Tuesday 28 April 2015

Oldham Beer Festival

It's nearly that time of year again where we present some beers to the general public at the 27th Oldham Beer Festival. I've been involved in most of them and will be curating the beer for your delectation.

The list is awesome, featuring some of the best and most progressive breweries in the UK. Fancy any Arbor? We have it. Hardknott? You betcha. Redemption? "Certainly Sir." "Blackjack Madam? Of course." "A pint? Just as you wish." Something beginning with "P"? "Easy peasy. We have Pictish, Portobello and Privateer." "What about local breweries? Well we have the fantastic Wilson Potter Brewing a special ruby beer to celebrate CAMRA Rochdale, Oldham and Bury's 40th Anniversary or Seven Brothers, Tickety Brew, Track and Millstone." New breweries? Yep. What about Martland Mill from Wigan? or Revolutions from West Yorkshire?" "What? You just fancy a pint of John Willies? Of course. The new seasonal will be on and we have the Champion Winter Strong Ale, Moonraker on cask."

From further afield come Saltaire and Roosters from West and North Yorkshire respectively and even XT from Buckinghamshire.  We musn't forget our own local stars, Outstanding, Silver St, Deeply Vale, Irwell Works, Greenfield, Brightside and Hay Rake.  While hopefully none of the beers will disappoint and there should be something for everyone, I'll pick out a few I'm looking forward to.  Hardknott's Lux Borealis and Infra Red, Saltaire Triple Chocoholic, Arbor Blue Sky Drinking all appeal and of course one brewery and beer I haven't mention is the one I brewed with Ramsbottom Craft, Chocolate Chilli Stout, which will certainly be on. We'll also have the wonderful Flaori Maori.  Rooster's Baby Faced Assassin is also likely to charm.

If you fancy Cider and Perry, ours is, chosen by the former Cider Manager of GBBF who will also present them and answer all your apple and pear based drink questions.  Oh and foreign beer. We'll have that too in a well chosen bottle selection.  We even have fruit wines which are a great seller at this little do.

The info is all in the poster within this article. It will be a great do for good causes and there is plenty of seating.  So come along, sup some beer, cider or perry and do say hello to me.

There are two tongue in cheek words contained within this blog post. See if you can spot them.

Nott At All Bad

One last post about Nottingham and the CAMRA Members Weekend, this time about that often overlooked subject beer and pubs.

Nottingham is a bit of a throwback.  Only its greatest fans would call it beautiful, as it seems an odd mixture of old and tatty and new and nondescript.  But it is a throwback in another way. It has a pub on nearly every corner it seems, even in the centre. That moves it up a notch in my esteem.  Our Nottingham CAMRA colleagues had produced a very comprehensive guide to the pubs and while as always some were better than others, they were a pretty good lot really.

Hot off the train we started at two of the best.  Fellows, Morton and Clayton, near the railway station, is the kind of pub you really like to start off in when you are in an unfamiliar city. Several distinct drinking areas, a lovely atrium cascading light into the rear and a good feel to it. A rather mainstream choice of beers - think Doom Bar, London Pride,Landlord and Black Sheep is augmented by a local beer or two. We enjoyed sparkled pints of Nottingham Extra Pale Ale and banter from the very chatty barmaid.  Almost next door is the Canal House, which features, somewhat uniquely I'll hazard, a full size canal boat within, which you can gaze down on as you sup your pint. Converted from a large warehouse, it was strikingly good and as owned by Castle Rock Brewery, we had excellent beer and as always in this group, excellent service from the cheery staff.  A great start.  Beer was properly sparkled as God intended, more of which later.

Around our hotel clustered another fine bunch of pubs. We liked all of them to varying degrees with a special mention going to the Crafty Crow - modern and studenty, but not grungey - the Roebuck which showed off how Wetherspoons can make the most of a building and perhaps most stunning of all, the Malt Cross, a former Victorian Music Hall with a high arched roof, a gallery and lots of wrought iron. On a Saturday night it was busy with youngsters on their way to a club (judging by the skimpiness of their attire).  It had a great atmosphere and friendly staff,  but the beer could have been better looked after. Too warm and not well enough conditioned, it was served without a sparkler, but crashed into the glass to create a head. Minus points for that.

Near the Conference Hall was another fine clutch of pubs.  The Hand and Heart impressed with a great range of well kept local beers (we avoided those on a stillage) and excellent service, the Ropewalk didn't impress though,  showing the tatty side of student drinking.  The wonderfully named Sir John Borlaise Warren had excellent beer, lovely cheese rolls and the kind of barmaid that truly enhanced the drinking experience by great charm and a wonderful knowledge of the names given to bread rolls in different parts of the country (cobs in Nottingham don't you know).  The Falcon and Blue Monkey  both also gave great pleasure, but the Blue Monkey had that bad habit of removing the sparkler to (allegedly) speed up service. This was one of the few pubs that didn't really give that warm a welcome, but the Blue Monkey Brewery Beer was very good indeed. We finished off on Sunday by repeating our visit to Fellows, Morton and Clayton and that was Nottingham done.  The pubs had put on a great show.

Looking back, the pubs invariably had good beer, were plentiful, varied in type and close together. But really it was the great service and charming bar-staff that really shone.  It was noticeably good nearly everywhere and it does make a difference.

I wasn't asked by barstaff "You alright there?" once. That helped too.  I wonder where Nottingham sits in my sparkler map. Just in I reckon.

We also had quite impressive stops in the Sheffield Tap and the Piccadilly Tap on the way home.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Charlie Bamforth

By way of either a little light relief or as education, the guest speaker spot at the CAMRA's Annual Conference is eagerly awaited by most of us that attend this august gathering. This year I was particularly thrilled when I found it to be Charles Bamforth, Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis University of California.  He is also  British and has much experience of brewing here, mostly as a Senior Quality Assurance Manager at Bass Brewing.

Now I have known of Charlie for many years and was in fact given a book of his by a good American friend of mine as long ago as 1999.  That book, Tap Into The Art and Science of Brewing is my technical bible. I know from industry sources and my friend (Jaime Jurado, Director of Brewing Operations at Abita Brewing Co and formerly a brewer at Truman's in Brick Lane, London) that Charlie is one of the leading experts in CO2 in beer and in what bubbles do and don't do. He knows his stuff.  I rarely if ever get too involved in any technical debates in my blog or elsewhere, as you tend to be a hostage to fortune in such things and I sometimes at least don't feel secure enough to go into technical matter too deeply, but if I do, I check out the "bible" before doing so.  You can imagine then I was delighted to have the chance to hear Charlie speak.

He obviously has a practised act, honed to a very sharp point by use and his very funny and amusing speech was delivered with timing that a professional comedian would have been proud of.  He took the mickey out of wine and its pretentiousness,  had a very positive view of cask beer which he declared to be without equal when done well and generally anecdoted his way through a very entertaining half hour. He also (to my surprise in some ways) expressed a dislike for nitrogenated beer. It was an interesting speech as well as a very entertaining one. There was time for questions at the end before he whizzed off and I was lucky enough to catch the Chairman's eye and be allowed to ask one.  My chosen subject was about deliberate turbidity in beer. London Murky in other words.  Essentially his answer was that while a little haziness might be forgiven, there is no excuse for beers that look like "chicken soup."

Good enough for me. If Charlie is agin it, I'm on his side. If you dispute this, write to Charlie, not me. He'll put a(kindly) flea in your ear I'm sure.

Jaime is a bit of a whizz at the old dispense too. I remember being invited to Porterhouse in London by him when he had sorted out some fobbing issues for them.

Regretfully Charlie was gone immediately after his speech, so I didn't get a chance to talk to him.  Great shame that.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Not Such Dinosaurs After All?

Well that was a more interesting weekend than I thought.  The recent CAMRA Members Weekend was much more far reaching than I predicted it might be, with a decided nod to the future and a much more forward look for CAMRA's involvement in the beer world.

First of all we can say with certainty that the backward facing motions were defeated, while progressive motions were passed, but underneath it all and underpinning it, was a noticeable mood change. CAMRA is looking to the future again and that can only be good. Let's look at some detail.  Motions to remove our involvement from generic beer campaigns and concentrate solely on real ale and to leave the Cyclops scheme were roundly defeated. Cyclops is an easy-to-use set of descriptors to explain what a beer will look, smell and taste like.  The motion specifically was unhappy of its extension to non real ales and frankly, that's what doomed it, despite the speaker identifying many faults with it. As for generic beer campaigns, it is pretty fair to say the antis got quite a kicking. The conference wasn't at all in the mood to go along with isolating CAMRA from the wider beer movement.

Our new Chief Executive Tim Page also spoke well and gave us a "heads up" that as an outsider so to speak, he was looking at what CAMRA does a lot more neutrally and had a few ideas so far. He didn't expand too much, pointing out rightly, that he was still learning, but one thing that interested me and will likely interest many readers, is that he was particularly keen to look at CAMRA Democracy. That can only be good. On the last day we also passed a motion to allow the addition of fruits, vegetables and spices to cider and that is among the cider drinkers quite a fundamental change. So fundamental in fact that I wonder if we might see a call for a separate organisation to continue the purist line on this one. I spoke on a number of motions, particularly on motions 11 and 12 (against) and like to think I played my part in putting the positive case for the future. 

Lastly and not leastly, we agreed that where it meets CAMRA criteria for real ale, that keykegs are an acceptable container for cask beer. This might not be as far reaching as some may think, as there is a long way to go in identifying and labelling beers that will be acceptable, but the onus is now on firmly brewers to meet this challenge and rely less on gassing the beers up on filling.

I'll talk more about the meeting and Nottingham pubs in subsequent posts, but I reckon that's enough to go on for now.   What do you reckon?

I did also have a couple of chats about beer with the Festival Cellarman I fell out with. We settled our differences amicably though I think I possibly have a more progressive view of cask dispense than him.  He did all right though in a difficult venue.

I should add that the National Chairman rightly pointed out that the application of external gas that is in contact with the beer is still a no-no as far as dispense is concerned.

Friday 17 April 2015


Tomorrow I'm off to Nottingham for the CAMRA Members Weekend and AGM.  I'm quite looking forward to it, especially as I've laid off the demon drink in preparation for it. Nottingham may not be the bonniest city in the world, but it doesn't lack pubs, so while the motions for debate don't hugely excite, I'm looking forward to it.

Mind you, I didn't get off to the best of starts on Wednesday when I managed to offend the Cellar Manager of the AGM Beerex on Twitter with what I thought was a fairly innocent remark, but with a bit of turning the other cheek, I think I'll survive.  Back to the main event, I'll be looking to speak on one or two motions, particularly the following:

Motion 5

This Conference recognises that the Campaign for Real Ale believes in choice and that denigrating whatever people choose to drink is counterproductive and can alienate existing and potential members. Therefore, it instructs all branches to desist from “anti campaigns” against other drinks.
Proposed by Marketing and Communications Committee

Motion 11

This Conference instructs the National Executive not to enter into any promotions or campaigns that promote all beers and not real ale specifically.
Proposed by Steve Bury, Seconded by Phil Defriez

Motion 12

This Conference instructs the National Executive to withdraw CAMRA from the Cyclops scheme as it has expanded to all beers and is not fit for purpose.
Proposed by South Hertfordshire Branch

Motion 15

This Conference instructs the National Executive to investigate a labelling scheme for naturally conditioned Key Keg beer, which would allow customers to identify which beers, at the point of sale, conform with the CAMRA criteria for real ale.

Proposed by Melissa Reed, Seconded by Allan Conner

There's one or two others, but as these are about internal CAMRA stuff, I won't mention them here. Just to avoid doubt, I'll be hoping to speak for Motion 5, against Motions11 and 12 and will wait and see what Motion 15 is driving at. It's more fun when you get up and speak, so should make life a bit more interesting.

I'll let you know how it all goes.

The best bit will be seeing old friends of course. It usually is, but I'll enjoy the beer too. I think Nottingham is sparkler territory.

Friday 10 April 2015

More is Less. Less is More

The good old Morning Advertiser has this piece here which explains that following an HMRC ruling about "yields" per barrel, they have increased prices to landlords, thus turning a reduction after the recent beer duty cut into a price increase. Hey Presto!

Now a few things occur to me about this. They are saying that there is less sediment in their beer - in fact six pints less - therefore the landlords can in fact make money on six pints more. That seems fine as a straightforward piece of arithmetic, but of course, they had been making that money anyway, so I dare say the landlord won't see it that way at all.

The other question that needs to be asked is strikingly obvious.  How have  they have done this? I would assume by holding the beer in bright beer tanks until even more of the sediment has dropped out. Now I'm not against this provided there is sufficient viable yeast for a secondary fermentation - in fact I approve of it as I dislike murky beer- but it could make you wonder just how "real" some real ales are.  Well funnily enough I'm not that bothered and to some of us, hardly news either.  It is the application of external gas to beer that I don't like. That's what makes beer hard to drink to me. The softness of the carbonation in real ale is what makes it swoopable.

So Greene King landlords, the Revenue is right. Greene King is right. Pay up.

Read the comments in the MA article. Fairly even overall, but you get an impression from some that the don't really like GK.

Friday 3 April 2015

CAMRA - Heading for a High Wall?

As someone that has been actively involved in beer since 1974,  I reckon I have a fairly broad view of things in the UK beer world. I have been (and still am a customer), a worker in a pub, an attender at CAMRA meetings, a seeker after good beer both home and abroad and, since 1989, a local CAMRA committee member of one type or another,  including my last almost 20 years as a local chairman. Nor must I overlook my continuing stint as both a blogger and a beer writer, which has exposed me to a hugely diverse set of people and opinions all held together by beer.  This broad view was widened further when I was the co-sponsor of CAMRA's Fit for Purpose Review in 2010/2011. CAMRA is still guided by and held to account by its outcomes and recommendations.  Or at least it ought to be. There might well be a need for a reminder and probably an update though. It is already a different world.

Like me you'll have noticed that there has been a few thoughtful pieces on where beer is "at" these days and where CAMRA is going particularly.  In a similar way there are concerns about the influence of craft beer has in the UK and consequently its effect on beer festivals, pub going, women, young people and more.  You can of course take this as a healthy thing where a thousand flowers bloom or, perhaps, take a view that there is a struggle for hearts and minds and a tendency by one to dismiss the other more than somewhat. I'm not really that sure where my sympathies lie, but while I welcome healthy debate, I'm not as inclined as some to see current beery situation as entirely benevolent and healthy. I'll try and set my views out below and likely in subsequent posts.

Taking CAMRA first, I was prompted to write this piece by reading my good friend Paul Bailey's blog where he has outlined the achievements of CAMRA, most of which I agree with and his own reasons for taking more of a back seat, which I fully understand too. 30 years of active involvement is a lot to give any voluntary organisation and his feelings are no doubt replicated in CAMRA committees up and down the country where members are getting stale in the job, fed up in the job and, trust me on this one, looking anxiously over their shoulder at the Grim Reaper jogging effortlessly along, not that far behind.  The fact is we are all getting old and there isn't enough young people coming through to replace us. I think CAMRA at national level underestimates the height of the brick wall it faces in terms of its local structure.  Most of us were fairly young when we started out in the campaign. Then you got involved, but while CAMRA has quite a few young members, their inclination to get involved no longer seems to be as strong.  I understand from other voluntary organisations that this is a problem for them too. Now many will say that this is because young people don't feel as welcome as they could be within CAMRA, but in most cases this is not a clique wishing to protect its position. Rather, many of us are a lot of desperate old men looking for a way out.  Most of us would bite a challenger's hand off and nurture them like a bloom in the desert.  Like Paul, many of us have given enough already and far from wishing to cling on to power, would welcome a ready successor and a step down to a less demanding role and to have our time back before Yer Man gives us a clout with his scythe.

There are negative views a plenty about CAMRA but negative attitudes work both ways and it is very difficult for CAMRA to change, if those wishing the change don't try and generate it.  Expecting old leopards to entirely change their spots is surely swimming against nature? In short, life just doesn't work that way.  It is also instructive to this writer at least, that newer active members tend to come from relatively recent joiners, many of whom are retired and for whom an active interest and new friends in retirement is a good thing.  Others, for whom the "job" is at times a chore are happy to see such as those at meetings and welcome them with open arms. That they and any new blood are welcome is not in doubt. In my area at least but I'm guessing that's pretty typical.  There has been much sniping too about CAMRA and its out of date attitudes. Regretfully there has been a few blunders that have done the organisation no favours - I had motions to this year's AGM about that - one of which was about everyday casual sexism which we know is off putting to women. Regretfully the powers that be felt that my motions were already policy, or are capable of being dealt with by correspondence. An opportunity for a little bit of honest appraisal of ourselves scorned I think. To paraphrase the Bard, taking a look at ourselves as others see us would not have been a bad thing.

Having said that, without agreeing with it or excusing it, I reckon that some of the stuff of which CAMRA stands accused  is behaviour that occurs in normal  everyday society, but is somehow attributed exclusively to CAMRA festivals and CAMRA members. That seems unlikely, but we all have to take care. When I briefed Bar Managers at the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I included a few words about ensuring all customers were treated equally and the same.  No disagreement there. All I saw coming back was nodding heads, but it is surely right to reinforce the message. A debate at our Annual Conference would, in this context, have been a good thing.

There is too criticism of our Beer Festivals, which, despite their massive popularity, are seen by a number of commentators to be out of date in comparison with some newer ones. I think much of this stems from being amongst fellows and contemporaries, as these festivals are not aimed at such a broad demographic as ours, though it is a fact that at ours, most customers, young or old, just come and enjoy them with no "political" or comparative thought at all. It isn't a competition and while there is certainly a place for alternative beer festivals which appeal to a mainly young crowd, CAMRA does have to play to its strengths.  CAMRA Campaigns for Real Ale and does it its own way.  We can learn lessons though, but it must be recognised that our customer demographic and aims are not the same as, say, IndyManBeerCon or Craft Beer Rising. Ours are all about keeping real ale alive and any profit is used only to further the Campaign's stated aims.

It may seem odd to some when CAMRA membership is at an all time high to worry about the future, but really that's the best time to do it. There is no chance of CAMRA disappearing soon, but there is a time bomb ticking away. You might dislike CAMRA, but I reckon you'd miss it and its influence if we weren't there.  Publicans certainly would.

I could have gone on about how there may be considered to be two CAMRAs. The central lobbying part and the local campaigning (and social) part and that there is a disconnect between the two, but I've been poring over this long enough and thought it better just to get it out for sensible discussion.  There will be more from me on this theme fromtime to time.

Oh and CAMRA Democracy. There's another one. Feel free to add others in comment. It can be as long a list that you like.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Chocolate Chilli Stout

I was rather pleased to visit Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery to brew a beer with him. Matt brews in a small but perfectly formed two barrel plant in the garage of his home in deepest Ramsbottom.  It has everything you need from mash tun to hop store, all within easy reach and as a bonus he doesn't have to go far to work in the morning or home later.

The beer chosen was a Chocolate Chilli Stout. On the side I'm a bit of a stout fiend. The only other brew that I've had a recipe hand in was with Allgates of Wigan and that was a stout too - and a bloody successful one that has been brewed more than once. I see a pattern emerging.  Now one thing I always think that stout should be is black. That means, to me at least, that it should have roast barley in it. I know you can piss about in other ways to replicate the colour without the "burnt" flavour, but then to me it isn't really a stout.  I know in purist or historical terms that's not so, but if you want me to brew a stout, it will be between four and five percent, be black as the ace of spades and it will have a resinous hoppy finish and be a bit dry.

We decided that the chilli should just be a hint, so Matt prepared some fresh ones and we also had actual cocoa nibs too.  I won't bore you with the brewing details, but while it was all boiling away we took the opportunity to sample some of Matt's bottles. They were good. A list can be found on his very informative website here.  I can particularly recommend Oh Sunny Day and the wonderfully named Flaori Maori made with New Zealand hops as you have no doubt guessed.  The Chocolate Chilli stout  - which had to be re-chillied as we were determined not to overdo it - has just a prickle of heat and is otherwise a classic bitter stout. It was all sold out in advance as Matt's casks tend to and made its début at our CAMRA do referred to in this post. It was very well received on the night by the assembled drunks beer experts and has gone down well subsequently elsewhere, with positive comments. Want to try it? You might be too late for the cask effort, but it will appear in real ale in a bottle form soon. Contact Matt if you are in the area and fancy some.

Stout. Mmm. Under-rated and yummy. We need more of it.

The fact that I had a hand in this beer has certainly influenced my views.  Still a good beer mind.  Of course it is greatly enhanced by perfect cask conditioning and a tight sparkler to produce a classic creamy white head. That and the fact that Matt knows his stuff.  To labout the point, stout just isn't stout without that creamy head.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Baladin, Rothaus Pils and a Sports Bar

Italy isn't like Spain. I'd kind of expected it to be but it isn't. It is years since I spent any real time there - two weeks around thirty years ago - though I have been briefly in Trieste for a weekend. But that's such an oddity it doesn't really count as Italy. In other words I know nothing about its culture day to day habits and modus operandi as such. Other than looking at the odd painting in galleries and remembering "meloni" ice cream rather fondly that is. It rather came as a surprise to find that unlike Spain there isn't a little bar on every street corner. In fact on arrival, the seemingly complete absence of drinking spots alarmed us old soaks as we made our way through Milan's Chinatown to meet our friends at Baladin, something like two miles away.

Baladin is a very pleasant craft beer bar and we assembled in its main room and bar. Those already there were in a hugely complicated round - I wouldn't have fancied picking the bones out of it at the end - but we three stuck together to sample the wares. Two were on handpump though I doubt if they are exactly cask conditioned as we know it. A somewhat ordinary but suppable stout and a somewhat ordinary and less suppable brown. We also tried between us Brune, Nina and Nelson and none really impressed. It wasn't a good start, but we liked the place, the company and the staff were really good and helpful. So not all bad.

Given that we were a couple of miles from our apartment and that others were going away from it, we had a couple of expensive and crap beers in the oddly named Scott Duff where we were introduced to Italian Craft beer service at its very worst. After a couple of rounds which took forever, we buggered off back to our own neighbourhood to seek liquid sustenance nearer home. Spotting trams on a main road a few hundred metres from our gaff, a lighted corner seemed a good bet and proved to be our unofficial home for the next few days. I don't think we ever discovered the name of the Sports Bar, but we liked it and had the bizarre experience of watching World Cup cricket there while getting gently pissed on nonik pints of Rothaus Pils, an old favourite of mine from my Black Forest cycling days and a very decent pint. It is a long time since I've been last out of a pub at chucking out time and an even longer one since I was chucked out at nearly half past two in the morning, but that's what came to pass. A great place with great service, decent beer and good prices. Bloody good toasties too! It was great too to watch the dynamics of the pretty varied crew that were drinking there and the young women running the place certainly showed up those at Scott Duff. This was to become a recurring theme.

So a mixed bag for our first day, but Milan was yet to surprise us with a mixture of good and pretty bad beer and the odd cultural difference. 

One of our party of three had the bright idea of getting breakfast in a nearby McDonalds. Can't even think when I last had one, but even though the idea of a bacon and egg muffin appealed, Italian ones seemingly don't do such things.  So. caffè macchiato and a croissant elsewhere it was.