Friday 29 August 2014

Post GBBF Thoughts

There has been a little criticism of the recently closed Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) around social media.  It tends to centre on two things.  A feeling that the Great British Beer Swally isn't inclusive enough in terms of welcoming women (in particular, the selling of sexist T Shirts) and of course the allegation that somehow there isn't enough choice (diversity) and all beer isn't represented.

Now the first is complex.  In many years of representing Trade Union members (though not for over 20 years), cases involving gender were always the most difficult and emotive.  (It was just as difficult as a senior manager.) The issues (whatever they might be) are rarely seen the same way by everyone and that makes reaching an agreed conclusion - or even understanding - problematic to say the least.  Perception is involved and that's a very individual thing.  Though there are usually some things that seem obvious, when you get underneath it, a solution is often not as straightforward as you might think.  Now I must admit that I didn't even notice the T Shirt stand this year, but then again, I wasn't looking for it. I'm not a potential customer. I have it though on good authority that the same old offensive to female T Shirts were on sale.  Tasteless and insulting I agree.  Is the answer to ban them?  On balance yes.  Anything that makes even a minority of female guests at GBBF uncomfortable isn't a good idea and it would seem a quick and simple fix.  It shouldn't be beyond T Shirt sellers and producers capability to find other more appealing themes surely?  Thankfully I haven't heard allegations about women being denied pints or strong beer this year - or other mockings. Yet.

On the wider front, looking around this year, my perception was that a lot more female volunteers were working behind the bars (many in Bar Manager or Deputy positions) and many more behind the scenes that you don't see  - in Staffing, Press, Hospitality and more.  On the floor there seemed to be plenty female customers and most seemed to be having a good time, though maybe they were just putting a brave face on it.  Is the ratio correct?  We certainly had plenty happy women coming to the German Bar, asking for tasters, advice and then going off smiling. Hard to say overall as it is a huge event, but it seemed reasonably healthy to me and improving year on year.  Can more be done?  Of course.  I'm sure the Organiser would welcome suggestions.  I'm guessing the entertainment might be an area for improvement too for example.

Ah beer choice.  Loads of boring samey beers and no craft keg. Well I have news for some.  Most beer in Britain is "boring and samey" and almost all of it isn't craft keg .  It is what most people like to drink and what most brewers produce, because that's what most customers want.  There was plenty of more interesting and stretching alternatives though in cask and bottle and on Foreign Beer Bars.  What you had to do is seek them out, just as you would in the wider world and at least at GBBF, within a few yards, you'd likely find them.  "Not representative" in this case tends to mean "No keg beers from my favourite hipster brewers".  That isn't the same as having no choice folks. It just isn't.  CAMRA has increased choice year upon year - I know this as I've been going for 15 years or more - and who knows, things may change further, but there is no a lack of choice and quality on the whole, is pretty good.  There really is something for almost everyone and rather than think what might be missing, with over 900 beers to choose from, a better way of looking at it would be to get on with what's on offer as there is so much to choose from. Of course, everyone scratches their head from time to time and wonders why their favourite brewery isn't represented.  I do too, but with 1200 breweries in the UK, omissions are surely inevitable?  Despite its unwieldiness, GBBF is what it is.  A huge effort by willing volunteers, to put on the best beer show they can in pursuit of the aims of the Campaign for Real Ale.  It changes and evolves and generally improves, year on year, but is still a great event for most attendees.

With the caveats above, we shouldn't forget that to most customers, the flamboyance, familiarity, friendliness and approachability of the event, the gobsmacking size and the sheer good time they have, are what really matters.

Spare and thought too for the volunteers, young and increasingly old, that give up their time and feet to put the show on.  You'd miss it and them if it wasn't there.  That day is getting closer perhaps.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Cheeky German Waiters

The gruffness of German waiters is legendary.  It is a matter of professional pride to many never to crack a smile, though maybe that is changing as more and more of them hail from East Europe.  Until you come across one of the old school that is.

In Munich last month, our little party of four decided to eat at the Loewenbrau Keller as it has a lovely big screen outdoors on the terrace where we could watch the semi final of the World Cup involving Germany and Brazil.  Alas it wasn't to be, as torrential rain forced us inside.  Still, we got a nice table just a dozen steps down from a room with loads of tables and a telly.  There was lots of room at the back to stand if need be and nobody minded us doing so.  The Germans, all flags and painted faces, were seated in neat benched rows.  Even football watching seemed organised and, well, neat.

We ordered drinks.  Now we'd been before for a nightcap and the girls really liked Loewenbrau Pils.  I do too. It is delicate, but with a firm body and a bitter, perfumey finish. It is actually rather an elegant drink. Two were ordered.  Our waiter, an elderly type, said that they'd be better with Helles as the Pils was too bitter for women.  Now Janet is a bit of a hop fiend and can take as much hops as the next person, even if that next person is a 100 IBU one.  Eileen is not the kind of person you tell what she can or can't drink.  Trust me on that one.  Pils were insisted on and provided. I spent quite a lot of time running up and down the stairs in response the the roars of the lads and lasses in the tv room.  We enjoyed our beer and the hearty food and it was a great night, despite the wet walk home and the Pils Denier.

I won't say whether or not I had a German flag painted on each arm, but will say that I didn't have one on my face. Unlike some other Brits present.

The Loewenbrau Keller is huge and only a fraction of the size it used to be.  Maybe not the best beer in the world, but that pils is good.

Blogroll Deleted. Doh!

Shit.  I've accidentally deleted my blogroll while amending an incorrect entry. Blogger it seems has no way of recovering this.

So, looking on the bright side, I suppose it brings me the chance to bring it all up to date.  If you wish to be on my blogroll could you send me your blog's details and url in the comments column so that you appear when I reconstruct it.  Sorry about this. My fault I suppose, but I still don't understand how it happened.

Of course, if you already appear on my "Latest Blog Info" on the left hand side, there is no need to do so.

In fact I might just add you to that. Or maybe I will reconstruct Blogroll.  Either way it has pissed me right off.

Saturday 23 August 2014

The Good Thing About Unsparkled Beer

You can't really bugger up an unsparkled pint. Well you can, but it will be hard to tell the difference, or, crucially, how good it could have been, because of course it isn't sparkled and therefore presented at its best. As God intended.

I considered this basic truth when in one of my local pubs last night. The key to pulling a good sparkled pint is in the initial pull, which must be vigorous enough to produce the creamy head. The swan neck must go to the bottom of the glass, with the glass held straight, not tilted. The second pull can usually be less strong and the nozzle should always be kept in the beer, not raised as the glass fills. When the fill is nearly complete,a good barperson will hesitate near the top, take your money and let the pint settle while doing so. Then the pint is topped up by inserting the swan neck back into the body of the beer. It should be topped up from below, allowing the fine collar of cream to remain intact. That's the key to using a swan neck and sparkler, you fill the glass from the bottom.

There's a skill to this, but frankly it is a piece of cake once you have pulled a few pints. This is especially true when the same range of beers are sold. You get used to how they behave, but the principle is the same. Why am I telling you this? Well of course education of the heaving masses might be one reason and an honourable one at that. But it isn't. A couple of my pints were spoiled last night by incorrect topping up from the top which tends to bubble the beer and dissipate the head.

To the sparkler hater, this is neither here nor there, but to those of us that follow the true path of enlightenment, it is a heartbreaker.

At least being the North, the beer was beautifully conditioned and cool. The photos show a Yorkshire pint settling in the Riverhead Brewery Tap and the other one poured by me at home. Neither was the beer drunk last night.

PS Bon Don Doon from Wilson Potter is a lovely beer. As always, I am available to teach the uninitiated for a very reasonable fee.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Note for Tegernsee Lovers

I wrote here about my liking for the beers of Tegernsee, a smallish brewery near Munich.  While it is perfectly possible and indeed a very good idea to hop on the train to the lake and drink them at source, you no longer have to do so. To my delight on my recent trip to Munich, I discovered that Tegernsee has opened a pub on Tal, right in the centre of the best drinking area.  Very easy to find it is too, being directly opposite the Weisses Brauhaus and next door but one to Paulaner.

Among other visits, we watched the Netherlands being (unfairly) beaten by Argentina.  We were there until the last kick of the match at around 12.45. Beers were served throughout.  This is a fairly pubby place, with a long bar you can sit at in the front to one side and a number of tables and booths inside.  Off course there is the usual tempting German food.  Prices are reasonable and the staff were smilingly obliging on every visit. Oh. And they sell Spezial, a sort of strongish export style beer which is kind of unique to these parts.  Like Augustiner Edelstoff or Andechs Spezial, it isn't for everyone with a slight sweetness from the full malty body and the alcohol, leading to a bitter finish.  A boys beer at 5.6%, so still (just) in the swoopable range.  Well, I certainly swooped a few.

All we needed to complete our joy was the sadly lacking sunshine, when I believe they put tables outside. Go there if in Munich whatever the weather.

Tegernsee Im Tal:  Im Tal 8, 80331 Munich. Photo: Praying at the Tegernsee Altar.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Lack of Consistent Quality is Cask Beer's Real Enemy

I read with interest and without surprise that in the blog of  Roger Protz veteran and still going beery guy, guest writer Jane Peyton, would like to see a more united front in the continuing pursuit of good beer.  The article can be read by clicking the link above and is well worth a read.  In it Jane makes the usual points in trying to encourage togetherness and overall there is little if anything to disagree with.  I particularly like her point about the growing generations (not all young and female by my observation) of "sweet" cider drinkers, though to call some of these abominations cider, is stretching it more than somewhat given the low (if any) apple juice content, but the point is still particularly valid.  Another very obvious but overlooked point (though Jane puts it in reverse) is that the vast majority of pubs are kept open not by cask ale or craft keg drinkers, but drinkers of utility lagers such as Carlsberg, Carling and Fosters.

Where I part company with her is where she says "I can understand why so many CAMRA members  resent kegged beers, after all those members have campaigned for years to protect cask ale against boring and flavourless pasteurised beer and thanks to their efforts the war has been won."  I wonder about that. I am sure that many CAMRA members do resent keg beer, though, as there is so little competition from keg beer in the standard three to five percent range - the norm for cask beer drinkers - do they really need to?  Ordinary lower alcohol beers don't really present as well when kegged.  It's one of the reasons why so few do it. But "the war has been won." Has it really?  It has been won in the sense that cask beer's market share is shrinking less in today's market than other products (except craft keg oddly), but is it out of danger? I'd say not and while craft keg is a factor, there are a number of others.  Oddly, availability is one reason. Too often cask is available, but poor. Cask ale being very perishable, depends on a quick turnover.  It requires folks that will happily rattle back two, three or four pints in a session and it would seem that there are less drinkers of that ilk around now.  Volume drinking is, if not exactly going out of fashion, decreasing in popularity, especially with younger drinkers who don't quite see beer, or indeed themselves in that way, being often more eclectic in their likings (both beerwise and socially) and pretty concious of outcomes in terms of weight, health and image. 

The demise of many local pubs has diminished cask ale drinking too.  True many closed pubs were pretty poor, but even those, in my younger drinking days in Liverpool, were almost all cask, though of course not so latterly.  Turnover leads to quality and while choice was less, bad pints were rare.  And there is a quality issue with cask in many places.  I rather think we are getting a little nearer than we realise to the bad old days of the 1980s when Ruddles, Theakstons, Boddingtons and others became national brands with a resulting drop in quality overall.  Nowadays it is seen as enough by many (as it was then) to have a slow shifting, badly kept set of beers such as Doom Bar, Greene King IPA, Deuchars, London Pride and others of that ilk, that demonstrate the same "boring and flavourlessness" - to quote Jane - that the old keg beers of yore did, with the added disadvantage that it will likely be sold to you in less than perfect condition and temperature.  In the "bad old days" when pubs were brewery owned that happened so much less.  Most breweries policed their estates somewhat assiduously then.

 There was a very good piece in his blog by Martyn Cornell on the subject of CAMRA's stance on pub closures and changes of use.  He makes a lot of good points, including some that may not meet with universal agreement.  But where he is certainly right is in his point that CAMRA should have a campaign to raise the standard of cask beer sold in the UK today.  I agree with him, though in my case, as it would be as well as, not instead of campaigning against certain pub closures. My CAMRA Branch has an over-riding campaigning objective of so doing - and we have pretty good cask beer on the whole, so it could be argued that we don't need to do so.  Other CAMRA branches - and they need to be honest with themselves - ought to do the same. As long as cask beer is sold in many outlets in its blandest form, as long as pubs don't cellar and keep it correctly, as long as access to the market for more interesting beers is made either impossible or impossibly expensive by the Pub Companies, cask beer will always be in danger. When you can confidently expect a perfectly kept pint of interesting cask ale in the vast majority of pubs, then maybe, just maybe the war will be won. Not until then though and that's a long way off.

There is still plenty campaigning to be done.  The war to keep cask safe isn't yet over. The enemy though isn't craft keg, which is very encouraging of new entrant beer drinkers (a big plus to me), it is the quality of cask beer at the point of dispense and probably always has been.

Neither Cask Marque nor the Good Beer Guide will guarantee good beer sadly, but we should feedback to both when it isn't up to snuff.  If nobody complains..............

Thursday 7 August 2014

Ice Cold in Munich

Tickers weep.  I'm about to tell you about a beer I've had and you'll never have. This is an exclusive and I just stumbled across it.  More or less.

Before going to Munich recently, I had hurriedly printed off some stuff about craft beers in Munich. Mostly just where to buy it, or drink it, but among the restaurants and pubs, there were two new breweries listed - both just with addresses and little else.  They were served by the same S Bahn station, so, with my companions, we thought, "Why not?" and set off. The one we were really aiming for was Brauerei Im Eiswerk which was supposedly a small offshoot run by Paulaner, one of the Munich giants.  We found it easily enough, in a quiet yard behind the huge Paulaner-Hacker Pschorr Brewery, but it all looked a bit closed.  As we nosed around, a door opened and my friend John explained the purpose of our mission to the charming young lady (one of the brewers as it turned out) that opened it. She fetched another gentleman who turned out to be the Head Brewer.  He explained that the brewery produced a number of exclusive beers which are sold to the public by pre-arranged collection once or twice a month.  It wasn't open to the public other than that.  Ah well.

Brewers though are princes among men.  The brewer thought for a moment and said "Would you like to come in and I'll tell you a bit about what we do here?"  "Yes please" we chorused.  The brewery is in an old building which was where they produced ice to allow round the year brewing many years ago. Herr Martin Zuber is the Brauemeister and his aim is to extend the range of beers brewed by Paulaner by re-interpreting or extending existing styles and by using different techniques or hops. The main thrust seems to be promote more passion about the beers they produce and to generally stimulate interest in beer and brewing.  Herr Zuber who spoke excellent English of course, then talked us through what they brew and showed us the remarkable and expensive looking stainless steel kit on which he brews his range of beers.  As he warmed to his theme, he seemed to make his mind up.  "We could maybe taste some of the products?" he suggested.  We were very happy to go along with this and were treated to snifters of all the beers.  Starting with Josef's Special, a brown ale of 5.2%, named after Joseph Pschorr, a renowned member of the famous Pschorr brewing family, which was creamy and smoky, then a Maerzen 1881 named after the year the Ice Factory in which we stood, was built, thus allowing brewing to take place at Paulaner throughout the year.  Previously brewing couldn't happen in the summer months as beer would spoil.  This Maerzen, weighing in at 5.7%, is styled on the forerunner of all Oktoberfest beers.  It had sweet malt, caramel notes and a smooth, elegant finish with some hops. 

In a different mode altogether was Weizen Bock Mandarin (6.9%) . This is a wheat beer made with top fermenting yeast and hopped with Hersbrucker, Hallertauer and Mandarina Bavaria, which imparts apricot/peach, mango and mandarin notes.  The beer is also dry hopped with Mandarina. It was slightly alcoholic with peachy fruit, tropical mango notes and a touch of orangey mandarin.  Quite delicious.  Then the alcohol was upped with Bourbon Bock (9.2%), described by the brewer as a a Triple Ale Bock. The beer undergoes a  triple fermentation and is then stored for 3 months in oak bourbon barrels giving it a hint of sherry, dried fruit and vanilla.  It was very warming and silky. Last up was a real treat.  An Eisbock of around 20% abv (I can't quite remember) which was liqueur smooth, thick and lasting in the mouth.  It kind of reminded me of 7 star Metaxa Brandy. It would be a great nightcap.

We asked Herr Zuber about himself and the Paulaner-Hacker Pschorr set up.  He trained as a brewer at Weihenstephan and used to be Head of Production and Quality Assurance in the main brewery.  In addition to his duties in the Ice Factory, he has the responsibility nowadays of overseeing all of Paulaner's 30 odd breweries abroad and has to visit them to ensure quality. A tough job, but someone has to do it I suppose. He is a big hop fan and of course we asked him, among many other things, about whether he'd like to brew an IPA.  "Well" he said, "I have in fact done so, here in this brewery, just to show others we can do it".  But he added you won't likely ever see a Paulaner IPA released on general sale from Paulaner- HackerPschorr, as the aim of the Ice Factory is quite different.  He again paused and thought for a second.  "Would you like to try my IPA?"  Er. "Yes please" we chorused.  So we did.  100% Cascades and perhaps at the less hoppy end of that particular spectrum, it was nonetheless a unique tasting experience.  It won't ever be released and when the keg is emptied or goes stale, that will be that.

As I have said before, brewers are generally lovely people who like to talk about beer, but this was above and beyond that.  Herr Zuber was kindness itself, giving an hour and a half of his time to four complete strangers.  It never ceases to amaze me that beery folks are the best.  But it shouldn't really, should it? 

Paulaner and Hcker Pschorr don't compete against each other any more, but rather, complement beer ranges which are separate brews and mostly different. That was an interesting part of our visit to me at least.  The top photo is Martin Zuber and the other one a not very good photo of the lovely little stainless steel Eiswerk Brauerei kit.

We did go to the other brewery mentioned in my first paragraph.  It took me back to my younger beer hunting days. More on that another time.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Poor London Pride

I'm not that big a fan of London Pride though I recall way back years ago when the Marble Arch sold it, it was a beer to actively seek out.  When I say way back, I'm talking over 25 years ago.  Was my enjoyment of it because of its comparative rareness, or was it simply better then?  Or maybe we had simpler tastes back in the good old days when hops were a background addition to beer and not the main star?  Now it seems one dimensional and sweet, but hey ho, that's how some people like it. What I have noticed though, in the few times I have had it recently, is how thin and generally unappealing it has become - to my palate at least.  It doesn't refresh, it cloys. Admittedly most of those times have been in Wetherspoon in London when there has been nothing else I fancy on.  When I've moaned on Twitter, I have been advised that I should only have it in Fuller's pubs. I've tried that and really don't find it any better there.

I wonder if the beer really has got worse, or if, in these days of vast choice,  I've simply become far more picky? In fact, have too many of us, rather than being discerning, just become too hard to please?

Worryingly, I tend to think the same of Lees Bitter these days too, relying instead on their seasonals or Manchester Pale Ale

Monday 4 August 2014

It's a Bit Different In Munich

The Augustiner Keller is a classic of its kind and best of all, it is very handy for the centre of town when in Munich and an easy walk from the main railway station. In Munich the word "keller" generally denotes a beer garden and this is a classic of its type. Huge, sprawling, but nonetheless cosy enough, with its dozens - or is it hundreds - of benches set under chestnut trees, while an oompah band plays folksy German tunes in the background. On a lovely Monday evening in July it was seductively attractive.

It helps to know the form here. The place is split into two areas. One is self service in that you go in via a turnstile, choose your food from a number of counters and then separately your beer (Edelstoff from a wooden cask in my case), which is handed to you and hence, cafeteria style, to a till where you settle up. Otherwise you go to the other half of the keller, where a waiter will eventually wander over and take your order. In the posher bit, like many German restaurants, the tables will all have either people sitting at them or reserved signs on them. If you make it clear that you wish to eat, then, usually,  a table will be found for you. If you just want a drink, well its more hit and miss and you may have to find a table to share, which is normal there. It's all very jolly and civilised.  No children running wild, no shirts off tattooed drunks and just the buzz of conversion (and the band who are not amplified) to accompany good beer. Oh and another thing. In the self service area, unless you choose wheat beer, the smallest (indeed only) measure is a litre. Just get on with it. In the "waited on" area you can have half litres. Go figure.

We started off in the self service part and as we intended to dine, moved to the waiter service area where a reserved sign was removed for us.  We looked and I tried to estimate how many people were there.  It was hard to say, but I'd guess quite a few over 800.  We discussed this and couldn't think of any location at all in the UK, where, on a Monday night, without it being a special event or location, that so many people were eating and drinking out in such a relaxed and casual manner.

The German beer garden is a thing of wonder, as is how it all works and the incredible wealth and social cohesion that sits behind it.  It was a smashing night of a kind you can only really get in Germany and more specifically, in Bavaria.

Unfortunately the weather then turned and more or less ended our outdoor drinking.  If you want good weather in Munich, find out when I'm going and don't go then. I've a bad record in that respect.