Tuesday 30 June 2009

Restrictive Covenants

Heard of them? Possibly not. It's where a pub is put up for sale with a specific condition of sale excluding it being used by the future buyer as licensed premises ever again. This anti competitive practice which basically says "if we can't make money out of it, nobody else is allowed to try" should have been banned by law years ago. A lot of pub owning companies and breweries do it, including some which ought to know better. In almost every case, it's just plain wrong.

Now Enterprise Inns has followed Punch Taverns in removing restrictive covenants from pub sales. This may just give the opportunity to those with a keen eye to spot a business opportunity and snap up decent but failing pubs, dragged down the dead weight of the PubCos pressing down on them. Small brewers and pub chains will be watching this carefully and hopefully at least some pubs, abandoned by the big two, will see a new lease of life under more considerate ownership.

This is the latest in a line of concessions by the big two PubCos in an effort to persuade Peter Mandelson not to refer them to the Competition Commission. Enterprise and Punch are suddenly coming over all reasonable, but they they are beyond voluntary reform and should still be referred.This death bed conversion is too little and too late.

Monday 29 June 2009

Extreme Beers

I read on other blogs about the writer's liking for extreme beers, whether it is Innis and Gunn's latest bourbon aged effort, or some outrageous stuff from Brew Dog (again), or Thornbridge (not quite so often) and now, I am urged (for example) by Pencil and Spoon to look out for extreme beers from Ramsgate Brewery. Well I won't be. They do nothing for me, probably as I rarely drink beer at home and anyway, when I look at some of the fearsome strengths, I imagine the beer taking big bites out of my liver.

Now I do enjoy the decent drinking strength beers from Thornbridge and Brew Dog and by that I mean up to 5%, but with very few exceptions - like when I'm in Belgium for example - I rarely drink much stronger beers. Now of course I enjoy outrageously hoppy beers from Phoenix, Pictish and Mallinsons to name but a few, but you can keep the extremes of barrel aged this, imperial or double that. I don't want to have to struggle to pick out a million clashing or just plain wrong flavours, often excused by that overused word "complex".

Variety is the spice of life and I am happy for those that like that kind of thing and it is good to see British brewers pushing boundaries. I also recognise that we have a long way to go to rival the odd geekery of the USA, where good old supping beers are despised, but there is an element of that creeping in. It isn't for me.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Meantime Goes Cask

After nearly 10 years of focusing on brewery conditioned and bottled beers, London based Meantime Brewing have finally taken the plunge and entered the cask ale market. London Pale Ale, 4.3%, (rated one of the ‘World’s 50 Best Beers’ at the 2007 International Beer Challenge), is the first Meantime beer to be continuously available in cask fashion. Being Meantime, however, this is not a straightforward cask ale. The essence of the Meantime philosophy is the belief that maturation is the key to quality. Consequently, all Meantime beers are always subject to at least 28 days brewery conditioning. So, unlike most cask ales, which are young beers by historic brewing standards, London Pale Ale is fully matured before it is racked. It is then re-conditioned in cask.

Elaborating on Meantime’s decision to enter the cask market Alastair Hook the brewer said;
“A number of changes in the market have shown us that the time is now right for Meantime to add cask to its portfolio. Until recently there was very little free trade in London, this is changing. SIBA Direct Delivery Service, the changing attitudes of pub companies, plus the sale of pubs are all helping by bringing a broader range of beers to the consumer. In addition Youngs’ shameful abandonment of London and Londoners has created a space for beers with genuine London provenance.

I make no excuses for using large chunks of the press release here, but one or two interesting points emerge. One is the "go" at Youngs' which is pretty direct and the other is the point that some of us have been saying for years, that until recently there was very little free trade in London. I reckon Meantime could be on a winner here. Their beers have quality and they have judged that to appeal to Londoner's to support a local brewery is a winning marketing strategy.

In a capital city that is waking up slowly to the potential of quality and choice in beer, they are hopefully right. I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Great Days of Keg

Inspired, not by morons, but by a look at some old stuff, I was drawn back in time to my early days working in the pub in Scotland. I can remember the beers. Hell I can remember which order the fonts were in. Nearest the door, Lorimer's Dark Heavy, a malty brew. Then Younger's Tartan Special, then McEwan's Export. In between them was Norseman Lager, Guinness and Tennents Lager, the biggest seller. We sold a lot of Tartan too. And Guinness before the "theatre of the pour" had even been thought of. These days it was way thicker, blacker, denser and took forever to settle. People ordered Guinness in advance then.

We had some interesting bottles too. Large pint "screwtops" of McEwan's Pale Ale and Whitbread Pale Ale, smaller bottles of McEwan's Double Century Strong Ale and of course, Fowler's Wee Heavy. We even sold bottles of Belgian Stella. The Boss called it Stella Artoys. The keg beer came a long way from a "cellar" on the same level and fobbed like a bugger. Bar staff did all the jobs from cleaning the toilet's, re-stocking the shelves, sorting the bottles, wiping the bottles, polishing the gantry and all the spirit bottles and hoovering the carpets. There was never a second when you were allowed to do nothing and the place was like a new pin. There was no cleaner employed and the pub had to be ready for the next session when we left. There wasn't much time to skive anyway. The pub was generally heaving until ten o'clock (later eleven) when we threw them all out, sometimes physically and always accompanied by a screaming electric bell to emphasise the point.

On a Sunday it was worse. All pubs were closed in Scotland then (1974 ish) and the only places open were hotel bars and "bona fide inns" such as us. It was absolute mayhem for the two lunchtime opening hours.

After they all went and we'd readied the place there was a blissful hour drinking Export and playing pool. I didn't work on Sunday night. No-one but the Boss could face two such sessions.

Of course all our wages went straight back over the bar.

My favourite beer in these days was Diamond Heavy, or at a pinch, the Export, brewed by Ind Coope (Alloa). We didn't sell it, but the nearest bar to work did. I can still remember its taste. I'd never heard of cask ale.

Sunday 21 June 2009


It's nice to get feedback about your blog (good and bad) and I don't just mean the comments which are usually specific to a particular topic, or daft stuff elsewhere, but when you hear about it in another way, or someone writes to you "off blog".

I had two such instances this week. Firstly a brewer wrote to me about various comments I've made about his beer. He actually agreed with me and explained what had gone wrong and what he was doing to put it right. Refreshing - and there will be more about that in a separate post. The second was less direct in some ways, but worth mentioning. I wrote a piece about a character in a local pub I frequent. It's here. Yesterday Wayne, the subject of said piece, said to me he had been approached by the Manchester Evening News about the plaque featuring him that I mention in my article. They had got it from my blog and wanted to write about it. Excellent. Wayne is delighted and so am I.

Of course if the MEN wants to credit the source, it'd be even better.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Quiz Leagues

Our pub is in one, both summer and winter. It can be a lot of fun, but not when you are assailed by so many pop and film questions that you get roundly stuffed, as we were last night. We did have some absentees, but for us, pop music is the kiss of death. We aren't that hot on films or television either come to think of it. Still, for the publican, it's all good - a guaranteed captive audience on an otherwise quiet Tuesday night.

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining; the Lees Brewer's Dark was on great form, the meat and potato pie excellent and the company good. Pubs provide a social focus that is hard to beat. I can't imagine the quiz league would be much fun if held in someone's house over a few cans and bottles.

By way of illustrating the eclectic nature of pub conversations, I overheard a bar discussion about bats. The landlady hadn't seen any bats and doubted that there are any. Well I've seen plenty up there. So have some of the locals. That point was being hammered home as I left. I hope it doesn't affect the landlady's peace of mind.

Friday 12 June 2009

Sunday, Lovely Sunday

The Sunday trip home on these weekend jaunts invariably gives the best beer of the trip. It's a kind of welcome Sod's Law with the sting in the tail being that time is restricted by the need to get everyone home and of course, the drivers hours are (rightly) limited by law. The dedicated toper has to use his or her time wisely.

We left Tewkesbury in time for a pre noon pint in Worcester. Pre noon means Wetherspoons as none of the GBG pubs opened until 12. The Postal Order was a typical example and absolutely jumping at around 11.30 when we added to the hubbub. Now the usual suspects will moan about JDW, but this one was filled with all sorts, from soaks to shoppers, with as many teas, coffees and breakfasts being scoffed as pints. It also gave us the opportunity to stock up on sandwiches from the nearby Tesco as we were unsure about the availability of grub in later venues.

A quick stop in Uphampton for the Fruiterer's Arms, home to the Cannon Royal Brewery. The pub is down a narrow country lane, with I assume, fruit fields on one side and a straggling hamlet on the other. The pub was old fashioned, full of locals and had a nice ambience with some outside enjoying the sunshine, locals chatting and a family function kicking off in a side room. Clearly a place at the heart of its community. The Fruiterer's Mild was dark and luscious. Some of us collectors regarded the framed poster from a defunct brewery. The old gent in the smock looks quite content does he not? Radcliffe of Kidderminster was taken over in 1947.

Our next stop shook off the brown beer with a vengeance. Coombs Wood Sports and Social Club is a thriving Cricket Club among other things. It was friendly and had an impressive array of six beers, Mauldon's Silver Adder did just fine for Tyson, me and E and the time passed all too quickly before we made our reluctant way to our final stop, the Waggon and Horses, also in Halesowen. What a pub! Fourteen beers from handpumps, bread, cheese and a rip roaringly hot salsa on the bar, the friendliest and chattiest locals you could imagine and the beers in wonderful condition. Bloody great. I can't list them all - I can't remotely remember, but beers from Nottingham, Oakham, Holdens and more were scoffed by Tyson, E and me. I looked around, We were chatting to a couple of locals and most of our group had a local attached, chatting away. We left with considerable reluctance.

It is worthwhile to reflect that when there are unpretentious, friendly pubs like this (and indeed the Fruiterer's and the Cricket Club) thriving and serving fantastic beer, you really know all this talk of the pub going down the tubes is just that. Great pubs, selling great beer in a great atmosphere will thrive, leaving those that can't cut the mustard to fail and that's just how it should be. I've said it before and it is worth repeating. It is really all about the offer.

No pictures of the Waggon and Horses. Sorry. The time just flew by and I didn't get round to it.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Cheltenham and a Moan

When E and I used to go to Cheltenham many years ago, it was to the annual rally in support of sacked workers from the Government Communications Centre (GCHQ) based there. We also had a few libations, but sadly though I remember drinking Wadworth's, the nature of the pubs is long since forgotten, though the reason for being there isn't and won't be.

Last Saturday though we went to visit two free houses. Firstly to the Kemble Brewery Inn which was a busy back street local holding a music festival. We were greeted at the door by the newly elected Lib-Dem councillor who had fought for them to get a licence for the event against local objections. I had a chat with him. He explained that the objections had been on noise levels, lateness, frequency of sets etc. He had proposed and agreed some restrictions which both the pub and the objectors had agreed to. Good for him. I was in the front of the pub and could scarcely hear the music at all, so it must have been a successful compromise, though one or two locals remarked that they'd have liked it louder. All well then? Not exactly. Another restriction had been placed on them. All liquor had to be sold in plastic glasses. "Had glass been a problem I asked?" Not as far as he knew was the answer.

Now I hate drinking out of plastic. I hate even more these petty bureaucrats who decide, on no evidence whatever, that the freedom of others should be restricted. I can just about understand it where certain places have a record of glass based violence or vandalism, but to have these "just in case" restrictions without evidence is just too much for my sensibilities. Unremitting brown beer didn't help either, but my gloom was lifted by Thatchers Scrumpy and the sheer friendliness, not only of the councillor, but the chatty music loving locals.

Our last Cheltenham stop was a bigger venue, the Jolly Brewmaster. This was bustling and boisterous but the beer choice was again brown, though I recall the ubiquitous Deuchars IPA. No matter though. The company was good and having given up on beer for the afternoon, pints of the now familiar Black Rat were enjoyed instead, providing a pleasant end to an interesting afternoon.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

A Public Service Announcement

Dated 8th June:

Last night, thieves broke in to Saltaire Brewery and stole a large quantity of casks and bottles of beer.

It is thought that they may have been stolen in order to offer to pubs or festivals. The casks are so far the only "Bavarian Gold" to have left the brewery, so please be aware and pass this information on to licensees and festival organisers who you think might be approached. The identity of the beer may of course have been disguised.

Over 70 casks were taken, all full of Bavarian Gold, from a locked, refrigerated compound. Empty casks, all accessible, were not taken, so it seems the thieves were not after scrap metal. The casks were rented, metal casks, with the "e-cask" name on the side, with 2 bright orange hoops painted on.

3 pallets of bottled Saltaire Goldings and 3 pallets of Cascade, all 500ml, were also taken.

So, if you hear of any cheap beer going, please let Saltaire Brewery (and your local Plod) know.

The Cotswolds in the Rain

Saturday was a bright and early start for our visit (in persistent rain) to one of Britain's four remaining "cider only" houses. The Monkey House as it is known, is in Woodmancote, not far from Tewkesbury and would be almost impossible to stumble over, hidden as it is. A picturesque thatched cottage with a serving hatch and a basic - and I mean basic - room off the side is all there is. The house dry cider is made by Westons and was decent stuff. A medium cider and a perry were also available. The gents toilets were, shall we say interesting, with good open views. This is the sort of place though, had the weather been nice, that you'd liked to have lingered a bit in the pleasant garden. As it was though, in pissing rain, a half hour was enough.

Much better known was our next visit, to the well known Fleece in Bretforton. Thatched and twee and restored after a devastaing fire, this was welcoming and comfortable. Those of us who had been before revelled in its stone flagged floors and renewed acquaintanceship with the collection of English Civil War pewter ware. Those who hadn't "oohed and aahed" at its lovely interior. The beer was good too with half a dozen well kept and interesting ales.

Stanton is a painfully pretty village near Broadway and has had nothing new built there since God was a boy. Its honey coloured stone glows, even in solid rain. The Mount Inn sits above it up a heart stopping steep hill which would have had a mountain goat wheezing and protesting. Buoyed up, by the thought of beer though we all skipped up. Those at the back were luckiest. We found out how undrinkable the Donnington BB was from others and swapped to the merely unpleasant SBA. Now I have to say I have never found Donnington beers to be much cop despite the pretty brewery and pubs, but these were bloody grim. My mood was not enhanced by the fact that a pint of BBA and a Carlsberg Export (E wasn't chancing the bitter) was an astonishing £7.10! The Carlsberg was an eye popping £4.60 a pint.

Equilibrium was restored at our next stop. The Cotswolds is full of nice little towns and villages and they kind of run into each other after a few beers. Winchcombe is a typically pleasant example. We enjoyed really bitter (and rare) Stanney Bitter from the Stanway Brewery which I visited some years ago, before finishing up in the Plaisterers Arms with an excellent pint of TT Landlord - probably the best I've had in years - then boarding the coach for Cheltenham - an old stomping ground.

Tuesday 9 June 2009


Tewkesbury is a fine town with a very impressive abbey and the tendency toward sogginess. Indeed should you visit often enough, you are sure to end up traipsing around with water swishing about your kneecaps. Or higher. It was damp when we started out eagerly on the Friday night and finished up throwing it down - which is more than we managed. Having established that the Hop Pole was a brown beer purveyor of some determination, we set out with a list provided by our weekend guide. Did I mention brown beer? Well there was a lot of it. The Nottingham Arms provided Butcome Bitter, Wickwar BOB and OSH. Most of us tried the BOB which was dark brown and unremittingly malty. We escaped to the Tudor House Hotel where another array of brown beers greeted us, but at least the pub was splendidly old fashioned, being a bit of a nineteen seventies (sixties possibly) throwback, with a very comfortable mix of older drinkers. My tipple was Goff's White Knight which was light brown and had just enough hop to make it drinkable.

We pressed on to the White Bear (a bit rough and ready) where the range was not as good as we'd hoped. Lytham Gold was clearly a must, but it was served with a warning as to its cloudiness. Most, me included were very unsure about this beer and opted out. Now our guide is somewhat known as a cider drinker and swooped on the Black Rat cider. I was persuaded and very drinkable it was too, providing just the right level of alcoholic hit (6%) and emotional support to overcome a disappointing night of beer. Sensibly we left just before ten and had time for a quick one in the Berkeley Arms where well kept Horizon provided some pale relief at last. This tied house was a very good pub indeed and shows that you don't have to be a multi tap free house to do well.

It was all over by eleven. All the pubs (even JDW) shut at eleven prompt. Why is this?

Black Rat is made for Moles Brewery by Thatchers

Monday 8 June 2009


On the way to our CAMRA weekend in Tewkesbury, we stopped for lunch in this delightful Warwickshire town. The Holly Bush is an old coaching inn on which a lot of money has obviously been spent. The beer was in splendid form with Purity Gold, served in a branded Purity glass certainly hitting the spot, as did the ploughman's. A word here about the staff. Just fantastic, dealing with 23 of us with smiles, efficiency and good nature. If I lived there I'd be back. A lot.

Of course perfection, while eagerly sought and maybe found is not enough for the dedicated beer type. With Tyson and E, in tow we nipped along the road to the Three Tuns where raging thirsts were slaked by more excellent beer from Purity and another fantastic barmaid. The welcome was all you could want and it does make such a difference.

A little bit of a first next for us. A visit to a winery. Three Choirs is a 80 acre outfit set in rolling hills in Gloucestershire and produces a number of rather good wines from mostly German grapes. It also has a brewery which we were able to glimpse through a glass fronted room, while the expensive wine making kit was there for us to prod and inspect. Particularly interesting was the process of removing sediment from sparkling wine. The samples of wine were small and took a lot of will power not to knock back in two sips.

It was a remarkably sober lot that checked into the Hope Pole in Tewkesbury. That wasn't to last.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

More Higgies

I often mention Higsons beer here. The beer was brewed at the Stanhope Street Brewery now (and formerly) occupied by Cains. The offices were in Dale Street however, next to the Ship and Mitre. The building, which is still in use, is clad in grey marble and still bears the Higsons name.

The photo was taken from the inside of the Ship and Mitre.