Saturday 24 December 2022

In a Neat Little Town

Many years ago when I was working, for a couple of years, I used to visit Belfast probably once a month or so.  I remember then that Special Branch paid a fair bit of attention to travellers, and at Manchester Airport, I was asked more than once for my reason for visiting.  "Business - Government business" was my answer.  I was quick to add that it was Social Security business and that was that. No such problems at Manchester Airport now, but I still find it fun, when asked about why I went to Belfast, to tell people that I used to advise the Northern Ireland Government. Well, I did, but it sounds a lot less impressive when I reveal that it was about how to integrate NI and GB Social Security computer systems.

So, last month we went for a few nights, just for pleasure and in my book, that was going to be trying out a few more pubs than I was able to visit then. Back in the day, my visits to pubs were fairly few and confined, more or less, to those that were near the famous Excelsior Hotel, where I usually stayed. This time, we stayed in a nice hotel in the Botanic area and as we walked from the bus station towards it, I was pleased to note that Great Northern Tower, where I worked, was still there and right next door to the famous Europa Hotel. I didn't remember it being quite so close, though opposite was the Crown Liquor Saloon, which I did.

After checking in, we set off to get the feel of the place and to visit a few pubs, more of which later.  But for now, I'll just mention one or two differences between Nornireland pubs and those in GB. Firstly, they just seem more professionally run. Most of the bar staff aren't teenagers with a combined inability to look you in the eye and the attention span of a gnat, but older men and women who clearly regard bar work as a profession. In short, the service was almost universally great, as was the conversational nature of the transactions.  The pubs varied a lot, but were clean, warm and welcoming. Not exactly like GB pubs, more like in Ireland, without a telly on every vertical surface.

Now what about the beer? Well, you won't be surprised that Guinness is pretty much the leading drink there.  I was though, a little surprised at the lack of imported brands, although there were a few (mostly lagers) from Ireland.  Some from GB of course and surprisingly few local beers at first glance, though I suspect the major brewers have much of the taps tied in one way or another. We started off in Robinsons, a fine big boozer next to the Crown Liquor Saloon. Our choice? Well, Guinness of course - you have to for your first at least don't you, and this was a fine example of what I regard as a pretty unimpressive beer. I had learned before I went there that the gas mix in Ireland - presumably including the North too - is a 75/25 nitrogen to CO2, whereas in GB it is 70/30, making for a less creamy and smooth pint than in Ireland. The atmosphere was good and late on a Tuesday afternoon, the pub was busy with a constant stream of people nipping in for one after work.  

Now I'll return to other pubs in my next post, but my final two observations are one particular one and one more general. Aren't the people there just lovely?  Everyone was so helpful and pleasant, from bar staff to bus inspectors - yes they still have them there  - and  a finer body of ladies and gentlemen you couldn't wish to meet unless you were a fare dodger of course, which we weren't.

And the last point? Belfast City Centre was pretty much like any other British City Centre. If you think it might feel a bit Irish - well, not to my eyes.

Next up Bittles Bar - Did we get thrown out for requesting a half pint?

There are some smashing restaurants around in Belfast too.  Together with great pubs, loads to see and do, and of course, the Titanic Experience, I recommend it highly.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

It Really Was That Good

It is often said that the best beer you have is not necessarily the best tasting, or the most technically competent, or even a combination of these two and other factors such as place and company - and that is very true. An ordinary beer in extraordinary company, or during a fantastic experience, will be remembered far longer than even a top quality beer, especially if the circumstances of that imbibing were themselves pretty unremarkable. Now this isn't of course a hard and fast rule, being more a rule of thumb, which generally applies. In other words, there are exceptions when the outstanding is remembered in a fairly mundane situation.

Thus, last Thursday, I was out with a pal in Manchester. Our respective lasses were imbibing with the Manchester CAMRA ladies, and we felt it incumbent upon us to provide moral support - albeit from a respectable distance. So we met in the City Arms Manchester, a neat little two-roomed pub in the centre, the pal being a regular there. Seemingly they have the Mankley equivalent of a stammtisch (local's table) there, but it wasn't mentioned by him, who has the entitlement, and I wasn't aware of that fact until much later. We therefore sat at a table of my choosing in the back room, after getting our drinks at the crowded bar. But I digress.

Now the bar was busy with the late lunchtime crowd when we got there, and we couldn't see the pumpclips for the lager drinkers standing at the bar - lager drinkers always do this - and you can't readily see the chalkboard in the back room either - stammtisch under it apparently - so seeing a Thornbridge beer, I went for it. Ruby Mild seemed a good choice. I bought it then, when the barman had a moment, I asked him the strength. "6.5%" quoth he.  Well, there was a reasonably long session ahead, so in for a penny etc. Wow.  What a beer.  This ruby tinted dark mild beer was spicy, mouth filling, luscious, fruity, complex and more. It was just gorgeous. No. It was quite simply stunning. So after singing its praises, and savouring it, I had another and would probably have had more if I hadn't had someone wiser than me with me. 

We left for our next pub with me still getting over how good this was.  On the way we bumped into a certain fellow CAMRA Chairman* and I was effusive in my praise of it. I urged him to deviate from his chosen path to try it. But I have the feeling my sage advice was disregarded as he was on a different mission.  We went on our way to other beers and fine though they were, I was still in thrall to Wilder's Folly.

So now that the moment has passed and I have gained a little perspective, what do I think of it? Am I still starstruck by it?  Yes. Without a doubt, it is the best cask conditioned beer I have had this year.

It was called Wilder's Folly and  is a collaboration between Thornbridge and Double-Barrelled Brewery.  According to Dominic Driscoll, brewer at Thornbridge, it was chock-full of invert sugar.  That presumably helped with both strength and mouthfeel.  You can buy it here, but I somehow doubt if the can will ever reach the peak of cask conditioning that gave me such a great drinking experience, so well done City Arms too.

*It was John Clarke, hot footing it to drink a tap takeover by Kernal at Cafe Beeermoth.  The photo was nicked from @BeerFinderGeneral, who gives it equal praise though was cheeky about CAMRA.  I couldn't get near the bar to photo it.

Friday 9 December 2022

Why Is This a Thing?

 On Wednesday, my car was going in for its service and MoT, and it had to be there early. So, duly dropped off at the garage just after a quarter to eight, I could either walk home - twerly for my bus pass - or better still get some brekkie.  It was also perishing, and I'd already spent a bitterly cold quarter of a cold hour defrosting the car, so cups of tea were my priority and as our local JDW was just opening as I walked past, unlimite
d refills beckoned.

Despite me being there on the dot of eight, a couple of other hopefuls were in, but I was first to the bar to place my tea order. The other two were separately selecting their usual prime positions by the windows. My main concern was to get my tea and a seat as far away as possible from the icy blast emanating from the door, so no issues there. The pub started to fill up with faces I recognised from previous visits. Seats were carefully selected and greetings exchanged. I got the odd "Good Morning" too as I warmed up with cups of Tetley. The next half hour passed serenely enough, punctuated only by the odd gale of laughter from the staff breakfasting near the bar.

However, the pace quickened up as the witching hour of nine o'clock approached. I'd moved on to breakfast by then. The usual JDW fare, but it was fine and certainly warmed me up. A few workmen, in for some snap, were added to the regulars who were by now folding newspapers and checking watches. The atmosphere was getting a little more tense as they approached the bar on the dot of nine.  Now in the past my observations were that the John Smiths would flow, but alas, not now.  That is no longer available, and it seems that the replacement,  Worthington Creamflow, does not hit that sacred spot. No, Stella seemed now to be the drink of choice, though one outlier was on Stowford Press Cider.

Now here's the odd bit. Several - well three of the punters including Mr Stowford - returned to their spot alone at their chosen table with two pints each. These were carefully placed in front of them. Why?  Why would you buy two pints for yourself at once in a rather quiet pub, first thing in the morning? I've noticed this before, but not only in the Middleton JDW, but all over the country. I remember, in Nottingham I think it was, a geezer returning from the bar at 9 a.m.with two bottles of Newcastle Brown - as if one wasn't already too many - and elsewhere too, this seems to happen.

So Dear Reader, next time you find yourself in a JDW just after alcohol sales begin, look for this strange phenomenon.   And if you know why they do this, do let me know in the comments.

I thoroughly recommend JDW for early morning people watching.   You can guarantee something of interest.

Another thing. Seems JDW now sell 660ml bottes of Camden Hells.  In this case for a mere £3.69. Anyone seen it elsewhere?

Friday 2 December 2022

It's the Offer Stupid

 Cambridge Dictionary definition of hospitality: The act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors:

We hear so much at the moment about difficult times for the hospitality industry.  Against a background of inflation and wage restraint, it is so obvious that there are major issues. These trials and tribulations are now featuring in mainstream newspapers and radio programmes, as well as, more obviously, trade press, blogs and podcasts.  These difficulties include, among other things, staff shortages, rising prices of everything supplied and sold to the industry as well as, lack of customers due to high prices and domestic and commercial difficulties caused by the effect of the huge increases in electricity and gas.

Of course this applies elsewhere, and the hospitality sector include restaurants, theatres, hotels as well as pubs and social clubs.  My interest, of course, is mainly pubs, so it is to that I turn in this brief post.  Now, I have used the term "It's the offer Stupid" in my blogs before.  I would draw your attention to this post in particular, which dates back to June 2013.  The main thrust of it, in case you can't be bothered reading it, is that back then, a survey said among other things that "People (47%) cite "poor customer service" as one of the main reasons not to go to a pub, along with the unwelcoming atmosphere(44%)."

I am reasonably sure, anecdotally at least, that it is highly unlikely that this generally negative view will have changed too much over the nearly ten years since the survey was taken. Service in pubs remains poor and yes I know the difficulties, but in these very challenging times you'd think that ensuring the customers are made welcome and accommodated as much as is humanly possible would be a very high priority indeed.  You really do need customers to return, so a small training investment in this basic area is really a no-brainer, and to make it even easier, the very people that you wish to convince are themselves customers elsewhere too, so it should be a relatively straightforward point to get across.

Let me give you a few recent examples.  There is a local pub that I don't go to that often, but which has picked up a decent reputation for food, though the wet trade is also a good part of the business, probably round half or so. It is a pub in which people still stand at the bar to drink, although there are plenty of other seating and eating areas.  On my once every two or three months or so visits, it is my experience that when you go in the bar staff are usually, if not actually serving, standing with their backs to the bar, gossiping.  This is quite annoying in itself, but on my recent visit, two different customers called goodbye to the staff with no response whatever.  When my time to leave came, I left unnoticed too, though I had stood at the bar for my two pints. When I worked in the pub, the boss then taught us always to say hello to new customers entering, and to thank them when they left. His simple logic? Make them feel welcome and they'll come back. That was in the times when pubs were bursting at the seams. How much more important is that simple act of appreciation now?  God knows what he'd have thought of not looking outwards from the bar.  It is simple. Look outwards, that's where the money is.

In my recent trip to Belfast, we met a couple of friends in a local brew pub.  They wanted to eat, and we didn't, having had a large hotel cooked breakfast and a meal booked later.  Firstly, it was odd that table service seemed to be mandatory.  Oh well, if that's what it is - fine.  We spent around three hours in there enjoying very good beer indeed, until the server came over to say she was going off duty, and we'd have to pay up.  This was odd, but we asked her to wait a moment while we divvied up the bill. "You can't" she said. "Someone will have to pay, and you can sort it yourselves later." What? There was no choice and to add insult to injury, a 10% service charge was applied as we were a table of four. So, I paid, was duly reimbursed by my pals, and we left, disgruntled and annoyed, for another pub.  

By way of contrast, I met three friends a few weeks ago in a pub in Manchester. We all ate and had several drinks. The friendly barman very kindly even brought drinks over to us old dodderers. When it came time to pay, and we asked to split the bill four ways, he said that as long as it came to the total, it was no problem. He got a good tip too, and we all agree we'll meet there again. 

So the message to pubs is to treat your customers well - they are all of your business. Say hello and goodbye and make life as easy as possible for them. Treat them as welcome guests. They have a choice, you know, and in these hard times, I suspect they will readily exercise it.

Oddly, the first two cases were individual business, while the Manchester example was a brewery managed house.

No such issues in our Belfast hotel, which really was welcoming to customers, as were the majority of Belfast pubs.

Wednesday 30 November 2022

A Quick Thought on Sam's

There has been a lot written recently, and in the near past, about Sam Smiths, or more particularly Humphrey Smith.  Most of this stuff is speculative, as of course Humph, like the royal family, never apologises and never explains.  That doesn't help his case at all, though, as apart from being nearly as rich as the Windsors - the Smiths own a lot of land in Yorkshire and elsewhere - as well as an empire of up to 350 pubs throughout the UK, almost all being freehold. In fact, the number may be more, as I don't believe that anyone in the public domain actually knows the total

But all is not well. I was told, recently, that no fewer than 120 Sam Smith's pubs are closed through lack of people to run them. (You can often find them listed in trade adverts for managers) This is an astonishing number given that all of them are managed houses, and while they attract a smallish salary, not much above minimum wage, but they do have heating, lighting and rent thrown in on top.  This is not an entirely unattractive package in these dodgy times, so why is there a problem in finding the right people to run them? More of that soon.

Let's take a look at what else we know.  Sams' pubs - themselves largely unbranded - sell nothing that isn't made or commissioned by them. All beers, wines and spirits, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings, as well as soft drinks are Smith brand, even if the names are made up by them, or, as in the case of Walker and Scott spirits, owned by them. These and Scintilla Soft drinks are high quality products. Quality of product is rarely an issue with the brewery, and the lack of brands is something that could actually be admired from one point of view.  Make, not buy, still has some adherents.

Sams also brew an astonishing range of mostly keg beers - the sole cask beer being Old Brewery Bitter - and to continue with the idiosyncrasy - this is sold only in wooden casks, with strict turnover criteria deciding whether it can be obtained by a particular pub. Until recently the draught beers were sold at a very cheap price, but this has changed, though price increases elsewhere may well return Sams to its previous pole position.  As an aside, its range of bottled beers has always commanded a premium in the pubs. There is a long-standing and large export trade in bottles, mainly to the US.

The Smith empire is essentially split in two, with the Southern part - maybe it is just London - who knows where the line might be drawn? -  being run by Humphrey's son Sam, and the Northern and bigger chunk being run by Humphrey himself on a somewhat idiosyncratic basis, where his word is law and some would allege, employment law is regarded as advisory (Smiths lose a lot of tribunal and legal cases).

In the North, pubs appear to be run by diktat. When you enter one, prominent notices on the wall advise you not to use electronic devices. Mobile phones are banned and swearing is not permitted. There are no televisions, fruit machines or jukeboxes. No piped music is present and conversation is, again, by notices on the bar,  "encouraged".  Until very recently you could only pay by cash, but this rule has been rescinded and even the use of phones is allowed briefly for this sole purpose.  In London, particularly, use of contactless card payment has been allowed for years. Given the nature of the client base there, it would have been suicidal for the business to do otherwise, but technically at least, the other rules pertain, though perhaps there they apply more in the breach than the observance.

Both in the North and South, Sams run clean and comfortable pubs. They often spend a lot of money reinstating pubs to their former designed layout. They are warm, have a great range of things to drink and all you have to do is observe a few reasonable rules about not effing and jeffing and not make phone conversations inside.

So, what's not to like? Well, there seems to be a downside. Humphrey has been known to descend from Tadcaster and close pubs, immediately with customers still inside, and sack managers on the spot for allowing any minor breach of the rules.  These cases have been documented in the press and include alleged shortfall in stock among other things.  I also believe from web sources that he himself has been the victim of irregular behaviour from his managers and with his low tolerance of misdemeanour, this may go some way to explaining vacancies, as does a culture of fear.  As a former professional manager, I know that is a nil sum game. If you want to succeed, you really do need buy-in from those that make it all work for you. That means being fair and collaborative.

In summary, in aiming to turn the clock back to the non-existent halcyon days of pub going, there is a balance to be struck. Very few pubs back in the day would meet Humphrey's somewhat rose-tinted vision. Most were pretty rum places indeed, and conversations were peppered with epithets and worse. Back in those days, the managers and tenants who ran your pubs for you were also valued in a very different way to nowadays. As my good friend the Pub Curmudgeon remarks here, there is much to admire in Sam Smith's pubs. The trick, surely, would be to keep high standards, without unreasonably blaming those who are forced to apply them if customers transgress against them.

It would also help to be more accommodating to silent use of electronic devices, as would more than a nod to changing times. In this respect, as in other areas, any reasonable person would likely agree that a tweak here and there would benefit everyone without throwing Humph's baby out with the bathwater.

I commend to you other pieces written by the Pub Curmudgeon and Glynn Davis. These will help round off the picture for you. 

This article was prompted by the news that one of the many closed Sam Smith's pubs in our area was said to be re-opening. I'll check it out by way of resuming my pieces on Sam Smiths pubs soon. Here's a favourite example.

Friday 11 November 2022

Drinking Cask in London

Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that I don't drink cask conditioned real ale in London all that often. Let's get a couple of things straight. I love London pubs, not least of all because they very much remind me of how pubs used to be. They are lively and busy, many are unspoilt and haven't had their innards pulled apart in the same way as has happened almost everywhere else - there are exceptions, of course - and they are perhaps surprisingly pretty friendly and generally nice places to be. They have a very mixed clientele, and a general buzz and jolliness which I find attractive. Furthermore, they usually offer a pretty good choice of beer generally, and most tend to sell real ale. What, then, is not to like then, for us casketeeers?  Well, our old friend quality of beer at point of dispense. Many real ales sold are simply not up to my standards, quality wise.

Even allowing for differing dispense preferences - unsparkled beer is the norm - cask beer is often warm, flabby, over vented, under conditioned and served badly by untrained staff. Or a combination of aforementioned serving issues. Despite these obvious shortcomings, the product is still usually sold at over five pounds a pint.  Over the 20 or so years we have owned a flat in London, I have realised that to buy cask beers in random pubs, no matter how attractive they otherwise might be, is often just throwing money away. As an aside, drinking cask in the centre of Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool, Sheffield, York and many more places, is likely going to reward you with a decent price and a reasonable price.  Don't blame me for stating this point. It is just a matter of fact. The downside is that you may well be drinking your splendid pint in less than glorious surroundings, so in some ways, it is a kind of place versus quality thing, though as in London there are exceptions.

I'm not going to list all the places where you get an excellent pint of cask in London - the Good Beer Guide "should" do that, and often does - but even as a CAMRA veteran of 40 odd years, I don't tend to lug the guide about with me, and, secondly, when I am out and about in London, I may not know exactly where I might end up and therefore pop into somewhere pubwise I, or we, like the look of.  That has led to a great few disappointing beers - and I am being kind here - so I tend to drink lager or stout on such occasions, unless I see the wickets being pulled for fun.

Let me give you a recent example.  A couple of weeks ago, I had been out for a wander as E performed her last-ever day of paid work.  After a pint of Anspach and Hobday's excellent nitro porter at Craft Beer - I'm never keen on the cask there - I went to the Sutton Arms in Great Sutton Street (where one can drink cask beer with confidence) and hence via a wondrously confusing Old St - renovations have made this an unsigned maze - towards Commercial Road where I was to meet E.  After a lager in one of our favourites, the Commercial Tavern, I persuaded E to try the Golden Heart, which still bears a large Trumans neon advert and some other external Truman's signage.  We often pass it in summer, when it is usually rammed in and out. It seemed to have been recently cut in half though, with a wine bar being added, but anyway, in we went.

It was moderately busy and had a Heineken bias on the pumps, which meant there was nothing I was keen to drink, but they did have Landlord.  So, against my better judgement, I took the plunge.  Firstly, the barperson filled the glasses via the swan neck from above the glass, resulting in much loose foam. My three-quarter pint was handed to me. I requested a top-up, which again was attempted by filling from above, and the beer (pictured) looked grim.  What could I do?  The lasses behind the bar clearly knew nothing about the beer or how it should be presented, equally clearly nobody had taught them how to pour it. The Landlord wasn't fit for service either, being as green as Ireland on St Patrick's Day. To add insult to injury, the beer was well north of £5 a pint.

This or similar nonsense is still going on all over London, so my friends, that is why I only drink cask beer from trusted venues in the capital. And why premiumisation of cask beer in what is effectively a cask lottery, is a bonkers distraction that should be shunned.

It would have been the work of seconds to show the bar staff how to use a swan neck to dispense beer, and equally the work of seconds to know that the beer wasn't yet ready to be served. If anyone cared, that is - which clearly they did not. (Tip. Landlord needs more time to settle a clear and reach its peak than most cask beers.)

As a matter of interest, I am always wary of Star Inns and Bars (Heineken). Very rarely do they have much worth drinking in my personal opinion.

Friday 21 October 2022

How Much for a Pint of Cask?

We are, it seems, back with the same stuck old record that some trade observers think is still a whizz idea, even though, all things considered, it most likely isn't. Yes, Folks, to solve the problem - more of which in a moment - of how to sell more cask beer - aka real ale.  You know, that stuff - dispensed from a handpump - that is often served badly, being variously too warm, too flat, too vinegary-  and just plain not as the brewer intended. That stuff that experienced advocates of the style rarely purchase in an area or pub they don't know well, for fear of disappointing quality. That's the one. And their solution to declining volumes and poorly presented pints? Charge more for the real ale lottery, but keep the likelihood of winning a prize just the same.

We are told by advocates of this theory, the hoary old myth, that it is so difficult to keep cask beer that it needs the skill of the landlord to be recognised by charging more for it. We are also asked to think that there is little point in selling the stuff when you can make more from other products on the bar - a somewhat unsophisticated argument given the variables involved.  Selling in scale - although specialisms exist - is generally a diverse business, and those selling "things" generally take the view that you can't make the same profit margin on everything you sell, but need to have as broad an offer as possible to attract the widest customer base you can.

In cask beer, the elephant in the room, which is actually as big as the room itself, is that if you cannot guarantee the quality of the product, then you cannot charge more for it.  If you can and your customers will stand for it in these straightened times - then maybe you can up the price a bit, but be aware that even the best have to be careful not to overprice such a short-lived product. Every pint lost, will eat into your profit, so it has to be a careful balancing act.

Beer is such a broad church, and cask beer is one of the most diverse parts of it.  All beer relies on turnover, but cask much more so, as it is fresh and very perishable.  At its best you will get 3 days out of it, so those in the know don't overprice cask beer, as the chances are you won't be able to sell it in good condition.  Cask beer has to be priced to go. Even if you have a more affluent clientèle, paying more than average, you can't overprice it for the reasons stated. That results in poor quality and declining demand as trust goes.

It is odd, too, that while cask volumes may be down, there is still plenty of cask beer in top form available. Specialist pubs, the tied houses of Family Brewers and many more, all supply reliable quality cask beer, often at remarkably competitive prices. In areas that have such competition, you will often find the non-mainstream sellers of cask, have better quality too. They have to compete. There isn't one size fits all where cask is concerned.

This does not even take into account some of the other variables, such as the current cost of living crisis.  Can we really believe those who would tell you that cask ale drinkers will pay more for cask beer as an occasional treat, in the full knowledge if the beer is only occasionally drunk, then it will likely not be a treat at all?  

A final point. Cask ale still costs, on average, less to produce than keg, which relies much more than cask on expensive CO2 in both production and dispense.  The margins aren't likely to be decisive if you turn beer over quickly. Not exactly "Pile it high and sell it cheap", but certainly it needs to shift much more quickly than other draught stock.

Of course, everyone from brewer to publican deserves a decent return on investment, but forget this at your peril. Cask, as a fresh and perishable product, must be priced to go.

I commend to you also recent posts by Pub Curmudgeon on this subject.  He has gone into the figures much more deeply than this dashed off piece allows.

And let's stop this idea that cask is hard to keep. It isn't, as I (and Greene King) point out here, but it does need a little (easy to learn) knowledge.  There isn't in most cases any reasonable reason to sell poor cask beer, but a bit of pride in what you sell wouldn't harm either.


Friday 29 July 2022

A Quick Catch Up





It occurred to me that, with the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF)looming large in my thoughts, a catch-up of what I have been up to wouldn't be a bad idea. 

In Manchester, this week, I was invited to the official unveiling of a new collaboration between JW Lees and Cloudwater Brewery, held at Lees Rain Bar.  The enjoyment of these things isn't wholly the beer - though this was more than interesting - but the chance to meet up with people.  I had excellent chats with Lees MD William Lees-Jones about the industry in general and with Paul Jones from Cloudwater about the crowded craft beer market among other things. Great stuff. My friends from Lees Brewing Team were also on hand to talk about the beer. Yes the beer.  Not Quite Pale... the star of the show, is a DDH beer of 5.2%.  I had it on cask, though a keg version was also available, and if you like your beer bitter, well this is right up your street. I fear though this beer, brewed in Lees Boilerhouse Brewery, might be hard to come by, as only 10 barrels were brewed.  Certainly one to look out for. The Simcoe and Strata hops made their presence felt for sure.

A fine selection of Boilerhouse beers were also on offer and I can say without a doubt that Lees know how to brew a very good lager or three. Manchester Pilsner was a stunningly good beer with a spicy pepper Tettnang finish, while others sang  the praises of Light Lager with its Mount Hood hops.  More of these, please.

So let's move back in time a bit and to my last trip to London a few short weeks ago.  The reason for this visit was to judge beer in the World Beer Awards, which I've been doing for a few years now.  This was the first face to face meeting for some time, and it was notable that quite a few badges hadn't been collected by expected judges. Covid or travel difficulties - take your pick, but it seemed a bit depleted to me.  My fellow judge in our table of two was Pete Brown, and to be fair to both of us, we made a pretty good fist of what we had to do. This kind of gig isn't all a bed of roses, and, by way of illustration, by the time we'd judged a flight of 13 Belgian Style Triples - all brewed in France -we were certainly in need of something a tad more interesting. I'll save my thoughts on beer judging in general to another day, but it was great to see many folks that I knew and that made it worthwhile, as is the opportunity to pit yourself against some very talented beer judges, many of whom are professional brewers.

The night before the beer judging, on this flying visit, I decided to nip down to Farringdon to visit one of my favourite London pubs, the Sutton Arms. I went via Barbican and stepping out from the station on the very direct route to Great Sutton St, I noted that I was passing another Sutton Arms, in Carthusian St. "Two Sutton Arms in one night I thought?" Why not? So after my usual pleasant visit to my "normal" Sutton Arms, I nipped in on the way back.  Let's just say it wasn't a great success, the welcome and service being a lot less than desirable. I actually filled in Fullers online feedback form while I was still there.  Rapidly I received an apology, but you only have one chance to make a first impression and I doubt if I'll go back for the compensatory free pint I've been offered. And in these difficult times, that really is the point. 

By way of contrast, after the beer judging, with a couple of fellow judges we went to another Fullers pub, the Warwick Arms.  Rather an appealing little pub, and there we were greeted with utmost friendliness and charm. The landlady couldn't have been nicer, discussing the guest beer and offering tastings while checking on our wellbeing from time to time. The young bar staff were equally pleasant, and we stayed a lot longer than we intended.  You see, as I always say "It's the offer Stupid". And being nice always works.  

And so to GBBF.  Continuing the theme, I'm looking forward to seeing many people I know and hoping my dodgy knee will stand up to days of serving the thirsty hordes. I'll be working on German and Czech bar as usual, so come and say hello.

 I've had a look at the list of beers in the festival and there are some crackers.  It should be fab.

Don't listen to any moaning about price. For £20 you get a glass, a programme and a couple of halves and the chance to see me.  Compared to the average craft beer festival, we are giving it away!


Friday 15 July 2022

Banging on for Years

The Dear Old Morning Advertiser published an article today about one of my favourite subjects.  Keeping cask beer.  It referred to Greene King joining in a campaign to re-instate cask beer to its rightful place as a unique product.  The article was part of a MA initiative called the Cask Project,  "a bid to re-energise the category and reinstall it in pride of place on the bar of pubs throughout the country."

The MA goes on to say that "Cask beer is in long-time decline and, having joined forces with some of the UK’s leading cask beer suppliers – Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, Greene King, Sharp’s Brewery and St Austell – we want to reinvigorate attitudes within the trade to a product which should be rightly cherished by operators." All well and good, I'd say, though they seem to be aiming this campaign at younger drinkers, who are on the whole distrustful of the product, no doubt through bitter experience of getting a bad pint and being put off for life. The points made and the laudable aims however really do apply to all us cask beer drinkers, whether callow youth or grey haired old devotees.

Now, getting further into this project of good intentions, I was very disappointed to read a rather scant set of tips to keep cask better in the pub. This, by St Austell's Trade Quality Manager, has either suffered from an over vicious edit, or is just not sharp and detailed enough to be of real use. Moving on, I won't go into too much negative comment about premiumisation, except to say that cask beer to be at its best, no matter how good the cellar  keeping is, depends almost wholly on turnover. Assuming the beer is presented as it should be,  that is the key to cask success, and it can rarely be achieved by charging top dollar for a product often served at less than its best.

One thing from Greene King's new head of brewery customer engagement, John Malone in today's piece that I thoroughly agree with though, is the statement from Greene King that "Younger drinkers aren’t choosing cask and if we can’t guarantee there’s a 99.9% chance of getting a perfect pint every time then we’re not doing ourselves any favours."  With the proviso that it applies to all of us drinkers, well said. Happily, I can report that the rest of his article which can be read here is brimming with good stuff.  I was particularly struck by the fact that new Greene King licensees are all given a comprehensive cellar management course - I wonder if the existing one are -  and the general good sense contained in the article. Logically, you now know that if you get a duff pint in a GK pub, you can refer the case John Malone. 

Finally, in this unusual peon of praise to Greene King, can I commend to you one final thing. John says; "I think there’s a perception that cask is a really difficult product to keep, but that isn’t the case. There can be a few key things that can lead to less-than-perfect quality pints being served over the bar, but if you get the basics right, it really isn’t that hard at all."

Exactly what I have been saying for years. Just have a look through blogs passim for evidence of that.

I really hope that GK and the others supporting this initiative carry on with what they are doing.  Such a campaign needs ongoing support.

I recommend to you also this fab video by Black Sheep Brewery and Maisie Adams. If you haven't seen it, be sure to do so. If you have, be sure to tell others about it.

Friday 1 July 2022

Two Fab Pubs

 I had a couple of pints with an old mate of mine yesterday. As this was to be an uncomplicated affair, we met outside the Lower Turk's Head in Shudehill, at my request. You see, I rather fancied a pint of Joseph Holt's Mild and there it is sold. Now the LTH is a fairly recently acquirement by Messrs Holt, and it has been done up rather traditionally, and rather well too, in my opinion.  Of course, such makeovers and purchases must be funded, therefore it is by no means cheap by Holt's standards. In fact, a pint of mild was a rather pricey £3.95. This for a 3.2% beer. Oh, well. The weather was decent enough and as we supped and chatted, we watched the comings and goings of the bus station opposite, and the many passers-by. The beer was in excellent condition and the outside eating conducive to contentment, so to even things up, we had another.

Now just a few doors away is the much adored Hare and Hounds, one of the finest traditional pubs in Manchester.  No mild on there, but Joseph Holt's fine bitter at a mere £2.90 a pint. A not unwelcome saving of £2.10 a round. This was in even better nick - in fact remarkably so given that the mild earlier was no disappointment, and we enjoyed a few pints together in the company of a fellow CAMRA worthy of our long-standing acquaintance, who had just popped in for one.  Service here is swift and friendly, as indeed it was in the LTH.  Now, what point am I making? I'm not really sure, but I suppose it is that a quirk of free versus tied trade pricing, allowed us to drink Holt's beers much more cheaply than in an adjacent Holt's house.

So which did I prefer? Beerwise? The Bitter was superb and the Mild not far behind. Pubwise? Well, possibly the Hare and Hounds, as it is the kind of pub that is all too rare these days - a simple drinking house - unchanged, and none the worse for that - even on an afternoon sans geriatric cabaret.* But don't let the price put you off drinking Holt's Mild or other fine Holt's beers in the Lower Turk's Head.  It is all good stuff, and it's a smashing pub in its own right.

In fact, go to both. You won't regret visiting either one.

We watched some shocking and blatant littering too. Some Manchester citizens should be ashamed of themselves. My companion shouted at them to no avail, but at least nobody stabbed us.

Factoid. Within a five-minute walk from there, you can sample beer from all Manchester's large brewers - Holts, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons. 

* Enquire within.

Friday 10 June 2022

Trouble Brewing, Trouble Selling

It is obvious these are difficult times for many small brewers and for many of those that try and sell the stuff. The press is full of tales of those who are giving up the trade and handing the keys back, overcome by high fuel prices, high rents and lack of customers.

This week, following the Jubilee celebrations, I was returning a container to a well-known and established local brewery, and stopped for a chat with the owner. "How's things?" I asked.  His face grimaced. "Bad, Peter, bad!" he replied.  He went on to describe the current situation.  Pubs which used to take two or three eighteens a week were now taking only one or two nines. Fuel to power the brewery has gone through the roof, the cost of diesel fuel to deliver the beer is frightening and loads are less than he'd like, making the overall trip less than economic. The cost of ingredients is also increasing to add to a difficult picture.  

Undercutting by other small brewers is also playing a part. When he rings regular customers, the phones are often not answered. Nobody likes saying no - so just don't answer the phone is the easy way out - especially if they are buying cheaper and poorer elsewhere. To add to the woes, those who owe him money - long-standing customers in many cases - who he doesn't want to press too hard - are very slow to pay for the beer. He is owed more money than he is comfortable with. All in all, things are not so good.

On the other side of the coin, I spoke a couple of weeks ago to the owner and operator of  a small chain of pubs in our area. He tells me that the number of customers has never really recovered from the lockdown. Many customers, he thinks, have simply got used to drinking at home and with cost of living rises bearing down, the discretionary few pints in the pub are simply pushed to the bottom of spending priorities.  Where customers do come, they come less often and drink fewer pints. An equally depressing picture.

In my own experience, pubs are less busy than they used to be, though of course this varies. My recent trips to London, for example, have seen pubs rather busy and while prices are higher than the most of the rest of the UK, with a bigger return to work, a tradition of after work drinking and predominant use of public transport, as well as bigger salaries are probably having an offset of sorts that you don't find elsewhere.  I know, for example, that my teatime visits to pubs in my area, seem a lot quieter than they used to.

Looking at the Morning Advertiser and other trade press, the horror stories are there for all to see. The cost of running pubs is ever-increasing and while the gouging of operators by pub companies is less conspicuously reported than it used to be, I do wonder how anyone makes money running a Heineken pub, for example. But they are not alone. Sadly, too, it isn't just those that are new to the trade that are suffering, with previously successful lessees giving up the ghost.

So what is to be done? Frankly, I don't know, but one thing is for sure. Use it or lose it just doesn't apply to pubs, but many of our beloved small brewers. Some have already turned their toes up, and more will surely follow. Get down the pub while you still can.

I also maintain that there are far too many breweries chasing too few accounts in a falling market. Sadly, though, it isn't always the worst breweries that take the knock. 

Oh, and prices. They have to go up due to increases elsewhere, but while that is almost certainly so, it will also put another nail in the coffin. A bit of a perfect storm, or more appropriately, a vicious circle.

 Image used  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Tuesday 26 April 2022

Wetherspoons. Good or Shite?

I inadvertently started a sort of flame war on Twitter the other day. I innocently called into my local Spoons the other day after a few pints of Holts and Lees.  I took a photo - this photo - which seemed to kick off a lot of angst.

It seems that many of the Twitterati retain a visceral hatred of JDW, even if they up their cask game beyond the "usual suspects".  In a tirade reminiscent of a Usenet Flame War came the sort of comments that are all too often flung about where Wetherspoons are concerned.  You can look for yourself to see what exactly was said, but the same old clichés were trotted out. Let's list a few:

"They buy nearly out of date beer; they are sucking the life out of every High Street; they are loss leading cask beer; they are screwing brewers by forcing them to sell at under fifty quid a nine; £2.10 is an unsustainable joke even before the recent huge increases in EVERY aspect of producing beer;"

You get the picture. Of course, added to the general tirade about Wetherspoons, were the usual attacks on CAMRA and its members for daring to a) offer and b) use 50p vouchers.  Another theme was that brewers are devaluing their own products by selling to Wetherspoons and further shooting themselves in the arse by doing so at unsustainable prices.  I particularly liked this post - countered by Cooking Lager. One can almost feel the spittle flecks:

So what is the truth here?  Like many things, it is complicated. Let's all remember that JDW didn't fall from the skies as a fully formed company of nearly 1000 pubs. Owner, Tim Martin, started with one pub and slowly built his empire. Back then, as far as I recall, the company always used its buying power to keep prices down and attract a wide base of customers on the" pile it high and sell it cheap" model.  I assume as business picked up and the number of outlets increased, their buying power also increased.  This essentially is the model that most supermarkets use. They don't have high profit margins, but they squeeze their suppliers to maintain value to customers. It isn't new at all.  

Back on Twitter, I was moved to respond by naming what I called "the elephant in the room":

I suppose that the argument that brewers are devaluing their own product is some kind of abstract, perfect world thought, as the evidence, rather is that many breweries - most breweries - are not so indignant about the issue that they won't sell. The inconvenient truth is that they are all scrabbling for outlets and the real reason for their supplying JDW, is that if they don't, someone else will.  There are a lot of brewers out there with beer to sell. Likely there are more brewers than we really need to supply the market, but nobody likes to admit it. Oh, and JDW pay the agreed price promptly.  You make beer - you have to sell it. Not much outrage there.

Another inconvenient truth, that we must remember, is that selling cask ale is a quite small part of JDW business, but it accounts for a lot of cask beer. JDW does not make much of its money from cask and if they suddenly ceased to exist - or decided not to sell cask at any price, the problem of over-supply wouldn't go away.  There wouldn't suddenly be sunny uplands where cask beer will be sold at £140 a nine and all breweries would live on milk and honey. Rather, even more of them would have to cease trading. Be careful what you wish for.

So back to the hatred, by some of Wetherspoons. What's really behind it? Yes, they are a big company that force prices from suppliers to be lower than some would like, but unlike, say, certain other pub companies who also buy cheaply, they pass the savings on to customers. Bad people?  There is undoubtedly, too, a certain snobbery aspect. This will be vehemently denied, but really, many rather look down on ordinary people being comfortable with their peers in an environment that they can afford. Better by far they should learn to improve themselves and save up to buy expensive murk in a tin shed or railway arch. That would improve the beer market and give more money to deserving brewers, rather than to the ingrates flogging to Wetherspoons.

So are JDW saints or villains? I'd venture neither. They fulfil a need, and they keep mash tuns full.  You also have to remember two basic facts. Nobody has to go there and nobody has to sell to them, but should you really despise and demean those that do? 

What is/was Usenet? Usenet (/ˈjznɛt/) is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet is culturally and historically significant in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ", "flame", sockpuppet, and "spam"

Back in the old Usenet days in the 1980s, we (semi jokingly) boiled things down a bit when discussing beer. Was it good, or was it shite? Hence this blog piece title.

Saturday 23 April 2022


 Before it fades from my mind entirely, I thought it worth mentioning the CAMRA Annual Conference and Members Weekend, which took place in early April at this venerable seaside town.  I hadn't been to Eastbourne for many years - the last time in the mid 1980s as a Trade Union Delegate-  and oddly enough held in the same venue. It would be good to say that I remember it well, but frankly, not a single thing - not even the Winter Gardens - had left the least impression on me. It was simply as if I'd never been there before. Furthermore, it was somewhat gratifying that E, who accompanied me, could remember nothing about it either. Ah, well. Not just me, then.

 There hadn't been a "live" meeting for a couple of years, and I hadn't clapped eyes on many of the attendees for some time. I think it's fair to say none of us looked any better for the rest. You could see, apart from the odd few, that CAMRA's demographic time bomb, was all too obvious.  Mind you, none of that made the old buggers - me included - any less lively, and debates and motions were vigorously participated in.  The accompanying Member's Bar - a mini beer festival - was well attended, and the beers from the surrounding areas, were all in good nick. A mixed lot if I'm honest, and the lack of dark beers was soon evident as they all ran out first.  Incidentally, it was noted at the recent more local (to me) Oldham Beer Festival, that dark beers seem much more popular at this kind of event than pale. Fortunately, Oldham had anticipated this, and had plenty to go round. Maybe it is a Northern thing, though I tend to doubt it?

The Eastbourne Organisers had done a good job with the handbook and many useful local pub crawls were detailed.  If I have to be honest, the pubs of Eastbourne - again, none of which I remembered -  were a bit of a mixed bag. Some were surprisingly grungy. One or two wouldn't have been out of place in Gibraltar and if you've been there, you'll know that isn't a compliment, though some were actually rather good.  You certainly had to have a liking for Harvey's Bitter, which seemed to be in every pub. Well near enough.  My pick of the bunch was probably the Dolphin on South Street, though a few veteren

eyebrows were raised at the way one barperson splashed the beer one handedly into a resting glass from the handpump.  But that's a quibble. This was a proper pub, with regulars and visitors and a great atmosphere. Beer in Eastbourne was mostly around the £4 mark, as indeed it was in the Member's Bar. Quality was variable, though generally not bad. We also liked the Marine, which had fantastic bar staff and a really fine pub grub menu. And Harvey's of course.

The town itself is very spread out, and if, like me, you attended all the meeting sessions, it was hard to check everywhere out, though I have little doubt some either did, or tried to.  As always, these gigs are best remembered for the chance to meet old friends, and that we did. I moved one motion and seconded two, all of which were passed, so that wasn't bad. It was all rather good fun.

We stayed two nights, and that was probably enough for me. Despite its reputation as a retirement area and its fine promenade and pier, I doubt if I'll be spending my dotage there. There's only so much Harvey's a man can stand.

I also liked the Bottle Grove, where a lot of the Manchester Crew congregated on the Saturday night. No real ale as such, but it was a jolly little place, with a great host, and the Keykeg was just fine for a change.

The other beer encountered more than once was from Long Man, including at the Stage Door next to the meeting venue. Sorry, but not a fan either and, you've guessed it, the other option was Harvey's. The beer here was in good nick though.

We stayed at the View Hotel, which was excellent and just a two-minute walk from the conference venue. That was wise.  The weather was very kind too, which allowed E and some others, to ascend Beachy Head.  Alas I missed out on this undoubted treat.

Tuesday 29 March 2022

High Standards. Still Paying Off

When asked about how a pub can make the most of itself, I usually paraphrase Bill Clinton, who when campaigning for President, when asked the most important thing about governing America answered "It's the economy, Stupid".  My paraphrase is, "It's the offer". I don't add "Stupid" though. Well, not generally.  

You would think it obvious that when running a pub, the main consideration would be how best to present the pub to attract the maximum number of customers of the desired type wouldn't you, but amazingly, to this writer at least, that often doesn't happen.  That isn't wholly  the point of this particular piece, though, but it does show the value of getting it right.

The Swan with Two Necks in Pendleton was the CAMRA National Pub of the Year in 2014.  It is a neat little place near Clitheroe in the village of Pendleton. Slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the small detour, if like me, you are on a coach that is going to Clitheroe anyway.  I was with my fellow imbibers from our CAMRA Branch and in the time-honoured fashion we were due at the Swan, by arrangement, shortly after opening time.  There were, I think, about forty of us on the coach and our social guru had arranged in advance, for those requiring it, a lunch of sandwiches and chips.  We'd opted out, as such an early lunch was not needed, but after the warmest of greetings and pints being selected -  we were shown to a marquee in the garden where (for a fiver a head) a veritable feast had been laid out.  This was quality and worth every penny, judging by the oohs and aahs of the participants.

The bar staff, in what soon became a very busy pub (apart from us) were fantastic. They dealt with the thirsty influx with cheerful calmness and control and somehow, we were all served very quickly. The beer range - see photo - was an absolute delight and was immaculately presented, while the landlord and landlady oversaw it all with smiling efficiency.  I recognised the boss, Steve Dilworth, as shortly after the award in 2014, I'd visited the Swan and interviewed him on behalf of the On Trade Preview magazine, for whom I'd been commissioned to write an article on what made an award-winning pub.  I wrote then, "Steve runs a pub that works for him and his customers. He exudes the warmth and welcoming attitude that you hope for in a pub, but don’t find often enough.  If you had to sum up his offer, it is a balanced one that has evolved rather than been devised. At the Swan you get a genuine welcome, good beer, good food (in generous portions) and a pub which is the centre of the community. It goes without saying that the beer is above reproach in its quality and condition." 

It was good to see that almost eight years later that same warm welcome and high standards were still there for all to see. I think it's fair to say that many of us, despite the attractions of Clitheroe, would have stayed there all day. And you can't really have a much higher compliment than that.  We all left with a degree of reluctance, with Steve thanking us and coming out to wave us off.  

The line-up of beers was particularly well-chosen.  But what a dilemma. White Rat, Harvey's Best and Fyne Ales Jarl. How on earth do you pick the bones out of that when you only have limited time?

 I won't do a pub crawl report of Clitheroe, but it is well worth a visit, with a few decent micropubs, the massive Bowland Beer Hall and to me, the pick of the bunch, the New Inn - a proper old-fashioned pub with a great range of beer in top condition.


Wednesday 9 March 2022

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

There is quite a lot of unseen business in campaigning for real ale.  I know many view the organisation as  merely a glorified drinking club, which, of course, to an extent it is, but there is much valuable work done behind the scenes in the vital area of information gathering.

It is a priority of our Branch to update all the information for the large number of pubs we have in our area. That will mean that the drinking public that use WhatPub - CAMRA's national database of pubs  - will have the most up-to-date information possible. While we try to keep everything as recent as we can, we do tend, naturally, to concentrate on the real ale pubs and clubs in our area. As a matter of interest, we look after approximately 350 pubs and clubs selling real ale across the boroughs of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury, with funnily enough the three areas all have a third or so each. Despite our 2100 members, as you can imagine the task of updating, falls to a few dedicated souls.

Thus, it was I found myself checking up on a long-standing real pub that had been reported as reverting to keg only.  This is a pub that was first a beerhouse in 1860 and only became a fully fledged public house in May 1960.  I rather think that in all the time it has sold beer, it has been sold in either bottled form, or more likely,  as cask conditioned real ale.  Alas, no more.  A very amiable chat with the landlady revealed that she switched to keg on re-opening after Covid-19.  I expressed surprise and with a pained expression she explained, that put simply, over the years and exacerbated by Covid, most of the bitter drinkers had died off and not been replaced. This had resulted in her having to throw away rather a lot of beer. Over time, with no improvement, she realised that she simply couldn't afford this, hence the move to the smooth version.

Looking around me in this neat little street corner local, there were, perhaps, a half dozen people around the bar at 5.30 p.m.  All were drinking pints of lager.  I sympathised with her predicament, and she assured me it was a very reluctant step and maybe one day, things will change.  I replied that I hoped so and left. She was a smashing woman.

There used to be a pub like this on almost every corner, but things have changed so much, that this is no longer the case.  Bigger, brighter establishments have more chance of survival these days, and the corner street or mid-terrace local, where everyone once went, is struggling.  Are bitter drinkers getting older? Well, of course, everyone is, but are these pubs that many describe as boring old men's places going to survive in any great numbers? The older customers that they rely on won't be around forever, in this kind of pub, they just aren't being replaced. Cask beer relies on volume and turnover. If that isn't there, then its presence will always be in jeopardy.

When you see so many closed little corner street pubs that used to be thriving with locals, I for one, am glad that I lived through an era that, while perhaps not the highest point of pub going, was at least when they were, more or less, all seemingly doing well. These buzzy little boozers, alive with banter and familiarity, gave me a lot of pleasure and thinking on, they still do, and I'd miss them if they all went in favour of some of the souless places they call "pubs" today.

So will they survive? It is a difficult question to answer, but looking at the evidence objectively, though some undoubtedly will, for many,  it doesn't feel that way at all.

I'm not naming the pub. That would be unfair. A landlady that made a very good impression on me is doing her best for her business.  That's exactly what she should be doing.

Yes, I do feel sentimental when I think back and when you look at the problem I outline and the people who still drink in them, you can't be optimistic.  The title of this piece tells you that I think not only will many of these pubs be gone all too soon, but those that survey and write about them won't be, relatively speaking, that far behind. 

The photo is from a picture we have in our kitchen.  It seemed appropriate.

Thursday 3 March 2022

Goodbye to Dave Bailey

I'd never been to Millom before.  For those that don't know where it is Millom, according to Visit Cumbria, it is, "a town and civil parish on the north shore of the estuary of the River Duddon in southwest Cumbria, historically part of Cumberland, England. It is situated just outside the Lake District National Park, about six miles north of Barrow-in-Furness and 26 miles south of Whitehaven" Sadly, on immediate inspection, it isn't the most attractive of places, but last Friday, along with my pal Graham who is familiar with these parts, it was where we found ourselves. The reason? To pay our last respects to the great guy who was Dave Bailey, formerly of Hardknott Brewery who had sadly passed on after a very tenacious fight against cancer, detailed on Facebook.

Now, this isn't a eulogy about Dave. Knowing him, he wouldn't have wanted that, but it would be somewhat amiss if I don't mention a few things about him. Many may remember him as not only a fine brewer, but a well known blogger who was active in the British Guild of Beer writers. Before he was a publican and chef (it was there, at the Woolpack Inn at Hardknott Pass that I believe he set off on the brewing path.) Oh, and  he was an electronics engineer, mountaineer and probably a lot more I don't know about. A bit of an all-rounder really and, of course, a family man and a real genuine guy.

Some might say he was an opinionated bugger. Well he was, but he was more often right than wrong and prescient about the beer scene in many ways. His views about cask versus keg, the crowded market for breweries against a shrinking pub market - his ultimate reason for quitting brewing - his relative dislike of CAMRA and SIBA, his views on the beer tie, on beer duty, on sexism in beer are still great reads and relevant today. His blog is still up on t'interweb and I commend it to you. Dave and I didn't always see eye to eye, but we got on like a house on fire in our blogs and in real life. It was always a delight to see him.

So back to Millom. We had an hour to kill before Dave's requiem and wake, so we went to the nearest pub.  The Bear on the Square was rather busy at around three on a Friday afternoon, but the odd thing was everyone apart from us two were women. Well, there might have been a couple of children who weren't, but you get the picture. The woman behind the bar greeted us in a very pleasant fashion and, discerning from our careful perusal of the pumps that we were cask ale types, offered us tasters of the two beers available. No great shakes, I'm afraid, and we settled for something from Cross Bay as the least bad option.  This was supped quickly amid a cacophony of wailing as one of the running about children collided with a hard surface. 

We still had time to walk the ten minutes or so to the Devonshire Arms, a pub which looked to have been decent once, but seemingly had been on the wrong end of a poor makeover. We drank an ordinary pint of Hobgoblin Gold as a local gleefully remarked that he had identified us a real ale types from a distance as we approached the pub.  We grinned back while secretly hoping he choked on his keg Tetley Mild.  In all probability, he was just keeping us talking while his mates were round the back building the wicker men for us.

Dodging that bullet, we headed back to the wake venue, the Millom Palladium, a neat little theatre near the station. People were gathering and after buying a couple of pints of something murky from Fell Brewery - not bad actually - we were warmly greeted by Ann, Dave's partner who was delighted to see us. Then followed a very touching event with readings from Dave's children and brother and a couple of appearances in film from the lad himself, playing the piano, the guitar and an astonishing singing performance in an amateur production. With the addition of photos of him through the years, including on the top of Mont Blanc and his swansong performance in the same theatre a couple of weeks ago, we were left in wonder at the sheer talent and enthusiasm of the man.

At about six, there was a break for food and chat. Our train was at seven, and we said our goodbyes to the people we knew and, of course, Ann. She advised us that we should help ourselves to some Hardknott bottles, which were in boxes under some tables. Tempting though this was, we confined ourselves to a bottle each and a Hardknott glass. For me, Colonial Mayhem and for Graham, Rhetoric.  Had we known about the journey ahead, though, we might well have taken more.

Now the plan was to nip into Tesco for train beers, hop on the 19.05 to Barrow and thence directly to Manchester. We had reckoned without Northern Rail though, who cancelled the Barrow train and, for good measure, the next one. Enquires at Barrow revealed a one-hour wait, a Northern train to Lancaster, catch an Avanti to Preston and then a Northern train to Manchester.  Fortunately there is a rather decent pub just outside Barrow Station, thus it was we found ourselves in the Lancaster Brewery's Duke of Edinburgh, which on a Friday night was busy, with Graham, who used to work in Barrow, inevitably meeting an old pal.  The beer and atmosphere was good, though, and the rest of the journey(s) passed in a pleasant haze of Jaipur and red wine. It was nearly midnight before the train got to a deserted Piccadilly, and a bit more until I got an Uber home.

For some, Dave was a bit of an awkward sod at times, but when involved in the industry, he thought a lot about the place of beer in society, the industry itself and how things fit together. I guess his engineer background prompted that approach. As mentioned above, I thoroughly recommend a read of some of his stuff. The issues analysed at length by Dave  haven't gone away and indeed, since the pandemic, have probably worsened.

I am so glad I went to Millom to pay my last respects, and respect him I did. We had many interactions over the years, and every one for me at least, was a pleasure. His epic fight against cancer, and his will to squeeze every ounce out of life, is a lesson to us all.  He is gone, but his beaming smile when we met will always be here in my mind.

Dave started blogging not long after me. Here's what he said on 24th November 2008. "Firstly, Hoppy Birthday Tandleman - It's not the blog authors birthday you understand, just his blogs first year. I have Tandleman to thank in part for helping me find my way in the blogging world by comments on my blog, and putting up with my comments in reply to his writings. Another blogger who has helped me is Jeff Pickthall, who regularly puts up worthy issues for discussion and provokes Tandleman into interesting counter comment."  I am glad to say Jeff was also present in Millom".

I couldn't resist nicking the photo above from Dave's blog.  I think he'd want to be remembered that way! 

Thursday 17 February 2022

London. Back in the Cask Game?

Those that know me will be aware that in my trips to London, I rarely drink cask unless I'm absolutely sure of the venue's bona fides. This has come of long experience, where, particularly in the warmer months, it just isn't worth the risk.  Even in winter where cellars are naturally colder, over venting of casks, old tired beer, lack of cooling and the like is such a dispiriting problem that I generally just don't bother.

We hadn't been back in Tandleman Towers South since November and were well overdue a visit, so we went last week and after the tedious task of checking the many rooms (3) for issues (0) we decided for a change to head to Farringdon for a couple of pints.  Our destination was the Farringdon Tap, a place that has been open for a while, but which we hadn't yet been to.  I'd already mentioned on social media that we'd be coming, but it was particularly rewarding that the Boss Man of the owners, Bloomsbury Leisure, had taken the time to meet us and have a chat. I've met Jon before in Manchester in the company of his mate, the legend that is Stonch, so despite me not immediately recognising him, we were off to a flying start.  

The pub was pretty well bustling, which was good to see, and offered a decent number of beers from a steel wall behind the bar. On this occasion, the only cask was Thornbridge Lord Marples and knowing that all Jon's pubs keep their cask well, I had no hesitation in ordering it. It was in excellent condition and as we chatted the need for another became apparent. A great start. One or two things emerged from our chat. First we talked about the new Victoria Tap at Manchester Victoria Station, which should be open in April. This looks to be a splendid venue, with a decent outdoor space, so will be a great addition to the area. The other piece of info is that Jon will be opening another pub near Tandleman Towers South. If you know the area where I rest my ancient bones while in London, you should easily guess how it will be named. Jon then got the call to get himself home from his better half, and as we were keen to be off on another tip, it was well-timed, but it had been very pleasant.

Our next port of call was the Sutton Arms in Great Sutton St, and despite going the long way round - thanks Google Maps - this proved another worthwhile visit. On a Tuesday night, this was absolutely rammed and had a great atmosphere. It was the sort of place you warm to immediately. I had no hesitation in ordering  Five Points Pale and this was in fine nick too.  The barman was very welcoming, but even better, the landlord himself, ushered us to two stools at the end of the bar which had a reserved sign in front of them. "Sit here." he said with a wink. "This is my perch, but you have it".  Fab.  We had a great chat with him - an old school type who I took to right away. His son ran the bar, and amazingly, recognised me and gave me a couple of tasters while we chatted about beer.  Of course, we had another and will be back. A great pub.

On Wednesday, we met an old pal from our neck of the woods for dinner. Beforehand, we warmed up in the Woodin Shades, a Nicolsons pub opposite Liverpool Street Station. Guinness for the pal, Pilsner Urquell for E and for the by now emboldened Tandleman, London Pride, which again was in great condition and enjoyable. 

Thursday saw a little culture with a visit to the Imperial War Museum, with the inevitable trip to sample Harveys in the  deserted Royal Oak.  Just one pint as we were meeting BSF colleagues for a quick one in Fuller's Parcel Yard. They were returning to Yorkshire after a week down South. Again rammed and disappointingly, only London Pride was available - even more so when the lads mentioned it was exactly the same the previous Sunday when they had lunch with John Keeling. Surely they can do better than this? Nonetheless, the Pride was good, and they did put ESB on in time for my second and final pint. 

That wasn't quite it for this visit. On the recommendation of the BSF lot, we nipped over to the King Charles 1, where there wasn't even elbow room. Forcing my way to the bar, I ordered the first cask beer I saw. No idea what it was, but you know, it was great too.

What conclusions do I draw? Well, cask beer seems to be making a post Covid renaissance in London, with the possibility that the reduction in the number of beers offered has resulted in better quality. Pubs were very busy too, so the after work London thing is making a comeback.  All in all, encouraging. 

Our post meal drinks after our meal with our pal - Guinness for him of course - were Litovel Pils from the Czech Republic. No cask in this handy pub (Barley Mow, Curtain St), but it was very enjoyable all the same.  I also had a pint of mediocre cask (Dark Star) in the Oliver Conquest near our flat, but really you should drink gin there. 

And cyclists! At night they have such dazzling lights that  make seeing what's behind each difficult. E was nearly wiped out, as her vision when it is dark, isn't tip-top. Just watching  them in traffic, generally,  is a shitshow of dangerous speedy cycling