Thursday, 28 December 2017

Another couple down

Over the Christmas weekend I learned that two more Stockport pubs were to close their doors in the new year. While neither could be said to be conspicuously thriving, they hadn’t appeared to be obviously on their last legs.

First is Winter’s on Little Underbank at the bottom of Hillgate. This was a former jeweller’s shop that was converted to a pub by Holts in the early 1990s. They retained the distinctive facade with its automaton clock, although this was no longer in working order. The interior was smartly fitted out on two levels, and initially they hoped to cultivate an upmarket ambiance and attract food trade. Sadly, this was not to be and, maybe in line with the decline of the surrounding area, it steadily became the haunt of some of central Stockport’s more downmarket pub clientele, says he politely. On several recent visits there has been karaoke in full swing, with a distinctly lively atmosphere.

Apparently it has been bought by Stockport Council and is expected to close during January. It presumably forms part of their plans to regenerate the Lower Hillgate and Underbanks area which, as I said in my recent post about the new Redrock entertainment complex, surely has the potential to become a cornucopia of independent businesses. However, they’re faced with an uphill struggle, as currently it’s very tatty and rundown, with as many vacant units as open ones. This will reduce the number of pubs on the famous Hillgate Stagger serving cask beer to a mere six, whereas I can remember as many as sixteen thirty years ago.

The second is the Queen’s Arms, a couple of miles away in Cheadle. This was once a traditional multi-roomed local that had the distinction of serving the rare Robinson’s “ordinary” bitter. However, towards the end of 2006 it was greatly extended and internally drastically remodelled, removing most of its previous character and leaving it feeling rather soulless. I wrote about it in my column in January 2007* in uncomplimentary terms, focusing on the dearth of fixed bench seating.

In hindsight, that wasn’t a very auspicious time to be spending a lot of money on a pub, and it never seems to have repaid the investment, although I wouldn’t have immediately named it as a prime candidate for closure. On the occasions I’ve been in, it’s never been particularly busy, and there have been reports of it becoming a magnet for trouble, with one incoming licensee having to bar a long list of customers.

It’s an attractive building in a good location, but it seems to have suffered from falling between two stools. Is it a sports pub, or an eating pub? You can’t really combine the two – you have to be one or the other. The substantial site may be one reason behind its closure, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that it may be turned into a drive-thru McDonalds. There are two other Robinson’s pubs nearby – the Printers Arms and the Red Lion – both of which I would say have a more congenial and “pubby” atmosphere.

Maybe neither pub will be hugely mourned, but the fact that they are going underlines just how fragile the general pub trade remains at present. I don’t want to put the kiss of death on any pub by mentioning it by name, but I can think of quite a few others that give the impression of living on borrowed time. Plus the prominently-situated George, opposite Debenhams on Mersey Square, is currently closed once again with an uncertain future.

* incidentally, since I wrote that piece, the Griffin at Heald Green has received a further revamp which involved the removal of the public bar and has left it much less pubby and overwhelmingly food-oriented

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

That was then, this is now

Over the past forty years, there have been dramatic and very noticeable shifts in the way pubs actually function, and in the ebb and flow of customers through the day. One of the biggest changes has been all-day opening, which was introduced in 1988 but took some time to become widespread. In principle, you can’t really argue against this, but it’s undeniable that it has transformed the drinking landscape. Before then, there was a clear division between drinking and non-drinking time, and the afternoon break defined the rhythm of the pub day. Very often, the approach of closing time at 2.30 or 3 concentrated the mind on getting that final pint in.

Nowadays, opening all day has become general in town and city centres, but many pubs in locations where there is less footfall have instead responded by ceasing to open at all at lunchtimes during the week. Oddly, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure. But one phenomenon it has led to is a busy period of drinking in the afternoon, from 3 or 4 pm, onwards, something often noticed by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking travels. This is associated with the common knocking-off time of self-employed tradespeople. Many pubs are now opening their doors at exactly the time in the afternoon when they were once closing them.

The session where the effects of all-day opening have been most acutely felt is Sunday lunchtime. When it was restricted to a couple of hours, it was often one of the busiest and most convivial of the week, a time when people could relax and let their hair down before going home for a good lunch and a snooze. But, with the extension to 3 pm and then to all day, this unique, concentrated period has been progressively eroded and now, except in dining pubs, it is often completely dead. The introduction of Sunday trading in shops from the early 90s onwards has also been a factor here. I've written in the past about the changing face of Sunday lunchtime drinking in my local pub.

Sunday has also become the biggest day of the week for televised football, which inevitably changes the dynamics of pubs. As you will have gathered from reading this blog over the years, I’m not the greatest fan of football in pubs, but given that Sky Sports exists they can’t really afford to ignore it. But it has to be recognised that, when the big match is on, all other activities in pubs go out of the window, in particular just popping in for a quiet drink and a chat.

Another major change in pubs has been the ever-growing presence of food. Despite what some claim, there was no shortage of pub food in the 1970s, and in fact I’d suggest that, in absolute terms, there may well have been more food sold on weekday lunchtimes then than there is now. But it has steadily encroached into the evenings and weekends, and more and more pubs now present themselves as essentially eating houses where few go just for a drink, and would feel out of place if they did. Of course to a large extent this is a response to changing market conditions, and pubs can’t really be criticised for embracing food, but it has dramatically changed them.

In the past, there used to be plenty of pubs that had a mix of drinking and dining customers, which led to a wide-ranging customer base and could product a good atmosphere. But, as pubs have gone one way or the other, that kind of multi-purpose pub, while it can still be found, is becoming ever rarer. And a noticeable difference is that diners in pubs are much less likely to talk to other groups than drinkers. This is exacerbated by the redesign of interiors to replace wall benches, which face into the centre of the room and promote sociability, with individual tables surrounded by loose chairs, where customers only focus on the other members of their own group.

In a wider context, it is noticeable that a lot fewer people now just go to the pub for a drink, as opposed to going out drinking. A good pub can provide a valuable “third space” where people can engage with each other more freely and intimately than they can at home or in the workplace. It used to be commonplace to see various groups – friends, workmates, couples, family members – just enjoying a pint or two, but it’s now seen much less often. While this was perhaps a particular feature of the lunchtime session, it applies in the evenings too – I’ve remarked before how at one time it was common for established married couples to just go to the pub for a drink as a change of scene, but it’s much less so now. The best conversations I ever had with my father were in the pub over a pint, but how many fathers and sons do you now see there? Martin Taylor has remarked on his travels how you still see this kind of thing in city centres, particularly with reference to Sheffield, but in other areas it’s increasingly rare. And the “smart” pub, where better-off citizens would gather over a drink to discuss their BMWs, investments and foreign holidays, is pretty much entirely dead. The solid middle classes may eat in pubs, but they don’t drink in them much any more.

Now, you may say that this is just an exercise in nostalgia. Of course pubs, like everything, change over time, and perhaps I’m just lamenting that things are no longer the same as they were in the years when my view of the world was formed. And that’s really the point – to reflect on just how the dynamics of pubs have changed. I’ve enjoyed many late afternoon sessions myself, which I could never do before 1988, and the tradespeople gathering in pubs at that kind of time are finding fulfilment in pubs in a way that was once impossible. Readers will no doubt point out examples where the old-fashioned conviviality still prevails. In my experience, very often it’s in the Sam Smith’s estate that pubs still work like they used to do. But it can’t be denied that, overall, the drinking trade in pubs is much thinner and less rich and varied than it once was – the statistics on closures and the collapse of beer sales speak for themselves.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Not so dirty dozen

Following my general review of 2017, here’s a selection of my most significant posts from throughout the year. There are twelve in total, but they don’t fall conveniently into one per month.

January:

A campaign designed by a committee – some thoughts on CAMRA’s Revitalisation Report

February:

Local antihero – my love-hate relationship with our local family brewer, Robinson’s

April:

Micro appeal – micropubs are the flavour of the month, but their appeal to the wider pubgoing population is actually very limited

May:

False memory syndrome - despite what antismokers claim, it wasn’t difficult to find non-smoking provision in pubs before 1 July 2007

July:

Ten years gone – for anyone who claims to support pubs to still argue that the smoking ban was a good idea is an exercise in the most breathtaking and contemptible hypocrisy

Murdered by the smoking ban – “So as you sit in your smoke-free gastropub commenting on how delicate Pierre manages to get those organic scallops you can rest easy knowing that you've taken away one of the few nice things in the lives of people you've never met.”

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere? - real ale and craft beer, at heart they’re basically the same, surely? Er no, actually they’re distinct concepts that arise from very different sources

August:

Nobody else has complained – the ins and outs of taking sub-standard beer back to the bar

Forty years of progress – the Good Beer Guide of 2018 is certainly very different from that of 1978, but is it, or the pub scene in general, actually better?

September:

The undercutting fallacy – the role of “cheap supermarket alcohol” in the decline of the pub trade is greatly exaggerated

Standing at the crossroads – CAMRA comprises two camps of traditionalists and modernisers divided by mutual incomprehension

November:

Quantity and Quality – a guest post from licensee Kieran Lyons on cask beer stocking and rotation policies to ensure consistent quality

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Highlights of 2017

As in previous years, I offer a summary of some of the notable points of 2017. Last year’s is here. It can’t really be called “Golden Pints” as it’s really much more about pubs, pussycats, people and policies. During 2017 I have visited 183 different pubs, of which 95 were new to me, compared with 154 and 64 in 2016. In the remaining days of the year I’ll be adding a few to the total, most notably on the legendary Hillgate Stagger this coming Friday, but I don’t think I’ll be going to any more pubs that I haven’t already visited.

Best New Pub Visited – the Holly Bush at Makeney in Derbyshire. Although it isn’t too far from me, for some reason I’d never previously got round to visiting it, possibly because it’s a bit off the obvious Peak District tourist track. It’s a great example of how a superb unspoilt pub interior, that appears on CAMRA’s National Inventory, can be combined with a thriving, enterprising pub offering high-quality beer and food. It’s also one of the rare pubs still offering beer from the jug.

An honourable runner-up was the Hop Pole in Crewe, a classic community local with a warm welcome and a largely unspoilt multi-roomed interior, plus that increasingly rare feature, its own bowling green.

Best Pub Revisit – a couple of classic unspoilt Sam Smith’s pubs in East Yorkshire, the White Horse (Nellie’s) in Beverley and the Olde Blue Bell in Hull, neither of which I had been to for thirty years. The photo shows an archetypal group of pub codgers in the Olde Blue Bell. “If it weren’t for all these modern medical treatments, most of us’d be dead,” one of them said, cheerfully.

Best Pub Cat – has to be Felix of the Boar’s Head in Stockport, who was a close runner-up last year. Big, elderly, fluffy and cantankerous, he’s a real character. I haven’t in general come across a huge number of pub cats on my travels, but I did encounter Chairman Meow in the King’s Head in Leicester, who has something of a claim to fame.

Sobering News of the Year was being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at the end of February. This wasn’t a total surprise, given that my father had it, but even so it gives cause to think and reflect. I wrote about it in more detail here. It doesn’t debar you from drinking, and indeed I’ve visited more pubs, both new and in total, this year than last. However, it makes it more important to take general care of your health, and I have succeeded in reducing my beer consumption during the March-November period, compared with last year, by over 20%, mostly by drinking less at home and cutting out the odd extra pint that didn’t add much to the experience. There’s also a problem in distinguishing the genuine health advice specific to diabetics from the general messages which, as I’ve extensively dissected over the past ten years, are often highly questionable.

2017 saw the Tenth Anniversary of This Blog, which I reflected on here with a summary of some of my favourite posts. I was also honoured to be awarded third place amongst British beer blogs by Vuelio, as shown in the sidebar. I’ve not managed as many posts as in 2016, but I’ve continued to address a variety of meaty subjects. If I had to pick one post from the year, it would be The Undercutting Fallacy, about the delusional argument that “cheap supermarket alcohol” is a major factor in the decline of pubs. The number and quality of comments continues to be very gratifying. However, sadly, I have had to reiterate the point that “The comment facility is not provided as a platform for personal attacks on the blog author.” If you want to disagree in a cogent and polite manner, fine; if you want to have a go, you will be doing it elsewhere.

My Twitter Account has gone from strength to strength. In May I passed 3500 followers, which I wrote about here, and the figure is now approaching 4000, so plenty of people seem to like it. I was nominated as the Worst Person on Beer Twitter which, considering the source, I consider something of an accolade. It was also in relation to a tweet praising the use of traditional customary measurements, one of my favourite themes. As I said in the linked post, success on Twitter is as much about what you don’t say as what you do. Again, I’m happy to engage in intelligent debate, but if you start getting abusive you’ll be unfollowed and muted.

I was instrumental in setting up the Beer and Pubs Forum, which was intended as a replacement for the now defunct CAMRA Forum. Yes, CAMRA have now created the new Discourse Forum, but that is an entirely different animal that is focused on CAMRA policy and admin and eschews any general or lighthearted discussion. It may not be the busiest forum in the world, but it ticks over nicely, and allows the stalwarts from the old forum, plus a few newcomers, to enjoy general discussions about their beer and pub experiences. Why not give it a go – we don’t bite!

A great success of this forum has been in organising several trips out, to Macclesfield, Birmingham and Crewe. The Birmingham one in particular attracted people from as far apart as Stockport, Stafford, Cambridge, Reading and Frome in Somerset. It’s always good to meet people you’ve only previously encountered via the Internet, and without exception they turn out to be nicer and less combative than their online personae. We’re hoping to arrange further meets in the New Year, with one pencilled in for Oxford in February.

It was also a good year for Networking in a wider sense. I met fellow bloggers Duncan Mackay, Peter Allen and Richard Coldwell for the first time, although I haven’t yet managed to engineer an encounter with Simon Everitt of BRAPA fame, despite having offered to drive him to some of the less accessible pubs in Cheshire and North Wales. I’ve also met quite a number of people, too many to list, who I’ve only previously encountered via Twitter. Richard Coldwell, Martin Taylor and I, together with Paul Mudge, did a memorable Three Bloggers' Trip to Leicester.

Best Ploughman’s – the Anchor in Sevenoaks, Kent. Nothing fancy – just cheese, crusty roll, a bit of salad and a selection of pickles including a whole gherkin, and excellent value at a mere fiver. Other noteworthy pub food included a good straightforward cheese & pickle sandwich in the Black Swan, Devizes, steak in the Bowling Green in Leicester, and two meals in Mandarina in Macclesfield. But I encountered the perennial problems of being unable to find decent lunchtime sandwiches, and having to fall back on Wetherspoon’s, and of pubs failing to display menus outside.

Worst Service – every year produces a spectacular example of truly terrible service, generally in an independently-run restaurant. There seems to be something about being a single diner that leads to being completely forgotten. Last year was the Istanbul Turkish restaurant in Shrewsbury, while this year’s crown goes to La Lanterna pizza house in Banbury. Read it and weep, then go to Pizza Express instead.

Beer and Pub Blog – Life After Football. Written by former professional footballer Ian Clarkson, this concentrates on visting proper pubs in the Midlands. Although he likes his cask beer, especially Bass and Pedigree, it stands aside from the usual perspective of the “beer world”. Also a shout out to indefatigable pub crawler Alan Winfield of The Never Ending Pub Crawl, who managed to annoy a lot of people with some forthright comments on a craft beer encountered in Falmouth, but is now facing serious health problems. Best wishes to Alan that everything’s sorted out.

Beer and Pub Book – 20th Century Pub by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. This is a thoroughly researched but eminently readable survey of the development of the British pub from the turn of the last century to the present day, which I reviewed here.

Best Campaigning Initiative – Drinkers’ Voice UK. At last an independent non-industry campaign has been created to defend the interests of responsible consumers of alcoholic drinks against the hysterical and exaggerated claims of the public health lobby. Let’s hope it goes from strength to strength in 2018.

Worst Public Policy – Minimum Pricing in Scotland, which was approved by the Supreme Court and is planned to come into force at the beginning of May next year. It represents an ill-thought-out, one-size-fits-all approach that is unlikely to be effective in addressing alcohol abuse and will make the lives of many people of limited means just that bit more miserable. It was depressing to see many people who claim to be supporters of pubs welcome it, even though they’re likely to be next on the list. But it has certainly exposed who in the world of beer writing and commentary are Repulsive, Elitist Snobs.

Most Depressing Anniversary – ten years since the introduction of the Blanket Smoking Ban in England. This has ripped the guts out of the bottom end of the pub trade, and set a worrying precedent for action against alcohol, but many people remain in complete denial on the subject. The downside for ordinary, working-class pubs was poignantly summed up in this guest post from Liam the Brewer.

Best Tourist Attraction – not the obvious stately homes and castles, but the church of St Mary the Virgin in Banbury. I’ve driven through Banbury many times, but had never really noticed it, being hidden behind trees. It’s a magnificent square, domed Georgian church, which includes amongst its attractions the Arctic Windows, depicting scenes of polar exploration. If you’re ever in Banbury, make sure you pay a visit.

A strong runner-up was Scotney Castle in Kent, which is a conscious and very successful Victorian attempt to create a picturesque romantic ruin, which I managed to visit in the ideal conditions of a sunny Autumn afternoon.

Best Revisit – Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. I’d been here a couple of times before, but not for over twenty-five years. It’s a stunning place, one of Britain’s most impressive ruins, but the feature that really caught my attention was the erection of a modern steel staircase right up to the top of the dominant Leicester’s Tower (shown in the picture), offering stunning views across the surrounding countryside.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Child's play

Regular readers of this blog will have realised that I don’t have much enthusiasm for selling beer in “child-sized” 330 ml cans, or for adorning them with vibrant psychedelic colours. But that doesn’t mean I gained any pleasure from the decision of the Portman Group to require Tiny Rebel Brewery to change the design of the cans for their Cwtch Welsh Red Ale on the supposed groups that they had undue appeal to under-18s. And nor, it would seem, did my Twitter followers. That’s by far the biggest response I’ve ever gained for any Twitter poll.
Of course it’s something that is open to debate, and several voices were raised in the beer world arguing that the decision seemed reasonable enough, for example by Boak & Bailey.

The full text of the adjudication, including Tiny Rebel’s exhaustive attempts to defend their position, can be read here. The brewery have now responded in detail to their decision, setting out clearly their concerns about the potential wider implications.

We’re not the victim here. The industry is.

This sets a precedent, but the boundaries on that precedent aren’t clear and the decisions are enormously subjective, and take in a very limited view of the world. How the hell do you not appeal to under 18s?! There is no clear difference between what is and isn’t allowed, and that’s a major problem.

It forces companies to be over-cautious in design, which is inherently limiting. Instead of designing something for what consumers would like, companies have to design bearing what the most prudish among us wouldn’t like.

Taken in isolation, the matter is relatively trivial, and it doesn’t stop anyone from selling or drinking a can of Cwtch. The photo above clearly shows the relatively minor nature of the changes that were required. But the case does raise a number of more general issues.

The first is that the investigation was triggered by just a single complaint. Can we be confident that was from a genuine member of the public rather than some purse-lipped professional health zealot? And is it reasonable that one vexatious miseryguts can cause a relatively small business having to incur – as they say themselves on their site – costs in excess of £31,000? The potential scope for mischief is boundless.

It is absolutely clear than there was no deliberate intention on the part of Tiny Rebel to target children, and is it really credible that any child would genuinely mistake it for a soft drink? One point made in the adjudication was that 330ml cans are widely associated with soft drinks, but they have been used for many years for beers such as Gold Label and Mackeson, and are now commonplace for craft beers. The major soft drink brands tend to use minimalistic designs highlighting the brand name and completely eschewing cartoon characters. Might we see in future particularly types and sizes of packaging being mandated for alcoholic drinks to distinguish them from soft ones?

It’s also not hard to see this as a baby step on the road to plain packaging for alcoholic drinks, as suggested on Twitter:

The restrictions on what is acceptable are likely, slowly but surely, to become ever tighter.

As explained in Tiny Rebel’s response, the Portman Group is a self-regulatory organisation set up and run by major alcohol companies. Some have suggested that it constitutes a kind of restraint of trade by seeking to stifle the innovative efforts of smaller producers. I’m not really convinced by that, but it’s a funny kind of self-regulation where you’re subject to its judgments even if you haven’t signed up to it. If large companies avoid its censure, it will be because their marketing departments are more savvy as to what will pass muster. But it does have form in cracking down on tiny breweries over the same kind of issue.

Several people have made the point that surely self-regulation is preferable to a system imposed by government. But the question has to be asked as to how far industry should be prepared to undermine its own business on a voluntary basis. We have already seen this with the drinks industry having its arm twisted to reduce the strength of popular beers and ciders, and the food industry being pressurised to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks, confectionery and cereals, often at the expense of taste. If you’re going to be crucified anyway, it’s little consolation that you’ve been allowed to build your own cross.

Alarmism? Scaremongering? Yes, these points may at present only be straws in the wind. But they will need to be carefully watched in future to see how far we end up going down the road. And we have already seen it all unfold before our eyes with the regulation of tobacco products.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Shine a light

In pictures of people drinking in the 1930s, a distinctive straight, ten-sided tankard often features. Indeed, it was adopted as a symbol of British beer for the “Beer is Best” advertising campaign. However, after the war it lost popularity to the familiar dimpled mug, and the last examples were manufactured in 1978. Although I started drinking in pubs around that time, I can’t recall ever having encountered one.

The dimpled mug itself, once perceived as aspirational, has long since fallen from favour, and the vast majority of draught beer is now drunk from straight glasses of various kinds. However, Stockport-based licensed trade suppliers Stephensons have now decided to revive the traditional lantern tankard for the 21st century, as described by Zythophile here. They were kind enough to send me a sample.

It’s a handsome, solid glass with a particularly thick base, but it fits nicely in the hand, despite apparently being slightly heavier than a dimpled mug. Of course I held it in the time-honoured fashion, by gripping it round the body, with my fingers through the handle. After all, if the handle falls off, then all you lose is the handle. As the surface area at the top is greater than that of a Nonik, the room left for the head naturally appears somewhat shallower.

I deliberately chose a pale beer – Black Sheep Golden Sheep * – to show the light filtering through the glass to its best advantage, although this is always something that is difficult to catch in a photograph. It is much better in this respect than a dimpled mug as, while you still get the jewel-like effect from the multiple facets, the lack of any vertical divisions doesn’t break up the clarity and colour of the beer. This was even more pronounced when I later tried it with a bottle of Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier.

I liked it. It certainly brings more of a sense of occasion to drinking a pint, and it would be good to see it taken up by more pubs to give cask beer a more distinctive identity.

It has also been tested out by Pints and Pubs.

* incidentally, examination of the bottle revealed that the strength of Golden Sheep has been surreptitiously reduced from 4.7% to 4.5% ABV :-(

Friday, 8 December 2017

Touched by wood

Innis & Gunn occupy a rather odd position in the British beer firmament. They are an independent company, founded in 2003, who make a distinctive product that is different from pretty much anything else on the market. Yet, despite describing themselves on their website as “Scottish craft brewers”, they don’t seem to gain acceptance as “proper craft”. Maybe it’s a case of “not invented here syndrome”.

Their USP is ageing their beers in whisk(e)y barrels. You might imagine that this would imbue them with a peaty smokiness, but in fact what they gain from the oak is more of a soft, vanilla and toffee character. They have recently gone through a rebranding exercise and kindly sent me a couple of bottles to sample. I have actually had these for a few weeks but have only just got round to tasting them. I have drunk both of these beers in the past so they’re not entirely new to me.

First up was their signature beer, Innis & Gunn Original (6.6% ABV), which states on the bottle “Our unique bourbon barrel ageing process unlocks flavours like vanilla and toffee, which combine with the malty character of our Scotch Ale to create an incredible taste experience.”

This poured a mid-brown, copper colour, with a decent head but little aroma. The flavour is malty, but fairly dry, with a hint of vanilla but little hop character. It’s quite drinkable for its strength. A woody and faintly musty note comes through in the aftertaste.

This was followed by Blood Red Sky (Rum Finish) (6.8% ABV), which says “Jamaican rum barrels meet Scottish red beer in an explosion of cool spicy rum notes, vanilla and rich fruit.”

This was much darker, mahogany in colour without any noticeable hint of red. It had slightly less head, and again little aroma. It tastes stronger than the 0.2% differential would suggest. There’s a burnt roasty coffee flavour, rather like a stout, with less of a hint of spirit than I remember from previous examples.

My conclusion is that the Original is an interesting, complex beer that may not be to everyone’s taste, but provides a contrast with many of the aggressive flavours found under the craft banner. The Blood Red Sky, on the other hand, was disappointing, lacking the spirit notes of the previous version and not really offering anything particularly distinctive.

However, Innis & Gunn cannot be discussed without mentioning the controversy around their switch from actual barrel ageing, to breaking down used barrels to place in the fermenting vessels to give the beer a touch of wood character, which is discussed here by the Morning Advertiser. To my mind, using the term “barrel-aged” implies that the beer is allowed to mature while stored within actual physical barrels. What they are doing now could be described as “wood ageing”, but to call it “barrel ageing” is distinctly disingenuous.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Life outside the bubble

“How about a trip to Crewe?” suggested Ian Woosey aka Hardy on the Beer and Pubs Forum. “There’s a couple of National Inventory pubs I want to tick off there.” My first reaction was that it didn’t sound the world’s most promising destination, but a bit of research revealed that there was enough there to make for a worthwhile day out, so we duly set out on a bright but chilly sunny morning last Thursday. We were also met by Paul Mudge from Stafford and Jon Benger, who had made a very long round trip from Frome in Somerset, albeit at a bargain price of only £17.50.

Crewe grew up in the 19th century around the railway works, and has an oddly sprawling layout with the main part of the town centre a good three-quarters of a mile north of the station. It still has extensive areas of Victorian terraced housing, although with rather fewer street-corner pubs than there once were. Near the station there is a strip of shops, restaurants and a few pubs along Nantwich Road. We passed the handsome 1930s tiled facade of the Brunswick Hotel, currently up for sale by Greene King for £235,000 freehold, before arriving at our first stop, the Beer Dock.

This is a new off-licence-cum-bar in the modern style, where the downstairs seating just comprises one row of tables and benches down the middle of rows of shelving on either side. There’s also some more seating in an upstairs room. It has a very wide range of bottled beers including an impressive German selection, but oddly no prices are displayed either on bottles or shelf edges. The bar offers a number of “craft kegs” plus a solitary cask beer, on this occasion Neptune Aegir Pale, priced at a very reasonable £3 a pint. It was tasty enough, although a touch hazy. You have to commend their enterprise, but it wasn’t to my mind a very congenial place to linger over a drink. So look forward to it appearing in next year’s Good Beer Guide.

A long walk north along Edleston Road brought us to Hops on Prince Albert Street, which has been a fixture in the GBG for a number of years. Outwardly resembling a private house, this is a modern bar which nevertheless has a fairly pubby interior with an L-shaped bar on the left and plenty of comfortable seating including a few benches. It has a very large selection of imported, especially Belgian bottles, and six cask beers on handpump. Of these we had Northallerton Gundog Bitter, Beckstones Black Dog Freddy and Coastal Proper American Pale Ale, all of which were pretty good. As they don’t serve meals, it was quiet at lunchtime, but I suspect it gets much busier in the evenings. Of the pubs in the town centre this would probably be my favoured choice for a drink.

Only a few doors along the same street is Albert’s Corner, which has the look of a 1930s public building, and indeed we discovered that it had originally been the Crewe Labour Exchange. Christmas decorations were already up in the very spacious interior, which had a mixture of posing tables and bench seating. There were three cask beers on the bar – Beartown Brown Bear, which was very good, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, which was OK, and Titanic Cappucino Stout, which unfortunately turned out to be on the turn, but was replaced without demur. The main purpose of coming here was lunch, and we weren’t disappointing, choosing from an extensive and reasonably-priced menu covering snacks and full meals. The others had fish and chips and a steak wrap, both of which were pretty good, while I went for lasagne with garlic ciabatta, which was advertised as a “light bite”, but was a substantial portion and a very appetising take on a dish that can often be a touch dull and bland. Possibly with the imminent closure of Crewe’s Wetherspoons they will attract more dining trade.

The three casketeers - Ian, Jon and Paul

A ten-minute walk west along Wistaston Road past the closed Park and Earl of Chester led us to the Hop Pole, the first of the two National Inventory pubs, and also a current GBG entry. A little opening-out, including knocking holes in one of the internal walls, means that it only qualifies for regional rather than national status, but it remains a splendid traditional multi-roomed pub. There’s a central bar with glass shutters, no longer actually in use, surrounded by a quarry-tiled public bar, a front pool room and a long lounge at the rear with alcoves of comfortable seating upholstered in a bright tartan pattern.

The pub has its own bowling green at the back which in the summer is busy with teams playing in various leagues, and also shows an unusual level of concern for our canine friends. There were two real ales available, Moorhouse’s Pride of Pendle and Weetwood Cheshire Cat, both in good nick, with a cask of Bradfield Farmers Blonde waiting in the cellar to come on. A blast from the past was M&B Mild spotted on keg. We received a friendly welcome from the landlady and chatted with her about various topics including particularly pubs in Uttoxeter. All in all a classic community local that for me was the highlight of the day.

Retracing our steps back to the town centre, we took a look inside the Crown, a former Robinson’s pub, but spotted no real ale, so doubled back a little to the Cheese Hall, owned by Amber Taverns. This is a spacious modern pub with a number of large TV screens, but did feature plenty of comfortable bench seating, and had Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde and Hobgoblin on the bar, both of which were good. Clearly you can successfully serve cask beer in a contemporary style of pub if you do it right. Three and a half pints came to a very reasonable £8.37 – presumably the cask beers are £2.39 a pint. The pub was visibly filling up in the late afternoon.

We crossed the bridge over the West Coast Main Line on the eastern fringe of the town centre to reach the King’s Arms, the second National Inventory pub of the day. This one only qualifies for “some regional importance” status, partly because its most recent refurbishment has treated the interior to an unsympathetic pastel blue colour scheme. However, it still has a multi-roomed layout including a lobby area by the main bar counter, a rear pool-cum-function room, a snug in which an elderly lady was sitting in semi-darkness, and a spacious public bar at the front with a distinctive glazed door with the inscription “Games Room”. Initially we only spotted the Bombardier handpump on the back bar, and only saw that they had Tribute once we had taken our drinkers through to the public: both beers were pretty good.

Opposite the King’s Arms and almost on top of the railway bridge is the Borough Arms, which is Crewe’s original multi-beer free house and a long-standing Good Beer Guide entry. It doesn’t open until 5 pm on weekdays which rather dictated the order of the crawl. It has an L-shaped one-room interior on several levels with a rather hard to spot step between two sections which must have caught many drinkers unaware over the years. We sat in a snug area at the rear with a number of wooden settles, but unfortunately on a cold night there was something of a lack of heating in this part. There’s another seating area downstairs which we didn’t venture into. There were ten handpumps on the bar including Oakham Citra and Inferno and Otter’s Remembrance special Poppy Otter, but we were all drawn to the Harvey’s Sussex Bitter which did not disappoint. I can’t say I paid much attention to the keg lineup but I did notice the rare Manns Chestnut Mild.

From here it was a rather long and chilly walk back to the station for the return train to Stockport. In summary, an excellent day out, much better than I’d imagined when the idea was first mooted, with plenty of good beer and good conversation. Crewe is never going to win any awards for historic townscape or become a major beer destination, but this illustrates what can be found in somewhere often perceived as an ordinary, workaday town. And it must be remembered that it’s in places like this that most people in the UK live and do their drinking. However, you can imagine some bleeding-edge crafterati struggling to understand the appeal of a place like the Hop Pole.