Friday, 28 February 2014

The Past Revisited

I'm still on my "Pubs near my London flat" theme. There's one very near indeed that I had (until yesterday) never been in despite our fifteen years or so of it being just round the corner. The Dog and Truck I am told was rebuilt in 1935 in its present form and survived the wartime bombing unscathed. Hidden in Back Church St in East London it could be considered as a hidden gem. Well certainly hidden, though it is just five minutes off busy Leman St. But is it a gem and why despite its nearness have I not called in? I suppose the answer is that the time was never right.

The first thing you notice about the Dog and Truck is its faded Watney Combe and Reid livery.  Inside you step into the 1970s.  One single room, long and bare boarded is served from a long bar.  Typical of the seventies, there is a food servery on one side of the bar, from which astonishingly cheap (for London) food is dispensed. Think three Cumberland sausages and mash for under a fiver.  The menu has a kind of retro feel too, though food service was finished when I called in.  There are three handpulls offering Greene King IPA, another GK one turned round and thankfully, Harvey's Sussex Best which I chose and which was in splendid form. Clean, vibrant, cool and conditioned.  Lovely. I looked around. Inevitably there was a dart board and a pool table plus fruit machines.  No Space Invaders though, which was disappointing and no pink formica topped tables either, though I wouldn't have been at all surprised if there had been. Also typical of the seventies was a set of framed banknotes from around the world above the bar.

The pub had three other customers just finishing their pints when I arrived and within five minutes, there was just me and three - yes three barmaids - plus the landlord and landlady.  The boss was tilling up and the landlady sorting out some baked potatoes .  The barmaids scurried about busily.  It was a slightly surreal scene as I was completely ignored as if I was invisible, but not in a remotely unfriendly way.  One barmaid served me twice.  The only words exchanged were "£1.90 please" for my halves of beer.  No warm East End welcome, but I didn't make any effort either, serenely content as I was, sipping excellent beer in my time capsule.

I liked it a lot.  I'll be back and I'll make an effort to chat and hopefully too, I'll find it busier. I'm looking forward to it already.

It was a funny old day pubwise yesterday. More of that soon.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Keeping it Local

From time to time I tell you about the many pubs local to me here in London. There's good and bad, with one or two where I really like the pub but not the beer and some, the other way round. 

On the way back from an event I thought I'd check out the Hoop and Grapes at Aldgate, which was a pub I used to go in from time to time around ten years ago. Since then it has become part of the Nicolson chain and is shall we say, considerably cleaner.  Alas last night I was unable to update myself,  as at six o'clock the place was so rammed that I couldn't even get to the bar.  Trading well then.  A skip round the corner to the White Lion in Alie St.  Shepherd Neame with all that entails, which is a range of beers that all taste more or less the same. It's a funny little pub, which again we used to go in around ten years ago, but don't now.  It was also very busy, but service was swift. Bizarrely the barmaid thought my request for a half of Amber and of Whitstable Bay was for it to be served as a mix in a pint glass.  That sorted out, I wished it had been, so awful was the Amber and so ordinary the Whitstable Bay.

Onward and homewards.  The Dispensary used to be a local CAMRA Pub of the Year.  Despite its braying hoard of suits, we used to like it,  though beer quality varied and the old problem of very warm beer finally drove us out.  No such problems last night. The suits were still there in force, but the beer was cool, varied and well conditioned and a very pleasant pair of barmaids ran the show with a smile.  Adnams American Pale, St Austell Proper Job and two from Colchester Brewery (new to me)  were all excellent, though the Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Porter wasn't to my taste - vanilla in beer? - just say no.  A good visit and worth a second chance I'd say.

I looked in the window of the Black Horse (not rammed) but didn't fancy either GKIPA or OSH, so moved on to the Oliver Conquest. Now this is a bit of an oddity. It had a chequered past under a different name (Mr Pickwicks) and was a notorious after hours hang out, despite being next door to the cop shop.  (I remember people tumbling out of there pissed at five in the morning as we were on our way to Liverpool St Station en route to Stansted Airport.)  It was (compulsorily) closed for a while and now in its new incarnation, is a cosy hang out of oddballs.  It offers a gin selection of over 100, a couple of handpulls, including Landlord and young staff that always seem to be whispering conspiratorially to customers. Nonetheless it is quite likeable in a tart's boudoir sort of way.  The very pleasant barman discussed Meantime beers with me happily, as he'd just come back from a brewery visit.  Meantime Pilsner was my choice and it was good and at £4.40 a pint, about par for the course I suppose.

So busy pubs for a Wednesday night, a mixed bag and two I want to go back to within five minutes of our flat. Result.

There was a few craft keg offerings including one from Hog's Back.  That one was a surprise.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Good to be Back

I'm in London and the sun is shining. Hooray. We decided last night to have a quick wander out. I kind of regard arrival here as being the first night of my holidays, which shows I have no sense at all. At least I have no work to do today (or any other day). My co-conspirator, E does of course, but we were quite restrained.

So, first a fifteen minute walk to the Draft House at Seething Lane. I really do like it here, but the cask beer never sings out to you.  It always seems to be under conditioned, or over vented.   These display similar symptoms and I'd need to know more about their cellar practice to know which it is, but there are clues, especially if you know the beer.  This time the beer of choice was Marble Pint with which of course I am rather familiar. It lacked condition, with scarecly a prickle of CO2 on the palate, but was fresh, clean and tasted like Marble Pint. It was just on the right side of cool and I noticed the Cask Marque shield prominently displayed near the handpumps. So. My verdict? Over vented.  Any London pub that would like my advice on looking after cask has only to ask. It is a bit of a specialism of mine and my fees are very reasonable.

Then another ten minutes or so to the Pelt Trader, which again I like though hardly for aesthetic reasons. Why do I like it?  The cask beer is always as spot on as it can be, given that it pours through columns in the wall.  Oakham Citra was at perfect cellar temperature and bursting with condition. You can buy cask with confidence here. Trust me on that one.

Lastly we decided on a bit of grub on the way back at our local JDW. Very nice mixed grill and a pint of  very well kept The Bruery Oatmeal Stout, part of JDW American Craft Brewers Showcase.  What a good beer. Very rich though, with cocoa powder nose, chocolate and mocha coffee with a touch of vanilla and a good silky malt and oat base which just needed a sparkler to give it the creamy head it deserved. It is perhaps a bit sweet for more than one and all the more amazing that this rather good beer came out of Caledonian in Edinburgh, whose record on these American beers is at best, mixed.

As I said, good to be back and on Saturday, the Bermondsey Mile and London Murky. 

Keeping cask beer well is as easy as pie if you have turnover. Trust me on that one too.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

BrewDog - More Than Meets the Eye

Fraserburgh is cold. The wind whips off the North Sea in a salty smack that hits you like a brick wall. The waves are grey and angry and it doesn't take much imagination to feel for those that earn their living from it. BrewDog Fraserburgh isn't at all what I'd been expecting.  In an old, rickety looking warehouse, surprisingly still standing against the sea front elements is, what was until recently, BrewDog Central.  Their brewery and offices.  It is hard to believe.  Inside on a wet concrete floor a  few stainless steel brewing vessels remain, the main kit having been whisked off to the spanking new brewery at Ellon, 27 miles away.  While you do get a bit of a Ghost Town feel, there is nothing sad about Fraserburgh. It has two (very hardy) permanent staff here and they still brew, store and mature beer. And Boy are they enthusiastic about it.

James Watt you can tell is still proud of it. It all started here and from this spot, BD bluffed, begged, borrowed and outrageously gimmicked their their way to the success they have now.  James, himself a veteran of the chilly seas outside (he was a trawlerman) tells us and reminds himself of how it began. Of the way they contracted for a million bottles without a bottling line, of the struggle for money and always the belief that the vision he shares with friend and business partner, Martin Dickie that selling better beer to people, beer made in their own vision, was something they were simply going to do. As we pondered all this, we supped a wonderful Passion Fruit Sour, so clean, yet so redolent of the fruit itself , that the sourness was an almost unnoticed counterpoint. So beautifully balanced at 3% I had two. A Jasmine IPA followed, straight from the conditioning tank. It was still being dry jasmined and had some time to go, but it was distinctive and different.

We (journalists and bloggers) had started earlier with a tour of the new stainless steel cathedral that is Ellon, on an industrial estate between Aberdeen and Fraserburgh.  The kit, designed mainly by Martin Dickie and funded by "crowd sourcing"  is state of the art and purpose built. Steel piping snakes along the walls, it wraps itself around fermentation vessels, mash and lauter tuns, conditioning, CO2 and glycol tanks.  We dodge outputs from the centrifuge as it spits out spent yeast and trub (they believe in clear beer here). We climb stairs, inspect a state of the art lab, watch hypnotised as the bottling line cleans, labels, fills, caps and nudges the bottles on their way to packing. They seem almost human as they queue to meet their transport to any one of the 30 or so countries they could end up in, patiently waiting in line, then rushing forward, eager to be next.

The brewery is still being tweaked. Engineers are moving kit, but the business continues unabated. The staff seem at ease in their job and there is an easy egalitarian feel about the place.  Martin shows us a small pilot plant where a brewer is busy putting together her own recipe. Someone asks what her normal job is. "Oh" he says vaguely, "anyone that works here and wants to know more can have a go at brewing" he remarks. And adds "Who knows? It might well end up as a production beer". We enter a vast warehouse, only just handed over from the builders a few days ago.  Mountains of kegs, keykegs, bottles, products marked for export and all kinds of sundries fill the place. On the far side a veritable distillery of whisky, bourbon and rum casks sit in serried rows, full of maturing beer.  Bottled beers and kegs imported for their own bars are there too.  This is a big operation, but Martin tells us, they have room to expand. James tells us later that they will do.

It is time for a drink and a chat. After all we are invited there to see what's behind the facade.  To be charmed after some bruising encounters. To scotch some myths. We start, where else with Punk IPA, fresh as a daisy, with Seville orange, peaches and tropical fruit, it gets universal approval.  Then Jack Hammer, straight from the conditioning tank, all big C hopping, but with cask like mouthfeel as it hasn't yet been brought up to bottling carbonation. It is 7.2% but tasting nothing like it. No jaggy alcoholic edges in this beer.  Dead Metaphor is quietly coffeeish, with chocolate and subtle smoke. Not overdone as some are, it is as smooth as a baby's bum. AB15, an imperial stout, has spent time in both rum and bourbon casks and has vanilla sweetness, with a touch of rummy raisin. We are told to expect salty caramel and popcorn, but advised it was more of an impression than a taste.  Whatever; it was a beer you'd imagine yourself sipping, late at night,  from the depths of a deep armchair, in front of a dying fire. Rich and contemplative.

Questions and answers follow as we sip. James tells us all that it has been a struggle to get where they are and you can believe him. Anecdotes flow about the early days when money was tight, contract deadlines tighter and brewing capacity tighter still.  There is still a revolutionary zeal in there, but behind the hype there is an undoubted pride and a determination to brew good beer.  They believe in training, in educating customers, they talk of new openings, company ethos, getting better at what they do, but they come back to the same theme. They don't care what it costs, but they want to brew beer that stretches, that challenges, but which tastes good.  They want to educate the public and give staff professional beer qualifications. One proviso is repeated. If James and Martin don't like it, it doesn't go on sale.  We talk about hops. This is everyone's favourite subject. Facts and statistics fly around.I write them down conscientiously, but what it boils down to is an infeasible amount of hops per hectolitre, in many varieties, for one of which (it may have been Simcoe*) BD is the world's biggest user.  I ask about cask beer. James is somewhat reticent about it, but doesn't rule it out for the future.  That's good, particularly as they are looking at having more session beers and they did make very good cask indeed. At least he didn't laugh me out of court.

Later we meet at BrewDog Aberdeen, their first bar.  It is very pubby in fact, apart from the rather stern line of grey keg fonts watching over proceedings.  The staff are enthusiastic and (even though they didn't know I was a guest) keen to explain in a very non condescending way about the beers on offer.  James is pleased about that when I tell him later, but in fairness it has happened to me before in other BrewDog bars.  Nor do I recall there being a Captain Haddock like beard in sight, which does set them apart too. But in a good way.  We ate in MUSA also BD owned. The beers are good and we are talked through them, not by James or Martin, but by various BrewDog managers. This came as a complete surprise to at least one and it compounded a sense that the employees are all fully on board.

So why was I there?  Firstly because I was invited, but secondly because I was invited by James with whom I've sort of clashed swords with before.  Why were we invited?  Officially to show us the new brewery and how it is going, but I think the unspoken sub plot was so we could see there is more to BD than a dead squirrel and ridiculously strong beer.  I got the impression that rather like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, there will be a slightly different public face - this is a big serious business now - but innovation, quirkiness and downright cheek won't be far under the surface. After all this is a young company run by young people with fresh ideas and a happiness to cock a snook at things. James and Martin are understated bosses, but they know what they want and how to bring their own people along with them which can never be a bad thing.  Both are impressive in different ways, with James shyer and more thoughtful than you might imagine and Martin the brewer and engineer, getting the brewery as it should be.  Hopefully too there will be great quaffing beer and maybe even a return of cask, though I won't be holding my breath.  You can bet too that there will be a lot more to hear about in the next few years and loads of interesting beers from this shiny new brewery. Was I impressed? You bet I was.  Was I wrong? In many ways yes. Things are often a lot clearer close up.
But you know, I don't think that matters so much as the fact that these guys are beer people through and through and unafraid to say so. Beer people, even when they don't brew cask are invariably impressive.  It was good to hang out with them for a bit.

At MUSA, while I particularly enjoyed the Jura Riptide, who could fail to like a beer with "Hello My Name is Vladimir" complete with a label featuring Mr P.

Disclosure: BD paid for and organised our visit.

* Simcoe was mentioned, but it was actually Nelson Sauvin

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

CAMRA and the Future

Tim Webb, guru and author of all thing beerily Belgian, has set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting in a letter to CAMRA's esteemed organ, What's Brewing, that CAMRA needs to change and concludes by saying:

"The challenge for the Campaign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped create. Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grandparent who wants to keep driving even though they can’t make out the road ahead."

When you examine Tim's letter, it is a bit of a mixed bag with much to agree about.  There are some gaps in his arguments though. He says "Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance." Sorry.  What are these "greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century". Tim doesn't say, so it is somewhat difficult to know what he is driving at here, other than CAMRA should in some way give more ground to those who believe in beer other than real ale.  Actually that is most of us and most CAMRA members. A few die hards maybe stick entirely to cask, but most of us drink other beers too, so to some extent this is a moot point for CAMRA members, though there is a growing number of younger end beer drinkers that may need a little more convincing from their side of the argument. The divide isn't just a CAMRA affair.

He does make some very valid points about brewing practice and has concerns with the word "traditional" in the CAMRA definition of real ale, implying it harks to a non existant golden age where things were done "properly".  He is right of course and partial conditioning of beer in the brewery is nothing new at all. As for "traditional", I rather fancy it came from the name that the trade used to call real ale - cask conditioned beer if you like - rather than any attempt to imply beer had always been made in an artisanal and time honoured way, as Tim suggests. The trade used the term "traditional" to distinguish it from keg and other bright beers. His assertion that the CAMRA definition would implode if the word "traditional" was removed is somewhat unsupported by any evidence.  I would be most suprised if real ale drinkers were, or are, purely or substantially attracted to real ale due to tradition.  I suspect the answer is much more prosaic and that most feel that (to them) it just tastes better.

I do agree with him in other ways though.  The genie is out of the bottle in that there are many more good beers out there, that are neither traditional, nor cask conditioned, so it does need to be addressed.  How to co-exist with this is a dilemma.   To paraphrase Marx, "The problem is not in identifying what is wrong with the world, but how to change it." Tim says in his letter about the Good Beer Guide "CAMRA has championed a bureaucratic device to inform its members what sort of beer is good – as in the term Good Beer Guide. Thirty years ago this mattered little, as decent beer and cask ale,in Britain at least, were synonymous. But then things changed."

Tim offers no solutions as to what should be done, so, eating this elephant bite at a time,  here's a thought: The Good Beer Guide may not be the all inclusive, unambiguous title that it once was, (as Tim Webb points out) but it has recognition and value which make a change in the short term not only unlikely but commercially suicidal.  Why not though run a bold strapline under the title to say "The definitive guide to real ale and where to drink it"? CAMRA would then, if nothing else be nailing its stated real ale colours to the mast and be clearlyclaiming no more than the GBG is a guide to real ale.

The vexatious question of what CAMRA should do about craft keg is one that needs a bit more careful thought. But by my suggested subtle change to the Good Beer Guide, we'd have a starting point.   CAMRA campaigns for real ale. Just accept that and build on it and modernise it, including our definition of real ale and a full explanation of how the term arose. We should be unafraid where we encounter a mixed economy of cask and keg. Most good craft beers bars already do this. We should provide better education and words about other beers and better definitions of them too.  We need to include more about craft keg beer in our publications, including the GBG, while still emphasising our commitment to real (cask) ale as uniquely British and a fantastic product in its own right. The fact that by and large it can only be consumed in the pub is a good point to emphasise too, as should the fact that cask beer still has its dangers to face. (Which is another reason to support it strongly). We in CAMRA do need to improve what we do  and how we do it in a changing beer world (despite the urban nature of most of the changes).

There are other areas too where we need to up our game. But we aren't as broken, out of touch and irrelevant an organisation as Tim implies.  Not by a long chalk. But maybe it is time to demonstrate that to the doubters.

Actually the Good Beer Guide often mentions in its entries the fact that craft keg and bottles are sold.  I also recommend both Curmudgeon and Paul Bailey who cover this subject too.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Where's That Brewery Again?

I was gratified to see the British Beer and Pub Association doing something useful for a change.  They have produced a comprehensive report of every parliamentary constituency, showing the impact the number of breweries and pubs in each has on jobs and wages, with details of numbers employed etc.

Great stuff I thought turning to three of my local constituencies.  All three have the number of breweries, not just wrong, but very wrong. Breweries surely aren't that hard to place in the right area? Plenty of stuff about that on line. I don't know about the pubs - that's doubtless harder - but inaccuracy doesn't fill me with confidence about any of the rest of it.  

Not sure whether to blame arithmetic or geography here.

 Problem is not much (if anything) else aligns with parliamentary constituencies, so I actually  have some sympathyfor them.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

More Power Please

Isn't it funny how those that seek to limit what you do dress it up as "much needed reform",  "a sensible tidying up", a need to be flexible to address local concerns" and ominously, to improve public health"?  The latest view of the Local Government Association about the future of Licensing calls for a complete throwing out of the current (now declared by them as obsolete) licensing system, which for alcohol, was introduced only 10 years ago.  In fairness to them, they are considering more than just alcohol licences, as taxis, kebab houses, betting shops and more come under their purview and they do make a sensible case for getting rid of multiple licenses for the same business.

To wind back a little, when the Licensing Act 2003 (which became law at midnight 23rd November 2005) transferred the powers previously vested in magistrates to local authorities and by law, from them to Licensing Committees.  The Act laid down several things which must happen, such as Premises Licences which covered the building in which the activity took place and an individual licnce to sell and authorise the sale of alcohol. (I am such a licence holder).

Now comes the bits which allow local discretion.  Four compulsory licensing objectives were set out:
  1. the prevention of crime and disorder,
  2. public safety,
  3. prevention of public nuisance, and
  4. the protection of children from harm
These cover most eventualities in that Licensing Committees can add conditions to the premises licence to limit what the establishment can do to ensure compliance with the objectives.  Thus it is that hours can be limited, noise can be kept down, plastic glasses can be enforced, as well as may other things. I recall on the course which I took, having to learn all about this in order to pass and be awarded my ticket.   There is also an overall "Cumulative Impact Policy" which though not part of the Act, allows Committees to consider whether too many licensed premises in one area might impact on the four objectives.

Can you see much wrong with that?  Well I can't, but our dear local authorities do. Putting aside the need to roll together multiple licenses,  lets turn to pubs.  It was one of the intents of the original Act to make the granting of licences less dependent on local whim and enshrine within a set of objectives, a presumption of "Yes" to applications. Local bureaucrats now feel they should be able to alter these to include taking into account the health impacts in an area, decide locally about withdrawal of licenses on yet to be specified grounds and apply local fees to all of this which will no longer be standard. More worrying would be the introduction of a health provision (which already applies in Scotland and reads "Protecting and improving public health."

Taken as a worst case scenario, where alcohol is concerned they would be able to act on any local whim, (however unreasonable) , increase fees, decide on what affects our health - whatever that might mean - and under the guise of "allowing businesses to flourish" and "hand communities the protection they deserve" ride roughshod over anyone they care to. (I guess they could also do the same for kebab shops and taxis.)

Now it may well be that the LGA is on to something here, but am I alone in thinking they would like to be able to put their fingers more deeply into more pies and charge us more for the privilege? We really need to watch out that this isn't just a subtly disguised bid for money and power. 

The LGA  report "Open for business. Rewiring licensing." is on line here   Blame the LGA for the poor quality photo.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Three Recommended Beers

It was the Good Beer Guide Selection meeting on Saturday at the upstairs room in the Baum in Rochdale still, for a couple more weeks or so, CAMRA's National Pub of the Year.  Over 45 people attended and as usual, Simon, the owner, had a great selection of beers for us to help the deliberations.

All were in tip top condition and we drank at least one of them dry and probably knocked a big hole in several more.  I stuck to Mallinsons at first, but when Hawkshead Cumbrian 5 Hop came on, I knew I had a date with destiny.  It is truly irresistible. The brewery describes it as "A thoroughly modern beer made, as is our way, with a blend of traditional English and modern American hops, five varieties in all.”  The result is a superbly drinkable beer which as full bodied, clean and crisp, but with layer upon layer of hoppy delights. It is typical of Hawkshead, whose standards and attention to detail are hard to equal.

I should say too that the preceding beers from Mallinsons were no slouches either with the Herkules Centennial, double hopped with the hops of that name, being delightfully bitter, but again precise and clear and very drinkable.  Motueka provided some Southern Hemisphere fruitiness and complexity which was just as appreciated. It was a long meeting, but nonetheless buoyed up by great beers from great brewers, a few of us lingered over a few more pints of 5 Hop afterwards.

Who could blame us?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Piss Up in a Brewery?

I've quite a lot of time for Thwaites - nowadays that is. It wasn't always so, as almost all they ever offered was smooth beer in various forms, but a concious decision several years ago to return to cask has seen the brewery profile multiply by a huge factor and with beers like Wainwrights becoming a runaway success, they had the confidence to build within the main brewery, the Crafty Dan Brewery, producing specialist craft beers in cask, keg and bottle, which I visited and wrote about here. The beers have been good too, with several winning awards and some of their seasonal beers have been spectacularly good - and different.

Underlying all this, for several years the bigger plan has been to vacate the cramped central Blackburn premises which houses the Star Brewery, sell it to Sainsbury's for yet another supermarket and build a new, smaller, state of the art brewery on a greenfield site on the outskirts of Blackburn by the motorway. Seems like a good plan, so what could possibly go wrong? Well everything it seems. The local council has offered several sites but none has been followed up and it now seems for reasons unknown, that the proposed Sainsbury redevelopment will not take place either. It is hard to ascertain why and although the local Lancashire Telegraph has a good go at it here, I'm none the wiser really.

But one thing is clear. Thwaites are to sack most of the brewery workforce, close the main brewery which they describe as "obsolete", keep Crafty Dan going, outsource the brewing to Marstons of all their main brands (some may also be brewed at Burtonwood I am told) until such time as they can find a new brewery site. Yes the same brewery site they have been unsuccessfully seeking for years. Thwaites it seems are more or less up shit creek without a paddle. Their main brands brewed by rivals, their brewery more or less closed, their workforce sacked and the new brewery no nearer than ever. Some cynics from rival breweries in the North West that I have spoken to, believe that Thwaites will never open a new brewery.

 Only one way to prove them wrong I suppose, but time is running out.

The workers didn't take being given the heave ho lying down. The Thwaites sign on the brewery tower was altered to reflect their feelings.