Tuesday 31 March 2015

Thwaites Brewing Division Takes The Knock

Marstons have bought Daniel Thwaites Brewing Division it was announced today:

Marston’s buys Daniel Thwaites brewing division operation:Marston’s has reached agreement with Daniel Thwaites to acquire the trading operations of Thwaites’ beer division. The acquisition includes two leading, premium brands: Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber ales. The total cash consideration is £25.1 million excluding working capital. Marston’s has been brewing Thwaites’ beers since early 2014. As part of this acquisition, it has entered into a long-term exclusive agreement to supply all beer, wine, spirits and minerals to Thwaites’ pub estate. Thwaites’ beer division is a high quality sales business of scale concentrated in the North West of England, including a 150-strong team of regional sales, marketing and distribution staff operating in the Independent Free Trade, National On Trade and National Off Trade channels. The business has shown good growth in recent years, including the acquisition of Hydes Brewery’s free trade business in 2012, which increased Thwaites’ business in Manchester. Thwaites’ two principal beer brands are Wainwright, one of the most popular golden cask ales in the UK and Lancaster Bomber, a premium ale. Both brands have won numerous awards in recent years and are highly complementary to Marston’s market-leading portfolio of premium craft and bottled ales. This acquisition is consistent with Marston’s brewing strategy to focus on popular premium ales with local and regional appeal, and provides an opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and wider consumer interest in the beer category. The transaction is expected to complete on 17 April 2015. In the 12 months to December 2014 Ebitda is estimated to have been around £7 million before overheads of approximately £2 million. The acquisition is expected to be earnings-enhancing in the first full year of ownership; in the current financial year it is estimated that the contribution to profit before taxation will be around £1.5 million. Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s, said: “I am delighted to welcome our new colleagues to Marston’s. We are acquiring a very high quality business with good people and brands, and with growth potential. The acquisition is consistent with our beer business strategy to focus on local provenance and premium brands, and provides opportunity to capitalise on the developing free trade market and increasing consumer interest in the beer category.”

While extremely disappointing news in some ways, this hardly comes as a shock to those of us in the North West.  The writing has been on the wall since Thwaites first of all announced several years ago that it would move out of the Star Brewery Blackburn to a new green field site and sell the existing site to Sainsbury's. Years then passed with no progress and in 2012 the brewery was closed as "obsolete" without finding a new one.  With the exception of Crafty Dan brands, the beer was outsourced to, yes, you've guessed, Marstons. Thwaites then announced a new brewery after all and then maintained a deafening silence on the whole matter. I wrote about the brewery here in less than glowing terms and here in a lot more positive ones.  Seems my enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. Thwaites will continue as a Pub and Hotel Company though one has to wonder for how long?  The record of such Pub Companies is quick demise though admittedly these are changed times, so who knows? Maybe it is a smarter move than it first appears?

However, oddly, it seems that all is not lost brewing wise.  According to the Wolverhampton Express and Star (Thwaites beers are largely brewed in Wolverhampton by Banks')  "Thwaites has retained ownership of craft beer brands and other cask ale brands, including its seasonal ale range, which it will continue to brew and sell in its’ own properties. Daniel Thwaites’ chief executive Richard Bailey said: “This is a very exciting development which allows us to focus on our pubs, inns and hotels, whilst retaining a small brewery to continue to supply our own properties with our fantastic beers and opening up a wider drinks range to our customers through a long term supply deal with Marston’s.

So as you were in some ways, though where these beers will be brewed isn't clear.  We'll have to wait and see.

It is odd that Thwaites refer to their beer brands as "Third Party Brewing Business". Well they are now I suppose.

The Big Four-O

The local CAMRA Branch I chair and have done for twenty years, is forty this month.  We have been celebrating this with a series of piss ups thoughtful events to mark the occasion.  The first formal do was last Wednesday when we met at the Flying Horse in Rochdale to enjoy a few local beers (including one I had a hand in) and to view memorabilia of Branch happenings over the years.  We gathered together quite a lot of interesting stuff, including the minutes and attendance sheet for both the first meeting to establish interest in forming a CAMRA Branch in Rochdale,Oldham and Bury and the first meeting minutes having decided to go ahead.  Many photos of old gits when a lot younger were eagerly perused, as well as posters, beer festival lists and all sorts of other paraphernalia which had been gathering dust in drawers, lofts and garages for donkey's years.  Old colleagues attended and it was rather a cheery evening, with around fifty present.

While that was jolly nice for all of us, what occurred to me was that on an otherwise quiet Wednesday evening, a very large number of pints were consumed, giving the pub a pretty good boost to trade. It also occurred to me that similar events happen all the time and across the country there are countless CAMRA organised events that give local pubs much needed business at quiet times. Quiet midweeks are serendipitously the best time for us to hold meetings and the best time for pubs to host them and thus fill space.  Almost all CAMRA branches are no doubt doing the same kind of thing all the time and in our case, we'll have special events throughout the year and, as CAMRA was growing hugely forty years ago, there will be a lot of this kind of stuff going on. It's all good for pubs.

Some of us may be old and set in our ways, but we are still campaigning for real ale in the best way anyone can, by getting out and drinking the stuff.

My beer was brewed by Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. It was a chocolate, chilli stout of 4.5% and was a dark as possible. It had just a touch of chilli and a beautiful white creamy head. Lovely stuff. It sold out before it was ready for serving and will shortly be available in bottle conditioned form. Want some? Ask Matt here.

Photo (Top) shows me presenting a certificate to the Merrie Monk in Rochdale in 1997.  Alas, like the landlord, the Merrie Monk is no longer with us. I'm hanging on in there.

Monday 30 March 2015

Ring My Bell

It is early doors in one of Milan's busiest craft beer bars.  The place is heaving, with Italian locals and our mixed group of Brits and Italians.  Service is appallingly slow, but the bar staff seem to be happily enjoying themselves, even if some of the desperate customers aren't.  A bell rings at seemingly random intervals, rung by a cheery barman and of course, Brits being Brits a chorus of "Last Orders" immediately strikes up. But closing time is hours away.  We don't know what the bell ringing is about, but it becomes background as we carry on supping and chatting.

Later, elsewhere, one of our party, a veteran of Milan - which unaccountably many seem to be - it isn't the most beautiful of Italian cities - explains to us that the bell is rung whenever a good looking girl enters the premises or approaches the bar. It's just what they do in some places it seems. To prove the point, it happens in another very busy craft bar the next day too.  Meantime, in the sports bar which is the pub nearest to the apartment in which we are staying, the busy place is run with incredible charm and efficiency almost entirely by young women.  They dispense beer and food at lightning speed and there is a smile for everyone. No bells are rung here.

Ordinary everyday sexism or just Italian charm? You judge, but I preferred to get my beer quickly, with a smile. I bet the women do too, though it was good to see so many young women happily drinking beer.

The more crafty the bar, the worse the service was.  These places are incredibly popular in Milan and maybe, just maybe, it goes to the head of those serving and operating the bars.  Staff were all male in the craft bars as far as I can recall.

Ever seen Carlsberg Special Brew on draught? Me neither and I didn't try it.

Thursday 19 March 2015

To Milan Forthwith

In a few short hours I'll be whisked off to Milan by Mr Ryanair. Along with the Great Gonzo and sundry others from Bieres Sans Frontieres at GBBF we are meeting our Italian pals for our Annual General Meeting.

A great programme is promised, with visits to Birrificio Lambrate ​with headbrewer Fabio Brocca, dinner at Lambiczoon ​with owner Antonio “Nino” Maiorano. Then a bit of business with the BSF Annual General Meeting​ at the Birrificio Italiano restaurant in Lurago Marinone,  followed by a beer tasting  of special beers of Birrificio Italiano​ with headbrewer and founder Agostino Arioli and a visit to the brewery.  We then re-board our coach and we're off to Birrificio Menaresta​ to be greeted by  partner and founder Marco Rubelli.   If we are still alive after all that, we go by coach to Monza for a tasting and aperitivo at Birrificio Carrobiolowith headbrewer and founder Pietro Fontana.

I'll let you know how I get on. 

I'll tweet the odd thing too. My mobile company Three allow me to use my UK allowance in Italy. Top guys.  I'll even be able to ring the lovely E free of further charge.

We get a day off on Sunday. I might even see some sights. Apart from hungover BSF types that is. 

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Where's the Southern Blondes Then?

London is always an enigma to me. It contains some of the best pubs in the country, has some of the most go ahead brewers and new wave bars yet still thinks it is in the Second World War in terms of new inventions like refrigeration.  The problem of warm cask beer is one that I bang on about and will continue to bang on about. London has some of the best pubs - pubs you could happily drink beer in all day - if only the beer wasn't kept so bloody awfully. Even the lager is rarely as cold as it ought to be. London, it seems, likes warm beer.

Funnily enough though this isn't about that. I just like to stick that knife in whenever I can. So what am I banging on about this time?  Well the lack of pale, hoppy beer that's what.  In the North and by this I mean anywhere above Birmingham, it would be an odd situation indeed if, in a free house or even one that isn't, you didn't find something pale and hoppy on the bar.  It is a given Oop North but this just doesn't seem to happen in London and when and if you do come cross something pale, if it isn't Dark Star Hophead, it is likely to be sweet and it is likely to be the only one on the bar that that isn't brown. Going further south, on my recent trip to Broadstairs, there was again a distinct lack of hop forward blonde beers. Why is this I wonder?  Is it a matter of preference or perceived preference? Is it a lack of availability locally and local is big at the moment?  I'm kind of baffled.

Why is this? Any ideas?

The list of Northern Breweries producing a huge range of blonde beers is vast.  Those would be people like Phoenix, Saltaire, Elland, Pictish, Allgates, Wilson Potter, Goose Eye, Mallinsons, Ossett to name but a few.  These can be readily bought through beer distributors.  There is lots more.

And yes, I know some exist down South, but why don't we see them in London is the question.

Friday 13 March 2015

Sort Out the Troublemakers Plod

I read with incredulity  - or should that be with a resigned sigh - that Mr Plod in the shape of London's Commissioner of  Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe is calling for fewer pubs in order to combat "alcohol fuelled disorder".  Clearly is has escaped his notice that we have lost 13,000 pubs since 2000 and that alcohol consumption has fallen by 18% in a decade. As a matter of fact, the number of arrests in the Metropolitan Police area for offences such as Drunk and Disorderly has remained around the 6000 mark since 2008/09.

Now I don't know about you, but I can't remember when I last saw a fight or other "alcohol fuelled disorder" - well not of the kind of any interest to the bizzies anyway - I don't think talking bollocks round the table counts - either inside or outside a pub.  Where such behaviour occurs it is usually in places where many mostly young people gather for late night drinking and loud music.Clearly, to this observer at least, it is these places, not those that most people normal people would regard as "pubs" that are the issue.  These are really bars or pseudo night clubs with late licences and are already well known to police and everyone else within a given local area as trouble spots.  It is instructive too that Hogan-Howe reckons that councils should disregard development of local economies when handing out more licences.  "It's the economy Stupid" clearly is of no concern to him.  Nor are the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003 - enacted in November 2005 - which restricts severely the reasons for refusing a premises license, but adds in the provision for restrictions to apply to a license and a complicated system of local licensing objectives. It also gives the police a role in objecting or restricting premises licences where a "negative cumulative impact on one or more of the licensing objectives." can be demonstrated.  In other words, as usual, there are enough existing laws and provisions for problems arising from licensed premises and criminal acts outside them to be dealt with.

Hogan-Howe should choose his terminology a lot more carefully. Pubs and local economies should not suffer because the police don't enforce the law. It is not licences to sell alcohol that cause problems. It is people.

One of my more serious posts. It really got on my nerves reading this.  In fact I might have to go to the pub now.


Wednesday 11 March 2015

Solving The Price Gap Dilemma

There is an obvious difference between the price of similar cask and keg beers in many of the hybrid craft pubs and bars. When I say hybrid I mean those that serve a mixture of cask and keg - a formula that I think works well as it happens. It brings crossover and a likelihood that there is more of an incentive to keep the cask well, both to compare with the less variable keg presentation - though there are many presentational and quality problems with keg - but just as much as anything, concerns about reputation.  These kind of pubs, often with high prices, don't want to be known for poor beer quality and though that yardstick isn't a sure one, it gives a reasonable probability of decent cask in most cases.

But I digress from my main point. A couple of weeks ago in Leeds, Tapped had the same beer on cask and keg with the keg being a £1 dearer.  This was not a strong beer I recall, but I have seen much wider differences than that on my travels. While you can argue all day why people might prefer to pay a premium for the same beer in keg, there is a undoubtedly a difference in the purchase cost, not least of which is buying the container (in the case of keykegs and petainers) and applying GP to it, as anything else, though there are other costs. I guess most are passed on to the customer. So equivalent keg will always be dearer than cask?

Last week in London I found one pub that seems to be solving this problem. The Hack and Hop was selling 4% cask beer for £4.50 a pint.   Is levelling upwards the start of something new and unwelcome?

Needless to say I didn't buy any and couldn't get near the bar anyway and went elsewhere. That's London for you. Not price sensitive and thankfully, not typical. 

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Small but Perfectly Formed

Micropubs are a growing thing I believe.  We are about to get the first in my area, but some say it all started in Kent where I went on Sunday last.   Although the owner of the micropub on Hartlepool Station is a mate, I haven't been there, so my only previous visit to one was in Newark, in the very delightful Just Beer, which I wrote about here. On Sunday last though, I had the experience of three in one day, in Broadstairs, just a short (albeit expensive) 81 minute journey from St Pancras. My guide on this visit was my friend Nick (@erlangernick)) who was holidaying there on a sabbatical from Bavaria.

After a walk on the sandy beach on what was a lovely spring day, we had a few beers around the town including the first micropub, the Thirty Nine Steps, quite a large one room affair, with the beer served at one end from a large refrigerated display cabinet kind of thing.   It was jammed with customers.  Further away, up a very large hill and through a lovely piece of suburbia beyond the railway station, Nick led us through the back-streets to two quite lovely little "micropubs". The irony of being guided through Broadstairs by a Germanicised Yankee was not lost on me, but Nick had been there before and give him his due, despite the twists and turns, we went straight to both. Both different too. The Yard of Ale has a definite farmhouse feel and a nice yard to sit in - with very attractive wrought iron gates - we chatted to the guy that made them - it's that sort of place - and the more pubby, on a street corner, Four Candles, where we received an absolutely tremendous welcome from both landlord and customers. Indeed the welcome in all three was splendid and noticeably warm.  They were all busy too and not at all cliquey, which you might imagine to be a danger.

Personally I loved the micropubs.  They seemed to me to take us back to a more intimate and personal pub experience. The basic theme is a one roomed pub with beer drawn directly from the barrels and no lager etc. Real cider was a feature too in all of them and all beer and cider seemed to be about £3 a pint. Food was of the pork pies and pickled eggs variety, but who really needs more while supping ale or cider?  I think they've a good chance of spreading and being successful. Potential owners will have to do their homework and pick locations carefully, and while they'll never replace "proper" pubs, they would certainly seem to me to have a deserved place in the drinking spectrum.

I am told set up costs can be around £10,000, so possibly it's a relatively cheap way to enter the free trade? So are micropubs a viable new craze?  You know, in the right circumstances,  I think they might be. 

What of the beer I hear you ask? Not so bad, though personally I'd go like Just Beer in Newark with handpumps.  I drank cider though mainly. It just seemed the right thing to do. 

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Microbrewing Bad Beer?

Boak and Bailey had an interesting thread a week or so ago about breweries that get more than their fair share of plaudits and those that don't and perhaps deserve to.  I did contribute to that but found that two of my key comments have vanished into the ether.  It has a habit of doing that to me has WordPress.  So, I'll continue what I was going to say here instead.

Buried in all the comments and unremarked was this "I am not concerned about brewers receiving too much, deserved, praise or others not gaining recognition. I would like to see a large number of micro brewers driven out of business and writers must tell the truth about the bad brewers and to metaphorically put the boot in. (For Northeners this would be just about any Dave Porter 3 day training course brewers)".  I think the writer of this - someone called Marwood that I don't know - is right about the number of poor microbrewers out there and also right about calling them out, though why he didn't take the opportunity to do so himself is a moot point. What caused me to respond though was the second bit about Dave Porter, which I suspect was not commented on because few understood it.

Dave Porter runs PBC who are the biggest supplier of microbreweries in the UK though they also supply worldwide.  (275 to date overall according to their website). They are based in Bury and Dave Porter, the owner used to run pubs in this area and supply them from his own microbrewery in Lancashire.  He is involved with Outstanding Brewing, is anything but modest,  but as sharp a businessman as you'll come across. He happens to be one of my CAMRA Branch members. He also brews good beer and teaches others how to brew.  What the commentator seems to be saying though is that Dave's plant and training produces bad beers. Now, were that so we wouldn't  be enjoying beers from, among others, Arbor, Bad Seed, First Chop, Ilkley, Kernal, Mallinson, Offbeat, Redchurch, Wilson Potter and Stringers to name but a few. Many of his other breweries aren't known to me, though plenty are. Far from all being in the North, they are nationwide and indeed worldwide. I don't of course know if all the brewers attended his training courses, but I do know the vast majority of his customers have done and acquired sufficient skills to produce excellent beers.  I don't doubt either that some produce a load of old rubbish.  That's the way of the brewing world.

Bad microbreweries exist because they have bad brewers, bad brewing practice and duff palates. Trust me Dave Porter has none of these.

In case you think this is inspired by Dave, it isn't. If he knew he wouldn't care and would probably tell me to eff off.  He has done so plenty times before in beery discourse.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

No Man Loves Life Like Him That's Growing Old

The quote that heads this post is from Sophocles. He was a Greek guy. Its truth was evidenced last week when in the company of blogger and Publican Jeff Bell and his pal (the guy who is opening the Piccadilly Tap - let's call him Mr PT - whose idea it was), we ventured into the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill, Manchester.

Winding back slightly, we had been in the Marble Arch with Mr PT when he mentioned a pub that he'd been in which was a smashing example of the kind of city centre pub that you rarely see any more.  Could we go there for one?  From his description, I couldn't quite place it, but as we approached the Angel, he said "It's just over there that pub" and all fell into place and I knew exactly where and what he meant.  The Hare and Hounds is a small three roomed, ex Tetley pub just opposite the Arndale Bus Station.  It attracts, shall we say,  a more mature clientèle to sup its keenly priced handpulled Joey Holt's Bitter and various smooth beers. You'll often find it jammed from end to end. Despite their age, there is much vertical drinking and the place positively buzzes with conversation and noise. There used to be (and may still be) a piano and a bit of informal singing. Yes, sometimes they sing.  If you want to see how Northern pubs used to be, there's probably few better places.

The back room and bar were heaving when we arrived and squeezed into the hatched snug on the right as you enter. It gives you a kind of railway tunnel view of proceedings. There was a geriatric karaoke in full swing. At the far end an oldish guy on an electronic music box was squeezing out old time tunes accompanied by even older types giving it laldy on the microphone. Others sang along or watched happily.  Some cheerily awaited their turn on the mike. No-one was being shy here. Supping Holt's Bitter, we three watched transfixed from the hatch. Jeff loved it and Mr PT remarked as if in a dream, "Some of these guys are pretty good."  And they were at that. We cast our eyes over proceedings until our pints were finished and  left, the merry din ringing in our ears. 

Mr PT is right. It is the kind of place I remember from my time in Liverpool many years ago and which sadly is all too rare nowadays.  It cheered us up immensely to think of the pleasure these senior citizens were getting from the simple act of singing together, though no doubt lubrication played its part.

For sure, these cheery customers aren't dead yet.And this pub is very much alive too.

These days impromptu singing is likely to get you chucked out of most places. I don't think it does here.  I thought the Holt's Bitter on good form. Other opinions may have varied slightly.

Sophocles who was a bit of a philosopher on the side also said “If you were to offer a thirsty man all wisdom, you would not please him more than if you gave him a drink.” Mine's a pint!

Monday 2 March 2015

Pure Dead Brilliant

What is? Leeds is. That's what. Following on from my full of praise blog post for the city here, I had a much closer look on Saturday when CAMRA's Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch descended on it mob handed. Many pints and half pints were drunk and there wasn't a single beer in any pub that was less than exemplary in its presentation.  From the first pint in the Leeds Brewery Tap to the last in Tapped (which we visited twice it was so good) cask conditioned beer was presented as the brewer would have loved it to be and, more importantly - because it is the customer that really counts - it was presented in a way to delight the drinker.

The pubs were a delight too - busy and cheerful, reasonably priced, with a positive attitude to customer service which really stood out.  The area around the station is a cask beer drinker's paradise with probably around fifty different beers in total in the pubs we visited and we didn't have time for them all. It is no exaggeration to say that within two hundred yards of the station, if you wanted tip top real ale, you just couldn't go wrong. Even in Bundobust, a keg only cafe bar place, my enquiry as to whether they sold cask was dealt with in a lovely manner, with a "Sorry, No" and then a quick run through the beers on offer to find me something I liked.  The icing on the cake was that the manager then approached our table to explain that they just don't have the facilities for cask in such a small outlet.  A really nice, friendly touch which was very much appreciated.

When I worked in Leeds, I thought beer quality was great. Thankfully it still is. Go there. You won't regret it.

I was very impressed with the Head of Steam too. Well done to Cameron's Brewery, the owners. And well done to Oakham for Inferno, the best pint of the day (Tapped) in what was a very closely contested competition - in my head that is.

The photo shows my tipple in Bundobust. Rather decent it was too.  British lager is improving in leaps and bounds