Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Another Thing the Pub is Best For

One of our Sunday table from the Tandle Hill Tavern has died. We knew it was coming and so did he.  Yesterday after his funeral we met, not at the Tavern, but at the nearby Ship, thus allowing the landlord of the THT to join us to see the lad off in a style he'd have liked. We had a piss up.

It just wouldn't have been the same or befitting in a house or hotel function room.  He was a pub man and only the pub would do.

Funerals are big business for pubs in this area and, I suppose in others. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Do We Like That One?

I'm not a drinker of own brand beers really. I kind of think they are likely to be not very good with one or two exceptions.  These exceptions are usually where a very good brewery has been commissioned to produce a particular kind of beer as part of a range.  But what about those low end "cooking lagers" which aren't brands, but are set up to compete with "brands"?  The nice people at Aldi sent me some beers for me to find out for myself.  A pretty unusual task for this writer, but I thought it might be fun and that I might learn something.

Now I'm a fan of Aldi.  I like many of their things, though like all supermarkets, you have to pick and choose. I have bought beer from them in the past, more of which later, but not their canned offerings,  competing with the big boys on taste and bettering  them on price.  On a sunny Saturday afternoon, me and E decided to give them a whirl. I set them out in order of strength and one at a time, off we went.

First up was Galahad Lager. "Crisp and Refreshing" is the claim for this four percenter. The beer itself pours a nice clear gold with a lasting white head. E picked out the metallic nose straight away. High carbonation and a thin body followed with a touch of wheat spiciness and a slight lemony taste. The verdict? You could do worse actually and it does what it says on the tin. Crisp and refreshing? Yes indeed.

No range it seems these days would be complete without a French 25cl stubby bottle. Brasserie Premium is just such an animal and displays all the usual faults of the breed. All taste and character has been brewed and filtered out to leave a thin, brasso like fizzy liquid. Buy on price only.  At 4.5% Lowenstein gives every impression of being brewed in Germany, down to the rheinheitsgebot conformation, but it is brewed yet again in France. All barley this time and you can smell it on the toasty nose, but it is let down by thinness,  lack of a hop presence or any depth or body from the malt.

Last up is St Etienne which is set to compete with Stella. So brewed in Belgium then? Sorry, no. France again.  I read up on this one on the web and it seems it used to be brewed in Belgium, but now isn't. Commentators have noted the tail off in quality.  The beer manages to be both sharp and sweet simultaneously. It has a bit of a wet dog nose, no hop presence and sort of dies in your mouth.  Pretty horrid really and not as good as the Galahad.  E chucked hers into the hedge after a few sips.

Now I pointed out above that I used to buy beer from Aldi. That beer was Wernesgruener Pils, a real classy German Pils, alas no longer stocked in the UK.  I'd recommend that Aldi find a decent German import again in 33cl bottles, or re-stock Wernesgruener. Branded German beer is cheap as chips to buy and even with UK duty added, well worth the effort.  Those of us who aspire to something better would certainly appreciate it. Those that just want a cheap quaffer could do a lot worse than buying the Galahad.

Oh and maybe don't have all your own brand beer brewed down to a price in France. 

I do know that from time to time Aldi does have branded German lagers in stock, but these tend to be offers in half litres.  

Friday, 24 July 2015

Take Three Beers

It was the CAMRA ROB fortieth birthday bash (yet another) last night. This time it was a curry - a ruby for a ruby. Geddit? We assembled for pre-curry drinks at the Regal Moon. My first choice as it always it when I see it on the bar is Hawshead Windermere Pale, full flavoured, hoppy and a mere 3.5%. If there is a better 3.5% beer in the country, I've yet to taste it.* It was a great start to what would be a great evening.

Next up was a beer about which much has been written and which at its best is brilliant, but which often disappoints. Jaipur India Pale Ale.  Now I tend to try Jaipur when I see it and can say that I usually feel good about it about half the time. I suspect that is little to do with the brewer and a lot to do with pubs serving it before it is really ready.  I have a habit of texting @ThornbridgeDom with reports, but last night I was too busy enjoying the occasion to do so. It was Jaipur at its best. Clear as a bell, precise flavours and surprising drinkability for its 5.9% strength. I bashed two down.

When we repaired to the brilliant Asia Curry House in Rochdale, there was little by way of choice, so I drank Cobra as you do in such places. Actually once it had lost a little of its intense carbonation, it wasn't a bad drink at all, and it gave the shiraz I also had a good run for its money as a curry washer downer.

So there you have it. Three pale beers and each holding its own in its own way. Beer. You just can't beat it can you?

*Actually there is another 3.5% beer even better though harder to come by. It is Iti an all New Zealand hopped beer from, well you might have guessed, the brilliant Hawkshead.  Brewing beer from water, malt, yeast and hops still works best and will never go out of fashion.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Even More Murky News

I read in Jeff Bell's blog that Kernel are ceasing to be part of the Bermonsey Beer Mile, as they cannot cope with the hordes that descend on them, though they are continuing to sell their bottles directly from the brewery.  Not surprising as the whole Bermonsey Beer Mile thing has got out of hand.  When we used to go - and it is convenient for us so we went quite often at the beginning - but latterly we missed out Kernel as it was always packed and anyway, their expensive murky bottles and draft don't hugely appeal to me, or indeed, E.  Nor it seems to some of Jeff's commenters, one of whom describes their customers as "imbeciles".

Nowadays we stick to Southwark Brewing at one end and Fourpure at the other. It makes more sense just to enjoy the walk between the two and neither rip you off on price, or sell you beer that looks like electric soup. 

Kernel are seeking another solution for on sales.  Not surprising really as it must be quite lucrative for them and hard cash is always difficult to replace.   Ironically this comes as the Piccadilly Beer Mile in Manchester officially becomes a thing.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

More Murky

I was out in Manchester on Saturday night. Unusual for me.  An American mate of mine was in town with his girlfriend, so I made my way across town to the Knott Bar, a place I know, but due to its distance from my bus route, not one I go to very often.

After a few pints, I changed my drink to Magic Rock Rapture. I like their beers but was surprised to find it opaque and muddy, almost like the last pint out of a cask.  A barman who hadn't served me noticed me examining it and said "Is that the Magic Rock?"  I replied in the affirmative. "Yes" he said, "they've stopped fining their beers and we are getting complaints. I'll change it if you like." I liked, adding that it just didn't taste right at all.  Now I don't know whether this change to no longer fining beers is true or not, but I have looked after Magic Rock beers before and they always dropped bright. Has this changed really happened or did I just get a bad pint?  Back to the same old problem. The certainty is being swept away. You just don't know any more. Either way, this murky thing has raised its head yet again.  The only saving grace was the barman handling the situation with skill and changing my pint happily.

That is by no means certain if we see more and more unfined beer served without a warning.

My Yankee chum also ordered a bottle of Rochefort 10.  It was my round and set me back £7!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Back to a Grim and Unwelcome Reality

Readers will probably know I don't like murky beer and since Rob Pickering first coined the term, I've become an avid fan of the descriptor "London Murky", though it equally applies to Manchester - or for that matter, Anywhere Murky.

On my return to London from our Spanish holiday, we were both knackered. Handy for our London flat is our local JDW, the Goodman Fields, so we headed along for a quick meal. Our skinny steaks were delicious - surprisingly so perhaps - and the place was rammed. I remember when it opened and for some years after, it used to be empty, so Timbo saw its potential, now clearly fulfilled. I ordered a pint of By the Horns Stiff Upper Lip, though it isn't a beer I'm at all familiar with. Bloody thing was cloudy.  Now here's the problem. How do I know if it is meant to be cloudy, or if it on the other hand, has been slung together by some numpty who doesn't now how to brew beer. Or, possibly, put on too early by a dopey cellarman before it has dropped bright. I don't and can't know of course is the answer.  Now you may say "What does that matter if it tastes all right?" Well it won't taste all right to me and it is me that is buying it.  It will likely taste of yeast and protein trub, because that's what causes it.  Now of course it is a matter of personal taste whether you like this kind of  flavour, but I don't. I like clear, clean, precise flavours in my beer. To my mind if brewers wish to sell the unsuspecting public beer, they should at least have the decency to warn us and hence the pubs that sell it, that it might be cloudy (hazy in murkyspeak). Then at least you have a choice.

When this first became a "thing" like many I'm sure, I thought to myself, "It won't last", but in fact it has. It has actually become more common, widened and deepened.   It is particularly common in London and not only there. It is slowly undermining public confidence in cask beer.

It is also very, very depressing.

I did get in touch with the brewery who said "It is meant to be fined".   They also said something else but that's for another post.

Manchester Beer and Cider Festival

Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2016 will be at the amazing venue of Manchester Central.  It's been a long haul but after many months of searching, negotiating, rejecting and dismissing, Greater Manchester CAMRA Branches have finally come back to our first choice venue for Manchester Beer and Cider Festival.  Since (at the insistence of the main tenants Team GB) we were kicked out of the Velodrome, we have been looking for a new venue.  One of the things that many people, even beer festival goers, just don't understand is how difficult it is to find a large venue in a big city at the time, duration of hire that we need and at a price that we can afford.  Manchester Central has always been where we wanted to be. Formerly known as GMex, this former railway station, now a huge conference and exhibition centre, has proved elusive, but thanks to some hard negotiations and the fantastic flexibility shown by the venue, agreement has been reached.

Now the hard work will really begin as we have a huge space to fill. It's all on one level, bang in the centre of town with bus, tram and rail links right beside it. We can drive our kit straight in, we will have an amazing number of chairs and tables and of course a fantastic selection of beer. I'm not giving away any secrets (I hope) in saying that we are aiming to take full advantage of the recent CAMRA AGM decision on keykeg which allows us to serve cask conditioned beer from those containers. Watch out for a lot of innovation and a lot of new breweries.  You really must be there.

So here's the official press release, but watch out for more info here and on our website

Six months of meetings and negotiations has seen the organisers secure their first choice venue which will allow them to retain all the features which attracted over 11,000 drinkers to the 2015 festival and is expected to attract even more at its new central home. The festival will feature a massive choice of over 500 beers, ciders and perries across a range of bars. Work is already under way on selecting the beers with established favourites including Marble Beers, Hawkshead Brewery and Brightside Beers already on board alongside relative newcomers to the local beer scene including Cryptic Ales and Seven Brothers.

 Festival Organiser Graham Donning said "We are very excited to be bringing the festival right into the heart of the city. With direct access from the newly improved Deansgate-Castlefield Metrolink station and Deansgate rail station, we couldn't have a better location for our customers who flock from across the region and indeed from all over the country to attend." When asked about the process of selecting a new venue he added "The last few months have been very busy behind the scenes as we sought the perfect venue. Myself and my colleagues have visited numerous venues across the city and held countless meetings to discuss available dates, logistics, budgets and all the other dull details which the drinkers never see. We are delighted that we have been able to secure an agreement with what was our first choice venue. "

Although only three years old, the Manchester Beer & Cider Festival has established itself as one of the top beer festivals in the UK, with one of the largest ranges of beers and cider. Up to 13,000 visitors are expected to travel from all over the country and beyond to attend the festival which compliments Manchester's growing international reputation as a centre for craft beer. Hundreds of volunteers will spend four days setting up what will become Manchester's largest pub serving over 50,000 pints over the four day event.

 Tickets for the event are scheduled to go on sale on Tuesday 1st September via the festival website at

Oh and I'm Deputy Organiser again, so it's bound to be good. Get the dates in your diaries now and spread the word please. 

Prices will be very reasonable compared to privately run festivalS and we will have a gobsmacking choice of beer, cider and perry.  The Foreign Beer Bars, not mentioned above will be brilliant. Just come along and see, travel to the venue is easy. .

Monday, 20 July 2015

Venta Socorro

While beer may play an increasing part in the lives of the urbanites of large Spanish cities, in the countryside it is more utilitarian than that, being a small drink of a quarter of a litre to have as a quick refresher, or just as an accompaniment to sit with while chatting.  In Gaucin, a white village perched high in the hills above Gibraltar, bottles of (usually) Cruzcampo were the normal drink of choice amongst Spaniards, while us Brits, when asking for a beer, were automatically given draft in thirds or half litres.

We didn't go to Venta Socorro much. It was underneath the village on the road leading to Ronda and while there was a set of tables, watching the traffic was about the best you could do, though the views upwards across the hills were splendid - and it kept odd hours. It did though have the local cake shop adjacent and was on a good spot at the end of our afternoon walks round the village in searing heat.  It wasn't always busy.

As we approached one afternoon though things were different. On the first table, there was a well dressed old gent with a cup of coffee and a crossword. The next table was empty and we sat down, looking on with interest at the five or six workmen, dusky from the sun, but tinged white with cement and dust getting stuck into the booze.  The old gent ignored us, but cheery "Holas" were shouted by the workers.  They'd obviously had a few, but their drink of choice was gin and tonic.  Now I like a gin, but we ordered tubos (33cl) and enjoyed looking on as the lads grew increasingly inebriated. As the conversation and banter flew back and forth a more gins went down red lane the drinkers grew more animated.  The old gent didn't look up at all, he just carried on with his business. After we'd had a couple of beers the crossworder got up and with a cheery flick of his paper as a way of saying goodbye to all, he was off. We followed a few minutes later and as we climbed back into the village, we could still hear the shouted conversations of the gin drinkers below and round the corner..

While it may not have been beer, I reflected that really you could imagine a similar scene in almost any local pub back home.

I didn't take a photo of the bar, but this painting by Jack McKenzie shows the place and is used in accordance with the terms on his blog.  Cheers Jack.  The coke bottle isn't there any more and the village behind has grown,  but the scene remains essentially the same.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Great and the Good

No, not a run-down of bloggers and their foibles- I'll save that until another time - but a visit, on Saturday evening,  to my Branch area by the CAMRA National Executive and Regional Directors, who are collectively known as the NERDS. See? Even at the top, CAMRA does tongue in cheek.  Sortof.
After (a dry*) meeting in the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury they'd hot coached it to Rochdale where the National Chairman no less was going to assist me in presenting two Pub of the Year Awards to the Baum.  I don't exactly need help after 20 odd years of doing this and saying a few words, but hey, when the Great Chief is in town it would be rude not to. Besides Colin is a splendid fellow. It was also a chance for the NERDS to visit this recently former National Pub of the Year, which many hadn't been to.

They leapt or limped off the bus like a broad section of Viz stereotypes and sweeping all before them hit the bar and ordered pints. It was a mixed scene. Not so many beards, in fact hardly any and there was even a fair sprinkling of women amongst them.  They were a cheery bunch and added to the general buzz on what was a sunny early evening in Rochdale - in itself worth putting out the flags for.  We went outside for the presentation and photos. The Baum has a large and very nice beer garden.  I said a few words, Colin said a few words, Simon from the Baum said a few words and returned to his duties inside.

The NERDS left for their next engagement and we returned to the serious business of supping. It had all been very pleasant really, like most CAMRA events.

 *When I say dry, I mean they drank no alcohol during the meeting. And yes it was dry too.  Apparently.   I'm off on my hols now. See you all in a couple of weeks and on Twitter.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

More Sun and More Beer

After a lovely walk in the sunshine through some of my childhood haunts including Levengrove Park, which is more or less unchanged since I was a boy and still kept very well, I crossed the old bridge back into Dumbarton and headed for our new local Wetherspoon which has the bonus of a beer garden. This is further "bonused" as it were, by being 90% non smoking. 

I was hot, the beer garden was hot, the sun was hot, so lager had to be the beer of choice, but I set myself apart from nearly everyone else by not ordering Tennents, which I observed, perhaps in an understated way, is rather popular in these parts. Being mid afternoon, it wasn't too busy outside, but there was a good enough crowd.  I sat, somewhat soporifically with a great view of the Rock and River Leven (see photo), being lulled into a state of torpor by choruses of "Aye" which is not only Scottish for "Yes" but has a wider meaning really. A bit like "genau" in German it is used where "exactly" would fit. There was a lot of agreement that afternoon.

Ah yes, the beer. It was Innis and Gunn Lager. Quite malty, but not over-carbonated, it was just the job. So I had two.

Pretty busy looking glass though.

Dumbarton is where the Cutty Sark was built by Scott and Linton and completed by rival Wm. Denny when they went bust. Wm. Denny and another shipbuilder John MacMillan gave the land and the money for Levengrove Park.The park cost Denny and MacMillan £20,000 to purchase and develop in 1883.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Bass in the Sun

You don't encounter Draught Bass that often these days in my experience. I know of a couple of places where it is sold, but I wouldn't go there just to seek the beer out as such. It wasn't always so. I used to make many a pilgrimage to the White Star in Liverpool in the early eighties, where the Bass, from Burton Union  sets was worth seeking out. The pub also sold Worthington and Bass Brew X as I recall, but I digress.

On a gorgeous summer's day last week, I was meeting a friend in Helensburgh, a town I know well from my youth in the West of Scotland. The Commodore Hotel is an imposing white building at the far end of this  neat little riverside town. It has a magnificent beer garden and wonderful views across the Clyde to Greenock one one side and the Gareloch on the other. It has changed considerably since the days when me and my plooky chums from Dumbarton used to infest it on a Sunday night in the vain hope of attracting girls. It certainly didn't sell real ale then, but it does now and is considerably more tarted up. Cask Marque accredited too, so I ordered a pint of Harviestoun's Bitter and Twisted with confidence and took it outside to savour the view.  It was cloudy - not the weather - but the beer. I knew it shouldn't be and sipped it cautiously. It tasted fine. Hmm. It was too good a day to bother taking it up with the barstaff, so I just got on with it.  A few minutes later, on entering the bar once more to purchase a glass of wine for my companion, the barman who had been friendly and chatty, asked me what I thought of the beer. "It's a touch cloudy" I said, "but tastes fine". His face clouded like my beer. "It shouldn't be. Have something else". I demurred, he insisted,  I chose Draught Bass and he went off to check the cask.
Outside it was hot and my half finished pint was starting to clear a bit. It had been a chill haze, albeit a quite severe one. Ah well.  The barman had done the right thing and I had a free pint. That's the way it goes sometimes.  As we sat chatting and watching a submarine, surrounded by escort vessels, slowly enter the navigation channel and make its way at snail's pace to HM Naval Base Faslane, I sipped my Bass. It was rich and malty, but really rather good. Oddly it seemed to suit the hot weather and as the afternoon slipped by, more Bass slipped down nicely.

It was pleasing to me that a beer with such a great past could still show its class and compete with a modern golden ale. Who'd have thought it?  Not me I admit, but it did.

The photo shows my pint before it cleared, which it did, though it took some time.  I also wrote about Draught Bass here.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

This Is Lager?

It isn't often that I disagree with the Beer Nut when he describes and recommends a beer, above all because I rate his beer tasting notes as second to none and therefore his recommendations as ones to be taken very seriously indeed. As I neither have his dedication nor inclination, I'm generally happy to enjoy his tastings vicariously and of course, being a lazy git I'd rather sup beer than write tasting notes. So very unusually and with a caveat, I'm going to tentatively disagree with the Beer Nut over this post about BrewDog's This. Is. Lager. (TIL).  The caveat is that the Beer Nut describes the bottled version in his post and I have been drinking the draught version.

Now given my poor views of the state of cask beer in London,  I tend to drink a heck of a lot more lager there. And a lot more gin too.  Drinking cask beer in London (an aside in this post) is far to often the triumph of hope over experience, with its attendant coming down to earth with a bump.  This brings me back to TIL. I was very pleased when BrewDog introduced it and looked forward to it when I heard it was coming to JDW. But it is so variable.  All too few times the beer is clean, hoppy, full bodied, mouthfilling and refreshing and all too many times,  metallic, ridiculously over-carbonated, brasso like and weedy.  I asked E whose palate is excellent and who likes lager nearly as much as I do, to describe it. She summed it up thus: "It's usually too harsh. I used to like it, but I don't now". How can this be?

I offer two explanations. First the old BrewDog problem of inconsistency of product is one possibility and this may or may not be the case. I just don't know. The second and possibly more likely one, is that I'm drinking it in the wrong place. I drink it in Wetherspoons. Why should that be an issue I wondered?  I turned to a friend of mine who manages a leading JDW for his thoughts.  "It doesn't turn over as quickly as it needs to to be fresh and consistent" he said.  "And most people just don't like it."  So is that the explanation?  One piece of evidence for this, in this neck of the woods, came on Saturday in the Art Picture House in Bury.  This Is Lager was being offered (or was it remaindered?) at £2 a pint. E had a half and didn't have any more. She didn't like it.  I tasted it and found it thin and unappealing. Going back to the Beer Nut, I'm not quite so tentative when I say I am somewhat taken aback when he says "Put it in a grown-up serving size and you'd have a rival for Pilsner Urquell"

I disagree. On draught at least, for me and in my opinion, This. Is.Lager doesn't have the same complexity and consistency as PU. Moreover, to me, it just hasn't got the sheer quality of PU. Maybe though I'll have to find a bottle one day to see how that stands up.

Perhaps someone that regularly drinks it in BD pub could give their views? On the plus side, and thinking on, at £1.99 a pint, it is most certainly "Craft Beer for the People"!

I note too that BN had a few eyebrow raised comments about his views and some support.  That's interesting.  Maybe he just got a very good bottle of it?

Friday, 29 May 2015

Manchester Brew Expo

I haven't read much about this event in blogs and was expecting the Manchester bloggerati to save me a job, but looks like I'll need to help shoulder that burden.

What is it I hear you ask? Well it's a collaboration between some of the newer and maybe trendier Manchester brewers to "celebrate our brewing community". And why not? While London is getting many of the plaudits, up here in Manchester we have been getting on with it for years and produce, dare I say it, beers that are the equal of the best London breweries and in fact, much better in many, many cases. There were two events - one for breweries near Piccadilly Station and one for those in what was called the Green Quarter - a term I have never heard of - but turns out to be the area near Victoria Station. So that's all good. I bought into the Saturday one which was the Piccadilly gig. A tenner got you a drink at five breweries, a map of brewery locations, a badge to wear and a fetching pint glass to add to the too many I already have. Still, even if it did mean lugging it about, it meant drinking out of a decent glass. That's good too.  The price was excellent value as it included, should you wish, brewery tours, tastings and the like which had to be pre-booked. Well done on that front.

I started at the new Cloudwater Brewery which I was keen to see. Now I've been to countless breweries and they can pall after a bit, but I am a sucker for stainless steel and I'd seen the photos of this bespoke plant.  In a very large warehouse type unit it certainly looked the part and I joined a party that was being given the spiel by one of the brewers, Paul Jones and enjoyed what was an informative and interesting discussion which included sampling some beers straight from conditioning tanks.  Quite a novel feature and while I liked some beers, I wasn't so keen on others. In particular the sours didn't do too much for me, but maybe with age in a bit of oak that might well change.  I did really enjoy the Märzen, brewed in collaboration with Camden, which had the mouthfeel and colour of the style with a very clever touch of hopping to lift it to a much higher level. I really appreciated too the chance to talk with Paul afterwards. As well as being a thoroughly nice fellow. He has some fine ideas about brewing.  The whole place exudes professionalism and it is done with charm and appeal. I liked it.

After a few (too many) more Märzens and a chat to Manchester Beer Royalty in the form of Beer4John, I was joined by E and we set off on the fairly long trek to Ardwick and Squawk Brewery. We liked it there - oddly homely - with an unusual assortment of mismatched second hand sofas and chairs, it was a comfortable (if very quiet setting) in which to enjoy our beer. Cask and keg on offer here and the beer was very good.  Breweries came thick and fast then with Privateer where I enjoyed cask Dark Revenge, a railway related discussion with the brewer and a loll outside in the sun with its shades of Bermondsey Beer Mile -  but again very quiet in terms of customers, Alphabet which was much busier with Expo Explorers awaiting the "Meet the Brewer" and tasting event.  Keg only these I recall and not really to my taste, though I did enjoy the atmosphere here, with plenty of room and street food.   Finally and very near Piccadilly Station was Track (cask and keg here) where we again bumped into Mr Clarke propping up the bar. I can't tell you which beers I had in the the last two as when I'm enjoying myself, my notebook, as usual, didn't leave my pocket - one of the many reasons I am one of the least reliable reporters of beery events around.  Also, I may or may not have had one too many by then. I'm not saying

All in all a good day out. Superb value for money especially if you signed up for tours and tastings and if they do it again, count me in. I'll be sure to fire up my notebook too.

Oddly apart from a few CAMRA types, mainly at the first and last breweries, I met hardly anyone I know. It was though a pleasure to see so many enjoying the beers and talking and learning about the process.

As you see from the photo London Murky is present in Manchester too. Fortunately only in one brewery.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Big Brother is Watching Everyone

We often see the Health Lobby (whoever they may be) producing blood curdling statistics about alcohol and how it is killing us all.  The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have been at it too. This time the target is Germany who as we know have had an economy blighted by alcohol from time immemorial and are an economic basket case. Oh. Wait a minute. They aren't. 

Seems though that while Germans have cut down in the last few years  to a figure of 11 litres of alcohol per head – 1980's figure was 16.5 litres of pure alcohol – they're still exposing themselves to a lot of health risks by overindulging.  So a pattern emerges that we are all familiar with.  The trend is down but there is still a call to do something about it. In this case the recommendation is to put the price up as there is "a lot of slack in Germany's tax and regulatory framework". The report goes on to talk about mythical potential lives saved (45,000 in Germany), but we all know these kind of stats have to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. There is an admission that to increase prices and restrict availability would affect the innocent as well as the guilty (and this is a worldwide recommendation) and that "This is not a question that economics can answer, each country will have to weigh the evidence in their own circumstances.” 

Well forgive me, but this is an economic question as well as a social one.  It seems though that there is a problem in Germany. Intervention by doctors at an early stage would cost $228 million dollars more than continuing with existing policies which have seen the large reductions in consumption.

Pick the bones out of that.

If you really feel depressed you can read the full report hereIt is only 240 pages long.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Down the Hatch

Among the stuff kindly sent to me last night and referred to here, I was sent this poster of the Saddleworth Beer Festival.1985  Hand designed and quite nice really. Notice the drain on the left hand side of the road. I quote my benefactor about this particular festival.

"The Saddleworth poster has a drawing of the front of the building as you approach up the street, however the significant part of the drawing  for those in the know, was the grid at the side of the pavement on the left. This related to an incident after the Sunday lunch time drinking up session the previous year when a young lady had got rather drunk in the two hour session and instead of using the toilets at the entrance/exit had decided to sit down on the pavement outside and have a piss in the grid. As there is a panoramic view from the window in the hall, this was witnessed by several of the members who were clearing up."

Things weren't always easy in the old days you know.

I have loads more of this old toffee. It'll serve you right if I post it.

Real Lager Back in the Day

Boak and Bailey have an interesting article on the issue of the CAMRA view of lager many years ago. They are right to point out at the start of it that it is more than one of simply regarding lager as "fizzy piss."

Last night I received the attached scan from our Regional Treasurer who was involved with Bury Beer Festival back in 1980.  The list of beers is interesting and it is is gratifying to see that of the 12 breweries (an amazingly modest number by today's standards) no less than 5 remain in production.  That however is not the main point of me reproducing the original programme.  If you look down to Lees there is a lager offered for sale. With an explanation.

Mudgie is always banging on about the poor quality of the lagers produced by regional breweries and he is, in the main right. These were really ales - Kolsch like - in that they were warm fermented by top fermenting (ale) yeast and then cold conditioned before pasteurisation and kegging.  Some were truly awful.  Lees had Tulip Lager and while now, in a modern lager brewery, they produce excellent lagers, it wasn't always the case.

My contact does not say if the thirsty hordes, no doubt including CAMRA members, in a fit of nihilistic doctrinal purity, refused to drink it, though somehow I doubt it. Beer Festivals were still a bit rare in those days.

Click on the image to enlarge. I was also sent an amusing tale which I'll publish soon.


We are always being told by the anti drink lobby of  "alcohol fuelled violence", but I have remarked here and in comments hither and thither that I can't remember the last time I saw a fight in a pub.  Well I can now. Sort of.

On my usual Wednesday out at the Regal Moon in Rochdale last week I was vaguely aware of a young woman sitting with an older man in shorts. I was waiting for the rest of the lads and, as you do, I scanned round to see what's what. They were chatting amiably and I wondered for a second if he was her father.  Then when my friends arrived, I forgot all about her and everyone else in the pub, but did notice her and the older guy moving tables as they joined another two men at a table in front of us.  That was that until an hour or so later.  I hadn't noticed them moving yet again, but a sudden shout arose to our right and I turned to see aforementioned guy falling backwards to measure his length on the floor.  The Duty Manager rushed over and within seconds the guy was heading for the door.  It transpires that when a row arose, he and the girl stood up and the girl laid him out with a single punch. She left through the other door.

An unusual incident I think you'll agree. I'm still guessing though that it will be a long time before I "see" a fight in a pub again.

No. I have no idea what this was all about and I didn't see the actual punch or know why she felt it necessary.  I'm passing no judgements here at all. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Cantillon Brewery

Despite having been to Brussels quite a few times, I've never been to Cantillon, mostly because E hadn't fancied going. She doesn't like sour beer.  This time we are with others who are well up for it, so off we go.  We arrive reasonably early when there is just a handful of people inside the brewery which looks pretty damn unassuming from the outside. Inside we pay a modest €7, have our nationalities noted in a ledger and are given an informative leaflet and a family member takes the three of us (the rest arrive later) round the lower reaches of the brewery. Now I have read elsewhere that is is fusty, dusty and cobwebby, which I have always doubted.  It isn't. It is spotless as any brewery should be, but just rather old, dimly lit and made largely of wood.  It is intensely atmospheric.

We are shown a very elderly mash tun which wasn't the original, being acquired in 1936. I ask my intelligent question "Did the Germans not steal any of the copper during the war?"  Now this isn't as daft as it seems, as they were a light fingered lot the Germans, during occupation. They didn't it seems, though our guide doesn't know why not.  Maybe the sense of tradition fazed the occupier? Or the almost church-like reverence the place exudes? Who knows, especially as there is a fair bit of copper to be had.

After that we are left to wander around. We look at the cool ship, empty and gleaming. This is key to the whole business and where the wild yeasts do their stuff. I remember my second intelligent question and ask it when I have the chance "Does the fermentation vary by much in its quality and taste?"  Surprisingly it is very consistent I'm told. These wild yeasts seemingly know what is expected of them. We wander round, following directional signs, looking at huge oak casks and return to the bar and shop.  Our €7 entitles us to two samples  of around 15cl.  First up is a cask 18 month old (young) lambic which is flat as a witch's tit with quite a few jaggy edges. E hates it, so I have two. It needs more age and frankly I prefer gueze anyway for its more refined character.  The shop, by now boosted by quite an influx of new customers, is going like a fair. I reckon it makes more money than the €7 admission. The prices for the beer are very fair but I didn't intend to lug bottles back, so passed, which I kind of regret now.  Our main group arrives and swells the shop's coffers further - well the clothing part of it. I'd always wanted a Cantillon T shirt, but in my size they only have two types of brown and green in stock. E, not so subtly puts me off both.  Apparently neither would suit me. I must go back and get one sometime.

Next we sample a bottled kriek which is a tremendous beer, with the cherries and natural carbonation lifting the beer and giving a very satisfying and balanced taste. Again I get E's.  As we wait for the other, I buy some more kriek by the glass. This is a mere €2.50 and the glass is filled to the brim by a smiling gent who explains "When you pay, you get a glass as full as I can fill it."  An excellent policy.  I also have a taste of cask Iris which unusually has no wheat within, just barley.  Not a great experience really. It may well be lifted by carbonation, but it was just flat and to me, Sarson's like.

Cantillon is an experience not to be missed if you are a serious beer drinker. Even if you aren't it is living history.  Go there if you can.

It seems that 70% of the visitors to Cantillon are not Belgian. That's why the collect this info.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ça Me Goûte

I was in Belgium at the weekend. Brussels to be precise. Belgium is a nice place with nice Belgian people. They speak better French in Brussels than the French do - well more slowly at least - so you can actually make out the words that one vaguely recollects from that Higher Exam paper (I got a B) around forty five years ago. They also appreciate you conversing in French which is more than the French do. They don't tut at your linguistic attempts.  Nor do they charge you around €10 for 25cl of brassoesque beer in an empty cafe that is empty because nobody in their right mind will pay their prices.  The Belgians au contraire brew jolly nice beer at very reasonable prices in bustling pubs and bars. I like Belgium and I like the Belgians. (Actually in truth I quite like France - it's just the French I have a down on, probably caused by the two weeks of non stop rain I had cycling there many years ago and being grotesquely overcharged by a rugby playing bar owner on my last and most recent visit.)

Oh and back to my slightly xenophobic theme, I was nearly pick-pocketed by one of the Moroccan guests of Belgium who, under the guise of asking directions (ho ho), tried to dip my back pocket.  As I was expecting such a ploy, he got nothing but some invective. It crossed my mind to give the little shit a smack, but I dismissed it instantly on the assumption that many of his chums would be, shall we say, watching the outcome of his felony with interest. (And of course because I is very old and would certainly have come off second best.) That aside, we had a great time. I renewed my love of Orval, drank lots of gueze and lambic, ate some bunny rabbits, had a very peculiar Eritrean meal (don't ask) had the opportunity (which I didn't take up) to have profiteroles and chocolate sauce with (or as) my breakfast, walked bloody miles and generally enjoyed myself immensely in some great pubs with great company.

And Eurostar is just brilliant. Far better than flying and you can take your own booze, though I only did 50% of the time.

The title phrase is Belgian French for I like it. It only really refers to food, but hey. It's my blog. 

Next, Cantillon  Brewery and more.

Thursday, 7 May 2015


Like my good friend Jeff, I've been busy lately, hence the silence.  I'm off to London in a few minutes, but I just thought I'd let you know that Oldham Beer Festival was a success and the Mayor will make lots of money for his charities.  I met him too and a nice fella he is.  I also got my photo in the Oldham Chronicle (not for the first time) and was complimented several times on my beer quality.  That's all good.

The winner of the popular vote for beer of the festival was Flaori Maori from Ramsbottom Craft - well deserved too as it was good.  I also enjoyed from the same brewery, my own Chocolate Chilli Stout which did well in the voting.  I believe the runner up was Roosters Baby Faced Assassin.

The beers went down well and most were pretty good. I enjoyed the majority of them but will mention a few that I thought really good. Both Hardknott beers, Infra Red and Lux Borealis were excellent.  I think Lux may have been third in the voting, but don't quote me on that.  Portobello Northern Line Stout was good and Redemption Pale Ale was quite enjoyable, as was Track Mazuma.  I drank a fair bit of Lees MPA too and that stood up well.

Sorry this is a bit rushed, but tomorrow I'm off to Brussels and will no doubt report back.

I drank a fair bit of left over perry on Sunday at a family party. Good stuff and no hangover.  And we cleared the hall in two hours on Sunday. Many hands do make light work!

Photo shows my sample of Chocolate Chilli Stout from Ramsbottom Craft Brewery

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Oldham Beer Festival

It's nearly that time of year again where we present some beers to the general public at the 27th Oldham Beer Festival. I've been involved in most of them and will be curating the beer for your delectation.

The list is awesome, featuring some of the best and most progressive breweries in the UK. Fancy any Arbor? We have it. Hardknott? You betcha. Redemption? "Certainly Sir." "Blackjack Madam? Of course." "A pint? Just as you wish." Something beginning with "P"? "Easy peasy. We have Pictish, Portobello and Privateer." "What about local breweries? Well we have the fantastic Wilson Potter Brewing a special ruby beer to celebrate CAMRA Rochdale, Oldham and Bury's 40th Anniversary or Seven Brothers, Tickety Brew, Track and Millstone." New breweries? Yep. What about Martland Mill from Wigan? or Revolutions from West Yorkshire?" "What? You just fancy a pint of John Willies? Of course. The new seasonal will be on and we have the Champion Winter Strong Ale, Moonraker on cask."

From further afield come Saltaire and Roosters from West and North Yorkshire respectively and even XT from Buckinghamshire.  We musn't forget our own local stars, Outstanding, Silver St, Deeply Vale, Irwell Works, Greenfield, Brightside and Hay Rake.  While hopefully none of the beers will disappoint and there should be something for everyone, I'll pick out a few I'm looking forward to.  Hardknott's Lux Borealis and Infra Red, Saltaire Triple Chocoholic, Arbor Blue Sky Drinking all appeal and of course one brewery and beer I haven't mention is the one I brewed with Ramsbottom Craft, Chocolate Chilli Stout, which will certainly be on. We'll also have the wonderful Flaori Maori.  Rooster's Baby Faced Assassin is also likely to charm.

If you fancy Cider and Perry, ours is, chosen by the former Cider Manager of GBBF who will also present them and answer all your apple and pear based drink questions.  Oh and foreign beer. We'll have that too in a well chosen bottle selection.  We even have fruit wines which are a great seller at this little do.

The info is all in the poster within this article. It will be a great do for good causes and there is plenty of seating.  So come along, sup some beer, cider or perry and do say hello to me.

There are two tongue in cheek words contained within this blog post. See if you can spot them.

Nott At All Bad

One last post about Nottingham and the CAMRA Members Weekend, this time about that often overlooked subject beer and pubs.

Nottingham is a bit of a throwback.  Only its greatest fans would call it beautiful, as it seems an odd mixture of old and tatty and new and nondescript.  But it is a throwback in another way. It has a pub on nearly every corner it seems, even in the centre. That moves it up a notch in my esteem.  Our Nottingham CAMRA colleagues had produced a very comprehensive guide to the pubs and while as always some were better than others, they were a pretty good lot really.

Hot off the train we started at two of the best.  Fellows, Morton and Clayton, near the railway station, is the kind of pub you really like to start off in when you are in an unfamiliar city. Several distinct drinking areas, a lovely atrium cascading light into the rear and a good feel to it. A rather mainstream choice of beers - think Doom Bar, London Pride,Landlord and Black Sheep is augmented by a local beer or two. We enjoyed sparkled pints of Nottingham Extra Pale Ale and banter from the very chatty barmaid.  Almost next door is the Canal House, which features, somewhat uniquely I'll hazard, a full size canal boat within, which you can gaze down on as you sup your pint. Converted from a large warehouse, it was strikingly good and as owned by Castle Rock Brewery, we had excellent beer and as always in this group, excellent service from the cheery staff.  A great start.  Beer was properly sparkled as God intended, more of which later.

Around our hotel clustered another fine bunch of pubs. We liked all of them to varying degrees with a special mention going to the Crafty Crow - modern and studenty, but not grungey - the Roebuck which showed off how Wetherspoons can make the most of a building and perhaps most stunning of all, the Malt Cross, a former Victorian Music Hall with a high arched roof, a gallery and lots of wrought iron. On a Saturday night it was busy with youngsters on their way to a club (judging by the skimpiness of their attire).  It had a great atmosphere and friendly staff,  but the beer could have been better looked after. Too warm and not well enough conditioned, it was served without a sparkler, but crashed into the glass to create a head. Minus points for that.

Near the Conference Hall was another fine clutch of pubs.  The Hand and Heart impressed with a great range of well kept local beers (we avoided those on a stillage) and excellent service, the Ropewalk didn't impress though,  showing the tatty side of student drinking.  The wonderfully named Sir John Borlaise Warren had excellent beer, lovely cheese rolls and the kind of barmaid that truly enhanced the drinking experience by great charm and a wonderful knowledge of the names given to bread rolls in different parts of the country (cobs in Nottingham don't you know).  The Falcon and Blue Monkey  both also gave great pleasure, but the Blue Monkey had that bad habit of removing the sparkler to (allegedly) speed up service. This was one of the few pubs that didn't really give that warm a welcome, but the Blue Monkey Brewery Beer was very good indeed. We finished off on Sunday by repeating our visit to Fellows, Morton and Clayton and that was Nottingham done.  The pubs had put on a great show.

Looking back, the pubs invariably had good beer, were plentiful, varied in type and close together. But really it was the great service and charming bar-staff that really shone.  It was noticeably good nearly everywhere and it does make a difference.

I wasn't asked by barstaff "You alright there?" once. That helped too.  I wonder where Nottingham sits in my sparkler map. Just in I reckon.

We also had quite impressive stops in the Sheffield Tap and the Piccadilly Tap on the way home.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Charlie Bamforth

By way of either a little light relief or as education, the guest speaker spot at the CAMRA's Annual Conference is eagerly awaited by most of us that attend this august gathering. This year I was particularly thrilled when I found it to be Charles Bamforth, Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis University of California.  He is also  British and has much experience of brewing here, mostly as a Senior Quality Assurance Manager at Bass Brewing.

Now I have known of Charlie for many years and was in fact given a book of his by a good American friend of mine as long ago as 1999.  That book, Tap Into The Art and Science of Brewing is my technical bible. I know from industry sources and my friend (Jaime Jurado, Director of Brewing Operations at Abita Brewing Co and formerly a brewer at Truman's in Brick Lane, London) that Charlie is one of the leading experts in CO2 in beer and in what bubbles do and don't do. He knows his stuff.  I rarely if ever get too involved in any technical debates in my blog or elsewhere, as you tend to be a hostage to fortune in such things and I sometimes at least don't feel secure enough to go into technical matter too deeply, but if I do, I check out the "bible" before doing so.  You can imagine then I was delighted to have the chance to hear Charlie speak.

He obviously has a practised act, honed to a very sharp point by use and his very funny and amusing speech was delivered with timing that a professional comedian would have been proud of.  He took the mickey out of wine and its pretentiousness,  had a very positive view of cask beer which he declared to be without equal when done well and generally anecdoted his way through a very entertaining half hour. He also (to my surprise in some ways) expressed a dislike for nitrogenated beer. It was an interesting speech as well as a very entertaining one. There was time for questions at the end before he whizzed off and I was lucky enough to catch the Chairman's eye and be allowed to ask one.  My chosen subject was about deliberate turbidity in beer. London Murky in other words.  Essentially his answer was that while a little haziness might be forgiven, there is no excuse for beers that look like "chicken soup."

Good enough for me. If Charlie is agin it, I'm on his side. If you dispute this, write to Charlie, not me. He'll put a(kindly) flea in your ear I'm sure.

Jaime is a bit of a whizz at the old dispense too. I remember being invited to Porterhouse in London by him when he had sorted out some fobbing issues for them.

Regretfully Charlie was gone immediately after his speech, so I didn't get a chance to talk to him.  Great shame that.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Not Such Dinosaurs After All?

Well that was a more interesting weekend than I thought.  The recent CAMRA Members Weekend was much more far reaching than I predicted it might be, with a decided nod to the future and a much more forward look for CAMRA's involvement in the beer world.

First of all we can say with certainty that the backward facing motions were defeated, while progressive motions were passed, but underneath it all and underpinning it, was a noticeable mood change. CAMRA is looking to the future again and that can only be good. Let's look at some detail.  Motions to remove our involvement from generic beer campaigns and concentrate solely on real ale and to leave the Cyclops scheme were roundly defeated. Cyclops is an easy-to-use set of descriptors to explain what a beer will look, smell and taste like.  The motion specifically was unhappy of its extension to non real ales and frankly, that's what doomed it, despite the speaker identifying many faults with it. As for generic beer campaigns, it is pretty fair to say the antis got quite a kicking. The conference wasn't at all in the mood to go along with isolating CAMRA from the wider beer movement.

Our new Chief Executive Tim Page also spoke well and gave us a "heads up" that as an outsider so to speak, he was looking at what CAMRA does a lot more neutrally and had a few ideas so far. He didn't expand too much, pointing out rightly, that he was still learning, but one thing that interested me and will likely interest many readers, is that he was particularly keen to look at CAMRA Democracy. That can only be good. On the last day we also passed a motion to allow the addition of fruits, vegetables and spices to cider and that is among the cider drinkers quite a fundamental change. So fundamental in fact that I wonder if we might see a call for a separate organisation to continue the purist line on this one. I spoke on a number of motions, particularly on motions 11 and 12 (against) and like to think I played my part in putting the positive case for the future. 

Lastly and not leastly, we agreed that where it meets CAMRA criteria for real ale, that keykegs are an acceptable container for cask beer. This might not be as far reaching as some may think, as there is a long way to go in identifying and labelling beers that will be acceptable, but the onus is now on firmly brewers to meet this challenge and rely less on gassing the beers up on filling.

I'll talk more about the meeting and Nottingham pubs in subsequent posts, but I reckon that's enough to go on for now.   What do you reckon?

I did also have a couple of chats about beer with the Festival Cellarman I fell out with. We settled our differences amicably though I think I possibly have a more progressive view of cask dispense than him.  He did all right though in a difficult venue.

I should add that the National Chairman rightly pointed out that the application of external gas that is in contact with the beer is still a no-no as far as dispense is concerned.

Friday, 17 April 2015


Tomorrow I'm off to Nottingham for the CAMRA Members Weekend and AGM.  I'm quite looking forward to it, especially as I've laid off the demon drink in preparation for it. Nottingham may not be the bonniest city in the world, but it doesn't lack pubs, so while the motions for debate don't hugely excite, I'm looking forward to it.

Mind you, I didn't get off to the best of starts on Wednesday when I managed to offend the Cellar Manager of the AGM Beerex on Twitter with what I thought was a fairly innocent remark, but with a bit of turning the other cheek, I think I'll survive.  Back to the main event, I'll be looking to speak on one or two motions, particularly the following:

Motion 5

This Conference recognises that the Campaign for Real Ale believes in choice and that denigrating whatever people choose to drink is counterproductive and can alienate existing and potential members. Therefore, it instructs all branches to desist from “anti campaigns” against other drinks.
Proposed by Marketing and Communications Committee

Motion 11

This Conference instructs the National Executive not to enter into any promotions or campaigns that promote all beers and not real ale specifically.
Proposed by Steve Bury, Seconded by Phil Defriez

Motion 12

This Conference instructs the National Executive to withdraw CAMRA from the Cyclops scheme as it has expanded to all beers and is not fit for purpose.
Proposed by South Hertfordshire Branch

Motion 15

This Conference instructs the National Executive to investigate a labelling scheme for naturally conditioned Key Keg beer, which would allow customers to identify which beers, at the point of sale, conform with the CAMRA criteria for real ale.

Proposed by Melissa Reed, Seconded by Allan Conner

There's one or two others, but as these are about internal CAMRA stuff, I won't mention them here. Just to avoid doubt, I'll be hoping to speak for Motion 5, against Motions11 and 12 and will wait and see what Motion 15 is driving at. It's more fun when you get up and speak, so should make life a bit more interesting.

I'll let you know how it all goes.

The best bit will be seeing old friends of course. It usually is, but I'll enjoy the beer too. I think Nottingham is sparkler territory.

Friday, 10 April 2015

More is Less. Less is More

The good old Morning Advertiser has this piece here which explains that following an HMRC ruling about "yields" per barrel, they have increased prices to landlords, thus turning a reduction after the recent beer duty cut into a price increase. Hey Presto!

Now a few things occur to me about this. They are saying that there is less sediment in their beer - in fact six pints less - therefore the landlords can in fact make money on six pints more. That seems fine as a straightforward piece of arithmetic, but of course, they had been making that money anyway, so I dare say the landlord won't see it that way at all.

The other question that needs to be asked is strikingly obvious.  How have  they have done this? I would assume by holding the beer in bright beer tanks until even more of the sediment has dropped out. Now I'm not against this provided there is sufficient viable yeast for a secondary fermentation - in fact I approve of it as I dislike murky beer- but it could make you wonder just how "real" some real ales are.  Well funnily enough I'm not that bothered and to some of us, hardly news either.  It is the application of external gas to beer that I don't like. That's what makes beer hard to drink to me. The softness of the carbonation in real ale is what makes it swoopable.

So Greene King landlords, the Revenue is right. Greene King is right. Pay up.

Read the comments in the MA article. Fairly even overall, but you get an impression from some that the don't really like GK.

Friday, 3 April 2015

CAMRA - Heading for a High Wall?

As someone that has been actively involved in beer since 1974,  I reckon I have a fairly broad view of things in the UK beer world. I have been (and still am a customer), a worker in a pub, an attender at CAMRA meetings, a seeker after good beer both home and abroad and, since 1989, a local CAMRA committee member of one type or another,  including my last almost 20 years as a local chairman. Nor must I overlook my continuing stint as both a blogger and a beer writer, which has exposed me to a hugely diverse set of people and opinions all held together by beer.  This broad view was widened further when I was the co-sponsor of CAMRA's Fit for Purpose Review in 2010/2011. CAMRA is still guided by and held to account by its outcomes and recommendations.  Or at least it ought to be. There might well be a need for a reminder and probably an update though. It is already a different world.

Like me you'll have noticed that there has been a few thoughtful pieces on where beer is "at" these days and where CAMRA is going particularly.  In a similar way there are concerns about the influence of craft beer has in the UK and consequently its effect on beer festivals, pub going, women, young people and more.  You can of course take this as a healthy thing where a thousand flowers bloom or, perhaps, take a view that there is a struggle for hearts and minds and a tendency by one to dismiss the other more than somewhat. I'm not really that sure where my sympathies lie, but while I welcome healthy debate, I'm not as inclined as some to see current beery situation as entirely benevolent and healthy. I'll try and set my views out below and likely in subsequent posts.

Taking CAMRA first, I was prompted to write this piece by reading my good friend Paul Bailey's blog where he has outlined the achievements of CAMRA, most of which I agree with and his own reasons for taking more of a back seat, which I fully understand too. 30 years of active involvement is a lot to give any voluntary organisation and his feelings are no doubt replicated in CAMRA committees up and down the country where members are getting stale in the job, fed up in the job and, trust me on this one, looking anxiously over their shoulder at the Grim Reaper jogging effortlessly along, not that far behind.  The fact is we are all getting old and there isn't enough young people coming through to replace us. I think CAMRA at national level underestimates the height of the brick wall it faces in terms of its local structure.  Most of us were fairly young when we started out in the campaign. Then you got involved, but while CAMRA has quite a few young members, their inclination to get involved no longer seems to be as strong.  I understand from other voluntary organisations that this is a problem for them too. Now many will say that this is because young people don't feel as welcome as they could be within CAMRA, but in most cases this is not a clique wishing to protect its position. Rather, many of us are a lot of desperate old men looking for a way out.  Most of us would bite a challenger's hand off and nurture them like a bloom in the desert.  Like Paul, many of us have given enough already and far from wishing to cling on to power, would welcome a ready successor and a step down to a less demanding role and to have our time back before Yer Man gives us a clout with his scythe.

There are negative views a plenty about CAMRA but negative attitudes work both ways and it is very difficult for CAMRA to change, if those wishing the change don't try and generate it.  Expecting old leopards to entirely change their spots is surely swimming against nature? In short, life just doesn't work that way.  It is also instructive to this writer at least, that newer active members tend to come from relatively recent joiners, many of whom are retired and for whom an active interest and new friends in retirement is a good thing.  Others, for whom the "job" is at times a chore are happy to see such as those at meetings and welcome them with open arms. That they and any new blood are welcome is not in doubt. In my area at least but I'm guessing that's pretty typical.  There has been much sniping too about CAMRA and its out of date attitudes. Regretfully there has been a few blunders that have done the organisation no favours - I had motions to this year's AGM about that - one of which was about everyday casual sexism which we know is off putting to women. Regretfully the powers that be felt that my motions were already policy, or are capable of being dealt with by correspondence. An opportunity for a little bit of honest appraisal of ourselves scorned I think. To paraphrase the Bard, taking a look at ourselves as others see us would not have been a bad thing.

Having said that, without agreeing with it or excusing it, I reckon that some of the stuff of which CAMRA stands accused  is behaviour that occurs in normal  everyday society, but is somehow attributed exclusively to CAMRA festivals and CAMRA members. That seems unlikely, but we all have to take care. When I briefed Bar Managers at the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I included a few words about ensuring all customers were treated equally and the same.  No disagreement there. All I saw coming back was nodding heads, but it is surely right to reinforce the message. A debate at our Annual Conference would, in this context, have been a good thing.

There is too criticism of our Beer Festivals, which, despite their massive popularity, are seen by a number of commentators to be out of date in comparison with some newer ones. I think much of this stems from being amongst fellows and contemporaries, as these festivals are not aimed at such a broad demographic as ours, though it is a fact that at ours, most customers, young or old, just come and enjoy them with no "political" or comparative thought at all. It isn't a competition and while there is certainly a place for alternative beer festivals which appeal to a mainly young crowd, CAMRA does have to play to its strengths.  CAMRA Campaigns for Real Ale and does it its own way.  We can learn lessons though, but it must be recognised that our customer demographic and aims are not the same as, say, IndyManBeerCon or Craft Beer Rising. Ours are all about keeping real ale alive and any profit is used only to further the Campaign's stated aims.

It may seem odd to some when CAMRA membership is at an all time high to worry about the future, but really that's the best time to do it. There is no chance of CAMRA disappearing soon, but there is a time bomb ticking away. You might dislike CAMRA, but I reckon you'd miss it and its influence if we weren't there.  Publicans certainly would.

I could have gone on about how there may be considered to be two CAMRAs. The central lobbying part and the local campaigning (and social) part and that there is a disconnect between the two, but I've been poring over this long enough and thought it better just to get it out for sensible discussion.  There will be more from me on this theme fromtime to time.

Oh and CAMRA Democracy. There's another one. Feel free to add others in comment. It can be as long a list that you like.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Chocolate Chilli Stout

I was rather pleased to visit Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery to brew a beer with him. Matt brews in a small but perfectly formed two barrel plant in the garage of his home in deepest Ramsbottom.  It has everything you need from mash tun to hop store, all within easy reach and as a bonus he doesn't have to go far to work in the morning or home later.

The beer chosen was a Chocolate Chilli Stout. On the side I'm a bit of a stout fiend. The only other brew that I've had a recipe hand in was with Allgates of Wigan and that was a stout too - and a bloody successful one that has been brewed more than once. I see a pattern emerging.  Now one thing I always think that stout should be is black. That means, to me at least, that it should have roast barley in it. I know you can piss about in other ways to replicate the colour without the "burnt" flavour, but then to me it isn't really a stout.  I know in purist or historical terms that's not so, but if you want me to brew a stout, it will be between four and five percent, be black as the ace of spades and it will have a resinous hoppy finish and be a bit dry.

We decided that the chilli should just be a hint, so Matt prepared some fresh ones and we also had actual cocoa nibs too.  I won't bore you with the brewing details, but while it was all boiling away we took the opportunity to sample some of Matt's bottles. They were good. A list can be found on his very informative website here.  I can particularly recommend Oh Sunny Day and the wonderfully named Flaori Maori made with New Zealand hops as you have no doubt guessed.  The Chocolate Chilli stout  - which had to be re-chillied as we were determined not to overdo it - has just a prickle of heat and is otherwise a classic bitter stout. It was all sold out in advance as Matt's casks tend to and made its début at our CAMRA do referred to in this post. It was very well received on the night by the assembled drunks beer experts and has gone down well subsequently elsewhere, with positive comments. Want to try it? You might be too late for the cask effort, but it will appear in real ale in a bottle form soon. Contact Matt if you are in the area and fancy some.

Stout. Mmm. Under-rated and yummy. We need more of it.

The fact that I had a hand in this beer has certainly influenced my views.  Still a good beer mind.  Of course it is greatly enhanced by perfect cask conditioning and a tight sparkler to produce a classic creamy white head. That and the fact that Matt knows his stuff.  To labout the point, stout just isn't stout without that creamy head.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Baladin, Rothaus Pils and a Sports Bar

Italy isn't like Spain. I'd kind of expected it to be but it isn't. It is years since I spent any real time there - two weeks around thirty years ago - though I have been briefly in Trieste for a weekend. But that's such an oddity it doesn't really count as Italy. In other words I know nothing about its culture day to day habits and modus operandi as such. Other than looking at the odd painting in galleries and remembering "meloni" ice cream rather fondly that is. It rather came as a surprise to find that unlike Spain there isn't a little bar on every street corner. In fact on arrival, the seemingly complete absence of drinking spots alarmed us old soaks as we made our way through Milan's Chinatown to meet our friends at Baladin, something like two miles away.

Baladin is a very pleasant craft beer bar and we assembled in its main room and bar. Those already there were in a hugely complicated round - I wouldn't have fancied picking the bones out of it at the end - but we three stuck together to sample the wares. Two were on handpump though I doubt if they are exactly cask conditioned as we know it. A somewhat ordinary but suppable stout and a somewhat ordinary and less suppable brown. We also tried between us Brune, Nina and Nelson and none really impressed. It wasn't a good start, but we liked the place, the company and the staff were really good and helpful. So not all bad.

Given that we were a couple of miles from our apartment and that others were going away from it, we had a couple of expensive and crap beers in the oddly named Scott Duff where we were introduced to Italian Craft beer service at its very worst. After a couple of rounds which took forever, we buggered off back to our own neighbourhood to seek liquid sustenance nearer home. Spotting trams on a main road a few hundred metres from our gaff, a lighted corner seemed a good bet and proved to be our unofficial home for the next few days. I don't think we ever discovered the name of the Sports Bar, but we liked it and had the bizarre experience of watching World Cup cricket there while getting gently pissed on nonik pints of Rothaus Pils, an old favourite of mine from my Black Forest cycling days and a very decent pint. It is a long time since I've been last out of a pub at chucking out time and an even longer one since I was chucked out at nearly half past two in the morning, but that's what came to pass. A great place with great service, decent beer and good prices. Bloody good toasties too! It was great too to watch the dynamics of the pretty varied crew that were drinking there and the young women running the place certainly showed up those at Scott Duff. This was to become a recurring theme.

So a mixed bag for our first day, but Milan was yet to surprise us with a mixture of good and pretty bad beer and the odd cultural difference. 

One of our party of three had the bright idea of getting breakfast in a nearby McDonalds. Can't even think when I last had one, but even though the idea of a bacon and egg muffin appealed, Italian ones seemingly don't do such things.  So. caffè macchiato and a croissant elsewhere it was.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Thwaites Brewing Division Takes The Knock

Marstons have bought Daniel Thwaites Brewing Division it was announced today:

Marston’s buys Daniel Thwaites brewing division operation:Marston’s has reached agreement with Daniel Thwaites to acquire the trading operations of Thwaites’ beer division. The acquisition includes two leading, premium brands: Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber ales. The total cash consideration is £25.1 million excluding working capital. Marston’s has been brewing Thwaites’ beers since early 2014. As part of this acquisition, it has entered into a long-term exclusive agreement to supply all beer, wine, spirits and minerals to Thwaites’ pub estate. Thwaites’ beer division is a high quality sales business of scale concentrated in the North West of England, including a 150-strong team of regional sales, marketing and distribution staff operating in the Independent Free Trade, National On Trade and National Off Trade channels. The business has shown good growth in recent years, including the acquisition of Hydes Brewery’s free trade business in 2012, which increased Thwaites’ business in Manchester. Thwaites’ two principal beer brands are Wainwright, one of the most popular golden cask ales in the UK and Lancaster Bomber, a premium ale. Both brands have won numerous awards in recent years and are highly complementary to Marston’s market-leading portfolio of premium craft and bottled ales. This acquisition is consistent with Marston’s brewing strategy to focus on popular premium ales with local and regional appeal, and provides an opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and wider consumer interest in the beer category. The transaction is expected to complete on 17 April 2015. In the 12 months to December 2014 Ebitda is estimated to have been around £7 million before overheads of approximately £2 million. The acquisition is expected to be earnings-enhancing in the first full year of ownership; in the current financial year it is estimated that the contribution to profit before taxation will be around £1.5 million. Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s, said: “I am delighted to welcome our new colleagues to Marston’s. We are acquiring a very high quality business with good people and brands, and with growth potential. The acquisition is consistent with our beer business strategy to focus on local provenance and premium brands, and provides opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and increasing consumer interest in the beer category.”

While extremely disappointing news in some ways, this hardly comes as a shock to those of us in the North West.  The writing has been on the wall since Thwaites first of all announced several years ago that it would move out of the Star Brewery Blackburn to a new green field site and sell the existing site to Sainsbury's. Years then passed with no progress and in 2012 the brewery was closed as "obsolete" without finding a new one.  With the exception of Crafty Dan brands, the beer was outsourced to, yes, you've guessed, Marstons. Thwaites then announced a new brewery after all and then maintained a deafening silence on the whole matter. I wrote about the brewery here in less than glowing terms and here in a lot more positive ones.  Seems my enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. Thwaites will continue as a Pub and Hotel Company though one has to wonder for how long?  The record of such Pub Companies is quick demise though admittedly these are changed times, so who knows? Maybe it is a smarter move than it first appears?

However, oddly, it seems that all is not lost brewing wise.  According to the Wolverhampton Express and Star (Thwaites beers are largely brewed in Wolverhampton by Banks')  "Thwaites has retained ownership of craft beer brands and other cask ale brands, including its seasonal ale range, which it will continue to brew and sell in its’ own properties. Daniel Thwaites’ chief executive Richard Bailey said: “This is a very exciting development which allows us to focus on our pubs, inns and hotels, whilst retaining a small brewery to continue to supply our own properties with our fantastic beers and opening up a wider drinks range to our customers through a long term supply deal with Marston’s.

So as you were in some ways, though where these beers will be brewed isn't clear.  We'll have to wait and see.

It is odd that Thwaites refer to their beer brands as "Third Party Brewing Business". Well they are now I suppose.

The Big Four-O

The local CAMRA Branch I chair and have done for twenty years, is forty this month.  We have been celebrating this with a series of piss ups thoughtful events to mark the occasion.  The first formal do was last Wednesday when we met at the Flying Horse in Rochdale to enjoy a few local beers (including one I had a hand in) and to view memorabilia of Branch happenings over the years.  We gathered together quite a lot of interesting stuff, including the minutes and attendance sheet for both the first meeting to establish interest in forming a CAMRA Branch in Rochdale,Oldham and Bury and the first meeting minutes having decided to go ahead.  Many photos of old gits when a lot younger were eagerly perused, as well as posters, beer festival lists and all sorts of other paraphernalia which had been gathering dust in drawers, lofts and garages for donkey's years.  Old colleagues attended and it was rather a cheery evening, with around fifty present.

While that was jolly nice for all of us, what occurred to me was that on an otherwise quiet Wednesday evening, a very large number of pints were consumed, giving the pub a pretty good boost to trade. It also occurred to me that similar events happen all the time and across the country there are countless CAMRA organised events that give local pubs much needed business at quiet times. Quiet midweeks are serendipitously the best time for us to hold meetings and the best time for pubs to host them and thus fill space.  Almost all CAMRA branches are no doubt doing the same kind of thing all the time and in our case, we'll have special events throughout the year and, as CAMRA was growing hugely forty years ago, there will be a lot of this kind of stuff going on. It's all good for pubs.

Some of us may be old and set in our ways, but we are still campaigning for real ale in the best way anyone can, by getting out and drinking the stuff.

My beer was brewed by Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. It was a chocolate, chilli stout of 4.5% and was a dark as possible. It had just a touch of chilli and a beautiful white creamy head. Lovely stuff. It sold out before it was ready for serving and will shortly be available in bottle conditioned form. Want some? Ask Matt here.

Photo (Top) shows me presenting a certificate to the Merrie Monk in Rochdale in 1997.  Alas, like the landlord, the Merrie Monk is no longer with us. I'm hanging on in there.