Tuesday 20 March 2018

To Be or not to Be

There is an excellent piece of analysis in Phil's blog about CAMRA's Revitalisation proposals.  Phil does a bit of slicing and dicing of the various resolutions put to the members and comes out, on the whole against them. It is a worthwhile read.  At the time of writing, there is one lengthy comment which, while not taking an opposing view exactly, does pursue a more optimistic line regarding of the future of the Campaign if change occurs.

Dominic Pinto is the commentator and he cuts through a lot of the arguments with the following observation "In setting out more succinct objects the proposed new Articles [of Association] start fairly crucially, surely, with securing the long term future of first real ale, and also real cider and real perry, by increasing their quality. availability and popularity."

Of course when you read a lot of the words written in support of change, it is clear that no matter how carefully framed - and I suppose there must have been many iterations - there is still an element of Humpty Dumpty about them  "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."  I rather fancy that there is a deliberate element of (at best) vagueness in what is proposed, as the changes, when you think about them, are backgrounded against two seemingly irreconcilable objectives. On one hand there is the perceived need to move with the times in the face of a rapidly changing beery landscape and on the other a wish to say it is all much the same - except we will not say bad things about keg - and will allow festivals to sell it - though that ship has already sailed. In other words, we don't want to frighten the horses, the horses being those of us in the Campaign who actually put in the time and effort. Will the stalwarts take their bats and balls home in other words? Will they believe Humpty Dumpty or Alice?

If Dominic is to be believed though, that in itself may not be a worry. He has a lot of experience of other voluntary organisation and sees a ray of hope there. Comparing CAMRA with organisations such as Oxfam, and the Consumers Association and countering some of Phil's arguments, he concludes (following arguments you should read) "So the idea that these corporate-like entities with (bloated?) head offices with a passive income generating membership, commercial income generating arms, and declining local activity is really very far from the reality you suggest."

Returning to the proposed changes to include non real beers, the crux of the matter to many, what do we find? What are the likely views of members? Now I suspect from observation that most members do mostly drink real ale and lots of active members do drink non real ales from time to time. (I do, but mostly lager not ale). Likely non active members do the same.  There are pockets in the country of die hard real ale folks who "up with this they will not put" but in the main most of us, while championing great quality real ale, will drink other things from time to time. The changes in emphasis will not affect what we do one little bit. Most of us will continue with the main objective of drinking and supporting real ale and the idea of mass resignations, or campaigning for "Evil Keg Filth" are to my mind as fanciful as the notion that including non real beer recognition in our objectives will attract lots of new people to becoming active in the Campaign. In reality it won't happen and actually, when you think about it, why would it? As an aside, at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, we have a substantial non real ale presence and while there may have been the odd bit of member unease about it, nobody has refused to work at the festival for that reason.  We do have some younger members working as a result of it, but many of them are from the breweries offering the product - so that may not count that much.

What about the armchair CAMRA members who will have a vote on all of this for the first time? Will the tail wag the dog? (I know the small number of activists compared to total members are really the tail, but you see what I mean.)  My own experience is that it is almost impossible to get those that are passive members to do anything, whether it is nominating for Pubs of the Year, Good Beer Guide entries, or pretty much anything else at all. So will they turn out in droves to vote for or against the proposed changes? I rather doubt it, but maybe, just maybe, there could be enough to outvote the activists, though I suspect their vote will be split too.

So, what will happen and how will I vote? The outcome is by no means certain is all I can say. Despite my remarks above about armchair voting, that is a big unknown. In fact I just don't know, though my instinct is that if members believe that the future of real ale is threatened or even compromised by the proposals, then they will vote to retain the status quo.

As for me, I like to think I'm a moderniser, but underneath it all, there's a bit of, as Hilaire Belloc said, "always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse." 

The pick and mix nature of the resolutions make for a known unknown. Depending on how it is voted on, it could end up a dog's breakfast.

CAMRA does need change though, so likely that's what will swing it for me. But remember the pick and mix warning.

Sunday 4 March 2018

Balloch Blues

It must be hard being a real ale campaigner in Scotland and I take my hat off to those that do it. This is a rocky and uphill road and it has much ability to give disappointment and duff pints in equal measure. Though there must be compensating pleasures, I'm glad I do my bit for CAMRA in the relatively green, sunny and real ale rich pastures of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury.

But the campaign is about quality as well as choice, so how does Balloch measure up?  Firstly, why Balloch? Well simple really. It was the only handy place I could get a train to. Balloch is at the bottom of Loch Lomond, though in shivering cold, its banks and braes were anything but bonny. The road wasn't that bonny either, being around two feet of slushy snow. It has three real ale outlets - I say outlets rather than pubs - as none is a pub in the accepted English sense, two being hotel bars and one, just a typical Scottish one room bar*.  It has one other advantage as a small real ale crawl - all the boozers are within a three minute walk of the station and consequently of each other.

*The Dog House is a typical one roomed bar - or so I thought - but seemingly there is another bar within. Nonetheless I was in the one with the real ale, though as might be expected, everyone was drinking Tennents or cider, which may well explain the slightly stale and oxidised pint of the local brew, Southern Summit from Loch Lomond Brewery, carefully served in a Belhaven Best glass. The room was roughly rectangular with some bench seating and a small row of tables and chairs placed strategically in front of one of the dominating TVs.  It was friendly enough in that nobody stabbed me, but it was clearly a locals bar, with banter flying freely about as the denizens battered back the TL and walloped down the vodka.  I stayed for one only and was gratified that another recalcitrant ordered the cask before I left. Maybe it would be better than mine?

Just 50 yards away on the other side of the road was a place, Balloch House, I'd been to before without having a particularly good time.  I wrote about that here.  Hoping for improvement, I went in. Firstly it was busy.  Two guys were playing traditional (not Scottish) music and a few stood at the bar though like me they held their coats awkwardly under their arms, as there was nowhere apparent to hang them. The handpump selection was, one (empty), one (Doom Bar - off,) one (Bitter and Twisted) and the other Deuchars IPA. There might even have been another, but I can't remember. I selected Bitter and Twisted which was unsparkled and definitely uninspiring - average at best.  Looking around the pub had been furnished with various useless tat by modern pub central and although plenty people were in, it strikes me as the kind of place that couldn't generate atmosphere if you sealed all the doors and windows and pumped laughing gas in. (Your mileage may vary.) I was additionally annoyed by the free Wi-Fi which required - and didn't get - a huge amount of intrusive information as a matter of course. Having failed to enjoy this place on two visits, I must bravely face the fact that I like nothing at all about this Mitchells and Butler's outpost. Sorry.

Lastly the Tullie Inn. This is a bit of a barn and was clearly redeveloped some years ago from its former more traditional look to aim for the summer trade. In winter, it just looked, big, soulless, cold and empty.  I was greeted at the door by an A board where "George and Mildred" - or whoever - assured me of a warm welcome. I find though that if you have to write the welcome down, it is sure to be wholly absent within. And so it came to pass.  Funnily though my Cask Marque accredited pint from Fallen Brewery of Stirling was pretty good, even though the beer, Grapevine, fell several hurdles short of its description of "New World Pale" and was a mighty £4 a pint. Time was against me and that one would have to do. My train and, unknown to me, a very disturbed night ahead, awaited me.

Balloch is probably best experienced for its views of Loch Lomond and the Ben. Stick to them and you'll be quite happy. Expect a lot from the local pubs and sadly, you may well be disappointed.

I don't recall any keg craft as such in any of the pubs, so that avenue was pretty well closed. 

The rail line to Helensburgh is now restored and with luck I can nip down there later for a decent pint. I might even get home tomorrow.

Saturday 3 March 2018

White Out

I'm currently in Dumbarton looking after my ailing Mum to give my sister a break and to spend a little time with my Mum while I still can.  It has snowed here rather a lot. In fact as much snow as I can recall in this old town, but then again, I haven't spent that much time in it recently.

Of course, man does not live  by copious cups of tea alone - well this one doesn't - and Thursday, which was pretty bad saw my Dumbarton family gave me a couple of hours off. Despite intermittent heavy snow and bright sunshine, I fancied a pint. My sister and niece had already advised that they observed, as they walked to Mum's, that all the pubs apart from the local Wetherspoons were shut. This though was fine by me as I wasn't after mass produced lager. The pavements were more or less out of bounds for two reasons. Firstly around they were coated by two feet of snow and secondly, my rather inappropriate footwear. I had anticipated the cold and had a heavy coat, but not the snow. "It never snows much in Dumbarton" was my faulty assessment as I left Middleton. So along with other brave souls, I trudged along the main road. Not a great problem as apart from a few four wheel drive cars, there was no traffic.

It didn't take me more than 15 minutes to get into town. Indeed the first two pubs - the biggest apart from JDW - were firmly shuttered.  All businesses and shops seemed to be too.  Now there are a couple more smaller pubs along the High St, but I wasn't checking them out. The Captain James Lang was open and fairly busy.  Wetherspoon has its critics, but it was open when other weren't and was doing good business in tea, coffee, meals and the odd pint too. My pints of Loch Lomond Southern Summit got a solid 3 as I assessed them for WhatPub and CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System.  As I sat I observed. My fellow Dumbartonians seemed well attired in the footwear department. I gazed enviously at the various walking shoes, boots and wellies.  My shoes were matted with snow and looked wet, but hadn't let any moisture in - Clarks doncha know, so I wasn't complaining, but was well aware that I looked dressed for rather better weather.

After a couple of pints of Southern Summit, I noticed the pub had newly installed BrewDog's Punk IPA, so I had a half. Underneath the carbonic acid ridden presentation is a rather decent beer trying to get out. It was hugely over gassed and very cold, but as it warmed up and revealed its layers of flavour, I reflected that despite all that is said about "craft" beer, in a lot of cases it still suffers from exactly the same problems that has always plagued it. That is excess CO2 and very low temperature. For sipping beer this might be fine, but for swigging beer, for this observer at least, it just doesn't cut it. Better gas control is a must - see this from Will Hawkes. He is spot on.

Anyway one thing I do notice in the Captain James Lang is that there is a slow and creeping uptake on cask. In fairness, the West of Scotland is a hard nut to crack, but I get the impression that they are doing their best here. Not enough to not try and get away with duff pints now and again, but better. I keep saying the last per
son who should discover a bad pint is the customer.

Beer quality should be continually checked. If it isn't, they simply aren't doing it right.

Hoping to escape to Glasgow later on. The CJL has lost its charms. I need pastures new. No trains but there are buses and I haven't been on a bus from Dumbarton to Glasgow for over 50 years.  Regretfully, not free despite my advancing years.

A footnote about Southern Summit and Joker IPA, which I have had some of on cask recently. Atren't they a bit sweet?