Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Creating Demand

I was in Scotland last week and as always I try and observe the beer scene there, remote though I am from it.  I usually pop into three pubs for a half or two on the way to or back from Dumbarton.  I've written about the Drum and Monkey (part of the Nicolson's chain) before and it does a good job of presenting interesting beer in good nick, though a glance around the pub shows as many, if not more supping Tennent's Lager.  When I called last week they had a "Beer Festival" on and the approach of a few well chosen beers isn't a bad one at all.

Nearby on the way to Queen Street Station are two Wetherspoons.  The Counting House is a huge and impressive ex banking hall and is interesting for that and while the range of beers is expansive, I have never really found it that good quality wise, though it has improved.  My CAMRA colleagues from Glasgow say it is on the up, but it is in and out of the Good Beer Guide(currently in) indicating an ambivalence at best.  Nearby - across the road in fact - the smaller Camperdown Place has a smaller, but probably better chosen range and the beer is always good.  I do tend though to spend a fair bit of time in both watching what people drink in there and gratifyingly, there is a fair bit of real ale sold.  You simply can't deny that without JDW there would be a lot less cask beer drunk in what remains a lager stronghold. Then again, the West of Scotland always has been a lager stronghold, so perhaps that is all the more remarkable.

My home town has no real ale outlets.  Yet.  I was reminded forcibly of this when out with my old mother. Tennent's Lager which is ubiquitous, has no discernible taste other than carbonic acid, but is everywhere.  Smooth beer (Belhaven usually) and Stella complete the range.  Bottles? Yes. Becks or Corona.  The thriving real ale scene in Scotland is actually very small and is hard to find, other than in its key strongholds such as Edinburgh. So where is this going?  I was in Helensburgh meeting an old friend.  Helensburgh is a posher and slightly less depressed place than my home town, with a fair sprinkling of people from rUK.  Well, England really. Some are Royal Navy from the huge Faslane base and many just live there for reasons of business or perhaps a liking for wind and rain.  The local JDW, the Henry Bell, was selling a lot of real ale.  I chatted to the manager who was worried they'd run out of festival beers.  Quality was good and she said that there was no problem selling cask, though of course, she still sold more Tennents. Oh well, but the point is that where there is a constant availability and choice of real ale, it not only turns over, but it sells.

Back in Dumbarton I looked at the new JDW being built. It is the old Woolies I remember so well from my childhood and of course it will sell real ale. Now Dumbarton is a lot harder a nut to crack.  I remember the Cutty Sark trying it years ago and the many pints of vinegar I was offered,  but if I'm right, real ale will gradually gain a toe hold here.   Even in depressed Clyde Coast Towns, beer isn't cheap and I have no doubt that in the Henry Bell, many will have gone for cask on price, but they wouldn't stick with it if they didn't like it.  So keen pricing in the new Captain James Lang will be a key factor, but it will be the constant availability and commitment that will slowly raise sales.

I'll be back in Dumbarton in July about a month after the new JDW opens.  I await it with great interest as it will bring cask beer back to a real ale desert. That to me is a good thing.

Of course JDW haters will think that a lot of bollocks, but they have a choice usually.  It will mean that there will be food available until ten at night.  That's good too. Pubs in the town are already complaining.  They'll really have to up their game.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Come On Feel the Noize

Being old, I remember this Slade number and used to enjoy it a lot. I still do.  What I do not enjoy though is being blasted my modern techno music in an ordinary pub at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. And when I say blasted, I mean it.  You couldn't hear a bloody word.

Saturday before last, after watching a friend perform at the Friends Meeting House, four of us were heading for a meal pre booked in central Manchester.  We had 45 minutes to spare, so a pint seemed a good idea.  Being near Holt's refurbished Ape and Apple, I suggested there.  The Ape and Apple used to be a fairly traditional boozer with a mixed clientele, mostly on the more mature side.  It was younger as a pub than it looked, but the sort of solid, dark wooded place you associate with Joeys. It was the venue of the Gasman's Annual Piss Up of which I wrote here and of their monthly meetings too.

Now the Gasmen don't meet there any more.  It changed and not for the better it seems.  I forgot this and when entering, observed it had been tarted up in a cheap way to look brighter, but not nicer, but it was packed, so no doubt had achieved its financial purpose, though it was rarely quiet before.  There was no music on when we entered, so we made our way to the bar and then the "music" started.  My friend was ordering and had to repeat himself before the barman could make out what he was saying.  We retreated to near the door, but conversation was impossible, so we supped up as quickly as we could and left. There wasn't a seat to be had in the place incidentally. So I guess it says as much about us as those who chose to stay and suffer it.

I tweeted Holts who promptly replied that I could have requested they "turn it down a notch".  I replied it needed many notches turning down and that I didn't go out of an afternoon to engage in a discussion about too much music noise that was unlikely to end well and that it simply shouldn't have been like that in the first place.  I also said I wouldn't be back and I won't be. Music in pubs is divisive, but this was in excess by any standard. and given the time of day, the clientèle and the type of music, completely inappropriate.

The Mild was "off" too.  Unsurprisingly. It wouldn't have been in the Gasmen days.

Now even if it had been Slade I wouldn't have stayed such was the volume, but it was the electronically produced stuff with a repeated base - like someone continually knocking on your head with a polisman's baton.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

What's in a Name?

One of the things I quite like about Wetherspoon is that in the main they name their pubs after some local aspect.  In the case of my adoptive town Middleton, the JDW is the Harbord Harbord after the landowner that gave the land to the town where the main street was then built and where the pub now stands.  Mind you it is such an ugly name that nobody calls it that.  As a matter of fact good old HH later became Lord Suffield and that would probably have tripped off the tongue a lot better, though no doubt it would still be called Wetherspoons.

Now in my actual home town of Dumbarton I learn that the long awaited Wetherspoon (long awaited by me as it will bring real ale back to the town) will be called the Captain James Lang.  "Who?" I thought.  Despite living there until I was 25, I'd never heard of him and had kind of thought that the pub would likely be called the Peter Denny after the famous shipbuilder of that name.  For those that don't know it - and I'm assuming all my readers here - Denny's was synonymous with Dumbarton and its decline as a town can clearly (in my view) be traced back to the fateful day in 1963 when William Denny and Bros closed.  This is an event I remember, as my father who died that year, took me to see the final ship (MV Melbrook) being built at Dennys in 1962. I can picture it yet in my mind's eye, much as I can the bright blue and orange plexiglassed Denny Hovercraft, which sat across from the closed Leven Shipyard, in McAllister's Boatyard, long after the yard closed.  As kids we used to clamber all over it until being chased away with a swift kick up the arse.  I wonder what happened to it?  Denny's also built Mersey ferries including the well known Royal Iris. Most famously of all was that it was Denny that completed the Cutty Sark in 1869.  I wonder what happened to that?

So who was Captain James Lang?  Well it seems he was a well known captain in the town in the early 1800s. According to Wikipedia,  "He was born in Dumbarton in 1805, and was educated there. James became a law clerk in the Town Clerk's office, but he later served on the town's steamers. In 1830, he became the captain of one of the Dumbarton Steamboat Company's vessels. He commanded, in succession, the "Dumbarton", the "Leven", the "Prince Albert", the "Lochlomond", and the "Queen". Contemporary accounts show that he was irreproachable in character, a man of good morals". Like me really.

I did think of suggesting to JDW that the pub be called the Peter Denny, but I didn't.  So it serves me right that they didn't pick it.   I suppose Captain James Lang will have to do.

There is also a pub on Dumbarton's High St called the Cutty Sark.  It sold cask beer in awful condition around ten years ago.  Or more.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Are Things Looking Up?

As part of my "job" as local CAMRA Chairman, I like to keep in touch with my local publicans.  It makes us relevant and talking their language, listening and seeking their views is never a bad thing. So when I deliver our local CAMRA magazine it gives me the opportunity to have a chat to licensees. Most are keen to bend my ear about the shortcomings of their pub companies or breweries, or to impart gossip and sometimes, good news.  I've spoken to five in the last few days and you know what?  All of them, in brewery tied houses, are feeling very upbeat indeed and the pubs are trading well.  One recurring theme though is the issue of business rates.  This was forcibly and plainly stated by one landlord, whose business rates cost him more than his rent.  He was also at pains to point out  "And I get fuck all for it", complaining that he has still has to pay a private company to get his bins emptied.

I looked this up and indeed this is true, as indicated by this rathern unconvincing explanation from HMG; "Your rates are not a payment for specific services but are a contribution from businesses towards all of the services provided by the Council for the community, such as local transport, education and housing, all of which indirectly benefit businesses in the area."  I'm not sure businesses would take that view. It does seem a tad unfair that a local tax provides no direct benefit to those on whom it is imposed and small wonder it is a source of indignation to say the least.  Nor that businesses are campaigning to have the system reformed.  So much is talked about pub rents, but in these cases at least, the local council are seen to be putting the knife in.

Putting that aside though, it was pleasing indeed that these publicans were optimistic and upbeat and while this area has had a major shake out of pubs in recent years, maybe those good enough to survive are doing better than I had previously thought.  It was also pleasing to observe for myself, that in the pubs I visited, three were going like a fair and two, despite it being quiet times had a pleasant sprinklng of customers. In all cases the beer was good too.

Could it be that as things stabilise in some well run pub companies and breweries, that the focus shifts to unfair local taxes?

I was also pleased to find warm feelings towards CAMRA too. Maybe not typical everywhere, but if you put the work in, it gets rewards.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

More Craft Confusion

It is a rich seam this craft. I haven't finished mining it yet, but one thing is for sure, I'm slowly but surely coming round to a different way of thinking about it.  Not quite at the @Robsterowski end of the spectrum (Craft is meaningless and all its adherents need to agree to re-education or die), but moving towards being a lot more cynical about it in small, faltering steps. The usually dependable Morning Advertiser illustrates that neatly, with a confusing article.  I wonder if it has been edited in such a way that it ended up not making a lot of sense, or if when it was written it didn't.  Or, if the market research company provided a poor synopsis which was simply copied?  

So, basically we have a Market Research company alleging that publicans aren't talking the same language as their customers when it comes to providing what customers want.  The MR company (!im) - phoned 500 customers and then 300 publicans and asked a series of questions about pubs, why people go and what they expect when they get there. So far, so good.  "It's the Offer Stupid" as I keep saying, so you aren't likely to find me disagreeing, provided I understand what was asked and what was answered. But I don't really.

Food is fairly straightforward and while percentages vary, both publicans and customers at least have the same hymn sheet in their hand as they sing the song.  Drinks are more puzzling.  Customers (43%) want locally sourced.  Hmm. What? Wine and spirits? Can't be. Soft drinks? Unlikely. So it must be beer musn't it?  They also want British, but the article doesn't tell us what the publicans think of that. Seemingly 33% also want craft beers, while only 22% of publicans see this as a priority, though 19% promote craft cider.  (Be good to know what that is? Industrial alcohol, water and flavouring perhaps?)  69% of publicans give real ale a priority, but what customers think of that, we aren't told. But remember, customers want British and local.  Big real ale tick I assume then?  Or is it British craft they want?  Or do they think real ale is craft, or some other combination. We aren't told sadly, though I find the craft percentage interesting.

Either way this is poorly presented and may well have provided useful insights if it hadn't been. Pity that.

I thought !him might have this survey on their webbie, but I can't find a trace of them.  Stop Press.  Yes I can.  They are in fact called "Him!"  assuming it is them.  More bollocks from the MA, but their client list is interesting.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Mainstream Craft

I was rather intrigued by the piece yesterday on Boak and Bailey about the post craft world. It got me thinking that perhaps there isn't just one set of "craft" brewers, but at least two. (Well more really if you count all the small cask brewers). The first set are those that actually know what they are doing, do it on a reasonably big scale, do it consistently and with a clear idea of what kind of beer they want to produce and what sort of business outcomes they have in mind. Whether that may be to get bigger or better, or more trendy, or to attract a certain kind of customer may vary, but they all have something rather grander and more ambitious in mind than, say, brewing muddy beer under a railway arch - even if they started out somewhere similar. They are the grandees of this craft business and while they may have been pioneers, they aren't really operating in the same world as they were any more, but in a rarefied version of it. These would include BrewDog, Thornbridge, Hawkshead, Summer Wine, Dark Star, Magic Rock and maybe even Hardknott.

At the other end of the scale is the trendy craft breweries of London, which, although they vary considerably in business models,  operate at the trendy end, more as a hand to mouth kind of business.  There cash is supplemented (maybe even generated) by opening their breweries up to fanboys and hipsters.  These wander about getting pissed of a Saturday by tottering between the new outlets, drinking overpriced and (often) underwhelming beer in overcrowded breweries, which themselves have in effect been transformed into pop up pubs for a day each week. When we think of craft though, it is increasingly those that spring to mind first, either by joining the Bermondsey boozers, or by vicariously doing so in trendy bars mainly in London, but increasingly elsewhere too. And always at top dollar.  These are not the same at all as the vast majority of cask brewing micro-brewers, although micro-brewers they undoubtedly are.

Of course I suppose I could and probably should have added a third bunch to this craft set.  That is the bigger brewers producing more interesting (that is short run, more challenging beers) within their own breweries, usually by having, as in the case of Thwaites and Brains, dedicated breweries within a brewery and a label that says craft very prominently indeed.  Given the resources that go behind these beers, they are usually pretty damn good too which also helps a lot. In fact it would not be that difficult to make a case that in many ways, Thornbridge and BrewDog  have much more in common with Thwaites and Brains than with the Shoreditch mob.  The flip side of this argument is no doubt that these breweries within breweries are parts of, but not the whole of their brewing operations and therefore lesser entities because of it.  Not a convincing argument if you believe that beer quality should be the ultimate determinant though.

British brewing is in a kind of odd flux at the moment.  The reawakening of London from its long sleep has profound inferences for beer drinking, not just there, but everywhere, as like it or not, London influencves almost everything in this country.  It will though be limited in how it exports itself, by that old North/South divide, so eloquently illustrated by Evan Davies in his recent series "Mind the Gap".  To a large extent, London will do its own thing, as there is sufficient population and more than enough money to sustain it, no matter how poor the product there often is. (In fairness, there is often too a lag before quality and consistency kicks in when anything new is offered.For the rest of us that aren't in London, maybe we should just enjoy the diversity, affordability and quality of what we have and if that means buying mainstream craft from BrewDog, Thornbridge et al, we should be glad to have the opportunity to do so, usually at a decent price. Either way, such diversity is good, but surely just underlines that as long as there is a demand for more interesting beer, it will be met, one way or another by those that have the nous to supply it.

It is a fact of revolutions too, that almost invariably those with the highest motives, those that gained the power first, are later knocked off their perch by those who come along subsequently and usurp the early adopters by outdoing them in the zealous department. We see this in the craft beer business too, where it is important to many to challenge how beer is produced currently, to buck existing practice as for example, in forsaking clear beer and to convince a receptive elite, that somehow this is better and tastier.  It is instructive (to this writer at least) that you don't see BD or Thornbridge producing muddy imprecise beer, but beer which is produced to the highest standards, while still maintaining in taste terms, a clear divide from bigger and more established operators.  But it does put them in a position where there interests lie more with the establishment than the usurpers.

That probably means that BrewDog and Thornbridge will be increasingly regarded as mainstream craft brewers.  One of them at least may not like that, but it's happening already.

And no. I have no idea what the formula means either.  Just thought it fitted somehow.  And of course we could sub divide this even more, but really, I regard "craft" as a synonym for "better keg."

And while the UK beer scene is in flux, it is worth pointing out that to most ordinary drinkers, it just passes them by.  As it should.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Craft Definition by BrewDog

Remember that debate about what craft beer is?  Course you do, it was rather popular until we all more or less gave up on it as every time we thought about it, our heads ached intolerably.  I sort of think we all decided on our own definitions and went off muttering words to the effect of  "I can't define it, but I know what it is when I see it."  Then we sort of put it aside and went off to lie in a darkened room. You might also remember that BrewDog same up with their own definition which bore an uncanny resemblance to what happens over the pond in the US.  It was rather derided on this basis and that too seemed to die a similar death.

Now I learn that this very afternoon, that BrewDog, far from giving up on it like most of us, will put a new definition to the Society of Independent Brewers' (SIBA) AGM  The BD website does give some details and urges those with thoughts on the matter to get in touch with them.  The actual proposal to be put to SIBA members for discussion is rather elusive though. The links to previous definitions and discussions both give a 404 error (not found) and BrewDog Jonathan hasn't responded to my request for details (and seems today to have been removed as contact on the BD Blog), so I can't tell you what it is.  What the blog does say seems to relate, not to craft beer, but to craft breweries.  Here's what it says:

"We believe that to earn its title a European Craft Brewery must be:

1) Authentic
a) brews all their beers at original gravity
b) does not use any adjuncts to lessen flavour and reduce costs.

2) Honest
a) All ingredients are clearly listed on the label of all of their beers.
b) The place where the beer is brewed is clearly listed on all of their beers.
c) All their beer is brewed at craft breweries.

3) Independent
Is not more than 20% owned by a brewing company which operates any brewery which is not a craft brewery.

4) Committed
If the brewer has an estate, at least 90% of the beer they sell must be craft beer."

Notice what's missing? Yep. Definition of craft beer.

So?  Any the wiser about what BrewDog are going to say today?  Me neither, but hopefully we will find out after the event, as clearly we aren't going to beforehand. 

It'll be interesting to see what the assorted SIBA types will make of all this.  Are they craft?  Dunno, but probably.  Er. I think.

Canny Coont*

My good friend John has pointed out that my arithmetic was wrong in my previous piece here about Wetherspoons. In that article I managed to convert 2.5 megalitres into 45,000 nines of beer when actually it should be 60,000, or, to be precise 61,736. Or, in pints, 4,445,000.

Now many of you will not know that in my native Scotland, when I was a lad, we had both Mathematics and Arithmetic O Levels. These were back in the days when you either got a "Pass" or a "Fail". Yes they used that word. "Fail". You'll be amazed to know I have both - for all the good they did me. So how did this error come about? Put simply, I failed to correctly multiply 4 by 15 and get the right answer. My old teachers would no doubt have given me a quick tap on the wrist with a strap to point out the error of my ways. They did that sort of thing then to make it harder to forget things. But these are more enlightened times, so Dear Reader, you are now aware that Wetherspoons sell even more beer than I told you and its importance to British brewing is even more than I indicated.

It really is a lot of beer, though I don't know how much of it is real ale.  That's a pity.

Didn't stop me being a bit dissatisfied with the choice in the Regal Moon last night though.

* Can't count  - as my old Supplementary Benefits trainer once told me.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Blinded by the Light

Is pale beer losing its appeal?  We all probably know people that prefer dark beers, or even brown beers, but is this affecting beer sales?  There is some evidence from our American friends that this may be so.  Sales of Budweiser in the U.S. declined 29 percent between 2007 and 2012. Budweiser Select was down 61 percent over the same period, Michelob Light a staggering 70 percent. Miller Genuine Draft dropped 56 percent and Milwaukee’s Best Light 40 percent over the same period.  Heineken didn't get away unscathed either with a 37% fall over the same period for its light version.

Does this really mean anything for us?  Unlike many, I am not that convinced that what happens in the US always has a direct influence on what happens here, though in terms of trends there is undoubtedly some linkage.  It ties in well with  this post from Ed Wray about a "catastrophic" fall in off sales of standard lager.  He also said "ale accounted for 30% of total beer sales in the last quarter of 2013 against the usual share of 15%. Marstons sold 40% less standard lager and cream flow T-bar ales like John Smiths and Worthington lost 15%."   Now these are really rather startling figures and such changes cannot be accounted for solely in terms of craft beer taking market share. The  drop in John Smith's Smooth sales is particularly interesting, as it is the "go to" cheap smooth beer of the North.

So, it seems that the world, including the UK is falling out of love with no frills lawnmower style beer, but it is slightly more difficult to say exactly what is happening, other than, given global sales of beer are down, that folks are shifting away from beer and cheap light beer in particular and that there is some evidence that there is a move to the dark side.*   Does this mean that premiumisation still has some legs left in it and that as people are drinking less, they are drinking "better"? And darker? 

Kind of looks like it. 

Or maybe it was a recession thing?  That's the other side of the coin, in that those with less disposable income, that used to buy lots of cheap light beer are buying much less? 

*Premium and craft beers are rarely lager like pale.

Photo  is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Friend or Foe?

How many eggs do JD Wetherspoon sell a year? 39 million.  "That's a lot of eggs" I think.  The statistics roll on.  525,000 (award winning) breakfasts a week.  If you laid the number of sausages sold every week end to end they'd reach from Chester to Frankfurt and back.  Why Chester and Frankfurt? I don't know.  Or was it chips? Either way, this is a big operation. Enough beer is sold in one week to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool.  Sounds a lot. It is a lot. 2.5 megalitres or 45,000 60,000 UK nines of beer. Over 4 million pints of beer a week.  Think about that. I'll leave it hanging to the wall for the moment.

Assembled hacks are in the Cross Keys in Gracechurch, St London to talk about the launch of Wetherspoon's next beer festival which will feature 10 international brewers, all of whom are here.  They are introduced one by one to be presented with a frame memento of their activities.  Most seem confused as you might well be in their situation.  As we listen, we sip rather flat and ordinary beer, jugged upstairs.  It isn't a great advert for cask beer. One disappointment (though logical if you think about it) is that as the brewers had just brewed the beers, they weren't actually available.)

Since they first started JDW's beers festivals have grown both in pints sold and how it is presented to the public, since the first one in 2006 when a respectable 1.1 million pints were sold.  Now they expect 3.5 million pints to disappear down thirsty throats. They'll be delivered in 35,000 nines, to 900 pubs from just two depots.  This year there are 10 international brewers from as far away as New Zealand - the Yeastie Boys - to, as the crow flies from London, next door Belgium by way of Hildegard Van Ostaden from De Hoppeschuur.  They brew in a variety of breweries, such as Caledonian, Banks, Wadworth, Adnams and many more.  This is in addition to the American Craft Brewers Showcase in which one American craft brewer a month comes across the pond to brew their beer for all JDW pubs*.  All of this is making JDW a lot more interesting a place to drink beer.  That isn't all.  JDW has just launched three American craft beers in cans from New York's Sixpoint brewery, which at two for a fiver, kind of blows a hole in craft beer pricing.  BrewDog and Goose Island bottles are already there and there is a decent range of other unusual bottles to drink at keen prices, especially if you aren't drinking them in London. (In London four quid for a cheaply imported Polish beer is hardly a bargain.)  They are already selling British brewed keg craft beer in limited quantities and no doubt will sell more as time goes on.

Unrelated to the beer festival, JDW are changing a lot.  Food is better and still very reasonable.  Pubs are much less corporate now and new ones are pretty contemporary and often a lot more upmarket.  They are often in splendidly restored buildings. Of course you are still going to get the small town drinking den type pub with its John Smith Smooth drinking derelicts, all lining up for their fix at nine in the morning, but this is a diverse operation and as I have said before, like any pub, individual units are only as good as the manager and how he or she runs it.

Back in the Cross Keys, I took an opportunity to have a chat with the two German brewers (From Kloster-Scheyern in Bavaria) who had been brewing a bockbier at Wadworth.(Good choice for that I'd imagine).  They seemed pretty confused about cask beer and I got the impression that they had rather more than a few reservations about it.  The first thing Brother Tobias - yes a real live brewing monk - asked "Why is it always so flat?"  That was a difficult question to answer, but I did my best to explain why it might be so.  Nonetheless the German brewers had enjoyed their time and I got my impression from such as the Yeastie Boys who were positively bouncing about, that like most things, you have to put a lot in to get a lot out.  My suggestion though is that JDW might be advised to hold their launch in a Northern pub, where the conditioning and presentation of the beers might be a little closer to the intended outcome by the brewers.

Now I read elsewhere that the import of the Yankee canned beers is being hailed as some kind of a breakthrough for craft beer in JDW.  This misses the point that JDW has been at the vanguard of this kind of beer innovation for quite some time.  They had a range of great beers some years ago including Duvel, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and other such exotics.  They introduced Polish beers years ago when they were a bit new to the UK. They used to sell Loewenbrau Wheat Beer which isn't even brewed any more.  They try beers out and quietly drop them when demand doesn't meet expectations.. You can probably expect that the availability of the new range will be reduced in many pubs if the beers don't sell, or, as in the past, they may just quietly be withdrawn. so maybe we best wait and see before getting too excited?

Wetherspoons has a lot of knockers that tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the company.  Just have a look at the comments on Boak and Bailey's blog if you doubt that. Snobbery about them abounds (I for one don't care of people are ordering jugs of lurid coloured drinks - that's up to them).  Nor do I need beer advice from JDW staff other than "What colour is it?"  If JDW sold the Port St or Craft range at knockdown prices, there would still be many snobs that wouldn't want to go there to breathe the same air as John Smith's or WKD drinkers.  For them beer inclusiveness is simply a phrase you hear about, but not one you'd dream of espousing.  Of course negatives exist and should not be denied, but despite the turned up noses of some beer geeks,  there is little doubt that the industry can't do without them. (Just go back to that figure of 15,000 UK barrels a week). Often they are the best bet for decent beer and food in many a small town, or in many a beer desert.  They have 283 pubs in the 2014 Good Beer Guide, 890 pubs out of  905 Cask Marque accredited pubs and they sell a lot of beer.  Only 34% of their turnover is food, so they are still wet led, despite all those eggs and all those breakfasts.

Wetherspoon has in effect had a number of game plans for years and they flex them as needed.  Prices vary according to location. In small towns, they provide cheap drinks.  In airports there is a different offer aimed at the transitory customers they attract.  In London the offer splits between inner and outer, with prices varying accordingly, as they do all over.  You won't see many scallies in the Crosse Keys for sure, but despite prices being on a par with other pubs in the area, it is still choc-a-bloc full of suits.  Must be a good reason for that surely?

Love them or hate them, Wetherspoon has been doing a lot of things right for years. Selling a few cans of American craft doesn't change  that at all, but maybe it will make a few more think again about the company. 

One or two myths arise in B&B blog:  JDW managers have the discretion to buy locally at a certain price. If they don't, it is likely because the manager can't be arsed. Area managers do have a role here, but will devolve power to the individual managers as they see fit.

While JDW is cheap in many places, it isn't particularly so in Central London, yet still very popular. For example in Jeff Bell's new pub a pint of Koenig Pils is £3.90.  In Goodman's Field in Aldgate, a pint of Heineken is £3.95.  Jeff Bell isn't known for his cheap beer.

From Wednesday of this week each JDW will have to have one of Fullers London Pride, Sharp's Doom Bar or Adnams Broadside.  I'm looking forward to trying two of these in great Northern condition.

*Yesterday I had Make It Rain from Sixpoint. It was superb. Brewed at Adnams.

Lastly, disclosure. (1) I got a few halves of very flat beer and a couple of onion bajis from JDW.  I declined a later tour of JDWs in a bus and I was sent the three cans, which I haven't yet tried.  (2) You'll find me in the excellent Regal Moon in Rochdale almost any Wednesday night.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Cable Steet E1

London, especially the East End, is endlessly interesting to me.  It has been hugely knocked about, gentrified and changed by bombing, demolition, regeneration and speculation, but you can still see in places what it was.

Yesterday we took a walk down Cable St, famous for its stand against Oswald Mosley's Fascist Blackshirts on Sunday 4 October 1936, when residents and others, together with the police dispersed a march by the British Union of Fascists.  There is a plaque on a wall just round from our flat, (but oddly in Dock St, not Cable St,  though I am sure it used to be), that commemorates the event.   This history pops up again as I looked out for pubs as we walked along the 1.2 miles, heading for Limehouse Basin.

First of all we came across the ex Crown and Dolphin, which look as though it is still a pub. It isn't of course, being residential.  It closed in 1992 to become flats and was a Charrington house.   Next along, yet another conversion to flats, but again you can see traces of its former ownership.  This was the Britannia Tavern first listed in 1839 and owned by Meux, Truman and latterly, Taylor Walker. It closed in July 1996, but the tiled exterior leaves you in no doubt as to what it once was. If you squint along the top of the pub you can still see Meux's Ales and Stouts in gilded lettering, peeping through the overpainting.

Moving on through the mass of council or possibly housing association flats, we come to the ex King's Arms.  Built like a very large brick shithouse, a magnificent painted Mann, Crossman and Paulin sign on a gable tells you who owned it, but sadly I can find out little about it from the usual sources.  

Lastly for symmetry (though out of order by one),  is the Ship, now converted to flats again and up for sale as such.  No doubt about its provenance as a pub though and a little bit of history here too, as this was where the blackshirts used to drink and where they tanked up before the battle of Cable St and presumably where they retired to lick their wounds.

We finished up in Limehouse, in Narrow St, the only original part of this area as far as we could see and as it was raining, nipped into the historic Grapes, owned apparently by Sir Ian McKellen and where Charles Dickens, as a child was made to sing standing on tables.  Built in 1720, it is thin, dark wooded and really rather quaint.  An American tourist's dream.  Alas, to finish on a low note, the Adnams Bitter displayed both warmth and flatness.

In London, some things never change.

We also popped into the Captain Kidd on the way home. By no means original, but a good and recommended Sam Smith's pub in Wapping High St.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Saving the Best to First - The Bermondsey Beer Mile

The Bermonsey Beer Mile or rather, the Bermonsey Beer Mile and a Half and a Bit, but that hardly trips off the tongue. Bermondsey Beer Mile it is then.  The walk itself is quite interesting, particularly if you fancy seeing a council flat bit of London and quite what the locals make of the bearded hipsters wandering about, I don't know, but I didn't see any of them getting duffed up, so I suppose up with them, the locals must be putting.

We walked from our place for the mile and a half to get to the beginning, but as we wanted to end up back on our manor rather than in Millwall, we passed by the early topers kicking off at Anspach and Hobday/Bullfinch and wended our way past Brew by Numbers, Kernel and Partizan to our destination, the furthest point on this upmarket brewery crawl.  Fourpure is set in the furthest recess of an industrial estate and unlike the others not in a railway arch, but in a large industrial unit. 

Fourpure is a decent sized operation with gleaming stainless steel vessels and John Driebergen, a very personable American, as Head Brewer.  We kicked off with a rather excellent pilsner beer of 4.7%, all body and noble hops and chatted to John about about the place.  The conical vessels are Chinese and do the job required well, with mash tun and other vessels coming from Purity when they upsized, though they needed some minor re-engineering for conversion from cask to keg brewing. Apart from the pilsner, there was a very American line up of beers all served from wall taps directly from the cold room.  A Sierra Nevada like pale, though with less sweetness, an American Brown, dark and luscious, an Oatmalt Stout with deep flavours but to my palate hampered by lots of carbonic acid from the CO2 and a rather warming IPA, which at 6.5% drank its strength. The beers are all sensibly priced at £1.50 per third to £4.50 a pint irrespective of strength. John said "Anyone charging more than that in the brewery, even in London,  is ripping you off."  Are you listening others?

I enjoyed our chat with John who seemed a most sensible chap, particularly as we seemed to agree on things like murky beer being a bad idea, London is a poor place to drink cask and that sort of thing. Anyone that agrees with me on such matters can safely be regarded as a prince among men.  Surprisingly there was only around ten customers, so that made it even more enjoyable in chatting terms, but I suspect that won't last.

All good things must come to an end and despite the fact we could both have supped that gorgeous pilsner all day, we set off to complete the crawl, though (as it turned it unwisely) deciding to omit Partizan and Kernel as we'd been there a few times before.  But walking makes you thirsty, so we did call into Kernel, but beat a retreat from the mayhem in there. Jammed full and with a queue at least thirty long, we decided not to bother.  Retracing our steps to Partizan was ruled out, so we pressed on.  We quite liked our next stop, Brew by Numbers for the friendly and chatty crowd. E enjoyed her Golden Ale though my Saison with Nelson Sauvin was like fermented pineapple juice - way too sweet for me, despite a little farmyard funk.  Unfortunately the beer I really wanted to try, the stout, ran out as I queued - yes more of that - so we left and made our last call at Anspach and Hobday/Bullfinch where two breweries share kit and outlet in a very small railway arch absolutely crammed with people. Lots of the beers had run out here and E was most unhappy that what was left was all too strong for her.  I had a rather good bottle of porter, which was thick, oily, roasty and bitter. Oh and clear, as all the beers seemed to be looking around me.  A bit disappointing that for E there was nothing to drink, but we were promised a better range from keykeg from next week.

And that was that. Pick of the bunch by a Bermonsey Mile was Fourpure for really drinkable, clear, well made beers and sensible pricing.  An observation I'd also make is that this brewery crawling is becoming just too popular for the rather small premises and numbers wanting to get in on the act. Something has to give there surely?

Still, on a perfect day for a walk, it was a rather pleasant afternoon out.

Can anyone tell me how some of the breweries get away with illegally selling beer in 33cl draught measures?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Way Out West

I like wedge shaped pubs.  There is just something about them, the way they sit astride two roads with a "Look at me, aren't I bloody great?" sort of way.  They are always interesting inside too, with quirky layouts and all the better if they have floor to ceiling windows from which you can smugly peer at those unlucky enough not to be inside supping ale.  Well that's the theory anyway, so how does an actual one measure up in the real world?

The Finborough Arms is a wedge shaped pub, so there's a good thing right away.  It is painted in a very fetching pale green that I have to say suits it. The second good thing is that it has been recently acquired by well known London licensee and ex beer blogger Jeff Bell, who has successfully - very successfully - built the Gunmakers in Clerkenwell into the thriving and popular pub it is now.  The Finborough Arms it seems had been a wine bar for some years and has a small theatre above it. Well that should be a ready made "audience", so a flying start there.  It is situated in a busy residential area in Brompton, just a few hundred yards from Earls Court Exhibition Centres, though Brompton West is your tube stop.  The area around all looks pretty well heeled so, second tick in the box.  The Finborough should attract customers, as I didn't see any other pubs in the immediate area.

But pubs are all about the offer aren't they? Here Jeff doesn't disappoint with a canny but solid offering of six handpumped beers, two real ciders and a gleaming array of tall keg fonts offering Koenig Pilsner as his "cooking lager" with Lagunitas IPA on a permanent pump too and, in a bit of a coup, Tipopils, an Italian pilsner of some repute, (though I have to say not to my taste), but doubtless an attraction to many.

On its opening night last night the place was bursting as you'd expect and was admirably run by Jeff in his usual ebullient way. His very efficient staff  seemed to hit the ground running too. The beer - strictly middle of the road, but well thought out - Jeff knows his London public and what sells - was, as you'd expect, in top condition and cool.  There won't be any problems in that direction.  For those interested in such things, the bar is basically wedge shaped too, with one leg of the wedge dedicated to keg and t'other to cask.  Toilets are both upstairs and downstairs and there is a further room and seating, though it looked a work in progress. The windows are just as you'd like too.

All in all impressive.  He'll do fine.

Not sure if there will be food, but I did see pickled eggs if that'll help.


When I was younger pubs were usually pretty busy, though very rarely so busy that you couldn't get in the door, or if you did, felt completely unable to force your way to the bar and were doomed to ignominious retreat. It happens in London a lot, not even on a Friday, but on a Wednesday (as I remarked here) and a Thursday, as happened no less than twice to me this week.

After awful beer in the Ten Bells in Spitalfields, we went to Liverpool St to find a cash machine and for whatever reason, I fancied a drop of Fullers,  Thinking they might have something interesting on, we tried to get into the Still and Star. Well I suppose it could have been done, but not with any degree of comfort and the thought of having to press our way through suits and suitesses just didn't appeal. Nor did standing with our drinks and being jostled seem like a plan either, so we beat a retreat.

Our next port of call on the way home, The Bell on Middlesex St, had a rather amusing A board* outside. What it didn't have and should have had, was a warning that the beer is totally flat.  In contrast to my earlier experience, this version of Harveys Sussex Bitter was a dead parrot.  It had shuffled off its mortal coil of life giving CO2 and had been vented to death.  It was flat as a pancake. No discernible CO2 at all, which was presumably, to quote Mr Python again, singing with the Choir Invisible. I left most of it while E chewed her way through a half of lager.

Back to Leman St and I thought we'd try the (newly reinstated in my circle of trust), Dispensary.  It was packed to bursting and we couldn't even see the bar.  Forget it, so it was gin and lager for us in the Oliver Conquest, which was pleasantly busy, but not packed like the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Mudgie is always saying that London is not like any other British city and he is right. Wealth abounds, but what makes people still go to pubs after work in such numbers? Two things. They have the money, but the second is public transport I'd guess. Almost everyone travels by it and that makes going for a drink after work and then staying on for a few, much more accessible.

It's my theory unless there are better ones?

I had Meantime Pilsner in the Oliver Conquest. Not the greatest beer in the world, but at least not flat and warm.

* I was wearing fingerless gloves, but then again, I have been for the last 30 years. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Past Revisited

I'm still on my "Pubs near my London flat" theme. There's one very near indeed that I had (until yesterday) never been in despite our fifteen years or so of it being just round the corner. The Dog and Truck I am told was rebuilt in 1935 in its present form and survived the wartime bombing unscathed. Hidden in Back Church St in East London it could be considered as a hidden gem. Well certainly hidden, though it is just five minutes off busy Leman St. But is it a gem and why despite its nearness have I not called in? I suppose the answer is that the time was never right.

The first thing you notice about the Dog and Truck is its faded Watney Combe and Reid livery.  Inside you step into the 1970s.  One single room, long and bare boarded is served from a long bar.  Typical of the seventies, there is a food servery on one side of the bar, from which astonishingly cheap (for London) food is dispensed. Think three Cumberland sausages and mash for under a fiver.  The menu has a kind of retro feel too, though food service was finished when I called in.  There are three handpulls offering Greene King IPA, another GK one turned round and thankfully, Harvey's Sussex Best which I chose and which was in splendid form. Clean, vibrant, cool and conditioned.  Lovely. I looked around. Inevitably there was a dart board and a pool table plus fruit machines.  No Space Invaders though, which was disappointing and no pink formica topped tables either, though I wouldn't have been at all surprised if there had been. Also typical of the seventies was a set of framed banknotes from around the world above the bar.

The pub had three other customers just finishing their pints when I arrived and within five minutes, there was just me and three - yes three barmaids - plus the landlord and landlady.  The boss was tilling up and the landlady sorting out some baked potatoes .  The barmaids scurried about busily.  It was a slightly surreal scene as I was completely ignored as if I was invisible, but not in a remotely unfriendly way.  One barmaid served me twice.  The only words exchanged were "£1.90 please" for my halves of beer.  No warm East End welcome, but I didn't make any effort either, serenely content as I was, sipping excellent beer in my time capsule.

I liked it a lot.  I'll be back and I'll make an effort to chat and hopefully too, I'll find it busier. I'm looking forward to it already.

It was a funny old day pubwise yesterday. More of that soon.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Keeping it Local

From time to time I tell you about the many pubs local to me here in London. There's good and bad, with one or two where I really like the pub but not the beer and some, the other way round. 

On the way back from an event I thought I'd check out the Hoop and Grapes at Aldgate, which was a pub I used to go in from time to time around ten years ago. Since then it has become part of the Nicolson chain and is shall we say, considerably cleaner.  Alas last night I was unable to update myself,  as at six o'clock the place was so rammed that I couldn't even get to the bar.  Trading well then.  A skip round the corner to the White Lion in Alie St.  Shepherd Neame with all that entails, which is a range of beers that all taste more or less the same. It's a funny little pub, which again we used to go in around ten years ago, but don't now.  It was also very busy, but service was swift. Bizarrely the barmaid thought my request for a half of Amber and of Whitstable Bay was for it to be served as a mix in a pint glass.  That sorted out, I wished it had been, so awful was the Amber and so ordinary the Whitstable Bay.

Onward and homewards.  The Dispensary used to be a local CAMRA Pub of the Year.  Despite its braying hoard of suits, we used to like it,  though beer quality varied and the old problem of very warm beer finally drove us out.  No such problems last night. The suits were still there in force, but the beer was cool, varied and well conditioned and a very pleasant pair of barmaids ran the show with a smile.  Adnams American Pale, St Austell Proper Job and two from Colchester Brewery (new to me)  were all excellent, though the Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Porter wasn't to my taste - vanilla in beer? - just say no.  A good visit and worth a second chance I'd say.

I looked in the window of the Black Horse (not rammed) but didn't fancy either GKIPA or OSH, so moved on to the Oliver Conquest. Now this is a bit of an oddity. It had a chequered past under a different name (Mr Pickwicks) and was a notorious after hours hang out, despite being next door to the cop shop.  (I remember people tumbling out of there pissed at five in the morning as we were on our way to Liverpool St Station en route to Stansted Airport.)  It was (compulsorily) closed for a while and now in its new incarnation, is a cosy hang out of oddballs.  It offers a gin selection of over 100, a couple of handpulls, including Landlord and young staff that always seem to be whispering conspiratorially to customers. Nonetheless it is quite likeable in a tart's boudoir sort of way.  The very pleasant barman discussed Meantime beers with me happily, as he'd just come back from a brewery visit.  Meantime Pilsner was my choice and it was good and at £4.40 a pint, about par for the course I suppose.

So busy pubs for a Wednesday night, a mixed bag and two I want to go back to within five minutes of our flat. Result.

There was a few craft keg offerings including one from Hog's Back.  That one was a surprise.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Good to be Back

I'm in London and the sun is shining. Hooray. We decided last night to have a quick wander out. I kind of regard arrival here as being the first night of my holidays, which shows I have no sense at all. At least I have no work to do today (or any other day). My co-conspirator, E does of course, but we were quite restrained.

So, first a fifteen minute walk to the Draft House at Seething Lane. I really do like it here, but the cask beer never sings out to you.  It always seems to be under conditioned, or over vented.   These display similar symptoms and I'd need to know more about their cellar practice to know which it is, but there are clues, especially if you know the beer.  This time the beer of choice was Marble Pint with which of course I am rather familiar. It lacked condition, with scarecly a prickle of CO2 on the palate, but was fresh, clean and tasted like Marble Pint. It was just on the right side of cool and I noticed the Cask Marque shield prominently displayed near the handpumps. So. My verdict? Over vented.  Any London pub that would like my advice on looking after cask has only to ask. It is a bit of a specialism of mine and my fees are very reasonable.

Then another ten minutes or so to the Pelt Trader, which again I like though hardly for aesthetic reasons. Why do I like it?  The cask beer is always as spot on as it can be, given that it pours through columns in the wall.  Oakham Citra was at perfect cellar temperature and bursting with condition. You can buy cask with confidence here. Trust me on that one.

Lastly we decided on a bit of grub on the way back at our local JDW. Very nice mixed grill and a pint of  very well kept The Bruery Oatmeal Stout, part of JDW American Craft Brewers Showcase.  What a good beer. Very rich though, with cocoa powder nose, chocolate and mocha coffee with a touch of vanilla and a good silky malt and oat base which just needed a sparkler to give it the creamy head it deserved. It is perhaps a bit sweet for more than one and all the more amazing that this rather good beer came out of Caledonian in Edinburgh, whose record on these American beers is at best, mixed.

As I said, good to be back and on Saturday, the Bermondsey Mile and London Murky. 

Keeping cask beer well is as easy as pie if you have turnover. Trust me on that one too.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

BrewDog - More Than Meets the Eye

Fraserburgh is cold. The wind whips off the North Sea in a salty smack that hits you like a brick wall. The waves are grey and angry and it doesn't take much imagination to feel for those that earn their living from it. BrewDog Fraserburgh isn't at all what I'd been expecting.  In an old, rickety looking warehouse, surprisingly still standing against the sea front elements is, what was until recently, BrewDog Central.  Their brewery and offices.  It is hard to believe.  Inside on a wet concrete floor a  few stainless steel brewing vessels remain, the main kit having been whisked off to the spanking new brewery at Ellon, 27 miles away.  While you do get a bit of a Ghost Town feel, there is nothing sad about Fraserburgh. It has two (very hardy) permanent staff here and they still brew, store and mature beer. And Boy are they enthusiastic about it.

James Watt you can tell is still proud of it. It all started here and from this spot, BD bluffed, begged, borrowed and outrageously gimmicked their their way to the success they have now.  James, himself a veteran of the chilly seas outside (he was a trawlerman) tells us and reminds himself of how it began. Of the way they contracted for a million bottles without a bottling line, of the struggle for money and always the belief that the vision he shares with friend and business partner, Martin Dickie that selling better beer to people, beer made in their own vision, was something they were simply going to do. As we pondered all this, we supped a wonderful Passion Fruit Sour, so clean, yet so redolent of the fruit itself , that the sourness was an almost unnoticed counterpoint. So beautifully balanced at 3% I had two. A Jasmine IPA followed, straight from the conditioning tank. It was still being dry jasmined and had some time to go, but it was distinctive and different.

We (journalists and bloggers) had started earlier with a tour of the new stainless steel cathedral that is Ellon, on an industrial estate between Aberdeen and Fraserburgh.  The kit, designed mainly by Martin Dickie and funded by "crowd sourcing"  is state of the art and purpose built. Steel piping snakes along the walls, it wraps itself around fermentation vessels, mash and lauter tuns, conditioning, CO2 and glycol tanks.  We dodge outputs from the centrifuge as it spits out spent yeast and trub (they believe in clear beer here). We climb stairs, inspect a state of the art lab, watch hypnotised as the bottling line cleans, labels, fills, caps and nudges the bottles on their way to packing. They seem almost human as they queue to meet their transport to any one of the 30 or so countries they could end up in, patiently waiting in line, then rushing forward, eager to be next.

The brewery is still being tweaked. Engineers are moving kit, but the business continues unabated. The staff seem at ease in their job and there is an easy egalitarian feel about the place.  Martin shows us a small pilot plant where a brewer is busy putting together her own recipe. Someone asks what her normal job is. "Oh" he says vaguely, "anyone that works here and wants to know more can have a go at brewing" he remarks. And adds "Who knows? It might well end up as a production beer". We enter a vast warehouse, only just handed over from the builders a few days ago.  Mountains of kegs, keykegs, bottles, products marked for export and all kinds of sundries fill the place. On the far side a veritable distillery of whisky, bourbon and rum casks sit in serried rows, full of maturing beer.  Bottled beers and kegs imported for their own bars are there too.  This is a big operation, but Martin tells us, they have room to expand. James tells us later that they will do.

It is time for a drink and a chat. After all we are invited there to see what's behind the facade.  To be charmed after some bruising encounters. To scotch some myths. We start, where else with Punk IPA, fresh as a daisy, with Seville orange, peaches and tropical fruit, it gets universal approval.  Then Jack Hammer, straight from the conditioning tank, all big C hopping, but with cask like mouthfeel as it hasn't yet been brought up to bottling carbonation. It is 7.2% but tasting nothing like it. No jaggy alcoholic edges in this beer.  Dead Metaphor is quietly coffeeish, with chocolate and subtle smoke. Not overdone as some are, it is as smooth as a baby's bum. AB15, an imperial stout, has spent time in both rum and bourbon casks and has vanilla sweetness, with a touch of rummy raisin. We are told to expect salty caramel and popcorn, but advised it was more of an impression than a taste.  Whatever; it was a beer you'd imagine yourself sipping, late at night,  from the depths of a deep armchair, in front of a dying fire. Rich and contemplative.

Questions and answers follow as we sip. James tells us all that it has been a struggle to get where they are and you can believe him. Anecdotes flow about the early days when money was tight, contract deadlines tighter and brewing capacity tighter still.  There is still a revolutionary zeal in there, but behind the hype there is an undoubted pride and a determination to brew good beer.  They believe in training, in educating customers, they talk of new openings, company ethos, getting better at what they do, but they come back to the same theme. They don't care what it costs, but they want to brew beer that stretches, that challenges, but which tastes good.  They want to educate the public and give staff professional beer qualifications. One proviso is repeated. If James and Martin don't like it, it doesn't go on sale.  We talk about hops. This is everyone's favourite subject. Facts and statistics fly around.I write them down conscientiously, but what it boils down to is an infeasible amount of hops per hectolitre, in many varieties, for one of which (it may have been Simcoe*) BD is the world's biggest user.  I ask about cask beer. James is somewhat reticent about it, but doesn't rule it out for the future.  That's good, particularly as they are looking at having more session beers and they did make very good cask indeed. At least he didn't laugh me out of court.

Later we meet at BrewDog Aberdeen, their first bar.  It is very pubby in fact, apart from the rather stern line of grey keg fonts watching over proceedings.  The staff are enthusiastic and (even though they didn't know I was a guest) keen to explain in a very non condescending way about the beers on offer.  James is pleased about that when I tell him later, but in fairness it has happened to me before in other BrewDog bars.  Nor do I recall there being a Captain Haddock like beard in sight, which does set them apart too. But in a good way.  We ate in MUSA also BD owned. The beers are good and we are talked through them, not by James or Martin, but by various BrewDog managers. This came as a complete surprise to at least one and it compounded a sense that the employees are all fully on board.

So why was I there?  Firstly because I was invited, but secondly because I was invited by James with whom I've sort of clashed swords with before.  Why were we invited?  Officially to show us the new brewery and how it is going, but I think the unspoken sub plot was so we could see there is more to BD than a dead squirrel and ridiculously strong beer.  I got the impression that rather like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, there will be a slightly different public face - this is a big serious business now - but innovation, quirkiness and downright cheek won't be far under the surface. After all this is a young company run by young people with fresh ideas and a happiness to cock a snook at things. James and Martin are understated bosses, but they know what they want and how to bring their own people along with them which can never be a bad thing.  Both are impressive in different ways, with James shyer and more thoughtful than you might imagine and Martin the brewer and engineer, getting the brewery as it should be.  Hopefully too there will be great quaffing beer and maybe even a return of cask, though I won't be holding my breath.  You can bet too that there will be a lot more to hear about in the next few years and loads of interesting beers from this shiny new brewery. Was I impressed? You bet I was.  Was I wrong? In many ways yes. Things are often a lot clearer close up.
But you know, I don't think that matters so much as the fact that these guys are beer people through and through and unafraid to say so. Beer people, even when they don't brew cask are invariably impressive.  It was good to hang out with them for a bit.

At MUSA, while I particularly enjoyed the Jura Riptide, who could fail to like a beer with "Hello My Name is Vladimir" complete with a label featuring Mr P.

Disclosure: BD paid for and organised our visit.

* Simcoe was mentioned, but it was actually Nelson Sauvin

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

CAMRA and the Future

Tim Webb, guru and author of all thing beerily Belgian, has set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting in a letter to CAMRA's esteemed organ, What's Brewing, that CAMRA needs to change and concludes by saying:

"The challenge for the Campaign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped create. Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grandparent who wants to keep driving even though they can’t make out the road ahead."

When you examine Tim's letter, it is a bit of a mixed bag with much to agree about.  There are some gaps in his arguments though. He says "Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance." Sorry.  What are these "greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century". Tim doesn't say, so it is somewhat difficult to know what he is driving at here, other than CAMRA should in some way give more ground to those who believe in beer other than real ale.  Actually that is most of us and most CAMRA members. A few die hards maybe stick entirely to cask, but most of us drink other beers too, so to some extent this is a moot point for CAMRA members, though there is a growing number of younger end beer drinkers that may need a little more convincing from their side of the argument. The divide isn't just a CAMRA affair.

He does make some very valid points about brewing practice and has concerns with the word "traditional" in the CAMRA definition of real ale, implying it harks to a non existant golden age where things were done "properly".  He is right of course and partial conditioning of beer in the brewery is nothing new at all. As for "traditional", I rather fancy it came from the name that the trade used to call real ale - cask conditioned beer if you like - rather than any attempt to imply beer had always been made in an artisanal and time honoured way, as Tim suggests. The trade used the term "traditional" to distinguish it from keg and other bright beers. His assertion that the CAMRA definition would implode if the word "traditional" was removed is somewhat unsupported by any evidence.  I would be most suprised if real ale drinkers were, or are, purely or substantially attracted to real ale due to tradition.  I suspect the answer is much more prosaic and that most feel that (to them) it just tastes better.

I do agree with him in other ways though.  The genie is out of the bottle in that there are many more good beers out there, that are neither traditional, nor cask conditioned, so it does need to be addressed.  How to co-exist with this is a dilemma.   To paraphrase Marx, "The problem is not in identifying what is wrong with the world, but how to change it." Tim says in his letter about the Good Beer Guide "CAMRA has championed a bureaucratic device to inform its members what sort of beer is good – as in the term Good Beer Guide. Thirty years ago this mattered little, as decent beer and cask ale,in Britain at least, were synonymous. But then things changed."

Tim offers no solutions as to what should be done, so, eating this elephant bite at a time,  here's a thought: The Good Beer Guide may not be the all inclusive, unambiguous title that it once was, (as Tim Webb points out) but it has recognition and value which make a change in the short term not only unlikely but commercially suicidal.  Why not though run a bold strapline under the title to say "The definitive guide to real ale and where to drink it"? CAMRA would then, if nothing else be nailing its stated real ale colours to the mast and be clearlyclaiming no more than the GBG is a guide to real ale.

The vexatious question of what CAMRA should do about craft keg is one that needs a bit more careful thought. But by my suggested subtle change to the Good Beer Guide, we'd have a starting point.   CAMRA campaigns for real ale. Just accept that and build on it and modernise it, including our definition of real ale and a full explanation of how the term arose. We should be unafraid where we encounter a mixed economy of cask and keg. Most good craft beers bars already do this. We should provide better education and words about other beers and better definitions of them too.  We need to include more about craft keg beer in our publications, including the GBG, while still emphasising our commitment to real (cask) ale as uniquely British and a fantastic product in its own right. The fact that by and large it can only be consumed in the pub is a good point to emphasise too, as should the fact that cask beer still has its dangers to face. (Which is another reason to support it strongly). We in CAMRA do need to improve what we do  and how we do it in a changing beer world (despite the urban nature of most of the changes).

There are other areas too where we need to up our game. But we aren't as broken, out of touch and irrelevant an organisation as Tim implies.  Not by a long chalk. But maybe it is time to demonstrate that to the doubters.

Actually the Good Beer Guide often mentions in its entries the fact that craft keg and bottles are sold.  I also recommend both Curmudgeon and Paul Bailey who cover this subject too.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Where's That Brewery Again?

I was gratified to see the British Beer and Pub Association doing something useful for a change.  They have produced a comprehensive report of every parliamentary constituency, showing the impact the number of breweries and pubs in each has on jobs and wages, with details of numbers employed etc.

Great stuff I thought turning to three of my local constituencies.  All three have the number of breweries, not just wrong, but very wrong. Breweries surely aren't that hard to place in the right area? Plenty of stuff about that on line. I don't know about the pubs - that's doubtless harder - but inaccuracy doesn't fill me with confidence about any of the rest of it.  

Not sure whether to blame arithmetic or geography here.

 Problem is not much (if anything) else aligns with parliamentary constituencies, so I actually  have some sympathyfor them.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

More Power Please

Isn't it funny how those that seek to limit what you do dress it up as "much needed reform",  "a sensible tidying up", a need to be flexible to address local concerns" and ominously, to improve public health"?  The latest view of the Local Government Association about the future of Licensing calls for a complete throwing out of the current (now declared by them as obsolete) licensing system, which for alcohol, was introduced only 10 years ago.  In fairness to them, they are considering more than just alcohol licences, as taxis, kebab houses, betting shops and more come under their purview and they do make a sensible case for getting rid of multiple licenses for the same business.

To wind back a little, when the Licensing Act 2003 (which became law at midnight 23rd November 2005) transferred the powers previously vested in magistrates to local authorities and by law, from them to Licensing Committees.  The Act laid down several things which must happen, such as Premises Licences which covered the building in which the activity took place and an individual licnce to sell and authorise the sale of alcohol. (I am such a licence holder).

Now comes the bits which allow local discretion.  Four compulsory licensing objectives were set out:
  1. the prevention of crime and disorder,
  2. public safety,
  3. prevention of public nuisance, and
  4. the protection of children from harm
These cover most eventualities in that Licensing Committees can add conditions to the premises licence to limit what the establishment can do to ensure compliance with the objectives.  Thus it is that hours can be limited, noise can be kept down, plastic glasses can be enforced, as well as may other things. I recall on the course which I took, having to learn all about this in order to pass and be awarded my ticket.   There is also an overall "Cumulative Impact Policy" which though not part of the Act, allows Committees to consider whether too many licensed premises in one area might impact on the four objectives.

Can you see much wrong with that?  Well I can't, but our dear local authorities do. Putting aside the need to roll together multiple licenses,  lets turn to pubs.  It was one of the intents of the original Act to make the granting of licences less dependent on local whim and enshrine within a set of objectives, a presumption of "Yes" to applications. Local bureaucrats now feel they should be able to alter these to include taking into account the health impacts in an area, decide locally about withdrawal of licenses on yet to be specified grounds and apply local fees to all of this which will no longer be standard. More worrying would be the introduction of a health provision (which already applies in Scotland and reads "Protecting and improving public health."

Taken as a worst case scenario, where alcohol is concerned they would be able to act on any local whim, (however unreasonable) , increase fees, decide on what affects our health - whatever that might mean - and under the guise of "allowing businesses to flourish" and "hand communities the protection they deserve" ride roughshod over anyone they care to. (I guess they could also do the same for kebab shops and taxis.)

Now it may well be that the LGA is on to something here, but am I alone in thinking they would like to be able to put their fingers more deeply into more pies and charge us more for the privilege? We really need to watch out that this isn't just a subtly disguised bid for money and power. 

The LGA  report "Open for business. Rewiring licensing." is on line here   Blame the LGA for the poor quality photo.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Three Recommended Beers

It was the Good Beer Guide Selection meeting on Saturday at the upstairs room in the Baum in Rochdale still, for a couple more weeks or so, CAMRA's National Pub of the Year.  Over 45 people attended and as usual, Simon, the owner, had a great selection of beers for us to help the deliberations.

All were in tip top condition and we drank at least one of them dry and probably knocked a big hole in several more.  I stuck to Mallinsons at first, but when Hawkshead Cumbrian 5 Hop came on, I knew I had a date with destiny.  It is truly irresistible. The brewery describes it as "A thoroughly modern beer made, as is our way, with a blend of traditional English and modern American hops, five varieties in all.”  The result is a superbly drinkable beer which as full bodied, clean and crisp, but with layer upon layer of hoppy delights. It is typical of Hawkshead, whose standards and attention to detail are hard to equal.

I should say too that the preceding beers from Mallinsons were no slouches either with the Herkules Centennial, double hopped with the hops of that name, being delightfully bitter, but again precise and clear and very drinkable.  Motueka provided some Southern Hemisphere fruitiness and complexity which was just as appreciated. It was a long meeting, but nonetheless buoyed up by great beers from great brewers, a few of us lingered over a few more pints of 5 Hop afterwards.

Who could blame us?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Piss Up in a Brewery?

I've quite a lot of time for Thwaites - nowadays that is. It wasn't always so, as almost all they ever offered was smooth beer in various forms, but a concious decision several years ago to return to cask has seen the brewery profile multiply by a huge factor and with beers like Wainwrights becoming a runaway success, they had the confidence to build within the main brewery, the Crafty Dan Brewery, producing specialist craft beers in cask, keg and bottle, which I visited and wrote about here. The beers have been good too, with several winning awards and some of their seasonal beers have been spectacularly good - and different.

Underlying all this, for several years the bigger plan has been to vacate the cramped central Blackburn premises which houses the Star Brewery, sell it to Sainsbury's for yet another supermarket and build a new, smaller, state of the art brewery on a greenfield site on the outskirts of Blackburn by the motorway. Seems like a good plan, so what could possibly go wrong? Well everything it seems. The local council has offered several sites but none has been followed up and it now seems for reasons unknown, that the proposed Sainsbury redevelopment will not take place either. It is hard to ascertain why and although the local Lancashire Telegraph has a good go at it here, I'm none the wiser really.

But one thing is clear. Thwaites are to sack most of the brewery workforce, close the main brewery which they describe as "obsolete", keep Crafty Dan going, outsource the brewing to Marstons of all their main brands (some may also be brewed at Burtonwood I am told) until such time as they can find a new brewery site. Yes the same brewery site they have been unsuccessfully seeking for years. Thwaites it seems are more or less up shit creek without a paddle. Their main brands brewed by rivals, their brewery more or less closed, their workforce sacked and the new brewery no nearer than ever. Some cynics from rival breweries in the North West that I have spoken to, believe that Thwaites will never open a new brewery.

 Only one way to prove them wrong I suppose, but time is running out.

The workers didn't take being given the heave ho lying down. The Thwaites sign on the brewery tower was altered to reflect their feelings.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Clear As a Clear Thing

I posed a question on the 14th of this month about unclear beer and what people thought about it.  Despite what some thought as the loaded and pejorative way in which my pole was framed, nonetheless it came out with an err... not exactly clear answer. Well sort of.

Out of a respectable 163 votes, no less than 51% had some doubts about beer which isn't clear, while the biggest single answer was "Not if it tastes good to me".  The results are below.

Not if it tastes good to me
  66 (40%)
Depends how murky it is
  15 (9%)
Yes I mind. Beer should be clear
  17 (10%)
If it is craft keg, I don't mind, but I expect cask to be clear
  9 (5%)

I would like to be warned in some way before I buy and then I'll decide
  53 (32%)
I don't know enough about the subject to make a correct decision
  3 (1%) 

Taken together with Mudgie's similar poll which shows an overwhelming majority would like to be given an indication beforehand if the beer isn't meant to be clear, (I'm staying well away from the word "warning"* at this point), it seems that the general dissatisfaction about the situation needs to be addressed in some way.  That may be the end, but what might the means be?  Now I have to confess, that as a mainly cask drinker,  that I'm not quite so bothered if keg beer is cloudy or not, though in most cases I'd just like it to be no more than a hop haze.  (I have already expressed my views that the case for finding good things in your unclear beer is at least as likely to be counteracted or outweighed by the bad). But when it comes to cask I'm firmly of the view that the beer should be clear, or have no more than a slight haze caused by hopping, or maybe by lack of finings, though that's a more complicated argument. 

So back to means.  Should CAMRA, through its AGM, try and do something about this given the confusion and possible undoing of years of campaigning?  I thought maybe, but having talked to many veterans recently, the difficulty would be in finding the correct form of words for a motion and the appropriate sanctions - though I don't rule out trying.  Taking a different tack, I somehow doubt that most pubs will adopt a voluntary code as it were and I have the same reservations about breweries doing it either.  Seems the only thing is for the customer to have the onus put on them to ask if they care enough, though given the paucity of beer knowledge amongst many bar staff, seems unlikely to put minds to rest.

The case for not letting this rest is well put by Mudgie and funily enough, by Cooking Lager. This quote is telling and one with which I agree "it is all too easy for a defect to masquerade as a feature. And it’s hard to avoid the thought that promoting the virtues of cloudy beer is another way to create a divide between the crafterati and the general public."

Despite what a healthy 40% allege in my poll, it isn't all about how it tastes to an individual.  There are bigger issues at stake.

* Despite dislike of my use of the word "warning", that's exactly what people mean when they say they wish to know in advance.