Wednesday 23 October 2013

Heading Craft off at the Pass?

In an interesting development (or is it bandwagon jumping?) it seems that the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) are considering changing their logo which current says "Local Beer," to read "Craft Beer". 

Keith Bott, of Titanic Brewery, the chairman of SIBA, said the proposal to drop “local” from the organisation’s logo and replace it with “craft” had been raised at a SIBA council meeting and was now going out to regional members for discussion. He said: “We don’t believe it’s our role to define craft beer, though any member of SIBA is by definition a craft brewer."  He goes on to remark about how "local beer" is by definition, what they do and is concerned that a change may be "less relevant".

He is probably right to be concerned in tagging themselves with a title that means all things to all men (and women) and shares a consensus with almost nobody.  But of course it would - or is that could - at a fell swoop, make the term "craft" synonymous with cask, rather than its current widely held (though of course not agreed) definition of superior keg.  That's one in the nuts for BrewDog's half baked plan to define craft beer in their own image, as you would then have a respected organisation with several hundred breweries as members, most of whom only brew cask beer, thus taking de facto ownership of the title.  I rather doubt if James Watt envisages or approves of that scenario, but it is at least more plausible than his.

Somewhat presciently in my view, another thing Mr Bott says (and this is again at odds with the BrewDog view of the world) is that  "ultimately the consumer is the right person to decide what is and isn’t craft."  This is hardly co-terminus with a self serving definition by a sector of the industry who would like to define the craft world in their image and for their convenience and then nod approvingly as the drinking public falls in line.

I've an idea though, reading between the lines, that this change is unlikely to happen, though mabe I'm wrong.  To the ordinary drinker in the pub who values choice and a decent pint above all,  the term "local" has far more resonance than "craft" and that resonance, that approval of small and local, is far more likely to sell beer to both publican and public.  That'll probably swing it.  Keith Bott may though have given the definition that most suits craft. That is something that the consumer perceives as craft.  "It can't really be defined, but you know it when you see it" works pretty well now - for that is where we are - for most people. Impractical and skewed ideas imported (copied) from the US (whose definition of craft is a bit suspect anyway) to a completely different market, will remain pie in the sky unless there is a legal definition.  That just won't happen.  

In the meantime we must wait and see for SIBA, but don't go holding your breath.

 The SIBA website has it here.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Alive Alive O

If Conwy had gone some way to restoring our faith in cask ale, Chester had it centre stage and shouting its quality to all comers.  Handily underneath the Premier Inn where we were staying, Harker's is a well known Brunning and Price pub on the canal-side.  Lavishly appointed, the haunt of Chester's well heeled and with a great range of beer, we struck lucky with superb Crouch Vale Amarillo, which was by a long chalk our best beer so far.  The handpump was red hot as it cranked out pint after pint, so we had a second as we assumed it would be gone soon and we had other places to visit.

Next stop was the beautiful Cross Keys and Joules (pronounced Jowls) beer. The pub is a Victorian masterpiece and as good a place as you'd want to spend an hour on a Wednesday night. The beers surprised me.  Since I last had them in Eccleshall around a year ago, they seem to have improved beyond all recognition.  Across the road was Okell's Bear and Billet and there it was the Manx Pale Ale that stood out, with the charming service a close second. MPA is is a beer that you want to drink a lot of and we should have stayed for more, but the boys wanted to visit the nearby Spitting Feather's Brewery Tap in what was once a Jacobean Banqueting Hall.  Now I did warn my friends that the place outshone the beer in the way a lighthouse outshines darkness, but they wanted to see it.  Suffice to say other than the wonder of the surroundings, only the superbly attentive young lasses behind the bar, gamely trying to fashion a silk purse out of a sow's ear, made the visit worthwhile.

Our second last official port of call was a Sam Smith's house (can't remember its name) which one of our number had always wanted to visit.  The OBB at £1.80 was just about OK but comfortably better than our previous experience.  Then to JDW and one of the oddest, strangest, bestest, differentest pints ever.  Bateman's Hazelnut Brownie (6.3%) was a liquid version of its name.  It did what it said on the tin and no mistake.  We all loved it and it was still a talking point at breakfast the next day.  Round the corner, and back at our hotel, Harker's beckoned again, but alas it had closed at eleven.  All wasn't lost though, as two of us nipped across the road to the Cellar and the very welcoming sight of Marble Manchester Bitter. Again the hospitality couldn't be faulted and the beer was on superb form.  We staggered back across the road around the half one mark, slightly the worse for wear. 

So there you have two of the simplest ways to make your pub shine.  Offer a warm welcome and good beer. See a theme developing?

Such was the welcome that my companion was hugged by a barmaid from Harker's who was supping at the bar.  This was by way of apology for being unable to serve us at 11.15 she said.  He was also hugged by the landlord as we left.   Nobody hugged me!

Monday 21 October 2013

A Dead Dog and Conwy

The rain was drumming down as we left Portmadog with little reluctance, heading back up through Snowdonia in grim weather which threatened to blow us off the road. Our destination in the short term was   Snowdonia Brewery at the Parc Brewery Tap on Beddgelert Rd,  Waunfawr.  At the stroke of opening time we dashed the few yards from the car park into a warm welcome and very decent beer indeed.  Perfect Snowdonia Gold and a nice chat to the brewster, who good naturedly chastised the bar staff for not offering us samples from the range, restored our faith in all things beery.  Even the samples were crisp, clear and cool.  Would it last?

Our next destination, Conwy, was immediately impressive with its streets busy despite the downpour and the castle replete with two Welsh flags dominating the scene in a good way.  We parked at the Castle Hotel, an old coaching inn which regrettably seemed to have had all character removed, though that didn't detract from the very warm welcome received from the young and enthusiastic bar staff.  We noted too in the hour or so we were there, the large number of diners and drinkers. They are obviously doing something right.  Beer here was from Conwy Brewery with the 3.6% Clogwyn Gold being a bit of a belter.

Lastly in Conwy, a terrific pub of tremendous appeal and character. The Albion is a splendidly restored 1920s, multi roomed pub which positively gleams inside.  Again the welcome couldn't have been warmer, nor the beer in much better form.  Local pork pies from Edwards (what a shop they have - worth a trip to Conwy just for their Bara Brith and sandwiches) were spot on too. It was consequently a cheery bunch of old gits that left for Chester. Now North Wales has been slagged off by some respondents and I can see why, but Conwy was a gem and I dare say we'd have found some other decent beer there too. It just had that sort of feel to it.

Above all what set Conwy aside from Portmadog was the quality of the offer.  A warm welcome and  excellent beer really makes all the difference. It isn't that much to ask surely? 

You are no doubt wondering about the dead dog.  He is ubiquitous in these parts. The sad tale is here.

Saturday 19 October 2013

All Quiet on the Portmadog Front

 What's not to like when you have a couple of nights away with old friends as we have done once a year for more than the last twenty?  Perhaps when you decide to stay in a run down seaside town like Portmadog that's what.  It all seemed fine when we decided on it. A nice run through Snowdonia and then a night in a pretty town with three Good Beer Guide pubs in it, then up to Chester and a night there. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course history of such events tells us we usually - or at least it seems so - have one day where nothing goes wrong beer wise and one where, disappointment rolls in repeatedly, like breakers on the Irish Sea.  It started promisingly enough in Llangollen where the sun shone and our lunch stop was at the excellent though very run down Ponsonby Arms.  A very pleasant barmaid told us of planned renovations as evidenced by scaffolding outside and the beer, in my case Diawl Bach from Heavy Industry Brewery, had enough hops about it at 3.8% to be very enjoyable.  It was in good nick too, despite us four being the only lunchtime customers.  A wander down to watch the steam locomotives at the preserved railway then took us to the posh Corn Mill owned by Brunning and Price.  Overlooking the railway and the River Dee, this was a beautifully renovated building  with among others,  Dave's Hoppy Beer from Facers, which was maybe just off the mark. A sign of things to come.

Now I hadn't been to Portmadog before and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. The Welsh Highland Railway was nice, as was the harbour, but the town had an ominously deserted feel to it.  We started off with a trip to nearby Tremadog where the busy Union Inn (GBG) offered Purple Moose beers that just weren't anything other than adequate and opposite, the Golden Fleece, built into the hillside and festooned with hops, offered more of the same.  Not bad beer you understand, but a bit tired and flabby.

All Good Beer Guide pubs next.  The best bet beer wise in the Station Inn (a bit of a basic boozer) was Adnams Ghost Ship and that wasn't great.  Our earlier experiences of Purple Moose Snowdonia had warned us off that, so after one, we supped up and plodded along to the Ship Inn which offered mainly national brands. It wasn't that busy at all. Our more exotic choice, Lancaster Blonde had that same midweek feel to it.  Last up was the working men's club-like Spooner's Bar, at the narrow gauge railway terminus.  We were persuaded by the barman to try a brand new cask of Snowdonia but it did little to convince us of its inherent qualities and after a couple we left, the boys to seek a curry and me to seek an early night.

It was eerily quiet as I made my way back to our rather nice B&B.  I saw no-one and walking past at 10.15 pm,  I noticed that the kebab house was firmly closed, as was the Chinese Chippy. Can't say I was shocked.

Conclusion?  Take the GBG with a pinch of salt if the pubs are empty and it is midweek.  Quality still cask's Achilles heel.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Things Go Swimmingly at the Baths

Take a wonderful venue like Victoria Baths, with its tiled splendour offset by decay that has not yet been reversed by renovation and you have a star that possibly outshines any hirer and indeed, makes you wonder  in the conext of IndyManBeerCon, if the venue  is the event and whether it would be able to survive unscathed a change to somewhere less impressive.  There is something about wandering the three old swimming pools, the tiled corridors and the ornate splendour augmented by subdued lighting that makes you feel well disposed to the place and therefore well disposed to whatever is being hosted within.

There is little doubt too that the second IndyManBeerCon has captured many a youthful imagination and already there have been glowing reviews and a positive flurry of congratulatory tweets.  But what about an old cynic like me?  Was it all it was cracked up to be?

There was a change around this year with all three pools being pressed into use and a mixed bag of cask and keg together on the same bar, rather than separate bars for each.  That worked as well as could be expected and is in keeping with the way that the best craft bars operate, so no complaints there.  There seemed too to be less choice than last year, with the offerings being different depending on which night or day you went and a separate beer list for each night.  You had to like strong beers or somewhat experimental beer of just over 3%,  much of which was of a taste that you'd struggle to acquire.  Something just to drink at a modest yet suppable strength was like hen's teeth, rather hard to find.  An exception was Quantum NZ Light which while excellent is still no Windermere Pale, which is the benchmark for this sort of thing.  In my case I had to wait until the alcohol kicked in to be really able to loosen up a bit.  I'm used to pints of a lot weaker beer.  Funnily though on Thursday as I scanned the crowd, I felt quite at home.  Hipsters were few and far between and it was a rather mixed CAMRA fest like crowd that attended.  There were of course one or two worrying hipster proclivities in evidence, though mostly behind the bar.  E thinks she's spotted a new and unwelcome trend of twirly moustaches to accompany ironic beards.  I kid you not. Just when you thought things couldn't get worse.

There were plenty of people I knew which always makes a festival nicer and plenty of gossip too, none of which I can repeat here.  There were surprising omissions too. Hardknott Dave was there but his beer wasn't, edged out perhaps by even more trendy newcomers. A fickle business this craft keg.  BrewDog were hidden away on a main bar this time and the better for it.  Brewers aplenty served beer and talked about it.  It is one of the abiding upsides of this festival that it attracts brewers to work behind the bar in such numbers.  I wonder though what's in it for them?  You can understand a session, but to work at them all suggests it is either extremely enjoyable or that's just the cheapest (or most lucrative) way to do it.  Either way it's a strange one. 

Food was excellent according to a slightly tottery E, who needed to recover from strong beer and the place was pleasantly busy but not packed which made navigation easy.  Perhaps that's the fire regs, but hey, it worked. Prices (by token) were erratic to say the least.  A 4.8% beer? Two tokens.  A 10.5% one - two tokens?  Strange, but then I have no idea what the structure is, who pays for what, or who sets the prices. I'm equally aware that your average crafteratti is pretty well price blind, a fact that doesn't escape brewers attention. With a minimum price equivalent to three quid a pint, rising to north of £7, that has to be a given.  Certainly one or two more traditional festival attenders told me they found the cost a bit ouchy.

So what were the beery stars?  Thornbridge had a very solid set of offerings from Otter's Tears, a tribute to the late Simon Johnson, a soda water like Berliner Weisse and my beer of the festival, a10.5% Imperial Raspberry Stout.  I liked BrewDog's dark beers too, particularly Hello My Name is Mette Marit and the new Dead Metaphor was rather good too.  I reckon that they brew dark beers much better than they brew paler ones.  Magic Rock were solid but E lamented that their keg offerings lacked the taste of their cask ones and beers from First Chop and Cromarty didn't disappoint.  Dipping in randomly. you did feel though that in many cases you were paying for brewer's experiments.  It isn't that there were many duds, but so many oddities and at times, a curious sameness.

Some of the hyperbole is just that, but IndyManBeerCon was a lot of fun and is a "must go to" fixture, though it is quite possibly a little bit more of a curiosity to the likes of me than a line drawn beyond the rest of beer festivals - unless he means the new wave ones - as one giddy blogger alleged on Twitter..

And after third pints of strong keg beer you might just need a proper pint of cask to remind you that beer is something to sup as well as sip.

I'll be back next year though.  I had a great time with some really nice people and that's what really counts.

Friday 11 October 2013

Sneak Preview

Well not that sneaky really.  The Regal Moon in Rochdale is one of JDW's flagship ale houses.  It is shutting for some refurbishment soon and was granted permission to start the October JDW Fest a bit early.  Chris, the manager, had promised  us that the most sought after beers, those brewed by foreign (in this case American) brewers would be there in force.  And so it came to pass.

Now I often go to JDW on Wednesday nights, but it was a surprise to see Tyson and his retinue of attendants already there and ticking for all they were worth. Think thirds.  The jungle drums could be heard in deepest Bury it seems and they'd charged over the hill (very appropriate) just to steal a march.  Incidentally while the Regal Moon was fairly busy, I noted that the nearby and almost as big Yates had not a soul in it as I passed.  Funny that, but then again, maybe not if you own the place.

Tyson has already named and shamed and as I often do, I mostly agree with his assessments. I'll add a couple of my own thoughts though. To my palate the Ninkasi Cream Ale was a bit like souped up Deuchars IPA, but not really in a good way, being a touch on the cloying side.  The Ballast Point presumably used Marston's yeast and water.  It certainly was a dead ringer for most Marston's beers and unless sulphur is a joy to you, that isn't a good thing.  Brewing these foreign beers in breweries with a particularly distinctive yeast is probably not a world beating idea.

Mind you, the exception was Stone Supremely Self Conscious Black Ale which is possibly the most stunning beer that Wetherspoons have ever had brewed for them.  Adnams yeast was drowned (a good thing in this case)  in a massive hop attack.  Dark as the ace of spades and with a great body, it drank superbly.

I could still taste it on the bus on the way home.  And that too was a good thing.   Seek it out.  

The Elysian Avatar Jasmine IPA was at 6.3% a bit of an aquired taste, but my advice is to give it a chance. The jasmine is quite pronounced