Wednesday 30 January 2008

London Micro - Future in Doubt?

Young's have bought the Cock and Hen, a Fulham brew-pub from Capital Pub Company along with two others. Wish David Bruce wouldn't do this sort of thing! He has a kind of bad record of selling off microbreweries.

Do you reckon Young's will keep the brewery on? Let's hope so. A complication seems to be that the pub itself is leased to another pub operator, so it may well be "no change" with Young's trousering the profits rather than Bruce. Nothing is straightforward in this business at all.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

£391m Pre-Tax Loss for M&B

Pub Operator Mitchells and Butlers have posted an astonishing loss of what amounts to two years profits from a disastrous delve into "hedge funds". Those interested in how this came about can look it up for themselves, but suffice to say, heads will roll. The Morning Advertiser calls it "a catastrophe".

On a more general point, remember the days when pubs were owned by breweries, were virtually debt free and everyone from owners to tenants and managers could make a fair and useful living out of them? Had we but known it, these were halcyon days. Now pubs are owned in the main by companies who have bought, sold, re-mortgaged and securitised the living daylights out of them. Each pub has more debt round its neck than the most reckless of credit card abusers. Most of the the companies that own them are up to their ears in all the financial ploys they can be, while tenants and lessees struggle to pay rents that would make Rachman blush. The costs of all this are in turn passed on to the hapless customer.

Next time you fancy a pint, bear in mind that in almost every case, it is not the landlord that benefits from your custom, but the Pub Operator. While M&B came unstuck, none of this is remotely illegal of course. All I am sure work well within the law, but nonetheless, if this isn't an unacceptable face of capitalism, what is?

Lees Cask Committment

JW Lees is my local brewer, so I declare an interest. I love the company and I love the beer! The mild (OK now Brewer's Dark) is superb and the bitter, when on form, can make you dangerously reckless in consuming it.

I was made aware of their new beer range some some time ago, but the Morning Advertiser has caught up. Unfortunately, to anyone who reads the article, it will soon be obvious that the headline and the text do not match up. The headline talks about new beers, while the article refers to old ones! I do hope it wasn't Lees that supplied this rubbish. I have chipped in with a comment to correct the article. What is more important though is what William Lees-Jones, the MD said;

“We want to offer pubs variety and exciting new beers that will keep customers returning.There are traditional ale drinkers that find a beer they like and stick to it but there are also those that like trying something new. By adding to our permanent offering, whilst introducing the new seasonal products, we can cater for both types of drinker."

"Cask beer is a big area of focus for us in 2008, this is the one area in which supermarkets simply can’t compete as the products cannot be replicated in supermarkets due to the beer being cask conditioned.”

Good for you William and well said. Let's have traditional family brewers out there shouting that cask is best from the rooftops and providing a range that get the punters flocking in.

For the record Lees will offer a range of five permanent cask ales and another eight, two at a time throughout the year. Let's hope they are exciting beers that people want to drink. I'll let you know!

Lees was founded in 1828 by John Willie Lees. Today management falls to the sixth generation descendants of John Lees, including managing director William Lees-Jones.

Monday 28 January 2008

Anheuser to Poop the Carlsberg/Heineken Party?

According to Scotland on Sunday, the Chairman of Scottish and Newcastle, having agreed to the joint Carlsberg / Heineken bid for S&N, puts the likelihood of a counter bid for his company at around 50:50. Having forced Carlsberg into full disclosure of the likely profits from Baltic Beverage Holdings, SoS speculates that the chance for Anheuser-Busch to gain a large foothold in markets where it is very weak such as Eastern Europe and the Far East, may yet see them making a counter bid. SAB Miller and InBev are also possible bidders, but much less likely.

It seems that the Carlsberg / Heineken consortium are at the limit of what they can spend. Will the US giant come crashing through the door and bring the party to a halt? They have about two weeks to make up their mind, but they know this is a "one-off" opportunity. Don't be surprised if they do. As I said before, this saga has yet to play out fully.

Friday 25 January 2008

British Pie Week

British Pie Week is 1st – 7th March 08. Right I know it's not about beer, but it is a well known accompaniment to beer. Why not have a pie and wash it down with a few pints at your local?

I know too that it is merely a way of Jus-Rol the pastry people to sell more pastry, but I like the concept and the site has some nifty recipes.

Pies are nice as the T-Shirt once said!

Scottish and Newcastle Bite the Dust

It has just been announced that S&N have agreed an eight billion takeover from the Carlsberg / Heineken consortium. Full details are yet known, but it seems Heineken will take over the UK operations. Carlsberg will get control of BBH (Baltic Beverage Holdings) which which it jointly owned with S&N. This coveted East European operation, proved to be the killer for S&N rather than the goose that laid the golden egg. Carlsberg wanted it and to get it, it had to take Scottish and Newcastle out.

I am saddened by this, not for any beer reasons, but S&N was our last big beer player and one of the biggest companies (or maybe the biggest) still headquarted in Scotland. I remember as a boy in the 60's waiting for the bus to school at the Black Bull back home in Dumbarton and seeing the draymen unload. It was S&N then, but everyone called them "Scottish Brewers". They still did when I worked in the pub years later when I used to check the beer in and get the draymen a pint. Now the smile has been wiped off the McEwan's Cavalier and Father William will be weeping in his grave.

In the UK, we will now have a company (Heineken) with no experience of ale brewing, taking over S&N's breweries here in Manchester, in Gateshead, Tadcaster and Reading. It presumably puts the future of Tetley in Leeds in some (more) doubt. The dust has not had time to settle, but this has yet to play out fully.

William Younger merged with fellow Edinburgh brewer William McEwan to form Scottish Brewers in 1913, before merging with Newcastle Breweries in 1960 to become Scottish & Newcastle.

Thursday 24 January 2008

They Don't Like it Up 'em!

Our friends in InBev, providers of Stella Artois, aren't happy with Young's decision to boot them out. Read all about it in The Publican.

I am sure our hearts bleed for them. Not.

Smooth Still Doesn't Cut It

I have mentioned before that my quiz league endeavours take me to various Sam' Smiths pubs in my area. Last night it was the Bay Horse in Royton, Oldham. This is a neat little pub with one main and one side room and a cheery bunch of regulars. It also had one of the fittest barmaids I've seen in a long time. It was struggle to look away. Good job we were in a side room and I couldn't see her, or my puny contribution to victory would have been even less! But I digress.

The beer was all keg or should I say all mixed gas dispense. A row of electrically lit little boxes lined the bar. To me a pub isn't a proper pub without a handpump or two. It just does not look right. In these situations I usually drink Dark Mild as it is the least offensive when done this way. Sam's Dark Mild is 3% and is a good beer underneath the dodgy dispense. It had decent malt, a touch of roastiness, a hint of hops. The recipe was for a classic dark mild. It was served far too cold and while at first it seemed OK, the dread hand of pasteurisation gave it an unappealing cardboard edge. It was a mere £1.11, yes, £1.11 a pint!

So come on Sam's. If you don't want to sell cask mild, that's up to you, but surely you don't need to boil the heart out of the beer and serve it at such low temperatures?

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Duvel to the Rescue?

It seems that Duvel-Moortgat has made a bid for some of the assets of the bankrupt speciality brewer Liefmans. They aim to continue to brew the beers temporarily under supervision of the administrator, though they have admitted there are other bids.

This report was filed by Reuters, but it doesn't indicate who the counter bidders are, nor does it say what assets are bid for. I certainly hope if they are successful, that they will continue to maintain both brand quality and as importantly, brand integrity. Liefmans are a good little company. I was lucky enough to tour it some years ago. I wish them luck. Duvel are a good company too. I also toured them on the same trip and remember the kindness shown to us. They seem a good fit in the circumstances. I reckon in this case, better the Duvel we know!

By the way, the word "duvel" is Flemish for "devil" and is pronounced "doovle", (with the emphasis on the "doo" part) never "dovelle" or doovelle"! This is made very clear to you at the brewery.

Monday 21 January 2008

Young's Kick out Stella

Seems that Young's are de-listing Stella Artois, commonly referred to as "Wifebeater", from its tied pub estate, replacing it with "genuine premium imported" brands such as Heineken, Amstel and Pilsner Urquell.

With the possible exception of PU, the replacements are dull, but more interesting is the trend. Does this mean more pub companies and breweries will follow and offer decent lagers from abroad instead of grim Stella, Kronenbourg, Carslberg et al? British brewed lager is in serious trouble with declining sales and withered appeal. To counter this, imports may be seen as the answer. Will the temptation just be to replace failed brands with imported rubbish instead of domestic brewed rubbish?

Given the record of Britain's brewers and pub owning companies, I'll give you three guesses!

Sunday 20 January 2008

Higsons of Liverpool

I lived in Liverpool for nine years or so and still have huge affection for this city which has seen both ups and downs. I was there in the "Militant" and Derek Hatton years and am pleased to see it seems now firmly headed into a bright future. One blot remains on my Liverpool reflections. My beloved Higsons Brewery is gone. Well more precisely, my beloved Higsons Bitter has gone, though the magnificent red brick brewery still brews at Stanhope Street, now the home of Cains who once owned it many moons ago. It is a complicated story.

Higsons, local legend and the cask beer I cut my teeth on, was taken over by Boddingtons, who sold their breweries to Whitbread, who sold Higsons to some Danes, who sold it to the Dusani Brothers, who now run it very successfully as the Robert Cain Brewery. But what of Higgies Bitter? It was moved round various Whitbread breweries, bastardised and ruined, before being de-listed. Complete shits were Whitbread. Latterly they couldn't run a piss up in a brewery and rightly they got out of it. They are not missed.

I knew that there had been an attempt to revive the beers and the recipes and though I'd tried a fairly revolting test brew at the Liverpool Beer Festival a couple of years ago, I'd heard little more until recently. Higson's Brewery has now moved back to Liverpool and are brewing there. I'm told the outfit is run by an ex Higson's Head Brewer who has both the original recipe and, more importantly, he has the yeast. While performing my duties at the NWAF, I came across two casks which made my heart leap. They are pictured above. As soon as the beer was available, I shot over to try it. I was amazed. It wasn't quite there, but it was recognisable. This taste was imprinted in my mind and there it was. I hadn't tasted it since they stopped brewing it in Liverpool in 1989. It was Higgies. Perhaps a little more subdued, but very much on its way to being my lost pint. I am enthralled. Good luck to these lads. I know there are those who say once a brewery has gone, its gone. It's a point of view, but isn't there something exciting about recreating something from the past? This was a classic beer. Uncompromisingly bitter and very, very drinkable. Something as good as Higson's Bitter didn't deserve to be lost in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, it is found again.

The sign above is from my own collection. Each Higson's Pub had one outside the door. Sorry about the grainy picture quality.

Thursday 17 January 2008


The St Sixtus Monestery in De Vrede in Belgium is home to the Westvletern Brewery which according to some produces the world's best beer. While that is undoubtedly bollocks, no matter how good they might be, one thing not in doubt is that they are some of the hardest beers in the world to find. And some of the most sought after. They can only be bought (in theory at least) direct from the brewery, using a complicated and convoluted appointment system, or, by purchase in the cafe opposite.

The beers are a blond, a "10" and a "12" with the 12 being the rarest and at 10.2% abv, the strongest. They are sold by the monks for personal consumption only, though many specialist bars in Belgium offer their beers for sale. The receipts that come with the purchase at the monastery are blunt. In upper case letters they say "NIET VERDER VERKOPEN" (Do not resell). In the USA these bottles change hands and are sold in pubs, illegally for as much as $50 a bottle. I say illegally, as they are not labelled which is illegal in the US and they are neither registered with the local authorities, nor with the all powerful Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. A peculiarly Yankee institution.

Why am I rabbitting on about this I hear you ask? Well at the Foreign Beer Bar of the Winter Ales Festival, we have a small number of each. Sorry Brothers. You now know where to look, but you'd better be quick! The 12, by the way, is a mere £4 per bottle.

PS - Ignore the green bottles. They are intruders. The other 32 are the real McCoy

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Setting Up Is Hard To Do!

One thing the punters don't see is the very hard work that goes into setting up a beer festival, be it big or small. The National Winter Ales Festival is no exception. CAMRA penny pinching has made things harder though. The bars and stillages have had to be cobbled together by volunteers from a hotch potch of non matching kit, begged, borrowed or stolen from here and there, rather than hired to order. Beers orders have been late and incomplete, there are more Chiefs than Indians, but slowly it is all emerging. We will have a festival.

To the public tonight it will all look simple and easy, But it wasn't. It, like most beers festivals, was constructed by overweight, over fifties, working heroics for more hours than is good for them. There was hardly a single person under 40 knocking around. It can't go on for ever like this, so enjoy your beer festivals while you can. While we are all still here, which won't be much longer at this rate!

As you savour your beer, look kindly on the few younger people serving the beer, for they are the future, but look most kindly of all at the tired looking, old geezers behind the bar and elsewhere. It was them that made it happen for you.

Sunday 13 January 2008

The Smithfield Hotel

This Manchester boozer (and that's what it is) has a somewhat legendary status among tickers, scoopers and scratchers. What are these I hear you ask? Well these guys (and girls) "collect" the number of beers drunk, though it isn't as straightforward as that. Scooping has its own sub culture which will probably make for a good post on a later blog.

But back to the Smithfield. It is a fairly small, somewhat scruffy little pub in Ancoats which sells a lot of unusual and rare (see above) beers, in very good condition. It has to me at least, improved immensely since the smoking ban. It was often truly hellish previously; real iron lung territory. I was there on Saturday with some CAMRA bods following a Regional Meeting. There was about seven beers on offer, though I neither counted them, nor wrote down what they were. No scooper me! I did though have excellent and delightfully named Ossett Madeleine Lily, a pale, citrus hoppy and surprisingly full bodied number and tastes of several others, including Salopian Wild Card, which went off before I could try it properly and Silver Tally from Prospect Brewery of Standish. Both were good, though only the Wild Card would have tempted me away from the Ossett.

So, if you are in Manchester, go there. It might be down at heel, but it's a must visit and very handy for Victoria Station and other Northern Quarter pubs.

I forgot to take a photo on my way out, so have nicked this one from "Beer In the Evening". Hope they don't mind!

The Smithfield is at 37 Swan Street, Manchester, M4 5JZ

Friday 11 January 2008

The Best Beer in the British Isles is What?

Guinness Special Extra Stout if we are to believe the mob at "Beer Advocate", a USA based magazine published by two controversial beer geeks, the Alstrom brothers. In the current edition there is a set of lists. Top this, top that. Now lists in beer terms and words such as "top" or "best" are dangerous in that they set out to define something that almost certainly nobody will agree with, but they are easy to come up with. Some might even say they are sloppy journalism. Like cheap beer, they are simple to produce. Like cheap beer they can be hard to swallow.

The Britain and Ireland list, comprising as it does of bottled beers, is heavily weighted towards those beers that are exported to the US. How else can we explain 3 Sam Smith's bottles, which let's face it are overpriced and fairly ordinary, in the top 25? Or Fuller's with 4 if you count Gales HSB? The beers are also heavily predominated by strong beers, with so called "cult" beers like Lees Harvest Ale, Royal Oak and Thomas Hardy's featuring. In fact there are 3 versions of Lees Harvest Ale in this top 25!

It isn't that the beers are bad, though some of them obviously are, it is that the list is just plain wrong. It sets out to be what it isn't. In this top 25 I'd probably rate a dozen quite highly and most of the others as "yawn". As it happens one I rate well is the Special Export Stout brewed for John Martin in Belgium. My review of this beer can be found on the Oxford Bottled Beer Database.

So remember Dear Reader. Lists are fun, but don't believe a word of them. Best beer in the British Isles? As Ricky Tomlinson would say, "My Arse!".

There are other lists too. Don't get me started on the best German beers which are dominated by bocks and doppelbocks. The Belgian List is fairly respectable though!

Wednesday 9 January 2008

National Winter Ales Festival

I have mentioned that I am preparing for the above which, for the uninitiated, begins next week. It is CAMRA's second National Festival and unlike the Great British Beer Festival, it is not being held in London, but here in Manchester. To add to its street cred, it is being held in that most Northern of institutions, the HQ of the Co-op, the wonderfully named " New Century House".

The National Winter Ales Festival is organised by CAMRA to showcase a wide range of beer styles, particularly winter warmers. It also hosts the Champion Winter Beer of Britain competition, and the winners will be announced on Thursday January 17th. It is a good event and attracts drinkers from near and far, but there has been no mention of it as far as I know in the National Press, or for that matter in Beer Blogs elsewhere. Nonetheless a visit to the Festival provides you with the opportunity to sample some 200 cask ales, foreign beers, plus Real Ale in a Bottle. And, if you must, there is cider!

I'll say no more about it for now, except that I'll be there doing a bit of work on Foreign beer, to show my beer knowledge and interest extends beyond cask. I hope some who read and this and other blogs will be there too. If so, come and say hello! For those who can't be arsed or just can't, I'll report here on proceedings.

Monday 7 January 2008

Salford's Finest

Yesterday saw my mate Graham and me attending the organising meeting for CAMRA's forthcoming National Winter Ales Festival and thus making a comparatively rare foray into the City of Salford. Nestling cheek by jowl with Manchester, it has its own character and beery attractions. The best area for pubs is only five or so miles from my place. Our meeting was held in one of them, the Crescent, a current GBG entry. Now although this free house is a bit of a legend, I have never cared for it that much. It is a bit down at heel and just never seems that vibrant. I did feel though that it is on the up. The beer range was good with some seven or so cask ales and included some interesting foreign beers in bottle and on tap. I thoroughly enjoyed Acorn Legend, a 4.1% light brown beer with good body and hop and a pint of Rooster's something or other (I forgot to note it) confirmed to me that there was a discernible improvement in these legendary beers, which have seemed to me to have been thin and flat of late. I couldn't resist a half of Liefman's Kriek given that the brewery's future is in doubt and wasn't disappointed. The rich cherry taste and aroma with a full luscious body was a reward in itself. I do hope they are rescued.

Then a five minute walk to a relatively recent addition to the beer scene, the New Oxford, passing on the way, a couple of burned out pubs, which seem a particular Salfordian attraction. The New Oxford is an ex Vaux pub, neatly tucked away by the Magistrates Court and is clean, light and airy. It sells a good range of beers including some for the tickers. Gazza Prescott from Scoopergen rates it as his best new "scooping" pub of 2007. I rate (most of) Gazza's opinions very highly, so praise indeed! My choice was Copper Dragon Black Gold, which was delicious, roasty and rich.

Graham was hoping to catch the Liverpool game on the telly, so we only had time for a quick visit to the King's Arms, the last of the three. This gave us a decent pint of Bazen's Flatbac and a chance to eavesdrop on the barmaid's mobile phone row with her boyfriend, conducted less than discreetly from a cubby hole behind the bar. This is a dark and somewhat strange pub I feel and while the beer was good on this visit, I haven't always found it so. Finally for the football, the Edgerton Arms had overly sweet Holts. What the hell has happened to this beer, once described as "uncompromisingly bitter"? It was a travesty of its former self and ended the evening on a low note.

The Crescent; 20 The Crescent, Salford, Manchester, M5 4PF
The New Oxford; 11 Bexley Square, Chapel Street, Salford, Manchester, M3 6DB
The Kings Arms; 11, Bloom St, Salford, Manchester, M3 6AN

Saturday 5 January 2008

The Power of the Letter

Yesterday I wrote about tepid beer following a letter to What's Brewing from one Keith Flett. Imagine my surprise today to find him on Radio 4 a few minutes ago, talking about letter writing and its purpose. He does about 50 a week to various publications it seems, which doesn't surprise me, as I used to read his letters to the Guardian twenty odd years ago.

He and I it seems share a background. Civil Service, Trade Union and Real Ale. Yes he mentioned Real Ale. He made some serious points and was interesting. He also admitted that he got things wrong. Now I don't know about that generally, but as far as beer temperature is concerned, he is right. He does get things wrong!

No doubt those interested can tune into "Listen Again" on the interweb should they wish to hear what Mr F said. It is in the first 15 minutes of "Saturday Live" on the BBC.

Thursday 3 January 2008

Tepid Beer Anyone?

Picking up this month's "What's Brewing" the Campaign for Real Ale's monthly newspaper, I see that veteran letter writer Keith Flett is at it again. The subject of his letter is beer serving temperature, something that is dear to my heart.

Flett urges cask beer to be served tepid! The dictionary definition of tepid is "lukewarm". Doesn't that just conjure up an image that makes you smack your lips with anticipation? In fairness our esteemed correspondent agrees that cooler beer may well be needed to draw in younger drinkers, a point I'd certainly agree with. But what constitutes ideal serving temperature? Mr Flett reckons 12C (53.6F). CAMRA will be happy with 12 - 14C or about 54 - 57F, which to me has a maximum set a tad on the warm side. Those cellar inspectors at Cask Marque allow 11- 13C, so you can see there is no precise agreement as to what serving temperature should be.

My own view is that anywhere between 10c and 12c (50 - 53.5F ) is OK. Ideally I'd prefer it around 11C at the point of dispense, on the basis that beer will warm up and soon pass the recommended maximum, particularly outside the colder months. In any event I like my beer to be served cool.

So Mr Flett. Lukewarm beer? No thanks. Urging tepid cask beer is not the way forward for real ale. What do others think?

The photo is from my Cask Marque Beer thermometer.