Monday, 9 February 2015

Dark Doings

It a bit of neat symmetry, I read the article in the most recent Beer Magazine in which two different CAMRA members argue the case about the merits of supporting beer styles like mild with their own promotion etc. just before I visited JW Lees Horton Arms, a neat pub tucked under the motorway bridge in leafy Chadderton, a two-bus bus ride away from my house. Now the Horton Arms is an old haunt of mine from years ago and it was often referred to when in the Good Beer Guide, as a bit of a country style pub. It attracted a staunchly local crowd and was traditional in internal appearance, with horse brasses and paraphernalia on the walls, a separate room at the side as you went in which often showed sports, a beer garden used mainly by smokers and internally consisted of a number of distinct drinking areas attracting different customer types. It was always bright and gleaming and popular with a mainly beer drinking crowd, although food was available lunchtimes. It has been a Lees tenancy for years.

We'd arranged to meet some friends there as none of us had really been there since it was done up not that long ago - well I had on a busy Sunday where you couldn't really see much of the changes, such was the crowd - and anyway, it just seemed worth checking out. It isn't a million miles form my own local and we all know some of the Horton regulars from our visits there and their visits to our gaff, so an amenable visit was in store. Unusually this pub used to be a bit of a bastion of "mixed" where mild and bitter, half of each, is served in a pint glass. Talking to one of the locals, it still is it seems and back to my original theme, it means that cask mild is available. I decided to have a pint of mild to start with, or rather Brewer's Dark as it is known now. Things started badly with the barmaid starting to pour me Dark Smooth. That was easily sorted out, but here's a tip for publicans selling cask and smooth versions of the same beer: always serve cask if the customer doesn't specify (I did by the way, but you win some, lose some). Not only will it increase cask sales, but it means you sell the more perishable product first. Tell your bar staff this, save money and increase beer quality.  Obvious and simples really?

Now Lees Mild is a former Champion Mild of Britain and this renamed beer is the same recipe.  Boy did it show up well here. Rich, luscious, full bodied with a tight creamy head, it was Guinness like in appearance, though a mile ahead in taste. We got chatting to some old friends and as time passed and the buses were only hourly, hung on longer than intended. I certainly can't remember when I last had six pints of mild in a row, but that was a night I did  - and every one was delicious too. What of the re-vamped pub? Not so much to my taste to be honest and both the rather intrusive "musak" and the vast array of "reserved" signs showed that the emphasis had changed from drinking to eating, with all of the pub, apart from one small area in the corner, now being eating territory only. Reserved signs and knives and forks on the tables ram home the message. The non eating locals and visitors alike were restricted to the allotted non eating corner, or to a row of poseur tables in front of the bar, which just seemed to get in everyone's way. But this, funnily enough,  isn't a criticism as such. I bear in mind that it was a Friday evening and things may well be less prescriptive at other times. You also have to take into account that this is a tenancy and before you blame the brewery, have to bear in mind that changes will be as much the will of the tenant as anything else.  If  it  works for them, pays the rent and leaves some money over, then that is a sound decision.  It is a business after all and while it may not entirely suit me or some others, it clearly suits plenty of folks looking for a good value, good quality place to eat. If tables have to be reserved, its popularity cannot and should not be denied and the food looked great too.

So what conclusions do I draw? Well that mild is still a tremendous and under-rated drink that deserves to be more widely available and if kept as well as it was here, an absolute joy.  So I come down on the side of CAMRA supporting it. Secondly, that while change may be unwelcome in a pub you liked just as it was, it doesn't do to forget that a pub is a business that needs to make money for those that invest in it.  It can't stand still or it will surely close its doors.

Both licensees and customers should overlook that at their peril.

We did, unwisely, step off our bus home (the second of two) a couple of stops early for more beer. A veil should be drawn over that error of judgement.

There is overwhelming support for the changes at the Horton on review websites. 9th out of 212 on Tripadvisor I'd say is a point proven.


Matt said...

Now that Robinsons are stopping brewing mild and Holt's is increasingly keg in their pubs, Lees could soon be the only mild regularly available from a major brewer in the Manchester area (Hydes don't seem to push their's much either, to the extent of pretending it's not a mild).

Stonch said...

Howay man Pedro you cannit just draw a veil, man. What happened?