Tuesday 24 June 2014

A Mixed Blessing

I had a pint with one of my local landlords at the weekend while visiting his pub.  I like to do this when I can, as it keeps me in touch with what's happening locally - essential for my day job as CAMRA Branch chairman.  I asked if the World Cup was helping trade and he pulled a face.  While he had 90 or so in his vault watching England on Thursday night, his thriving (but TV free) lounge and restaurant were more or less empty and his beer garden, on one of the most pleasant and warmest nights of the year had nary a soul in it.

The assembled horde in the vault supped plenty of beer, but overall, his trade on the day was well down.  This contrasted with when England played late - after normal usual closing time - when people could have their normal night out, then go home and watch the game, while as a bonus, the vault (the only part of the pub with TV), was again filled with extra custom.  We talked about whether he could have put TV in other areas of the pub for this four yearly event only, but although he considered it, the logistics, as well as the fact that it isn't what he is trying to achieve in his pub, ruled it out.  He felt it better overall to just take the hit on what will, sadly, turn out to be one night only.   He isn't expecting much from the last and meaningless England game either trade - or indeed football wise.  Overall the World Cup has, on balance,  been good for trade, but it has been a bit lumpy and certainly not a money spinner..

He wasn't pleased to see England go home early by any means, but it seems, life for some pub landlords at least, will be simpler now.

Lees new seasonal, Golden Peddler, is pretty decent too, assuming you actually want a beer to drink as opposed to beer as an intellectual exercise.

Friday 20 June 2014

Reading Minds at the Bar

I'm at the bar in one of our local pubs with E who is sitting at a table.  The pub is early Friday night busy, which is just steady. There is no wait at the bar, desultory though the service is.  The order is a simple one.  A pint of MPA for me and a half of Original for E. My pint is poured and the barman reaches behind him to the shelf where the half pint glasses are stored.  I watch with interest.  Watching barstaff is one of my little hobbies.  Did I tell you I was trained by an expert?  Yes I think I did. Once or twice.  You never forget good habits if they are instilled in you from an early age. I've probably mentioned that too I suppose.

The barman clutches a glass.  He hesitates and I watch his mind wrestling with itself.  I know what's afoot instantly.  The glass is warm from the glasswasher.  I know what he is thinking.  He internalises the problem instantly and I see him putting the arguments to himself.  "This glass is hot.  Should I find another or just serve in it anyway ?" will be the gist.  The decision is made more or less at once. Inside his head he silently says "Fuck it".  The half is served in a warm glass, which I detect immediately by the simple expedient of putting my paw round it.  "You made the wrong decision there" I say.  The barman looks at me slightly uncomfortably.  "We both know that glass was too warm for the beer don't we?" I add. He says nothing, but pours the beer away, checks for a cold glass and serves me the beer.  I pay and say no more.

It cost JW Lees a half pint of beer though.  Will the lesson be learned?  I am not so sure.

Lees Golden Original Lager is an excellent beer.  I had a few pints of it (elsewhere) last night.  Tremendous stuff really.  Try it if you have the chance.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Princess of Prussia

I am not the biggest fan of the cask products of Shepherd Neame which I find harsh and samey.  I can't say the same about many of their non standard bottles though, which are quite the opposite. They are very good. Shep's should maybe look at putting some of them such as Brilliant Ale (which actually is) or Double Stout on cask, rather than the nondescript ones they do now.  Early Bird, Amber Ale, Late Red?  Just say no.  They taste the same as the usual ones.  Harsh and difficult to tell from each other. Be that as it may, I still like the nearest Shepherd Neame pub to my London flat and do go there.  You'd hardly be attracted by the prices though, expensive as it is, even by local standards which are scarcely cheap.  But I like the place. That's the thing about pubs.  It isn't just the beer. The Princess of Prussia is very pubby, with a good mixed clientèle and a nice feel to the place.  Distinct drinking areas, lots of dark wood for cosiness and a splendid, atmospheric, heated outside area at the back adds to its considerable attractiveness. It is pretty well run too and while I dislike the beer, I have never had a badly kept pint.

So, despite having tried repeatedly to like the cask offerings, I just can't, so generally end up drinking Oranjeboom, which in its original Dutch incarnation at least, is an all malt brew.  No obvious corn notes in the Shep's brewed stuff, so probably all malt here too (though I wouldn't bet my reputation on it ) and as I usually just have a quick couple of pints, while it's no great flavour experience, no harm done either.
All this rambling leads to the reason for this post.  The Princess of Prussia used to be a Truman's pub and bore some traces of its ancestry outside.  Recently the outside has been done up, with new tiling replacing old, broken stuff.  Doesn't it look great?

So, while I don't care for the cask beer, I do like the pub and Shep's sympathetic care of it.  Two out of three isn't bad.  Or is it?

Can't help thinking I'd enjoy Truman's Burton Brewed Pale and Old Ales better.  Stout and Mild would be nice too! Where's that time machine?

The Princess of Prussia is at 15 Prescot St, London E1 8AZ

Thursday 12 June 2014

Just off Bethnal Green Rd

It's a funny old place is Bethnall Green Road.  You tend to think of it as the Krays and Cockney geezers, but you'd be far nearer the mark nowadays thinking of Karachi or some such, as the whole area seems to be one long tatty shop after another, so the whole feels like one long foreign market.  It isn't pretty. Trust me on that one. Be that as it may, there are pubs to be found, though often more in the sense of signs for former boozers, or a few very run down looking places which could just as easily be in a poor area of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford or Liverpool rather than wealthy London.  Emerging at the end of Bethnall Green Road, where we'd walked from our flat on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we were almost on our target.  Immediate left under the railway bridge and into Paradise Row.  A neat little row of terraces leads you to Mother Kelly's, in a railway arch, but not for once a brewery, but a bar.

It is a decent size with some benches out front, a stall selling fancified pig flesh of some sort, run by an incredibly hairy guy and two skinny women and inside a neat spacious place with more benches, fridges of exotic beers down the left wall and a long bar with keg taps at the back.  A non bearded barman greets us with a smile and a hello.  He offers tasters and good advice, all in a non condescending way.  He is very amiable and friendly.  We choose two two thirds. Me of wheat beer, E of lager, which shows clearly the limitations of this glass.  On a hot day, two gulps and there is almost nothing left of my beer, but hey, maybe that's just me. We take seats inside, as outside the few patrons practice the usual British policy of spreading themselves out to keep a space for six the domain of two.  But we don't mind - it's nice inside and we can look out through the wide open doors at the trees (look to the right for this, otherwise it is the back of a nondescript building).  We note that mercifully the music, playing at a sensible volume, is not techno beat, but something equally modern, without that drilling bass sound that makes you want to kill yourself, or, better,  the bastard that put it on.  Most of the men aren't bearded, which endears the place to me even more. We like it. 

Back to Bethnall Green Road and some history.  We pass the sign for the Ship.  A Watney's House, though there is no trace of the pub.  I look with interest at the few open pubs.  The Marquis of Cornwallis, the Star of Bethnall Green which I'd have liked to go in, rough though it looked, but E wouldn't. The Old George?  No. Not this time.  A new target for us was The King's Arms.  It is disconcerting to turn a few yards off the main road with its distinct Asian feel into posh London with neat streets and that gentrified feel which is almost unique to London.  The pub is majestic,  with its long floor to ceiling windows and a good feel inside.  The place though is more or less empty and the beer, ironically from Salford, is toasty warm. The cellarman is called.  He apologises and pours a new one which is much better.  He explains the beer lines aren't cooled to the point of dispense.  He and I both shake our heads at this.  Three casks, a few well chosen kegs, but it needed customers, though we did linger a while and one or two did wander in.  We like it and again we'll be back. But I'll make sure I'm not the first customer for a while.

We finish up in the Carpenter's Arms - or rather outside it.  Fairly good (but warmish) Adnams and with a nod to the East, a curry in Tayaabs which was, frankly disappointingly bland.  It seems it isn't what it used be.  A bit like Bethnall Green Road?

 Can I thank Matt Curtis for recommending both pubs, even if he thought I'd find cask free Mother Kelly's not to my taste. Mind you I wouldn't fancy it when it is heaving.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Brewing Velvet Pilsner Lager

I was brewing beer in London recently with Pilsner Urquell. Martyn Cornell has already set out the background and detail of why we were all gathered in the White Horse at Parson's Green here, so I urge you to read his blog first (good advice at any time - for example, his piece on supplying beer to the troops after D Day is superb).  He gives all the detail, so, keen on avoiding hard work as I am, I won't do it all again here.  Thanks Martyn.  I owe you a pint.

A quick recap though of the mission. In the upstairs room at the White Horse, six teams -  three a day over two days all to brew a lager beer based on the Pilsner Urquell recipe.  The aim is to tweak, or indeed utterly change the PU recipe and produce a beer to be judged later. The winning beer to be brewed commercially by Windsor and Eton Brewery.  So big stakes and a very serious brew-off punctuated by a lot of fun.  Throughout the day we had superb advice from Václav Berka PU Senior Brewmaster, Paddy Johnson of Windsor and Eton Brewery and from Greg Tucker, a taste psychologist, who was with us from the beginning and whose insight into tasting was for me one of the highlights of a day of highlights.  Think you know about taste? Think again.  He was brilliant both in content and delivery.

Now I'm no home brewer, but I like to think I know enough about the processes not to make a fool of myself, so our little team - thrust together absolutely randomly - first all determined that none of us were home brewers - or indeed any other kinds of brewers.  So we had an even non brewing playing field and hopefully not too many preconceptions. We had though all listened carefully to the pep talk by Václav and another by Paddy and fortunately all of us had taken the same main message out of it "Less is more."  We decided at that point that our recipe would be a tweak, not a complete re-write.

The water - brought from Pilsen was already being boiled - so we (Canadian Presenter and Filmmaker Nate Nolan, Norwegian writer Line Elise Svanevik from In a Pub Magazine (who incidentally sounded as Norwegian as I do), Neil Walker, Blogger and National Press Officer at CAMRA and me) started thinking about malt.  PU is brewed with 100% pilsner malt.  We decided that we wanted something with more mouthfeel, so we substituted some melanoidin malt and just a touch of Munich to again add richness and also to add a touch of colour which in PU is provided by triple decoction.  Not something we could do.  That decided, it was into the boil.  For those that like detail; 3.9kg Pilsner Malt, 325g Munich Malt and 75g Melanoidin Malt went in and a lot of hot and sticky stirring ensued.

The hops discussion was much livelier and longer lasting.  PU is hopped solely with Saaz, but after much sensual rubbing, sniffing, oohing and aahing, we decided on an all Czech hop bill.  Currying favour? Us? Certainly.  So we had 40g Saaz in the initial boil, 20g of Agnus five minutes from the end and 40g of Kazbek (which we all really loved) to provide aroma at flame out.  Sounds good?   We thought so.  We ended up more or less where we wanted to be with an OG of 1048.6.  21 litres in all.  The wort tasted good. Much as we'd hoped, with good bitterness under all the sweetness and distinct lemon and spice.  The worts were then chilled and the yeast pitched before being taken away to London Beer Labs for fermentation and lagering. 

Of course all breweries have to have a name and ours was Four Corners (as in the four different countries of the world our team hailed from) and the beer was named Velvet Pilsner after the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Everything had been thought of and we even had on hand a design artist who pulled together a remarkably good label from our very vague and unformed thoughts. Regrettably I didn't take a photo of that!

 The resulting beers will be bottled for judging in July.  I can't wait.  I'll be there biting my nails, but we are all quietly confident. 

 We were also treated to copious amounts of Tankovna unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, poured mainly by Václav himself.  It is a cracking, complex beer.  My thanks to Pilsner Urquell UK and to Mark Dredge for the invitation to a fascinating day.

Friday 6 June 2014

Cooler Down London Way?

Regular readers will know that on average I find the temperature of cask beer sold in London pubs to be on the warm side.  Not slightly warm, but a lot too warm.  And no, I don't accept that there are regional preferences in this kind of thing, though there may be incorrect local flash backs to a byegone era in cellar practice.  Are things changing though?  I think they might just be. In some places at least.

There is, apart from preference for refreshment, a technical reason for this dislike of warm beer.  It is pure physics.  The amount of CO2 remaining in the beer after venting is inversely affected by temperature.  Colder beer equals more condition and warm beer means flat beer. Put simply CO2 is less soluble the more the temperature increases.  From me, the customer, there is nothing more vexing than coughing up the best part of four quid for a pint in London (or anywhere to be fair) and then finding it warm enough to poach an egg in.  It has made me on so many occasions just drink lager - and even that can be warm too sometimes, but not cask warm. Saddo that I am, now and then in a fit of zeal, I take out my Cask Marque temperature probe and check how warm my pint is.  I did that for the first day of my visit last week.  Naturally, prick I may be, but I don't want to be seen as such, so I do this surrepticiously.  I have standards you know. Low though they may be, but my intentions are to drive home the message. No warm cask beer please!

Now I usually name names, but this, with one exception,  I won't, but I will give you some useful pointers as to where things might be better.  The exception is the Euston Tap where my first London pint weighed in at a near perfect 11.2°C.  Yippee.  Other good news was to be found in two Nicolsons pubs, again more or less perfect and in JD Wetherspoon. (Almost never a problem there). So here's an immediate piece of advice.  You are likely (with exceptions) to get cooler and better kept beer in a chain or brewery pub that is managed, as Head Office will be keeping a close eye on beer orders, sales, wastage and customer complaints.*
In each pub I looked for a Cask Marque sign and if there was a problem I determined to bubble them to Cask Marque. After all, that is the name of their game.  I didn't need to, so great. Again with one exception, as of course into each life a little rain must fall.  One pub that shall remain nameless, sold  me my cask beer at an unacceptable 17.2°C and my lass's Budvar at 10.1°C.  Yes they had a Cask Marque plaque on the wall and it is by no means the first time,  so an email is being sent. Now this may seem petty, but I remind you of the price.  When you are charging someone £4 a pint or thereabouts, it needs to be served correctly and after all Cask Marque is meant to be a sign of beer quality.  That's why they exist. 

Let's leave warm beer to John Major's misty eyed reminiscing. Maybe the often poor state of cask in some places in London is one reason why craft keg is getting a decent hold. And why CAMRA's job is not yet done.

* In managed houses you are also likely to find beer python cooled to the point of dispense, a standard cellar practice folllowed and the cellar cooling temperature set correctly and remaining switched on.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Brew Britannia - Book Review

The early 1970s was a time when not only was British Beer at a nadir, but it was starting to be recognised as such and importantly, a few people were starting to do something about it.  The rather chummy, but none too serious Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) was giving way to a much more purposeful and aggressive organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale, which sent shock waves through the whole brewing industry and facilitated to a very large extent, the changes that moved British Brewing from one of homogenisation, to one of huge diversity.

This particularly British tale is engagingly tale is told in a pretty sure footed way by well known beer bloggers, Boak and Bailey,  in their first book, The Strange Rebirth of British Beer.  Although a history, this, in part at least, is a character driven book, because the fightback against the standardisation and bastardisation of British beer is one of individuals, operating singly, but all with a burning view that the bland, fizzy, weak, lookalike beers foisted on the public by the then big brewers, was something they were going to do something about, albeit in individual and unconnected ways. People like David Bruce with his chain of brewpubs, drinkers such as Christopher Hutt, whose book The Death of the English Pub was a clarion call to the British drinker that something was wrong and the four founders of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), are well known and rightly given their place, but the authors have delved into less known cases of early pioneers of beery diversity in the delightfully named chapter Lilacs Out of the Dead Land. Outposts of rebellion in places such as Selby in Yorkshire and Priddy in Wales are discussed, as is the case of Godsons, a new brewery and wholesaler who took London by storm long before the present crop of London brewers were born, though sadly, we are not told why "everything that could go wrong did."

Inevitably there had to be something that pulled all this together and the golden thread running through the early part of the narrative of change in the brewing landscape is the emergence and dominance of the Campaign for Real Ale.  Interviews with many CAMRA worthies bring this to life and for an old hand like me, the book reminds me that CAMRA was a much more swashbuckling organisation than it is now.   And quite possibly much more left wing.  It may not be intentional, but the book clearly illustrates that CAMRA took the feeling of "something wrong",  into a movement that not only annoyed the big brewers, but by campaigning against them and what they stood for, arguably, swept them into the dustbin of history.  For those unfamiliar with this history, the role that  CAMRA played might well be quite a revelation.

The emergence of a new wave of brewers and more importantly, beers and beer styles as well as the new wave of craft beer bars, is the sort of second half of the book, but here you feel the authors are somewhat less sure of themselves.  What about the current changes that in some ways mirror, or at least replicate the situation CAMRA found in the 1970s?  Is there a broad feeling that there is a need for step change around?  You get an idea there might be, but the book doesn't really go there. They do not get into the soul of what the new wave of craft brewers is about - no major interviews - though they do rightly identify BrewDog and Thornbridge as key players. They do make a more convincing job of bars, with an interesting delve into North Bar Leeds, which they postulate is a template for all yet to come and a fascinating reminder of Mash and Air in Manchester as well as others.  But overall there is a strong impression that not only are the writers more meticulous about the past, but the writing of this complicated history is where their main interest lies.  In fairness the emergence of the new "craft movement" is a muddled one and not yet fully formed.  Perhaps Boak and Bailey could let that one ferment for twenty years or so and then turn their skills to it? 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is clearly written, straightforward in style, captures the essence of the issues that faced British drinkers and what was then done about it.  The history is meticulously researched.  It is weaker in its second half, though this is redeemed by a skilful weaving (doubtless intentional and maybe in recognition of the relative weakness) of the past and present and is studded throughout with attractive stories and slightly bonkers people. One criticism is perhaps more about who wasn't interviewed as who was. Given the nature of the book, it might have been useful to seek the views of someone who was there throughout and is still there now, such as Tony Allen of Phoenix Brewery. There are no doubt others.  Of course in any book there are only so many characters that can be fitted in and they have in such luminaries as Brendan Dobbin and Sean Franklin, chosen some of the best.  Later inclusions though seem somewhat whimsical at times, such as the mention of the Campaign for Really Good Beer.  Perhaps the authors elliptically allude thereby to the somewhat feckless SPBW (for whom they seem to have an abiding fondness) and their "drinking club" status?

To this writer, where the book excels is in  the pulling together of  a non linear story of change into a narrative of characters, key people and events.  Those that are familiar with the story and those that are not and those that have even the most passing interest in British beer and brewing will equally find fascinating and educational. I would particularly recommend it to those that feel they are breaking new ground in brewing, drinking or being "different" or in a fancy bar with fancier prices.  While the characters, the pubs, bars and beers have changed, the principles haven't. This book tells you in an easy to read way, that to a large extent, it has all been done before.

If you wonder how we in the UK got where we are today beerwise, I recommend that you buy it.

Brew Britannia. The Strange Rebirth of British Beer is, as they say, available from all good bookshops and on line.