Well sort of. There is a lot of talk about once a year drinkers and how busy pubs are with these detested amateurs and while there are very amusing pieces written about them, I tend to agree with Curmudgeon in that it is nice to see pubs as busy as they undoubtedly are.
In the very busy Crown and Kettle a few of us met up with some others that were already there. The pub was packed and the bar staff busy, but service was quick and attentive. It was my round and while two of our comany sat down with their pints, I carried over the other two and a half pints of Ossett Silver King. As we sipped them it was obvious they weren't going to clear and the taste was distinctly bottom of the caskish. I took them back. Given that it was busy, I wasn't sure what my reception should be but there was no problem. The barmaid said that she'd put a new cask on and bring them over to me in a few minutes. I looked at the crowd dubiously and said "Are you sure? I can come back." "No. I'll bring them." Ten minutes later I saw her weave through the crowd with our fresh beers and put them down with a smile. "Sorry about that" she said.
As I say so often, it really is about the offer and taking that little bit of effort for the customer.
That was a lot of effort.
Respect to this lass for going the extra mile. Ossett Silver King should always be pin bright.
The Morning Advertiser has a good piece on pubs by Heineken UK boss, David Forde. It isn't often I find so much to agree with from such a person, but he seems pretty much on the money here to me in calling for pubs to give customers a much better experience than they currently do and for better training for staff. He also encourages customers to complain about bad service and beer.
Now I know you have been waiting for it, but here it is. The feet on the ground, beers you can buy everywhere (more or less) Golden Pints. The definitive guide to what really is good, not what really is rare or odd. Let's get straight in with the most important category of all:
Best UK Cask Beer
Ah, so many contenders and since this is a list of best, not worst, I'll miss out the many duffers that I've been unwise enough to purchase. You know who you are, because I've written about you.
Funnily enough it is the so called "despicable" Wetherspoon that has caught my eye in number one and number two position. Both are from their American Brewers Showcase. I also have to add one of my own personal favourites, which makes the bronze position. So, in reverse order:
3rd: JW Lees Plum Pudding. Christmas in a glass indeed
2nd:Stone Supremely Self Conscious Black Ale. This lovely, hoppy, Black IPA was a clear number one until along came:
1st: Pretty Things Jack D'Or Saison Americaine. Simply magnificentand just squeaks ahead of no.2.
A further point that must be made and cannot be a co-incidence, is that both first and second were brewed at Adnams. Best UK Keg Beer
3rd: Hello My Name is Mette Marit. Yes a BrewDog beer. I reckon they do do great dark beers.
2nd: Thornbridge Imperial Raspberry Stout. It did what it said on the tin. Luscious
1st: Kiwi Wit by Camden Brewery. A one off for Mark Dredge's new book launch. It was absolutely lush. Bring it out permanently. Immediately!
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I don't drink much of this at all, but two beers, both late in the day, caught my eye and both are from breweries within a brewery:
Joint winners are:
Brabo from Brains Craft Brewery. Clean, delicious, Belgian style Pale Ale brewed in collaboration with Des De Moor.
Triple C from Thwaites Crafty Dan Brewery, which shows how to use hops without making it a yukky muddy mess as so many new wave brewers do. Cleanliness in beer is so undervalued these days. It shouldn't be.
Best Overseas Draught Beer
This is a time and place thing. Uerige Alt drunk in the schwemme at source in Düsseldorf. Beer is also about occasion and, in good company, there is not many better places to be, or a better beer to drink. Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Something guezey at the Great British Beer Festival. Or anywhere. Almost certainly from Cantillon.
Best Collaboration Brew
Allgates Quaker House Stout. It was brewed in collaboration with me and was bloody good. Best Overall Beer
Kiwi Wit by Camden Brewery I still think about it. My own stout a close second. I still think of that too. They really were that good. Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
I like the simplicity of Tickety Brew from Manchester
Best UK Brewery
Adnams for reasons already stated. I even liked their Dry Hopped Lager.
Best Overseas Brewery
I haven't drank enough stunners to award anything here, but as it is over the Irish Sea an honourable mention to Okells. Their Manx Pale Ale is a beauty.
Best New Brewery Opening 2013
Can't think of any that really impressed enough to make an award.
Pub/Bar of the Year
My local, the Tandle Hill Tavern. It's where my friends are.
Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Very impressed by the beer quality (not by the prices though) in Pie and Ale, Manchester, but the award has to go to The Well and Bucket in London for atmosphere and choice (they need to keep an eye on cask quality though) and closely followed by the Pelt Trader for great quality beer and great service, though it needs to be made a bit less soulless.
Beer Festival of the Year
Great British Beer Festival. It is still the dog's bollocks when it comes to putting on a show.
Supermarket of the Year
I rarely buy any beer in them. No award but I do like browsing in Waitrose.
Independent Retailer of the Year
As above. Online Retailer of the Year
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Mark Dredge's "Craft Beer World". Fresh and readable. Enthusiastic and well thought out. Took a knackered formula and brought it back to life.
Best Beer Blog or Website
3rd: Total Ales by Matt Curtis. Long but readable. I like it a lot
2nd: The Beer Diary by Chris Hall. Always a good read, even when I disagree with him.
1st: The Beer Nut. Unsurpassed in his beer descriptions and his enthusiasm for his subject. Best Beer App
What Pub by CAMRA.
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
3rd: @OkellsAles - Mike Cowbourne for his interesting links
2nd: @Robsterowski. To the point and not just there for the hell of it.
1st: @cshallwiter. Chris Hall. On fire at the moment.
Best Brewery Website/Social media
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Lees Bitter and a packet of mini cheddars always goes down well.
Phew. That took a lot longer than I'd imagined it would.
I was at a funeral yesterday. It was for one of my CAMRA friends and during the humanist service, we listened to his eulogy as we stared uncomfortably at his hop be-decked casket. My CAMRA colleague had no family and it was touching to hear how his friends rallied round and how his CAMRA trips and friends had been a highlight in his life. CAMRA is often accused of being a social club, but as I sat there, I reflected that if that's one of the worst things we are doing, good for us. Afterwards we celebrated, if that is the word, at a cheery wake in the Baum. I suppose the aftermath of a funeral is often a cheery affair as we give silent thanks that it isn't for us that glasses are being raised. Yet.
As everyone started to drift off home, on the way back to the bus station three of us passed the Regal Moon and felt compelled to pop in. We spotted Pretty Things Jack D'Or Saison Americaine, brewed at Adnams, on the bar and despite its 6% abv ordered pints thereof. What a great beer. First of all the nose which had delicate sweetness, a touch of brett and an overall bouquet that siren like called out "Drink me". We did and it was luscious; peppery spicy from rye with a bittersweet Belgian mix of slight sourness, balancing malt sweetness, lemons and a good dash of hops to finish. It was perfectly cask conditioned, full bodied and satisfyingly drinkable. It cost us a few buses as we supped, perhaps unwisely, a couple more. But funerals, if nothing else, make you want to seize the moment.
Seek this beer out. It is seriously good.
And yes, £1.99 a pint. Or maybe it was £1.89. There's a 10p discount on Wednesdays, but we'd had a few. Hence the slightly blurred photo!
The decision of Marstons to sell some 200 of its wet-led pubs has met with a degree of concern that is hardly surprising, but should that really be so? The giant PubCos are a mess and have little coherent branding, but Marstons and Greene King, huge in themselves, but disconcertingly under the radar in most circumstances, are quietly changing their wet focus into food-led with drink as an add on. They are building large new pubs to emphasise this point, so there is surely little shock that bottom end pubs with little prospect of fitting into a different mainstream future are being disposed of? It is not simply the move to food that has motivated Marstons however, as the company needs to reduce its £1 billion debt and the £90 million deal will come in handy for this purpose. But it will also be used to build more new pubs, or should that be pub/restaurants?
What is more worrying is the buyer. In this case NewRiver Retail, which plans to convert most of them into shops or supermarkets. The pubs it seems, have been sold for that very purpose. This already happens a lot, sometimes openly, but often by stealth and in ones and twos. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale feels that to allow such change of use without the planners being able to intervene or the public to object, is a loophole which is too easily exploited. Maybe, but in some cases at least the alternative will never and never could be retaining them as pubs, so poor is the business. In some cases though, it is not so clear cut. CAMRA has announced it will oppose the changes of use. Mike Benner, the Chief Executive said "The fact that this sale has happened is a result of a dysfunctional
planning system which means pubs are regarded as easy pickings by
developers. CAMRA will be using this
development to press home the case for tougher planning protection for
pubs and for greater consumer consultation when they are threatened with
All well and good and I agree that it is right that planning law should include changes of use in such cases, especially since so many shops are empty (though often, unlike pubs, in the wrong places) but the underlying trend of big brewers and small getting out of many marginal wet led pubs will continue. As Curmudgeon pointed out, even here in Manchester, Lees and Robinsons are doing just that, though not in their cases to alleviate debt. It may well be the case that the wet led pub has a limited future under certain kinds of ownership and that is likely to be under the control of individual owners and small chains, where they see that the market exists if the right beers are sold and the right offer is made. At least this time we will know in advance which pubs are affected. That's useful, but one thing is for sure, they won't all be viable as pubs. I'll of course be interested as a local CAMRA Chairman to see if any of our pubs are affected.That'll put more meat on the bones.
A few weeks ago, I attended a night of beer tasting with a difference. It was of the last thirteen winners of CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain and was hosted by Warminster Maltings. This was both a celebration of and a tribute to Maris Otter malt, which has been the malt used in no less than ten out of the last thirteen champions. I bet you don't know which ones weren't, but don't worry, I won't keep you waiting. Only Deuchars IPA, Haviestoun Bitter and Twisted and Rudgate Mild, didn't use it.
Another first for me was that it was held in the Bull at Highgate, a pub that I'd never visited, but which is pretty famous amongst London beer buffs. It is also home to its own micro brewery, which could be seen from the area just to the left of the bar. Now I must say that the Bull, whatever I might have been expecting, was hardly your traditional boozer. In an affluent area, it was nonetheless warm and likeable, but no bare boarded ale house. Think more chintzy than that, but it seemed to have a good mix of customers amongst the assembled beer glitterati.
Beers were divided between the main bar, a specially erected stillage and a decent sized room with its own bar upstairs where most of us ended up. Oakham JHB with its clean spritzy taste and touches of lemon it had an almost "radler" feel about it. Castle Rock Harvest Pale which was so good that you could see immediately why it had won the supreme gong. Surprisingly tasty and likeable was Triple F Alton Pride which a few of us hadn't rated that highly before, but which on the night was a beer to return to and one of the stars of the show.
I was lucky enough to have a ten minute chat with Warminster Maltings owner, Robin Appel, who is credited with almost single handedly rescuing Maris Otter from malty oblivion, when in the early 1990s, together with H Banham Ltd of Norfolk, he approached the then owners of the variety with the express purpose of rejuvenating it to
satisfy the demand of the real ale market. Much work was done to make it commercially viable once again and in 2002, Maris Otter was bought outright by H Banham Ltd and Robin Appel Ltd, which have continued to improve it to ensure Maris Otter preserves its original identity and
will not compromise the traditional flavour of some of Britain’s finest
beers. Robin was a very interesting host and I enjoyed his tales of JW Lees earlier generation of whom he spoke fondly. I have the feeling that if Lees fancy returning to the Maris Otter fold, Robin would be quite happy.
Finally a word about the food which had been designed using what else but Maris Otter malt as an ingredient. Maris Otter inspired Scotch eggs were superb and to my delight various haggisy nibbles were available too and for me a perfect accompaniment to the beers.
Food and beer matching? Scotch eggs and haggis. Look no further.
The Bull is at 13 North Hill, Highgate, London N6 4AB. Easy five minutes from Highgate Tube.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the nearest JDW to my flat in London and remarked on how much it had improved. Seems I may have spoken too soon about the Goodmans Field.
A couple of weeks ago we popped in on the way home and though I can't remember the beer names, I ordered pint of whatever this guest beer was. It was extremely murky. I queried it and asked for a replacement. The next guest beer was identically murky, as was the beer from a third pump. The poor barman obviously had no idea what was going on and asked if I'd like to see the manager. I would. I was assured that I had just struck an unlucky co-incidence and that they had all reached the end of the barrel at the same time. I may just have looked doubtful. "Hmm" I thought. "OK. I'll have a London Pride". You are probably way ahead of me. It was like electric soup. Another co-incidence I was advised. So I had a pint of the cruel Heineken.
A couple of days later I called in again, reasoning that it would all be new beers by then. My ordered pint of Vale Misty Hop was cloudy. I wasn't going through all that again, so tasting it gingerly, it wasn't that bad. "Misty Hop" I thought. "Wonder if it is meant to be cloudy?" The Blogosphere didn't know, so I emailed the brewery. This what they said "Misty Mountain Hop should be served crystal clear." Now my first thought was to bubble this mob to Cask Marque and I will if next week when I'm in London, I call in and there is the slightest doubt about the beer. But it may just be they had a disastrous weekend in the cellar and its a one off. I'm a kind sort underneath, though there is no excuse for selling under par beer, which they were quite blatantly doing. My second thought was about the Misty Hop. I had thought that this might have been one of those daft beers that are meant to be served cloudy? I didn't know and the name hinted that it might.
Nonetheless when an old hand like me can be well and truly fooled by the possibility of badly kept beer being this new fangled "unfined beer" or whatever they call it, what's happening to other poor innocents?Are they being fooled too?
I'm not a fan of unfined beer as you can probably tell.
If like me you prefer your advice to be solicited, you may be slightly put out by bar staff offering guidance. Things such as "I like that one" when you are surveying the range of beers are, to me at least, a little bit unwelcome. While I may well turn to a trusted palate, generally what someone else likes, without knowing their predilections, is likely to be just as hit and miss as guessing and turning down their advice politely makes you seem churlish. Of course helpful advice such as "it is pale and hoppy, dark and stouty" etc. is more useful, but these can be written on a board and that, frankly is better, though hardly foolproof.
A couple of things occurred on Saturday which I'll share with you. In one pub after enjoying two sparkled pints of the same beer, I was so impressed with it and since neither me nor my companion were intent on moving on, why not order another? I looked around me, taking in the scene, as my pints were poured, not by the charming young lass who'd patiently offered us tasters, but by a bebearded hipster type. I looked at my pint. No head. I looked at the handpump. The sparkler had been removed. "What's going on. Where's the sparkler gone?" I asked. "I took it off" quoth he, "the brewer doesn't like sparklers."
Now that may or may not be the case and anyway, a brewer's preference is just like mine. A preference. He isn't Moses. It isn't written in tablets of stone. Bad form to change a customer's beer in that way mid stream and anyway, Manchester is the North and beer here is sparkled as a default. Later in a different pub, the reverse happened. Well sort of. There was no sparkler on my Buxton beer and when I asked for one, the barmaid tossed her head and advised me that "it doesn't need one." Hmm.
It goes back to the old adage that the customer is always right (even when he is wrong) and anyway, there is a simple way round presumption. Just ask.
Can I also slip in a big recommendation for Young's Winter Warmer? I only had a half, but it was delicious.
It's a bad habit of mine, but one until now has been born of necessity. Going to more or less the same pubs in London that is. Oh of course there are changes and one or two have dropped off my radar and one or two have come on, but it's all been a bit samey. Thus it was a couple of weeks ago that E and I decided to get out and try pubs neither of us had been to before, or at worst, to ones at least one of us hadn't. We decided to keep it simple, visiting any pubs we hadn't been in between Cannon Street and the area around Fleet St and Temple.
First up was the Old Bell in Fleet St, part of the Nicolsons chain. Small and intimate with lots of wood, this was cosy and though the welcome was nothing special, the beer was really rather good. I opted for Gadd's Rye Pale Aleand really enjoyed its dry crispness, while E had no complaints about the condition of her Nicolsons Pale Ale, though she wasn't quite so keen on the beer. Not far for the next one and of course a bit of a classic. Now I have been in the Old Cheshire Cheese before, though E hadn't and I hadn't been downstairs. What a gem, with a coal fire, an "olde worlde" appearance which actually is genuinely old and Old Brewery Bitterat sensible prices. OK it was getting to the end of the barrel, but by no means undrinkable and the place was warm, the barmaid chatty and cheerful and downstairs a revelation, with its benches reminiscent of a German beer hall. We then had a quick bit of culture in the nearby Romanian Orthodox Church before nipping into Ye Olde Cock Tavern, where although the beer was in splendid nick and the barmaid again welcoming, the beer was badly chosen by me. Brown and Browner I think they were called, with Brown coming from East London and masquerading under the name Foundation Bitter and Browner pretending to be Hackney Best Bitter. No real redeeming features, but ten out of ten to the pub for offering something local and in good nick.
Now funnily I hadn't been to the Old Bank of England before. A Fullers pub of considerable grandeur and once again, despite its fullness, a warm welcome. Fullers Black Cab needs a sparkler, but was tasty and my first ESB for quite some time was thoroughly enjoyable, with distinct Seville orange flavours. Great for people watching too. We left rather impressed and went on a bit to the George, a thin narrow, old fashioned long bar, bristling with handpumps. Great quality here too, with Gadd's No 7pretty damn good and Truman's Lazarus, pale and hoppy, the the pick of the bunch. An oddity was an "English Craft Lager" called Noble which wasn't anything special. Fantastic service here too from a barmaid who was a positive blur as she shot up and down the bar. We'll be back here for sure. Leaving there with some reluctance, we decided to retrace our steps, as we'd missed one. The Tipperary is London's oldest Irish Bar and though the craic was anything but mighty from the taciturn barmaid, the beer was again spot on. Portobello Palewas a very decent hop forward golden ale.
If this crawl and my other experiences in my recent six day visit are anything to go by, it isn't just the number of breweries that is increasing in London, but the overall quality and variety of the offerings, though a caveat is that the cold weather must have kept things cooler in the cellar. But you can only speak as you find and I found good things.
Very pleasing indeed.
We did pop into a a couple more pubs back near home, but as we'd been in them before, we decided the crawl had officially ended at the Tipperary.
Tyson has mentioned a few of the beery delights of Cologne and as I often do, I agree with his assessments, so I'd like to concentrate mainly on the pubs themselves and the attitudes and idiosyncrasies that govern them. First of all if I had to choose between Cologne and Düsseldorf, it would almost certainly be Cologne. If you could just move Zum Uerige to Cologne, then everything would be perfect. Sacrilege I know, but there you are. Cologne for me is much buzzier and alive than its Rhine neighbour and has better places to drink. Does it have better beer to drink? Well, yes and no. A matter of preference really.
Near the main railway station, PJ Fruh is one of my favourite places. Mostly I'm hugging the wall in the schwemme or public bar, where one can watch the waiters fill their trays with beer freshly poured from a wooden barrel and of course, not wait more than a second or two for a another glass. We certainly needed a drink after severe train delays and standing all the way from Düsseldorf - Deutsche Bahn is going through a bad patch. Being mob handed, the schwemme was out of the question of course, so through many rooms we went, all huge and all full to the brim, until somewhere deep beneath, there was a room that was busy but could still take the 14 or so people we had. The place had hundreds outside on a beautiful Autumn day and even more hundreds inside. Here is lesson number one. Most of the good pubs in Cologne are big and boy are they busy. The Germans like to eat lunch out. And dinner it seems. Service was brusque and business like. When things are done on this scale, there is little time for chat.
Then a quick visit to old favourites Sion and round the corner Peter's Brauhaus, where one of our female tripsters was refused a glass of wine as the waiter had counted 12 of us and brought 12 glasses of beer. (She could have wine the next time he patronised.) That's another thing common to both Cologne and Dusseldorf. You'll have the devil's own job to get anything other than beer and one beer at that mostly. Confidence or cheek? You decide.
Tyson, Eddie and I then went seeking different Kölsches. As Tyson has pointed out, most are brewed in the same place and the Dom Brauerei Ausschank (Brewery Tap) did not, alas, include the brewery. Outside as it is on the Rhine, beer terraces overflowed with customers. Inside was as deserted as could be. Another little quirk you find in Germany emerged. We picked a table by the window among a sea of empty tables. A waiter rushed over. "You can't sit there." He gestured to another row of identically empty tables and we went over. He didn't like the one we chose then either, but asserting ourselves, we just stayed put. He wasn't happy. That happens a lot too, but Old Grumpy was replaced by a cheery young lad who sorted our beer out. German waiters want you to do it their way. Another German trait.
Again in the empty beer hall at Sünner, a lovely out of town brewery that actually still brews, we had to plead with Herr Ober before we were allowed to have a drink. We said we would be an hour and we were. We were gone before any of the evening guests arrived and no tables had reserved signs at that point. Just German intransigence? Probably. Later that evening we were in no uncertain terms told we couldn't have a drink in Haus Töller, as it was fully booked with diners. I'd particularly wanted my friends to see the inside of this remarkable survivor of bombing. Fair enough I suppose, but there was a smugness that bordered on arrogance in this dismissal.
Of course, where there are downs, there are ups. In most places, waiters couldn't have been kinder or more accommodating, but certainly later in the day, if you are not eating, or inside early, you may have to forgo your chosen watering hole. It was nearly thus in the Reissdorf BreweryTap, an old haunt, but fortunately the unseasonably warm weather allowed us to drink outside where a lovely young waitress cheerily kept our glasses filled. No mean task I assure you. I like Reissdorf, it's a bit more pokey than most examples of the kölsch genre. Less traditional was a place I'd always wanted to go to as we've sold their beer for years now at GBBF. Braustelle do more than standard beer in a very busy pub, filled to bursting with a mixed crowd, but mostly twenty plus. Regrettably we'd just missed the pale ale, but the alt, yes alt in Cologne, was more like a porter and very moreish, so we had some more.
So what's going on? Cologne if anything seemed to be booming more than Düsseldorf. Pubs were going like a fair but we got the impression that
this had allowed a touch of complacency to emerge in some quarters at
least. How easily are the seven lean years forgotten, when plenty is
Nonetheless these are minor points. We stayed in Cologne much later than planned, drinking good beer in busy friendly pubs. It's that kind of place.
I've missed out visits to several more pubs that are positive gems. Some other time eh?
I have been in London for a few days and of course visited a few pubs. Shortly after my recent arrival in London, we walked the mile and a half or so to one of my favourite London pubs, the Pelt Trader. The place was comfortably busy and, with it being a Tuesday, there was a few less suits than usual. In fact, quite a good mix of customers made for a pleasant atmosphere. Kirsty, a top bar operative if ever there was one, was running the bar with one other staff member. (Or maybe he was running it with her?) Either way, the place was busy enough for more than two staff, but working as a team, they never stopped and nobody had to wait long. It was all done with a smile too, reminding me, as if that was really needed, that great bar staff are a prerequisite to a great pub. The beer here was spot on too, though for once Mallinsons Creak Mouse was a little too sweet for my taste. At 4.8%, it needed more hops. Yes. A Mallinson's beer needed more hops. I can't believe it either.
I also tried Adnams Dry Hopped Lager, which I liked. Decent body and a bit of discernable hops, it wasn't a bad drink at all and one I'd happily have again. Kernal Citra and Summit was decent too, but maybe not their best. Perhaps I'm just expecting more and more hops from them and certainly less wateriness, but nonetheless we both enjoyed it as our intended last drink, though it didn't bowl us over. The Pelt Trader is a good place,the beer is good, the prices are fair and the staff are brilliant. Possibly something for others to consider?
Walking home though makes you thirsty, so we nipped into the Draft House in Seething Lane. I like the buzz of this place and though it is great for people watching, a point or two must be deducted for the awful repetitive bass thumping away. Hardknott Continuum was my choice and though I did enjoy it, I felt it didn't hang together as well as it might, with some clashing flavours and jaggy edges, though I suspect that's what many like about it. That's a good thing. As I remarked to E, "If we all liked the same beer, there wouldn't be many brewers about."
Profound I am. Or obvious. I'll take either.
Pleased to report that the Draft House has found the cool setting on the thermostat too!
Germany, well North Germany, is getting an expensive place to drink. On my recent trip to Düsseldorf, the brew pubs in particular, the glorious four of Uerige, Schumacher, Fuchsen and Schlussel all the alt beer hovered around the €1.80 mark for a 25cl glass. That's pretty hefty, especially when you effectively pay €2, as given that when there was a lot of us and the bill was paid jointly, you ended up chipping in two euros for convenience. Even when you paid yourself, it seemed a bit petty to wait for 20c change. I'm guessing too that is pretty standard. Not a great deal for the drinker, but admittedly it was at least nice for the waiter. Twenty five centilitres isn't much either, so you end up with quite a few glasses to pay for.
Germany is wealthy. North Rhine Westphalia is one of the better off places in a better off country. Düsseldorf is one of the better off places in a better off state. You see the picture. The place seems to be booming. The pubs were pretty much full to bursting point. We were refused admission to some, so busy were they. Even with these pubs typically flowering into room after room receding into the distance and deep into the bowels of the earth where even more rooms lurk, it was "house full." There was no room (or very little of it) at the inn. Dining, despite its sameness in that part of the world, edges drinkers out too and a point for those that think smoking bans always affect trade adversely, North Rhine Westphalia has recently extended its ban to all but the smallest of places and that seemed to make no difference to custom at all. Pub going was a thriving affair in every way.
Nor, in most cases, did you have to run a gauntlet of smokers outside. They all seemed just to be getting on with it despite smoking being more or less a national sport. A different world it seems.
There is a degree of confidence, maybe more than that in Germany that you just don't get at home. More to follow.
Having just read Mudgie's latest blog post, it reminded me of a photo I took from Chester's ancient walls (hence the dodgy quality). You can still read it though.
I don't suppose everyone will agree with all of the sentiments expressed, but one or two of the diktats may find some support, where some no doubt won't.
Still, in these days pubs have to find a niche and I assume that it works for them.
You can click on it to make it bigger and a bit more readable.
In an interesting development (or is it bandwagon jumping?) it seems that the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) are considering changing their logo which current says "Local Beer," to read "Craft Beer".
Keith Bott, of Titanic Brewery, the chairman of SIBA, said the proposal to drop “local” from the
organisation’s logo and replace it with “craft” had been raised at a
SIBA council meeting and was now going out to regional members for
discussion. He said: “We don’t believe it’s our role to define craft
beer, though any member of SIBA is by definition a craft brewer." He goes on to remark about how "local beer" is by definition, what they do and is concerned that a change may be "less relevant". He is probably right to be concerned in tagging themselves with a title that means all things to all men (and women) and shares a consensus with almost nobody. But of course it would - or is that could - at a fell swoop, make the term "craft" synonymous with cask, rather than its current widely held (though of course not agreed) definition of superior keg. That's one in the nuts for BrewDog's half baked plan to define craft beer in their own image, as you would then have a respected organisation with several hundred breweries as members, most of whom only brew cask beer, thus taking de facto ownership of the title. I rather doubt if James Watt envisages or approves of that scenario, but it is at least more plausible than his.
Somewhat presciently in my view, another thing Mr Bott says (and this is again at odds with the BrewDog view of the world) is that "ultimately the
consumer is the right person to decide what is and isn’t craft." This is hardly co-terminus with a self serving definition by a sector of the industry who would like to define the craft world in their image and for their convenience and then nod approvingly as the drinking public falls in line.
I've an idea though, reading between the lines, that this change is unlikely to happen, though mabe I'm wrong. To the ordinary drinker in the pub who values choice and a decent pint above all, the term "local" has far more resonance than "craft" and that resonance, that approval of small and local, is far more likely to sell beer to both publican and public. That'll probably swing it. Keith Bott may though have given the definition that most suits craft. That is something that the consumer perceives as craft. "It can't really be defined, but you know it when you see it" works pretty well now - for that is where we are - for most people. Impractical and skewed ideas imported (copied) from the US (whose definition of craft is a bit suspect anyway) to a completely different market, will remain pie in the sky unless there is a legal definition. That just won't happen.
In the meantime we must wait and see for SIBA, but don't go holding your breath.
If Conwy had gone some way to restoring our faith in cask ale, Chester had it centre stage and shouting its quality to all comers. Handily underneath the Premier Inn where we were staying, Harker's
is a well known Brunning and Price pub on the canal-side.
Lavishly appointed, the haunt of Chester's well heeled and with a great
range of beer, we struck lucky with superb Crouch Vale Amarillo, which
was by a long chalk our best beer so far. The handpump was red hot as it
cranked out pint after pint, so we had a second as we assumed it would
be gone soon and we had other places to visit.
Next stop was the
beautiful Cross Keys and Joules (pronounced Jowls) beer. The pub is a
Victorian masterpiece and as good a place as you'd want to spend an hour on a Wednesday night. The beers surprised me. Since I last had them in Eccleshall around a year ago, they seem to have improved beyond all recognition. Across the road was Okell's Bear and Billet and there it was the Manx Pale Ale that stood out, with the charming service a close second. MPA is is a beer that you want to drink a lot of and we should have stayed for more, but the boys wanted to visit the nearby Spitting Feather's Brewery Tap in what was once a Jacobean Banqueting Hall. Now I did warn my friends that the place outshone the beer in the way a lighthouse outshines darkness, but they wanted to see it. Suffice to say other than the wonder of the surroundings, only the superbly attentive young lasses behind the bar, gamely trying to fashion a silk purse out of a sow's ear, made the visit worthwhile.
Our second last official port of call was a Sam Smith's house (can't remember its name) which one of our number had always wanted to visit. The OBB at £1.80 was just about OK but comfortably better than our previous experience. Then to JDW and one of the oddest, strangest, bestest, differentest pints ever. Bateman's Hazelnut Brownie (6.3%) was a liquid version of its name. It did what it said on the tin and no mistake. We all loved it and it was still a talking point at breakfast the next day. Round the corner, and back at our hotel, Harker's beckoned again, but alas it had closed at eleven. All wasn't lost though, as two of us nipped across the road to the Cellar and the very welcoming sight of Marble Manchester Bitter. Again the hospitality couldn't be faulted and the beer was on superb form. We staggered back across the road around the half one mark, slightly the worse for wear.
So there you have two of the simplest ways to make your pub shine. Offer a warm welcome and good beer. See a theme developing?
Such was the welcome that my companion was hugged by a barmaid from Harker's who was supping at the bar. This was by way of apology for being unable to serve us at 11.15 she said. He was also hugged by the landlord as we left. Nobody hugged me!
The rain was drumming down as we left Portmadog with little reluctance, heading back up through Snowdonia in grim weather which threatened to blow us off the road. Our destination in the short term was Snowdonia Brewery at the ParcBrewery Tap on Beddgelert Rd, Waunfawr. At the stroke of opening time we dashed the few yards from the car park into a warm welcome and very decent beer indeed. Perfect Snowdonia Gold and a nice chat to the brewster, who good naturedly chastised the bar staff for not offering us samples from the range, restored our faith in all things beery. Even the samples were crisp, clear and cool. Would it last?
Our next destination, Conwy, was immediately impressive with its streets busy despite the downpour and the castle replete with two Welsh flags dominating the scene in a good way. We parked at the Castle Hotel, an old coaching inn which regrettably seemed to have had all character removed, though that didn't detract from the very warm welcome received from the young and enthusiastic bar staff. We noted too in the hour or so we were there, the large number of diners and drinkers. They are obviously doing something right. Beer here was from Conwy Brewery with the 3.6% Clogwyn Gold being a bit of a belter.
Lastly in Conwy, a terrific pub of tremendous appeal and character. The Albion is a splendidly restored 1920s, multi roomed pub which positively gleams inside. Again the welcome couldn't have been warmer, nor the beer in much better form. Local pork pies from Edwards (what a shop they have - worth a trip to Conwy just for their Bara Brith and sandwiches) were spot on too. It was consequently a cheery bunch of old gits that left for Chester. Now North Wales has been slagged off by some respondents and I can see why, but Conwy was a gem and I dare say we'd have found some other decent beer there too. It just had that sort of feel to it.
Above all what set Conwy aside from Portmadog was the quality of the offer. A warm welcome and excellent beer really makes all the difference. It isn't that much to ask surely?
You are no doubt wondering about the dead dog. He is ubiquitous in these parts. The sad tale is here.
What's not to like when you have a couple of nights away with old friends as we have done once a year for more than the last twenty? Perhaps when you decide to stay in a run down seaside town like Portmadog that's what. It all seemed fine when we decided on it. A nice run through Snowdonia and then a night in a pretty town with three Good Beer Guide pubs in it, then up to Chester and a night there. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course history of such events tells us we usually - or at least it seems so - have one day where nothing goes wrong beer wise and one where, disappointment rolls in repeatedly, like breakers on the Irish Sea. It started promisingly enough in Llangollen where the sun shone and our lunch stop was at the excellent though very run down Ponsonby Arms. A very pleasant barmaid told us of planned renovations as evidenced by scaffolding outside and the beer, in my case Diawl Bach from Heavy Industry Brewery, had enough hops about it at 3.8% to be very enjoyable. It was in good nick too, despite us four being the only lunchtime customers. A wander down to watch the steam locomotives at the preserved railway then took us to the posh Corn Mill owned by Brunning and Price. Overlooking the railway and the River Dee, this was a beautifully renovated building with among others, Dave's Hoppy Beer from Facers, which was maybe just off the mark. A sign of things to come.
Now I hadn't been to Portmadog before and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. The Welsh Highland Railway was nice, as was the harbour, but the town had an ominously deserted feel to it. We started off with a trip to nearby Tremadog where the busy Union Inn (GBG) offered Purple Moose beers that just weren't anything other than adequate and opposite, the Golden Fleece, built into the hillside and festooned with hops, offered more of the same. Not bad beer you understand, but a bit tired and flabby.
All Good Beer Guide pubs next. The best bet beer wise in the Station Inn (a bit of a basic boozer) was Adnams Ghost Ship and that wasn't great. Our earlier experiences of Purple Moose Snowdonia had warned us off that, so after one, we supped up and plodded along to the Ship Inn which offered mainly national brands. It wasn't that busy at all. Our more exotic choice, Lancaster Blonde had that same midweek feel to it. Last up was the working men's club-like Spooner's Bar, at the narrow gauge railway terminus. We were persuaded by the barman to try a brand new cask of Snowdonia but it did little to convince us of its inherent qualities and after a couple we left, the boys to seek a curry and me to seek an early night.
It was eerily quiet as I made my way back to our rather nice B&B. I saw no-one and walking past at 10.15 pm, I noticed that the kebab house was firmly closed, as was the Chinese Chippy. Can't say I was shocked.
Conclusion? Take the GBG with a pinch of salt if the pubs are empty and it is midweek. Quality still cask's Achilles heel.
Take a wonderful venue like Victoria Baths, with its tiled splendour offset by decay that has not yet been reversed by renovation and you have a star that possibly outshines any hirer and indeed, makes you wonder in the conext of IndyManBeerCon, if the venue is the event and whether it would be able to survive unscathed a change to somewhere less impressive. There is something about wandering the three old swimming pools, the tiled corridors and the ornate splendour augmented by subdued lighting that makes you feel well disposed to the place and therefore well disposed to whatever is being hosted within.
There is little doubt too that the second IndyManBeerCon has captured many a
youthful imagination and already there have been glowing reviews and a positive flurry of congratulatory tweets. But
what about an old cynic like me? Was it all it was cracked up to be?
There was a change around this year with all three pools being pressed into use and a mixed bag of cask and keg together on the same bar, rather than separate bars for each. That worked as well as could be expected and is in keeping with the way that the best craft bars operate, so no complaints there. There seemed too to be less choice than last year, with the offerings being different depending on which night or day you went and a separate beer list for each night. You had to like strong beers or somewhat experimental beer of just over 3%, much of which was of a taste that you'd struggle to acquire. Something just to drink at a modest yet suppable strength was like hen's teeth, rather hard to find. An exception was Quantum NZ Light which while excellent is still no Windermere Pale, which is the benchmark for this sort of thing. In my case I had to wait until the alcohol kicked in to be really able to loosen up a bit. I'm used to pints of a lot weaker beer. Funnily though on Thursday as I scanned the crowd, I felt quite at home. Hipsters were few and far between and it was a rather mixed CAMRA fest like crowd that attended. There were of course one or two worrying hipster proclivities in evidence, though mostly behind the bar. E thinks she's spotted a new and unwelcome trend of twirly moustaches to accompany ironic beards. I kid you not. Just when you thought things couldn't get worse.
There were plenty of people I knew which always makes a festival nicer and plenty of gossip too, none of which I can repeat here. There were surprising omissions too. Hardknott Dave was there but his beer wasn't, edged out perhaps by even more trendy newcomers. A fickle business this craft keg. BrewDog were hidden away on a main bar this time and the better for it. Brewers aplenty served beer and talked about it. It is one of the abiding upsides of this festival that it attracts brewers to work behind the bar in such numbers. I wonder though what's in it for them? You can understand a session, but to work at them all suggests it is either extremely enjoyable or that's just the cheapest (or most lucrative) way to do it. Either way it's a strange one.
Food was excellent according to a slightly tottery E, who needed to recover from strong beer and the place was pleasantly busy but not packed which made navigation easy. Perhaps that's the fire regs, but hey, it worked. Prices (by token) were erratic to say the least. A 4.8% beer? Two tokens. A 10.5% one - two tokens? Strange, but then I have no idea what the structure is, who pays for what, or who sets the prices. I'm equally aware that your average crafteratti is pretty well price blind, a fact that doesn't escape brewers attention. With a minimum price equivalent to three quid a pint, rising to north of £7, that has to be a given. Certainly one or two more traditional festival attenders told me they found the cost a bit ouchy.
So what were the beery stars? Thornbridge had a very solid set of offerings from Otter's Tears, a tribute to the late Simon Johnson, a soda water like Berliner Weisse and my beer of the festival, a10.5% Imperial Raspberry Stout. I liked BrewDog's dark beers too, particularly Hello My Name is Mette Marit and the new Dead Metaphor was rather good too. I reckon that they brew dark beers much better than they brew paler ones. Magic Rock were solid but E lamented that their keg offerings lacked the taste of their cask ones and beers from First Chop and Cromarty didn't disappoint. Dipping in randomly. you did feel though that in many cases you were paying for brewer's experiments. It isn't that there were many duds, but so many oddities and at times, a curious sameness.
Some of the hyperbole is just that, but IndyManBeerCon was a lot of fun and is a "must go to" fixture, though it is quite possibly a little bit more of a curiosity to the likes of me than a line drawn beyond the rest of beer festivals - unless he means the new wave ones - as one giddy blogger alleged on Twitter.. And after third pints of strong keg beer you might just need a proper pint of cask to remind you that beer is something to sup as well as sip.
I'll be back next year though. I had a great time with some really nice people and that's what really counts.
Well not that sneaky really. The Regal Moon in Rochdale is one of JDW's flagship ale houses. It is shutting for some refurbishment soon and was granted permission to start the October JDW Fest a bit early. Chris, the manager, had promised us that the most sought after beers, those brewed by foreign (in this case American) brewers would be there in force. And so it came to pass.
Now I often go to JDW on Wednesday nights, but it was a surprise to see Tyson and his retinue of attendants already there and ticking for all they were worth. Think thirds. The jungle drums could be heard in deepest Bury it seems and they'd charged over the hill (very appropriate) just to steal a march. Incidentally while the Regal Moon was fairly busy, I noted that the nearby and almost as big Yates had not a soul in it as I passed. Funny that, but then again, maybe not if you own the place.
Tyson has already named and shamed and as I often do, I mostly agree with his assessments. I'll add a couple of my own thoughts though. To my palate the Ninkasi Cream Ale was a bit like souped up Deuchars IPA, but not really in a good way, being a touch on the cloying side. The Ballast Point presumably used Marston's yeast and water. It certainly was a dead ringer for most Marston's beers and unless sulphur is a joy to you, that isn't a good thing. Brewing these foreign beers in breweries with a particularly distinctive yeast is probably not a world beating idea.
Mind you, the exception was Stone Supremely Self Conscious Black Ale which is possibly the most stunning beer that Wetherspoons have ever had brewed for them. Adnams yeast was drowned (a good thing in this case) in a massive hop attack. Dark as the ace of spades and with a great body, it drank superbly.
I could still taste it on the bus on the way home. And that too was a good thing. Seek it out. The Elysian Avatar Jasmine IPA was at 6.3% a bit of an aquired taste, but my advice is to give it a chance. The jasmine is quite pronounced
After an exciting fly past over our flat - thanks British Airways - above and beyond and all that - we landed safely at London City Airport. I like LCY and fly from there whenever I can and the added bonus of a low level approach on the Eastern runway is possibly the most thrilling flight you can have and still wear the same underpants afterwards. Is it really that low? Well seems so.
The other bonus is a quick DLR ride to Tower Gateway and then we are home. Spain is left behind but the memories remain. Cruzcampo is just about tasteless. San Miguel is dry and can be not bad, Alhambra is tasteless and Mahou is just a bit better - the best of a bad lot, but nowhere as good as Lees Original Lager which I have been known to sup with pleasure. You can see what I'm thinking can't you? I need a pint of cask conditioned beer. But I'm in London. I think of my nearest pubs. Am I going to go to the Brown Bear with its dodgy warm beer? No fear. What about the Princess Of Prussia? I like that as a pub, but seriously, do you want your first cask pint after 15 days to be overpriced Shepherd Neame? Certainly not. What about Goodman's Field? A lottery on choice and quality? The Draft House in Seething Lane? It'll be warm likely as not. So what then? It must be within walking distance and have the certainty of quality. I think and say to E "What about a walk to The Pelt Trader?" E she say "Yes".
I've written about the Pelt Trader here and as a bonus, it is now firmly established, thus guaranteeing turnover. The cellar is in capable hands and as a bonus, my favourite and toppest barmaid in London* works there, adding even more quality to the already excellent team. So we are on. Outside are suits galore. Inside is a much more mixed bunch of drinkers. I am greeted warmly at the bar and spot Stringers Gold on sale. No need to taste - it'll be good. Clean, spicy, cool, well conditioned, the beer is as good as it can be without a sparkler and a handpump. It barely touches the side and is repeated. I try a taste of Arbor Motueka, the follow up pint of which confirms a long held view which I am foolish enough to ignore on many an occasion. That is, a small taste tells you little. The beer itself is a disappointing thin effort of 3.8% with a dose of New Zealand hops to overcome its poor base. It works on almost no level. Ah cask. You lift me up and dash me down. E had fared much better with Tiny Rebel Fubar at 4.4%. Hoppy, pale, a body like a Strictly professional and just as enjoyable. I switched to it and it was a fine finish as grub beckoned.
Next day, at the Euston Tap on the way home, I enjoyed two superb pints of Buxton Moor Top. When in London, though very much improved in recent years, you still have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Princess. That's a worrying fact, but you can minimise your chances by careful selection. Both the PT and the ET fall into that category. They are also two of the few places where, with a pint and a half of under 4% beer, you are likely to get change from a fiver.
Quality and value. In London. Pinch me, but trust me!
* @kirstariffic of course. Ex Holburn Whippet. Another good bet and all linked. Funny that.
While many of us in the blogosphere are getting a bit tired of all this "what is craft?" stuff, a long foreseen development is, well, developing. Greene King is to open a £750,000
“innovation brewhouse” at its Bury St Edmunds brewery for experimenting
with different craft beer styles.
"Now this isn't new" you'll hoot - and it isn't, as some other fairly large breweries have done so, not least of all, Thwaites and Brains, who have both produced excellent stuff from their breweries within breweries. But GK is much bigger and the very entrance of such a big brewer to the so called craft market may dilute (in the eyes of some at least) the value of the term even more than it already is. As the brewery will include a packaging plant, it seems clear they are aiming at the take home trade as well as the on trade and are looking to compete across all boundaries. Muddy waters are going to be even more muddy soon it seems.
One thing the big breweries do have is fully trained brewers with a huge back up from technical and laboratory boffins, sales and marketing. They are unlikely to produce dodgy beer and if they give the brewers their head, they'll take market share. A worry for some perhaps? While you may view this as a good or bad thing depending on your point of view, the setting up of this brewery is evidence at least that the big boys are sitting up and taking notice and as these things take time to procure and set up, they have clearly been sitting up and taking notice for quite some time.
Everyone else should too. Set to open on 20 November and beer available from next year. Photo from GK's own website.
When tidying out my garage yesterday, I came across this forgotten piece of Dobbin memorabilia. Odd in some ways, but that's Brendan for you. Note too the warnings about excessive consumption of alcohol.
Did you know that Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has one of the biggest lesbian populations per head in the UK? Well it does. I am not sure what attracts them to this neat and straggling little town on the Calder Valley, but then I wouldn't would I? For those interested in such things, the Rochdale Canal also flows through it, though I suppose it would be a long, tiring swim back, so it is good that bus from Rochdale, the 590, accepts Greater Manchester First Day Savers. Lesbians notwithstanding, the attraction for us was a day out across the border in Yorkshire, to visit twee shops, walk around, have a bite to eat and a few pints.
The day started off badly as we missed the hourly bus by a few seconds, but arriving an hour later, I confused myself and E by mixing the place up with Sowerby Bridge, therefore finding it impossible to find that pub by the canal I'd been in a couple of years ago. It's a mistake anyone can make and once my phone had been consulted, all was revealed, so changing our plans we made for Stubbing Wharf which is a perfect canalside pub in every way. Delightful inside and out, a great range of beers, cheerful old locals and bloody muzak. What on earth is that for? The group of local old gents, discussing Syria called on the barmaid to change it to Frank Sinatra since "I know you are not allowed to turn it off". Black mark for that. For a good description, I recommend that you read this article from beer writer Arthur Taylor (one of my CAMRA branch members) in the Daily Telegraph.
A bit more wandering around and we felt hungry, so at random we called into the White Swan, just in time as lunchtime service was about to end. A extremely diminutive barmaid of the old school served us with a cheerfulness that was obviously inherent. Beer was from Black Sheep and somewhat oddly, from Everards, with their Sunchaser being served, as was the Black Sheep,through an autovac, which to my mind, though it does give a beautiful creamy head, has a tendency to flatten the beer a tad. The two roomed pub, with a bar area and what we'd have called a lounge at one time, was rather empty, though a few popped in from time to time for a quick glass. Food prices were as old fashioned as the service and portions plentiful. You'd be stuffed for under a fiver.
The barmaid, and later the owner, chatted to us. I remarked that I'd last been in around five years ago and that it hadn't changed a bit. She agreed, adding ruefully "The only thing that's changed around here is me and I've just got older - and it won't change either as long as I'm here". Good for her.
We supped our beer happily and ate our meals, served by an astonishingly pregnant young woman who was teased about her size by the barmaid. There was a juke box too. Oddly enough it was one of these modern ones that has every record ever, tucked in a corner by the bar. I put on some 60's stuff (5 for a pound) and the elderly barmaid sang along happily. It was just perfect in its warmth and simplicity.
We left with considerable reluctance, but the 590 is only one an hour, it takes a while and having missed one that day, I didn't want to miss another.
I was also able to buy a couple of bottles of Henderson's Relish in one of the independent shops albeit at a considerable mark up to Sheffield. Result.
A few of us have heard of Brendan Dobbin, who was in my opinion one of the earliest pioneers of the use of foreign hops for their own sake (rather than to supplement British hops) but fewer still will remember his very idiosyncratic advertising. I didn't realise I had any of Brendan's stuff apart from some labels, but amongst my bits and pieces, I came across this little beauty.
Not actors? If you have ever been in his pub in Chorlton on Medlock, you'll not need to take that with a pinch of salt!
Prescient or what?
I used to have a lovely poster for Brendan's Chinese Pale Ale, but it got badly damaged when some water came in my garage years ago. Or was it Chinese Lager?
I have a lot of catching up to do after my week in London, so let's start a mixed story of good and bad. The Good? Well to some a surprise maybe, and it is relative, but let's start with JDW's Goodman Fields, a pub near Tower Hill station and now adjacent to many new hotels which are clearly helping trade. This is the nearest JDW to our London flat and that, footsore as I was greatly influenced where we went after I trudged back from Olympia on Saturday night. I just didn't have many more steps left in me. Now Goodman's Field has been piss poor in the past, with the usual set of JDW failings of queues, dodgy beer selection, indifferent service, and zero atmosphere. This time it was different, starting with the fact that it was packed, thus providing atmosphere, continuing with a charming Spanish barmaid who could not have been more pleasant or speedy - especially in that 200 mile an hour way of speaking the Spanish have - and in the beer (I can't remember what is was though) which was excellent and for once in this neck of the woods, pale and hoppy. We ate there and despite the crowds it came quickly, was hot, tasty and well presented and we were asked twice if everything was OK by enthusiastic and cheerful staff. Amazingly, tables were promptly cleared and we were given a cheery goodbye. Clearly they have kicked out the deadbeats they had before. It just shows that in any pub, the attitude and enthusiasm of the staff can make an ordinary place well worth visiting and leave you feeling "That was good".
But into each life a little rain must fall. On Sunday we walked along the re-instated Thames path on the City side of the river and after a quick and satisfying pint in the Harp (temperature exactly 13°C) we went, acting on a tip that it is now a craft beer bar, to the Lyric on Great Windmill St. In a teeming Soho, it was rather empty and to my eye at least, a tad Spartan and dog eared in appearance, but there was indeed craft keg and four handpumps, though the two tasters were warm and unappealing. No matter, what about the craft. E settled on a half of Redwell Craft Pilsner (4%) in an act of solidarity with the bullied Norwich Brewer and after a taste of hers, I decided on a pint of the same. Alas nothing happened when the tap was opened. The gas had gone. Ten minutes later, the young barman came back and confessed himself stumped. He hadn't been trained and could do no more. I didn't fancy a bottle, nor any of the cask, so we paid for our half and left. Now of course that was unfortunate, but leaving an untrained barman in charge isn't. It wasn't his fault, he did his best but overall the impression was of poorly kept beers, an empty pub when all around were busy and general incompetence. Why would I come back? First impressions really do count.
So lessons? Get the staff, offer and attitude right and no matter how unpromising the pub, you are likely to have a better time in it than in a pub which simply doesn't deliver on any customer level.
I do appreciate that I could find the opposite of what I found on a different day, but like a footballer, you can only play what's put up in front of you.
Yes folks, it's that time of year again when the great and the good congregate in London for CAMRA's biggest thrash. Tuesday is trade day where, people like me, while nominally working - well actually I did a fair bit this year - greet and schmooze and say hello to those from the trade that we know. It's rather nice actually, but I did get an impression that there were some faces missing yesterday and it was a little subdued. Maybe just me, but I'm sure that'll soon change.
Pete Brown has published a handy survival guide and I agree with most of it. In particular, it really is difficult not to overfill thirds, so I would agree that it is a top tip, but never from me you understand. I never overfill, so if at the German bar, and you are hoping for an overmeasure,avoid me like the plague. Another tip Pete didn't mention is to ask for tasters. That's acceptable everywhere, but don't overdo it as a "Bugger off elsewhere or buy something" often offends.
My tip for foreign beers this year is to suss out some of the Czech exotics on draught. There are good things happening in the Czech Republic beer wise and some of it is on show at our bar.
Ah leafy Cheshire. One of the few places that can match London, to some extent at least, for sheer wealth, but with lovely pubs that aren't charging four quid a pint. Now an old mate of ours CAMRA wise, moved there ten years ago, thus bringing the tone down considerably, but was on hand to lead a merry throng through some of its nicer parts. We started in Goostrey, a quiet and genteel little village within sight of the giant parabola that is Jodrell Bank. The Crown is a neat pub that was Marstons owned until not so long
ago, but now, free of tie, is thriving and has a wide range of mostly
local beers. It is a well appointed pub (a recurring theme that day)
and looked the kind of place that you'd like to have handy, with well
kept beer, friendly staff (another recurring theme) and prices that were
not unreasonable. An unusual touch was Wrexham Lager on the bar along with free olives - well we were in Cheshire. I didn't care that much for my Summer Days from Dunham Massey,
though E enjoyed it and our Tasting Panel Chairman waxed lyrical about
it, showing that beer will always divide opinion. I switched to Weetwood
Bitter which was old fashionedly good.
It is amazing what a couple of pints will do to loosen the inhibitions of a busload of lushes. It was a very cheery throng indeed that wended its way to our next stop,the Railway at Mobberley where lunch was to be eaten. We were additionally guided by one of my predecessors as Branch Chairman who hails from this neck of the woods. He was greeted enthusiatically by the landlady who remembered him. A nice touch. This ex Greenall's pub was not that posh, but busy enough even without our 25 or so. The beer was on good form, but the choice not to everyone's taste. Dunham Massey - they seem to have Cheshire tied up - Black Sheep and Wainwright's leading the charge. Lunch was filling, but hurried, though the craic was excellent as always on these dos. Our next journey was a quick one, a mere five minutes or so to the delightful Church Inn also in Mobberley, a lovely pub with a nice beer terrace at the back and again, that very friendly and cheery service that so typified the day. Beers were again local with yes, you've guessed, Dunham Massey and Tatton breweries featuring.
The poshness was dialed up considerably next. We knew when our bus entered the car park amid open topped Porsches, Jaguars and the odd Bentley, that this would not be a dump. The Bull's Head, like the previous Church Inn, is part of Cheshire Cat Pub and Bars. It had recently been done up to an exceedingly high standard and had a beautiful beer garden at the back, bathed in sunshine and with splendid views of aircraft taking off from Runway Two at nearby Manchester Airport. This was a very enjoyable stop and again the staff couldn't have been nicer and we left with considerable reluctance. Beer? Dunham Massey and Tatton featured of course. Across the way, we noted, the closed and being renovated Roebuck. Owned it seems by a big PubCo, there was rumours of a licensee being hounded out by high rent. True or not, the pub had been closed for weeks, thus missing our finest summer for years. Mistake.
Our final stop was again in lovely countryside. The Parkgate at Over Peover is owned by Sam Smith. Again a delightful little pub with a huge beer garden and of course, providing you stick to the basics, cheap beer. Old Brewery Bitter at £1.80 a pint was eagerly consumed in the sunshine and was good. E and I had the bonus of bumping into Jeff, our friend and drinking companion from our local, who was visiting friends in the area. It's a small world.
So Mobberley and area for a pub crawl? Certainly, but a liking for Dunham Massey beer would be a considerable advantage.
I wonder if the outstandingly high level of service is because of the general affluence? It was remarkable and all the more welcome for its relative rareness.
Greenall's Mild? OK smooth, but joining that world of rare beers from the past.
In my post yesterday about Meantime's Old Brewery in Greenwich a few people picked up on the expense of my pint. I think it was £5.20 for a 5.2% beer - North Friesian Pilsener. Pretty expensive really. Cookie asked me what is my limit in paying for a pint and I remarked that this was getting near it, though of course in this case I was making allowances for time, circumstance and place. Greenwich is expensive, I bet the premises and overheads are expensive and Meantime believe in beer being expensive. Brewer and owner Alistair Hook has made that clear many times.
In my local, a pint of Lees Bitter (4%) is £2.60. Nearby in the Ship, an imported Czech lager, Bohemia Regent (5%) is £3.50 a pint.. I can still get a pint in Wetherspoons using its Wednesday offer (up to 4.5%) at £1.95, or pay a whacking £2.15 at other times. You could well argue that to charge top dollar for beers made in the back of the pub is a bit cheeky, as many of the usual overheads have been removed. Another example might be The Marble Arch in Manchester, which isn't backwards in coming forwards price wise either, for its beers brewed yards away.
Now London is seen as a special case, where somehow we must pay more. The £4 pint of ordinary cask is common, usually for beer of pretty dubious quality. The quality may be better in, say, Manchester, but gougy prices in the Northern Quarter aren't exactly unknown there either. Converserly, Sheffield, one of the best places to drink beer in the UK is remarkably cheap on the whole. Clearly property prices and other economic factors have a lot to do with differences, as are pricing policies which set out to attract certain customer demographics. But on the other hand, you could argue that where beer is concerned, the beer revolution that many speak of is causing a class divide in beer, with exotics for moneyed and dross for the rest, with large numbers in between choosing to drink at home. Even classier beers are drunk at home more than in the pub and why not - some of the prices seem simply ridiculous.
At a time when beer sales in the last quarter fell by another 5.8% in pubs and in the same week we see that according a Mintel survey observes, “While the price of beer has been frozen this year, over
two thirds (67%) of monthly out of home drinkers already think that
drinking out of home is now too expensive, providing the impetus to
switch to cheaper in-home drinking". So it seems that even of those of us that actually still drink in pubs, only a third are not seriously thinking of drinking more at home as opposed to going out to the pub. This, if not changed, can only lead to an inevitable further decline in pub numbers, more brewery closures - see Dave Bailey on this too- consolidation and market decline.
Of course you can take the view that this is just the market performing as the market should and that is a valid view. As a pub man though it pains me to see the polarisation of the market between the haves and the have nots, to the detriment of all pub users.
When I remarked about "save up and go" to Meantime, I meant it. For many it isn't just the expensive Meantime that has to be saved for, but their ordinary local pub. Too often there is no option price wise for many other than to feel that the pub is just not affordable any more for what it offers them. That's bad enough, but when us old codgers die off and the current generation of free spenders have to knuckle down to kids and mortgages, you can't help but think there are plenty of bubbles yet to burst and expensive craft beer might well be one of them, joining other segments that are currently suffering diminishing returns.For one reason or another it seems that inexorably we are losing that most British of habits, going to the pub. Price is clearly if Mintel is to be believed, a huge part of that change of habit.
It's a gloomy picture. I reckon I'll go to the pub tonight while I
still can and while I still have some company that can afford to do so too.
While the long term picture is gloomy, in the short term, it will likely be still OK enough for me until I'm brown bread or gaga. But still not a good thing overall.
London in the sun. What could be nicer? Well Manchester in the sun obviously - better beer to be had - but culture? That's a different issue and London has it all. After a (half) day out with Tyson and crew, we decided on a trip to an old haunt - Greenwich. Two or three ideas. A walk in the park, a look inside the old Royal Naval College, a quick shufti at the Cutty Sark - it was built in my home town of Dumbarton don't you know and there is still a pub on the High St with the same name - and a couple of restorative beers in Meantime's Old Brewery, a place, to which somewhat neglectfully, I hadn't been.
We enjoyed the walk, I thought the Naval College and whatnot delightful and unfussy. They even allowed you to sit on the banqueting seats to allow you to stare more comfortably at the impressive ceiling. The Cutty Sark was rather antiseptically impressive, though like a hammer where you have replaced both the head and the shaft, you have to wonder if it is indeed the original hammer at all. All that sightseeing and walking about in the sun makes you thirsty, so our arrival at the Old Brewery was welcome. Outside was a sea of bodies in the grass and in the beer garden. I observed closely. A mixture of plastic and glass gave me an inkling that likely you were meant to use plastic outside, so I wondered what would happen. Inside we found a decent spot in a corner. It was going like a fair busy, but the staff were cheerful and kept good order. I put my barman through his paces by asking for a couple of samples even though I knew what I would likely have. He was professional and friendly, offering decent advice despite the hordes. Good stuff. I settled on North Fresian Lager, a Jever-alike, but really rather magnificent, with good body, freshness, bitterness and a hopsmacking finish. What's not to like? Well perhaps the £5.20 a pint price? OK. Certainly the £5.20 price, but it was good. Very good. E was much less impressed with her Pilsner which did seem dull. Or was that just dull in comparison. She rapidly switched to the same beer as me.
The place was heaving and we watched the dynamics of it all. It seemed that you randomly got glass or plastic and nobody was stopping anyone going outside with glass. Service was friendly and efficient. My three rounds were all in glass without me asking. Top marks. I did have a couple more tasters, but nothing much impressed beer wise. Perhaps I was spoiled by the North Fresian? Service was brisk and friendly, décor was comfortable to imposing, with the brewery conditioning tanks, clearly signed with exciting forthcoming beery attractions being a high point.
So overall? I (we) had a good time, thought the North Fresian excellent but expensive, thought the service good all things considered and hopefully when I come back on a quieter day, I'll have more interesting beers to choose from.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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