Tuesday 28 September 2010

Cumbrian Capers

I'm off on my annual trip with the boys (well old men actually) tomorrow. Ulverston and Broughton are the destinations. We are expecting some very poor weather and some very good beer.

Tomorrow sees us, among other places, in both the Watermill at Ings and the Hawkshead Brewery Beer Hall for lunch and if it works out, a chat with Alex Brodie, the owner. We have a designated driver, so no good or classic pub on the way need be missed. Should be an excellent couple of days. Wednesday night sees us in Broughton where we also expect good beer and possibly, a meet with the leg-end that is Dave Bailey.

I'll send the odd tweet, but signals are dodgy in the sticks.

Dave - I'll tweet you directly in advance

Be My Guest

From her lofty perch in the Pennine outpost of Delph, an excited Landlady rings me. She has just been to Blackburn - no that's not what she was chuffed by, though it isn't as bad as you might imagine - but her visit to Blackburn was to Thwaites Brewery where she and other leading cask pubs in the Thwaites estate were given some excellent news. Thwaites, who I have mentioned before, are upping their cask game, announced to the agog throng, that in addition to an enhanced seasonal and occasional range, a choice of guest ales from other brewers will be provided by the brewery. The Landlady is delighted. She wasn't sure at the time of speaking, what the guests would be, but Bateman's, St Austell and Champion Beer of Britain, Harvest Pale were mentioned.

Today, as if to confirm, the press release from Thwaites popped into my in box. It will feature 16 artisan ales from Daniel Thwaites’ Signature range of ales. as well as 16 guest beers from a range of brewers. The Landlady can't wait.

It seems that this will be part of a reciprocal arrangement, so Thwaites beers will get greater exposure too. This has become a feature of rather a lot of small brewers and has the potential to increase sales all round. Here in Manchester, Hydes and Holts do it, Robinsons as far as I know don't and Lees definitely don't. Will that change I wonder?

Nagging Worry

Since the publication of the Cask Report yesterday, there has been a flurry of comment on blogs including this one. My perception is that the overall feeling among commentators is one of cautious optimism, which is I reckon, the overall tone of the report itself. In blogging comment the report has had largely favourable and positive reaction, though some have been keen to push their own interests in bottled and(quality) keg beer, which is not covered by the report at all. (That's what they are complaining about.) The ever practical Cookie did though knock wind out of sails, by pointing out the inconvenient truth, that no matter how well it is doing, at 15% of the on trade, cask pong is still running far behind lout.

The analysis in the Cask Report itself is pretty compelling stuff though, suggesting that good though things are, we are in for better times still, with a shift towards younger and smarter people drinking the real stuff, while (presumably) the less enlightened head for Tesco and Sainsbury for their slabs of yellow fizz. Less reassuring, nay worrying, is the section on "Barriers to Cask Beer Growth" which makes dismal reading really, as does the trend analysis, with 38% of so called cask beer drinkers confessing to "hardly ever drinking it." Not exactly reassuring or a cause for optimism. A red light blinks in the mind too, as we consider the warnings about quality which is still a major trade issue. Nonetheless there is overall a pretty encouraging tale to tell, with more pubs selling it, more younger people and more women drinking it, CAMRA membership booming, real ale becoming a "must have" and increasing sales figures.

The Cask Report is good news, but there remains a worry that any cask beer boom will be followed by a cask beer bust, as quality, already a problem in many places, lags behind expectations and creates a destructive perception of the product. It's what has happened before. It mustn't be allowed to happen again.

Monday 27 September 2010

Cask on the Up

The Cask Ale Report 2010 has been published. It will take a fair bit of reading before I have fully absorbed its contents, but suffice to say it is good news that cask continues to outperform the market with 3000 more pubs selling it since the last report, an increase in volume of 5% against a market decline of 2% for other beers and a tendency towards it by younger drinkers. All in all good news.

One or two things caught my eye. I was interested, as I always am in regional variations. The fact that 41.8% of all cask is sold in London and the South East is hardly a surprising one given the increasing move to cask by more affluent ABC1 types as mentioned in the report. Somewhat surprisingly given that backdrop, cask volumes in London fell, though not nearly as much as here in the North West, where a 6.2% decline took place. The London drop is surprising given the claims that London is becoming, according to some, firmly on the UK Beer Map once again. (This, by the way, has seemed to possibly have a basis i wishful thinking and may be the subject of a blog post at a later date.)

It was particularly pleasing too to see a piece in the report on beer quality, which is a pet subject of mine. Some practical and useful advice is offered as is advice about where to go for more help on the subject. Cask beer quality is immensely important if we are to consolidate and make further progress. The report recalls that the last surge in cask foundered on quality concerns. (Given that, I was surprised to see on page 22, that the prospect of warm beer wasn't one of the non cask ales drinker's considerations. Aren't they in for surprise in some places?)

One note of slight displeasure is the assertion that cask ale isn't expensive enough; that publicans are missing out on margin; that most drinkers feel they should pay more for cask than Carling. This is a complex argument which couldn't be readily covered in the report I suppose, but I'd suggest that once you add in other factors which affect the price and quality of the pint, the results may be a little different. It's all in the question you ask. Still, that's just a quibble.

So. Do read the report.* It's positive, well put together, contains a lot of fascinating statistics, puts cask beer firmly in the limelight and is a credit to its author Pete Brown.

*One slight black mark. As I finish this at 9.40, the official website doesn't have the report available, but you can get it from the Publican here.

Sunday 26 September 2010

You All Right There?

I approached the bar of the pub where I'd gone for a quiet drink with E after taking her to see her bereaved aunt. In a piece of deja vu, the barmaid asked me an identical question to the one I'd been asked at the same bar, by a different barmaid, exactly a week ago. The question was "You all right there?". Having responded to the same question last time by assuming my general well being was not being enquired about, but the question could be translated as saying in a roundabout way, "What would you like?" I decided to answer her question by having a little gentle fun with her. "Not so bad really" quoth I. She was nonplussed and there was an uneasy standoff for a brief second until I added (with a smile) "But I'd be even better with a pint and a half of bitter".

She still looked slightly puzzled. I know of course that an old git like me trying to have a joke with most young women is a nil sum game, but I reflected that one barmaid saying this rather odd question to a customer was, well odd; and two saying it odder. I suppose one copied the other.

What's wrong with "What would you like?" or "What can I get you?"

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Not April the First

Tell me please, that if you saw this bollocks on April Fool's Day that you wouldn't be taken in by it? What kind of moron would drink this stuff?

Surely it's a spoof?

Monday 20 September 2010

Cheeky Devils

Carling brewer Molson Coors has decided not to process supplier invoices until 90 days after receipt. The Forum of Private Business today included the brewer in its "Hall of Shame" for the move, which took effect this month. FPB spokesman Phil McCabe said many small businesses couldn’t afford to wait so long in order to be paid. Molson Coors finance director David Heede said: "There is a fundamental challenge for the beer industry – the total beer profit pool is down approximately 30% over the last five years. As part of a global initiative on working capital, we are changing our Supplier Payment Terms from 1 September.

So there you have it. "We as brewers are suffering, so you as a supplier have to wait over three months for your payments". The article doesn't say if MolsonCoors would be just as happy to wait three months for money owed to them, or, how they'd feel if told by someone ordering a pint of Carling, "I'll pay you in 90 days".

Would they think it such a great idea then I wonder?

The Morning Advertiser and the Publican both have the story.

Busy Tied Houses

Prevailing opinion is that to succeed in the pub business, generally you have to be free of tie, or if not, the only pub for miles around and in a highly populated area. I know - not always the case - but I'm sure you recognise the broad picture I'm painting.

On Friday evening, a time when I am rarely in the pub due to "meeting E at the station duties", I met with a fellow CAMRA committee member to discuss some business. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and rendezvous in a conversion from smooth to cask. The pub is tied to Thwaites and at 7 pm it was heaving. We found a relatively quiet spot in the games room with our (excellent) pints of Wainwright, but lasted only 30 minutes or so before sheer weight of numbers and the volume of conversation drove us out. We decamped along the road to a Lees pub, hoping to try the new seasonal offering, Fool's Gold and complete our form filling. The pub was again full to bursting, with nowhere to sit in the lounge and just two seats in the packed vault. We squeezed into them enjoying the very bitter Fool's Gold and doing our best to finish our business against an atmospheric background of happily supping customers. It took us back to the old days, so beloved of Curmudgeon, when most pubs were like this and was heartening in the extreme.

It did make us realise though that pubs are regretfully rarely like this, but nonetheless we both felt real delight to see them doing so well.

The pubs were: Thwaites' Hare and Hounds, Oldham Rd, Middleton; Lees' Rose of Lancaster, Haigh Lane, Chadderton

Saturday 18 September 2010

Sneak Preview

It's almost time for all the pub snobs out there to don their most disdainful sneer. J D Wetherspoon is running its second beer festival of the year from October 27th to November 14th. As usual there will be up to 50 beers available and the provisional list looks rather impressive. The usual clutch of "brewed for the festival" beers will be joined by a handful of foreign brewers, strutting their stuff on the British stage, either with one off brews or tweaks of beers for which they are already well known.

Perhaps one of the most interesting of these is a 5% version of the famous Lion Stout* from Sri Lanka which will be brewed at Marstons and promises " roast malt, chocolate and coffee and a lingering silky finish". Other exotics include a blonde beer brewed by two of Sam Adam's brewers using "fresh from the field", East Kent grown Cascades that will go from bine to kettle in "a matter of hours" to flavour a 5.1% very pale beer. As you might imagine, Shepherd Neame will host this effort. Chestnuts feature in Castagnale, by Leonardo Di Vicenzo, to be brewed at Everards; juniper in a beer brewed at Caledonian; and New Zealand hops in Steenhuffel Blonde from Palm, which will be specially imported and casked.

Notable British beers include Brew Dog Edge, Ettaler Cask Lager (using the original yeast, but brewed by Cotleigh), Thornbridge Lumford, Titanic New York Wheat Porter, Pixley Black (based on a 1900 Wadworth's recipe) with pure blackcurrant juice and Lees Chocoholic, made with real chocolate and chocolate malt and, for the nostalgic, Young's Ram Rod.

So if you are of the toffee nosed persuasion, put the dates in your boycotting book now. Everyone else, I think, will be looking forward to it. I am anyway.

* Lion Stout used to be sold in cask conditioned form at the brewery tap in Sri Lanka, so nice to see it back on handpump.

Monday 13 September 2010

Proper Lout

It is bottom fermented, unfiltered, unpasteurised and lagered for three months. Served cold and from a keg, it's bloody excellent too. Way better than most British brewers lager efforts.

Of course Tony Allen of Phoenix knows how to brew good beer. That helps a lot.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Having us for Mugs

There is a terrible trend emerging it seems and it needs to be strangled at birth. The dimpled, handled mug is making an undeserved comeback. This old man's glass, so common thirty odd years ago, was thankfully dying out and only available by request. It was the reserve of the pub bore and for the few old soaks that still required them to drink their brown beer from. It was becoming history and when you saw the odd one, you thought back with misplaced nostalgia to the era of the Sweeney, the three day week, shillings, Watney's and Younger's Tartan and immediately specified "a straight glass please" with your order, in case the dimpled horror should be inflicted on you and your golden, hoppy, micro brewed beer.

Now, zombie like, it is lurching out of its grave and to add to the macabre horror, it is trendy and up and coming real ale spots that seem to be encouraging it. Well don't. It is an awful glass to drink out of and does nothing for the appearance or taste of modern beer. Its thick wall is off putting and it looks as wrong and alien in a contemporary pub, as would decorating it with flock wallpaper, frilly standard lamps and putting formica covered tables and lino in. It is out of place and out of time.

Retro can be good. Not in this case. Don't do it and for those misguided establishments that do, please make sure you have a straight, thin walled glass for proper drinkers.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Bayerischen Anstich

We arrived in Bamberg to catch the last few days of the religious festival Sandkerwa which was celebrating its 60th anniversary. Bamberg is transformed from being a mere world class drinking town, into a world class drinking town with a bonus few dozen more drinking venues added, stretching along the river bank and taking up every square inch possible in the town itself. Stalls sell tacky souvenirs, bratwurst, candy floss, sweets, bratwurst, chocolates, bratwurst and beer. Lots of beer - almost as many beers stands as bratwurst ones. It is packed with people and has a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, with families mixing easily with the more dedicated beer drinkers, of which there are quite a few.

We were met off the train by our friend Nick who lives in the area. He'd done the necessary homework and had sussed out the top drinking stands - those that dispensed " vom Bayerischen anstich" or straight from the cask. (It is a style I'm very familiar with, not just from drinking in Franconia, but that's how we serve most of our German country beers at GBBF.) We threaded our way through the crowds to the riverside and made a start. Keller bier in stone krugs from Brauerei Zehendner from Mönchsambach provided a good start. Soft and easy drinking, it was hard to tear ourselves away, so we had a few. We tried several others too though, including, Brauerei Huebner, St Georgen Brau and probably more. The softer carbonation in this style of serving is perfect for keller beer and it slides down all too easily. Do look out for it if you go there.

One word of warning for visitors to this bucolic scene. Apart from the dangers of tasty keller bier, German mosquitoes are bitey little buggers.

Nick and Eileen on their first beer.

Monday 6 September 2010

Tasting Good?

One of the ways that pubs can increase cask ale sales is to offer tasters. In the better pubs this is done as a matter of course and can be a way not to waste money on something that you may not like if you just take a punt. It is good for the pub and good for the customer. Few downsides then? Well yes and no. I have found that many tasters, small as they tend to be, don't give a complete picture of a beer once it is scaled up to a pint. In short, you can be fooled. Thus it was on Saturday.

I had a bit of time on my hands in Leeds while E had her hair done, so hopped on the bus into the centre. After being distracted for a good while by an Oxfam Bookshop and Clas Ohlson (one of these places where you want to buy lots of things you really don't need) which is distractingly just across the road from North Bar, I managed to drag myself away for a quick beer. A brief scan of the bar decided my choice. Crown Brewer Stu's Stannington Stout. Now I have to say I have limited experience of his beers, as the few times I've found them in Manchester, they've been in poor nick. This was different. Despite me probably being the first customer for it, it was cooled to the point of dispense and was bursting with condition. Well done North Bar. The beer was lovely too. Full bodied, bitter, coffeeish, roasty and soft. Everything a stout should be. Great stuff. I had a second half and if I'd had my crystal ball, I'd have stayed for more.

Time was running out and after a quick canter round Leeds Market to procure a couple of butties, I headed to our meeting point, the Palace, my old drinking den when I worked in Leeds. This is an ever reliable stalwart, but Saturday was an off day. First that taster. It was chef Brian Turner's Golden Ale. It seemed fine, so a pint was ordered. It was pale, slightly flat, insipid and tasteless. I asked for most of it to be chucked away; I just couldn't finish it. Rooster's Special was the choice for redemption. Alas it was off the boil too. Tired and flabby. I sipped it disconsolately, thinking longingly back to the magnificent stout in North Bar.

Today I learn that Thornbridge brew Brian's beer. Well I never. It'll be worth another go then, with or without that misleading taster.

Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge’s Brewery Manager, describes the beer as “A lovely golden colour, with aromas crammed with rich tropical fruits, ripe berries and hints of fruity cheesecake. The mouth is clean and crisp with some subtle malt characters and more lovely hop, mostly in the form of passion fruit, grapefruit and gooseberry. The finish is quite dry."

Friday 3 September 2010

Mixed Messages

I usually don't tackle problem drinking on this blog, as others such as Tyson and Curmudgeon do it so much better, but I will give it a go for once. It seems to me that our politicians are getting extremely muddled on alcohol. Did I say "getting?" Of course I should be saying they "have got", or if I was American, "have gotten" extremely confused.

As Tyson points out in his blog, minimum pricing isn't the answer to Britain's alcohol problem, if problem there be. From my point of view, reducing overall consumption might well be though. So what do we hear today? We hear from the British Beer and Pub Association that alcohol consumption in 2009 saw the sharpest year-on-year decline since 1948. The 6% drop was the fourth annual decline in five years.

Despite our alleged propensity to drink too much, we consume less than the EU average and 13% less alcohol than in 2004. So the continual banging on about over indulgence is actually having the desired effect. We are, as a whole, drinking less every year and repeating our drinking less year on year. If you like to put it another way, the messages are getting through. This sits rather oddly with minimum pricing which will not affect the behaviour of those with a problem. The general trend is down, so maybe those that like to tax the poor out of a much needed drink, might like to turn their attentions on those that are actually causing themselves harm?

That of course would mean looking at ways to tackle the actual problem rather than tar all drinkers with the same brush. It would mean looking a lot more closely at a lot of very complex issues, to which there is unlikely to be a simple answer. Fat chance of doing that. That's too difficult. Better simply to jack the price up for everyone and put windfall profits into the big supermarkets, who some would say, are guilty of causing much of the availability of cut price drink and therefore the problem, in the first place. From the pub goer's point of view, this is a superficially attractive solution, but then again, I believe the Trojan Horse was a bit of a looker too. Don't be fooled. This is thin end of the wedge stuff.

An interesting side snippet; in 2009, the UK ale market increased its market share of all beers for the first time since the 1960s. Hooray!