Friday 22 May 2020

This Day 10 Years Ago

I was looking through old blogposts the other day. This was in a way inspired by Boak and Bailey asking which writing you are proudest of  - or something like that. It isn't this by any means, but it has its own points to make and is probably just as true about cask beer now as it was then. The piece was a child of its times and times, terminology and sensibilities change, but I offer it up, warts and all.  (The title was well known then in that it was the catch phrase of Swiss Tony who compared every aspect of life, particularly selling cars, to making love to a beautiful woman.)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Drinking a Pint of Cask is Like Making Love to a Beautiful Woman*

There is a fair degree of agreement that when cask beer is served at its best, that it is an unbeatable way of serving draught beer. Cool, but not cold, bursting with condition, clear, a tight creamy head - and yes it is better that way - full-bodied, clean in aroma and so easy to drink. Of course your first mouthful in any beer is so important. It sets all your senses on red alert. "Is this going to be good?" is the silent question. In cask beer it tends to tell you so much more than keg beers. It is a much more nuanced product. Having done the visual inspection and the nose test, you are already forming an opinion, building up the anticipation, getting ready for that first mouthful that will confirm whether it is as good as it looks. Or, unfortunately as bad. Sometimes it isn't that good. Too often you can tell by that visual and olfactory inspection that things just aren't going to be as good as you'd like. Here's where the making love analogy starts. I think you'll be getting my drift by now.

Any cask ale drinker knows one simple fact of life. You aren't always going to get a good pint. Unlike the lager or smooth drinker, who knows what to expect and is delivered with it every time, the cask drinker is an uncertain soul. He is hopeful that the heights that only cask can reach will be in that pint. He knows one thing though. He will sometimes - quite often actually - get a duff pint. It is the the elephant in the public bar. Like death and taxes, the dodgy pint is always with us. Too often cask beer isn't served as it should be. It is ordinary or it is bad. It is middling or damned by that phrase, " It was OK". That usually means it was poor, but you could just about choke it down without real enjoyment and for this writer, not to enjoy beer defeats its purpose. Making love analogy again!

There is a way to mitigate this of course. You drink in pubs you trust. You drink beer from breweries you trust. (There is a long list of breweries whose beer I wouldn't touch with a bargepole, and they are almost all micros). You use the GBG. You check for Cask Marque signs. You ask ahead (of fellow customers) "What's the beer like today?" This doesn't help the casual drinker of course. He or she is as likely to be a loser in the lottery as a winner. I don't believe many will disagree that the possibility of bad beer is the biggest enemy of cask . It puts more people off than anything else. Nor should you expect redress at the bar. You will be told in all probability that "Everyone else is drinking it", "it is just new on today", "that's the way it's meant to taste" etc. etc. And this won't just happen in dodgy pubs either. It will happen with a straight face in pubs that are considered the best of breed and about beer from breweries that are worshipped here in the blogosphere and in the real world. In short, over your drinking career, you will be taken for a mug time after time. An inconvenient truth if ever there was one.

What's prompted this introspection? After all I'm a cask man through and through. The other day a trip to the edge of my CAMRA Branch area, gave me some poor beer. Poor beer in Good Beer Guide pubs is irritating enough, but poor beer in pubs that usually sell it in tip top condition, is both puzzling and annoying. But sadly this isn't atypical. When some in the trade call for cask beer to be sold at a premium price, my response is along the lines of "Bugger off, I already pay a premium in that at least one in five of the pints I buy, will be poor and quite a number of them won't be as good as the brewer intended."

Why drink cask beer then? Simply because when it is right, when you hit that cask in peak of condition, when you have the taste experience which has you mentally cancelling the next few hours as the first pint slides down, it is the best beer experience you are likely to get. So when that perfect pint caresses your lips and sets your senses all aglow, do savour it, but then get stuck right in, get it down and get yourself back up to the bar, because then you really do have the beautiful woman in your arms and a night (or day) of true passion ahead of you. No unsatisfying bonk against the wall with the pub slapper round the back of the pub for you. You have the real thing. She is yours for the night and she may not come along again any time soon. Fill your boots!

So there you have it. Flirtation can be fun, but ultimately true love gives you what you really need. And one more thing. The memory of good and bad will each remain in your mind for a long time. If you are a publican, please make these memories good.

* If you are gay or a female, feel free to substitute gender as required.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Outer Space and Covid-19

Like many in lockdown, I've been reading some ideas that pubs have for safe re-opening. I tend to agree with Mudgie when he wrote here of the dangers of pubs going a little too far in bending over backwards to appease the authorities in the hope of being allowed to open once again. Some suggestions discussed seem wildly impractical and if they were to be implemented, might prove to be a bit of a Trojan Horse for licensees. There can surely be little doubt that the closure of an industry that gives a living to millions and a great deal of pleasure to many, not to mention attracting many visitors to our shores while playing to the heart of Britishness and its traditions, is a massive problem to be dealt with.  It also as a bit of an aside, gives the prohibitionist and their fake charity fronts, a wonderful opportunity to sew division and doubt and create more mischief. They have been quick to put the boot in. Supported by supine and lazy newspapers, repeating the tired old mantra that since closure of pubs, bars and restaurants, we are all drinking more, they have printed a forest of claptrap. Pete Brown has already thoroughly debunked this in an excellent rebuttal filled with facts. All of us in the beer bubble, nodded along happily, but I'm not so sure how widely his piece was reported. These are difficult times.

There is however a bit of a realisation, given the daily increases in unemployment, that just ignoring the hospitality industry isn't really on. The concern must be - and this applies to almost every industry - that the Government furlough scheme, though welcome and needed, is hiding an even bigger potential leap in the already grim unemployment statistics. We are already seeing that there are moves to restart industry and there must be an eye on the nearly three million employed in hospitality and a dread of the situation continuing much longer. But there is that pesky virus to consider.

In that context I've been thinking about my four local pubs. I say "my local pubs" in that these are places that I'm likely to visit, if not every week, certainly several times a month. Three are small and one, while not huge, is mid sized. Thinking abut what could be done, I  recalled that my first ever time in Belgium, many years ago, was around this time of year. In a smallish bar it was rammed, but outside, people were happily standing or sitting, drinking beer and chatting.  As it got quieter I remarked on this to the barman who shrugged and said "it isn't a problem, just put more clothes on". All my local pubs have the potential to spread outside a fair bit.  I know there are by-laws and more, but couldn't these be temporarily repealed to give smaller pubs a chance to trade in a way that would maintain social distancing, would be relatively inexpensive and would give pubs a chance of making a profit?

There will likely have to be other solutions found and this is by no means a magic bullet and goodness knows what we'd do when the heavens opened, but to my mind at least, I can't really see that many pubs at all, never mind small ones, could open profitably with vastly reduced numbers inside under any scheme devised. Maybe some huge ones could, but the bigger the pubs, the bigger the overheads and with a public still scared stiff of disease, not to mention screens, rules and restrictions, how convivial would it be -  and how profitable?

Sadly, whatever ideas come up, mine included, we could all just be pissing in the wind. The truth may well be that for most pubs, it is all or nothing.

You can also read Cookie here. Apart from his tongue in cheek style, he may have a point about just going for it, though how it would be policed, goodness knows, but actually, given the amount of fear around, it may be a self solving problem. 

I really do believe that the double whammy of restrictions and economics will ensure that very few pubs can open profitably unless some better imagination is used. Increased overheads, already small margins and reduced customer footprint doesn't sound like a winning formula to me. 

Image Credit ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 under Creative Commons

Friday 15 May 2020

Missing Cask Stout

Like many others, I have been supping the odd beer at home, mainly, it has to be said, in the garden around five o'clock if the weather has been fine.  It has on the odd occasion needed a fleece to keep warm, given that here, it never seems to be sunny but not windy. Somehow though it feels more conducive to enjoyment and also better for mental well-being, to drink a beer in the fresh air, rather than in a lumpen mess on the couch in front of the TV. I suppose too, it is just that bit  more agreeable, with blue skies, a glass in hand and an overabundance of crisps or Pringles. In fact, together with the lovely E, it has been quite pally really.

Surprisingly, despite several weeks cheek by jowl, we haven't nearly killed each other yet. In fact, it has been pretty amicable. As an aside to that, I fancy the story might be a tad different if we had been marooned in our small London flat. At the very least I  imagine, tempers would have become frayed, but here in the Centre of the Universe, we have space to get away from each other. The garden too has been a fantastic port in a storm and though it won't win any prizes, it is neat and tidy. (My main concern is that the neighbours don't get a petition up against us, so we are doing fine on that score at least).

In addition, we have a Zoom meeting every Sunday with our pals from the Tavern. It started off a little stutteringly, but just like the real thing, the Virtual Tavern has become more lively as we get used to the medium.  Oddly - and you won't believe this - the sessions themselves get more animated and indeed vivacious, as we sup more ale.  It was ever thus I guess and with some diehards staying yakking for several hours, not so bad really, though clearly we all yearn for the real thing, which we  agree without dissent, is still a long time off.

I've been missing a decent pint of cask though and have been buying bag in the box stuff from our local Pictish Brewery, but have been hankering after a cask conditioned stout.  Thankfully I have located some and tomorrow (I think) five litres of stout will come from Blackjack Brewery in Manchester. It is described as "balances of malt, sweetness, bitterness and hedgerow hoppy aroma."  That'll do. I have had it in the Blackjack Tap before, so I'm looking forward to it, even though it is re-racked, but like the Pictish beers, fine if you don't leave it hanging around too long. Not a likely outcome I can assure you.

Since I don't have a bag-in-box adaptor - didn't anticipate the need sadly - like my Pictish beers, I'll rig up a workaround.  Expect to see photos of tightly sparkled stout sometime tomorrow.

It is even more surprising that we haven't killed each other. The day after lockdown E suffered a sudden onset of rather severe sciatica, which is only now almost gone. Her Stoic nature alone made survival of that possible.

My other go to lockdown beer, as mentioned before, is St Austell Proper Job. Why not share your lockdown favourites here.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Managed Houses in 1960

Before the massive mergers that took place only a few years later, there were still quite a number of breweries that owned rather a lot of pubs.  Many of these pubs were tenanted, in that they had a person who ran the business and whose business was tied to the brewery for all products sold. He or she paid a rent to the brewery and otherwise ran the pub more or less as they saw fit. The other common operating model was of course, management of the pub directly by the brewery itself. This is a model favoured by some, indeed many, now. Usually then there was a mixed estate of tenanted and managed pubs.

Now we are assured by a certain beer writer that everyone loves a table, so I thought, why not jump on this bandwagon. Don't worry, I'll likely be jumping off it again very soon indeed. Here's how it all looked in 1960:

I suppose two things strike me. The very large variation in numbers of those managed directly and secondly, not one of the breweries mentioned is still a going concern today.

Source as previous blog post about Area Managers two days ago

I know John Smith is still a brewery, but it is not an independent company.  As for managed houses, increasingly those with the most earning potential are put under management as you might expect. It would be interesting to see such a table now.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

House Style

Back in the day when there were many large regional and local pub owning breweries, in Liverpool  where I lived throughout the 80s, you often used to be able to tell at a glance, without entering the pub, whose beer was on sale. Then, when there was a pub on every corner and plenty in between, you didn't particularly need to have eyes like a shithouse rat to ascertain with a sweeping glance, whose ale you were going to encounter, or indeed where the nearest pub was. In that fine city they were everywhere. It wasn't just the corporate signage, though obviously that provided a major clue, but how the building itself looked.  Back in the days when we played darts all over the city, that was a handy skill to acquire. We all cared "whose ale" it was.

If you saw a pale, yellow-tiled, flat fronted building, then you knew for sure it was a Whitbread pub, Whitbread having inherited that particular house style from Threlfalls, who they had taken over in the 1960s. Bass houses were broadly speaking distinguished by their distinct corporate black signage, built as a canopy around the entrance. A relic of the Bass Charrington days, the included red triangle was very easy to spot from afar. Higsons pubs were identifiable by the splash of red and black and the little square, lighted box that you could spot a mile away and which, as you got closer had the re-assuring words "Higsons" emblazoned thereon.

Tetley pubs were often bigger, though there was a mixed bag. Most were inherited from Walkers of Warrington and were brick built and imposing. Signage varied from the corporate "Allied Breweries" yellow and white to those that has a makeover and plainer gold lettering with, on the wall by the door, the Huntsman logo and "One of Tetley's Houses" increasingly visible as you approached. John Smith's pubs - fewer and further between - were invariably painted green and when Walkers pubs were brought back from the dead, their distinct shield like hanging sign was a beacon for the thirsty.

It wasn't just the outside that had a corporate touch that was subtle but definable. If you had been beamed down into most pubs, without looking at the bar, you'd have been able to order your drink and be sure which brewery's beer would be placed in your sticky mitt.  Higsons pubs were predominantly red inside. Usually too they were well-worn looking and comfortable. They were often, though not always, small. Whitbread pubs on the other hand always had big tables and lots of heavy chairs and a sort of wallpapered look that gave the game away.  Rarely did they have the standard round cast iron tables that were typical nearly everywhere. They were often multi roomed - and big rooms at that - and rarely had much of the standard bench seating. They did, in fairness look more cared for than some rivals. Bass pubs were often remarkably comfortable inside and well-thought-out. This belied their rather dull exterior. They probably hid their light under a bushel better than most.

Tetley pubs invariably - unless very small - were multi-roomed and often divided by screens and sometimes still had little snugs, which, if you got in first, you could hide in. They had the neatest and grandest pubs of all the breweries. Lots of leather seating and a lot of brass was a feature in many. They tended towards the ornate and plush, even in small pubs. Some bigger pubs had public and lounge bars, the public bar usually a bit more Spartan, but clean and the lounge well appointed. It was there you took your lass (or someone else's) for a quiet Saturday night drink. And there was Greenall Whitley. These were often, old-fashioned, with best rooms and differential pricing, but varying from plush suburban style boozers, comfortable and well appointed, to small intimate and rather bare looking locals.  The white and red pub sign, of a Greek Goddess blowing her horn, was easily visible from afar, but the beer could split opinions.

Pubs then as now - varied immensely - but were usually well run and sometimes even welcoming. There was a degree of "corporate" but they weren't samey and soulless.

Looking at the bar of course gave the game away. (Mostly) plastic boxes for Whitbread, John Smiths and (sometimes) Bass. Electric pumps for Greenalls. Vinyl covered Dalex handpumps for Higsons and the Tetley Huntsman and handpumps for their pubs. Confusingly the coloured plastic boxes often dispensed real ale.

As you travelled the country, you noticed the same kind of things. I suppose pub design followed a kind of template and pattern and still does. I doubt if a newly refurbished JW Lees Cheshire pub, if taken over immediately after refurbishment by say, Holts or Robinsons, would need much of an overhaul to instantly fit into their estates.  Or vice versa.

Monday 11 May 2020

Area Managers in the 1960s

Many breweries have Area Managers. They look after a number of the brewery's tied houses in various ways.  The role has developed over the years, but was different once. In the late 50s and early 60s, when brewery takeovers were rife, the Area Manager became a kind of enforcer for the brewery and someone who encouraged the bad habits of the former company to be renounced for the different bad habits of the new company.

This extract gives you an idea of how this might be applied - well, in the case of Allied Breweries:

Area managers, control and information

One key aspect of the merger movement was the opportunity that it gave for learning within the new companies. This was important in an industry which had traditionally been relatively closed to influences from outside. The trade press tended to focus on issues of trade defence, understandable in an industry under constant public scrutiny, but not an approach likely to encourage the development and sharing of new managerial practice. However, the corollary of this learning was that it was heavily conditioned by existing traditions, traditions which, as we will see, were heavily influenced by the policing orientation of area management. 

It is interesting to note that this constellation was decided on following visits to the new component parts of the merged company. One of the key visits was to Ansells in Birmingham where supervisors controlled both managed and tenanted houses, each supervising on average 68 managed houses and 19 tenancies. What can be seen from these examples is the large numbers of houses, which suggests that supervision rested on a policing base, rather than on a detailed engagement with activities at house level.  

An indication of this style can be obtained from this account, given by a former Birmingham supervisor from the 1960s: "One of the first things you did and this is in the mid-sixties, you took the manager into the cellar and I’ve literally, I have actually copped hold of a manager by his lapels and decked him. You would also say to the manager you can take six pence in the pound out of the till. If you take seven pence out of the till I shall have you in this cellar and I shall thump the living day lights out of you. If you take five pence out you are just as big an idiot as I take you for, because I’m telling you I shall look the other way" 

Well hopefully things will have changed a bit since then, but clearly mergers needed a bit of shall we say, finessing on the ground.

I stumbled across this when looking for something else. 

Source: Allied Breweries and the development of the area manager in British brewing, 1950-1984 Dr Alistair Mutch Professor of Information and Learning, Nottingham Trent University 

Friday 8 May 2020

One Reason Why CAMRA Hated Whitbread

When I was interviewed recently by Laura Hadland, who is researching and writing the official biography of CAMRA, ready for their 50th anniversary in 2021, she asked me the question - and I paraphrase - "Why does CAMRA hate Whitbread?"  I sort of stumbled through an answer, pointing out its record of taking over and closing breweries, its poor commitment to real ale and a general feeling that they didn't really give a monkey's chuff about beer and pubs, just about making money - which while fair enough - was generally perceived as being done in a more than somewhat uncaring and contemptuous manner.

Whitbread was founded in 1742 and was once the largest brewery company in the world. It was a very acquisitive brewery and among others, it took over and closed leading regional breweries such as Lacons, Rhymney, Threlfalls Chesters, Strong, Brickwood, Higsons and Boddingtons.  Quite the record.  There were plenty others besides, but these were the big ones. The ones with lots of lovely tied houses.  CAMRA once sold a T Shirt with the names of the deceased breweries listed. It was entitled "Whitbread Tour of Destruction" I remember having one.

When it came to Merseyside, Whitbread weren't thought of highly. They had many pubs, often large, acquired from the Threlfalls takeover. Threllies was much loved and I believe that this sentimental regard for them didn't stand Whitbread in good stead to say the least. They closed the Truman St Brewery in Liverpool in my time there (1982). This was the old Threlfalls Brewery and while it rarely produced real ale, it was a well esteemed link with the past. As we shall see, Liverpudlians don't like to lose their breweries.

Now, one of the things I've been doing in lockdown, is to publish a piece of breweriana each day on Twitter, chosen from my modest collection of papers and artefacts.  I have plenty stuff from my Liverpool days, so I had this particular subject in mind, but felt it needed a bit more than a Twitter post. This piece is it.

One of the many unseen and unwanted outcomes  of the Beer Orders saw the Higsons Brewery in Liverpool, fall into the clutches of Whitbread.  It didn't survive that experience for long, but CAMRA in Liverpool had plenty to say about it. Scathing would be an understated and piffling description of their feelings.

(As a major aside, the Beer Orders had many unexpected consequences for the British brewing industry, many of which reverberate through time to this very day.  If you want a prime example of the law of unintended consequences, look no further than what happened next and is still happening.)

The closure of Higsons was just after I left Liverpool for Manchester. Many of those listed in the Mersey Drinker attached (1990 but undated dammit) were my colleagues in Liverpool CAMRA. The magazine excoriates Whitbread in no uncertain terms and is a paean of contempt for the company and all it stood for. The whole issue is devoted to putting into action the words of the editor with a massive call to arms. Boycott them! Don't drink fake Higsons brewed in Sheffield! Avoid their pubs and beers (including Boddingtons and the Boddington Pub Company too, who owned the former Higson's pubs) and much more.  Thousands signed an anti Whitbread petition. It was campaigning in the old-fashioned way and maybe the last hurrah for such direct action

All to no avail of course. History doesn't work that way, but when you need to know why CAMRA hate Whitbread, start by asking in Liverpool. They'll tell you.

Higsons was briefly brewed in Sheffield. I recall it was blended with Liverpool brewed beer, then the Liverpool content removed. A shadow of its former self, it ended up in Castle Eden in Durham, where all pretence was abandoned. It was now  just a beer called Higsons. It wasn't Higsons at all. 

In the same issue it was noted that Whitbread would also close The Fremlins Brewery in Faversham. Whitbread exited brewing in 2001 and are still going.

Click images to read in full.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Lost Beers

There are plenty of good beers out there. Something for everyone, but for us older types there is always that nagging feeling of loss when you think back to the beers that you used to drink and that are no more. Some of them maybe weren't  classics; some in fact might be considered downright bad if you had them to savour now, but each has a place, not only in beery history, but in the hearts and minds of those that drank and enjoyed them.

It is common, I believe - well it is a point of view that many people somewhat mistakenly hold - to think, that before the micro brewing explosion, we were all bored shitless by samey milds and bitter. Boring old brown beer if you will. But actually, those of us who were devotees of the old neck oil were back then, actually very discerning in what and where we supped. If you drank draught beer - and did so in the mid seventies to the early nineties - then you may not have realised it, but you were more likely than not to be drinking cask conditioned bitter or mild. Trad beer as the trade called it.  When the big breweries ruled the roost, backed up by large regional breweries and some local ones - certainly in large chunks of the country - though less so in London - traditional beer was the norm.

When I lived in Liverpool, my first local sold cask Greenall Whitley Bitter and Mild, via electric slider pumps dispensed into oversize glasses. You could see the beer  as it slid through the mechanism.  It was cask and I quite liked it, though it had its detractors.  When I moved home, it was next door but three to a Tetley House, but here it was handpumps and Warrington brewed Tetley Bitter and later, when they converted it, Walker's Bitter.  All cask beer.

All around were other breweries pubs. My beloved Higsons; Bass pubs selling Brew Ten, Worthington and Draught Bass, Burtonwood from St Helens and more. It was rare not to have cask, but of course into each life a little rain must fall. And fall it did with Whitbread, that old bête noire of CAMRA, who, with their start/stop real ale policy and a general disdain for cask were to be avoided.  People cared about beer alright. When you suggested meeting someone in a pub they didn't know, or a pint after work was proposed, the first thing asked was usually "Whose ale is it?"

Believe it or not though, I grew up on keg beer in the West of Scotland - a bit like most people there still do.  They just have better keg now, by and large. So back to where I started. This lockdown has got me thinking about beers I have had, loved and which, as they aren't brewed any more, I can in all probability never have again. Some maybe me seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Well maybe so, but nothing wrong with that. Defunct beers are like former girlfriends. Every one was a stunner in retrospect.

So here is my top five "lost" beers in time order:

McEwan's Pale Ale

Always in pint screwtop bottles. I used to drink this in Dumbarton when in certain pubs.  McEwans Pale Ale was also the first beer I ever tasted. Darkish, not too sweet and hardly strong at all. A great thirst quencher. And I liked pints bottles. Sometimes it was a Belhaven Screwtop or if flush Whitbread Pale Ale.

Ind Coope Alloa Brewery Diamond Heavy

I loved this. I can still taste its crystal malt flavour and its slightly sweet finish. I used to have one pint - well sometimes more - each night at five'clock after work, entering the pub just as the bolt was drawn back.  I quite liked Diamond Export too, which was I believe, Double Diamond brewed in Alloa. You can see the original fonts in this advert. They changed after I left Scotland
Higsons Bitter

It is my favourite beer of all time. I loved this beer. Bitter, hoppy and once you got the hang of it, the finest beer to drink. I miss it very much. Higsons pubs were also great; never too big and always welcoming. My blog has many references to them.

Tetley Walker Tetley Bitter

 Brewed in Dallam, Warrington,  this always seemed to me to be lighter and more complex in taste than the Leeds version, which was always to my mind, served that bit flatter too. I drank many, many gallons of this all over Liverpool and would recognise a pint of it even now. That slightly sourish finish was so appealing. I mention it here in the context of the Leeds Brewery closure.

Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale

Mostly I drank that in Leeds when I worked there. Floral, aromatic, hoppy and deadly. Always drank a bit above its strength. A former Champion Beer of Britain and deservedly so. Criminal that this beer was allowed to die. I wrote about it here.

So there you have it. I'm not claiming each was the best, but for me it was at the time. Beers that I wish were still around today and if they were, I'd drink them in a heartbeat. 

Do let me know your favourite lost beers.

Another one that just missed the list was Boddington brewed Oldham Bitter. Tasted nothing like the original, but had a lovely lactic finish and great mouthfeel.
My list contains three beers from what was Allied Breweries. They were by far the best of the Nationals in my view.