provenance and are comfortable with being CAMRA members and the odd dichotomy. Why should they vote to change? You'd need a more persuasive argument than Pete puts forward I'd venture.

Others agree that cask is (almost) unique to this island and praise us for it and copy us. So, if you want a campaign for new keg, found your own, or join us and change us democratically. Don't carp from the outside.

Anyway, I'm running out of steam now. I hope Dear Reader that you will see that there is another side to the story and that CAMRA is about other things apart from cask beer and arcane definitions. The CAMRA focus on pubs is particularly important when there are so many closing. If there is one thing that Pete and I can agree on I'm sure, it is that pubs are important and beer matters enough to write about it. I still don't agree with his views on CAMRA though, for the reasons I have outlined. But if you do want us to change, join us and argue your case. I'll look forward to the debate.

Love us or hate us, its our Campaign and I somehow doubt if we'll be changing on account of a few emerging brewers, whose beer, by and large, nobody has heard of or tasted. But if the arguments are strong enough, I have outlined how to do it. That's democracy.

Hopefully this is better than my pissed comments last night!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Beer Styles 1994

Martyn Cornell was speaking about style the other day in his blog. Beer style that is. Now Martyn is a beer historian, which I am not, but I have been around a bit, so I thought I'd look up what we were talking about on the good old Usenet in 1994, which is as far back as the records go. Bloody Hell. It was beer styles.

Now most of us kind of regard the Americans as being a bit daft when it comes to style, but it wasn't always so. My mate Jon Binkley wrote a primer on beer styles this week in 1994. He listed the beer styles that were considered the main ones then. He also dealt head on with why styles matter. Importantly he gave a historical perspective. This is what he said.:

" Beer style definitions are not written in stone, and sometimes the exceptions are more interesting than the rules. However, there are situations where they are very useful, or even essential. For me, the importance of style classification has been to make sense of what was a very confusing world of obviously different beers. Serious beer culture in the United States was destroyed on 16 January, 1920, when the prohibition of alcohol became the law of the land. Although the law was repealed on 5 December in 1933, appreciation and production of diverse styles of beer is only now being rekindled in this country, and this is on a limited scale. I, like most Americans, had never seen or heard of, let alone tasted, anything other than the standard American light lager until I was well into my twenties. When my interest was first awakened, I was confronted by an incomprehensible array of labels and flavors. Well defined style classifications provided a comfortable base from which to explore the many complexities of the beer world. They continue to be the most convenient tools for intelligently discussing and comparing different beers.

Jon went on to list the main styles which were:

III: Styles of LAGER




III.B.2. MAERZEN (Oktoberfest)







IV: Styles of ALE













It is interesting to note that so many of the "styles" now commonly in use such as double this or that, or even American IPA aren't listed. And that's only two notable examples. It is also interesting to Jon at least, that the development of written styles was, for him as an American, firmly rooted in the destruction of American brewing brought about by prohibition and the subsequent rise of micro brewing in the late 80's and early 90's. Out of little acorns, mighty oaks grow.

Beer has come a long way in a short time. Thus endeth my dip into history. For now.

The photo show Ancient Egyptians making a Double Imperial IPA.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Thornbridge Connection

So its goodbye to him. Kelly Ryan that is. Thornbridge brewer, gentleman, scholar and acrobat and possibly the greatest New Zealander since Edmund Hillary, though whether you can compare mountains and beer, we'll leave to one side. That and the fact that I don't really know of many other peeps from NZ, famous or otherwise.

On Saturday I had a pint of Lumford, which while maybe not the masterpiece that Kipling and Jaipur are, was a pretty good beer. I am sure Kelly's legacy will live on though, in the fine beers he designed and in the memories of all of us beer bloggers. But memories of a person (he's not dead though I must emphasise) have to be personal, so I'll think about him now against the background of the perfect cask of Jaipur that I experienced in the Regal Moon on Saturday 14th August this year and blogged about here. It was as near a perfect beer as I've had all year and though I'm not a brewer, I'm pretty sure that's how Kelly will want to be thought of, as he looks forward to being upside down and being catapulted back in time by 20 years or so, by to returning to his native soil.

And from my point of view, he knows how to brew a decent drop of cask. Keep that up when you go home and that will be splendid and it is worth mentioning that he brews better beers than Brewdog. That makes him an even eggier all round good egg. So Good Luck for the future Mate.

I claim a connection too. My lass works for Jim Harrison's wife Emma. Jim is the Thornbridge owner.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Great Northern Beer Festival

What makes a great beer festival? Many things obviously, but for the beer buff it has to be great beer, in good condition and lots of it. The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) sponsored event last week certainly got a straight three ticks then. This was a twofold event, with beer being judged for SIBA purposes, before being sold afterwards to the public.There was always 56 handpumped beers on the bar (The beers were all served by gravity for judging though of course)and all were served in tip top condition, though I'll add a little caveat; the beers got better as the event went on. It's real beer this; live stuff and it needs time to condition and by Friday and Saturday it was top notch, with some beers maybe being a tad less than optimum on Thursday. But that's cask beer. It behaves individually.

The cellaring was one of CAMRA's main jobs and was an amazing affair with 282 casks stillaged for judging on Thursday and miles of pythons set up and air cooling installed. It was quite a job all in all and we were certainly all in by the time we'd finished getting everything on the racks on Monday of last week. The temporary cellar was fantastic - a cellarman's wet dream in fact - and the beer cooled well, especially after Thursday, when access to the cellar was severely restricted and the need to leave doors open was gone. I have to say that even us that constructed it were impressed with our efforts and I doubt if so many casks have been stillaged that way all at once many times before. Needless to say cellar tours were very popular.

It was quite a change for CAMRA members serving the beer too, with fresh glasses being used each time and all beers served, as God intended, through a tight northern sparkler. This proved surprisingly untroublesome, as after expert tuition - by yours truly of course - staff (mostly) adapted pretty well to the new serving methods and the customers seemed to love it. We used the looser black sparklers on Thursday and mostly tighter reds on Friday and Saturday and the handpumps were new quarter pint Angrams, the King of Handpulls. Hopefully it helped shatter the myth of sparklers driving out condition and the sight of nice tight creamy heads on the beer gladdened the heart.

As well as the unknown ones I judged on Thursday, I did try a fair few of the beers, either from the bar, or direct from the cellar. Somehow I was in a dark beer mood, with notable potables being; Fernandes Malt Shovel Mild; Bushy's Oyster Stout; Bollington Nights (and Bollington Chilli Nights) and many more. On the light side, beers that impressed were; Millstone True Grit; Tatton Gold; Elland Best; Southport Golden Sands; Hawkshead Bitter and Windermere Pale and Jarrow Rivet Catcher. Speciality beers that I liked included Hawkshead Damson and Vanilla Stout, which confirmed my belief that Hawkshead just don't know how to brew a bad beer at the moment.

As mentioned above, I did have quite a few cellar runs too. Favourites from the cavernous depths were beers from Stringers - not a bad one in any category and beers from Bowland, Peerless, Elland and Jarrow also impressed across the range. While there were a few stinkers, overall the standard of brewing was tremendously high.

So, from our CAMRA point of view, it worked out well. Attendances were a little disappointing though and one or two teething troubles are always evident in a new venue, but all in all an enjoyable and different event, which hopefully SIBA will wish to repeat. If you weren't there, you missed a treat.

For a list of SIBA Competition winners, click here. A good account of the judging process by my good friend the Ormskirk Baron is here. He also mentions some of the bloggers who turned up.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Beer from the Wood

You don't really see it that often these days, but once all beer was served from the wood. Wooden casks that is. A few breweries still do it, the most famous being Sam Smith, but for the most part these hugely heavy casks are gone, most of them sawn into two as planters for flowers, or just broken up as firewood. I remember well when Lees sold beer in wood and when they stopped doing so; only around ten years ago - maybe less. In those days publicans had preferences and when ordering they'd say "no wood" or vice versa and yes, you could tell the difference. I preferred metal myself and it was always a good game at the pub to say to the landlord as you sipped a pint, "Wooden cask this one is it?"

I was prompted to think of this by a reference to the SPBW. Who they I hear you ask? The Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood still exists and being founded in 1963, pre-dates CAMRA by several years. Today it is largely a social organisation, but its aims are similar to CAMRA, though not identical.

Their logo, featured left and above is rather fetching and if so inclined, you can read more about them here.

"Once they used to brew the beer in barrels made of wood
It made you drunk and boy it tasted fine
But now the beer that's made tastes of fizzy lemonade
Give me cask conditioned bitter every time!"