Friday 26 April 2013

A Progressive AGM

The recent CAMRA AGM held in Norwich was rather an interesting one.  It was one where CAMRA to a large extent, took a look at the future and felt itself confident about it.

I'll come to the motions in a moment, but I'll start, not with the Chairman's opening remarks, but with a very accomplished and entertaining review of the year by our Chief Executive, Mike Benner.  Mike, speaking without notes,  advised of a year of success, culminating in the victory in the beer escalator campaign.   The lesson of concentrating efforts in a smaller number of campaigns, as recommended  by the Fit for Purpose Review, was firmly learned and I'm sure that is one that will be repeated.  I'll add at this point, that I'm a big fan of Mike Benner.  We are truly lucky to have him.

We started off well, with a motion, seconded by me, giving the National Executive a kick up the backside for slow progress on the Fit for Purpose Review. (Which I again had a hand in.)  The review really has to form the basis of the future and despite our concerns, there is signs that CAMRA is moving in the right direction.  Main interest then was motions about that most divisive of words "craft".  The first stated that terms such as craft keg, craft beer, craft ale, etc, were meaningless and should not be used in CAMRA publications.  The motion was thankfully defeated.  Next up was a motion calling for CAMRA to run a campaign to educate CAMRA members and the public about the difference between real ale and what it termed "so-called craft".  The case for this wasn't helped by the mover not really explaining it very well and I spoke against it, particularly denigrating the use of the words "so-called craft."  I am glad to say that the AGM supported my view overwhelmingly.

Possibly the most awaited debate on the paper was motion 19 on minimum pricing which I moved.  My main theme was that it wouldn't put a single bum on a pub seat and that it placed us on the side of people such as Alcohol Concern, who were no friends of ours and that having got rid of one beer price escalator, we should not be voting for more government interference in beer pricing.  There was some well put opposition to my view, but supported by powerful speakers such as Steve Bury and John Cryne, I am glad to say that my motion prevailed, with again an overwhelming majority in favour of CAMRA withdrawing its support for minimum pricing.  I noted with interest that the National Executive was evenly split on this, showing, presumably, that it was a finely balanced argument within the Campaign at all levels. My other main intervention was in the discussion of CAMRA's Strategic Five Year Plan, where I succeeded in having "Looking at ways to extend CAMRA's democracy" inserted.  I am glad to say this was fully backed by the National Executive.

Looking elsewhere, I was very impressed by the speech from the new Campaigner of the Year, Dale Ingram (a young woman - we do have some) speaking about  a campaign to encourage communities to list their local pub as community assets. The aim is to get 300 pubs in England listed as Assets of Community Value in 2013. This is something we'll be looking at locally in my branch as it has real potential to save pubs. I was very impressed with Dale too, who only joined CAMRA two years ago. She is fantastically committed to the British pub, which makes her all right by me.  A well deserved winner.

From a personal point of view, it was a good conference for me, as my main concerns all went my way. Far more importantly though was that members, looking into the future, took a responsible and considered view, not only of craft, but in the way CAMRA will face the future.  The Chairman too contributed in saying, as I did and others too, that we are the Campaign FOR Real Ale, not the campaign against other beers.  There was very little nuttiness, a lot of fun and a very upbeat feel and above all, the need to campaign positively was clearly recognised, which can only be good.

So, to sum up:
  •  Fit for Purpose commitment restated
  • Two anti craft motions roundly defeated
  • Support for minimum pricing withdrawn
  • Positive campaigning emphasised
  • Extension of democracy to be looked at
  • Strategic plan adopted
Not bad for a load of out of touch old duffers.

 I also enjoyed the speech and question and answer session by Pubs Minister Brandon Lewis who said that ""Protecting pubs is as important as the tax campaign."  Too right. He joined CAMRA after his speech too! 

May I also add my personal thanks to the Pub Curmudgeon for supplying much needed ammo for me to fire.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Iron Maiden, Super Trooper and er, Frederic Robinson

My eye was caught by a press release from Frederic Robinson about their new beer "Trooper" which is not even released yet. Quoting from press releases isn't something I usually do, but the press release is full of interesting claims, such as these mentioned below:

"So it’s one month on from the initial announcement, there is just under a month to go until the beer is available to the public and Trooper is already one of the most “followed” beers in the UK with over 42,000 on Facebook (compared to 51,000 for Bombardier, 35,000 for BrewDog, 30,000 for London Pride, 27,000 for Hobgoblin and 8,000 for Greene King IPA who have all spent a vast amount of time and money building up their brand awareness). “Facebook doesn’t sell beer unfortunately,” commented David “but considering we haven’t let anyone taste it yet this is a promising start. We are brewing three times a day six days a week for the first time ever in our 175 year history and we already have the first 20,000 cases ready to go out by post as well as several export orders.”

 Of course the beer having been designed by Iron Maiden's real ale enthusiast, lead vocalist, Bruce Dickinson will have helped a tad no doubt, as will the fact that Iron Maiden have 8.6 million Facebook followers. Let's hope then the beer lives up to the hype then, as it features prominently on the Iron Maiden web site.

Still, I must say I rather enjoy the thought of BrewDog being hammered at the viral advertising game, by a beer not yet on release, brewed by one of these staid old Family Brewers. Or, as BrewDog would have it, brewers of "stewed cardboard."

 Trooper will be available in bottle and in cask and is golden in colour with malt flavours and a blend of Bobec, Goldings and Cascade hops.

Why Can't They All Keep the Beer Properly?

Paul Bailey mentioned in his blog recently about cask beer cellarmanship. His thoughts are worth reading.  Despite what some would have you believe, it isn't that difficult, though like most things, it requires a bit of basic understanding of what goes, or should go on, a lot of attention to detail and a temperature controlled cellar - turned to the correct temperature obviously.  Thus I had my worries when we arrived in Norwich.  This is in the domain of Southern beer keeping practices, where the beer has a bias to warmness and flatness.  Would it be so in this lovely city?  Well the picture was mixed, with highs and lows as you'd expect. though in fairness, I didn't try that every recommended pub.  Probably around a dozen or so.

In the main I won't be naming and shaming either, not because I've turned over a new leaf, but because I didn't take a single note of where we were, so it would not be fair to rely on a memory which could at times have been afflicted by alcohol.  Suffice to say there were some stinkers and some highlights.   I'll name the highlights later, because they have stuck in my mind.  And in fairness many pubs didn't get a visit as I and my friends applied the principle of having found the silk purse, no point of risking a sow's ear elsewhere.  So what did I find?
  • Over-vented beer on the point of oxidisation -some.
  •  Flat beer - that is beer with almost no condition - not so much
  • Warm beer - that is beer above around 14C - lots
  • Headless beer - beer that either had no head or lost it pronto - lots
  • Undrinkable beer - one horror - infected
  • Acceptable beer - mostly
  • Great beer - three pubs 
  • Surprisingly good beer - one venue
I did miss out quite a few Good Beer Guide (GBG) pubs.  Only one GBG pub sold what I'd call "Not up to GBG standard."  Most pubs weren't in the current issue, but were chosen for convenience.  Two of the pubs with the best beer weren't in the GBG either.

There is probably little surprise to learn that the best beer and best pub by a country mile was the Fat Cat, which has won numerous awards and boy can you see how.  Apart from being a great boozer - clean, warm and welcoming,  with lots of distinct drinking areas, it made great use of limited space, but still felt roomy, despite being bursting at the seams. Great old stuff from defunct breweries on the walls added atmosphere and a fantastic local clientèle occupied their usual spots.  It kept its beers superbly, had a great "feel "about it and tremendous staff.  Hardly a difficult formula when you think about it  Get these basics right and you have a business.

Others of note that I do remember for great beer quality were the Reindeer (owned by Elgoods) and the Ribs of Beef.  I may be biased here though.  The Ribs sold Oakham Scarlet Macaw as our last Norwich beer, which was strikingly good.  The Reindeer provided us with excellent pints of something golden, hoppy, bitter and delicious, which I think was either from Oakham again, or somewhere else in my circle of trust - possibly Crouch Vale.  Or was that the Fat Cat?  See what I mean? In one pub, our beer was so flat, we complained and the smashing manager not only replaced it with a fresh cask, but showed me, unbidded, her immaculate cellar and how she looked after the beer.  (The cellar was also on CCTV for all to see).  She was spot on.  The beer wasn't and therein lies a tale.  Her hands are pretty well tied in getting better stuff in.  A lovely lass though, a great manager and a good pub with a warm welcome and customer first ethos.  Impressive.

What about the surprise venue I hear you ask?  Well, it was the CAMRA AGM Beer Festival.. All the beers, were properly cooled using CAMRA kit and were tip top until the end.  The festival was drunk dry.  Quality does count.

CAMRA - Walking the Walk.  Pure dead brilliant.

Norwich has some smashing pubs.  The city is a friendly delight too.  It is recommended strongly.   Next.  The proceedings.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Manchester Pale Ale

The Rain Bar in Manchester is one of Lees flagship pubs and a very nice place indeed.  Formerly an umbrella factory, it was the host venue for the launch of J W Lees latest permanent beer to join the range.  A fun night was promised, with local celebrities, a quiz and of course, the beer itself.

I got there bang on five and there was a few in already, some of whom I even knew.  This was later to be supplemented by the Beer Beauty herself,  Marverine Cole, who was there to add journalistic gravitas to the assembled motley crew of customers, beer buffs, publicans and what not. She also provided a bit of jolly company for me, which was rather nice.  This being Manchester and a straightforward kind of place, there was no keeping you gagging for a drink.  Before the welcoming speech by MD William Lees-Jones, we were introduced to the beer in the best way possible - by serving us a foaming pint of it.

William Lees-Jones then welcomed us all to the event.  He outlined that the beer itself was firmly a reflection of Manchester, with its bright, golden colour and its tight, creamy head.  He mentioned that such a beer from Manchester was sorely needed since Boddington's retreat from cask and that the brewery was aiming high, with London a likely target.  He also spoke of the new brand’s targeted appeal to younger lager drinkers looking for a “real refreshing alternative”. He felt the name Manchester Pale Ale - MPA - for short was ideal to achieve national status.  He hoped that MPA would do for Lees what London Pride did and does for Fullers.  As I said, high aims indeed.  The beer itself had been developed from a very successful seasonal beer of last year (British Jewels) and was 100% malt with Liberty and Mount Hood hops.  It is designed to be served through a tight sparkler and William added that the aim will be to provide a sparkler to all purchasers of the beer, along with pouring instructions.  While lauding the aim, there will have to be some serious knocking of heads together if this superior way of serving beer is to penetrate some parts of this sceptred isle.

What of the beer?  The brewery describes it as "Golden yellow in colour.  Floral Aromas with citrus and malt. Medium bodied, well rounded, light fruits, citrus and malt to taste. Refreshing finish.".  Well, yes.  I think they could have given it a bit more thought than that. The beer isn't nearly as boring as that makes it sound.  The Liberty and Mount Hood hops do show through, particularly in the rather bitter finish  which leaves you feeling like another pint.  The bottled version comes in at a slightly higher gravity at 4.1%.

Will it succeed?  This is a twofold question really.  First there is Lees own 170 strong estate.  I reckon it will do rather well there, as it provides a golden ale alternative and will be priced at 5p a pint cheaper than Lees Bitter.  Looking wider, I see the targets as Deuchars IPA and Thwaites Wainwright among others.  It should certainly do better than Deuchars (apart from in Scotland) and as Wainwright seems to have gained in sweetness at the expense of hops, there should be a good opportunity there too.  As Lees is my local brewery, I hope to see them achieve success. (Interest declared - I am Lees CAMRA Brewery Liaison Officer.)

The night itself continued with pints of MPA, a quiz hosted by Mark Radcliffe, in which I was knocked out early, proving my Manchester local knowledge to be at best surface deep and a disco by the famous Bez of Happy Mondays fame.  I was able to introduce the Beer Beauty to the Lees-Joneses and we got a goody bag on the way out, so I am the proud possessor of a bottle of MPA and am MPA bottle opener.  I have already used my MPA sunglasses!

I look forward to seeing MPA in my local pubs and elsewhere.  Lees are putting a lot of effort into this beer and I'll be plotting progress with a very keen interest.

Manchester Pale Ale has its own website.  I'd recommend though that the JW Lees webbie links to it, which it doesn't, though it does the other way. Nor does it seem to mention it at all, which seems a missed opportunity.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

It's Not All Good

Is anyone else getting fed up of the cask versus keg debate or is it just me? Thought not. I am pretty cheesed off with it, but will have to gird my loins to speak against one or two anti craft motions at the CAMRA AGM, not because I'm a big proponent of craft keg. Most of it - at least at the supping rather than sipping end of it - is pretty dull in my view - just like most cask is a bit samey. My drinking experience tells me that kissing lots of frogs is a bad idea percentage wise. You rarely find a princess. Better by far at my time of life, to eliminate that onerous task by drinking what you know to be good, or what is recommended by people you trust. I've done the beer hunting bit to death and now, though the experimentation and hunting rears its head from time to time, by and large, I just prefer to drink beer for enjoyment and with my friends.

Mind you, I say that as a personal thing. I have done plenty of beer exploration and experimenting in my time, but I'm well again, though I really do recommend it to our younger beer drinkers, as you need to go through that pain to get to, if not nirvana, equilibrium. But then again, I am a beer drinker - side swipe following - not a fan boy. Drinking beer to learn and discover is one thing.  Doing it because it is fashionable, quite another, though as in most things in life, one thing leads to another, so maybe even that isn't all bad.

Reading the AGM motions and looking at the election address one of the CAMRA National Executive contenders, I get the feeling that there is a bit of unease at best and hostility at worst, to our new cohort of keg devotees.  I've thought about it and while there is no need for CAMRA to change its priority of real ale,  there is no need for a dog in the manger approach either.  Keg beer appeals to a certain kind of drinker that associates it with experimentation, cutting edge and hip.  Why not? I feel pretty relaxed about it overall.  Where there is a mixed approach to cask and keg, it works well and as most of the keg stuff is strong, it gives more choice when a similar cask wouldn't be finished before going flat or off. (By the way - if you could polish off a cask of strong beer in the first couple of hours, it is usually superior in developed flavours). But I digress.

Choice is good, keg bashing is bad, CAMRA bashing is bad, beer drinking is good.  Not all beer is good and the idea we should all just drink beer and not care how it is dispensed doesn't work for me.  I'm a real ale man and always will be.  When kept well it beats the keg equivalent into a cocked hat.  It has drinkability in a way that keg doesn't.  But modern keg beer isn't always a bad thing.  It's that choice thing again and especially where there is a mixed offer, it gives the chance for drinkers to compare and contrast.  I don't think there are that many ale drinkers that never drink cask, just as there aren't so many CAMRA members that never drink keg.  There is of course a need to protect live beer, as there is a thin end of the wedge and it would be bad if it disappeared, but the way to do it is by continually promoting real ale and always pressing for better quality at the point of dispense.

I'd be happier if we were discussing beer quality more at the AGM.  It doesn't seem to be mentioned this year, though I will try and do so.  Quality is always cask's Achilles heel.  We should give a lot more attention to that. 

I'm off to the launch of a new Lees beer tonight.  I'll know people.  That's as much of  a draw to me as the new beer. 

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Maybe Later

Having sat down with the intention of doing a little light blogging, you know what?  I have found that I just can't be bothered.

Ironing then.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

What CAMRA is Really Like

There was a flurry of tweets on that there Twitter on Friday about CAMRA's AGM and the "dodgy" motions being submitted to it, plus some scathing remarks about CAMRA's democracy and some odd ideas about how to sort this appalling Stalinist organisation out.

 CAMRA to its active members means something a lot different to those that aren't. It presumably means something different again to those that aren't members at all. In my local branch we have nearly 1400 members and are growing at approximately 30 a month. (Actually more, but we do lose a few, so that's net). We are doing well. We have a complete database of all our pubs, we contact all of our email list once a month with news and views from the branch, and the rest by snail mail twice a year. We invite all members to nominate pubs for the Good Beer Guide by sending them simple forms to fill in and we take these views, expressed postally or by email, firmly into account when we decide what pubs go into the guide. This we do, like all branches as far as I know, by a meeting of members, where we usually get around 50 showing up. .  That's not bad, but we are looking to see how we might make it even easier by polling on line. Despite that, we are lucky to get 60 or 70 replies.   There is no back door to GBG entry in my branch and I doubt if there is in any, though of course, I can't say for sure.  Everything we do is above board and while those who attend on the day get the final vote, the list comes from the postal/email nominations.

There are suggestions we should do more on line as an organisation, consulting members more in that way.  That wouldn't be an issue for me, but I  doubt if it would be much better in terms of replies on line. You see, in any voluntary organisation, the vast majority just like to know what is going on, support the general aims and don't really want other involvement. Voluntary organisations at active level really are a coalition of the willing, the hobbyist, the oddball and those that just like the friendship and the beer.  Ideas like delegates mandated by branches etc. are just not appropriate.  It wouldn't enhance democracy one bit.  We often say getting CAMRA members organised is a bit like herding cats.  You can probably do it, but you'll nearly die in the process and piss all the cats off.

 I mentioned social aspects. The importance of the social gatherings to CAMRA cannot be over emphasised. It is one of the many dabs of glue that hold us together. We visit breweries, we meet at pubs to show support for real ale and just to have a natter with friends. We have plenty of members that support mainly the social side, but why not? Funnily enough, the conversation is rarely about beer in any great detail. It is more about places and people. Beer gets recommended along the lines of  "the Pictish Brewer's Gold (or whatever) is spot on" or whatever. There is little if any clinical analysis and beer geekiness.  Good or shite?  That'll do! Some of us have known each other for years, but we have many who are new and who enjoy it just the same, dropping in and out, just as they do at business meetings, where I make a personal effort, as does our membership secretary) to welcome them, introduce them to others and to encourage them to come again. We don't want to be seen as a clique and try to actively avoid appearing as such.

Ah yes, business meetings. These are where we grimly work out how to implement the never ending edicts from CAMRA HQ. Er no. What edicts? CAMRA is a remarkably de-centralised organisation. Such instructions as we rarely get are usually to comply with company law, best financial practice, insurance and the like. Nobody tells you what to discuss or how to go about it. Nobody is asked to confirm compliance with this or that AGM decision. CAMRA is very devolved and very local. I doubt if the branches would have it any other way, though of course, we don't break the basic principles of the organisation in that we campaign for real ale.

Locally we get around 30 members to a meeting (we constantly encourage attendance) and what we talk about is mostly local pubs, breweries and beer.  It will vary a lot from branch to branch I suppose, but we have a pretty good relationship with all of ours and they like us being involved.  They like to enter competitions and are extraordinarily pleased to win awards. They like us to come and visit them, mention them in our newsletter and hold meetings in their pub and brewery and to call in when we have days out.  It is all a bit of fun for us mostly and that's as it should be.  For them it is publicity and involvement and maybe from their point of views,  just a touch of approval.

 So back to the AGM. There are 19 motions on the agenda paper. Not very many seem nutty. Most discuss internal arrangements such as strategic plans, Fit for Purpose Review, books etc. Unusually - and I've been to a few of these things - there are some controversial motions. Given that beer is going through changing and challenging times, wouldn't you expect that? We will be discussing craft beer. Be odd if we didn't, given the fuss some people make about it. There are some peculiar ideas in some of the motions, but again, given that CAMRA is a collection of individuals, that's hardly surprising. You would surely expect a wide range of views. They'll at least make the bloody thing more interesting!

Where there is a democratic deficit is in consultation - we should try and do more - possibly in the other major part of the campaign, which is the lobbying and consumer part of the organisation.  This is more of the ambit of the National Executive (lay) and full time employees.  Where that goes wrong - like in my view support for minimum pricing - there is the opportunity to overturn it at the AGM, which is what I'll be trying to do.  As an individual member.  Does my branch agree? Don't know, but if any of my members want to speak against me, they are welcome to.

Best I can do I'm afraid, but at least there is a route.  So no Stalinism, no edicts, just people doing something they believe in, in their own way.

I'm aware that this has got a bit rambly, but I hope it gives you a sense from one perspective at least.

Monday 8 April 2013

A Good Afternoon Out

Have I tipped Wilson Potter as a brewery to watch? Dunno. I know I have praised their astonishingly clean beers on Twitter and I may have mentioned them elsewhere.  In fact, on checking I have and I was going to do so again following a visit on Saturday, but have been beaten to it by a fellow blogger,* who writes BeerManchester. So, rather than re-invent the wheel, I'll merely direct you to his report, which is here and which gives a potted history of the brewery and the rather pleasant lasses that own and run it.

One or two things to add.  While their cask beers, mostly hop forward, are really rather good, additionally they really seem to have cracked bottling beer.  Those that know me will be aware that I don't do much by way of bottled beer drinking, but the beers they produce are always worth having and last to their "use by" date rather well, maintaining condition, appearance and flavour.  Many of you will be aware that the ability to put beer in bottles by hand and produce something that isn't yeasty/spoiled/vinegary/ explosive, or just generally horrid, isn't a skill mastered by all.  This is undoubtedly helped by a Howard Hughes like obsession for cleanliness.  I am glad to confirm that they are starting to stride forward and earlier (natural) worries about progress seem to be behind them.  Concentrating on clean, hoppy, drinkable session beers seems to be working out for them and is proof (like their friends at Mallinsons) that brewing good suppable beer that people actively want to drink, is not a bad idea at all. In under six months I'd say they have come a long way.

Lastly, they are members of the Female Brewing collective known as Project Venus, though I'm pretty sure they regard themselves as "brewers" first and "brewsters" by accident of birth. That's as it should be too.

Seek their beers out and you won't go far wrong is my firm recommendation.  (Later this week, at the Oldham Beer Festival would be an ideal opportunity.)

I would tell you my blogging colleague's name, but when I met him, I was a few pints of Bon Don Doon in and either don't remember it, or am unsure that I was told it!

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Open Preview

JDW's twice a year beer festival begins today, or, for those lucky enough to be in the vicinity of the Regal Moon in Rochdale, it began last night.  It is my usual port of call before our monthly CAMRA meetings and this time, I had been tipped off that all of the beers brewed by foreign brewers would be on the bar.  Reasons to try some then.

First up was Pivovar Kocovnik from the Czech Republic, which was pale and refreshing, but a tad dull, with no dominant flavours. The tasting notes describe it as "balanced" which it may well be, but it was nothing special.  Devils Backbone American Amber on the other hand delivered as much, if not more than it promised, with loads of juicy C hops and not as much malt predominating as the programme suggested.  Good stuff in fact.  The offering from the Ionian Sea was Corfu Ionian Porter, which had quite a bit of coffee and chocolate in a slightly thin body. Hops were there, but little of the promised citrus was evident.  Deschutes Twilight Pale Ale was certainly pale for an American inspired beer, but that was possibly its best feature.  The beer was thin, with obvious acetone and astonishingly dry.  Not great on this sampling.  Lodewijk Fly By Night was supposedly a Dutch beer inspired by Belgian Dubbels.  Not like any I've tasted, with a thin body, raggy malt and no real sign of the described ""wonderful emerging hop." Disappointing.

After an enforced break chairing our CAMRA meeting, I was back to sample the remaining three beers.  Good George Pacific Pearl is a Black IPA.  It had southern hemisphere hops, dark chocolate, pine resin and a decent body.  One of the better ones for sure.  Vasileostrovsky Siberian Red at a hefty 6.% was more the biz.  Lovely body, roast malt and hop flavours and just in fact as described, it was a very decent beer indeed.  This left just one beer before the bus.  Central City Racer Red IPA hails from Canada in inspiration at least. It didn't do what it said on the tin, as I didn't detect much by way of hopping, never mind "intense hops."  On this showing at least, not my cup of tea.

So there you have it.  A quick gallop through the foreign runners and riders.  I did feel some of the beers would have benefited from a little more cellar time, so remember, these are cask conditioned beers and will develop and change.  Your experience may be better or worse as the beer matures in the cellar.  It will almost certainly be different.

That's the real beauty of real ale.

 Do you think the foreign brewers really capture the essence of the beers as you'd like them to? I'm not so sure.