Thursday 25 August 2011

It Doesn't Mean There is Anything Wrong with You

There is a saying in Bavaria.  "Nur ein schwein, drinkt allein"- "Only a pig drinks on its own". That I dare say is more to do with the local sense of "gemutlichkeit" or sociability, than a statement about the inadvisability of doing so. Drinking alone can be both liberating and uplifting if you allow it to be. It most certainly should never considered taboo or abnormal, unless it is of the destructive kind. But that of course applies to all drinking.

The quiet contemplative pint is so often an enjoyable experience, sitting in a carefully chosen corner, sorting out the myriad troublesome trifles of life in your mind. Or where more neutrally, you just drift, mind vacant and at ease,  while your pint waits patiently for the next absent minded sip. There are many variations to this basic theme.  The newspaper reader, enjoying a simple moment of solitude while catching up with the news or footie.  The crossword puzzler, brow furrowed, pen poised, looking heavenwards for inspiration. The betting man, mulling over his next flutter, at peace with the world and with hope coursing through his veins. The old gent, in his usual chair, nursing his beer while watching the varied goings on with practised interest and deriving great pleasure from the quiet familiarity of it all. The quick pint grabbed at the bar as a break from a trying day, the eagerly awaited pint after work, when cares can be thrown off, just for that brief time and when the mind can be quietly re-ordered and perspective, put back in its place. The uplifting moments of a nod here or a quiet word there, reminding you that your presence has been noted. All fall within the remit of drinking alone,  but none seem sad to me.

Sociability has its place of course and going to the pub with friends is indeed a wonderful thing, but being in your own company with a pint of good beer in your hand can be an excellent way of recharging your batteries and recalibrating the day. Indeed in the right circumstances, being content with yourself and just being there is a quietly uplifting experience. There's a great big world inside you and you know, it can be explored rather satisfyingly, beer in hand, in a conducive pub.

If you think  about it anyway, you aren't really that alone. The best pubs provide a connection. They draw people together in a shared existence, however fleeting and on your own or not, you are a part of it.

Do you enjoy a drink on your own in a pub sometimes? Are these old Bavarians maybe missing a trick after all? 

Oh and do exercise a bit of common sense.  Do this when you feel like a quiet beer on your own, but are otherwise chipper and avoid it when you are suicidal, or if your self loathing is already brimming over. 

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Beer is Best

Beer was more nutritious in these days I suppose.

Sup up Mum.

I'd like to say no babies were hurt in making this ad, but I can't be sure.

Juke Box Blues

There's something about Liverpool that excites. As soon as you get off the train at Lime Street Station you feel it,  A sort of electricity in the air.  I last lived there over 22 years ago, but it still feels familiar, though it has changed. The centre has gone all posh, as if you've stepped into a parallel universe where everything is nearly the same, but isn't quite.

I was there a few Saturdays ago with my exiled Scouse mate Mike, with whom I worked many years ago. We had to visit a venerable icon and an old haunt.   In Hope St, in the sight of Paddy's Wigwam, (aka the Catholic Cathedral)  is the Philharmonic, a magnificently interiored,  Grade 2 listed building with Grade 1 listed urinals.  A fantastic choice of beer awaited us, though I immediately felt compelled to try Camden's wonderful Inner City Green. Properly conditioned, cool and sparkled as God intended, this was superb. Juicy malt, pronounced hoppiness and a lovely creamy head to drink it through, it deserved another, so we had another. The only two pinter of the day. Around us the pub throbbed with life. Wedding guests from the nearby Registry Office (or maybe the cathedral) provided a touch of glamour. It was busy and we recalled many a  night in the Brahms Room, a long time ago over pints of Warrington brewed Tetley.  Only one discordant note - unwanted music was just loud enough to be intrusive.  No need for it here when the buzz of animated conversation was heady enough to get you drunk.  But worse was to come.

Now the Swan is a bikers and rockers pub. Led Zeppelin was blasting out and the place looked more or less as it did twenty odd years ago. Pints of Phoenix Hopsack were procured (naughtily unsparkled) and we stood at the bar as more rock tracks came on the juke box.  Great stuff and in context to the place and its customers.  Bear that in mind. It is important. Less great was our next pub, the Richmond.  The beer was fine, but required top ups which were a bit grudging, but not only was the music boomingly  loud, it was also loud on the street where external speakers blasted out, numbing the mostly middle aged customers and passers-by into submission.  Surely that should be banned ?  Similarly in the White Star and on Matthew St itself, the jarring cacophony from external speakers was very unpleasant.  OK - no nanny like bans on glassware like Manchester, but a racket like you've never heard in all your life. Which to choose? Plastic glasses or peace and quiet? Close call.

This isn't a go against background music. It is about appropriateness and volume.  Despite the title, you don't even get to choose your own noise anymore - it is inflicted by the staff.  To my ears their is nothing better than the buzz in a busy pub. It is called atmosphere. Surely a little more discretion could be used?

We didn't get a duff pint all day either, but I didn't come across the re-brewed Higsons. Pity that.

Monday 22 August 2011

The Great British Beer Trade Exhibition

Today's Publican's Morning Advertiser has a piece by Tony Jennings of Budvar in which he argues that: "It’s time to sell GBBF to the wider world". What does he mean by this? It seems Tony feels that there are tricks being missed by CAMRA and that CAMRA should (among other things) use the Great British Beer Festival as a means of helping British Beer exports and by so doing, attract government involvement. CAMRA should encourage more foreign brewers to exhibit. (I think we had a couple of hundred this year).   It should look more at beer with food and it should get itself round the country, citing the NEC in Birmingham as a possibility.

Now there's the thing. What the GBBF isn't is a trade exhibition. It is a festival of beers run to promote CAMRA and its aims - and to give everyone that attends it a good time.  It isn't there to do many of the things that Tony suggests and to move in  his direction, would over time, take the GBBF from being a bottom up drinkers run event, to be a top down business run event. It would certainly change it and arguably, it would ruin it.   While David Cameron, if he thought about it, might agree with Tony that the CAMRA volunteer system, which makes it the success it is, is the Big Society in action, you always have to be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  Volunteers do what they do for reasons that aren't entirely logical.  But they certainly do it to support CAMRA and the festival, not to promote a trade run (or oriented) show and while some of Tony's individual ideas may have merit in themselves, his main one would almost certainly invoke the law of unintended consequences.

The old joke of  "what do we want? - Gradual change" - "When do we want it? In due course" fits the GBBF (and to some extent CAMRA itself) like a glove. It evolves and gets better, slowly, year by year. It doesn't need to change its purpose or emphasis to do that.  It isn't and should never become a trade exhibition, let alone one with Government involvement.  Where would the fun be in that?

No doubt Tony's intentions are good and his kind words about the professionalism of the volunteers is welcome too. He is also right in suggesting fresh ideas, but while continuous improvement is a must, it should never become a trade show. Tony is looking at the GBBF through the wrong end of his telescope. 

Moving to the NEC would likely represent a huge financial risk to the Campaign among other negative factors)

Friday 19 August 2011

Two Thirds Legislation Delayed?

The Publican's Morning Advertiser had the news the other day that Heineken is to launch a range of two-thirds pint glasses to trade customers from November 2011.They say that "Under new regulations coming into force on 1 October, pubs will be able to sell draught beer and cider in two-thirds glasses"

Now a little bird tells me that this legislation has been delayed until next spring at the earliest and that UK glass suppliers have no samples to offer breweries. I quote from my source "As a result of knowing this, our manufacturers currently have no pre-production samples or images yet as styles for production are still being decided.".  Clearly this would, if true, disappoint some and be a matter of indifference to others.

Has anyone else heard this and does anyone know if this is actually the case?

My proposed article about the two thirds measure is delayed until the position becomes clear.  And the first person that calls it a schooner to me will be knocked out.

Friday 12 August 2011

My Old Local

I've always had a local pub. The one I worked in was my first, though I drank there already. It was a friendly village local which had its own idiosyncrasies, not least of which was the fact that back in the days when all Scottish pubs shut on a Sunday, we as a bona fide "Inn" were open. It was a tad busy shall we say, as hordes came from near and far for a drink. But more of this another time.

To have a local has always been important to me; it's just how I am. I like to walk in and enjoy the fact that people know me, call me by my name, ask how things are and that I know them. It is comforting and inclusive. Like a little family of sorts, where there are all the usual bickerings and disagreements, but so much bonhomie and laughter. It still does it for me when I walk in to my local and someone calls me by my name.

I was jerked back to one of my former locals the other night, when a tweet was received which advised that one of my old locals had been vandalised in the Liverpool riots. There was good news though. In an area which when I lived there was tremendously highly pubbed, the Earl Marshall was still trading. I have looked around the web and a lot of the others aren't any more. I know it closed for a bit and was boarded up, long after I left, but still it is open now. How brilliant is that?

When I first saw my little house, still being built, three doors down from the pub, that was the place that I went to have a pint and think about the whole thing. It took a while but I became a regular, part of the scene and able to knock on the window after closing time and get in. I was part of the half past four mob that were friends of the landlord and were exclusively admitted before opening time. (They'd all be pissed from lunchtime and singing.) I was protected from the rougher elements, able to take draught beer home in a glass while watching telly, did the Guardian crossword at the bar in my suit and was part of a thousand stories and good laughs. Eileen even got her shortened nickname of "E" there. There was a delicious time when the landlord Wally - an ex Liverpool taxi driver - parked his car on my drive, as there was work being done which took up his space at the pub. Beer was on the house for a couple of weeks despite my (feeble) protests.

The Marshall was a Tetley house then and when Walkers was revived, a Walkers one, but we used to go to all the other pubs too, in fours and fives and sometimes mob handed, drinking Higsons, Greenalls, Whitbread, Bass and the rest. All were within a ten minute walk. Everyone knew what pub you drank in then. It was a small world in a big city. Wally died just after I left and I dare say many of the hard drinking locals of 20 odd years have gone to that great pub in the sky too. But I remember them all. They looked after me and I had a great time with them.

So I'll raise a glass to the Marshall tonight and be glad that so many years later, I still have a local and have the friends I have made there and hope that not so many miles away, the Marshall will still be pulling pints for their locals. Maybe even, for some of my old mates? I do hope so.

My little house is in sight on the bottom picture. It was 3 doors along.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Case for Naming and Shaming

Mark has written a very good piece about bad beer and bad drinking practices on his blog.  He remarks about a frank exchange of views on Twitter (involving me) about just such an experience and wonders how best to go about things when you are less than satisfied.  A good question.

I am often thought of as a "namer and shamer" and indeed when I see it as justifiable, that is indeed what I do.  Of course I praise far more pubs and beers than I ever criticise and that's as it should be. You  ought to find good beer far more than bad in your travels and that should be reflected when recounting your experiences. There is no point in simply trotting out a serious of negatives. Of course there is a view that such naming is inherently counter productive and that a quiet word will solve the problem. You know what? It almost never does in the beer business and I have been around that business a long, long time.  How many times have you complained at the bar that a beer "might be a bit off" or "near the end of the barrel" - always said deferentially and apologetically and usually by way of a circumlocution - when you know in fact that it is undrinkable? The typical response is to have your view either denied, or at best an exchange given, while the beer continues to be served to the next mug.  How many times have you felt the beer is too warm, or too cold, or flat, or old, or any number of other faults? Have you had that quiet word, or just accepted it as a fact of life? Do you repeat that experience in the same pub time after time, or go elsewhere? Badly presented beer loses customers, whatever they either say or don't say to the management and it puts people off drinking beer.

Then there is the brewer and his reputation. People don't always make the correct association between "bad" beer and bad cellar practice. They often blame the brewer. Unfair?  I'd say so. (That works in reverse too). What about the cost? You can shell out up to £4 a pint for beer and for that, don't you deserve a beer on top of its form?  Curiously there is an unjustifiable degree of public tolerance for bad beer, bad service and a bad experience in pubs, which is strangely at odds with our views elsewhere. Would you be happy at Tesco if your roast ham was clearly past its best?  With Sainsbury's if your milk was on the turn? More tellingly, would they? Would Waitrose say "well everyone else is eating it?" when you expressed doubt about the freshness of their quiche?  No. They'd be horrified and be unable to do enough to make amends.  That's the attitude we ought to encourage in pubs surely?

And then there is focusing on the positive. This is good as far as it goes, but when it happens, should the bad be overlooked? Does the restaurant critic hold back on his findings? Of course not. But that's their job you holler? Well maybe, but my aim as a blogger is to give opinion based on experience and knowledge.  That's my job if you like.  I rarely have anyone deny the message, tell me I'm wrong about what I say, or  that what I say just isn't so. They just tell me that it should not be said.  "Bad form Old Boy."

So back to naming and shaming. Mark says rightly, that this has to be given proper consideration. I agree and despite some cynicism, I suffer too much from the triumph of hope over experience, so it is rare that I'll go into print about something that has happened, unless it has been more than once.  That isn't to say a mention won't be made in passing, or as a recounting of an experience. As I really believe that quality is absolutely important, if you knowingly and repeatedly fail to deliver that quality, then yes,  I will likely name and shame you. It is a discourtesy to beer and to my readers not to issue a warning where one is needed. The reader can then make their own mind up. (Interestingly publicans never respond with outrage either and if it was me and it wasn't true, I'd be spitting tacks.)

I was a fully trained barman under an old school boss when I was 18.  High standards of customer service and quality were drummed into me.  As part time bar staff we did everything in the customer facing part of the pub, from serving and changing beer, cleaning lines and even toilets. I have looked after more beer (both in festivals and in the pub) and drunk more beer and beers than most people have had hot dinners and I do know what I'm talking about, but you know what, that isn't the main point? Above all I'm a customer and I like things to be good.I was taught that one bad experience will poison the customer's mind and the minds of those to whom he or she tells the tale, while a good one will do the opposite and bring more customers in.

I am bitterly disappointed if my experience isn't good - that the publican doesn't care as much as I do - and I may just tell my readers about it.  It is disappointment and the taking away of my enjoyment (as well as my money) that really irks me and motivates me to comment on it.  Above all it is just feeling let down.

Mark's other point about the increasing influence of bloggers is interesting and relevant, but is for another time.

Friday 5 August 2011


The new pub in Leather Lane, Clerkenwell that is. I went there last night with the lovely E and enjoyed it very much, though it was a little smaller than I expected, but nonetheless an excellent job in bringing vibrant new life to an old pub. Cask beer was in very good condition and at perfect serving temperature. Well done on that one. The house lager (by Mikkeller I am told) was excellent in every way. There was also a well thought out choice of imported keg beers, though of course having come from GBBF, where we have hundreds, I didn't bother with any. The staff were well trained and motivated, so really, nothing not to like as far as I could see. OK, it is a bit expensive, but the pub itself is splendid and you get a completely good experience for around the same price as some others who don't do it nearly as well.

So back to GBBF and Frantic Friday. If you are there come and say hello at the German and Czech bar. If I'm not around, I'll be schmoozing in the hall somewhere. It isn't all work you know.

PS Top insider tip. A German Imperial Stout on our bar. A ten percent delight.

Thursday 4 August 2011

So Far, So Good

It has been hot, nay hot and humid in Earl's Court. That's my first observation from a staff point of view and judging by the sweaty, red, flushed faces, the customers are feeling it too. Or is that just the drink?  One old fashioned type among our lot measured the air temperature behind the German/Czech Bar. An astonishing 90F. And as humid as Hong Kong. That's made it hard for us. The customers at least aren't flying up and down serving beer.  The staff all seem cheerful enough though and so do the punters.

Talking of beer, there was little discussion among us about the Champion Beer of Britain being a mild - maybe a few eyes were raised heavenwards - but those that react with astonishment might like to consider the make up of the final judging panel. I was told a few names. I don't know it in its entirety, but put it this way, some judging will fondly remember mild when it was much more widely available than it is now. 

BSF has been split up and scattered across the hall, which has disconcerted and disoriented a lot of us. The geeks are vexed too. It has meant an expanded Czech selection for us and some are crackers, particularly the IPAs and the one infused with ginger. Some seemed works in progress, but show a lot of innovation and promise. The American cask beers have been roughly divided into two sets in my mind. The almost undrinkable and those that go further than just a ton of hops and over the top alcohol. I enjoyed quite a few of each and you know, the cask conditioning was spot on. That's an improvement too.  I haven't come across the London Dark Lager yet though, but will be looking out for it today.  Of other beers tried, two lovely draught krieks on the Belgian bar and one or two cask ales also seemed top notch, but that's all I have been able to try so far. Again the cellarmen have been on top of their game.

It has been very busy at times, but I have no idea of numbers through the doors yet. Trade Day was fun, with many old friends met and lots of people to chat with too. I won't say which well regarded beer writers were more or less completely pissed, as more or less, they all were. Bloggers too were numerous and sufficiently oiled to be going on with.

So, so far so good. Three days to go and though my feet are sore - the floor in Earl's Court is hard - 'm surviving. Today it is ten degrees colder and I have a night off. I might take E for a drink. Gunmakers and Craft?

The Great British Beer Festival at Earl's Court continues until Saturday.

Monday 1 August 2011

A Pre GBBF Thought

I have limited time, but I wanted to get this little post out before I pack my bag for London and the GBBF.

When reading a comment on Boak and Bailey about what CAMRA ought to do, there was one helpful comment. It was along the lines of "What are CAMRA doing about quality?". I couldn't agree more. Those of us that spend a lot of time drinking cask beer in pubs know that it can be a lottery, with even so called top pubs unable, or unwilling, or for God's sake unaware,that they are selling sub standard product. In these trying times you don't want to spend £3+ on less than optimum beer. You don't want the embarrassment or hassle of sending it back, using euphemisms such as "I'm not sure this is quite right" or "Has this reached the end of the barrel?" when you know very well it is undrinkable piss. At the same time the bar staff should know. (The best pubs will have the manager sipping the odd mouthful to check from time to time.)

There are some dodgy arguments about new craft going around, but one thing is reasonably certain about craft keg. That is, that while it may well be cold and gassy, it is unlikely to be actually "off". This to me is where we came in many years ago with keg, though of course, current pricing and availability is likely to leave craft keg as a minority sport, but that can't be relied on forever.

As I say, time is short, but one of the recommendations of the review of CAMRA that I was a member of, was to campaign for better cask beer quality. When CAMRA sets its priorities, that should be number one, top of the tree etc. While we are at it we should encourage brewers to provide cask beer in as small a quantity as the pub wants. Too big a container limits cask beer's ability to compete on short run speciality beers. Keykegs may be part of the answer, but the good old pin (4.5 gallons)should be brought back in great numbers, breweries should use them to produce short run exciting and innovative beers. If a brewery can't do short run beers and it is of any size, it needs a pilot plant. A sound investment and cheap as chips too.

Who says innovation should be the domain of craft keg? Craft keg brewers that's who. It is one of their main selling points (though you could argue that umpteen variations on an IPA theme is hardly cutting edge).

Other brewers need to wake up and take them on at their own game.

Next time you get a duff pint, send it back.  And a question. How do you send a pint of craft beer back if you think it is too cold and gassy? I honestly don't know.