Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Live From MBCF


Or the "Big Cold One" as it is now.  This is the first of a number of posts live from Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. If I have time of course.

Today is day three of set up and it is starting to look like a beer festival. The bars are mostly built, the beer is all up, cooling is starting to flow and there are fewer of the myriad of jobs left to do.  The odd thing is that it is the little things that take time such as signage, pricing and cask end cards and many more - such that these are the things you suddenly run out of time on. The food stalls have started to arrive led by the Crusty Pie Company, familiar to anyone who has experienced GBBF. The various brewery bars are being built, keg walls being set up, containers being shunted into cold stores and bottle fridges put in place. Foreign beers have arrived, the foyer is coming together and the cider lads have started grading the cider.  Now Cider grading is a mysterious tasting ritual driven no doubt by the need to ensure the cider producer knows what he or she is talking about when they describe the appley delight as dry, medium or sweet and points in between of course. I am assured that it is nothing to do with getting a head start on the supping.

I have been busy with various stuff including Health and Safety and a load of more mundane items as well as spending time with a university student who is studying Event Management. She seemed impressed by the scale of things. It is a big place.  Oddly she doesn't drink beer but says she is looking forward to trying some to see if we can change here mind.

We'll try and that reminds me. The membership stand is setting up too!

The photo shows the festival from the inside. Literally. Behind some of the many bars.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Sticking to the Knitting


Being a moaning man I've mentioned that over the festive period I've not been well. I'm still not 100% and one of the casualties in this has been beer. In the last four weeks I haven't really felt like drinking any and on the few occasions times I did, the after effects knocked eight bells out of me.  Not that I got particularly pissed or ill, but it made me even less inclined to have some the next day.  Fortunately that's receding.

Now I may have mentioned my local brewer is JW Lees. Or have I? Maybe  not. Well it is - or they are -  and it is that brewery that has provided me with liquid sustenance on the times when I felt like a beer and on Sundays when I went to my local to meet my friends even when I didn't fancy it.  Man does not live by Lemsip (or generic equivalent alone.)  Now I like Lees beer. Frankly, living where I do, if you don't like Lees then get out of town and while I have my ups and downs with the output - and who doesn't - over all the years I've lived here, despite my nearness to Manchester, it is still Lees I sup mostly. I'd guess these days around 4 in every 5 pints is one of John Willies. It is rarely a hardship.

Fortunately Lees Bitter is going through a bit of a purple patch. The beer is clean, bitter-sweet and moreish.  I had a couple of pints with Paul Wood, Lees Brewhouse Manager who lives near me last week and when I remarked that everyone was praising the beer at the moment, he replied that "the yeast is behaving itself". That apparently is the real secret. If the yeast is being a good lad, then your beer, if all other processes are followed precisely, will be as you intend. That bitter interspersed with the seasonal Plum Pudding - a brilliant incarnation of a perennial favourite - has sustained me, throughout my feeling unwell.  That and being in the company of people I know in my local and one or two others - all Lees pubs - where I do most of my supping. Much is said about wonderful micros, but when you just need good beer and good cheer, traditional breweries and their pubs have a lot going for them.  Their commitment and passion is every bit as strong as the feistiest new brewer and when you want to swoop a few well made, easy drinking beers, then there is little better.

At this year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival there will be an Independent Family Brewer's of Britain Bar. I'm not sure how many we have, but certainly around 20. Don't overlook them amongst all the exotics and you know there may even be a surprise or two.

One surprise is cask conditioned Lees Harvest Ale, a cheeky little 11% number which is a bit of a cult beer in the USA. It is nearly always bottled, so a lot of a coup.

We'll also have Cloudwater's last cask production too. That might be a bit of a draw as well.

The photo is of course of JW Lees himself. John Willie to his friends. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Too Many Breweries?



Amid all the heat generated by Cloudwater's decision to abandon cask beer, one or two key points started to emerge. Firstly there was a not wholly - well maybe by no means - accepted allegation that certain brewers cannot make money out of selling cask beer and a secondary and sort of glossed over one that links to it, is that there are too many breweries seeking too few accounts.

Now let's start with the first one and its ancillary argument that cask beer is more expensive to produce. Well that does kind of fly in the face of what has been going on since keg beer was invented. Since that point, keg beer  - or rather brewery conditioned beer - whether it be from kegs or tanks has always been more expensive. Where the two are sold side by side keg beer is always more expensive. If it is proprietary lager or a national brand, it has always been more expensive and it still is.  Who can doubt that?  Just go into any pub and see for yourself.  I don't intend to go into the many variables that change that for individual breweries, but these will include, ingredients, kit, how tight the operation is run on one side and on the other side, to whom and where he or she sells their beer and for how much. Neither list is exhaustive.  Is there a degree of tradition in this? A kind of hangover from the past? I sort of doubt it. Keg beer was more expensive when we had the big six brewers and they didn't do that for no good reason. It simply cost them more to make it.  It is only traditional in the sense that it has always been like that - but for a good reason.

Does that still apply nowadays? Well yes it does and some reckon it shouldn't.  The argument goes roughly "if cask is a premium products, then why doesn't it command a higher price?"  Superficially one might agree, but it doesn't take long to demolish the argument. Cask beer per se isn't a premium product though some cask undoubtedly is. Some is more or less commodity and some is in between. Also there is no guarantee that what you buy will be sold in the sort of condition that would command a supplement. (In fact a lot of keg beer on presentation alone, shouldn't command a premium either but that's a different argument.) Cask beer is a much more perishable product than keg. It has to be "priced to go". If you want to see the argument taken apart, read this from Phil's Blog.  Special pleading by breweries who reckon their operation is different/ better/more exclusive don't cut much ice with Phil or indeed me.  This kind of sums it up for me: " Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that I should be able to make cask beer in precisely the way I want to, and that this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer, and that the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. Not because they’re evil or selfish or brainwashed, but because that’s how selling stuff in a free market, and the rationality the market is based on, work."

I'd contend that is a persuasive point and that attempts to artificially raise the price of cask beer are doomed to failure. Thus it is that certain breweries look for a way round this by using their capacity to produce higher margin keg or - even better - small package beer - as this market is far less congested and margins still exist. This has legs - in the short term at least - as this is a less congested market. 

So back to the other side of this which is alleged over supply is pushing prices down.  There must be a degree of truth in this, but there are several flies in this ointment.  Even if we shake out some breweries, we can't guarantee to shake out the right ones. You only need to read Dave Bailey's Blog here to understand that isn't likely to happen. Nobody would suggest Dave is a bad brewer, but he is seemingly in a bad place. In the meantime, all the hobby brewers, regionals and nationals will undercut him and others. With nearly 2000 breweries, just how many would need to go to make the market a better place? Even if a third went, would that guarantee anything? I doubt it.  On the keg side there are uncomfortable times ahead. The big boys, using the craft beer companies that they have purchased are sniffing around. The multi nationals are loan tying lines left, right and centre. Strikes me things will get worse unless you really know your business, your market and your customers. One thing is sure. If you don't have a reputation for great beer, you are likely to be in trouble of some kind. Sadly, even if you do have such a reputation, there is no guarantee you'll survive.

Are there too many breweries? Probably. Would many fewer solve the underlying problems of brewing beer profitably in the UK? Probably not.  Beer wise, we live in interesting times.

As I started to write this, I realised I was tying myself in knots, so this is a truncated version just to get the main points across.

Please take the survey which is simple enough. I was going to do a binary choice of yes/no until I realised I don't really know myself.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Nothing Much to See Here. Move Along



I was woken yesterday by a tweet from a branch member to advise me that Manchester's Cloudwater Brewery was to cease brewing cask beer. Now my first thoughts were "Oh. Not sure I like that", but reading Paul Jones piece about why they came to this conclusion, I started to see the simple truth, varnished though it was by the usual red herrings about low prices, bloody CAMRA and poor cellarmanship. "We took the decision to make more money from the same production and had to really, as we don't make a profit currently".  My paraphrase, but who can blame them then? Certainly not me. A brewery has to make money and when you have limited capacity and bills to pay, using tank space for a low margin products when you can small package and keg beers for the same effort and make lots more money on them - then you can see the point - while not necessarily agreeing with some of the supporting "evidence."

Matt Curtis and Ed Ray (and maybe others) have given their thoughts on this and you can take your pick which one you go along with. Matt takes the view that it is mostly down to low prices commanded by cask beer in the trade and a more questionable claim that cloudy cask beer produced by Cloudwater is also a factor. (For my part most cask I have had from Cloudwater has been perfectly clear, but opacity is a divisive factor that inhibits some modern producers of cask beer. There is a resistance to non clear cask beer - rightly in my view -  so only one point deducted there.)  Matt's other point about pricing and discounting is true and he blames drinkers for this. I am not so sure that this stands up to scrutiny though, as discounting is driven by the sheer number of cask brewers - nearly 2000 - competing in a diminishing pool and having the advantage of progressive beer duty.  Publicans often buy on price alone and if the beer is no good, then there are plenty more to choose from. I'd contend that the punter is the victim of this discounting, not the source of it. Prices are dictated by what the pubs charge in a competitive market. The customer has little say at all and often has to endure some bloody awful beers.

Ed points out a couple of things in Paul's statement that he disagrees with. Firstly on price of cask beer and secondly on the notion that somehow it is CAMRA's fault. This idea that CAMRA demands cheap beer is a pernicious one, but it simply isn't true.  Many CAMRA members, like many other people are price concious and why shouldn't they be if living on a fixed income in retirement as many do? But it isn't some kind of edict from CAMRA Central and anyway, CAMRA members have much less influence on the trade that many imply.  Ed concludes "let's face it, this side of libertarian communism you can't get away from the need to make money."  Can't argue with that any more than "if you haven't got the money, you can't buy expensive beer." (My quote not Ed's).

I have a couple of points of my own to make. Firstly the business model set up by the brewery has not proved robust enough to sustain the brewery going forward. After a couple of years it  has had to be reviewed and changed. 23% of Cloudwater's capacity is cask beer, falling from 45% in their first year. Already it is clear that the switch away from cask though isn't to keg, but small package - cans in this case.  Keg production will remain roughly the same, so cask is being replaced by the most profitable part of brewing. Shrewd move if you can sell it.

Another point I'd mention is that while the Americanisation of some of the modern British Brewing sector has brought many benefits, it has also introduced to some extent, overheads and risks. It is expensive to tie up strong beer in wood. It is expensive to have a team of brewers playing around with recipes, it is expensive to spend time on collaborations, tap takeovers, Meet the Brewer and messing about with other brewing pals. Constant "innovation" is costly too.  Maybe these aren't luxuries or nice to haves in that niche, but it certainly carries risk and relies on gaining a place in the market amongst other breweries doing the same thing. It also relies on the willingness of the public to pay for these things in higher prices. There is still in the UK  a narrow appetite for fancy and limited beer releases as Paul bemoans in his piece.  Maybe we'll never queue for hours in the UK for such delights?  The UK isn't the US - and sometimes that has to be remembered.

So to sum up, Cloudwater want to leave a low return, thankless cask market for a fun, innovative and much more profitable sector of brewing. A less "All things to all men approach". We shouldn't moan or blame them. For them it is clearly the right decision. Even if some of the supporting arguments, aren't 100% persuasive, the money one is.  Fortunately there are plenty of smashing cask breweries to replace them. Of the 2000 breweries in the UK, I'd guess 95% brew cask beer.  It is business that's all and the gap will be filled imperceptibly.  It isn't the end of cask conditioned beer, or even the beginning of the end. The way you make money from cask is to distribute fairly locally, keep a tight grip of costs, gain a good reputation and stick to your knitting. Plenty know that and will succeed.

Paul Jones says "Cask beer should take pride of place in every bar and pub". He is right and equally he has every right to say - though he doesn't, "but sadly, it won't be our cask beer."  He isn't announcing the death knell of cask beer. He is just doing the right thing for his business, that's all.  Nothing wrong with that.

If my maths is right then Cloudwater sold on average 56 nines of cask beer a week.  Not a huge figure and slack that will easily be taken up.

There are however lessons to be learned, the main one being that in some cases, the most highly thought of modern breweries won't produce cask.  Maybe they just can't in the kind of world they inhabit.  Maybe they just don't get it due to American influence?

I'll also add that both Ed and Matt make valid cases. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Going Dutch


The news that Heineken is buying most of the tied pub estate of Punch Taverns has been written about on one hand as a great and confident nod to the future of the British pub and by by others as the return of the pre Beer Orders beer world.  Is either position really the case?

Ẁith the addition of 1900 pubs to its existing 1100 or so, soon Heineken will control over 3000 pubs and will apply, I assume, their rules to their new tenants. This will allow the tenants (in theory) access to a maximum of 176 cask beers, mainly chosen from big brewers.  On the contrary, one of the good things about Punch in their latter days was the ability of its tenants to buy from far and wide, mainly through SIBA, though of course, Punch did apply their mark-up to the end product invoice. This allowed access to hundreds of beers. Jeff Bell describes the process here for those interested in it.  As far as I know, Star Inns and Bars (Heineken's pub arm), allow no such flexibility. Indeed their tenants in my area tell me that far from being allowed access to the whole Heineken list, there is usually a much smaller list from which they must choose and requests for access to the bigger list, imperfect though it is,  are stonewalled by area managers.  One must assume that is done on grounds of profit, by Heineken purchasing and selling large volumes of a small amount of brands, led of course by their wholly owned offshoot, Caledonian Brewery.  It puts Star Inns and Bars tenants at a considerable disadvantage over rivals who are not so hidebound.

Now the Beer Orders have been long since revoked and funnily enough, Punch were in the process of really cleaning their act up - a process presumably approved of by Heineken, as they have stumped up £305 million to take control - but will this massive tie really be good for choice? Heineken are clearly aware of this concern and issued a statement to the London Evening Standard. Reading this rather bland and wishy washy set of "assurances" you may not exactly be reassured.  Lawson Mountstevens, head of Heineken’s Star Pubs & Bars UK estate, told the Standard: “Our plan is to keep great London pubs as high-quality venues."  He added: "Around 15% of the brands we sell in each of our existing pubs are not owned by us, so we use regional cask-ale brewers such as Fuller’s. I want to reassure sceptics that, subject to the deal for us buying the Punch pubs completing, we will aim to keep up this policy of selling a number of non-Heineken beers.”. 

Convinced? Me neither. A huge loss of choice will do nothing for the dog eat dog situation of over supply and may well see off quite a few brewers as markets close to them. In this respect we are indeed heading back to the closed markets pre Beer Orders. The Good Old Days?  For Heineken, maybe.

Heineken's boast of maintaining choice looks much less attractive of you look at it as Heineken selling 85% of brands they own in pubs.

To save you the arithmetic Heineken are paying an average of £160,000 a pub. Their partner,  Patron Capital will retain and run the 'Punch B' pubs of which there are 1,329 as well as TopCo. 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Decent Drop. Or Two


Frankfurt isn't exactly known as a beer paradise. It has a few brew-pubs of no distinction and actually, in the centre at least, not that many pubs at all, though there are one or two gems.  Having said that, it isn't all about beer in Germany and with E's brother in tow, we enjoyed a few days there a couple of weeks ago.

The plan was basically to visit at least two Christmas markets, a couple of churches and for me at least, to drink a bit of cider, known locally as apfelwein and a regional speciality which I've written about before.  There is almost always beer at German Christmas markets, but it is usually cheap and generic and as Frankfurt is home to Binding brewery, that was the beer of availability, though we did come across the odd Henninger tap, brewed also these days, by, well, Binding.  You can tell how much an area cares about its beer in various ways and one sure give-away is that where the name of the brewery isn't displayed on the tap, the "care about beer quotient" is low. That's Frankfurt. Or maybe the whole state of Hessen.  If you asked what beer they had, they answered "Ordinary beer and weissbier."

Now Binding Pils isn't bad. Technically perfect and all that, but boringly forgettable. We did stumble across a couple of decent boozers though. In one, just off the main market a fairly tipsy Santa was supping beer and gluewein and conversing loudly with a group of  boisterous, black and yellow bedecked Borussia Dortmund fans, there for the game against Eintracht.  He was still there, around three hours later when we came back to the market outside, but very much the worse for wear and still in his red and white suit. Whatever his duties were, they had clearly fallen by the wayside.  It was at this point I got a beer worth drinking. At a nearby market stall, I was offered a dark beer which was absolutely delicious. In third of a litre measures, this was lushly malty, aromatic  and fruity with a good alcoholic kick which gave a warming glow as the evening chilled. A bit of an enquiry later I found out that I was drinking Carolus, Binding's Doppelbock.  It was so good I had three which certainly sent me on my way rejoicing!  If you are in the neck of the woods at Christmastime, seek it out.

But what of the apfelwein I hear you ask? The mecca is Apfelhaus Wagner in Sachsenhausen. I wrote about it here in 2010 and it hasn't changed a bit. We enjoyed - or rather I did - a jug of the house  cider which was pretty good, though I recommend Apfelwein Dax for  a sheer no nonsense cider house which also sells beer in the shape of Brauerei Hoelzlein from Franconia.  The food is tremendous there too, but the boisterous, friendly atmosphere is pretty much unrivalled in the area. The cider is bloody good too. Go there.

One word of warning about the state of Hessen. It isn't very pubby at all. Wiesbaden with its lovely Dom (cathedral) is rescued by its Andechs owned Ratskeller but nothing else if the market was not in operation.  We called into Mainz too to visit the thousand year old and utterly entrancing Dom. A couple decent pubs there, but mainstream beer was the order of the day. Still, at least we found pubs.

Mind you, Mainz isn't in Hessen, but is the capital of the Rhineland Palatinate. Maybe that tells you something.

I chalked up three cathedrals in this visit. I recommend them all, but Frankfurt's is scarcely original due to the attentions of the RAF in 1944.  the same can be said though of the entire city centre. Go to Sachsenhausen. Wiesbaden was spared the bombing and is recommended for its architecture.  Mainz seemed ordinary enough but gets marks for its decent pubs and the outstanding red sandstone Dom.

 One other thing. The strength of cider is not stated in the pubs.  It seemed strong enough to me, but is mostly around 4.5% - 6% alcohol.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What's In a Name?


When it comes to modern day mild, plenty it seems.  Many brewers of mild have changed the name of the product to something considered more appealing. One of the first I recall was Brains, whose famous mild was renamed "Dark".  Others have done so including my own local brewery, JW Lees whose award winning mild (GB Mild was Champion Mild of Britain) to Brewer's Dark in an attempt to widen its appeal, alas without much success if local volumes are anything to go by. Resisting this trend though is Joseph Holt whose name resolutely and defiantly remains as "Mild". But the point remains the same, that mild is in deep decline and even Holt's have succumbed to the trend. Where it would once have been unthinkable to go into a Joey's house and find no mild, now it is more or less the norm, though as in the case of JW Lees, stubborn, loyal  pockets of mild drinking remain.

Another factor which needs to be taken into account is that mild, whatever it is called, is sometimes only able to be presented in cask form because of the relative success of smooth dark beer, the volumes of which allow cask beer to be sold where it is still required and without which, there would perhaps be none at all. Smooth and cask beer in these circumstances have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, which is all to the good for us as likes a pint of mild now and then.

Now, oddly enough, this isn't a post singing the praises of mild, though readers of this blog will know I mention it now and then such as in this post. When the Landlady ran the Tavern, my local, she sold Lees Brewer's Dark as a standard beer, though sales weren't high, but our current landlord John sticks to smooth mild beer, while pushing the range of seasonals that Lees brew and, on occasion, the lesser known of Lees standard beers. This was the case last Sunday when on the bar appeared Lees's other mild, Supernova. Now this is a tweaked version of Brewer's Dark, but much fruitier and with a more complex taste profile. On the few times I see it, I buy it. It is lush.  John, our beloved landlord was pushing it for all its worth and it was interesting, in a packed pub, to see so many drinking it, both young and old, women and men.  Whenever I looked up from our table the pump was being cranked and it was good to see so many drinking it. I somehow doubt that if it had been "Brewer's Dark" it would have sold nearly as well. The name helped. A lot.

I believe many regular producers of mild (not all, before someone corrects me) have given up on the name "mild", but this shows that when you have a good beer, the name is attractive and you push it, mild can still sell. OK. It will never achieve the heights it once did, but a swoopable, dark, creamy, cask conditioned beer like this is low calorie, weak in alcohol and can add variety, a great drinking experience and attract itself to new customers.

Mild can sell, so don't overlook it. Two things though. An attractive name helps, but essential is that tight, creamy head.  Watery, flat beer is a general abomination, but much more so when it is dark. Sparkle dark beers, push them a bit and watch them fly out.
  
Brewers Dark  is a fine beer, but publicans reading this, try Supernova and sparkle it.  And readers please remember. Mild beer is for joyous gulping, not sipping.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

At the Margins


No, I haven't stopped blogging. It just seems like it. It is over three weeks since I did, but largely this is because CAMRA life has intervened in the shape of Rochdale Beer Festival - very successful thanks for asking - where I managed the bar and the beer - and of course looming on the horizon and giving off as much black smoke as a Russian aircraft carrier, is Manchester Beer and Cider Festival which for me, as Deputy Organiser, means lots of work, lots of prep and lots of coats to hold as differences of opinion rear their heads. Yes, your hero Tandleman is a peacemaker.  Oh and if I didn't have enough to do, I have just sent off our local CAMRA Magazine to the publisher and am awaiting the proof. It has been busy, busy, busy.

So what has caught my eye in between all this stuff? Well an article in the Daily Telegraph that's what.  Seems our chums in Fullers have been selling less beer and making more money. That's a good trick on one hand, though clearly not on the beer selling other. So how has this neat little manoeuvre been achieved?  Well it seems craft beer is the answer. Despite the total beer and cider sales falling by a rather alarming 4 percent, it seems that sales of craft beer have risen considerably and Fullers Beer Company has grown profit by no less than 8 percent against a background of a switch to higher end drinks. Also hidden in the midst of all of this is the observation that profits in tenanted pubs fell while those in managed pubs rose. This reflects a trend of breweries and indeed Pub Companies with tenanted or mixed tied estates switching their focus in bigger houses to management. This is just one more move away from the traditional model of pubs and beer that pertained for so many years and is significant.

So back to craft beer.  It isn't necessarily volumes of sales that are the salvation of Fullers profits, but a most basic of trading concepts.  It is all about margin. You can sell craft beer, especially in house produced craft beer such as Frontier for a bigger price.  Who'd have thunk that? If you actually produce that beer yourself and convince your customers of its worth, you can charge more for it without it actually costing you that much more to make. Once it is more widely understood that not only is craft beer attracting the more price insensitive customer, but you can make big money from it then you can actually see where the likes of ABInBev are going with their current policy of buying up craft breweries. Pennies are dropping all over the place.   Many of the smaller regionals are already going that way - think of Adnams as a good example and maybe even the likes of JW Lees will be selling beer in fancy 330ml cans to join the gaderene rush before too long?  How meaningful - if it ever was meaningful - is the term "craft" now?

And what about the purveyors of murk - sorry cutting edge breweries in their cold railway arches? Back to the niche I'm afraid.   That's their place in global brewing as the big boys circle. The times are changing.

I'll be writing about Manchester Beer and Cider Festival before too long. I'm going to tell you about the grub. You'll like it

When I get back from Frankfurt that is. Apfelwein anyone?

Friday, 28 October 2016

Restaurant or Pub?


Pub Curmudgeon is often banging on about pubs behaving like restaurants and instead of treating food as a supplement to drinking, they reserve all the tables to the detriment of customers who just fancy a pint or two. Mainly his complaints centre around questions such as "Are you dining with us today?" It's a fair point and it can be dispiriting if all the tables are set out for diners, with cutlery, menus and whatnot and have reserved signs on them, especially if the tables aren't occupied. Rightly, the German system of saying when a table is available until is recommended, but rarely seen in the UK.

A pub I used to frequent rather a lot is Lees Horton Arms, set under the motorway bridge in Chadderton and in quite a rural looking setting. It was always a really good, slightly upmarket, wet led pub and, when I first knew it, a Lees managed house with a legendary landlord, ex policeman Peter O'Neill though for many years after his time, a tenancy. I got to know a lot of the locals there and for quite a while, a gaggle of them used to come up to the Tavern for a drink on a Sunday, cementing relationships even more.  Two or three years ago, the pub was renovated, with a much loved side room becoming a dining area and a lovely new set of toilets built, replacing the somewhat tired ones.  The pub was given a modern look from its previous horsebrass forward incarnation, developed over years no doubt. New chairs and tables and various modern pictures and bric-a-brac together with a renovated kitchens, with proper home cooked food as opposed to Lees standard managed house menu, complete the picture. It's done rather well, if impersonally though a row of poseur tables in front of the bar creates a somewhat crowded look in front of the bar and jars somewhat.  Mudgie will be gratified to know bench seating mixes with other types and it seems to work well.

Knowing the place gets very busy and fancying having my tea out, last night I booked a table for me and E.  At six o'clock the pub was mobbed, with some of my old acquaintances still there, though relegated to a small corner of the bar, not spread out as they used to be. By far most of the customers were dining. This isn't the first time we have eaten here and the place was pretty full and everyone seemed to be having a great time. What of the beer? Fantastic quality Lees including on cask, that rarest of beasts cask Lees Mild in the shape of Brewer's Dark.  The Horton was always a bastion of cask mild and thankfully still is.  Four Lees beers in total, as well as Bohemia Regent. This was always a pub with plenty of locals and even though they have a little less space nowadays, they are still there and I dare say as it gets quieter later, many will still be coming in just for a drink. The food too, in generous portions, was delicious and the landlady, who I know from both here and the Tavern came over for a friendly natter, as did a few of my old drinking pals. I enjoyed myself immensely, for a great atmosphere, tip top beer and smashing food.

This seemed to me the best of both worlds in many ways and no doubt makes a lot more money than it did before and yes, I miss the place how it was, but this was really rather good and you can still buy a pint at the bar without the dreaded question.

It can work.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

When in Rome


Don't drink beer essentially. Apart from the fact that it is cripplingly expensive, it is piss poor. Rome is the home of Peroni and that's what you get everywhere near enough, except in these places that charge just as much for it as Peroni places, but give you something generic for the same price. And it isn't Nastro Azzuri, the premium stuff, but the weaker and poorer Rosso, a red label beer, not red in colour, but as poor a lager as you are likely to come across.  How much then? Generally for 0.2l, around €4 and upwards of €6 for 0.4 - and more if in a nice square. I was soon cured of it, even when offered in our hotel, in the happy hour, for half price. This is a "not worth it at any price" beer.  What about craft? Well, there was some, with un-named bottles sold at loony prices here and there. Far better to drink local wine and watch the world go by.

But that was old Rome. Tourist Rome in spades if you will. A walk across the river to the area of Trastevere does not bring any relief at all from the prices and it is still touristy, but you do find a little variety in mass produced lager.  You can safely ignore this though.  Why drink Morretti or Porretti when you can drink craft from the many little craft beer bars lurking in the pretty streets and on a sunny day, I was in the mood for a beer.  We repaired to the two bars which everyone tells you are a must.  Our first port of call was Bir&Fud, one of two bars in a quiet square in the back streets. Narrow and thin with three little tables at the front, this offers a veritable cornucopia of Italian brewed craft beers. The narrowness of the pub is offset by bigger rooms behind, but we sat outside in  the front while a gaggle of voluble Italian lads and a solitary lass scoffed beers and laughed a lot. My Hammer Brewery Saison was as good a beer as I'd had in a while - spicy, hoppy and very moreish - so good I had two - while Eileen liked her Italian lager, though muttered a bit about its haze.  The pub was quiet though and I reckon it might get a bit frantic there when busy, but we were greeted warmly enough, the beer was bloody good and, by Rome standards, cheap. Beers were mostly €6 depending on strength and it seemed you just got smaller glasses as the strength went up. Not a bad system at all.  

Across the road is Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà, beloved  of luminaries such as Stonch who praised it to the heavens years ago. Again it was fairly quiet and again, the beer was bloody good. E enjoyed her imported German Pilsner - can't remember which - but, to her immense satisfaction, clear as a bell, while my Rurale 5 Seta Special was a Belgian style wit with bergamot, which again called for two. Same as its sister place across the road, I wouldn't fancy my chances later in the evening, but it was sure charming enough and the same prices applied.

So when in Rome and you fancy a beer, go to these two places. Pretty smashing really.

We should really have stayed for more, but we fancied something to eat where there sun shone.  Both these pubs were in the shade and sadly the sun did not shine all the time for us and we didn't want to miss it while it was there.

Unwisely, I didn't take Jeffers advice for other venues. I should have, but E will be glad I didn't. She was in wine mode.  Mind you it was ten years ago.

 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Two Good Brewpubs


I'm not quite finished with Amsterdam. I'd always wanted to go to Brouwerij 't IJ after an abortive attempt to do so many years ago, thus it was that on a warm sunny day, E and I hopped on a tram from Dam - we did - honest -and headed out there to meet that rarest of beasts, a Stockport person that knows everything there is to know about Dutch beer - or so he tells me.  Yes, it was the one and only John Clarke, en route to yet another Dutch Beer Festival.  He was already getting stuck in when we joined him on the outside terrace and enjoyed nipping inside from time to time to refill the generously sized glasses of relatively cheap (for Amsterdam) beer. It really was rather pleasant and the place was comfortable busy, in and out, with non real sign of the supposed gruff service that some commentators remark on.  I do wonder why so many foreign brewers make somewhat inferior versions of IPAs, Double IPAs. etc, but hey, that's what sells folks.  All the beers were pretty tasty actually and jolly good value.  It was a pleasant afternoon and it's always gratifying to go to a place you've always wanted to visit and find out you like it.

Now I haven't always wanted to go to De Prael, but had looked in the door of the bottle shop while heading for the Hidden Catholic Church, more or less next door. I mentioned this to Mineer Clarke who soon set me right. The pub was just a few streets down from the shop, hidden in a somewhat austere alley near a canal. Now everything is near a canal in Amsterdam, so I know that doesn't help, so just look it up.  This is a brewery with not only a mission to brew good beer, but to help those with psychiatric problems and it is worth a read here to see what this is all about. Suffice to say it is a great place to visit in its own right and its social conscience does it credit as a bonus.  We enjoyed several beers here from a somewhat baffling menu which seemed to have as much missing from it as included, but it had some lovely beers, again at decent prices. The venue is fantastic really, with the bonus of really interesting customers to gawp at and the staff here seemed no more  confused or confusing than any Dutch bar. The Dutch are a rather nonplussing lot in my experience and always seem to keep a bit of information back from those that aren't their compatriots, which is rather charming I find.  I like to be mildly disoriented when in a foreign bar. Adds to the overall experience I find.

Well that's it for Amsterdam.  Jolly good place, but take plenty of dosh. It isn't cheap.

I love the little bar snacks in Dutch boozers. A few cubes of cheese, the odd sausage. Perfect. 

If you didn't get the message in previous posts, avoid Heineken and its pubs. Rotten beer and high prices.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Belated Thoughts on IndyMan


I've been away, so haven't got round to writing this up. I went along to IndymanBeerCon on the trade day and had rather a good time. I spent a tenner.  A tenner you say? How could this be at the most expensive festival around?  Arriving around two thirty I was unsure who I'd know, so just bought a tenner's worth to keep me going until I decided how long to stay. First of all I spent a bit of time wandering around trying to get to grips with the place, or rather, get to grips with what beers were on sale. It was harder than you might think as the eclectic collection of bars were rather small and hard to get to, most being surrounded by festival goers, but that was part of the fun.  Of course I was delayed too by chatting to various people I knew and that was definitely part of the fun.

The first guidance was given to me by an eager beaver who had clearly been there since opening and who had also, clearly followed his own advice with some determination. "Buy the rarest and strongest" slurred my beaming sage, pointing me to a particular American beer, which I was assured was as scarce as hen's teeth.  It seems his advice had been taken up with abandon, as there was none left.  I suppose that kind of figures.

Of course though, with only a tenner's worth - four thirds in this gaff - I did follow the proffered advice, in part at least. The beers were all rare to me, so I just decided to have the darkest and strongest. This wasn't a bad decision at all, as I'm partial to an imperial stout or two. I was also offered and accepted a few tasters, both by servers and friends and this did help make my mind up.  Frankly I didn't have a bad beer - well the odd bad taster - though some were better than others. On my smallish samples, I enjoyed the clearer ones more than the muddy ones and as always at these events, I enjoyed the crack.  It is fair to say that the one price fits all way of doing things divided opinion more than somewhat, with quite a few going for the strongest purely on a VFM basis, while others weren't that bothered. Many seem to regard this event as one to be saved up for, like a concert or the like. I don't recall prices being a point of discussion last few times though, so clearly it had struck a chord with some. Beer for the people? Maybe not.

The crowd was the usual collection of trade types, hipsters, CAMRA types and Joe Public. I got the feeling that this session was likely to contain the oldest average age crowd of the event.  It was jolly enough for me though and being bought a couple of thirds by brewers (tokens used) helped me have a good time.  Has IndyManBeerCon gone wrong? I don't think so, but I'm not counting up all the kegs of weak beers left at the end.   I left after a couple of hours, slightly buzzed as our American friends might say, but that wore off on the bus. I'd had enough strong beer really and if I'm honest, wasn't keen to pay £7.50 a pint equivalent for the weaker stuff.

Of course I went for a drink when I got off the bus. Supping beer or sipping beer? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but if they are the same price, go sipping.




Others have written how the do was a good as ever. That's good news, but I seemed to know a lot less people than I usually do and some didn't stay long, but it was fine for a couple of hours. A few bemoaned the lack of cask (none on sale as far as I know at the session I attended.)  The servers were all pretty pleasant which is great. I didn't bother about food.

I had free entry as trade. That's quite a saving.  I took no notes and one photo (above).

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Two Local Bars


It is always good to try the local bars when abroad.  It is there you get the feel for a place, though if course it can be a matter of pot luck as to what you come across.  Near our hotel in Amsterdam there were a couple of bars our group of ten met up at for a couple of pre-dinner drinks, having gone our own way during the day.  Both were friendly and accommodating, rushing to make tables up so we could all sit together and generally being friendly and welcoming. But the beers were a bit shall we say, pedestrian?  Nonetheless they gave a great impression of the city as being a place that you'll be treated well. That's just what you need when away.

Now one of the things that you really must do in Amsterdam is going for a "Rijsttafel" in an Indonesian restaurant. These restaurants are a relic of the Dutch colonial past, much as Indian restaurants are of ours.We chose one carefully and bloody good it was too. It was outside the inner city and thus less touristy.  We walked back to our hotel, the night being lovely and of course fancied a beer on the way. We knew by now to avoid these at all costs, any Heineken sign boozers. The choice is pretty poor and the prices rather high for what you get. This meant a bit more walking, Heineken being everywhere.  We eventually came across a nice little boozer that was worryingly empty at around nine thirty in the evening, but the the Gulpener sign assured us we'd find a beer or two that we'd like. Our host, a young laid back Dutchman, was happy to see us. He explained what beers he had available, insisting on us trying a taste of each before we made our choices. Perfect. In typical British fashion, us men sat outside drinking beer and watching the cyclists whizz by, while the ladies sat inside drinking wine.  Our host kept us up to date, by helpfully advising us when the women ordered another round, knowing full well that we'd follow.  This arrangement suited us very well. We left after three or four beers as the bar started to fill up. Great stuff and again the welcome and care was outstanding.  Well done Café Cees.

We had though noticed another bar near the hotel. Again signed for Gulpener, it was tucked away behind the Concertgebouw. On our last night, we were eating in the area, so we called in for pre-dinner drinks.  Our host here was of the more taciturn type, but us ten filled a round table and got on with things.  On the wall was a poster advertising Van Vollenhoven's Stout.  Sounded good and a squint at the price list showed it to be on sale. At the bar, we ordered two from our less than talkative barperson.  He rummaged silently. He had none after all it turned out, but recommended a bokbier from the tap.  Now it wasn't what we wanted, so I asked for a taste. After all he had recommended it. He answered in authoritative style. "No."  One word, that's all. Hmm. Ah well, it might have been the best beer in the world, but bugger him, his recommendation and his lousy attitude, so we ordered Orval and carried on. I reflected we'd brought ten people, along for a drink and we all had two or three, so a taste wouldn't have hurt. In case you are wondering, it is Café Welling

So what does all this prove? Well, when you have a choice, go where the welcome is warmest of course.
 
 This advice of course is only good if you go to a place more than once, but I offer it up nonetheless. Would I advise you not to go to Café Welling? Actually no.  It is a nice place with pleasant customers and seats outside. Just don't ask for a taste of the beer, or depend on affable chit-chat.

Annoyingly it is a Dutch habit to lose a bit of beer on pouring. They sort of pour a bit down the drain before applying the glass. That bit would have done me as a taster.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Two Classics and One Less So


In early Autumn sunshine, Amsterdam is quite delightful. From our hotel near the rather grand Concertgebouw it was a nice stroll across the park to the Van Gogh museum (unmissable) and the Rijksmuseum (less so).  But man does not live by culture alone and after a visit to either icon of enlightenment, a spot of liquid refreshment is required.  Now of course you could repair to any number of local outlets for the ubiquitous Heineken, but if you want to drink in pubs of the company that put the lack into lustre, that's fine, but there are other options.

In what might roughly be called the centre of town, not far off Dam, is one of the most famous of boozers, In De Wildeman. The pubs own website describes it as "one of the best places in Amsterdam to taste new beers or simply drink your personal favourite".  That's exactly so.  I took our small party of six in after their visit to the hidden Catholic Church, a spot of culture I opted out of, preferring to sit in the sunshine at the canalside, watching the world go by.  This is an old fashioned boozer with multi rooms, a soothing atmosphere and a warm welcome from the barmaid, a Mrs Doyle look and sound-alike who was pleasantly helpful and gratifyingly, Irish.  My pals and E all drank Jever. OK it isn't Dutch, but it is good. I too avoided Dutch beer, not through any bias, but because I fancied some Weihenstephaner.  Cheesy and (raw) sausagey snacks provided the sustenance to see us through another couple of rounds.  It is that kind of place.

Two of our party left for different things and four of us decided, on my prompting admittedly, to visit another icon, Arendsnest. We asked a friendly local for directions. "Two canals over and on the left." Oddly, one canal over and the noise and bustle of the city receded. Two canals over and it had gone, giving way to a sedate residential area which was a pleasure to stroll in. The bar itself is in a handsome terrace and is beautifully appointed. It serves only Dutch beers. The greeting here couldn't have been better and the smiling barmaid insisted in giving us tasters and happily talked us through the draft beers. We stayed for two, or was it three?  Time ticked by gently and both the beer and welcome made you glad to be there.

A day later, E and I visited Beer Temple, an American beer bar on Voorburgwal.  This is described on t'internet variously as "cosy" or "relaxed". We both thought it a bit of a dump in need of a clean and although the beer was fine, it reminded us that there is more to a drinking establishment than a good beer list.

When did Heineken become so undrinkable? It used to be reasonbaly quaffable, but now seems sweet and turgid.

Beer in Amsterdam isn't cheap, but pick the right places and you still get value. Pick the normal places and you get Heineken at €5.80 a half litre. Top tip. If in a Heineken joint, buy Duvel.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Dispensary Beer Festival


A few weeks ago I was in London having a few pints with @erlangernick. I wrote about some of it here. For our last beers, I took him to one of my local East End pubs, the Dispensary near Aldgate East Tube Station.  I usually go there when I am down at our London flat, as it sells decent beer and is handy for me.   During this visit, Annie the landlady came to chat and ask if I was coming to their beer festival. As it happened I was going to be in London that weekend. She asked if I wouldn't mind checking over the state of the beers on her external stillage and for a bit of advice -  which I duly gave.  She was worried (among other things) that the beer on the stillage, served by gravity, wouldn't be up to snuff.

Fast forward to the night before the festival when I went in to see what was going on. The stillage was erected, twelve beers on board and all vented using a porous hard spile as I had suggested. All were untapped.  Cold water cooling was supplied by Adnams and the beer seemed cool to the touch, so all looked good.  I tapped all the beers and samples were spot on.  So far so good.  I called in the next morning all was well. No big leaks - a miracle in itself - and even better - no cask had spat its tap out overnight. That's always a fear.  The beer was cellar cool, well conditioned and mostly pin bright apart from those that weren't meant to be. Well we thought they weren't meant to be, but it is hard to know these days.  All tasted fine however and we disregarded the odd haze. None were soupy.

The festival was opened by Roger Protz who was, to say the least, surprised to see me, but we had a great time and the pub was busy. Roger drank some Londom Porter which he loved and gave a very amusing and interesting speech about beers in the East End and spoke fondly about his old favourite, Charrington IPA. Roger is a true East Ender and was happy to be back. We had a good two or three hours. Later, much refreshed after our gated community's annual residents party, we called in again. The pub was still busy and beer still good. On Saturday night after meeting friends we nipped in once more on the way home and again the beer on stillage was still in great form and the pub, not usually open on a Saturday attracted quite a crowd.  It was clearly going well.

As I keep saying, looking after cask beer is actually fairly easy.  Why do so many get it wrong?

The photo shows Annie and me after the beers were tapped. I didn't take any pictures of Roger. Or much else. Don't know why really.

Disclosure: Annie is a pal. I just helped her for a few beers. And to prove a point I suppose. Oh and David, her husband gave me an excellent sausage butty!  Assuming the event wiped its face at least, Annie and David will be doing this again. I might help.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Good Beer in London


Readers of this blog will know I can be a bit scathing about quality of cask beer in London. I don't do so lightly as after all it is easy to get right. But nonetheless to redress the balance in this quick post, here's some good news.

Last Saturday we met friends who had come down from Manchester for the day. Their plans, being Beavertown fan-boys - well craft fans in general really - was that we should go to Beavertown's Saturday opening. Alas it was not to be as instead of the usual open day, it was a ticket event which had sold out. So we arranged instead to meet in Soho for some more ordinary pub crawling.  Our first pub was based on nearness to Tottenham Court tube and you don't get nearer that Nicolson's Flying Horse.  Let's draw a veil over the awful beer there, but it was just a meeting place.   We had intended to have a look at the Fitzroy Tavern, newly renovated by Sam Smith's.  (As an aside, I found out when reading a book this weekend about the blitz, that the Fitzroy was a well know haunt of homosexuals during the war. That's where you went for a sure pick-up if one batted for that side. Or both.)  Alas entry wasn't to be either, as it is still closed for aforesaid renovations fifteen or more months after it started, so plan B was the Draft House across the road, also in Charlotte St. The beer there was fine and actually cool to cold, which is unusual if our local DH in Seething Lane is anything to go by. It wasn't Good Beer Guide standards in my view, but good enough to have a couple and it started an upwards trend.

Brodies' Old Coffee House was busy and the beer was pretty good. Again probably not quite GBG standard, but a notch up from the Draft House.  Food was required by now and so we went on that basis to the Queen's Head in nearby Piccadilly. Both the welcome and the beer were excellent, with Good Beer Guide quality beer and staff who seemed to actually like their job.  The rising trend continued.

Train time for our friends took us the the Euston Tap where the beer was outstanding. You expect this from them and good it is too not to be disappointed.  A two pinter most certainly and it was the sort of quality and choice that made you wish you'd come in earlier. Always a good sign.  GBG quality? You bet. Lastly for us was our London local the Dispensary in Leman St which had a beer festival on. More of that another time, but it was great to see the place buzzing, as they don't normally open on a Saturday. The beer was in great nick too. Again Good Beer Guide quality.

Good cask beer in London is good to find. It was an enjoyable day.


The photo was of a lovely old mirror in the Queens Head. London is great for old brewery mirrors.  

I borrowed the blitz book via E from Tower Hamlets Libraries. A good read if that sort of thing interests you.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Is That Too Much?


Out in Manchester the other day with my oldest friend, our first pint was in Sam's Chop House. There was a middle of the road selection available - think Black Sheep and Bombardier - but we both chose Taylor's Landlord.  Mike raised his eyebrows as the barman announced "£8.40 please".

We repaired to the beer garden and welcome sunshine at the back and viewed the clientèle while checking out the beer. Customers were mostly "Ladies who lunch" or businessmen drinking Becks. It was a rather upmarket crowd and the pub itself could be described in similar terms, at least at lunchtime. The beer was average to good, but better on the second round when it had become a bit cooler, our pints obviously being the first through. Being used to London prices, I didn't really bat an eyelid at the cost and actually I enjoyed the experience, the ambience and indeed the beer, but tweeting without revealing the location, the cost seemed to shock some.

The price of beer is difficult to determine these days, as is the value for money. We discussed this over the next two pints in Holt's Ape and Apple where the cost of the round was five pounds odd instead of eight pounds odd.  The quality of the beer in the Ape was way above that in Sam's and it had a good atmosphere too, though I'll deduct a point or two for the irritating music.

So three quid or so different, but two equally enjoyable experiences.  You pays your money and you takes your choice? What do you reckon?

Holt's Mild was absolutely superb - I do love a top form mild - but best beer of the day was in the City Arms in the form of Brightside Odin.  Lovely drop.

The beer was a bit clearer than it looks in the photo, but not pin bright by any means.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

A Lovely Canal Walk


Bank Holiday Monday, being uncharacteristically warm and sunny, E suggested we walk from our house down to the Rose of Lancaster, a Lees pub on the Rochdale Canal and a sometimes haunt of mine. Now the Rose is a managed Lees pub and if I may comment, one of the best run, with a landlord who is ever present and watchful. As my old boss in Scotland all these years ago would likely have said "He runs a good shop." And he does, though this isn't the point of this small post.

It is a downhill forty minute stroll from Tandleman Towers and we wandered down passing first JW Lees Brewery where there seemed to be a fair bit of activity going on and then, the second brewery in Middleton in the shape of Sarsons, where the smell of vinegar was fairly strong and I suspect is always so, whether they are brewing or not.  We even get the odd whiff of it  at our house. We arrived to the good news that the last cask of Lees previous seasonal, was on. Duly ordered, we took a seat in the beer garden and watched the world going by.  It was a mixed crowd, some eating, most just having a drink and many families and couples, whiling away a couple of hours in the pleasant sunshine even though the surroundings are urban rather than rural. Despite the canal being right underneath the beer garden and rolling hills and open countryside behind, the main views are of the Middleton to Oldham road, but it is still a decent spot and the pleasant scene was one we left with a bit of reluctance, especially as the beer was in top form.

We hopped down the steps behind the pub and turned right along the towpath, taking us by way of a further forty minute walk, to our next destination, the Ship Inn, also a Lees house and one of my regular pubs, where I know nearly everyone.  The walk along a fairly quiet towpath is marred only by two things in what is lovely countryside. One is cyclists who whizz along without warning bells, their presence only felt at the last moment when they are behind you and the other, the rather intrusive pylons along the route.  But these are minor points. The walk, particularly in good weather is truly lovely and recommended.  The original engineering has stood the test of time and enhances the open countryside.

The Ship is a pub I've mentioned before. I often drink Bohemia Regent in here, particularly when the weather is warm. Many of the locals and visitors sat canalside, though that requires drinking out of plastic for safety reasons, or crammed into the tiny courtyard where glass is permitted. It was pretty busy, as was the Rose. That's good.

So if you are ever in this area, both pubs are recommended, but do walk along the canal between them.

The Rochdale Canal was started in 1798, so is of course pre Victorian by quite some time, though somehow it seems Victorian. The canal was completed before her reign.

Where are the nice photos then you ask? I nearly fell in off a lock while taking one. It put me off. So go and find out for yourself!  The photo shown is from Pennine Waterways and shows the Ship on the right.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Quality versus Quantity


Readers of this blog and others will know that there is, knocking about and turning up like a bad smell, an irksome commentator called "py".  He spouts lots of anonymous inane comments to the extent that he has got himself barred from commenting here and there - but not here as it happens. I generally prefer to just give him it on the chin as required, rather than ban him, but I can see the point of those that do. However every dog has its day and occasionally, inadvertently really, a vexatious litigant can make a point that if you dissect it a little, may contain a grain of truth.  He says in a thread about the poor quality of cask beer/real ale in London:

py said...
Its by no means just a London thing. Wherever CAMRA is, then warm beer follows. Go to any CAMRA summer beer festival, the beer is always served as warm as day old piss. You wonder why its the foreign beer bar that always runs out first?

Deny it all you like, reply with some pointless childish insult if that is really the best you can think of, but CAMRA have done more than anyone over the years to damage the quality of cask ale.



21 August 2016 at 22:01

Now clearly much of that is nonsense, but while the writer doesn't expand his "thoughts", is there just a smidgen of what might pass for a reasonable comment there? Well, let's take his point about summer beer festivals. My branch simply wouldn't run one for the very reasons stated. That is, the danger of beer being as described.  Fortunately in Greater Manchester we have always had a heightened view of cask conditioning and beer presentation. We have strengthened that further, with our own cellar experts, who have developed cooling suited to the needs of smaller festivals. It may not be a complete answer, but I must agree that uncooled beer, in the height of summer is a very unwise business, could bring CAMRA into disrepute and my advice to CAMRA Festivals is "Unless you can guarantee the quality of the beer - don't do it."  The reputational risk is just not worth it. This advice should be followed not just by CAMRA beer festivals, but by all that sell real ale. If you can't provide top quality cask beer, just don't do it.

On a second point, Why do so many pubs insist in having a large number of below par beers on sale rather than two or three in top condition? Has CAMRA unwittingly made them think it is the only way to get in the Good Beer Guide? There is some evidence to suggest that might be the case, with the number of single or two beer pubs in the GBG diminishing severely. The current Good Beer Guide, somewhat astonishingly, shows only two such pubs out of 21 pages in Greater Manchester's entries. And even though we know in this area how to look after beer, can this really be wise?  Of course I know that sensible pubs will cut their ranges down at quiet periods, but are we in CAMRA encouraging, or at least not discouraging enough, this quantity over quality concern? On a brief look at this area, it kind of looks like it.  (The number of 3 beer pubs isn't that high either with "Beer range varies" being very common).

In the continual search for quality at the point of dispense, things such as cellar skills, venting practice, temperature and more are all at the top of the list, but when CAMRA looks to implement my motion bringing the quality of beer at the point of dispense into its Key Camapaigns, I reckon we need to include strong advice to pubs that too many beers on at the wrong time is just as bad for beer quality as some other more obvious faults.

Although he is unable to express it without giving offence, it may be that py has a case to argue. 

 I know from my own experience that persuading landlords of this isn't easy though and yes, I think sometimes the triumph of choice over quality can  be partially at least, placed at the door of CAMRA members voting for Good Beer Guide entries.

There needs to be sufficient process safeguards to challenge this at meetings, though of course, a lot of this stems from the pubs presenting too many beers in the first place.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Pub - Book Review


For a person that loves pubs as much as I do there can be few more pleasurable reads than a well written book about pubs, especially when the book is illustrated with some of the finest pub photography I have seen to date. The Pub, by well known author Pete Brown, is a stunningly well written and erudite excursion into the pub as a defining British icon, and with a little history and context thrown in, it draws you into the simple fact that a pub is not just a place to sell beer, wines and spirits, but in Pete's own words, "a cultural institution". Pete describes the book as a "personal journey" and while the book only mentions some 350 out of the 50,000 or so pubs in the country, you really do get the feel for why the pub, to many, is regarded with warmth, affection and a probably a touch of living nostalgia.

Now this isn't a small volume. It is coffee table sized, but the size is used to show in both words and photos, what Pete is driving at when he talks about the various pubs he has chosen for this book.  The book has a short introduction from Pete himself, pointing out that your own favourite pub may well be absent and that he has sought to represent the broad diversity and character of pubs, so if yours isn't included, he is sorry, but he had to be firm in achieving something manageable. This makes sense. Instead what you will find is a wonderfully representative selection of pubs and a neat and sensible set of chapters, dividing the pub into types  such as historic pubs; architecturally interesting pubs; coastal pubs; railway pubs and more. Here is the beauty of writing about pubs - you can use your own categories and chop it up in any way you want - and if written well - as this book is - you can be both personal and at the same time speak the familiar language of the pub buff, as well as reaching out to those who simply like to go to pubs on occasion.

Perhaps though the hardest thing of all is to describe in a way that can be easily understood, what pub culture is. Pete takes a bit of time over this and rightly so, for it is the culture of the British pub that makes it what it is. The backdrop may be its history or its architecture, but it is what goes on inside that makes it a pub. Here Pete excels. He "gets" pubs - and not everyone does - and this is reflected in his writing.  He identifies - correctly in my view - that it is that most difficult to pin down aspect, atmosphere that makes the pub what it is and his pubs are chosen to reflect that. No easy task that, but I think it fair to say that Pete has a pretty good bash at it, repeatedly (in a good way and with a sense of astonishment and wonder), describing local characters and landlords in a way that inspires you want to go and experience them yourself. If you don't believe that, read the description of the scene in either the Snowdrop in Lewes or the Hatchet Inn in Andover. Or any of it really.  You can just dip in and out and will find something to love, or a pub you make a mental note to visit sometime in the future.
 
Following his personal sub-division of pub types, Pete then does a run around the country by region. He astutely recognises that what the British pub is really like "often depends on which part of Britain you are in".  Each area is given a bit of  a pen picture and is then exemplified by picking a number of great pubs to talk about in detail and giving other pubs shorter descriptions under the "Also Try" banner.   It works.  London gets a large chunk of course, possibly reflecting the author's place of residence, though I did feel that the sections on Scotland and Wales could have been beefed up a little.

But these are minor points. Pete Brown's use of simple words, elegantly put and the clear enthusiasm for his subject, together with his sharp and witty observations, make this a book I recommend unreservedly. The superb photography is a wonderful bonus.

The Pub is published in hardback by Jacqui Small.  Price £22.00 

And for those interested in such things, Pete Brown is most assuredly a Pub Man.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

It's Meant to be Like That


You don't hear that any more when you buy real ale do you?  If you get a horrible warm, murky, flat pint and complain, nobody says that in response nowadays. Education of barstaff precludes it, that's the common position isn't it?  Or do they?

 So, @Erlangernick and I are in JDW's Willow Walk in Victoria, London and get pints (or was it halves - we'd been drinking) as above. I complain and get the classic "It's real ale - it's meant to be like that." I insist it is certainly not meant to be like that and we have the drinks exchanged for something slightly less poor.  In beer, like life, all things are relative.

This is why I moved a motion that CAMRA must include improving the quality of cask beer at the point of dispense as one of its key objectives. The motion was passed and it is time I think to find out what is being done about putting this motion into action.

For those that still think the fight for real ale is won, think again. It won't be until quality is assured and we should complain to make that more likely.

What is it with London and warm beer? Even lager there is usually just a bit too warm. Is this some kind of odd sub culture, or are they just too mean to turn the cellar cooling up / have it maintained / upgraded? London has always had warmish weather. This should be taken into account surely and is by some, but not nearly enough.

An extreme example. On a visit to the CAMRA North London pub of the Year the Bree Louise, again with Nick, his beer - as measured by him I must emphasise but I can confirm it -  was an astonishing 24.8C. WTF? 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Ma Pardoes


No visit to the West Midlands is complete without a visit to Ma Pardoes, or, as it is really called, the Old Swan Inn.  Set on a busy main road in Netherton, it is quite a wonder, being one of the original remaining four home brew pubs when CAMRA was formed.  Again I have been quite a few times, firstly on one of the Mystery Coach trips run by a noted CAMRA member in Manchester, Ken Birch aka Ben Chestnut. Now why these trips were down as "mystery" I don't know, as we always ended up in the Bull and Bladder and Ma Pardoes. Then the legendary Mrs P was alive and kicking, but alas no longer so. For those interested in the history of the pub, there is as complete a go at it as you are likely to come across - here.

The main difference between these far off days and now is that the pub was extended in 1986 and now has somewhat oddly, two front doors and a set of rambling rooms behind the famous bar where a huge cast iron stove, now behind protective mesh still dominates, along with the stunningly grand ceiling with its swan motif. The large snug on the left, complete with piano, would be a splendid place to take someone else's wife for a drink, as indeed would be any of this maze of marvellously old fashioned rooms. Wandering around it, with its faded Victorian and Edwardian grandeur made you want to settle in and wait for the sing song.  Atmosphere in buckets and you just can't manufacture that.  It comes through time and people.

We sat in the old main bar and listened to the thick Black Country accents bantering with each other. The beer is still brewed here, but perhaps doesn't reach the heights of Holden's or Batham's, though Ma Pardoe's Original at 3.5% is still worth drinking and the pub worth visiting for its own unique feel.  No particular warm welcome here, but an easy acceptance of us wandering round looking at the various rooms.  They must be used to it.

We only stayed for one here, but I still recommend it.

Back in the day when The Little Pub Company was still going, we used to visit here and the Vines for pre or post lunch pints when venturing out to eat in one of their pubs with friends from the area. Who can forget the Cradley Sausage Works, Desperate Dan Pie Factory or Mad O'Rourkes? Not me. They had a motto on all their receipts. "Please drink harder and faster" Wouldn't be allowed now.

Remarkably, the Old Swan is owned by Punch Taverns. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Red House Boutique Stourbridge


In Stourbridge for two nights, we stayed in the recently built - within the last two or three years that is - Premier Inn. This proved to be very handy for the Town Centre, just across the busy dual carriageway, past the Bus/Rail Interchange and you were there.  The walk popped you out via an underpass beside the Red House.

According to WhatPub this was formerly a Last Orders pub. Now these, on the whole, and I don't think I'm being unfair here, tend to be aimed at the lower end of the market. But this one had been done up very nicely, making the most of a modern design with a good mix of tables, high poseur tables and bench seating and seemed to all of us like a decent place to drink. A good range of beer from the wicket from the likes of Three Tuns, Holdens, Wye Valley and Enville among others didn't make us at all inclined to leave either -and we found out - a discount for CAMRA members.  For those requiring snacks, there were many exotics, including six different varieties of pork scratchings. It does have one little trick for the unwary of being up a small set of steps, but that kind of thing is only likely to trip you up on the way out. Now this was a Wednesday evening, usually a day of the dead for pubs, but a lively crowd stood outside about eight o'clock, supping ale and chatting happily. It was relatively quiet when we entered and once again we were greeted with great enthusiasm from the lone barmaid.  This smashing service from smart young women seems to be a Black Country thing and, you know, it is such a pleasure to see. We rapidly established her name was Frankie and as the pub got busier and busier, she flew up and down serving all speedily and with great charm.

We wandered on, as you do in a strange place, to the Duke William, which was another beautiful old boozer, owned and run by Craddocks Brewery, a new one on me. This was a great place which we all liked enormously. A mixed crowd and an unspoilt interior charmed us all - as did the smashing barstaff - all female - who again couldn't have been nicer. Alas though, into each life a little rain must fall. None of us cared for the beer that much. Well, you can't have everything, but I'd go back in a heartbeat for the pub itself and maybe we just caught it on an off day. I'd like to think so.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed the Red House once more. The crowd had grown, but many of the same stalwarts we'd passed over two hours previously were still there.  Naturally we nipped in for a nightcap. It turned out that the cause of the crowd was a leaving do for someone or other, as revealed by the heroic Frankie, still controlling things brilliantly.

I think it was still open when we left around midnight.  Make hay while the sun shines.

The beer was excellent too and as we wended our way to breakfast the next day, Frankie was there again, giving us a cheery wave as we passed.  What a girl. 

We did call in again on the Thursday for one and it was pretty dead. Our hostess must have been glad of the rest.  We ended up in the Waggon and Horses where we were well looked after in a tremendous pub by, you've probably guessed it,  a couple of very nice lasses.  As I said, they seem to specialise in it in the Black Country.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Bull and Bladder


The home of Batham's Brewery, officially the Vine, but known by many by its alternative name as above,  is a fine place indeed.  The interior has four rooms linked by a central corridor, with brown glazed tiles on the walls and a serving hatch to service the various different spaces.  Like many, when there, I tend to be in one of the rooms off the main corridor, as indeed, most visitors do, but it is the inner sanctum, the public bar (though I don't actually know how they refer to it locally) that really is the prize spot. But wait a minute. This isn't a big room and there is pub etiquette to think of. You don't just march in to a place like this and  plonk yourself down.  Locals use this space and yes, they have a right to some respect and thus it is, that although I'd poked my head round the door more than once, I don't recall ever sitting there for a couple of pints. Until now. We called in on a Thursday just before teatime and the public bar was nearly empty. We were in the sweet spot after which the lunchtime mob has long gone and the teatime regulars had scarcely started to drift in.  There was probably five or six within and with us four, ten at most. The bar wouldn't comfortably hold more than two and a half times that, so you see my point I hope. It looked reasonable to do so, so we entered the holy of holies and sat in the empty seats below the main bow window. We were given a friendly welcome by the (once again excellent barmaid - a Black Country speciality it seems - and nods from the locals. So far so good.

The pub itself has a history that can easily be discerned by our ubiquitous friend, Google, but of course I will mention its wonderful exterior, for this is that rarest of beasts, a pub that looks just as good outside as it is splendid inside. That's a lot rarer than you might think.  We parked in the handy car park opposite which gives a great view of the pub. While the others darted inside, I paused to observe and take in the place. It is a remarkably handsome building, two tone yellow and cream in colour, dark wood windows and its famous slogan painted at roof level in block capitals, "BLESSING OF YOUR HEART - YOU BREW GOOD ALE". Adjacent and attached is the brewery, with the proud words, "The Birthplace of Genuine Beer".  No false modesty here. They are proud of their pub, their brewery and their beer. And so they ought to be.

Batham's is a small company, with ten houses. That seems to suit them, though they do have a small free trade of around 20 accounts. I recommend having a look at the brewery's website which allows you to download, free of charge, The History of Batham's Black Country Brewery, a fascinating read, with many old photos.

Back in the public bar, we ordered pints of bitter and savoured this most traditional of brews, with its slightly sweet opening and bitter finish. Too good to have just one, we had another then left them to it.  The locals would be in soon.

Batham's is one of a very few breweries that still deliver beer in hogsheads of 54 Imperial gallons.

The Vine is situated at:

10 Delph Road,
Brierley Hill,
West Midlands.
DY5 2TN


Go there!