Wednesday 31 May 2017

Kentish Capers

One of the things I do like is travelling by train. I come from a railway family and somehow it really is in the blood. Short or long, I like to bash a bit of track and keep my eye on which type of unit is at the front end.  As well as meeting Erlanger Nick for a bummel round some Kentish pubs, I get a chance to take the Javelin (BR Class 395 don't you know), to deepest Kent. Fast and comfortable, and with my Senior Railcard, under 20 of your British pounds, what's not to like?

Our first destination was Whitstable, a place I didn't know at all, never having been there, but for Nick with his extended Thanet fetish, familiar territory. The weather was warm, I was on time, Nick was on time, so we set off through some attractive suburbia, heading for our first micropub of the day and what a good one it was too.  The Tankerton Arms is a converted shop of some kind on a High St, rectangular inside with a few nice bits of ephemera and the beer at the back behind a plastic curtain, where it is stillaged in a cool room.  We chose Kent Session Pale Ale and sat outside on the sole table, watching old ladies rummage through the outside display of the charity shop next door and other folks doing their shopping at the butcher's opposite. It was all very Warmington on Sea. So good was the beer and so comfortable the spot that we had a second before setting off for a fairly long walk to the next pub.

Hotel Continental is on the the sea front.  Inside all was modern, spick and span and spotlessly clean. Beers from Whitstable Brewery were procured, both keg and cask and all were pretty good, as was the charming service and welcome from the two barmaids-cum-waitresses.  We sat outside while Nick enjoyed some oysters. The Oyster Stout though was a disappointment. Served on CO2, it was headless and dull. Stick it on nitro and it would be transformed. Just say"no" to CO2 served stouts. They are dull as ditchwater. Despite the headless beer - all of it was - we left with some reluctance, not least of all because of the welcome.  It does work you know.

Next a mistake.  I liked the look of the Pearson's Arms just off the sea front.  Two staff were busy mixing cocktails as we sat at the bar. Neither looked up.  Much farting about took place and in a pub, otherwise empty apart from a young couple, both in turn went off upstairs where presumably others were awaiting their mixed drinks. As they came back neither acknowledged us again until I piped up. It had been seven and a half minutes without so much as a nod in our direction and no real apology for the omission either.  We had a half each of Harvey's Best, which was, unsurprisingly, below par. Piss poor all round.  We couldn't get out fast enough.

No such disappointment at the The Old Neptune, right on the sea. This is a clapperboarded delight and again the welcome was a warm one.  We struck up a conversation with a delightful old man who had come on a commission to paint the pub. No, not with emulsion and gloss, but with oils.  Astonishingly Nick sort of knew him from a forthcoming gallery exhibition in Broadstairs.  This time the beer was spot on and two pints of Harveys Best later, we left, having had a great experience. It's the offer as I always say and this was cracking.

It all gets a bit disjointed after that. We visited The Peter Cushing, a JDW house where we duly experienced horror in the shape of two vinegary beers and a poor soul with a new tattoo of his just deceased brother's name on his arm. We commiserated with him as he explained further turmoil was imminent, as said tattoo had been expressly forbidden by his wife. We left our companion to his thoughts, me reflecting that all life can be found in the pub.  Two more pubs for Whitstable though. One I can't remember, but was ordinary though pleasant enough I recall, and finally, the Black Dog, a micropub, where we had a nice chat to the barman and I agreed to disagree on cloudy beer.

Then to Margate, which I hadn't been to for many a year. Brilliant sunshine greeted us and we walked past a godawful, East European-like eyesore of a block of flats by the station. What were they thinking of when they gave that monstrosity planning permission? Skirting the front we walked to the harbour and the Harbour Arms.  This micropub did nothing for me, nor did the stinking mud of the harbour, so I'll draw a veil over it. Nick quite liked it though.

Last stop was to meet Nick's Mrs (and their dog Tabor.)  Becky is always an absolute delight and we snaffled the table for three under the open window of The Two Halves, which was buzzy, busy and just very good indeed.  We caught up with each other while Tabor the dog made friends. We watched the sun go down until I had to go for my train. By this time I was drinking Rhubarb Cider because I could.

I may have nodded off once or twice on the way back to St Pancras, but I was actually relatively sober by the time I reached Tandleman Towers (South).

Oddly, we only really had two bad pubs beer wise. Most were actually good to very good, but it really is the welcome that sets pubs apart. 

Kent - well this part of it anyway is a delight. I can see why Nick likes it though the bugger is always lucky with weather.  Unlike me.

Monday 29 May 2017

A Mixed Bag in London

Those of us who do their drinking in pubs, rather than bars or at home, have a cross to bear and it is one I am always banging on about. It is the quality "thing". My recent drinking - apart from my Sunday trip to the Tandle Hill Tavern where the beer is immaculately kept of course - has brought home to me the perils of straying far from the mother lode.  Still it has to be done and here's a few highs and lows from my recent outings.

First of all was a trip to London to the Houses of Parliament and subsequently, some boozing in Westminster environments.  As parliament is prorogued it wasn't possible for us to visit the Strangers Bar as intended, as this is closed presently, but I've been before and while I recall the beer being fine, it was more the thrill of sitting on the terrace overlooking the Thames that I recall most fondly. In fact we sat on an adjacent table to the late Charles Kennedy, but I digress.  This time, that pleasure being denied, for ease (there was 30 odd of us) we assembled at the St Stephen's Tavern, it being the nearest pub. Now I know my pubs through and through, but I have to admit to this being one of the most disconcerting visits to an English pub I have ever had.

You could say I'm not a fan of Hall and Woodhouse beers. Pretty grim stuff really, but needs must. I ordered a pint of Fursty Ferret - I know I must be insane - and a half of Amstel for E.  The barmaid who came from God knows where made no move to pour it, but after enquiring if I wanted anything else asked me how I wanted to pay. "Cash" quoth I, but nonetheless I was given a long lecture about charges if I wanted to pay by card. I interrupted this flow of superfluous information by saying I was paying by cash and she could pour my beer any time she liked. Instead she demanded payment for the as yet (as far as I knew) unpoured beer. I queried this, asking if I was expected to pay up front and was advised my beer was being poured elsewhere by someone else!  Now call me old fashioned but in an English pub,  I expect my beer to be poured in front of me by the person that serves me. I felt quite disoriented by this, but reluctantly paid and in time another barperson appeared from the back with my beer, which on later comparison with other supposed Fursty Ferrets was an entirely different colour. And it was bloody awful and well over £4 a pint. Above all this revisionist deconstruction and reassembling of the familiar pub scene is dystopian and an affront to the pub goer.  Just avoid this confusing tourist hell hole is my sound advice.

We abandoned ship and headed round the corner to Fullers Red Lion.  I thought I'd see if the Pride was drinking well.  My ordered pint seemed to be being poured oddly, so I peered over the bar to see a pint glass of spillage (or whatever) being topped up with fresh beer. I refused this and was served with an extremely indifferent but freshly poured pint of Pride. I advised one of our party of this practice and on ordering, he had the same experience with a different beer. He too refused the pint. When I worked in a pub we called this "slopping".  Bad form from a pub run by such a respectable brewery. An anonymous visit by Cellar Services might be a good thing here.

Still, not everything was bad by any means. In fact it was all very much uphill from here. We called into the Speaker on Great Peter St which had excellent and varied beer and a good atmosphere and again, very good beer and spot on friendly staff were found at Young's Buckingham Arms. In fact I can't recall a better run pub in the centre of London and while Young's beers are hardly challenging in taste, they were at least properly kept and served in a welcoming pubby atmosphere.  Top marks. We also called into the Waterloo Tap. This small, well run, pleasant bar has a good selection of cask and keg beers at very fair prices and we enjoyed a couple before a bus journey for some Harveys in the Royal Oak which is not only a great pub with a great following, but one that keeps its beer very well indeed.

That was the end of beer drinking for that day as we departed for very expensive tapas and Spanish plonk in Borough Market. My oddest drink of the day was found there in the guise of pink cava  while we waited for a table. This beverage was offered by a lovely posh lass I chatted to at the bar while she awaited her date.  It wasn't bad at all.

Her friend when he arrived didn't seem quite so pleased to see me, but this little interlude  certainly gave this old man a boost! She was a delight and very witty with it.

The weather was great which is always a bonus when pub crawling.  The sun shone on me in Kent too, so was that a better experience? I'll let you know.  Oh and a mention of Liverpool

Erlanger Nick was involved in both London and Kent crawls. He likes an hour out.

Saturday 20 May 2017

Returning to Roots

I think it fair to say that I was as surprised as anyone by the announcements that Charles Wells had decided to sell the majority of its brewing interests to Marstons.  Looking at the press release it can be summed up as selling all its major brands, including the flagship Bombardier, as well as the brewery and its free trade accounts to Marstons, but importantly, not the pubs or the John Bull brand, used mainly overseas. There will be a supply and licensing arrangement for Martons to sell into the Charles Wells estate, controlled one assumes by Wells themselves as far as what the pubs can buy.  The deal includes UK distribution and brewing under licence of Kirin and Founders and distribution of Erdinger (the blandest wheat beer ever) and Estrella Damm products.  It includes the brewing and supply of Young's beers as well as the moribund McEwan's range and the more or less dead in the water, Courage brand. So quite a portfolio, but maybe not so shiny when you look at it closely.  £55 million of your UK pounds is probably as good a price as could be had for it.  On the other side of the deal, Charles Wells will be building a new smaller brewery to supply its 200 or so pubs with its own branded beer. That's a good thing.

While I was mildly surprised by this move - after all who, these days,  can get too taken aback by breweries being sold - but what did surprise me more than a little was the reaction from some. "Sellout" cried Roger Protz, the doyen of British beer writing, along with several inaccuracies which he later corrected:
J Mark Dodds, a well known - pub campaigner wrote grumpily in response to comments:
You will also see a pertinent and useful quote from Melissa Cole.  More of which later.

So why did Charles Wells sell a large part of their business?  The most likely explanation is a low margin volume business of declining brands, a cut throat market where the company was too small a player against others such as Marstons, Greene King, Carlsberg and Heineken who can cut margins to the bone to get business.  If you look at what is being sold, Young's is relatively small beer - pun intended - and in Scotland, most people won't touch McEwan's products with a bargepole. The Courage brands are more or less dead in the water and even the mighty Bombardier is hardly the legend it used to be. That leaves supermarkets and the free trade, both of which are low margin and highly competitive. I'm guessing the family looked at it all and judged that the real, lasting and tangible value of the business is in the pubs they own. The value of a portfolio of brands which they likely saw as decreasing value assets, was something they could and should sell while the going was good.  In a dog eat dog world, they decided to rationalise for a more secure future.

Despite what people reckon, most family brewers who are still in the game know their onions.   They haven't survived this long without knowing what is what and understanding their place in the brewing world.  In their heart of hearts that they know they can't compete any more on a nationwide basis. The future of family brewing, to a large extent, relies on doing what you do best - local pubs and local beer. To survive hard headed decisions have to be made. We have seen McMullens and Thwaites retrenching and this, to me, seems almost like a mirror of the Thwaites situation and Thwaites are doing very nicely at the moment, with their new brewery, servicing only their pubs, being built as I write. If Melissa is to be believed and I have no reason to doubt it, the Wells brewery itself may need, shall we say, considerable attention.  That's another other reason to think about a different business model, but sadly, it does cast considerable doubt about the long term future of brewing on the current site, though Marstons do have a pretty good track record of keeping breweries they buy going, so there is hope.

All in all, looking ahead and considering the options and the market, I can see why a family led board came to the conclusion they have. Large scale brewing has its place, but competing on price in such shark filled waters is a nil sum game for Wells and they have realised it. They tried it and it didn't work out. By building a smaller brewery and concentrating on their pubs, they are safeguarding their core pub business, while realising assets which are only likely to fall in value. Reverting to vertical integration with just pubs and a brewery is how they started in the first place.  I don't call that a sell-out, but a sensible business decision in a difficult brewing world. They have sold well and and main assets and income stream are protected.

Going back to where they started may or may not secure Charles Wells' future, but one thing is for sure. Soldiering on unchanged was just as risky and being family owned, the future is still in their hands.  

I am sad for the employees though. I know from personal experience how loyal to the owning family they tend to be. That would have been a tough call for Wells.
Marstons are clearly number one in the super regional game now.  Greene King and Marstons are now the sole brewing giants outside the multi nationals.

Friday 5 May 2017

It's the Offer Stupid

It is a decent 20 minutes walk from the excellent Laurieston Bar (see below) to Macgregors Pie and Ale Howff, the next recommendation from@robsterowski for my recent trip to Glasgow.  The walk is very relaxing, taking you as it does back over the river, through a little of the main shopping area and then into one of the oldest parts of Glasgow, the Trongate - which is well worth a look from anyone - and hence into High St and after a wrong turn, into Blackfriars St.  The pub itself impresses from the outside, but inside it is a bit poky and gloomy.  Still I have nothing against poky and gloomy, as that could easily describe my beloved local and I like that rather a lot.

Inside three people were at the end of the bar chatting noisily to the barman, who took his time to disengage and come over. I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Ossian from the four, or was it five handpumps and noted with approval that the barman was one handedly splashing beer from the pump into a glass balanced on the drip tray. "Good" I thought "he's clearing the line of old beer as nobody is drinking it."  Mistake. He wasn't. This unappealing liquid was my (short measure) pint. Before I could summon up the words to say anything I was relieved of around four quid and the barman returned to his pals. The beer was insipid and I left a fair bit of it and slunk out, glancing back as I did so. Nobody noticed. I hadn't really existed for them in the first place, a fact I was all too aware of.

Reading various reviews of this place, I realise two things. Most of the praise is for the pies, which get a very good press and which, along with a choice of cask beer, is the main focus here and indeed inspires the pub's name.  Now I realise fully that I may just have been unlucky and it was that quiet spot in the mid afternoon, but I shouldn't have felt so unwelcome.  The barman wouldn't of course have known that he'd play host to a blogger on a day out, but then shouldn't he show just a little more interest in the only customer who was there other than his pals?  Maybe talk me through the beer or something? I reckon so.

So, nothing much to see here at all. Most of all the "offer" was absent. I won't be back. Why would I?  They didn't even ask me if I fancied a pie?

I won't say for a second "Don't go there".  Hopefully it was just a one-off but it wasn't a remotely pleasant experience.  Fortunately my next two recommendations from Rob were excellent.  Three out of four isn't that bad.

The pies do look very good on various websites. I rather fancy a breakfast pie, or the haggis neeps and tatties one.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Pure Dead Brilliant

Following a recommendation by @robsterowski I thought it was about time I visited the Laurieston Bar in the South  Side of Glasgow. He is always banging on about it, so time to see if it lived up to its billing.

The bar is easy to find. Should you be lazy, or, more likely if it is teeming with rain, the Subway will take you to within a quick dash of its front door via Bridge St Station, or if the weather is clement - and it was for me - it is a an easy 15 to 20 minute stroll from Queen St Station and even less if you arrive in Glasgow Central.  Just head downhill to the river, cross Glasgow Bridge pausing to admire the views of the Clyde and the pub is about 150 yards on the right, on a corner, as good pubs often are.  The outside is pretty unprepossessing, but note the blue tiles and the very old fashioned lettering picking out the name. It is strikingly out of time, even retaining the old Scottish Brewers' sign and the McEwan's Cavalier.  That certainly took me back a bit.

I paused at the door for a second. The door to the right said "Lounge" and to the left "Public Bar".  No contest. I went left. Inside the pub is astonishingly eclectic.  I was struck immediately by the pink formica topped tables and the huge array of memorabilia pinned, stuck and otherwise attached to almost every part of the walls.  The bar is a traditional horseshoe shape, veering off to the right where you can see part of the lounge and allowing one bar to serve both areas.  This being around two o'clock in the afternoon, the pub was fairly quiet with a couple of gents sitting at the bar chatting, another old fella sitting quietly with his pint and that was about it. I received a friendly nod from the barflies as I took a place near them at the bar.  The barman was busy at the end of the bar, but immediately I entered he stopped what he was doing and came over to serve me.  The customer clearly comes first here. Other pubs please copy. My choice of beer from three handpumps was Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack which was excellent, though unsparkled. Was that Rob's malign influence I wondered as I sipped?

It would be hard to pick out what is what in the ephemera adorning almost every nook and cranny. Books, photos, newspaper clippings, old signs, a framed Scotland football jersey and more. You could easily spend an hour reading though it all.  After a few moments the barman came over and chatted easily to me about this and that. It was very relaxing.  I watched a much younger than me couple came in and ask what there was to eat. The friendly barman indicated the pie warmer on the bar and mentioned that if they wanted something else there was a good café a short walk away. "No". Pies were fine for these two, but I thought that a nice touch. I supped up and as I was leaving the barman came over and said he hoped I'd  enjoy my curry. (My intended later curry with my Old Mum had been one topic of our earlier few words.) Another lovely touch.

This is one fine pub. I can see why Rob loves it. It is unchanged from the sixties  - a bit of a time warp in a good way if you like - and can be regarded as a living, working museum of an otherwise disappearing Glasgow.  If you have anything about you at all, you'll love it. I'll be back when it is a lot busier, just to get the full atmosphere, but I bet it will be just as good, if not better.

Note the sign from a bygone era about women and the witty rejoinder written below. Click to see a larger photo.

It is Glasgow Bridge, not Jamaica Bridge. I checked

Regrettably Rob's next Glasgow recommendation, didn't go quite so well. More soon on that.