Wednesday 15 December 2021

How Stouts Should Be

 Who doesn't love a good stout? Well, I certainly do, but what I'm not so keen on is those that have been extensively mucked about with. By mucked about with, I mean the addition of the likes of coffee and most of all that evil of all evils, which should only ever appear in confectionary or puddings, vanilla. To that, generally, I'd add blackcurrant - unless to disguise the cardboard taste of Guinness - and most other herbs, fruits and spices. I'll leave a slight exception for a touch of chilli, but that is a now and again thing.

It isn't that I'm against such stuff, and I agree and recognize that there are plenty out there that like these additions, but what I do dislike is that a bit too often, there isn't just a straightforward stout that tastes of, well, stout.  There are exceptions of course, and maybe too many brewers feel that a "normal" stout doesn't get them sales in a crowded market. Well that's fine, but let's at least have an unmucked about version as the default, with the additions as specials.

Others seem to agree that at least these additions should be used sparingly, as I ran a poll on Twitter with the following results:

A respectable 215 people voted, with the vast majority saying stouts should have adjuncts added sparingly and occasionally. 

This doesn't surprise me,  as that is how it should be. 

I did once brew a fantastic stout with Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. It had a hint of chilli. I did an even better one with Aldgate Brewery, which didn't, so make of that what you will.

The photo shows an unmucked about stout taken in Skipton. See previous post.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Plenty Kisses and No Frogs

A few short weeks ago, my local CAMRA Branch had one of our days out by coach. This time - and we have been there before - Skipton in North Yorkshire - was the venue. No great distance from us, probably 45 or so miles depending on where you measure it from, and a busy market town with lots of pubs beckoned. What would it be like? Now, the way we operate, we aim to get to whatever venue it is by around 12 noon. On this chilly but bright Saturday, we were dropped off at the coach park bang in the centre, more or less on the dot of twelve.

On these events, our social secretary usually prepares a list of pubs to visit. These are recommendations, not a route to be followed, as naturally we are all free to wander where we choose, as long as we are back at the announced departure time. The bus does not wait around.  This time our list was around ten pubs and micropubs, and as soon as we were let loose, off we went, dragging our thirsts behind us. Of course, we don't visit pubs mob handed, people deciding with their cronies where and when they'll go first, if at all, but inevitably groups bump into each other and exchange information. That's always handy, and it is great to meet our lot along the way.

Skipton is a great mix of pub types and micropubs, café bars and micropubs, quite a few of which didn't exist on our last visit around four years ago, but my little group started at a couple of old canalside favourites.  These weren't lacking at all on the cask ale front. Another thing is that the town is compact and while there are pubs further out, such was the quality, ambience and friendliness, particularly of the micropubs, that we found ourselves enjoying the places so much, that sometimes a couple of beers were decided upon, so good was the place and company. In fact, we got nowhere near our list of ten before the witching hour of bus departure, but did in fact, on recommendation from fellow topers, venture off-piste with great success. It was a happy bunch of CAMRA members that departed back to Lancashire, although we left with great reluctance.

So, what does this all tell you? Firstly, when cask beer standards are so high - and I didn't hear of anyone getting a duff pint - as a pub or bar, you simply have to raise your standards, or you will be left behind.  Where standards are high, you can shift a lot more beer, which in turn means you can offer greater choice without diminishing quality. This is the virtuous circle that cask beer needs to thrive.

How does this apply elsewhere?  While nothing is certain, it all starts with having exemplary standards in serving cask beer. Do that, and you should get the custom needed to maintain it. Then, hopefully, others will follow. Cask beer dead? Not a bit of it. Just do it well and see how that helps it thrive and survive.

 This is happening in practice in my CAMRA branch area. Rochdale has an increasingly great cask offer - and it has been pretty good for years. There the pubs get together to offer weekly discounts, annual ale trails and more. Bury is up and coming and the Oldham real ale revival is well under way. 

Another point to make was the great welcomes we all had. Locals keen to chat, friendly bar staff and great beer. Dour Yorkshire folks? Not a bit of it. As always, get the offer right, and you are much more likely to succeed.  Get it wrong and you certainly won't.

I haven't mentioned craft beer. When cask is this good, why would you?

Thursday 2 December 2021

Looking for Frogs to Kiss

 Our trip to Helensburgh started well. The journey was pleasant, even allowing for the fact that at Gretna Services, nobody could supply coffee due to water pressure problems. Not that Costa, Burger King or KFC bothered telling anyone. They just let you queue, no doubt in the hope you'd buy something else. One shop though had one of these self serve machines, which did the job. But th'Alfa was in fine form, and we arrived in decent time at our digs.

First time we've used Airbnb, but this was a new architect designed build in a decent location, and it turned out to be just fine. Triple glazed against the Clyde's icy blasts and very well heated and modern, we were snug as bugs in rugs. We unpacked, checked it all out and decided a pint was in order.  We weren't eating until seven, and it was just before five, so why not?  Only one place to go, the Ashton, which was a former local CAMRA Pub of the Year, and which I used to have the odd pint in nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, I have been back plenty of times since.

Three cask beers on offer in this Belhaven outlet. Fyne Ales Jarl, Taylor's Landlord and something else which I have forgotten. Possibly even from Scotland? Not taking notes can be a disadvantage - but I don't look like a dork at least. We had to sign in and wear masks, this being Wee Nic's bailiwick, and we soon got used to it again. The beer was good, I was inadvertently short-changed, which gave rise to a bit of banter when I mentioned it. "She's been doin' it for years Son" and the like. A great start and the subsequent meal was fab, so all was well so far.

Next day after a wander round, we tried a pint in the JDW Henry Bell.  I wasn't confident, but after a couple of duff tasters, I had a pint of The Headstock, a somewhat sweet and insipid pale ale from Redcastle Brewery in Carmyle, which is in the East End of Glasgow. Carmyllie which is apparently in Tayside. I suspect that it might have been just about better -though likely not by  much - if it was turning over. By the time I struggled through it, my pal arrived and she, being a gin monster, it would have been rude not to join her in her preferred potion. E was a willing accomplice and after a swift one - or was it two? - we went to our booked table at La Jupe where a couple of pints of keg Jarl before too much wine, was the order of the day. No cask there.

A freezing cold Scotrail Class 334 took us to Oban the next day. The chillness of the train was somewhat abated by the views and good weather.  But so cold had I become, that our first stop was Mountain Warehouse for an additional layer.  Wisely E had more layers than Scott of the Antarctic.  No real ale at our fishy restaurant lunch stop, or at Aulays Bar, where my first pint of Tennents was from a pub that was a finalist in the best pint of Tennents in Scotland. There at least, was a fine traditional Scottish bar and the beer wasn't too bad either, in a tallest dwarf sort of way.  Seeking that elusive frog to kiss, after we had been shopping, we tried the Oban Inn. No real ale there and hence to the Lorne Bar, where a lonely handpump looked as though it hadn't pulled a pint since the summer. At least. A friendly welcome though, and a nice complete island bar with peculiar colour changing lights was enjoyable.  A sort of subdued Highland disco perhaps? Tennents again for us.

Our last port of call was next to the station. The very impressive Corryvwrekan, a JDW house had plenty of real ale at least. Frog snog it was. I rejected the Orkney Dark Island after a taste and settled on their Northern Light Blonde Ale, which was neither refreshing nor citrusy, as promised on the clip but was - well - knackered - and a complete diacetyl bomb to boot.  Back in a wet Helensburgh after another cold journey we nipped into the Ashton, where again, Jarl restored my faith as we watched Rangers win and some local drunks being pretty obnoxious.

Not much to drink at all the next day as it was curry night with my teetotal sister and brother-in-law.  We did manage a walk to the Belhaven operated Ardencaple Hotel, which we reached after a freezing walk in a howling gale, but a nice chat to locals and decent lager from West sufficed. I did note two handpumps, which while certainly not defunct, were not offering cask at that time.

Saturday took us to Glasgow and the Old Tenement House for a bit of culture. Fab place and well worth a visit and handy for the State Bar, a real ale bastion, where cask drinking is not a strange thing to be doing. Not too busy at one in the afternoon, but it was more than gratifying to see the pumps being used at a rate of knots. Stewart Brewing Citra Blonde was two pints good and if we hadn't been meeting our pal again, would have required more. I paid in cash and I doubt if it was giveaway. It isn't price, folks - it is turnover.

And so a final trip to JDW where I gave up on cask for the week. Redcastle again and I disliked the taste of both the IPA and the Red Ale. Bottles of Brookyn Lager - which was surprisingly good - is it still imported? - filled the gap until our evening meal at the fab and packed Sugar Boat.

Normally speaking, real ale drinking can be a bit of a kissing frogs exercise. Especially in strange territory, it takes a long time to find your prince/princess. Here you had to find your frog first and in what is effectively a real ale desert, this is even more difficult than usual. Turnover is very difficult where you are in a drinking environment where, if you don't sell Tennents Lager, just don't bother opening.

So what do I conclude? This neck of the woods isn't really cask territory at the best of times, so buyer beware.  Be very suspicious of a lone wicket and try before you buy.  Recommended Good Beer Guide places are usually a reasonable bet, but even there, turnover can be a problem and as I always say, cask needs turnover above all. 

Sad to see that Belhaven signage is being relegated to second place by its Greene King owners wherever you go. Greene King is being pushed instead on almost everything printed. If it wasn't for Belhaven Best, there would be nothing at all, really.

It was also clear that the English influence in real ale turnover within Helensburgh was diminished by a lack of winter tourists, and there wasn't too big a Royal Navy presence on our visit. They mop up a fair bit, though there were four English lads getting stuck into the TT Landlord in the Ashton.

In my next blog I'll tell you about somewhere where cask is King and the difference that makes.