Wednesday 31 July 2013

How Much is Too Much?

In my post yesterday about Meantime's Old Brewery in Greenwich a few people picked up on the expense of my pint.  I think it was £5.20 for a 5.2% beer - North Friesian Pilsener.  Pretty expensive really. Cookie asked me what is my limit in paying for a pint and I remarked that this was getting near it, though of course in this case I was making allowances for time, circumstance and place.  Greenwich is expensive, I bet the premises and overheads are expensive and Meantime believe in beer being expensive. Brewer and owner Alistair Hook has made that clear many times. 

In my local, a pint of Lees Bitter (4%) is £2.60. Nearby in the Ship, an imported Czech lager, Bohemia Regent (5%) is £3.50 a pint..  I can still get a pint in Wetherspoons using its Wednesday offer (up to 4.5%) at £1.95, or pay a whacking £2.15 at other times. You could well argue that to charge top dollar for beers made in the back of the pub is a bit cheeky, as many of the usual overheads have been removed.  Another example might be The Marble Arch in Manchester, which isn't backwards in coming forwards price wise either, for its beers brewed yards away.

Now London is seen as a special case, where somehow we must pay more.  The £4 pint of ordinary cask is common, usually for beer of pretty dubious quality.  The quality may be better in, say, Manchester, but gougy prices in the Northern Quarter aren't exactly unknown there either.  Converserly, Sheffield, one of the best places to drink beer in the UK is remarkably cheap on the whole.  Clearly property prices and other economic factors have a lot to do with differences, as are pricing policies which set out to attract certain customer demographics.  But on the other hand, you could argue that where beer is concerned, the beer revolution that many speak of is causing a class divide in beer, with exotics for moneyed and dross for the rest, with large numbers in between choosing to drink at home. Even classier beers are drunk at home more than in the pub and why not - some of the prices seem simply ridiculous.

At a time when beer sales in the last quarter fell by another 5.8% in pubs and in the same week we see that according a Mintel survey observes, “While the price of beer has been frozen this year, over two thirds (67%) of monthly out of home drinkers already think that drinking out of home is now too expensive, providing the impetus to switch to cheaper in-home drinking".  So it seems that even of those of us that actually still drink in pubs, only a third are not seriously thinking of drinking more at home as opposed to going out to the pub.  This, if not changed, can only lead to an inevitable further decline in pub numbers, more brewery closures - see Dave Bailey on this too-  consolidation and market decline.
Of course you can take the view that this is just the market performing as the market should and that is a valid view.  As a pub man though it pains me to see the polarisation of the market between the haves and the have nots, to the detriment of all pub users.

When I remarked about "save up and go" to Meantime, I meant it.  For many it isn't just the expensive Meantime that has to be saved for, but their ordinary local pub. Too often there is no option price wise for many other than to feel that the pub is just not affordable any more for what it offers them.   That's bad enough, but when us old codgers die off and the current generation of free spenders have to knuckle down to kids and mortgages, you can't help but think there are plenty of bubbles yet to burst and expensive craft beer might well be one of them, joining other segments that are currently suffering diminishing returns.For one reason or another it seems that inexorably we are losing that most British of habits, going to the pub.  Price is clearly if Mintel is to be believed, a huge part of that change of habit.

It's a gloomy picture.  I reckon I'll go to the pub tonight while I still can and while I still have some company that can afford to do so too. 

While the long term picture is gloomy, in the short term, it will likely be still OK enough for me until I'm brown bread or gaga. But still not a good thing overall.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

No Mean Time

London in the sun.  What could be nicer?  Well Manchester in the sun obviously - better beer to be had - but culture? That's a different issue and  London has it all.  After a (half) day out with Tyson and crew, we decided on a trip to an old haunt - Greenwich.  Two or three ideas.  A walk in the park, a look inside the old Royal Naval College, a quick shufti at the Cutty Sark - it was built in my home town of Dumbarton don't you know and there is still a pub on the High St with the same name - and a couple of restorative beers in Meantime's Old Brewery, a place, to which somewhat neglectfully, I hadn't been.

We enjoyed the walk, I thought the Naval College and whatnot delightful and unfussy. They even allowed you to sit on the banqueting seats to allow you to stare more comfortably at the impressive ceiling. The Cutty Sark was rather antiseptically impressive, though like a hammer where you have replaced both the head and the shaft, you have to wonder if it is indeed the original hammer at all.  All that sightseeing and walking about in the sun makes you thirsty, so our arrival at the Old Brewery was welcome.  Outside was a sea of bodies in the grass and in the beer garden.  I observed closely.  A mixture of plastic and glass gave me an inkling that likely you were meant to use plastic outside, so I wondered what would happen.  Inside we found a decent spot in a corner. It was going like a fair busy, but the staff were cheerful and kept good order.  I put my barman through his paces by asking for a couple of samples even though I knew what I would likely have. He was professional and friendly, offering decent advice despite the hordes.  Good stuff.  I settled on North Fresian Lager, a Jever-alike, but really rather magnificent, with good body, freshness, bitterness and a hopsmacking finish.  What's not to like? Well perhaps the £5.20 a pint price?  OK. Certainly the £5.20 price, but it was good. Very good. E was much less impressed with her Pilsner which did seem dull.  Or was that just dull in comparison. She rapidly switched to the same beer as me.

The place was heaving and we watched the dynamics of it all. It seemed that you randomly got glass or plastic and nobody was stopping anyone going outside with glass.  Service was friendly and efficient. My three rounds were all in glass without me asking.  Top marks.  I did have a couple more tasters, but nothing much impressed beer wise.  Perhaps I was spoiled by the North Fresian? Service was brisk and friendly, décor was comfortable to imposing, with the brewery conditioning tanks, clearly signed with exciting forthcoming beery attractions being a high point.

So overall?  I (we) had a good time, thought the North Fresian excellent but expensive, thought the service good all things considered and hopefully when I come back on a quieter day, I'll have more interesting beers to choose from.

It's nice. I liked it. Save up and go.

I didn't experience any of Tyson's bizarre occurrences on this occasion.

Monday 29 July 2013

Who's Next?

When I was much younger, as I've mentioned before, I trained as a barman under an old school boss. You had to do it right, first time, every time, or you got a bollocking. It was a good training though for subsequent years and why I am sometimes critical of barstaff.  You see. I really do know how it should be done.

I was reminded of this when in the pub on Friday and was passed over more than once by the same barmaid, who always asked "Who's next? before serving the person directly in front of her, no matter whether they'd been waiting minutes or seconds. I was taught to look around as I was serving and acknowledge customers and advise them of their place in the invisible queue.  It isn't difficult, just requiring the most basic of observational skills. I'll be brushing up on it soon at the GBBF if you want to put me to the test. The lazy "Who's next? " is to me an annoying example of the indifferent service we often get in pubs.

Trust me on this one. What you don't want to hear from barstaff is "Who's next?" You want to hear "You're next".

And don't get me started on "You all right there?"  It is more or less the standard question you are asked at the bar now.

Friday 26 July 2013

CAMRA - Making Brewers and Publicans Happy

There's sometimes talk about how publicans, brewers and breweries hold CAMRA in contempt, though it isn't something I've come across much.  When this talk happens, it tends to be in snide comments on blogs or in asides between non CAMRA types. As I said, it isn't something I've had to deal with all that often and even then, it usually comes down to a remark about beer quality or whatever and it soon blows over.

Again despite rumours to the contrary, one thing brewers love, adore and can't get enough of is awards.  Pubs are the same. Awards mean some kind of recognition for effort and everyone likes to be recognised for what they do don't they?  So last night we (my local CAMRA Branch) had an awards ceremony.  First up was the Oldham Pub of the Year, the Ashton Arms, a comfortable and welcoming town centre pub with a great range of beer and then the awards for Oldham Beer Festival.  Gold and Silver to a local brewery, Greenfield for Silver Owl and Vanilla Stout and Bronze to Millstone, nearby in Mossley, for True Grit.  The brewers and owners were there.  We actually know all of our local brewers extremely well and they were absolutely delighted with the awards.  The pub was delighted. We were delighted that they were delighted and we all had a great night and brought extra trade into the Ashton.

CAMRA - Delighting the good in Pubs and Brewing.

Winning beer, Greenfield Silver Owl is a superbly clean pale, hoppy and bitter beer of around 4%.  I had a lovely couple of pints of it last night. All winning beers were chosen by the general public at the festival itself.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

I'm Uneasy About This Kind of Thing

I have drunk in pubs for over forty years and in some rough ones too. In that time, I've seen plenty of arguments, but very few fights, yet alone incidents where glasses or bottles have been used as weapons.  I do though read about such appalling occurrences from time to time.  These kind of attacks, when they happen, are horrifying and need the full force of the law to be brought down on the perpetrators. In fact they need to be locked up for a long time.

These kind of incidents are though relatively rare and while horrible, do they justify the response we see from police in Plymouth?  That is to seek a ban on glassware where "more than one incident of this kind takes place".   The action is aimed at "troublesome night spots" it seems, but reading about it more carefully, there is an indication that it may well be spread wider than that. In fact the Morning Advertiser has a headline which reads: "Glass bottles and traditional glasses are to be banned from pubs and bars in Plymouth city centre to stamp out late night violent crime." Now define "incident" please. And "late night". The Police, as nearly always it seems, are much more likely to try and inflict a restriction on the civil liberties of many, rather than tackle the actual culprits.  If there are well known "troublesome nightspots" then why aren't they applying the letter of existing law and having them closed down or restricted in their operations?  Why should the vast majority of well behaved customers have to drink out of plastic or aluminium, in case a nutter goes berserk?   Oddly the Plymouth cops cite an 80% reduction in "serious violence" in Newquay as a justification.  80% of how many you might wonder?  20? 100? 1000?  Note too "serious crime".  Not glassings, but serious crime.  Dodgy justification and conflating two different things with each other seem doubtful by way of justification unless there is a whole lot more verifiable evidence to support it.

When the police seek to restrict the liberty of individual businesses and customers, they should be made to explain the statistical evidence behind what they are doing, what they have already tried which has failed and why existing powers they have are insufficient to deal with it.

No proof - no way.

I declare an interest here.  I hate drinking out of plastic.  On the plus side, I'm probably in bed by the time these troublesome incidents occur. 

Friday 19 July 2013

Whew. What a Scorcher!

Ah Summer. It beckons like a summery thing. What's not to like? Scallies with their shirts off, hogging any outside areas and loads of large lasses with red faces and way too tight Primark clothing for a start I suppose. But I live up North, so fewer willowy girls with floaty dresses and men in Boden attire, but that's life. It's gritty and real, like the ale sometimes is. So what do we all like on a hot day? No. Not that. Beer - that's what.  Beer, cool and refreshing; beer cold as a polar bear's arse, frosted and glistening in the sun. That's what we want isn't it?

This, to some, means that real ale, that most British of drinks doesn't fit the bill in this weather. Why? Because it is too warm. Too warm? Surely in these days of refrigeration and temperature controlled cellars that can't be so? At least it shouldn't be so. The twitter waves are full of dire warnings of warm beer. Even ATJ suggests that "at least (publicans offer) one good craft keg font to keep the cask beer drinkers happy", his reasoning being that drinkers might fancy something colder and more carbonated. Well indeed they may, especially if the cask is warm enough to poach an egg in and looks like electric soup.

 I am lucky to mainly visit pubs where they know what they are doing. My (cask) beers recently have changed little in temperature from normal. They are served at around 12° - 13° as they should be and are perfect summer drinks. Nor is it just here where they know what cooling is for. All the cask beer I had in Glasgow and surrounds last weekend was also perfectly cool. Hats off to the Tullie Inn Balloch, the Drum and Monkey and Blackfriars in Glasgow who all sold cask beer at the correct temperature. We also went to West, which being keg only and German run, had no temperature problems either.

 So. Have you switched to something cooler because real ale has become unacceptably warm in the pub in which you wished to have it? I'd be interested to find out more and most importantly where.

It's another hot day here in Manchester.  Lovely. Pint later I think.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Underneath the Arches

There are quite a few London Breweries that are located in railway arches.  In fact that day, we'd visited two, but this time we were heading for a new arch and not a new brewery, but a new craft beer outlet. Or is it a pub? Well, we'll see.

The area around Cannon St station is suit territory, so the new Pelt Trader, a Euston Tap offshoot I believe, should have a ready audience during the week, but on a Saturday it was fair to say that the place was pretty empty.  To be fair though, it was the first week of trading.  Now I don't know why it is called the Pelt Trader as I suspect, even digging into the dim and distant, that there hasn't been that much pelt trading on this spot, though maybe some historian will point out I'm wrong and that woad covered precursor Londoners did indeed trade pelts from here, before catching the tube home.  It is a big arch is this.  Not small at all in fact, with a sort of grown up version of the Euston Tap's bar, complete with American style taps at the back, a few seats and high tables and a lot of brickwork.  It felt cavernous, but all the same, I reckon when a bit more full, it will have quite a decent atmosphere.  As an observation, it could probably do with some posters or other such artwork on the walls too, to break up the expanse of brick a bit.

I said "we" in the first paragraph and the we in this case was Tyson the Beerhound with a small but devoted bunch of his acolytes.  Down from the grim North to part with their brass in exchange for exotic Southern beers, they had a cheery determination about their day out in Smokely.  They had seen off Kernel and Partizan and the day was still young.  We filled the place up a bit, but oddly there was two different stag parties that wandered in.  Why two such sets of  hedonistic adventurers should choose to wander around a deserted Cannon Street is a mystery, but there they were all the same.  Some were even choosing from the beer list, no doubt having a well earned break from Kopperberg with shooter chasers.

Ah yes beer.  Pretty similar in line up to the Euston Tap, with Bristol Brewing leading the cask offerings and around a dozen keg beers also available.  Quality, as you'd expect from the ET mob, was universally high.  Proper conditioning and temperature to the fore - that's what I like to see.  I had Moor Nor’ Hop which wasn't that cloudy and tasted pretty damn good and a drop of Adnam's Fat Sprat, also very good.  At least I think it was Fat Sprat.  Must take notes. E pronounced her Jever to be up to snuff too. Unlike the ET, there are rather substantial toilets on the same level, so that's all good, though I do hope they are kept clean when it is busier.  A bit of general tidying up and the odd mopping would not have gone amiss, but early days.

Overall?  More a bar than a pub, but it still gave a great first impression even when very quiet.  You can't say fairer than that.

I understand the food offering when it comes will be pizza forward.    Pelt Trader, Arch 3 Cannon Street, The City, London, EC4N 6AP

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Seething? No. Just One Grumble

Seething Lane.  There's a name to conjure with. Samuel Pepys, he of the diary lived there and worshipped in the tiny St Olave's Church which is still there and well worth a look as it is rather old, though reconstructed after partial destruction by German bombing in 1941. Pepys is buried there.  The area is a typical London mix of new and old and it is in the new that the latest Draft House incarnation, Seething Lane has appeared.

Now readers of this blog will know that Draft House Tower Bridge is quite near my London flat. Well a fifteen minute walk away and it is a place that impresses in every way except for this writer at least, the quality of its cask beer.  I still go there on occasion and always ask for a taste of whatever is on -  sadly, that doesn't work out - the triumph of hope over experience rarely does - so I drink something from Camden or the like. You see, I do like the place, so I accept it for what it is. A lovely place, but not one I like to drink cask in.  The new Seething Lane is even nearer to my gaff and is in an area I know well.  It has a few decent but uninspiring pubs, some better than others and we spend a bit of time there.  It needs a new and brash neighbour to help up some games. So is the new Draft House man enough for the job?  Well, yes and no, but mostly yes.

Firstly from an unprepossessing exterior - it is under a modern glass building - you step into an American Brewpub style interior of considerable size and with an immediate "wow" factor.  It is a big space with a long impressive bar on your right, an open kitchen at the back and various booth and table seatings.  It has brash neon, stainless steel, wood, leather, exposed pipework and more and it works brilliantly. Someone with flair, panache and a great eye for design has conjured a contemporary, modern, but comfortable eating and drinking space out of what was I understand, an old Post Office.  So top marks for that.  The food, typical Draft House Fare, looked tasty and appealing, though we didn't eat and service was attentive, but it was a quiet Monday evening.  It would be good to see how that all stacks up on a heaving Friday.  One small niggle. The music is described by the Draft House itself as "background."  On a very quiet Monday night it was anything but, causing a need for raised voices.  Is that a tactic to create atmosphere? 

But Dear Reader, I was there for the beer, so what can be said about it?  Beer wise there is something for everyone.  Around fifteen tall fonts dispense a pleasing selection of local and foreign craft keg beers and there are four handpumps too, plus an extensive bottle list.  The barman couldn't have been more helpful and pleasant and tasters were offered.  E stuck to keg and I had tasters of two cask beers (tasters often tell you little) before deciding to play safe with a pint of Dark Star Hophead, which was, sadly, more than a bit warm and flabby.  I switched promptly to a couple of halves of keg which were fine, though to be honest, E's Camden Seven Hop could have been colder too - it seems to be a company trend - but maybe it is just teething troubles as it is after all, early days.  I do hope so. I can't see why a new venue such as this would have anything but the most modern of cooling systems.

Overall?  I liked it a lot.  We both did in fact.  I am looking forward to seeing it at full tilt, with loads more people and the beer turning over quickly. Either way, I'm sure it will be a roaring success and handy as it is, we'll certainly be back for drinks and next time, eats.  I will though be approaching the cask beer with a certain amount of wariness, but, as always, with hope.

We came directly from the Holborn Whippet. Great chat and service from Kirsty and excellent cellar temperature cask beer. 

Thursday 4 July 2013

Allgates Quaker House - A Proper Stout

Tuesday was an exciting day for me. Not just because of the monthly CAMRA Branch Meeting which I chair (and that's quite exciting)  but because the stout I brewed jointly with Allgates Brewery and two fellow bloggers, was to make its bar appearance. 

Allgates is a fantastic brewery with well made beers that have that elusive drinkability.  Now you can wax lyrical all you like about wine barrel aged imperial double saisons and their ilk, but the essence of good drinking is a decent (cask conditioned) pint of good honest beer.  Substance over style if you like. (And even if you don't like.) In fact here's a point of view. There's a big difference between really good drinking and what the beer geeks might term "awesomeness" in beer.  One is a social lubricant that makes the world go round just that little bit better and brightens your life accordingly, as an accompaniment to it.  The other is perhaps a tad more introspective and exclusive. All too often it comes across as a one dimensional, fleeting paean that worships the product (often for its bragging rights) more than the moment, the company or the occasion.

Right. That's off my chest, so back to our Quaker House.  Like all Allgates beers, it was named after a defunct coal mine from the area around Wigan, which used to yield many millions of tons of the black stuff.  Appropriate then on two levels at least.   Having agreed we'd produce a stout, it was my hope to persuade my fellow brewers that it had to be a real stout of premium drinking strength and most importantly, it had to be as black as the ace of spades and not a pale, see through porterish excuse of a beer. In my view, if you can see through the bloody thing, it isn't a proper stout. Fortunately that idea was readily agreed and there is no doubt that this is a proper stout. Jet black, with a gorgeous off-white, creamy head, it looked like Guinness used to look before they fucked it up completely many moons ago.  The oats gave it a tremendously smooth mouthfeel with roast and chocolate malt and decent hopping from the Warrior and Galena hops came through nicely.  It is a deep and satisfying beer which drinks easily and belies its 4.9% alcohol.  The finish is long and roasty with lingering hops. It coated my palate wonderfully.  The beer is pretty damn good. If I had my time again, I'd have perhaps have suggested a few more resinous hops in the finish, but I remind myself it is a collaboration and that we have produced a beautiful, easy drinking stout which has enough complexity to make it a cut above the ordinary.  Gratifyingly many of our members supped it with pleasure.

It was also a great pleasure to me that it was hosted by the Baum, CAMRA's National Pub of the Year, so no doubts about quality of keeping and dispense. Served with perfect conditioning, at around 12°C and sparkled as God intended, I was a happy man.

Thanks again to David and Jonathan at Allgates. Princes among men.

Tyson and Jim (my fellow collaborators) will have their barrel on soon. Jim's is on Friday at the Joshua Brooks in Manchester I believe. Tyson TBA.

My chosen charity (it was kindly donated by Allgates) is the Salvation Army in Rochdale to help with their work with the homeless.