Friday 29 June 2012

Stale Keg

The post preceding this and some comments on Boak and Bailey's blog have mentioned stale keg beers. It got me wondering. Now I know a little about why this should occur, but very little about how often it occurs, or even, if and when it does occur, whether anyone actually notices it.

It must be difficult, even with the best will in the world, to transport kegs of beer from the farthest corners of, say, the USA, without the beer suffering some deterioration in the process. Nor am I sure if such exports are in the main pasteurised or not. Given the number of stale or staling beers I've had in the US, I suspect most are not.  There is also I believe, a wide spread belief that keg beer is somewhat immune to deterioration and I wonder whether that, combined with unfamiliarity with the same product drunk fresh, allows or even encourages palates to be fooled.

I drink almost no keg imports here, so am not really qualified to do other than speculate. What do people that do think?

The little diagram is interesting and informative, though hardly conclusive. It should keep some folks (guess who) happy for a bit. Click on it to read properly.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Bottom of the Barrel

You know how it is. The pint you have just ordered doesn't seem quite the same, or as good as your previous one from the same handpump. You'd enjoyed the last one and this purchase somehow doesn't seem to measure up. It isn't as clean or satisfying. It's flatter and just, well, just inferior. You can't quite put your finger on it, but it leapt out at you on your first sip. What could have gone wrong?

Now of course I am talking about cask beer here. Real Ale if you like. The live stuff. Because it is live, you need a little more care in both serving and drinking it. So hopefully this will help when you get the experience desribed above. There are a few possible causes: you may have got a dirty glass. Not so common and it usually doesn't get as far as taste. Usually you can smell a dirty glass, but in bad cases it can taint the beer in some way. Most often it just smells bad. A much more likely cause is that the beer is reaching the bottom of the cask. After all, all good things come to an end and it is a living product. Now my experience tells me that with some beers, particularly if they are fast moving, you can squeeze almost every last drop out of a cask with little loss of condition, though there will always be some. Some beers pick up taint from the sediment (aka trub or lees - deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate in cask conditioned beer at the bottom of the cask) more quickly than others too and some sediment is just heavier and stronger tasting and more likely to affect the last few pints of liquid.

In the case of the "not quite the same" pint there are one or two tell tale signs to look for. The first is that the pint will take a bit longer to clear and secondly, it will not have the same condition. It may well have a cloudiness or haze that was not apparent before.  In the worst case you will get a tell tale sign of "bottoms" - the sediment at the bottom of the cask, which will often taste very yeasty, but not in a good way. A faint (or not so faint) whiff of vinegar will sometimes be evident. These are signs that you should hot foot it to the bar and say in your best apologetic manner "I think this might be getting near the bottom."

Good luck with that. Perhaps I'll do a tutorial on that too.

The apologetic bit is most important. You are British for God's sake, so it is your fault.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Circle of Trust

The Beer Nut set me thinking a little while ago, when he asked how I knew in advance that Mallinsons Chinook was any good. My answer was along the lines of since I trusted them, it was likely to be good.

You may have read me saying over the years about a black list of breweries that I have in my mind.  I mentally check through this list when looking at the wickets and add to it from time to time. Far too often actually. It is my way of avoiding chucking my money down the drain and of limiting my chances of getting a really bad beer.  It isn't written down though and I'm not anal enough to trawl through the GBG to produce one. But it is there in my mind's eye. It changes sometimes. Breweries go in and out of the list and of course there are breweries that I simply don't like because of a house style or flavour that just doesn't appeal to me.  Your mileage may therefore vary. To add to that there are of course breweries that I don't know at all. I don't always try unknown breweries, but will usually have a taste if offered. It all contributes to the mix and that's how discoveries are made. Good or bad.

To go along with this mental list, there is a list of those breweries that will never reach the heights, either though intention to appeal to the mainstream, or the simple fact that they produce beers that while they will rarely delight, will equally be unlikely to offend. These are the sort of beers you drink when you seek familiarity or comfort.  They may not make you swoon, but you enjoy them if the circumstances and the company is right. It includes most of the Family Brewers and the Regionals.  It also includes that frustrating group, the breweries that produce great stuff and not such great stuff, or have consistency problems. Even within these, there are beers I am happy to drink depending on circumstance. I think that list though is much more personal and you probably have your own.

For every down, there is an up. The list here is fortunately reasonably large and in the best traditions of cheery beeriness, I'll share some with you. It doesn't mean they are always brilliant, just a lot more likely to be so. Mallinsons, Phoenix, Ossett, Pictish, Hawkshead, Castle Rock, Ilkley, Fyne, Acorn, Brodies, Buxton, Liverpool Organic, Thornbridge, Crouch Vale, Magic Rock, Dark Star, Stringers, Oakham and quite a few others if I could manage to think of  them. For the avoidance of doubt, I am talking here about cask beer - beer you can only buy in the pub.

Some of this is personal taste, but these all operate pretty well across a variety of styles and in my view can be bought with a fair degree of confidence.  Trust me on that one?

Of course many breweries do mainly non cask well and I wouldn't find Kernel or Camden a great hardship in most circumstances.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Sharp Practice

History repeats itself, or at least, things that have happened in the past bubble up to the surface again. Sometimes they creep under your skin and cause annoyance. Now when I was a lad it was simple. If you bought a pint of beer, the corresponding half was exactly half the price. It was an easy to understand system and it worked. Of course there was always a little bit of margin creep. When I worked in the pub, most beers were priced in odd numbers. We didn't deal in half pences - and yes we did have them under decimalisation - and thus the odd half pence margin went the publicans way. Nobody liked half pence coins, so it was almost a public service and everyone was reasonably content with it.

I wrote in this piece here about what I called "Irish Arithmetic". That is charging a wildly different price than half the pint price for a half pint. I was and am agin it, with the proviso that a little light rounding in favour of the publican is OK. Like the old half pence, nobody is that keen on having a pocket full of five pences, so being consistent, I don't mind a pint at, say, £2.75 being charged at £1.40 a half. This came to my mind once more when I was trying a new beer recently. Tasters weren't offered, so wisely I chose a half. "One fifty" chirruped the barmaid. I liked the beer, so ordered a pint. "£2.75 please" quoth she.

Now don't give me all that guff about it costing more to dish up a half than a pint and other such mealy mouthed excuses. Or to accuse me of meanness or cheapness. It is sharp practice. It discriminates against smaller measures or those wishing to try several beers; it is annoying and most of all, it just isn't right.

So, publicans. Please keep the little mark up in your favour within bounds. My contribution from now on, will be to name names where it happens to excess.

Look at  the comments on the previous piece about this. Interesting comments from the Beer Nut.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Choice Under Threat?

The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group (APPG) has launched an inquiry into beer tax fraud following Government plans over duty stamps reports the Morning Advertiser. 

In March the Government  launched a consultation into the proposed introduction of duty stamps on beer bottles, cans and containers below 10 litres.  These stamps are already required for spirits in the UK. It claimed  that tax losses from beer duty fraud cost £500m per year and estimated that between 5-14% of beer consumption is illicit.  Now most of you, like me will wonder where all this illicit beer is to be found, but let's just assume it can be. Clearly the government has a duty (no pun intended) to ensure that duty is paid on all beer sales in the UK, but as always there is a sting in the tail. It seems, and when you think about it, it is logical, that most companies that export beer to the UK, will not want to be arsed with doing separate runs with "UK Duty Paid" labels.  It would simply be too expensive.  It seems that the number of imported brands could drop from 2200 or so to a mere 200 and these, presumably would be the, shall we say, less interesting imports. Small run, imports of exotic foreign beers might simply dry up.

Now you'll be thinking that this is a worst case scenario and there is a self interest in not doing so and to make it all sound scary and that the Government wouldn't be stupid enough to do it anyway would they?  I wouldn't be so sure.  The Government - any Government - have an endless capacity for feet shooting and stupidity.  Be concerned.

You can read the whole sorry tale in the MA here and an article I wrote about the same subject in last September here.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Sitting Up and Taking Notice

Did anyone see a particularly excellent piece in CAMRA's What's Brewing this month? In case you didn't, it was about how some of Britain's oldest brewers, Family Brewers, are starting to look wider than the house bitter their great granddads brewed, by installing flexible in house micro breweries.

It is fashionable to imagine that the Family Brewers live in an ivory tower and are completely unaware of the changes around them in the beer world. I rather doubt that they are and talking to the ones I have talked to, they are usually pretty smart cookies.  Those that couldn't be bothered, or just wanted the money have, in the main, cut and run already. The rest are in it for the long haul and of course, most have already hauled their companies a long way since their Victorian or earlier foundation. They've seen a lot. But there is a feeling that the world is moving a tad faster these days and that just doing the same won't cut it any more. Those 100 barrel (or more) brewlengths are millstones round the neck of innovation and just doing something different. When you have to get a seasonal beer right first time, there is a tendency just to tweak what you already have and boy, do the customers notice that. The answer to many is a micro brewery within their own existing breweries. This allows the experimentation and small runs of speciality beers that give a point of difference and overcome an almost inbred reluctance to sell any beers but their own. They allow bespoke beers that are genuinely different and give the brewers something to play with. Brewers need something to play with I've found.

So we have Thwaites, Brains, Wadworth, Shepherd Neame, Badger, St Austell, Elgoods and not quite in the Family Brewer's category, Sharps. It is very telling to listen to the reasons given for these "pilot plants". I like these two best: First from Alan Pateman of Elgoods: "It has nothing to do with what the craft brewers are doing. But, as more of our beers are sold into the free trade, we need to be able offer a greater variety of beers. Brewing has become fun again."  And from the ever practical Stuart Howe: “Pilot plants are indispensable allows you to explore your wilder side without the risk of making 30 tonnes of pig food.”

Now whether you think it really is taking on the micros, or avoiding feeding the pigs, this is a good thing, provided they use this flexibility to be bold and different.  Brewers need room to experiment and a 10 (or less) barrel brewery allows just that. I have a self interest of course. Manchester still has four family brewers and lots of their pubs.

Of course I've been beating the pilot plant drum at Lees too.  Fingers crossed on that one.

There are plenty other good arguments for pilot plants, but hopefully you get my drift.

Monday 18 June 2012

Glasses. Does it Matter?

One of the sessions I most enjoyed at The European Beer Bloggers Conference was that from Spiegelau, the German glass manufacturer, illustrating to those whose palates aren't entirely made of wood, that beer tastes and smells better out of a decent glass. Now these were particularly decent glasses, being as thin a a youthful beer blogger and unlike them, worth seven quid a pop. (Does that mean a youthful beer blogger is worth seven quid a pop or not?  At least that I'd say. Maybe even a couple of quid more in most cases.) It was an instructive session, not least of all because it fitted in with my way of thinking. Life is so much better when someone who should be in the know confirms your prejudices, though on a serious note, I did feel there were definite differences, one to the other for the same beer. The big bonus was that we were allowed to keep the set.

But of course my undoubted common sense isn't shared by all. I know many who simply don't care, provided that the liquid inside meets with their approval, or who just can't tell the difference. And it is, on the face of it at least, a fair point. Many think my liking for, for instance, a delicate lager in a tall, thin walled glass, is just a pettifogging affectation, but to me  it improves the beer no end.  Does the glass you drink out make the beer taste better or worse? By that I don't mean the minor annoyances (irritating though they are) of getting your pint of bitter in a Bulmer's Cider glass and the like, but when you get a beer that you "know" should be in a better glass and you get it in, for example,  a scratched old nonic, especially if you pay a few bob for said beer.  In my view the standard of glasses in the average British pub is atrocious, though getting slightly better. Problem is of course that when you get some decent glasses in, along comes some light fingered oik and nicks them.  Perhaps if they were more common, they wouldn't?

I wrote about this before, way back when. Have a look at it again and let me know what you think about the glass you drink from.

The Spiegelau glasses (pictured)are very fine and very fragile. They would be no use in a pub situation at all.

Thursday 14 June 2012

On Top of its Game

This post is brief. If there is a brewery in the UK more on top of its game than Hawkshead, name it.


This follows on from last night's "Meet the Brewer". It was a reminder - as if one was needed.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Cask Overtakes Keg

An interesting little snippet in the Publican's Morning Advertiser advises that cask has overtaken keg in the draught ale market in the UK according to the British Beer and Pub Association. That's great news for cask and yet again confirms that despite doom mongers, it continues to perform well in the UK pub market.

In further good news, it seems pub closures are slowing overall too and closer to home for this writer, at our CAMRA AGM last night our Pubs Officer was able to confirm the same is happening in my area, with a distinct decline in closures, as well as new openings of cafe/bar style venues and pub/restaurants. So maybe that corner is being turned, though as yet it is too early to say its all settling down. Nonetheless a touch of cautious optimism wouldn't be entirely misplaced.

Going back to doom mongers, I noted with some satisfaction that membership of my CAMRA branch is up over 25% year on year, with over 1100 members now under my wing. Attendance at meetings is up too, so maybe just maybe, there is life in the old CAMRA dog yet? I like to think so.

Of course, bubbles are there to be burst and good news is often followed by bad, but I feel quite pleased with these little bits of news, so I will celebrate tonight with a Meet the Brewer event (Hawkshead) with some of my members in one of my newest pubs. As well as locals, we expect over 25 members turning up to support the event.

CAMRA, despite all its critics is still good for the on trade business.

Also looking forward to presenting Hawkshead with an award for winning Regional Porter of 2011 with Brodies Prime.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

But How Much is a Pint in the Pub?

The British Beer and Pub Association has published a timely little table about beer tax, which we all agree is too high in the UK. It topically shows the price per pint of beer tax in the countries competing in the European Championship and of course shows England at the top. There are the usual quotes about how the amount of beer tax is crippling pubs and the obviously appalling fact that although we drink 13% of the European Union's beer, we pay 40% of the total tax on beer.

Now the logical among us know that the Chancellor knows this too. He clearly reckons he can get away with it, which makes signing the petition about beer tax all the more important, but given that, quite possibly futile. He'll say the money has to come from somewhere I'd imagine. Returning to the table, there is some interesting stuff. It reads like this:

Euro 2012 Beer Tax league table

1England 55p
2 Sweden 47p
3 Republic of Ireland 39p
4 Denmark 17p
5 Netherlands 16p
6 Greece 15p
7 Italy 14p
8 Russia 14p
9 Croatia 14p
10 Poland 12p
11 Portugal 9p
12 Czech Republic 8p
13 France 7p
14 Spain 5p
15 Germany 5p
16 Ukraine 4p

All the more remarkable is the fact that it is likely, nay certain, that the table would look quite different if it showed the average price per pint in the on trade - the pub - in each of the countries featured. I rather suspect that we'd come out of this a whole lot better, as anyone who has been daft enough to buy draught beer in France would agree. In terms of pub pricing, duty clearly isn't the only factor in play.*

We do we need to redress the balance between on and off trade, but it seems on the face of it that on average, we aren't getting such a very bad deal in pubs compared with our EU cousins.  Clearly it could and should be better if duty had only risen in line with inflation. So we need a duty cut, or at least a duty freeze.    

So sign the petition anyway and let's air this debate where it counts. In Parliament. 

* You could use this site  to work out pint prices, but since no guidance is given as to how you should convert measures before submission, it is likely to be wildly inaccurate.

Friday 8 June 2012

Now One of These Would be Handy

I was sent this today and as it involves some nice background scenes of one of my favourite watering holes, I thought I'd share it with you all.

Clever or what?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Keeping it Local

You'll all have been worried about whether my beer was up to snuff at our Jubilee party no doubt. It was. Perfect in fact and reminder that I should have confidence in my cellar abilities. A word too about my new local brewer Wilson Potter. Their beer named Tandle Hill was excellent at the brewery the other night when we presented the Beer of the Festival award for Oldham Beer Festival. It's what persuaded me to buy it and you know, as I expected, it was even better when served through a handpump and tight sparkler. In fairness though, I had the beer settling at cellar temperature, while when we visited WP, they were fighting against 28C hot weather. It was interesting too that some drinkers found the beer far too hoppy for their taste and went for the alternative, Empire Fastnet, a pale, golden beer that was a lot more malt forward.  In the dash for hops, we mustn't forget - as I do sometimes - that malt has its fans.

Still with my local breweries, yesterday, I had a chance to taste, straight from the cask at the brewery, Lees brewed Draught Burton Ale, the former Ind Coope Burton Ale which was Champion Beer of Britain many years ago.  You know what? Lees have made a very good fist of it indeed and the taste seemed to me, very reminiscent of the beer in its heyday. Worth seeking out if you get a chance. I'd guess though it's a pretty rare beast.  There is a link to outlets here and it is rated highly too.

 So, different beers, different strokes for different folks. Beer is a broad church.

If anyone has never been in a Head Brewer's Sample Cellar, it is fascinating. One cask of every gyle of every beer out in trade is there for cross checking and quality control. Compare and contrast.

Monday 4 June 2012

Anxious Moments

Sorry for the silence but I have had broadband problems, so if you have contacted me and heard nothing back, do send it again. It may have been lost in my many frustrating attempts to solve it, as for once the problem is with my PC, which is blatantly refusing to recognise and connect to my wireless signal. So this is being typed from E's laptop. Grrr.

Anyway - enough of that -back to beer. Madge has provided the excuse for more beer drinking today. To celebrate, my pub lot, wives and families included, are decanting to Colin's for a chance to demonstrate our loyalty by raising a glass or three of decent beer. I sourced it and set it up. The handpumps are installed, the beer has been stillaged and conditioned. Colin and I had a quick taste of both yesterday and all seemed well. The beers were clear as a bell and sparkling bright with condition. They should be perfect today and yesterday's icy and wintry blasts drove away any lingering doubts about the beer being too warm. Colin's regime of wet towels can be cheerfully abandoned.

So what's the worry? I'm used to looking after beer. I've looked after literally thousands of casks of beer in my time, with a pretty good success rate. I know what I'm doing and I'm confidently looking forward to the do today. But this is beer for my friends and I can't help but worry if it will be OK.

Anxious moments.

Beers are Empire Brewing Fastnet and (of course) Wilson Potter Tandle Hill. They will be served as God intended, through a tight sparkler.