Friday, 28 June 2013


I do a bit of beer judging when I am invited to do so.  It is usually interesting and enjoyable, though depending on organisation and what you are actually asked to taste, it can be a bit of a slog.  Like many things it is what you make it and there is the bonus of meeting fellow judges, both old friends and colleagues and new. In fact that is, if truth be told, often the best part of it

Yesterday was the International Beer Challenge where 40 odd judges reviewed, swirled, sniffed, sipped and even swallowed over 400 beers. All beers are anonymised and we had a bit of fun when we thought we recognised a brewery or beer. We probably had around 50 beers each in batches by style. Held at the White Horse in Parson's Green - what a great venue - it was superbly organised and a model of efficiency in getting the beers out to the judges.  Now as you know there are more pale pilsner type lagers in production than anything else and it was these that made the bulk of the morning's work.  "Work?" I hear you hoot. Well yes actually.  You see the thing about most of these beers is the sheer sameiness of them.  They really are just variations on a theme, but some are made with better ingredients and some are simply brewed with considerably more skill and attention to detail.  It was our job to suss them out, but we kissed a lot of frogs while looking for our prince or princess.

More interesting were the specialty beers and of course, IPAs and Double IPAs.  These varied between delicious - remarkably few - and "What the heck was the brewer thinking of?" - many.  I didn't judge stouts or porters which is a pity, but talking to fellow judges, they had mized fortunes with them too.  It seems that no matter how many beers are produced, they all find a home where someone loves them.  That's beer for you, but those that are really good, do rise to the top.  Afterwards we gathered in the bar for a drink and a chat.  Oddly you may think, the beer of choice fo most judges was Tankovna Pilsner Urquell. I think the White Horse is the first UK venue for this technique which is meant to give much fresher beer.  The lovely shiny tanks certainly make a very handsome feature in the bar I must say.

As I looked around, I reckon that 90% of the judges were supping tankovna beer.  A compliment indeed to PU and a deserved one.  It was nearly as good as that served to me in Prague just a few weeks ago.  The main difference was the serving technique which lacked the panache of the single pour that is typical of Prague pubs.

Oh and the price.  At £4.80 a pint, it was a dear do.  But it was good.

Reflecting on the day, the best part really was meeting up with beery people either anew or once again, but the beer judging was great fun too, but hard work.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Tough Ted Tuppen Tears into Government

I have mentioned Tough Ted before. He is the boss of Enterprise Inns, one of the giant PubCos which are to many, Public Enemy Number One. Ted alleges that evidence presented to the Government by anti pub group campaigners is no more than heresay and has labelled the Government’s consultation into the statutory code for pub companies “a disgrace” and accused MPs and ministers of “deliberate distortion of the meaning of evidence” over the issue. He asked the Pub Company Summit if "we are going to let a small number of campaigners and a handful of MPs bugger up our industry?"

 Disgruntled, he forecasts a few undesirable things that will happen if these pesky complainers are allowed to get their way.  Putting aside the fair possibility that things must surely be a bit buggered now, or there wouldn't be this kind of ongoing concern by HMG about what the PubCos are doing, you can read Tough Ted's list of doom and gloom in detail in the lovely old Morning Advertiser. The main points can be summed up as: closure of country pubs; blocking the trade to newcomers; a huge reduction in investment in pubs; brewery closures; treasury tax losses. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't all of these already happen when the PubCos took over from brewers as the nation's biggest pub owners following the Beer Orders?

Now you might reasonably reach the conclusion that Ted is mixing up his buggerees with his buggerers.   To be fair, he'd have been on less thin ice if he'd pointed out the utter failure of Government intervention in the industry in the past and that the Government should therefore keep their beaks out. Of course, while true and where this mess started, the PubCos have made a bad situation worse.  Best keep quiet then as, to use his own analogy, he's buggered either way.

In the case of the PubCos, sadly, it seems like plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

Nearly all tenants (94%) would like to see a statutory code to regulate the pubco-tenant relationship, despite reporting improved levels of satisfaction with their pub companies accoding to an MA report. 

Not Pubs - Bars

I don't think Manchester is unique in having a fairly large number of trendy bars that aren't, in the traditional sense at least, pubs, but it is surely unusual on having large concentrations of them in two distinct and compact areas, Chorlton and in town, the Northern Quarter.  What I'd venture is even more unusual, is that almost all of them sell cask ale and good cask ale at that. So, on Saturday, with my oldest friend Mike, we tried a few and didn't go to a single pub as such.  And did we get good beer?  You bet we did.  Admittedly, none of it was cheap, but hey, that's Manchester for you.  It is rapidly becoming in some places at least, as expensive as London, but at least the beer is well conditioned, at the correct temperature and (usually) sparkled. 

We started off in Odd, which is part of  a well thought of chain, though this branch seemed determined to buck the trend.  Two beers from Privateer - yet another new Manchester brewery - a blonde and a brown one.  Pints of the blonde were procured and found to be vinegar.  Not good.  The brown one was okay, but warm.  Neither were sparkled with an explanation (by the manager I assume) that the barstaff couldn't get the hang of them and kept losing them, so they gave up.  Really?  Get better bar staff then, or someone who knows how to train them.

Things looked up after that in the fairly new Pie and Ale, with perfect but pricey (£3.60) Wilson Potter Tandle Hill.  So impressed was Mike that we had to have another.  It's one of my favourite beers, so no hardship there.  This is a very modern (and a bit soulless) bar concentrating on good beers and pie and mash. They keep the beer very well, so no complaints at all and the barman was a friendly enough sort.  It's a short walk thence to Port St Beer House and again excellent service abounded with advice (decent) and tasters offered.  We picked Caveman Palaeolithic and while it had some interesting and unidentifiable flavours, it wasn't bad at all.

Another skip round the corner took us to the excellent Soup Kitchen, a semi basement den, with the highest bar stools I've ever come across.  Men should be particularly careful in both ascending and descending, lest they ruin future chances. It was pleasantly busy with studenty types scoffing vegetable forward options.  Stout was the order of the day, from Liverpool Organic and damn fine it was too.   Heading back to Victoria Station to be handy for Mike's train, we popped into Common, a sister to PSBH and in an incredibly busy and vibrant bar, I was rewarded by Weird Beard Black Perle, a Milk Coffee Stout.  Now coffee stouts aren't my favourite thing, but this was well balanced and not over coffeed and went down a treat.  Cask conditioned and sparkled since you ask.

One last call.  Across the road from Common is Terrace, a long, bare brick bar with a youngish crowd.  There we finished off with Overtime from Six O'Clock Beer Company and finally, as us old men staggered off for a night snoring on the settee, Magic Rock Carnival.

The striking thing was that apart from our first place, we didn't get a bad beer, they were all thrivingly busy and it was good to see most bars supporting new local breweries.  Pubs are great, but good bars aren't bad either.

There was of course craft keg, but having laid out the route, someone else can have a pricey bash at that.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Difference of Opinion

I sometimes, despite protests, get sent bottles of beer to try.  I do give them a go, but as I rarely drink at home, it usually takes me a while to get round to them.

Friday was a lovely warm night, so I dug out two bottles. One, St Peter's English Lager, had been in my fridge for a few months, the other, Brilliant Ale from Shepherd Neame for only a week or so. I do confess though that I did drink one of the two bottles of St Peter's Lager when it was sent and thought it pleasant enough, but somewhat ale like.  A little like those hybrid "lagers" - really more like Koelsch I suppose -  that family brewers used to pass off as the real thing. Think Amboss, Edelbrau, Stein, Einhorn, Holtenbrau etc.

We shared the bottles in the sense that I had one and E the other. We didn't split them, though we each tasted both.  I still thought the St Peter's rather ale like, but E liked it well enough.  My Brilliant Ale was a perfect summer beer.  Light, spritzy, slightly dry and just the thing to watch the sun go down on a beautiful summer at dusk and it would had been even better if I'd had it when the sun was higher and I'd maybe had a couple more to wash down the one I'd had.

E thought it OK but preferred the St Peter's.  That's beer for you.

Thanks to both breweries for sending the samples.  Brilliant Ale (5.6%) is brewed to a recreated recipe from sometime between 1825 and 1855, with the original East Kent Goldings being replaced by Cascades. St Peter's Lager (5.2%) has a classic combination of Hallertau and Styrian Goldings

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Getting Tanked Up

There has been a bit of talk recently about a new fad about to hit the UK.  Well hit some of the trendy, hipsterish parts thereof.  The fad is tank beer.  Now us older chaps can well remember awful tank beer in the seventies and eighties.  It was dire, tasteless, ice cold and probably made with floor sweepings.  It wasn't generally pasteurised and arrived on the back of very odd looking tanker/drays to be pumped into Grundy tanks in pub cellars.   These inexpensive, mass produced tanks, were produced in the 60's and 70's for directly dispensing carbonated beer from pub cellars.  On removal, as the cask conditioned revolution displaced them, they were snapped up by the nascent and burgeoning micro brewing sector as cheap, ready made, fermentation and conditioning/bright beer vessels. Might still be in use here and there still.

I read that Meantime are to the fore in this and you know, when it comes to their keg beers, they might be on to something in terms of freshness.  One place that has been  re-introducing tank beer for some time is the Czech Republic and I remember well on my previous visit around five years ago, legging round to sample the beer in the few places that sold it.  Fast forward five years and the craze has spread, if not like wildfire, at a steady pace.  Tankovna pubs sell beer from stainless steel tanks that hold ten hectolitres of brew held in a plastic envelope within. and steadily held at between 8 and 10ºC.  Beer is pushed out of the tank by air pressure, not in contact with the beer, which tastes remarkably and noticeably fresher, more rounded and tastier.

On my recent visit, we were fortunate to be within a three minute walk of one of the newest and finest outlets for Pilsner Urquell Tankovna beer. Lokal is a large, narrow beer hall, with a small bar at the front and two very long and large rooms behind, the furthest of which is mercifully no smoking.  The beer is remarkably good, with a rounded mouthfeel, medium carbonation, good hopping and is very moreish.  Lokal is mainly a Czech haunt and the beer is brought to you, without asking, as your glass empties, with the beers being marked off on a card covered in printed tankards.  When you have had enough, you simply decline and your bill will be totted up by the somewhat gruff but efficient waitresses.

Should you fancy the Budvar version, a good place to try it is U Medvídků where I first tried it years ago and where we lunched one day.  To me though, and I'm surprised to say it, the PU version was better.  You can also with ease seek out Krušovice, Gambrinus and Staropramen versions for comparison's sake, though you might want to avoid the Gambrinus one in the Old Town (pictured) where, to say the least,  some assiduity could be applied to measure.  Well short in other words.

So.  Tank beer making a comeback?  May not be a bad thing if done correctly.

The great thing about all these places is being able to view the tanks in situ. They are actually rather lovely, though a bit like Thomas the Tank Engine.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Stout Fellows

Like all non brewers that have been in and around beer for a long time, I have visited countless breweries and had the process explained to me a thousand times.  I often feel when in a new brewery (to me), that apart from the history and background, I could fairly easily conduct the tour myself.  But I've never been involved in a brew from beginning to end, though I've seen more or less every bit of it in segmented form.

Thus I leapt at the chance to do an end to end brew with Allgates of Wigan and the additional chance to input to a recipe that we'd brew.  The "we" in this case was fellow bloggers Tyson the Beer Hound and Jim from Beers of Manchester, along with brewer Jonathan Provost and co-owner, David Mayhall.  We assembled at the brewery last Saturday in glorious sunshine, with a pre-agreement that we'd brew an oatmeal stout of around 4.8% and it would have some hops in. Lots of hops.  We started with a brew of course - tea - and without much further ado, yours truly was dumping sack after sack of malt into the hopper.  We'd agreed on the grist which was 175kg of Maris Otter Pale Malt, 10kgs each of roasted barley and chocolate malt, 25kgs of malted oats and 8kgs of torrified wheat to help with head retention.  I was glad that my plea to replace the intended crystal malt (boo) with roasted barley had been accepted. I wanted this beer to be pretty damn dark and no stout is a true stout without a good glug of roasted barley in my opinion at least.

Now Jim, swot that he is, has detailed what we did in his blog, so I won't repeat it.  You can also read Tyson's account here. It was hard work interspersed for us at least, with glasses of excellent Allgates beer, a picnic lunch and of course, as always when with beery types, the most friendly and cheery of conversation as anecdotes were swapped, theories expounded and tales told.  Much shovelling of spent grains, carting of heavy sacks and general cleaning up ensued and all too soon we were adding the yeast and the brew was in FV1 and beginning its transformation into what we hope will be a fantastic stout.  Bittered with Warrior and Galena hops and with aroma coming from Amarillo and Ahtanum and finally a good sized dash of  Nelson Sauvin we have high hopes of an excellent hop profile. We are aiming at 55 IBU.

David surprised us all by a very kind offer of a nine of the finished beer for each of us, to be sold at the pub of our choice for a charitable donation by the pub.  That is tremendously generous of him and once again re-inforces that those in the brewing industry are princes amongst men. When I have sorted out destination and charity, I'll announce here where it will be sold and when as no doubt the others will too.  The name of the beer has now been agreed and in accordance with Allgates practice will be named after a defunct colliery in the area, so a big "hello" to Quaker House Oatmeal Stout.

Saturday really was a fantastic day out, with great people.  Thanks to owner David and Head Brewer Jonathan  for their hospitality, expertise and friendship.  We really couldn't have done it without you.

We were also meant to be joined by Jay Krause of Quantum, but regrettably he was unwell.  Hope you are better now Jay. Phtos show my fellow bloggers Tyson and Jim and of course the stout, straight out of the copper.  Looks great already!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Where Did All the Money Go?

Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 2390
The Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order 1989

You will know if you read this blog that I'm not a fan of the big pub companies. I don't like the way they have morphed what was a debt free industry, into one that is mortgaged up to the hilt and that to pay for this they squeeze the life out of those daft enough to work for them. Of course the banks - it always comes back to them - aren't blameless here in allowing such debt to build up. And no. I'm not convinced by siren voices that say as long as you can service that debt, then what's the problem? I read then with no surprise that CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale has revealed that the majority of publicans tied to the big pub companies earn less than the minimum wage.

 " A representative sample of over 600 licensees were interviewed by research firm CGA Strategy, with the results showing that licensees tied to the big pub companies are substantially worse off than free of tie lessees. A shocking 60% of licensees tied to the big pub companies earn less than £10,000 a year. This compares to only 25% of free of tie lessees who earn less than £10,000 a year. The other end of the earnings scale also shows a stark difference in earnings, with just one in a hundred tied pub licensees earning over £45,000, as opposed to one in five who run free of tie pubs."

The government intends that the PubCos, having failed to put their own house in order, start to play fair with their tied tenants (by regulation), though of course they are resisting it as much as possible.  They talk about the the low start up costs, the support they give etc. etc. etc.  Just think how much support they could give to all their tenants as well as their own shareholders who have seen their asset value fall as debt soared,  if they didn't owe so much money in the first place.

At the time of the Beer Orders, there were very few pubcos as they would be recognised today. Pubcos were created from the disposal of the national brewers' public house operations following the implementation of the Orders. Concentration in public house ownership increased through merger and acquisition activity in the 1990s, until by 2000 the first of the 'large' pubcos, Enterprise, appeared with an estate of 1,500 public houses.[14] The rate of concentration has accelerated since 2003 with the acquisition by Punch of the Pubmaster estate (3,000 public houses) and the InnSpired estate (1,100 public houses), and the acquisition of the Unique estate (4,100 public houses) by Enterprise.  Source: Select Committee on Trade and Industry Second Report

Worse is that the money was taken out of the industry in the form of loan after loan to needlessly set up these miserable giants by a succession of takeovers as illustrated above.  The Beer Orders was an idea in theory that was good, but was too easily subverted by the then large breweries, all of which of course, have more or less disappeared up their own backsides long ago, taking even more money with them, while the government, having seen its own intent undermined sat back and did nothing.  It has been a sad  and sorry tale.

Going back to licensees, the Morning Advertiser reckons their wage equates to around £3.21 an hour given the hours that licensees work.

I suppose you can see why a lot of them are so surly.  While it doesn't help their case, they have much to be surly about.

The MA has their take on the story here. It ties in well with my comments on Monday about pubs. The CAMRA story is here.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Simon H Johnson

I was in Prague when I heard the terrible news that Simon had died.  It was a shock.  It always is when someone you know goes and getting older as I am, it happens with monotonous regularity. But Simon wasn't old and that makes it worse in so many ways.  We all know that I think. 

A couple of years ago, Simon sent me a message.  He was coming to Manchester and would I meet him and show him round?   I intended only to stay for a little while, but of course that lasted a lot longer than planned and I tottered off home while Simon, heading for the station, thought he'd check out the Port St Beer House.  Or did I go with him?  You see what I mean?

I last saw him by arrangement a summer ago, in the Euston Tap, but this time I was saved by my train.  He was good company as so many say and hard to get away from in the best possible way.  His infectious enthusiasm will be missed, as will his lack of pretension about beer, though maybe the merkin won't be!  He was indeed a reluctant scooper, but in his own way, he was one nonetheless, but he never forgot that beer is best when enjoyed in good company, rather than as a status symbol or a notch on the bar.

He (somewhat surprisingly) sent me a direct tweet last year asking me if he could have an opinion from me about whether he was "being an arse" over something or other. I agreed of course, but then he then later said there was no need.  I have no idea what is was and now never will. It was a bit of an odd incident, but there you go. I am glad he asked me, even if it came to nothing.

He was a good lad and you can't say fairer than that.  He'll be missed.

I don't half look a tit in these socks. Hope he's grinning about that somewhere.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

You Can't Sit There

A few weeks ago in London, in Craft Islington to be precise, a few of us encountered that most annoying and anti social of things in a public house.  There, in the middle of the afternoon, in a fairly quiet pub - well it was until we arrived - was a sign on a table -  more than one table in fact - "Reserved" it said.

Now I can understand it a bit.  Well just about if it was a gastropub where drinkers are a bloody nuisance, but this is a wet led beer emporium.  Food there is scotch eggs and exotic cold pies. As it happened there was lots of other tables, so it didn't matter.  The sign did though sensibly say that it was reserved from a certain time and that customers could feel free to use it up until that time, but it warned, ominously, that the chairs were part of the reservation.  No nicking them then!   I suppose it is a sign of the times and how middle class pub going in some places has become and is in this case a reflection of just that, as well as time and place. I'm guessing Craft Islington gets busy with hipsters of a Saturday night.  Still seems wrong to me though.  A pub is first come first served in my book.

And so to Prague.  Following up Mr Dredge's recommendation we hoofed out to Restaurace Kulovy Blesk.  It wasn't that hard to find once we'd nicked a wifi signal from Starbucks and as Mark mentioned to me, an unusual place.  The outside beer garden was empty and the bar abandoned, but we went on downstairs to find a neat little old fashioned bar.  We looked around. It was empty, though a barman leapt out from nowhere and ushered us into and through a second room, empty again apart from from two Czech guys talking gloomily over a beer.  All tables except theirs had reserved signs on them.  We were taken into another room with two more beer scoffing denizens.  It wasn't big.  Maybe six tables.  All except one had a reserved sign on it.  E remarked (no English was spoken) that this table for two must be our destination and headed to it. With incredible fleetness of foot, our guide headed her off at the pass and with a triumphant flourish, furnished the only unreserved table with a reserved sign.

Now I could say Dear Reader that I knocked him out at this point and he may be lying there still, but with great forbearance, I didn't.  He turned and went to a closed door.  It was a further small room, with about four tables.  You are ahead of me now aren't you?  All had reserved signs on them, but one tiny table by the door was indicated and the sign removed.  We'd made it.

As Dredgie says, the beers were good and interesting:  Matuška Raptor, Kocour Sumeček, and lagers from Chotiviny and Konrad.  We stayed for a hour and a half, along with the other guys. Well they were there.  The waiter/barman having dealt with the reserved situation to his complete satisfaction, was very pleasant and if the till receipt is to believed, was called Veronika.
Nobody else came in the whole time we were there.

We also took up Mr D's other suggestion of Nota Bene, where we ate. Modern, pleasant, good beer, no oddball behaviour. That was the only disappointment.  The bar had been set high by Kulovy Blesk. Both were blessedly non smoking.

Monday, 3 June 2013

It's Not (Just) the Price

What puts you off getting yourself down the pub?  "The price of drinks"  I hear you cry as one. "Why pay more when I can get jolly well sloshed at home for a mere fraction of the cost?"   That's the standard thinking is it not? Well you'd be wrong.  It seems it isn't four quid plus a pint that is putting many of us off, but according to a recent Mintel report, it's the shitty bogs.

Well not just the shitty bogs, although 53% of people questioned moan about that, but funnily enough, customers actually do care about some of the things I've been banging on about since God was a boy.  People (47%) cite "poor customer service" as one of the main reasons not to go to a pub, along with the unwelcoming atmosphere(44%).  It isn't a neutral thing how you treat people.  They really do notice. We can't forget high prices though.  A not inconsiderable 35% thought high drink prices a deterrent, along with  24% feeling the cost of grub is too high - but the point is that it isn't what they care about most.

Now aren't these astonishing figures?  It seems that nearly half of people interviewed find that poor service and welcomes deter them from going to the pub.   Equally amazingly, 85% of respondents did not cite distance as a factor in going to the pub. In other words, people will travel to a good pub as it fulfils their expectation of what a pub should be like and presumably they enjoy themselves when they get there. Maybe some should ponder that when they look at their empty pubs?

It really is time that pubs sorted this aspect out.  Can there really be an excuse for poor welcomes, bad service and dirty toilets?  None of these things should really cost too much put right.  Failure to so so is a massive own goal. When we hear publicans moan about prices and PubCos (usually in the same breath) and demands for level playing fields, it seems, that the answer in part at least, is in their own gift according to their customers.   I've said it before and will say it again.  Put your own house in order first.  Lead by example and demand that your staff are attentive and responsive. Ensure they say "hello" and "goodbye".  The odd "thank you" wouldn't go amiss either.  Oh and don't forget to clean the toilets. It seems your (potential) customers really do notice these things and when they don't meet expectations, they vote with their feet.

To sum up.  It's the offer Stupid!  Forget that at your peril.  The future belongs to pubs that really do make it worthwhile to go there.

The Morning Advertiser has the details here - without my rant.