Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Bonny Dundee


When I was very young my grandfather lived in Glamis - where the old Queen Mum came from - and where he used to be Station Master - the treat when we didn't go to the nearest real town, Kirriemuir, was to go to Dundee for afternoon tea. I have vague recollections too of visiting the frigate HMS Unicorn, a preserved sailing ship, when I was about ten, but I haven't been back since then, apart from a couple of nights knocking doors as a Social Security investigator in dodgy housing schemes on the outskirts late at night.  Oh and one night at Dens Park watching a dire game against Kilmarnock I think. It was thus, with considerable pleasure to me, that CAMRA decided to hold its AGM and Annual Conference in that fair city.

It's a lovely place. A delightful setting on the Tay, handsome old buildings and streets including the excellent Caird Hall where CAMRA held its business.  We stayed in the really rather good Holiday Inn Express on the front opposite the Tay Road Bridge and handy for everything.  Our nearest pub was the St Andrews Brewing Company outlet which was rather a fine place with lovely interested staff, but no real ale. Still, you can't have everything and the keg offerings were fine in small doses.

As always is the case there was a Beer Exhibition inside the Caird Hall for members and the beer, all Scottish and Irish apart from one, was all in very good nick, though we didn't spend too much time drinking there.  We did though try a few of Dundee's pubs, both real and not and have to say again the warm welcome was an object lesson for many whose failure in this area is noticeable.  I particularly liked the Pillars, a pub with the warmest of warm welcomes, excellent regulars and a free juke box when we were in. With serve yourself (yes) handpumped ale on two handpumps just outside the bar, it was hard to tear yourself away.  A stones throw from there was the excellent Phoenix, another great bar with excellent real ales and plenty CAMRA types therein. 

The conference itself was somewhat dull if truth be told.  I did attend the whole thing and spoke (ineffectively) against the daft motion (which was passed) putting CAMRA on the wrong side of the minimum pricing debate.  Still, it was good to see old friends and maybe that's the real point?

Broughty Ferry was our Sunday destination though by then it had turned a bit drizzly and dreich. The pubs were fine though with the Fisherman's Tavern being the pick of the bunch, though an honourable mention has to be given to Jolly's Hotel, a Wetherspoon with an astonishingly eclectic mixture of drunks and ne'er do wells. It kind of reminded me of Middleton, which was touchingly rather homely.

So Dundee. I didn't see as much as I'd have liked, but I'll be back. Do go there. I recommend it.

I didn't get a chance to visit any of the many bakeries in Dundee, but I did have oysters and fancy fish as well as a very good, but not Punjabi curry.

Oh and I did see statues of Oor Wullie, Mini the Minx and of course Desparate Dan as well as the home of DC Thompson (left), so overall, I was content.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Dutch Folk


On our final day in Haarlem we spent a fair bit of time just wandering round on a bright, sunny and somewhat windy day.  As we weren't flying until after nine, we had plenty of time, so interspersed wandering with the odd beer here and there.  As I have already remarked, the Dutch seem a tough bunch, being completely unflinching as they drank and chatted in the open air while I gently froze. Maybe they all had thermal drawers on? Dunno.

We had agreed to meet our friends in one of the local pubs just across from the hotel where our luggage was being stored. Our first choice, Café de Zwaan, was thronging and had a DJ though it is a pretty traditional local boozer and one we had visited several times - and liked. He was the worst kind of DJ. He was a singing DJ. Even worse, he was a Frank Sinatra singing DJ, so we did it our way and buggered off across the road to Het Wapen Van Bloemendaal, described outside as "Golden Oldies Café". Well not sure if we actually qualified, but near enough, so in we went.  We'd been there before and noted one of these really top notch bar staff, who remember you immediately. She found us a corner and we watched as a folk group set up. The placed was rammed and there seemed little doubt that the group were popular.  As they started their set to much enjoyment by the customers, our waitress came over. She explained to me they concentrate on Dutch national songs and thumbing a nose at the increasing use of English instead of Dutch in everyday argot.  Clearly we couldn't understand the words, but it was all very jolly with customers joining in the chorus and laughing a lot. The place was going like a fair. After a couple of beers we left to get our bags. We'd been treated well by staff and customers and I reflected that a bit of gentle poking of fun at others is pretty damn universal and if done without malice, isn't such a bad thing at all.

At best a local pub should be welcoming and warm, have a great atmosphere and be nonthreatening. This was the case in every way here and it was good to see the Dutch being themselves amongst their own folk.  And why shouldn't they?

Sunday afternoon entertainment in Dutch pubs? Is this a thing or were our two just a co-incidence?

The bus back to Schipol Airport was on a dedicated bus only road all the way there. Not a bus lane - a bus road.  The other road was alongside.  Wow. 

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Dutch Craft Beers and Taps


When we assembled in Haarlem for our AGM - "we" being BSF the Foreign International Beer Bars at the Great British Beer Festival - we arranged to meet at Uiltje Bar, which was for us at least, very handy, being a couple of minutes away from our hotel.  This is a fairly narrow bar with not much room and we soon filled it.  Even more so when the Scots lads appeared. A few bewildered Dutch made up the numbers.  We all needed a drink to get over the price of the drink though. Think €3.50 upwards for 0.2l which to most of us was really just a damp glass. To save you the arithmetic it works out at around £8 a pint for the cheapest and the sky the limit for the rest.  Given that we obviously at the arse end of a Left Handed Giant tap takeover and there wasn't many Dutch beers on, it wasn't that conducive to merriment.

A few of us soon escaped to a more mainstream bar across the road where choice was oddly enough a little better, with some decent local lagers, abbey beers and De Konink at prices that didn't quite make the pips squeak.  Also an improvement was a chatty woman behind the bar who knew how many beans made five and happily talked us through what we could expect pubwise in Haarlem. All in all a much better deal.  After a while we made our way to Jopen, a brewery in a converted church with a fantastic looking in-house brewery, a brilliant atmosphere, decent beer and rather good grub. We realised though there, as subsequent pub visits confirmed, that drinking in the Netherlands is not a cheap experience, but given the right environment, it can be a very enjoyable one.

Our AGM was held in the main Jopen Brewery and Tasting Rooms (Proeflokaal) on the outskirts of town. This was impressive too and had the advantage of another brewery tap (Uiltje) being round the corner. To our (relative) deep joy, this offered 0.3 measures - all at €4 - so we left for our next two brewery tap visits in a jollier frame of mind.

The Dutch countryside, apart from being flat as you'd expect seemed to consist mainly  of motorways and modern industrial buildings.  It all looked as if it had been built yesterday. This was by design a mystery tour and somewhat unnecessarily so. Like being on a ballistic nuclear submarine on patrol, almost none of us had the faintest idea where we were going when we set off, had no idea where we were when we got there, or, when we got back, where we'd been. The brewery taps, as in most craft beer outlets, could have been anywhere, with a range of identikit beers and lookalike bars with keg walls, which could be anywhere in the world. Craft beer innovative? How so?

There was one bit of gentle relief. On the outskirts of Utrecht, on yet another industrial estate, the De Kromme brewery tap was small. 48 thirsty folks leaped out of the coach and crowded the bar.  A drink would be a while we surmised looking at the solid wall of backs. I'd spotted a restaurant next door though. We nipped in. They were prepping for dinner but had a bar. Could us five come in for a drink? "Of course" we were told. Just the job. Gulpener was gulped and repeated and we joined the noisy throng and a much reduced queue in time for a couple of black IPAs before leaving for our final stop at Klein Duimje (Tom Thumb) which was far more pubby than the others. Full of well pissed locals and an astonishing number of beers, it was my favourite by far. The beer was good, we didn't care about the price by then and it wasn't on an industrial estate. Nothing not to like.

Our return to Haarlem was not by motorway. Instead, to prove an older Holland exists, it was quaint villages and large posh houses. Still bloody flat though.



Back in Haarlem we just went to some local pubs for non craft beer. I was crafted out by then.

In case you are wondering how I recalled all this stuff? Photos on my phone and a bit of t'internet of course. None of this taking notes faff.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Grand Café Brinkmann


It's a rather pretty place Haarlem. There are no chain stores here, or at least very few. Many of the shops are artisanal in some way, with painters and potters cheek by jowl with fashionable boutiques, second hand shops selling upcycled this or that, or posh clothes. All are exquisitely, no painfully, constructed, coiffured, dressed and decorated to look lovely. And they do. The canals are edged by high gabled houses, timeless in the Dutch style, but grey and austere. Instead of the merchants that no doubt once lived there, they now home lawyers, accountants and the like and have carefully polished brass plaques. But they they retain their grandeur still.

Move away from the huge main square, the Grote Markt, dominated by the massively impressive St Bavo Cathedral and at right angles to each main or side road,  you observe ever so quaint streets of single storied terraced cottages. In London they might be called mews, though these are not exactly the same, but probably here as in London, some at least were built for servants of the rich and likely for their horses too, as yards abound.  This was and still is a wealthy city.

Around the main square there are a number of bars and cafes with tables and chairs outside. In late March, the weather, while bright and sunny, still has a winter chill.  The Dutch though are hardy and fill every chair, while young men and women scurry about waiting on them. It is an impressive sight. At just after one in the afternoon, there isn't an outside seat to be had.  The customers are a mixed crew. All ages from young to very old are represented.  The older folks generally drink wine and are very well dressed. The young men and women are fashionable and cool. They smoke furiously and mostly drink beer, though iced tea and soft drinks are also evident. Middle aged folks drink beer. Abbey beers from Belgium are common and popular, the tables dotted with Affligem and Grimbergen bottles and glasses. Some sophisticates even drink Duvel Triple Hop, though with a plane to catch I was warned off that very firmly. Belgian beers abound, though the odd Gulpener brings a touch of Holland. Whatever they are drinking, young or old, you can feel the money here.

Picking the grandest building of all, we nip into Grand Café Brinkmann. It has been serving the population food and drink since 1879 and is all big windows, marble floors, solid wood, chandeliers and has a massive staircase and gallery. Most important of all though, it has a very impressive fin-de-siècle bar, which to my eyes at least, is the centrepiece of a wonderfully characterful room.  From the warmth inside we were able to watch the much-tougher-than-us souls outside, with the added bonus of observing the very dedicated young waiting staff working at lightning speed to serve the hundreds outside with food and drink. It took a little time for us to be served, but the apology for the delay was so charming and the place so interesting, that didn't ruffle any feathers at all.

As sipped our beers - Hertog Jan for me and Jupiler for E - we people watched while the whole scene buzzed around us.  Better than outside? You bet. The beer choice was overwhelmingly Belgian and that seemed just fine with the customers. We stayed for two, but I had the surprise of a further beer being sent over by way, I assume of an apology for the delay in service.

This was a classy place to go and we only wished we'd known about the inside before our last few hours. More homework and I might just have got that Duvel.

Don't expect cheap beer in the Netherlands. Even in the humblest of places you'll pay €3 for 25cl of cooking lager. That's £6 a pint at current exchange rates. For anything grander, anywhere from €4 upwards. 

Next time I'll mention Dutch craft and a proper Dutch working man's pub.Guess which I liked best.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Good Pubs or Good Beer


I recently did a little poll for a bit of fun, but of course it had, underneath it, a serious point. Here's the result:

Choose one:
Now of course if you really like pubs it's a no brainer. When you think of it logically, why if you really like beer above all, would you go to the expense of visiting a pub and endure the mark-up when you could merely find the required beer at the best price and sup it quietly in the comfort of your own home? 

Now of course this would be an unusual way to look at things - though not out of the question as a minority of beer drinkers for whatever reason don't frequent pubs -  and in any case many people pointed out, that it can't really be a great pub without great beer. That though isn't at all so certain.  Great beer is always in the eye of the beholder, as to a lesser extent are great pubs, though likely the latter is more easily identified than the former. (Mudgie uses the word "congenial" to describe his required atmosphere.)

On that slight tangent, there can also be the more neutral "unthreatening" and while old hands like me and Mudgie can (mostly) tell a pub where you might be in danger within a second, others might not be quite so keenly tuned in.  Of course a boisterous or indeed a clearly cliquey atmosphere rarely conveys a feeling of danger. Danger is probably best described as the" absence of normal" and your instincts tend to kick in in such situations. Mere boisterousness can usually be quickly rationalised too and most of us old soaks often understand the warning signs before even setting foot in a dodgy pub. These can clearly only ever be described as convivial by the sort of people you wouldn't ever want to drink with.

But I digress, so back to the main question.  Mudgie sums it up quite well, as he often does:

"Even if it's the best beer in the world, I won't stay for more than one if I don't find the pub congenial" — Pub Curmudgeon 🍻 (@oldmudgie) March 3, 2019"

To my mind, that's a very good rule of thumb.

Not to be outdone, Mudgie followed my poll up by:

Now in some ways this seems to contradict my poll, as here great beer wins out. I suppose the difference may be that I ask about "fantastic" and Mudgie asks about "dull". Think about it a bit more closely and it might well just be down to terminology. In Mudgie's case this is a less binary choice, as it means you are in the pub anyway.

So do good pubs and good beer go hand in hand? On the balance of probability - yes - but in beer and pubs, as in everything, the rule isn't hard and fast.

 Of course being a cask ale kind of guy, pubs are essential to my sort of drinking.  So I'm biased both by inclination and neccessity.

I don't know so much about bars though, but that's for another time.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Three Things - No - Four


I've been busy today editing our local CAMRA magazine, More Beer, but Twitter has caught my eye in between times.

Firstly a spat this morning about how CAMRA is supposedly supporting Brexit and a subsequent stream of CAMRA bashing and quite a number of age related hate posts.  Funny how we all know what sort of things are completely unacceptable to say openly and we are pounced on for the slightest transgression, but when it comes to CAMRA, it seems all rules are suspended and ageism is deemed by many to be unremarked and tolerable. On the substance of the matter, CAMRA centrally may have at best expressed something badly and at worst been incompetent, but surely a little show of moderation in responding to this would be better?  Yes us over sixties may well all be "c*nts", but I've news for the young - that's the direction you are headed in too and trust me, things will look a lot different when you get there - though getting some practice in for your future role might be beneficial I suppose.

This leads me on to my second thing. At the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival I had a long conversation with John Keeling (ex Fullers), not only about the sale to Asahi, but what might be done to protect cask beer in light of falling market share. I posted a small summary of it on Twitter:

 This makes a lot of sense as it isn't price per se that makes brewing cask beer unattractive -  it is brewer's margin. As John Keeling explained it to me, 100,000 barrels at (say) 20p a pint less duty is big bucks for a brewer. Brewing more of it in such a case would suddenly make commercial sense. I think he is on to something here and CAMRA should explore this further.

I liked too a tweet about a pub not a million miles form my London place. The East London Advertiser highlights the case of a pub which has live music and has successfully applied to have a deed of easement agreement to prevent future complaints about noise from live music when a new block of flats is built nearby.  This is a good thing. To my mind if you buy a flat next to a pub that has loud live music, then that's your lookout. Affecting the business of a venue by complaining about noise that was there before you showed up is pretty unfair in my view, so good for Tower Hamlets. Others will hopefully copy.

The last thing that caught my eye was the somewhat surprising news that after only a year in the job, CAMRA is losing its Chairman Jackie Parker.
Is there more to this than meets the eye? Dunno, but that may well come out, one way or another, in Dundee at the AGM and Conference.

Right. Having got that off my chest, back to More Beer editing.

Hopefully more posts next week when my magazine has gone to bed.

Meantime off to London tomorrow for a few days, with a visit to Canterbury on the side.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Good News - Cask Saved


Yesterday there was a Twitter post that caught my attention. It referred to an opinion piece in Imbibe Magazine by Jessica Mason in which she claims that "We’re on the precipice of a cask revival". The article goes on to explain her thinking which can be summed up - more or less - that cask can revived - wait for it - by modern brewers adopting Golden Ales.Well I exaggerate, but I hardly agree either with the way the article says "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad" as if we've all been drinking flavourless crud for all these years and can only be saved by innovative craft brewers rescuing us from our own stupidity. Try telling that to Phoenix of Heywood for example who have been brewing a West Coast IPA before many of the innovators were out of nappies, or the nearly 40 beers beginning with word "Gold" or "Golden" in the 1998 Good Beer Guide - and that's not counting the dozens more that have "gold" somewhere in the name. In that same edition there are herbal beers, spiced beers, lemon beers, cherry beers, ginger beers. Beers made with liquorice and chillies. I could go on. It isn't new folks. It has all been done before.

So we need modern craft brewers to show us the way and revive cask? These are the same people that give you cask beer that looks like chicken soup and undermine the work done by brewers for many years to ensure clean, clear, bright beer with distinct flavours.We'd more or less lost the "Its meant to be like that" nonsense until craft got its hands on cask. Now it is back with a vengeance, as overturning the orthodoxy has given bar staff the right to say it once more, even if the beer looks like a mixture of lumpy fruit juices and smells like Henderson's Relish.

Another thing in the article disturbs me more than somewhat. This is written as if cask ale is in decline everywhere and needs bolstering by a few hip breweries making their version of it to show the rest of the plebs how it is done. Well not here in Greater Manchester it isn't. Ask Marble, Blackjack, Brewsmith or Brightside and many more?  Or Lees, Holts, Hydes and Robinsons who all sell tens of thousands of barrels of it a year. Or Marstons, the biggest brewer of cask beer in world. Or go to West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands and so many more areas of the country. Sales might well be declining, but in these places it is still drunk in volume.  And here's another thing. Most cask beer is designed to be drunk in volume. Do we really think the odd craft brewery producing the odd batch of "stylistically broad"cask is really going to save cask for the future? Of course it might help their demograhic to appreciate it more - and that's good - but save it? I think not.

Oddly enough our dear friends BrewDog revived cask by bringing out a trad version of  the cutting edge"Dead Pony Club". Not much by way of "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad." there then, though Cloudwater hit the nail on the head with its (clear) non golden beers while its pale (cloudy) offerings didn't hit the mark at all. Pick the bones out of that if you can.

I do agree as always about poorly presented cask beer - who doesn't -and the need to attract younger drinkers - but this article postulates a world in which a small number of trendy breweries will be the saviour of cask.  This strikes me clearly as pie in the sky and undoubtedly somewhat London-centric despite references to non London brewers in the article.

No, this is all looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We already have the poncification of keg beer to the extent that all too often it is sillier and sillier. I don't like to cast my rose tinted spectacles too much on the North of England, but fortunately most of our breweries, even the trendier ones, produce decent cask beer, albeit too often pointlessly cloudy.  The point here is the picture around cask beer is endlessly varied.  As it always has been. Does it need the craft treatment? Really?

So is cask beer in danger? Yes and no.  As always with cask, you have to keep supporting it and drinking it. I'll be chairing a debate on the subject of "The Future of Cask" at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival.  We have a cracking panel. Come along and see what they have to say. 

Ironically the vast majority of small brewers produce cask beer. It isn't just the big boys and regional and family brewers. 

The Great Manchester Beer Debate will take place on Saturday 26th January at 15.00. We have Sophie Atherton, John Keeling, JulieO'Grady,  John Clarke and Ian Fozard. Fab or what?

Friday, 4 January 2019

Great Expectations


Picture the scene. You park your car up and set off up an unmade farm track which looks as though it has recently undergone an artillery bombardment. You have already noted the dodgy looking lane, but having done so, you are walking, which most do unless you are a farmer, or the milk waggon going to one of the farms; or have a complete disregard for the future of your car's suspension. You take in the air; your many welly clad children happily splash in the potholes. You may visit the monument set high on a hill with views over to Rochdale, Oldham and Bury and the Pendle Hills beyond. You say "Ooh look. I can see the  television transmitter at Winter Hill. My goodness is that Jodrell Bank over there in the Cheshire Plain? (it is)." You eyes drift downwards to the cluster of farms below. "I think there might be a pub down there" you chirrup. "Let's find out."

Then it all starts to unravel. For some. As you manoeuvre downwards, sinking up to welly top height in muddy fields, or plod through cow muck, you observe a little old pub with farms all around it, but with no made road on either side.  You enter and as your eyes become accustomed to the somewhat gloomy interior you realise that this isn't the shiny little gastropub you'd hoped for. Instead it is a fairly rough and ready local pub, with a single room - though you might be lucky and find the small snug open.  The bar is pretty well blocked by locals. A number of oldish men are sitting at a table by the door laughing loudly. They look up and say "Hello" as you enter. There are dogs everywhere. You realise that you have found: a) a hidden gem b) a nightmare pub with no redeeming features.

What happens next depends on you.  You can fight your way in and squeeze yourself and your offsprings into whatever space you can find. There isn't much for anyone. You ask about food but are told it is only toasties and then only if there is time to do them. (You observe that there is only one person behind the bar and you deduce that as the pub is rammed, making toasties might be a tad inconvenient and accept that fact gracefully). You order crisps and drinks for everyone and join in the merry throng noting that in fact there are several families there, the many dogs are friendly and that while the pub is fairly rough and ready, there is a splendid buzz of conversation. Nobody minds about your muddy boots, your children, or indeed you. You note that with the roaring fire, it is, though quite old fashioned, not at all unfriendly. There is a lot of laughter. And, when you settle down inside, it really is all rather cheery. You remember the benches out front and side and figure that should you visit in summer, you can sit outside with your pint and your other half and watch the world go by as your children caper about. You think "Actually this is not so bad really."

Or, you could write a horrible review of this dreadful dump on a well known rating site when you get home.

I suppose the general point is don't be too quick to judge pubs on a first visit or impression

Anyway. Sounds just like the sort of place I'd like to spend some time in. Wonder if the beer is any good?

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Reflecting on 2018


It has been a very quiet year for the blog for many reasons. I have had the passing of my mother to contend with, been very busy with beery things here in Rochdale, Oldham and Bury and latterly in Manchester for Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. But I don't think it the main reason. I just couldn't be bothered. Little inspired me frankly.  Some things interested me, but overall, just all a bit flat. Like a London pint.

I suppose as I get older I feel pretty detached from much of the new beery scene. I was reminded of this in no uncertain terms when I read my good friend Matt's run down of his favourite beery moments from 2018:

Maybe that's it. I am just past it for any meaningful interaction with a younger and trendier beer scene that frankly seems pretty alien to me. I don't seek out these oddball beers, I don't usually like modern bars with their chick chick bass 'music', crazy prices and fizzy beers that rarely live up to hopes - plus a feeling - usually because I raise the average age by 20 years - that I don't really belong there.

Where I do belong though is still very much beer related. I'll be in the pub with my pals soon, drinking excellent cask beer. I'll be continuing my commitment to CAMRA, to real ale and to socialising in pubs with a mixed clientele. That's what I enjoy.That's why I brought the New Year in with gin and tonic rather than some fancy pants special beer.  They are rarely for me.

I know what I am happiest with and don't grudge others their liking for something different. By and large though I'll be sticking to beer by the pint. Cask conditioned, sparkled and in a proper pub. That will be (mostly) what I write about this year. Oh and lager. Don't forget lager. That too. I like lager. And people. Don't forget them.

On that note and being glad I've got it off my chest, Happy New Year to all.

 I think it was Steve Bell of the Guardian, whose penguin strip cartoon character allegedly pished on fish oil was told "Fish oil is an accompaniment to fun -not fun itself."  I think with modification the same can be said about beer.

Wonder if there's any Plum Pudding left at the Tavern? If not straight onto the Bohemia Regent. Practice what you preach. 

Oh and best beer of 2018? Rat Brewery White Rat. By a mile.

Monday, 10 December 2018

The Blog. And BrewDog Cask


I 've been neglecting this for a bit now, largely because I'm to to my eyes in the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival for which I'm Deputy Organiser, but hopefully when all that is out of the way, I'll buck my ideas up a bit.

In the meantime, I forgot to give my views on the return of Brewdog to cask beer via a cask version of Dead Pony Club (3.8%) which I tried at the Draft House in Seething Lane a few weeks ago. Well I say a few weeks, but actually it was 21st November when I was last in London, so not so long ago really.

A couple of things. I wondered if there would be much change in the Draft House offering since Brewdog took them over and first impressions are that nothing much has changed. Maybe a bit more BrewDog on the bar - well definitely that - and possibly a decrease in choice in other areas - but still plenty to go at and all much as before.

I'd previously given up on the rancid cask offering here, preferring by far to drink Tankovna Pilsner Urquell. Many visits and really poor cask had put me off trying, so given that it was a quiet Wednesday afternoon, I wasn't optimistic.  Nonetheless a pint was obtained and duly supped. It was fresh, well conditioned and actually pretty good. With its malty base and hoppy finish, it was a very decent pale ale (or standard bitter since it was in cask form) which I would happily drink again. OK, it didn't set the heather on fire, but I can well understand why BD chose this and I look forward to seeing more (and more adventurous) stuff on cask from them soon, remembering as I do some of the fantastic beers they used to produce. Trashy Blonde (not an acceptable name now I guess) and Alice Porter being two I remember very fondly.

So from me, a qualified "Welcome back" and well done on sorting out the cask quality at the Draft House, though I'll be back later this week to confirm improvement has been maintained.

Don't forget to come along to Manchester Central for the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. It will be fab and is of course very reasonably priced.

We are having a day out in Winchester on Saturday - so tips for musn't miss pubs welcome.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Cloudwater in Bermondsey


It was the coldest night of the winter so far when E and I made the half hour walk from our flat in E1, across Tower Bridge, at this time of the year mercifully, virtually tourist free, heading to Enid St in SE1 to give the newest Cloudwater Taproom the once over.  We bickered our way merrily along through dodgy looking streets, though having been that way before, it is less dodgy than it appears. As often is the case of our minor disagreements, we were violently agreeing with each other; the difference in our preferred navigation being about "along one then over a bit", or "straight along and over a bit less". Such are the vagaries of thirty odd years together.

The  Taproom is in a railway arch, brightly lit and narrow, with a cold store at the rear to keep the beers cool (certainly not needed that night) and for off sales. There is a bar, bottom right with taps at the rear in the usual craft style. A number of beers - ten or so -  were offered in various sizes, all at £4 a pop.  Waiting for our companion for the evening, beer writer, Matt Curtis, we started with a very decent Helles Tettnanger which was bang in the middle of the helles style and on a warm day would have been even more pleasurable.  On Matt's arrival, we tried a few of the others with varying degrees of success. I liked the lightly smoked IPA - or maybe it was just pale ale, quite a lot, thought the Cranberry and  Papaya Sour both smelled and tasted likely mildy gone off Vimto. Okay if you like that sort of thing, but worth £8 a pint? You tell me.  Nothing really grabbed me, well, not quite true. The cold did.  Like a vice. My hands were freezing as some acquaintances from The British Guild of Beer Writers remarked as they shook hands. It was bitterly cold and I worried for the barstaff. How cold? Well, frankly it would have caused Ranulph Fiennes to check his fingertips and cuddle his husky a bit more tightly. Maybe I'm just a bit nesh though.

Which brings me on to another point. What's the attraction of a bitterly cold railway arch with the sort of beers on sale that you can get elsewhere for around the same price, but in relative comfort? Beats me really, but there were quite a few people there on that cold Wednesday night.  I have been in this neck of the woods in summer and sitting outside people watching - if you can get a bench or whatever - is pleasant enough, but so is sitting outside a proper pub.  For me these kind of visits are an occasional "something different" thing, but I know for others it's a way of life and how they like to drink. Sure beats me, but as I say so often, in craft related stuff, I'm not the target audience. But in this visit at least, the company was good and of course beer - as it usually does - and this is what really it is all about - engendered the social lubrication that enhances and tranforms an evening out and makes your surroundings much less important than the people you are with.

We left eventually and having spotted a pub, new to us, along with Matt, we popped into the Marquis of Wellington to be immediately enveloped in warmth in a virtually empty, but very pleasant pub. The beer was pretty good too, so we'll be back.

This isn't a pop at Cloudwater. As railways arches go, this was a very nicely appointed one, with attentive and helpful barstaff. I'm sure we'll visit now and then when a trip over the river to Bermondsey beckons. (Or Bermo as nobody but Cloudwater calls it.)

Thanks too to the lovely folks from Duvel-Mortgaat for their surprise company, the excellent chat and the beers.



Friday, 16 November 2018

Cloudwater - The Return of Cask



Readers will be aware that like a sinner repented, Cloudwater Brewery has returned to the cask fold after a period in the keg wilderness. It is good to see them back and to note they will shortly be joined by that other recidivist - sorry - returner to the shining path - BrewDog. Is this the shot in the arm that the ailing cask cause needs?  I'm not sure, but it can't do any harm can it? Actually in the case of Cloudwater whose decent intentions are rarely called into question - certainly not by this writer - no it can't. In the case of BrewDog, let's wait and see.

Cloudwater has been seeking out pubs where their cask credentials are such that they will look after the beer properly, going as far as having a little interactive online map where you can seek out those who know how to coax the best out of beer from the wickets. Additionally, a vetting process, which while hardly the Spanish Inquisition, at least gets enough information about prospective sellers of the amber nectar to judge whether they'll turn it into flat vinegar or not. Good idea. Quality at point of sale is paramount and Cloudwater are to be praised for making such efforts as they have in the name of a quality pint.

One such pub whose cask credentials are proven beyond doubt is the Flying Horse in Rochdale, CAMRA's Greater Manchester's Pub of the Year.  On Wednesday night they had all four of the new beers on so as it is one of my usual Wednesday haunts, I nipped in to see what was what.  This was rather a low key affair, with the pub being little busier than it normally is, though I noticed one or two local members of CAMRA throwing their heads round the door, specifically to try the beers.

On offer were Pale, DDH Pale, Brown Ale and India Porter. I started with a pint of Pale, a 3.8% golden brew which was decidedly murky. My companion had the same and we sipped cautiously. First impressions were good with a burst of fruit and hops, but as the head subsided, the beer was a tad grainy and watery and sadly became less enjoyable.  It lacked the cleanliness and distinct flavours that I'd hoped for. Frankly I blame the needless opacity of the beer - but see below. This beer cried out to be cleaned up.  Cautious by now, my next beer, DDH was ordered in a half portion. This looked and smelt similar to the Pale, but with a slightly soapier nose. The taste was more of the same with the hops not seeming to get along with the malt. The increase in alcohol to 5.5%  was evident, but didn't help the cause that much. Again the beer seemed muddy, a little thin and imprecise. I didn't care for that one much at all.

I was getting worried by now. Brown Ale (4.6%), hardly my favourite style was next. Having had a taster and observing its pin bright clarity though, a pint was duly ordered.  Now this was more like it. Full bodied, resinously hoppy throughout and with clean and distinct flavours, this was a beer of tremendous complexity and vibrancy. It was multi layered and classy and quite possibly the best example of a brown ale I've had in years. A lovely beer.

Buoyed up by the Brown Ale experience, India Porter was next. Would it reach the heights of my previous one?  It did and in fact soared above it. No mean feat. Again clear, very dark, full of condition and a head a dormouse could have walked over without sinking in, it looked a treat.  Frankly this is a stunningly good beer. A booming joy from start to finish. Resinous hops throughout, delicious dark malts and such a clean tasting beer. A modern take on porter which knocks all the sweet, dull efforts you normally see into a cocked hat. It had great drinkability too and at 5.3% I felt its strength was pitched just right. I loved it.

So what does this tell us? A few things. Cloudwater can brew bloody good beer and haven't forgotten how to do cask.  The two beers I didn't like prove little. I and my ilk aren't the target audience for them. They are to keep their core audience onside while introducing them back to cask with something familiar.  While I didn't like them, plenty will and I have little doubt they turned out as intended. Cloudwater are too good for that not to be the case. Getting not one, but (if you include BrewDog) two two high profile breweries back in cask production with an enhanced committment to quality at the point of dispense can only be good.  I look forward to more; just tone down the cloudiness guys. To me it makes the beer taste cleaner and that is a good thing, though I reluctantly accept its all pervasive influence these days.

Conclusion? Mine's a pint of India Porter if you are buying. Even if you aren't, it still is.

So we have Cloudwater back on board cask wise and BrewDog too. I'll try that next week in London and hope for the best.

 I'm glad I tried these beers at the Flyer. Tremendous condition is assured there.  All beers were a very reasonable £3.50 a pint. In fact for the quality of the Brown Ale and the Porter, worth a fair bit more. Apparently they had sold very well during the day, which is good news.  

Friday, 9 November 2018

Slightly Grudging Praise of Tennents Lager


I was in Scotland last week to see off my late mother's flat - you know - help my sister with all the  remaining bits and pieces  and discuss old photos of goodness knows who, as not only are the subjects of the photos all deceased, everyone who knows who they were are too. Very sobering and a reminder - hardly needed - that all paths lead ultimately in one inexorable direction.

Sounds like an excuse for a drink eh? Well I certainly thought so. I started off on the first night with a visit to the Captain James Lang, our local Dumbarton JDW.  Cask to me has been hit and miss in there, despite its Good Beer Guide status, but they had Adnams beer on. I like Adnams. Proper beer it is.  Adnams Nut Brown Ale and rather good it was too.  Typical Adnams taste and more complex than I'd reckoned on it being. A beer that made you think. Chatting with my non drinking sister, I found three pints weren't a hardship. For a proper description of the beer, see the Beer Nut here. I concur with his findings, even though these days, I'm more of a "good or shite" beer describer and as a rubbish blogger, I rarely take notes; rather I rely on my phone for photos of what I drank and my memory for how much I liked them. Not an entirely reliable modus operandi. Trust me on that one. 

Due to an unexpected funeral which I wasn't involved in, family plans were put aside the next day. I decided a little trip to Glasgow would fill the hiatus.  Charing Cross area was just a hop away on the train, chosen mainly for the State Bar and the Bon Accord - where - and I have mentioned this before - I had my first ever cask beer in 1974. But firstly the Griffin opposite the Kings Theatre. Years since I've been in there - all wood and glass with an old and comfy interior and a horseshoe bar.  One other customer in only, reading the paper and drinking a pint of Tennents, so at least I knew it had been recently poured.  Duly ordered from a silent barmaid - no warm welcome there - it was cold and gassy, so I swirled to release some carbon dioxide, knowing that if the pipes are clean, there was a chance to get something good from this Scottish standard. It wasn't bad after an atmosphere of CO2 was dismissed, but not hitting the mark. My solitary drinking companion left with no goodbyes exchanged. I entertained myself by watching a glum faced stocktaker, take all bottles down from the gantry and solemnly inspect by eye before noting the contents on a sheet. It was soothing stuff as he tutted his way around the bar.  Finally, my pint finished, I slunk out casting my eye without success for the now disappeared barmaid.  Like my erstwhile fellow imbiber, I too, left unnoticed for pastures new.

Just up the road is Henglers Circus, a large, bright L shaped Wetherpoon bar, which although it has a fair bit of low level chairs and tables, would be much improved by some bench seating. It was quite pubby with plenty of folks of varying ages dotted around, chatting, eating, reading the paper or just watching passers by through the large windows looking out to Sauchiehall St, where, and this happens a lot, they were digging up the street in my honour.  The greeting was very warm and friendly and unbidden the barman after ascertaining I wanted beer, rattled through the offerings.  By way of compare and contrast, I had a very decent pint of St Mungo from West Brewing in Glasgow.  I took in the pleasant atmosphere and enjoyed a leisurely people watching. I didn't have the cask, but some did and I know from past visits it is reliable enough to deserve its GBG entry.

A mere hop and a skip away is the State Bar, renowned in real ale circles. Well Glasgow ones anyway. I used to regularly sup there in 1976 when I did my Supplementary Benefit training in nearby Pitt St.  Then it was an all chrome and black keg bar and looked nothing like the traditional pub it is now. Odd if you think about it.  Only half a dozen in and again not much of a greeting, but GBG form Fyne Ales Everyone Loves Simcoe made up for that as did bumping into an acquaintance of mine. The beer world is small really.

My intended final stop was the Bon Accord just over the M8.  Busy and welcoming - big smiles and hellos - and beer from one of my favourite breweries, Stringers. Yellow Lorry was in Good Beer Guide form as I was drawn into a discussion on an inadvertently locked down laptop.  This widened with plenty of people offering solutions, but it still wasn't working when I left 45 minutes later. This pub never disappoints even if Hewlett Packard laptops do.

Now I know you are asking yourself. "What about the Tennents?"  I had intended to go back to Dumbarton at that point, but seeing a pub sign down a side street by the Mitchell library,I couldn't resist. The Avalon is odd. Just check out the reviews. Inside, like a souped up scene from Still Game, a few denizens chatted to each other by the simple process of bawling  in jokes and asides at a volume wholly incommensurate with the size of the pub. The barmaid was friendly enough and as the range of beers on offer was more than limited, I opted for Tennents Lager.  It was a cracking pint. Clean, fresh and very enjoyable. CO2 levels were good and as I surveyed the slightly down at heel boozer, I felt content, swigging mouthfuls of TL and listening to the patter.

Resisting the temptation for more I headed for home. Back in Dumbarton as I left the station I entered what used to be McCafferty's Railway Tavern.  I was a regular there many moons ago when it was actually run by Hugh McCafferty. Many a pint of McEwan's Export was consumed in there back in the day. Now it is a recently opened Indian Buffet Restaurant called Haveli having been closed for a number of years.  Now I'm not the biggest fan of this kind of eating, but it was handy and five minutes walk from home.  Apart from four women it was just me, but I had one of the best lamb bhunas I have ever had and one of the best pints of, you've guessed it, Tennents Lager.  The welcome was great too from the waiter and his dad who had cooked the bhuna.

Tennents Lager is no Augustiner Helles, but when not over gassed it is a full bodied, clean beer with a slight ting of hops.  Sadly too often it is not sold at its best.

 I met with a pal the next night in the Henry Bell in Helensburgh. This normally reliable GBG entry offered me two pretty undrinkable pints, though both charmingly exchanged. I reverted to gin and when the crew from RFA Fort Victoria arrived mob handed from HM naval base at Faslane, we avoided the hordes at the bar by using the  JDW app. Brilliant.

My last disappointment was on the way home when the Smoking Fox just outside Central Station had swapped the delicious Heidi-Weisse from West for Blue Moon. WTF?

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

No Craft Cheer in Malaga


It is an opinion that some won't agree with - controversial maybe - but I've usually found craft beer bars a bit samey.  All shiny and sharp surfaces like Gordon Ramsey's kitchen; industrial chique instead of comfy decor; a stainless steel wall of taps and the barstaff's backs for a view. The Americans, as always, have a lot to answer for, as have their unimaginative worldwide copycats. Why can't we have some more craft bars with individual character?  Nonetheless being a reluctant democrat in such things, I sometimes find myself in them, usually with gritted teeth and quite often wearing, if not a sulky expression, a boat that shows faintly concealed resentment.

Thus it was in Malaga a few short weeks ago. I and my companions, (E excluded), had dutifully jotted down the must visit places of the crafterati and round them we traipsed.  I think we went to around five. Six if you count the visually appealing Cruzcampo Brewpub,  La Fábrica - a magnificent and brilliantly designed space with decent snacky food and a very shiny brewery producing slightly boring but incredibly competent and faultless beers.  In each bar, the same odd tasting take offs of beer styles from abroad. A muddy pale ale, a wheat beer, an overhopped, unbalanced IPA, a badly made porter and some murky one off, masquerading as a saison or a NEIPA (interchangeable in their awfulness and who knows how they should taste anyway - the brewers clearly don't? It made you shake your head with wonder that any brewer worthy of the name would let the bloody stuff out to trade. And always, well very nearly, an amber beer that everyone tries and then pulls a face at, before wondering why brew this insipid style at all?  The only saving grace really was, here and there, an Imperial Stout, so alcoholic, dark and dense that brewing faults were disguised to the point of non detectability.

Was I just unlucky? Is it just Malaga? I don't think so. While undoubtedly more competently made beers were to be found in Barcelona with the same friends last year and without them in Berlin, earlier this one, the general samey picture didn't change.  And why anyway for goodness sake, would you want to replicate abroad the experience you can find in any craft beer pub in Manchester, Liverpool, London, New York and everywhere else? It's the modern equivalent of demanding sausage egg and chips or pie and beans, no matter where you are in the world.  You pay top dollar for the experience too. That at least is consistent the world over and is the one thing that can be relied on.

Having said all that, Malaga is a great city to go to. Just get to the real Spanish bars around the giant market or anywhere away from the very touristy centre and you can have a great time in traditional surroundings. El Cid by the market was small and not at all self concious. Our entry caused no wonder or resentment at all and as we perched in a corner, four little tapas were presented with a smile. Victoria beer and the house wines were damn good too.  In fact cheery little bars on every corner, even on main roads in the city centre, were a feature of the town and away from other visitors you certainly got a feel for the vibrancy of them and the way they are used by locals. Welcomes were always warm too, unlike the general indifference of the craft bars.

So what's the lesson? If you are a fussy old duffer like me, when abroad just visit local pubs, drink local beer and wine and mix with local people.  If you want to drink craft - carry on, but don't expect it to be much different from home as an experience.  

Interesting too to compare basic Spanish beers. Least liked were San Miguel, Mahou and Cruzcampo, though none were bad. Very much liked were Victoria and the lovely and gluten free Estrella Galicia. 

Funnily enough in the tourist centre some excellent house wines and great grub can be found at very reasonable prices. Gambas al pil pil? Yum yum.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Is Something Going On Here?


Three things struck me last week, two of which were writings about beer and the other, more superficially, but much more satisfying - well part of it anyway - was an evening supping the stuff in two contrasting locations.

First of all was Paul Jones of Cloudwater revealing what the brewery will be doing in Autumn and Winter this year.  All very insightful stuff where Paul, in his usual way of seeking to explain (and maybe justify) why his brewery does what it does, tells us a few very notable things he has observed about the craft scene he is undoubtedly immersed in. His are deep observations, which have attracted as far as I know, little real attention or comment, but which made me think a bit more about them.  First of all and I remember this, was that Cloudwater when it was founded, set out deliberately not to have a core beer range. The reasoning if I recall was that would enable them to follow the seasons and produce what seemed suitable at the time.  Seems reading what Paul says, is that while it may have happened at first, it "morphed" to quote the man himself, into a succession of beer styles, the most notable of which was a DIPA series.

The drawback Paul has realised and I paraphrase now, is that every other bugger and his dog have jumped on this bandwagon and crowded the market.  To add to this problem, innovative replacements have limited appeal too as the market follows along. To quote Paul, first of all speaking about DIPA, the about the sheer numbers of breweries and products seeking shelf space "Not every cover song hits the high notes of the originals. The same sense of saturation can be felt in the vast number of one-off beers, whether imported for a ‘one time only’ event, or brewed to appeal to the UK’s most fervent and exploratory beer geeks. This is actually quite damning stuff.  Paul then goes on to postulate " I fear the UK brewing industry may be on course to burn out and fatigue drinkers." warning that "For every beer geek there are 10-15 non-modern beer drinkers". Building up to the reveal, Paul affirms on a wider observation that - and I assume he means beer in its widest British sense - that "Our tradition, and its longevity thus far, is built on supremely drinkable everyday beers, and each brewery setting out its own stall."

These are interesting and profound thoughts as far as they go and they actually go quite far. I think what he is saying and I'm surmising rather than quoting here, is that craft beer is getting a bit samey on one hand and a bit too desperate to produce oddities (geek forward) on the other.  So Cloudwater will actually produce what is effectively a core range of well made beers, building on successful beers of the past and will not discard the successful and well-liked, just to attract the one-off brigade.  There is a lot more explanation, so have a read of what Paul says yourself.  Now Cloudwater aren't abandoning one-offs or experimentation, or barrel ageing, or indeed anything, but are taking a somewhat wider and perhaps less geeky view of the future, given that the real enemy "big beer" is starting to breathe hotly down their neck.

Oh and the announcement that everyone jumped on, ignoring the rather deeper and more analytical stuff?  They are bringing back cask beer to selected outlets which will look after it properly.  Yes, real cask beer.  Good news, as they used to be quite good at it, but perhaps a little unexpected.

Moving on, the good old Morning Advertiser had an article which was also quite profound, related to the above topic but approaching it from a different angle.  In this case, Sophie Atherton, Freelance Journalist & Accredited Beer Sommelier - so she should know a bit about tasting beer - observes that in busy craft beer bars, nobody is really drinking the stuff. She reckons she knows why; "the beer is too awful to drink". She blames excessive hopping rates which she reckon have the taste equivalent of carpet burn in the mouth. Her description of beer looking like "beaten eggs" may well ring a bell too.Her solution is also to consider and return to more nuanced (my words) cask beer. Interesting stuff and worth a read too.

On Saturday afternoon I attended a birthday "do" in a keg only brewery tap in Manchester. Drinking pints of supping keg beer (under 5% stuff) rather than stronger sipping beer, was a tad disappointing. The beer was quite thin and the carbonation was high, not being helped at all by the polycarbonate drinking vessels.  In short, to my mind, paying around £4.50 a pint to drink keg beer in a brewery shed isn't to me that much fun, but maybe not so to others. The experience was recalled when I read Boak and Bailey's piece about the decline of bottled Guinness drinking and the rise of CAMRA. The article has this quote: "Although it became linked by CAMRA mainly with flavour and body, the main original source of displeasure (about keg beer) was probably in the level of carbonation. Bitter has traditionally been flattish, thinnish liquid which can be drunk in prodigious quantity. People simply found that drinking a lot of keg beer blew them out and gave them stomach ache." 

While I have enjoyed many small measures of strong dark keg beers, to my mind, while the quality of ingredients may well have changed, excess carbonation will usually preclude drinking keg bitters - now of course conveniently re-imagined as Session IPAs - in any great quantity. Back to Saturday night, when chucked out of the brewery, a few of us repaired to the Angel, a freehouse which seems to have lost a bit of its cachet to some minds.  Top quality cask ale, a pleasant pubby atmosphere and beer at around £3.40 a pint made me wonder why.

Seems like a few more people than the Cask Report would have you believe, are thinking the same.

It will be intertesting to see which outlets will be deemed good enough for Cloudwater cask.  I do drink a bit of supping keg. Lager. Somehow that seems fine. 

Don't you observe that in craft beer bars, once inside you could be in any place in the world given the samey beer, stainless steel beer walls and similar decor and customers? 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A Very Mixed Bag in Todmorden


Following on from the recent cutting articles by Martyn Cornell and Pub Curmudgeon about poor quality cask, I had the opportunity to run my own test in an area I rarely drink in and that I don't really know.  Step up Todmorden, which is in Yorkshire - though not by much - and has the benefit of being served by the 590 bus from Rochdale, a First Manchester service, therefore allowing me to use my First Day ticket.  In fact it goes all the way to Hebden Bridge and indeed Halifax, both pretty good drinking towns.  Going that far does involve quite a long bus journey though and was vetoed by a dubious E, worried by either losing valuable drinking time (doubtful) or needing a pee on the way back (more likely).

Now Todmorden is somewhat of a poor man's Hebden Bridge. It is, shall we say, a bit more rough and ready and isn't really immediately that attractive, apart from the very impressive Victorian Town Hall which hints at past glories.  After a quick walk round which revealed little of interest, we skirted the Town Hall and round the back, near the rather sad market is The Pub, a neat little one roomed micropub which Retired Martin advises is in the Good Beer Guide 2019.  Inside it is bright, cheerful, spotlessly clean and shiny. Very attractive. One denizen was sitting at one window and we settled underneath the other. Another and only other drinker, lounged against the wall. Amiable greetings were exchanged and the welcome from the young woman behind the bar was equally appealing.  Six handpumps were present.  I only knew one brewery - Brewsmith - but this was 6% - a bit much for a first drink. E chose a golden coloured half, while I at the barmaid's suggestion, ordered three different thirds. The stout was sour and exchanged and the beer withdrawn from sale. The beers were cool but not exactly on top form. The banter though was great as the discussion of imperial versus metric wandered off down maze like alleys before returning inconclusively to its starting point, not helped by everyone having a different idea of what we were discussing. This and further chats as we supped kind of proved the inclusivity of the micropub genre.  All in all enjoyable, but the jury is out on the beer. I may well have had the first drinks pulled and the pumpclips on display indicated that we may just have been unlucky with the range. I'd go back.

Next up was the Golden Lion.  Black walls and a kind of grungy feel didn't warm us to the place which was almost empty at 2.30 or so in the afternoon. The welcome though was excellent with a very friendly woman serving. Both Saltaire beers (Gold and Citra) were a tad tired and flabby, as was the local Tod brewed beer, Pale Eagle from Eagle's Crag Brewery. This is clearly a night time destination though. It serves as a music forward venue and has Thai food. Quite a lot to like, but not on a quiet Saturday afternoon clearly.

Tor Beers, round the corner, is attached to the Golden Lion, but seemingly rented from it in some way.  It boasts one keg beer on tap (something from Wiper and True) which was fine and a chatty young man who runs the offy, which seems to be the main business.  A large selection of very decently priced craft in cans and bottles is available, and while nobody came in while we were there, a couple of hardy souls sat outside in the autumnal sunshine.

Wetherspoons' White Hart was next. This is quite small and rather pubby, with a relaxed feel. It was fairly busy.  Service was swift and cheerful from the female barperson, while the bearded barman, who looked as though he had tumbled unexpectedly from a much finer craft establishment in a parallel universe and somehow ended up here, didn't seem to be viewing life from the sunny side. Win some, lose some. Here the cask stout from a guest American brewer (forgotten the details) was the pint of the day. Cool, conditioned and tasty.

Last up, by the bus station was The Alehouse, another micro pub with an extensive pavement with tables in front of it and one room inside. I opted for Salopian Lemon Dream which wasn't that cool or well conditioned and had slipped over an invisible dividing line, from beer into lemon furniture polish.  (I recall Hornbeam Lemon Blossom had the same tendency). Disappointing.

So four cask pubs and only one pint I'd call very good. Not a great result, but clearly reflecting that you aren't going to get top cask beer from empty pubs.

I rather think this little unscientific venture proves a few of Mudgie's points.  There are other pubs though, but we'd had enough of the place by the time we left.

Next time pee or not we'll go to Hebden Bridge. I think we'll find better there and of course, squeeze more value out of our First Day bus ticket.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Which Way for Beer, Pubs and Brewing?



Last week two things in the beery firmament really caught my attention. Firstly there was the news that Dave Bailey's Hardknott Brewery will shortly be no more. Dave is giving up the whole shooting match which is a great shame.  He has always, in my opinion, been one of the good guys. The other was an excellent post by Glynn Davis in his Beer Insider blog where he takes a close look at that currently in vogue way to raise money, Crowdfunding.

Is there some connection between the two? Perhaps, but the real thing I took from both is that under the surface, all isn't as rosy with the beer world as some would have you believe. Firstly let's have a look at what Dave Bailey says about the beer industry. (This isn't a post about why Dave is giving up, so if that's what you are after, get in touch with Dave). One point he makes forcibly on his blog though is that basically big business is determined at all costs to shove the small guy out. He cites for example, where a major supplier of mainstream lager offered one of his customers £2000 to remove Dave's sole keg font.  Not nice and potentially very harmful to his business. No doubt they weren't picking on Hardknott as such, but it is probably safe to assume this is typical behaviour.

There is also it has to be said, too many breweries. In a world where the number of pubs continues to fall, (though there is some offset where closed pubs are replaced by other outlets such as cafes, bars and other non traditional outlets) the fight for bar space continues apace. This is the world of dog eat dog, with lower prices being demanded by bar owners and an eager rush to join the race to the bottom price wise just to get a beer on the bar.  That isn't a mutually beneficial market for anyone. Prices at the bar continue to rise in a buyers market, though many would argue that far from profiteering, any money made is being gobbled up by rent, business rates and more.  All in all, a lose/lose situation. As a corollary, home drinking continues to take market share and will likely continue to do so.

Many of the 2000 or so brewers are very small. Some are what I'd call hobby brewers. These are people who brew and sell beer, but don't rely on it as their main income.  These though are the ones that compete on a daily basis with those such as Dave, who rely on their business to put food on the table. A tricky one.  At the top end, as Dave points out, quite a few of the top businesses and brands have been bought out by the big brewers. As we discover daily, most of those are increasing their capacity hugely, so the possibilities for the mid sized brewer become severely limited.  Tellingly Dave has done a bit more analysis. I quote him directly: "Below 5,000hl annual production profitability is extremely slim. It's a sliding scale and closer one gets to this important number the more likely a brewery is to make profit, but that profit is still likely to only really satisfy an owners short-term living requirements. Below 2,000hl my research strongly points towards a loss making operation. What this means from a business valuation point of view is that within the range of brewery sizes we are talking about any exit strategy for the business owner looks poor. Making return on investment is highly unlikely without some sort of growth.

What will be the effect of this? Unsaleable assets and a business worth little. I quote Dave again: "This will have repercussions. Dave puts it thus: "My prediction is that most breweries will struggle to grow and therefore leave the owners without a plausible exit strategy".  Of course this gloomy picture, which you can choose to believe or not, does not put off those who see their future in much different terms.  There is always the prospect of success, but the failures will outweigh the sucesses.

I turn now to Glynn's piece about crowdfunding.  There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand you have people believing, that while they may not make much of a return on their investment, they have a reasonable expectation of avoiding wipeout and the tantalising possibilty of maybe a bit of money coming back. On the other, you have a sort of fan based club where people buy in to be associated with the company much as a football fan might.  They get special offers from the brewery, but little else. Commentator to Glynn's piece, Martyn Cornell, has wise advice "Regard all money invested in these schemes as cash torn up and thrown in the bin. You are very unlikely to ever see it again. " The analysis here by Glynn reveals that in making the "offer" to the interested (gullible) some very optimistic and arithmetically unsound predictions of growth are being made. Here is where Hardknott Dave's analysis and Glynn cosy up to each other.  The market is in overall decline. The cake is getting smaller. There actually isn't room for all. Relying on taking someone elses's market share is at best problematic. Nor is the take home market is unlikely to prove much of a salvation for most. The big players will always dominate here.

So where does this leave us? There will be further casualties and it won't always be the bad guys who will fail. It won't neccesarily be the ones with the worst beer. It may be your favourite small to medium local brewer and it may well be that even the optimists who are using other people's money to grow won't be successful either.

The market is changing and it is highly likely that if you want to survive you must have a guaranteed route to market.  Or find a niche that you fit neatly into. Growth is uncertain. Failure looms large.  Hard times ahead for many I fear.  Too many brewers and not enough market isn't a cheery thing to contemplate.

Tap rooms and micro pubs are one way to survive.  Their increasing popularity will ensure variety will endure.

There is also a squeezed middle here. Medium sized brewers will increasingly find themselves between the hobby brewers and the large breweies and already many are vacating the free trade as margins get trimmed away.

Photo used with permission under the Creative Commons

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Mercato Metropolitano


According to the blurb Mercato Metropolitano is a "Community based Food retailer with an Italian soul that promotes sustainability, craftsmanship and community." (OK there is a needless repetition of "community" there, but hey ho, I'm not that much of a pedant.) Anyway that sort of thing is right up my right on street, so I had to go.

Fortunately its location on Newington Causeway is easy to get to from my London place and even easier from where I was when I set off.  Taking a break from my endeavours at the Dispensary Pub, I nipped round the corner to Aldgate Bus Sation and hopped on the 40 bus which drops you right outside the door. Lovely.  Only it didn't. As I was early to meet E for drinks and a bite to eat, I hopped off a stop early and went for a quiet pint of Harveys Mild in the Royal Oak.  And quiet it was too. Being mid afternoon I was the sole customer for most of my visit. But that was fine. It was rather restorative sitting with a pint and just reflecting on things. However man does not live by family brewers and inner contemplation alone, so after one, I bid my farewell and left.

Confirming the bus stop was indeed opposite the entrance to the rather anonymous looking building housing Mercato Metropolitano - think cross between a market and an abandoned Scottish League 2 football ground - in I went.  It was impressive. I entered through a area which sold all sorts of excellent looking comestibles from all over - but mostly from all over Italy.  All looked fab frankly, particularly the bread. I'll certainly be back for some of that. Leaving by a side exit into the main body of the kirk, my eye was immediately caught by brewing vessels and the home of Kraft, making authentic German beers with proper German ownership, braumeister etc.  "This should be good" I thought.  I started off with the helles, Heidi Blonde,  which was unfiltered. A bit chewy and grainy this, with a somewhat muddled flavour. Not bad, but no Weltschläge.  Next up was the Edel Weiss, which was much more on the money. It ticked all the weissbier boxes, with bubble gum, and cloves evident, though it would have been better in the traditional weissbier glass, rather than a handled pint mug.  I finished off as E arrived - from a completely different direction than I expected - thus surprising me. If I'd been a sentry, my throat would have been cut. Hopfen Kiss Pale Ale was rather a decent, just hoppy enough, bottom fermented Pale Ale. Very drinkable and probably my favourite.

E didn't fancy any of the beers at Kraft - she has a deep and well founded suspicion based on bitter experience, of opaque German beers - so we set off to explore. There really is something for everyone to eat and drink here. Plenty of craft beer choice, very decent wine and food from all over the world, sensibly not overlooking that staple of the traditional hipster/craftie - burgers. But seriously, good stuff abounded.  By the time we'd wandered round it and it is a good size, the place which had been virtually empty when I arrived, was filling up with the after work crowd. We found a seat and ordered some beer. My choice, from cheery Italians (I think) was a remarkably good Das Kölsch from Howling Hops.  This was such a good (and rather authentic) brew that my tentative half was immediately followed by a pint, though the glassware, a non nucleated nonic, was not perhaps the best way to present such a delicate beer. E being E had a pils of some sort from an entirely different stall, which is the beauty of the setup. Again, getting into the spirit of the place, I had Vietnamese food while E hopped continents to South America. I think I had the better of that though, which is rarely the case.

This is a seriously good place to visit. We will certainly be back and I now know I must visit Howling Hops soon. That Kölsch was good.

Handily the 40 bus is outside on both sides of the road, though road works made our return to Aldgate less handy.

Only complaint is that your clothes are likely to smell of cooking after a couple of hours. There is a lot of it going on, but that's a small price to pay.

Friday, 7 September 2018

It's Not Difficult


Readers of this blog know I have shall we say, some issues in finding top quality cask beer in London. It always puzzles me why. Apart from the obvious antipathy to keeping cellars at the appropriate temperature of course. I get that. Not why they don't, just the fact that they don't. Let's be quite clear here. Too high temperature buggers up cask beer. You start off wrong and there  is no way back. Chemistry and all that.

I've been down in London helping my friends Annie and David with their beer festival at the Dispensary in Leman St. It's my local when down here and though not far away at all from Tandleman Towers South, it isn't the nearest pub, but it is the one where the beer is kept properly.  The cellar is kept at around 10 -12C and the beer is properly conditioned. Even without a sparkler, it sparkles. Just look at the photo of London Brewed Dark Star Hophead. Perfect.

I've looked after the stillaged beers in the bar. They are cooled and could do with being a little colder - but that's just me - I'd much rather have colder. Beer warms up. Customers have been fine with them and the beers are in great nick. How? Simple. Keep the bloody condition in them. Avoid soft spiles for a start. Most modern beers don't need them and they bleed condition. Porous hard spiles are the cellarman's or indeed cellarwoman's friend.  Keeping cask beer is not, despite what some would tell you, difficult. It just needs common sense and a little know how.

As long as you follow a few basic rules that is. They all begin with C. Cleanliness, condition and cellar temperature are the basics. The other is somewhat contrived, but is chronology. Time. Rack the beer to settle. give it a day at least. Vent when the beer has rested. Know when the beer went on and when it ought to be sold by. Nobody wants knackered beer and that can happen even if otherwise the basics have been observed.There is a bit more to it of course, but follow these guidelines and experience will provide the rest - or the questions that you need to ask.

The final C is for check. Check the beer before serving and at intervals. The last person that should find out a duff pint has been served is yet another C. The customer.

Reckon you can't afford to keep your cooling on?  False economy. Put a few more pence on a pint rather than do that.

Fullers seem to have done a smashing job matching Hophead at Chiswick. Well done on that one.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Old Beers Show Up Well


I was invited to take part in an impromptu tasting of old beers behind our bar at GBBF. I use the term "old" deliberately. These weren't "aged" beers in the sense that they hadn't been kept carefully in a cellar, or some such controlled environment, with a view to tasting them at a later date. Instead, they had come from God knows where and ended up in a CAMRA stall at the beer festival.  The carefully controlled conditions they had endured are unknown, but most likely consisted of years of neglect somewhere  or other, before ending up being donated to CAMRA, where the most controlled environment waslikely to be a cardboard box on a non temperature controlled warehouse shelf.

We wondered if we were in for a gourmet vinegar session and as the first bottle, M&B Centenary Ale from 1979, was opened with not a hiss, we feared the worst. To our surprise, the beer had loads of carbonation and was as clean as a whistle on the palate. Sherry and dark sugar notes dominated in a good way. It was perfectly drinkable.  One of our company remarked that this bottle of beer was brewed long before he was even a twinkle in his dad's eye. Sadly I couldn't say the same, even if then, by way of compensation for that melancholy thought, I had a lot more twinkle then than now.

Our next bottle however wasn't quite so good.  Centenary Ale from Home Brewery of Nottingham hadn't endured the years as well. Brewed in 1978, it was still conditioned but exhibited distinct marzipan flavours, as well as considerable stale cardboard notes. You can't win 'em all.

Our next two were really rather good. Both were well carbonated and again showed rich sherry/port like notes. Both were brewed to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles to the late Diana Spencer. Royal Wedding Ale (1981) from Bourne Valley Brewery was first of the final pair. This was rather a nice bottle with a fired on label. Plenty carbonation again in this one, from a brewery which was then only three years old. (Brewing started in 1978. but, sadly, brewing ceased in October 1985 following a split in the partnership behind the brewery.)  We finished off with Celebration Royale from King and Barnes. King and Barnes were taken over by Hall and Woodhouse in 2001 and the Horsham Brewery closed.  They must have known what they were doing though, as this may well have been pick of the bunch, though it mirrored the M&B in many ways with its rich fortified wine flavour. 

This was an interesting little interlude and  it was good that the surprises were mostly pleasant.  Why not have a root through your cupboards? You might just enjoy that old bottle that you find, but even if you don't, you are drinking liquid history. 

Our host my colleague Ian Garret sourced these beauties for around a pound a piece from the CAMRA memorabilia stall.

I have quite a few old bottles at home. One day maybe.