Friday, 1 July 2022

Two Fab Pubs

 I had a couple of pints with an old mate of mine yesterday. As this was to be an uncomplicated affair, we met outside the Lower Turk's Head in Shudehill, at my request. You see, I rather fancied a pint of Joseph Holt's Mild and there it is sold. Now the LTH is a fairly recently acquirement by Messrs Holt, and it has been done up rather traditionally, and rather well too, in my opinion.  Of course, such makeovers and purchases must be funded, therefore it is by no means cheap by Holt's standards. In fact, a pint of mild was a rather pricey £3.95. This for a 3.2% beer. Oh, well. The weather was decent enough and as we supped and chatted, we watched the comings and goings of the bus station opposite, and the many passers-by. The beer was in excellent condition and the outside eating conducive to contentment, so to even things up, we had another.

Now just a few doors away is the much adored Hare and Hounds, one of the finest traditional pubs in Manchester.  No mild on there, but Joseph Holt's fine bitter at a mere £2.90 a pint. A not unwelcome saving of £2.10 a round. This was in even better nick - in fact remarkably so given that the mild earlier was no disappointment, and we enjoyed a few pints together in the company of a fellow CAMRA worthy of our long-standing acquaintance, who had just popped in for one.  Service here is swift and friendly, as indeed it was in the LTH.  Now, what point am I making? I'm not really sure, but I suppose it is that a quirk of free versus tied trade pricing, allowed us to drink Holt's beers much more cheaply than in an adjacent Holt's house.

So which did I prefer? Beerwise? The Bitter was superb and the Mild not far behind. Pubwise? Well, possibly the Hare and Hounds, as it is the kind of pub that is all too rare these days - a simple drinking house - unchanged, and none the worse for that - even on an afternoon sans geriatric cabaret.* But don't let the price put you off drinking Holt's Mild or other fine Holt's beers in the Lower Turk's Head.  It is all good stuff, and it's a smashing pub in its own right.

In fact, go to both. You won't regret visiting either one.

We watched some shocking and blatant littering too. Some Manchester citizens should be ashamed of themselves. My companion shouted at them to no avail, but at least nobody stabbed us.

Factoid. Within a five-minute walk from there, you can sample beer from all Manchester's large brewers - Holts, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons. 

* Enquire within.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Trouble Brewing, Trouble Selling


It is obvious these are difficult times for many small brewers and for many of those that try and sell the stuff. The press is full of tales of those who are giving up the trade and handing the keys back, overcome by high fuel prices, high rents and lack of customers.

This week, following the Jubilee celebrations, I was returning a container to a well-known and established local brewery, and stopped for a chat with the owner. "How's things?" I asked.  His face grimaced. "Bad, Peter, bad!" he replied.  He went on to describe the current situation.  Pubs which used to take two or three eighteens a week were now taking only one or two nines. Fuel to power the brewery has gone through the roof, the cost of diesel fuel to deliver the beer is frightening and loads are less than he'd like, making the overall trip less than economic. The cost of ingredients is also increasing to add to a difficult picture.  

Undercutting by other small brewers is also playing a part. When he rings regular customers, the phones are often not answered. Nobody likes saying no - so just don't answer the phone is the easy way out - especially if they are buying cheaper and poorer elsewhere. To add to the woes, those who owe him money - long-standing customers in many cases - who he doesn't want to press too hard - are very slow to pay for the beer. He is owed more money than he is comfortable with. All in all, things are not so good.

On the other side of the coin, I spoke a couple of weeks ago to the owner and operator of  a small chain of pubs in our area. He tells me that the number of customers has never really recovered from the lockdown. Many customers, he thinks, have simply got used to drinking at home and with cost of living rises bearing down, the discretionary few pints in the pub are simply pushed to the bottom of spending priorities.  Where customers do come, they come less often and drink fewer pints. An equally depressing picture.

In my own experience, pubs are less busy than they used to be, though of course this varies. My recent trips to London, for example, have seen pubs rather busy and while prices are higher than the most of the rest of the UK, with a bigger return to work, a tradition of after work drinking and predominant use of public transport, as well as bigger salaries are probably having an offset of sorts that you don't find elsewhere.  I know, for example, that my teatime visits to pubs in my area, seem a lot quieter than they used to.

Looking at the Morning Advertiser and other trade press, the horror stories are there for all to see. The cost of running pubs is ever-increasing and while the gouging of operators by pub companies is less conspicuously reported than it used to be, I do wonder how anyone makes money running a Heineken pub, for example. But they are not alone. Sadly, too, it isn't just those that are new to the trade that are suffering, with previously successful lessees giving up the ghost.

So what is to be done? Frankly, I don't know, but one thing is for sure. Use it or lose it just doesn't apply to pubs, but many of our beloved small brewers. Some have already turned their toes up, and more will surely follow. Get down the pub while you still can.

I also maintain that there are far too many breweries chasing too few accounts in a falling market. Sadly, though, it isn't always the worst breweries that take the knock. 

Oh, and prices. They have to go up due to increases elsewhere, but while that is almost certainly so, it will also put another nail in the coffin. A bit of a perfect storm, or more appropriately, a vicious circle.

 Image used  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Wetherspoons. Good or Shite?

I inadvertently started a sort of flame war on Twitter the other day. I innocently called into my local Spoons the other day after a few pints of Holts and Lees.  I took a photo - this photo - which seemed to kick off a lot of angst.

It seems that many of the Twitterati retain a visceral hatred of JDW, even if they up their cask game beyond the "usual suspects".  In a tirade reminiscent of a Usenet Flame War came the sort of comments that are all too often flung about where Wetherspoons are concerned.  You can look for yourself to see what exactly was said, but the same old clichés were trotted out. Let's list a few:

"They buy nearly out of date beer; they are sucking the life out of every High Street; they are loss leading cask beer; they are screwing brewers by forcing them to sell at under fifty quid a nine; £2.10 is an unsustainable joke even before the recent huge increases in EVERY aspect of producing beer;"

You get the picture. Of course, added to the general tirade about Wetherspoons, were the usual attacks on CAMRA and its members for daring to a) offer and b) use 50p vouchers.  Another theme was that brewers are devaluing their own products by selling to Wetherspoons and further shooting themselves in the arse by doing so at unsustainable prices.  I particularly liked this post - countered by Cooking Lager. One can almost feel the spittle flecks:

So what is the truth here?  Like many things, it is complicated. Let's all remember that JDW didn't fall from the skies as a fully formed company of nearly 1000 pubs. Owner, Tim Martin, started with one pub and slowly built his empire. Back then, as far as I recall, the company always used its buying power to keep prices down and attract a wide base of customers on the" pile it high and sell it cheap" model.  I assume as business picked up and the number of outlets increased, their buying power also increased.  This essentially is the model that most supermarkets use. They don't have high profit margins, but they squeeze their suppliers to maintain value to customers. It isn't new at all.  

Back on Twitter, I was moved to respond by naming what I called "the elephant in the room":

I suppose that the argument that brewers are devaluing their own product is some kind of abstract, perfect world thought, as the evidence, rather is that many breweries - most breweries - are not so indignant about the issue that they won't sell. The inconvenient truth is that they are all scrabbling for outlets and the real reason for their supplying JDW, is that if they don't, someone else will.  There are a lot of brewers out there with beer to sell. Likely there are more brewers than we really need to supply the market, but nobody likes to admit it. Oh, and JDW pay the agreed price promptly.  You make beer - you have to sell it. Not much outrage there.

Another inconvenient truth, that we must remember, is that selling cask ale is a quite small part of JDW business, but it accounts for a lot of cask beer. JDW does not make much of its money from cask and if they suddenly ceased to exist - or decided not to sell cask at any price, the problem of over-supply wouldn't go away.  There wouldn't suddenly be sunny uplands where cask beer will be sold at £140 a nine and all breweries would live on milk and honey. Rather, even more of them would have to cease trading. Be careful what you wish for.

So back to the hatred, by some of Wetherspoons. What's really behind it? Yes, they are a big company that force prices from suppliers to be lower than some would like, but unlike, say, certain other pub companies who also buy cheaply, they pass the savings on to customers. Bad people?  There is undoubtedly, too, a certain snobbery aspect. This will be vehemently denied, but really, many rather look down on ordinary people being comfortable with their peers in an environment that they can afford. Better by far they should learn to improve themselves and save up to buy expensive murk in a tin shed or railway arch. That would improve the beer market and give more money to deserving brewers, rather than to the ingrates flogging to Wetherspoons.

So are JDW saints or villains? I'd venture neither. They fulfil a need, and they keep mash tuns full.  You also have to remember two basic facts. Nobody has to go there and nobody has to sell to them, but should you really despise and demean those that do? 

What is/was Usenet? Usenet (/ˈjznɛt/) is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet is culturally and historically significant in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ", "flame", sockpuppet, and "spam"

Back in the old Usenet days in the 1980s, we (semi jokingly) boiled things down a bit when discussing beer. Was it good, or was it shite? Hence this blog piece title.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Eastbourne

 Before it fades from my mind entirely, I thought it worth mentioning the CAMRA Annual Conference and Members Weekend, which took place in early April at this venerable seaside town.  I hadn't been to Eastbourne for many years - the last time in the mid 1980s as a Trade Union Delegate-  and oddly enough held in the same venue. It would be good to say that I remember it well, but frankly, not a single thing - not even the Winter Gardens - had left the least impression on me. It was simply as if I'd never been there before. Furthermore, it was somewhat gratifying that E, who accompanied me, could remember nothing about it either. Ah, well. Not just me, then.

 There hadn't been a "live" meeting for a couple of years, and I hadn't clapped eyes on many of the attendees for some time. I think it's fair to say none of us looked any better for the rest. You could see, apart from the odd few, that CAMRA's demographic time bomb, was all too obvious.  Mind you, none of that made the old buggers - me included - any less lively, and debates and motions were vigorously participated in.  The accompanying Member's Bar - a mini beer festival - was well attended, and the beers from the surrounding areas, were all in good nick. A mixed lot if I'm honest, and the lack of dark beers was soon evident as they all ran out first.  Incidentally, it was noted at the recent more local (to me) Oldham Beer Festival, that dark beers seem much more popular at this kind of event than pale. Fortunately, Oldham had anticipated this, and had plenty to go round. Maybe it is a Northern thing, though I tend to doubt it?

The Eastbourne Organisers had done a good job with the handbook and many useful local pub crawls were detailed.  If I have to be honest, the pubs of Eastbourne - again, none of which I remembered -  were a bit of a mixed bag. Some were surprisingly grungy. One or two wouldn't have been out of place in Gibraltar and if you've been there, you'll know that isn't a compliment, though some were actually rather good.  You certainly had to have a liking for Harvey's Bitter, which seemed to be in every pub. Well near enough.  My pick of the bunch was probably the Dolphin on South Street, though a few veteren


eyebrows were raised at the way one barperson splashed the beer one handedly into a resting glass from the handpump.  But that's a quibble. This was a proper pub, with regulars and visitors and a great atmosphere. Beer in Eastbourne was mostly around the £4 mark, as indeed it was in the Member's Bar. Quality was variable, though generally not bad. We also liked the Marine, which had fantastic bar staff and a really fine pub grub menu. And Harvey's of course.

The town itself is very spread out, and if, like me, you attended all the meeting sessions, it was hard to check everywhere out, though I have little doubt some either did, or tried to.  As always, these gigs are best remembered for the chance to meet old friends, and that we did. I moved one motion and seconded two, all of which were passed, so that wasn't bad. It was all rather good fun.

We stayed two nights, and that was probably enough for me. Despite its reputation as a retirement area and its fine promenade and pier, I doubt if I'll be spending my dotage there. There's only so much Harvey's a man can stand.

I also liked the Bottle Grove, where a lot of the Manchester Crew congregated on the Saturday night. No real ale as such, but it was a jolly little place, with a great host, and the Keykeg was just fine for a change.

The other beer encountered more than once was from Long Man, including at the Stage Door next to the meeting venue. Sorry, but not a fan either and, you've guessed it, the other option was Harvey's. The beer here was in good nick though.

We stayed at the View Hotel, which was excellent and just a two-minute walk from the conference venue. That was wise.  The weather was very kind too, which allowed E and some others, to ascend Beachy Head.  Alas I missed out on this undoubted treat.



Tuesday, 29 March 2022

High Standards. Still Paying Off

When asked about how a pub can make the most of itself, I usually paraphrase Bill Clinton, who when campaigning for President, when asked the most important thing about governing America answered "It's the economy, Stupid".  My paraphrase is, "It's the offer". I don't add "Stupid" though. Well, not generally.  

You would think it obvious that when running a pub, the main consideration would be how best to present the pub to attract the maximum number of customers of the desired type wouldn't you, but amazingly, to this writer at least, that often doesn't happen.  That isn't wholly  the point of this particular piece, though, but it does show the value of getting it right.

The Swan with Two Necks in Pendleton was the CAMRA National Pub of the Year in 2014.  It is a neat little place near Clitheroe in the village of Pendleton. Slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the small detour, if like me, you are on a coach that is going to Clitheroe anyway.  I was with my fellow imbibers from our CAMRA Branch and in the time-honoured fashion we were due at the Swan, by arrangement, shortly after opening time.  There were, I think, about forty of us on the coach and our social guru had arranged in advance, for those requiring it, a lunch of sandwiches and chips.  We'd opted out, as such an early lunch was not needed, but after the warmest of greetings and pints being selected -  we were shown to a marquee in the garden where (for a fiver a head) a veritable feast had been laid out.  This was quality and worth every penny, judging by the oohs and aahs of the participants.

The bar staff, in what soon became a very busy pub (apart from us) were fantastic. They dealt with the thirsty influx with cheerful calmness and control and somehow, we were all served very quickly. The beer range - see photo - was an absolute delight and was immaculately presented, while the landlord and landlady oversaw it all with smiling efficiency.  I recognised the boss, Steve Dilworth, as shortly after the award in 2014, I'd visited the Swan and interviewed him on behalf of the On Trade Preview magazine, for whom I'd been commissioned to write an article on what made an award-winning pub.  I wrote then, "Steve runs a pub that works for him and his customers. He exudes the warmth and welcoming attitude that you hope for in a pub, but don’t find often enough.  If you had to sum up his offer, it is a balanced one that has evolved rather than been devised. At the Swan you get a genuine welcome, good beer, good food (in generous portions) and a pub which is the centre of the community. It goes without saying that the beer is above reproach in its quality and condition." 

It was good to see that almost eight years later that same warm welcome and high standards were still there for all to see. I think it's fair to say that many of us, despite the attractions of Clitheroe, would have stayed there all day. And you can't really have a much higher compliment than that.  We all left with a degree of reluctance, with Steve thanking us and coming out to wave us off.  

The line-up of beers was particularly well-chosen.  But what a dilemma. White Rat, Harvey's Best and Fyne Ales Jarl. How on earth do you pick the bones out of that when you only have limited time?

 I won't do a pub crawl report of Clitheroe, but it is well worth a visit, with a few decent micropubs, the massive Bowland Beer Hall and to me, the pick of the bunch, the New Inn - a proper old-fashioned pub with a great range of beer in top condition.

 

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

There is quite a lot of unseen business in campaigning for real ale.  I know many view the organisation as  merely a glorified drinking club, which, of course, to an extent it is, but there is much valuable work done behind the scenes in the vital area of information gathering.

It is a priority of our Branch to update all the information for the large number of pubs we have in our area. That will mean that the drinking public that use WhatPub - CAMRA's national database of pubs  - will have the most up-to-date information possible. While we try to keep everything as recent as we can, we do tend, naturally, to concentrate on the real ale pubs and clubs in our area. As a matter of interest, we look after approximately 350 pubs and clubs selling real ale across the boroughs of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury, with funnily enough the three areas all have a third or so each. Despite our 2100 members, as you can imagine the task of updating, falls to a few dedicated souls.

Thus, it was I found myself checking up on a long-standing real pub that had been reported as reverting to keg only.  This is a pub that was first a beerhouse in 1860 and only became a fully fledged public house in May 1960.  I rather think that in all the time it has sold beer, it has been sold in either bottled form, or more likely,  as cask conditioned real ale.  Alas, no more.  A very amiable chat with the landlady revealed that she switched to keg on re-opening after Covid-19.  I expressed surprise and with a pained expression she explained, that put simply, over the years and exacerbated by Covid, most of the bitter drinkers had died off and not been replaced. This had resulted in her having to throw away rather a lot of beer. Over time, with no improvement, she realised that she simply couldn't afford this, hence the move to the smooth version.

Looking around me in this neat little street corner local, there were, perhaps, a half dozen people around the bar at 5.30 p.m.  All were drinking pints of lager.  I sympathised with her predicament, and she assured me it was a very reluctant step and maybe one day, things will change.  I replied that I hoped so and left. She was a smashing woman.

There used to be a pub like this on almost every corner, but things have changed so much, that this is no longer the case.  Bigger, brighter establishments have more chance of survival these days, and the corner street or mid-terrace local, where everyone once went, is struggling.  Are bitter drinkers getting older? Well, of course, everyone is, but are these pubs that many describe as boring old men's places going to survive in any great numbers? The older customers that they rely on won't be around forever, in this kind of pub, they just aren't being replaced. Cask beer relies on volume and turnover. If that isn't there, then its presence will always be in jeopardy.

When you see so many closed little corner street pubs that used to be thriving with locals, I for one, am glad that I lived through an era that, while perhaps not the highest point of pub going, was at least when they were, more or less, all seemingly doing well. These buzzy little boozers, alive with banter and familiarity, gave me a lot of pleasure and thinking on, they still do, and I'd miss them if they all went in favour of some of the souless places they call "pubs" today.

So will they survive? It is a difficult question to answer, but looking at the evidence objectively, though some undoubtedly will, for many,  it doesn't feel that way at all.

I'm not naming the pub. That would be unfair. A landlady that made a very good impression on me is doing her best for her business.  That's exactly what she should be doing.

Yes, I do feel sentimental when I think back and when you look at the problem I outline and the people who still drink in them, you can't be optimistic.  The title of this piece tells you that I think not only will many of these pubs be gone all too soon, but those that survey and write about them won't be, relatively speaking, that far behind. 

The photo is from a picture we have in our kitchen.  It seemed appropriate.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Goodbye to Dave Bailey

I'd never been to Millom before.  For those that don't know where it is Millom, according to Visit Cumbria, it is, "a town and civil parish on the north shore of the estuary of the River Duddon in southwest Cumbria, historically part of Cumberland, England. It is situated just outside the Lake District National Park, about six miles north of Barrow-in-Furness and 26 miles south of Whitehaven" Sadly, on immediate inspection, it isn't the most attractive of places, but last Friday, along with my pal Graham who is familiar with these parts, it was where we found ourselves. The reason? To pay our last respects to the great guy who was Dave Bailey, formerly of Hardknott Brewery who had sadly passed on after a very tenacious fight against cancer, detailed on Facebook.

Now, this isn't a eulogy about Dave. Knowing him, he wouldn't have wanted that, but it would be somewhat amiss if I don't mention a few things about him. Many may remember him as not only a fine brewer, but a well known blogger who was active in the British Guild of Beer writers. Before he was a publican and chef (it was there, at the Woolpack Inn at Hardknott Pass that I believe he set off on the brewing path.) Oh, and  he was an electronics engineer, mountaineer and probably a lot more I don't know about. A bit of an all-rounder really and, of course, a family man and a real genuine guy.

Some might say he was an opinionated bugger. Well he was, but he was more often right than wrong and prescient about the beer scene in many ways. His views about cask versus keg, the crowded market for breweries against a shrinking pub market - his ultimate reason for quitting brewing - his relative dislike of CAMRA and SIBA, his views on the beer tie, on beer duty, on sexism in beer are still great reads and relevant today. His blog is still up on t'interweb and I commend it to you. Dave and I didn't always see eye to eye, but we got on like a house on fire in our blogs and in real life. It was always a delight to see him.

So back to Millom. We had an hour to kill before Dave's requiem and wake, so we went to the nearest pub.  The Bear on the Square was rather busy at around three on a Friday afternoon, but the odd thing was everyone apart from us two were women. Well, there might have been a couple of children who weren't, but you get the picture. The woman behind the bar greeted us in a very pleasant fashion and, discerning from our careful perusal of the pumps that we were cask ale types, offered us tasters of the two beers available. No great shakes, I'm afraid, and we settled for something from Cross Bay as the least bad option.  This was supped quickly amid a cacophony of wailing as one of the running about children collided with a hard surface. 

We still had time to walk the ten minutes or so to the Devonshire Arms, a pub which looked to have been decent once, but seemingly had been on the wrong end of a poor makeover. We drank an ordinary pint of Hobgoblin Gold as a local gleefully remarked that he had identified us a real ale types from a distance as we approached the pub.  We grinned back while secretly hoping he choked on his keg Tetley Mild.  In all probability, he was just keeping us talking while his mates were round the back building the wicker men for us.

Dodging that bullet, we headed back to the wake venue, the Millom Palladium, a neat little theatre near the station. People were gathering and after buying a couple of pints of something murky from Fell Brewery - not bad actually - we were warmly greeted by Ann, Dave's partner who was delighted to see us. Then followed a very touching event with readings from Dave's children and brother and a couple of appearances in film from the lad himself, playing the piano, the guitar and an astonishing singing performance in an amateur production. With the addition of photos of him through the years, including on the top of Mont Blanc and his swansong performance in the same theatre a couple of weeks ago, we were left in wonder at the sheer talent and enthusiasm of the man.

At about six, there was a break for food and chat. Our train was at seven, and we said our goodbyes to the people we knew and, of course, Ann. She advised us that we should help ourselves to some Hardknott bottles, which were in boxes under some tables. Tempting though this was, we confined ourselves to a bottle each and a Hardknott glass. For me, Colonial Mayhem and for Graham, Rhetoric.  Had we known about the journey ahead, though, we might well have taken more.

Now the plan was to nip into Tesco for train beers, hop on the 19.05 to Barrow and thence directly to Manchester. We had reckoned without Northern Rail though, who cancelled the Barrow train and, for good measure, the next one. Enquires at Barrow revealed a one-hour wait, a Northern train to Lancaster, catch an Avanti to Preston and then a Northern train to Manchester.  Fortunately there is a rather decent pub just outside Barrow Station, thus it was we found ourselves in the Lancaster Brewery's Duke of Edinburgh, which on a Friday night was busy, with Graham, who used to work in Barrow, inevitably meeting an old pal.  The beer and atmosphere was good, though, and the rest of the journey(s) passed in a pleasant haze of Jaipur and red wine. It was nearly midnight before the train got to a deserted Piccadilly, and a bit more until I got an Uber home.

For some, Dave was a bit of an awkward sod at times, but when involved in the industry, he thought a lot about the place of beer in society, the industry itself and how things fit together. I guess his engineer background prompted that approach. As mentioned above, I thoroughly recommend a read of some of his stuff. The issues analysed at length by Dave  haven't gone away and indeed, since the pandemic, have probably worsened.

I am so glad I went to Millom to pay my last respects, and respect him I did. We had many interactions over the years, and every one for me at least, was a pleasure. His epic fight against cancer, and his will to squeeze every ounce out of life, is a lesson to us all.  He is gone, but his beaming smile when we met will always be here in my mind.

Dave started blogging not long after me. Here's what he said on 24th November 2008. "Firstly, Hoppy Birthday Tandleman - It's not the blog authors birthday you understand, just his blogs first year. I have Tandleman to thank in part for helping me find my way in the blogging world by comments on my blog, and putting up with my comments in reply to his writings. Another blogger who has helped me is Jeff Pickthall, who regularly puts up worthy issues for discussion and provokes Tandleman into interesting counter comment."  I am glad to say Jeff was also present in Millom".

I couldn't resist nicking the photo above from Dave's blog.  I think he'd want to be remembered that way! 

Thursday, 17 February 2022

London. Back in the Cask Game?

Those that know me will be aware that in my trips to London, I rarely drink cask unless I'm absolutely sure of the venue's bona fides. This has come of long experience, where, particularly in the warmer months, it just isn't worth the risk.  Even in winter where cellars are naturally colder, over venting of casks, old tired beer, lack of cooling and the like is such a dispiriting problem that I generally just don't bother.

We hadn't been back in Tandleman Towers South since November and were well overdue a visit, so we went last week and after the tedious task of checking the many rooms (3) for issues (0) we decided for a change to head to Farringdon for a couple of pints.  Our destination was the Farringdon Tap, a place that has been open for a while, but which we hadn't yet been to.  I'd already mentioned on social media that we'd be coming, but it was particularly rewarding that the Boss Man of the owners, Bloomsbury Leisure, had taken the time to meet us and have a chat. I've met Jon before in Manchester in the company of his mate, the legend that is Stonch, so despite me not immediately recognising him, we were off to a flying start.  

The pub was pretty well bustling, which was good to see, and offered a decent number of beers from a steel wall behind the bar. On this occasion, the only cask was Thornbridge Lord Marples and knowing that all Jon's pubs keep their cask well, I had no hesitation in ordering it. It was in excellent condition and as we chatted the need for another became apparent. A great start. One or two things emerged from our chat. First we talked about the new Victoria Tap at Manchester Victoria Station, which should be open in April. This looks to be a splendid venue, with a decent outdoor space, so will be a great addition to the area. The other piece of info is that Jon will be opening another pub near Tandleman Towers South. If you know the area where I rest my ancient bones while in London, you should easily guess how it will be named. Jon then got the call to get himself home from his better half, and as we were keen to be off on another tip, it was well-timed, but it had been very pleasant.

Our next port of call was the Sutton Arms in Great Sutton St, and despite going the long way round - thanks Google Maps - this proved another worthwhile visit. On a Tuesday night, this was absolutely rammed and had a great atmosphere. It was the sort of place you warm to immediately. I had no hesitation in ordering  Five Points Pale and this was in fine nick too.  The barman was very welcoming, but even better, the landlord himself, ushered us to two stools at the end of the bar which had a reserved sign in front of them. "Sit here." he said with a wink. "This is my perch, but you have it".  Fab.  We had a great chat with him - an old school type who I took to right away. His son ran the bar, and amazingly, recognised me and gave me a couple of tasters while we chatted about beer.  Of course, we had another and will be back. A great pub.

On Wednesday, we met an old pal from our neck of the woods for dinner. Beforehand, we warmed up in the Woodin Shades, a Nicolsons pub opposite Liverpool Street Station. Guinness for the pal, Pilsner Urquell for E and for the by now emboldened Tandleman, London Pride, which again was in great condition and enjoyable. 

Thursday saw a little culture with a visit to the Imperial War Museum, with the inevitable trip to sample Harveys in the  deserted Royal Oak.  Just one pint as we were meeting BSF colleagues for a quick one in Fuller's Parcel Yard. They were returning to Yorkshire after a week down South. Again rammed and disappointingly, only London Pride was available - even more so when the lads mentioned it was exactly the same the previous Sunday when they had lunch with John Keeling. Surely they can do better than this? Nonetheless, the Pride was good, and they did put ESB on in time for my second and final pint. 

That wasn't quite it for this visit. On the recommendation of the BSF lot, we nipped over to the King Charles 1, where there wasn't even elbow room. Forcing my way to the bar, I ordered the first cask beer I saw. No idea what it was, but you know, it was great too.

What conclusions do I draw? Well, cask beer seems to be making a post Covid renaissance in London, with the possibility that the reduction in the number of beers offered has resulted in better quality. Pubs were very busy too, so the after work London thing is making a comeback.  All in all, encouraging. 

Our post meal drinks after our meal with our pal - Guinness for him of course - were Litovel Pils from the Czech Republic. No cask in this handy pub (Barley Mow, Curtain St), but it was very enjoyable all the same.  I also had a pint of mediocre cask (Dark Star) in the Oliver Conquest near our flat, but really you should drink gin there. 

And cyclists! At night they have such dazzling lights that  make seeing what's behind each difficult. E was nearly wiped out, as her vision when it is dark, isn't tip-top. Just watching  them in traffic, generally,  is a shitshow of dangerous speedy cycling

Monday, 17 January 2022

Iconic Beers Today

There aren't many cask conditioned beers that can be regarded as iconic these days I'd say. Oh, there used to be quite a few. Tetley Bitter would certainly be one of them and from the same stable, though a different brewery, who of those that supped it regularly, can forget Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale? So good that it became the Champion Beer of Britain in 1990 and a beer that if you saw it, you ordered it straight away, even if only for one pint, because it was one of those beers that was not only dangerously drinkable, but strong to boot. Draught Bass would be in there too and it, of course, despite being brewed by Marstons, still has a certain appeal. Talking of which, Pedigree could well be included.

There is probably a case to be made for certain others. In its heyday, possibly Courage Directors, or maybe Theakstons Old Peculier, but that's about it. Of course, too, some beers were legendary in their own backyard, for example, Shipstones Bitter from Nottingham, Higsons Bitter from Liverpool,  Holts Bitter from Manchester - you could likely include Bateman's XB - and many more. These though were, in the main, recognised as great beers, largely by local customers and some aficionados, while the ones mentioned in the first paragraph were much more widely available and were sought after when seen on the bar.

So what of now?  Well, certainly I imagine Harvey's Bitter would be there. Fuller's London Pride would likely be in the mix and of course, perhaps above all, Timothy Taylor's Landlord. You don't see much of Fullers here in the North, which is kind of puzzling, and rarely do you hear of Harvey's appearing at a bar near here.  But you do see Landlord all over the place. It is relatively speaking common. It also features in glowing and reverent terms on Twitter, in beer discourse, and is thought of very highly in almost every beery circle.

Me and Taylor's Landlord have a bit of history. When I first came to this neck of the woods, a local free house used to sell it. It was on the way to Tesco when we did our weekly shop, and we always stopped on the way back for a couple.  It was a rich, balance of malt and hops, with a distinctive floral touch. The term multi layered really did apply to it.  Alas, the free house was sold to Robinsons and the then landlord presented me with the Landlord pumpclip as a farewell gift. I still have it. And that was that. No more readily available Taylor's. I have supped it in Keighley too over the years and when I saw it on a bar, I always tried it. E loved it too. Of course, there is a but. Over the years, it just hasn't retained its appeal somehow. It isn't the same.

The other night, we were caught in the rain and dashed into the nearest pub. Landlord was on the bar and we ordered it. It looked great, only to taste, it was ordinary. E said, "What's happened to this beer?" I had to agree. It isn't a one off. I can't remember when I last had a decent pint of it. Landlord, from my memory, needs a bit longer to mature than most. Maybe it just isn't being given the time. I know it is often sold too "green", but I don't think that was the reason. The vibrancy and that multi layered source of delight simply wasn't there and hasn't been for a long time.

None of this is to say that Landlord is a bad beer. It certainly isn't in any way, but I accept all things change and that some memories are rose-tinted. Possibly it is just me and E, but I don't see either of us ordering Landlord automatically again soon. And that's sad, but thanks for the memories.

The Landlord pumpclip in the photo isn't the one I mentioned above.  It would take too much finding, but it is mine. The Ind Coope Burton Ale sign is my own too.

Sadly, the pub I mentioned above is no more either. It was the New Inn in Castleton. Robbies sold it for offices after a few years, which was a shame.


Wednesday, 15 December 2021

How Stouts Should Be

 Who doesn't love a good stout? Well, I certainly do, but what I'm not so keen on is those that have been extensively mucked about with. By mucked about with, I mean the addition of the likes of coffee and most of all that evil of all evils, which should only ever appear in confectionary or puddings, vanilla. To that, generally, I'd add blackcurrant - unless to disguise the cardboard taste of Guinness - and most other herbs, fruits and spices. I'll leave a slight exception for a touch of chilli, but that is a now and again thing.

It isn't that I'm against such stuff, and I agree and recognize that there are plenty out there that like these additions, but what I do dislike is that a bit too often, there isn't just a straightforward stout that tastes of, well, stout.  There are exceptions of course, and maybe too many brewers feel that a "normal" stout doesn't get them sales in a crowded market. Well that's fine, but let's at least have an unmucked about version as the default, with the additions as specials.

Others seem to agree that at least these additions should be used sparingly, as I ran a poll on Twitter with the following results:

A respectable 215 people voted, with the vast majority saying stouts should have adjuncts added sparingly and occasionally. 

This doesn't surprise me,  as that is how it should be. 

I did once brew a fantastic stout with Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. It had a hint of chilli. I did an even better one with Aldgate Brewery, which didn't, so make of that what you will.

The photo shows an unmucked about stout taken in Skipton. See previous post.

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Plenty Kisses and No Frogs

A few short weeks ago, my local CAMRA Branch had one of our days out by coach. This time - and we have been there before - Skipton in North Yorkshire - was the venue. No great distance from us, probably 45 or so miles depending on where you measure it from, and a busy market town with lots of pubs beckoned. What would it be like? Now, the way we operate, we aim to get to whatever venue it is by around 12 noon. On this chilly but bright Saturday, we were dropped off at the coach park bang in the centre, more or less on the dot of twelve.

On these events, our social secretary usually prepares a list of pubs to visit. These are recommendations, not a route to be followed, as naturally we are all free to wander where we choose, as long as we are back at the announced departure time. The bus does not wait around.  This time our list was around ten pubs and micropubs, and as soon as we were let loose, off we went, dragging our thirsts behind us. Of course, we don't visit pubs mob handed, people deciding with their cronies where and when they'll go first, if at all, but inevitably groups bump into each other and exchange information. That's always handy, and it is great to meet our lot along the way.

Skipton is a great mix of pub types and micropubs, café bars and micropubs, quite a few of which didn't exist on our last visit around four years ago, but my little group started at a couple of old canalside favourites.  These weren't lacking at all on the cask ale front. Another thing is that the town is compact and while there are pubs further out, such was the quality, ambience and friendliness, particularly of the micropubs, that we found ourselves enjoying the places so much, that sometimes a couple of beers were decided upon, so good was the place and company. In fact, we got nowhere near our list of ten before the witching hour of bus departure, but did in fact, on recommendation from fellow topers, venture off-piste with great success. It was a happy bunch of CAMRA members that departed back to Lancashire, although we left with great reluctance.

So, what does this all tell you? Firstly, when cask beer standards are so high - and I didn't hear of anyone getting a duff pint - as a pub or bar, you simply have to raise your standards, or you will be left behind.  Where standards are high, you can shift a lot more beer, which in turn means you can offer greater choice without diminishing quality. This is the virtuous circle that cask beer needs to thrive.

How does this apply elsewhere?  While nothing is certain, it all starts with having exemplary standards in serving cask beer. Do that, and you should get the custom needed to maintain it. Then, hopefully, others will follow. Cask beer dead? Not a bit of it. Just do it well and see how that helps it thrive and survive.

 This is happening in practice in my CAMRA branch area. Rochdale has an increasingly great cask offer - and it has been pretty good for years. There the pubs get together to offer weekly discounts, annual ale trails and more. Bury is up and coming and the Oldham real ale revival is well under way. 

Another point to make was the great welcomes we all had. Locals keen to chat, friendly bar staff and great beer. Dour Yorkshire folks? Not a bit of it. As always, get the offer right, and you are much more likely to succeed.  Get it wrong and you certainly won't.

I haven't mentioned craft beer. When cask is this good, why would you?

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Looking for Frogs to Kiss

 Our trip to Helensburgh started well. The journey was pleasant, even allowing for the fact that at Gretna Services, nobody could supply coffee due to water pressure problems. Not that Costa, Burger King or KFC bothered telling anyone. They just let you queue, no doubt in the hope you'd buy something else. One shop though had one of these self serve machines, which did the job. But th'Alfa was in fine form, and we arrived in decent time at our digs.

First time we've used Airbnb, but this was a new architect designed build in a decent location, and it turned out to be just fine. Triple glazed against the Clyde's icy blasts and very well heated and modern, we were snug as bugs in rugs. We unpacked, checked it all out and decided a pint was in order.  We weren't eating until seven, and it was just before five, so why not?  Only one place to go, the Ashton, which was a former local CAMRA Pub of the Year, and which I used to have the odd pint in nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, I have been back plenty of times since.

Three cask beers on offer in this Belhaven outlet. Fyne Ales Jarl, Taylor's Landlord and something else which I have forgotten. Possibly even from Scotland? Not taking notes can be a disadvantage - but I don't look like a dork at least. We had to sign in and wear masks, this being Wee Nic's bailiwick, and we soon got used to it again. The beer was good, I was inadvertently short-changed, which gave rise to a bit of banter when I mentioned it. "She's been doin' it for years Son" and the like. A great start and the subsequent meal was fab, so all was well so far.

Next day after a wander round, we tried a pint in the JDW Henry Bell.  I wasn't confident, but after a couple of duff tasters, I had a pint of The Headstock, a somewhat sweet and insipid pale ale from Redcastle Brewery in Carmyle, which is in the East End of Glasgow. Carmyllie which is apparently in Tayside. I suspect that it might have been just about better -though likely not by  much - if it was turning over. By the time I struggled through it, my pal arrived and she, being a gin monster, it would have been rude not to join her in her preferred potion. E was a willing accomplice and after a swift one - or was it two? - we went to our booked table at La Jupe where a couple of pints of keg Jarl before too much wine, was the order of the day. No cask there.

A freezing cold Scotrail Class 334 took us to Oban the next day. The chillness of the train was somewhat abated by the views and good weather.  But so cold had I become, that our first stop was Mountain Warehouse for an additional layer.  Wisely E had more layers than Scott of the Antarctic.  No real ale at our fishy restaurant lunch stop, or at Aulays Bar, where my first pint of Tennents was from a pub that was a finalist in the best pint of Tennents in Scotland. There at least, was a fine traditional Scottish bar and the beer wasn't too bad either, in a tallest dwarf sort of way.  Seeking that elusive frog to kiss, after we had been shopping, we tried the Oban Inn. No real ale there and hence to the Lorne Bar, where a lonely handpump looked as though it hadn't pulled a pint since the summer. At least. A friendly welcome though, and a nice complete island bar with peculiar colour changing lights was enjoyable.  A sort of subdued Highland disco perhaps? Tennents again for us.

Our last port of call was next to the station. The very impressive Corryvwrekan, a JDW house had plenty of real ale at least. Frog snog it was. I rejected the Orkney Dark Island after a taste and settled on their Northern Light Blonde Ale, which was neither refreshing nor citrusy, as promised on the clip but was - well - knackered - and a complete diacetyl bomb to boot.  Back in a wet Helensburgh after another cold journey we nipped into the Ashton, where again, Jarl restored my faith as we watched Rangers win and some local drunks being pretty obnoxious.

Not much to drink at all the next day as it was curry night with my teetotal sister and brother-in-law.  We did manage a walk to the Belhaven operated Ardencaple Hotel, which we reached after a freezing walk in a howling gale, but a nice chat to locals and decent lager from West sufficed. I did note two handpumps, which while certainly not defunct, were not offering cask at that time.

Saturday took us to Glasgow and the Old Tenement House for a bit of culture. Fab place and well worth a visit and handy for the State Bar, a real ale bastion, where cask drinking is not a strange thing to be doing. Not too busy at one in the afternoon, but it was more than gratifying to see the pumps being used at a rate of knots. Stewart Brewing Citra Blonde was two pints good and if we hadn't been meeting our pal again, would have required more. I paid in cash and I doubt if it was giveaway. It isn't price, folks - it is turnover.

And so a final trip to JDW where I gave up on cask for the week. Redcastle again and I disliked the taste of both the IPA and the Red Ale. Bottles of Brookyn Lager - which was surprisingly good - is it still imported? - filled the gap until our evening meal at the fab and packed Sugar Boat.

Normally speaking, real ale drinking can be a bit of a kissing frogs exercise. Especially in strange territory, it takes a long time to find your prince/princess. Here you had to find your frog first and in what is effectively a real ale desert, this is even more difficult than usual. Turnover is very difficult where you are in a drinking environment where, if you don't sell Tennents Lager, just don't bother opening.

So what do I conclude? This neck of the woods isn't really cask territory at the best of times, so buyer beware.  Be very suspicious of a lone wicket and try before you buy.  Recommended Good Beer Guide places are usually a reasonable bet, but even there, turnover can be a problem and as I always say, cask needs turnover above all. 

Sad to see that Belhaven signage is being relegated to second place by its Greene King owners wherever you go. Greene King is being pushed instead on almost everything printed. If it wasn't for Belhaven Best, there would be nothing at all, really.

It was also clear that the English influence in real ale turnover within Helensburgh was diminished by a lack of winter tourists, and there wasn't too big a Royal Navy presence on our visit. They mop up a fair bit, though there were four English lads getting stuck into the TT Landlord in the Ashton.

In my next blog I'll tell you about somewhere where cask is King and the difference that makes.


Monday, 22 November 2021

Two Bad Ideas

 There's a lot of doom and gloom about cask around these days. "It's all being cut back as nobody is drinking it" type of thing and amid that a suspicion - told me by a very reliable source that "fings aint what they used to be" in a rather unexpected way. My source tells me that some cask beer from some larger independent brewers is actually brewery conditioned, such is the fizz and clarity of the beer, combined with the complete absence of sediment.  There is a suspicion that some who have switched to bottling and canning, now that the pubs have re-opened, and cask demand has returned, to meet this demand, beer held in tank and set aside for canning but no longer needed for such, is put into cask without that bothersome business of cask conditioning it. Now this is all too possible, but hopefully if so, was only to use up stocks. If you know any more about this, do let me know. This is not a clever thing to do at all, for many reasons.

In these all too troubling times, another thing you get from those who should know a lot better, is that cask beer should be saved by premiumising it.  Yes Folks, a perishable product, often kept badly and served in appalling condition, should cost more to save it. Such logic would make a cat laugh.  For the umpteenth time, what you need to do with cask beer is keep it well and turn lots of it over. This increases quality and confidence, which then means more sales. A virtuous circle. Maybe when everyone does that, then we can talk about price. Until this happens, then charging more to make it better, just isn't on. 

And while I'm about it, it isn't more difficult to keep cask beer than any other beer. You just need to know what you are doing, and that can be learned very quickly indeed. Time we stopped pretending on that one too.

I know big brewers have been sending out re-seeded more or less brewery conditioned beer for years, but at least they do ensure a live yeast count.

In my next post, I'll talk about a real ale nirvana.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Underneath the Arches

 When you repeat the same thing and hope for a different outcome, is one definition of madness. Thus it was on a recent visit to London, on a Sunday, as I often do, I persuaded a reluctant E to walk across Tower Bridge to visit one or two of the Brewery Taps in Druid St that open that day.  Now in my defence, I wanted to go to Ansbach and Hobday, whose beers, of those open,  are probably the most conducive to my taste and I do particularly like their nitro porter, which I've yet to find elsewhere.  So we went. Now in the summer, on a Sunday, the place is still as dead as a dodo, but at least it is warm and sunny by and large, and you can people watch a little, if only passers-by.  

After a couple, one outside until it felt too cold and the other inside, in as gloomy a boozer as you are likely to encounter, with zero atmosphere, we wandered round the corner to Enid St where another three lookylikeys are located. We thought we'd try Cloudwater, as I'd kind of slagged them off a bit unfairly before when we couldn't get in. Well frankly that was a much better experience.  The capacity seemed to be fourteen. Us two plus the existing twelve. After signing in and being given the low down on arrangements - by a very pleasant bartender to be fair - we were given two high stools against a wall while the beer was brought to us after downloading an app. It all took over fifteen minutes and the beer, frankly, was disappointing, but it knocked the atmosphere into a cocked hat. Maybe it was the obvious restrictions, maybe it was just the somewhat antiseptic arrangements, but I've rarely seen such a glum funereal group and, as we sipped our beer, we just felt deflated. 

Leaving after one we, nipped next door into Brew By Numbers, which was pretty empty too and after one beer,  similar to next door really, we left, and having not learned our lesson, tried Moor Beer one door down. Pretty empty too, but at least the inmates  - or rather outmates - as almost nobody was inside - seemed a trifle more cheery. Maybe it was the strong beer? Or the cigarettes? E though had had enough and with grim finality declared "There is just nothing here I want to drink". I don't think anything was under about 6% except another gassy Mosaic Pale Ale, so I couldn't blame her.

As we retreated, heading back towards Tower Bridge, E demanded to be taken to a "proper pub". I recorded her remarks in a tweet here:

Now before you say it, I have been to most of these places on a Saturday and the atmosphere is much better, but I think I have to face facts. E and I just aren't the target audience. We will never really feel at home in such places, as the beer and the demographics just don't suit us. I know they vary and some are, indeed, much better than others, but we generally feel out of place in them, which hardly makes for a good time. I must say in different ways, we didn't like any of the three Enid St taps and Ansbach and Hobday were better only because the beer was more to our liking.

As an aside,  I am often asked why I'm rarely seen in the taps of many of Manchester's microbreweries. The truth of it is provided by our London experience. They just do almost nothing for me and seem, even when busy, kind of impersonal and home to the samey kind of beer I just don't want to drink. In Manchester too, there is the added "bonus", often, of being served in plastic glasses.

So it is back to pubs for me and E of a London Sunday. There is life there. Ansbach and Hobday, if you are reading this, I'll likely call again for the porter, but I'll be across the road in the Marquis of Wellington to drink your lovely pale. 

And these godawful glasses they insist on. They hardly make the experience better. And don't think for a second they are cheap to drink in.

I have sat on this post for a while, but for better or worse, I'm posting it. For those that love brewery taps, especially those in railway arches, good luck. If you enjoy it - fine. You'll have the added bonus of being unlikely to see me there. I'll be with the codgers down the pub.

Addendum. I see a new list of Manchester Taps etc. has been published. Maybe I'll try them all  with an open mind? I doubt if E will come though.

 

 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

A Tale of Two Holt's Pubs

 On Saturday just gone, E suggested we go to the Manchester Transport Museum. Actually almost entirely a bus museum, but hey ho. While it was by no means busy, I enjoyed the old buses and E liked seeing buses of her Manchester youth, dolled up as they were in their former council liveries. All, more or less, were from the local area and most, surprisingly, were in working order, with some of the latest looking like they could nip out and pick fares up there and then. Better than some of the old wrecks that First Bus continue to use, but I digress. Apart from a mock-up of the first Metrolink tram, the sole other non bus was a dray from Beverley's Brewery in Wakefield, so this being a beer blog, here's a photo of it.

 We left, seeking a pint on this hot day. E suggested the Holt's Brewery Tap, the Derby Brewery Arms, about half a mile away, and so there we went. Outside enjoying the traffic views on Cheetham Hill Road were a few lads drinking lager and inside a couple doing the same. I swerved the cask on the basis that nobody was drinking it, for a couple of pints of nitro stout, which was refreshing in the sunshine.  We reflected that the pub was absolutely deserted and while we enjoyed watching the astonishingly varied Cheetham Hillites, but seeking something a little more lively, we caught a bus back to Shudehill and, after a swift one in the newly refurbished Sadler's Cat - see below - we decided on a last one in the recently Holtised, Lower Turk's Head. Now this, at around five pm on a Saturday, was absolutely rammed. Both fairly large rooms were bulging at the seams and bar staff flew up and down serving as quick as they could. It was standing room at the bar only. What a contrast.

We stood at the corner of the bar, me feeling like I was back in the good old days, and E, probably a bit less keen, keeping her eye open for leavers, so she could nab a seat.  I had a pint of Holt's Mild, which was superb. Eventually we got a seat opposite the bar where we could easily watch the mayhem.  It took me a few minutes to adjust. This was like old days, with an astonishingly varied clientele. Older couples mixed easily with younger folks seeking a few cheaper drinks before venturing into town for the evening. Some though were clearly there for the long haul and were getting rather merry. This was a throwback to when pubs weren't quite so segmented and compartmentalised. Only the needless repetitive music, just loud enough to be annoying amid the revelry, struck, literally, a discordant note. I was, though, for a bit, slightly uncomfortable, thinking about Covid. E perhaps more so, but that passed, and we braved another pint before nipping over the road to get the bus home. 

Joseph Holt has spent money on both pubs recently, but I rather fancy that it is better spent on the Turk's Head.

Sadler's Cat was rather empty inside. Formerly the Pilcrow and now operated by Cloudwater, it has a new ventilation system, but you'd be wisely advised to put a coat on here. There can't be a colder pub around. No wonder most were outside in the windy square and hats off to the hardy bar staff. 

E resisted my bright idea of having one in the Hare and Hounds, another splendidly old-fashioned boozer selling Holts. 

What do you note about the pub from the photo (left)?


Monday, 6 September 2021

Book Review -Modern British Beer - By Matthew Curtis


Although this lavishly illustrated book by beer writer, Matt Curtis (who took most of the excellent photos himself) begins with an opening paragraph giving some background on why he wrote the book, it was the title of the second chapter which caught not only the eye of this reviewer, but my imagination. "Broad Spectrum of Joy" is as good a way of describing beer drinking as any and, it encapsulates in that one brief sentence, that sitting behind this joy there is much detail, many stories, imagination, passion and hard work.

Matt describes his own beer journey and the inspiration given to him by a story of his father to whom this book is dedicated.  Recounted to him by his Dad was the ordering of eight pints of Tetley in his then local pub. As the Tetley was ordered in Sheffield, then a bastion of Stones, this tale reminds us of how things used to be and brings out the often overlooked fact that many, even then, sought out the different as well as the familiar. 

How we moved on from local breweries, mainly selling their own wares in their own pubs, slowly but surely to the multi faceted beer scene we have today comes next.  Matt's American experiences are mentioned here and  also, in that context, a reference is made to the role of CAMRA. As the author points out, part of the success of CAMRA was its undoubted influence on the American beer scene of the eighties. This by degrees became the American craft beer movement, before it returned "home" in the shape of our thriving small brewery sector and the beer styles they produce. In this historical context, the influence of CAMRA  - it is a CAMRA Books publication after all - is again rightly mentioned but, as Matt points out, it is the expansion of the number of breweries from 170 in the seventies to over 2300 presently, that reminds us that change has been on an epic scale.

While the background to modern beer is laid down in the early couple of chapters, this is not a "history of beer" book, as Matt himself points out. Wisely though, his brief but necessary dip into the past provides the reader with both context and scene setting for the core of the book, which is the development of  the diversity of both styles of beer and where they are produced. This is emphasised by the layout of later chapters on a geographical basis. The return of "local" is also an important part of the rise of brewery numbers, as is the culture that lies behind them. 

At this point, it is worth noting that this is rather a personal book. Matt has opinions, and these come out strongly as a recurring theme throughout. Together with the outlining of his own journey through beer, they add to the worth of the book as the reader is encouraged to think of their own relationship to the beer scene, both then and now. 

The shift in British Brewing can be overestimated - it has always been dominated by the big players - and it still is now, but what has changed and become ubiquitous, is not only choice in what we drink, but the expectation of choice.  There is, too, a change of philosophy, with new small brewers embracing not only a dizzyingly diverse array of beer styles, but also a move from the paternalistic ways of old. This, in vision, if not always in practice, defines how modern brewers see the world. Matt takes this on in his chapter titled "Defining Modern British Beer" in which he lays down five principles, not all of which are uncontroversial. 

Perhaps, on close inspection, some ideals outlined are more aspirational than actual. While it is certainly true that ingredients and provenance are important to many breweries and customers, it is by no means certain that this applies to all. Similarly, the inclusivity and equitable mindedness have surely a long way to go but in fairness, in both these cases, Matt admits that progress is slow. Where Matt makes his point most persuasively is when taking his five principles as a whole. In that, the re-introduction of "local", the use of quality ingredients, together with inclusiveness and the intent to be better both as a business and employer are surely worthy objectives?

To bolster his points about modern beer generally, the author has chosen specific case studies of various beers and breweries, split up by area.  They are representative of the whole, but old favourites such as BrewDog, Black Sheep, Oakham, Marble and more are there. Your favourite brewery or beer may well be missing, but in any book drawing on such a vast industry, you cannot expect this not to be the case. Also, given that there is a fair chunk of opinion in it, it is not unreasonable that the author will have  chosen those he knows and understands as exemplars. Matt is unafraid to point out that too often what is produced by many modern brewers, is  a plethora "of near identical, hazy mid-strength pale ales".  He is right to mention this, and certainly this is a point brewers should take on rather than cavil against. It is interesting to this reviewer, to contrast this with the common allegation of craft beer drinkers that all cask beer is "boring brown bitter". Different presentation - same issue?

In the brewery and beer section of the book, what comes out clearly is that motivations vary vastly. Some brewers simply wish to find a niche. Some, like BrewDog want to be writ large on a worldwide stage, while many just want to do their thing in their way in their space, Torrside being a fine example. For some, this part will be the real strength of the book, where carefully picked examples of breweries brewing modern styles of beer are supported by a narrative that makes you want to give them a try. Nonetheless, to my mind, rather than a "try" list, these are better considered as supportive of Matt's "five principles" proposition.

The sheer breadth of beer produced today supports the argument that British beer has changed beyond recognition. This book and Matt's enticing narrative and easy going and personal style make understanding the changes in British brewing easy for the reader. It sets out to explain the current British beer scene, and in that it succeeds. Clearly not every point made will strike a chord with all readers, but, nonetheless, the book is an excellent and thought-provoking read, made all the better for the bits of opinion thrown in. It could be argued that there should be a clearer nod to the fact that however many breweries and beers there are, the craft movement - a word that Matt carefully avoids -  is still a niche, albeit a growing and important part of the British beer scene. It is also worth saying that CAMRA Books are to be congratulated for being open-minded enough to commission this important book, given that cask (or is it live?) beer isn't the main thrust of it.

I'll finish this review by referring to the book's last few paragraphs.  Firstly, a statement (by Five Points Brewing) that well-made and presented cask is the "epitome of modern British Beer." Amongst all the exotic beers described, that, for this reviewer, is enduringly true, as is Matt's statement that to be modern, beer must be "truly open and accessible to all." Like him, I'll drink to that, while recommending this book highly.

Modern British Beer is written by Matthew Curtis and published by The Campaign for Real Ale Ltd

ISBN 978-1-852-49-370-7   Pages - 286

Copies are available from CAMRA Books here

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

The Codger Dividend

 Now that I have a bus pass, I've resolved to get out a bit more. It is very handy and indeed very pleasant, to go to my locals - all four of them - where people know me, call me by my name and buy me lots of drinks - well not the last bit, sadly, but I'm sure you get my drift.

My old pal Graham suggested, to celebrate my bus pass, that we should hop on the luxurious X43 and meet another old pal in Rawtenstall, a neat little town along the M66, that I've by passed countless times, but never set foot in. Easy peasy. Go North West 18 to Chorlton Bus Station and then on the excellent X43 service to Burnley, via Rawtenstall, all satisfyingly gratis and picking up Graham, somewhat appropriately, at Strangeways.

We met at Casked, a Beer and Gin micro bar, where the only other customers at around 13.15, were other folks of a retired nature.  The beer was excellent and varied, and we all enjoyed Brewsmith Pale and Bowland Hen Harrier, before moving on to the Buffer Stops, a station buffet on the East Lancs Railway, which is, as you will gather, a preserved railway. Now this place was buzzing, so much so that we had our drinks at the bar, while chatting to the very knowledgable barman, about this and that. The doors were wide open, so we all felt safe enough. Looking round, we saw retired couples, older lads out for a convivial meeting, all laughing happily and with us adding a few years to the double vaccinated scene, it was all very jolly. As the saying goes, we left with considerable reluctance.

A slightly more JDW setup in terms of customers, if not atmosphere, met us at our next stop, the absolutely rammed, BoHo Ale House. Now this, though small,  had a wide open frontage and was to be honest, ventilated as much as the outside, Despite its name, it only offered us Old Speckled Hen on the sole handpump, but two of us chose beers for the now very common, but nonetheless excellent, ABK Brewery from Bavaria and enjoyed chatting to locals -  even the one who seemed to find it odd that we three consisted of a Scouser living in Salford, a Scot living in Rochdale and a Geordie living fairly locally in Edenfield. I guess they don't travel far here and to be honest, in this neat little town, why would you?  I jest, but the welcome was warm and genuine from the largely mature clientele and, it was standing room only.

It was the same in yet another micro, the excellent Hop. Again a warm welcome, lots of chat and a choice of cask beer in tip-top condition was enjoyed by the regulars and us, all in more advanced years. If you ever go there, a word of warning. The stairs down to the spotless toilets are vertiginous. Care is needed after a few. These stairs are the steepest I’ve encountered, since the ladder like ones in the much lamented Villiers in Central Liverpool. We did also visit Northern Whisper's almost empty Tap Room, which none of us cared for, either beer or atmosphere wise; and so back to the bus station, to be whisked home.

A grand day out, and one thing is for sure. These little boozers - with caveats that this was a one off visit -  is that there is little doubt that the grey pound was contributing hugely to keeping these businesses going. Good for us!

There is no sarcasm about the X43 being luxurious. It genuinely is. Wifi, all leather seats, some with facing tables, charging points for your phone and video route and stop maps make for a very pleasant experience.

 I think we missed some other pubs on this visit, but I'll be back. Maybe visit the Temperance Bar for a quick Dandelion
and Burdock?