Tuesday 17 December 2019

The Mechanics of Beer

It isn't often I venture to a brewery I've never heard of which is nonetheless within walking distance of our London flat. Oh there are plenty of breweries I have never heard of that are within walking distance of the flat, but normally I can't be bothered looking for them. You know the drill. A squashed railway arch with a few rag, tag and bobtails of scraped together vessels; a hardly heated, cramped bar with German style benches, lookalike, barely drinkable, overpriced beer and that "What the fuck am I doing here when I could be in a nice pub?" feeling.

But last Friday, gripped by the news in London Drinker that Mechanic Brewery - no me neither - had introduced cask beer got me thinking that the mile and a half walk might be worthwhile.  Easy peasy from here. Get up to Whitechapel Road, turn left after the Blind Beggar and you are nearly there.  Now Whitechapel Road is a bit like Karachi in places with its street food stalls, clothing shops, Asian sweet and kebab shops and more. It is a polyglot place which I kind of like. Something for most people and interesting.  We walk along there quite often and while no fan of Asian sweet shops, the kebabs and pakora always attract me.

Turn left, past Sainsburys and keep going. Council flats are the order of the day and the place gives off an atmosphere almost of a small town, though you are only a few hundred yards from the bustle and the buses. There is nobody much about. A railway line looms ahead and we turn right. Suddenly, abandoned old London taxis are everywhere. Old as in will never move again. Like a dinosaur cemetery, they lay as if awaiting discovery by some future explorer. Here and there lights in arches show people hard at work, dismembering carcases and applying them to bust up taxis. This is where London cabs come mostly to die and for some, a Frankenstein like afterlife as spare parts.

Under another bridge, the underside of which was littered with more of the dead, we see a row of lights. "That'll be the brewery" I thought. It was. An open metal gate, an arch with that heavy plastic drop down sheeting that you struggle to find a way through, but we did. Inside it was just as already described, but empty apart from the barperson. It was warm though and good sounds emanated from speaker above the bog - unisex - or is it gender neutral now - of course.

The beer list was fine. I tried three thirds. A mild, a curiously appealing lime stout and a more standard pale beer. E had a creditable can of Kolsch.  I chatted to the operative. They don't have cask in the Tap and only do it for festivals, but he admitted many people ask for it, so a handpump will be installed. We agreed the mild would much better suited to it than keg dispense.  As we drank up our host mentioned there is three other breweries round the corner. Thanking him,we left  and went round in the direction indicated by the jerk of his thumb. More defunct taxis littered the streets. We saw no signs of a further brewery, just an old and derelict pub, with a single electric bulb, creepily lighting some upstairs room through tattered Addams Family like curtains.  This looked like a fine place to get murdered, so we made our way by a different route, back to Whitechapel Road.

Mechanic Brewery is fine. You can see why it is named as it is. Quite good in many ways. We'll call back in daylight and maybe manage that elusive brewery crawl.

Still not been in the Blind Beggar. Must remedy that. It looked busy.

Sadly no spicy food for me.That was vetoed. Well no spicy Asian food anyway. My usual  Vesuvio pizza from Pizza Union in Leman St was unlike them, sadly a bit overdone.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Sloppy Behaviour

When I was young it was common custom in many pubs to "recycle" back to the customer, overspill from poured beer in the drip tray,  Usually a tell tale pint glass with a few inches of beer stood by the drip tray and unless you watched like a hawk, a small amount of this was put in your glass first and then topped up with fresh beer.  If you were unaware of this bad practice, or just not near the offending pump and thus oblivious - then that's what happened. Nearly everywhere. Breweries and landlords then, as now, make use of what they can to preserve stocks and gain margin.  I was told once - though the truth of it may be different - that the reason tall founts, keg or cask were used in Scotland, was to make the visibility of the beer and therefore its freshness obvious to the customer. Attempted "slopping" the consumer became something of a game, where you'd fix the barperson with a gaze that said "Don't try it with me Pal"  while he or she looked for ways to do it without you noticing.

I know this as I was both an avid watcher outer for such happenings and, in my years behind the bar, a reluctant exponent of it, though only when the Boss was there. When he wasn't, the drip trays were tipped down the sink and we also took great care  to avoid wastage in pouring. I too, way in the past,  have been warned by an intended sloppee - in no uncertain terms - not to try and do it with him. And rightly so.

This still goes on,but perhaps much less nowadays. I get the impression that in these times of Health and Safety and much better hygiene awareness, that most in the trade refrain from it, if not always, at least in most cases.  I for one always try and look to ensure I see my glass filled freshly. Over the years I have though, pulled various people up for it and refused the pint.  (A small amount of freshly spilled beer from a pressurised keg is unlikely to show much sign of itself. Not so in cask beer, where even a relatively small amount of flat beer can take the edge off the liveliest pint.)

Now sadly this meander down memory lane has a point other than me thinking fondly back to unsullied pints of Diamond Heavy or Tennents Lager.  On Thursday I was shown in the most blatant of ways, that in some places, this malodourous practise flourishes, though fortunately I was the witness in this case, not the victim.

In London and in increasingly heavy rain, we took a stroll round Covent Garden buying Christmas cards and watching the world go by.  In time we had a couple of pints of excellent stout in the Porterhouse Brewery in Maiden Lane and then in even wetter weather, headed somewhere that I could try a half of Sam Smith's Yorkshire Stingo,  rarely if ever, seen on cask.  A bit of drama ensued first of all as we entered though. A old lady was lying sparked out on the tiles, with anxious folks around her. In a booth overlooking the bar, we were asked to watch belongings as they fettled the woman in distress. I ordered a warm up pint of Old Brewery Bitter which had that distinct bottom of the barrel feeling about it.  Not quite bad enough to call for a replacement, but which was half heartedly, half supped without enjoyment.

From the vantage point of the booth, I had a good view of the set of pumps (both cask and keg) at the bottom of the bar. The pub was rammed and the barstaff busy. One lad stood out. He fussed over a new member of staff, showing her how to pour, though to me he made a pig's ear of it more than she did. I first noticed that Sam's Nitro Stout was virtually headless  though a bit of judicious swirling produced a slight one. Gas gone? Almost certainly. But he carried on regardless.  After a few more pints the bitter went off. This would be interesting. With the sparkler still on (Just makes the operation less speedy and slick) two or three pints of froth were pulled into a jug, then poured into a couple of glasses, which along with the half pint or so from when the beer went off, they were put to one side. The customer waiting for his pint was further up the bar. His half pint of cask bottoms was then topped up with the new beer. Urgh.

The horror show increased in intensity. Next the jug was shared into pint glasses and the beer topped up again with fresh. Now much of this beer would have been in the beer line and thus bottom of the barrel.  I shudder to think what it tasted like.  Wheat beer was then taken directly from its drip tray, poured into a beer glass and the beer topped up with fresh. All such spillages were, in varying amounts, given direct to customers, but not to these that could see what was going on.  Shocking stuff.

Now was this the rogue behaviour of one barman? Was he under instruction? Did he simply not know better than to do this?  I couldn't say, but the pressure on Sam's landlords to deliver the maximum volume from containers is well known.

By this time, the old lady's relatives had come back. She was fine and was apparently in the habit of conking out. Her daughter took her off in cab, while the rest of he family returned to drinking.  We didn't have another drink given what we'd both witnessed and went off elsewhere.

It was still pouring down.

So I didn't have my Stingo, a mere £7.40 a pint, but  I will do before I go back North again. Just not in a very ornate pub in Holborn.

We nipped into the Citte of Yorke after, but it was rammed. Oh and in the other pub in Holborn we paid by card - as everyone else seemed to be doing. If Humph stops that in London, he'll have no business left. 

Last word. I have a witness. E watched all of the horror show with me.

Saturday 16 November 2019

As You Were - More or Less

My old friend RedNev reported that the Dispensary, one of Liverpool's finest real ale pubs, would no longer stock real ale following the retirement of the previous landlord who had ruled that particular roost for some years - and in his own very strict way.  It is a favourite Liverpool haunt of mine whenever I am there, so the news, later corrected by Nev, was not welcome.

Now I hadn't read Nev's correction, so when I was back in Liverpool last week, I nipped in to find out what was what and it seems that apart from some music being played over the speakers, nothing has changed.  Most important of all, my beloved White Rat was in its normal place and was in exemplary condition.  A brief chat with the barman confirmed that those who had taken it over intended to keep it just as is, which is excellent news, as it is the kind of traditional boozer you just don't see enough of these days.

Looking through the window to the pub next door though things certainly had changed. The Roscoe Arms has now become the Butterfly and Grasshopper which was a bit of an odd one to me, but seemingly has a Roscoe connection.  According to the Liverpool Echo, the new name is inspired by William Roscoe’s poem The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast which I must say I have never heard of. Here's a little taste of it for you:

Come take up your Hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast.
The Trumpeter, Gad-fly, has summon'd the Crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you.

We didn't notice if the newly refurbished pub was open or not, but with excellent beer on hand and the promise of more, we didn't care to find out.  

I thank the Echo again for revealing that the £750,00 transformation of the Roscoe Arms is by a division of Star Inns aka Heineken. I sort of regard them much as I did Whitbread in the old days, which isn't highly at all.

The poem can be found here and is a nice little nonsense poem if you like that kind of thing. Which I do. 

If you see Rat Brewery White Rat - order it.

Friday 1 November 2019

Just Say Hello and Smile

One of the things that is often overlooked when it comes to pub appeal is what is sometimes called "Engagement with customers" or in old fashioned terms, the welcome.

One of the first things I was taught when I became a part time barman back in the early 70s was how to welcome customers.  The Boss, an old school landlord and  stickler for such stuff, was very keen that things should be "done right".  First lesson. Rule number one. When a customer comes in and approaches the bar, no matter what you are doing, you look up and say "Hello" or "I'll be right with you" or some such other nicety.  He explained it as putting the customer at his ease; setting the tone. That kind of thing.  The second was to let people waiting at the bar know they had been seen.  You would preferably say "you're next", or second or whatever. And yes, you were expected to know whose turn it was and if you ever said "Who's next?" you'd be rewarded by a growl in your ear and the Boss saying "It's your job to know who's next".

Now back in those days there were many more pubs and indeed, many more customers.  The Boss reckoned that good service would often make a difference in the customer's mind. (Likewise he always said that if anyone complained about a pint, you should exchange it without hesitation. His argument was that the goodwill thus generated through word of mouth was worth more than the occasional drainpoured pint.) Returning to customer welcome, in that respect I'll venture nothing much has changed about the fact that it works.  Good service, a smile and a word can make a big difference. Far too often these days barstaff  will rarely even look at you if they can avoid doing so and as for knowing who is next - well - not going to happen. I have often been served a pint with no eye contact and no words being exchanged. How poor is that? And don't get me started on the now ubiquitous "You alright there?".

I was reminded of this when I was in Liverpool a few weeks ago. In every pub we went in, we were engaged in some kind of conversation - even in the busy JDW at the station where we met to discuss our drinking plans for the rest of day.  OK, it was lunchtime to mid afternoon and the pubs ranged from busy to moderately quiet, but in each you felt that you were actually important, where as in many these days you do well to be even noticed.

Too often what is missing from the hospitality business is hospitality.  In the days of pubs struggling, that should be an easy win, but one that is so often noticeable by its absence.

Another thing we had to do was say goodbye and thanks to customers. When did that last happen to you?  And then by the way, we had to clean the entire pub including the toilets, before we went home. We were paid buttons and supped it all when we finished. And we loved it.  It is likely where my enduring love affair with pubs was forged.

I wrote about this kind of thing a few years ago. Well 8 years ago. Here  it is. Time flies.

The Thomas Usher ashtray came from that pub. It is the only physical thing I have from there.

Friday 20 September 2019

Cask Alive and Kicking in Manchester

Yesterday was a lovely early Autmun day in Manchester and brought with it a day out with my oldest friend - well not oldest - but since day one of starting work in Liverpool almost 40 years ago, oldest in terms of length of friendship. A long time that. Boy have we supped some beer together in that time, but I digress.

First beer up, to decide over a pint where to go, was Holts in the unbeatable atmosphere of the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill.  Busy as always, Holt's Bitter in perfect condition and a mere £2.50 a pint. Don't worry, no more prices, as this writer as always took no notes and can't remember much by way of detail. I only know it was a fiver for two pints, as we fought to get the first cheap round in.  The raucous atmosphere here is infectious and despite having our ears assaulted, a rough plan emerged.

Next up - Mackie Mayor. This conversion of an old Market hall into a cornucopia of eating and drinking never fails to impress.  My Squawk Bitter was even more bitter than the Holts and in great nick too.  Mike liked his - whatever it was - so all was well.  Just the one there and off to the Crown and Kettle.  I plumped for Thornbridge Tropical Swan Nectarine; 3.5%, clear as a bell and utterly delicious, with notes of orangey citrus.  One wasn't enough, so I had two, with Mike expressing satisfaction with his Hawkshead Pale. It was tempting to have another, but the next stop was a new one for Mike.

Cask is in a newish development in a canal basin in Ancoats and offers a great range of cask and keg beers. Expertly managed by Warren Mccoubrey, an old acquaintance of mine and former brewer with Marble Beers no less, he knows his stuff. Warren was there and said hello, but my pint of Pictish, though clear, had that bottom of the barrel taste. No problem. It was exchanged and Warren came over later to say he'd checked the cask and it was more or less entirely drained. Vindicated. Squawk Crex (I think) was our beer of choice. This time, pale and much more balanced than the bitter, but with tropical notes was the perfect foil to the warm Autumn sunshine.  We basked in this for far too long as we chatted and put the world to rights over too many pints.

 So Cask Ale Week was celebrated inadvertently, but in the best possible way. Drinking cask in good Manchester pubs isn't  a lottery at all, but a reminder - hardly needed for us two - that served well it is unbeatable. And, as I keep saying, is not at all difficult to do.  Despite the warm day, all our pints were at a perfect temperature, weren't over vented or flabby, but conditioned to perfection.

This wasn't intended to be a blog post so no photos were taken. I've just put the beer of the day in instead, though honestly, it could have been any of them, all were so good.

We did have one more beer on the way back to Victoria, but while it was good, we didn't really need it and shouldn't have had it. It wasn't my idea, but by then judgement was somewhat impaired.

Cask Ale week runs from 19 - 29 September 2019

Friday 6 September 2019

What Time's Mr Smith Coming?

It is a peculiarity of Sam Smith pubs that they hide their ownership light under a bushel. Particularly appropriate as of course, as any ful kno, a bushel was, following the Norman Conquest, part of the legal measure of English wine, ale and grains. But I digress, though anyone seeking out The Junction could easily pass it by, as there is nothing to identify the building as a pub, with even the sign being obscured by trees and bushes. Hidden in plain sight you might say.

So what's it like? Well, a big, ordinary looking, off white building on the corner of a main road and, well, another main road. On a junction you might say.  The Junction sprang to fame a few years ago when Humphrey turned up on New Year's Eve at 8.30 p.m, sacked the licensee on the spot and summarily chucked the denizens therein out on the street. The Oldham Chronicle has a report of it all, as does the Daily Mirror. Worth a background read to learn of the somewhat chequered history of this otherwise ordinary pub. I seem to recall tales of a sit-in too, but memories fade. My take back in 2012 is here.

Putting this all behind me, I called in the other night at tea-time.  Enter on the right and you are in a rather plain, but welcoming public bar, with a J shaped bar counter, large windows making the place bright and airy. A dart board and oche against one wall and looking round, some fine pictures of Sam's bottled beers of yore. Rectangular small tables were occupied by half a dozen cheery locals - well cheery with each other - they totally ignored me.  A pot bellied dog of uncertain provenance completed this bucolic scene. Looking through to the other side a very cosy lounge looked attractive. I reckoned I'd turned the wrong way at the door, but time would tell.

The barmaid was friendly though and my ordered pint of Dark Mild (£1.34) was fetched from the lounge ("It's been poured more recently there" quoth she.)  Top lass. She also turned a fan by the bar off as it "might deafen me", but actually while I'd noticed it, it hadn't bothered me at all.  The locals were in reminiscing mode, talking of beers of yore, though each seemed, in the time honoured Sam's way, to be drinking lager mixes. ("Yes, Lees Stout was called Archer") I nearly chipped in, but didn't. 

After a while, as my pint sank lower, (2.8% and delicious) the barmaid enquired of the codgers if they'd yet bought tickets for the meat raffle. "Classic" I thought as they all chorused that they had.  One or two drifted off and I thought that it might be good to try the lounge for another. I'm glad I did.  The lounge was splendid. Comfy nooks and crannies, bench seating throughout, bric a brac here and there and again, excellent beer posters.  One old lad, with three very doddery old ladies  - I noticed as he escorted them to the facilities - ordered them all halves of Alpine. He gave me a cheery hello. I wandered round. Two lads, again drinking lager, were chatting earnestly; a couple sat contentedly in an other cosy area and at the end of the bar, was a fellow drinking Dark Mild. "Aha" I thought.

The barmaid engaged me in conversation of the "You're not from around here" variety, but in a pleasant way, I remarked about the lounge being an attractive area. "Yes", she agreed, "but it's a bugger to clean." Seems she manages, cleans and does everything else. Well, Humph likes his pound of flesh. We also chatted about Pure Brewed Lager which is sadly only in bottles now, the keg version having been a bit too fobby for stocks. Interesting stuff.

Checking the walls from my position at the bar, the usual notices prohibiting this and that were somehow less jarring in this attractive pub, which reminded me with a jolt of how pubs used to be back in the 70s and 80s.  As I stood, earwigging at the bar, I overheard a conversation with a local.  "The big boss is coming." Surely not Humph? But it was. He was expected at half six to pick up keys for another pub which was awaiting new managers. Blimey.  He arrived at about 6.40. I've met him once before and he hadn't changed much. Nice dark suit, dapper, alert and slim with a neat semi comb-over. He didn't look round particularly, merely said hello to the barmaid /manager, she gave him the keys and off he went.

The excitement was over. I finished my pint and reflected on seeing Humph again. Some people never see him at all. Ever. Two or three minutes at the most he was there. You might have blinked and missed him, but I didn't. As Max Boyce once said "I know - coz I was there."

I was telling the barmaid of E's liking for Pure Brewed. She said I should bring her and you know, I will.  It's a smashing little pub and even at £3 a bottle, a round with a pint of Dark Mild will be less than a fiver.

Picture of poster taken on the QT. Nice innit? And no. I didn't ask Mr Smith for a selfie, but he must have been pleased at the efficacy of his prohibition of swearing. I didn't hear a single profanity.


Thursday 5 September 2019

All Quite Pleasant

I may have mentioned it before but Sam Smith's,  through its takeover of Rochdale and Manor Brewery, have a lot of pubs in my area. They also, in common with Sam's elsewhere, have a lot of closed pubs, with the usual sign in the windows "Management Couple Wanted - Live In". Thus was my plan to visit the Yew Tree, a fine and imposing pub between Rochdale and Royton thwarted. The pub was closed, awaiting the next hopefuls.

But you are never too far away from a Sam's boozer, so I went back towards Royton to one which is well known to me - it is in fact probably the closest equal pub to my local the Tandle Hill Tavern - but is in the opposite direction for Tandleman Towers. So, oddly, despite my thirty odd years in the area - and knowing many who go there, I've never set foot in the place. Time to rectify this oversight.

The pub, The Pleasant, is on a main road, a rather modern looking building in a residential row.  Pretty ordinary really.   As I approached at teatime in pissing rain, a fellow imbiber entered with me. At least I wouldn't be on my own.  To my left a door said "Lounge" and right another said "Snug". My companion turned right and I glimpsed a pool table. Hmm. I don't think I've ever seen a pool table in a Sam's pub. I thought Humphrey scorned all forms of entertainment for the masses, but there it was. "How odd" I thought, turning left into the lounge.

A rather bare, but comfortable room greeted me. A sole drinker sat reading a newspaper, glancing up and nodding to me. The room was served by the same bar as the snug, in which I could see four workers in various degrees of highvizness, overalls and whatnot, bantering cheerily. So not that busy then, though I do know Sundays are popular. I should have gone then probably.  Still we have to work with what we've got. The woman serving me remarked on the unseasonality of the weather - and being British and knowing the correct style of response, I agreed, adding for good measure some disparaging remarks about the quality of the summer we've just had. So all was well. My pint of Sam's Light Mild (perhaps a little sharp) was a mere £1.34.  Looking round there was the usual number of prohibitions on the wall. No effing and jeffing, no phones, laptops or downloading music (why?) and a reminder of how long you had to sup up at closing time. This seems a somewhat repetitive obsession of Messrs Smith, but there you go. At least you know where you are. Beers were Light Mild, Taddy Bitter, Old Brewery Bitter, Alpine and Taddy Lagers. The famous half Alpine, half Taddy was the choice of my sole companion.  The lads in the snug were all on lager too, though of what mix, I couldn't tell.

Then horror on horrors. A mobile phone rang in the bar and in hushed tones, after exchanging endearments with his/someone else's wife/girlfriend or whatever, the callee, said words to the effect of "I have to go. I'm in The Pleasant and mobiles aren't allowed."  Seems Humph has put the fear of God into his customers on that one. Less so on the effing and jeffing I'd suggest, but all of it was in the context of fitting bathrooms, exchanges about how the day had gone and so on, so to my mind at least, harmless enough.  One lad called through to me saying that he didn't care ("couldn't give a fuck") about Humph's rules. Sooner or later he'd shut the pub anyway, like he had the Yew Tree he observed.  "Aha" I thought. "I could have saved a journey here."  

My pint was finished, so bidding goodbye to my sole companion in the lounge and shouting a farewell to the denizens of the snug, which was answered by all, I left in the (still) teeming rain.

Pleasant in the Pleasant? Certainly. I hope Humph doesn't shut it.

I must go on a Sunday and see what it is like. It would, like most pubs, be better full I'm sure, but I quite like the bare 70s look. Sorry about the photos which reflect the gloominess of the day.

No evidence of any Sam's bottles were seen. Just a fridge full of various Scintilla soft drinks.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Greene King Takeover

https://d2q79iu7y748jz.cloudfront.net/s/_squarelogo/036833a63395c517e650aaba9dd88400I've been busy with the Great British Beer Festival and with editing (writing) my local CAMRA Magazine, so haven't had time to blog, but I couldn't help but quickly jot down one or two thoughts about Greene King being taken over by Hong Kong conglomerate CK Asset Holdings for £4.6 billion, including its debt. The Hong Kong company is offering 850 pence per share, a 51% premium to Greene King's closing stock price on Friday.

So there bare facts are that a successful business has bid a premium for another successful business. You know what? That happens all the time. Most businesses don't grow organically, or rather they do, but only to the point that become interesting or successful enough to either take someone else over, or be taken over. It is very much a dog eats dog situation. And a normal one, though in this case exacerbated by the weak pound which makes British owned asets relatively cheap.

There has been a muted reaction to this in the Twittersphere and elsewhere on social media. Roger Protz has been the foremost tweeter with this:
In response, Martyn Cornell hits the nail on the head:

So there we have it. As Greene King carries little emotional attachment in the mind of most beer drinkers, it was always unlikely that its takeover would have beer fans rushing to man the barricades. That's just how it is, but wait.  Greene King is a big part of the British brewing industry. It owns a large number of pubs - over 2,700 - and these are spread all over the country. Heck we even have plenty of them here in Greater Manchester where, one must admit, they aren't exactly the most popular beerwise.  Their type of beer is not always particularly suitable to local tastes. (See also post below.)

Concerns are, as always in these circumstances, around what the new owner intends to do with its new acquisition. Pubs, by their nature, can be turned into easily realisable cash, by selling them for different use, or for the land they occupy. That though is an ongoing issue as social habits change and custom becomes less, though there are signs that this is bottoming out to some extent.

According to their statements, "CKA's strategy is to look for businesses with stable and resilient characteristics and strong cash flow generating capabilities," said George Colin Magnus, chairman designate of the CKA unit in charge of the acquisition. "The UK pub and brewing sector shares these characteristics."

So, on the face of it, they want the business to continue to generate cash. They have given an assurance along the lines of business as usual (see here for more).  Can we trust this? Doubtful, but the selling off of assets would, where seen as appropriate, have likely happened under current GK management anyway. It is an uncomfortable fact that many pubs are worth far more to the owners as anything but pubs.

So where does that leave us? A largely unloved vertically integrated pub and brewing business has been taken over by someone else who wants to make money out of it. Yes assets will be sold to pay for the purchase. Will vertical integration continue? Tricky one, but the takeover recommendation gives a strong indication that the brewing side will continue.

Nonetheless we will have to wait and see how this one plays out.

Seems CKA already own a number of freehold pubs which are leased to Greene King

The fact that Greene King owns the freehold or long leases on 81% of its pubs, certainly shows the PubCo model with its huge debt, to be a millstone round the neck of the pub industry.  

As this is a cash offer, we can assume that CKA have reserves that need to be wisely used.

Saturday 3 August 2019

Good or Shite?

Back in the old days of Usenet and rec.food.drink.beer (a discussion group on all things beery, mostly involving Americans, but a healthy smattering of Brits and others) the merits of beer were, tongue in cheek, boiled down to is "Is good or is it shite?" That sort of still works today if you put aside all caveats, qualifications and ifs and buts.

A few short weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting our Club of the Year Award to Dobcross Band and Social Club.  We enjoyed a most convivial afternoon there. Beers on sale were Lees Bitter, Bradfield Farmer's Blonde and Morland Original Bitter. All were in splendid form.  Now Morland used to brew in Abingdon in Oxfordshire and were famous for Old Speckled Hen and Hen's Tooth, now of course brewed by Greene King who took them over in 1999 and closed them in 2000.  I hadn't seen Morland Original Bitter in this neck of the woods - or in fact, anywhere else - and it seems possible that the beer has been recently resurrected by GK. If you know more, do tell me.

Of course I commented on this on Twitter with a rather provocative comment, just to see if I could raise a Pavlovian reaction to this Greene King brewed beer:
Now it seems that GK are not exactly loved on Twitter. Is this fair?  I rather like their beers when they are served in the peak of condition. With the demise of Tetley Bitter, I rather miss the lactic finish that beer had and the nearest thing to it is GKIPA though admittedly I rarely see it up here. That beer is often despised by what I decribed as the "Beer Bubble" but actually by many more sensible people too.  This new version of Morland Original Bitter wasn't a million miles from its orginal taste, described in the 2000 Good Beer Guide as "Copper coloured with plenty of bittering hops and hints of fruit. Subtle aroma and a short, dry, bitter finish."  OK it didn't have a subtle aroma, but rather, the lactic tang of GKIPA. Nonetheless, I liked it. It was well made, very well kept and at a sensible 4% abv, suitable to be rattled down by the pint. Most certainly not shite.

I wonder too if Greene King, now that they have outlets all over the UK, including many in the North, are looking for something that can be readily drunk in those parts of the country where their core beers aren't well received?  I know of one local licensee in my neck of the woods, a former Spirit Group pub with "reserved rights" to guest beers, had a strict admonishment from the Area Manager asking why sales of Greene King are so poor.  He was able to answer honestly, that it was because nobody liked them.  Oh and the result of my provocation?  Well I didn't get a lot to be honest, but I liked the one that simply said "I like my beer bubble where Greene King beers are shite"

So do GK get a fair crack of the whip beerwise?   Let me know what you think.  

If you want to see some of the orginal good or shite debate here is some of the original argument back in the dog days of the group in 2001. One or two well known names there too. 

 Sparkling the Morland beer didn't do it any harm either.  Yet another case to be made for God's chosen method of dispense.

Friday 2 August 2019

A Slightly Tense Calm

There exists a hard core of early morning imbibers.  I suppose there always has been, but before the licensing laws were changed many years ago, by and large they had to do their supping at home under the baleful and disapproving eye of her indoors, as she bustled about getting the nippers their toast and sugar puffs. Hardly conducive to beery conviviality one might imagine.  Mind you, I have read reports of publicans being fined in the old days for admitting customers before the prescribed time and being spotted by an eagle eyed constable, though transgressions - at least most of those recorded - were mainly between lunchtime and evening sessions  - or after time had been called at night.  Far easier to keep customers in if you are doing "staybehinds" after sessions, than attract them when you are setting up for the day and having them under your feet. Breakfast time illicit on premises drinking, was even then I think, a little unusual and most likely discouraged.

But nowadays you don't have to worry about that sort of thing. Should you require liquid refreshment, it can be legally obtained at almost any time of the day and you can do it in licensed premises, away from disapproving eyes and subsequent frank exchanges of views.  We live in glorious and enlightened times. 

This freedom to open and serve the amber nectar early has a main proponent. Enter J D Wetherspoon*. Many readers will know from personal experience, or anecdote, that Wetherspoons, especially those in small towns have developed a hard core of regular early morning topers.   These are usually a small dedicated band of the retired, the early risers, the ne'er do wells, the elderly, the unemployed and unemployable, the hardened (but not yet hopeless) drinkers and those just seeking the company of like minded fellows.

I watched some in their native environment the other day. My car was in for some work and I fancied a coffee. The shutters of JDW roll back at 8 am and a trickle of people slip in.  They cannot drink alcohol at 8, but there are preparations to be made. Most just grab a table, open their newspapers and settle down. The odd one buys a coffee, but this is an exception. Most if they drink anything, just have water which is freely available. Staff are used to this and make no move towards the bar, but get on with their own cups of tea and a bit of snap, or whatever prep they have to do.  Greetings, often just nods,  are exchanged, but mostly silence reigns.  Some set out their favourite tables with their preferred chairs. Furniture is shuffled round and carefully placed in pre-chosen spots. As more drift in, the proceedings, on this occasion, are interrupted by a practise fire evacuation. Thirteen of us - a motley crew - stand on the pavement for five minutes, then shuffle back in. Most return to stare into space from their perches, now fully kitted out and organised to satisfaction.

By 8.50 there is a palpable sense of expectation in the air.  Eyes flick towards the bar.  A few more arrive. Minutes tick away and suddenly there are people coming back to their tables with pints of beer and lager.  One dedicated soul has two, which he arranges carefully in front of him, rims almost touching. Overall pints are evenly split between lager and John Smith's Smooth. 

By ten past nine, when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz. 

* Other early morning drinking establishments are available
If I have breakfast there, which I do from time to time, by half past ten the place will be going like a fair.  It is usually very jolly indeed.

Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day.  This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Peak Murky?

We started off, quite a while ago now, with the odd opaque pint being presented to drinkers. These were usually from new breweries in London and the south, following the then American tradition of cask conditioned beers being presented with what was termed "opalescence". As explained to me by a brewing friend of some substance, Jaime Jurado, this was how American brewers and the American public, back in these relatively uninformed days, perceived as the way that sort of beer was meant to be.  (You could probably take the meaning to be a sort of milky/hazy sheen.)  Then though - and I'm talking early noughties, most American beer was presented in the usual crystal clear way. West Coast IPA was a clear beer then as were most American "craft" beers.

I think it was Robbie Pickering who first coined the term "London Murky" and then it was rather unusual to see deliberately hazy beers, championed by a few and regarded with a mixture of indifference and horror by most of us "traditionalists", but the beer itself was well enough brewed, with my main objection being that it - pun intended - muddied the cask conditioned waters and undermined the convention built up over many years, that a problem pint was identified by sight first of all, if it was presented as less than clear.  There was more or less a nationwide acceptance on both sides of the bar that this was a starting point about a case to answer on a beer's saleability. In short the increase in hazy beers eroded the customer's position and allowed barstaff to say something that had largely been eliminated; "It's meant to be like that."  My own view was that this was the thin end of the wedge and that sooner or later there would be no line that could confidently be drawn.

Fast forward a few years. Small breweries have multiplied and tastes and fashions in beer have changed. Craft has pushed the perception envelope to the extent that anything goes, with some beers being indistinguishable from fruit juice in appearance.  Indeed many have fruit juice added to them.  This was always going to be a problem in so much as experimental beers are chucked out to trade and nobody has any real idea of what they really were drinking in terms of what the beer should actually taste like. This is of course very convenient to the brewer, but not for the customer, who often has to pay a premium price for something that may not be to his or her liking, or, more importantly one that he or she suspects is faulty. Now there is little recourse to changing such a beer for something more acceptable. The answer is likely to be "It's meant to be like that!"

Yesterday this was raised on Twitter by a peeved customer, Seth Bradley, who had received over the bar the samples shown in the photo.  I leave them to speak for themselves.  Follow up tweets  such as this illustrate my point:

Are these really well designed, properly brewed beers with a profile and recipe that is planned and brewed for?  You'd kind of doubt it wouldn't you?

What's the answer to these colloidal solutions when the rule book has been thrown away? I don't know for you, but for me? Avoid them like the plague.

You can read Jaime's credentials here.

I once asked Charlie Bamforth about cases less bad than this. He said the line has to be drawn before a beer looks like chicken soup. Too late.

Friday 12 July 2019

Unexpected Pub in the Caucasus Area

Shortly before our tour of the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia, our guide pointed out a Russian Army base a mere 400 metres from the main Tbilisi - Black Sea highway.  It was a reminder that beyond that short distance, lies the occupied lands of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It seems too that the war which officially ended in 2007, is still in small ways going on, as the Russians have the rather annoying habit of moving the barbed wire fences overnight, swallowing up a little more of Georgia each time. Georgian citizens are not allowed within 200 metres of the occupied area for fear of being kidnapped. This dread of Russia consumes every Georgian and explains in part the riots that took place when we were there. Oddly though, Russian tourists abound and are treated very well. The argument is truly state to state.

Sadly we didn't have time in Gori for a beer, but I rather liked the fact that Stalin had the bright idea of having a museum to himself built in his home town. His colleagues apparently agreed this was a splendid plan.  Very wise of them.  It was full of (retouched) photos and paintings of the local lad made good bad.

On the way up the mountain road to our destination, I caught a glimpse of a very Germanic looking building, but it was forgotten as we visited one of the oldest churches in Georgia, some 7000 feet up and a mere 14 kilometres from the border with the Russian Federation. We stopped for a beer in the frontier town of Kazbegi, where fortunately the sun shone. We leaped ahead of the assorted crumblies that were our companions, ordered and paid for our beers which gave us the chance to avoid the tension that "comfort" stops brings when 48 people all try and get served at once within a half hour.  At this stop we were advised that we'd be stopping for lunch a half hour back down the road to Tbilisi. Great stuff.

Back down the mountain we went and pulled up at the Germanic looking building - our lunch stop. To my astonishment this was a little piece of Bavaria in the Caucasus. It was Hofbräuhaus Gadauri.  Yes a pub restaurant, German inside in every way and a part (one assumes) of the Hofbräuhaus Group of Munich.  We filed inside and were taken upstairs to a huge wooden panelled dining room, which could have been upstairs in the Munich Bier Hall.  Downstairs was a large, but empty bar, very much in the Bavarian style.

Now on these capers you usually get a set lunch and so it came to pass. Time was short and by the time we were served and had eaten, it was time to go. I did though manage a look at the menu, and HB Helles, Hefeweizen and Munich Dark were all available. A party of Japanese tourists were getting stuck into some.  Lucky people.

Alas the tale ends here. No beer for me. Time ran out. But it existed. Honest.

These guided tours are mixed blessings. You see a lot, but there is little time for a beer break in the exotic destination, which is a disadvantage-  to this old soak at least. 

The photo of the beer shows the most common beer we came across. It wasn't at all bad really.

Thursday 11 July 2019

Georgian Craft Beer

 The main road through Tbilisi is Rustavelli Avenue, named after a famous Georgian poet and hero.  This is a mighty six lane highway with never ending maniacal driving at speed the rule, not the exception. A bit like Wacky Races for real people. The only way to cross it is by underpass. Any attempt to do so on foot would be certain death. We used the underpasses, spooky though they were.

On one side of Rustavelli Avenue were dotted, all the way down to Liberation Square, a number of little restaurants with seats outside. You could grab one and watch the passers by as you supped a very reasonably priced beer. Think about a pound or less for a half litre. The quality of these beers, all uniformly golden, ranged from pretty tasteless, to not too bad at all.  The quality of the people watching though more than made up for the lack of quality in the beer, with very attractive young people enjoying strolling up and down in groups, as well as many other interesting characters. It was all rather pleasant despite the roar of the traffic and the somewhat sticky 35C heat.

On our second night there we found less traditional cafe near the Parliament. The menu was uninformative, so we just ordered two beers. Now as an aside, everywhere we went - more or less- the serving staff, usually with little English were exceptionally nice. This was more throw it at you and disappear.  Also it was in a .4 glass; the cheater's half litre. We looked at the beer which was a lot more brown than we'd come across. Hmm. E took a sip and grimaced. I did the same. Crikey. What was this? The beer tasted sharp and unpleasant with a yeasty taste. It was bright though. As clear as could be and tasting pretty strong.  Beside us was a raised grass verge. E without hesitation tipped her whole glass into it. I struggled on through half of mine before giving up and calling for the bill.

Our waitress, cheered up by the thought of our imminent departure promptly appeared and on receipt of payment enquired if we'd enjoyed the beer. I said we hadn't. She looked shocked. 'But', she spluttered, 'it is craft beer.'

Further up the road there was a rather upmarket resturant. Outside were several bottles with IPA on them, but we passed, unsure if, at peak evening meal time, a table would be forthcomimg for beer only. Sadly I never saw that beer again. 

This wasn't my only craft though. Black Lion was a standard but tasty lager and was very good. I believe there was more craft to be found, but we didn't go looking.

Thursday 4 July 2019

Bee Off with Them

An interesting little tweet today inspired me to get off my lazy arse and write a blog. I've been busy/uninspired/whatever for a while, but here we are - inspiration. It's what we all need. In addition to lovely clear, cool, cask conditioned beer of course.

Joseph Holt, a well known Manchester Brewer, has come up with a beer glass which turns itself into the famous Manchester Bee.  Well it doesn't exactly metamorphose itself, but a nice sleeve glass has had the addition of some black stripes and if you add a pale, yellow beer, Hey Presto, you have a bee like appearance. Magic. Now I see one or two problems here. The famous Holt's Bitter is a sort of deep brown colour and the delicious Mild is, slightly, well black.  Hmm. These won't achieve the desired effect will they? Awards winning Holt's lager it is then.  I wonder if the glass is nucleated?

Holt's has also come up with the whizzy idea of buy five pints, get a card stamped and you'll get your glass free. Fine. A top tip from me. You can simply buy five pints of mild, eschew the lack of bee effect pro tem and thus gain your glass at minimum outlay.  The bee effect can then be achieved in the comfort of your own home with whatever cheap (or dear) yellow pong that floats your boat.

There is of course another way of gaining this coveted glass. If you aren't sure about what it is, contact Cooking Lager. He'll tell you.

The Manchester Bee of course was the logo of Boddingtons Brewery. Remember them? Their golden nectar would have done the job nicely.

Full details of the scheme are here in  I LoveManchester.Com

Friday 31 May 2019

Mildly Unhappy with Myself

May was - and as I write still is - Mild Month. Now I like mild, especially a good dark mild with a bit of richness and and a tight creamy head.  And hush the mouth of the contributor to something or other, somewhere, about sparklers, who said that mild (of all things) doesn't need a sparkler. It does.  In fact all cask conditioned dark beer benefits greatly, even if in the best of condition, from being sparkled.  Cast into the outer darkness anyone that tells you differently. Personal preference aside, they know not of what they speak and a thin, headless mild will not attract anyone but the most joyless of malcontents to the genre - and it is a genre that surely needs help and the best of presentation.

Anyway, late to the game through circumstance and laziness, I had a couple of pints of Pictish Black Diamond Mild on Wednesday.  It was lush. Very lush. So much so I regretted my previous two pints and wished I'd noticed it earlier.

I couldn't imagine it unsparkled. Nor should you.

With my usual fecklessness, I didn't take a photo of the beer. Yu'll have to make do with the download from the website.

Paul Wesley, the brewer at Pictish is a tremendous brewer and a very fine fellow. Seek his stuff out. He is a Scotsman too, so bonus.

Thursday 30 May 2019

Beware of Israelis Singing Greek

Our Greek trip hadn't got off to the best of starts, with E having her bag dipped on the severely overcrowded bus from the airport. Fortunately all they really got was a credit and debit card, both of which were cancelled within 15 minutes of  being stolen. Also, sadly, her emergency tenner which E keeps hidden in the unlikely event of having to buy a drink.  But it upset the lass which wasn't good.

After we checked in to our hotel and sorted out the cards, we both felt like a drink. I suppose the theft didn't help, but we had that thing we sometimes experience when we venture out in a strange city for the first time.  We couldn't really find anywhere for a beer. As  we explored and calmed down, that soon wore off, but sitting with that much needed Hellas Fix, it reminded us both of our first time in Hong Kong where we couldn't find anywhere to eat. Some kind of city blindness? Dunno.

Thessaloniki is an interesting place, but a bit of an architectural disaster. It seems that in 1917, the French Army, through the sort of negligence that you would hope not to encounter on a regular basis, contrived to burn the place down. Not just a bit of it though, but nearly all of it. Only one area near the harbour survived, along with some impressive  Roman stuff from the 4th century AD. The bit that remained was really the only original part of the city still standing and had, over recent years evolved into a kind of entertainment hub, with bars and restaurants galore. According to our friends at Google (or was it Trip Advisor) one of the best restaurants for authentic Greek food was just around the corner - well several corners - from our hotel in Thessaloniki. Great, so we went  the second night to eat, though we had a look at the area in the late afternoon of the same day when a lot of it was closed. Just to get the lie of the land.

This area actually had pubs - or as near pubs as you were likely to get in Greece.  Somewhat unexpectedly though there seemed to be craft bars - no walls of steel. But certainly there was a number of different beers other than the holy trinity of Mythos, Alfa and Fix. Some were even brewed in Thessaloniki. The Greek habit of leaving menus outside on tables helped establish that they were the usual suspects, Porter, IPA, Stout and lager. Nothing unusual there really, but all reassuringly expensive.

Our restaurant was busy when we arrived. We sat outside, ordered some retsina while deciding on eats and looked around us.   There was the usual smattering of couples and a long table by the door contained a mix of couples of indeterminate nationality, drinking wine and beer. To our left sat a table of four, walnut coloured from sun, obviously well oiled and possibly from one of the "Stans" we thought as we earwigged on their somewhat gutteral tones.  The men were drinking what we guessed was vodka, thus (wrongly) cementing our ex Soviet area thoughts.  A pair of musicians, one on a  bouzouki, one on a guitar, played and sang. It was all very jolly with the tables I have described being pretty enthusiastic as they clapped along to the music.

The four beside us, after a while and to our astonishment, then rose and and danced in front of the musicians. They sang along to the tunes as did the long table. Greeks then?  All became clear as the night wore on. Our dancing friends engaged us in conversation and invited us to join them in tripping the light fantastic. Fat chance, but it became clear they were all Israelis. The so called vodka was ouzo.  It seemed too that upstairs were even more Israelis, all along for the authentic food and music.  I know this because the toilets were upstairs and the back and completely unreachable, such was the crush.

As we chatted it was revealed that Greek music is a big deal in Israel.  Who knew? Our new acquaintances revealed that they knew all the words and tunes. Many Israelis do too it seems. If you don't like Greek music in Israel, get out of town.  Again, who knew?

Next door was a pub that sold almost the entire Brewdog range of beers, plus Mikkeler and more. Should we go for a drink there? What for? We can get those at home. We retired instead to a nearby souvlaki bar, ordered more retsina and watched the world go by.

It isn't always about beer.

One incident sticks in the mind though. As we chatted to the Israelis, a commotion attracted us. One of the upstairs Israelis was carried out by his compatriots and laid out on a marble slab bench in the adjoining square. He was completely and comatosely pissed.  It isn't always Brits you know. 

 The food was tremendous and very authentic with enormous portions and great service, so that was good too. 

The photo shows our favourite souvlaki bar.

Tuesday 30 April 2019

Bonny Dundee

When I was very young my grandfather lived in Glamis - where the old Queen Mum came from - and where he used to be Station Master - the treat when we didn't go to the nearest real town, Kirriemuir, was to go to Dundee for afternoon tea. I have vague recollections too of visiting the frigate HMS Unicorn, a preserved sailing ship, when I was about ten, but I haven't been back since then, apart from a couple of nights knocking doors as a Social Security investigator in dodgy housing schemes on the outskirts late at night.  Oh and one night at Dens Park watching a dire game against Kilmarnock I think. It was thus, with considerable pleasure to me, that CAMRA decided to hold its AGM and Annual Conference in that fair city.

It's a lovely place. A delightful setting on the Tay, handsome old buildings and streets including the excellent Caird Hall where CAMRA held its business.  We stayed in the really rather good Holiday Inn Express on the front opposite the Tay Road Bridge and handy for everything.  Our nearest pub was the St Andrews Brewing Company outlet which was rather a fine place with lovely interested staff, but no real ale. Still, you can't have everything and the keg offerings were fine in small doses.

As always is the case there was a Beer Exhibition inside the Caird Hall for members and the beer, all Scottish and Irish apart from one, was all in very good nick, though we didn't spend too much time drinking there.  We did though try a few of Dundee's pubs, both real and not and have to say again the warm welcome was an object lesson for many whose failure in this area is noticeable.  I particularly liked the Pillars, a pub with the warmest of warm welcomes, excellent regulars and a free juke box when we were in. With serve yourself (yes) handpumped ale on two handpumps just outside the bar, it was hard to tear yourself away.  A stones throw from there was the excellent Phoenix, another great bar with excellent real ales and plenty CAMRA types therein. 

The conference itself was somewhat dull if truth be told.  I did attend the whole thing and spoke (ineffectively) against the daft motion (which was passed) putting CAMRA on the wrong side of the minimum pricing debate.  Still, it was good to see old friends and maybe that's the real point?

Broughty Ferry was our Sunday destination though by then it had turned a bit drizzly and dreich. The pubs were fine though with the Fisherman's Tavern being the pick of the bunch, though an honourable mention has to be given to Jolly's Hotel, a Wetherspoon with an astonishingly eclectic mixture of drunks and ne'er do wells. It kind of reminded me of Middleton, which was touchingly rather homely.

So Dundee. I didn't see as much as I'd have liked, but I'll be back. Do go there. I recommend it.

I didn't get a chance to visit any of the many bakeries in Dundee, but I did have oysters and fancy fish as well as a very good, but not Punjabi curry.

Oh and I did see statues of Oor Wullie, Mini the Minx and of course Desparate Dan as well as the home of DC Thompson (left), so overall, I was content.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Dutch Folk

On our final day in Haarlem we spent a fair bit of time just wandering round on a bright, sunny and somewhat windy day.  As we weren't flying until after nine, we had plenty of time, so interspersed wandering with the odd beer here and there.  As I have already remarked, the Dutch seem a tough bunch, being completely unflinching as they drank and chatted in the open air while I gently froze. Maybe they all had thermal drawers on? Dunno.

We had agreed to meet our friends in one of the local pubs just across from the hotel where our luggage was being stored. Our first choice, Café de Zwaan, was thronging and had a DJ though it is a pretty traditional local boozer and one we had visited several times - and liked. He was the worst kind of DJ. He was a singing DJ. Even worse, he was a Frank Sinatra singing DJ, so we did it our way and buggered off across the road to Het Wapen Van Bloemendaal, described outside as "Golden Oldies Café". Well not sure if we actually qualified, but near enough, so in we went.  We'd been there before and noted one of these really top notch bar staff, who remember you immediately. She found us a corner and we watched as a folk group set up. The placed was rammed and there seemed little doubt that the group were popular.  As they started their set to much enjoyment by the customers, our waitress came over. She explained to me they concentrate on Dutch national songs and thumbing a nose at the increasing use of English instead of Dutch in everyday argot.  Clearly we couldn't understand the words, but it was all very jolly with customers joining in the chorus and laughing a lot. The place was going like a fair. After a couple of beers we left to get our bags. We'd been treated well by staff and customers and I reflected that a bit of gentle poking of fun at others is pretty damn universal and if done without malice, isn't such a bad thing at all.

At best a local pub should be welcoming and warm, have a great atmosphere and be nonthreatening. This was the case in every way here and it was good to see the Dutch being themselves amongst their own folk.  And why shouldn't they?

Sunday afternoon entertainment in Dutch pubs? Is this a thing or were our two just a co-incidence?

The bus back to Schipol Airport was on a dedicated bus only road all the way there. Not a bus lane - a bus road.  The other road was alongside.  Wow. 

Thursday 4 April 2019

Dutch Craft Beers and Taps

When we assembled in Haarlem for our AGM - "we" being BSF the Foreign International Beer Bars at the Great British Beer Festival - we arranged to meet at Uiltje Bar, which was for us at least, very handy, being a couple of minutes away from our hotel.  This is a fairly narrow bar with not much room and we soon filled it.  Even more so when the Scots lads appeared. A few bewildered Dutch made up the numbers.  We all needed a drink to get over the price of the drink though. Think €3.50 upwards for 0.2l which to most of us was really just a damp glass. To save you the arithmetic it works out at around £8 a pint for the cheapest and the sky the limit for the rest.  Given that we obviously at the arse end of a Left Handed Giant tap takeover and there wasn't many Dutch beers on, it wasn't that conducive to merriment.

A few of us soon escaped to a more mainstream bar across the road where choice was oddly enough a little better, with some decent local lagers, abbey beers and De Konink at prices that didn't quite make the pips squeak.  Also an improvement was a chatty woman behind the bar who knew how many beans made five and happily talked us through what we could expect pubwise in Haarlem. All in all a much better deal.  After a while we made our way to Jopen, a brewery in a converted church with a fantastic looking in-house brewery, a brilliant atmosphere, decent beer and rather good grub. We realised though there, as subsequent pub visits confirmed, that drinking in the Netherlands is not a cheap experience, but given the right environment, it can be a very enjoyable one.

Our AGM was held in the main Jopen Brewery and Tasting Rooms (Proeflokaal) on the outskirts of town. This was impressive too and had the advantage of another brewery tap (Uiltje) being round the corner. To our (relative) deep joy, this offered 0.3 measures - all at €4 - so we left for our next two brewery tap visits in a jollier frame of mind.

The Dutch countryside, apart from being flat as you'd expect seemed to consist mainly  of motorways and modern industrial buildings.  It all looked as if it had been built yesterday. This was by design a mystery tour and somewhat unnecessarily so. Like being on a ballistic nuclear submarine on patrol, almost none of us had the faintest idea where we were going when we set off, had no idea where we were when we got there, or, when we got back, where we'd been. The brewery taps, as in most craft beer outlets, could have been anywhere, with a range of identikit beers and lookalike bars with keg walls, which could be anywhere in the world. Craft beer innovative? How so?

There was one bit of gentle relief. On the outskirts of Utrecht, on yet another industrial estate, the De Kromme brewery tap was small. 48 thirsty folks leaped out of the coach and crowded the bar.  A drink would be a while we surmised looking at the solid wall of backs. I'd spotted a restaurant next door though. We nipped in. They were prepping for dinner but had a bar. Could us five come in for a drink? "Of course" we were told. Just the job. Gulpener was gulped and repeated and we joined the noisy throng and a much reduced queue in time for a couple of black IPAs before leaving for our final stop at Klein Duimje (Tom Thumb) which was far more pubby than the others. Full of well pissed locals and an astonishing number of beers, it was my favourite by far. The beer was good, we didn't care about the price by then and it wasn't on an industrial estate. Nothing not to like.

Our return to Haarlem was not by motorway. Instead, to prove an older Holland exists, it was quaint villages and large posh houses. Still bloody flat though.

Back in Haarlem we just went to some local pubs for non craft beer. I was crafted out by then.

In case you are wondering how I recalled all this stuff? Photos on my phone and a bit of t'internet of course. None of this taking notes faff.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Grand Café Brinkmann

It's a rather pretty place Haarlem. There are no chain stores here, or at least very few. Many of the shops are artisanal in some way, with painters and potters cheek by jowl with fashionable boutiques, second hand shops selling upcycled this or that, or posh clothes. All are exquisitely, no painfully, constructed, coiffured, dressed and decorated to look lovely. And they do. The canals are edged by high gabled houses, timeless in the Dutch style, but grey and austere. Instead of the merchants that no doubt once lived there, they now home lawyers, accountants and the like and have carefully polished brass plaques. But they they retain their grandeur still.

Move away from the huge main square, the Grote Markt, dominated by the massively impressive St Bavo Cathedral and at right angles to each main or side road,  you observe ever so quaint streets of single storied terraced cottages. In London they might be called mews, though these are not exactly the same, but probably here as in London, some at least were built for servants of the rich and likely for their horses too, as yards abound.  This was and still is a wealthy city.

Around the main square there are a number of bars and cafes with tables and chairs outside. In late March, the weather, while bright and sunny, still has a winter chill.  The Dutch though are hardy and fill every chair, while young men and women scurry about waiting on them. It is an impressive sight. At just after one in the afternoon, there isn't an outside seat to be had.  The customers are a mixed crew. All ages from young to very old are represented.  The older folks generally drink wine and are very well dressed. The young men and women are fashionable and cool. They smoke furiously and mostly drink beer, though iced tea and soft drinks are also evident. Middle aged folks drink beer. Abbey beers from Belgium are common and popular, the tables dotted with Affligem and Grimbergen bottles and glasses. Some sophisticates even drink Duvel Triple Hop, though with a plane to catch I was warned off that very firmly. Belgian beers abound, though the odd Gulpener brings a touch of Holland. Whatever they are drinking, young or old, you can feel the money here.

Picking the grandest building of all, we nip into Grand Café Brinkmann. It has been serving the population food and drink since 1879 and is all big windows, marble floors, solid wood, chandeliers and has a massive staircase and gallery. Most important of all though, it has a very impressive fin-de-siècle bar, which to my eyes at least, is the centrepiece of a wonderfully characterful room.  From the warmth inside we were able to watch the much-tougher-than-us souls outside, with the added bonus of observing the very dedicated young waiting staff working at lightning speed to serve the hundreds outside with food and drink. It took a little time for us to be served, but the apology for the delay was so charming and the place so interesting, that didn't ruffle any feathers at all.

As sipped our beers - Hertog Jan for me and Jupiler for E - we people watched while the whole scene buzzed around us.  Better than outside? You bet. The beer choice was overwhelmingly Belgian and that seemed just fine with the customers. We stayed for two, but I had the surprise of a further beer being sent over by way, I assume of an apology for the delay in service.

This was a classy place to go and we only wished we'd known about the inside before our last few hours. More homework and I might just have got that Duvel.

Don't expect cheap beer in the Netherlands. Even in the humblest of places you'll pay €3 for 25cl of cooking lager. That's £6 a pint at current exchange rates. For anything grander, anywhere from €4 upwards. 

Next time I'll mention Dutch craft and a proper Dutch working man's pub.Guess which I liked best.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Good Pubs or Good Beer

I recently did a little poll for a bit of fun, but of course it had, underneath it, a serious point. Here's the result:

Choose one:
Now of course if you really like pubs it's a no brainer. When you think of it logically, why if you really like beer above all, would you go to the expense of visiting a pub and endure the mark-up when you could merely find the required beer at the best price and sup it quietly in the comfort of your own home? 

Now of course this would be an unusual way to look at things - though not out of the question as a minority of beer drinkers for whatever reason don't frequent pubs -  and in any case many people pointed out, that it can't really be a great pub without great beer. That though isn't at all so certain.  Great beer is always in the eye of the beholder, as to a lesser extent are great pubs, though likely the latter is more easily identified than the former. (Mudgie uses the word "congenial" to describe his required atmosphere.)

On that slight tangent, there can also be the more neutral "unthreatening" and while old hands like me and Mudgie can (mostly) tell a pub where you might be in danger within a second, others might not be quite so keenly tuned in.  Of course a boisterous or indeed a clearly cliquey atmosphere rarely conveys a feeling of danger. Danger is probably best described as the" absence of normal" and your instincts tend to kick in in such situations. Mere boisterousness can usually be quickly rationalised too and most of us old soaks often understand the warning signs before even setting foot in a dodgy pub. These can clearly only ever be described as convivial by the sort of people you wouldn't ever want to drink with.

But I digress, so back to the main question.  Mudgie sums it up quite well, as he often does:

"Even if it's the best beer in the world, I won't stay for more than one if I don't find the pub congenial" — Pub Curmudgeon 🍻 (@oldmudgie) March 3, 2019"

To my mind, that's a very good rule of thumb.

Not to be outdone, Mudgie followed my poll up by:

Now in some ways this seems to contradict my poll, as here great beer wins out. I suppose the difference may be that I ask about "fantastic" and Mudgie asks about "dull". Think about it a bit more closely and it might well just be down to terminology. In Mudgie's case this is a less binary choice, as it means you are in the pub anyway.

So do good pubs and good beer go hand in hand? On the balance of probability - yes - but in beer and pubs, as in everything, the rule isn't hard and fast.

 Of course being a cask ale kind of guy, pubs are essential to my sort of drinking.  So I'm biased both by inclination and neccessity.

I don't know so much about bars though, but that's for another time.

Monday 18 February 2019

Three Things - No - Four

I've been busy today editing our local CAMRA magazine, More Beer, but Twitter has caught my eye in between times.

Firstly a spat this morning about how CAMRA is supposedly supporting Brexit and a subsequent stream of CAMRA bashing and quite a number of age related hate posts.  Funny how we all know what sort of things are completely unacceptable to say openly and we are pounced on for the slightest transgression, but when it comes to CAMRA, it seems all rules are suspended and ageism is deemed by many to be unremarked and tolerable. On the substance of the matter, CAMRA centrally may have at best expressed something badly and at worst been incompetent, but surely a little show of moderation in responding to this would be better?  Yes us over sixties may well all be "c*nts", but I've news for the young - that's the direction you are headed in too and trust me, things will look a lot different when you get there - though getting some practice in for your future role might be beneficial I suppose.

This leads me on to my second thing. At the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival I had a long conversation with John Keeling (ex Fullers), not only about the sale to Asahi, but what might be done to protect cask beer in light of falling market share. I posted a small summary of it on Twitter:

 This makes a lot of sense as it isn't price per se that makes brewing cask beer unattractive -  it is brewer's margin. As John Keeling explained it to me, 100,000 barrels at (say) 20p a pint less duty is big bucks for a brewer. Brewing more of it in such a case would suddenly make commercial sense. I think he is on to something here and CAMRA should explore this further.

I liked too a tweet about a pub not a million miles form my London place. The East London Advertiser highlights the case of a pub which has live music and has successfully applied to have a deed of easement agreement to prevent future complaints about noise from live music when a new block of flats is built nearby.  This is a good thing. To my mind if you buy a flat next to a pub that has loud live music, then that's your lookout. Affecting the business of a venue by complaining about noise that was there before you showed up is pretty unfair in my view, so good for Tower Hamlets. Others will hopefully copy.

The last thing that caught my eye was the somewhat surprising news that after only a year in the job, CAMRA is losing its Chairman Jackie Parker.
Is there more to this than meets the eye? Dunno, but that may well come out, one way or another, in Dundee at the AGM and Conference.

Right. Having got that off my chest, back to More Beer editing.

Hopefully more posts next week when my magazine has gone to bed.

Meantime off to London tomorrow for a few days, with a visit to Canterbury on the side.