Wednesday 30 March 2011

Out of the Loop

I'm stuck in less than optimum beery climes. The West of Scotland can clearly be deemed as such - no bloody arguments please - unless you have easy access to a small part of Glasgow. I am marooned thus by a family death and while it may seem insensitive to complain about the lack of beer, good or otherwise, (though as I type this, my Asda bought bottle of Pivovar Herold, tastes pretty damn good), it clearly doesn't compensate for missing out on the JDW Fest, or pleasant pints with my mates in the Regal Moon tonight.

They do other things differently here. The wake was tea, sandwiches and cakes. I am pretty well caked out in fact. Empire Biscuit anyone? No maudlin piss up and probably better for that. This separation from good beer makes me realise how lucky I am beer wise. The fact that I helped carry the coffin, rather than being carried in it, also makes me feel lucky.

I could still murder a decent beer and for me, hopefully, there is always tomorrow.

Empire Biscuits - What a great treat!

Monday 21 March 2011

Last Week

I've been busy with this and that including family illness, but of course beer has featured. A trip to Glasgow brought two bonuses. Firstly the beer revolution (a real one) that has been sweeping through the Nicolson's chain has reached the immensely handy for Glasgow Central Station, Drum and Monkey.   Pints of Jaipur on the way to and from my Mum's were both excellent and reasonably priced. Now up to six cask beers are offered which is good news. Nearby,  I used to like the huge and imposing former Bank of Scotland building that is now the JDW Counting House, but the beer range has failed to impress on my last few visits. It seems stuck in a dark, sweet, Scottish  beer groove, chosen from a select band of breweries, most of which need a kick up the arse. On my last visit a few weeks ago, I noticed that a new JDW was being worked on a mere 20 yards or so from the Counting House.  Camperdown Place is now open and offers a very decent selection of beer in a pub that is most unJDW-like. A very fine spot for a quick pint before descending (or ascending depending on destination) into Queen St station. Acorn IPA did not suck at all.

Back on home ground, I introduced the lovely E to the Port St Beer House. On Friday night it was healthily busy and while unable to paint  a surreal picture of it for you, I was, not for the first time, slightly underwhelmed by the cask beers on offer. Not the condition mind you which was and has been on every visit, excellent, but am I alone in thinking that Prospect and Boggart are less than inspiring choices? That and  Lord Marples, the runt of the Thornbridge litter made my beer selection easy.  I was completely impressed by Hardknott Dave's Interstellar Matter, a porter of considerable complexity and poise, which deserved more than just a second half, but I was limited severely by driving.  E was less than taken with the keg Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, that she thought tasteless and gassy and as she remarked, not a patch on the bottled version.  She also  remarked on the almost complete absence of beards among the fairly affluent customers and then wryly added that "you can't say that about the bar staff".  Indeed all four men sported beards of which Jim Morrison or indeed Ulysses S Grant would have been proud and were as hairy as their customers were not. Not sure what that does to those who like to stereotype. All offered fantastic service though and I must put on record that unfailing good service has been noticeable on my visits so far. We will keep coming back, so another winner, albeit qualified by a niggling concern about cask selection, though of course I accept fully that I may just have been unlucky.

On Saturday a trip by coach to Hawkshead Brewery to their new Beer Hall. Well ,extended Beer Hall.  I was unable to take up the opening day invitation, by my wish to have E accompany me, so ironic it was, that after all, she had to stay at home with her unwell mother. Still with Tyson and his coterie, John Clarke, a clutch or Marble and ex Marble brewers and many others I know, it was still a fine place to be.  The investment here is tremendous and the beers were, as Tyson reports, unfailingly good and served to perfection.  I want to proclaim Hawkwshead as one of the most underrated breweries in the UK. Their range is superb, their attention to detail second to none and the presentation of the beers absolutely spot on. "Quality in everything" could be their motto. Seek them out.  I worked my way through the hard to move away from Windermere Pale (3.5%) dominated by Citra and drinking like a 4% beer, to the wonderful, full bodied and bitter Lakeland Gold and then to Citrilla with its cunning and stunning blend of Citra and Amarillo hops.*

So to copy Tyson.  Beer of the week: Hawkshead Citrilla.  Pub chain of the week, Nicolsons.

*I missed out on Stringers Yellow Lorry and Fyne Ales Jarl. Rumour has it that Tyson supped the last of both.

Monday 14 March 2011

CAMRA At It Again?

It doesn't do to go rubbishing other people's choice of drinks does it? We are all more or less agreed on that one I think. Accentuate the positive we are urged.

Why then do we get this?: "We want the public to realise that the fizzy, yellow so-called ‘beers’ pushed on the unsuspecting public by big breweries should be treated as a crime..... Crap beer’s days are numbered. The time for revolution is prove to beer drinkers that have previously put up with these tasteless, insipid mainstream lagers that things have changed."

Hang on though. It isn't CAMRA that say this, but Brew Dog in announcing " a crap beer amnesty" this month for drinkers to trade in big brand cans for their about to be nationally released canned Punk IPA.

Of course if CAMRA had said this, the CAMRA bashers would have been out in force condemning them as out of touch, etc. etc. But it wasn't CAMRA, so that's all right then isn't it?

And yes, I've fallen into the Brew Dog trap once more. But at least I resisted illustrating this with a Brew Dog can!

Thursday 10 March 2011

All in the Same Boat*

Pete Brown wrote an emotional and excellent piece pleading for unity in all things beery a couple of days ago. It attracted quite a bit of comment and the usual "black spot" for CAMRA. Pete is concerned that "factionalism and blind prejudice – on various sides – is threatening to kill, or at least stall, the beer revolution."

Well OK. Let's accept there is a beer revolution, though Pete doesn't define it for us and many would say it isn't actually a given. But let's just say there is. He calls for more tolerance, which is a good thing and gives us something to chew on. He doesn't like people slagging off other people's choices of beer. Now I agree with this and like him I dare say I have to plead guilty for doing so from time to time, though trawling my blog, I couldn't actually find any examples where I've done that. I can find a few complaining about a landlord's choice of beer, or about the quality of a beer at a given time or place, but that is surely legitimate? I'm a consumer and blogger after all. His concerns are presumably mainly directed at the industry at large which is legitimate. Slagging off shouldn't apply there either.

Pete is also concerned about squabbling. Squabbling kids in fact. He doesn't say who the squabblers are though.  If he means bloggers, even if it is so, which I rather think it isn't, who'd give a monkey's chuff? I doubt if we count for that much.  Each of us may well disagree with some of what other people write, but I don't think we slag each other off as much as we maybe should even, nor do I believe we feel particularly  alienated by those that disagree with us. We are pretty well behaved for a passionate lot really, so though he doesn't say, I think he is looking wider.

As Ed says in a very good piece in his blog, there are wider concerns within the industry. The policy disagreements between the BBPA and SIBA make the differences between keg beer brewers and CAMRA absolutely pale into insignificance in scale. The role of the PubCos and their stranglehold on pubs and the BBPA doesn't get a mention in Pete's blog, though clearly they have had a dramatic effect on beer, pubs and industry over the last 20 years or so. The attitude of the BBPA, who are trying to look many ways at once, while totally failing to take the industry lead, is to say the least, worrying. Disagreement on policy is rife between on and off trade, the minimum pricers and more. It doesn't paint a pretty picture.

So what should we be positive about? Well supporting British beer of course as Pete says and if your tipple is generic lager or John Smith's Smooth, well that is entirely up to you and fine by me. If you want to drink "Gales Seafarers, Adnams Bitter and London Pride" that's also just fine and dandy. I actually drink more "brown boring beer" by way of Lees Bitter than anything else, so on a personal level,  I'm already doing my bit.  I most certainly understand that these beers are still what most drinkers actually recognise, identify with and yes, like. I also welcome the new brewers of keg as they provide choice and choice is always good.  It's a CAMRA aim is choice. (Mind you I'm still entitled to remark that if you are the publican, I'd like some greater variety please.)  If you want to drink imported beers (though I'm not sure how that helps British beer)or keg beer, that's up to you too. I do wish you'd do more of it in the pub though, as I like pubs and want there to be plenty of them, so I can go to them, but if you don't, well that's up to you too. I like to think though that I passionately  support British Beer and British pubs and if there is a call for unity around that, I'll sign up now.

Oh yes. CAMRA. Of course aren't they always the problem?  Stick in the muds who want to continue to support in their own way, a cause that they were founded for and have always believed in.  I emphatically agree that CAMRA members should not slag off other kinds of beer in a generic and offhand way. That should be actively discouraged.  People that do so are no friends of British beer and in fact no friend of the Campaign. They should grow up. As for changing though, when "new keg" has gained its foothold and has enough support to sustain itself, then CAMRA members might be convinced that definitions should be changed. (Old CAMRA,(to use Pete's term,) members will mostly be dead or inactive by then, so that should make that much easier!) Until then what would be in it for CAMRA? A major split probably.

It seems to me that the very small amount of "new keg" beer that is around at the moment is still looking for consistency, quality, distribution and most of all, legitimacy. I'd guess that's what they really want from CAMRA. Legitimacy.( I'd also venture that in purely beer terms, the new keg beer movement doesn't actually need CAMRA, so goodness knows why they are so obsessed with the subject. People in CAMRA aren't obsessed with them for sure.) None of that should matter though.  You don't have to agree on everything, or change your basic views, to work together and I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing for a coalition of all aspects of the beer industry to fight for common interests.  In fact I have actively advocated such in the CAMRA review.

Finally far more worrying to my mind, isn't CAMRA's views of beer conditioning and dispense, but how it handles its status as a consumer champion. That's where the real issues are and where power lies.  It is there that CAMRA could best be influenced and persuaded in the cause of British beer and beer drinkers. The bigger picture mentioned by Pete can be served best by helping CAMRA tread the right path as a super complainant and for the industry side to sort itself out and start speaking with one strong voice. That is a much bigger task. There is far more danger in getting that aspect wrong and giving all the help possible and working with CAMRA to get it right, would be a far more productive path to follow than the normal (uninformed)  CAMRA bashing.

So maybe we can't always be "cheery beery", but at least let's all work together to support British Beer and Pubs.

CAMRA has a policy on keg beer. Keg is not precluded in the Memorandum and Articles of Association. So it would be policy that would have to change, not CAMRA. 

*Having read through Pete's comments since this was written, I don't think he and I are a million miles apart. 

Cartoon with the help of Stringers Beer.

Thursday 3 March 2011

The Governor

Yesterday I went along to the Northern Food and Bar show at Manchester Central (though I still find it easier to call it GMex). My local brewer JW Lees had a stand, so I went along to chat to those present and watch the official launch of the new beer Lees have brewed for top chef Marco Pierre White. The great man was there himself and was rather a hit with the ladies who were falling over themselves to have their photo taken with him.

This was the first time the new all-malt beer had been served outside of the brewery and I was lucky enough to be given a sample by the MD himself (William Lees-Jones) and though I didn't meet Marco, I enjoyed the spectacle very much. It has to be said he has incredible presence. The beer, named after a champion greyhound owned by the chef's father,  was rather good. Firmly malty in the Lees house style, but with a very good hop finish, it will be widely available from April.

Another beer hit was Holts IPA. Only 3.8% but a delightful hoppy number that you could swoop a lot of pints of. It is a permanent addition to the range.

Apart from being a handsome bugger, Marco also looked as though he'd be pretty useful if a ruck started.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Getting Better

What is? London is. There is a step change in what is happening in the capital. More choice and better choice, new bars opening, new breweries appearing and getting space on bars because they are local. (Not yet because they are universally good.) Better awareness of beer all round it seems too and it is happening fast. Very fast. Publicans and pub chains are thinking about beer and how they can make something more of it and that is fantastic and overdue.  London has great pubs and now we are on the way to great beer. Brilliant.

There are still problems, though most can be easily eradicated. First range and choice. Too much samey brown beer. The golden, hoppy, quaffing beer is still hard to find and when you do it is likely to be Dark Star Hophead. No bad thing in itself, but there are others out there. Variety is important and if like me you are unattracted to a certain style of beer, you will have lost a customer if there isn't a bit of real choice, rather than just a variation on a single theme. When choosing beers, spread the choice and broaden the appeal.

The second is temperature and condition. There is still too much tired, flabby and overvented beer being sold at over 16C- and sold for top dollar too. That's easily sorted and it is instructive that you are at least as likely to get a properly conditioned pint, served at cellar temperature in a JDW or a Nicolsons (haven't they improved?) than you are in some of the the new fancy beer emporia. Particularly disappointing as you would hope that the new specialist beer bars, appealing to younger drinkers and beer enthusiasts as they do,  would be leading the way on this.

So with a few caveats, great stuff and huge potential for more, but the old mantra of quality, quality, quality, can never be repeated enough. While it may be needed more in London, it should be the watchword of every publican in the land, particularly in these difficult times.