Friday 22 September 2017

Playing the Man and Other Stuff

It's been a funny old week on t'internet beerwise.  The old cask versus keg argument was set alight once more by some offensive ad hominem attacks on someone who simply professed in no uncertain terms - on his own blog - that a murky beer he'd been served was not remotely to his liking and in the opinion of him and his wife, tasted vile. He called it "overpriced rubbish." That's his opinion and on his blog, he clearly stated that and his mild reaction to such viciousness was a credit to him.  While it wasn't quite "Nothing to see here. Move on", though clearly it could have.

Sadly it wasn't that simple. A number of astonishing personal attacks then took place in the comments section, many of them complaining that the author wasn't erudite enough and didn't string his points together in a more appealing manner, though he seemed to have no problem in making himself and his meaning understood beyond reasonable doubt by his critics. (Surely the point of language and the written word, when all is said and done. The first comment and the second by the same person set the tone of what was to come. First of all was a pop at the author's writing ability and then at CAMRA and its members, which as far as I could see was nothing to do with the article.  (As an aside here, it is time people realised that the vast majority of cask ale drinkers have nothing whatever to do with CAMRA and aren't members - so pack that in please.)  In fact the writer of the piece concerned has a dig at CAMRA members later in his article, so who knows if he is a member or not? Whatever, but when you read on its gets worse. And worse. Since when did beer become so important that such nasty personal attacks made on a person are justified because of beery preferences and grammar?

Needing a bit of light relief from that I turned to Beer and Whine.  Given the title of the piece - "CAMRA - The Campaign for Rudeness & Arrested development" I was hoping for something a little more gentle and nuanced. A tongue in cheek look at the Venerable Society for Beer from the Wickets complete with a little leg pulling perhaps? Nope. This statement sets the tone for a bitter piece of CAMRA bashing "The first and most infuriating characteristic of your stereotypical CAMRA member is the outright arrogance and rudeness that is on display every time that they step foot in a bar/pub."  Goodness. What has happened to this poor writer at the hands of these cask conditioned cretins that has affected him so deeply? The rest of it continues in the same bilious tone, complete with misleading and incorrect statements. If you haven't read it do. Meantime I return to my point above. Most real ale drinkers aren't CAMRA members and I'll add a couple. Most members will visit your bar and you will never know they are members, hardly any will "demand" discount, though some may politely enquire and the question of pricing isn't as simple as jacking up the price, more of which later.

At least, despite what I read above, the cask versus keg war is over according to this article by Fourpure Brewery from the Morning Advertiser. No-one in their right drinking mind disputes the statement by Sean Knight of Fourpure that the focus should be on quality, but of course things are far more nuanced than that. Sadly it isn't that simple but this polite article was kind in tone and was refreshing for that alone.

This brings me neatly to comments, again in the Morning Advertiser by Sophie Atherton about cask beer pricing and so called "cut-price cask beer" and customer resistance to higher prices. As I hinted before this is complex problem and as I'd expect Sophie makes a good fist of examining the arguments, though I'm not sure that the sort of cask most of us real ale drinkers sup can truly be described as "premium".  The idea too that you can call a beer premium when it is so often already sold at top dollar in poor nick could be troublesome to sustain in a reasoned argument. Nonetheless I agree with the conclusion that a perfectly served pint can command a decent and fair price and that quality at the point of dispense is imperative.  Having said that, as Karl Marx said - and he was a real ale man - "the problem isn't identifying what is wrong, the problem is how to change it." Frankly there is no a consensus on that and the issue of too many breweries chasing too few accounts and publicans helping to drive down brewers' margins, isn't even discussed. Fair prices for sellers don't easily happen in a buyer's market.

So where does this leave us? Well we can deduce that the meatheads aren't all in CAMRA, the craft beer scene is far from gentle and benevolent and can show a snobby and arrogant side. Beer costs, too much/too little, is too warm too flat/too cold and too gassy and the answers to known problems aren't that obvious.

Think I'll go for a pint now. It will be from JW Lees, will be just under £3 and Lees make plenty of money.

I had a pint of keg beer the other day. The brewer admitted that it had around 3 volumes of CO2 in it. Too much for me. We will be having yer actual keg at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival as a matter of interest.

While answers aren't obvious, you should, in the meantime adopt my mantra "It's the offer Stupid."  If you don't get that right these days you are in trouble.

Nicked "Playing the Man" from Mudgie, though I doubt if it is copyright

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Why Bother?

That awkward sod Cooking Lager is pretty good at reminding us of the futility and foolishness of pub going and cask ale worship. Both too dear and if you do go to the pub for a real ale or two, it is likely to be manky.  In fairness he does give some stick to the crafties as well. He is nothing if not unfair to all is Cookie. Good on him.  He did give me pause for thought with this tweet the other day, when I was moaning about poor beer in Scotland.

Now there is a semblance of truth to this, but in reality, I rarely get a bad pint because sensibly, since I'm not a charity, I don't drink in random pubs as a rule. In London I avoid cask beer unless I'm confident in the pub, though of course I do get caught out at times, but as compensation, while the beer may be dodgy, the pubs are usually well worth a visit. Like many others though, normally, I mainly in pubs that I know and I go there because I like the pub and I know the beer will be good. Mudgie wrote about the subject here and I agree within this particular phrase in particular "the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem." 

This brings me on to another point. Most CAMRA members don't spend all their time crawling from random pub to random pub either, but as I do, go to pubs they can depend on. Naturally a lot of us pub goers will go on holiday or have a jaunt to another beer drinking town. In most cases it will be Good Beer Guide pubs we go to. It is the very existence of poor pubs and beer that makes the Good Beer Guide while not infallible, invaluable.  These entries are likely to be best of breed in the area concerned. It is CAMRA people that select them and we tend not to drink or vote for inclusion in the Guide, pubs that routinely serve sub standard beer. Local knowledge helps too, because in good drinking towns, not being included in the GBG, does not mean beer will be bad elsewhere. Sheffield is a good example of this, but sadly, in areas where there is little real ale, scan the description carefully. Read between the lines. It should sing about beer quality. If it doesn't, beware.

So is pub going and real ale drinking futile? Well what isn't in this vale of tears, but hit a good pub and a cask at its sweet spot and for the beer man or woman, there isn't much better.  Still worth a punt then I'd say, but hedge your bets and make enquiries if possible.

Sadly, like most things in life, the quality of pubs and beer cannot be taken for granted or assumed.

Monday 11 September 2017

That Quality Thing Again

I have a lot of sympathy for my CAMRA colleagues in the South West of Scotland. Real ale is rather thin on the ground around these parts and it must be difficult, in a sea of Tennents, to keep the cask beer flag flying.

I was in Dumfries and Galloway a couple of weeks ago and though my friends and I didn't try all the pubs that sold real ale, we had a go at quite a few of them.  Some, it has to be said, even though they were listed in the Good Beer Guide were less than enthralling quality wise.  The most common fault being tired beer and warm beer, probably  indicating turnover wasn't all it could be. There was exceptions though and hats off to the  Cavens Arms in Dumfries for spot on beer - though dining pushes drinkers rather to the side here - and the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright whose beer was immaculate and, as we were the first customers of the day, was carefully pulled through to ensure quality. The resulting pints of Kelburn Pivo Estivo were well up to snuff and the beer garden, in unscheduled sunshine, was quite a bonus too.  So it can be done.

One thing we did notice was the dominance of beers from Greene King, supplied no doubt through their Scottish subsidiary, Belhaven. Fair enough, but not once in the half dozen or so pubs that sold Greene King, was a single cask ale from Belhaven available. Shame that.  It was sad too to see that beers in the local Wetherspoon in Dumfries were dominated overwhelmingly by Greene King and Marstons, though in fairness here, quality of what we had was good.

Now of course where there is a brewery tap, one can breathe a sigh of relief and relax in the knowledge that here at least will be a friendly welcome and beer as the brewer intended. Well you'd like to fondly imagine so wouldn't you? Sadly in the visit to the local brewery and tap, in my second Scottish home town of my youth, Castle Douglas - my grandparents lived there - that wasn't to be.  The beers were lifeless and warm and frankly near enough undrinkable. A quick look under the bar showed that the casks were not temperature controlled in any way and when this was mentioned to the barman, we were advised that real ale was meant to be served at room temperature. 

We made our excuses and left.

Yes, I will be dropping a note to my CAMRA colleagues in South West Scotland about the brewery tap. Brewery taps should be a beacon of real ale excellence. After all if you can't get cask beer there in the best form possible, then where can you? The only other bar in Castle Douglas purporting to have real ale, didn't have. We beat a hasty reteat to Dumfries for liquid sustenance.

The photo isn't beery, but shows Dumfries railway station at night. I spent many a time there with my Mum and sister waiting for the train to CD. Alas the line was axed by Beeching.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Where there's Murk, there's Brass

The controversy over hazy/cloudy/murky beer continues apace.  Twitter is full of photographic examples of beer which is so densely cloudy it looks like chicken soup, while all the while those posting said photos proclaim what a lovely drop it is.  There isn't much light I can shed on this phenomenon other than to suggest, mildly, that this has become a fashion that at its best can be described as bringing a new, open minded interpretation of beer presentation to the drinking public,  or at worst a con on the gullible with experimental beer, or a batch gone wrong, or even a brewer who doesn't know what the heck he is doing, pushing out bad beer at top dollar prices.  It's a thing though, so how should we react?

The simplest way is not to buy the stuff if it offends you, but of course it isn't that straightforward.  In the days before murk, it was easy. You got a cloudy or even hazy pint and you took it back. You knew that beer was meant to be bright and if it wasn't you returned it and asked for an exchange. In those days that was the norm. Customers knew it and bar staff knew it. It wasn't an arguable point. There was a rule - a clear rule if you like.  Nowadays there are those, rightly or wrongly that don't fine their beer in the belief, again rightly or wrongly, that by not fining the beer, the customer gets a "better" pint.  Now of course the flaw in this argument is that it is very subjective. Some like the added taste that not removing solids from beer gives - and that taste isn't all or always good - and some consider, me among them - that the flavours become imprecise, muddied if you like. Overcoming inbuilt norms, is not an easy thing either way.

There are brewers, good ones who take beer seriously that fret over this, but usually they have a tendency to go one way or another. You know the beers and you can choose accordingly. Ah, Yes. If you know the beers you can, but what about when you don't and most customers don't? Well, you rely on the brewer putting an explanation on the pumpclip, or the barstaff telling you (assuming in these days where quality control at the point of dispense has seemingly become the job of the purchaser) that the barstaff either know or care.  Never has it been easier for those selling a product that isn't quite right to say "It's meant to taste/look like that", especially as it sometimes is.

This, like it or not, is a particular problem for cask conditioned beer. I know some brewers haven't fined their beers for years, but they use an appropriate yeast and they allow the beer time. They may even re-rack almost bright into conditioning tanks and, providing the beer has enough viable yeast for a secondary fermentation in the cask, why not? Who cares? Certainly not me. The issue though is that with so many brewers of cask beer around now, some beers are frankly not worth drinking on taste alone, but if in addition they are cloudy, the customer is put in a position where he or she has to argue the case at the bar. Not good. Years of certainty over beers look and appearance count for nothing now.

What about craft beers? Well, here there may well be a different case to argue. Beers in this genre tend to be a lot more edgy, a bit more experimental. I read recently of a huge number of kilos of fruit pulp being added to beer. The brewer advised Twitter of the fact with pride. And why not?  I am not against such things - the Belgians have been doing it for years after all. Mind you they produce in the main very pin bright fruit beers - but we aren't Belgian here and in these cases, the resultant beer, cloudy as a fruit juice is what is intended and of course, here there is little argument. It is likely sold as what it is to those who have a fair idea of what they are getting and they pay and enjoy accordingly. That's fine by me.

So is this an issue and why is it happening? Most likely because it can happen and we have a new wave of brewers and drinkers who don't feel bound by a previous norm. They like it that way. That's fine, but brewers and publicans, please tell us in advance at the point of sale, in the case of cask conditioned beer at least.

London Murky is possibly the founding source  of this, but is separate and possibly more dodgy manifestation of this trend. It inspired the title of this piece in a way.

This blog piece which lends itself all too easily to dodgy puns, was at the back of my mind for a while. It was brought to life by an inability to sleep this morning and this piece here, where this issue seemingly precipitated a very unsavoury incident.