Friday, 28 December 2012

What William Said

I mentioned a little while ago, that we (CAMRA Rochdale, Oldham and Bury) were visiting JW Lees Brewery as their guests, not to tour the brewery, but to hold a business meeting there. Naturally on the night, we asked William Lees Jones, the Managing Director, to say a few words.  It went roughly like this:

William first of all re-iterated his own view that CAMRA was a positive force for good in the industry and that he always told fellow brewers that a good relationship with CAMRA is vital.  In a wide ranging speech, highlights were that careful spending on the brewery itself, with programme of re-building over the years, had meant that the brewery was in tip top condition. As well as the ranges of cask beer being produced, the brewery has a completely up to date and flexible lager plant producing Golden Original and Carlsberg.  He mentioned that Golden Original sales were very impressive and that in a recent blind tasting (in which I was involved),  it had come top against leading standard lagers. William mentioned that additionally Lees are sole importers of Draught Bohemia Regent Lager which is available throughout the estate and free trade.  Lees even “export” Carlsberg Lager back to Carlsberg itself.  The estate will remain around 170 or so, give or take. Small pubs still give concern and where a living cannot be made for either tenant or the brewery, pubs will be sold. Trading conditions remain difficult, but the brewery has been able to increase profits slightly by buying good quality pubs from the likes of Punch and bringing out their potential.  Free trade has been badly affected by micro brewers being able to undercut Lees due to Progressive Beer Duty.  William felt that micros cater for a segment of the market that mainstream brewers will never cover as well and that it provided choice for consumers, though PBD does give them a considerable competitive advantage.

For the future, there will also be more investment in brewery plant and pub décor as there is no intention to quit brewing or to become a Pub Company. 
  • Three standard cask beers plus a seasonal was the aim for all managed houses
  • Tenants encouraged to stock more from range
  • More promotion of seasonal ales
  • All seasonals 2013 will be single hop beers
  • Possible collaboration on experimental beers with a local micro
  • No room in Brewhouse for a pilot plant hence considering above
  • Pubs will continue to be bought and sold with the estate remaining around 170
  • £1 million is being spent on new German kegging plant (being installed currently)
  •  Vintage Harvest Ale selling massively in the US in various forms
  • Manchester Star a big success in Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt
 This was a very lively, informative and open meeting with William being questioned closely on the company's products, policies and plans.  While Lees do rely on food, as William put it "I'm not here today to discuss the quality of our chips", The focus was on beer and it was good to see a local brewery still totally committed to brewing.  You certainly didn't get the feeling that Lees are stuck in the past, rather, keenly aware that times are challenging and changing.

On the social side, we had a preview version of Plum Pudding, the Christmas beer and all the beers were, as you'd expect, on top form, particularly the Brewer's Dark, which I'd been looking forward to.  I was rather impressed too with John Willies, a beer you don't come across all that often.  I even managed to resist (just) a pint of Bohemia Regent.

And the home made meat and potato pie (from the Old Boar's Head I believe) with red cabbage was lovely too!

This article first appeared in the Winter Edition of our own More Beer Magazine.  The photo is William Lees-Jones addressing members, with Head Brewer Michael Lees-Jones looking on.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Golden Pint Awards

Well Folks, put down that glass of Birra Obscura and pin back your lugholes.  This is the feet on the ground, 'Golden Pint Awards. No strange beers that you have to choke down while holding your nose, or collaborations between brewers, who have you pay for them meeting up with their chums and no beers aged in feta cheese barrels or any other such bollocks and no beers to share. Just good old beer that you buy yourself and drink yourself.   The key to my selections is always drinkability. Boring eh, but you are stuck with it.

Best UK Draught Beer   

Tricky one this.  There is always the delight of  Hawkshead Windermere Pale, or NZPA, which never fail to please, or Brodies All Brett IPA, or their Sunshine even.  What about great beers from Allgates or Green Mill Cat's Whiskers? (my best mild of 2012). Many worthy possibilities, but my awards goes to Ossett Citra.  A beautiful example of a single hopped beer, which I just kept repeat ordering until the last bus.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

 Even trickier since I rarely drink any. I have enjoyed the beers from my local Wilson Potter Brewery, which mimic cask so well and anything from Stringers in a bottle is very worthwhile. Thornbridge beers in bottle have a wonderful freshness that I really like, so it is Thornbridge Chiron. Balanced, hoppy and with great drinakability.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

Bohemia Regent is a strong contender - a lovely beer. Schneider Mein Hopfenweisse also impressed me greatly, so is a contender, but is has to be Rodenbach. In a great little boozer in snowy Blankenberg, it was oh so drinkable, with its touch of sourness and oh so memorable. Since I write almost nothing down these days, it has to stick in the memory and does. 

 Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer 

Schneider Meine Hopfenweisse.  Dangerously drinkable.

Best Overall Beer

No overall winner. I just couldn't pick one. Different beers are best in certain circumstances. 

Best Pumpclip or Label

Lees Bitter. It means home to me beer wise. 

Best UK Brewery

My "go to" breweries are Hawkshead and Thornbridge, but even though I haven't mentioned individual beers, it has to be Summer Wine.  If they have a house style, it is cleanness.  Their beers, no matter whether on cask or keg, complex or not, are wonderfully clean.  They even do styles I don't like that much well and they are one of the few breweries whose keg beer has something to recommend it. Now that I think about it, their Rouge Hop could have been beer of the year and I don't like red ales.

Best Overseas Brewery

De Cam.  Spectacularly good beers as I wrote in my blog.

Pub/Bar of the Year

I drink in a lot of really good places, so again it is down to good times with good people. Honourable mentions to the Holborn Whippet, Port St Beer House, that little pub in Blankenberg, the Ship in near home, my local the Tandle Hill Tavern and many more. There isn't an overall winner, but I'd rather be drinking "twiggy" beer with friends than great beer with strangers.

Beer Festival of the Year

 National Winter Ales of course.  I do help organise it after all.   And GBBF was rather good back at Olympia.

Supermarket of the Year

No views

Independent Retailer of the Year

No views

Online Retailer of the Year

No views

Best Beer Book or Magazine

Beer Magazine

Best Beer Blog or Website 
Honourable mentions to Boak and Bailey - relentless, but very insightful at times. Pete Brown for authority, Curmudgeon for topicality, Paul Bailey for pubs and Beer Nut for tasting notes. Overall winner though is Pump Clip Parade  for its campaigning role against sexism and bad taste in British Brewing.

Best Beer Twitterer

Kristy McCready.  She is brilliant. A great loss to the industry, but still interested in it you can tell.

Best Online Brewery Presence

Hardknott. Funny and likeable and they are lovely people.
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

I'll pass on this one, but everything at the European Beer Bloggers Conference worked well.

In 2013 I’d most like to...

Still be here. 

Open category - Most Improved Cask Ale Brewery

Allgates of Wigan.  These boys are hitting their stride 

Biggest Tossers in British Brewing?

Guess? Correct!

Sorry about the formatting. I had terrible trouble with it.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

If it's Good Enough for the Consumer?

Most - the huge 90% plus majority of beer is sold by big brewers.  That's a fact.  When people slag off big brewers, they are, by and large dissing almost everyone that drinks beer.  It isn't usually looked at that way, but that's really how it is. I'd say if that isn't snobbery, what is?  But of course, I'm a beer snob too. Not as much as some, but a snob nonetheless.

There was an interesting piece in E-Malt the other day about craft beer, written (or rather his words were reported) by Graham Mackay, who it turns out, is none other than the Chairman of SAB Miller Brewing, who are pretty big in the mass produced big brands game.  Noting that In the US, craft beer saw a 13% increase in volume in 2011, while overall beer sales were down by about 1.3% by volume during that same period, he said "the elimination of harsh and intense flavors has been the central sweet spot of the beer industry for decades, if not generations. If we go back 30 or 40 years and look at the formulations for the big brands that still exist, their bitterness levels in the U.S. are 7 to 9 [measured in International Bitterness Units]. Those brands, 30 or 40 year ago, were up at the 17, 18, 19 kind of level. European lagers are somewhere between 20 and 25."  Today, the consumer has gone back to saying, "Let's get a bit of interest, let's have a bit of difference." So, there's been the growth of craft beer."

Now the fact that flavour and character has been eliminated from big brands is hardly a revalation, nor is the fact that a lot of consumers are turning to craft brewing as a way of getting that flavour, not only back, but enhanced.  He went on to tell us that SAB Miller is entering the craft market, but admitted that it is "difficult for big companies to incubate small brands. That, at its heart, is the dilemma. To start a small brand in a credible, consistent, sticking-to-it kind of way is hard for big companies. That's what small entrepreneurs do best.”  When they do enter the market, craft brewers feel "we're stealing their authenticity. What we say is, 'Let the consumer decide.' If we're authentic enough for the consumer, that's authentic enough for anyone.

Mackay sees difficult times ahead for craft beer.  "I don't think the craft movement in its current guise will continue to grow indefinitely. I don't think it can. It's not economic. Too many people won't make any money. Too many of them will go out of business. And I think it will become less fashionable. These things are fashion to some extent,"

So how much of that do you agree with? Will the craft bubble burst? Will the big players whittle it away, or will they just whittle away at at it? Is it just fashion?  Do these observations which are largely aimed at a US audience have much traction here? I'm not sure.  I think there are two markets running on parallel lines.  I doubt if craft beer will have a crash here, though they ought to watch the warning signs on overpricing, which is endemic and complacency about the big guys, which is institutional, as well as the inevitable dog eats dog situation that will develop if the market continues to grow and recession continues to provide an unhealthy backdrop to spending on beer.

At the end of the day, Mr Mackay is right about one thing. If it is authentic enough for the consumer, that's authentic enough for anyone.  That's not just a warning, but a prophecy.

Read the full article here in E-Malt. Or above really!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Propping Up the Bar

For a change on Thursday I phoned my mate Colin and suggested that most old fashioned of things, a tea time pint. We chose the Ship Inn because Colin lives near it, we know the tea time crowd and the landlord and it is directly on my bus route  In short, we know it as a convivial pub that is handy and where we know lots of people.

Now the tea time pint used to be beloved of the after work crew, though I'm guessing that isn't the case so often now, except of course in London, where almost everyone comes to work by public transport.  (As a particularly important aside, if more people went to work elsewhere by bus or train, it would surely be of benefit to pubs?) I used to like it myself, but for many reasons, I gave it up years ago, long before I retired from the daily grind.  Mostly it was because there was always that temptation to have one more than you should, and I felt it was a habit I ought to kick, despite enjoying the conviviality and the beery winding down.

The Ship still has a regular tea time mob, all living locally and all as far as I can tell either retired or dropping in after parking up at home. Few people at any pub want to chance even two pints and drive home afterwards, but where you have a relatively local living customer base, it is still the same cheery atmosphere I used to enjoy.  So I stood at the bar and joined in with it all - swapping tales of this and that - a bit of banter and of course a touch of gossip, as there is a fair crossover between the Ship and my own local. They are pretty near neighbours and it is a great little pub which I like a lot.

It is a pity that there isn't more of this these days, as it lifted my spirits and of course, unencumbered by work the next day and the strain taken by the 17 bus, I had half a dozen pints of Lees Bitter.  Maybe I'll do it more often.

Good for business too for sure.

I normally drink Bohemia Regent in the Ship, but the Lees Bitter was on good form. Unchallenging maybe, but I wasn't there to be challenged by the beer.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Book Review - Britain's Lost Breweries and Beers

Over the last few decades and longer, Britain has lost many of its famous breweries and beers and this book documents a few of them, not so much as history, but anecdote. Names like Boddington and Tetley seem too recent to appear alongside Tamplins, Simpkiss and Bullards and it is a  personal shock to see just how many of the breweries were around when I started drinking beer and how many seem tantalisingly close even now so many years later.(I have drunk original beer from 19 of the 30 beers listed.)

The author, Chris Arnot has obtained some stunning photographs to accompany his prose and the eye is touchingly drawn to the faces looking out from drays, cooperages and pubs, for this is as much about people as breweries and beers and Chris has taken the time to seek out ex-employees to tell the story from their point of view. For many, these days are among the best of times and even when they no longer drink beer, they look fondly on the breweries and bosses and even the (benevolent) paternalism that many of these companies showed. Many of the owners were true characters, who knew every employee by name and treated them to birthday tenners, bottles of champagne, doffed hats and sometimes, downright eccentricity, as illustrated by John Young, who fought to the end against the closure of his beloved Wandsworth Brewery, often wearing boxing gloves to repel boarders and who ironically died just days before the brewery closed. Poignantly and fittingly, beer from the last Wandsworth brew was served at his funeral.

Beer too is featured too, with former brewers describing the output and drinkers fondly remembering the brews.  Sad tales abound, like Boddingtons, whose iconic beer was slowly bastardised and tinkered with until the brewery was finally closed by InBev in 2004, or Shipstones, whose marvellously bitter beer was closed in pursuit of Greenall's vainglorious tour of destruction.  Greenalls are rightly identified as villains of the piece, along with the asset stripper, Michael Cannon, who saw off Morrell's of Oxford, Devenish and Eldridge Pope.

For all its charm and nostalgia, this is not a book without faults. Tales of family and corporate greed, ineptitude, fecklessness and recklessness that pointlessly destroyed companies with fine brewing heritages stretching back over 200 years, are underplayed or go unremarked for reminiscences from the tap or sample room.  Sometimes we are told what caused breweries to close, but not always, which leaves the reader wanting to know the details behind the anecdote. We have a photo of Jonathan Simpkiss who sold out his brewery and its sixteen Black Country pubs to Greenalls, with the last brew famously being poured down the drain, thus cruelly denying regular drinkers a last farewell . A haunting tale of corporate unfeeling thoughtlessness indeed, but frustratingly, not the "why" behind it. I'd have liked just a little more consistency about why these wonderful companies disappeared.

Nonetheless these are small negatives in what is an engaging and personal book which reminds readers of a time where beer really was local, where breweries and the people employed in them were part of the warp and weft of local communities and a source of pride to them.

 This book is sheer nostalgia and none the worse for that. It is a must for those like me, that remember these companies and for those that don't, it is a touching reminder that our brewing industry has a very local and personal heritage. A second volume beckons surely, as sadly, there are plenty more closed breweries to go at.

Britain's Lost Breweries and Beers is  published by Aurum, who kindly supplied this review copy.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Passion and Brewing

Are you passionate about beer? Does it consume your every waking moment,or is it just a drink that you enjoy with enthusiasm, while keeping perspective clearly in view and your feet firmly on the ground? Now most people reading this blog are likely to be keen on beer. Very keen on beer. Too keen on beer even, but degree will vary. Within the beer fraternity you tend to have a broad church and a few zealots. This zealotry can exhibit itself in many ways; the real ale, fiend, the dedicated Guinness drinker, the ticker, the lager man, the craft keg devotee, etc. etc. Whether these are passions or just preferences or mild obsession is moot, but beer to the devotee, brings out strong feelings.  Not so unusual, as products of all kinds, from cars, to biscuits or whatever, have their specific adherents. It is human nature and what makes (some of) us tick.

That's drinkers though. What about the passionate brewer? I read constantly about the new breed of craft brewer and passion. Thornbridge has the word embedded into its slogan and advertising.  Even Gazza Prescott, erstwhile ticker, brewer and a bit of a sceptic where such things are concerned, speaking on Twitter,  thinks there is something to this. Brewers with passion are better brewers, is both implied and stated. (Not just by him I hasten to add). Now let's consider this. Most micro brewers are unqualified except by experience. This isn't to insult them, but most have been home brewers, beer fanatics, or whatever and learned as they go along. They may have had a Brewlabs, or Dave Porter Brewing course, but they are basically playing it all by ear. Nothing wrong with that. That's the art of brewing, but not the science. It is partly what makes beer so approachable. Anyone can do it really. Some better than others of course, but if you have passion, that's even better.  You see, passion, it is implied, makes better beer than qualifications or science and sets some brewers apart. Well, maybe.

Now of course there is always  a place for passion in what you do or believe in. It drives you forward. It makes you push at the barriers and get up in the morning. It allows you to recover from setbacks and to enthusiastically do what you do. It doesn't replace training, knowledge, skills, technique or qualifications though. It just supplements them in the best of cases, or is used as a mask to hide behind in others. Big brewers don't have passion is the unspoken part of this message. I am not so sure about that.  They may well be restricted by environment and by corporate or other diktats, but many have just as much passion as the small brewer in his pride.  I'll tell you a story. A couple of years ago, one Saturday, I met J W Lees Second Brewer and Brewhouse Manager in the pub. He was looking particularly dusky, so I enquired as to the reason. He'd just come back from his hols. "What time did you get back?" I asked. "Early this morning" he replied. "Ah", says I, "Back to work on Monday then?" "Yes" he said "though I've been in already." "What just now?" I asked, for it was afternoon? "No, about five am. this morning, when we'd got back from the airport. I just wanted to check the fermentation and see if the Brewhouse was OK."  Was that passion or dedication? A large slice of both I'd say.

Small brewers are constantly looking for ways to set themselves apart from their larger rivals. So is passion one way to do it? Does passion  actually make a difference or are you better just knowing your stuff? Possibly, but neither is limited to small artisanal brewers, or innovative ones, or even dedicated ones. Does passion make you a better brewer? Quite likely, but I'd venture only if you are a good brewer in the first place.

 I think passion is a word that needs to be used sparingly and in context. It is far more common though throughout British brewing than some would have you think.

Passion is an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something.  Both Thornbridge and Gazza are used for illustrative purposes only.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Times Change

Five years ago I was remarking in my blog about the high cost of of a bottled beer in the Marble Arch. I wrote "Also available for purchase by the 33cl bottle was "Decadence" an organic bottle conditioned Imperial Russian Stout of 8.2%. At a whopping £4.50 a bottle."

Doubt if anyone would bat an eyelid now.

Actually maybe they would.  I have a bottle. It is 75cl and 8.7%.  Think it was around £15. Not that I paid for it obviously. I don't think it is organic either.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Muddled Thinking and Downright Misrepresentation

Yesterday's Sunday Times had a substantial piece by Dominic Lawson about minimum pricing of alcohol.  He concluded, correctly, that "A minimum price per unit of alcohol is a form of collective punishment" and pointed out that "a minimum price for alcohol is likely to lead to a significant transfer of revenue from consumers to producers and retailers". But we know that don't we?  That's why people like Greene King and BrewDog support it.  Not out of any kind of altruism, but good old money.  Contrast that with Tim Martin of Wetherspoon who isn't noted for high prices, calling supporters of minimum pricing "Flat Earthers". It is altogether remarkable that otherwise intelligent people support it in the vain hope of stopping something they have read about in the papers or seen on television called "bad behaviour", or in the case of Alcohol Concern, to pursue a prohibitionist agenda (first control the price, then make it difficult to buy it, then ban it.), the real but misguided concerns of doctors - why not address individual problem drinkers? - the equally misguided wishful thinking of CAMRA that somehow this will translate into more pub going, or whatever this rag, tag and bobtail of do gooders want to do to the rest of us.  (My only hope on that one is that CAMRA is following a policy of keeping friends close, but enemies closer still, but somehow, I doubt it.)

What is remarkable is how Dominic Lawson tears apart every argument.  He rubbishes the idea that you need to legislate on price to deal with late night rowdiness. He suggests instead that the Police just lock up the perpetrators for being drunk and disorderly and repeatedly do so.  Seems like a good idea surely?  Lawson reserves particular scorn for Sheffield University for its "wild exaggeration and incompetence" in dealing with alcohol statistics and has a swipe at BrewDog's bizarre take on it all (James again) by saying "Sounds as though he has been celebrating".  Instead he counters with some actual facts such as alcohol consumption has fallen by nearly 20% since 2006 and points out that somewhat inconveniently, this has not resulted in a fall in alcohol related deaths, which would have happened if what Sheffield University purports to be true, actually was true.  He quotes extensively from the Adam Smith Institute who have been studying this subject for 40 years.  The leading experts within this field state "We are in the unusual position of being able to empirically disprove  a prediction about policy which has not yet been introduced."

Now of course Lawson wasn't looking at shifting drinkers into pubs, but he does also hammer the idea that supermarkets are indulging routinely in below cost sales. Such happenings account for less than 1% of alcohol sales and have no real effect on consumption

If, like me you think they are out to get us, it is a real good read.  It does seem that there is some hitting back taking place, so let's see more of it.

I'll drink to that.  Responsibly of course.

I'd like to have linked to the article, but it is hidden firmly behind the Sunday Times's paywall. The Morning Advertiser has a good piece here however.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

JDW and My Home Town

I was in Dumbarton last week to see my mother. One of the first bits of news she gave me was that Wetherspoons are likely to open a pub in Dumbarton. It would be in the old Woolies Store I remember so well from my childhood.  It closed in December 2008 when Woolworths crashed out of business.  The next day when the new local paper came out, it confirmed that planning permission was being recommended to the local council.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it will bring real ale back to the town together with much needed competition and vastly improved choice.  On the other hand it could damage pub trade in a very depressed town, though fears of that may well be exaggerated.  However, if you read the County Reporter, the usual concerns are being trotted out. It was interesting to read JDW's take on this.  A spokesman said " "Wetherspoon's has almost 900 pubs across the UK including around 55 in Scotland. We're not aware of any of our pubs causing others to lose money or close down. In fact, the opposite is true, we encourage people to come into towns because of our brand, which leads to other businesses opening.

" The pubs in this area are already in competition with each other, we will be just one more pub to compete against, and it is the customer's choice where they go." 

Now there will be some that disagree with the first paragraph, but  surely few can disagree with the second?

Photo is from the County Reporter. The main article is here.

Monday, 26 November 2012

1000 Not Out

 I have always thought that the essence of blogging - beer blogging -is not only opinion, but the relating and contextualising of experience. It isn't just a medium for the wordsmith, but also for the ranter, the raver, the disgruntled and the obsessed, or even those just interested in telling you what beers they drank.  I probably am a bit of all that.  I like to think what I write is broad based and has a reasonably wide appeal, and though pubs are what I like most,  I have no wish to eulogise in Sunday Supplement terms about them, as to me the appeal of a pub is largely personal and often, non transferable.  That's why I don't simply write pub reviews

However this IS my 1000th post so looking back is inevitable. I can't help but notice the difference between blogging then and now. The people are of course mostly different. No Stonch, who was my inspiration in starting this, though I do see his ebullient alter ego Jeff Bell from time to time. Many others have fallen by the wayside too and many more have taken their place. To me blogging is struggling a bit at the moment. Or rather, beer blogging is. I do get the feeling that Twitter has pretty well undermined blogging and though my readership remains high, it is harder to make an impression when attention spans prefer the immediacy of Twitter to the more thoughtful and time consuming blog. Blogging has changed and the contributors have changed with it. For the better? Maybe, maybe not, but it has still been great to be part of it and of course to have met so many genuinely good people because of it, but of course, beer really does bring good people together.

 So I'll keep plodding on.  I actually enjoy doing this. How long will that continue?  Who knows?   Until I have nothing more I want to say, or when I get fed up. That Dear Reader may well be a while.

I'll finish with this link to my own favourite post.  An indulgence I know, but it's my blog, so there.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

My 1000th Post

This will appear tomorrow. 1000 posts in five years. That's a lot of posts. Nearly 200 a year. Nearly five a week - well a five day week. So will it be a blockbuster or a damp squib (squid to the uneducated)?

You'll have to wait and see, but thanks for all the suggestions as to subject matter.  

Don't miss it whatever you do.

Yes Folks. This is a filler to make the numbers,  so I don't have to do two tomorrow!

Pub Update

The new landlord is ensconced and his first job has been to fill the oil tank.  For the first time in months (or is it years?) the heating is back on.  The pub, frankly, has been freezing recently, despite its coal/log fire, which is all too easily blocked by the chilled.

Plum Pudding is promised and the beer was in good form when I nipped in to say hello. There are even some new pictures on the wall and of course, accompanying John, the new boss, is a statutory new dog.

Fingers crossed eh?

I'm heading up there soon and the radiator behind my seat will be on. Great.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

This Isn't a Spoof

I read this today.

Guinness launches holiday beer Guinness Generous Ale 

Ireland-based beermaker Guinness has unveiled a holiday beer, Guinness Generous Ale, Drinks Business Review reported on November, 20. The new beer is an amber brew with vanilla flavour.

Guinness master brewer Fergal Murray was quoted by AFP Relaxnews as saying that the beer is made up of poached pear, pie crust, toffee, a whisper of smoke and toasted marshmallow. The new beer, which is available in US, is packed in 11.2 oz bottles.

The brewery with the help of New York chocolatier MarieBelle, has also launched other seasonal beers, which include dark chocolate, vanilla, coffee and almond truffles with Frangelico liqueur.

Guinness will also be donating some portion of the proceeds to Bideawee, an animal welfare group. 

At least I don't think it's spoof. What do you make of it?

Me and Black Sheep

I received a very glamorous bottle of beer from Black Sheep Brewery last week.  It is a fancy 10% abv effort, celebrating 20 years of the company's existence.  It was nice of them to include me, though I'm not sure when I'll get the chance to drink a 75 cl bottle of such strong beer.  At least it won't go off soon.

We do have a slight connection though, me and Black Sheep and one that does make this kind gift  apposite.  Around 21 years ago, I was present at a beer tasting by Black Sheep before they launched. It was held at the Beer Emporium in Oldham, a pub which alas no longer exists.  I can't remember what feedback I gave on the beers, but no doubt me and others did, so I have contributed, albeit in a small way.  It is at least a connection.

Good to see they have survived and prospered.

There is a good photo of the Beer Emporium here, but take the date of the photo with a pinch of salt. It was closed and knocked down long before 2009

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Little Bits of History

I don't bother that much with history in this blog. You have to be a particularly pernickity person that likes facts and exactitude. I paint things with  an altogether much broader brush. But I do like to read and know about old breweries and the like, which is reflected to some extent by my small collection of breweriana.  I haven't collected anything much for years now really, but one or two interesting pieces adorn a bookcase in my sitting room, so I thought I'd share them.  These examples of advertising - showcards - in the parlance - are of course, history and both are quite old.

Murray's was one of many Edinburgh breweries that turned up its toes in the takeover frenzy of the 1960s.  According to the Scottish Breweing Archive, "The company was acquired in May 1960 by Northern Breweries of Great Britain Ltd, later United Breweries Ltd, York and London, England, which merged with Charrington and Co Ltd, London, in 1962 through a holding company, Charrington United Breweries Ltd. It continued to brew until May 1962 when brewing was transferred to Aitchison Jeffrey Ltd, Heriot Brewery, Roseburn Terrace, Edinburgh, Scotland. Bottling and malting continued at the North British Brewery until 1964"

Devenish closed as recently as March 2004 having fallen into the hands of Whitbread and subsequently, after a lot of mucking about, changes of ownership and brewing stopping and starting, it went bust and that was that.

Nice little mementoes of the past.

I've just realised since blogger inconveniently changed, I haven't done labels as they have moved them to a new place. I'll restore them now, but I'm not going back over those that have missed out.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Back in the (Flame) War

The good old Usenet had one big difference between it and blogging. It was interactive when that was hard to achieve on t'interweb and it was vicious.  Flame wars abounded, as I am forced to recall when I look at some of the old stuff. Brutal I'd call it, though not in the instance below. I'll try and find the one about short measure. That went on for weeks.

I did come across one piece in which I featured, which showed, if nothing else, what goes round comes round.  An exchange about CAMRA and the GBG took place.  Here it is:

On 1 Nov 1999 22:22:13 -0000, plutc...@SncsaP.uiucA.eduM (Joel
Plutchak) wrote:
In article <381e04dc .8821...=".8821..." br="br""">Peter Alexander

There is a place for all of these guides but ours is about cask
conditioned beer and where to find it.  No higher recommendation is
needed in my view but you have to adapt it to your needs.
plutc...@SncsaP.uiucA.eduM (Joel
Plutchak) wrote:

  That begs the questions (1) is all cask-conditioned beer good,
and (2) is all non-CC beer not-good?  The more cynical amongst us
view the zeal of the CAMRA fanatic with a bit of suspicion.

Peter Alexander

But you already know the answer.  I'll repeat it for you though:

1) No
2) No
The more sensible among us view any fanatics with suspicion. 

So there you have it. Tandleman. Always the voice of reason and I'm glad to say, consistency. Well back to 1999 anyway. On that one occasion.

Funnily enough Joel is my mate now. One of our Yankee circle. And me and that ersatz German, Erlangernick

Monday, 19 November 2012

Further Local Update

I wrote here only as recently as August, about the new landlady of my local. Alas she didn't like it. Despite having worked in a pub before, being the boss just didn't suit her, so yesterday, we saw her off. It is a pity as we liked her and she liked us. She just didn't like being a landlady.

 Fortunately we have a successor. We know little about him, but no doubt soon will. At least our beloved Tavern will stay open. I have had a chat to the new man and he seems all right, but then again, he hasn't taken over yet,so we'll just have to wait and see.  This will be my sixth new landlord/lady in my time as a regular there.  My mates have seen even more.

Here's hoping our new man likes it and gives us some stability.

Bumpy Lane - dry hopped Lees Bitter was in splendid form yesterday.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Arran Ape BrewDog

Some time ago, I remember reading about Isle of Arran Brewery planning to raise expansion funds by issuing equity a la BrewDog. It was in the (Glasgow) Herald newspaper here, but frankly, I forgot all about it. Seems the plan was to issue shares to build a new brewery on the island and increase capacity. Sounds familiar.

Today I read in the ever useful Morning Advertiser that two things have happened. One is that last week Isle of Arran and Isle of Skye Breweries (one of the oldest in Scotland), are to merge and that the new company, Arran Brewery will raise £4 million and will be opening a number of "craft beer bars", starting with one in Hope St/ Regent St in the City Centre of Glasgow.

Now the original Herald article mentioned that the aim was to raise £10 million, so I am not sure what has happened to the figures, or whether the proposed upgraded brewery was ever built, but it is interesting nonetheless and a development that will be worth keeping an eye on.  Nor is it clear whether the brewery on Skye will close.

The new craft bar (define that - no don't) will seemingly have 25 different beers. As both Skye and Arran major on cask beers, lets hope that there is one aspect of "You know who" that isn't aped in rushing to exploit the craft scene.

 Make that two. Less hype.

 The BeerCast also covers this here.  There is also an informative piece on Business7 here

Friday, 16 November 2012

Profitable Pubs and Social Media

From Hydes Brewery in Manchester comes an interesting couple of assessments of the pub game. Managing director Chris Hopkins said the use of Twitter and Facebook to publicise special events and promotional offers had helped increase footfall, along with more emphasis on guest beers, live entertainment and soccer match screenings.

 Like me you may think this a "no brainer" in the digital age, but it is truly amazing that many pubs have no website, no twitter account and probably no Facebook either. Even I, as an old codger, look for such things to know what is going on, what is on sale, or simply what the opening times are. Clearly if you have special events as suggested by Mr Hopkins, you are going to do better to let the world know about it, than rely on a dodgy hand written piece of A4 stuck in a window of the pub, or tucked where no-one can read it in a corner.  For the younger generations of potential pub goers, I can imagine that this kind of social media update isn't just handy, but essential. A destination changer even.

 Mind you, you do have to actually use it. I remember with a red mist still hovering over me, traipsing across London to a pub I'd wanted to visit, only to find it was to be closed for renovation the next day. They had a website, but gallingly, there was no mention of the rather salient fact that it was going to be closed for a couple of weeks and therefore there was no beer to speak of, as stocks were being run down. Stupid, or maybe thoughtless.

Another interesting point made by Mr Hopkins was that Hydes pubs are the most profitable area of the business and have been for "many years". That may explain a little why they are currently downsizing their brewing business, by moving to a much smaller, more flexible brewery, allowing them to concentrate more on servicing their 66 pubs, rather than aimlessly brewing the failed Boddingtons brand.

So, two points to take from this. One is that  pubs should get on the web, open these accounts and keep them up to date. Hydes tell you it makes a difference for them.  The other interesting point is that pubs can be profitable businesses, providing I assume you haven't saddled them with mountains of debt.

Unfortunately, for many, no amount of social media will remove or reduce that debt to a point of making a realistic living for owner and tenant, but either way, social media involvement is a must.

Hydes is a Family Brewer in Manchester founded in 1863.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Finally Gone

Scottish and Newcastle Breweries that is. The last vestige of that proud company which was taken over by Heineken (well the British bit was) is no more. Scottish and Newcastle Pub Company has been "rebranded" as Star Pubs and Bars. One interesting point is that they intend to be the "nice" PubCo and propose a low cost entry to the trade and an easy get out clause and want to be "good business partners". Probably they'll install some fairies at the bottom of your garden too.  

 That would be a change from those PubCos that see their tenants and lessees as cash cows to be milked, but lets be fair and just wait and see how it actually turns out. Records aren't good on this one I'm sorry to say. Not even theirs!

Needless to say they don't mention beer in any of this or on their main site.  There's a lovely cynical comment here by J Mark Dodds, the founder of the Fair Pint Campaign.  He doesn't seem to be a fan.  In fact he has a go at a lot of folks. Worth a read.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Black Hole

The aftermath of a company going bust is never pleasant.  Orders unfulfilled, clients disappointed, people laid off and of course, creditors unpaid.

Waverley TBS supplied the licensed trade with drinks and has recently gone bust. For years it was simply The Beer Seller, until sold to Scottish and Newcastle where it merged with their beer wholesale operation, Waverley, and became Waverley TBS. Later, in 2010, under Heineken UK, who took over S&N, it was sold off to a mixture of venture capitalists and its management team.  That is now all over and the business is in the hands of the administrators and 580 jobs have gone.

The list of creditors is considerable and debts are reckoned to be over £40 million with some well known names left in the lurch.  Unsurprisingly one of the biggest creditors is Heineken itself. I say unsurprisingly as they had a supply agreement with Waverley TBS.  This £4 million plus hit is exceeded by Diageo at over £6 million and other million plus creditors include Molson Coors, AB InBev and Miller.  Smaller amounts owed include a who's who of British brewing and some are considerable.  There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth in quite a few Finance Departments and believe me, even at the small end, the two and a half grand owed to Joseph Holt will be like a dagger in their heart. They run a tight ship there.  Others may well be pushed to the brink by this failure.

So all bad news then?  Well more or less, but not entirely.  Looking on the bright side this gap in the market should give SIBA DDS a boost as they rush to fill the gap, but as always when this kind of thing happens, there are more losers than winners and in the short term, less competition and that's always bad.

The Morning Advertiser has the full list of creditors here should you be interested.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Happy Days

I note that on this day four years ago, I was singing the praises of cask conditioned BrewDog Coffee Porter, a nice little nine percenter. Won't be able to do that again will I?. Going even further back in November 1996 on the good old Usenet we were discussing Blue Moon by Coors. Did you know it had been around at least that long? Well I say "it". Apparently there was a family of these beers at one time including Blue Moon Nut Brown, American Wheat, Blonde and Blue Moon Pumpkin.  The Belgian style was being compared unfavourably to Pierre Celis's stuff.  Unsurprising really, but it was mostly thought "not bad."

It was still dividing opinions then over whether it was craft beer or not.

 I posted 71 times that November. Another poster at that time was my mate Erlangernick. We go back a bit.

I Fancy a Mild

Our CAMRA Branch has an unusual meeting tonight. We have been invited by our biggest local brewer, JW Lees to hold a Special Branch Meeting at the brewery. We haven't been there en masse for quite a while,  so it is pleasing to be invited.  We have pretty good relations with Lees, though we don't always see eye to eye. This is as it it should be, as the tension between production of beer and a consumer and campaigning organisation about beer, is a real one. We are on the same side and while we generally agree on ends, we don't always agree on means.

As well as setting our Branch's campaigning priorities, we are looking forward to a talk by the MD, William Lees-Jones and the subsequent question and answer session. That should be lively and I am sure there will be searching questions and robust answers. Family Brewers are a very important part of our brewing heritage. To a large extent they are living history, as they are survivors with a wealth of experience, that still compete on a day to day basis for business. Some accuse them of being staid and boring and no doubt that will come up tonight too. I expect it to be a lively night.

Hopefully there will be beer. I expect that among the beers on the bar will be Brewer's Dark, formerly GB Mild, which is a former Champion Mild of Britain. It is, like most milds, becoming a rare beast in the pubs, so it will be nice to have a sensible few pints of it.

 I'll let you know how we get on.

There is a small possibility of Plum Pudding, Lees' revered Christmas special being on - if it is ready. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

A Good USP

I read in the Morning Advertiser that Moorhouses of Burnley have sold 500,000 more pints of their beer this October than last.  A whopping 36% increase year on year, that's a lot of beer.  Last year Moorhouses opened a new brewery costing 4.2 million pounds with the capacity to produce a very respectable 50,000 barrels a year.

Yet I am sure many of my readers aren't that familiar with their beer.  I don't recall seeing it that often in my Southern travels, though of course, here in the North, it is relatively easy to come by. Their Unique Selling Point is their connection with nearby Pendle Hill and its witch trials in the 1600s, with their most famous brew being Pendle Witches Brew and another, a former Champion Beer of Britain, being Black Cat, a luscious mild. The brewery has grown from 10 barrels a week in the mid 80's, a time when I used to nip up there to buy a nine for parties, complete with a free handpump hire.  I remember the small cramped brewery well and have toured it a couple of other times, long ago, though I have yet to visit the new one.

Now of course you will have spotted that around Halloween interest in things ghoulish increases, but it isn't at all a bad USP that will bring you extra sales of  five and half thousand nines in a single month.  Moorhouses are an understated success story in British Brewing

Now I have to confess that Pendle Witch is a tad too sweet for my taste, but mmm,  Black Cat pulled through a tight sparkler. Now there's a breakfast beer.

Just thought I'd stick a good news story in after reading another depressor from Mudgie

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Approaching 1000

Just doing some totting up. I have 16 more posts to go to reach my 1000th post in five years of beer blogging. Must have a think about what it will be about.  My first post on 26th November 2007 was about the sparkler, that most divine of devices.  Should I re-visit that?  Have a read and see what you think.

Maybe I'll take requests?

Or maybe I won't.

Snacks in Pubs

As someone who likes pubs, I'm always interested in the dynamics of the business that lies behind the public face. The back end if you like and particularly the thought processes of the "offer" - what you do to attract customers.  Pubs have changed a lot since I started drinking in them. Then a pub, put simply, was in the main for drinking in, with the added welcome extra of a degree of social interaction and perhaps some entertainment in the form of darts or some board games. It was a simple place, with those with televisions being regarded as rather sophisticated - but then again I lived in the West of Scotland.  Food when offered, was basic stuff - pies, sandwiches and the like and was seen as an inducement to make you stay, or to attract you at lunchtime, back in the days when lunchtimes at the office were more often than not spent having a quick couple of pints and a sandwich or filled roll. What they were not, for better or worse, was the pseudo restaurants which many pubs today have become.

I've mentioned this before here a few times and was reminded of it again, as I am sometimes, on my recent trip to the area around Ironbridge and Shrewsbury.  Pubs still seem like pubs used to be in this neck of the wood and in the adjoining areas of the West Midlands and the Black Country.  By that I mean that more of the old fashioned type have survived and seem to thrive, though of course the pub/restaurant is very evident too.  What's the point of all this?  Well it is of course the pub snack.  Filled rolled rolls, pork pies, scotch eggs the size of a baby's head abounded.  Us veteran topers could munch on a well made cheese and onion cob while getting on with the serious business of boozing.  We even saw the good old "pie warmer" a few times.

Now I'm not saying that we should flip back to the era of Life on Mars, but this mixed economy seems to work.  It was good to be able to get a simple but filling sandwich that didn't cost £5.95, come with chunky chips and was so big that it put you off your beer.  It was good to graze in one pub with a scotch egg then have something else later on in another.  It may not suit everyone, but surely simple cheap snacks for those pubs that concenrate as much on beer as food would be a good thing to offer customers?

Times is hard, but wouldn't having a look at snack menus as a low cost way of trying to attract a few more customers and keep them once you've got them, be a worthwhile exercise for many pubs?

I very much welcome the return of the scotch egg in some pubs. London leads in this. Well done. It is the perfect pub snack.  This fine example, with black pudding came from the Golden Ball in Ironbridge and cost £1.50

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Great Northern Beer Festival

Last week I spent three days at the SIBA organised, but CAMRA run, Great Northern Beer Festival here in Manchester.  It was a good do.

On Wednesday, I judged beers, first of all in the first round of ordinary bitter category and then in the finals of specialist bottled beers and more bottles, this time in stouts/porters old ales categories.  I had not of course asked to judge bottled beers, but that's the way the cookie crumbles in judging sometimes.  Now I have to say a lot of the ordinary bitters were very ordinary indeed. In fact some struggled to reach ordinary, but as always, there were some that shone and while I don't know whether any I judged in the first round were winners, those in the bottled category certainly were.  I would say that I was surprised by the very high standard of most of the bottles, but of course, those that bombed had been weeded out by my fellow judges in the first round, as that's the point of doing it.  The judging process is interesting, but fortunately individual, as one or two judges based their scores, not on whether it did what it said on the tin, but whether they actually liked it.  One interesting aside is that in the words of wisdom to judges by the SIBA Chief Executive, Julian Grocock, we were advised that clarity was no longer an decisive point, but that SIBA hadn't worked out what to do about beers that were deliberately not clear.  The advice was basically "Make your own mind up." I didn't get the impression of enthusiasm for this change.

 My main job once the bars were open, was to manage the large bar of 64 handpumps.  The quality from our overhead cellar was excellent, temperature spot on and each beer was served into a fresh glass, through a sparkler, as God intended.  I tried many of the beers and can pick out a few breweries that impressed. These, in no particular order were, Stringers, Hawkshead, Kirkstall, Peerless, Bollington, Allgates, Abbeydale, Acorn and Roosters.  No real surprises there you'll be thinking, but quality will out, though there were plenty examples of well made beers from other breweries too.  I think SIBA North probably has the best set of breweries in the organisation, but I would say that wouldn't I?  I was also hugely pleased to see so many stouts and bloody good most of them were too, with Stringers and Roosters -OK a porter - standing out.  We don't see enough stouts on sale in pubs and in winter rather than dark, malty beers, give me a roasty and (if possible) hoppy stout any time.

It was also good to meet so many old friends, both as judges and when the trade session opened, brewers. 

Beer.  It's a people thing.

The gold winner in speciality beers was Hawkshead Whisky Cask Aged Damson and Vanilla Imperial Stout and in the Porter/Stout etc category, it was Croglin Vampire from Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  The overall SIBA Champion Beer was Watermill Inn and Brewery Isle of Dogs.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Social Feng Shui

Many thanks to all that replied to my wonderings about the price of craft keg. A couple of observations from me.  One is that debating the thing on a blog is not made easier by the same debate being carried on simultaneously on Twitter.  Some great comments were made on Twitter, but I certainly didn't have time to trawl them all together and add them into the blog mix.  Is this just the way it goes?  I suppose so, but it would have been more comprehensive if it could have all been done on the same social media, but I suppose, sadly,  that's yesterday's thinking.

The second is that it seemed from the replies that there is a genuine concern about prices.  Justifications by the chargers to the chargees seemed rather tenuous, not wholly convinving and appeared to indicate that there are limits for most that commented and those limits are already being pushed.  The exercise was, I think, very informative, but to see it all played out, we'll just have to wait and see.  I doubt that we've heard the last of that debate.

On the more general point of craft beer and bars, I was struck by the similarity to beer, with some of AA Gill's remarks about restaurants in this week's Sunday Times.  Now love him or hate him, he is a guy that can turn a good phrase and he is quite an acute observer.  Speaking of expensive restaurants he said "one of the social dividing lines of a city is between those that can afford to throw their credit cards onto the plate along with the bill and those who can't."  And here is the key bit. "We like to hitch ourselves to things that are going well. It's a sort of social feng shui."  He later went on to say ( and while he was speaking of trendy restaurants, you could just think craft beer bar and local pub) "if you haven't got a hip corner, or if all your corners are boarded up charity shops, just keep going to KFC."  His final remarks (and here I've substituted beer for food):  This is smart muscly anti drinking that gives a lot of people exactly what they want with flair and good nature. But it's monosyllabic drinking. It's culty without being cultured, civil, but not civilised."

Now I don't think this does apply to beer in quite the same way, but if you stop and think about it, it does all kind of apply to the divide between craft beer and its devotees, as opposed to those that regard the whole thing with a hefty dose of scepticism.  I guess that what is being said about trendy and upwardly mobile eating establishments, is that there will always be places that some simply can't afford, before you even start thinking of those that won't afford it. and that is simply how it is.  Additionally, there are those for whom the Zeitgeist is more important than the price.  That of course presupposes that place and time are more important than the product itself and I certainly wouldn't go that far.

Still, set in that context, since the world isn't fair, it can't really matter if beer in some places is ouchy on the wallet. Can it?

Maybe there is some kind of app to pull twitter comments together?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Glasgow - A Mixed Bag

As previously mentioned, our first stop in Glasgow was the Clockwork Brewing Company, where mixed results were the order of the day.  My first pint was vinegary sludge, but was exchanged after the staff had tasted a sample from the same pump.  The offending beer was then removed from sale immediately, so top marks for that. At least there was no question of continuing to sell it.  Our party then had 45 minutes in West, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. German style beer and a great place, great atmosphere and great staff , marred only by the odd pricing. Pints are around a very reasonable £3.60 - £3.80 mark, with halves being around £2.60 to £2.80.  No sample trays are offered, so if you want to try a few, you either need to cough up, or sup from someone else's glass. It just seems silly and the only jarring thing about what is a wonderful pub.

Keeping on the Glasgow theme, when we retuned from Ayr, Troon and Houston the following day, we finished in the famous Three Judges in Partick.  Again the verdict was that the beers didn't really hit any high spots of cask presentation, which is astonishing considering the pubs almost legendary status.  We were mob handed there. All 26 of us, but nobody thought the beer much better than average. Nor was our cider bod was impressed by Scotland's Cider Pub of the Year having only one cider.

Four of us diverted to BrewDog as one of our party was particularly keen to see it.  We all enjoyed excellent service, great views of the Kelvin Hall at sunset and me an unremarkable pint of 5 AM Saint.  Despite there being no cask beer and a lot of very strong offerings, it was a good half hour and the staff couldn't have been more pleasant or helpful.  We then headed up Byres Road to another famous pub, Tennents Bar. This is an old favourite of mine, but it seems to have gone mainstream in its beer selection.  Mostly English and of the Everards/ Brains/ Wadworth's ilk, the beer was OK, but nothing special. Lager flowing from the pumps like a river, perhaps explains why.  I was the only one of our party that liked the place. Oh well. Our last stop was the Curler's Rest, poshified from my memory, but superb Harviestoun Wild Hop hit the spot - several times  - before we grabbed a taxi for late night reflection in the Bon Accord, just across the road from our hotel.

Next day in conversation with others on the bus south, we found those that had gone to the City Centre and the Merchant City had fared much better quality wise, but had still hit some lows.  This reflects to me the problem of too many beers for the clientèle that are likely to drink cask beer. Choice is often good, but quality is always good. I'd rather have two beers in top nick, that ten in so-so condition.  Poor quality beer has always been cask beer's Achilles Heel.  Pubs really do have to ensure that they always serve beer well, particularly as they struggle to lure customers in. Failure to do so really is both inexcusable and suicidal these days.

As always, when these things are undertaken, it is only a snapshot, but I've said it before and it is worth repeating. "It's the offer stupid."  Why do so many pubs fail to get that right?

On the way back to Greater Manchester, we spent a warm, sunny couple of hours in Lancaster. Lovely town, brilliant beer and pubs. I haven't been there since Mitchells closed. I'll be back soon though.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Excluding Tip

I meant to post about this way back in August, but forgot. I came across the photo when I was looking for something else. My readers will know I go to Germany a lot. I like it there and it is a place where you tend to know what is what. Once you've worked it out or read up on it that is. When I first started to go to Germany a good number of beers years ago, I looked up customs and etiquette, one of which was about tipping.  The advice then, as now is "It is typical to "round up" the amount to some more-or-less round figure generally ending with a full Euro amount."  Of course it was a Deutsche Mark then. 

It is a kind of odd situation on some ways. Tipping nothing at all is still perfectly acceptable for, say, a single drink, or even a meal, but the simple rounding up works. Waiters and waitresses don't need tips to survive as they are paid a decent wage by and large, but of course it is nice to be given something and a few coins for pleasant service is a worthwhile investment.  The point is that it is not expected. If you have a look at the bill illustrating this entry you will see something I haven't seen before. "Tip is not included."  It was our last day in Berlin and I haven't yet been back, so it was perhaps not typical.  We didn't see it anywhere else, yet there it was.

This is another unwelcome creeping Americanisation which I for one could do without.  Anyone else noticed this in Germany?

I probably just rounded it to €22

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

How Much Is It?

I notice a lot more rumblings and grumblings on t'interweb about the perceived high costs of craft keg beer.  Pete Brown did a nice piece on what he feels is the most worrying aspect of craft beer, which is quality at the point of dispense.  I agree with most of what he says, but not that it is a problem which has recurred.  To me quality may be better than it was - and that's arguable -  but problems have never gone away as such.  I too am always keen to bang on about the quality thing, particularly when it comes to cask beer, though Pete makes many more far reaching points too, particularly about unfined beer.  More power to his elbow on that one.  And he does mention prices, although in the context of getting bad beer.

So, price. The moaning on the internet has been about how much craft keg costs at the bar.  It is justified by brewers by saying it costs them more through equipment, keykeg costs, ingredient cost and more, though many would argue that ingredients cannot justify the cost differences, especially for the same beer in keg and cask.  That in turn means higher prices at the pumps say pub and bar owners.  Another point about craft keg (and it is mainly but not exclusively keg) is that high prices and alcohol levels mean you are also likely to drink a lot less of it, which creates its own vicious circle of needing to charge higher prices, not just to cover the higher costs of buying it, but to account for lower turnover and to maintain profit.  If nothing else, this will limit the spread of bars than can charge such a lot.  There's only so many that the market will stand.  So while brewers (and pubs and bars) may have these lovely margins now, they may be heading for a brick wall if the market expands.  The customer and the market will decide in the end and my bet is that price will play a bigger part, as or if the spread of craft keg increases.  There may be rockier times ahead for this craft beer boom.

One thing is for sure and for now. Beer in certain places is becoming eye wateringly expensive and drinkers are starting to notice and question it.  You are bound to get a lot more shirty when you pay top dollar for a duff pint and a lot more likely to kick up about it.

I really recommend Pete Brown's article. The link is above in the first paragraph.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

All About Quality

What is?  Beer is and more specifically real ale is.  The cask conditioning process adds a variable into beer that can take it from ordinary to phenomenal, or to the depths of undrinkable, all because of not knowing how to keep it, how long to keep it and how much of it to keep in the first place. Our CAMRA trip to Scotland showed some of these problems off first hand. Now it has to be said that real ale, cask conditioned beer is not nearly as common on Scotland as in most places in England.  Subsequently, even in the best of pubs, demand is not so high. There are exceptions of course and there are reasons, but it does make drinking cask beer far more of a lottery than it already is. And it already is a lottery more is the pity.

We started off brightly enough in Dumfries, which for a small town, has quite a number of real ale outlets. The local JDW, the Robert the Bruce, seemed to know its stuff. Beers were clean, well looked after and enjoyable, as they were in the Cavens Arms. In both cases the staff were cheerful and welcoming. Even the half of Draught Bass I had in the Coach and Horses showed the undoubted wisdom of having only one beer served very well and knowing what your trade will stand, rather than several served poorly . Our first stop in Glasgow was the Clockwork Brewing Company, where the results were a lot more mixed.  All the beers seemed off that elusive mark that can only be hit by good turnover and cellar excellence.  Later the same was undoubtedly the case for both the State Bar - a pub I like - and Hengstler's Circus, which I don't really - but it is opposite. Tired, flabby beers would have done nothing to convince the largely Tennents Lager swilling crowd that they were saluting an entirely incorrect flag.  Spirits were raised again in the Bon Accord, where in 1974, I drank my first ever real ale, and now, having undergone many changes, it is still doing the biz in some style. All the beers tried by our exacting crowd were in tip top condition. This pub knows its stuff and it shows.

On Saturday, we moved on to Ayr and visited the home of Ayr Brewery, the Glen Park Hotel, where the beer, brewed just yards away,  was in excellent condition and served by handpumps with sparklers.  A number of awards from both CAMRA and SIBA adorned the walls attesting to the quality of both pub and beer.  Later in Geordies Byre, a wonderfully welcoming pub, spotlessly clean and interesting,  this time, dispensed by Scottish tall founts, we enjoyed a range of  three beers, all good and all oddly, but co-incidentally 3.6%, before boarding our coach to Troon, where a veil needs to be drawn over the lacklustre beer and pubs with the exception of the excellent Fullartons, where not only super quality beer was dispensed by handpumps, with the bar staff asking "With or without sparklers?", but the welcome was warm, as was the atmosphere.  It was buzzing and deservedly so.

Bright, welcoming pubs with good beer and cheerful service can still drag customers in.  In these hard times it has never been more important to get the offer right.

I commend this piece by Pete Brown to you too. It says many of the same kind of things.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Call it a Draw?

People keep asking me how the big debate went on. The "What the HELL is Craft Beer?" one. It was held (undertaken/endured?) at the famous IndyManBeer Con a couple of Fridays ago and featured your hero, Tandleman, BrewDogJames, Zak Avery, Toby McKenzie and John Clarke?  Don't know who these geezers are?  Stop reading now. It was moderated by Jonny from the organisers.

That's by way of background. You want the blood and gore don't you?  Well, sorry, more background first.  Fittingly we were in yet another swimming pool in the wonderful Victoria Baths.  Right in the thing, sloping tiled floor and all, with an audience in front of us, disappearing up to the shallow end and a baying mob on the balconies. It was cold. Mortuary cold. It would have frozen a yak.  We sat on chairs, while Jonny, like a perished ringmaster, set the scene.  We were all introduced. Me to a chorus of boos. From the BrewDog accolytes?  You may say so, I couldn't possibly comment. Have they read that I don't care for them?  Surely not. But it wasn't all about them was it?  Wait Dear Reader, wait.

We were all given three minutes to cover our views in general terms.  John started in his reasonable manner, outlining a position that differed little from mine in that we agreed that a burgeoning craft beer scene was good for beer generally.  Toby took a much more laid back position (though he later told me he was frozen stiff, so that might have contributed to it) and felt that basically good beer was good beer and he didn't really care for the debate that has arisen around it.  John and I outlined some of the characteristics you might find in craft beer, while Zak took a more philosophical view of craft being a state of mind. I think basically, as may be suspected, Zak, John and I took the view that craft is not easy to define, but you know it when you see it. Toby made some very good points about his own experiences as a brewer.  I think we all tried to see the wider point of view and to try and answer Jonny's promptings as moderator, though of course we all had our own points of view to get across.

What of James?  When it came to his turn, he leapt to his feet (the rest of us just sat down) and launched an attack on mega breweries jumping on the craft bandwagon, got some of his figures wrong and was corrected and postulated that craft in the UK should be defined as a brewer brewing a million barrels a year, using whole hops and some other such things.  I think it fair to say that he didn't convince the audience about that one, as not seeing the UK scene in terms of the US, seemed to strike a chord with them. It did seem to me that his position was broadly that "BrewDog" does this, so let's fit our definitions around it.  That's fair enough though from his point of view. I'd have probably done something similar, though undoubtedly with a lot more humour.

The audience had their turn too and while there was plenty heckling throughout (fortified by strong beer no doubt), they seemed to enjoy the back and forth. Again I got the impression that they were fairly ecumenical (in its broadest definition) as a whole, but there were exceptions.  Zak has outlined a bit of the banter here and I'd recommend his account of the proceedings too. I'd have a liked longer time on the audience section, but then if we had done, they would have taken our frozen lifeless bodies out at the end of it.

So there was no bloodbath and no agreed definition, but there was a fair degree of agreement nonetheless.  Afterwards we all raced off to the relative warmth of the other pools - sorry - bars and loads of people came up to me afterwards to say how they enjoyed it and nobody had a pop, which was nice.  I think, as suspected, though it was rather inconclusive, there was still a good dollop of concensus and a reminder that what we all do agree about is that we like beer and it is important to us. Of course there were many comments angled from our own particular points of view as you'd expect and while nuances were different, I reckon we could all (most of the time) have a beer together and enjoy the company.

Would I do such a thing again?  Sure I would, but I'd rather just have a brief introduction and get the audience up asking questions.  Maybe that's an idea for next time?

I braved the lion's den later for some BrewDog, got sort of booed again, had my photo taken somewhat against my will and thoroughly enjoyed Dead Pony Club.  A really good beer.  I went back for more a couple of times.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

IndyManBeerCon. How Was it for You?

How was what? IndyManBeerCon of course. Well if you read some of the gushings on the blogoshere it was the best thing since sliced bread. It was awesome. OK. Was it really? Actually, it was pretty good and I can see where many with leanings towards such an event happening, would be impressed. It did a lot of things right. First of all in any beer festival is to get, if at all possible, an impressive venue. Most festivals fail on that score right away. Impressive venues are hard to come by and they cost a lot. This was an impressive venue. A gorgeous, partially renovated set of Victorian Swimming Baths; a wonder of brick and tile. loads to look at and no smell of chlorine. It was a fantastic venue. Awesome even. A major tick before a drop of beer had been consumed and most customers seemed keen to view it in all its splendour, gawping happily, beer in hand.

 Then there is the beer of course and this lived up to its promise, with a cask area and a keg area, each in a different swimming pool, one covered over(cask) and one (keg)reached by descending a set of stairs to the pool itself. That would have made disabled access somewhat difficult, so a minus there I suppose. The cask bar was set up in more or less traditional manner, with a bar and handpumps. It served a decent selection of beers, though as is the way of beer festivals, some were better than others and the range was a tad limited if you were a fan of milds, stouts and speciality beers. Seating was German beer garden bench style and I thought that worked really well. It provided a touch of difference and helped the atmosphere. The keg bar area was another kettle of fish entirely. No seating at all and just a set of tables for several brewers to serve from, with the beer behind. Variety wasn't a problem here at all, with the brewers (and yes, it a lot of cases it was them) dispensing their chosen range. Or was it chosen by the organisers? I don't know. Either way it was different and it seemed to work well.  The keg selection was better on the Friday night, but as beers go off and on, that would no doubt have changed.

So from a veteran festival organiser's point of view, what did I think?  Well I liked it by and large. The venue and organisation was great. It did what it set out to do, though it was undeniably very expensive. Ten pounds plus to get in and prices from £3.00 a pint to £9 odd a pint* ) served in thirds is pretty hefty. Brewers serving their own beers was innovative for the UK, but I wonder how that worked? I know the beer was bought from them, but did they offer their services free for the weekend?  If not, subsidising the brewers may explain some of the prices, but if not, how sustainable is that model?  Brewers aren't charities by and large.  The food offerings worked well too for the kind of crowd attracted, which on the Friday night at least, for the most part, was young, geeky, well heeled and predisposed to the offerings and prices.  Some have claimed that the third pints only rule was restrictive and yes, it was a nuisance to have to go to the bars so often and would have been even more so if the place was more crowded, but it wasn't, presumably because of fire limits.  I didn't mind that aspect, though it could only work in this kind of festival with this kind of crowd.

BrewDog, oddly, had a separate bar, set in one of the many tiled side rooms and occupied by a rash of its fanboys and girls, with loud music and an atmosphere that was totally different to the main festival itself. I don't know whose idea that was, but I feel it would have been better to have BD on the inside of the tent. It seemed to me they were on the outside doing what people on the outside of tents do.  Put them along with everyone else next time.

So we had that elusive mixture of keg and cask.  Some claimed that as inclusive, but I reckon it's horses for courses. Inclusive to me is way more than just beer. It does show it can be done (at a price) and that there is a demand for it and those like Port St Beer House, who understand the cask/keg mix are the sort of guys that can put on a show for a targeted audience.  And it was a targeted audience. I won't mention the beer. Others have done that already, except to say, while I liked a lot of the keg beer, I do wonder if the expensive ingredients that apparently justify the high prices, would be quite so needed if the beer wasn't served so ice cold and so carbonated that taste is affected. Anyway, I digress.

Should it be a regular event?  Well I think, as I hinted in my opening remarks that some commentators have got a bit carried away.  It didn't change the world, but of course it should continue if the economics stack up and demand exists - and I am sure that demand does exist. It was different and interesting enough to make it worthwhile and provides an alternative to mainstream real ale festivals for those whose boat is best floated that way.  That can't be bad surely?  I mentioned getting it right. I doubt that there are many in the craft beer world that understand their audience better than Port St Beer House.  They pulled off a good show by understanding their potential customers and putting the hard work in to make it a reality. Well done them.

Finally, choice is a good thing, but how it is offered is surely up to those that organise such things.   Let's just let beer festivals do it their way.  Their audience and their risk after all.

* You got a free glass and two beer tokens as part of admission.  Tokens were £10 for 11

My "What the HELL is craft beer?" bit will be coming next.