Tuesday, 22 July 2014

More Than a Bit Ouchy

I like the Soup Kitchen in Manchester. Not a pub, more of a genuine café-bar, it has five handpumps though invariably only three or four are on, some craft kegs, a few good bottles, a great atmosphere and service is always friendly and pleasant. You can perch on infeasibly high stools (beware of your legs going numb and the long drop back to terra firma) and watch the world go by both inside and out. OK I might up the average age by far too many years, but it's a firm favourite of mine and as long as you go during the day, there's a chance you won't be the oldest there.

On Saturday daytime, after very good pints in Pie and Ale, I visited with a mate.  It was my round and three beers were on.  We dismissed one on the grounds of not fancying it, one on the grounds of strength (7.4%), so we had the other, a Manchester brewery which is pretty new.  Squawk Pale Ale (3.9%) was purchased after we sampled it. OK, it was a bit warm, but we went for it.  I thought I'd misheard the barmaid when she chimed  "£8.20 please" but no, that's what it was.  I looked at the board.  Other beers were around the £3.50 mark.  I asked why so and was advised by the barmaid replied that it is very expensive to buy.  Hmm. My answer to that would be "Unless it is extra special, don't buy it then."

Now I know that beer can vary in price, but I reckon £4.10 for this beer, brewed not more than a couple of miles away, is taking the proverbial.  It even exceeds most beers in the Port St Beer House and they know how to charge. But who is doing it?  Not the pub they say,  who are (presumably) applying their standard mark up.  They blame the brewery and the price of the strong beer we turned down would seem to indicate this might be the case.  Arbor Breakfast Stout, all the way from Bristol and at 7.4%, a lot stronger, was exactly the same price. (No - they don't charge a standard price for beer.)  Nor was the beer, while absolutely fine, anything special to justify the price and certainly not as good as either the Outstanding Green Bullet or the First Chop DOC we'd enjoyed previously.

 Of course breweries will charge what the market will stand, as will pubs and good luck to them if they can do it, but for me, that was just too much, whoever is to blame.

We didn't get a duff pint at all on Saturday and most were absolutely top notch.  That at least was positive. Roosters The Italian Job confirms the steady rise back to excellence for this brewery.

Saturday, 19 July 2014


For those that don't know, Booths are a small, independent, supermarket chain based in Preston with around 29 stores.  The nearest to me is Media City in Salford.  Think of them as the Waitrose of Lancashire and you won't go far wrong.  They are noted among other things for their large and very varied beer selection which has most connoisseurs of bottle British beer, not only nodding their approval, but actively seeking them out.  I like them and make a point of popping in when I can, though more usually for their foodstuffs rather than beer. Still, I like beer too and while I don't drink beer at home that much, I was nonetheless grateful to receive three samples from Booths of their latest in house range.  Now I tend to leave beer descriptions to those that are adept at it, such as the Beer Nut and those who are not such as.... well, let's move on there, but last night, pre-thunderstorm seemed a good time to give them a try, sat out in the garden in the warmth and sunshine.  I also had the lovely E on hand to give here usual forthright views, so what could possibly go wrong?

First of all the labelling. Plain, striking and simple.  Full marks.  Beers descriptions actually told you useful things, rather than "Brewed from the finest malt and hops".  More plaudits.  We started off with Booths Summer Ale, brewed for them by the highly respected Ilkley Brewery at 4% abv.  The helpful label told us that it contained wheat as well as barley and was bottled by Holdens.  More praise here.  This geek didn't know Holdens had a wholesale bottling operation.  Well interesting to me, though E seemed less impressed funnily enough.  Right away E identified orange notes in the nose.  I agreed and the taste of Seville oranges throughout was very pleasing indeed.  It claims to be refreshing, though E thought it too bitter to be so.  It certainly wasn't a gulper, but to me the Frank Cooper marmalade notes were very attractive.  There was maybe just a hint of the promised peach, but neither of us could detect the label's passion fruit.  I don't doubt the dreaded crystal malt was there too, as a slight barley sugar note could be detected, but hey, Ilkley clearly know their stuff and it worked.  We'd both buy it.  Me in a heartbeat. I loved it and could see myself drinkuing two or three in a row with pleasure.

Next up was Booths Lemongrass Ale (also 4%), made by Lancaster Brewery and bottled by Robinson's in Stockport.  It promises "natural lemon and lemongrass".  There's always a difficulty in this kind of beer which to my mind tend to veer between toilet duck and lemon furniture polish.  E didn't like the nose or her first taste, but became a little more enthusiastic as she moved on through her glass.  She detected lemon sherbet and thought it rather woody from the lemongrass.  My own thoughts were rather sentimentally of the old Huntley and Palmer Lemon Puff in a badly done liquid form.  It had lemon and biscuity malt, buy sadly it didn't really work for me at all, though oddly, I liked it more, the more I had of it.  E concluded that it was like a "badly made shandy."  Funnily both of us would like to try it again, so pick the bones out of that.

Last, but by no means least was Black IPA, brewed by Hawkshead Brewery and bottled, oddly, by Agricola in East Yorkshire.  I love that.  Another new one on me.  Now this was almost guaranteed to divide opinion, E not being the biggest lover of dark beers.  She loved the piney resinous nose though, but the distinct roastiness wasn't to her taste, but it was right up my street.  Now here I have a dilemma.  It tasted to me of roast barley, but it could be a modified carafa.  I don't know
, but even less do I really know what the difference between this and a bitter stout might be.  I'd suggest if you changed the label, no bugger would know, or care, or shout foul.  Whatever, it was the kind of classy beer that you'd expect from Hawkshead.   I liked it and E didn't really.  I'd love to see it on cask form at a boozer near me. No real surprises there.

To conclude. Three beers, two great and one a bit of a puzzle.  Not so bad.  Well done Booths.

Tasting notes from me eh?  Whatever next?   My thanks to Booths for the samples.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Captain James Lang (Again)

This is by way of an update, so please read the background here and the initial post here first.  It all helps my stats and you, Dear Reader, to understand things.

Mum and I returned to the newly opened JDW, Captain James Lang in Dumbarton two days after our first trip.  Mum had offered to pay, so why not? (She didn't as usual!)  This time we were able to sit in one of the much coveted booths and see what was happening at the bar.  I didn't give the cask beer a go at first - once bitten -twice shy and all that - but had a couple of pints of St Mungo Lager from West Brewery in Glasgow.  Decent stuff, but perhaps they are being a bit fanciful to call it a cross between a Bavarian Helles and a North German Pilsner.  At least in my view, though I must try that as an experiment if I ever have the chance to cross pollinate the two.  Still, though as I said, it is good stuff.

I didn't see any cask being sold for a good while and then a guy asked for a pint of London Pride.  It looked clear and he supped it with obvious enjoyment, returning not many minutes later for another.  One or two more handpumps were now moving.  Things cask wise were clearly looking up.  I was deciding whether to plunge in, when I noticed a very tall guy at the bar, with shorts, a fleece top, a notebook and a mullet haircut.  Bugger me if it wasn't Timbo himself.  Tim Martin the boss man no less.  I went over and said "Tim Martin?"  "The same" quoth he amiably.  We had a brief chat where I filled him in on the lack of cask beer in Dumbarton over the years and he asked me what I thought of the place.  He was very pleasant and told me he'd been doing the rounds of some of his Scottish pubs and waved his bulging notebook at me "These are my observations" he boomed.  As I ordered my pint of St Mungo he added "I'll get that".  Splendid.  What a guy.

As I pointed him out to my Mum, he went off on an inspection.  I finished my pint and ordered a London Pride.  It was rather good as Pride goes.  There is hope as I suggested already and the staff were still trying hard.

I was very impressed that Tim was, sans entourage, going round his own pubs under what seemed to be his own steam.  Can't see many Chairmen doing that.  The photo is nicked from the web.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Teething Troubles

The long awaited JDW, The Captain James Lang, in Dumbarton has opened and a a fine place it is too.  The former Woolies has been transformed into a modern and comfortable pub with a long bar and eight handpumps (which is probably the most Dumbarton has ever seen) bringing cask ale back to the town.  Seating is a mixture of high and low tables, booths (which are popular and commandeered by twos in each case, though they'd fit four comfortably) and a beer garden with spectacular view of Levengrove Park, the River Leven and Dumbarton Rock.  It provides food up until eleven at night which brings the number of such pubs in Dumbarton doing so, up to.... err.... one.  On a Monday night when I rolled up with my old Mum, it was doing a roaring trade.

Now Dumbarton and cask ale are complete strangers to each other.  I ordered a pint of something from a Scottish Brewery (I can't remember which) and asked thr barman how the cask was doing.  "Flying out" quoth he.  My pint was disturbingly murky.  Not London Murky perhaps, but too murky for my liking.  It was also stale tasting and exchanged with a smile and apology for another pint of murk from a different handpump.  Hmm.  Third time lucky?  Doom Bar it was. Clear looking, so a result?  Not quite.  It was sour and acetic.  I ordered a gin and tonic and went back to my Mum, whose red wine was fine.

Meals next. A mixed result. Cremation of meat seems to be the order of the day.  My burger was just about OK though hardly succulent.  Mum's gammon steak had great potential.  Potential as an offensive weapon, or as a stone age axe head.  This was exchanged with apologies and later, unexpectedly, by a refund.  I took the opportunity to have a chat with the charming and helpful Duty Manager who put it all down  to teething problems.  I don't doubt it, but it didn't make for a great experience. It will be all right here though. Staff were absolutely fantastic.  Cheerful, helpful, doing their best and showing signs of being a good team. Mum enjoyed it too,  though I think it was more the red wine, the presence of her son and reminiscences of Woolworths. 

Don't worry Dumbarton. It will soon be sorted out, but please drink the cask before it goes off.

I didn't notice until my way out,  as it is tucked away to one side, but a bonus is West Brewery St Mungo on sale.  That'll be my tipple until the cask situation is sorted out and not a bad choice in any event.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Not Much to See Here. Move Along

I was alerted by @robsterowski through his blog that a new craft beer bar had opened in Glasgow and as I would be there, soon, I popped in when I arrived on Monday just gone. Handy for Glasgow Central Station, on Regent St, the Raven is operated by former brewer and now pub operator Maclay and is in the ex premises of a pub I believe to have been called the Bay Horse. Maybe.

 Walk in, bar to the left up a couple of steps (might have been two lots actually now I think of it) with toilets straight ahead and a bigger space off to the right which seemed more devoted to eating - pulled pork and other meaty stuff mainly. Reviews for this aspect have been very positive, but I wasn't there to eat. Three handpulls and a handfull of keg fonts had a fairly ordinary set of beers on and there was a decent but modest selection of bottles. I didn't fancy the cask offerings, so opted for a half of BrewDog Fake Lager, which was enjoyably better than I remember it. One "innovation" which I liked was sample trays of three, either cask or keg, with keg sold at a premium. The place is well enough done, with wood and chrome, matt walls and the like, but it felt to me like a corporate idea of what a craft beer bar majoring in food ought to be. It was generic, derivative and pretty uninteresting.

I doubt if it will set the craft beer scene in Glasgow alight, or if it was intended that it would, but given its location, I imagine it'll do well enough for those that just want decent pub food and good  beer in pleasant surroundings.  I'll guess too, that Mclays will happily settle for that.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

More Sharp Practice

Sometimes pubs just don't help themselves do they.? Fast on the heels of my previous post about warm glasses, I was out in Manchester with E and two friends discussing the finer points about next week's Munich trip. (Seems we'll drink some beer in beer kellers assuming the right weather).

We started off in Pie and Ale where the beer though excellently kept, wasn't to our taste on that occasion. No issue with that - it's just the luck of the draw. We had no plan,so adopted the simple expedient of going to the nearest good pub, in this case a bar. Five handpumps in front of us and three turned round. The  verycharming barmaid explained that nobody present knew how to change a cask, so if we came back in an hour, we'd have a full choice. This at six o'clock on a Friday evening. Really? We didn't fancy the strong beers on offer, so took her advice and returned later where a full array of beers sorted us out. But it isn't that good is it?

In the meantime we went to a much lauded craft ale bar. The cask beers were to our liking. I chose a pint of one and E a half of a different one. I saw some jiggery pokery going on under the bar however. I tiptoed higher and saw at once what was occurring. E's half had been poured to within a inch of the top from a full glass on the driptray and was being "brightened" by a a sparkler. The beer was warm and flat. I mentioned his sleight of hand to the barman. He said "I'd just poured the pint by mistake and didn't want to waste it." I said that it meant my wife had a poor drink because of it and was therefore paying for his mistake. He shrugged but didn't offer to replace it. I didn't want a fuss so said no more. You don't come to the pub for a confrontation as I've said before.E was unimpressed.

In the first case, not ensuring that staff know how to change beers is amateurish. In the second, it is just bad practice.  You don't make the customers pay for staff mistakes and if unwise enough to get caught doing so, you should apologise and sort it out.

I must be getting soft in my old age by not naming names, but maybe I can be persuaded if readers deem it essential.  There are clues in the text though.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Mixed Blessing

I had a pint with one of my local landlords at the weekend while visiting his pub.  I like to do this when I can, as it keeps me in touch with what's happening locally - essential for my day job as CAMRA Branch chairman.  I asked if the World Cup was helping trade and he pulled a face.  While he had 90 or so in his vault watching England on Thursday night, his thriving (but TV free) lounge and restaurant were more or less empty and his beer garden, on one of the most pleasant and warmest nights of the year had nary a soul in it.

The assembled horde in the vault supped plenty of beer, but overall, his trade on the day was well down.  This contrasted with when England played late - after normal usual closing time - when people could have their normal night out, then go home and watch the game, while as a bonus, the vault (the only part of the pub with TV), was again filled with extra custom.  We talked about whether he could have put TV in other areas of the pub for this four yearly event only, but although he considered it, the logistics, as well as the fact that it isn't what he is trying to achieve in his pub, ruled it out.  He felt it better overall to just take the hit on what will, sadly, turn out to be one night only.   He isn't expecting much from the last and meaningless England game either trade - or indeed football wise.  Overall the World Cup has, on balance,  been good for trade, but it has been a bit lumpy and certainly not a money spinner..

He wasn't pleased to see England go home early by any means, but it seems, life for some pub landlords at least, will be simpler now.

Lees new seasonal, Golden Peddler, is pretty decent too, assuming you actually want a beer to drink as opposed to beer as an intellectual exercise.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Reading Minds at the Bar

I'm at the bar in one of our local pubs with E who is sitting at a table.  The pub is early Friday night busy, which is just steady. There is no wait at the bar, desultory though the service is.  The order is a simple one.  A pint of MPA for me and a half of Original for E. My pint is poured and the barman reaches behind him to the shelf where the half pint glasses are stored.  I watch with interest.  Watching barstaff is one of my little hobbies.  Did I tell you I was trained by an expert?  Yes I think I did. Once or twice.  You never forget good habits if they are instilled in you from an early age. I've probably mentioned that too I suppose.

The barman clutches a glass.  He hesitates and I watch his mind wrestling with itself.  I know what's afoot instantly.  The glass is warm from the glasswasher.  I know what he is thinking.  He internalises the problem instantly and I see him putting the arguments to himself.  "This glass is hot.  Should I find another or just serve in it anyway ?" will be the gist.  The decision is made more or less at once. Inside his head he silently says "Fuck it".  The half is served in a warm glass, which I detect immediately by the simple expedient of putting my paw round it.  "You made the wrong decision there" I say.  The barman looks at me slightly uncomfortably.  "We both know that glass was too warm for the beer don't we?" I add. He says nothing, but pours the beer away, checks for a cold glass and serves me the beer.  I pay and say no more.

It cost JW Lees a half pint of beer though.  Will the lesson be learned?  I am not so sure.

Lees Golden Original Lager is an excellent beer.  I had a few pints of it (elsewhere) last night.  Tremendous stuff really.  Try it if you have the chance.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Princess of Prussia

I am not the biggest fan of the cask products of Shepherd Neame which I find harsh and samey.  I can't say the same about many of their non standard bottles though, which are quite the opposite. They are very good. Shep's should maybe look at putting some of them such as Brilliant Ale (which actually is) or Double Stout on cask, rather than the nondescript ones they do now.  Early Bird, Amber Ale, Late Red?  Just say no.  They taste the same as the usual ones.  Harsh and difficult to tell from each other. Be that as it may, I still like the nearest Shepherd Neame pub to my London flat and do go there.  You'd hardly be attracted by the prices though, expensive as it is, even by local standards which are scarcely cheap.  But I like the place. That's the thing about pubs.  It isn't just the beer. The Princess of Prussia is very pubby, with a good mixed clientèle and a nice feel to the place.  Distinct drinking areas, lots of dark wood for cosiness and a splendid, atmospheric, heated outside area at the back adds to its considerable attractiveness. It is pretty well run too and while I dislike the beer, I have never had a badly kept pint.

So, despite having tried repeatedly to like the cask offerings, I just can't, so generally end up drinking Oranjeboom, which in its original Dutch incarnation at least, is an all malt brew.  No obvious corn notes in the Shep's brewed stuff, so probably all malt here too (though I wouldn't bet my reputation on it ) and as I usually just have a quick couple of pints, while it's no great flavour experience, no harm done either.
All this rambling leads to the reason for this post.  The Princess of Prussia used to be a Truman's pub and bore some traces of its ancestry outside.  Recently the outside has been done up, with new tiling replacing old, broken stuff.  Doesn't it look great?

So, while I don't care for the cask beer, I do like the pub and Shep's sympathetic care of it.  Two out of three isn't bad.  Or is it?

Can't help thinking I'd enjoy Truman's Burton Brewed Pale and Old Ales better.  Stout and Mild would be nice too! Where's that time machine?

The Princess of Prussia is at 15 Prescot St, London E1 8AZ

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Just off Bethnal Green Rd

It's a funny old place is Bethnall Green Road.  You tend to think of it as the Krays and Cockney geezers, but you'd be far nearer the mark nowadays thinking of Karachi or some such, as the whole area seems to be one long tatty shop after another, so the whole feels like one long foreign market.  It isn't pretty. Trust me on that one. Be that as it may, there are pubs to be found, though often more in the sense of signs for former boozers, or a few very run down looking places which could just as easily be in a poor area of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford or Liverpool rather than wealthy London.  Emerging at the end of Bethnall Green Road, where we'd walked from our flat on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we were almost on our target.  Immediate left under the railway bridge and into Paradise Row.  A neat little row of terraces leads you to Mother Kelly's, in a railway arch, but not for once a brewery, but a bar.

It is a decent size with some benches out front, a stall selling fancified pig flesh of some sort, run by an incredibly hairy guy and two skinny women and inside a neat spacious place with more benches, fridges of exotic beers down the left wall and a long bar with keg taps at the back.  A non bearded barman greets us with a smile and a hello.  He offers tasters and good advice, all in a non condescending way.  He is very amiable and friendly.  We choose two two thirds. Me of wheat beer, E of lager, which shows clearly the limitations of this glass.  On a hot day, two gulps and there is almost nothing left of my beer, but hey, maybe that's just me. We take seats inside, as outside the few patrons practice the usual British policy of spreading themselves out to keep a space for six the domain of two.  But we don't mind - it's nice inside and we can look out through the wide open doors at the trees (look to the right for this, otherwise it is the back of a nondescript building).  We note that mercifully the music, playing at a sensible volume, is not techno beat, but something equally modern, without that drilling bass sound that makes you want to kill yourself, or, better,  the bastard that put it on.  Most of the men aren't bearded, which endears the place to me even more. We like it. 

Back to Bethnall Green Road and some history.  We pass the sign for the Ship.  A Watney's House, though there is no trace of the pub.  I look with interest at the few open pubs.  The Marquis of Cornwallis, the Star of Bethnall Green which I'd have liked to go in, rough though it looked, but E wouldn't. The Old George?  No. Not this time.  A new target for us was The King's Arms.  It is disconcerting to turn a few yards off the main road with its distinct Asian feel into posh London with neat streets and that gentrified feel which is almost unique to London.  The pub is majestic,  with its long floor to ceiling windows and a good feel inside.  The place though is more or less empty and the beer, ironically from Salford, is toasty warm. The cellarman is called.  He apologises and pours a new one which is much better.  He explains the beer lines aren't cooled to the point of dispense.  He and I both shake our heads at this.  Three casks, a few well chosen kegs, but it needed customers, though we did linger a while and one or two did wander in.  We like it and again we'll be back. But I'll make sure I'm not the first customer for a while.

We finish up in the Carpenter's Arms - or rather outside it.  Fairly good (but warmish) Adnams and with a nod to the East, a curry in Tayaabs which was, frankly disappointingly bland.  It seems it isn't what it used be.  A bit like Bethnall Green Road?

 Can I thank Matt Curtis for recommending both pubs, even if he thought I'd find cask free Mother Kelly's not to my taste. Mind you I wouldn't fancy it when it is heaving.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Brewing Velvet Pilsner Lager

I was brewing beer in London recently with Pilsner Urquell. Martyn Cornell has already set out the background and detail of why we were all gathered in the White Horse at Parson's Green here, so I urge you to read his blog first (good advice at any time - for example, his piece on supplying beer to the troops after D Day is superb).  He gives all the detail, so, keen on avoiding hard work as I am, I won't do it all again here.  Thanks Martyn.  I owe you a pint.

A quick recap though of the mission. In the upstairs room at the White Horse, six teams -  three a day over two days all to brew a lager beer based on the Pilsner Urquell recipe.  The aim is to tweak, or indeed utterly change the PU recipe and produce a beer to be judged later. The winning beer to be brewed commercially by Windsor and Eton Brewery.  So big stakes and a very serious brew-off punctuated by a lot of fun.  Throughout the day we had superb advice from Václav Berka PU Senior Brewmaster, Paddy Johnson of Windsor and Eton Brewery and from Greg Tucker, a taste psychologist, who was with us from the beginning and whose insight into tasting was for me one of the highlights of a day of highlights.  Think you know about taste? Think again.  He was brilliant both in content and delivery.

Now I'm no home brewer, but I like to think I know enough about the processes not to make a fool of myself, so our little team - thrust together absolutely randomly - first all determined that none of us were home brewers - or indeed any other kinds of brewers.  So we had an even non brewing playing field and hopefully not too many preconceptions. We had though all listened carefully to the pep talk by Václav and another by Paddy and fortunately all of us had taken the same main message out of it "Less is more."  We decided at that point that our recipe would be a tweak, not a complete re-write.

The water - brought from Pilsen was already being boiled - so we (Canadian Presenter and Filmmaker Nate Nolan, Norwegian writer Line Elise Svanevik from In a Pub Magazine (who incidentally sounded as Norwegian as I do), Neil Walker, Blogger and National Press Officer at CAMRA and me) started thinking about malt.  PU is brewed with 100% pilsner malt.  We decided that we wanted something with more mouthfeel, so we substituted some melanoidin malt and just a touch of Munich to again add richness and also to add a touch of colour which in PU is provided by triple decoction.  Not something we could do.  That decided, it was into the boil.  For those that like detail; 3.9kg Pilsner Malt, 325g Munich Malt and 75g Melanoidin Malt went in and a lot of hot and sticky stirring ensued.

The hops discussion was much livelier and longer lasting.  PU is hopped solely with Saaz, but after much sensual rubbing, sniffing, oohing and aahing, we decided on an all Czech hop bill.  Currying favour? Us? Certainly.  So we had 40g Saaz in the initial boil, 20g of Agnus five minutes from the end and 40g of Kazbek (which we all really loved) to provide aroma at flame out.  Sounds good?   We thought so.  We ended up more or less where we wanted to be with an OG of 1048.6.  21 litres in all.  The wort tasted good. Much as we'd hoped, with good bitterness under all the sweetness and distinct lemon and spice.  The worts were then chilled and the yeast pitched before being taken away to London Beer Labs for fermentation and lagering. 

Of course all breweries have to have a name and ours was Four Corners (as in the four different countries of the world our team hailed from) and the beer was named Velvet Pilsner after the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Everything had been thought of and we even had on hand a design artist who pulled together a remarkably good label from our very vague and unformed thoughts. Regrettably I didn't take a photo of that!

 The resulting beers will be bottled for judging in July.  I can't wait.  I'll be there biting my nails, but we are all quietly confident. 

 We were also treated to copious amounts of Tankovna unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, poured mainly by Václav himself.  It is a cracking, complex beer.  My thanks to Pilsner Urquell UK and to Mark Dredge for the invitation to a fascinating day.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Cooler Down London Way?

Regular readers will know that on average I find the temperature of cask beer sold in London pubs to be on the warm side.  Not slightly warm, but a lot too warm.  And no, I don't accept that there are regional preferences in this kind of thing, though there may be incorrect local flash backs to a byegone era in cellar practice.  Are things changing though?  I think they might just be. In some places at least.

There is, apart from preference for refreshment, a technical reason for this dislike of warm beer.  It is pure physics.  The amount of CO2 remaining in the beer after venting is inversely affected by temperature.  Colder beer equals more condition and warm beer means flat beer. Put simply CO2 is less soluble the more the temperature increases.  From me, the customer, there is nothing more vexing than coughing up the best part of four quid for a pint in London (or anywhere to be fair) and then finding it warm enough to poach an egg in.  It has made me on so many occasions just drink lager - and even that can be warm too sometimes, but not cask warm. Saddo that I am, now and then in a fit of zeal, I take out my Cask Marque temperature probe and check how warm my pint is.  I did that for the first day of my visit last week.  Naturally, prick I may be, but I don't want to be seen as such, so I do this surrepticiously.  I have standards you know. Low though they may be, but my intentions are to drive home the message. No warm cask beer please!

Now I usually name names, but this, with one exception,  I won't, but I will give you some useful pointers as to where things might be better.  The exception is the Euston Tap where my first London pint weighed in at a near perfect 11.2°C.  Yippee.  Other good news was to be found in two Nicolsons pubs, again more or less perfect and in JD Wetherspoon. (Almost never a problem there). So here's an immediate piece of advice.  You are likely (with exceptions) to get cooler and better kept beer in a chain or brewery pub that is managed, as Head Office will be keeping a close eye on beer orders, sales, wastage and customer complaints.*
In each pub I looked for a Cask Marque sign and if there was a problem I determined to bubble them to Cask Marque. After all, that is the name of their game.  I didn't need to, so great. Again with one exception, as of course into each life a little rain must fall.  One pub that shall remain nameless, sold  me my cask beer at an unacceptable 17.2°C and my lass's Budvar at 10.1°C.  Yes they had a Cask Marque plaque on the wall and it is by no means the first time,  so an email is being sent. Now this may seem petty, but I remind you of the price.  When you are charging someone £4 a pint or thereabouts, it needs to be served correctly and after all Cask Marque is meant to be a sign of beer quality.  That's why they exist. 

Let's leave warm beer to John Major's misty eyed reminiscing. Maybe the often poor state of cask in some places in London is one reason why craft keg is getting a decent hold. And why CAMRA's job is not yet done.

* In managed houses you are also likely to find beer python cooled to the point of dispense, a standard cellar practice folllowed and the cellar cooling temperature set correctly and remaining switched on.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Brew Britannia - Book Review

The early 1970s was a time when not only was British Beer at a nadir, but it was starting to be recognised as such and importantly, a few people were starting to do something about it.  The rather chummy, but none too serious Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) was giving way to a much more purposeful and aggressive organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale, which sent shock waves through the whole brewing industry and facilitated to a very large extent, the changes that moved British Brewing from one of homogenisation, to one of huge diversity.

This particularly British tale is engagingly tale is told in a pretty sure footed way by well known beer bloggers, Boak and Bailey,  in their first book, The Strange Rebirth of British Beer.  Although a history, this, in part at least, is a character driven book, because the fightback against the standardisation and bastardisation of British beer is one of individuals, operating singly, but all with a burning view that the bland, fizzy, weak, lookalike beers foisted on the public by the then big brewers, was something they were going to do something about, albeit in individual and unconnected ways. People like David Bruce with his chain of brewpubs, drinkers such as Christopher Hutt, whose book The Death of the English Pub was a clarion call to the British drinker that something was wrong and the four founders of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), are well known and rightly given their place, but the authors have delved into less known cases of early pioneers of beery diversity in the delightfully named chapter Lilacs Out of the Dead Land. Outposts of rebellion in places such as Selby in Yorkshire and Priddy in Wales are discussed, as is the case of Godsons, a new brewery and wholesaler who took London by storm long before the present crop of London brewers were born, though sadly, we are not told why "everything that could go wrong did."

Inevitably there had to be something that pulled all this together and the golden thread running through the early part of the narrative of change in the brewing landscape is the emergence and dominance of the Campaign for Real Ale.  Interviews with many CAMRA worthies bring this to life and for an old hand like me, the book reminds me that CAMRA was a much more swashbuckling organisation than it is now.   And quite possibly much more left wing.  It may not be intentional, but the book clearly illustrates that CAMRA took the feeling of "something wrong",  into a movement that not only annoyed the big brewers, but by campaigning against them and what they stood for, arguably, swept them into the dustbin of history.  For those unfamiliar with this history, the role that  CAMRA played might well be quite a revelation.

The emergence of a new wave of brewers and more importantly, beers and beer styles as well as the new wave of craft beer bars, is the sort of second half of the book, but here you feel the authors are somewhat less sure of themselves.  What about the current changes that in some ways mirror, or at least replicate the situation CAMRA found in the 1970s?  Is there a broad feeling that there is a need for step change around?  You get an idea there might be, but the book doesn't really go there. They do not get into the soul of what the new wave of craft brewers is about - no major interviews - though they do rightly identify BrewDog and Thornbridge as key players. They do make a more convincing job of bars, with an interesting delve into North Bar Leeds, which they postulate is a template for all yet to come and a fascinating reminder of Mash and Air in Manchester as well as others.  But overall there is a strong impression that not only are the writers more meticulous about the past, but the writing of this complicated history is where their main interest lies.  In fairness the emergence of the new "craft movement" is a muddled one and not yet fully formed.  Perhaps Boak and Bailey could let that one ferment for twenty years or so and then turn their skills to it? 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is clearly written, straightforward in style, captures the essence of the issues that faced British drinkers and what was then done about it.  The history is meticulously researched.  It is weaker in its second half, though this is redeemed by a skilful weaving (doubtless intentional and maybe in recognition of the relative weakness) of the past and present and is studded throughout with attractive stories and slightly bonkers people. One criticism is perhaps more about who wasn't interviewed as who was. Given the nature of the book, it might have been useful to seek the views of someone who was there throughout and is still there now, such as Tony Allen of Phoenix Brewery. There are no doubt others.  Of course in any book there are only so many characters that can be fitted in and they have in such luminaries as Brendan Dobbin and Sean Franklin, chosen some of the best.  Later inclusions though seem somewhat whimsical at times, such as the mention of the Campaign for Really Good Beer.  Perhaps the authors elliptically allude thereby to the somewhat feckless SPBW (for whom they seem to have an abiding fondness) and their "drinking club" status?

To this writer, where the book excels is in  the pulling together of  a non linear story of change into a narrative of characters, key people and events.  Those that are familiar with the story and those that are not and those that have even the most passing interest in British beer and brewing will equally find fascinating and educational. I would particularly recommend it to those that feel they are breaking new ground in brewing, drinking or being "different" or in a fancy bar with fancier prices.  While the characters, the pubs, bars and beers have changed, the principles haven't. This book tells you in an easy to read way, that to a large extent, it has all been done before.

If you wonder how we in the UK got where we are today beerwise, I recommend that you buy it.

Brew Britannia. The Strange Rebirth of British Beer is, as they say, available from all good bookshops and on line.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Giving The People What They Want?

BrewDog is asking their customers to give them it straight about their pubs. Oops. Bars.  Force of habit that. I is old.

That's a very good idea and doing it publicly is also good.  It is to be commended.  I don't know how long the consultation will last, but some of the comments have been very enlightening to this outside observer.  They (BD) are almost universally praised under "What do we rock at?" for their customer service and product knowledge.  Well ten out of ten for that I say.  My readers will know that I have yakked on about the lack of customer service in British pubs for years and it is heartening to see that one company takes it so seriously, that in a feedback survey, that's what shines through as being praiseworthy. If only more followed that example.

When it comes to the question "What could we be better at?" perhaps unsurprisingly there's a lot of complaints about high prices, lack of a decent food offering (or it running out) and importantly lack of a good BD brewed lager and critically for those that like a pint or two, lack of sessionable beers.  Food can be excused to some extent, because few of their bars are that large and kitchen space must be a problem.  I notice in any event that they have a new guy looking at this, so doubtless improvements are on the way here, so I think we can set this aside as it were.  A good lager though I'd have thought, is essential in any craft bar and I believe I recall James Watt agreeing it was a bit of a weakness when I visited the brewery a couple of months ago. Fake Lager may have an ironic name, but it seemingly isn't cutting the mustard with some customers at least.

The fact that there are complaints about so few sessionable beers being available can be combined with another recurring comment.  Quite a few respondents complained about the lack of cask beer, citing how good it was - a point I have made myself many times.  Trashy Blonde is remembered fondly by a few respondents. I remember others fondly too and have written about them in the past. No  sessionable beers and no cask is seen as a problem by many of BD's own customers - or at least those that can be bothered to comment.  I think we all know what the solution should be, but I somehow doubt if we'll see cask returning.  It doesn't suit the image.

Let's hope customer demand proves me wrong.

Funnily enough soft drink range and the non beer ranges in general were panned.  I haven't even noticed that.  My bad probably.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Return of a Legend. Dobbin's Yakima Grande Pale Ale

Readers of this blog may recall my admiration of one Brendan Dobbin, who some say, and I'm among them, pioneered artisanal "beer with a difference" in this country.  I first wrote about Brendan in this blog post dated 6th December 2010.  It was titled "The Start of the Revolution?". I urge you to read that post in conjunction with this one.  It deserved far more comments than it actually achieved and will set the scene for what I'm about to tell you.

Courtesy of my good friend John Clarke - also an early advocate and admirer of Mr D - I hear that the beer that made him a legend throughout the beery types of Manchester and far beyond, is set to return.  The beer is Yakima Grande Pale Ale and believe me, it is the stuff of legend.  It will be brewed by Conwy Brewery in North Wales, under licence, to the exact Dobbin recipe.  The man himself has been responsible for supply and set up of Conwy's new brewery in Llysfaen, where a new 25BBl brewery designed by Brendan, has been installed.  The beer, under the famous Dobbin brand, West Coast Brewing will, excitingly, use the original Dobbin yeast.  The letter, to John and his colleagues, is reproduced with his permission.

Hi John, Mark, and Phil, Please allow me to introduce myself my name is David Worsley, I am the sales representative for Conwy Brewery Ltd in North Wales and have been in the brewing industry for the last 46 years, with Hydes Anvil Brewery in Manchester and since 2012, with Conwy Brewery, I thought it might be nice to let you know that an old cask beer favourite will be returning to the North West of England in early June. As you may already know our wonderful cask ales are already a great favourite in and around the North West especially in Manchester, Stockport, Chorley, and Bolton, we have teamed up with Brendan Dobbin to produce this wonderful cask ale using his original recipe the Malt, Hops, and yeast strain, it will be sold under the West Coast Brewing Banner. Brendan was along with yourselves of course key to reviving cask beers in the 70s, 80s and early 90s with both his West Coast Brewing brand of cask beers and his Firkin Brewpub Chain and we were only too pleased when he assisted us in installing our new brewery equipment and allowing us to brew his beers under license through the West Coast Brand. We are positive this wonderful beer will be well received as it was over 20 years ago and I would ask you all to spread the word that Brendan s beers are back where they belong giving true cask beer drinkers a taste of the past brought to them from North Wales No 1 Brewery.

Details of this wonderful beer are as follows; Dobbins Yakima Grande Hoppy Pale Ale, ABV 5.0%, I am sure the good people of the North West will once again be very pleased with this unique cask beer.

I do hope you find the above of interest, but if you would like any more details or information on any of our beers or services, brewery tours also catered for, please do not hesitate to contact me.

For those that wish to try the beer, and there will be many I'm sure, John tells me that the beer, which is only being brewed tomorrow, will be available at Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, which runs from the 29th to 31st May at Edgeley Park Stockport.  John said "We have ordered two firkins for Stockport Beer & Cider Festival.  It may not arrive until the Wednesday so is unlikely to be on sale before Friday night or Saturday (so it has time to settle properly - there will be a programme note to that effect). 

So there you have it.  A chance to actually taste one of the beers that started the beer revolution in this country.  History recreated.  All roads lead to Stockport.

You really can't overstate Brendan's importance in British Brewing in the early 1980s.  I'm sure too, that Conwy Brewery, who know their stuff, will make a good fist of it.  I wrote about them here.  This development may also lead to more of Brendan's beers re-appearing too.  Yippee.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Lees Brewery, Middleton Junction, Manchester

After an early morning of short tempered exchanges on Twitter I needed some shopping.  I took these photos while waiting at traffic lights, to and from the supermarket.  The clock is wrong though, by two hours!

Hopefully nothing to argue about there.

Click the photos to enlarge.

Cask conditioning?  If it is all done in the brewery, I have one simple question.  How come there is so much badly kept  cask beer about?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Does This Look Nice?

Before I go further, I will declare an interest. I like Camden Town Brewery.  I would like them even more if they'd continued to brew excellent cask beers such as Inner City Green, but there you are. You can't have everything.  But I still like them a lot.  I drink their beers in London when I see them.

Yesterday they announced a new beer on Twitter and proudly showed a photo of it.  Given a couple of less than complimentary comments from me and @Robsterowski, they said that it was the photo looked bad, not the beer and replaced it with a better photo.  They seemed further surprised by another couple of tweets saying, again, that the beer still didn't look good. Or in fact, that it looked awful.  They then went off for a beer, no doubt shaking their heads with disbelief at such heretics.

Now I'm not the biggest fan of cloudy, soupy, beer as many of my readers will no doubt know*.  A bit of haze is fine and no, I don't include hefe weizen in this, the clue being in the name. Now some will just say "Fuck off Tandleman, you have form here".  And I do.  It's a fair cop Guv. But I still reckon this colloidal beer doesn't look in the least appealing, no matter how it subsequently tasted.**

If you want a bit of haziness, fine, but frankly, I don't even understand how they get finished (fully fermented and conditioned) beer this cloudy. Or more importantly, why you'd want to.

The beer is a Swedish Pale Ale called God Help Save the Elk. 

* Curmudgeon also talks about soupy beer here.

** I fully accept that your mileage may of course vary.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Can Canned?

There was a great deal of interest a few weeks ago when JD Wetherspoon launched in all of their pubs, a range of craft beer in cans from the well thought of Sixpoint Brewery in New York State.  Now it seems it all may be falling flat.
Canned beer to people of my generation is still a bit of a no no.  It reminds us of awful McEwans's Export and Tennent's Lager swigged in kitchens at parties, or on the bus or train on the way to the game. Those lucky enough to have escaped the dreaded Scottish duo will no doubt have your local equivalent thereof to shudder over. Many of us will still have dreadful flashbacks to our plooky youth, necking the stuff straight out of the can in public parks and feel these days are rightly behind us and the idea of paying top dollar for such a thing, beyond comperehension. In short, canned beer is still seen by many as a cheap and inferior product with a distinct metallic tinge, though we are assured that nowadays the internal coatings in cans stop that happening.  Folks like me saw, and to a large extent still see, cans as a transition product to pub drinking or at best, an occasional standby to give the less discerning visitor, or perhaps to surreptitiously neck in the privacy of our own living rooms when cash is short. Of course things move on and led  by our American friends, craft beer in cans is seen as trendy and fun and to prove the point, can be bought in many of the "new wave" bars around the country for outrageous prices.

In fairness, technology is on the side of the can fan.  Cans don't allow light in, which should ward off staling for much longer. The coatings inside prevent (as long as you decant it into a glass) the metallic taste and they are easier to chill and store for both consumer and retailer.  What's not to like in some ways and exponents of canned beer were very excited when JDW started selling them at two for a fiver in their pubs.  There was talk of a wonderful breakthrough into the mainstream and of the shattering of the high price craft beer model. "Canned beer is the future" type of thing. Heady stuff. Alas it seems that the JDW experiment (if that's what it is) is faltering.  They just aren't selling. In fact in many JDWs, you can now get all three of the variants for a five spot.  Quite a discount for genuine imported American beers.

So is it just that JDW is the wrong group to be selling the product, as their demographic would hardly seem to be best suited for it?  Is it the case that the beers, as some have suggested, are thin and piss poor?  Or are cans in mainstream pubs just something that won't sell?  Does it tell us anything at all about the likely success of canned craft beer?

I think it does. Canned craft beer will remain a niche within a niche.

I made this comment about the beers when they were launched:

They (JDW) try beers out and quietly drop them when demand doesn't meet expectations. You can probably expect that the availability of the new range will be reduced in many pubs if the beers don't sell, or, as in the past, they may just quietly be withdrawn. so maybe we best wait and see before getting too excited?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Forty Years in the GBG

The Good Beer Guide is, depending on your predilections either a worthless and outdated way of telling you where you'll find good real ale, or, on the other hand,  a vademecum, without which you'd never venture out of your home territory on an amber nectar seeking mission. Either way there is little doubt that pubs and breweries value their entry in it greatly and competition to gain entry is very fierce indeed.  It is therefore most unusual to have the same pub in it for forty years - just one short of the maximum possible - very rare indeed in fact, with around six others nationwide in the same enviable position.

Thus it was I was called to the Cross Keys in Uppermill to present a certificate to the current licensees to mark this milestone.  The Cross Keys is up a very steep hill from Uppermill Village and is owned by JW Lees.  Splendidly traditional, with stone flagged floors, it was built in 1745 on the Marsden Packhorse route over the Pennines and became a pub in 1763.  It sells rather a comprehensive range of Lees beers and in addition, is home to many different groups including the Oldham Mountain Rescue Team, a Ukelele Club and of course a folk music one. Really a traditional pub at the heart of its local community. The place was packed with CAMRA members, representatives of Lees Brewery and of course locals.  It was a very jolly scene on a lovely sunny afternoon.

In my speech I remarked that the award was a tribute not only to the current licensees, but those before them in the previous forty years. I pointed out how hard it is to get in the guide in the first place and the remarkable difficulty of persuading local members year after year of the case for entry.  I highlighted the importance to the community of such pubs and their service to local people.  It was one of those moments that makes being the Branch Chairman an absolute pleasure. It was equally pleasurable to talk to the licensees. That's essential if you are to do your CAMRA job properly.  I tried two beers.  Lees Brewer's Dark, a fine mild, was a rare treat in cask format and the seasonal, Hoptimist lived up to it name.

The beers were in superb condition.  I expected no less.

Lees kindly bought us all a pint. Cheers for that.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Clouding the Issue

I mentioned here my preview of the CAMRA AGM and Member's Weekend. It turned out pretty uncontroversial really and even the Great Leader remarked that the number of motions that formed debate this year was small, though he didn't mention the quality, perhaps allowing that to speak for itself.  The standard of debate nonetheless was high, with many talented speakers.  I didn't like Scarborough much the last two times I've been and didn't like it any better this time either. Torrential rain on Friday got us off to a wet start and the pubs were just a bit too ordinary on the whole.  The weather did improve though and I did have a superb curry and a lovely breakfast one day, but on the whole, I won't be looking back on it that fondly.  I can't recommend the Travelodge for the comfort of its beds, but can highly recommend the staff.  There's a tip for you.

My worries about Motion 11 were groundless.  It was misguided in a somewhat obscure way, but was otherwise well meant.  My Motion 9 was at least an interesting debate, despite it being defeated by almost 100 votes.  To say I was misrepresented is an understatement.  Despite making it clear that my concern was, that for cask beer,  lack of information about whether a beer on sale should or should not be cloudy or hazy, could lead to both confusion and malpractice.  I urged that the matter should be investigated to see if it was so and report back with findings and proposals.  I made it clear - no pun intended - that it was entirely up to the brewer if he or she wished to produce beers that were intentionally cloudy or hazy, but that confusion was not in the interest of real ale and could be detrimental.

Opposition came from Brass Castle Brewery who spoke almost entirely about themselves and their preference for unfined beer.  It was an impassioned piece of self advertisement, but nothing to do with the motion at all.   Roger Protz further muddied the waters - pun firmly intended - and gave a rousing speech about innovation being stifled and listed a load of stuff going into beers that make make them cloudy and how British brewing was at the cutting edge with young brewers leading the charge.  What I didn't pick up in my right of reply, but should have, is that almost certainly none of these beers he mentioned would be real ales or affected by what I proposed.  I did refute most of it in my second speech, but did not win out.  If you fail to get your arguments across, you lose.  That's democracy. I'll keep my eye on this subject though.

So what do we make of this?  I take the positive view that  CAMRA diehards attending the conference were convinced that my motion was an attack on innovation and "craft" beer.  They didn't want that.  Those that think CAMRA is stuck in the mud should take heart.  

I understand the Brass Castle only produce vegetarian (or maybe vegan) beers.  I also noted that some of the beers served at the CAMRA AGM were served with the warning "Hazy". Make of both what you will.

Friday, 25 April 2014


The CAMRA Member's Weekend and AGM is in Scarborough this year and I'll be off there later this morning. Let's hope for decent beer and sunny weather. This being the UK, neither is guaranteed of course. This year there is little to excite on the agenda, with only oblique references to craft beer and the rest seeming a bit stodgy really. This is a pity, though perhaps Motion 11 might throw up some controversy depending on the approach that is taken.  We'll see.


This Conference amends the key campaigns as recommended by the Policy Discussion Group on Campaigning Focus as they are not focused enough on the strengths of real ale, cider and perry over their non-real counterparts. These key campaigns must be updated by replacing generic references to beer with real ale, or adding suitable wording to encompass real ale, cider, and perry.

Proposed by Chelmsford & Mid-Essex Branch

If this is anti craft I'll likely be firmly opposing it. If it is just pro real ale I likely won't be.  We'll have to see.

Preceding this is one decent motion that might get things going a bit and which seems to me to make eminent sense. That's Motion 9.


This Conference is concerned about the increasing tendency for some cask ales to be brewed to be served hazy or cloudy and the potential for both confusion at the point of sale and the undermining of customer confidence in real ale. It therefore instructs the National Executive to examine the matter and report back to next year’s Conference with its findings and, if necessary, proposals to remedy or ameliorate the situation.

Proposed by Peter Alexander, seconded by Graham Donning  

These seem like a couple of sensible guys. I wonder what they'll say?  I'll let you know.

Sadly we'll be saying goodbye to our Chief Exec Mike Benner.  He is off to boss SIBA, so at least he is still in beer.  That's good.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

London Craft Moving North

Now I don't know Choice Restaurant and Bar in Manchester's Castlefield area, even though it has been around for over a dozen years.  It seems it is closing.  So what?  The interesting thing is that it will shortly re-open in what seems to be a joint venture with a London Craft Brewer.  Intriguing eh? I don't really know any more, but if you are interested, Manchester Confidential can tell you all about it here, though the identity of the brewer remains shrouded in mystery.

Owner Jon Grieves said  "Choice will be reinvented," he says. "A London-based craft beer company wants to move into the North West. We’re being brought into the brand to develop it."

Meantime seems to be heading the list of contenders, though I'd have thought it more of a Draft House kind of thing.  Anyone out there know? 

I also read that the concept will have to have some of the London taken out of it. Whatever that means.

Pub of the Year

Like most, if not all CAMRA Branches, we have a Pub of the Year (PoTY). Last time it was the Baum in Rochdale, which to its immense credit went on to win CAMRA's National Pub of the Year. A great accolade not just for them, but for our Branch too. Everyone got something out of that. It brought us great satisfaction,the town a lot of visitors and publicity and the Baum a lot of new business.

But things move on. This year we have a new Branch PoTY and despite it being selected by our members, I had never been there. A shocking admission for a Branch Chairman you may feel, but we have 582 pubs and oddly enough, I haven't been in them all, though maybe I should try to? It is a lot of pubs to look after and I sometimes envy smaller branches that get away with a couple of hundred. Or less. The Carrion Crow in Oldham is a locals pub. It is owned by Marstons and sells anything they can get their hands on from the entire Marstons range. This is a pretty good choice really, with beers from Banks, Jennings, Brakspear, Ringwood, Hobgoblin and of course Marstons themselves. With the amount of seasonal brews, as well as core ranges, this gives landlord Tony a lot to go at and when we called on Saturday, the display of pumpclips showed that he takes full advantage of the range. A couple of beer festivals a year adds to this as there is permission to buy guests from non Marstons breweries for these events.

With E in tow, we enjoyed the pub which is a simple open plan design with nooks and crannies to break it up. A cheerful bar with four handpulls will soon be augmented by two more.  Cask beer is selling. There was a hardcore sprinkling of locals in and we enjoyed their easy banter with each other and the way they slipped in and out, combining a drink with whatever other business they had outside. It reminded me a lot of my old local in Liverpool, which of course endeared it to me even more.   The landlord is very proud to have won the award as he has only been there three years and while he set out to build up the business, he feels he is ahead of his own schedule in doing so.  The brewery agrees and is so impressed it is doing a bit of a refit and makeover for him.

I'm looking forward to the presentation night on the 15th May, when the pub will be jumping and we'll get the local press along. Of course there are those that say CAMRA awards are meaningless. The Carrion Crow wouldn't agree.

I reckon some of the best beers in this group are coming out of Banks'. They seem to know what they are doing there.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Welcome Sign

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  So here is my picture from a warm Sunday.

The pub was heaving. Nice to see it trading well. 

We drank the place dry of Lees seasonal beer, Hoptimist, which is really rather nice stuff.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Less is More

Macclesfield.  There, I've said it.  What does it mean to you?  Nothing probably, unless you happen to be looking out of your Virgin train window going to and from Manchester on the London train, or, if you like, to and from London on the Manchester train.  Well there is that, but Macclesfield it isn't a bad place at all to go for a drink. Whisper it.  You can even get craft keg there. Mind you, it wasn't the lure of fizzy, expensive beer that took us there, but a visit to Red Willow Brewery, a brewery, which though probably not that well known out of its home area, is rather well thought of in these parts.  And deservedly so, with substance firmly pushing style aside.  Not that the beers aren't stylish.  They are.

Macc is rather an odd mixture of really nice and really not that nice.  The Red Willow Brewery is in a Victorian part of the town in a very old and rather worn looking set of brick buildings housing other small businesses.  Red Willow is squeezed in there somehow, with every inch of the brewery crammed with kit.  Amazingly, it is expanding, though as owner Toby McKenzie told us, it was a bit of a job to work out where it could all go. We could see what he meant.  Naturally there was beer and as Toby discussed how he had set up the business and what his ideas and plans were, he gave us free reign of several stillaged and handpumped beers, as well as the opportunity to sample beers straight from the conditioning tanks. Great stuff. All his beers end in "less" and I really enjoyed the pale and hoppy Headless and, despite my general dislike of smoked beers, Smokeless, which is deliciously drinkable and only subtly smoked.  Great for those like me that find too much smoke, er, too much.

Toby is an interesting guy and as we know each other a little, we talked about the beer scene in general and craft keg.  Interestingly our discussion took place as we gazed upon his supplies of keykegs and keg beers for his own pub, more of which in a moment.  We didn't disagree on much and had a good discussion about keykegs, which Toby sees as having rather limited future as one way use metal kegs become more prevalent and cheaper (it is always an annoyance to me that publicans apply GSP to a container rather than just the content but that's an aside and a complicated one at that.)  It was a good trip to a good brewery with a brewer that knows exactly what he is about.

After an all too brief tour round some of Macclesfield's pubs, including the Waters Green Tavern - OK - but not much more to my mind, the Castle, with a interior in the National Inventory of historic pub interiors with excellent beer and rather odd Polish grub and the small, friendly, modern and rather excellent Treacle Tap, we ended up in the Red Willow owned and operated by Red Willow Brewery and only open for a few months.  We bumped  into Toby again who was keen to show me his rather excellent cellar and afterwards talk me through the way the pub looks, which is really rather splendid in fact.  The building is an ex furniture showroom, the bar is long and well stocked with both cask and keg beers, most of which aren't from Red Willow, but many of course are. That isn't a hardship as the beers are great.  All are displayed on a flat screen TV so you don't have to ask what's on, or elbow those at the bar aside to have a look for yourself. Furniture is a mix of sofas, chairs and tables which all work remarkably well.  It is highly recommended and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.  I think it fair to say we were sorry to have to leave.

Sitting on the coach on the way back to Manchester, I reflected that despite the success of the brewery, having its own pub,  must be a huge bonus for any small brewer,despite the expense and hassle of setting it up in the first place. A guaranteed outlet, especially one as well thought out and well run as this one, while not exactly a "must" is surely well worth thinking about for many a small brewery?  

Bonus.  At long last I had a beer from Arbor that I actually liked.  The Mild West was superb. I should also add that lack of time meant several recommended pubs had to be missed out. Finally, how do the prices grab you?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Creating Demand

I was in Scotland last week and as always I try and observe the beer scene there, remote though I am from it.  I usually pop into three pubs for a half or two on the way to or back from Dumbarton.  I've written about the Drum and Monkey (part of the Nicolson's chain) before and it does a good job of presenting interesting beer in good nick, though a glance around the pub shows as many, if not more supping Tennent's Lager.  When I called last week they had a "Beer Festival" on and the approach of a few well chosen beers isn't a bad one at all.

Nearby on the way to Queen Street Station are two Wetherspoons.  The Counting House is a huge and impressive ex banking hall and is interesting for that and while the range of beers is expansive, I have never really found it that good quality wise, though it has improved.  My CAMRA colleagues from Glasgow say it is on the up, but it is in and out of the Good Beer Guide(currently in) indicating an ambivalence at best.  Nearby - across the road in fact - the smaller Camperdown Place has a smaller, but probably better chosen range and the beer is always good.  I do tend though to spend a fair bit of time in both watching what people drink in there and gratifyingly, there is a fair bit of real ale sold.  You simply can't deny that without JDW there would be a lot less cask beer drunk in what remains a lager stronghold. Then again, the West of Scotland always has been a lager stronghold, so perhaps that is all the more remarkable.

My home town has no real ale outlets.  Yet.  I was reminded forcibly of this when out with my old mother. Tennent's Lager which is ubiquitous, has no discernible taste other than carbonic acid, but is everywhere.  Smooth beer (Belhaven usually) and Stella complete the range.  Bottles? Yes. Becks or Corona.  The thriving real ale scene in Scotland is actually very small and is hard to find, other than in its key strongholds such as Edinburgh. So where is this going?  I was in Helensburgh meeting an old friend.  Helensburgh is a posher and slightly less depressed place than my home town, with a fair sprinkling of people from rUK.  Well, England really. Some are Royal Navy from the huge Faslane base and many just live there for reasons of business or perhaps a liking for wind and rain.  The local JDW, the Henry Bell, was selling a lot of real ale.  I chatted to the manager who was worried they'd run out of festival beers.  Quality was good and she said that there was no problem selling cask, though of course, she still sold more Tennents. Oh well, but the point is that where there is a constant availability and choice of real ale, it not only turns over, but it sells.

Back in Dumbarton I looked at the new JDW being built. It is the old Woolies I remember so well from my childhood and of course it will sell real ale. Now Dumbarton is a lot harder a nut to crack.  I remember the Cutty Sark trying it years ago and the many pints of vinegar I was offered,  but if I'm right, real ale will gradually gain a toe hold here.   Even in depressed Clyde Coast Towns, beer isn't cheap and I have no doubt that in the Henry Bell, many will have gone for cask on price, but they wouldn't stick with it if they didn't like it.  So keen pricing in the new Captain James Lang will be a key factor, but it will be the constant availability and commitment that will slowly raise sales.

I'll be back in Dumbarton in July about a month after the new JDW opens.  I await it with great interest as it will bring cask beer back to a real ale desert. That to me is a good thing.

Of course JDW haters will think that a lot of bollocks, but they have a choice usually.  It will mean that there will be food available until ten at night.  That's good too. Pubs in the town are already complaining.  They'll really have to up their game.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Come On Feel the Noize

Being old, I remember this Slade number and used to enjoy it a lot. I still do.  What I do not enjoy though is being blasted my modern techno music in an ordinary pub at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. And when I say blasted, I mean it.  You couldn't hear a bloody word.

Saturday before last, after watching a friend perform at the Friends Meeting House, four of us were heading for a meal pre booked in central Manchester.  We had 45 minutes to spare, so a pint seemed a good idea.  Being near Holt's refurbished Ape and Apple, I suggested there.  The Ape and Apple used to be a fairly traditional boozer with a mixed clientele, mostly on the more mature side.  It was younger as a pub than it looked, but the sort of solid, dark wooded place you associate with Joeys. It was the venue of the Gasman's Annual Piss Up of which I wrote here and of their monthly meetings too.

Now the Gasmen don't meet there any more.  It changed and not for the better it seems.  I forgot this and when entering, observed it had been tarted up in a cheap way to look brighter, but not nicer, but it was packed, so no doubt had achieved its financial purpose, though it was rarely quiet before.  There was no music on when we entered, so we made our way to the bar and then the "music" started.  My friend was ordering and had to repeat himself before the barman could make out what he was saying.  We retreated to near the door, but conversation was impossible, so we supped up as quickly as we could and left. There wasn't a seat to be had in the place incidentally. So I guess it says as much about us as those who chose to stay and suffer it.

I tweeted Holts who promptly replied that I could have requested they "turn it down a notch".  I replied it needed many notches turning down and that I didn't go out of an afternoon to engage in a discussion about too much music noise that was unlikely to end well and that it simply shouldn't have been like that in the first place.  I also said I wouldn't be back and I won't be. Music in pubs is divisive, but this was in excess by any standard. and given the time of day, the clientèle and the type of music, completely inappropriate.

The Mild was "off" too.  Unsurprisingly. It wouldn't have been in the Gasmen days.

Now even if it had been Slade I wouldn't have stayed such was the volume, but it was the electronically produced stuff with a repeated base - like someone continually knocking on your head with a polisman's baton.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

What's in a Name?

One of the things I quite like about Wetherspoon is that in the main they name their pubs after some local aspect.  In the case of my adoptive town Middleton, the JDW is the Harbord Harbord after the landowner that gave the land to the town where the main street was then built and where the pub now stands.  Mind you it is such an ugly name that nobody calls it that.  As a matter of fact good old HH later became Lord Suffield and that would probably have tripped off the tongue a lot better, though no doubt it would still be called Wetherspoons.

Now in my actual home town of Dumbarton I learn that the long awaited Wetherspoon (long awaited by me as it will bring real ale back to the town) will be called the Captain James Lang.  "Who?" I thought.  Despite living there until I was 25, I'd never heard of him and had kind of thought that the pub would likely be called the Peter Denny after the famous shipbuilder of that name.  For those that don't know it - and I'm assuming all my readers here - Denny's was synonymous with Dumbarton and its decline as a town can clearly (in my view) be traced back to the fateful day in 1963 when William Denny and Bros closed.  This is an event I remember, as my father who died that year, took me to see the final ship (MV Melbrook) being built at Dennys in 1962. I can picture it yet in my mind's eye, much as I can the bright blue and orange plexiglassed Denny Hovercraft, which sat across from the closed Leven Shipyard, in McAllister's Boatyard, long after the yard closed.  As kids we used to clamber all over it until being chased away with a swift kick up the arse.  I wonder what happened to it?  Denny's also built Mersey ferries including the well known Royal Iris. Most famously of all was that it was Denny that completed the Cutty Sark in 1869.  I wonder what happened to that?

So who was Captain James Lang?  Well it seems he was a well known captain in the town in the early 1800s. According to Wikipedia,  "He was born in Dumbarton in 1805, and was educated there. James became a law clerk in the Town Clerk's office, but he later served on the town's steamers. In 1830, he became the captain of one of the Dumbarton Steamboat Company's vessels. He commanded, in succession, the "Dumbarton", the "Leven", the "Prince Albert", the "Lochlomond", and the "Queen". Contemporary accounts show that he was irreproachable in character, a man of good morals". Like me really.

I did think of suggesting to JDW that the pub be called the Peter Denny, but I didn't.  So it serves me right that they didn't pick it.   I suppose Captain James Lang will have to do.

There is also a pub on Dumbarton's High St called the Cutty Sark.  It sold cask beer in awful condition around ten years ago.  Or more.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Are Things Looking Up?

As part of my "job" as local CAMRA Chairman, I like to keep in touch with my local publicans.  It makes us relevant and talking their language, listening and seeking their views is never a bad thing. So when I deliver our local CAMRA magazine it gives me the opportunity to have a chat to licensees. Most are keen to bend my ear about the shortcomings of their pub companies or breweries, or to impart gossip and sometimes, good news.  I've spoken to five in the last few days and you know what?  All of them, in brewery tied houses, are feeling very upbeat indeed and the pubs are trading well.  One recurring theme though is the issue of business rates.  This was forcibly and plainly stated by one landlord, whose business rates cost him more than his rent.  He was also at pains to point out  "And I get fuck all for it", complaining that he has still has to pay a private company to get his bins emptied.

I looked this up and indeed this is true, as indicated by this rathern unconvincing explanation from HMG; "Your rates are not a payment for specific services but are a contribution from businesses towards all of the services provided by the Council for the community, such as local transport, education and housing, all of which indirectly benefit businesses in the area."  I'm not sure businesses would take that view. It does seem a tad unfair that a local tax provides no direct benefit to those on whom it is imposed and small wonder it is a source of indignation to say the least.  Nor that businesses are campaigning to have the system reformed.  So much is talked about pub rents, but in these cases at least, the local council are seen to be putting the knife in.

Putting that aside though, it was pleasing indeed that these publicans were optimistic and upbeat and while this area has had a major shake out of pubs in recent years, maybe those good enough to survive are doing better than I had previously thought.  It was also pleasing to observe for myself, that in the pubs I visited, three were going like a fair and two, despite it being quiet times had a pleasant sprinklng of customers. In all cases the beer was good too.

Could it be that as things stabilise in some well run pub companies and breweries, that the focus shifts to unfair local taxes?

I was also pleased to find warm feelings towards CAMRA too. Maybe not typical everywhere, but if you put the work in, it gets rewards.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

More Craft Confusion

It is a rich seam this craft. I haven't finished mining it yet, but one thing is for sure, I'm slowly but surely coming round to a different way of thinking about it.  Not quite at the @Robsterowski end of the spectrum (Craft is meaningless and all its adherents need to agree to re-education or die), but moving towards being a lot more cynical about it in small, faltering steps. The usually dependable Morning Advertiser illustrates that neatly, with a confusing article.  I wonder if it has been edited in such a way that it ended up not making a lot of sense, or if when it was written it didn't.  Or, if the market research company provided a poor synopsis which was simply copied?  

So, basically we have a Market Research company alleging that publicans aren't talking the same language as their customers when it comes to providing what customers want.  The MR company (!im) - phoned 500 customers and then 300 publicans and asked a series of questions about pubs, why people go and what they expect when they get there. So far, so good.  "It's the Offer Stupid" as I keep saying, so you aren't likely to find me disagreeing, provided I understand what was asked and what was answered. But I don't really.

Food is fairly straightforward and while percentages vary, both publicans and customers at least have the same hymn sheet in their hand as they sing the song.  Drinks are more puzzling.  Customers (43%) want locally sourced.  Hmm. What? Wine and spirits? Can't be. Soft drinks? Unlikely. So it must be beer musn't it?  They also want British, but the article doesn't tell us what the publicans think of that. Seemingly 33% also want craft beers, while only 22% of publicans see this as a priority, though 19% promote craft cider.  (Be good to know what that is? Industrial alcohol, water and flavouring perhaps?)  69% of publicans give real ale a priority, but what customers think of that, we aren't told. But remember, customers want British and local.  Big real ale tick I assume then?  Or is it British craft they want?  Or do they think real ale is craft, or some other combination. We aren't told sadly, though I find the craft percentage interesting.

Either way this is poorly presented and may well have provided useful insights if it hadn't been. Pity that.

I thought !him might have this survey on their webbie, but I can't find a trace of them.  Stop Press.  Yes I can.  They are in fact called "Him!"  assuming it is them.  More bollocks from the MA, but their client list is interesting.