Thursday, 7 June 2018
I met one of my oldest friends for a few beers in Liverpool yesterday. John now lives in Australia, but comes to see his elderly mother once a year or so. We always meet up and chat about what we are doing now and of course our times boozing, playing football, darts and the like in Scousley 30 odd years ago. It is a lot of fun.
Less fun was the Northern train journey to Liverpool. Bad enough having to use that useless shower - I've already experienced their gross incompetence first hand while changing trains at Preston in my recent frequent trips to Scotland. Listening to the litany of cancelled trains as well as enduring their inherent inability to run a train on time has given me a healthy dislike of the company. And that's even before you suffer their wretched Class 142s, built over 40 years ago. Bloody boneshakers.
Yesterday's trip was by no means enhanced by the closure of Lime St station for upgrade. This meant a change at Liverpool South Parkway and a Merseyrail train to Moorfields, so we arranged to meet at an old haunt, the Lion, handy for the station and a fine traditional, corridored, multiroomed pub in which we originally drank Walkers, but now has many taps to choose from. At lunchtime, the pub being in Liverpool's business area, was actually fairly quiet, but a few diehards in suits gave it some atmosphere. Despite my two hour journey, I was early, so found a prime spot where I could watch the workers scurrying out for lunch and, with a pint of Peerless and the Times crossword, I was pretty much happy. John, who has become an Australian Rugby League fan in his exile arrived a little late having persuaded some sports bar or other to beam in an important game live from Sydney. His team had won and after greeting him and a mate who I knew of, but hadn't met, we settled down to drink and chat.
I hadn't really liked my first beer enough to order a second, so changed to First Chop Hop. The boys ordered the same and we got on with the serious business of supping ale and chatting. Time flew and one round, melted into another. We considered moving to a different pub, but all agreed we were just fine where we were. Pints mounted up and mostly we had the pub to ourselves, with the barman pitching in now and then to avoid boredom. Eventually around seven o'clock I decided I'd better get back to Manchester. We'd been there, putting the world right for about five and half hours. We stuck with the same round throughout and all left, pleasantly buzzed, but not at all drunk. Me for a further two hours on the train and the lads to get a bus home.
Later in Middleton, E met me off my bus from Manchester. "Thought you'd be pissed" she said. "Not me" I replied. And surprisingly, despite a certain nine pints, I wasn't.
4.1% beer drunk at a rate of around a pint every half hour was the kind of old fashioned steady drinking which is less frequent now. Not chopping or changing was refreshing in its own way and is to be recommended, even if the quantity isn't!
Both Merseyrail trains were on time. I'd also forgotten how big and deep underground Moorfields is. Liverpool South Parkway was also rather impressive and larger than I'd imagined. I come from a railway family and like these sort of things.
Wednesday, 9 May 2018
I was struck recently by the tweet below from blogger @Super Crushy about that vexed old subject, beer clarity.
Never being one to pass up an opportunity to respond, I, err, responded with a tweet and then the following conversation took place:I've been getting the occasional twinge and thinking I need to write something in response to all the people bemoaning the lack of clear beer and then I remember that I wrote this two years ago.— Super Crushy (@femtobrewster) May 4, 2018
I have definitely not had enough of the haze. https://t.co/RLo6Hxfrr7 pic.twitter.com/acRxmKJsbi
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I think people should focus their efforts on highlighting badly made beer, rather than just complaining about beer styles they don't enjoy.
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No argument there but I quite like responding in kind to your proselytizing.
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Thursday, 26 April 2018
Yesterday I happened to notice the tweet mentioned in this great article in the Daily Record. Our dear friends BrewDog, thought it might be awesome to have a pop at the great Scottish icon Tennent's Lager, by suggesting that anything you do would be better that drinking good old TL.
Very droll I thought and promptly forgot about it.
They are made of sterner stuff though over at Wellpark and they responded with the following:
The subsequent comments by the Record's readers are well worth a look. As one said "Come at the King then you best not miss." BrewDog subsequently removed the tweet.Tennent's 1; BrewDog 0.
I might just have a glass of TL on the way to the station today on that account. I fondly remember drinking pint screwtops of TL in my youth and still have one now and then. Well not screwtops sadly, but TL still.
I thank the Daily Record for reminding me of this tweet. Funnily it brought to mind the daily trot to the newsagent for a copy of same when I was a child. I kind of grew up with the Record, another Scottish icon.
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
There has been quite a lot written about the CAMRA AGM and the members failure to vote by the required 75% in favour, of Special Resolution 6. (SR6). (The 75%, for the avoidance of doubt is set as part of UK Company Law.)
This resolution, along with its fellows was a part of the Revitalisation Project and as a whole were intended to modernise the Campaign going forward. This failure, despite the fact that all other resolutions were passed, has been greeted with a great deal of hysteria by many who should know better. Roger Protz on the other hand, has summed it all up rather well and I recommend that you read what he says before reading the rest of my tuppence worth.
As someone who was actually there when the result was announced in Coventry - and is a CAMRA activist and, I like to think, a moderniser - I voted in favour of all the resolutions. So what was the reaction at the AGM when this was announced? Well actually very little. All of us who were modernisers had actually feared a much worse result and were rather upbeat we had come so far. These feelings were further enhanced by the Conference which sets policy, passing a number of very progressive motions, including acceptance of cask breathers and lifting the ban on keg beers at our festivals and much more.
So does SR6 matter? Well, it was a kind of catch all that frankly could have been more cleverly worded. It intended, I think, to show that CAMRA accepts that its remit should be formally widened:
To approve the insertion of the following Article 2(e)
in CAMRA’s Articles of Association: “2(e) to act as the
voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and
beer, cider and perry drinkers;”
De facto of course, that is already the case and the acceptance of other resolutions and motions, while not exactly making SR6 moot, means that the intention of SR6 is more or less covered elsewhere. I would add that those that fondly imagine that the passing of SR6 would result in some kind of sudden support for say, including keg beers in the GBG for example, are likely to have been pretty well disappointed.Even if it had been passed, it would have taken a while for its implications to have worked through the system and there would have been no certainty about how that would have played out.
The hysteria I mentioned elsewhere cannot go without comment. Pete Brown set out his stall and frankly if I was making a case to reject SR6 due to the parlous state of cask ale - the main raison d'être - then I could have taken almost all of what he said as a bloody good reason to stick to our knitting. In parts it could be used more like a speech for the status quo. Take this for example:
"What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications. Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up"
For those that think the campaign for real ale has been won and that this failure is a card ripping up matter, (and I include my good friend Beers Manchester here,) just look at what Pete has to say and I agree with him in spades about it. We can never be complacent about cask conditioned beer. With a live product, the battle will never be won. It just goes on with high points and low points. Are we at a high? Not at all. More choice has not brought better quality at point of dispense. There is much more still to do and maybe that is why some people had doubts. There is also a cadre that believe that we should not be supporting cider and perry as well as a few diehards, so maybe the result is a lot better than could reasonably have been expected. Please remember 72.6% of the 18,000 were in favour.
I also recommend that you look at Boak and Bailey. They have summed a lot of this up although I don't like the title which suggests the way forward will now be difficult. The door is certainly, while not fully open, pretty much ajar. Progress can now be made without SR6 and there is always next year.
Finally there are those that worry about the election of one traditionalist member to the Executive Committee. All I can say is until I read her manifesto, I'd never heard of her and in any case, is one traditionalist so bad to have as an opposing voice? You need different opinions on a committee, even when they are a minority of one.
This was a very progressive AGM and Conference. The Campaign has moved towards the future. Those on either side that tear up membership cards must of course suit themselves, but really could do with sitting down and looking at the evidence before doing so.
I'll finish with a quote by Martyn Cornell on Twitter.
Martyn Cornell @zythophiliac
The call for change failed by about 900 votes. About 2,000 Camra members die every year.
Not a nice thought, but likely true enough. The Campaign will change further. One way or another.
I thought Coventry and the AGM venue were both places I would go a long way to avoid in the future.
Saturday, 14 April 2018
What is there to tell you about beer drinking in Belgium that you don't already know or can readily find out? I'm guessing that was on the minds of the authors of this book when they say in the chapter entitled Beer in the Belgian Way(s) and aimed squarely at the armchair drinker or beer rating site aficionado, "Unlearn what you have learned, as it is unlikely to be correct." Now such advice when given by many could be safely disregarded as bravado at best, or chutzpah at worst, but when it comes from authors of the standing of Tim Webb and Joe Stange, you have to sit up and take notice, for these guys know their stuff. Tim first produced a Good Beer Guide Belgium in 1992 and Joe is well known for his beer blog and is the author of "Around Brussels in 80 Beers", so they have a track record that gives you confidence from the get go.
The book itself, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout, is fairly conventionally arranged and no worse for that. With a a foreword by the authors, a personal message from Tim, whose last edition this is, a historical chapter about how Belgian beer has developed and expanded, one on food, travel and transport, beer styles (of course) and much more; everything is covered. Stylistically the book is written in a very easy going and approachable way. It avoids being over technical and instead gently suggests to the reader how a beer might present. It outlines but does not define. There are handy little hints dotted about so you know how to order beer, whether you tip or not, where one might stay and some helpful notes about beer making and so on. They even warn you about the comparative lack of cash points in Belgium. Who knew? All essential and appropriate but the meat of this book is, undoubtedly, the brewery listings and where you can best go to drink the beers. This is where the dedicated beer fiend and the beer curious alike will be most at home. The brewery section is arranged alphabetically and it is here you can gain an insight into what you might want to sample and what indeed you might want to avoid. Each brewery has a bit of a pen picture, a listing of the beers with tasting notes and a helpful star rating system. One star earns you "Life is too short" and five stars are deemed "Amongst the best in the world". Points in between are easily understood, so the reader will be gently guided in the right direction. This though is a book with opinions and the authors aren't afraid to air them. The description for Stella Artois (a two star beer) tells us the beer is "Impressively clean and beautifully presented" and then adds waspishly "wet air". Westmalle Tripel on the other hand gets five stars and is described as "the stuff of eulogies".
The part of the book listing pubs and bars is perhaps the section that the dedicated travelling beer drinker will find most useful. Alphabetically arranged by towns within regions, once you have decided where to go, the book becomes an essential vademecum when perusing pub or bar beer lists which can, in some cases, stretch to 300 or so beers. The authors point out - and this is important - that they did not seek samples from breweries, but rather, went there and bought the beers. They are also keen to opine that, in an age of obfuscation and blurring of lines, often by large conglomerates, the place of origin of beer remains important, as it adds to authenticity. This is particularly so in Belgium, where beer in all its diverse forms so often has a clear link to its local or regional roots.
The best thing that can usually be said about a guide book is that it makes you want to go there, to check it out and to see if it really is like that. This book ticks all these boxes in spades and it will add a bit of genuine insight to the keenest Belgian beer afficionado, the armchair ticker, or those that aspire to travel there and see for themselves. I thoroughly recommend it.
The Good Beer Guide Belgium is published by the Campaign for Real Ale Ltd. who provided me with this preview copy.
Publication date: 16th April 2018
Tuesday, 10 April 2018
A roaring coal fire, a busy little bar with banter flowing, comfy bench seating and a living room like atmosphere probably tells you that the pub is owned by Samuel Smith. Add in a dismal, rain sodden Bank Holiday Monday and all you have to worry about is whether the locals will welcome you, ignore you, or just be puzzled by your presence. Read on and all will be revealed.
The Slip Inn in deepest Milnrow is rather a neat little pub from the outside. Even as the rain battered down, it had an air of cheerful permanence that belied the weather. Solidly stone built, unusually it didn't have bay windows on each side of the front door, but two smaller ones apiece, rather like a schoolchild's drawing. A small corridor - and it is pretty damn small here - reveals a couple of dinky little rooms off to the left, one with a smouldering coal fire and one without and the bar ahead of you, facing the main room which is comfortable with solid cast iron tables, bench seating and assorted regulars, all watched over by a rather diminutive barmaid who greeted us civilly enough. The customers did their best to ignore us, but you could tell that our presence there puzzled them somewhat. And why wouldn't it? What indeed were we doing there at all? I can empathise with that sentiment. We could hardly have been on holiday after all and did kind of stick out a bit. OK. A lot.
Sadly there was no mild, dark or light on the bar. While E took a seat, I could have chosen Sovereign, OBB (keg) Stout and on the lager side, Double Four, Alpine or Taddy Lager. I ordered the stout while E plumped for a half of Taddy Lager. The locals resumed their banter which had died down slightly. There was a spot of minor effing and jeffing, but the barmaid shushed that from time to time. The edicts of Humphrey on this subject, clearly displayed on the usual notice, were being taken much more in the breach than the observance, but it was low level harmless stuff. Banter was of the "Where's so and so?" and the like, but mostly it was just the easy familiarity of those who had known each other for years and could readily pass the time with one another. One fellow seemed the ringleader of the denizens, but was a bluff, pleasant sort. In fact everyone was just enjoying themselves harmlessly. The accents were rural Rochdale - sort of Lancastrian - but not quite. The fire - no shortage of coal when Humph is paying - emitted a fearsome radiated heat, causing one woman to suddenly rise and flee. In response to enquiries, she remarked about being boiled alive. It was a fair point and she lurked about, not quite sure where to go, while we, a bit further away, just enjoyed it.
As time ticked on, one or two left and one or two arrived. One customer was ribbed for his need to leave to be home for his tea, promptly at five, but he shrugged that off easily enough. It was all pretty easy going and while nobody spoke to us, nobody was remotely unpleasant. Around five o'clock the excitement of the early leaver was augmented by a barmaidy shift change. A few pleasantries were exchanged and the job was done. Everything lurched on much as before. My stout was fine. A bit like Guinness with actual stout characteristics. You know, roast barley, hops, malt. That sort of thing. E enjoyed her Taddy, though she would have preferred Pure Brewed which wasn't available.
Much to the astonishment of our fellow drinkers, we had another. I topped my glass up with further half of stout, while E, daringly, had a Double Four which she pronounced as inferior to Taddy. So now you know.
We left shortly after, no doubt to the relief of the others. Would I hurry back? No. Was it unpleasant? Not at all.
I wonder what Humphrey's coal bill is like? He seeems to allow generous use of it.
What about bottles I hear you ask. Didn't spot any. Also if you want to get there by bus, all required info is on the photo if you look hard enough.
Monday, 9 April 2018
I rarely write in any detail about Manchester pubs, but I've been meaning to say a few words about the Unicorn in Church St for quite some time.
This former Bass house is one of the few remaining traditional multi-roomed pubs of what could be said to be the old school. Along with the Hare and Hounds in Shudehill and the Millstone in Thomas St and maybe one or two others in the same broad area, the Unicorn is the haunt of those of a certain age who have been around the block a bit. It is rough and ready and for many it will be daunting, as it is a no holds barred, old fashioned but attractive, city centre boozer of a type that was all too common in the days when I lived in Liverpool, but nowadays is a bit of an endangered species. It is invariably rammed.
My last visit was unplanned and perhaps not the best date to choose. While E and I awaited a table at a Northern Quarter restaurant, we had 45 minutes to kill, so nipped in for a pint, completely overlooking that this most traditional of pubs was celebrating St Patrick's evening and was a lot more chokka than it usually is - and it is never not full. Fighting our way through the throng of smokers at the door, we were nearly bowled over by the Fields of Athenry at top amplified volume. An almost impenetrable wall of celebrants made progress onwards and inwards a bit of a challenge. To the uninitiated this would seem like a near impossible task, but a wriggle here and an "excuse me" there and we were in and within sight of the bar. To me there is only one drink to order here and it isn't Guinness, though there was plenty of that in evidence. No. Draught Bass it must be, for the Unicorn, in a nod to its previous ownership, stocks Bass as its regular beer.
The bar is broadly horseshoe in shape, with one closed off end, a small room beyond that and to the right off the main corridor, a larger rectangular area split into several distinct parts, with a neat snug like area in the front. It is all wood, leather and brass, with the passageways rather too narrow to comfortably squeeze past the stand up drinkers who invariably huddle there as they most likely have done for many years. Additionally on this busiest of nights, every space was taken. Clutching our drinks we made for the corridor from the crammed bar. I watched as E deftly moved out and with alarm noted as she did, that a fellow imbiber turned to watch her go, in the process swiping a drink off a ledge and onto the floor. I was unprepared though to be accused the crime and warily protested my innocence. These things can easily get out of hand, but a worrying situation was defused and all became sweetness and light as it became clear the drink was unattended and unclaimed. Its demise and therefore who dun it, didn't matter. Whew.
From our new perch at the bottom of the stairs leading to the accommodation above and opposite the juke box we watched three rather inebriated young women swig wine like beer and shriekingly discuss moving on to the Millstone, while still singing off key along to the music. A warning by a staff member to "keep it down" was to no avail and frankly, above the merry din, a touch pointless. They stayed for another and like as not, another after that. Around us there was young and old. The young - mostly pretty pissed - seemed just as at home as their older counterparts who rigidly claimed their usual spot while being inadvertently jostled. Staff filled glasses at lightning speed and the tide of people ebbed and flowed. It was all very jolly and just a tad edgy.
A point to note is that actually, though the noise and numbers were enhanced by the occasion, it is pretty much like this all the time, with an amazing array of divergent characters; ne'er do wells, respectable types, older couples and everything in between can be found within. In short it is a proper pub of a type that was common once, but isn't now, so well worth a visit for that alone. And you get to try Draught Bass.
Do keep your wits about you though.
Another plus is that the staff are very quick and friendly. You never have to wait long for a drink in here. Also handy for the bus station, local bus stops and the rest of the Northern Quarter.
Why no photo of the pub? I hadn't actually intended to write about it and these days, you can't just nab a photo off the web. Draught Bass it is then and not even from the same evening. I'm rubbish at this.
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
There's always something new and unexpected in the pub game, no matter how long you have been involved in it. Having said that, you don't really expect the unexpected in a Sam Smith's pub. OK, there may be a set of bizarre promulgations adorning the walls, advising you in polite but specific terms as to what you can or can't do and what will or will not be tolerated. Trust me though, in Sam's that's a norm - scarcely to be remarked upon at all, but rather, to be embraced as part of the ambiance - a kind of par for the course and an odd but somehow comforting enhancement to the overall experience. What is not expected though, especially in
The Kingsway Hotel is a very imposing building, more or less isolated on its own off a main road with an industrial estate behind it and little housing around it. It does though have a Hungry Horse more or less opposite it, so at least there is passing trade and the potential to attract it, though judging by the emptiness of the Kingsway, too much of it is doing passing and not enough doing stopping. I took the lovely E with me my for this bank holiday outing, in what can best and accurately be described, as pissing rain. The car park is pretty big and was more or less empty as we emerged, dripping onto the parquet floor, into a rather fetching, but decidedly bare 1930's room, with a bar to left - which most unSamslike - was illuminated by only two keg fonts, one dispensing Old Brewery Bitter and the other Taddy Lager. There is a well appointed dining room straight ahead, with, on this visit, one table silently occupied by three people. The owner of the enquiring voice turned out to be the landlady, a rather charming Scots lass from South Glasgow, who seemed rather taken aback by me being taken aback by her greeting. The confusion was sorted out when I explained we only wanted a drink. Chattily she explained that the emphasis was now on food, hence the paucity of the draught offering. I expressed my surprise at this as it seemed at odds with Humphrey Smith's usual policy and was advised in turn that it was his idea and her partner , a chef of 17 years standing had been encouraged to up the food offering which is all cooked on the premises. Well I never.
I observed that the place was, shall we say, empty other than the disconsolate lone diners who were quite possibly enjoying Brown Windsor soup followed by Woolton Pie or some such. Our chatty host explained that it was Humph's policy to open on Bank Holidays, so open they were - until six. Looking around the pub interior and building are superb. Built in 1938, it is a fantastic example of inter war pub design. Totally unspoilt, it has a plethora of original features, such as the aforementioned parquet floor, a working revolving door, panelled walls, proper fireplaces, as as well as the rather grand lamps of the time. A bit of a worm hole to the past in fact. An overspill dining room was again tastefully decorated in the same comfortable 1930s manner. Local photos enhanced the experience, but the eerie quiet must have made dining a rather soulless experience and one which I was glad I hadn't signed up to.
As I looked around and E chatted to the boss woman, the chef, bored shitless no doubt, joined us for a chat while I perused the rather unambitious menu. Oddly given the ambition, it was mostly standard British pub grub, though E approvingly noted the inclusion of liver and onions. In addition to the two keg offerings, there was a full range of Sam's bottles available at under a fiver each and even the revered Yorkshire Stingo was on sale at a modest - for this beer - £9 a pop.
You know, somehow I liked this place a lot. The landlady was a delight, the building was superb, but I can't help but thinking they'd be better off trying to attract drinkers, re-open the closed vault and if dining really is the game, up the offering a bit. I'd love to be here when it is going like a fair, but I've an idea a time machine might well be needed to achieve this.
I usually poke a bit of gentle fun at the Sam's pubs I review, but this time it just seems right to wish it well, as to lose such an architectural gem would be a great shame.
Apparently the pub only opens Wednesday to Sunday, bank holidays excepted.
The landlady was a big fan of Humph who she thought rather a hard working and nice fellow. You can only speak as you find I suppose.
Tuesday, 20 March 2018
There is an excellent piece of analysis in Phil's blog about CAMRA's Revitalisation proposals. Phil does a bit of slicing and dicing of the various resolutions put to the members and comes out, on the whole against them. It is a worthwhile read. At the time of writing, there is one lengthy comment which, while not taking an opposing view exactly, does pursue a more optimistic line regarding of the future of the Campaign if change occurs.
Dominic Pinto is the commentator and he cuts through a lot of the arguments with the following observation "In setting out more succinct objects the proposed new Articles [of Association] start fairly crucially, surely, with securing the long term future of first real ale, and also real cider and real perry, by increasing their quality. availability and popularity."
Of course when you read a lot of the words written in support of change, it is clear that no matter how carefully framed - and I suppose there must have been many iterations - there is still an element of Humpty Dumpty about them "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." I rather fancy that there is a deliberate element of (at best) vagueness in what is proposed, as the changes, when you think about them, are backgrounded against two seemingly irreconcilable objectives. On one hand there is the perceived need to move with the times in the face of a rapidly changing beery landscape and on the other a wish to say it is all much the same - except we will not say bad things about keg - and will allow festivals to sell it - though that ship has already sailed. In other words, we don't want to frighten the horses, the horses being those of us in the Campaign who actually put in the time and effort. Will the stalwarts take their bats and balls home in other words? Will they believe Humpty Dumpty or Alice?
If Dominic is to be believed though, that in itself may not be a worry. He has a lot of experience of other voluntary organisation and sees a ray of hope there. Comparing CAMRA with organisations such as Oxfam, and the Consumers Association and countering some of Phil's arguments, he concludes (following arguments you should read) "So the idea that these corporate-like entities with (bloated?) head offices with a passive income generating membership, commercial income generating arms, and declining local activity is really very far from the reality you suggest."
Returning to the proposed changes to include non real beers, the crux of the matter to many, what do we find? What are the likely views of members? Now I suspect from observation that most members do mostly drink real ale and lots of active members do drink non real ales from time to time. (I do, but mostly lager not ale). Likely non active members do the same. There are pockets in the country of die hard real ale folks who "up with this they will not put" but in the main most of us, while championing great quality real ale, will drink other things from time to time. The changes in emphasis will not affect what we do one little bit. Most of us will continue with the main objective of drinking and supporting real ale and the idea of mass resignations, or campaigning for "Evil Keg Filth" are to my mind as fanciful as the notion that including non real beer recognition in our objectives will attract lots of new people to becoming active in the Campaign. In reality it won't happen and actually, when you think about it, why would it? As an aside, at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, we have a substantial non real ale presence and while there may have been the odd bit of member unease about it, nobody has refused to work at the festival for that reason. We do have some younger members working as a result of it, but many of them are from the breweries offering the product - so that may not count that much.
What about the armchair CAMRA members who will have a vote on all of this for the first time? Will the tail wag the dog? (I know the small number of activists compared to total members are really the tail, but you see what I mean.) My own experience is that it is almost impossible to get those that are passive members to do anything, whether it is nominating for Pubs of the Year, Good Beer Guide entries, or pretty much anything else at all. So will they turn out in droves to vote for or against the proposed changes? I rather doubt it, but maybe, just maybe, there could be enough to outvote the activists, though I suspect their vote will be split too.
So, what will happen and how will I vote? The outcome is by no means certain is all I can say. Despite my remarks above about armchair voting, that is a big unknown. In fact I just don't know, though my instinct is that if members believe that the future of real ale is threatened or even compromised by the proposals, then they will vote to retain the status quo.
As for me, I like to think I'm a moderniser, but underneath it all, there's a bit of, as Hilaire Belloc said, "always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse."
The pick and mix nature of the resolutions make for a known unknown. Depending on how it is voted on, it could end up a dog's breakfast.
CAMRA does need change though, so likely that's what will swing it for me. But remember the pick and mix warning.
Sunday, 4 March 2018
It must be hard being a real ale campaigner in Scotland and I take my hat off to those that do it. This is a rocky and uphill road and it has much ability to give disappointment and duff pints in equal measure. Though there must be compensating pleasures, I'm glad I do my bit for CAMRA in the relatively green, sunny and real ale rich pastures of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury.
But the campaign is about quality as well as choice, so how does Balloch measure up? Firstly, why Balloch? Well simple really. It was the only handy place I could get a train to. Balloch is at the bottom of Loch Lomond, though in shivering cold, its banks and braes were anything but bonny. The road wasn't that bonny either, being around two feet of slushy snow. It has three real ale outlets - I say outlets rather than pubs - as none is a pub in the accepted English sense, two being hotel bars and one, just a typical Scottish one room bar*. It has one other advantage as a small real ale crawl - all the boozers are within a three minute walk of the station and consequently of each other.
*The Dog House is a typical one roomed bar - or so I thought - but seemingly there is another bar within. Nonetheless I was in the one with the real ale, though as might be expected, everyone was drinking Tennents or cider, which may well explain the slightly stale and oxidised pint of the local brew, Southern Summit from Loch Lomond Brewery, carefully served in a Belhaven Best glass. The room was roughly rectangular with some bench seating and a small row of tables and chairs placed strategically in front of one of the dominating TVs. It was friendly enough in that nobody stabbed me, but it was clearly a locals bar, with banter flying freely about as the denizens battered back the TL and walloped down the vodka. I stayed for one only and was gratified that another recalcitrant ordered the cask before I left. Maybe it would be better than mine?
Just 50 yards away on the other side of the road was a place, Balloch House, I'd been to before without having a particularly good time. I wrote about that here. Hoping for improvement, I went in. Firstly it was busy. Two guys were playing traditional (not Scottish) music and a few stood at the bar though like me they held their coats awkwardly under their arms, as there was nowhere apparent to hang them. The handpump selection was, one (empty), one (Doom Bar - off,) one (Bitter and Twisted) and the other Deuchars IPA. There might even have been another, but I can't remember. I selected Bitter and Twisted which was unsparkled and definitely uninspiring - average at best. Looking around the pub had been furnished with various useless tat by modern pub central and although plenty people were in, it strikes me as the kind of place that couldn't generate atmosphere if you sealed all the doors and windows and pumped laughing gas in. (Your mileage may vary.) I was additionally annoyed by the free Wi-Fi which required - and didn't get - a huge amount of intrusive information as a matter of course. Having failed to enjoy this place on two visits, I must bravely face the fact that I like nothing at all about this Mitchells and Butler's outpost. Sorry.
Lastly the Tullie Inn. This is a bit of a barn and was clearly redeveloped some years ago from its former more traditional look to aim for the summer trade. In winter, it just looked, big, soulless, cold and empty. I was greeted at the door by an A board where "George and Mildred" - or whoever - assured me of a warm welcome. I find though that if you have to write the welcome down, it is sure to be wholly absent within. And so it came to pass. Funnily though my Cask Marque accredited pint from Fallen Brewery of Stirling was pretty good, even though the beer, Grapevine, fell several hurdles short of its description of "New World Pale" and was a mighty £4 a pint. Time was against me and that one would have to do. My train and, unknown to me, a very disturbed night ahead, awaited me.
Balloch is probably best experienced for its views of Loch Lomond and the Ben. Stick to them and you'll be quite happy. Expect a lot from the local pubs and sadly, you may well be disappointed.
I don't recall any keg craft as such in any of the pubs, so that avenue was pretty well closed.
The rail line to Helensburgh is now restored and with luck I can nip down there later for a decent pint. I might even get home tomorrow.
Saturday, 3 March 2018
I'm currently in Dumbarton looking after my ailing Mum to give my sister a break and to spend a little time with my Mum while I still can. It has snowed here rather a lot. In fact as much snow as I can recall in this old town, but then again, I haven't spent that much time in it recently.
Of course, man does not live by copious cups of tea alone - well this one doesn't - and Thursday, which was pretty bad saw my Dumbarton family gave me a couple of hours off. Despite intermittent heavy snow and bright sunshine, I fancied a pint. My sister and niece had already advised that they observed, as they walked to Mum's, that all the pubs apart from the local Wetherspoons were shut. This though was fine by me as I wasn't after mass produced lager. The pavements were more or less out of bounds for two reasons. Firstly around they were coated by two feet of snow and secondly, my rather inappropriate footwear. I had anticipated the cold and had a heavy coat, but not the snow. "It never snows much in Dumbarton" was my faulty assessment as I left Middleton. So along with other brave souls, I trudged along the main road. Not a great problem as apart from a few four wheel drive cars, there was no traffic.
It didn't take me more than 15 minutes to get into town. Indeed the first two pubs - the biggest apart from JDW - were firmly shuttered. All businesses and shops seemed to be too. Now there are a couple more smaller pubs along the High St, but I wasn't checking them out. The Captain James Lang was open and fairly busy. Wetherspoon has its critics, but it was open when other weren't and was doing good business in tea, coffee, meals and the odd pint too. My pints of Loch Lomond Southern Summit got a solid 3 as I assessed them for WhatPub and CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System. As I sat I observed. My fellow Dumbartonians seemed well attired in the footwear department. I gazed enviously at the various walking shoes, boots and wellies. My shoes were matted with snow and looked wet, but hadn't let any moisture in - Clarks doncha know, so I wasn't complaining, but was well aware that I looked dressed for rather better weather.
After a couple of pints of Southern Summit, I noticed the pub had newly installed BrewDog's Punk IPA, so I had a half. Underneath the carbonic acid ridden presentation is a rather decent beer trying to get out. It was hugely over gassed and very cold, but as it warmed up and revealed its layers of flavour, I reflected that despite all that is said about "craft" beer, in a lot of cases it still suffers from exactly the same problems that has always plagued it. That is excess CO2 and very low temperature. For sipping beer this might be fine, but for swigging beer, for this observer at least, it just doesn't cut it. Better gas control is a must - see this from Will Hawkes. He is spot on.
Anyway one thing I do notice in the Captain James Lang is that there is a slow and creeping uptake on cask. In fairness, the West of Scotland is a hard nut to crack, but I get the impression that they are doing their best here. Not enough to not try and get away with duff pints now and again, but better. I keep saying the last per
son who should discover a bad pint is the customer.
Beer quality should be continually checked. If it isn't, they simply aren't doing it right.
Hoping to escape to Glasgow later on. The CJL has lost its charms. I need pastures new. No trains but there are buses and I haven't been on a bus from Dumbarton to Glasgow for over 50 years. Regretfully, not free despite my advancing years.
A footnote about Southern Summit and Joker IPA, which I have had some of on cask recently. Atren't they a bit sweet?
Thursday, 22 February 2018
At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I had the enviable (no I don't mean unenviable - it was great) task of chairing our annual Great Manchester Beer Debate. It attracted a fairly decent sized and very enthusiastic audience and together with our excellent panel resulted in a lively and interesting session. My dulcet tones, a fab top table and free beer along with beer talk? What's not to like? The subject, very loosely - though in the end it was maintained throughout without too many meanderings down side streets - was "The Price of Beer". Ironically the attraction of free beer to keep the buggers there and listening was a positive plus. Even those that argued for higher prices didn't mind that!
Our panel was Jo Whalley – Wigan Central's Bar Manager, Connor Murphy – Organiser, Manchester Beer Week, Brad Cummings – Tiny Rebel co-owner and now CAMRA NE candidate and Sue"the Brew" Hayward from Waen and Hopcraft Breweries. I'm not going to bore you with all the details, but our panellists had forthright views on the issue of price, but perhaps surprisingly, no real agreement. In particular the two brewers had quite divergent views on many aspects, which goes to show that perhaps there isn't really an exact and universally accepted conclusion to the question of price. Different businesses and owners take different approaches, both as sellers of beer and more surprisingly perhaps, when they are customers buying beer for themselves. The audience too was split with some accepting that price wasn't a great inhibitor and others saying it is. The conversation ranged across costs, poor brewing and too many breweries, great brewing costing more, price of ingredients, cask v keg, hard times, low wages and much and more. It was fascinating to chair and when we finished after around an hour and 20 minutes, there were still hands up trying to make further points.
I was prompted to recall this when I read a piece yesterday about the price of craft beer in the good old Morning Advertiser. You can read it here. The argument - and it isn't new or original - is that poorer members of the drinking public are being priced out of the craft beer revolution, especially in the push by some, for the £5 pint. (Of course many craft beers cost way beyond that.) I could of course regurgitate the usual facile guff that some brewers trot out about the high cost of producing top quality beer with the best ingredients. That is fine and dandy and even to some extent true. But the use of quality ingredients doesn't remotely tell the whole story of mark ups, location, staffing, size, efficiency, overheads, rental costs etc. etc. Price is a very complex business indeed. Comparative price even more so. There is no one answer.
It is fashionable among some to present craft as a bottom up movement of the people sticking it to the man - BrewDog comes to mind, though they aren't alone - but wouldn't it just be a lot more honest to say "Well, we make expensive beer for people with plenty of disposable income and if those who don't have that income want to drink our beer, it's too bad. They'll just have to do without - or maybe have the odd glass as a treat". After all makers of other high end goods generally don't make excuses for their prices, or portray the product as something for everyone. Why should brewers? Reflecting on price, I know that locally here in Greater Manchester, I can get excellent beer for (well) under £3.50 a pint even in Manchester City Centre. Equally I can pay a lot more, even for the same beer. There is though, price points to suit most pockets and for those that can't afford to drink in pubs, there is a huge choice of cheap beer to drink at home. The truth is that somewhere in the market, no matter where you live in the UK, there is beer at an affordable price for you. We should be glad about that.
Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it should be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.
I think the main conclusion of the beer debate was just that. There is beer for everyone, but not everyone can have some beers. Some beer will always be a treat. We should just accept that.
Prices around the country will obviously vary without changing my main point.
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
The news that 88 million less pints were drunk in pubs and bars in 2017 can hardly come as a surprise. This equates to a 2.4% year on year fall and hammers home yet again the message that pubs are still in trouble and that there is still a significant switch to drinking beer at home, as overall, beer sales rose slightly. There isn't a bright looking horizon either, with a business rates bombshell likely to have a further effect on on trade prices in 2018.
The great divide in beer continues, not because of increased off sales at the craft small pack end of things - that's a different thing - but at the volume end. For those with jobs and "just about managing", choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.
The beer market is changing considerably. The so called community pub is being threatened as never before as its core customers vote with their feet and drink their beer at home. Those of us who enjoy their beer in the pub had better watch out. It is an endangered species and while really good pubs that can attract those with plenty disposable income, will no doubt survive and while the craft bubble will continue to provide an alternative to the well heeled in mostly urban centres, the overall picture is somewhat depressing. For those not quite at the bottom of the pile, who used to enjoy a pint in their local but can no longer afford to do so, the pub may fade from not only their daily routine, but their weekly and even monthly one.
Fragmentation, high prices, high duty and high business rates as well as different social habits, don't paint a rosy picture. Changes have been both evolutionary and enforced by circumstances. The effect is broadly similar however.
And there is more to come.
Britain has the fourth dearest alcohol prices in Europe. So much for minimum pricing.
The day of the handy local pub is disappearing. You'll also have to travel further to the pub for that odd pint. Another disincentive.
Tuesday, 6 February 2018
In what might be seen as a major intervention in CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, Bradley Cummings, co-founder and co-owner of Tiny Rebel Brewing has thrown his hat into the ring and will stand as a CAMRA National Executive member. What might this mean if he is successful in his attempt? Is it a good or a bad thing? Let's have a look.
Well we don't need to guess at his intentions as he lays out his plans in a short and succinct 23 page manifesto. Let's have a look at it.
On the (perhaps) positive side Brad :
- points out the lack of member involvement in the Campaign
- puts forward a number of ideas to increase that involvement
- wants to "drive shit and get things done"
- wishes to get the best out of the potential of nearly 200,000 members
- agrees CAMRA should widen its remit to include the wider beer community
- recognises that unprofitable pubs must close
- thinks that pubs must adapt or die
- agrees that CAMRA should establish an Industry Committee or suchlike
- thinks we should have a focus on membership education though disagrees with proposed methodology
- points out CAMRA isn't very cool
- reminds us that a 300% increase in members has brought little by way of increased involvement
- suggests a much better use of technology and direct membership involvement
- reminds us that better choice not real ale was the CAMRA founding principle
- states that poor quality cask ale is the biggest risk to the future of cask ale
- urges us to vote with our feet when encountering poor real ale
On the (perhaps) less positive side Brad:
- seems to disregard cider and perry as irrelevant
- thinks brewers, not the beer drinking public know best about beer quality
- supports the on trade as a way into pubs for drinkers
- poo-poos cask conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's art
- wants members to be distanced from breweries by allowing brewers to represent themselves, rather than though liaison officers
- wants industry representation at all levels of CAMRA including direction and policy
- postulates that quality comes at a cost
On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can't really concur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible. CAMRA must continue to be an independent consumer champion and the very idea that brewers know best about everything beer-wise certainly causes me to raise my eyebrows somewhat. After all brewers rarely speak with a common voice. Just look at hazy versus clear, not to mention many other subjective arguments about hopping rates, carbonation, pricing, packaging and like as not, a million things more.
So vote for Brad? Up to you really, but having chaired the Great Manchester Beer Debate at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, where Brad was a panel member, I was impressed with many of his points of view. Revitalisation is something very different and maybe it is time for someone new to the Campaign, with an unconventional and non traditional background, to become a member of the Executive that will steer the changes through. There's lots you can add on the plus side and I for one reckon it might just be a good thing - assuming if elected - he sees his term to its end.
After all, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
The Great Manchester Beer Debate was interesting. Subject was loosely "The Price of Beer". I'll try and deal with this in a later post. Yes, on the whole, most brewers, despite the fact they say little comes their way, favour higher prices.
Brad would also knock the JDW tokens on the head. He isn't alone in this.
Remember, all members will have a vote for both the National Executive and for Revitalisation. Use it.
Sunday, 4 February 2018
After my mixed bag in Glasgow, again after a hospital visit, I took the train to Helensburgh. Now I always like trains and for reasons which will become clear, I like this line most of all. I grew up beside it and it holds a lot of memories. My late father was a Station Master on this line and I lived in a Station House in Dumbarton for many years. I well remember as a child looking out of my bedroom window at the platforms below and steam trains chugging by or patiently waiting as passengers got on and off. The smell of steam was a daily rotine for me when a small child. When the line was electrified in the early 60s I had the privilege to "drive", from one end of the platform to another, new Bue Train as we called them, sitting with my hand on the "dead man's handle" on the knee of the driver. Railways are in my blood- but I digress.
There are two real ale outlets in Helensburgh that make an easy little two pub trip. The Henry Bell is a Wetherspoons with a clean, modern, good looking interior and on the ball staff who always seem interested in what they are doing - which goes to show that generalisations, while understandable, don't tell the whole story. The HB also benefits I feel from a large influx of English customers - Helensburgh seems full of English people- and of course, the nearby presence of the HM Naval Base Clyde - Faslane - home of the strategic nuclear deterrent and its submarine delivery system guarantees that the lesser interest in cask beer in this neck of the woods is leavened by those that grew up on it. Beer quality is invariably good.
The pub was busy on my arrival and ordering a pint of Purity Gold, which was in excellent condition, I found a bench seat (tick) with a good view and surveyed the scene. Clearly a boat was in and there was a large mixed age naval presence, with little groups of different types setting up homes on different tables, while nipping over occasionally to chat to each other. The younger end were putting the booze away at a far lick, but the atmosphere was pleasant, with the assorted naval types a credit to the service. I moved on to try an Amber Ale from Birkenhead's Peerless Brewing and while not my favourite style, I rather enjoyed it. Again it was in excellent condition and sometimes it pays to step outside your usual style and remind yourself that variety is a good thing.
It was time to move on, so turning left, then stepping over the road and walking a few yards, I entered the Ashton, CAMRA's West Dunbartonshire Pub of the Year (not sure which year mind you) and an old haunt of mine almost forty years ago. My luck was in. In addition to the usual Greene King/ Belhaven offerings was Fyne Ales Jarl. Now I have been a bit sceptical of this beer recently, feeling on the few chances to try it, that it wasn't the knockout of old. Well, on this form, I was clearly wrong. This was in stunning condition, with Citra hops shining through and making the beer extremely swoopable. I was tempted to stay for several in this convivial local, but after a couple I left for the train. The service too was excellent with the barman temptingly reminding me that there are trains every half hour. I resisted his blandishments, though when I arrived at the station and found I'd miscalculated my train time and had twenty minutes to wait, I bitterly regretted my decision.
There was no choice. I crossed the road for a swift half of Tennents in the Station Bar. No appalling music this time as there was football on. I have written before about how the Tennents in here was excellent. This was too. Coming straight after Jarl, this was no mean feat.
So there you have it. Two out of two getting ten out of ten real ale and service wise. Add in an excellent cheeky half of TL and it was a great night all in.
Next time I'll make a return visit to Glasgow CAMRA's Pub of the Year the State Bar. Again I know this place of old. I'll let you know how I get on.
I also intend to resume my Sam Smith's wanderings. It's been too long.
The photo above is where our house once stood. I remember the day that bridge was built, replacing one from the 1890s.
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Yesterday after visiting my poorly mother in hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow, I was at a bit of a loose end. I could have gone back to Dumbarton or go into the City Centre. I chose the latter and hopped on a handy train to Glasgow Central.
Where to go? Now I always used to go to Nicholson's Drum and Monkey as a handy stop between Central and Queen St stations, but gave it up as a bad job after having too much sub-standard beer. "Let's give it a go again I thought" and nipped in. Now it has to be said that it is a fine looking traditional pub with a horseshoe bar, a lot of dark wood and a general feel of being spick and span. It's history as a bank while not obvious, can readily be discerned. It was though at around 4pm, ominously empty. I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Thai IPA, a beer that I've had and enjoyed before. It felt warm in my hand and was slightly cloudy. It was clearly end of the barrel stuff and I took it back. Exchange was slightly reluctant, but done with speed. I was offered instead, Palmer's Trawlerman, which while warm and unsparkled was a decent enough beer underneath. So not a great return and I can see no reason to go back other than in a minor victory of sorts, as I left, the faulty Thai IPA had been withdrawn from sale and the line was being cleaned. Now I know I'm being a tad unfair, but the measure of a pub's beer quality must be that even at quiet times, it is good.
Another haunt - and I am not sure why - is the nearby Shilling Brewery. Again it was quiet when I entered and again - speaking from past experience - the staff seem curiously reluctant to engage customers in conversation. It almost seems to be part of the staff rules. I ordered a half of a rather coconutless Teleporter Coconut Porter which was so way over gassed as to make it tasteless. Now in stouts and porters I'd say put in on nitro rather than CO2 as at least you'll enjoy the texture a lot more. A bit better though was the oddly named Machine Gun Lager which boasted German and New Zealand hops though when I asked what hops were employed, it took a bit before agreement could be reached. Still, the beer was decent with fragrant and floral hops, so lose one, win one.
I had to get home, but there was just time for a couple in the massive Counting House, a JDW on George Square and handy for my train. My beer of choice here has been Williams Brothers hybrid lager/IPA, Caesar Augustus which I find is a delightfully refreshing beer. Alas after one pint, it ran out, as did my second choice, Joker IPA. I have to say the barperson that served me was a delight in helping me choose from the many keg beers available. In a busy pub, she took her time to get it right. Well done for an excellent bit of customer service. My final pint was a Rye IPA, Ax Man, from Drygate, which was complex and unusual. A bit of a sipper, but none the worse for that.
So there you have it. Two quiet pubs and two moderate experiences and one rammed one which had not only atmosphere, great beer, but great service. Still all a bit of a lottery in the pub game.
I must say that I did have a good time not so long ago at Shilling Brewery, which I wrote about here. The beer is generally very good.
Hasn't Palmer's beer come rather a long way?
Wednesday, 17 January 2018
A bit late I know, but I've been busy. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival doesn't arrange itself and I've had an unexpected urgent trip to Scotland, to visit my ill and elderly mother. Nonetheless, the greetings are heartfelt.
We'll come back to Manchester Beer and Cider Festival shortly, but since I've been in Scotland, a few thoughts about the land of the loch and the glen. Firstly, if you didn't know it, while Barr's Irn Bru - is allegedly Scotland's "Other National Drink" (reformulated or not and yes, in my short visit, I have met Scots who have bought and hoarded cases of the really sugary version, pending the usurping launch of the not quite so sugary version), Scotland's other National Drink is undoubtedly Tennent's Lager. it is everywhere and it is drunk and revered everywhere. While John Smith's Smooth may be the go to beer of the early morning Wetherspoon's soak in England - in Scotland it is TL they line up when most of us have scarcely breakfasted. In the hotel bar - and there are lots of them in Scotland - it is Tennents on the bar. In the noisy public bar with inappropriately loud and shite music - another West of Scotland trait - Tennents is the drink of choice. Even in craft beer bars like Shilling Brewery, they sell Tennents. In other words, unless you sell Tennents, get out of town. With very few exceptions, you must sell Tennents or die as a business.
Now there are other lagers available. Sometimes. Wetherspoons have lots of them, but they are, frankly, a sideshow. It is the big red T that dominates, but it wasn't always so. Back in my days in Scotland, Skol, Norseman, Harp, Usher's Golden Lager and of course, McEwan's Lager were all readily available. All gone - and while nowadays Stella and Kronenbourg pop up here and there, plus the odd foreign beer, in the standard lager department, Tennents is yer man. I used to drink it myself many years ago, usually in pint screwtop bottles and quite possibly as an affectation. I sort of liked Skol better, but that was then and in McEwan's houses, I drank McEwan's Pale Ale, also in pint screwtops, or if feeling flush"A big Whitbread". (I think they were first to abandon pint screwtops in favour of the crown cap. But I digress.)
So what does it taste like? Well, at its best, not bad at all, but over carbonation and sub zero temperatures can wreck it. On Friday last week in the Abbotsford Hotel in Dumbarton, it was over-carbonated and utterly tasteless. Last night when I missed my train, in the Station Bar in Helensburgh, it was full bodied, subtly hopped, not over gassed and very enjoyable. You can't depend on it sadly, though that seems not to matter to most of its customers.
While the quality of the drinking establishment and the eardrum busting music in the Station Bar can be questioned, I can vouch, from no little experience, that they keep a decent pint of Tennent's Lager.
Sadly I missed out on the GBG entry, the Ashton, but Loch Lomond Brewery beer was top notch in the Henry Bell, though nudged aside by a torrent of gin.
I do miss these old standard lagers too. Pint of Alloa brewed Skol? Yes please.
I'll do @Mancbeerfest tomorrow. This train is a bit shoogly.
Wednesday, 27 December 2017
Where's a good, easy day out from London? St Albans that's where. A mere 25 minutes from central London and in feel, a world away. All of a sudden you are in a distinctly different part of the country with an easy going feel to it and a small town atmosphere. It has a cathedral, a large market, an old town, lots of pubs and even a small Christmas market. What's not to like? Well a persistent drizzly rain that's what. Despite leaving London with a cloudless sky, we arrived to light rain, which more or less, despite the weather forecast saying a 2% chance of precipitation, gave us 100% drizzle. As Peter Kay might say "you know, the kind of rain that wets you."
I suppose too if I was a bit picky, I'd complain about the station being nowhere near the centre - and it isn't - but if it hadn't been raining that wouldn't have mattered, but as it was we were getting distinctly wet, so after a little bit of orientation we hopped into the Blacksmith's Arms for no reason other than we were passing it. It is quite a nice, friendly pub, which despite having a Cask Marque sign had by some way the poorest beer we had that day, not helped by a random looking choice of Christmas ales, plus Doom Bar. My Bath Ales Festivity was pretty underwhelming, but the pub was bustling and cheerful and the service was brisk and polite, so it was getting some things right. The food looked decent too.
After a walk round the long street market, we crossed into the Old Town and made for the cathedral, noting the odd pub as we went. This being the festive season, it was carols that were the main attraction and the lovely cathedral was full of locals, anticipating their singalong, though one or two others, like us, wanted to see the building itself . That was fine too and very enjoyable. The whole church had a homely and community feel which given its size was extraordinary. It was the kind of place, if I lived locally, I'd be drawn to - and I'm not particularly religious. I'd go back in a heartbeat just to see it again.
So, after that uplifting experience it was back into the rain and a quick dart into the low ceilinged Boot, which was atmospheric and rammed. We stood for our first pint and then managed a little table for two with a good view of things. It was clear the place was full of locals as folks greeted each other by name or shouted and waved across the crowded room. We were happy to be part of it and left with a lot of reluctance after a couple of decent pints, for a look round another market. Then a stroll to the local JDW which came as highly recommended, being in a renovated medieval barn. The Waterend Barn was also, despite its size absolutely "chokka" as they say in Liverpool, so we stood at the bar with our drinks while watching the manager dish out roles to the staff, while omitting to get one or two to actually serve the growing throng of customers waiting to be served. Ah well, nearly right. It should go without saying that serving customers comes first. Well in a way, that's what happened. It went without saying. Good beer though and interesting customers in a more upmarket Christmas jumper sort of way.
We left the best of the day to the last two pubs we visited. The White Hart Tap was more or less on the way back to the station and an absolute delight, though tricky to get in as the door is in front of the bar which is only about five feet away and was blocked by a number of quite pissed lads, who good naturedly stepped aside to let us in. This is a neat little pub with Northern quality beer. I had some splendid beer from Summer Wine Brewery (Zenith) and even a bit of a chat with a couple of gents necking down vino reddo.
Our last call was near the station. The Robin Hood was better looking on the outside than in, though it was busy and friendly. It seemed to have been given a bad taste makeover recently, with inappropriate pale laminate flooring jarring considerably, as did the light blue paint on the bar. Putting these aside, the Harvey's Best was excellent and compensated in no small way for the decor. I do wonder though about the yukky pub interior, which was further diminished by harsh white overhead lighting.
This was a good day out with beer well above average, some good pubs and all noticeably friendly. Best of all in some ways was that less than an hour later, we were back in our London flat. We'll be back when it isn't raining.
The city - for that is what is is - had a homely small town feel to it. Coming as I do from a small town, I liked that about it.
I have been to St Albans before but it was a long time ago and I was driving, so no pubs that time. Thanks to all who gave me recommendations for this visit.