Sunday 26 March 2017

Mr Smith Decrees

This on the face of it, located as it is on the corner of a main road,  an awkwardly situated pub if you approach it, as most do, going to and fro to nearby Rochdale Infirmary. (Indeed as your hero does when the kindly surgeons inject my arthritic knee with God knows what, every six months or so.) This time, instead of zooming by, I'm approaching more slowly and realise if I turn up the hill beside it there is plentiful parking.  Good to know as you scarcely notice that when driving past.

The Brownhill Hotel is a typical Sam Smith's pub for the area. Clearly Humph - the owner Humphrey Smith - has bought a job lot of off-white paint to do all his pubs - or most of them - and the pub is tricked out accordingly externally.  Inside there is a typical vestibule area and short corridor, and a main bar area with bench seating and  a games room to the right. Running the length of the pub a more well appointed lounge area looks inviting enough in that typical Spartan way that Sam's pubs have, but is empty save for one couple.  I see them from my vantage point at the bar, contentedly sipping lager.  In this instance, nobody looked round to check out the stranger, because they are having too good a time to bother. Around a dozen people, men and women mixed, have pole position under the main window facing the bar and they are exchanging banter and laughter with an ease that suggests they all know each other well.  The barmaid greets me with a slightly quizzical smile, possibly wondering why I'm there. I have the feeling she is the landlady.  I detect a Welsh accent and this is confirmed by two things - one an obviously Welsh husband or partner - and two - a scarf hung behind the bar sporting the legend "Cymru am Byth".  An open fireplace in the bar, already set, but in this first warm day of the year, not (yet) lit, completes the picture.

I choose a pint of Light Mild, which is 2.8%, but has the body and taste that many stronger beers would envy. It is astonishingly a mere £1.34 and really very good.  To accompany it, I buy a packet of Sam Smith branded pork scratchings which are comparatively expensive at 90p. Looking round I see behind me in the Sports Room a number of young lads are playing darts, a throwback (see what I did there) to the 70s or 80s.  I wonder idly, as a former darts player myself, if they have a league hereabouts, but there is nothing by way of notices on the wall to suggest it.  In fact there seems to be no notices or much decoration on the walls at all. I suspect this is some kind of decree from the autocratic Humph.  There is one appropriate exception.  The sole notice advises customers that "Mr Smith" has decreed that the pub must be cleared within a half hour of last orders being called and lists the times. Ominously it warns that "doubling up at last orders will not be allowed."

The bar has the usual array of brightly lit boxes. They are pretty standard here, with Cider, OBB, Sovereign and Taddy Lager, with Light Mild and Double Four lager bringing variety.  Oddly the cool shelves have no bottles whatever other than Scintilla mixers.  Almost everyone is drinking Taddy lager, though one renegade, without specifying, is served Double Four.  In fact nobody in the pub orders a drink by name, instead approaching the bar and being served with what I assume is their standard tipple.  The banter continues with the landlord observing a four playing cribbage (again) and chirruping from the sidelines when one hand was over "Winner, winner, chicken dinner." - and why not?

This was a lovely visit. It was great to see folk enjoying themselves with people they knew. I wasn't unwelcome as such, though you can't help but feel a little that you've gone to the wrong party by mistake.

I reckon though if I came in a few times, my Light Mild would also be served to me automatically.

I didn't date take any photos of the inside. I just felt that would not have been appreciated.  A local pub for local people? Yes, but in a good way.

There is an odd bare feel to Sam's pubs. I reckon the Welsh scarf was pushing the boundaries a bit and was the sole and welcome splash of colour.

Friday 24 March 2017

Who's That Then?

The Eagle is rather an imposing building and viewed from the outside, all lit up, it looked rather fetching as I trudged towards it in the rain.  I opened the door and everyone turned round to look at me. "That's a typical welcome in a Sam's house"  I thought.

Number two on my wander round all the Sam's pubs in my area was the Eagle on, well Eagle St. Which came first I wonder?  I looked round after astonishing the company by my appearance. The bar was on my left, but was unpersoned. One of a group of four, playing cribbage shouted that he'd be with me in a minute, which gave me an opportunity to look round.  This is quite a big pub, but has clearly been diverted from its original layout more than somewhat.  The two large windows on each side of the door had obviously fronted two separate rooms at one time, but these had been knocked into one and the corridor removed, which gave a big sort of vestibule area with bench seating, reminiscent of a dentist's waiting room from the seventies.  It was rather Spartan, but clean and tidy with quite a busy red carpet, some dark wood and walls painted in magnolia or similar. An "L" shaped bar with brightly lit beer founts completed the picture.   A middle aged couple stood at the short end of the "L" drinking and chatting in low tones.  Behind them two old lads threw darts in a sort of large alcove dedicated to the purpose. In addition to the crib players, an old Irish biddy wandered around engaging with the cribsters and another two customers who were sitting down opposite the bar. That was it. All studiously ignored me, or had cancelled me from their conscious minds.

The barman finished his hand and wandered over apologising for my wait. On the bar was Old Brewery Bitter (keg), Sovereign Bitter (ditto), Alpine lager (unavailable) and Taddy Lager. Taddy it was and bloody fizzy it was too.  I sipped and watched. Everyone clearly knew each other, though I was undecided about the couple at the bar who took no part in proceedings at this point.  The Irish woman walked over and warmed her arse on the roaring coal fire adjacent to the card players. She asked no-one in particular if the clocks go back or forward this weekend.  There was some dispute about this, but it was finally agreed that the clocks go forward. The Old Irishwoman sniffed at this. "Forward or back, you shouldn't interfere with the fecking clock" she announced, eliciting no opinions either way.

From the back of the pub another person entered. It wasn't clear to me there was another entrance, but hey ho.The old lady had returned to her lair by the bar and the newcomer took his turn to warm his bum at the fire. In a different but similar broad Irish accent, he asked the pub at large if they liked his coat, which he had seemingly bought for twenty notes in the sales. This brought the two at the bar to life and as they pronounced. It was clear they too knew everyone.

The circle thus completed (I make the assumption the darts players were locals too) I drank up and slunk out. Did I imagine a collective sigh of relief as I left? 

The chill cabinet contained bottles of Sam's Perry and Cider, plus a lone bottle of Pure Brewed Lager.

There was a picture of the pub in the old days on the wall, but the other couple were sat underneath it, precluding closer study. It looked similar though with its large scale sign on the roof.  I imagine too, the darts area was a snug at one time.

A Touch of the Unusual

It isn't often I get invited to a "do" at a foreign embassy or indeed a non foreign one, so when the Embassy of Ireland invited me to The Spirit of Sharing, an exhibition of Irish produced drinks sponsored by Bord Bia who promote Irish produce abroad.  On a night I happened to be in London anyway, I jumped at the chance.

Half past five arrival said the invite, so as I didn't want to be the first there, I wandered around the area abounding Green Park where there are many embassies of varying grandeur and arrived at 17.40. Fashionably late I thought, only to find the event already going like a fair. They clearly operate different rules here.  I bumped into an old pal, the 1970s boy himself Justin Mason and ascended the stairs to the inner sanctum with him.  Very large and rather perfect gins and tonic were smilingly thrust into our hands and we entered the merry throng to be met by Sid Boggle and not many minutes later by London Beer Guide man, Jezza, so at least I knew some people - not that it would have mattered such was the warm welcome from the assembled stall holders.

Canapés flowed - Irish produce of course showcasing, black pudding (gorgeous) and equally good ham and salmon and much more and I went for a wander to see what was there. Now the beer area was handily near the entrance, but most of the stalls were for spirits, with gin and vodka to the fore, but plenty of whiskey too and even poitín, still widely illegally made within Ireland I believe, but here, legally produced by specialists.  Irish strawberry wine too (Jason loved it), cream liqueurs and of course cider, all produced in Ireland by small outfits.  There was even two cocktail bars where you could try (I didn't) more exotic mixes.
While I'm a beer man,  I must admit to partaking of several different, excellent gins, including a wonderfully earthy potato one from St Patrick's Distillery, but given that I have few opportunities to try Irish Craft beer - I mostly get my fix vicariously through the Beer Nut - of course I gave those a try.  The main stands were from Metalman and Kinnegar, where contrasting dispense was evident, with Metalman - rightly given the name - in cans - and Kinnegar in bottle.  Kinnegar had a range of around 14 or so (Jezza assiduously tried each and every one) and there was a few stunners from this Donegal outfit whose aim is "to produce clean, crisp, full-flavoured farmhouse beers."  Now clean is music to my ears and they were.  No muddy impreciseness here, but beers where you could pick out what was going on. Impressive and all beers are naturally carbonated and clear. I particularly enjoyed Yannaroddy Porter, though if they'd called it stout, I wouldn't have argued.

Metalman Brewery from Waterford seemed to have a bigger crowd around it for some reason and I enjoyed tastes of several of their beers, with the Pale Ale probably being the best of their show to me. I didn't take to the Equinox wheat beer which confirmed the difficulties that some brewers have in nailing this style. I'm still to be convinced about canning though.

One abiding memory of the evening was the sheer, cheerful enthusiasm of the stallholders and their obvious enjoyment of what they were doing. As well as the excellent craic, it was delightful to talk to such pleasant and committed people.  They simply couldn't have been nicer.
I get the impression that Ireland is shaking off the dominance of big brands at least in availability terms.  What I tried was of the highest possible quality. I do wish the producers that exhibited at this fine event the best of luck in the future.

Disclosure: I had a thoroughly good time.  I must also admit to trying more gin than beer overall. But I like gin and these were very good. I did see the ambassador too - didn't meet him sadly.

Great to meet some fellow writers and bloggers too. Jezza, Sid and Sharona. Justin I already knew.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Highly Rated Pubs

With many pubs already facing difficult trading conditions, more misery is being heaped on the pub trade with huge rises in the amount of business rates to be paid following a revaluation exercise.  This can amount to as much as an extra 300% a year according to the Morning Advertiser. This could in fact be the last straw for many pubs and will certainly affect the viability of many more.

This is illustrated in my area by a tweet by Simon Crompton, owner of the Baum in Rochdale, a former CAMRA National Pub of the Year who revealed his charges would go up from £26,000 a year to £60,497.70 a year and those for the Healey Hotel, his other Rochdale pub which he leases from Robinson's, from £7,623 to £32,667.80.

Clearly such huge increases put business viability under severe strain. As remarked in the Morning Advertiser by another licensee, this time in London and facing a similar hike "We won’t have any pubs left".  Part of the problem is that rates are levied on turnover rather than profit and turnover in the licensed trade does not often give a true indication of viability as overheads are huge.  Rochdale On Line gives the exact breakdown of what this means for Simon's two pubs and for those interested in such things, it makes a good if sobering read.

The already hard life that independent operators have has just got harder and of course, in the end, the customer will be asked to pay.

I also urge you to follow the link to the Morning Advertiser. 

The Baum is Greater Manchester Pub of the Year. 

Friday 17 March 2017

Keep the Home Fires Burning

What has Admiral Lord Nelson got to do with Rochdale? Nothing it seems, other than I suppose being a national hero a long time ago.  So the Nelson Hotel in Rochdale, we can safely assume, is not actually connected to the one armed sea dog, but his likeness adorns the pub's sign nonetheless.  Until fairly recently it seems, the pub was run for many years, until his death, by a motor bike loving landlord who loved the TT races.  I often wondered as I went by on the bus, why the pub flew the Manx flag, but now I know.  Pubs can be interesting that way.

Anyway in pursuance of my endeavour of visiting (or visiting again in some cases) every Sam Smith pub in my CAMRA Branch area, I popped in on Wednesday night.  First problem was actually getting in. The door and passageway was blocked by an old geezer on a mobility scooter of bus like dimensions.  There was a bit of a stand off as we both considered the problem. He wasn't about to move and clambering over him would have been undignified, so I grabbed his handlebars and dragged him out onto the pavement.  Well I considered it, but he (somewhat reluctantly) turned his chair a little sideways and I scrambled around him with great difficulty and entered the inner sanctum.

It turned out to be quite a nice little boozer, with the bar facing you as you come in, a room on each side, one of which was nicely appointed, with a roaring fire and two old Asian gents, each dressed in a shalwar kameez, who appeared to have come in for a warm. Drinkless, they were arguing loudly in their native language. Kind of unusual even though this is a pretty Asian dominated area.  Inside the bar was another roaring open fire. Not often you see two in such close proximity. Even more so since there was only one other old codger within, soon to be joined by the door guardian who nearly ran his pal down as he reversed up the passageway into the bar, giving his companion's table a resounding knock as he did so. A few frank words in Lancastrian were exchanged, concluding with the traditional "Fuck Off."

No real ale here, so instead the somewhat 1970s illuminated plastic boxes favoured by Sams, showed three lagers, a mild, Keg Old Brewery Bitter and a cider.  I chose Double Four, but there wasn't any, so Taddy Lager it was, pleasant enough in its own way and a mere £2.20 a pint. Very reasonable for a 4.5% beer.

As I stood at the bar I surveyed the pub and decided I liked it. It was how pubs used to be and I reckon with a few in, it would be great fun.  I remarked to the barmaid who was busy putting more fuel on the fires that I wouldn't like her coal bill. Wisely she observed that as she was only the part time barmaid, that wasn't her problem. "Fair enough" I thought as I basked in the heat, taking in some rather good old photos of Rochdale and a decent tiled image of a sailing ship in the passageway.

Before I left my Asian companions did, and as I supped up, thanked the barmaid and departed, only the two old Rochdalians remained.  I could still hear them arguing as I walked down the road to the Regal Moon and Draught Bass.

I am pretty sure there is quite a step into this pub. God knows how the guy on the scooter got in.

This review here is worth a read. 

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Lots of Sam's

One of the things you can do on the background system to CAMRA's WhatPub, if you have the right permissions, is download all the data for your own CAMRA Branch area.  I gave it a go and did some number crunching, though I am fairly hobbled by being pretty unaccomplished at Excel.

Now I expected a lot of JW Lees and there is. They have a total of 86 of their pubs in our area.  What fascinated me though was the number of Sam Smith's pubs we have. No less than 30, most of which, if not all, must have been acquired by Sam's when they bought Rochdale and Manor Brewery in 1948 and closed it in 1968, though it continued to be a Sam's Depot until the seventies. (Funnily enough one of my friends from the Tavern worked at the brewery itself). I reckon we (Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch) must have one of  best concentrations of Sam's pubs in any CAMRA Branch area.  In fact our geographical area may well be the top one in the country, depending of course on how you choose to define such things.

Now like Mudgie I have quite a fascination for Sam's though unlike that esteemed commentator, I spend little time in them, apart from when in London and I want a cheaper pint - or just a good old fashioned boozer.  I have though met Humphrey Smith and briefly exchanged pleasantries with him - well I was pleasant and he was sarcastic - but it all counts.

Sadly though we have 30 Sam's pubs, only 4 sell real ale, which is a great pity, but the brewery is very careful about which pubs get cask. Too careful some might say and something we, CAMRA, must talk about. In fact it was querying the removal of cask from the Yew Tree that my odd encounter with Humph occurred, but I digress. It seems though to me that a bit of fun can be had by visiting the remaining Sam's pubs I haven't been to. After all they are mostly handy enough.

I'll let you know how I get on. It might take me a while though. I really don't get out enough.

I must write up my Christmas tour of a few London Sam's pubs at Christmas. I'm a bit behind on that one.

Trip Advisor has interesting reviews of the food at the Yew Tree. You can pick out Humphrey's failed centralising the food experiment easily enough. 

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Original and Best?

OK. That's Barr's Irn Bru, but when it comes to pilsner style lager, Pilsner Urquell is the one that begat all the others.  It has been the original since 1842 and the brewery makes much of its history. As for taste it describes the beer as refreshing, clean and balanced, but the beer is much more complex than that. Deeply satisfying to drink, it has rich malt, spicy hops, hints of toffee from the trademark diacetyl finish - one that most brewer's wouldn't want in a lager, but is there in this one by design - and a very smooth finish. It belies its modest strength of 4.4% and its natural carbonation makes it very easy drinking.

I was in London last week to see the Hockney Exhibition at the Tate and by good fortune it co-incided with an invitation by PU to visit the new Draft House in Plough Place and sample, under the tuition of  Beer Master Robert Lobovsky, the three different, approved pours that give different taste experiences. Along with Robert, Artisan Butcher Alex Sharp, talked about the prime Galloway beef cuts that we were to sample with each pour, fresh in tanks, unpasteurised and direct from Pilsen.

However this event wasn't about the taste of PU, as much as the mouthfeel and appearance of it, and there the complexity deepens. The head is absolutely paramount. The Czech classic Hladinka is a smooth, creamy serve, Na dvakrat has a crisp body topped with a thick foam and finally the Mliko is presented as virtually pure foam giving the most aromatic and sweet of serves.  It was all rather fun and the beers certainly did taste different. One interesting point to me was that the Hladinka pour is so reminiscent of the pour you get when a sparkler is correctly applied to well conditioned cask beer, with the head being formed at the bottom and the beer poured through it to keep it away from air. Think of that when someone carelessly pours you your next pint of flat cask.

Robert was a great host as was Alex. I did decline an offer to try pouring one myself. I doubt if it is as easy as it looks. Now my family comes from Galloway, so the meat was of particular interest and it was good to have an expert talk us through the cuts.  It was also good to bump into fellow invitees the Crafty Beeress and her husband and enjoy a couple of pints of PU afterwards with them.

So lessons learned - or in my case reinforced? Treat beer with respect and learn how to pour it properly and buy the best beef you can afford, even if it means less of it.

Tankovna beer is pretty widely available in London and elsewhere, particularly Albert's Schloss in Manchester which sells more than the rest of the UK put together. Thanks to PU for the invite.

The new Draft House has the same awful music as Seething Lane, but is a pretty good spot really.

Monday 6 March 2017

It Didn't Happen

I often look at old blog posts to see what I was writing about years ago. A sort of  "On this day..." kind of thing.

On this day in 2009 I wrote about the Bull's Head in a village called Boreham Street which according to the BBC was being closed by Harveys. It is an interesting and detailed little piece by the BBC and just as relevant today with the same old reasons being given for closure.  Then six pubs a day were closing and now it is probably a fair bit less but still around three or four.

At the time Harveys hoped that a buyer could be found to keep it going as a pub, but said "Pubs have been adapting for the past 1,000 years, but to adapt as much as we've had to over the past few years is asking too much ................ The pub's been struggling for a few years now. We have to decorate every five years, and each time we do, it costs three years income - that's income, not profit." 

The article is still available on the BBC here and is well worth a read.  The whole sad story is laid out with a pointed reference to the fact that villagers bemoan  the loss of the pub but don't actually use it.  I finish my article by saying "You really do have to use it or lose it."

Reading my blog post again, I wondered what had happened to it. Eight years later would it be trading still? It seemed unlikely given what was said at the time, but I looked it up all the same. Amazingly it still is and even more amazing is that it is still owned by Harveys,  Judging by the website it is doing rather well which is good to hear.

What happened to change Harveys mind I wonder? Does anyone know?  Whatever it is, one thing still remains true. "Use it or lose it."

The pub is listed in the current Good Beer Guide and serves food every day. Looks all right too. It must be doing something right.