Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Greene King Takeover


https://d2q79iu7y748jz.cloudfront.net/s/_squarelogo/036833a63395c517e650aaba9dd88400I've been busy with the Great British Beer Festival and with editing (writing) my local CAMRA Magazine, so haven't had time to blog, but I couldn't help but quickly jot down one or two thoughts about Greene King being taken over by Hong Kong conglomerate CK Asset Holdings for £4.6 billion, including its debt. The Hong Kong company is offering 850 pence per share, a 51% premium to Greene King's closing stock price on Friday.

So there bare facts are that a successful business has bid a premium for another successful business. You know what? That happens all the time. Most businesses don't grow organically, or rather they do, but only to the point that become interesting or successful enough to either take someone else over, or be taken over. It is very much a dog eats dog situation. And a normal one, though in this case exacerbated by the weak pound which makes British owned asets relatively cheap.

There has been a muted reaction to this in the Twittersphere and elsewhere on social media. Roger Protz has been the foremost tweeter with this:
In response, Martyn Cornell hits the nail on the head:

So there we have it. As Greene King carries little emotional attachment in the mind of most beer drinkers, it was always unlikely that its takeover would have beer fans rushing to man the barricades. That's just how it is, but wait.  Greene King is a big part of the British brewing industry. It owns a large number of pubs - over 2,700 - and these are spread all over the country. Heck we even have plenty of them here in Greater Manchester where, one must admit, they aren't exactly the most popular beerwise.  Their type of beer is not always particularly suitable to local tastes. (See also post below.)

Concerns are, as always in these circumstances, around what the new owner intends to do with its new acquisition. Pubs, by their nature, can be turned into easily realisable cash, by selling them for different use, or for the land they occupy. That though is an ongoing issue as social habits change and custom becomes less, though there are signs that this is bottoming out to some extent.

According to their statements, "CKA's strategy is to look for businesses with stable and resilient characteristics and strong cash flow generating capabilities," said George Colin Magnus, chairman designate of the CKA unit in charge of the acquisition. "The UK pub and brewing sector shares these characteristics."

So, on the face of it, they want the business to continue to generate cash. They have given an assurance along the lines of business as usual (see here for more).  Can we trust this? Doubtful, but the selling off of assets would, where seen as appropriate, have likely happened under current GK management anyway. It is an uncomfortable fact that many pubs are worth far more to the owners as anything but pubs.

So where does that leave us? A largely unloved vertically integrated pub and brewing business has been taken over by someone else who wants to make money out of it. Yes assets will be sold to pay for the purchase. Will vertical integration continue? Tricky one, but the takeover recommendation gives a strong indication that the brewing side will continue.

Nonetheless we will have to wait and see how this one plays out.

Seems CKA already own a number of freehold pubs which are leased to Greene King

The fact that Greene King owns the freehold or long leases on 81% of its pubs, certainly shows the PubCo model with its huge debt, to be a millstone round the neck of the pub industry.  

As this is a cash offer, we can assume that CKA have reserves that need to be wisely used.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Good or Shite?


Back in the old days of Usenet and rec.food.drink.beer (a discussion group on all things beery, mostly involving Americans, but a healthy smattering of Brits and others) the merits of beer were, tongue in cheek, boiled down to is "Is good or is it shite?" That sort of still works today if you put aside all caveats, qualifications and ifs and buts.

A few short weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting our Club of the Year Award to Dobcross Band and Social Club.  We enjoyed a most convivial afternoon there. Beers on sale were Lees Bitter, Bradfield Farmer's Blonde and Morland Original Bitter. All were in splendid form.  Now Morland used to brew in Abingdon in Oxfordshire and were famous for Old Speckled Hen and Hen's Tooth, now of course brewed by Greene King who took them over in 1999 and closed them in 2000.  I hadn't seen Morland Original Bitter in this neck of the woods - or in fact, anywhere else - and it seems possible that the beer has been recently resurrected by GK. If you know more, do tell me.

Of course I commented on this on Twitter with a rather provocative comment, just to see if I could raise a Pavlovian reaction to this Greene King brewed beer:
Now it seems that GK are not exactly loved on Twitter. Is this fair?  I rather like their beers when they are served in the peak of condition. With the demise of Tetley Bitter, I rather miss the lactic finish that beer had and the nearest thing to it is GKIPA though admittedly I rarely see it up here. That beer is often despised by what I decribed as the "Beer Bubble" but actually by many more sensible people too.  This new version of Morland Original Bitter wasn't a million miles from its orginal taste, described in the 2000 Good Beer Guide as "Copper coloured with plenty of bittering hops and hints of fruit. Subtle aroma and a short, dry, bitter finish."  OK it didn't have a subtle aroma, but rather, the lactic tang of GKIPA. Nonetheless, I liked it. It was well made, very well kept and at a sensible 4% abv, suitable to be rattled down by the pint. Most certainly not shite.

I wonder too if Greene King, now that they have outlets all over the UK, including many in the North, are looking for something that can be readily drunk in those parts of the country where their core beers aren't well received?  I know of one local licensee in my neck of the woods, a former Spirit Group pub with "reserved rights" to guest beers, had a strict admonishment from the Area Manager asking why sales of Greene King are so poor.  He was able to answer honestly, that it was because nobody liked them.  Oh and the result of my provocation?  Well I didn't get a lot to be honest, but I liked the one that simply said "I like my beer bubble where Greene King beers are shite"

So do GK get a fair crack of the whip beerwise?   Let me know what you think.  

If you want to see some of the orginal good or shite debate here is some of the original argument back in the dog days of the group in 2001. One or two well known names there too. 

 Sparkling the Morland beer didn't do it any harm either.  Yet another case to be made for God's chosen method of dispense.

Friday, 2 August 2019

A Slightly Tense Calm


There exists a hard core of early morning imbibers.  I suppose there always has been, but before the licensing laws were changed many years ago, by and large they had to do their supping at home under the baleful and disapproving eye of her indoors, as she bustled about getting the nippers their toast and sugar puffs. Hardly conducive to beery conviviality one might imagine.  Mind you, I have read reports of publicans being fined in the old days for admitting customers before the prescribed time and being spotted by an eagle eyed constable, though transgressions - at least most of those recorded - were mainly between lunchtime and evening sessions  - or after time had been called at night.  Far easier to keep customers in if you are doing "staybehinds" after sessions, than attract them when you are setting up for the day and having them under your feet. Breakfast time illicit on premises drinking, was even then I think, a little unusual and most likely discouraged.

But nowadays you don't have to worry about that sort of thing. Should you require liquid refreshment, it can be legally obtained at almost any time of the day and you can do it in licensed premises, away from disapproving eyes and subsequent frank exchanges of views.  We live in glorious and enlightened times. 

This freedom to open and serve the amber nectar early has a main proponent. Enter J D Wetherspoon*. Many readers will know from personal experience, or anecdote, that Wetherspoons, especially those in small towns have developed a hard core of regular early morning topers.   These are usually a small dedicated band of the retired, the early risers, the ne'er do wells, the elderly, the unemployed and unemployable, the hardened (but not yet hopeless) drinkers and those just seeking the company of like minded fellows.

I watched some in their native environment the other day. My car was in for some work and I fancied a coffee. The shutters of JDW roll back at 8 am and a trickle of people slip in.  They cannot drink alcohol at 8, but there are preparations to be made. Most just grab a table, open their newspapers and settle down. The odd one buys a coffee, but this is an exception. Most if they drink anything, just have water which is freely available. Staff are used to this and make no move towards the bar, but get on with their own cups of tea and a bit of snap, or whatever prep they have to do.  Greetings, often just nods,  are exchanged, but mostly silence reigns.  Some set out their favourite tables with their preferred chairs. Furniture is shuffled round and carefully placed in pre-chosen spots. As more drift in, the proceedings, on this occasion, are interrupted by a practise fire evacuation. Thirteen of us - a motley crew - stand on the pavement for five minutes, then shuffle back in. Most return to stare into space from their perches, now fully kitted out and organised to satisfaction.

By 8.50 there is a palpable sense of expectation in the air.  Eyes flick towards the bar.  A few more arrive. Minutes tick away and suddenly there are people coming back to their tables with pints of beer and lager.  One dedicated soul has two, which he arranges carefully in front of him, rims almost touching. Overall pints are evenly split between lager and John Smith's Smooth. 

By ten past nine, when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz. 

* Other early morning drinking establishments are available
 
If I have breakfast there, which I do from time to time, by half past ten the place will be going like a fair.  It is usually very jolly indeed.

Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day.  This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Peak Murky?



We started off, quite a while ago now, with the odd opaque pint being presented to drinkers. These were usually from new breweries in London and the south, following the then American tradition of cask conditioned beers being presented with what was termed "opalescence". As explained to me by a brewing friend of some substance, Jaime Jurado, this was how American brewers and the American public, back in these relatively uninformed days, perceived as the way that sort of beer was meant to be.  (You could probably take the meaning to be a sort of milky/hazy sheen.)  Then though - and I'm talking early noughties, most American beer was presented in the usual crystal clear way. West Coast IPA was a clear beer then as were most American "craft" beers.

I think it was Robbie Pickering who first coined the term "London Murky" and then it was rather unusual to see deliberately hazy beers, championed by a few and regarded with a mixture of indifference and horror by most of us "traditionalists", but the beer itself was well enough brewed, with my main objection being that it - pun intended - muddied the cask conditioned waters and undermined the convention built up over many years, that a problem pint was identified by sight first of all, if it was presented as less than clear.  There was more or less a nationwide acceptance on both sides of the bar that this was a starting point about a case to answer on a beer's saleability. In short the increase in hazy beers eroded the customer's position and allowed barstaff to say something that had largely been eliminated; "It's meant to be like that."  My own view was that this was the thin end of the wedge and that sooner or later there would be no line that could confidently be drawn.

Fast forward a few years. Small breweries have multiplied and tastes and fashions in beer have changed. Craft has pushed the perception envelope to the extent that anything goes, with some beers being indistinguishable from fruit juice in appearance.  Indeed many have fruit juice added to them.  This was always going to be a problem in so much as experimental beers are chucked out to trade and nobody has any real idea of what they really were drinking in terms of what the beer should actually taste like. This is of course very convenient to the brewer, but not for the customer, who often has to pay a premium price for something that may not be to his or her liking, or, more importantly one that he or she suspects is faulty. Now there is little recourse to changing such a beer for something more acceptable. The answer is likely to be "It's meant to be like that!"

Yesterday this was raised on Twitter by a peeved customer, Seth Bradley, who had received over the bar the samples shown in the photo.  I leave them to speak for themselves.  Follow up tweets  such as this illustrate my point:


Are these really well designed, properly brewed beers with a profile and recipe that is planned and brewed for?  You'd kind of doubt it wouldn't you?

What's the answer to these colloidal solutions when the rule book has been thrown away? I don't know for you, but for me? Avoid them like the plague.

You can read Jaime's credentials here.

I once asked Charlie Bamforth about cases less bad than this. He said the line has to be drawn before a beer looks like chicken soup. Too late.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Unexpected Pub in the Caucasus Area


Shortly before our tour of the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia, our guide pointed out a Russian Army base a mere 400 metres from the main Tbilisi - Black Sea highway.  It was a reminder that beyond that short distance, lies the occupied lands of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It seems too that the war which officially ended in 2007, is still in small ways going on, as the Russians have the rather annoying habit of moving the barbed wire fences overnight, swallowing up a little more of Georgia each time. Georgian citizens are not allowed within 200 metres of the occupied area for fear of being kidnapped. This dread of Russia consumes every Georgian and explains in part the riots that took place when we were there. Oddly though, Russian tourists abound and are treated very well. The argument is truly state to state.

Sadly we didn't have time in Gori for a beer, but I rather liked the fact that Stalin had the bright idea of having a museum to himself built in his home town. His colleagues apparently agreed this was a splendid plan.  Very wise of them.  It was full of (retouched) photos and paintings of the local lad made good bad.

On the way up the mountain road to our destination, I caught a glimpse of a very Germanic looking building, but it was forgotten as we visited one of the oldest churches in Georgia, some 7000 feet up and a mere 14 kilometres from the border with the Russian Federation. We stopped for a beer in the frontier town of Kazbegi, where fortunately the sun shone. We leaped ahead of the assorted crumblies that were our companions, ordered and paid for our beers which gave us the chance to avoid the tension that "comfort" stops brings when 48 people all try and get served at once within a half hour.  At this stop we were advised that we'd be stopping for lunch a half hour back down the road to Tbilisi. Great stuff.

Back down the mountain we went and pulled up at the Germanic looking building - our lunch stop. To my astonishment this was a little piece of Bavaria in the Caucasus. It was Hofbräuhaus Gadauri.  Yes a pub restaurant, German inside in every way and a part (one assumes) of the Hofbräuhaus Group of Munich.  We filed inside and were taken upstairs to a huge wooden panelled dining room, which could have been upstairs in the Munich Bier Hall.  Downstairs was a large, but empty bar, very much in the Bavarian style.

Now on these capers you usually get a set lunch and so it came to pass. Time was short and by the time we were served and had eaten, it was time to go. I did though manage a look at the menu, and HB Helles, Hefeweizen and Munich Dark were all available. A party of Japanese tourists were getting stuck into some.  Lucky people.

Alas the tale ends here. No beer for me. Time ran out. But it existed. Honest.

These guided tours are mixed blessings. You see a lot, but there is little time for a beer break in the exotic destination, which is a disadvantage-  to this old soak at least. 

The photo of the beer shows the most common beer we came across. It wasn't at all bad really.


Thursday, 11 July 2019

Georgian Craft Beer


 The main road through Tbilisi is Rustavelli Avenue, named after a famous Georgian poet and hero.  This is a mighty six lane highway with never ending maniacal driving at speed the rule, not the exception. A bit like Wacky Races for real people. The only way to cross it is by underpass. Any attempt to do so on foot would be certain death. We used the underpasses, spooky though they were.

On one side of Rustavelli Avenue were dotted, all the way down to Liberation Square, a number of little restaurants with seats outside. You could grab one and watch the passers by as you supped a very reasonably priced beer. Think about a pound or less for a half litre. The quality of these beers, all uniformly golden, ranged from pretty tasteless, to not too bad at all.  The quality of the people watching though more than made up for the lack of quality in the beer, with very attractive young people enjoying strolling up and down in groups, as well as many other interesting characters. It was all rather pleasant despite the roar of the traffic and the somewhat sticky 35C heat.

On our second night there we found less traditional cafe near the Parliament. The menu was uninformative, so we just ordered two beers. Now as an aside, everywhere we went - more or less- the serving staff, usually with little English were exceptionally nice. This was more throw it at you and disappear.  Also it was in a .4 glass; the cheater's half litre. We looked at the beer which was a lot more brown than we'd come across. Hmm. E took a sip and grimaced. I did the same. Crikey. What was this? The beer tasted sharp and unpleasant with a yeasty taste. It was bright though. As clear as could be and tasting pretty strong.  Beside us was a raised grass verge. E without hesitation tipped her whole glass into it. I struggled on through half of mine before giving up and calling for the bill.

Our waitress, cheered up by the thought of our imminent departure promptly appeared and on receipt of payment enquired if we'd enjoyed the beer. I said we hadn't. She looked shocked. 'But', she spluttered, 'it is craft beer.'

Further up the road there was a rather upmarket resturant. Outside were several bottles with IPA on them, but we passed, unsure if, at peak evening meal time, a table would be forthcomimg for beer only. Sadly I never saw that beer again. 

This wasn't my only craft though. Black Lion was a standard but tasty lager and was very good. I believe there was more craft to be found, but we didn't go looking.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Bee Off with Them


An interesting little tweet today inspired me to get off my lazy arse and write a blog. I've been busy/uninspired/whatever for a while, but here we are - inspiration. It's what we all need. In addition to lovely clear, cool, cask conditioned beer of course.

Joseph Holt, a well known Manchester Brewer, has come up with a beer glass which turns itself into the famous Manchester Bee.  Well it doesn't exactly metamorphose itself, but a nice sleeve glass has had the addition of some black stripes and if you add a pale, yellow beer, Hey Presto, you have a bee like appearance. Magic. Now I see one or two problems here. The famous Holt's Bitter is a sort of deep brown colour and the delicious Mild is, slightly, well black.  Hmm. These won't achieve the desired effect will they? Awards winning Holt's lager it is then.  I wonder if the glass is nucleated?

Holt's has also come up with the whizzy idea of buy five pints, get a card stamped and you'll get your glass free. Fine. A top tip from me. You can simply buy five pints of mild, eschew the lack of bee effect pro tem and thus gain your glass at minimum outlay.  The bee effect can then be achieved in the comfort of your own home with whatever cheap (or dear) yellow pong that floats your boat.

There is of course another way of gaining this coveted glass. If you aren't sure about what it is, contact Cooking Lager. He'll tell you.

The Manchester Bee of course was the logo of Boddingtons Brewery. Remember them? Their golden nectar would have done the job nicely.

Full details of the scheme are here in  I LoveManchester.Com


Friday, 31 May 2019

Mildly Unhappy with Myself


May was - and as I write still is - Mild Month. Now I like mild, especially a good dark mild with a bit of richness and and a tight creamy head.  And hush the mouth of the contributor to something or other, somewhere, about sparklers, who said that mild (of all things) doesn't need a sparkler. It does.  In fact all cask conditioned dark beer benefits greatly, even if in the best of condition, from being sparkled.  Cast into the outer darkness anyone that tells you differently. Personal preference aside, they know not of what they speak and a thin, headless mild will not attract anyone but the most joyless of malcontents to the genre - and it is a genre that surely needs help and the best of presentation.

Anyway, late to the game through circumstance and laziness, I had a couple of pints of Pictish Black Diamond Mild on Wednesday.  It was lush. Very lush. So much so I regretted my previous two pints and wished I'd noticed it earlier.

I couldn't imagine it unsparkled. Nor should you.

With my usual fecklessness, I didn't take a photo of the beer. Yu'll have to make do with the download from the website.

Paul Wesley, the brewer at Pictish is a tremendous brewer and a very fine fellow. Seek his stuff out. He is a Scotsman too, so bonus.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Beware of Israelis Singing Greek


Our Greek trip hadn't got off to the best of starts, with E having her bag dipped on the severely overcrowded bus from the airport. Fortunately all they really got was a credit and debit card, both of which were cancelled within 15 minutes of  being stolen. Also, sadly, her emergency tenner which E keeps hidden in the unlikely event of having to buy a drink.  But it upset the lass which wasn't good.

After we checked in to our hotel and sorted out the cards, we both felt like a drink. I suppose the theft didn't help, but we had that thing we sometimes experience when we venture out in a strange city for the first time.  We couldn't really find anywhere for a beer. As  we explored and calmed down, that soon wore off, but sitting with that much needed Hellas Fix, it reminded us both of our first time in Hong Kong where we couldn't find anywhere to eat. Some kind of city blindness? Dunno.

Thessaloniki is an interesting place, but a bit of an architectural disaster. It seems that in 1917, the French Army, through the sort of negligence that you would hope not to encounter on a regular basis, contrived to burn the place down. Not just a bit of it though, but nearly all of it. Only one area near the harbour survived, along with some impressive  Roman stuff from the 4th century AD. The bit that remained was really the only original part of the city still standing and had, over recent years evolved into a kind of entertainment hub, with bars and restaurants galore. According to our friends at Google (or was it Trip Advisor) one of the best restaurants for authentic Greek food was just around the corner - well several corners - from our hotel in Thessaloniki. Great, so we went  the second night to eat, though we had a look at the area in the late afternoon of the same day when a lot of it was closed. Just to get the lie of the land.

This area actually had pubs - or as near pubs as you were likely to get in Greece.  Somewhat unexpectedly though there seemed to be craft bars - no walls of steel. But certainly there was a number of different beers other than the holy trinity of Mythos, Alfa and Fix. Some were even brewed in Thessaloniki. The Greek habit of leaving menus outside on tables helped establish that they were the usual suspects, Porter, IPA, Stout and lager. Nothing unusual there really, but all reassuringly expensive.

Our restaurant was busy when we arrived. We sat outside, ordered some retsina while deciding on eats and looked around us.   There was the usual smattering of couples and a long table by the door contained a mix of couples of indeterminate nationality, drinking wine and beer. To our left sat a table of four, walnut coloured from sun, obviously well oiled and possibly from one of the "Stans" we thought as we earwigged on their somewhat gutteral tones.  The men were drinking what we guessed was vodka, thus (wrongly) cementing our ex Soviet area thoughts.  A pair of musicians, one on a  bouzouki, one on a guitar, played and sang. It was all very jolly with the tables I have described being pretty enthusiastic as they clapped along to the music.

The four beside us, after a while and to our astonishment, then rose and and danced in front of the musicians. They sang along to the tunes as did the long table. Greeks then?  All became clear as the night wore on. Our dancing friends engaged us in conversation and invited us to join them in tripping the light fantastic. Fat chance, but it became clear they were all Israelis. The so called vodka was ouzo.  It seemed too that upstairs were even more Israelis, all along for the authentic food and music.  I know this because the toilets were upstairs and the back and completely unreachable, such was the crush.

As we chatted it was revealed that Greek music is a big deal in Israel.  Who knew? Our new acquaintances revealed that they knew all the words and tunes. Many Israelis do too it seems. If you don't like Greek music in Israel, get out of town.  Again, who knew?

Next door was a pub that sold almost the entire Brewdog range of beers, plus Mikkeler and more. Should we go for a drink there? What for? We can get those at home. We retired instead to a nearby souvlaki bar, ordered more retsina and watched the world go by.

It isn't always about beer.

One incident sticks in the mind though. As we chatted to the Israelis, a commotion attracted us. One of the upstairs Israelis was carried out by his compatriots and laid out on a marble slab bench in the adjoining square. He was completely and comatosely pissed.  It isn't always Brits you know. 

 The food was tremendous and very authentic with enormous portions and great service, so that was good too. 

The photo shows our favourite souvlaki bar.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Bonny Dundee


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Dutch Folk


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Dutch Craft Beers and Taps


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Grand Café Brinkmann


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Good Pubs or Good Beer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 February 2019

Three Things - No - Four


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Good News - Cask Saved


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 January 2019

Great Expectations


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Reflecting on 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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