Well it had to happen didn't it? "What?" I hear you ask? A good, old fashioned, clean, bright, Sam's pub with no oddballs whatever, that's what.
The Roebuck is bang in the middle of Rochdale, set off two main thoroughfares down a ginnel - a passageway to anyone not from the North reading this. I called in last night pre Regal Moon, having failed in the same endeavour last Wednesday when it was unaccountably shut, though the lights were all on. A mystery that one, though I'm told the same thing happened at the same time in a couple of other Sam's pubs locally. I guess we'll never know, but with Samuel Smith there are lots of things you will never know. That's just a fact of life. Accept it and move on.
One thing to say though is that in this case I have been here before. Several times in fact, but not for some years and anyway in this case I was looking at it through fresh and critical eyes on your behalf Dear Reader. The pub is very well laid out. A central bar with a cluster of brightly lit boxes, a well appointed room to the right of the main door and a comfortable, wooden floored main bar area with an adjoining lounge sweeping gracefully through to the right and another door to the rear. All this area has leather bench seating and the whole place gleams with cleanliness. It works. There is the usual Sam's quirkiness with a prominent notice above the bar advising that the brewery has decreed a no tolerance policy on swearing throughout its estate. The punishment is unstated, but the threat is clear. Swear and you'll be chucked out on your ear. I therefore didn't swear and no-one else did either. See? You just have to ask.
The pub was relatively busy. In the room on the right a guy stood at the hatch to the bar, alternating his desultory chat to the barman with a seat at a nearby table. At the bar, some women were finishing off their drinks, Coronation St Factory style - that is after work as they all had overalls and badges. At the partition which demarcated the bar from the lounge, a couple of respectable gents, chatted on the lounge side, while in the public bar, a table was occupied by two men and a woman, all drinking beer. All were similarly respectable looking. This was just as it should be really.
I ordered a pint of stout and the barman called me "Sir" without smirking at all. Another couple wandered in and ordered pints of cider. The orderer was similarly addressed. This was very civilised. I scrutinised the bar - all keg. There was though a kind of new one on me - Sam Smith's Best Bitter at 3.7% dispensed from a red font. In addition to the stout, there was OBB, Taddy Bitter, Sovereign,Taddy Lager, Alpine and Cider. I don't think Double Four was on though it might have been. There was no mild, light or dark and the two glass fronted fridges contained no bottled beers at all, just mixers and a packet of opened chocolate digestives. Nice.
As I supped up one of the table occupants came to the bar and pointed out politely that his glass, which he had just finished, had a slight chip on the rim. This was acknowledged equally politely and the man took out an old fiver and scrutinised it. He remarked to me that he was in the habit of checking new fivers for the additional etching that can be found in rare cases and described to me the "winners" so far. We talked about this pleasantly while I drained my pint and he took possession of his newly poured pint of bitter. With a smile he rejoined his companions.
As I left he wished me goodnight. The barman was nowhere to be seen, but I'm sure he would have too.
I must go back to the Roebuck on a Saturday afternoon when town is busy. It was a nice pub, but I'd like to see it in full swing. It would have looked better too with a couple of handpulls.
This is a Quiz League venue and the pub's success is celebrated with some gleaming trophies. I checked them to see if my name was on any, but alas no. Such cups do exist though.
It isn't often I have three new things, one after the other, to report, but I have this time. So, let's get on with it.
Up first was an invitation from J W Lees, to attend the official launch of their collaboration beer with Seven Bro7hers Brewery of Manchester. I had previously been invited to "help" with the brewing of the beer and as I was unable to visit the brewery for a behind the scenes tasting, due to being at the CAMRA AGM in Bournemouth, I was looking forward to seeing how it had turned out. The beer is called 2 Tribes, the idea being based on the two different family brewers involved coming together. The beer itself is a ruby/dark ale with coffee added, using Bramling Cross and Goldings hops. At the launch, which took place in Seven Bro7hers' splendid tap in the Northern Quarter, the great and the good were assembled and the beer was presented in both cask and keg form, giving a chance to compare and contrast. I tried the cask first, though I feel it wasn't quite presented at its best, as a black rather than a white sparkler was used, thus loosening the traditional Lees tight, creamy head. Nonetheless the beer was smooth, easy drinking and malty, with a subtle note of coffee coming through at the end. The keg version was gassier and less smooth, but more refreshing, though the coffee didn't show up nearly so much. Both were enjoyable, though as it often is at these events, I enjoyed the company and the chance to talk to various people just as much.
We left as the public flooded in and walked downhill to Redbank and Manchester's newest brewery, Beatnikz Republic, based, you've guessed it, under a railway arch. Now it isn't often I'm at the cutting edge of such things, but here I was on the very first day at a new brewing venture. Well, I should say the first day the Tap was open, but it still counts. This is a spacious and spotless place, high ceilinged, with a lovely shiny floor and the yet to be commissioned vessels down one side and German style tables and benches down the other. A wall of taps served four beers, all brewed elsewhere (and not in the same place) until owner and brewer, Paul commissions his kit. All beers are keykeg served at the moment at least. I tried three of the four beers, the Pale Ale probably being my favourite, though the "Koelsch" with sweet orange peel showed plenty of promise, but made the Germanophile within me bristle slightly at the use of the name. I really enjoyed the visit though, the chat with Paul and I'll certainly be back when he has full control of brewing on his own kit.
On Saturday a few of us met up in the newest venture to open in my area - the Royton part of Oldham in fact. The Secret Sip is in space terms a micropub, but eschews the usual set up you tend to find in such places. Space is tight with a tiny bar and room for around twenty five, including standees. It is pretty tight though there is another space upstairs by the toilets which are small air raid shelter type affairs, which I think are unisex. There are five keg taps and one cask, with a partial tie to Outstanding Brewery, from where the cask beer came. The keg taps varied from Beavertown to Outstanding and all points in between. Some some of my more knowledgeable craft maven companions thought the prices more Central Manchester than Royton, but I'm guessing it discourages a certain kind of customer if nothing else. In addition, a large fridge is well stocked with bottles and cans. I certainly enjoyed the time I spent there and again I'll be back, this time trying to avoid the seat by the door, which rewarded me with an icy blast each time the door opened. It was packed out, so that happened a lot.
So there you have it. A new beer, a new brewery and a new pub. Balanced or what?
I've since has Two Tribes served through a tight sparkler and in GBG condition. It really improved it. So much so, that at 5% some of the Tavern lot got quite merry on it. Or, rather, pretty pissed.
My good friend Beers Manchester also wrote here about Beatnikz Republic and no less an idol than @Beers4john has praised it too.
I understand that the Secret Sip was drunk dry over Easter, so that's going well too.
One thing that can generally be said about Sam Smith's pubs is that while they are often rather bare looking, they are always spick and span. That's a good thing. A nice clean pub means, in the main, nice clean beer.
The Corporation Inn is a pub I've noticed before when on my way to the nearby Curtain Theatre in Rochdale, or the odd time when sampling the delights of the curry shops on Milkstone Road, but I've never been in before. This predominance of eateries, sari shops, kebab houses and small grocers, tells you that the pub is in an Asian dominated area, relevant only because they don't tend to frequent the boozers. (Well not officially anyway, though one hears tales.) But I digress. On a windy and wet night recently, I popped in. Now the pub has the usual Sam's job lot of paint and no sign of ownership. Well I say popped in, but I couldn't open the door. From within came a chorused shout of "LATCH". The penny dropped and I lifted the latch and stumbled in. Three grinning faces met me. I reckon they'd observed this scene playing out a number of times, but were still enjoying it. As I would if I was them. I sussed out one was the landlord, the other his better half and a sole customer stood at the bar. In a small side room half a dozen other denizens were playing crib - another regular feature of Sam's pubs - and the whole place smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. I reckon the smoking area was directly outside this room, but it was so gloomy I couldn't see exactly where.
I scanned the lit plastic boxes before me, their false brass edges tarnished by years of neglect. Behind the bar I could see a room with various junk. It wasn't exactly tidy this place. I chose Dark Mild. "Haven't got any" quoth the barman, a sort of Chauceresque rogue. The other choices were Taddy Lager, Cider or Old Brewery Bitter. "Why not have one of each? suggested my bar companion. Deciding to disregard that advice I had a pint of OBB. It was fine. "Heading for the station?" I replied in the affirmative, not feeling it wise to say "No actually, I've just come for a nose at you lot and your manky pub".
Looking behind me there was a rather soulless room on the left as you come in with nobody in it and on the right a carpeted and benched seating area which had two customers. One, a fairly young woman sat on her own with a half of lager, while the other, older guy sat reading his paper and supping his pint. The landlord and his wife had gone to watch the crib players. My fellow barfly asked me what train I was getting, which put me in a difficult position, as I wasn't. This is how lies multiply, but in for a penny, I said I was meeting someone there and that seemed to satisfy.
Nothing else happened. The crib players hadn't looked in my direction once. Nor had the woman or the newspaper reader. My bar mate was lost in his own thoughts and as my pint went down, the landlord returned and watched hopefully, no doubt willing me to have another. When I finished and didn't I was given three goodbyes as I left, not forgetting to keep up appearances by turning left to the station, even though it was quicker to go right.
I again overlooked the bloody latch on the way out, but nobody shouted this time.
This pub reminded me or an old Liverpool boozer or two from 30 years ago. A few locals and year upon year of neglect. Pity, as actually with a few touches and a good clean, it could be a lot more appealing. Wonder if owner Humphrey Smith would approve? I suspect not, but it was a pub where you are treated well enough and that's not so bad at all.
The pub sign was flickering epileptically as I took the photo. Apparently this is not a recent thing.
There's a tendency among, shall we call them for talking's sake, "new wave" brewers to push the envelope, discard the tried and tested, do things just because they can and to generally cock a snook at those old fashioned enough to produce beer by the pint that the large majority actually want to drink. Indeed, in some cases, to be plain, downright insulting about those that travel roads more traditional. I can think of one or two like that, though clearly they are the minority.
On a similar tack I noted today in Phil's blog a bit of the same concern about the direction of travel, concentrating in this case on the tendency to lump odd things into beer - peanut butter and biscuit anyone? - and positing that the main point seems to be to chuck into the brew, things you wouldn't expect to find generally speaking. So, experiment with off the wall ingredients and flog it to the (admittedly) willing for
£8 a pop. Nice work if you can get it. After all, who can complain that
is is "off". "You just don't get it Man". Now Phil's not making the same point as me actually - wait I'll get there in a minute - but it's a digression that I happen to agree with by and large and not unconnected with another point that Phil makes and leads me on to mine.
I tweeted an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser, sadly to no response, by one of these pesky traditional brewers, this time Marston's MD, Richard Westwood. In a fairly wide ranging interview Richard made the point, as I often do, about excellent cask beer being ruined at the point of dispense by too many beers and poor cellar practice. I agree with his contention that there is a need to balance the customer requirement for choice with resulting (lack of) quality issues. What caught my eye though was his contention that keg doesn't really solve that problem, as it only keeps at its best when opened, "one or two days extra".
Now of course you can regard Richard as a craft knocking dinosaur despite his 40 years in the industry - he isn't at all by the way - read the article - but he makes a point, often overlooked by most of us, that keg beer goes off too and maybe goes off a lot sooner than we'd like to think. The answer of course is to ensure, keg or cask, that you only sell what your turnover justifies. Does that always happen in the craft world? It doesn't in the cask one.
Mind you, if having just paid £8 a pint, you have no idea at all whether your beer contains odd tasting exotica, or is just plain "off", for peace of mind, best convince yourself it is the former.
Have a go at working out the GSP on Phil's blog. Some dodgy arithmetic methinks I like @Robsterowski's wine analogy too, though I reckon that most wine makers don't make it up as they go along and charge their customers top dollar for their experiments.
Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith's pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup. This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don't do that.
Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town. One has to wonder if Sam's wanted to cement its (expired) relationship with Brauerei Aying whose lager it used to produce, why it didn't choose somewhere, more, shall we say appealing? Somewhere with a nod to rolling Alpine meadows? Haven't they got a few in that Yorkshire place? But they didn't. It's in Rochdale, so we live with that. You will see though from the accompanying photo that the old German looking geezer forever trapped in plastic beer founts, has been released in XXL format as the pub sign. It was nice to see him again, so that's a bonus.
The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam's, sort of on the cheap. It all looks kosher enough, but isn't so substantial. A bit like a film set version. It was deadly quiet when I called on the first sunny Saturday of spring. One guy sat on the bench seating regarding the bar solemnly, playing with his loose change and supping something lagery. That was it until a barmaid appeared, cheerfully announcing she had seen me approaching on the CCTV. That's another given in almost every Sam's pub - CCTV - with warnings about it posted prominently. I shouldn't be at all surprised if they are all linked to Smith Towers as evening entertainment for Humphrey. It certainly appealed to our barmaid who regarded it hopefully as if to a crystal ball, looking for customers - or maybe Mr Smith? I ordered a pint of Samuel Smith Stout. Very tasty it was too and a mere £2.30 a pint for a 4.6% beer. A bargain. I sat at the bar, munching own brand pork scratchings and waited for something to happen. It didn't for ages then the customer who had shown no sign at all of knowing the barmaid, burst into life, went to the bar and remarked about the weather, calling the barmaid by name while his mix of Taddy Lager and Alpine was dispensed. What excitement.
This hectic pace was maintained when two "lads" in shorts with a child toting a fearsome looking plastic knife came in. Two pints of "half n half" were ordered. Yes, the local drink again. Taddy cut with Alpine, or is it Alpine beefed up by Taddy? Either way, they spookily knew the barmaid too - and the sole customer. This was great end to end stuff.
The barmaid engaged me in dental conversation about the detrimental effect pork scratchings can have on your gnashers, while remarking that it was always busier on Sunday, presumably having noticed me prowling around the other deserted rooms, though not the balcony, which I felt might be going too far.
I should also mention the lass from the kitchen appeared and gave me a cheery "Hello". There is lots of
restaurant seating in the back, on the balcony and in a variety of rooms - all deserted. That's very German. The barmaid mentioned that the pub had been done up a few years ago in exactly same colours as it had always been, so it is original I suppose. I think the carpet was the same as the one in the Eagle, so perhaps another job lot?
So, to sum up, the bar and cold shelves had the following. In bottle, Chocolate Stout, Pale Ale, Pure Brewed and Cherry Beer. On the bar, Taddy
Lager, OBB, Sovereign and Alpine Lager (2.8%). Disappointingly Wheat Beer was absent.
In a nod to passing hipsters, Sam Smith's Stingo ale is priced, I noticed, at a reassuringly expensive £9.30 for 500ml. Well it is bottle conditioned and 8.3%. I don't think they had any though, but don't let that put you off.
The chatty kitchen lass assured me it wasn't always this quiet. Hmm. Roll on Sunday then.
Next up: The Corporation Inn. One to look forward to. Trust me.
Well that's another Oldham Beer Festival over and it's time to reflect on a few things beerwise. Firstly it was a tremendously successful and we expect that the Mayor of Oldham's Charity Appeal, on whose behalf CAMRA run it, will benefit greatly from it. It was in effect a sellout.
As always in these things I was mainly involved with the beer side, though I didn't manage the bar. I was however intimately involved in set up and given the severe soaking I got from one brewery's cask of beer, secondary fermentation is alive and well. There are those that reckon most cask beer is inert these days. I'm not so convinced at the micro end that this is true. So many were vigorous - but we don't buy in national brands anyway, as they simply wouldn't sell. The jury is out on those usual suspects of course, but like many, I "hae ma doots" every time I drink one.
It was also noticeable that the beers that sold out first were mainly local. That may not surprise you that much when we have breweries of the quality of Pictish and Brewsmith to name but two and as always there are local favourites which fly out. It wouldn't be Oldham Beer Festival without Serious Brewing's Moonlight Stout and true to form, it soon went. If your beer is good, local definitely works, so there is plenty to play for there.
We always aim to have a leavening of beers that we don't see that often in our area and this time, the Beer Orderer went for an East Midlands theme. Now some were good and some, frankly weren't that brilliant, though that could be applied to lots of beers that you stumble across in the pub. Having had a lot of experience of these things, my advice to the small brewer is simple. Get the beers, clean with distinct appropriate flavours and no odd or "challenging tastes" - at least until you have managed the basics and repeatedly reproduced them. If you have the wish to start off with juniper, lime, exotic spices etc, my advice is just don't. The drinking public aren't daft and you will get slow sales and little repeat business. And brew for your customer, not yourself. Just because your muddy mess of odd ingredients appeals to you,think on. It is unlikely to achieve broad appeal.
The beer of the festival, Tryst Chocolate and Coconut Porte might seem to contradict my musings. Not so. Tryst know what they are doing in the first place. Luscious and moreish, it was a worthy winner.
All the 62 beers were clear and bright or as near as dammit.
My focus now shifts to Bournemouth and the CAMRA AGM and Members Weekend. This will include three nights in my London gaff, so fingers crossed all round.
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.
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