Friday 30 November 2007


I had some Young's Bitter tonight. The taste could best be described as absent!

The Castle and More

A new free house in London selling a variety of cask ales is, it seems, as rare as a bad pie in Wigan, so I had to investigate. Very handy for Chancery Lane Tube, the pub is a single room affair with some kind of function room upstairs. It was full of city types when I called, but I felt comfortable enough. The bar staff were friendly and cheerful. A big plus!

A couple of halves were ordered. Via the blackboard, "Alex" recommended Arundel Autum Fall. It was possibly the worst beer I have had this year! Flat as a witches tit and revolting flavours underneath. A disaster. I grimaced my way through half of it provoking a query from a barperson I assume to be Alex. He said it was unusual and that he noticed it was flat when he put it on. Perhaps the recommendation was whimsical, or he just wanted rid of it as soon as possible. I left half of my half! My other beer, Shardlow Golden Light was pale, hoppy, slightly watery, but refreshing. In addition there was beers from Saltaire, White Boar, Youngs and Bateman's. The up and coming list looked good too. So, overall, good!

After that I nipped into the Shakespeare's Head, a new JDW for me. I quite liked it and thought it one of the more pubby ones I have been in, albeit on a monolithic scale. I was able to renew my acquaintance with Itchen Valley beers. After the poor Tower Bridge, I was wary, but the Gold was light, hoppy and clean, while the Fagin tasted like the gold with crystal malt added and hops deducted. Not bad beers though.

Lastly, in the excellent Freemason's Arms - OK - I am biased because of the fetching bow fronted barmaid, I sampled Shepherd Neame Porter. A big fat zero for this. Thin and uninteresting!

Not Much Winter Warmth

It isn't that often I get the chance to explore my local London pubs, my better half, though a beer drinker, is much more reluctant than me to wander round pubs looking for decent beer. Funny that.

I started off at our local JDW , The Goodman's Field. I have had good and bad here and tonight, that's exactly what I had. The bad, Caledonian Golden Promise, which smelled odd, took a while to clear and was clearly past its best and the good, an old friend, Gunpowder Strong Mild, though now just "Gunpowder" from Coach House in Warrington. Now I have to say I'm not a Coach House fan. I remember meeting one of the owners when they set up years ago. An ex Greenall's brewer. The Gunpowder was as I remember it. Dry, sharp and slightly sourish. A good interesting drink.

Then in pursuit of winter warmers, I tried the Three Lords for Young's. None on and the deafening music (played live by a toneless geezer) drove me across the road to Fuller's Chamberlain Hotel. Now this place is nice enough but somehow contrives to have no atmosphere whatever. Still London Porter was on offer and didn't disappoint being dark, complex and liquoricey with a full tasting dry finish. I enjoyed it a lot but couldn't have drunk much of it. Still, the best Fuller's beer I have had for a long time from this brewery that seems to produce too much overly sweet beer.

I couldn't resist a look in the Cheshire Cheese under the Fenchurch St railway arches, but all the pumpclips were turned round. What's that all about? Then to the Crutched Friar where I was the only person not wearing a suit. Landlord there, sans sparkler and it suffered from that, being overly sweet.

Turning towards home I popped in the Ship for a half. Butcombe Bitter this time. What a godawful bland beer. What's the point of micros producing this tasteless nonsense? Alternative offerings were Courage Best, Sharps Doom Bar and Old Hookey. This is a likeable one roomed pub with only faintly annoying background music. Not sure that a pie and a pint at £7.50 floats my boat, but then again I'm from the grim North.

Then more in hope than expectation to the Liberty Bounds. Only beer worth a second glance was Itchen Valley Tower Bridge. Another pointless beer from a micro. Brown, 4.5% and BORING with a taste of malted old socks. Sometimes I despair. This the kind of nonsense the big brewers used to bring out years ago and which lasted about a week. Think Tetley Imperial and Thomas Greenall Original and you will get the picture. As a digression, I exclude Walker's Warrington Ale from this, but that's another story.

So to the Empress of Prussia. A tied Shep's House, but no Porter. A half each of Bishop's Finger and Master Brew left me convinced they were the same beer watered down. Harsh and unappealing. This pub is attractive, old fashioned and welcoming with a neat line in attractive Polish barmaids and a mere 300 yards from my London front door. Why does it have to be Shep's?

Lastly and just round the corner from our flat is the Brown Bear. This still has traces of its former Taylor Walker ownership and has some wonderful pub mirrors, It also supplements its (yeugh) London Pride and Adnams Bitter with a guest. Great. This week's guest? Greene King IPA!!! So Adnams it was. In excellent condition and a good finish to the night. Incidentally, if you want a challenging bitter beer which is readily available, Adnams is just the ticket.

So. It was a mixed bag. I found all the beer to be in good nick (except the Caley) and didn't see a sparkler, even in Wetherspoons. So there!

Thursday 29 November 2007

3 Rivers

On my way to Piccadilly Station, I had an hour before my train. I was passing JDW , so I popped in expecting little from this pub which tends to attract those drinking down to a price. Indeed the usual mob were there, but more importantly, on the bar were three beers from 3 Rivers Brewery. Now despite it being not a million miles from me, I know little about this outfit other than what I have read in South Manchester CAMRA's excellent magazine "Opening Times". It has been around since November 2003.

The beers on offer were GMT at 3.8%, Hilary Gold at 4.2% and finally IPA at 4.3%. Now I won't bore you with long descriptions, but the GMT was a bit woody with obvious diacetyl (butterscotch). Quite bitter, but not my sort of beer. The Hilary Gold was a nicely balanced, clean, pale, hoppy and polished beer which I liked a lot and finally was the IPA which isn't really an IPA, but a hoppy best bitter with the addition of American hops and an annoying caramel maltiness which didn't sit well with the rest of the beer. The issue of what constitutes an IPA is for another time!

I keep saying that British Brewers shouldn't be afraid of hops. 3 Rivers certainly aren't. The beers are interesting. Try them if you can.

A Different Perspective

This blog, like me, is firmly rooted in the North West of England and unashamedly looks out on the beer world from that perspective. Subconsciously it may be an antidote to the Southern based blogs which I read avidly and am addicted to. It is they which inspired me to start this.

Nonetheless I'm off to London later today. I have tomorrow to do as I like and I'll be visiting a few pubs. Old favourites and some new to me. I'll review them from my Northern point of view. Will I, as some allege find the dreaded sparkler everywhere? It hasn't been so in the past, but we'll see. Will it all be cold as ice or, as my previous experience suggests, be so warm you could poach an egg in it? Well, unlikely. Winter is a good time to drink beer in London. It's colder outside, so cellars are colder. Maybe it's the only time?

Then I'm off to Germany, this time mainly for my better half's benefit, to Osnabruck, which has the second biggest Christmas Market in Northern Germany. There is also a brew pub. I'll let you know how I get on.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Plod Way Off Beam

It appears that West Yorkshire's top cop has been living in some kind of cave for the last few years. In a startling outburst, Sir Norman Bettison claimed the Licensing Act has made Britain's binge drinking problem worse.

The outburst comes just a day after the British Beer and Pub Association released a YouGov survey showing that 78% said they drunk the same and 12% less than before the onset of extended opening hours. Speaking at the National Alcohol Conference in Leeds, West Yorkshire chief constable Sir Norman Bettison said many were now drinking themselves into "oblivion". He recently spent a Saturday night on patrol in Leeds city centre and said "If anybody tries to tells you that 24-hour drinking will lead to the creation of a European cafe culture, send them out on to the streets of Leeds - you won't find many people having a sensible conversation over an espresso."You won't believe the amount of vomit and urine I saw that evening."

Well putting aside the fact that the problems of late night drinking appear to have crept up on this guardian of the law, you are forced to wonder what his motivation is. He seems either very naive or has conveniently forgotten his licensing history. He quotes a "24 hour drinking culture", a creation of tabloid headline writers, which he and everyone who really understands pub and drink culture trade, knows does not really exist.

I wrote myself about this some time ago in "More Beer" my local CAMRA magazine. In that article I pointed out that young people's drinking venues, which pollute and proliferate in our town and city centres, were there in abundance before licensing reform. These venues were already open to two and three in the morning. The horse had already bolted. Fine if he wants to curb that (it won't affect the vast majority of decent beer drinkers) and of course the law now gives him that power, but better that someone who is supposed to police without discrimination, didn't lump all us drinkers in with the idiots whom he meets at 2 am in Leeds! Like most responsible beer drinkers, I am fast asleep by then and haven't urinated or vomited on anyone or anything. Not even on myself!

Tuesday 27 November 2007

A Mon Like Thee!

Today, for the edification of all you great unwashed, is Lancashire Day. The shire was formed from sparsely populated lands given to Roger de Poitou by William the Conqueror and further extended by his son William Rufus between 1072 and 1094. These comprised all the lands 'twixt Ribble and Mersey, along with Lonsdale, Cartmel and Furness. The Queen, God Bless Her, is Duke, yes Duke, of Lancaster.

All this means my local is firmly in Lancashire. Tonight to mark the occasion we are having Lancashire Hot Pot and other traditional Lancashire food such as Bury Black Puddings, Lancashire Cheese and Onion Pie, Manchester Tart and of course Lancashire Beer. The entertainment will be various music on the CD player such as Gracie Field, George Formby and of course, The Oldham Tinkers. The local Vicar will play the accordion and my mate Michael, a former Morris Dancer (who also supplied the Lancashire History bit) will do a clog dance. Lancashire Life will attend.The pub will be chocka!

In these days of doom and gloom, such simple but effective celebrations will fill the pub. It does take a little effort, but pubs, even an isolated one such as ours, can survive and thrive. It also needs some imagination and go ahead behaviour - and a lot of nous - but the pub will be full on a cold, dark, wintry Tuesday night. Not bad.

I was in earlier and it was filling up nicely as I left. It was warm and welcoming. The Lees Mild was delicious and moreish. The landlady, despite enticement from the brewery to take "smooth" mild, insists on cask. She is a star. It is Greater Manchester Food and Drink Pub of the Year, a Good Beer Guide entry and no wonder.

If you want to know its name, look here

Monday 26 November 2007

Thwaites Cask Comeback

Daniel Thwaites have been around for a long time now. Since 1807 in fact and are still family owned. In recent years they have however moved away from cask beer more than somewhat and are now trying to redress the balance. How are they doing? Well the jury is still out. I have recently been sampling one or two of their beers and the result has been mixed. Tonight I had the "Original". Now I remember this when it was plain old "bitter" and a former CAMRA Champion Beer. You'd go out of your way to drink it. Sadly, not now though it was just about acceptable. Also on was Lancaster Bomber which I remember when it was brewed by Mitchells of Lancaster, sadly now just a pub owning company. I didn't try it on this occasion, but did try the newish "Flying Shuttle".It was dark, smooth and fruity and probably needed a hop or two more, but nonetheless enjoyable. It was also good to see a Bury Town Centre pub (The Two Tubs) with three cask ales.

The web site is keen to mention their new commitment to cask, so give them a chance. Get out there and drink some and maybe they can return to their glory days? They'll have to invest in a few hops though!

Punch Drunk

I note from yesterday's press that Punch Taverns are intending to bid for M&B, the Midlands based pub operator. Why should I care I hear you ask? Well you should. Punch already operates 9000 odd pubs, so chances are it will be running one in your area. If it succeeds in taking over M&B, it will own over 11,000 pubs. It will seriously affect the way the industry operates and will do little for choice. Although Punch is signed up to the SIBA Direct Delivery scheme, it seems only 50 of its current 9000 estate (which includes the Spirit Group) take part. So much for choice. When we used to complain about the "Big 5" brewers all these years ago, we never knew that really these were golden days. While now we have more brewers than ever, we have less choice than ever. So if you have a Punch pub near you with a dismal beer list, point them in the direction of SIBA. It might just help.

Let's Start with The Sparkler

OK. Let's nail my colours firmly to the mast. I believe in sparkled beer, but most of all I believe in well conditioned beer. Sometimes there is confusion between the two so let's try and sort the wheat from the chaff. A list of beer facts:
  • good conditioned beer needs no sparkler - TRUE - but it will enhance mouthfeel and aroma to some perceptions and will adversely affect it to others
  • a sparkler knocks out all the condition from beer - FALSE - it will displace some C02 from body to head, but won't knock out the condition to a detrimental effect unless the beer is poorly conditioned in the first place
  • a sparkler will change the flavour of the beer - FALSE - it may change the flavour perception but this will vary from beer to beer depending on circumstance
  • a sparkler will bring flat beer to life. FALSE. Flat beer will still be flat. Once the initial head has gone, the beer will be as flat or indeed flatter
There is a kind of assumption that all beers are equal and that brewers & cellar-staff have conspired to ensure that there is a decent amount of natural CO2 in solution to add that lovely sparkle. All beers are primed differently. A good cellarman knows which are which. In these corner cutting, let's get it served days, beers drop bright quickly, but are they well conditioned and ready to serve? Not always.

It's all about conditioning really. Get the beer in good condition, full of natural CO2 (but not overly so) and really, after that, it is down to how you prefer it No-one doubts that mouthfeel, flavour and other variables taste different with or without a sparkler. The issue is whether they can be proved to be better or worse by a particular method. My assertion is that all things being otherwise equal, it comes down to preference. I prefer sparkled beer, but it must have the condition and not be served too warm. Too warm a serving temperature and too little condition are the enemy of cask beer. The latter two statements are also beer FACTS as they have been proved to be true scientifically. Warm temperatures cause dissolved C02 to return to atmosphere and too little condition will have the same flattening effect on beer. Don't believe me? Read "Beer and the Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth. I have a signed and dedicated copy. Another beer fact!

* What is a sparkler? Sparklers are the devices on the end of the handpump serving spout that create tiny gas bubbles that form the creamy head on a pint in served in the North of England and increasingly commonly according to some, in the South of England.