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.