Wednesday 12 June 2024

Having a Breather or Just About Dead?

Well, it's all kicked off again. Sort of. Cask is dead, don't you know?  It isn't nearly a flame war, so beloved of us old Usenet hands, but like any social media argument, it has the possibility of descending into one. But in reality it isn't likely to over develop into a right old ruck in these more cautious times. Injudicious remarks aren't just a punch to roll with and forgive these days, but have potentially reputational damage to hang round your neck. Back in the Usenet days, we defended our positions robustly and bugger the facts. It's what made it fun. 

What is this about, I hear you ask?  Well, beer writer Jeff Alworth, in an X post - is that right? - well, a formerly Twitter tweet, lamented about the state of cask beer in the UK thusly:

Now Jeff isn't resident in the UK, but he knows his stuff, and often, an outside view is valuable, so his comments are useful. Of course, this provoked a lot of response, as his main bone of contention, apart from cask dying on its arse, is that it needn't have been so. If only these silly buggers in CAMRA had accepted the use of cask breathers (aspirators) long before they actually became neutral on the matter. They therefore didn't care about quality. His blog on this is here:

So, what is a cask breather, then?  Wikipedia describes it well:

A cask breather (sometimes called a cask aspirator) is a type of demand valve used to serve draught beer. The cask breather enables the empty space created when beer is drawn from a beer cask to be filled with carbon dioxide from an external source. This prevents ambient air from being drawn into the cask, thus extending the life of the beer by preventing oxidation.

To avoid carbonation of the beer, the carbon dioxide gas added by a cask breather is at low pressure, unlike the high pressure gas used to pressurize keg beer. Cask breathers are typically used in conjunction with a pressure regulator to ensure the gas pressure is sufficiently low.

Before 2018, the use of cask breathers was opposed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a policy that was changed in April 2018 to allow pubs using cask breathers to be classified as real ale pubs and listed in the Good Beer Guide.

Now without getting too technical, that'll do for now, but one caveat. Oxygen gets into beer before the  cask is vented, so the demand valve isn't a panacea. It just delays the inevitable for a few days depending on many other external factors, such as handling in the pub cellar, and care in the brewery. Maybe in a limited set of circumstances, cask breathers might have helped, but overall, would it really help the trade to prop up the ailing patient, cask conditioned ale? In the view of this writer, it most certainly wouldn't.*

So, what about the next contention, that cask ale is a dying beast.  Here we have the possibility of a certain amount of disagreement, with cask aficionados planting flags firmly in the "No" camp and in fairness, in the X arguments, few actually claiming that it is in rude health.

Well, where are we really?  In sheer volume, cask is a declining segment of the market, but there are many variations. In many cities, finding good to excellent cask beer is not a problem. In no particular order, I'd suggest that applies to:Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Chester, Wolverhampton, York  - and likely Bristol and Norwich. This list is not definitive and the bonus is that usually, the quality of beer in the surrounding areas is also dragged up by proximity.  Even London is showing signs of recovery, with my own experience of  recent improvement and many defenders springing to its aid on X.

When it comes to cask and point of view and credibility, you can, if you are so inclined, safely put us long in the tooth veterans, in a box labelled "Old Farts". This can then be filed away where you'll never find it. However, there are some younger types who have seen the true light more recently, who can provide a more up to date perspective. Beer writer Matt Curtis, while always a cask drinker among other stuff, is now, since relocating to Manchester, where cask is still doing well, seeing the role and position of cask from a somewhat different perspective: 

He says on X in the same debate; "as someone who spends a lot of time in pubs around the UK, I’d say that cask is not on “life support” but is actually thriving in its pockets.”

Another cask devotee, ex Fullers Head Brewer, John Keeling subscribes to the view that cask is a niche now and that is probably correct. It is no longer a mass volume product in the way it once was, but it is still a substantial niche and even, in some places, still mainstream. 

Sorry Jeff. Cask beer isn't on life support, but increasingly being seen as something that, if done well - and that is what is happening - will have discerning drinkers seeking it out. Volume may have gone, but its innate quality and sheer drinkability will ensure it survives and is sought after, albeit by fewer numbers. And, from my point of view, it will see me out, so that'll do!

*Breathers are almost never used in areas where cask is thriving and viable and never have been, so go figure. I'll contend that while breathers would have saved the odd marginal outlet, they would never have helped against lowest common denominator beers in "couldn't care less" outlets run by big PubCos. It is wishful thinking to my mind, evidenced by the fact they are still so rarely used.

The demise of cask as a mass-produced and volume consumed product has been a long and tortuous one. Mostly stems back to the Beer Orders, but that is another post. There are some great contributions to the debate on X. You could also read this venerable, but relevant article here: https://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/where-did-all-money-go.html

Friday 31 May 2024

Rock Up or Line Up?

There has recently been a lot of chat on social media about an emerging practice, in some pubs, of forming an orderly line at the bar.  An actual queue, as if you are in the baker's, or at the till in a supermarket. Now, most of us know that queuing at the bar is the antithesis of British pub drinking. Rocking up to the bar and jockeying to get served is rooted in the cultural and social norms that define the traditional British pub experience. Here’s why:

British pubs are known for their informal and relaxed atmosphere. Customers typically stand or sit around the bar, and barstaff serve patrons in a seemingly spontaneous and natural order, hopefully based on who arrives first or - and this shouldn't really happen, but it does - on who catches the eye.  This lack of a formal queue however encourages social interaction. Pubgoers chat with one another while waiting, creating a convivial and communal atmosphere. 

Drinking in a British pub is, by and large, a communal experience in a shared space. The bar itself is part of that shared space and is, one might readily argue, a key part of it, where the act of getting a drink is a cooperative experience rather than a solitary task. People naturally form clusters rather than lines, fostering a sense of community. This in turn encourages socialising and mingling, as opposed to the more isolated experience of standing in a queue. Actually, for many, a chit-chat with others at the bar is all part of what makes a pub what it is and what makes it different from, for example, a continental bar.  
 
Of course, all this kind of goes against the grain of the British penchant for queues, does it not? Well, not really. As the anthropologist, Kate Fox wrote in her book Watching the English: "In our drinking-places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all:we gather haphazardly along the bar counter. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person’s position in it. Everyone knows who is next: the person who reached the bar counter before you will be served before you, and any obvious attempt to get served out of turn will be ignored by the bar staff and severely frowned upon by other customers. In other words, it will be treated as queue-jumping. The system is not infallible, but English bar staff are exceptionally skilled at identifying who is next in the invisible queue." In fact, there is an unwritten code of conduct that regular pub-goers understand and follow. This includes recognising when it's your turn and respecting others' place without the need for a formal line. It encourages patience and politeness, with everyone, trusting that they will be served in turn. This mutual respect reinforces the communal and friendly atmosphere.
 
Additionally, regulars frequently build a rapport with the bar staff, and the informal approach allows them to acknowledge and even, in some cases - and why not if done sparingly - prioritise familiar faces who provide much of the regular custom. This skill contributes to the unique dynamic of British pubs.
 
The queue, in contrast, is more of a formal, structured activity that can feel impersonal and rigid, which contrasts sharply with the relaxed and informal nature of a British pub.  It can even be seen as disrupting the traditional and cherished practices of British pubs. It introduces a level of order and control that feels out of place in an environment valued for its organic and spontaneous interactions. Even worse, it can be seen as diminishing the character and charm that make these establishments special. Warmth and social engagement are hallmarks of the pub experience.  As Pub Curmudgeon wrote on his blog "The interaction between staff and customers, and between customers at the bar, is a crucial part of the atmosphere of pubs. Much of that is lost if people are just sitting at tables and tapping at a phone to get their drinks brought to them."
 
In essence, queuing at the bar contradicts the intrinsic qualities of British pub culture, which thrives on informal, social, and communal drinking experiences. The organic and fluid method of being served at the bar is a fundamental aspect of what makes the British pub a beloved institution. We shouldn't muck about with it.

I have written about this previously, as has Pub Curmudgeon, Both are worth a read, but in the end, despite being quite even handed, Mudgie is right when he says  "This trend has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the impact of Covid and lockdowns. Customers have become more used to standing in line, and somewhat nervous about a crush at the bar.

It undoubtedly does detract from a traditional pub atmosphere, taking away the opportunity to chat with staff or other customers at the bar......... It’s just turning a pub into a retail outlet where the prime objective is the efficient processing of customers" 

 

 

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Book Review - Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London


One of the fascinating things about London is how much of  "old" London remains and how, relatively, many of its pubs are still pretty well unspoilt. Many of these pubs are either off the beaten track or concealed, either in the suburbs, or masked from view in alleys or byways which only those in the know discover. Additionally, many of these are comparatively unaffected by the passage of time, and some, a bit against the grain in these somewhat homogenous days, have long serving, idiosyncratic, or iconic landladies and landlords. Identifying these treasures is where this perceptive book shines.

You will read that many hidden pubs are steeped in history, with some dating back centuries. The architecture, old wooden beams, and vintage décor transport visitors back in time, creating a unique and nostalgic atmosphere. Often they are small and cosy or have a quirky and eclectic interior, filled with oddities and curiosities that give each venue a distinct personality. This adds to the overall attractiveness and is likely to make each visit memorable, as does the host - more of which later.  Some are, on the face of it, a lot more mundane, but the book looks beyond that to the story beneath. However, as this fascinating book sets out, these curiosities are getting fewer and fewer and may not be with us forever. This is very much a guide to these rarest of beasts, and the descriptions are peppered with a feel of "get there now before it changes". 

The book's narrative is expertly penned by John Warland, who is a down to earth and easy going wordsmith.  His photographic confederate is Horst A Friedrich, who provides this weighty tome - it is 335 pages long - with wonderfully atmospheric and striking depictions of the very diverse pubs included. There is a foreword by Suggs - he of Madness fame - who describes his early days in the French House, Soho, and his local, The Dublin Castle in Camden. His affection for pubs is clear when he says: "Pubs gave us a platform..... I wouldn't have a career without pubs. I'd be a busker or butcher's boy to eternity." This neatly sets the tone for what is to come.

The book covers 38 pubs, arranged by area. Many old favourites are included, such as Ye Old Mitre, The Pride of Spitalfields, The Wenlock Arms and the Cockpit.  Perhaps more interestingly, there are many that you probably won't know - and they aren't all Victorian treasures - but which will nonetheless capture your imagination and make you keen to visit. Each pub is allocated just a single page of text, but so well written and insightful is that text, that the reader gets a clear feel of what each pub is about.  That may be the intriguing local clientele, the fascinating bric-a-brac- within, the history or the nature and idiosyncrasies of the incumbents that run them.  Many of the photos have neat little accompanying subtitles or observations summing up either the photo or the establishment.   The Nell Gynne Tavern's lights are "The casual whiff of a whore's boudoir". The Cross Keys in Covent Garden is "An Aladdin's cave of ephemera", the Nag's Head in Belgravia quotes the landlord describing his rules "if you don't like it - don't come here" and Bradley's Spanish Bar is remarked upon thus; "The sign says "bar", but your heart says "pub".

Publican icons are covered too. The legendary Roxy Beaujolais of the Seven Stars accurately states that "a pub is egalitarian: anyone can come in" before waspishly adding "until I say they can't". This is accompanied by a stunning photo, which captures her essence vividly.   In the "no cards accepted" Palm Tree in Bow, a gem of a pub, still tricked out externally in Trumans signage and run by the same landlord since 1977, the author writes "it is hard to imagine the Palm Tree without Alf. You somehow miss him before he has even cashed out". 

This book has much to offer the pub fancier and those that simply like the quirky and unusual. They aren't difficult to find - most are hidden in plain sight - but reading about them makes the reader keen to visit and to seek them out before they change forever. There is an undoubted degree of tempered nostalgia in this book, but to a certain extent at least, that is the point. Perhaps the raison d'être of the book is best summed up by the pithiest of remarks pertaining to the Lord Clyde in Borough, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The book is highly recommended and frankly, so are the pubs. 

There was a nice quote from Horst at the book launch where, when invited to be involved, he asked John Warland what the book was about. "GFB Horst" he said." GFB?" queried Horst. Great Fucking Boozers" Exactly.

And maybe, some pubs could also take a leaf out of the King Charles 1 in King's Cross's book, and have this as a statutory entry policy to all pubs -  "Strictly no wankers".

Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London is published by Prestel. ISBN 978-3-7913-8973-8.



 


Tuesday 7 May 2024

Two Cheers for Carlsberg Marstons

So, the Burton Unions are saved - well, one of the sets at least. As revealed by Pete Brown, or rather, as followed up by Pete, here in Drinks Business, Thornbridge Brewery, with technical help from CMBC will install a saved set at their Derbyshire Brewery.

Now this is good news for the history buff and for the working preservation of a historical and rather technical aspect of brewing history that looked to be all but lost. I do though note that CMBC are keeping a non-working set at Marston's Burton Brewery, which was news to me.  The CMBC press release can be read here on the British Guild of Beer Writers site.  The gist of the deal is as follows:

According to The Drinks Business, discussions between CMBC and Thornbridge began in February this year, to look for a way to provide a new future for the Union sets at Marston’s Brewery, following their retirement earlier this year. CMBC gifted the set of Union barrels to Thornbridge, and has also provided expert guidance and advice on maintenance and set-up for the Union system being developed at Thornbridge’s Bakewell-based brewery, which is set to be completed in May. The Union sets will be used for brewing special edition cask beers utilising this historic method first created in Burton-on-Trent in the 19th century. 

Emma Gilleland, Director of Brewing at CMBC, said, “This collaboration is a perfect showcase for the ways brewers can come together to deliver something special, for the love of beer and Britain’s incredible brewing heritage. We’ve been proud to support Thornbridge through the process by sharing our time and expertise to help set up their own Union system, and we are confident they will be fantastic custodians for our Union sets.

Pete Brown says in his analysis,  "Occasionally, big and small can work together to achieve something neither could alone. This week, it’s been announced that Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) has given a set of of the famous Burton Unions to Thornbridge, and is helping the Derbyshire craft brewery get it up and running. This has sent some much-needed cheer through the craft brewing world.

Pete goes on to say " But why is it important? Is there anything to this beyond the preservation of a museum piece, important though that is?  Well, here’s where it gets interesting. The reason given by CMBC for “retiring” the Unions is seemingly unstoppable decline of the cask ale market. The Unions exclusively brew cask ale, and there’s simply not enough money in cask ale to justify using this expensive kit in its production. They have become, to quote CMBC, “unviable.” And yet, the reason given by Thornbridge for taking on the Union set is that it will enable them to premiumise cask ale, to do new and interesting things in the space, and make more money from the sector.

If Thornbridge is right, CMBC must be wrong. If Thornbridge can use the Unions to premiumise cask ale and make it more interesting and profitable, why couldn’t CMBC. These are good points.

A further point is why is the history of the Burton Unions being turned over to a small (albeit very well thought of) brewery, rather than being taken forward meaningfully by CMBC? A cynic might just think that multinational brewing companies care little for either history or cask beer, and this is a cheap way to put a slightly embarrassing problem to bed and come out of it looking rather good.

This whole affair, somewhat reminds me of what Churchill said of the Americans during the war, "You can always trust the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else."

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan - indeed, I'm a confirmed sceptic of the notion - of premiumisation of cask ale generally, but in this particular instance, a much more convincing case can be made for it. 

Both pieces highlighted are worth a read in full. 

And there isn't a prize for the first to say Churchill didn't say that.  If he didn't, he ought to have.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

A Cracking Pub and Two Microbreweries

Did you know that Melbourne has more trams than anywhere else? Well, I think that's what was said.  I can confirm at least the place was hoaching* with them. A line on every corner, it seemed. Anyway, on our free day, we made use of them to explore. As well as walking our feet off, we visited one of the best markets I've ever been in - and I've visited plenty. The quality and range of the food was outstanding. We ate in one of the most Chinese Chinatowns I'd ever set foot in - we were the only gweilos in a very big restaurant. We also visited the oldest pub in Melbourne, the Mitre, where I enjoyed pints of Cooper's Pale Ale and observed, in the Central Business District at least, that lunchtime drinking was alive and well in this part of the world.

Of course, we went to the various tourist spots - and enjoyable they were too - but the lure of beer was strong, so we decided that a little train journey to a nearby suburb of Abbotsford was a plan. Two microbreweries were the aim and that required a visit to the fabulous Flinders St Station and the nearby Prince's Bridge Hotel, a large and handsome pub and just the place to people watch.  This had a fine front bar and a larger room to one side where some people ate and some simply socialised and drank.  The bar was basically full of drinkers of all ages and became so busy in our late afternoon visit that the main doors were closed and the less obvious side door were used to limit the ins and outs. This was a fab pub, and we left with considerable reluctance. 

We got on the wrong train. Well, not exactly wrong, but it was a limited stop which overshot our target station by one. We crossed over by going down to the road and amazingly a different micropub than the one intended was just over the street.  Be rude not to, we remarked. Bodriggy Brewery was quite small and very welcoming, and we enjoyed the banter with the barman and locals. I even won a free pint on a (free) scratch card - well, it was a half pint, but they gave me a pint anyway.  Going for a pee, I was shocked to see that behind the cosy front bar was a huge beer hall with the brewery at the back.  Blimey. How had we not noticed that?  Again, the staff were great - they even charged my mobile for me - and we had a fine time checking out the beers. Sadly - a recurring theme - none were remotely dark. 

We checked Google. Stomping Ground Brewery was only a ten-minute walk away. This was a much busier, more family oriented brewery. We ate there and enjoyed the beers and ambience.  We noted the age range of those visiting was more diverse than at home, and frankly all the better for that. Disappointingly, there were no dark beers again, but there was some shiny kit..

So, a successful day. No pint or schooner issues were encountered.  In the more southern parts, it seems imperial pints are fairly to very common. This didn't last, though.

More Aussie beer culture. Pints were commonly unetched nonics, even when lager was served, which was strange to this writer at least. Branded glasses seemed rare beasts though the pint barrel jug, sadly was not.  More of this soon. 

Next week I'll cover the outback and the North. Beer glass oddities will feature. In the meantime,I'm off to Dundee and the CAMRA Members Weekend and AGM.

* Look it up



Friday 19 April 2024

More Than Twenty Minutes Needed*

Moving on from Perth, which I really liked, via Kangaroo Island - hardly saw a one - the fair city of Adelaide was our next stop. On the way to Adelaide, we stopped for a too short hour in the German town of Hahndorf. It was a beautiful Sunday and the town with its German bakeries offering bretzen, streusel and more and dotted with bratwurst stands was very enticing. As we strolled around looking for pubs noting and enjoying the scene, we came upon the Hahndorf Brewing Co, so in we went. A reasonably German like large pub with a rammed bar greeted us. We were immediately attracted to typical German porcelain fonts offering Helles and Weissbier and ordered both, oddly served in UK style dimple mugs. Then we people watched until departure, being joined by several other soaks from the bus.  Birds of a feather and all that. Sadly, with one exception, it was the last weissbier we came across. A great shame as it is a style that certainly suits the Aussie weather. I wonder why?

On arrival in Adelaide, we had a rather long - too long for some moaners on the tour - trip round while the knowledgable driver described every building and statue. I kind of liked it as the city was a mix of Victorian architecture and new shiny buildings, with lots of green space and, I noted happily, plenty of pubs.  I was pleased that the driver had the enthusiasm for it all.

The trip had the advantage of giving a better sense of our surroundings, and thus we were able to nip out from our handily placed hotel onto the central Rundle Street and the last night of a carnival. This with the various street acts and the throng provided a great atmosphere. We drank some beer and ate some food in a place with a very boisterous character and a good beer choice. As a nightcap, we nipped into the Exeter Hotel on the way "home" with the intention of getting a beer to drink on one of the tables outside.

We didn't do that, though. Instead, we found ourselves in a proper public bar, with a central bar serving the room we were in and another room opposite. It was basic, unspoilt with wooden floors, a few bar stools, a handful of characterful locals and a couple of rather fearsome women serving. We immediately knew we were in safe hands. It was stunningly good. Even on a warm Adelaide night, indoors here was way preferable. This was smashing.

It turned out to be a Cooper's of Adelaide tied house, with a reasonable number of their beers on offer. I settled on Pale Ale - fermented in the keg as are all their beers - and took in the scene. It was amusing to see some people - tourists I assume - entering, looking round and leaving with a look of dismay and concern on their faces. This was a proper pub. Looking through t'internet, I note it hasn't changed much for many years, and good for them. It was immediately and deservedly catapulted into one of my top pubs anywhere. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, don't miss it.


.

The next day was free and after the Botanic Gardens, museums and more we had a drink in another pub, dominated by Cooper's beers. There (the Austral?) I sampled, Mild, Sparkling and Barrel aged stout, as well as an anniversary ale.  All live beers.

We returned to the Exeter for our last drinks that night. Dark for me this time. All Cooper's beers were just fab, though in fairness, it was best to knock an atmosphere of CO2 out of them first! But the real winner was visiting the Exeter Hotel.

*Adelaide is known as the twenty-minute city, as nowhere is more than twenty minutes away from anywhere else. Confession: E was on local wine by the Exeter Hotel.

Pub culture fact. This was a schooner area. Next - more pub culture, less tourism.

Thursday 18 April 2024

The Lucky Shag


I'd previously been advised by a friend who visits Perth fairly frequently, not to miss the Lucky Shag pub. Not that you can miss it really, as it sits in a prominent position at Perth's river front, just where all the cruise boats set off from and return to.  So, having just returned to the river front from a cruise, it would not have been easy to miss as we more or less disembarked into it.  The ornithological amongst you will gather it is named after a seabird.  Those of a dirty mind may not.

This is quite a big pub with a very large river terrace which was well filled by workers enjoying a post work happy hour drink.   Incidentally, in most parts of Australia, happy hours between five and six o'clock are common. Sadly, very few seem to move much outside that time, though we did find the odd one, so best find one you like at six and settle in. The format varies. Some offer reduced prices on certain drinks or all of them, some give a pint for the price of a schooner and so on.  Some don't at all.  I think in this case it was around 3 dollars less for a pint, which was the most common measure in Western Australia, I'm told this is because of the proliferation of Poms in that neck of the woods.

So, a pint it was.  The unfamiliar nature of the beers had me settling for a locally brewed pale ale, Nail Brewery Pale was hazy and tasty in the New World style. At 4.7%, it slipped down well. E began her on/off love affair with Northern Crisp as we chatted to our travelling companions and watched the very busy staff fly up and down the bar. Our hotel was only a reasonable walk away and had a sort of Irish Bar next door, where we ate and finished the night off. It didn't seem very Irish to me, but given that it was called Fenians, I guess that was the kind of clue as to the aspiration if not the actuality. It was a decent enough pub though and there, usefully, I realised that I don't care for James Squire Lashes, a beer which seemed to crop up everywhere.

I also learned in Perth that Castlemaine XXXX is still a thing, that every bar has an XPA (Extra Pale Ale - An Extra Pale Ale is a beer style similar to a Pale Ale with a larger amount of pale malt than a conventional Pale Ale, which gives the beer a paler, brighter colour and crisper flavour) and that draft alcoholic ginger beer is very much an Australian thing.  I also increasingly observed - and this is a very good thing - that hazy beers are very much the exception, but available.

So, how much does it all cost? Despite being ticked off on Twitter by the Beer Police, I can reveal that pints were generally around AUS$13/14, with schooners being nearer $10.  There were more or less two dollars to the pound, so broadly halve it. This did vary, but two schooners could be relied on to be around £11 though like anywhere, it varied.

No worse than London or even Manchester City Centre pricewise really.

We returned to the Lucky Shag the next day and enjoyed a bit more room, but this is one busy and friendly pub and very much worth a visit.

 As I go through this sojorn, we'll learn a bit more about Australian pub culture, some great pubs to visit and beer measures. (Which aren't as striaghtforward as you might think.)

Wednesday 17 April 2024

A Pub With No Beer

Oh it's lonesome away from your kindred and allBy the campfire at night where the wild dingoes callBut there's nothing so lonesome, morbid or drearThan to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer
 
Lyrics - Slim Dusty 
 


Well, you have to start somewhere with your first Australian pub, don't you?  In my case, it was in Fremantle, the port city of Perth in Western Australia. A neat little town I observed as we trundled through it on our tour bus on the first full day of our Australian adventure.  Now, being on a guided tour has advantages and disadvantages. You do get to see things you wouldn't otherwise see. Of course the flip side of that, for the dedicated beer man, is staring disconsolately at very fine pubs or breweries you'd nip into in an instant should we perchance stop to examine a nearby view or statue. Thus, Little Creatures fine brewery and Tap Room came and went as we sailed past. It looked good. 

We did stop though in a small park just outside the main drag, and being unsure of the score cash and card wise, and processing no Aussie dollars we spent 20 minutes of the allocated 45 minute stop seeking a cash point.  We decided therefore that the nearest pub to the departure point would have to do and the boozer itself, the Ball and Chain didn't look bad at all, with its colonial style verandah and corner location.  Inside was a fine wooden floored open plan building with a large bar and a couple of rooms off. At around two in the afternoon, it was pretty much deserted, but it would do.  I surveyed the unfamiliar pumps, and before I could decide, the barman, somewhat morosely, pointed me to a notice. "All Tap Beers are Out of Order". What?  It transpired that there had been an electrical fault in the cellar and all draft beers were off. This was accompanied by a jerk of his thumb to a well stocked fridge full of cans.

I nipped back to the seated E to explain. We had no time to go elsewhere, so a couple of reassuringly expensive cans were bought for cash, as we now had money. Others from our coach wandered in. It gave us a chance to get to know them and in fact the beers chosen were local and very good, but it wasn't a great start to Australian boozing.

Our next excursion was a Swan River cruise back to Perth, where things looked up at a really great pub just where we disembarked. I had previously been advised not to miss it, so we didn't.

In fact, I had been drinking Little Creatures in the Qantas Lounge at Singapore's Changi Airport, so I didn't miss out entirely.

Next: A Lucky Shag.

Friday 9 February 2024

Let's Pay More for Cask?

Now we all know that the way to save cask beer from its inevitable demise is to charge more for it, don't we?  Well no. Of course not. Well, not in the general sense anyway, though of course there are exceptions.

A couple of weeks ago I read with a sense of disbelief that yet again this daft idea gets prominence in trade news, this time as it often is, in the good old Morning Advertiser. Georgina Young, Head Brewer at St Austell, in an opinion piece, tells us that a "dedication to quality would mean less chance of a poor pint". Well, that is surely obvious, but we all know that's not how it is, don't we?

Georgina doesn't expand her arguments much in the article - though that may well be due to editing - but let's rehash some of them. These are based on various open sources about premiumisation, adapted to the cask conditioned beer situation:

* premiumisation could be a strategy to enhance the perceived value of this traditional form of beer, potentially leading to increased sales 

*cask conditioned beer is typically associated with craftsmanship and authenticity. Highlighting the artisanal nature of the brewing process, the use of traditional recipes, and the dedication of skilled brewers can create a narrative that appeals to consumers seeking authentic and unique experiences
 
* using premium and locally sourced ingredients or speciality malts and unique hops, can set cask conditioned beer apart from mass-produced alternatives
 
* educating consumers about the distinctive characteristics of cask conditioned beer, such as the live yeast, natural carbonation, and serving methods, can enhance their appreciation and educating consumers about the unique aspects of cask beer can create a premium perception
 

The theoretical outcome, in this scenario, is that by employing these strategies, breweries can enhance the premium image of cask conditioned beer, attracting consumers who are willing to pay more for a unique and high-quality drinking experience.

On the other hand, there are decent arguments against: 

* if the cost of cask conditioned beer becomes significantly higher, it may alienate a portion of the consumer base that is price-sensitive. This could limit the accessibility of cask conditioned beer to a broader audience

* some enthusiasts and traditionalists will argue that the essence of cask conditioned beer lies in its historical roots and accessibility. The perception of exclusivity and high prices may be seen as contrary to the traditional values of cask ale, potentially leading to resistance from those who appreciate its historical and communal aspects

* the existing consumer base for cask conditioned beer often values its affordability and accessibility. If premiumisation strategies are not carefully managed, there is a risk of alienating loyal customers who appreciate cask ale as a traditional, everyday drink

* premiumisation relies on creating a perception of higher quality, but there is a risk that the perceived value may not align with the actual improvement in quality. If consumers do not perceive a significant enhancement in taste or brewing craftsmanship, they may feel that the premium pricing is unjustified

Now, you won't have to be that astute to guess that my sympathies, by and large, lie with the second set of bullets. It is perhaps the last of those, though, that really hits the nail on the head.  You have to get the quality right, and really there is a fat chance of that given that there is a wide and diverse range of outlets for cask beer, from the specialist supplier to the lone dusty handpump sporting a Doom Bar pumpclip. You have token cask beers, indifferent cellar keeping, differences between brewery outlets and those of pub companies and more. In the diverse pub market we have, you can't simply wish premiumisation upon it, bump up the price, and hope people will cough up.

Already in some specialist outlets that premium does apply, and it applies for the simple reason of trust. People will pay more for the certainty, especially if quality is poor elsewhere.  The other point that should not be forgotten, is that cask beer is a live product. Usually in premium situations, you price an object higher, but sell less at a greater margin. But pesky old cask doesn't lend itself to this arrangement. It goes off if you keep it hanging around.

So, is premiumisation dead in the water? Will cask continue to be the cheapest beer on the bar? It kind of depends doesn't it. In theory, quality always sells, but implying that premium pricing can apply to the whole market is misleading. Nobody really wants to spend top dollar on a gamble. Georgina agrees with this, but draws a different conclusion as to the solution. Baffling really as you have to achieve the quality. If you have the market, skills, quality and turnover, by all means bump the price up. In fact, why aren't you? Probably because you realise the beer has to shift. It is a kind of circular argument.

As I see it, logically, with minor variations, the old rule still applies. Cask beer has to be priced to go. That rules out premiumisation in very many cases.

Of course, prices of cask beer vary. Competition, and quality, make for cheaper beer in the parts of the North still  dominated by cask. The market still decides.

London has bumped up all beer to an eye watering extent, such that even Wetherpoons are now offering £7 pints, albeit, not cask. Well over a fiver is very common and over six not rare.  Not sure that's premiumisation though.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Part of the Union

I heard recently of Union Street in Bermondsey as being a place worth a visit. Fortunately, E knew exactly where it is so following her directions, we had a pleasant walk across the Thames until I pointed out we seemed to be getting further away from it. Now it seems that the version of Google I was using could not be trusted in this matter. So after E consulted her much wiser version, we retraced steps and eventually found ourselves on Southwark St. There it was, just round the corner, as presumably it has always been.

Back a million years ago, my trade union was based in Southwark St, but I had never had a reason to visit it, but I could remember that they all used to go to the pub nearby. What was it called? I couldn't recall, but once again, fortune favoured me. We spotted the White Hart - that was it - and it looked very pleasant, but being a Fullers house, it wasn't what I had in mind, but later, we sort of wished we had called in.

Our first port of call was the Union Jack, quite a pleasant looking pub with long, large windows and rather an appealing inside. Quite old-fashioned, I suppose, but in a good way, and the welcome from the barman was genuine and warm. A sole, dusty looking handpump sported a St Austell Tribute clip on it, but we weren't taking a chance on it. A pint and a half of fairly ordinary Camden Hells was ordered - is it me or is this getting a bit rarer? -  and we enjoyed the visit. I feel being busy, which is certainly wasn't, would have cheered the place up no end, but it was fine, and the welcome made up for a lot.

We ignored the Charlotte just over the road on account of its Heineken sign and went into the rather unlikely looking Lord Nelson. Now, you couldn't accuse this eclectically decorated pub of being quiet. A very young clientele were filling the place, many wiring into hefty plates of fried food and burgers. The food looked fab and I quite liked the place, even though clearly we weren't the target clientele by several decades. Sadly, the rude barman, who was just finishing his shift, wasn't paying the least bit of attention and I had to repeat my simple order of a pint and a half of Camden Hells. I tried to engage him, but clearly I was wasting my time. He promptly thereafter went off duty and removed himself to haunt the other side of the bar. Ageist I wondered? Possibly, but I'm happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow he had just had a long shift. Either way, I honestly liked the place, recognised its attraction to others, and as a bonus the Camden Hells was a large cut above its neighbour's. E on the other hand couldn't wait to get out. So, I'd say visit, enjoy the vibe, but only if you are under thirty or are immune to feeling out of place if you aren't.

Of course, even in a small pub crawl such as this, you have to pick a favourite. Heading back to Borough Market and the 343 over the river, we nipped into Mc & Sons. This is an Irish style pub - without the umpteen intrusive televisions - and was severely rammed with after work drinkers.  Nonetheless, the service was swift and cheerfully efficient, but it was so busy I could see little of the bar. I'm pretty sure there was no cask and I wouldn't have had it anyway here, as everyone seemed to be guzzling Guinness.  If you can't beat them, join them is sometimes not a bad motto.  The Guinness was the best I have ever had in London. Perhaps a tad cold, but certainly the best since I was last in Belfast, and at least a match for Mulligans in Manchester.  

So we had another. Seemed the right thing to do, especially since the same barman who'd served me, when collecting glasses, saw us standing in a corner and shifted some office workers who'd purloined the table that should have been there.  Thus seated, we enjoyed the busy scene even more.

We left with considerable reluctance, but we will be back. As always.  "It's the offer, Stupid."

We nearly had a third drink, but it was Burns night, and haggis neeps and tatties in our local JDW were calling us.  That was rammed too, and the staff did their best, which really is all you ask of them.

I had hoped as mentioned in an earlier post, to tell you of the Sir Sydney Smith, but that, alas, must wait.