Sunday 13 December 2020

Fed Up and Fearful

 If you are in Tier 3 of the Government's somewhat arbitrary restrictions for both people and pubs, this has been a long tiring drag.  Reflecting with E the other day - and as an aside she is missing pubs too, as she is a sociable kind of gal - I remarked that it was likely last March when I stood at the bar with pals putting the world to rights with a pint in our hands.  Little did we know then that nine months later we'd still be suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous legislation and a feeling of miserable gloom that only increases with each day.  Lacking that human contact - the lovely E excluded - reminds me that human contact denied, means just being alive, not really living.

You see we actually follow the rules. We have self-isolated, and really are, apart from the odd walk - more in E's case - but she hasn't got a bad knee - in the house most of the time. It has been bad for mental health and while I may not be entirely hail- fellow- well met, I'm no misanthrope and do enjoy the company of others and in this little town, know enough people to pass pub time amicably.  I miss that and the impromptu. "Fancy a pint then?" after shopping and whatnot.

Ever since I started drinking beer, I have had a local pub. Or, Liverpool apart, more than one.  It cements a sense of belonging to go to a place where you are known by and in return, know everyone else. I have felt that absence strongly and while I overcome it - not by getting pissed at home - but by somehow passing time, reading, doing household tasks and watching television, all the time I am acutely aware that this horrible virus has nicked the best part of a year from me.  No holidays, trips to Scotland and all the while, glancing over my shoulder at the Grim Reaper, checking his watch and nodding in my general direction.

This kind of culminated in a get it off my chest post yesterday, which as I write has attracted an astonishing - as I write -  45,000 60,035 people have looked at it. Seems I am not alone in missing the pub.

 It isn't a lot to ask and I could go over again the reasons why and moan about pubs being singled out for unevidenced mistreatment, by those, almost certainly, who rarely set foot in one and certainly not one where beer is the main attraction, rather than Sunday Lunch. But of course, the general distaste of our "betters" for the oiks standing at the bar doesn't need to be detailed here. It is clear from the actions of the government.  I would also point out this has been a gift to the anti alcohol brigade who will no doubt, having got a wedge in the door, take great delight in pushing us even further down the slippery slope we are already on. Given that many pubs will never re-open, that victory from the prohibitionists is already, sadly under their belt.

I caught too, most of an interview with the Welsh Health Minister in television yesterday morning. It seems to me that he fears - though he didn't quite admit as much - that a whacking great lockdown will come in January following the five days off they are giving everyone in the UK - his colleague Health Ministers are complicit in this, but I suspect nobody has asked the virus.  I tweeted that "We've let the cat out of the bag on the basis that it will sit near the bag and continue in-bag behaviour." Fat chance and of course the pubs will pay a big price for this largesse as we rejoice in haste and repent at leisure in January with another whacking lockdown.

Of course many of us in Manchester are hoping that we will be back into Tier 2 next week, our Covid rates having tumbled. I wouldn't bet on it, but of course will have to suffer the impertinent table meal restriction to get a beer. So browbeaten are we that we will be grateful for it, but I urge you to read this piece which the Pub Curmudgeon directed me to. It clearly sets out the way that the Governments - whatever colour - look at eating and drinking in pubs. To sum up, if done poshly enough, crisps can be a substantial meal. More broadly, as the author points out "that this process of identifying “table meals” is not just about the food itself or the table it is eaten at, but – in common with other areas of licensing decision-making – works alongside broader considerations about the “nature” of the establishment and its clientele. As argued by Yeomans in his seminal work on alcohol licensing and moral regulation, even the deregulatory approaches of the current Licensing Act 2003 are imbued with many of the same hangovers” from Victorian temperance attitudes". So please don't relax and think they'll never get us all. They are certainly trying to.

On the same depressing note, a landlady has clearly illustrated her precarious financial and emotional position  in this very powerful self-filmed piece. Clearly if this is typical, the end is nigh for many independent pubs if this goes on much longer. And please don't get me started on the fact that the Chief Medical Officer* has admitted that he has no evidence whatever to keep pubs closed, though he has a kind of feeling. Very scientific. If he wants to have a look at this article in Der Spiegel, which suggests school children are driving the virus, then he might want to think again, but I suspect that he already knows, or I know he already suspects, but political decisions always over -rule science. 

Of course the loss of revenue, jobs and businesses are very a paramount concern, but there has been a dreadful toll on individuals too who are missing friends and routines.  It isn't just a load of old soaks that miss the bonhomie and feeling of content that a good pub gives, but normal ordinary people who have had their lives diminished, while at the same time driving drinking away from the controlled pub environment - even more stupidly - into drinking at home with mates. As an aside and I am sure this is shared by most of us, the only place where I have had my movements tracked is the pub and it is grimly annoying that the efforts to make them as safe as possible have been dismissed by the Government as counting for little in the balance. It is even more than galling to note uncontrolled and crowded shops, supermarkets and London shopping streets. I suspect though I am preaching to the converted here.

So while I look forward to better times, I fear for the future. Taking pubs for granted - like anything really - has always been a poor idea. We must use them when they re-open, but for many, it may be too late and the future of wet-led pubs in particular gives this writer a particular cause for concern, for it is these that epitomise the very essence of the pub as most of us imagine it.

I am glad too, that we live in a big enough house to be able to keep out of the other's way on occasion and having two televisions, has I am sure, stopped us wanting to do each other in. 

I can also, having endured it now for a long time, confirm that drinking at home is a poor second best to the pub. But you all know that. Right?

We do go shopping at the quiet times of course, but Mr Waitrose has also been useful. It makes the neighbours jealous, which is a bonus. 

* I am advised Tyson that it was the other one. The Chief Scientist.Worse then.

Monday 30 November 2020

Lennox Brewery Dumbarton

I don't know what it is - lockdown - getting on a bit, or just nostalgia, but I'm enjoying at least some of my time on Facebook - Dumbarton Memories in particular. I had held out against Facebook and its somewhat baffling layout for, well, forever, until earlier this year when I signed up. Nonetheless, I enjoy (mostly) the stuff I read and remember about the old town, even contributing and sometimes, shedding a little light, though my memory isn't quite as sharp as some who still live there. Not all mind, just some.

Of course beer and brewing isn't far away from my thoughts. There used to be a brewery in the town which I have mentioned on this blog before. It is a frustration that Dumbarton people have such little memory of it, or simply aren't interested, but that's just the way it goes. Still, one or two snippets have emerged and of course, I'm not entirely blameless myself. Despite living in the town for 20 odd years, I didn't know anything about Gillespie's Crown Brewery myself, until meeting Charles McMaster, the then curator of the Scottish Brewing Archive when I did some work in Edinburgh many years ago. I also refer you here to my previous post.

But I did know that a new brewery had started up in Dumbarton. In fact, it wasn't Facebook, but that haunt of the older social media types, Twitter that lead me to discovering it and I had intended to visit it on my last trip to Scotland in September, but alas the timings didn't work out. My subsequent planned visit to Dumbarton - my sister still lives there - was knocked on the head by the dreaded Covid-19. Another time for sure.

However, the idea of a new brewery intrigued me and while I rarely give individual breweries** a platform on this blog, I decided to do just that and got in touch with the two lads that run the show to find out what they are about. Firstly the name. This is something I do remember, as the local newspaper is the Lennox Herald. Lennox comes from the coat of arms of the county Dunbartonshire and can be described thus:

"The arms were granted on July 20, 1927. The arms are those of the historical region of Lennox, of which the town Dumbarton was the capital and the region thus was nearly identical to the county. The motto "Levenax" is derived from the Gaelic Leamhanach, or "Land of the elm trees".

Now I can't say that I remember many elm trees, but I am old enough to remember when Dunbartonshire had its own police force and the polis cars then had the above coat of arms emblazoned on the doors. You can see a photo of one here

The brewery has substituted hops for the roses and inserted a neat addition of its own motto. It doesn't need much translation and is a nice touch by owners Andy Jarvis  and Iain McLaren. It's nice too to see they at least are inspired by the town's brewing past.



So what's the skinny on the brewery? Here we have it in a convenient question and answer format:

         Who are you?

Founders are Andy Jarvis and Iain McLaren, we met while working together. Andy had been a keen home brewer and Iain had also done some home-brew in the past. We are currently the only two members of the company, so we share all the work including brewing, bottling and labelling.

Why a brewery in Dumbarton?

We'd read about the history of brewing in Dumbarton, and thought it was time that the town had a new brewery! Dumbarton, and West Dunbartonshire, has a rich history, and we wanted to tap into that in order to promote our local area as well as bring traditional Scottish beers with a modern twist to market.

Setting up wasn't difficult - it took a few months to find and secure a suitable unit. Once we had that we were able to fire up the kit and start developing our beers.

Where and what do you brew?

We have a very small unit in Dumbarton, close by the River Leven. Until recently we were brewing in 100L kit, but have recently upgraded to 300L vessels. Brews are generally two weeks in the FV, another week secondary fermentation, and then into bottles. We do casks as well, but due to the current pandemic we're concentrating on bottles.

What are the hopes, aims and ambitions?

Our ambition is to have a successful, well-known, small brewery. Brewing has been a learning curve for both of us, but we're getting great reviews and feedback. Our small batch size does mean there are variations in each run, but we see that as something unique and proof that we're not a mass-producer of genericness! Finding outlets has been a challenge - we've had support from independent retailers, but the pubs that are tied to a brewery are a hard nut to crack.

 Whose beers inspire you?

We’re inspired to see so many great, independent Scottish breweries doing so well these days and I think that pushes us to continue to try to improve - and expand upon - our own range of beers. As far as Desert Island beers - the list would probably be as long as our arms, but it would definitely have a load of stouts near the top; things like Sam Smiths Organic Chocolate Stout, Wild Beer Co's Millionaire, Thornbridge Cocoa Wonderland. I think I'd also need to temper the list with some lighter beers - pretty much anything from Sharps Brewery, specifically Doom Bar though and maybe some Innis and Gunn thrown in for good measure.

What’s your ambition for Lennox Brewery? Hobby? World domination?

We're hoping to be able to expand so that we can take some staff on and continue to produce excellent beers that put brewing in Dumbarton back on the map!

So what of the beers? The current production, as you'd expect, covers all the bases. One delight to this ex season ticket holder, is that the brewery produces the official beer of Dumbarton FC. This pleases me greatly as I remember all too well drinking in the Dumbarton FC Social Club - like the then football ground, but not the club - long gone. Then, we drank without a great deal of enthusiasm, beers from Drybroughs who had rather a monoclastic* view of brewing, each beer being parti-gyled from a base beer which wasn't great to start with. Mind you, we knew nothing of that then. But I digress. The brewery produces an Amber Ale called Sun of the Rock (see below), a lager, IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Golden Ale and, more adventurously, a Cranachan Ale. So plenty to go at.  I'm looking forward to trying the stout as I note the lads mention a favourite beer which is also one of my mine - Thornbridge Cocoa Wonderland.  As an aside, I remember - not too well  - discovering it in cask form and on top blob in Sheffield before the CAMRA AGM.  The bar is therefore set extremely high for the stout, and if  a fan of the UK's largest selling cask beer, Doom Bar, the Amber Ale may well be on the money for you. 

The Scottish brewing scene has been a thriving one in recent years and the success of BrewDog (obvs), Harviestoun, Stewart, Fierce, Williams Brothers and of course, nearby Loch Lomond, just announced as Scottish Brewery of the Year, gives a great aiming point for any newcomer. There are now over 100 Scottish Brewers, so, Covid aside, the scene is thriving and for many, success can be achieved.  As Chairman Mao said, the longest journey starts with a single step.

Finally, it is, to this exiled Son of the Rock, very pleasing indeed to see brewing returned to the town. As with all breweries at the moment, given where we are with Covid-19 restrictions,  this must be a bit of an uphill task, but I wish them success and look forward to visiting when Boris and the Wee Nippy Sweetie allow it.

* It appears I have made this word up, but I like it, so I'll dictate the meaning. "Producing many variations from one original."

** OK. John Willie Lees excepted

A native of Dumbarton can be referred to as a Son of the Rock. Not sure about the gender aspects here, so I'll just move on. 

The lads kindly sent me a few beers to try, but that of course doesn't influence me in any way. I'm just doing my bit for the return of brewing to my home town, so if you can, give the beers a try.  You can have a look at the website here and the boys will sort you out with local delivery.


Wednesday 11 November 2020

A Little Bit of History

 I tend - no - firmly avoid - writing in any detail about beer history. Firstly I'm a lazy bugger - I tend to paint things with a broad brush and leave the finer points to others - and secondly - I know for sure that I'd get a lot of it wrong and haven't the will or application to research to ensure I don't. I know myself fairly well. 

When I was working and the boss of quite a few, I liked to think I saw the big picture and then had others apply the fine detail. The attractions of this method of operation became clear to me in one of the few actual epiphanies I have ever had. When I went to see,  a long time ago, the Three Graces statue in Edinburgh, the accompanying pull up description told me that Antonio Canova, the sculptor did not, as I'd originally supposed simply take a suitably sized lump of stone to meet what he had in mind and fashion it into a magnificent statue, by chipping away at it over a long and tedious period. Rather he drew it roughly, had someone better at drawing firm it up into something precise, added dimensions and then set all his apprentices and other trainees do the hard work. Eventually, having supervised the operation, he trotted along at the end with his daintiest chisel and some sandpaper and finished it off. Well - more or less.  Not that bad a way to operate I thought. It helped my career a lot.

So back to beer history - of a sort.  When I lived in Dumbarton we had a small, but very old pub at 1 High St, called the Elephant and Castle. Named after the town's coat of arms, it was when I lived there, operated and probably owned by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. I used to go there on occasion and invariably drank pint screwtop bottles of McEwans's Pale Ale, a beer for which I have an abiding affection. And why not? It was the first beer I ever tasted. The pub wasn't that big and certainly, as far as I recall, had no particular architectural features to accompany its venerable years.  Anything of any antiquity that had been there had long since gone, but it was always one of the friendliest pubs in the town and so worth, as they said then in these parts, "throwing your heid roon the door" now and then.

Sadly, while I did pop in again sometimes over the years when I visited my old mother when I had long since lived in England, it somehow had managed to close in my absence and became a rather sorry sight, with copious weeds growing out of its roof and gutters. It was finally demolished in 2017, having been closed for over ten years, to make way for a new walkway to the River Leven from that side of town.

It was however brought back to my mind by this photograph which shows the pub in 1946, the staff resplendent in their starched long aprons and suitably serious expressions. The photo was posted on the Facebook site Memories of Dumbarton and there is an accompanying article written in 1986 describing it in a little detail.  Of course, those contributing tended to comment on how they knew or were related to the subjects in the photo, rather than the pub. Sadly there was little insight into the pub itself, but it was referred to, somewhat obviously, as Nellies, something I never did, or in fact, had ever heard. To me, it was always just the Elephant and I don't ever recall it being called otherwise. But I don't doubt it.  The local newspaper covered its demolition, but shed no real light on its history, except to say that the council accepted that despite the pub's being built around 1807,  it had no architectural merit or features.  One interesting point was that in common with the Irish way of pub naming, when the front was torn off, it revealed it had been called Galbraith's at one time. Again something I didn't know.

Dumbarton also used to have its own brewery. The Crown Brewery aka Gillespies, which was further along the High St than the Elephant, or rather, just off it. Oddly enough, that's something I didn't know for much of my Dumbarton life, but how that changed is another story and is mentioned here.  There isn't much detail on the Crown Brewery that I can find, but various labels and scant information are to be had fairly easily. In short though, the brewery was wound up, according to the Edinburgh Gazette in 1952. Sadly I have not been able to find out what subsequently happened, but it does seem that Scottish Brewers bought some liquidated assets, as they used "Gillespies" as the name of a stout, a beer which some may even remember.  I've often wondered if Crown/Gillespies ever owned any pubs in the town or indeed, elsewhere, but I have never been able to find out.  Of course if I was a proper historian - hold the press - any sort of historian at all - I'd delve more into that, but I refer you to my earlier paragraph above.

So the tale ends there? Not quite. When I looked at the photo above, I noticed behind the bar, on the gantry, a mirror. It is hard to say, but it looks like a Crown Brewery mirror. The shape of the crown on the mirror matches the crown used as the company logo. Was the Elephant and Castle supplied by Crown Brewery? It would seem so. Was it owned by them? Maybe. We need a historian to work that one out.

The Coat of Arms for Dumbarton is the Elephant and Castle. The elephant allegedly for the shape of Dumbarton Rock and the castle; well, the castle that sits upon the Rock. The Rock, 240 feet high, is allegedly the oldest known fortified site in Scotland and perhaps, Britain.

 I am grateful to Margaret Rose Black of Memories of Dumbarton for permission to use the photo of the staff in the pub and for the article I refer to.

Monday 2 November 2020

Book Review - The Family Brewers of Britain

The Industrial Revolution brought about huge changes, as Britain moved from a largely agrarian economy to a manufacturing one. Brewing, which had previously been a mainly small scale, domestic operation, changed as workers poured into towns and cities and saw demand exceeding supply.  To meet this demand, common or commercial breweries sprang up to meet the need for beer to be produced in volume. As Roger Protz emphasises in his latest book, The Family Brewers of Britain, almost without exception, the new commercial brewers were family businesses.  All the big names from the past, Bass, Barclay Perkins, Courage, Greene King, Truman, Whitbread and Worthington started out this way before becoming public companies.

As time went on, these businesses bought the pubs they supplied, tying them to buying only the parent company's beer, a practice that continues to this day.  Over the years, many breweries were taken over or merged with others. As pub ownership became more and more profitable, merger mania continued until the vast majority of pubs were owned by six giant companies.

Perhaps surprisingly amongst the rash of takeovers which saw many family brewing companies, give up the ghost and cash in their assets, a number of companies stood out against the tide, eventually forming the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) to protect their collective interests. It is these companies that are the subject of this book, which describes in detail how the families had mixed fortunes and how they arrived at where they are today. All had the shared problems of war, deaths, economic depressions and more, but while some overcame these by good management and internal agreement, others saw bad management, fraternal fallouts, splits, disagreements over money, policy and more. All are faithfully chronicled in Roger's usual meticulous style.

Each brewery gets its own chapter and these are grouped geographically. The oldest, Shepherd Neame, kicks us off. This is one of the more straightforward tales. After a series of partnerships, the Neame family have been in charge since the 19th century, surviving both wars rather unscathed.  The brewery expanded, often by takeovers of local rivals, innovated by introducing keg beers, was one of the first to produce foreign beers under licence and is now a vibrant and successful company producing nearly 200,000 barrels of beer a year.

Others weren't so lucky. Family fallouts abounded, including Samuel Smith, Batemans, Theakstons, JW Lees and Mc Mullens. All survived family disputes, or the ever present question of selling out to rivals, but often at financial and personal cost. In the case of Batemans, huge loans were taken out and pubs sold, while at Lees, Dick Lees-Jones, a renowned philatelist, sold his valuable stamp collection to help buy out other family members. In each case the wish to remain independent was the driving force and it is this striving for an autonomous future that is perhaps the common thread that links these businesses.

Roger also highlights the role of women family members. While many a boardroom is adorned with bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen, with doubtful haircuts and grim expressions, in some cases it was women who ruled the roost. Hester Parnall, the matriarch of St Austell, so scared the workforce, that when she visited the brewery, a warning was tapped through the pipework to advise employees to be on their best behaviour. That was child's play however compared to Mary Ann Lewis, who ran Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli in the 20s and 30s. She actually carried a big stick and wasn't averse to clobbering recalcitrant workers with it. It is still on display in the brewery, as Roger wryly remarks "as an example of different times and attitudes to employee relations."  Other women who ran breweries such as Thwaites and Robinsons seem to have managed more conventionally, including the remarkable Annie Hyde, who ran Hydes Brewery for an astonishing 56 years.

Given that so many families are involved, it isn't at all surprising that many diverse tales occur throughout. A rescue of a prisoner in the Tower of London; an inveterate gambler, who shot himself at his brewery desk; long serving staff;  German bombs; unexpected deaths; innovative thinking; idiosyncratic behaviour; takeovers of rivals and much more. Interestingly too, the book explains that many of these old companies have now left their original, grand - but expensive to maintain and inflexible in brewing terms - Victorian sites, despite their sentimental value and moved to greenfield sites.  The business and its longevity means overcoming emotion.  This isn't just a dry tale of business so much, as an exposition of a particular way of life. 

When you read this book you can see that with twenty-nine member companies, producing over half a billion pints a year, owning over 4,000 pubs and sustaining nearly 70,000 jobs, that family brewers are still a force to be reckoned with. The history of each, clearly laid out by the author, weighs heavily on each family.  They see themselves as custodians for future generations and in almost every case there is another generation ready to take the baton from the current one. Having seen off their rivals, resisted the blandishments of others, they are in this now for the long haul. As William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of JW Lees explains "When we look at buying a pub, the first question we ask is will it be good for at least 50 years?"

The book itself is well laid out, with side panels and boxes breaking up the text, an explanation of the background to modern British brewing and a nod to the future with mentions of newer brewers such as Titanic. Inevitably there is a potted explanation of how beer is brewed. The book is lavishly illustrated with old photos and beer adverts throughout and is written in a clear, easy on the eye, font.

This book is a valuable contribution, not only to the beer lover's bookshelf, but it cleverly pulls together a vital part of our brewing heritage and puts it in context.  In this excellent book, Roger Protz, with his extensive knowledge of Britain's brewing history, has been the ideal conduit for this distinct group of breweries to present their own narrative in a cohesive way.  

This book will no doubt become a "go to" source for beer historians and should be set against the wider background of a country, which for all our current problems, is still one that identifies strongly with beer, pubs and breweries. 

ROGER PROTZ is a campaigner and broadcaster and the author of more than 25 books about beer and brewing. He was the editor of CAMRA's market-leading Good Beer Guide for over two decades and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Society of Independent Brewers.

Published by CAMRA Books. 9th September 2020. Hardcover 224 pages.

Roger's book is available from CAMRA Books


Monday 26 October 2020

Clubs Suffer Too

We read daily in newspapers and social media about the way the Licensed Trade is suffering under the restrictions that have been in place, in various ways and degrees of hardship, since the March lockdown.  Some geographical areas have felt the yoke of restriction much more than others, in both application and length of sentence. In the drive to be seen to do something - anything - the Government has, with regular monotony, picked the hospitality trade for particular Draconian attention, despite their valiant attempts, not only to go along with instructions, but to do so openly and embrace and improve on whatever is called for. Despite this, it could be reasonably, indeed obviously, argued that it has done so to little persuasive avail.

I will not chronicle here the damage done, not only to businesses, but lives, careers and sanity. That is all too obvious from social media and broader press coverage. Depending on your own point of view, the trade is either a potential Typhoid Mary, or a sacrificial lamb. I won't be running a poll to find out though. Suffice it to say the trade has been fighting a losing battle.

In the midst of all the rightful angst about the way our pubs are suffering in this pandemic, I was brought up sharp by a letter, hand delivered, from my local Cricket Club, of which I am a member.  While I won't give away figures too much in case they are confidential to members only, I will say that in the case of my club, the loss of income since March is now in six figures, leading to a potential loss of approximately half that amount by April 2021. If I may quote the Chairman "That is a disturbing figure in anyone's book and I urge you to take a second to let that figure sink in." 

The income has not only been lost through gate money - a small part -  but through the ban on events such as wedding receptions, birthday parties, christenings, funerals etc. Annual events such as fireworks displays, beer festivals and more have had to be cancelled.  Bar takings have been decimated.  I could go on, but it is a grim picture and one that for the foreseeable future doesn't look like improving. Of course the club is looking at a number of unpleasant but necessary measures to overcome this issue, but while not detailing these here, it is certainly a job I don't envy.

As a local CAMRA Chairman, I am always being reminded by my Clubs Officer to think about and include Social Clubs in our campaigning, which I do try and do.  Social Clubs not only provide an outlet for a lot of beer to be sold, but between them have many millions of members.  They provide a local and personal service too as social clubs, whether for cricket, bowls, brass bands or whatever as they are always membership run.  People know and depend on each other, not only for common interest, but much as in pubs, for places to meet friends and stave off loneliness. Many also sell cask beer and indeed, sometimes, are the only outlet for it in some areas. In other places, they have taken the place of closed pubs as regular places to go for a drink and meet people.

Have a think about the plight of social clubs too, when we think about the problems of pubs.  Maybe think of joining one to support it. They face the same issues and also need our support in these difficult times.

I also know there are views that pubs should be shut as we all breathe the same (possibly contaminated) air. Not sure how scientific that is, given the number of times a pub - or club - door opens and shuts and that it only takes an open window to completely change the air in a room every 15 minutes - I know. I looked it up.

Clubs are great places too to observe surviving beer oddities. I mentioned this here.  Oh and I used to be a member of the Dyers and Polishers Social Club in Middleton, many years ago. It is closed now. Bonus point if you can explain dyeing and polishing.

"Function rooms" by LoopZilla is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday 24 October 2020

When is Small too Small?.

 I can remember years ago, when I was very young - so that's very many years ago - watching TV at home and seeing the likes of Minder with Terry McCann drinking a can of Carlsberg, or perhaps Alf Garnett's idle son-in-law drinking cans of Watney's Brown Ale and wondering about the small cans.  To my certain knowledge, in the 1970s, no Scottish brewer produced, for the domestic market anyway, such small cans. We just didn't see them at all. All our cans were 440 ml. Small cans were an odd English aberration, only seen on the small screen and as such we disregarded them. In fact the only English beer I really recall, was pint bottles of Whitbread Pale Ale, which somehow had an almost papal dispensation to be sold in Scotland.  They were everywhere and in fact I often drank them myself.

Fast-forward many decades later and the small can was re-invented by the craft beer movement, when some bright spark thought that bottles were no longer the biz. God knows why, they did - I imagine copycatting the Americans - but the chosen size was the small 330 ml can.  Now I suppose looking at it from the point of view of the seller, they were different, handy and could be sold at a premium - which I actually reckon was the main point in doing it.  This in turn was fairly understandable too. Often the beers were strong and a smaller vessel and higher price could therefore be justified.  Also, I believe the kit was more readily available too, so all serene then.

Of course, nothing stands still. The larger can has made a strong re-appearance in the craft beer sector, oddly to some, often at the higher alcohol end of the market. Now that's fair enough too, as some of the stronger stuff is probably best to share or, if not that, to be sipped reverentially, over a couple of hours by a single drinker.  So far, so good.

Now where this scene throws up an issue to my mind, is when you have what I'd call a "supping" beer - others more likely to call a session beer, is sent out in small cans. I know it happens with all types  of beer, but when it happens in the standard to premium lager sector, it just doesn't seem right.  I wrote here about how impressed I am with Camden Hells. On my recent self-isolation, we had a little shopping done for us by a relative. Now in the circumstances of being done a favour, it doesn't seem right to be too picky, so my request for Camden Hells was completed, not as I'd hoped by 660ml bottles, but a four-pack of 330ml cans. Now I haven't been able to compare costs, but it isn't that which bothered me - though it would be an interesting comparison - but the fact that once you have poured the beer into a glass and taken the first swig, you find it has almost gone. Put simply, it isn't big enough.

So is it just me?  It seems not. I asked the Twitterati and they seem to agree. Here's what they said:

Well that's all I have to say really. So how about it Camden? Can we have bigger cans of Hells please? It's what the punters want.

Do keep up the 660 ml bottles. They are fab.  Also am I wrong in thinking Cloudwater led the charge for bigger cans?

 I also hope to see more Camden Hells on tap up North. As long as the quality stays as it is at the moment, that would be a good thing.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

A Hell of a Good Beer

Last time I was in London, I had a couple of pints of Camden Hell and enjoyed them. I especially liked the little stubby glass. If ever there was a glass to make one neck one's beer, this is it. Well done Camden Brewery.

Wind on over six months later, and after a couple of pints out on the first day of our visit - see previous post - I fancied trying it again. But first we had lunch. I'd booked us into the German Gymnasium at King's Cross, which proved to be an excellent choice.  This purports to be the first purpose built gymnasium in the UK - or something like that - but I rather fancy the Romans had a go at that a long time since. No matter. It is a fine imposing building with a large bar and tables downstairs and a galleried restaurant above.  Surprisingly the choice of German beers is a bit limited, but with most of them coming from Rothaus, I wasn't complaining.  Pricey enough - but hey, I don't eat out that often - certainly well below what E aspires to - so bugger the expense and well worth the cost for both food and drink.

We followed up with a trip to Soho, figuring out on what was a fine day, we'd get plenty of chances to drink outside, but first there was a mission to accomplish. A visit to a Sam's pub to establish London prices following the recent price increase. We chose the John Snow as it was near E's old office, and she could do the sentimental journey bit.  It's a nice little boozer and trade was steady on this Wednesday afternoon.  I had the stout, which needed the gas changing, while E had a half of Pure Brewed. The price list was snapped when the barman wasn't looking and duly posted to a certain Curmudgeon. Prices are on the wickedly high side and now by no means a bargain. It does make you wonder how they'll compete on this basis.  One other thing. The notices forbidding this and that, which are found all over Northern Sam's pubs, are conspicuous by their absence. I know. I checked everywhere. Double standards from Mr Smith it seems.

I won't bore you with a list of pubs, but we wandered round, drinking Camden Hells, which was everywhere, always at prices North of six quid a pint. We sat out mostly, but where we couldn't, Covid-19 checks were evident and stringent, especially it must be said at the Greene King operated Crown where a Covid-Monitor and the manager virtually sheep dipped us. Overall Nicolsons pubs managed best in combining atmosphere with safety, so well done them.

Now I mentioned at the start that I enjoyed Camden Hells. That didn't change through quite a few pints. It really is a good drop of lager, even if it is a subsidiary of ABInBev. I have heard though to get it in as many places as possible,  it was offered at rock bottom prices. Well, maybe so, but those certainly weren't passed on to the customer in any way.

We left Soho around half past five when they were starting to close off streets and bring out tables for evening boozing.  They were filling up as offices chucked out, though the area was by no means that busy. I wonder how they are getting on now in Tier Two?

I didn't steal a Camden Hells glass. I am too old for that sort of caper, but I do like it. 

Do try a pint of Rothaus in the German Gymnasium.  You'll pay little more than in some scabby King's Cross pub, but get a much better experience -  if you like a bit of class now and then.

Apologies for the poor quality of the Sam's photo. It was very bright in the pub. Click on the image and you'll get most of it. Some prices are eyebrow raising and I doubt if you'll see the cheaper beers very often , if at all.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

London Calling

Well not so much calling as gently beckoning. E was getting a touch fretty about our London flat, not having been there for some time. She had put off going for ages, but as time passed and further lockdown beckoned, she determined the time had come, so I decided, having not been there since February, that it was a good idea to accompany her. 

So a couple of Tuesdays ago, on a pissing wet day here in Manchester, we set off - masked up - in an Uber - heading for what turned out to be a virtually deserted Piccadilly station. We were more or less the sole customers in the Avanti Trains lounge and on the train, there was only three other passengers in the coach, where masks were required, other than when eating and drinking. Our tube to Aldgate was similarly deserted, which was also a bit eerie. Only two or three people in the end coach.

 Apart from discovering a kitchen tap has packed up entirely - that'll cost a few bob - the flat was fine, so after the mountain of  junk mail had been dealt with, we set off for a pint. It was quiet outside, the normally busy main road which leads to the A2 - especially at "home time" - was almost traffic free. Not at all its normal state  We were getting the picture and this was sharpened even further when we arrived at the Draft House in Seething Lane, a large pub, now owned by BrewDog. Now this is usually seething (see what I did there) at work chucking-out time, but after completing the Covid-19 formalities we observed scarcely a dozen or so inside. Since we were last there, this rather barn like pub has actually been made a lot more cosy by Brewdog.  Less garish - the neon signs have all gone - less noisy or  just a better playlist - and some booth seating replacing benches. On the minus side, much less choice, no cask and of course,  higher prices. Craft beer for the rich people.

We used to come here for the Tank Pilsner Urquell, but now it is Budvar, also in tank, which we both plumped for at, I think, £6.20 a pint.  Most beers, Punk IPA included were about the same. Table service of course, and our server was a very pleasant lad who offered to talk us through the beer menu. He wasn't pushed, it being so quiet, but he was well worth his money.

 A couple of pints later we wandered up past the closed bar of Fullers Chamberlain Hotel, an occasional haunt, heading for Commercial Road and the Castle, a rather attractive and busy little pub, just round the corner from our ultimate destination, Pizza Union, a favourite and just a hop and skip from home.  I have never been in this pub in recent times when there has been more than one person behind the bar. Again we were checked in, but probably a little more self-service than many pubs, as the young Eastern European barmaid juggled keeping an eye on the door and serving a fairly busy crowd. Nonetheless, we always enjoy the atmosphere and looking out on Commercial Road through its large windows is pleasant. It isn't overpriced by London standards either.

Oddly for London - and trust me it happens quite rarely - we got chatting to a lawyer who shared our long table, enjoying the company so much that we had to order our pizza for takeaway, as we had missed the sit-down deadline before ten 'clock closing time.

So a pleasant night out in a rather subdued London, but there was to be a sting in the tail. 

The sting in the tail was a message on the Friday of the same week telling us we had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. 10 days isolation were ordered, the explanatory note allowing us to work out the contact Tuesday. So was it the Uber driver? On the train or the pubs? Who knows, but neither of us got any symptoms thankfully and today is my first day of freedom.

Two things about the pubs. In the Draft House I pointed out that Budvar, contrary to the big board on the wall isn't 4.2%.  He was gracious and said he'd get it changed, but I wonder how long it had been like that?  He did bring me a free third of Ansbach and Hobday Porter by way of a reward and very nice it was too.

The Castle really needs to get another barperson in when times get better.

Thursday 1 October 2020

Holden My Own in Bridgnorth

 I had a little trip to Bridgnorth last week accompanied by E.  We had arranged to meet friends there and of course, travelled separately, ensuring as much as we could in these confusing and restrictive Covid-19 times, that we obeyed the spirit and hopefully the letter of the Government's decrees/ rules/law, as we (more or less) understood them at the time. This did cause us a little soul-searching coming as we did from an area that has a lot of infection, to an area that had hardly any, but as we were all well and trips away have been few and far between and likely to become even fewer and lot further between, we thought "Bugger it" and went anyway. 

I was the only one that had been to Bridgnorth before, but my tales of Black Country beer, cheese and onion cobs the size of a baby's head and pork pies convinced them that this fine market town in Shropshire was the place to be.  To sweeten the deal we stayed at the Golden Lion, run by Holdens Brewery, so what could possibly go wrong?  Well, nothing actually. This is a tale of more or less unfettered joy. Of ale supped and food scoffed.

The advantage of the Golden Lion is that it is on the High Street and therefore bang in the middle of town. The other advantage is that it has a car park with space dedicated to each of the letting rooms, though it did take a couple of sweeps round the one way system before we worked out how to actually access our berth.  Our friends arrived more or less at the same time and after checking in, we generously gave them the nicer room. Theirs was designed by Jay Blades of Repair shop no less. Ours was Platform 3 and was railway themed, but big and comfortable. We chucked our stuff down and a few milliseconds later, we were in the bar, where rules were quickly explained, hands sanitised and pints procured.  Now the thing is about Black Country beer is that one tends to see it through rose-tinted glasses. My first sip rapidly turned into a gulp, as did those of my companions. Suffice to say that Holdens Bitter lived up to my memories (though in fairness, it wasn't that long ago I last had some).  Needless to say we had a second before exploring on a gloriously sunny afternoon. 

Bridgnorth is a thriving place we noted, as we wandered aimlessly along. Local shops abounded. A baker and a butcher set the tone, but we needed food.  The White Lion promised home-brewed ales, pies, cobs and Scotch eggs, but on a Tuesday lunchtime, was rather understocked.  John had the last pie, while we settled on rather untraditional soft rolls with cheese and onion. Sadly too, the local ales were a tad underwhelming, but the sun was out as we sat in the pub garden, so all was well.

I'd promised everyone they'd like the Railwayman's Arms at Bridgnorth Station, home to the Severn Valley Railway. The beer was fine, but inside had been so Covid sanitised as to have lost its charm for me, so we sat outside while a steam locomotive, chuffed away, providing the classic steam smells I grew up with. On the way back into town we popped into the Joules owned Shakespeare, where the beer wasn't brilliant to be honest, but the pub was rather nice. Incidentally, I'd been warned Joules beers aren't going through a good patch. Make of that what you will.

I won't continue to bore this pub crawl as it were into evening or the next day. Suffice to say we visited a horrible Marston's pub in Ironbridge and recovered at leisure in the splendid Old Robin Hood, which is another of Holdens small number of pubs. On a wet afternoon it was warm, welcoming and Covid-19 compliant. The bitter and Golden Glow were on top form. And they had proper cheese and onion cobs at £1.50 a pop.  The two and a half hours until the next bus flew by and the beer flew down eager throats.

So what's the point of this? It's a kind of good news thing really. It is about Holden's Brewery, their splendid beer and their safe and hospitable offering. In these very difficult times the way they ensured safety while minimising the negative effects was outstanding. And the beer really hit the spot.

We also met the most helpful bus driver ever, who not only left her break to show us the needlessly complicated Ironbridge bus stops by personally walking round the corner with us and confirming the next bus time.  Arriva, you have a great asset there.

I have been to Ironbridge a few times. It is always pissing wet.  And dead. I'd forgotten that. We'd have gone to the Coalbrookdale Inn, but it didn't open until four. We were in the Robin Hood on the outskirts by then.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Covid Cases Rise, What Next for Pubs?

There is a sense of grim foreboding that you can palpably sense in pubs at the moment. Having lurched back into business - after a fashion - with all the accompanying difficulties, custom has more or less halved in many places.  The booking of tables, working out who can be admitted and who can't, the need to sanitise everywhere and everything and the setting up and operating systems to help track and trace has stretched resources and strained nerves.  It has been a large and unwelcome imposition, but what's the alternative?

On the customer side, there is a degree of reluctance to visit pubs, especially from the elderly and a nagging worry that if you enter somewhere where the provision of safety for customers seems less than paramount, that you really shouldn't be there. This nervousness, together with the less than normal atmosphere in many pubs, makes for an experience which is hardly ideal. And it could get worse as the number of Covid-19 cases inexorably rises. At the moment of writing, you are also likely to be unable to get a virus test, even if you feel unwell and few have much confidence of that changing in the short term.

Landlords I have talked to recently are gloomy and concerned. They order only the minimum amount of beer to get by, cut down on variety and some feel that a total lockdown would be the last straw. For quite a few, if doors close again, then they won't open again. But will this happen?  I sense that the Government will only do this as a last resort and rather think that what will happen is much stricter control by authorities, particularly in areas badly affected by high virus rates.  Those there that don't follow either law or guidelines, will find themselves under a closure order toot sweet. 

Of course other options exist. On Twitter some weeks ago I was given a bit of a bashing by some for suggesting that younger adults within society of being less keen to follow the Covid-19  rules, but now it seems that view has become mainstream.   Whether you personally agree or not, there now seems to be a view among experts, that something must be done to curb the spread from those likely to suffer least from Covid exposure, to those that will suffer most - kill your granny and all that.  I have thought for some time that what is most likely to happen is that there will be a limiting curfew of some businesses; pubs, bars and restaurants being among them. While there is little evidence that pubs are particular spreaders of the virus, it does seem that the easy target will be chosen again.  This YouGov poll illustrates some views to support such a thing:

Now anecdotal evidence suggests that as time goes on, younger drinkers may well be the target of such a move. I have the impression - and it is only that - that there is little feeling of invincibility from older drinkers and pub goers and that such a move - as an alternative to closure - would be welcomed by many and not just older people. What is striking about the poll is that even those most likely to be affected by such a curfew, support it.

There is no easy answer to all of this, but I know many mainstream pubs already feel that later opening isn't currently worth much in business terms.  That is not to say it would be welcomed, but a curfew if it happens,  may well be the lesser of two evils.

It wouldn't affect me particularly if this happened, but would it be effective? I just don't know as I'm rarely out and about when youth rules the evening roost.

It is though galling for pubs when so many have tried so hard to make things work, but as always, the minority that don't obey rules, affect those that do disproportionally

Thursday 3 September 2020

The Social Side of Things

No sooner do we have one new pub opening in my area, but then we have another. Different in scale and target audience to Hogarths in Rochdale, is the long awaited - well it was trailed quite a while ago - Broad St Social in Bury. Operated by the well respected Brewsmith Brewery based in Stubbins by Ramsbottom, this is rather a neat little bar in Broad St, right in the centre of Bury, handy for some other good drinking establishments, as well as the Bus and Metro Interchange.

Situated in a mid terrace, with large windows and a little outside seating for the hardy, this is a neatly laid our bar with wooden floors, exposed brick and two distinct drinking areas, served by one fairly small bar. It somehow manages to cram in no less than six handpumps, all from Brewsmith and six keg pumps, all from elsewhere, but local to Greater Manchester.  Service during these difficult times was at table (we had booked) and on its first official trading day, was swift and cheerful. Some local worthies were there too and greetings were exchanged from a safe distance - though against guidelines no doubt. There was warmth and atmosphere which you don't always have from the git-go.

Like my friend and fellow blogger, Beers Manchester, who has also written about the bar - I urge you to read it - I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my case, not least of all because of the excellence of the Brewsmith cask beers, which have always appealed. They have the most redeeming of features. They are always carefully and well brewed, and they have the cleanliness that allows you to pick out the flavours. I could go on, but these two things are important -  to this writer at least and if you wish to judge a brewer's skill, a good - nay essential - starting point.

Our two hours were soon up, which gave me an opportunity to slip round the corner to Joseph Holt's Wyldes to try out the new Holt's Stout. Devotees of Twitter will likely know I'm a bit of a fan of stout. I regularly drink Lees Stout in its cask conditioned form at my local, the THT and at the Rose of Lancaster - another local - where I drink it à la nitro. It is superb in both forms, with its deep roasty taste, full body and luscious white head. How then would Holts stand in comparison?  Well, it isn't at all bad.  Slightly sweeter and with a darker, more tan head, it reminded me rather of Sam Smith's Stout.  All in all a good job, though it is only available in nitro form.  So still Lees for me, but don't hesitate to try Joey's offering.

We finished off in the Thirsty Fish, another micro pub and right by the bus station. All quiet here around teatime and another stout, this time from Deeply Vale, was on cask and on form, unlike Diamond Bus. But that's another story.

Not often I write much  about actual beer, so a rare treat for you here.  Bury is well worth a visit.

On the subject of Bury, I peeped in the window of the closed Clarence, which was extensively and expensively renovated not so long ago. It has new owners, but it looks as though the lovely square bar has been removed. Shame.

We didn't fancy plastic glasses at the Trackside (outside) either, so swerved that.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

To Helensburgh and Back

Given that our summer holidays are put on the back burner - assuming they are even on the cooker - I decided some time ago to go and see my family and friends in Scotland.  Now my sister, who lives in my home town, Dumbarton, is immune system compromised, so I turned down her invitation to stay and instead, last week, with the lovely E, booked into the Travelodge in nearby Helensburgh. This is a town where a much younger me spent quite a lot of time, mostly on a Sunday night, drinking beer in the Cairndhu Hotel which we reckoned then had a better class of young ladies to (unsuccessfully for the most part) chase after. It was also not so popular with the Royal Navy lads from round the corner in Faslane, or indeed, then, the US Navy whose sailors swarmed over from Dunoon and helped make the town a tad lively.

Alas, the Cairndhu Hotel, while still standing, is no longer licensed premises - or indeed a hotel - and while Helensburgh is a delightful little town, options for staying overnight are somewhat limited.  The Travelodge is in the upper parts of what was the Commodore Hotel, the lower part being, now, the Commodore Inn, though you can actually enter both from either. The Commodore Inn has an excellent aspect on the Clyde River front and our room provided us with a basic, but comfortable enough abode. It is fair to say though, that it is in need of some updating.

Now how would Scotland's much stricter rules on the pandemic manifest themselves? Well, firstly, at check-in, the desk is sealed behind plastic. We were informed we'd have to make our own beds and bring towels for changing down  to reception. Not a big deal really. Face masks were compulsory inside the hotel and this was complied with by and large, though sometimes we and others forgot, as we went directly down the stairs to the outside without going elsewhere.

After a long drive, a pint was in order. We went through their extensive  beer garden to the Commodore Inn. At the door we were greeted and a note taken of our names and phone numbers. Hand sanitisers were everywhere. We were given a table outside in the no smoking area and drinks were brought to our table. It was quick, cheerful and easy. Refills were by flagging down a server. Tabs were offered, or you could pay as you went. Now of course, as details were being handed over, I scanned the bar. Cask offerings, perhaps oddly, were London Pride and Doom Bar. No Scottish cask beer was a disappointment, but hey ho. The Pride, served in a Williams Bros Glass, was at most a 2.5 in CAMRA NBSS parlance, but the second scraped into a 3. Just needed drinking I think.

That night we dined at the Sugar Boat, a lovely little restaurant on the main Colquhoun Square. Again we were accosted at the door and even though we'd booked, names were taken and we sat outside in the sunshine with others, all socially distant, as was the case inside.  So far so compliant.

The next day, we had breakfast at another old haunt, but from more recent years, the Henry Bell.  Would JDW let the side down? Not a bit of it. We were stopped at the door, forms were filled in, we were asked to sanitise our hands and the modus operandi inside explained. Clean cups for coffee refills, one socially distant queue for all service and tables were sanitised. We returned again that night to meet my pal and of course, it was much busier, but the same high standards were maintained. It remained so, until the Royal Navy arrived and things got a tad more boisterous, but the system did work, though the young sailors, finally let loose after a long submarine patrol, were perhaps a bit louder that you'd want, but who could blame them?

In Helensburgh itself, mask wearing in shops was compulsory and obeyed to the letter, as far as I could see, even in the large Co-op. Queues outside the butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers - it's that sort of town - distanced happily.

We didn't go to any more different pubs, but our remaining restaurant trip saw our names taken and hands sanitised.  On the way back, we waited in line to get into the supermarket where everyone was masked up.

Scotland is, it seems, in the small part of it I was in, at least complying. Compulsion obviously has an effect and it didn't seem to slow things up.

We did go to several small shops and for ice cream and again all was neat and orderly. It seemed a small price to pay for the added confidence it gave.  Helensburgh is lovely when it is sunny. In fact it was too hot at times. Never thought I'd say that.

In JDW, the Navy lads were stopped from moving the furniture about. A small number of staff did well. We also encountered many sailors wandering about looking for a late night drink. Good luck with that one, but my pal did tell me some pubs have not yet re-opened and the large John Logie Baird was closed and boarded.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Parking Tanks on Wetherspoon's Lawn

Pubs are thought in many quarters to be pretty much unmitigated doom and gloom at the moment and although there are some chinks of light, with Covid-19 still on the go -  and around for the foreseeable future - you don't expect to see many major pub openings, but there are still some.

Rochdale Town Centre is on the up. The River Roch, culverted and hidden for many years is now open again and providing a fine focal point for a revamped centre which includes a new shopping mall, complete with a cinema and eateries bang in the middle of town. OK, it leaves one, or maybe two, shopping centres rather exposed to chillier times, as footfall returns to the area around the river and the wonderful Victorian Town Hall and the tram stop.  This is a town that couldn't maintain a McDonald's in the centre and with it gone, tougher times have also seen the closure of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In the fine - grand even - building thus vacated, we now have a new pub. This hasn't appeared by some kind of surprise. Clearly this million pound plus conversion has been planned for quite some time, but equally, what exactly would appear remained a bit of an educated guess. We had heard it would be entirely wet-led. That is there would be no food, which could be considered a bit of a gambol in these times. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Either way, a substantial new public house certainly had many wondering if there is room for one more?

So what's the competition? The Greater Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year (and narrowly beaten in the National competition) is the Flying Horse.  This as you can imagine is a hard act to follow, with its traditional beer offering, combined with real ciders, craft beer and excellent food  is clearly the one to - if not beat, that will be hard - but at least emulate.  Former National Pub of the Year, the Baum, is now under new management, but still offers a great pub experience, excellent beers of both cask and craft variety, along with great food. In the former General Post Office building, we have the Medicine Tap, selling locally brewed beers and guests together with imaginative food in a very fine conversion of yet another grand building. Bombay Brew offers a well-chosen range of craft and traditional beer, as well as Indian food of the tapas variety. It is the Bundobust of Rochdale. With the Regal Moon run by an experienced real ale loving manager who frequently tops JDWs best seller of cask ale list,  there is certainly plenty to go at. In short, for the drinker and the hungry, Rochdale, with a pretty supportive council, already offers a lot.  What can the new pub add?

It opened yesterday and your intrepid reporter, for once, not also ran, went along with the lovely E to see what was what.  The building is impressive. The outside has been cleaned up by  Amber Taverns, who operate it as part of their Hogarth's chain. The building itself was used as a house by the Rawson family from 1819, who conducted their banking business from the small adjoining building.  It was rebuilt in 1879 and redesigned in 1913 to create the distinctive porticoed frontage it has today.

Inside, once you have navigated the Covid-19 formalities and hand sanitising, you first notice the long bar to your left. Ceilings are high and ornate and original features and covings have been retained. To your right is a seating area with windows looking out onto the Butts. Behind this area, the bank’s vaults have been turned into a separate seating area. To the rear, toilets - thankfully on the ground level - are modern and appealing, as is the large beer garden to the rear.  Carpets are thick and seating a mixture of low and high. All in all, rather handsome.

All well and good, but what of the beer I hear you ask? As you might expect from Amber Taverns, the usual suspects are all here. Fosters, Carling, Heineken, Kronenbourg, Morretti and John Smith's are to the fore. For the real ale lover we have Tetley Bitter and Hobgoblin. Gin menus are everywhere and a fiver will bag you a double of some rather decent gins, as well as the tonic to go with it. Beers are very keenly priced with Tetley at a mere £2.15 a pop and Carling at £2.60. Others a tad less.  The pub was, as I'd expected, quite busy with the curious. Service was good and cheerful, aided no doubt by the Covid queuing system precluding any stress from a baying thirsty mob.

So who is it aimed at? Prices, being of an ilk, clearly indicate its next door neighbour the Regal Moon is the target. I imagine it will attract a few others too, depending on how its clientele develops.  The real ale drinker though is likely to give it a fairly wide berth, but those in need of decent gin in rather more comfortable surrounding than Spoons, might well be tempted too.

Like all new pubs, this will be a work in progress, but it will find a niche and will take business from elsewhere. New customers for the Rochdale "offer" will very much depend on the success of the whole town centre redevelopment, but Rochdale is heading in the right direction.

The Tetley Bitter retains little of its previous flavour.  As someone who drank a lot of it in my time, it isn't the same at all. Condition was average, as nobody else seemed to be drinking it.  I can also confirm there is no food offering. I didn't see as much as a bag of crisps.

There is a good recent piece on the redevelopment of Rochdale Centre here.    This gives more detail which I recommend you having a look at.

The building you can just see in the top photo, is the Regal Moon.

Monday 3 August 2020

Don't Make It Hard for Customers

Pubs don't have it easy at all these days. Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on most, if not all pubs. Many have not yet opened again yet and some, sadly may never open again. Those that have opened have been successful or not in varying degrees.  Now that things have settled down I reckon it is time to chip in a few observations.

Now I haven't been going mad. Most of my pub visits have been to places I know well and where I know both the people who run them and, in varying degrees, particularly at the times we visit, I also know most of the customers. In that respect, some things don't change, whereby you have different sets of customers visiting the pub at different times of the day. If you are part of that picture, restrictions are a lot easier to deal with. So do I feel safe in the Tandle Hill Tavern, the Ring O' Bells and the Rose of Lancaster? Well, yes, as far as one can be in these awkward times, I do. Names are taken, sanitising and availability of sanitising stations are ample, social distancing applies and either table service or distanced queuing, as well as being safe,  makes life relatively normal. Everyone, with varying degrees of internal acceptance, goes along with it. Whatever they think and indeed say, they want to be there and don't want to muck it up.

Of course, it isn't that way everywhere I readily accept, though I haven't really encountered it. In the Tavern yesterday, it was little different despite local restrictions being applied. Tables are around a metre and half away from each other and despite the Government, who clearly know cock all about pubs, saying you can go with your family, but don't interact with other people, interaction did take place. Of course it did. We all know each other. No shouting was involved and while guidance - not law - may say no interacting, well, we did. It was done just as safely as it had been the week before. Social distancing was as good as it could be in a small pub and sunny weather meant many were outside, so all was well.

What though, when you don't know everyone? On Friday, with my mate Mike, I had my first trip into Manchester since March.  It was hot and outside areas beckoned.  Our first visit to the Abel Heywood was fine. We sat outside, had arrangements explained to us, as well as the one way system and fetched our own pints from the bar. Those inside we served at the table. We paid by card and it was all sensible, distanced and easy.  Not so at Common.  Outside drinking here, and we had to download an app which took ages. It didn't like iPhone at all and when I finally got it onto my Android phone, it suggested that as I was 22 metres away, did I really want to order? It didn't give any options to say yes or no! Our host was called and looked perplexed, then shrugged and served us anyway, the worst and most expensive drinks of the day in a plastic mug. Not a great experience at all and frankly 20 odd minutes wasted. Plus another 20 drinking the warmish IPAs.

Our next stop Mackie Mayor had similar issues. If you wanted to only have a drink, you had to sit outside - fine - and use the app - not so fine. This time it wouldn't download on Android, but it liked Mike's iPhone. Details required were of the intrusive nature. This took 20 minutes or so again and this time, after a ten-minute wait, decent pints of cask, in proper glasses, were brought. Overall though much more bearable. But not that great.

Our last port of call was Cask in Ancoats. Here we were greeted, details taken, the rules explained quickly and professionally and a seat allocated. Waiter service was prompt and payment contactless. It was just as good as you'd expect from manager, Warren, who really knows his stuff.  Beer was in glasses and the cask beer we had from Pictish and Roosters, in excellent nick.  This was more like it and here we stayed.

My conclusions? Apps are great in theory - and good ones are great, but can be both crap, lazy and frustrating when  in operation. Difficult even for the willing such as us - both former IT bods - so not resistant.  As always, pubs are only as good, in whatever situation, as those who run them. Simple is best and given that, drinking local is likely to be a better experience. But it can be done well in cities too as exemplified by the Abel Heywood and Cask. 

As a pub, you really need (after safety) to put your customers first, or they will sup elsewhere. Covid or not, customers always have other options. Best not forget that customers still pay the money and they still have a choice. 

Now I have little doubt that that all pubs think they are doing their best, but when technology is unreliable, wise not to rely on it.  The resultant waits were pretty well unacceptable.

I think I'll stay local in places I mention above and, say, the Flying Horse in Rochdale, where they really have it all done well.