Friday 15 September 2023

Book Review - Cask by Des De Moor

The subject of cask conditioned beer is a complex and broad one and to tackle it, Des De Moor has written a comprehensive and extensive book about it. At 334 pages, it covers a wide array of beery topics, presented as a series of chapters with subject titles and a narrative about each. 

 Let's start with the introduction in which the author sets out his aims and objectives, which, broadly, are to describe the product and its history and to fill in gaps that may not be covered elsewhere. It's a big ask and a look at the bibliography and list of those spoken to or interviewed shows the seriousness with which the subject has been approached, and here is the first observation. This is rather serious book. Didn't all those interviewees have some good stories to relate as well as words of wisdom?

At the beginning of the book, the author, in his first paragraph, sets out why cask beer is "unique" and" unmatched by any other".   He concludes by quoting Mark Dorber, a cellarman of some repute, about what we'd lose if we lost cask beer, which is the joy of being in touch with something living.  These are both sets of wise words, and neatly and succinctly bookend the content between them, and are probably the most important sentences in the book.

In many of the following chapters there is an inevitable crossover to beer history and to the techniques of brewing and if you are not already familiar with the art of brewing, these will be of interest, as are the explanations of cask size, filling, returning and the many aspects that make cask beer different from keg or other beer.  The chapters on cellar keeping are meticulous in their accuracy and are recommended as pretty much definitive, though on the downside, may inadvertently give the reader the idea that cask is a much more complicated beast than it is, a possible problem if you are already inclined to think of cask as a difficult to deal with. Whatever your point of view, you will certainly learn a lot about cask beer from these chapters.

There are also strong chapters on what makes cask, cask, and cask beer styles, flavour and taste, though a tendency to over explain creeps in, for example by discussing at fair length beers that should never be presented in cask form.  (Though it is good to say that not all beer suits cask conditioning). 

Controversial subjects include unfined beer and acceptable levels of haze, but skate over the potential damage done to traditionally clear cask beer that gave rise to the doubtful response, often given to punters in the pub, "It's meant to be like that" even when that isn't so.  Rightly the effect of poor presentation is discussed and the difference between live beer and cask beer, which causes no end of difficulties within CAMRA and elsewhere is mentioned, as is the rise of craft beer and its inevitable effect on cask.  The chapters on food and cask beer outside the UK are probably unnecessary, and much of the history could do with a sharper edit. In fact, this is a theme throughout, as the book itself is probably overall a bit too long.

Moving on to recent history and the future of cask, while merger mania is discussed and the Beer Orders mentioned, there is little reference to just how far the cask beer revival had come in the late 1970s and 1980s where throughout the country, both regional brewers such as Greenall Whitley, Shipstones, Morland and many national brewers, particularly Allied (who set up separate cask chains such as Walkers on Merseyside and Holt Plant and Deakin in the Black Country) were pumping out vast quantities of cask beer. Others large brewers like Courage also produced cask in volume. With Independent Family Brewers still flying the cask flag, as they do now, the rise of lager apart, this was peak cask and more could be made of it in the book. 

Then cask beer was mainstream and most that drank it just thought of it, if they thought of it at all, as beer. Not cask beer, not traditional beer, but just beer. And peak cask continued until the Beer Orders separated pubs from brewing, with dire consequences for both cask and the beer industry; a separation which still casts a long shadow today. The author recognises this as the law of unintended consequences, but he could have expanded, to good effect, the devastating effect on cask beer production and subsequently on beer quality, the cost of a pint and much more. 

As I mentioned before, we get little by way of a look at cask beer from the consumer point of view. Where are the uplifting stories from pubs, brewers and importantly drinkers? While craft in its current form may be the younger drinkers' discussion topic of choice under railway arches, cask has always been the social lubricant of the traditional pub goer, to whom the beer is important as an accompaniment to fun, rather than the fun itself - particularly when you could simply ask for bitter, and depend on your local pub or brewery to supply you with a decent pint. What happened to these famous cask beers such as Bass, Ind Coope Burton Ale, Tetley Bitter, Boddingtons and more, that you could depend on?  We could have been told, and a few anecdotes and a bit of background would have lightened and balanced the book.

Referring to the future, there is the unanswered question that if cask is in dire trouble as production figures suggest, why does it thrive in, for example, the likes of Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Derby, Nottingham - and even rural Lancashire and Yorkshire? Can we not learn lessons from them? The question is mentioned, but not explored, though one solution mooted strongly is that the answer to cask's woes is to charge more for the product. This unconvincingly overlooks the fact that brewers are the last to see much of any price increase, and that cask succeeds in the places mentioned, as do the many small brewers that supply it. Perhaps the cost of cask beer, however it is priced, is both a strength and a weakness? A dichotomy that will never be resolved?

These points, however, don't detract from this comprehensive book. It is a very valuable contribution to any beery type's library, and useful for those that want (nearly) everything they need to know about British cask beer in one place. What is perhaps missing though is the affection, romance, intensity and the human interactions that many would say is the hallmark of cask beer, but as a more serious look at the subject, it succeeds in bringing together, the technical aspects over the more ephemeral and nostalgic. 

Reviewer's note. This isn't an entirely neutral review. Where cask is concerned, I have skin in the game. After all, I have been supping it for nearly 45 years and stopped many a firkin going sour over my time.  Whatever happens to cask beer, it will see me out, thankfully!

Disclosure: My review copy of the book was supplied by CAMRA Books, from whom this excellent book can be purchased. (CAMRA Members discount is offered too.)

Monday 19 June 2023

'ow Much?

Allegedly, at least, the title of this piece is what your typical Yorkshire native might say, when encountering a price which is unexpectedly high. (Elsewhere, in this sceptred isle, assuming you are British, a gently raised eyebrow would most likely suffice.)

I was in London for a few days recently and promised I'd keep a close eye on prices. Nowadays, this is fairly easy to do, as in London, and increasingly elsewhere, the default is for the server to tap some numbers into a machine, barely, if ever tell you what the damage is, and hand it to you in the expectation that you will just swipe your card. Now, I do like to have the odd glance at the figures, but I can scarcely remember saying "Oi Mate - are you going to tell me the price?" It seems likely then, I'm as docile as the next man, and end up just swiping and hoping for the best. A worrying trend if you ask me, but I digress as at least when you look at your bank statement, the truth is there for you to consider somewhat ruefully.

Prices of course vary, and here, as you can imagine, I'm talking about prices in pubs. Oddly, though, prices of beer, as often as not, aren't clear as you'd hope. It is not at all uncommon - yes, I'm looking at you Stonegate as a main culprit - to list the price of everything but beer on table menus.  Is beer pricing so volatile that it can't be committed to print? I'd have thought not, so what could the reason be for this omission?  There are laws of course about displaying prices, though I think these are rather loosely complied with generally and for sure can't be relied on, though again this varies and in most of the places I go to, the prices are out in the open, but when you go of piste, rather less so.

So given that London is a bit different, what would be an average price for our usual round, which is a pint for me and a half for E. In my case, unless I know the place well, or I'm just feeling wreckless, it will be lager for both of us. That will vary too, but in the Euston, Farringdon and Aldgate taps, a decent German lager - say Schneider, Ayinger and the like will be around the £6.20 mark with Rothaus about £6.50. I have to say, that given the quality here, these are pretty fair prices, as you can easily pay more for Camden Hells or Brixton Lager, which certainly haven't come very far, and in quality terms, to this writer at least, lag considerably behind. Additionally, prices are clearly displayed, which is as it should be.

What of cask? Well, I did have some superb cask in the Sutton Arms. I think my pints of  Torrside were in the region of £5.70, as a pint of said beer and a half of Paulaner Lager for E was a reasonable £8.65.  Given the quality of the beer, I had no complaints at all. In the Waterloo Tap, en route to a do in Hampton Court, I had two excellent pints of mild from Redemption, while E had Schneider Helles for a reasonable £7.30 the pair. Not bad at all.  In Hampton Court, in the Prince of Wales, a rather indifferent pint of Triple fff Moondance - a former Champion Beer of Britain no less -  and a half of Spanish lager was £8.50, but we rather enjoyed the pub and all the rather posh denizens thereof, so that was fine. We were also soothed by the fact we were going to a function with a free bar at the birthday party we were attending.

Into each life, a little rain must fall, though.  Following a (very) late train from our evening out, we lurched into the Minories pub, which remains open after midnight but was pretty well deserted. £11.55 for a pint and a half of Camden Hells was somewhat shocking, especially when served in a floppy plastic beaker. This is a Stonehouse pub, which had many beers on, but no prices listed in the printed menu. (None of the other drinks seemed outrageous, though, so that's odd.)

So, is London particularly pricey? Well, on balance, given the higher overheads, probably not. You do have to pick and choose carefully to get the quality you want at a price that you are prepared to pay though. Overall the same round bought in Manchester might be a couple of pounds or so less, and in Rochdale, probably over £3 less, but is that really so outrageous?

As always, you pays your money and you takes your choice, though in London, you'd be well advised to put your choice into the equation first.

You will see I am a fan of the various Taps owned by Bloomsbury Leisure. Rightly so, in my view. They are currently developing on at Manchester Victoria and of course, already have the Piccadilly Tap. 

I was told at the Minories, it was a police instruction to have plastic, following an incident earlier in the week with over exuberant West Ham fans. Shame, and hopefully temporary. Stonegate also operate the Dog and Truck near our London flat. Same price problem with beer.

Thursday 15 June 2023

Don't Roll Up - Queue Up

The tradition of buying at the bar and, if you feel like it, standing at the bar while supping your drink, is a long and honourable one. Passport to the Pub, published in 1996 by Kate Fox, a British social anthropologist, says of this:

 " Rule number one: There is no waiter service in British pubs. You have to go up to the bar to buy your drinks, and carry them back to your table"

She goes on to say, with particular regard to those more familiar with table service:

"Once they are aware of the no-waiter-service rule in British pubs, most tourists recognise it as an advantage, rather than an inconvenience. Having to go up to the bar for your drinks ensures plenty of opportunities for social contact between customers......... It is much easier to drift casually into a spontaneous chat while waiting at the bar than deliberately to break into the conversation at another table. 

Like every other aspect of pub etiquette, the no-waiter-service system is designed to promote sociability. The bar counter in a pub is possibly the only site in the British Isles in which friendly conversation with strangers is considered entirely appropriate and normal behaviour."

I recently tweeted this photo of a sign in Wetherspoons, which appears to turn this logic on its head. In no uncertain terms, it urges customers to "Keep the Bar Area Clear."  I said at the time it was most unpublike, and this caused a cascade of comments tending to agree with me, but as always, when commenting on JDW, a plethora of snobbishness about the chain were liberally sprinkled over the main point, including untruths about the company's attitude to Covid and its staff, as well as slurs about the type of people who frequent such dens of iniquity. Most unedifying, but in the main it was agreed this isn't the right thing to do. It is not a pub if you instruct people to queue up.

What I failed to do was point out which JDW this sign appeared at - and I have to say, I haven't seen it elsewhere.  When we first encountered the very busy area in which Tandleman Towers South is located, the area was much different. Almost derelict in many parts, and certainly the busy and bustling Leman Street was nothing like it is now.  The whole area was dead at the weekend and when the nearby huge Royal Bank of Scotland Processing Centre, wasn't at full tilt, the place was quiet. No pizza places, supermarkets, modern bars or brand new multi-storey flats, never mind the now sizeable student accommodation. You had to hop on a tube elsewhere for entertainment, though on the plus side, a few proper East End pubs hadn't yet been swept away. 

In that scenario, imagine our astonishment when a new Wetherspoons opened in the area.  In fairness, things were slightly picking up, but many a time we'd have a drink in the new Goodman's Field and wonder how stupid Timbo was in throwing his money away on what was clearly a white elephant.  Then, slowly but surely, the hotels started to open. There are now plenty from budget to mid-range, and the hitherto empty JDW began to thrive with each new opening.  Looking back on it, you can see why. The river and Tower Bridge are nearby, as is the Tower of London. There are tube stations and buses with easy transport for town and elsewhere.  Most may well offer food and drink, but not as cheaply as Wetherpoons.  Most of the visitors come from abroad, and I think it's fair to say that the majority of customers are not British. 

So, in this scenario, it is perhaps understandable, that a request to queue at the tills has been introduced to keep things simple for those who are just not used to jostling for attention at the bar, never mind facing the inevitable call of "Who's next?"   Yes, it annoys us Brits, especially those who have honed to a razor sharpness, how to get served in a busy pub first, but on the charitable side, it probably makes life easier all round, and to be fair, in my experience the rule is relaxed a tad when not so busy.

In this situation, perhaps Kate Fox would give a little wriggle room and forgive, as I do, this major transgression of pub etiquette.

Are Wetherspoon's many outlets really pubs? I think the jury is still out on that one, but not for the reasons above.

In the Goodman's Field, Kate's Rule Number two is often seen more in the breach than the observance: "It is customary for one or two people, not the whole group, to go up to the bar to buy drinks." Probably another good reason for the sign.

All rights to Kate's book are the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association.


Friday 2 June 2023

Fresh Ale? Neither Nowt nor Summat.

Every so often something comes along claiming that it will solve a particular problem. They come in many forms - superfoods which will give you a wet nose and a glossy coat if you eat enough of the right stuff - knee supports that fool the gullible into thinking that buying them will solve your bone on bone knee problems and obviate the need for surgery - that one got me - they don't - and so on and so forth. The simple fact is that when someone comes up with such things is that they rarely pass the smell test, so let's have a look at one that has recently come up in the beer industry.

"Fresh ale" is the latest thing, it seems.  What's that, you may well ask?  You may reasonably be thinking, "that'll be beer that is served before it gets too old" -  and why wouldn't you?  After all, they do this in some brew pubs where the beer is sold straight from conditioning tanks, so that'll be fresh, won't it?  Or what about cask beer - live beer served from a cask  - that has only a short shelf life. No, that's not it either, it seems. What about the initiative, launched only as recently as September by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) called Drink Fresh Beer?  This is "A campaign that recognises cask beer is in “steep, sustained decline” and is struggling to shake its “male, pale and stale” image will be launched at the Future of Cask Seminar on Thursday 22 September". That must be it then, surely? Well no. Guess again. It isn't that, either.

So what is it? It is a new keg beer, that's what. And you'll not be at all surprised to find out that it is "different and exciting."  What could it be, I hear you ask? Well, Drinks Business has the lowdown. It's a keg beer with lower carbonation, developed by Otter Brewery. It is explained thus:

"When we put it into a keg we actually low-carbonate it, so it has a much gentler and softer carbonation which is designed to emulate the carbonation of cask ale as far as taste goes in terms of mouthfeel. The second major difference is that when it is served, it doesn’t run through chillers in the cellar. Instead, it runs through the python or whatever assets the pub has to allow the dispense temperature to be around between 8.5 – 10℃. So, it is slightly cooler than cask ale, but it is not as cold as keg, and it is slightly fizzier than cask ale, but it’s not as harshly carbonated as keg".

Now at this point, rather than quote more chunks of the Drinks Business article, I urge you to read it for yourself, though I will offer comment on one more paragraph, and it is this: "CAMRA should be for it, not against it, he insisted.(The guy from Otter Brewery)  After all, “CAMRA now promotes ‘World beers’ which are in keg. If they are doing that, why wouldn’t they look at something brewed in the UK that is in keg and talk about it just as favourably?”

Now, of course, even a cursory read through this will have most readers thinking that there is nothing new here at all. This is just another keg beer positioned to fill and bridge the so-called gap between younger and older drinkers, lager and ale drinkers and traditionalist and modernisers.  We have been here before, and they have failed before. In Lancashire parlance, they are neither nowt nor summat, and will almost certainly be seen as such by the drinking public.

There is however another point.  It can and in this instance, clearly is, the case that in bending over backwards to "modernise" in an attempt to bring in younger drinkers to the cause, CAMRA is giving the impression to many, that real ale - cask conditioned beer - is just part of its mix rather than its reason to be. That is a dangerous position to be in. 

When the champion of cask conditioned beer appears to the trade and trade press to have a negotiable position on the subject, alarm bells should be ringing at CAMRA HQ.

The already weak case for this "breakthrough" is undermined by admitting the longer shelf life of this non-live product is a key feature. Otter also assures us that this is not a fad product. Let me know in the comments. 

Let's hope that if fresh beer is as relevant as it should be, that CAMRA and SIBA put some more welly into their original initiative. Cask beer may be suffering, but it doesn't yet need replacing with keg.

Tuesday 28 March 2023

They Have Sam's in London too You Know

No doubt, my many readers are wondering whatever happened to my series of visits to Sam Smiths pubs.  In fact, I often wonder myself why I have not returned to this rich seam of pub culture and idiosyncrasy. Perhaps I have a small lingering doubt about Humphrey himself reading how the denizens of his establishments really conduct themselves, as opposed to how he wishes they would. It is also true to say that I have some slight concerns about how he may treat landlords and landladies, who, perhaps, in his distorted vision, would appear by my words to have somehow failed to live up to his expectations. On that point it is worth mentioning that in every Sam’s house I have visited, the managers have singularly, and with good humour, tried their best to honour Mr Smiths instructions, however odd they may be.

Of course, knowing myself, it may be that I just have been as usual far too lazy to get out and about and actually visit the 20 or so Sam’s pubs that are still open in my area. That number is of course an approximation, given that Humph has already closed more than one of the pups already visited and reported on – no doubt for some minor infraction of his somewhat arbitrary rules. But as always, I live in hope that one day, all 32 pubs in my Rochdale, Oldham and Bury area may all be open, and that some may actually sell Old Brewery Bitter in cask conditioned form.

But I digress from my original purpose. A couple of weeks ago, when in London checking that Tandleman Towers South still exists, we ventured into Soho with the intention of having a look at how some of the London Sam’s pubs operate. While it has never been officially confirmed, it is known that Humphrey's son Sam is the supremo of all the Southern operations. Things are done differently there, and while recently in the North, innovations such as paying by phone and card have been accepted, it is true to say that no such restrictions have operated in London for quite some time.The reasons for this are pretty obvious when you look at the clientele. I think it's fair to say that in the absence of paying by card or phone Mr. Smith would find insufficient customers willing to pay by cash, as payment by such is, in London, the exception rather than the rule.

Also missing from most of the London pubs is the plethora of notices forbidding this, that or the other, though it is fair to say that the one prohibiting electronic devices is generally clear and present, butparticularly in the case of phones, is blatantly and wholly disregarded.

Our first port of call was the White Horse in Rupert St, more or less opposite the John Gielgud Theatre. It can best be described as a basic corner street local set out in typical Sam Smith dark wood, bare floorboards and a slight down at heel appearance. Old Brewery Bitter in cask format was available at £5.70 a pint, and was somewhat middle of the road in taste. E’s Pure Brewed Organic lager was an astonishing £6.90 a pint.  It is as well at this point to mention that Sam Smiths pubs in London are pretty expensive. Banish any thoughts of the cheap pint they used to be, and given the somewhat basic nature of some of the pubs visited, could be regarded as less than value for money.  The pub wasn't busy, but a steady stream of people wandered in, vaguely looked round and then blatantly zoomed downstairs to use the loos before re-emerging, pretending to consider drinks at the bar, before darting out the door.  At the bar more than one person sipped their pint while surfing their phone. The landlord, an Al Murray lookalike was clearly used to such behaviour and simply ignored all this while occasionally tilting his eyes in our direction.

Now, Sam's pubs are usually pretty good for people watching, but not in this case. The only real entertainment was a young couple, the male of which would occasionally lean in for a kiss, while the female would carefully move away. Fair dos, it didn't discourage him, and she happily allowed him to hold her waist. Likely she wasn’t keen on public affection, which is just fine. In fact, we bumped into them in a later pub and they seemed quite cosy. So, all was well.

Leaving this mayhem we walked a few steps to the Duke of Argyll, another Sam's pub but this time absolutely rammed.  This was a step-up in class. Multi partitioned, with each area jammed with customers, the lone bar person zoomed up and down at breakneck speed trying to keep up with demand. It took us quite some time to get served, and my pint of stout looked more like Coca-Cola. Clearly the nitrogen gas had gone, and subsequently the beer was poured as flat as could be. There was no opportunity to earhole the frantic barman, and frankly the poor bugger was doing the best he could. At last, when he had a second, I explained the problem with the pint and he offered an exchange. He took the opportunity in the meantime to call someone on his phone, who a few moments later emerged from upstairs to lend a hand. I suppose that was technically a breach of the rules too.

We struck up conversation with a guy who'd come up from Kent for the day. He turned out to be an ex-RAF type and we passed an agreeable half hour with him telling tales of avoiding customs duties from various tours of overseas duty - a subject E knew a bit about somewhat oddly - while we dodged around, juggling our pints, to let people in at the bar. Frankly, it wasn’t a comfortable experience, though I’d like to go back when it was less busy.

Our final stop, nearby, was the Glasshouse Stores. We have been there before and remembered it just as it was. Long, thin, narrow and very busy. It was there that we bumped into the young lovers again, though I doubt very much if they noticed us at all. The pub was full of all types, but nothing of any great interest to the nosey parker. It was simply a Sam's pub with a typical London mix of people and tourists. The beer list was straightforward Sam's – I think the OBB was keg -  but this time my pint of stout was thick with a creamy head, though well north of £6 a pint. From our vantage point in the centre of the pub (fortunately we were able to nab a seat) we observed none of the usual Sam's forbidding notices. We left after one drink.

So, to sum up, in Sam’s pubs in Rochdale and areas you are likely to find the pubs are locals with a loyalty to the pub. In London Sam's pubs are just another convenient location to drink beer, have a glass of wine or whatever, while visiting a popular area. Of course, this is just a snapshot of three pubs, but having visited many, while some are more interesting than others, none have the idiosyncrasies and character you will find further away from the city. It is clear that's in business terms Sam Smiths offer a similar experience to other pubs. There is no price advantage, the pubs themselves vary from quirky and old-fashioned, to just played old-fashioned and a bit dowdy.

When compared to Humphrey’s ridiculous strictures in the North, it seems somewhat bizarre that in the same company, two different schools of thought apply to the way the pubs are run, with sometimes devastating results for pub regulars and managers alike. But that Sam’s for you.

On a previous, but recent London visit we went to the rather good Crown by the British Museum (no cask). There were some more obvious notices there about electronic devices, but again, completely ignored by the punters. 

I wonder if Sam's have got themselves ahead of the game pricewise and will refrain for quite a while? E who has scant regard to prices  is switching to Taddy lager when in Sam's pubs for the foreseeable.  Well, in London anyway.



Monday 13 February 2023

Watch Out for Wednesday

Thursday is the new Friday some would have you believe - well, especially for those that work from home for part of the week. The logic is, if you can get away with it, that if at all possible, you don't work Friday and Monday. This makes sense, of course, as you then get a longer - much longer - weekend as it were, as you don't have that pesky journey to and from work.

Now I have a feeling that while this applies across the board in the UK, the effect is more acutely felt in London. Not only is there a greater concentration of workers, but almost uniquely, most still travel to work by public transport and are thus more likely to have a soothing libation after it.  I may be wrong, but I rather fancy that many journeys to work outside London are made by car and certainly in the dog days of work for me, after work drinking simply did not happen and that can only have got worse since then.  In London, however, the after work pint still occurs, and I always enjoy being there at work chucking out time for the bustling atmosphere.

A couple of weeks ago we were in London for the first time in ages - well last October - and after visiting some quite busy pubs on Tuesday night, on Wednesday I met my pal Nigel for a couple of lunchtime pints and a chance to put the beer world to rights. For convenience, we met at Woodins Shades, a Nicolsons pub across from Liverpool Street station. This was around late lunchtime, and it was fair to say that the pub was very quiet indeed. In fact, Nigel remarked that he used to work in the vicinity years ago and then the pub was always full at lunchtime. Not so now, it seems. 

Two or three pints later, after Nigel departed to his Cask Marque duties, I arranged to meet E nearer our neck of the woods. You get decent if expensive pints in the Culpepper, a quite posh and very attractive pub in Commercial Street, a ten-minute walk away from Liverpool Street. It has become quite a favourite of ours. I got there about half past three. It was deserted, and I remarked on this to the barman, who cryptically said it wouldn't be for long. He wasn't kidding. Within half an hour the pub was getting reasonably busy, and within an hour, by half past four or thereabouts, it was rammed.  

Fortunately, I had sat on a bench and was able to squeeze E in, as by the time she arrived, it was standing room only - and it isn't a particularly small pub.So what's going on? It seems, from what I can glean, that most businesses require workers to be in the office for a certain number of days in the week if working from home. It also appears that the day most choose to be in work is Wednesday, so if you want to go to the pub for after work chat and see your colleagues, Wednesday is the best day for it.

In these difficult times, working from home does pubs no favours, but this at least offers a glimmer of light if it is repeated elsewhere. Elsewhere in London, that is.

We also visited the new(ish) Aldgate Tap, which is dead handy for us. It seemed to be trading well on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It must help, it being so close to Aldgate Tube Station. Prices here are decent for London.

Talking about pricing. London is never cheap, but we noticed how much more expensive it was since our previous visit in October last year. I think the cask beer in the Culpepper had risen by the best part of a pound.

Monday 16 January 2023

Busy or Not?

Recently there's been a fair bit of talk on Twitter and the blogosphere- does that still exist? - about how pubs are faring in January. Of course, most of this will be observational and anecdotal, and impressions given on, say a Friday night, may not give the full picture of how things would look at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, but that is the nature of the beast.  Even if you know the landlord or landlady well, they are hardly going to share their financial position with you, though if you know them well enough, you can certainly gain a touch more than if you just throw your head round the door and glance round.

My own view kind of echoes that of Boak and Bailey, and my general impression is that customer numbers and spend, is generally holding up fairly well, but on the negative side, outgoings for supplies and fuel may well be not only cancelling this out, but will in a great deal more cases than we'd like to believe, actually throw them into a negative situation. My own discussions with a few pubs would indicate that the cost of heating is really the main concern. After all, nobody wants to visit a freezing cold pub and heating a pub in the quiet times is quite a burden nowadays, hence the huge variation in opening hours that we commonly see.

Of course, this will ease as the weather gets better, but the big question, especially for those whose leases are up for renewal, is "Is it really worth it any more?" Looking at pub closures, some of them sudden and unexpected, the answer is, for far too many, likely a "No". While relief in the form of warmer weather is there for all, the sad truth is that looking forward there is quite possibly more of the same, as the war in Ukraine rages on and the fallout from that continues to affect economies. That, together with a reduction of fuel support for small businesses from the Governments, does not make soldiering on such an attractive proposition. Cold weather, sooner or later, is inevitable.

Another elephant in the room is price increases, though with the price of a pint being roughly equivalent to the length of a piece of string, that may not in the end matter quite so much as you might think. This varies of course, and while you are unlikely to have a clear idea ahead of time in a random visit to a city centre pub as to what a pint might cost you, it is much more noticeable in tied houses of local brewers for example, where the price of a pint is clearly known.  In my own locals, people often  approach the bar clutching their exact money and are acutely aware of increases. That doesn't happen so much in a free house, where, frankly, you could be charged anything at all. The dynamic is completely different.

So, back to the anecdotal evidence.  In the pubs I visited, last week, all were fairly busy, though in fairness, most were my local pubs, all with a loyal batch of regulars  - and that's as I'd expect. When you have a local that you are known in and where you know everyone, at least to nod to, you are likely to visit as usual, though of course, you may have the odd pint less.  I was also out of area on Saturday, in Bolton attending a meeting. Afterwards we visited a couple of pubs. The first, the Northern Monkey, a modern pub selling craft beer, was very busy indeed, as was the Wetherspoons opposite, the Spinning Mule, which could best be described as "rammed". I'm guessing the prices would be pretty dissimilar, though I can't be sure, as it wasn't my round in either. My final visit was to the ever popular Hare and Hounds in Shudehill, where the pub was pretty well stuffed as usual. That of course is expected from this venue, and this is a good point to add my usual advice to pubs. Concentrate on the offer. If it is good, even in hard times, people will come.

Where does this leave us? Pubs may seem to the casual observer, to be holding up pretty well, but the underlying issues remain. They still need our custom, but we should always be aware, that like the iceberg, what you see on the surface, is only a fraction of what is actually there.

I had a chocolate and orange stout in the Northern Monkey. Boy was it sweet.  I'm noticing rather a lot of beers are far too sweet these days. Give me bitterness in beer. Beer needs balance, and that often can't be achieved just by throwing in certain New World hops.

My three locals will also be increasing prices at the end of the month as the cost of beer from the brewery increases. I'll be keeping my eye on that, but I suspect that won't make much difference.

Thursday 12 January 2023

Belfast Pubs - The Conclusion

Following on from E's bout of sickness, we did the touristy bit. The Titanic Experience isn't just about the ship, but about Belfast. Suffice to say, it was brilliant, especially the "ghost train" trip of the shipyard with accompanying sounds.  You need to go there really to see what I mean - and very worthwhile it is, too. There was also entertainment on the bus back to the centre. Belfast's buses still have inspectors and as tickets must be purchased before entering the bus, it follows that spot checks are made.  Now they aren't soft enough to wait with the crowds at the Titanic bus stop, nor the one after, but a posse swooped at an obscure stop in the middle of nowhere. We were fine, of course, being old and law-abiding, but a young lad by us was frantically thumbing his phone as the inspector made his way toward him. "Too late for that" remarked the inspector as he asked for the lad's ticket.  Oddly, the fare dodger seemed to relax at this point - on a fair cop basis, I assume.  His details were obtained and, a fine of sixty pounds, was rammed up his arse. The inspector added insult to injury as he left, calling over his shoulder, "£60, plus the fare!"

This kept us entertained until we reached the City Centre.  E was still feeling crook, but gamely came along with me to the Crown Liquor Saloon, where I obtained us a booth and a very creditable pint of Oakham Citra. E stuck to tonic water. For my second pint, I noticed that they sold Belfast Black Stout by Whitewater Brewery.  I ordered one and this proved to be a very wise decision. Smooth, black, hoppy, and not at all cardboardy - Guinness to note. We were joined in our booth by a lad from Dublin and his young son, who had escaped from a family shopping trip, as the boy was hungry. He assumed I was drinking Guinness and expressed surprise at my choice. I assured him it was a very decent pint, but he looked doubtful.  We chatted amiably, though, as his son devoured sausage and chips. A very pleasant chat ensued as we agreed Belfast was a fine place. Alas, a third pint was denied as E felt a bit tired after her sleepless night, and fancied two or three hours kip before our booked meal later by the University.

We hopped on the bus and soon E was tucked into bed. This gave me a chance to nip out onto Botanic Avenue, as I'd spotted a couple of drinking establishments there. First was The 1852. Not my normal sort of bar, but it was laid back and had a few younger types idling around and some gentle music. I sat people watching with a pint of Open Gate Citra IPA, which while nothing spectacular was fine in the circumstances. Service was pleasant, and while I wasn't in a place where I'd meet someone to chat to, I enjoyed it so much, surprising myself, I actually took E there later on that night after our meal.  Just up the road - I didn't want to stray too far - was a place that looked fine, so in I went. It was a large modern bar with what looked like a full size cherry blossom tree behind the bar. It was rather stunning. I don't know what it was called, as it seemed anonymous outside. See Street View to get my point.  There was football on and again, Citra IPA, so chatting to this one and that one, a pleasant hour passed until I returned to the hotel. A bit different for me, but not worse for that - and very relaxing.

We met friends the next day at the Deer's Head, a brewpub, with very well-made beer in the modern style. That is hazy, but there wasn't lumps in it and we thoroughly enjoyed it, except for the slightly aggressive servers, the 10% surcharge for table service that we didn't want, and a complete refusal to split the bill between two of us.  We decanted after that to the friendly John Hewitt, an old-fashioned bar with very modern beers from Ireland and the UK. I'd certainly go back there. 

The next day we returned home, but we had a hour or so to kill before the bus to the airport, so were first equal customers into Robinsons Bar, where we had our first pints. I ordered a Harp just because I could, and it was really rather good. Clean and bitter and very enjoyable, I necked a couple while watching more football. E was back on tonic, and we nattered to one of the bar staff, who simply came over for a chat. Great stuff. And that was it. A quick bus trip to the airport where, suffice to say, the Harp there - all locally brewed beers were off - wasn't as good as the Robinsons one.

So to sum up. Belfast was great for pubs, beer and touristy things.  It would have been even better if E was 100%, but fine nonetheless. The people were fabulous on the whole and I'd go back in a heartbeat.  Guinness was, I think, just about the most popular beer. Best pub overall? Robinsons.  Professional, friendly and in my opinion the best Guinness I had.

I realise we only scratched the surface of Belfast's pubs. Next time I'll dive deeper.  We did other things too. The Ulster Museum, Botanic Park and the Universities, the Palm House and Town Hall.  Lots of walking about - Belfast centre is pretty flat.

Best beer? Probably Capstan Aussie Pale by Bell's Brewery at the Deer's Head, but oddly, the Harp at Robinsons hit the spot pretty well too.

Tuesday 3 January 2023

The Duke of York and Bittles Bar

I used to collect breweriana - the bits and pieces that breweries produce as advertising material - and still have a fair few items, though nowadays I no longer seek to increase my hoard. I do though maintain my interest in the stuff, Thus, I looked forward to the Duke of York in Belfast, which is renowned for a collection of mainly Irish brewery mirrors and other assorted paraphernalia. The pub itself is in a sort of wide cobbled alley. Inside it was warm and welcoming and really quite busy.  We got our beers - Guinness again - and found a seat to the right of the bar (or left if you are behind it) where we could see what was going on, always a prime consideration for me. The Guinness was fine as far as it goes, but it was no contest to the main attraction for me. Quite simply, every bit of wall, ceiling, door and window was covered in breweriana, mainly from Guinness, but as my eyes adjusted, also signs and enamels from defunct Irish breweries, some Scottish and English ones and breweries such as Bass that had brewed beer in Belfast. (As an aside, I have a Bass Belfast clock and yes - it still works.)

In addition to the main room with the bar, there is a further room which, fortunately, was quieter, while also having similar covering on every space.  It could just about be said to concentrate on mirrors, with some fantastic brewery and whiskey examples - some very rare I assume - as well as many other fine examples of collectables. I'd venture many are worth a bob or two.  The wall across from us, could possibly be said to major on clocks, mainly from Guinness, though there were plenty of other items of interest. In fact, my sole Guinness clock had one of its brethren opposite us and though ours still works - somewhat temperamentally it has to be said - the clocks here certainly did not.  All, or most seemed to be lit though, and while I wandered round to have a look, it was a great frustration that I could not examine them at my leisure. Firstly there were people enjoying their drinks in the way and secondly there just wasn't time. I really must return at opening for a proper examination, though frankly, to give it its place, I'd need several hours.

It really was a fabulous pub with a pleasant atmosphere and a nice buzz about it, but we had another pub to go to and left with a fair bit of regret.

A half mile or so walk took us to Bittles Bar. This is one of these flat iron bars where it is at the point of two streets.  It is a kind of Tardis in reverse, in that it looks bigger on the outside than it does inside. It also has a bit of reputation for quirky rules and an idiosyncratic landlord.  It really is small inside.  We were greeted at the door and asked how many of us there were. The reason became quickly apparent, as it seemed very full, but our guide/waiter/barman found us a perch, and we ordered our Guinness.  Now they don't serve half pints, so pints it was.  We took in our surroundings. Many paintings of poets, politicians and other characters adorned the walls. There was a lovely buzz of conversation, and indeed, not a spare seat in the house. It is table service only here. In fact getting near the bar to see what is sold is difficult, as somewhat uniquely, to use every foot of space, there are three tables in front of the bar.  No bar blocking here and little chance to see what is being sold, but I suppose you could just ask.

The quirkiness of the place can be seen on various signs at the bar. A tongue in cheek (or perhaps not) one advises that due to Brexit, Guinness cannot be sold in halves. Another strictly advises "No human rights! No football."  It is highly recommended.

We ordered second pints, then things went wrong. E had been a little quiet and whispered that she wasn't feeling too well.  Oh. I'd been ill the day before, but it has passed. It seemed though I'd passed the bug on to E.  She had to get back to the hotel. Bravely, I supped what I could, and we left and rushed back to the hotel, where E spent the rest of the evening - it was around ten by then - and overnight throwing up.

Fortunately such bugs, while unpleasant, soon pass and the next day, E was much improved, though she didn't drink anything alcoholic. These things happen, and we just made the best of it that we could.

Bittles apparently sells 700 pints of Guinness a day and, according to the Guinness Guru (caution advised), has the best Guinness in Belfast. We enjoyed the visit and were treated very well indeed, though the famous landlord wasn't there.

That proved to be my last pint of Guinness of the trip. I'd given it a good go, but frankly, it is still a distress purchase for me. 

 Click on any photo to enlarge.

Monday 2 January 2023

The Sunflower and the Northern Whig

After our earlier pint in Robinsons Bar, we set off for the Sunflower, the only pub on my list which is in the current Good Beer Guide and the furthest away from where we were. Oh, and yes, for once, I had a list. Now don't let that get you too excited, I didn't take notes of course, or even have the means to do so.  I'm not that keen, you know.  The walk took us away from the City Centre and into a somewhat run-down area. Nothing dodgy at all, but not exactly picturesque. The Sunflower was tucked down a backstreet and brightly lit, so, along with the security cage from the days of the Troubles, you could hardly miss it. My photo here was crap, but you'll get the picture here.

We were both rather surprised by how small inside it was, though I think there are other rooms elsewhere in the building. The pub had a neighbourhood character, and despite it being rather empty, it had a fairly cosy feel, though the welcome from the young staff was less than warm - probably in fact the poorest we were to have in our entire visit.  The sole handpump did not have Hilden beers as promised by the GBG, but something mainstream. I certainly didn't come all the way from GB to drink Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay, so given that the other draught beers were pretty mundane, I opted for Beamish, which is sold in preference to the Big G. It was fine as far as it goes, but as the pub started to fill up with studenty lot, we decided to move on.  On the whole, a tad disappointing, though we did strike up a decent conversation with a fellow imbiber, which was good, as he mentioned a few worthwhile boozers to visit.

Our next intended visit was the Duke of York, but on the way, I was struck by a building we were passing. Who could resist a name like the Northern Whig? Certainly not this writer, so in we went. The building itself was constructed in 1821 in Bridge Street, as a hotel and gentleman's club, taking its name from an original club of the same name. Inside it is a cornucopia of marble and dark wood, with comfortable chairs and a huge bar up some steps.  It reeks of Victorian confidence and certainty. The impressive reddish brown wooden bar fronted an impressive array of bottles, but featured mainly local lagers and ales on keg and, of course, Guinness, which we opted for.  Sadly this was a fairly ordinary representation of the beer. On a quiet Tuesday night though, it was still a worthwhile experience for the building itself, which was fantastic. We agreed we'd have loved to see it rammed, which I am sure it would be later in the week.

But back to business. This was a Guinness night - more or less -  and we were on our way to two more top venues, passing the impressive Harp on the way. I'd have liked to nip in for one, but alas, time did not permit, and anyway E has only a limited tolerance for pub hopping.

What would we find in the Duke of York and the much lauded and anticipated Bittles Bar? Find out soon though, but as a spoiler, the night was about to take a turn for the worse.

There was a fridge full of cans in the fridge at the Sunflower, but they were on their side with the bottoms facing outwards and no obvious list.  Anyway, I don't visit pubs to drink canned beer. 

As another aside, Belfast is pretty compact and easily done on foot, though I tried my knackered knee's patience with over 16,500 steps. For context, that is of course what Retired Martin does between ticks on the same street.