Tuesday 9 October 2018

Is Something Going On Here?

Three things struck me last week, two of which were writings about beer and the other, more superficially, but much more satisfying - well part of it anyway - was an evening supping the stuff in two contrasting locations.

First of all was Paul Jones of Cloudwater revealing what the brewery will be doing in Autumn and Winter this year.  All very insightful stuff where Paul, in his usual way of seeking to explain (and maybe justify) why his brewery does what it does, tells us a few very notable things he has observed about the craft scene he is undoubtedly immersed in. His are deep observations, which have attracted as far as I know, little real attention or comment, but which made me think a bit more about them.  First of all and I remember this, was that Cloudwater when it was founded, set out deliberately not to have a core beer range. The reasoning if I recall was that would enable them to follow the seasons and produce what seemed suitable at the time.  Seems reading what Paul says, is that while it may have happened at first, it "morphed" to quote the man himself, into a succession of beer styles, the most notable of which was a DIPA series.

The drawback Paul has realised and I paraphrase now, is that every other bugger and his dog have jumped on this bandwagon and crowded the market.  To add to this problem, innovative replacements have limited appeal too as the market follows along. To quote Paul, first of all speaking about DIPA, the about the sheer numbers of breweries and products seeking shelf space "Not every cover song hits the high notes of the originals. The same sense of saturation can be felt in the vast number of one-off beers, whether imported for a ‘one time only’ event, or brewed to appeal to the UK’s most fervent and exploratory beer geeks. This is actually quite damning stuff.  Paul then goes on to postulate " I fear the UK brewing industry may be on course to burn out and fatigue drinkers." warning that "For every beer geek there are 10-15 non-modern beer drinkers". Building up to the reveal, Paul affirms on a wider observation that - and I assume he means beer in its widest British sense - that "Our tradition, and its longevity thus far, is built on supremely drinkable everyday beers, and each brewery setting out its own stall."

These are interesting and profound thoughts as far as they go and they actually go quite far. I think what he is saying and I'm surmising rather than quoting here, is that craft beer is getting a bit samey on one hand and a bit too desperate to produce oddities (geek forward) on the other.  So Cloudwater will actually produce what is effectively a core range of well made beers, building on successful beers of the past and will not discard the successful and well-liked, just to attract the one-off brigade.  There is a lot more explanation, so have a read of what Paul says yourself.  Now Cloudwater aren't abandoning one-offs or experimentation, or barrel ageing, or indeed anything, but are taking a somewhat wider and perhaps less geeky view of the future, given that the real enemy "big beer" is starting to breathe hotly down their neck.

Oh and the announcement that everyone jumped on, ignoring the rather deeper and more analytical stuff?  They are bringing back cask beer to selected outlets which will look after it properly.  Yes, real cask beer.  Good news, as they used to be quite good at it, but perhaps a little unexpected.

Moving on, the good old Morning Advertiser had an article which was also quite profound, related to the above topic but approaching it from a different angle.  In this case, Sophie Atherton, Freelance Journalist & Accredited Beer Sommelier - so she should know a bit about tasting beer - observes that in busy craft beer bars, nobody is really drinking the stuff. She reckons she knows why; "the beer is too awful to drink". She blames excessive hopping rates which she reckon have the taste equivalent of carpet burn in the mouth. Her description of beer looking like "beaten eggs" may well ring a bell too.Her solution is also to consider and return to more nuanced (my words) cask beer. Interesting stuff and worth a read too.

On Saturday afternoon I attended a birthday "do" in a keg only brewery tap in Manchester. Drinking pints of supping keg beer (under 5% stuff) rather than stronger sipping beer, was a tad disappointing. The beer was quite thin and the carbonation was high, not being helped at all by the polycarbonate drinking vessels.  In short, to my mind, paying around £4.50 a pint to drink keg beer in a brewery shed isn't to me that much fun, but maybe not so to others. The experience was recalled when I read Boak and Bailey's piece about the decline of bottled Guinness drinking and the rise of CAMRA. The article has this quote: "Although it became linked by CAMRA mainly with flavour and body, the main original source of displeasure (about keg beer) was probably in the level of carbonation. Bitter has traditionally been flattish, thinnish liquid which can be drunk in prodigious quantity. People simply found that drinking a lot of keg beer blew them out and gave them stomach ache." 

While I have enjoyed many small measures of strong dark keg beers, to my mind, while the quality of ingredients may well have changed, excess carbonation will usually preclude drinking keg bitters - now of course conveniently re-imagined as Session IPAs - in any great quantity. Back to Saturday night, when chucked out of the brewery, a few of us repaired to the Angel, a freehouse which seems to have lost a bit of its cachet to some minds.  Top quality cask ale, a pleasant pubby atmosphere and beer at around £3.40 a pint made me wonder why.

Seems like a few more people than the Cask Report would have you believe, are thinking the same.

It will be intertesting to see which outlets will be deemed good enough for Cloudwater cask.  I do drink a bit of supping keg. Lager. Somehow that seems fine. 

Don't you observe that in craft beer bars, once inside you could be in any place in the world given the samey beer, stainless steel beer walls and similar decor and customers? 

Tuesday 2 October 2018

A Very Mixed Bag in Todmorden

Following on from the recent cutting articles by Martyn Cornell and Pub Curmudgeon about poor quality cask, I had the opportunity to run my own test in an area I rarely drink in and that I don't really know.  Step up Todmorden, which is in Yorkshire - though not by much - and has the benefit of being served by the 590 bus from Rochdale, a First Manchester service, therefore allowing me to use my First Day ticket.  In fact it goes all the way to Hebden Bridge and indeed Halifax, both pretty good drinking towns.  Going that far does involve quite a long bus journey though and was vetoed by a dubious E, worried by either losing valuable drinking time (doubtful) or needing a pee on the way back (more likely).

Now Todmorden is somewhat of a poor man's Hebden Bridge. It is, shall we say, a bit more rough and ready and isn't really immediately that attractive, apart from the very impressive Victorian Town Hall which hints at past glories.  After a quick walk round which revealed little of interest, we skirted the Town Hall and round the back, near the rather sad market is The Pub, a neat little one roomed micropub which Retired Martin advises is in the Good Beer Guide 2019.  Inside it is bright, cheerful, spotlessly clean and shiny. Very attractive. One denizen was sitting at one window and we settled underneath the other. Another and only other drinker, lounged against the wall. Amiable greetings were exchanged and the welcome from the young woman behind the bar was equally appealing.  Six handpumps were present.  I only knew one brewery - Brewsmith - but this was 6% - a bit much for a first drink. E chose a golden coloured half, while I at the barmaid's suggestion, ordered three different thirds. The stout was sour and exchanged and the beer withdrawn from sale. The beers were cool but not exactly on top form. The banter though was great as the discussion of imperial versus metric wandered off down maze like alleys before returning inconclusively to its starting point, not helped by everyone having a different idea of what we were discussing. This and further chats as we supped kind of proved the inclusivity of the micropub genre.  All in all enjoyable, but the jury is out on the beer. I may well have had the first drinks pulled and the pumpclips on display indicated that we may just have been unlucky with the range. I'd go back.

Next up was the Golden Lion.  Black walls and a kind of grungy feel didn't warm us to the place which was almost empty at 2.30 or so in the afternoon. The welcome though was excellent with a very friendly woman serving. Both Saltaire beers (Gold and Citra) were a tad tired and flabby, as was the local Tod brewed beer, Pale Eagle from Eagle's Crag Brewery. This is clearly a night time destination though. It serves as a music forward venue and has Thai food. Quite a lot to like, but not on a quiet Saturday afternoon clearly.

Tor Beers, round the corner, is attached to the Golden Lion, but seemingly rented from it in some way.  It boasts one keg beer on tap (something from Wiper and True) which was fine and a chatty young man who runs the offy, which seems to be the main business.  A large selection of very decently priced craft in cans and bottles is available, and while nobody came in while we were there, a couple of hardy souls sat outside in the autumnal sunshine.

Wetherspoons' White Hart was next. This is quite small and rather pubby, with a relaxed feel. It was fairly busy.  Service was swift and cheerful from the female barperson, while the bearded barman, who looked as though he had tumbled unexpectedly from a much finer craft establishment in a parallel universe and somehow ended up here, didn't seem to be viewing life from the sunny side. Win some, lose some. Here the cask stout from a guest American brewer (forgotten the details) was the pint of the day. Cool, conditioned and tasty.

Last up, by the bus station was The Alehouse, another micro pub with an extensive pavement with tables in front of it and one room inside. I opted for Salopian Lemon Dream which wasn't that cool or well conditioned and had slipped over an invisible dividing line, from beer into lemon furniture polish.  (I recall Hornbeam Lemon Blossom had the same tendency). Disappointing.

So four cask pubs and only one pint I'd call very good. Not a great result, but clearly reflecting that you aren't going to get top cask beer from empty pubs.

I rather think this little unscientific venture proves a few of Mudgie's points.  There are other pubs though, but we'd had enough of the place by the time we left.

Next time pee or not we'll go to Hebden Bridge. I think we'll find better there and of course, squeeze more value out of our First Day bus ticket.