Wednesday 28 December 2011

Too Many (Duff) Brewers?

I was reading the comments on Dave Bailey's blog about beer duty and one comment by Dave himself said "There is an argument that says there are too many very small brewers who aren't very good." Curmudgeon replied "that's because of the smoking ban". No he didn't actually, but what he did say was this: "Yes, while it has helped good brewers, it has also brought too many half-arsed brewers into the industry" Stringer's Beer sharply retorted "These half-arsed brewers pointed up by Curmudgeon - who's buying (and drinking) their beer? Would that be half-arsed publicans and their half-arsed customers?"

Now when we welcomed the explosion of micro brewers brought about by Progressive Beer Duty (PBD), did we imagine we'd end up with so many?  Did we imagine them all to be good? Is it though just PBD that has caused this, or is it the loosening of the tie that we have also seen, leading to an increase of outlets than can take a wider variety of beer? Is  the (apparent) view of free houses that you always need to have new beers on the bar a contributing factor and that some breweries,that many of us could name, exist solely it seems on the basis that they can get their beer in a pub, irrespective of quality, as long as it is cheap enough? For most small brewers - and I talk to quite a few of them - it is a dog eat dog situation of continual phoning of pubs, pleading with them to take beer, always at a discount.  There is probably getting to be as many breweries now as the market will absorb - at least until the tie loosens further and tied house beer lists expand.

Of course the other side of the coin is that there are small breweries making excellent beer that do not have to discount to a great extent, as their reputation is such that they can sell what they produce. Here we are talking the Dark Stars and Pictishes of this world, but for many it is a relentless slog of seeking customers against fellow strugglers trying to do the same.

Are there half arsed breweries about? Of course there are.  Why don't they go bust?  Probably because they sell their beer so cheaply, to the same "half-arsed publicans and their half-arsed customers" that buy and drink down to a price.

Dedicated pub goers like me and say, Tyson, have a list of breweries in our heads that screams "Avoid" when we see them. It isn't a small list.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Should I Change My Mind?

I named Hawkshead Windermere Pale as my best overall beer of 2011, but I wonder if that is so now. It is still the lovely easy quaffer with a complex hop bill that made me think so, but you know, last night I had a beer - not for the first time - that sent my senses reeling. Actually, if I'd had a couple more, it would have sent me reeling too.

The beer is of course the one illustrated on the left. (It would have been perverse for it to be otherwise, though I did think of putting something else on to throw you off the scent for a couple of lines.) Hawkshead New Zealand Pale Ale is wonderful. It bursts on the palate with a cornucopia of tropical fruits, is bitter and citric and so very, very drinkable for its 6% abv. One isn't enough and three may just be too many, as it commands respect strengthwise, though the alcohol is cunningly disguised.

If ever a beer could be described as dangerously drinkable, this it it. So will I change my mind? No. But you know, in a sneaking way I want to.

It knocks Jaipur, especially in its current sugar sweet, enfeebled state into a cocked hat. 

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Is a List a Guide?

The Manchester Pub Guide produced by CAMRA in Greater Manchester is a handy book listing all of the pubs selling real ale in the City Centre and a couple of districts beyond. It is split up by area and there isn't a lot by way of editorial, rather, the reader - user if you like - is left to make up his or her mind from the pub descriptions. Typical CAMRA guide you might say. Give 'em the info and then let them get on with it. Fair enough? Certainly Rhys Jones, that doyen of many a CAMRA book review thinks so - and why not? In Stockport and South Manchester's Opening Times, he summarises by saying it is "an accomplished and professional volume with little to criticise".

The reviewer in Manchester Confidential toook a different tack. His thoughts are more along the lines that the book should provide recommendations rather than just descriptions. The reviewer, Charlie Butterworth says, "The authors should have been more discriminating. Some inclusions should have no place in this guide. For some places it's best to hire armed guards before venturing in......there's a lack of judgement in some of the choices that is worrying.It appears pubs and bars are included simply because they sell real ale not if they're any good as a pub." Well yes. There's the nub of it. Do you produce a comprehensive list and leave the reader to get on with it by exercising his judgemnent, or do you, as Manchester Confidential thinks, produce a book of recommended pubs with its attendant difficulties of what you put in and what you leave out?

There's a certain degree of missing the point in the Manchester Confidential article which one might think wilful until you read what Charlie has to say. I particularly liked this comment " For instance if I said to my Manchester ale-drinking mates, "Do you want to go for a few in the Lloyds in the Printworks?" they'd think I was already pissed."  It's great knockabout stuff, but there is a serious point.  Do you prefer a comprehensive list, or do you want to be guided?  Clearly Charlie prefers the latter.

Is"guide" the correct title?  What do you prefer?

The Manchester Pub Guide is already on a reprint and is available at a giveaway £4.99 from

Friday 16 December 2011

A Point of View

I was out delivering our CAMRA Branch magazine (which I edit) today. As always I try and have a quick word with the licensee, just to see how things are. Maybe its different elsewhere or maybe we just have a better relationship with ours, but I always find them keen to talk to CAMRA. At one pub the licensee was bemoaning his limited cask guest beer list - a common complaint. He was also denied for reasons of which he was unsure, to a more wide ranging list which the PubCo also runs. I cooed sympathetically and asked "Is it Enterprise?" - as it usually is in such cases. "No" quoth he, I wish it was. It's Heineken. Bastards!".

The licensee also tells me things have got a lot worse since they took over from Scottish and Newcastle. So there. Enterprise aren't, in some eyes at least, as bad as Heineken. That should cheer old Tough Ted Tuppen up.

For all PubCos say about how things are much better for their tenants, I can tell you that's not what they tell me.

At least the pub was busy when I called at lunchtime, so that's something.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Golden Pint Awards

It is Golden Pints time again where we choose under a number of categories our favourites and runners up. I'm at a disadvantage here though. I don't tick, I don't buy fancy beers, I don't visit independent retailers to purchase said exotics etc. etc. But you know, even though I may not be the best person to ask, I can give it a go. So here we are. Winners and runners up and maybe the odd honourable mention.

Best UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer:

Winner: Hawkshead Windermere Pale (Cask); Runner Up: Osset Citra (Cask)

What can you say about Windermere Pale? It has everything I want in a beer. Sheer swoopability, clean, great taste, loads of hops and you don't fall over after a few. Brilliant stuff. Osset Citra was by far the best of the Citras that dominated for a while. Well crafted beer from a great brewery and that lovely smack of Citra.

Best Overseas Draught Beer:

Winner:1516 Brewing Company, Vienna, Victory Hop Devil; Runner Up: Tegernsee Spezial

The 1516 version of Hop Devil was stunning, with booming C hops, great body and sheer beery enjoyment. It achieved rare drinkability for such a strong beer. Spezial is pale, blond, bitter, full bodied and at 5.6%, far too easy to drink. Both beers drunk at the brewery taps.

Best Overall Beer:

Hawkshead Windermere Pale

Best UK Brewery:

Hawkshead. Everything they do is brewed with such attention to detail and to being able to drink a few of them. None are sticky. All have that cleanliness that I just love in a beer . Runner Up: Buxton Brewery.  Clean, well crafted and seek out beers.  Honourable mentions: Pictish, Kernel, Thornbridge

Best Overseas Brewery:

1516 Brewing, Vienna. Runner Up: Augustiner, Munich. Again it is that drinkability thing, though it always reminds me of good times and that's worth a lot.

Pub/Bar of the Year:

Winner: The Southampton Arms London. Everything I want in a pub.Great beer, appropriate food, a wonderful atmosphere and my sort of customers. Runner Up: The Angel, Manchester. Great beer, great staff, great prices and it's on my bus route. Honourable mentions to The Regal Moon, the White Lion Delph and the Tavern. (My locals and my friends go there or are there.)

Beer Festival of the Year:

National Winter Ales, of course. Runner Up: GBBF of course.

Best Beer Book or Magazine:

Book: Great British Pubs, by Adrian Tierney-Jones Magazine: Beer - CAMRA

Best Beer Blog or Website:

I've thought long and hard about this. A blog to me has to be independent and personal. So all the band wagon jumpers and clones are out (you know who you are). So overall it has to be:

Winner: Pete Brown. Independent and personal boxes ticked and he writes so well, wears his heart on his sleeve and talks (mostly) sense.

Runner Up: (Joint) Boak and Bailey. They don't say much, but somehow you like them just the same and they are independent and personal. Reluctant Scooper: Independent, personal and so well written. Honourable mention: Stuart Howe. Brewing at the Sharp End. In case you didn't notice. I like independent and personal blogs. Blogs that reflect the likes and dislikes of the writer. And Boak and Bailey.

Best Beer Twitterer:

Simon Johnson of course. Nobody in the same league is there? Runner Up: Stringers Beer. Does he actually have time to brew?

In 2012 I’d Most Like To…

Get back to Belgium. It has been a couple of years. Or more. I fancy some lambic, or kriek or.....

Now it is time I went for a drink.

Monday 12 December 2011

Sorted. Now Roll Up

I attended my last National Winter Ales Organising Committee Meeting on Saturday. Last this festival I mean. Almost everything is arranged. Last minute snags were identified and decisions were made and we are good to go - though of course there will be more last minute hitches and more decisions needed. I spent quite a lot of time last week doing a tortuous risk assessment for Greater Manchester Police and updating our internal stuff. Others have sweated over beer orders, cider orders, what we need from HQ stores, what we have to buy locally, how we will steward the event, advertise it, get sponsorship, print tickets, discuss and agree food availability, order glasses, design signs, design the programme, order transport for goods and staff, sign up staff to work, arrange duties and a million other less obvious things. It is a giant jigsaw that has to come together by the trade session on Wednesday 18th January. With Christmas and New Year, it doesn't leave a lot of time and plenty of us will be dedicating some of that holiday time to ensuring there are no last minute problems. I for instance will be pulling some stuff together for some of the legal requirements that we have to follow, but then forgetting about it for a week or two. Hopefully.

Those of you that are interested in the beer list can find it here, with foreign beers here and real ale in a bottle here.  As always, genuine beer bloggers are considered as trade, so if you'd like trade session tickets and are a blogger, please let me know and I will arrange for them to be sent to you.

This really is a cracking festival with a great choice of beer, a friendly outlook and of course it is held in Manchester, one of the finest beer cities in the UK.  What's stopping you? See you there then.

National Winter Ales Festival: The Sheridan Suite, Oldham Rd, Manchester from 18th to 21st January 2012

Saturday 10 December 2011

Cask Phased Out?

I read a tweet the other day from some geezer or other. It was re-tweeted by someone else, as these things are. It said in essence that BrewDog are going to phase out cask beer from next year. I asked the originator, copied to the others, including I think BrewDog James, if that was true, but in the time honoured Twitter "being of the moment" and therefore transient, nobody has replied.

This morning I read on Pencil and Spoon of the opening of BrewDog Camden, which like the others offers no cask beer. Mark praises its reasonable prices (apparently you get change from a tenner for most bottles, so that's  good) and compares it to Craft, which in my humble opinion is absolutely incongruous. Limiting itself to keg beer, served in uber trendy surroundings, to skinny twenty to thirty year olds can never be compared directly to Craft, which has a much broader appeal, a much wider range of beer and beer styles and is above all, a pub and has all the inclusiveness you go to a pub for. It sells cask beer too, in case no-one noticed.

As an aside, there is little doubt that some new bars (and Manchester is full of them) are great places to go and remarkably inclusive. A trip to Chorlton to see how it should be done is a must. Here in the Grim North, we do things differently it seems. Our trendy young people mix and match beers easily in the same bar and customers, while generally young, are leavened by the odd old git, happily enjoying the offer. Almost all of the really successful bars in Manchester serve excellent and well chosen cask to complement their keg offerings. That's good isn't it? I have wondered before and wonder again, just how successful the new BrewDog Manchester will be when it opens next year, offering keg only in such a cask bastion as Manchester?

Anyway, I have wandered a little from my original point. BrewDog bars are different. They are in effect tied houses, that choose as company policy, not to sell the company's cask products. Now I will happily say that I think BrewDog's cask beer offerings are generally superb. I remember some wonderful pints of Trashy Blonde and Alice Porter. I really think they should do more, not less of them. While I might speculate that more profitable keg to offset less profitable supermarket beer is one reason, the real point of this is, does anyone know if the rumour is actually true?

I certainly hope not.

Amazingly I got an invite to the formal opening of BrewDog Camdem. Cool or what?

Friday 9 December 2011

Way Out East

Another day in London and another new beer bar. Both new to me and E and new(ish) overall. Fortunately, unlike some of the new bars which involve tortuous journeys across London by bus -  trying  but interesting - Tap East is relatively quick and easy for us. A quick stroll to Tower Gateway, a change at Canning Town to Stratford International DLR, pass the new Olympic Stadium and that odd piece of sculpture and you are dropped more or less at the door. Good old Docklands Light Railway, though the TFL site tried to send us by bus, ferry, pony express and camel train, and by an entirely different and wholly inappropriate route. But I digress.

The Westfield Shopping Centre (or is it Mall?) is the destination. Out there in Olympic Land. Hop off the DLR, pass the Olympic athlete's village, go through the airport like ticket hall, look right and there it is. All glass fronted, wide open to the shopping centre (more of that later) and looking like a cross between Costa Coffee and an American Brew pub is Tap East. An L shaped bar, tables and stools, nice chairs and sofas, big windows. It is roomier than you'd think too and pleasantly laid out. Of course beer is the attraction but not being a geek, I didn't count the fonts for keg beer,  nor the handpumps, but there was certainly enough to go at and my choice of cask beer included two from the brew pub, Thornbridge Kipling and Dark Star American Pale.  I started with the Tap East Pale Ale (I think). Deeply bitter, with a good malt backbone, this was am enjoyable beer which perhaps needs a lighter more floral or tropical finishing hop adding, but was very drinkable indeed.  Thornbridge Kipling followed and was in great nick. All it needed was a sparkler to make it perfect.  There was of course, being an Utobeer outlet, a large array of bottled delicacies too.

On a Saturday afternoon the pub was pleasantly busy. Being in a shopping centre, there is a natural degree of transience about the customers. People come and go, but that isn't an issue to me, as this aids people watching, a prime pub pastime.  Downsides?  Well yes. Being open to the shopping mall on one side, makes the bar feel more airport like than perhaps a dividing wall otherwise would.  Being a bit more separate would also aid its identity hugely in my view.  The other downside is the mall's musak, which is piped in at a volume that makes it impossible to tune out for long.  The usual Christmas songs (on a one hour loop) must drive the staff to the point of distraction and certainly provide a degree of irritation for the customer.

Service was quick and friendly and despite the fact that we sat with manager Glyn, looking around, it was just as good for everyone.  We ate too; a doorstep sandwich for E and a superb pork pie from Borough Market for me. Just the type of thing you need from a pub in my view, being something substantial enough to blot up some beer without being stuffed.  Glyn brought me a sample of the stout too, but this to my mind needed more work , being brown and not roasty at all.  Talking of the brewery, this is clearly visible from the inside of the pub and is satisfyingly shiny.

Overall Tap East is a pleasant place to be in, has a great choice of good quality beer (no warm, flabby cask here), is well run with pleasant staff and very handy for Waitrose and the DLR.  What's not to like?  Get along there and try it. We'll certainly be back.

Top Tip: Avoid Westfield Shopping Centre by using the DLR. It seems the tube involves hoofing through the mall.

Thursday 8 December 2011

A Word to the Weisse

I have written before about Schneider und Sonne, the renowned German wheat beer brewer. You can read my original article here, but I don't think I've ever drank any of their beers in the UK. Not until one night last week that was.

Much is written about the Port St Beer House and their beer tasting nights, but little of their older sister Common Bar, in the trendy Northern Quarter of Manchester. It was Common, an edgier, funkier, artier, music led type of place and haunt of pretty studenty young women and skinny, hairy, leery, gawky lads, that hosted a tasting of Schneider beers. This was held in what could be described as a back room, but since it looked out onto the street, plainly wasn't. In our room, the audience was mostly young by my standards, so think late twenties, early thirties, but no doubt regarded as a load of old crinklies by the eager young crew next door. They all looked pretty damned serious. Until the beer flowed that is. What a leveller beer is and what a leveller it should be.

This was billed as a "Beer and Cheese" evening and the cheesy part was hosted by a Swiss Cheese producer, but since there was no hand-out of what the cheeses were and the descriptions and names were rattled out at top speed, we'll pass on the cheese part for now and concentrate on the beer. Now Schneider only brew wheat beer, so all the beers were of that ilk. That's fine, because Schneider, unlike many other German producers have used their imagination more than a little, so subtle and not so subtle variations of the wheat theme were the order of the day. We started off, somewhat surprisingly, with their newest beer, a supposed "one off". Nelson Sauvin uses the hop of that name and is bottle conditioned in champagne style bottles. The beer is 7.3% and while some of the promised, flowers, kiwi and gooseberry could be detected, overall, I didn't think this worked that well. Still, interesting and more variations please.  The basic premise is a good one.

The beers came thick and fast. Next up was Mein Blonde, a traditional pale wheat beer that ticks all the boxes. Spicy, citrus, subdued clove and banana.  A bit of Bavarian summer in a cold and grey Manchester.  Kristall, is a filtered version.  Clear as a bell and refreshing enough. Maybe it is just preference, but it doesn't do it for me in the same way a cloudy wheat beer does.  Then my Schneider favourite and my drink of choice when I'm in The Weisses Bräuhaus in Munich. Original is said to be the recipe of the original wheat beer brewed by the founder. If so, it has been cleaned up in recent years and is now an outstanding wheat beer of great complexity. Bottle conditioned, it has the full banana, clove thing going without excessive sweetness, through to a bitter-sweet finish. A bit darker this one, but a cracker in every way for the wheat beer fan. I'm one in case you didn't guess!

An odd interlude then.  I don't believe I've ever ordered an alcohol free beer in Germany.  Mein Alkoholfreies is said to taste like "ripe corn fields, sparkling and malty-aromatic". Well, to me it tasted like unfermented wort, which is probably what it is. I wasn't alone. It was the only dumper on our table.   Back to normality then with Aventinus, a dark, luscious doppelbock; oh an somewhere in between (by now the beer was taking effect and the noise levels were a notch below cacophony) we had Mein Grünes, another fairly new beer. Organic and 6.2% this has delicious lemony citrus overtones and traditional wheat beer spice. Very easy going to drink and refreshing too. This is another great beer and one which I will be drinking next time I'm in Munich for sure.

Then the beer that knocked John Clarke's socks off.  Hopfenweisse is heavily hopped with American "C " hops.  It has a big booming taste to go with its big booming 8.2% alcohol.  It is wonderful and dangerously and deceptively drinkable. Schneider say "This extreme wheat beer shows how far wheat beer taste can go."  Indeed it does.

Oh yes. The cheese.  I said I'd come back to that. Delicious though they were, they came in such minuscule portions that you couldn't really taste them with the beers. A touch more would have been nice and really have made it a food and beer matching.  No such complaints about the beer though. A  great night ended with a second shared bottle of the Hopfenweisse and we left having experienced what a great brewer can do with a style that most others merely produce to a single repetitive standard. Well done Schneider.  Our experience was enhanced by our two charming table companions, whose attractiveness to us was enhanced in no small way by generous donations of beer to three old soaks.

Young people today aren't all bad.

Beer of the night?  For me and my companions, it had to be Hopfenweisse.  My thanks to James Clay for their kind invitation

Monday 5 December 2011

A Quick Word of Praise and a Moan

After much nagging, led by me (I think) and supported by many others, the Dean Swift in SE1 sorted out their (lack of) cooling for its cask beers sometime back in what passed for summer. I called subsequently and the beer was much transformed and in a good way.

Yesterday we nipped in again and found the cask beer in perfect condition and temperature. Oakham JHB was the beer and after one, a second was needed just to be sure. It was great too. That's gratifying. Now could they have a word round the corner at another well known venue?

In the same area, both the Horniman at Hays and the Pommeler's Rest, both very reliable in the past, seem to have taken quantum leaps backward in cask beer quality. In the former, the hefty price should at least guarantee a tip top pint.

Both these pubs are Cask Marque. Hmmm.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Camden Capers

The Beer Writers Guild do was good, with decent company and some good beer. I liked the Orange Peel beer from Wadworth particularly, as did Eileen, but we could have done with a bit more of it. My pre dinner tipple was Thwaites Wainwright. Re-racked bright, but still in excellent nick and very drinkable. Thwaites are doing a lot of things right and will likely continue to do so I fancy.

The day after the do saw a nice invitation from Mark Dredge to visit him at Camden Town Brewery. Tyson and I set off in reasonably good time, but got lost and despite the good intentions of those that directed us onto various wrong buses, we made it, almost an hour later than intended. We declined Mark's kind advice to scale the fence to get in and were admitted more conventionally through a gate. The brewery is spread under a set of railway arches and is bright and shiny German made stainless steel and mostly automated, with its own small kegging and bottling line. It is all carefully fitted in to the tightest of spaces.

Beers on offer were the noted Camden Hell which was spritzy and refreshing. The Pale was lightly hopped and is apparently being tweaked at present. The two stars of the show for me however were the new stout, not yet released, so rather exclusive. Nitro kegged and very, very drinkable, with a clean, bitter taste, roasty malt and some sweetness. It should do well and of course, it knocks Guinness into a cocked hat. A German style hefe weizen, was deliciously bang in the middle of the style, while the Belgian witbier hit all the right notes. None of the beers are pasteurised, which certainly gets a tick in the box from me. The company was good too, with fellow bloggers Mark from Beer Birra,Beer making a late appearance and Fletch from Real Ale Reviews too, who seemed to materialise from nowhere, but as always was great fun to be with. They all were,  even if these lads make me feel even more geriatric than usual!

Camden are doing lots of things right. There is a dynamic enthusiasm there and most of all, the beers are bloody good. Drink them with confidence.

Thanks to Mark D for the tour and the hospitality.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

To Swig or not Swig. That is the Question

I read a lot about the beer revolution that is sweeping through a (relatively small) number of beery establishments and its small but growing band of devotees and noting what Zak Avery says here, offer a few observations.

It seems to me, irrespective of a sterile and futile keg versus cask debate, that the main dichotomy in beer drinking is coming from the increasing divide between those that like to, for want of a better term, neck a few, and those that want to have something stronger and more complex (harder to drink) in much smaller measures. The other great divide that is emerging is that between the younger more experimental type of beer drinker and those more traditional types that drink mostly cask beer in volume. I am ignoring for the purposes of this argument, the vast majority of beer drinkers that do neither, preferring their tipple to be Carling, John Smith's or whatever. (It is instructive sometimes to remember that whatever we imagine about the beer scene, most people neither drink cask nor craft keg, so in one sense, whatever camp you mainly fall in, the so called discerning beer market, whether craft keg or cask, has more in common than we sometimes recognise.)

While stereotyping is lazy, in some ways it does serve a purpose when identifying trends. When I visit places like Craft or the Port Street Beer House (less so) , I'm concious of the fact that I am one of the oldest there. It doesn't mean that people like me don't drink beer any more, but they don't necessarily drink it in the same places as the new emerging beer enthusiast  that prefers to pay top dollar for something either exotic, from afar, or both.  There is also undoubtedly a snobbish element about this too. Just look at Twitter to see what such people are drinking. They boast about beers I have never heard of, not so much to tell you how wonderful they are, but how unusual they are.  And often, how strong they are.

Zak mentions the growth in this niche market in his blog - and he is right. It does have some legs yet, but I doubt if it will take over the British beer drinking scene to any great extent, though grow it will.  London will set this trend.  It has been the sleeping giant for far too long and now awakened, there is plenty room to both catch up and exploit a still affluent market further.  Other beer drinking cities will follow to a lesser extent. Further from the capital though,  there is only so much money to go round and those willing to pay nine pounds a pint, or whatever, are limited in number and will further be weakened as economic gloom continues. To that extent, going back to Zak's title, the revolution can indeed be economised.

There is of course an up side.  These new drinkers and new beers and brewers bring a vibrancy and enthusiasm which should be welcomed, but as the exotic beers get ever more expensive, most of them will inevitably be drunk at home too.  Zak and other retailers are already exploiting this demand, but all home drinking has a knock on effect on pub and bar drinking. It could not be otherwise.

I assume the reason for the expensiveness of such beer is initial cost, rarity, mark up and the need to keep a lot of relatively low turnover stock on hand to satisfy choice. Cask beer, with its limited shelf life is more immediate and is consumed quickly and with gusto.  Those that do best mix and match the two.  I have long thought that without CAMRA there would be no "craft" and now I imagine the volume drinking cask drinker plays a large part in the mixed economy of the pubs I mention.  Maybe we need each other a bit more than you'd think?  That's something BrewDog may find out when they open in England. It is all very well selling exclusively keg beer in their Scottish bars. Scotland to all intents and purposes is a keg bastion. Will that work just as well in England? We'll see.

As I said, these are just observations.  I am delighted to see such interest in beer generally, despite reservations about emerging snobbery.  (Of course the same charge can equally be levelled at some cask drinkers too.)  I would also guess that most of us reading this are pretty well attuned to drinking in volume sometimes, but sipping at others. There is no conclusion to offer you, except perhaps that whatever and wherever we drink,  we should remember that beer might well be the best long drink in the world, but at the end of the day it is is just malt, hops, yeast and water.  Sometimes these simple ingredients are in perfect juxtaposition and often they are not.  Drinking expensively does not guarantee drinking well - price does not necessarily equate to quality.  Sellers should also be aware that beer doesn't have an intrinsic value that can only go up, like gold in a depression. (To go back to why you pay much more for craft beer things, I leave you with a quote from the Economist.  " By selling more profitable “craft premium” beers, in the marketing lingo, they can thrive where other pubs have failed. As always - follow the money."  Of course cask beer, the volume drink in these places, is also expensive.

In the end, maybe the one rubs off the other, enabling both to have a place in these new beer bars and a new generation of open minded beer drinkers would be a good thing,  but new drinkers,  like traditional ones, should avoid painting themselves into a corner.

This piece draws on the Economist article that Zak mentions. I won't mention his photo, except for one thing.  Anyone watch Emmerdale?

Monday 28 November 2011

Reinheitsgebot - Einheitsgebot

For those of us interested in the state of German brewing - me, Boak and Bailey and Robsterowski mainly - there is, in the Brewer's Guardian, a fascinating interview with American Brewer in Bavaria, gone not quite native, Eric Toft.

Eric argues that German brewers have in effect led themselves and their customers up a blind alley of sameness, by interpreting the beer purity law in a singular and unwise way. He says in effect that there has been a gaderene rush to produce identical beers, dictated not by the Reinheitsgebot, but a lack of vision. He points out that "the Reinheitsgebot says nothing about what hop varieties and barley varieties and yeast strains you should use" and that "the Reinheitsgebot should be an inspiration to try and create within these so-called ‘confines".  Like so many things in life, it isn't what you've got, but the way that you use it that counts.

He has put this into effect in the brewery where he is Head Brewer, Privat Landbrauerei Schönram, a 55,000hl rural Bavarian brewery, by producing porters and IPAs alongside the more usual helles and pils, pointing out that particularly, these small scale experiments are well liked by women. (A separate issue, but yet another pointer that silly spritzer style beers for women are doomed to failure).

It is good to see this streak of common sense and adventure, albeit on a tiny scale, so let's hope he can convince more of his brewing colleagues and the wider drinking public in Germany.

Anything that shakes the German brewing industry out of its lethargy cannot be a bad thing. I say more power to his elbow.

The full interview with Eric Toft can be downloaded here.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Family Brewers to Keep Tie

The Government ended uncertainty about the future of the tie as it pertains to the vertically integrated family brewers - that is - those family owned breweries such as Adnams, Robinsons, Bateman's Lees etc. that both  brew, and own pubs which are tied to their beer.

In a response to the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s tenth report of session 2010-2012 into pub companies, the Consumer Minister Edward Davey recognised the importance of the tie to the longevity of breweries and success of tenant licensees. It is instructive to my mind at least, that "During this long enquiry, successive Select Committees received no complaints about brewery tenancies." This contrasts somewhat vividly with the complaints received about Pub Companies. Paul Wells speaking for the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) was pleased saying (among other things) "In my view, many family brewers will now increase investment into their pubs because of the support the Government has announced for the traditional brewery tenancy agreement and the beer tie."

All well and good - and I welcome the decision - but maybe now that this uncertainty has been removed, IFBB members who have not woken up to the beer revolution around them, in addition to tarting up their pubs, can turn their attention to more vibrant brewing in this new stable environment.   It will be a hollow victory indeed if they have stability for their tenants and future business, only to see it diminished by moribund beer ranges, dull brewing and a "we know best" attitude. As the Government and commercial logic forces PubCos to concede more choice for their lessees and micros offer more and more beery options, IFBB members cannot allow themselves to fall (further) behind the curve.

The beer market is at its most volatile for years.  Innovation and experiment is all around. Beer drinkers are more and more discerning and demanding. This provides opportunity, but it also provides pitfalls. Let's see IFBB members rise to the challenge of the times.

A lot of my drinking is done in IFBB pubs, so I declare an interest. And I care about them.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Two Beers - Two Breweries

When people rave about breweries, it is often about those that brew beers that are, shall we say, at the more exotic end of the spectrum. There are rarely glowing reports on ordinary supping strength beers, even from me and that is almost all that I drink. I of course rarely write about individual beers, so that's my excuse, but with the exception of say, Dark Star, Marble or the odd London brewery, there isn't much. Some yes, but not much, despite those kind of beers being what nearly everyone drinks.

So I'll redress the balance just a little. On Monday night, in Oldham, I had two different beers (though not just two beers) from two exceptional breweries. Both are, gratifyingly in my CAMRA branch area, and it was a CAMRA meeting that caused me, rarely, to be drinking beer on a Monday night. Both were 4.5%, which is just a touch above my normal drinking strength, but when the beers are from these two, you know not only that you can drink them with confidence, but indeed you must.

Funnily enough, one of the breweries, despite a great reputation is fairly hard to come by, though being brewed only 5 or 6 miles from where I live. (The other is even nearer.) The brewery brews at capacity, has no plans to expand and when I looked at its web site for my blog post, I realised I hadn't ever had the vast majority of their beers, such is their comparative rarity. The other brewery also brews to capacity most of the time and is much bigger. I have tried the vast majority of those beers many a time and always with great pleasure.

So who are they? Pictish and Phoenix of course. The beers on the night were Pictish Little Gem, a wonderfully tasty and hoppy, pale golden beer loaded with hops, this time in the unusual combination of Bramling Cross and Pacific Gem, giving a beer that was just sublime. In our meeting venue, we had Phoenix White Monk. An old favourite this and different in many ways to the Pictish offering, but wonderfully balanced between malt and hop. Don't ask me what hops, as I don't know and I bet if I asked the brewer, he wouldn't tell me.

So there you are. Two top tips. Phoenix and Pictish. Seek them out and don't forget the sparkler.

Pictured is Tony Allen of Phoenix with (possibly) a pint of White Monk.

Monday 21 November 2011

Handing on the Baton

Tyson has mentioned the Bury Beer Festival  and Darren Turpin here. This used to be run by CAMRA for many years - in fact I've organised it more than once - but is now run by the hall owners themselves, on a different basis. CAMRA did run a small membership stall this year though and I did my bit on Friday afternoon, by spending a few hours there with my "Ask me about CAMRA" badge on. Quite a few did and one of the questions I was asked more than once, was "Why isn't CAMRA doing it now?"

There is no one answer, though lack of willing local volunteers was a pretty big factor, but my personal feeling is that for us, the event had run its course. We had done ourselves proud over the years and could now bow out, especially as the hall owners had their own thoughts about how the festival could develop and change. Also, clearly, one of the biggest expenses is the hall hire and that is something owners don't have to pay for and through letting out concessions to sell beer, they don't have to worry about the cost of buying it, or staffing the stalls, to nearly the same extent. In short, they have many advantages and have an ability to run things slightly differently to appeal to a different audience - in this case combining it with frequent live musical acts, but it could be anything.

When we started doing the Bury Beer Festival umpteen years ago (well over 20), beer festivals were the sole domain of CAMRA. Now others do it and Bury has quite a few. We blazed the trail and now many others are copying it, adapting it and taking the strain, as well as promoting cask ale to others. Is this a bad thing? No, it isn't. We in CAMRA campaign for real ale and if our campaigning has inspired others take the baton up and promote the same kind of beers we do, in their own particular way, at their risk, then surely that's no bad thing?

One thing though. Most of these festivals have a commercial element to them (as CAMRA's) festivals do.) Many support worthy causes and some, like Bury are run purely for profit, (though keeping the Met Arts Centre going could certainly be described as worthy). Beer festivals aren't the intellectual property of CAMRA, but often we are asked for advice and kit to help run beer festivals and we do give general advice and guidance, based on national policy. When we are asked for kit, we hire it. It takes effort to get the stuff from store and to clean it afterwards and CAMRA and its branches do still need campaigning money.

Beer is increasingly expensive to buy, and venues, in these difficult times are expensive to hire. Beer festivals can be a risky business when money is tight and you have to charge a fair old whack just to cover hall rental. When you have a town like Bury, with a healthy real ale scene, that can be a big ask of customers, who can get great choice at no entry cost in the local pubs. In short, the figures just don't stack up sometimes, so don't be too surprised if the odd, small, local beer festival is no longer run by CAMRA. I must say, I enjoyed my few hours at Bury, not having to worry about staff and whether we were going to sell enough beer to pay for it all.

At the other end of the scale though, larger festivals on a well established basis, like GBBF, National Winter Ales, Peterborough and the like in big cities, will continue to be CAMRA run, as indeed will very many small festivals. But there is a  place for a different approach in certain circumstances and where it happens, there shouldn't be too many concerns about that*.

* You will no doubt understand that I am stating a personal point of view here.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

CAMRA's Great British Pubs

There is a plethora of books about beer and fortunately there seems to be a fairly never ending set of customers for them. One of the first in the UK to take up this theme was, oddly enough, the Campaign for Real Ale, who have been producing beer related books for many years, as a follow on from their first effort, the Good Beer Guide. They are still doing it.

Well known beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones has ducked under the CAMRA Books umbrella for his latest offering, CAMRA's Great British Pubs. However this is no grim list of back street dives, but a well chosen selection of some of the most characterful pubs in the UK, cleverly chopped into sections such as "The best riverside pubs", "the best heritage pubs", "the best family pubs", "the best pubs to take your pet monkey to" -OK I made that one up, but you get the drift. This is a shrewd move as it breaks the book up neatly into type, rather than location, which makes for a more interesting read, though wisely there is an index by region to pull the whole thing into some geographical context and increase its usability as a guide.

This is no dry volume. Neatly studded throughout, like gateposts to lean on as you take in the scene, are one page articles such as "Edinburgh pub walks", "How cider is made", or "Fictional pubs" and there are appendices of beer styles and "how beer is brewed" to ease you out of the book and provide a practical aide-memoire.  But what of the pubs? Like any list of pubs, there are those that would argue that such and such a pub should be included at the expense of some other. That is to miss the point. This is no complete guide to the best, but like beer itself is a snapshot.  The writing is direct, personal and can be as delicious as a favoured pint.  Take this about the Beacon in Sedgefield: "Come far?" asked a genial chap in the tap room as I sipped the Dark Ruby and looked about the equally genial surroundings. I replied yes, but I really wanted to say that distance is relative: a visit to the Beacon is a journey through time as much as space."

I know the pub and know what he means. Perhaps the test of this book is how it describes and brings to life pubs you already know. It does this in spades. Tierney-Jones has a great eye for a pub. No dry commission this, done for the shilling and little else. This is a labour of love and you can tell this was written by a pub man. The pubs are brought to life and perhaps best of all, it makes you want to visit the ones you haven't been to.  It can be used as a guide, or just to read for the sheer pleasure and envy of it all.  So many pubs - so little time.

Given that this is a snapshot of 200 or so pubs, the opportunity of a follow up second volume would be a possibility in due course, but if Adrian does it, he may need some time to recover first. Thoroughly recommended.

Published by CAMRA Books at £14.99 (or join CAMRA and get two quid off) Review copy provided by CAMRA Books.

Friday 11 November 2011

Briefly in Glasgow

Visiting my old Mum involves going though Glasgow en route to the Clyde coast and Dumbarton. Shaking off the effects of the journey usually has me nipping in for a quick pint before catching the train from Queen St, a five minute walk from Central Station. I used to always go to the Drum and Monkey, but for a while it has been reduced to the ubiquitous Deuchar's IPA and the ridiculous Caley 80 bob, so I by-passed it for the cavernous Counting House and its many handpumps. There was a lot of unappealing dark stuff on, but my eye alighted on a Nelson Sauvin pumpclip. Such was the crush at the bar, I couldn't get to see much more, but it was from Tryst  brewery and a fine and distinctive quaffer, which hit the spot after my journey.

A quick visit to the nearby - well just over the road - Camperdown Place, saw a poor choice. I plumped for Goff's Jouster after a taste, but it was one of those beers that fools you.  The more you had of it, the more unpleasant it became. I ditched it and had a half of Abbot, my first in years and you know, I quite enjoyed it.

The next day saw me window shopping in Glasgow prior to taking Mum for a curry.  Back to the Counting House, with Mum remarking that she misses her odd outing to them, as "a pub is a much better to have a drink in than home". Indeed Mum.  Jaipur was a touch green and not clear, as often it seems to be. My twitter enquiries about other folks' experiences with this beer fell on deaf ears however. Is it just me then?  Our curry house was two doors up from BrewDog Glasgow.  We were between buses, so went in.  I liked the place a lot and though they were probably bemused by both me and Mum, they treated us well.  All keg of course and my half of 77 lager was unappealingly watery - that again - and the Zeitgeist had somehow mislaid its mojo on the long journey from Fraserburgh to Glasgow.  Still, it had to be done and it was.

I'll draw a line under our late lunch the next day and my pints of Draught Guinness and Tennents Lager.  Both awful, but suffice to say, Guinness particularly seems in rapid decline taste wise, with its over-cooked, stale cardboard flavour and its thinness. The Tennents just tasted watery and watered down, which it is.  A couple of days later, on the way back  to Manchester,  I had a quick pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde which was pretty good, with a snappy, refreshing hop taste and a slight spicy wheatiness. The pumpclip may well offend some though.  Time for one more before my journey.  I popped into the Drum and Monkey and five beers were on. I opted for a half of Ilkley Lotus IPA. I had to ask for a sparkler, which caused the very personable East Coaster behind the bar to grimace, confiding in me that he disliked them. We agreed to differ and chatted amiably. He now looks after the beer and is a stickler for both choice and quality. He berated the previous regime, as is customary, but I surmised instantly that he'll be an asset to the pub.  As always in pubs, get the staffing and beer right and you are on a winner. The Lotus was splendid, so much so, that I had another quick half, before hot footing it round the corner to Trans Pennine Express and the railway line southwards.

So a mixed bag in very limiting circumstances in Glasgow, but overall, not so bad.

If you ever want a very decent curry, tapas style, Mother India Cafe can be combined with BrewDog Glasgow, right opposite the Kelvin Hall.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Can I Have a Taste of That?

We are told that one of the best ways of encouraging people to try cask beer, is to offer tasters. Indeed the principle can be stretched to all beer, but I'd guess that it is to cask beer that it most often applies, given the huge number of different beers available and the lack of information provided about what's on sale in most pubs. There is a touch of psychology involved here too. Perhaps it is a British thing particularly, but there is a degree of obligation then put on the drinker, in his or her mind at least, that having tried a beer, you must buy a beer. I can't recall many, if any times, where I or others having tried a sample or two, then said "No thanks" and left. It is you would say, a "win win" situation. The drinker gets a beer they are more or less content with and the pub makes a sale. Simples.

Stepping back from this a little and broadening things out, there is still a distinct lack of information about beers on sale in most pubs. Bar staff are often guilty of complete lack of knowledge of even colour, despite serving the stuff - even sometimes it has to be said - at the end of a shift. Boards rarely indicate style or colour and the Cyclops scheme of how a beer appears and should taste is yet to make much of an impression. At least, nobody has ever read the Cyclops tasting notes back to me.

Last week in Liverpool I came across something that has only happened on the odd occasion. In one pub, a request by my drinking companion for a taste was politely refused, citing company policy. In another the very helpful barmaid explained that third pint tasters (as a pint) were available, so that you could make up your own mind at your own cost, as the burden of paying for tasters had proved uneconomic to the pub, mostly due to abuse of the system. Interesting stuff.

Now it may be that they are just a mean lot in Liverpool, but I doubt that. Personally I'd rather the pub factored in the cost of tasters in their pricing, as I'm sure most do, but given the wide variety of beers and beer styles available and the huge lottery of buying the unknown blind, I'd say pubs are missing a trick if they don't offer free tasters and make more effort to tell folks what the beers available are like. On the subject of third pints and three for the price of a pint in particular, I've noticed this becoming more common. It is a good thing, but not as a replacement for a quick taste to see if I'd like it in the first place. For the record, I've never come across any pub that sells a third of a pint on its own. Does that happen anywhere?

Tasters can be misleading of course as most drinkers know, but at least they give you a fleeting impression of the beer, but more product information is never a bad thing. The customer not only deserves it, but with huge choice, actually needs it.

I have even heard of CAMRA run festivals where the third has replaced tasters. Bad form.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

And the Winner Is.....

Hawkshead Windermere Pale. The Champion Beer of the Society of Independent Brewers Northen section and very well deserved it is too. I first alerted my readers about this beer way back in 2009. You can read about it here.  For those that don't know it, Windermere Pale is a very pale, highly hopped beer of a mere 3.5%.  When we read so much about hop monster triple IPAs or other such, weighing in at 9% plus, it is good to remember what we are, possibly uniquely, so great at brewing on these islands - very drinkable low gravity beer that you can just straightforwardly sup in volume.

I was able to congratulate both the brewer and owner after the result was announced at the Great Northern Beer Festival last week in Manchester. The beer is one of my favourites and though judging was blind, I was pretty sure that it was one of the beers I judged, but I'll never know for sure, as I'm not anal enough to write down the codes, thus enabling me to find out later.  I know it is a cracking beer though, as does Matt the brewer and Alex the owner. For those that don't know it, Windermere Pale is hoppy and refreshing, pale gold in colour with a long bitter finish with hints of grapefruit. The fruity hop flavours come from a medley of traditional and modern hops in which Citra - no surprises - features.  As Alex said " “Windermere Pale is a very popular beer, it has a lot of fans. It has become the best selling beer in The Beer Hall at the brewery. It is one of those beers that is winning converts to real ale. I’m so glad competition judges like it too.” 

If you come across it, seek it out and insist it is both cool and sparkled.  

You'll also wish to know that the festival was a great success too. More on that in due course.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Keykeg Question

I am still getting my head round keykegs. OK, I've examined them at close quarters at GBBF and understand how they work, but my question is about how they are filled and how the beer inside gets its CO2. Now a conventional keg, is filled upside down (usually) through its central extraction spear. Is it the same for a keykeg where the bag takes the place of the spear? Additionally since a keykeg is not subject to applied external CO2 being in contact with the beer and therefore does not "gain" CO2 from the dispense process, my assumption is that the volume of internal CO2 is set as (or before) it is filled and then it stays at that rate during dispense, as it is pushed out by the collapsing sphere. Is the beer pressure set at the filling unit? Can they be filled with beer set at whatever CO2 content the brewer needs? 

Essentially how is the internal CO2 pressure set? Anyone care to enlighten me?

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Great Northern Beer Festival

For the second time Manchester is hosting this prestigious event, with beers being exhibited by most, if not all, SIBA North members. There is a new venue too, at the Ramada Piccadilly Hotel (though since booking, it is now actually the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel - hotels change hands a lot) and bang in the centre of the city. Publicity has been a lot better this year too - we do learn as we go along - so combined with that and a new and reduced pricing structure for entry, we should hopefully see a huge turnout. All cask beers will be served by handpump and will be sparkled and served with a tight Northern creamy head, as the brewers and God intended.

The festival itself is a joint venture between SIBA (Small Independent Brewers) and CAMRA Greater Manchester, with SIBA underwriting the event, providing the beer (of course) glasses and cooling equipment and running the beer judging competition, and CAMRA who are providing the cellaring, bars and staffing. The cellar is huge with 250 or so casks racked in a temporary facility above the serving area. Cellar technicians are, as I write, running cooling pythons from above and installing the handpumps. It is a rather unusual arrangement, but hopefully it will all work. 

My modest role yesterday was to ensure that the racked beers were in the correct serving position, stable and ready to be cleaned before tapping and venting. Tomorrow I'll be doing Health and Safety checks, as I will on Thursday before we open to the public and throughout the event. I'll also be a judge in the beer competition and looking forward to that too.

It really is an immense and complicated thing to organise, but I rather fancy it is going to be great. If you are coming along, do come and say hello. If you are not coming along you'll be missing a treat.

The list of beers can be found here.

This also provides me with a chance to try Hawkshead New Zealand IPA at last. Hooray. I also have my eye on a few interesting bottles.

7 – 29 OCTOBER 2011


NOON – 10.30PM

Concessions Apply

Thursday 20 October 2011

Tandleman - Bottled Beer Man

All Our Yesterdays was a lovely TV programme that only us old farts can remember.  It looked back on the world as it used to be and was a nostalgist's wet dream.  It is also nice sometimes,  to look back through your drinking career and remember how things used to be and recall with rheumy eyed affection, the times when seeking out the new and unusual beer wise, was not only immensely enjoyable, but overwhelmingly exciting  and when I used to drink a fair bit of bottled beer at home and even, God forbid now, lug them back from my holidays.

In a fit of nostalgia, earlier today, I was looking back at my old beer reviews on the Oxford Bottled Beer Datbase. Along with some other dodgy characters like Des De Moor and Jeff Pickthall, I used to search out the exotic and write about them for the benefit of the great unwashed and was part of a beer community before blogging and while Usenet was still going strong. I had forgotten some of the beers I reviewed and that, in part at least, I used to be reasonably good at it. I have proof of that, which I'll share with you later.

Most of the stuff I wrote was around 1999/2000 and the list of beers includes rare Dutch and French artisanal beers, American beers that even now you don't see here and even the odd supermarket atrocity, plus loads of German ones. Names to conjure with include Yellow Rose Vigilante Porter, St Martinus Rabenhaupt Witbier,San Miguel Cerveza de Invierno 98/99, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Burning River Pale Ale, De Tesselse Bierbrouwerij Skuum Koppe, Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes La Salamandre. Names that don't exactly trip off the tongue, even now.

Looking at some of the reviews I did of beers that still exist, it would be interesting to see if these self same beers would be written about by me in the same way, or whether they or me have changed so much, that it would appear to be a different beer entirely. That's the thing about beer reviews (and other things too), they are a snapshot in time and things change. Some obviously and some subtly, but few beers remain the same, even if the recipe doesn't change. I think most of us that drink a local beer by choice and habit are aware of that, some of us more poignantly than others, as to my mind at least, beers rarely change for the better.

I know I sometimes scoff slightly at exotics and the drinking and praising thereof, but looking back, I suppose it is a phase you go through on the path to true beery enlightenment down the pub. It was fun though and while I don't cart beers back these days, it was kind of exciting at the time. Who can forget the thrill of untangling beers from used socks and shirts and finding them still intact? Happy Days, but things move on and offer some unanticipated compensations. While there aren't many when growing old,  looking back and saying "been there, done that", preferably with a shit eating grin, is one of them and smugly satisfying.

So ending on a high note,  Uncle Tanders even gives you hope for the future when you are in your dotage. Things might not get better, but you were there first, in some ways at least.  

Oh yes - I said I'd give you proof of my beery descriptive prowess. It doesn't get much better than this quote from my description of Mendocino Brewing Company Blue Heron Pale Ale on the Oxford Bottled Beer Database:

"Not Mendocino's greatest achievement flavour-wise (Peter Alexander's description is spot-on as usual) but a very beautiful bottle and label design which qualify it for my "Hall of Fame" bottle shelf above the bar."
Jeff Pickthall

What more proof could anyone want?

Monday 17 October 2011

Dark Beers for Winter

I have noticed that some pubs and publicans have decided, now that the weather is colder and nights are drawing in, that a dark beer, or sometimes several dark beers should replace lighter "summer" offerings. This seasonality seems logical enough to them presumably, but speaking as someone that likes his quaffing beer pale and hoppy, I don't see it that way.

While I have no objections at all to a handpump in a multi pump house being dedicated to something dark, I do have severe objections when the change of seasons means a gaderene rush to choice limiting dark beers, that are often much of a muchness. While I am at this theme, why are there so many awful porters about at the moment? Equally why are there so few decent bitter stouts around?

I do like dark beers, in fact I love them, but they need to have character. Just making a bland dark beer doesn't cut it for me at all and in my view, a pale hoppy beer is essential at all times in most pubs. (I also have long harboured the belief that brewing faults are far more easily hidden in darker beers and that isn't welcome either.)

What do you reckon?

On the same theme: St Austell Proper Black - Black IPA or a roasty well hopped stout? Opinions?

Wednesday 12 October 2011

More Supermarket Beer Bollocks

Having an upmarket break from skulking around Lidl and Aldi, in Morrisons and having bought all the Branston Baked Beans I need for the foreseeable future (best standard baked beans bar none), I thought, like you do, I'd have a gander at the beery offerings. Bloody Hell they are cheap. No need to buy the fizzy pop so beloved of Cooking Lager, as you could get quite royally pissed for a tenner drinking some decent beers and reasonably merry for a fiver if you could force Courage Best down your neck. No wonder people drink at home.

However what caught my eye was this little shelf strap underneath Lees The Governor Ale (Brewed for top chef Marco Pierre White). I spotted something wrong with it. Know what it is? Well I'll tell you. Since it was only brewed for the first time earlier this year, it would have had a bit of a job being "2002 Supreme Champion Beer of Britain". ( In fact that honour went to Caledonian Deuchars IPA.)  While one might also look askance at the claim that it has "intense hop flavours" - in fact it is pretty damn malty - that could be regarded as a matter of opinion, but the 2002 claim clearly is not.

Now I don't know if this is a local or national problem, but don't these supermarket types check things out with people that know before shoving nonsense onto their shelves and thus misleading the public? Not that hard is it surely? 

Top Tip: There is a very good price on Moonraker Strong Ale - 7.5% for £1.85 and it is bloody lovely stuff  too.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Beer Bottle Sizes to be Hit?

It seems that some beer bottle sizes are set to shrink as the industry ponders how to keep up their discount offers in the face of price rises and tax increases.  Sales of smaller size spirits are increasing already, with unfamiliar 50cl bottles becoming more common and it looks like some beers may follow to allow the same price to be maintained for multi pack offers.  Hardly surprising as everything seems to be shrinking to maintain price, from Dairy Milk to toilet cleaner.

Now this is of course unlikely to affect the 500ml size preferred for most premium bottled beers, but maybe, just maybe, it would be possible that we will see some bottle size reductions in the over 7.5% range, recently hit by extra beer duty.  We will have to wait and see on that one, but it could be that some producers would rather see the price increase "absorbed" that way.

Bottled beer sizes and prices are unlikely to affect me unduly of course, as I don't drink much of them, but the subject does allow me to link to my recent experience as a guest at the judging of Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt Final - an all bottled beer event and thus a rarity for me. There was eight beers to try and most weren't bad at all,  but overall it reinforced in my mind, that drinking even decent British standard beers at home is unlikely to give you the same taste experience as drinking them cask conditioned in the pub.  (Hardly news I know and I would say that wouldn't I?)  Funnily enough it is to my mind the bottled versions of what you might called "bitter" in all its forms that suffers most from bottling. Stronger, darker beers tend to taste better and speciality beers probably do best of all, with pale hoppy ones also standing a very good chance of success. 

It was nonetheless a very enjoyable event and good to meet a number of interesting and pleasant people. The winner was, perhaps then unsurprisingly, a dark beer, Good King John from Ridgeway Brewing, who remarkably had two beers in the final eight.  The runner up, Caesar Augustus from William Brothers, could be described as a "speciality beer" being a hybrid of lager and IPA, though to this drinker, it had more characteristics of the former than the latter. It was an enjoyable beer though, like most stuff from this brewery and worthy of its place in the top two. My own favourite was Wild Hop IPA from Harviestoun. I could imagine a few bottles of that would not be a hardship at all, though that's clearly not what the judges thought.  Some veterans of Sainsbury's Beer Hunting remarked to me that the best beer wasn't there, namely Williams Brother's Profanity Stout and certainly this has been echoed on the blogosphere, though I can't opine, as I haven't been able to find it myself. 

So all in all a very enjoyable and different afternoon, superbly organised by Sainsbury's and brilliantly hosted by wine buff Ollie Smith who professed to being a beer lover too.

And you know what? He seemed such a genuinely nice guy that I believe him. 

The full Sainsbury story is here.

Friday 7 October 2011

Showing How its Done

The Wetherspoon Beer Festivals are eagerly anticipated, largely for the thrill of the chase, as we seek out those beers brewed by foreign brewers and other top picks. The most recent festival started on Wednesday, but the official launch for our area was yesterday and in the superb Regal Moon to boot. Other JDW pubs from the area were represented too and hopefully were impressed. I had a chat with two very enthusiastic managers and at their invitation, gave them some advice about beer selection, drawing heavily on Cask Report tips. The Area Manager also promised me an ad in our CAMRA Branch Magazine, so all was well so far.

It was an august crowd that gathered to sample the early array of beers on offer, but most of us were awaiting the simultaneous unveiling of all five Yankee beers at 2 o'clock. Tyson the Beerhound was present, as was the Landlady. Gerald Nodding of Winter Ales fame was there to see how things are done, Eddie Senior and Archimedes made guest appearances and even Joe Stalin turned up, ate all the pies and went. The early beer offerings were a mixed bag of ordinariness to downright unpleasant, the unpleasant being headed strongly by Traditional Scottish Ales Taking the Pith - a beer made from lemon and lime pith. Everyone agreed they were indeed taking the pith. Wadworth Octoberzest tasted like a fruitier version of 6X, with the Wadworth house style showing strongly through, but was pleasant enough. Double Maxim Andersons Best Scotch was unfortunately forgettable in every way.  Caledonian Imperial Russian Stout was said by the landlady to taste of truffles. This was not a consensus view, but on the agreement side, nobody liked it.  Tyson remarked that Rooster's Last Stand was a belated return to form of Sean Franklin, just before he disappears to Canada. It was indeed a fine beer with pronounced hoppiness.

A murmur of excitement ran through the room as pumpclips appeared on the last bank of six handpumps.  No thirds were available due to late delivery of glasses, so halves were procured.  Bend Eclipse Cascadian Dark Ale, wasn't that dark really and though the hops showed through strongly, it was oddly watery.  Stone San Diego Session Ale was much better, but again somehow didn't quite hit the spot.  Odell's 90/- was dominated by caramelly malt, which managed to overwhelm the Perle and Cascade hops.  Fathead's Yakima Sun was more pleasing,  though again malt seemed to have won its battle with hops. Last up was Kalmazoo Black Silk, which was to my mind, the best of the bunch, being toasty, smooth and moreish.

So why the title? Occupying last place on the handpull bank was Adnams American style IPA. What a great beer. Resinous, oily hops, a firm smooth and biscuity malt base, a tight creamy head and at 4.8% proving you don't need to overwhelm with alcohol to make a bloody great beer.  I switched to pints and filled my boots, leaving too late and somewhat the worse for wear.

So Adnam's teach the Yankee Brewers a lesson in making American style beer. Who'd a thowt it? But they did.

The JDW Festival runs until the 23rd of October

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Good Stuff from Cask Marque

Beer wise I had variously good experiences and bad in London last week. On the good side obviously was the lovely weather, which made a little outdoor drinking possible, as well as pleasant strolls to and between pubs. Lists can be boring, but I won't let that stop me, so I'll mention some of the best, just so you know where to go. The Gunmaker's Arms as always keeps their beer immaculately. Landlord Jeff even took me into his cellar to try an impressive new beer from East London Brewing. I suspect that they may be one to watch, so let's er.. watch them. Making a handy little pub crawl is nearby Craft. I've praised them before for very well kept beer and do so again, this time enhanced by three (or was it four?) Mallinson's beers. Only black mark was the mind numbing overly loud music, but then to this old git, modern repetitive beats go into my head like driven nails. None of that nonsense in the Euston Tap though, where I enjoyed my farewell to London beers. I have never had a badly presented beer here.

Another highlight was Kernel Brewery, where we dropped a lot of money in very short order, drinking some very impressive beers.   This is an interesting venue under some railways arches, attracting a lot of yuppie and know-all types, but nonetheless, in the sun, rather fun, though it took some finding.  I had to check on the Dean Swift too.  Since its new cask cooling has been installed, I haven't been in London, but the system works well and the beer is cool and drinkable.  The pub listened to comments and acted on them. That's great. We like it a lot and will be back.

It can't all be good though.  On Sunday - a very warm day - the beer in the Harp wasn't standing up well at all. One pint was sufficient on this occasion.  A couple of poor shows in Nicolson's pubs on the Strand too. That's disappointing as I regard Nicolsons as generally good.  And of course there is the delightful Draft House on Tower Bridge. I love the place for the decor, the big windows and the buzz, but please cool the cask beer. Please, please cool the cask beer.

London has its warm beer issues and none more so than one of my local pubs, but lo, it now sports a Cask Marque sign, so in we went.  The beer was so undrinkably warm, that I felt moved to complain to Cask Marque.  They inspected it on Monday and fed back to me that the beer purchased (Sharp's Doom Bar)  was an unbelievable 23.5C.  That for us old chaps is 74.3F.  Astonishing.  They will follow up with two more unannounced visits to check for improvement.  I suspect I may be reporting more to them, though as winter approaches, cellars will cool. Still splendid service from Cask Marque. Well done chaps.

Of course the other thing about London is how good the pubs invariably are. Traditional, lovely to look at and to be in.  I love London pubs above most others. They are just so.... so......... pubbish.

Let's get the beer right though and a word to the wise, refrigeration is not a bad thing. 

I won't name my local pub on this occasion until I know how things turn out.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Do You Believe This?

According to HM Revenue and Customs, illegal imports of beer - beer that has not had UK duty paid on it - amounts to 14% of UK beer volumes. Now I am assuming here that legally imported beer for personal consumption is not included in these figures, but then again can that be so, as including those beers would make the problem much worse? On the other hand then legally imported beer for personal consumption can be sold illegally. Is that what they are saying, or is it some kind of some kind of combination? What do these guesstimates really mean?  It's as clear as mud.

The problem with this sort of thing is that when you start to think about it, the whole premise becomes less and less likely. Where does this beer come from? Where does it go? Is it being imported in such quantities when we are told supermarkets are giving it away? It can't be being sold in pubs to any great extent either can it? For such quantities to be true, you'd have to import it by the truck load rather than the (white) van load and surely HMRC and the Immigration Department still check loads, even if it is just for VAT, security and illegal immigrants? It all seems rather far fetched to me.

The Revenue say that the country is losing (in 2009/10) an incredible £800 million in duty due to this. (Spirits which to me is more believable, account for another £440 million). This is up an incredible 40% in one year.

Anyone got any thoughts on this?

Coming on the day after the publication of the Cask Report, this would mean that illegal beer imports exceed total cask beer sales.

Monday 26 September 2011

Cask Still Doing the Biz

The Cask Ale Report for 2011/12 is out. Well sort of. You can't download it from their site yet, so if you want to know what's in it, you have to rely on its author Pete Brown (who better?) or the good old Morning Advertiser.

The key message is that in a beer market that declined by an overall 7.8%, cask declined by only 2.3%, though there is a complex scene of increasing cask beer drinking (especially among the young), more pubs stocking it and cask now taking 15% of the on trade market, which itself declined by around 7%. Any further number crunching will have to wait until I get my mitts on the report itself.

Crucially Pete Brown, quoted in the MA says; “Cask ale can help pubs to not only survive, but to thrive. It’s attracting new drinkers who spend more in the pub than non-cask drinkers, making them valuable customers,"  This is a very important point. Cask beer drinkers, by and large aren't sippers of beer. They drink it freely and that means more spend.  The attractiveness of cask mirrors my own recent experience. I had two phone calls from landlords asking for my advice recently. One has been now given by his (very small) pub company, freedom to pursue a cask beer policy and wean customers off smooth in an all smooth pub and the other has bought an excellent pub, which had been ruined by Enterprise and wanted advice on how to rebuild the cask ale trade when it re-opens.  Optimistic stuff indeed.

There is a host of opportunity here and hopefully more and more pubs will take it.  I am not one of those that thinks the future of real ale is assured. It is still a niche product (though a big niche) and still needs to ensure quality is always top notch, but the trends are good. Even family brewers (a particular interest of mine)are upping their game. In this area Thwaites, by sheer power of will and canny marketing, as well as producing beers that people really want to drink, have transformed their image. They have become nationally known and are doing a lot right. Robinsons promise great things and innovative products, from both a new brewery and a new brewing team.  Adnams are already well down that path and others are looking for ways in which they can up their game. Staying as you were just isn't an option.  What's the point of being vertically integrated, if all your pubs are empty because your products are out of step with the times?  Owning a brewery and pubs gives family brewers the opportunity, perhaps not to lead the revolution, but certainly to take great advantage of it.

Cask ale has a bright future and what we need both locally and nationally, is to keep pushing forward with great products, fantastic quality and a touch of innovation. Those that don't,  those that rest on their laurels or past glories, be they pubs, PubCos, or breweries, will end up down among the dead men. 

I'd have liked an advance copy of this, albeit an embargoed one.