Monday 31 August 2015

Sneery Beery

I haven't written about the Great British Beer Festival until now and as far as I can make out not that many have either.  There are one or two moaning  exceptions which I'll mention in a moment or two, but my own thoughts first.  I want to address the complaint of "sameiness" which is a recurring theme of the knockers.  As someone who has been working at the festival for many years, you do get a feeling of familiarity and indeed cosy sameness about it when you show up and it is all there set out invitingly before you (I don't do set up - I'm far too old for that) but even so I still spend my first "let loose" half hour checking what's new and what's different.  There is always enough. It may look the same, but subtle changes are always being made.  But back to the cosy sameness.  That is to some extent the point.  You are showing up at a huge version of your local.  It has a set of features you enjoy, usually the chance of bumping into people to chat to and it has a lot of good beer.  And the beer is getting better. Huge efforts are made to cool the beer and present it well and I for one didn't have a pint at an unacceptable temperature, nor did I have a pint that was flat. So given that it is served Southern style, nothing to moan about there.

"Ah but the choice?" I hear you shout.  The GBBF has a huge choice of beer.  If you can't find enough there to keep you happy you are unlikely to be happy anywhere.  It represents what British Brewers in the main are brewing and what British pub customers in the main are drinking.  It does include in cask form, beers from many cutting edge brewers and some of them rather exotic. The number of great small brewers is slowly increasing as it is elsewhere at beer festivals.  But it isn't a showcase for strong and obscure. If you want a pineapple sour aged in feta cheese barrels coming in at 11% and £5.50 a third, well yes, you'll be disappointed.  That's not what it is what it is about.  What it is about is a jolly good day or night out, in a great friendly atmosphere where beer assumes the position it was always meant to assume. It is an accompaniment to fun. It isn't the fun itself.  Thankfully almost all of our customers see that and simply go to enjoy themselves.  Watching and observing, I saw huge numbers of people doing just that. Back to that pub analogy. Everyone came, had a good drink and a great time and went home happy. Job done!

So who's moaning this year? Well Simon Williams is. In his blog he describes it as "lazy, out-moded and tired looking."  The organisers have simply "plonked everything down in the same place" and brought in "lowest common denominator" food suppliers. How all the 50,000 plus that attended must have been disappointed. Except of course they weren't, as 99% of these people drink and enjoy themselves just like 99% of the population do and the GBBF suits them just fine. Like pubs CAMRA has to cater for the majority of drinkers. Simon's somewhat sneering tone continues throughout, though I do agree with his observation that CAMRA needs to make its hall decoration and festival theme somewhat more contemporary, so at least he made one valid observation to justify his press pass.  Looking at the comments on his blog (mine didn't appear) read what Des De Moor says for a more thoughtful and considered appreciation of the the issue of beer choice and the festival itself -and Des isn't that complimentary to CAMRA. (Funnily enough Des liked the theme, which shows how difficult all this is!)

Jumping on the same CAMRA bashing bandwagon is another press pass holder, Martyn Cornell who agrees with everything Simon says. In fact, so overcome by agreement is Martyn that he says somewhat astonishingly "I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Williams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia last week". Perhaps Martyn doesn't agree with that much he reads then, but it's still some claim. He like Simon goes on to compare GBBF with London Beer City Beer Festival (apples and oranges if ever there was).  He says "At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat."  This is a hugely geeky thing to say. Now here's a thing. I'd say most people don't go out drinking to be challenged by beer, or have a wish to discuss the beer's philosophy and upbringing with the brewer. They go out to enjoy beer as part of a social occasion and just want a bloody beer, maybe with a taster or two first.  Comparing the two festivals in this way, as like for like,  is disingenuous. I could go on but you get my drift.  While I can accept Des's well thought out and constructive criticism, this sort of lazy stereoptyping, as fellow blogger, Jeff Pickthall would say, "Boils my piss." However the most telling remark of  all to my mind was buried within the comments in Martyn's blog. It was this:

Karen Eliot on said:

"But doesn’t this take it for granted that the purpose of a beer festival is to present people with a challenge? The GBBF is deservedly popular as a jolly day out, the beer needs to be good but it doesn’t have to be ‘interesting’.The CAMRA / Craft divide seems to be less about method of dispense these days as ways of drinking, with one mode – characterised by small measures, high ABV, high prices, an unusual attentiveness on the part of the drinker and an emphasis of novelty over consistency and intensity over drinkability - assumed by its proponents to be superior."

Doesn't that make sense? There's the craft / cask divide summed up nicely.  Jolly days out versus challenging novelty. I'll add that to my own observation that beer should be an accompaniment to fun, not the point of the day out. Let's just enjoy a beer festival for what it is, not what it isn't.  

There's a certain irony too that the sneerers found the best bit of GBBF bumping into people they knew, while the best bit of LCBF was being challenged by the beer.

My comment didn't appear on Martyn's blog either. No conspiracy theory. just the dreaded Wordpress I assume.

And Simon. The two worlds aren't meant to collide. They should be taken for what they are, not forced into a daft comparison.  People that think GBBF hasn't changed have obviously not been going as long as I have. As for the more comtemporary festivals, they tend to do much the same a CAMRA. They take a formula that suits them and then tweak it. Babies and bathwater! 

Also many beer geeks and writers were there at GBBF. I spoke to them. Don't remember many glum faces.   Nor was the food at all bad with a choice and variety outweighing anything you'll usually get at "alternative" beer festivals and eminently suitable for those drinking a fair amount of beer.  I even heard tell that pulled pork was available!!

Wednesday 26 August 2015

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

Back in April 2011 I tipped Buxton Brewery for great things. Since then they have crept slowly but surely up the ladder of British brewing and have in fact increased the pace of recognition and gained the approval of many drinkers.  I particularly like it when I come across them expectantly at the bar and always order them when I see them.  Seems though I won't see much of them in the future. Well not in cask conditioned form anyway.

A rumour has been going the rounds for a little while that Buxton were to cease production of cask beer in favour of keykeg and bottles and yesterday it became apparent that apart from the Brewery Tap and selected (unstated) "special events" that cask beer production, which has already been scaled down, will cease from September. Bad news for cask drinkers who like a pint of their beers from a handpump.

Buxton go on to state on their Facebook Page the reasons for doing so:
  • Overwhelming customer demand for other formats - bottle and keg.
  • Customer feedback.
  • Quality control.
  • Cask losses and theft.
  • A depressed cask market place flooded with poor to average cask beer, sold cheap.
Dissecting this a little I conclude that the "demand" for other formats is more profitable and that they are being "forced" out of some markets because of the flood of cheap beer from breweries that aren't nearly as good, but which sell at a much lower price. Is this the inevitable result of too many breweries seeking too few outlets and a disregard for quality over price? It certainly looks like it.  There can be little doubt that with over 1400 breweries seeking a market, that some will cut not only prices, but quality corners to get on the bar.  There may well be more of this in various scenarios yet to come, as surely the number of breweries is approaching unsustainability, at least in certain areas? Nonetheless this is the market and many breweries compete successfully in this area and service demands for beer in any format.

The issue of cask theft, like the poor has always been with us, though again many other breweries seem to cope with this and while I for one won't argue about quality control,  it seems to me a bit flimsy, in that Buxton by definition and examination of their own reasons for ceasing cask, surely won't be selling it down to a price in outlets that exist on that business model and where a quality pint isn't guaranteed? 

Buxton go on to say:

"We love cask beer, and the great traditions of British brewing that surround it. It's where we started, with Buxton SPA in 2008, which we still brew and is a great beer to drink on cask. Our wish is to continue presenting beer in cask, but in a way that we can have 100% control over it." 

Well I guess if you want 100% control over cask then yes, just sell it in your own pubs. Or pub in this case, but of course that raises two fingers to those that have loyally supped Buxton beers on handpump these last years.  They'll have to put up with a much different product, served in a much different way at a much higher price.  Or hop on a train to Buxton I suppose? If you really love cask and think that highly of it, then you'd find another way, maybe by selling only to well chosen outlets and to a supply chain that will ensure that cask losses are kept to a minimum.  I don't know where they've been selling it that it ends up so poor. That doesn't quite hang together for me.  Now of course I'm a cask beer bar through and through, so I would be unhappy about this of course, but I rather doubt that I'm the only one. Loss of these fine traditional beers is unlikely to be met with universal approval.  Thankfully not all of the nearly 1400 brewers brew bad beer, so there will be plenty of decent replacements, even if sometimes loss of other beers is recalled with regret. In the end of course the financial aspects of their business are down to Buxton and I would never blame a business for going down the "it makes more money route."  I'd just be a lot happier if they simply said "Keykeg and bottles are more profitable and are easier for us. Sorry".  Expressing crocodile tears over abandoning cask helps no-one really.

Is there not too, a certain irony that in retaining cask beer at the Brewery Tap, no doubt that those that brew it and those that made the decision will still be happily supping cask beer after work? Seems a little like rubbing noses in it.

At least I was right in predicting success. Pity it had to end up like this and oddly unfitting surely that the Buxton statement is illustrated by a photo of a handump dispensing Buxton Cask Beer.

Thursday 20 August 2015

The Dog and Truck

I have written about this East End Boozer before and I finally got back to another visit a year and half after my last visit.  What's the matter with me? I'd forgotten how good it was obviously.

On my day off from the Great British Beer Festival we'd decided to give a new (to me) pub near Liverpool St Station a try. Because of  E's work we had to wait until nearly three pm before setting out and inevitably as we left the flat it started to rain.  Heavily. With considerable reluctance E agreed to sprint round the corner to the Dog and Truck, a couple of minutes from our front door.  She's been there for nearly 17 years and despite having visited almost every boozer for miles around - well I have dragged her to them including many long since closed -  she somehow didn't fancy it.

If you read my previous piece (and you'd best really) you'll see I liked it. It hadn't changed a bit since my last visit thankfully and despite its very old fashioned seventies look, it was warm and welcoming. A table of retired gents sat supping beer and exchanging jolly reminiscences, a fairly young lad, obviously taking a Poet's Day view of Friday was idly throwing underweight darts at the dart board and a couple of lads stood at the bar drinking pints of lager. It took me back a fair bit. The beers on offer were Greene King IPA, Black Sheep Bitter and Harvey's Sussex Bitter. I chose the Harvey's and it was excellent. Bright as a button, fully conditioned and served at the correct temperature. Excellent. The barmaid was friendly and when I called back for a second pint I remarked on how good the beer was. She promised to let the landlord know.  E, ever suspicious of London cask beer was enjoying her halves of Staropramen.

We sat for a while nattering and the darts player offered me a game. Now I used to play a lot of darts over thirty years ago, so I couldn't resist. The darts were far too light and I was hammered. Twice.  That took me back a bit too.

The Dog and Truck is at 72 Back Church Lane, London E1 1LX. It really is worth a visit and it will be on my list when I'm next in London. E said she'll come too!

I've looked ot my old darts. I'll bring them next time too. And the Harvey's was much better than my rotten photo suggests.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

What Happens When You Complain About Beer?

 I go to London a lot and have been doing so for the 16 years or so we have owned a flat there.  Before that I spent around nine months in London managing the removal of  IT systems from Euston Tower and relocating them in Lytham St Annes and Leeds.  I drink beer there and have done so for a long time. I know a fair bit about the beer scene, both now and when I first ventured there. Bit of background that.

Now being a blogger and writer, I sometimes write, when it happens, about bad beer in London.  Now there are some that think I have an unfortunate down on London and that I just complain for the hell of it. Why would I? When I'm in London I'm just out for a drink, usually with my better half.  I rather like to visit, among other types,  the classic London pub with a beautiful interior and loads of customers spilling out onto the pavement. It is a "thing" about London I rather like and there I'm just a customer paying (top dollar) for my beer. I'm not really looking for bad beer to write about, because quite frankly if I was, I'd be writing about little else. I'm not talking here particularly about one or two of the top pubs where you have a much better chance, but of the pubs a normal beer drinker might visit. The pubs are jumping and beer is flowing freely from the handpumps.  Having spoken about warm temperatures being the enemy of cask beer, the other main enemy is lack of turnover. That causes staling and souring.  Now in the pubs I'm visiting turnover of beer is certainly not a problem, at least during the week. The beer though is often flabby, warm and lacking the zing that properly conditioned cask beer needs to have.   What's a beer drinker to do?

Recently I have been advised by a well known beer writer, in a somewhat testy exchange of views, to complain. It is my duty apparently and my failure to complain is the reason why pubs are being killed.  What tosh. The pubs I'm complaining about are going like a fair even if the beer is crap. Of course I've complained but it gets you nowhere.  My Mrs calls me a serial complainer, so unless the beer is absolutely cloudy and muddy*, I don't bother embarrassing her and frustrating myself. It changes nothing. Here's a few scenarios from memory:

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Barperson: I don't know I don't drink the stuff

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm / flat:
Barperson: Everyone else is drinking it /nobody else has complained

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Barperson: Would you like something else?

Me: I'm sorry but this replacement beer is still far too warm:
Barperson: What do you want me to do then?

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: Ah yes. The cooler's broken (a favourite that)

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: It's a hot day

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: Oh sorry about that
Me: I see you have a Cask Marque plaque outside, I'll report this to them.
Manager: Suit yourself.

The point is that in good pubs the beer won't be warm and flat and the staff will know that and be concerned if it is.  This isn't about them, it is about the vast number that don't do it properly. What's the use of complaining if a replacement beer comes from the same warm cellar and the same uninsulated beer lines and your complaint results in no change? None.That's what. The pubs are run by people who are transient, know nothing about cask beer and frankly don't care. They are selling lots of it to a transient and couldn't be bothered arguing clientèle. They are probably underpaid and overworked. Why should they bother? The beer shifts anyway.  (Some places that should know better don't do much better. More of that another time).

When I started working in a pub many years ago, my boss, one of the old school, taught me many things about the pub trade and serving customers. I've mentioned some of them in this blog before, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is this "If a customer complains about the beer, just change it without question - he'll tell everyone that if you have a problem in my pub, they'll sort it out immediately. . That's worth money to me."  Now of course he knew there was nothing wrong with the beer, but his point was that it was good business for him reputationally.  The customer would get a new pint he felt better about and tell all his friends how great the service was. Pubs were a very competitive business then and he wanted an edge.  How does that apply in London and in the scenarios mentioned, all of which are absolutely true? It doesn't.

One other thing I'd mention again from my old times and also from running a pub cellar, many beer festival cellars and from working in a pub. The last person to find out there's something wrong should be the customer. The beer should be checked before service and importantly, during service.

(The other main enemy of cask beer not already discussed is cleanliness in both cellar and beer lines.)

*I tweet such photos and usually name names. 

Next: The Keyboard Warrior in his pride. Cheery Beery? Trust me. I'm only just warming up.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Hot Stuff

I've been banging on about cask beer quality as long as I have been writing this blog.  It is a bit of an obsession of mine as I love great cask beer and feel frustrated enough to scream internally when it is not.  The lack of quality in cask beer played a huge part in the rise of keg in the 1960s and keg and smooth beer in the years beyond.  It may well have a place in the rise of craft keg, but that's not the theme of this post. Do however feel free to allege it or deny it in commenting.

The real focus of my ire though is temperature, as it is that above all which affects the condition of beer once it is in the cellar. I've been writing about that since Day One, so love the subject or hate it, I'm at least consistent and while I make many criticisms of too warm beer, I am equally keen to praise the good when I find it. So I'll remind you what I said on that fateful first day of blogging on 26 November 2007:

"Too warm a serving temperature and too little condition are the enemy of cask beer. The latter two statements are also beer FACTS as they have been proved to be true scientifically. Warm temperatures cause dissolved C02 to return to atmosphere and too little condition will have the same flattening effect on beer. Don't believe me? Read "Beer and the Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth. I have a signed and dedicated copy. Another beer fact!"

Now I could have said that a little better, but the main point is that warm beer will always give you lack of condition and explains why, as it warms up even more after serving, the beer, which tasted reasonable at first sip, frankly, dies on its arse as you go along.  It is important that the drinker and more importantly, the vendor,understands and bears in mind that a warm beer will not only get warmer, but will much more quickly lose its condition. That my friends is basic physics and why getting the cellar temperature and, importantly, temperature at point of dispense, correct. This is a one way street. There is no way back as temperature rises.  Those of you who know me as a cellarman at beer festivals will know that I am equally obsessive there. My reputation is on the line and I don't have a temperature controlled cellar to rely on, which is the reason that many of you will have had to keep your coat on where I'm in charge of the beer. Sorry about that, but hopefully the beer was good.

Now why am I giving this background?  Well I have received a bit of outrage from some about the fact that I dare to challenge warm beer and name names. I've covered this subject before, so I urge you to read this piece from August 2011.  I'll also cover where complaining gets you in my next article.

You might also want to glance through this which is a search of my blog for the term warm beer and because reading my old stuff will be good for you!

I'll also be writing about a pub in London with great quality beer which, oddly is within a 5 minute (or less) walk of our London flat.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

What Would You Choose?

As part of the year long celebration of CAMRA's Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch (ROB)  40th anniversary, and to add to the veritable cornucopia of fun so far, we have another three functions which hopefully will provide a bit of interest and attract members.  In conjunction with JD Wetherspoon's Area Managers and the managers of the three pubs concerned, we have agreed that ROB will choose six of the beers to be sold  in a JDW in each of the three boroughs, on three given nights.  We can choose from the entire JDW list which has over 450 breweries on it. They will even endeavour to find beers, if chosen, from outside that list.  It has to be said that JDW have been amazingly supportive of us in this endeavour.

How are we going about it? Well, at last night's Branch Meeting, we had a draw to select six winners for the Rochdale event.  The idea is that each will select three beers in a first second and third choice, the theory being at least one choice can be sourced for each person. I didn't win a chance to choose, but I do have another two goes at it. The choices were revealed and as you'd expect, at least half of them, I'd never heard of.  Given that there are so many breweries and beers that's hardly surprising to me at least, but you'd be amazed how aghast many people are when talking to me about beer, that I've never heard of a particular beer or brewery they admired while in Budley Salterton or wherever.  But I digress.

If you'd won the chance to select beers, what would have been your one, two, three?

The beers must be currently commercially brewed and be cask conditioned of course.  I doubt if my first choice, Batham's Bitter could have been sourced, but you never know.