Friday, 18 August 2017

How Was GBBF for You?



The Great British Beer Festival - GBBF for short - is over and once again there is reflection on how it was and indeed how it should be.

For me, working on the German and Czech Bar, it was business as usual. The bar is always fairly quiet until around three o'clock and then business picks up. It is quiet on Tuesday and to some extent Wednesday until work finishes and rammed the rest of the time. So far, so normal.  It is my habit to skive off early doors - around 12.30 or so - and with my old mate Graham, take a wander around. Our bar is quiet then and fully staffed. The newbies can cope. Our forte is digging people out when it gets busier - or so we like to think.  Comparing GBBF year on year is difficult, as layout changes, the number of brewery bars varies, and frankly, you just can't remember how it was.

My impression this year was that it wasn't quite as busy, though that varied from day to day, but that there was a very much younger crowd, though of course, the diverse (some might say motley)  nature of the customer is very much a plus for me.  The cask beer I tried - and it was more than I usually do - was all cool, conditioned and enjoyable, the food was great, especially the addictive chicken tandoori wraps with fearsomely hot chilli sauce - and my abiding impression was the exuberance of the customers who had clearly come for a good time and were jolly well having it.  For me, as a long standing volunteer, it was one of the best. A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn't come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn't go on.

Ah yes, good times?  The purpose of the Great British Beer Festival is to promote and showcase cask conditioned real ale and to encourage the drinking and understanding of it. In addition to cask beer there is the bottled beer bars flogging both brewery conditioned beers from abroad and real ale in a bottle from the UK. We also have our German and Czech, our Belgian, Italian and Dutch bars and of course traditional cider and perry. So pretty much something for everyone - unless you are a craft keg drinker - but hey, still enough to go at surely?

It is an expensive business to put on a show such as this.  I don't think it is giving away much of a secret to acknowledge that it isn't a money spinner. It's main aim is to be a showcase and in that it succeeds admirably. Around 50,000 punters had a good time and drank lots of beer and went home happy with good thoughts about beer drinking. Job done? Well it depends on your point of view. My good friend Matt Curtis, looking at it from the standpoint of a beer writer rather than a customer, made this point on Twitter:



Now is this fair?  I can see where he is coming from as far as the aforementioned keg craft is concerned and this "modern" style of beer is either a wonderful, innovative interpretation of the brewer's art - or in in the view of some - me included in the case of "London Murky" - a pretentious way of starting a new trend to mostly sell to the gullible. We at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival do sell keykeg beer, but it is conditioned in the keg and while hazy, not opaque.  Personally I can see no issue in selling keykeg that meets CAMRA's real ale definition and there are some splendid and enjoyable ones around, but would draw the line at the kind of stuff described on Stonch's Beer blog:

"I'd forgotten just how shameless London micros are in putting out murky, unfinished product. People must still be buying pint after pint of this stuff, though, or those that make it would need to brew their beer properly. As it is, they're still getting away with beery murder. When will consumers wise up?"

You can see the offending pint here and make your own mind up.

So is it the job of CAMRA and the GBBF to promote "modern" beer or should it stick to its knitting and continue to promote traditional beer and its enjoyment in convivial company, while slowly nudging forward in favour of non real ale styles?  That is what CAMRA's Revitalisation Project is really about and it won't be long until us members have to make our minds up.

Choose wisely Folks, but remember the murky.

Yes GBBF should continually modernise, but like CAMRA itself, beware of babies and bathwater. At least you don't have to put up with suicide inducing repetitive bass as is so often the case in modern bars and beery events. 

We should always rember too, that beer is an accompaniment to good times, not neccessarily the good time itself.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Losing Confidence in Cask?


I was in Scotland week before last and as usual, in the land of Tennents Lager, was wary about choosing cask beer where there was any. My experience, even in high turnover places like Wetherspoons, is that it can be hit or miss and more often than not, it misses.  As it happens, my first opportunity, fresh off the train was in the Counting House off George Square and it was hot, so looking at the pump clips with an array of dark Scottish beers, I decided, given the heat, that I wasn't chancing it and enjoyed instead - and I did - a couple of pints of keg. More of that later.

That night in the Captain James Lang, another JDW house, I thought, having spotted that Loch Lomond Brewery's Southern Summit was on the pumps, that I'd give it a go. It was only £1.79 and actually fairly good.  Alas when I returned to the bar, it had gone. I chose Skye Blonde and was immediately, before I'd go it to my mouth, assailed by a distinct whiff of vinegar.  I pointed this out to the barperson who had obviously read the Book of Barkeep Excuses.  "I think" she posited "it's meant to taste like that". Moving on to page 2 of the tome she added "I don't drink beer myself".   I was though given an exchange and turned down the offer of a whisky flavoured 7.8% beer from Strathven - despite it also being £1.79 a pint - in favour of a bottle. Minimum pricing? Take that Scottish Government.

I was in Helensburgh next day meeting an old pal. Alas in the Henry Bell, there was no cask I wanted to drink. All were around 4.8% and brown. As the barmaid herself, a Northern Irish lass of some character, noted "They could do with something pale and hoppy on, that's what I drink". Put her in charge of the cellar I say.  I did take her wise words on board as I stood wondering what to have. "Don't have the Tennents" my sage advised, "it's really shite."  This lass will go far or at least, ought to.

The day after my sister took me out for an hour. We went to the Balloch Hotel on Loch Lomondside, me having noted that it has a wide choice of real ales.  Of course it wouldn't be a Tandleman day out if some idiocy hadn't occurred.  The bar as you enter is L shaped with a bank of five handpumps immediately on your left. On the wall facing is the sign in the photo. My sister sat and I surveyed the wickets. "I'll have the Adnams" I thought. A few moments passed and I looked up the bar to the corner of the L. No barperson appeared but an old soak on a barstool shouted along the other angle of the bar and after a while a barmaid appeared. She seemed annoyed. "You should have come up to where the tills are quoth she."  "Are there more cask beers there then? I enquired. "No" she said "but I stand up there." This was getting interesting, but she had the last laugh. Only two handpumps were on. I chose London Pride which was a little tired but OK. This place is owned by Mitchell's and Butlers as a matter of interest.

On my return to Glasgow Central I had a pint in the Counting House again. This time I went for cask in the shape of Oakham JHB. That distinct whiff and then taste of vinegar again.  On pointing this out the server called a colleague, presumably the cask beer champion or something along these lines.  He took a straw out, dipped it in my beer and allowed a drop to roll onto his tongue."Hops" he pronounced. "And something else."  I agreed and pointed out the something else was vinegar.  My duff pint was exchanged for, yes you've guessed it. Keg.

Right I'm getting a bit fed up of reading this myself, but I am sure you get my drift by now.  Dodgy beer and dodgy bar staff don't make for a great combination.  It's the offer Stupid. If that isn't up to snuff, then you are on a loser.

I rather liked the beer pictured above from Jaw Brew whom I haven't even heard of. Really decent, though you do have to knock a bit of the CO2 out. I had it both visits and despite the murk, it didn't disappoint. Oh and I'm not losing confidence in cask really, but rubbish cask makes others do so.

For those that know Glasgow, I understand, Camperdown Place, another JDW just 50 yards away from the Counting House, has now closed due to Queen St Station redevelopment. Shame, as for the traveller with a suitcase, its ground floor toilets were a boon even if the beer choice was less extensive.

Monday, 17 July 2017

In With the New


When I met my oldest friend Mike for a few pints, I made it my mission to take him to entirely new (to him) pubs.  As we met at Piccadilly Station, him fresh off a rail replacement bus, we started in the Waldorf, a neat brick built pub just off Piccadilly itself and a pub that has, over the years, had more makeovers than a Channel 4 house.  It was more or less exactly one on a Saturday afternoon and the pub was inexplicably rammed and for Boak and Bailey whose thoughts on pubs I have just read, it was rammed with young people. Well when I say young, I'd say mostly twenty to thirty year olds. Bloody young to me anyway.  It was impressively noisy and our joint choice of Purple Moose Elderflower Ale, sufficiently interesting for us to declare it a good start, despite the rather grumpy service.  What also interested me was why the pub was so busy. It wasn't a number of large groups, but just bunches of varied people having a good time. Maybe the Waldorf has found the magic formula at last. I hope so as it is rather a good looking boozer.

My plan fell apart at the next hurdle as Mike fancied a pint of Hydes, so we nipped into the Grey Horse on Portland St which was almost deserted.  Nonetheless, despite me picking the worst tasting beer on the bar, we had a good time by the simple expedient of chatting to the few people there.  The cricket was on the TV and followed with serious intent by a gent on the next table. We nattered about the slow rate of progress and general this and thats and then struck up a conversation with a Burnley fan, in the team shirt, though I had to inspect it closely to rule out impostors such as Aston Villa and West Ham.  The forthcoming season's chances thus discussed, we left with sense of contentment that simple friendly interaction with strangers often brings.

Next up was back on the "new" theme in the shape of the Brink, a newish downstairs bar that majors on beers from no further than 20 miles from its location. That still gives it plenty of scope. They also pride themselves, rightly, on the quality of their cask beer and we supped our pints happily, while the pub, not big and busy enough to start with, became even busier and even noisier.  This was a mixed crowd, mostly young, but spread across the age range.  We had a couple, then retreated as it had become difficult to have our usual detailed political discussion, due to the enjoyment of others being expressed in rather Stentorian tones.  This is actually a cracking little bar and I certainly don't begrudge others their loud appreciation of it.

Last up was another underground bar, the white tiled Gas Lamp.  Just across the road from the Brink in Bridge St, but actually much more pubby to my mind, though the old white tiles do give the slight
impression of supping in a public lavatory.  Here we encountered celebrity in the shape of Aiden Byrne, still dressed in his chef's whites and as he was having a few, hopefully not going back to the stove.  Sadly Mike, a fellow Scouser had never heard of him, but there you go. Again the pub was jumping and we found seats only because a couple left and Mike, quick witted as ever, jumped into their graves as it were. Beer here's a good mixture of cask and keg (think Magic Rock, Kernel, First Chop etc.) and the crowd was anything from 20 to much older with the majority being in their 30s. For some unaccountable reason, instead of my usual cask,  I enjoyed some Schneider Weiss mein Helles which was rather good, though pricey. (As an aside, Schneider, to my mind, is the most improved brewery of the German biggies - most of the rest have gone backwards.)

And that was it. Leaving Mike to stagger off to his longish bus journey, I reflected on our visits. Four great pub experiences, though all slightly different and apart from one, all really busy. There's hope for the pub yet.

I somehow forgot to take any photos. Those here are from the pub's websites.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Sarajevski Pivare


Sarajevo had it bad during the last war. When they say "last war" in Bosnia, they don't mean World War 2, but the civil war which followed the break up of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo was besieged for 1425 days by the surrounding army of the breakaway Republika Srbska with over 10,000 killed.  The scars, faded though they are, can still be seen there today.

We had dinner in the Sarajevo Brewery Beer Hall one night. The brewery itself, also badly damaged in the siege is a big one dating back to 1864 and was the largest brewery in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though extensively modernised in 1991. Sadly it was a victim of the war and it took until 2006 before it was restored in its mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian styles. Frankly, looking at the outside and indeed in the Beer Hall, with its fin de siècle decor, you'd never know, though in fairness, we visited in the dark.  The building is large and current production capacity according to their website is around 400,000 hectolitres. As far as I can tell, the brewery is still locally owned. Its beers are everywhere in Bosnia-Hertzegovina, or rather, Sarajevsko Beer, a standard continental pilsner type was everywhere.  The only place I saw the dark was in the brewery. And trust me, I looked.

The Beer Hall is superb. On the ground floor is a large bar and lots of wood and wrought iron with a large upstairs gallery where we ate and drank.  there is a fine vaulted ceiling made of bricks and its dim lighting certainly made the place atmospheric. It was only opened in 2004, but to look at it and to experience it is to be transported back to grander times.  I really don't know if some of it is old or restored, or if it is all "new". Either way, it looks tremendous and looking down on the bar from above is quite a delight.

What of the beer though? I drank the dark beer which was really rather good, soft, sweetish and mild- like, but I didn't try the unfiltered  lager, though maybe I should have. I looked in vain for the Oettinger Weissbier which is brewed in the brewery under license, but there was no sign of it there, or, indeed, anywhere else.  The food was excellent and in the typical Bosnian way, substantial. You don't tend to need a bag of chips on the way home after dining out thereabouts.

If you visit Sarajevo, don't miss it.

Looking back at the photos on the website, it has a kind of Wetherspoon look. But only in the photos.  In real life that didn't occur to me.

I'd have gone back again if we'd had time. Maybe I could have found the weissbier. After unrelenting taste-alike pilsner upon pilsner, that would have been nice.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Always Read the Label


After my less that satisfactory drinking experience written about here, we sought some scenery. You can't go to Dubrovnik without sitting at a harbour-side in the sunshine, with houses tumbling down the hillside and the sun glinting off the water as the boats go in and out. People watching in such circumstances is not only a pleasure, but an absolute must.

We found such a harbour and a little restaurant with tables outside and after a sneaky look at the menu I reckoned we could have a couple of drinks each and use up our meagre ration of Croatian kuna. A glass of wine for E and for me, taking a punt, a bottle of a dark beer called Tomaslav.  Now this at first appeared to be rather caramel like, but as I got stuck into the 500ml bottle, it became much more tasty and I started to really enjoy it.  It made a refreshing change after many tastealike standard yellow lagers. Now we were up against it time-wise as we had to get back to meet the guide and our fellow travellers in the next half hour. I ordered one more and necked it fairly quickly, deciding, as you do, to take a photo of it for posterity.  I was more than a bit taken aback to find it was 7.3% abv. Oops.  As we set off to dinner, I did feel a bit of a buzz, but a couple of hours later, after a modest couple of (0.1) glasses of wine, I was more or less recovered.

Bit of an amateur mistake that for an old soak like me.

Seems in the Balkans, like the UK, any old glass will do. You rarely got the right glass, even if available.

E thought my buzz was all in my mind, remarking "You felt fine until you knew how strong it was."  Maybe.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Manchester Tops the Beer League


It isn't often - if ever - that I post a press release, more or less as intact, but this needs to be done.  Those of us lucky enough to live in Manchester know what a great place it is to drink beer and now the we have the figures to prove how good it really is.

Have a look at this:

Manchester has emerged as the cask beer capital of Britain, following a major new study into the beer sold in the city’s pubs and bars. The Manchester Beer Audit 2017 found 411 different cask ales on sale in venues throughout the Manchester City Council area, beating nearest rival Sheffield, which boasted 385 beers in its last survey, as well as Nottingham (334), York (281), Norwich (254), Derby (213), and Leeds (211).


The survey also confirmed that Manchester is leading other cities in kegged “craft” beers too, with 234 different beers on sale throughout the city, an increase in variety that has been sparked by the recent boom in craft brewing.


More than 80 independent breweries now operate across Greater Manchester and these breweries account for 38 per cent of all cask beers on sale and 36 per cent of craft keg beers.


“The figures confirm what Mancunians already know – this is one of the best beer cities in Britain and possibly the best place in the world to enjoy great cask beer,” said Connor Murphy, organiser of Manchester Beer Week.


“Manchester has a healthy respect for cask and not only is there a huge variety available but the quality of cask ale in this city is hard to beat. The growth of craft keg beer is also heartening and raises hope that our independent brewing scene can continue to thrive and grow.”


 “But venues could still do more to support the independent Mancunian brewing scene. Although variety remains important and it is great to try beers from across the world, the fact that less than 40 per cent of all available cask and craft keg beers are from Greater Manchester shows there is still room for improvement.”

The Manchester Beer Audit 2017 was organised by the Greater Manchester Branches of CAMRA (The Campaign For Real Ale) in association with Manchester Beer Week and saw 311 pubs and bars surveyed by more than 100 volunteers on one day in May
It found 824 handpumps and 1,957 keg fonts on bars across the city, with 72 per cent of all pubs and bars selling cask ale.

Well, we all knew it here, but it's great to have it confirmed. 

This was a splendid piece of real campaigning by CAMRA. I'm pleased to say that my Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch participated in such an important piece of work. 

Manchester Beer week is in full swing. Connor Murphy, the Organiser is doing a great job of supporting and promoting this great beer city.  He makes such an important point about the great quality of the cask beer here. Come and drink it with confidence.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Up the Garden Path


Bosnia was reassuringly cheap, but what about Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik, just over the Bosnia-Herzegovina border  is one impressive place.  Well preserved walls, glamorous with tremendous eye appeal, a number of picturesque harbours with red roofed villas, climbing up mountainsides, it has everything. It even has craft beer. And lots of tourists.

We spent our last holiday night there and after a wander round the walls - well some of them - there are miles of the things - a beer was required. We had no Croatian money, but a quick visit to an exchange point and with €20 worth we thought we were good for a couple of drinks each. Dinner was going to be a credit card do. Foolish Tandleman.  As we wandered we spotted a little bar with that most alluring of signs "Craft Beer".  Razonoda looked fairly small, but well appointed and almost empty.  Apart from us there were three others. It turns out to be part of the very posh Pucic Palace Hotel.  Google is your friend.

I chose a draft pale ale from Zagreb's Garden Brewery. A third of a litre and pretty good it was too. Sort of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in style if you know what I mean.  The wine list was comprehensive and meaningless if you, like us, don't know Croat wine. E chose one in the middle of the range. The measure was 0.1 of a litre, making what I first assumed to be a damp glass, a pretty expensive drink. At £6 a glass that's £60 a litre. I reckon Jeff Bell would admire that GP. My beer was an unknown quantity price wise. It wasn't on the menu. We lingered over our drinks and paid up. The waitress asked me if I'd like to pay by credit card.  Looking at my paltry sum of Croat dosh and the tab, I agreed with her suggestion.  Converted it was a tad under £12. Our subsequent meal was pretty dear too, but in our rather nice hotel, drinks were under half the price and the wine was in little 200ml bottles. The beer was reasonable too.  

Sadly there was no craft, outrageously priced or otherwise.

My oldest friend who has recently returned from Croatia assures me prices are much more modest away from Dubrovnik, but he encountered no craft. I'm sure too that better prices can be found in Dubrovnik

At least my £10+ a pint beer wasn't murky and I did enjoy it. Craft eh? You have to admire the chutzpah.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Even Me Now It Seems


On Saturday I fancied watching the football. OK I dreaded watching the football as it was Scotland v England, but I still wanted to see it. I like the suffering you see. Of course we could have watched it at our flat, but I like to watch such things in the pub.  Among people. I had also just come back from my holidays abroad and after generic 5% lager, I fancied a pint or two of real ale.  As you do. In two different pubs - we switched pubs at half time - the beer was poor.  Usual problems of it being warm and flat and in the first, nobody that I saw at least, was drinking it, while in the other, it was just not kept well enough.  So far, so normal.  I was after all in London where it is foolish to believe that hope will overcome experience, especially in summer.

Next day we walked along Wapping High Street and we had a drink in Sam Smith's Captain Kidd. E likes it there, but then she has a higher tolerance of the Wapping set than I do. I had Sam's Wheat Beer - I wasn't chancing the cask -  and E a half of Pure Brewed Lager. I believe it was the best part of seven quid the pair in this "cheap" Sam's outlet. We left after one and continued our walk and as we neared the flat, debated another drink in a pub.  We decided on balance not to and nipped in to Sainsbury's to buy a Sunday Times.  Being lushes, we also bought a cheapo bottle of wine for just under £7.50 for both wine and newspaper.  Back at the flat we read the paper and supped the wine.  It kept us going for over three hours for around 70p more than our OK-but -nothing- special beer in the Captain Kidd.  And the wine, (on offer of course) was just fine as a background accompaniment to the Sunday paper.

No wonder people sup at home. No wonder pubs are empty. And some galoots will tell you we aren't paying enough for beer!

I'm not picking on Sam's here. It would have been seven notes almost everywhere in E1.

The football wasn't that bad either as it turned out.comparatively speaking.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Kentish Capers


One of the things I do like is travelling by train. I come from a railway family and somehow it really is in the blood. Short or long, I like to bash a bit of track and keep my eye on which type of unit is at the front end.  As well as meeting Erlanger Nick for a bummel round some Kentish pubs, I get a chance to take the Javelin (BR Class 395 don't you know), to deepest Kent. Fast and comfortable, and with my Senior Railcard, under 20 of your British pounds, what's not to like?

Our first destination was Whitstable, a place I didn't know at all, never having been there, but for Nick with his extended Thanet fetish, familiar territory. The weather was warm, I was on time, Nick was on time, so we set off through some attractive suburbia, heading for our first micropub of the day and what a good one it was too.  The Tankerton Arms is a converted shop of some kind on a High St, rectangular inside with a few nice bits of ephemera and the beer at the back behind a plastic curtain, where it is stillaged in a cool room.  We chose Kent Session Pale Ale and sat outside on the sole table, watching old ladies rummage through the outside display of the charity shop next door and other folks doing their shopping at the butcher's opposite. It was all very Warmington on Sea. So good was the beer and so comfortable the spot that we had a second before setting off for a fairly long walk to the next pub.

Hotel Continental is on the the sea front.  Inside all was modern, spick and span and spotlessly clean. Beers from Whitstable Brewery were procured, both keg and cask and all were pretty good, as was the charming service and welcome from the two barmaids-cum-waitresses.  We sat outside while Nick enjoyed some oysters. The Oyster Stout though was a disappointment. Served on CO2, it was headless and dull. Stick it on nitro and it would be transformed. Just say"no" to CO2 served stouts. They are dull as ditchwater. Despite the headless beer - all of it was - we left with some reluctance, not least of all because of the welcome.  It does work you know.

Next a mistake.  I liked the look of the Pearson's Arms just off the sea front.  Two staff were busy mixing cocktails as we sat at the bar. Neither looked up.  Much farting about took place and in a pub, otherwise empty apart from a young couple, both in turn went off upstairs where presumably others were awaiting their mixed drinks. As they came back neither acknowledged us again until I piped up. It had been seven and a half minutes without so much as a nod in our direction and no real apology for the omission either.  We had a half each of Harvey's Best, which was, unsurprisingly, below par. Piss poor all round.  We couldn't get out fast enough.

No such disappointment at the The Old Neptune, right on the sea. This is a clapperboarded delight and again the welcome was a warm one.  We struck up a conversation with a delightful old man who had come on a commission to paint the pub. No, not with emulsion and gloss, but with oils.  Astonishingly Nick sort of knew him from a forthcoming gallery exhibition in Broadstairs.  This time the beer was spot on and two pints of Harveys Best later, we left, having had a great experience. It's the offer as I always say and this was cracking.

It all gets a bit disjointed after that. We visited The Peter Cushing, a JDW house where we duly experienced horror in the shape of two vinegary beers and a poor soul with a new tattoo of his just deceased brother's name on his arm. We commiserated with him as he explained further turmoil was imminent, as said tattoo had been expressly forbidden by his wife. We left our companion to his thoughts, me reflecting that all life can be found in the pub.  Two more pubs for Whitstable though. One I can't remember, but was ordinary though pleasant enough I recall, and finally, the Black Dog, a micropub, where we had a nice chat to the barman and I agreed to disagree on cloudy beer.

Then to Margate, which I hadn't been to for many a year. Brilliant sunshine greeted us and we walked past a godawful, East European-like eyesore of a block of flats by the station. What were they thinking of when they gave that monstrosity planning permission? Skirting the front we walked to the harbour and the Harbour Arms.  This micropub did nothing for me, nor did the stinking mud of the harbour, so I'll draw a veil over it. Nick quite liked it though.

Last stop was to meet Nick's Mrs (and their dog Tabor.)  Becky is always an absolute delight and we snaffled the table for three under the open window of The Two Halves, which was buzzy, busy and just very good indeed.  We caught up with each other while Tabor the dog made friends. We watched the sun go down until I had to go for my train. By this time I was drinking Rhubarb Cider because I could.

I may have nodded off once or twice on the way back to St Pancras, but I was actually relatively sober by the time I reached Tandleman Towers (South).

Oddly, we only really had two bad pubs beer wise. Most were actually good to very good, but it really is the welcome that sets pubs apart. 

Kent - well this part of it anyway is a delight. I can see why Nick likes it though the bugger is always lucky with weather.  Unlike me.

Monday, 29 May 2017

A Mixed Bag in London


Those of us who do their drinking in pubs, rather than bars or at home, have a cross to bear and it is one I am always banging on about. It is the quality "thing". My recent drinking - apart from my Sunday trip to the Tandle Hill Tavern where the beer is immaculately kept of course - has brought home to me the perils of straying far from the mother lode.  Still it has to be done and here's a few highs and lows from my recent outings.

First of all was a trip to London to the Houses of Parliament and subsequently, some boozing in Westminster environments.  As parliament is prorogued it wasn't possible for us to visit the Strangers Bar as intended, as this is closed presently, but I've been before and while I recall the beer being fine, it was more the thrill of sitting on the terrace overlooking the Thames that I recall most fondly. In fact we sat on an adjacent table to the late Charles Kennedy, but I digress.  This time, that pleasure being denied, for ease (there was 30 odd of us) we assembled at the St Stephen's Tavern, it being the nearest pub. Now I know my pubs through and through, but I have to admit to this being one of the most disconcerting visits to an English pub I have ever had.

You could say I'm not a fan of Hall and Woodhouse beers. Pretty grim stuff really, but needs must. I ordered a pint of Fursty Ferret - I know I must be insane - and a half of Amstel for E.  The barmaid who came from God knows where made no move to pour it, but after enquiring if I wanted anything else asked me how I wanted to pay. "Cash" quoth I, but nonetheless I was given a long lecture about charges if I wanted to pay by card. I interrupted this flow of superfluous information by saying I was paying by cash and she could pour my beer any time she liked. Instead she demanded payment for the as yet (as far as I knew) unpoured beer. I queried this, asking if I was expected to pay up front and was advised my beer was being poured elsewhere by someone else!  Now call me old fashioned but in an English pub,  I expect my beer to be poured in front of me by the person that serves me. I felt quite disoriented by this, but reluctantly paid and in time another barperson appeared from the back with my beer, which on later comparison with other supposed Fursty Ferrets was an entirely different colour. And it was bloody awful and well over £4 a pint. Above all this revisionist deconstruction and reassembling of the familiar pub scene is dystopian and an affront to the pub goer.  Just avoid this confusing tourist hell hole is my sound advice.

We abandoned ship and headed round the corner to Fullers Red Lion.  I thought I'd see if the Pride was drinking well.  My ordered pint seemed to be being poured oddly, so I peered over the bar to see a pint glass of spillage (or whatever) being topped up with fresh beer. I refused this and was served with an extremely indifferent but freshly poured pint of Pride. I advised one of our party of this practice and on ordering, he had the same experience with a different beer. He too refused the pint. When I worked in a pub we called this "slopping".  Bad form from a pub run by such a respectable brewery. An anonymous visit by Cellar Services might be a good thing here.

Still, not everything was bad by any means. In fact it was all very much uphill from here. We called into the Speaker on Great Peter St which had excellent and varied beer and a good atmosphere and again, very good beer and spot on friendly staff were found at Young's Buckingham Arms. In fact I can't recall a better run pub in the centre of London and while Young's beers are hardly challenging in taste, they were at least properly kept and served in a welcoming pubby atmosphere.  Top marks. We also called into the Waterloo Tap. This small, well run, pleasant bar has a good selection of cask and keg beers at very fair prices and we enjoyed a couple before a bus journey for some Harveys in the Royal Oak which is not only a great pub with a great following, but one that keeps its beer very well indeed.

That was the end of beer drinking for that day as we departed for very expensive tapas and Spanish plonk in Borough Market. My oddest drink of the day was found there in the guise of pink cava  while we waited for a table. This beverage was offered by a lovely posh lass I chatted to at the bar while she awaited her date.  It wasn't bad at all.

Her friend when he arrived didn't seem quite so pleased to see me, but this little interlude  certainly gave this old man a boost! She was a delight and very witty with it.

The weather was great which is always a bonus when pub crawling.  The sun shone on me in Kent too, so was that a better experience? I'll let you know.  Oh and a mention of Liverpool

Erlanger Nick was involved in both London and Kent crawls. He likes an hour out.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Returning to Roots


I think it fair to say that I was as surprised as anyone by the announcements that Charles Wells had decided to sell the majority of its brewing interests to Marstons.  Looking at the press release it can be summed up as selling all its major brands, including the flagship Bombardier, as well as the brewery and its free trade accounts to Marstons, but importantly, not the pubs or the John Bull brand, used mainly overseas. There will be a supply and licensing arrangement for Martons to sell into the Charles Wells estate, controlled one assumes by Wells themselves as far as what the pubs can buy.  The deal includes UK distribution and brewing under licence of Kirin and Founders and distribution of Erdinger (the blandest wheat beer ever) and Estrella Damm products.  It includes the brewing and supply of Young's beers as well as the moribund McEwan's range and the more or less dead in the water, Courage brand. So quite a portfolio, but maybe not so shiny when you look at it closely.  £55 million of your UK pounds is probably as good a price as could be had for it.  On the other side of the deal, Charles Wells will be building a new smaller brewery to supply its 200 or so pubs with its own branded beer. That's a good thing.

While I was mildly surprised by this move - after all who, these days,  can get too taken aback by breweries being sold - but what did surprise me more than a little was the reaction from some. "Sellout" cried Roger Protz, the doyen of British beer writing, along with several inaccuracies which he later corrected:
J Mark Dodds, a well known - pub campaigner wrote grumpily in response to comments:
You will also see a pertinent and useful quote from Melissa Cole.  More of which later.

So why did Charles Wells sell a large part of their business?  The most likely explanation is a low margin volume business of declining brands, a cut throat market where the company was too small a player against others such as Marstons, Greene King, Carlsberg and Heineken who can cut margins to the bone to get business.  If you look at what is being sold, Young's is relatively small beer - pun intended - and in Scotland, most people won't touch McEwan's products with a bargepole. The Courage brands are more or less dead in the water and even the mighty Bombardier is hardly the legend it used to be. That leaves supermarkets and the free trade, both of which are low margin and highly competitive. I'm guessing the family looked at it all and judged that the real, lasting and tangible value of the business is in the pubs they own. The value of a portfolio of brands which they likely saw as decreasing value assets, was something they could and should sell while the going was good.  In a dog eat dog world, they decided to rationalise for a more secure future.

Despite what people reckon, most family brewers who are still in the game know their onions.   They haven't survived this long without knowing what is what and understanding their place in the brewing world.  In their heart of hearts that they know they can't compete any more on a nationwide basis. The future of family brewing, to a large extent, relies on doing what you do best - local pubs and local beer. To survive hard headed decisions have to be made. We have seen McMullens and Thwaites retrenching and this, to me, seems almost like a mirror of the Thwaites situation and Thwaites are doing very nicely at the moment, with their new brewery, servicing only their pubs, being built as I write. If Melissa is to be believed and I have no reason to doubt it, the Wells brewery itself may need, shall we say, considerable attention.  That's another other reason to think about a different business model, but sadly, it does cast considerable doubt about the long term future of brewing on the current site, though Marstons do have a pretty good track record of keeping breweries they buy going, so there is hope.

All in all, looking ahead and considering the options and the market, I can see why a family led board came to the conclusion they have. Large scale brewing has its place, but competing on price in such shark filled waters is a nil sum game for Wells and they have realised it. They tried it and it didn't work out. By building a smaller brewery and concentrating on their pubs, they are safeguarding their core pub business, while realising assets which are only likely to fall in value. Reverting to vertical integration with just pubs and a brewery is how they started in the first place.  I don't call that a sell-out, but a sensible business decision in a difficult brewing world. They have sold well and and main assets and income stream are protected.

Going back to where they started may or may not secure Charles Wells' future, but one thing is for sure. Soldiering on unchanged was just as risky and being family owned, the future is still in their hands.  

I am sad for the employees though. I know from personal experience how loyal to the owning family they tend to be. That would have been a tough call for Wells.
Marstons are clearly number one in the super regional game now.  Greene King and Marstons are now the sole brewing giants outside the multi nationals.

Friday, 5 May 2017

It's the Offer Stupid


It is a decent 20 minutes walk from the excellent Laurieston Bar (see below) to Macgregors Pie and Ale Howff, the next recommendation from@robsterowski for my recent trip to Glasgow.  The walk is very relaxing, taking you as it does back over the river, through a little of the main shopping area and then into one of the oldest parts of Glasgow, the Trongate - which is well worth a look from anyone - and hence into High St and after a wrong turn, into Blackfriars St.  The pub itself impresses from the outside, but inside it is a bit poky and gloomy.  Still I have nothing against poky and gloomy, as that could easily describe my beloved local and I like that rather a lot.

Inside three people were at the end of the bar chatting noisily to the barman, who took his time to disengage and come over. I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Ossian from the four, or was it five handpumps and noted with approval that the barman was one handedly splashing beer from the pump into a glass balanced on the drip tray. "Good" I thought "he's clearing the line of old beer as nobody is drinking it."  Mistake. He wasn't. This unappealing liquid was my (short measure) pint. Before I could summon up the words to say anything I was relieved of around four quid and the barman returned to his pals. The beer was insipid and I left a fair bit of it and slunk out, glancing back as I did so. Nobody noticed. I hadn't really existed for them in the first place, a fact I was all too aware of.

Reading various reviews of this place, I realise two things. Most of the praise is for the pies, which get a very good press and which, along with a choice of cask beer, is the main focus here and indeed inspires the pub's name.  Now I realise fully that I may just have been unlucky and it was that quiet spot in the mid afternoon, but I shouldn't have felt so unwelcome.  The barman wouldn't of course have known that he'd play host to a blogger on a day out, but then shouldn't he show just a little more interest in the only customer who was there other than his pals?  Maybe talk me through the beer or something? I reckon so.

So, nothing much to see here at all. Most of all the "offer" was absent. I won't be back. Why would I?  They didn't even ask me if I fancied a pie?

I won't say for a second "Don't go there".  Hopefully it was just a one-off but it wasn't a remotely pleasant experience.  Fortunately my next two recommendations from Rob were excellent.  Three out of four isn't that bad.

The pies do look very good on various websites. I rather fancy a breakfast pie, or the haggis neeps and tatties one.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Pure Dead Brilliant


Following a recommendation by @robsterowski I thought it was about time I visited the Laurieston Bar in the South  Side of Glasgow. He is always banging on about it, so time to see if it lived up to its billing.

The bar is easy to find. Should you be lazy, or, more likely if it is teeming with rain, the Subway will take you to within a quick dash of its front door via Bridge St Station, or if the weather is clement - and it was for me - it is a an easy 15 to 20 minute stroll from Queen St Station and even less if you arrive in Glasgow Central.  Just head downhill to the river, cross Glasgow Bridge pausing to admire the views of the Clyde and the pub is about 150 yards on the right, on a corner, as good pubs often are.  The outside is pretty unprepossessing, but note the blue tiles and the very old fashioned lettering picking out the name. It is strikingly out of time, even retaining the old Scottish Brewers' sign and the McEwan's Cavalier.  That certainly took me back a bit.

I paused at the door for a second. The door to the right said "Lounge" and to the left "Public Bar".  No contest. I went left. Inside the pub is astonishingly eclectic.  I was struck immediately by the pink formica topped tables and the huge array of memorabilia pinned, stuck and otherwise attached to almost every part of the walls.  The bar is a traditional horseshoe shape, veering off to the right where you can see part of the lounge and allowing one bar to serve both areas.  This being around two o'clock in the afternoon, the pub was fairly quiet with a couple of gents sitting at the bar chatting, another old fella sitting quietly with his pint and that was about it. I received a friendly nod from the barflies as I took a place near them at the bar.  The barman was busy at the end of the bar, but immediately I entered he stopped what he was doing and came over to serve me.  The customer clearly comes first here. Other pubs please copy. My choice of beer from three handpumps was Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack which was excellent, though unsparkled. Was that Rob's malign influence I wondered as I sipped?

It would be hard to pick out what is what in the ephemera adorning almost every nook and cranny. Books, photos, newspaper clippings, old signs, a framed Scotland football jersey and more. You could easily spend an hour reading though it all.  After a few moments the barman came over and chatted easily to me about this and that. It was very relaxing.  I watched a much younger than me couple came in and ask what there was to eat. The friendly barman indicated the pie warmer on the bar and mentioned that if they wanted something else there was a good café a short walk away. "No". Pies were fine for these two, but I thought that a nice touch. I supped up and as I was leaving the barman came over and said he hoped I'd  enjoy my curry. (My intended later curry with my Old Mum had been one topic of our earlier few words.) Another lovely touch.

This is one fine pub. I can see why Rob loves it. It is unchanged from the sixties  - a bit of a time warp in a good way if you like - and can be regarded as a living, working museum of an otherwise disappearing Glasgow.  If you have anything about you at all, you'll love it. I'll be back when it is a lot busier, just to get the full atmosphere, but I bet it will be just as good, if not better.

Note the sign from a bygone era about women and the witty rejoinder written below. Click to see a larger photo.

It is Glasgow Bridge, not Jamaica Bridge. I checked



Regrettably Rob's next Glasgow recommendation, didn't go quite so well. More soon on that.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A Perfectly Nice Pub


Well it had to happen didn't it? "What?" I hear you ask? A good, old fashioned, clean, bright, Sam's pub with no oddballs whatever, that's what.

The Roebuck is bang in the middle of Rochdale, set off two main thoroughfares down a ginnel - a passageway to anyone not from the North reading this.  I called in last night pre Regal Moon, having failed in the same endeavour last Wednesday when it was unaccountably shut, though the lights were all on. A mystery that one, though I'm told the same thing happened at the same time in a couple of other Sam's pubs locally. I guess we'll never know, but with Samuel Smith there are lots of things you will never know. That's just a fact of life. Accept it and move on.

One thing to say though is that in this case I have been here before. Several times in fact, but not for some years and anyway in this case I was looking at it through fresh and critical eyes on your behalf Dear Reader.  The pub is very well laid out. A central bar with a cluster of brightly lit boxes, a well appointed room to the right of the main door and a comfortable, wooden floored main bar area with an adjoining lounge sweeping gracefully through to the right and another door to the rear. All this area has leather bench seating and the whole place gleams with cleanliness. It works.  There is the usual Sam's quirkiness with a prominent notice above the bar advising that the brewery has decreed a no tolerance policy on swearing throughout its estate. The punishment is unstated, but the threat is clear. Swear and you'll be chucked out on your ear. I therefore didn't swear and no-one else did either. See? You just have to ask.

The pub was relatively busy. In the room on the right a guy stood at the hatch to the bar, alternating his desultory chat to the barman with a seat at a nearby table.  At the bar, some women were finishing off their drinks, Coronation St Factory style - that is after work as they all had overalls and badges. At the partition which demarcated the bar from the lounge, a couple of respectable gents, chatted on the lounge side, while in the public bar, a table was occupied by two men and a woman, all drinking beer. All were similarly respectable looking.  This was just as it should be really.

I ordered a pint of stout and the barman called me "Sir" without smirking at all. Another couple wandered in and ordered pints of cider. The orderer was similarly addressed.  This was very civilised. I scrutinised the bar - all keg. There was though a kind of new one on me - Sam Smith's Best Bitter at 3.7% dispensed from a red font.   In addition to the stout, there was OBB, Taddy Bitter, Sovereign,Taddy Lager, Alpine and Cider. I don't think Double Four was on though it might have been. There was no mild, light or dark and the two glass fronted fridges contained no bottled beers at all, just mixers and a packet of opened chocolate digestives. Nice.

As I supped up one of the table occupants came to the bar and pointed out politely that his glass, which he had just finished, had a slight chip on the rim. This was acknowledged equally politely and the man took out an old fiver and scrutinised it. He remarked to me that he was in the habit of checking new fivers for the additional etching that can be found in rare cases and described to me the "winners" so far. We talked about this pleasantly while I drained my pint and he took possession of his newly poured pint of bitter. With a smile he rejoined his companions.

As I left he wished me goodnight. The barman was nowhere to be seen, but I'm sure he would have too.

I must go back to the Roebuck on a Saturday afternoon when town is busy.  It was a nice pub, but I'd like to see it in full swing.  It would have looked better too with a couple of handpulls.

This is a Quiz League venue and the pub's success is celebrated with some gleaming trophies. I checked them to see if my name was on any, but alas no. Such cups do exist though. 

Click on images to enlarge.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

New, New and New


It isn't often I have three new things, one after the other, to report, but I have this time.  So, let's get on with it.

Up first was an invitation from J W Lees, to attend the official launch of their collaboration beer with Seven Bro7hers Brewery of Manchester.  I had previously been invited to "help" with the brewing of the beer and as I was unable to visit the brewery for a behind the scenes tasting, due to being at the CAMRA AGM in Bournemouth, I was looking forward to seeing how it had turned out. The beer is called 2 Tribes, the idea being based on the two different family brewers involved coming together. The beer itself is a ruby/dark ale with coffee added, using Bramling Cross and Goldings hops.  At the launch, which took place in Seven Bro7hers' splendid tap in the Northern Quarter, the great and the good were assembled and the beer was presented in both cask and keg form, giving a chance to compare and contrast. I tried the cask first, though I feel it wasn't quite presented at its best, as a black rather than a white sparkler was used, thus loosening the traditional Lees tight, creamy head.  Nonetheless the beer was smooth, easy drinking and malty, with a subtle note of coffee coming through at the end.  The keg version was gassier and less smooth, but more refreshing, though the coffee didn't show up nearly so much. Both were enjoyable, though as it often is at these events, I enjoyed the company and the chance to talk to various people just as much.

We left as the public flooded in and walked downhill to Redbank and Manchester's newest brewery, Beatnikz Republic, based, you've guessed it, under a railway arch. Now it isn't often I'm at the cutting edge of such things, but here I was on the very first day at a new brewing venture. Well, I should say the first day the Tap was open, but it still counts.  This is a spacious and spotless place, high ceilinged, with a lovely shiny floor and the yet to be commissioned vessels down one side and German style tables and benches down the other.  A wall of taps served four beers, all brewed elsewhere (and not in the same place) until owner and brewer, Paul commissions his kit.  All beers are keykeg served at the moment at least.  I tried three of the four beers, the Pale Ale probably being my favourite, though the "Koelsch" with sweet orange peel showed plenty of promise, but made the Germanophile within me bristle slightly at the use of the name.  I really enjoyed the visit though, the chat with Paul and I'll certainly be back when he has full control of brewing on his own kit.

On Saturday a few of us met up in the newest venture to open in my area - the Royton part of Oldham in fact. The Secret Sip is in space terms a micropub, but eschews the usual set up you tend to find in such places. Space is tight with a tiny bar and room for around twenty five, including standees.  It is pretty tight though there is another space upstairs by the toilets which are small air raid shelter type affairs, which I think are unisex.  There are five keg taps and one cask, with a partial tie to Outstanding Brewery, from where the cask beer came. The keg taps varied from Beavertown to Outstanding and all points in between. Some some of my more knowledgeable craft maven companions thought the prices more Central Manchester than Royton, but I'm guessing it discourages a certain kind of customer if nothing else.  In addition, a large fridge is well stocked with bottles and cans.  I certainly enjoyed the time I spent there and again I'll be back, this time trying to avoid the seat by the door, which rewarded me with an icy blast each time the door opened. It was packed out, so that happened a lot.

So there you have it. A new beer, a new brewery and a new pub. Balanced or what?

I've since has Two Tribes served through a tight sparkler and in GBG condition. It really improved it. So much so, that at 5% some of the Tavern lot got quite merry on it. Or, rather, pretty pissed.

My good friend Beers Manchester also wrote here about Beatnikz Republic and no less an idol than @Beers4john  has praised it too.

I understand that the Secret Sip was drunk dry over Easter, so that's going well too.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Where's Humph When You Need Him?


One thing that can generally be said about Sam Smith's pubs is that while they are often rather bare looking, they are always spick and span.  That's a good thing. A nice clean pub means, in the main, nice clean beer.

The Corporation Inn is a pub I've noticed before when on my way to the nearby Curtain Theatre in Rochdale, or the odd time when sampling the delights of the curry shops on Milkstone Road, but I've never been in before.  This predominance of eateries, sari shops, kebab houses and small grocers, tells you that the pub is in an Asian dominated area, relevant only because they don't tend to frequent the boozers. (Well not officially anyway, though one hears tales.) But I digress. On a windy and wet night recently, I popped in.  Now the pub has the usual Sam's job lot of paint and no sign of ownership. Well I say popped in, but I couldn't open the door. From within came a chorused shout of "LATCH". The penny dropped and I lifted the latch and stumbled in. Three grinning faces met me. I reckon they'd observed this scene playing out a number of times, but were still enjoying it. As I would if I was them.  I sussed out one was the landlord, the other his better half and a sole customer stood at the bar.  In a small side room half a dozen other denizens were playing crib - another regular feature of Sam's pubs - and the whole place smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. I reckon the smoking area was directly outside this room, but it was so gloomy I couldn't see exactly where.

I scanned the lit plastic boxes before me, their false brass edges tarnished by years of neglect. Behind the bar I could see a room with various junk. It wasn't exactly tidy this place.  I chose Dark Mild. "Haven't got any" quoth the barman, a sort of Chauceresque rogue. The other choices were Taddy Lager, Cider or Old Brewery Bitter. "Why not have one of each? suggested my bar companion. Deciding to disregard that advice I had a pint of OBB. It was fine.  "Heading for the station?"  I replied in the affirmative, not feeling it wise to say "No actually, I've just come for a nose at you lot and your manky pub".

Looking behind me there was a rather soulless room on the left as you come in with nobody in it and on the right a carpeted and benched seating area which had two customers. One, a fairly young woman sat on her own with a half of lager, while the other, older guy sat reading his paper and supping his pint.  The landlord and his wife had gone to watch the crib players. My fellow barfly asked me what train I was getting, which put me in a difficult position, as I wasn't. This is how lies multiply, but in for a penny, I said I was meeting someone there and that seemed to satisfy.

Nothing else happened. The crib players hadn't looked in my direction once. Nor had the woman or the newspaper reader. My bar mate was lost in his own thoughts and as my pint went down, the landlord returned and watched hopefully, no doubt willing me to have another. When I finished and didn't I was given three goodbyes as I left, not forgetting to keep up appearances by turning left to the station, even though it was quicker to go right.

I again overlooked the bloody latch on the way out, but nobody shouted this time.



This pub reminded me or an old Liverpool boozer or two from 30 years ago. A few locals and year upon year of neglect. Pity, as actually with a few touches and a good clean, it could be a lot more appealing.  Wonder if Humph would approve? I suspect not, but it was a pub where you are treated well enough and that's not so bad at all.

The pub sign was flickering epileptically as I took the photo. Apparently this is not a recent thing.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Think About This


There's a tendency among, shall we call them for talking's sake, "new wave" brewers to push the envelope, discard the tried and tested, do things just because they can and to generally cock a snook at those old fashioned enough to produce beer by the pint that the large majority actually want to drink. Indeed, in some cases, to be plain, downright insulting about those that travel roads more traditional.  I can think of one or two like that, though clearly they are the minority. 

On a similar tack I noted today in Phil's blog a bit of the same concern about the direction of travel, concentrating in this case on the tendency to lump odd things into beer - peanut butter and biscuit anyone? - and positing that the main point seems to be to chuck into the brew, things you wouldn't expect to find generally speaking. So, experiment with off the wall ingredients and flog it to the (admittedly) willing for £8 a pop. Nice work if you can get it. After all, who can complain that is is "off".  "You just don't get it Man".  Now Phil's not making the same point as me actually - wait I'll get there in a minute - but it's a digression that I happen to agree with by and large and not unconnected with another point that Phil makes and leads me on to mine.

I tweeted an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser, sadly to no response, by one of these pesky traditional brewers, this time Marston's MD, Richard Westwood.  In a fairly wide ranging interview Richard made the point, as I often do, about excellent cask beer being ruined at the point of dispense by too many beers and poor cellar practice.  I agree with his contention that there is a need to balance the customer requirement for choice with resulting (lack of) quality issues.  What caught my eye though was his contention that keg doesn't really solve that problem, as it only keeps at its best when opened, "one or two days extra".

Now of course you can regard Richard as a craft knocking dinosaur despite his 40 years in the industry - he isn't at all by the way - read the article - but he makes a point, often overlooked by most of us, that keg beer goes off too and maybe goes off a lot sooner than we'd like to think. The answer of course is to ensure, keg or cask,  that you only sell what your turnover justifies. Does that always happen in the craft world? It doesn't in the cask one.

Mind you, if having just paid £8 a pint, you have no idea at all whether your beer contains odd tasting exotica, or is just plain "off", for peace of mind, best convince yourself it is the former.

Have a go at working out the GSP on Phil's blog. Some dodgy arithmetic methinks

I like @Robsterowski's wine analogy too, though I reckon that most wine makers don't make it up as they go along and charge their customers top dollar for their experiments.

 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Alpine Gasthof


Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith's pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup.  This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don't do that.

Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town. One has to wonder if Sam's wanted to cement its (expired) relationship with Brauerei Aying whose lager it used to produce, why it didn't choose somewhere, more, shall we say appealing?  Somewhere with a nod to rolling Alpine meadows? Haven't they got a few in that Yorkshire place? But they didn't. It's in Rochdale, so we live with that. You will see though from the accompanying photo that the old German looking geezer forever trapped in plastic beer founts, has been released in XXL format as the pub sign. It was nice to see him again, so that's a bonus.

The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam's, sort of on the cheap. It all looks kosher enough, but isn't so substantial. A bit like a film set version. It was deadly quiet when I called on the first sunny Saturday of spring.  One guy sat on the bench seating regarding the bar solemnly, playing with his loose change and supping something lagery. That was it until a barmaid appeared, cheerfully announcing she had seen me approaching on the CCTV. That's another given in almost every Sam's pub - CCTV - with warnings about it posted prominently. I shouldn't be at all surprised if they are all linked to Smith Towers as evening entertainment for Humphrey.  It certainly appealed to our barmaid who regarded it hopefully as if to a crystal ball, looking for customers - or maybe Mr Smith?  I ordered a pint of Samuel Smith Stout. Very tasty it was too and a mere £2.30 a pint for a 4.6% beer. A bargain.  I sat at the bar, munching own brand pork scratchings and waited for something to happen. It didn't for ages then the customer who had shown no sign at all of knowing the barmaid, burst into life, went to the bar and remarked about the weather, calling the barmaid by name while his mix of Taddy Lager and Alpine was dispensed. What excitement.

This hectic pace was maintained when two "lads" in shorts with a child toting a fearsome looking plastic knife came in. Two pints of "half n half" were ordered.  Yes, the local drink again. Taddy cut with Alpine, or is it Alpine beefed up by Taddy? Either way, they spookily knew the barmaid too - and the sole customer. This was great end to end stuff.

The barmaid engaged me in dental conversation about the detrimental effect pork scratchings can have on your gnashers, while remarking that it was always busier on Sunday, presumably having noticed me prowling around the other deserted rooms, though not the balcony, which I felt might be going too far.

I should also mention the lass from the kitchen appeared and gave me a cheery "Hello".  There is lots of restaurant seating in the back, on the balcony and in a variety of rooms - all deserted.  That's very German. The barmaid mentioned that the pub had been done up a few years ago in exactly same colours as it had always been, so it is original I suppose. I think the carpet was the same as the one in the Eagle, so perhaps another job lot?

So, to sum up, the bar and cold shelves had the following. In bottle, Chocolate Stout, Pale Ale, Pure Brewed and Cherry Beer. On the bar, Taddy Lager, OBB,  Sovereign and Alpine Lager (2.8%).   Disappointingly Wheat Beer was absent.

In a nod to passing hipsters, Sam Smith's Stingo ale is priced, I noticed, at a reassuringly expensive £9.30 for 500ml. Well it is bottle conditioned and 8.3%.  I don't think they had any though, but don't let that put you off.

The chatty kitchen lass assured me it wasn't always this quiet. Hmm. Roll on Sunday then.

Next up:  The Corporation Inn. One to look forward to.  Trust me.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Get the Basics Right!


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Well that's another Oldham Beer Festival over and it's time to reflect on a few things beerwise.  Firstly it was a tremendously successful and we expect that the Mayor of Oldham's Charity Appeal, on whose behalf CAMRA run it, will benefit greatly from it.  It was in effect a sellout.

As always in these things I was mainly involved with the beer side, though I didn't manage the bar. I was however intimately involved in set up and given the severe soaking I got from one brewery's cask of beer, secondary fermentation is alive and well.  There are those that reckon most cask beer is inert these days. I'm not so convinced at the micro end that this is true. So many were vigorous - but we don't buy in national brands anyway, as they simply wouldn't sell.  The jury is out on those usual suspects of course, but like many, I "hae ma doots" every time I drink one.

It was also noticeable that the beers that sold out first were mainly local. That may not surprise you that much when we have breweries of the quality of  Pictish and Brewsmith to name but two and as always there are local favourites which fly out. It wouldn't be Oldham Beer Festival without Serious Brewing's Moonlight Stout and true to form, it soon went. If your beer is good, local definitely works, so there is plenty to play for there.

We always aim to have a leavening of beers that we don't see that often in our area and this time, the Beer Orderer went for an East Midlands theme. Now some were good and some, frankly weren't that brilliant, though that could be applied to lots of beers that you stumble across in the pub. Having had a lot of experience of these things, my advice to the small brewer is simple. Get the beers, clean with distinct appropriate flavours and no odd or "challenging tastes" - at least until you have managed the basics and repeatedly reproduced them. If you have the wish to start off with juniper, lime, exotic spices etc, my advice is just don't. The drinking public aren't daft and you will get slow sales and little repeat business. And brew for your customer, not yourself. Just because your muddy mess of odd ingredients appeals to you,think on. It is unlikely to achieve broad appeal.

The beer of the festival, Tryst Chocolate and Coconut Porte might seem to contradict my musings. Not so. Tryst know what they are doing in the first place. Luscious and moreish, it was a worthy winner. 

All the 62 beers were clear and bright or as near as dammit. 

My focus now shifts to Bournemouth and the CAMRA AGM and Members Weekend. This will include three nights in my London gaff, so fingers crossed all round.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mr Smith Decrees


This on the face of it, located as it is on the corner of a main road,  an awkwardly situated pub if you approach it, as most do, going to and fro to nearby Rochdale Infirmary. (Indeed as your hero does when the kindly surgeons inject my arthritic knee with God knows what, every six months or so.) This time, instead of zooming by, I'm approaching more slowly and realise if I turn up the hill beside it there is plentiful parking.  Good to know as you scarcely notice that when driving past.

The Brownhill Hotel is a typical Sam Smith's pub for the area. Clearly Humph has bought a job lot of off-white paint to do all his pubs - or most of them - and the pub is tricked out accordingly externally.  Inside there is a typical vestibule area and short corridor, and a main bar area with bench seating and  a games room to the right. Running the length of the pub a more well appointed lounge area looks inviting enough in that typical Spartan way that Sam's pubs have, but is empty save for one couple.  I see them from my vantage point at the bar, contentedly sipping lager.  In this instance, nobody looked round to check out the stranger, because they are having too good a time to bother. Around a dozen people, men and women mixed, have pole position under the main window facing the bar and they are exchanging banter and laughter with an ease that suggests they all know each other well.  The barmaid greets me with a slightly quizzical smile, possibly wondering why I'm there. I have the feeling she is the landlady.  I detect a Welsh accent and this is confirmed by two things - one an obviously Welsh husband or partner - and two - a scarf hung behind the bar sporting the legend "Cymru am Byth".  An open fireplace in the bar, already set, but in this first warm day of the year, not (yet) lit, completes the picture.

I choose a pint of Light Mild, which is 2.8%, but has the body and taste that many stronger beers would envy. It is astonishingly a mere £1.34 and really very good.  To accompany it, I buy a packet of Sam Smith branded pork scratchings which are comparatively expensive at 90p. Looking round I see behind me in the Sports Room a number of young lads are playing darts, a throwback (see what I did there) to the 70s or 80s.  I wonder idly, as a former darts player myself, if they have a league hereabouts, but there is nothing by way of notices on the wall to suggest it.  In fact there seems to be no notices or much decoration on the walls at all. I suspect this is some kind of decree from the autocratic Humph.  There is one appropriate exception.  The sole notice advises customers that "Mr Smith" has decreed that the pub must be cleared within a half hour of last orders being called and lists the times. Ominously it warns that "doubling up at last orders will not be allowed."

The bar has the usual array of brightly lit boxes. They are pretty standard here, with Cider, OBB, Sovereign and Taddy Lager, with Light Mild and Double Four lager bringing variety.  Oddly the cool shelves have no bottles whatever other than Scintilla mixers.  Almost everyone is drinking Taddy lager, though one renegade, without specifying, is served Double Four.  In fact nobody in the pub orders a drink by name, instead approaching the bar and being served with what I assume is their standard tipple.  The banter continues with the landlord observing a four playing cribbage (again) and chirruping from the sidelines when one hand was over "Winner, winner, chicken dinner." - and why not?

This was a lovely visit. It was great to see folk enjoying themselves with people they knew. I wasn't unwelcome as such, though you can't help but feel a little that you've gone to the wrong party by mistake.

I reckon though if I came in a few times, my Light Mild would also be served to me automatically.

I didn't date take any photos of the inside. I just felt that would not have been appreciated.  A local pub for local people? Yes, but in a good way.

There is an odd bare feel to Sam's pubs. I reckon the Welsh scarf was pushing the boundaries a bit and was the sole and welcome splash of colour.