Friday 30 January 2015

You Can Only Please Some People a Bit

You may or may not have noticed a Twitter spat between me and a guy called Mark Johnson.  Who's that then? He writes a blog called Beer Compurgation - no I don't know what the word means either.  What's the big deal? Well not a lot in many ways and certainly not as much as has been made out on Twitter. It arose by my response to Matt Curtis and his fulsome praise for a blog piece about the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival for which I am the Deputy Organiser.  Now this wasn't an overly critical piece (but see below) and apart from repeating rubbish about being "lied to" at the previous year's festival, was fairly innocuous.  Given that the writer actually said some nice things too, why am I bothering with this then?

Among other things, it's that thing about being lied to again.  Accusing people of being mistaken, or just plain wrong or daft is one thing, accusations of lying are another. It was toned down a little this time to "pretence" - one of the dictionary definitions of which is "lying", but there you go.  What was our offence this time you ask?  Well it seem that our arrangement with Henshaws Society, a charity for blind people, has caused a red mist to fall once again. It seems that it was suggested to Mr Johnson by those selling the programme, that the money went to charity.

"Secondly, the programmes were being sold to people under the pretence that the money goes to charity. The latter has all the credibility of a BBC phone-in donation.

The actual arrangements were that the charity got 10p per programme for the first 3000 sold and 25p thereafter. This was the deal they negotiated with us. They sold the programmes on our behalf and no doubt wished to maximise numbers sold. From their point of view it was "for charity".   Funnily enough, as the person responsible for the foyer, I didn't hear anyone say once that it was all for charity, but there you go. Even though we handed over the responsibility for programme selling to the charity, we will ensure in future that they brief their volunteers correctly. (As an aside, the programme, no less that 64 (high quality paper) pages, was sold for a bargain £1. Hardly a rip off given the effort that went into it and the extensive tasting notes. Its costs were not all covered by adverts by any means as suggested and a fixed amount per programme goes to the publisher too - these are complicated deals.) The cloakrooms were operated by Henshaws again.  The Velodrome has only one. We bought or acquired the kit for a second, including the racks and hangars. Out of each pound spent, the charity got 80p. The rest covered our costs.  The implication that CAMRA decided to deceive over this is just not true.

 It doesn’t sit right with me, sorry. I’m sure Henshaws raised a lot of charity money this year. I bet another organisation earned more" 

I don't actually know who made most from these two activities, but since the entire operation was handed over to the charity, we'll have to wait and see.  Not that it would actually matter, as long as that was what was negotiated and agreed upon.  Even if we did make money from it, that's our aim.  No apologies for that. Our expenses are enormous, as is our exposure to risk. The charity was happy with their cut and our aim in involving them was to delegate a task or two and to allow them to make more money for charity than just shaking buckets under noses.  They are in their second year with us and are very happy indeed with the relationship.

We weren’t lied to over tannoy systems this year and they actually remembered to sell beer too. I told them at the end of last year’s post to come back and be better and it worked. They listened to many and learnt from all. They can be taught.

There we go again. Last year's comments about lying are slipped in again, even though they were systematically rebutted at the time. Let's make it clear one more time. Firstly Metrolink always closes the Velodrome Tram Stop for an hour after Manchester City's home games. That's what we announced last year. Metrolink did the same this year. It is their Standard Operating Procedure. Secondly, we ran out of beer last year, because more people turned up than we'd expected and budgeted for. This year we didn't run out - at a pretty big cost to us in discarded beer - because we knew we'd need more - a fact we didn't know the year before, never having been there.   Mr Johnson was pleased though we had plenty of beer, but it isn't that simple. Judging the amount of perishable cask beer is not an exact science. Nobody wants to run out and nobody wants to send hundreds of gallons of good beer down the sluice, which is what we have to do if we get it wrong. Selling cask beer in volume to an uncertain audience is squeaky bum time for us all.  We take it very seriously and certainly try to run that fine line between too little and too much.

Despite his (tongue in cheek I hope) claim of influence, Mr Johnson told us nothing that we hadn't figured out for ourselves. It was better because we used our experience of the first event to make it so, and will use our experience of this event to make it better next time.  We will also listen to the large number of constructive comments too - including the charity one above - which when you strip the insinuation out, is actually a lesson learned. Thanks for that at least.  We'll know more next time too. Continuous refinement and improvement is the name of the game for us.

Moving on. If you read the article I mildly complained about, you'll see it is full of snide remarks.  I for one don't let such things go unanswered when I have had a hand in the event criticised and know how complicated it is. (As a further aside, an event that expects 11,000 people is fiendishly difficult to organise). I am concerned that the few that read Beer Compurgation and didn't attend the event, might be incorrectly influenced by it.  That is why I said "Hmm. Not really" and why I am putting the record straight now. 

A good example of a snide remark is this:

How was the beer not available at the beginning of the festival? "We haven’t finished setting up yet." Oh for God’s sake…

Shocking isn't it that in this huge logistical operation, that we can't get everything done on time and provide Mr Johnson's first choice beer, from over 500, from the get go.  Never mind that people had slaved away for five days to set it all up.  "Oh for God's sake"  is the kind of thoughtless throwaway remark that just makes you want to give up and frankly the whole piece is littered with such sarky asides.

Finally Mr Johnson's allegation that CAMRA seem to be making money out of the festival is absolutely true. Astonishingly, we do try and make money and any we do make goes straight to CAMRA HQ to, err, campaign for real ale.

Despite this, no less than 360 beers were sold at £3 a pint or less, CAMRA Members had free admission at all times except Friday night and apart from Friday, it was just £3 to get in. (£2 with a Metrolink ticket).  Average price of a pint was £3.07,  way cheaper than comparable free houses in Manchester. We'll try and fix these over-measures too - thanks for pointing it out.

Two more tweets to think about:
Point one: I hope this is constructive enough and point two: That's good in principle, but sometimes you need to look a little deeper, read between the lines and check the record too.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Live From the Velodrome

Well it is all getting there. Setting up a big beer festival like Manchester Beer and Cider Festival - see links  in previous post - is a marathon rather than a sprint. When you expect over 12,000 people, there is a huge logistical operation.  In fact serving the customers is the relatively straightforward bit. Getting a few thousand pieces of kit to click together really isn't straightforward at all.

There is always something new too, just to throw you a bit. This year we have to contend with, for example, the new laws on allergen advice.  Given that no-one is an actual expert on the 14 different categories, we have to do our best to get it right. And we will, but it is just one more thing sent to try us.  Today is (nearly) final set up and then we have to tidy away all the boxes, spares and other gubbins we don't need or need later. Bar Managers will make final adjustments, stalls will stock up, coolers will be checked and a million other things. I'll be doing the Health and Safety check later today and again tomorrow to finally ensure we are safe to go.

The good fun starts tomorrow with the trade session which to me is the best of all simply because it is a chance to meet up with old friends from the trade and have a natter and a pint.

I'll hopefully keep you all informed.

I really do recommend it and it will be great fun.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

A Few Minor Things

Given that Manchester Beer and Cider Festival is for us that are seriously involved in it, a constant companion, I am likely to have even less time to blog, considering the beer deliveries start this Friday.  However, as I'm waiting for yet another festival related phone call, here's a few beery matters that have caught my interest this week.

Firstly, readers may remember this post from September 2010 where I complained that I dislike being greeted at the bar when approaching by "You all right there?" in lieu of actually saying something along the lines of  "What can I get you?".  Despite it grating for the last two years since I first wrote that it got on my nerves (allowing things to get on your nerves is one of the few joys of growing old by the way) I have borne repeated manifestations of it with dignity, forbearance and patience.  I tried a new tactic though in a well known local hostelry last Friday night.  It was the same one mentioned in the original post where it has become endemic.  When asked this I responded "I'm fine thanks. How are you?"  The slightly taken aback barmaid responded with "I'm great thanks. What can I get you?"   It was a victory of sorts and I may try it again or just lapse back into unspoken resentment. Not sure which.

On Saturday I was in rather a nice pub to chair the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival Organising Meeting. The Deansgate had very pleasant staff, a good atmosphere, lots of nooks, crannies and distinct drinking areas and the beer was spot on temperature and condition wise. I rather liked it, but since other comments on the web indicate it is a free house, I wonder why there was just three Thwaites beers on at a rather hefty £3.70 a pint.  Incidentally, talking of Thwaites, has anyone else found that the Banks' brewed Wainwright is rather an improvement on the Wainwright that Thwaites brewed in Blackburn when they brewed it themselves?  I know from conversations with the now retired Head Brewer who designed it, that it was meant to have a degree of sweetness throughout. My findings are that Banks has dried the beer out somewhat giving a much more refreshing drink.  For me at least, it is improved - which is rarely the case when a beer is contract brewed - but then again, I regard Banks' as one of the best breweries in the Marstons Group.

Another pub I hadn't been to for ages was the Knott Bar more less across the road. This is under a railway arch and is a mix of traditional and trendy which is evolutionary rather than contrived. It works well and I'd forgotten just how good it is. Excellent beer there from a number of breweries (I enjoyed Acorn Blonde but Marble Ginger less so). All comfortably under £3.70 a pop too.  I'll be back. Of course no trip to Manchester is complete without a trip to the Marble Arch.  It wasn't my idea, as we'd really enjoyed a stout (can't remember whose) in the Angel and I would have liked another, but I was dragged there by companions.  A singer was just setting up, which I found odd as I'd never known it to be a place that has live music. It was jammed - though whether that was the attraction of the singer or not I don't know.

None of us enjoyed the beer that much though. Maybe we'd just had enough? I'll try it again soon and report back.

It was good to see all the pubs I visited on Saturday so busy. Dry January? Not on this evidence.

Monday 12 January 2015

Real Ale at Home

I usually have a small party for family and friends over the holiday period and when I do, I always put a nine of beer on.  Given that I am somewhat involved in the beer business, I don't have any problems getting more or less any beer I care to and I have the kit to serve it.  I also like to think I know enough about what I'm doing to serve it in tip top condition.  But you know it is a worry. I've looked after countless casks of beer, including in pub cellars, but the one you are serving to friends is always the one you fret over.

It was a trifle colder than I'd have liked over the period it was conditioning, but I had time and the beer did condition well and drop bright too.  The day before the gig, it seemed slightly flatter than I'd like, but a rise in temperature and a little heat in the garage  brought it to a fine peak for the event itself.  In fact the condition was perfect which was a relief.

Clearly it's a better way to do things than have a few tinnies or bottles and folks love it, not only because it is better to drink draught beer, but they get the pleasure of pouring their own pint, a feat that seems to give satisfaction way beyond the simple act itself.  Naturally the beer was served through the tightest of sparklers and you know what? Spillage into the drip tray was less than a pint.  My usual drinking buddies of course had done it before and had no issues, but even those unused to it managed well.  I suppose Northern ale drinkers have observed it so often that it is more or less bred in the bone. It was supped in no time of course, but I noted the constant trail in and out of the garage and ensured I got the odd pint myself.

Cask beer at home. Lovely. I recommend it if the circumstances permit. And you only have one empty to get rid of.

Wilson Potter Tandle Hill was the beer of choice. A really good pale, hoppy beer and local.  Easy to get and to return the empty container.

Friday 9 January 2015

Savings and Bargains

I called in to the JDW owned Regal Moon in Rochdale after chairing my CAMRA Branch Meeting on Tuesday. ( 47 attended including five members for the first time. Not bad at all eh? Well it gratified me at least.) I entered at 11.20 pm with just enough time for a half pint and a chat before my bus, I found they'd stopped serving. Manager Chris explained that throughout January, as it is relatively quiet, last orders are half an hour earlier.  This actually brings quite astonishing savings in staff hours and helps his staffing budget no end. What's the point of staff being there if there is no-one to serve being the logic I suppose.  Does this happen elsewhere? I don't know actually. Maybe others do too?

As I and my chums also go there on a Wednesday I was able to forewarn the "boys" though it was nice that the Duty Manager came over to us a just after eleven to ask if we needed another drink before he closed the tills. We didn't, but it was a good and thoughtful bit of customer service.  Another feature - of this Spoons at least - was a rather good "January Sale". Most beers, even rather strong ones, were £1.99 a pint and we enjoyed some excellent stuff, Hawkshead Windermere Pale and Oakham JHB being pick of the bunch, but one of our part enjoyed a pint of bargain Exmoor Beast..

I was on the 11.11 bus and back home and in bed by quarter to twelve. (We meet at nine). Not Dry January by any means and I'm not sure it counts as TryJanuary either, but still doing my bit you know.

I hadn't had JHB for ages. Not forgotten how good it is though and it was certainly in top form.  A bargain indeed at £1.99

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Sad Demise of an Iconic Beer

I read without much surprise about Carlsberg withdrawing the availability of Draught Burton Ale. It was formerly Ind Coope's Draught Burton Ale and once upon a time a Champion Beer of Britain. In 1990 in fact, though it had been around a fair length of time before that. Since 1976 in fact.  The 1977 edition of the Good Beer Guide describes it as "pale and well hopped". It had an Original Gravity  of 1047.5 - no alcohol by volume then - and by the time that became the norm, in 1990, it had settled at 4.4%.    It wasn't always described as a pale, hoppy beer, but sometimes as "sweet and malty" or "pale and fruity". It gains some rather grudging praise in 1990 and 1991's guides, but much more generous comments in 1992 when, such is the lead in time for the Good Beer Guide, it was the current (for that edition) Champion Beer.  By then the alcohol content had risen to 4.8% and praise was much more fulsome, though I for one take the 1992 description, which amongst other things misses out the distinct complex spiciness, with more than a pinch of salt.

Now I have a relationship with ICBA that goes back quite a few years.  When I worked in Leeds it was the premium beer in quite a few Tetley houses, including the Palace Hotel near my office and where, of a Friday, I used to go for a few lunchtime pints.  Long before I retired though, the lunchtime pint was frowned upon, but these were halcyon days. My lass worked in the same building at the time and was, (not always entirely willingly) able to drive me back over the Pennines when, with other reprobates, I had (over indulged) in a few pints of Burton Ale. Pale, perfumed, spicy from the Styrians and with a lovely, delicate, fragrant bitter, flowery, hoppy finish, it was simply divine.  One was never enough, but it went for you. Many a Friday lunchtime was extended by "flexitime" to an afternoon session and we all left pretty much the worse for wear. For me, it wasn't so bad. I was in charge of my area and my bosses were in Edinburgh. Should I be ashamed of that little abuse of power? Not a bit of it. Those were the days my friends.

Sadly over the years I encountered ICBA less and less, though when I did it was always consumed with relish. When Tetley's closed and as part of the deal for JW Lees to brew Carlsberg under licence, Burton Ale, now shorn of its Ind Coope name, was moved to Greengate.  They didn't make a bad fist of it at all and I sometimes had a taste of it in the Head Brewer's sample room, where a cask of every beer in trade is kept.  Michael Lees-Jones, Head Brewer of  JW Lees had told me that volumes were falling away, but I wasn't aware it had gone. If I had been I'd have nipped down to Lees for a sentimental last pint, but maybe such things are best left in the memory.

There has been some surprise expressed about the sadness with which some commentators have described the demise and loss of this beer. Those expressing sadness are right to say so. I don't think it too generous or fanciful to describe Draught Burton Ale as iconic and the loss of any icon is a moment for regret and reflection. I am grateful to Boak and Bailey for the information here about the early beginnings of ICBA, though I do think their conclusion about it being a "sop to CAMRA" seems more than a tad wishful.  Perhaps I would, wouldn't I, but I did enjoy the tales of how Ind Coope buttered CAMRA up so as not to dismiss this big brewer's beer out of hand. It had the ring of truth, though nowadays that would just be seen as "sensible marketing."  Sadly though ICBA was a victim of a changing brewing industry and uncaring owners. It's death was slow and lingering, but it is good to remember it in its heyday. All pomp and swagger.

Goodbye Old Friend. It really was good while it lasted.

And no. In historic terms, it wasn't a Burton Ale, but an ale, made in Burton. An IPA in fact.  I used to see the drays from Burton coming into Tetley's, no doubt loaded with ICBA.  I can picture them yet, Dark Green, with Ind Coope on the side and front.

The photo is from my own study where this plaque is on the wall.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Minesweeping At Its Finest

Minesweep - The Urban Dictionary - To "minesweep" is to wander through a location where people are drinking, such as a bar or a party, and drink the partially-finished beverages that people abandoned.

On Frantic Friday or whatever the last Friday before Christmas Day is called, as I mentioned before here, my oldest mate and I did a little tour of some of Manchester City Centre's more traditional pubs. There can't be many more so than those that we picked and all gratifyingly close together. First up was the tiny Grey Horse where Hydes Bitter was very decent. We sat in a corner for three pints watching punters come and go and stay. Most were middle aged to old and obviously regulars, given that they were greeted by name. A few younger people squeezed in including a table full of very attractive women - we are male and we liked that. It was cosy and comfortable and we had to tear ourselves away.

A few doors away is Holt's Old Monkey. A bit of a more boisterous crowd there and amiable enough bouncers on the door. We stood at the short end of the bar as a great array of people swept in and out. Holt's IPA was very decent, the barstaff worthy of our tips and the punters, in full Christmas cheer, happy to exchange banter with us as we moved aside to let them get served. Great stuff again, with an almost entirely male clientèle, but in that moment, none the worse for that.  We did also brave Wetherpoons Waterhouse for a couple, as they had a great selection on and despite the crush at the bar, I astonished my mate Mike by having two pints in hand by the time he'd returned from the bog.  All my old elbowing skills, an eye for a gap and blatant queue jumping standing me in excellent stead.  This was more clearly full of occasional drinkers, but none the worse for that, even if judging by the decibels, a few young ladies present had clearly imbibed well, if not wisely.

Back to traditional in the shape of the City Arms, next door to JDW.  Greatly liked by a more mature, middle class crowd, we managed to get a couple of pints and jump into a bench as two others left.  Beside us was a rather elderly, down at heel gent - possibly homeless - who had a flat looking pint in front of him and who was taking surreptitious spoonfuls of bio yoghurt from a big pot which he held under the table. Astonishingly he also had a punnet of strawberries which he ate from time to time while winking at us who couldn't help but observe.  As we supped our Jaipur, we noted his occasional forays across the pub to nab half finished pints from those that left. This was done quite openly and he simply topped his glass up with whatever was to hand.  He seemed quite at peace there really and didn't draw attention to himself as such. I don't know if the barstaff knew here was there, but I suspect they did and took pity on him.

By the time we left my mate Mike had had enough. He donated around a half of Jaipur to our companion. True Christmas spirit indeed.

Note to drunks. Bio yoghurt and strawbwrries may not be the nest bar snack to ward off  pissedness, but it has a certain touch of class.

I kind of thought minesweeping a dying art. Anyone else spotted it recently? 

Friday 2 January 2015

More Stouts Please

Porters seem very fashionable these days and when we talk of fads (or trends if you like) in beer, there is IPA, saisons, sours etc. but you do see an awful lot of porters. Or a lot of awful porters -  but they rarely seem to get a mention.  Now I like stouts and though the line between a porter and a stout can be a blurry one, I tend to subscribe to the view that porters are sweeter and less roasty and stouts are bitter and include much more by way of roasted barley.  They should also in my view at least, be hoppier, particularly with a bit of hop resin to finish. It counters the other flavours within the beer and makes you want more. Stouts too should be full of mouthfeel. Nice and thick.

When I brewed a stout with Allgates Brewery some time ago - with others - we wanted to produce a stout that ticked all these boxes and I believe we did though perhaps we could have got more of a resinous finish. But that's probably just me.  Yesterday I tried JW Lees Archer Stout - one of their seasonal beers and just released yesterday.  Now Archer Stout is named after those Middletonians that went to Flodden Field in 1513 to fight the Scots. Their weapon was the bow and arrow, hence Archer Stout.  Their feats are commemorated in our local Parish Church here in Middleton by a venerable stained glass window, reputed to be the oldest war memorial in the world.  (A war memorial has to have the names of those that fought). I have seen it and it is rather fine, as is the (partly) Norman Parish Church. Worth a visit if you are ever in this neck of the woods and in need of culture.

But what about the beer, not those misguided souls that killed so many innocent Scotsmen? Well the brewery describes it thus: "A ruby/black beer made with five different malts and Target hops to a roasted molasses nose and a roast chestnut and liquorice taste." It weighs in a 4.6% and it has been some years since it was last on Lees seasonal list, though its brewing origins go back to 1951. I remember though it as a bottled sweet stout of much more modest strength. It disappeared when Lees stopped doing their own bottling a good number of years ago.

Yesterday at the Tandle Hill Tavern, in atrocious weather, I went to try some.  John, the landlord greeted me warmly and around me were many trying this dark brew. "It's going well" said John.  The beer is rich and dark, with a bitter-sweet taste that melts into a roasty, liquorice middle and a fairly short finish.  I didn't detect the chestnuts, but it was a good beer, with enough body and taste to make you want a second. I could have done with my favoured resinous, hoppy finish, but you can't have everything. It is a very decent stout and I reckon it will do well judging by the positive reaction in the THT.

It was served through a tight sparkler to give a tight, creamy head and trust me, it had condition. 

The previous seasonal, Plum Pudding is though to me the pick of Lees seasonals. Glad to say they are now making them so much different in taste to the bitter and it is telling in excellent sales. I have nagged them on this point over the years, so claim, if not credit, foresight.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Sneaking In Under the Wire

I didn't do Golden Pints this year - or for that matter Golden Posts.  I don't really relate to the categories that much in GPs and if I want to praise posts I do so as they arise. Seems more useful that way.  Nonetheless if I had done GPs, I found one that would certainly have got a mention.  It is Ossett Inception, a pale, golden, full bodied, bitter and resinous number from a brewery that is certainly in my circle of trust.  I came across it at the Regal Moon, as I was there borrowing a pumpclip a few days ago. The brewery indicates it has five malts and five hops. I don't know what they are, but it is a cracker and shows that well established brewers can produce fantastic beers that are brilliantly clear, yet full of clean hop bitterness.  No muddy imprecise beers here.

It is still available. Seek it out.

Happy New Year to all my readers. I think you'll be hearing a lot more from me in 2015.  I'm off soon to try Lees new seasonal. Archer Stout. Cask stout? What's not to like?  I hope nothing as it will be my first beer of 2015.