Wednesday, 7 February 2018

On Trade Suffers Again

The news that 88 million less pints were drunk in pubs and bars in 2017 can hardly come as a surprise.  This equates to a 2.4% year on year fall and hammers home yet again the message that pubs are still in trouble and that there is still a significant switch to drinking beer at home, as overall, beer sales rose slightly.  There isn't a bright looking horizon either, with a business rates bombshell likely to have a further effect on on trade prices in 2018.

The great divide in beer continues, not because of increased off sales at the craft small pack end of things - that's a different thing - but at the volume end. For those with jobs and "just about managing", choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.

The beer market is changing considerably. The so called community pub is being threatened as never before as its core customers vote with their feet and drink their beer at home. Those of us who enjoy their beer in the pub had better watch out. It is an endangered species and while really good pubs that can attract those with plenty disposable income, will no doubt survive and while the craft bubble will continue to provide an alternative to the well heeled in mostly urban centres,  the overall picture is somewhat depressing. For those not quite at the bottom of the pile, who used to enjoy a pint in their local but can no longer afford to do so, the pub may fade from not only their daily routine, but their weekly and even monthly one.

Fragmentation, high prices, high duty and high business rates as well as different social habits, don't paint a rosy picture. Changes have been both evolutionary and enforced by circumstances. The effect is broadly similar however.

And there is more to come.

Britain has the fourth dearest alcohol prices in Europe. So much for minimum pricing.

The day of  the handy local pub is disappearing. You'll also have to travel further to the pub for that odd pint. Another disincentive.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Bradley Cummings?

In what might be seen as a major intervention in CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, Bradley Cummings, co-founder and co-owner  of Tiny Rebel Brewing has thrown his hat into the ring and will stand as a CAMRA National Executive member.  What might this mean if he is successful in his attempt? Is it a good or a bad thing? Let's have a look.

Well we don't need to guess at his intentions as he lays out his plans in a short and succinct 23 page manifesto. Let's have a look at it.

On the (perhaps) positive side Brad :
  • points out the lack of member involvement in the Campaign
  • puts forward a number of ideas to increase that involvement
  • wants to "drive shit and get things done"
  • wishes to get the best out of the potential of nearly 200,000 members
  • agrees CAMRA should widen its remit to include the wider beer community
  • recognises that unprofitable pubs must close
  • thinks that pubs must adapt or die
  • agrees that CAMRA should establish an Industry Committee or suchlike
  • thinks we should have a focus on membership education though disagrees with proposed methodology
  • points out CAMRA isn't very cool
  • reminds us that a 300% increase in members has brought little by way of increased involvement
  • suggests a much better use of technology and direct membership involvement
  • reminds us that better choice not real ale was the CAMRA founding principle
  • states that poor quality cask ale is the biggest risk to the future of cask ale
  • urges us to vote with our feet when encountering poor real ale
I could go on but have picked these out for you. I'd urge you to read the whole thing here and make your own list.

On the (perhaps) less positive side Brad:
  • seems to disregard cider and perry as irrelevant
  • thinks brewers, not the beer drinking public know best about beer quality
  • supports the on trade as a way into pubs for drinkers
  • poo-poos cask conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's art
  • wants members to be distanced from breweries by allowing brewers to represent themselves, rather than though liaison officers 
  • wants industry representation at all levels of CAMRA including direction and policy
  • postulates that quality comes at a cost
Now really with all this, you pays your money and you takes your choice. You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn't an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA's democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive.

On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can't really concur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible. CAMRA must continue to be an independent consumer champion and the very idea that brewers know best about everything beer-wise certainly causes me to raise my eyebrows somewhat. After all brewers rarely speak with a common voice. Just look at hazy versus clear, not to mention many other subjective arguments about hopping rates, carbonation, pricing, packaging and like as not, a million things more.

So vote for Brad? Up to you really, but having chaired the Great Manchester Beer Debate at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, where Brad was a panel member, I was impressed with many of his points of view. Revitalisation is something very different and maybe it is time for someone new to the Campaign, with an unconventional and non traditional background, to become a member of the Executive that will steer the changes through. There's lots you can add on the plus side and I for one reckon it might just be a good thing - assuming if elected - he sees his term to its end.

After all, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The Great Manchester Beer Debate was interesting. Subject was loosely "The Price of Beer". I'll try and deal with this in a later post. Yes, on the whole, most brewers, despite the fact they say little comes their way, favour higher prices.

Brad would also knock the JDW tokens on the head. He isn't alone in this.

Remember, all members will have a vote for both the National Executive and for Revitalisation. Use it.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Helensburgh High Spots

After my mixed bag in Glasgow, again after a hospital visit, I took the train to Helensburgh.  Now I always like trains and for reasons which will become clear, I like this line most of all. I grew up beside it and it holds a lot of memories. My late father was a Station Master on this line and I lived in a Station House in Dumbarton for many years. I well remember as a child looking out of my bedroom window at the platforms below and steam trains chugging by or patiently waiting as passengers got on and off. The smell of steam was a daily rotine for me when a small child. When the line was electrified in the early 60s I had the privilege to "drive", from  one end of the platform to another, new Bue Train as we called them, sitting with my hand on the "dead man's handle" on the knee of the driver. Railways are in my blood- but I digress.

There are two real ale outlets in Helensburgh that make an easy little two pub trip. The Henry Bell is a Wetherspoons with a clean, modern, good looking interior and on the ball staff who always seem interested in what they are doing - which goes to show that generalisations, while understandable, don't tell the whole story.  The HB also benefits I feel from a large influx of English customers - Helensburgh seems full of English people-  and of course, the nearby presence of the HM Naval Base Clyde - Faslane - home of the strategic nuclear deterrent and its submarine delivery system guarantees that the lesser interest in cask beer in this neck of the woods is leavened by those that grew up on it. Beer quality is invariably good.

The pub was busy on my arrival and ordering a pint of Purity Gold, which was in excellent condition, I found a bench seat (tick) with a good view and surveyed the scene. Clearly a boat was in and there was a large mixed age naval presence, with little groups of different types setting up homes on different tables, while nipping over occasionally to chat to each other. The younger end were putting the booze away at a far lick, but the atmosphere was pleasant, with the assorted naval types a credit to the service. I moved on to try an Amber Ale from Birkenhead's Peerless Brewing and while not my favourite style, I rather enjoyed it. Again it was in excellent condition and sometimes it pays to step outside your usual style and remind yourself that variety is a good thing.

It was time to move on, so turning left, then stepping over the road and walking a few yards, I entered the  Ashton,  CAMRA's West Dunbartonshire Pub of the Year (not sure which year mind you) and an old haunt of mine almost forty years ago. My luck was in. In addition to the usual Greene King/ Belhaven offerings was Fyne Ales Jarl. Now I have been a bit sceptical of this beer recently, feeling on the few chances to try it, that it wasn't the knockout of old. Well, on this form, I was clearly wrong. This was in stunning condition, with Citra hops shining through and making the beer extremely swoopable.  I was tempted to stay for several in this convivial local, but after a couple I left for the train. The service too was excellent with the barman temptingly reminding me that there are trains every half hour.  I resisted his blandishments, though when I arrived at the station and found I'd miscalculated my train time and had twenty minutes to wait, I bitterly regretted my decision.
There was no choice. I crossed the road for a swift half of Tennents in the Station Bar. No appalling music this time as there was football on.  I have written before about how the Tennents in here was excellent. This was too. Coming straight after Jarl, this was no mean feat.

So there you have it. Two out of two getting ten out of ten real ale and service wise.  Add in an excellent cheeky half of TL and it was a great night all in.

 Next time I'll make a return visit to Glasgow CAMRA's Pub of the Year the State Bar. Again I know this place of old.  I'll let you know how I get on.

I also intend to resume my Sam Smith's wanderings. It's been too long. 

The photo above is where our house once stood. I remember the day that bridge was built, replacing one from the 1890s.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Partial Disappointment in Glasgow

Yesterday after visiting my poorly mother in hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow, I was at a bit of a loose end. I could have gone back to Dumbarton or go into the City Centre. I chose the latter and hopped on a handy train to Glasgow Central.

Where to go? Now I always used to go to Nicholson's Drum and Monkey as a handy stop between Central and Queen St stations, but gave it up as a bad job after having too much sub-standard beer. "Let's give it a go again I thought" and nipped in. Now it has to be said that it is a fine looking traditional pub with a horseshoe bar, a lot of dark wood and a general feel of being spick and span.  It's history as a bank while not obvious, can readily be discerned. It was though at around 4pm, ominously empty.  I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Thai IPA, a beer that I've had and enjoyed before.  It felt warm in my hand and was slightly cloudy. It was clearly end of the barrel stuff and I took it back. Exchange was slightly reluctant, but done with speed. I was offered instead, Palmer's Trawlerman, which while warm and unsparkled was a decent enough beer underneath.  So not a great return and I can see no reason to go back other than in a minor victory of sorts, as I left, the faulty Thai IPA had been withdrawn from sale and the line was being cleaned.  Now I know I'm being a tad unfair, but the measure of a pub's beer quality must be that even at quiet times, it is good.

Another haunt - and I am not sure why - is the nearby Shilling Brewery. Again it was quiet when I entered and again - speaking from past experience - the staff seem curiously reluctant to engage customers in conversation. It almost seems to be part of the staff rules. I ordered a half of a rather coconutless Teleporter Coconut Porter which was so way over gassed as to make it tasteless. Now in stouts and porters I'd say put in on nitro rather than CO2 as at least you'll enjoy the texture a lot more.  A bit better though was the oddly named Machine Gun Lager which boasted German and New Zealand hops though when I asked what hops were employed, it took a bit before agreement could be reached. Still, the beer was decent with fragrant and floral hops, so lose one, win one.

I had to get home, but there was just time for a couple in the massive Counting House, a JDW on George Square and handy for my train.  My beer of choice here has been Williams Brothers hybrid lager/IPA, Caesar Augustus which I find is a delightfully refreshing beer. Alas after one pint, it ran out, as did my second choice, Joker IPA.  I have to say the barperson that served me was a delight in helping me choose from the many keg beers available. In a busy pub, she took her time to get it right. Well done for an excellent bit of customer service. My final pint was a Rye IPA, Ax Man, from Drygate, which was complex and unusual. A bit of a sipper, but none the worse for that.

So there you have it. Two quiet pubs and two moderate experiences and one rammed one which had not only atmosphere, great beer, but great service. Still all a bit of a lottery in the pub game.

I must say that I did have a good time not so long ago at Shilling Brewery, which I wrote about here. The beer is generally very good. 

Hasn't Palmer's beer come rather a long way?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Happy New Year

A bit late I know, but I've been busy. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival doesn't arrange itself and I've had an unexpected urgent trip to Scotland, to visit my ill and elderly mother. Nonetheless, the greetings are heartfelt.

We'll come back to Manchester Beer and Cider Festival shortly, but since I've been in Scotland, a few thoughts about the land of the loch and the glen. Firstly, if you didn't know it, while Barr's Irn Bru - is allegedly Scotland's "Other National Drink" (reformulated or not and yes, in my short visit, I have met Scots who have bought and hoarded cases of the really sugary version, pending the usurping launch of the not quite so sugary version), Scotland's other National Drink is undoubtedly Tennent's Lager. it is everywhere and it is drunk and revered everywhere.  While John Smith's Smooth may be the go to beer of the early morning Wetherspoon's soak in England - in Scotland it is TL they line up when most of us have scarcely breakfasted.  In the hotel bar - and there are lots of them in Scotland - it is Tennents on the bar.  In the noisy public bar with inappropriately loud and shite music - another West of Scotland trait - Tennents is the drink of choice. Even in craft beer bars like Shilling Brewery, they sell Tennents. In other words, unless you sell Tennents, get out of town.  With very few exceptions, you must sell Tennents or die as a business.

Now there are other lagers available. Sometimes. Wetherspoons have lots of them, but they are, frankly, a sideshow. It is the big red  T that dominates, but it wasn't always so.  Back in my days in Scotland, Skol, Norseman, Harp, Usher's Golden Lager and of course, McEwan's Lager were all readily available. All gone - and while nowadays Stella and Kronenbourg pop up here and there, plus the odd foreign beer, in the standard lager department, Tennents is yer man. I used to drink it myself many years ago, usually in pint screwtop bottles and quite possibly as an affectation. I sort of liked Skol better, but that was then and in McEwan's houses, I drank McEwan's Pale Ale, also in pint screwtops, or if feeling flush"A big Whitbread". (I think they were first to abandon pint screwtops in favour of the crown cap. But I digress.)

So what does it taste like? Well, at its best, not bad at all, but over carbonation and sub zero temperatures can wreck it. On Friday last week in the Abbotsford Hotel in Dumbarton, it was over-carbonated and utterly tasteless. Last night when I missed my train, in the Station Bar in Helensburgh, it was full bodied, subtly hopped, not over gassed and very enjoyable.  You can't depend on it sadly, though that seems not to matter to most of its customers.

While the quality of the drinking establishment and the eardrum busting music in the Station Bar can be questioned, I can vouch, from no little experience, that they keep a decent pint of Tennent's Lager.

Sadly I missed out on the GBG entry, the Ashton, but Loch Lomond Brewery beer was top notch in the Henry Bell, though nudged aside by a torrent of gin. 

I do miss these old standard lagers too. Pint of Alloa brewed  Skol? Yes please.

I'll do @Mancbeerfest tomorrow. This train is a bit shoogly.