Saturday 30 April 2011

Ye Olde Smoking Shelter

For a change, here are a couple of photos of a pub that is actually open, Robinson’s recently refurbished Tatton Arms at Moss Nook near Manchester Airport. In general, they’ve done a pretty good job of it, although as always a little of the former character has to be sacrificed to the demands of the modern world. However, the feature that really stands out is the elaborate, timber-framed smoking shelter tacked on to the south end of the pub, shown on the first picture.

No surprise there

Dunham Massey Vintage White, a 9.2% ABV barley wine in a 275ml bottle that I won in a raffle. Bottle-conditioned, so I let it stand in a dark cupboard for a full two weeks until it had cleared. Despite this, and exercising great care, it didn’t pour remotely clear. It was cloudy, flat and sour. Really, it should have gone straight down the sink, but I struggled through it, hoping to find some redeeming features. However, I didn’t. Yet another reinforcement of the principle that bottle-conditioned beers from micro breweries should be avoided like the plague. On the other hand, Dunham Massey do produce some excellent cask beers - perhaps they should stick to what they're good at.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Sales decline eases

There’s some consolation for the British brewing industry in the latest beer sales figures from the BBPA, which show that in the first quarter of 2011, the decline compared with the equivalent quarter last year had eased from 5.0% to 3.8%, with both on- and off-trade showing a similar reduction.

However, looking at the annualised figures, on-trade sales are still 6.5% down on the previous year and annual on-trade volumes are now only just above 14 million barrels. Let us see if April’s good weather and the run of four bank holidays give the pub trade a boost, or if the duty hikes in the Budget lead to a further downward spiral.

Monday 25 April 2011

Held up for the last time?

Here are a couple of sad pictures, taken in today’s Spring sunshine, of the closed and boarded Highwayman at Rainow in the Cheshire part of the Peak District. Originally called the Blacksmith’s Arms, and locally known as “The Patch”, this was one of England’s classic inns, the interior a warren of small, low-ceilinged, thick-walled rooms warmed by real fires. Despite its isolated location, it was once busy, lively and characterful. In the late 1980s I remember it serving, amongst other fare, the now very rare pub pizzas. Recently it seems to have struggled, and the last reports were of it falling victim to the dreaded gastropub craze.

I would be amazed if it ever reopens as a pub now, even more so if it was anything like it once was. So let us salute the passing of a once superb pub, like so many others killed by political correctness. This was probably, in its day, the best pub I ever knew that has now closed.

It is still shown as open, and looking very inviting, on Google StreetView.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Take it back

From my earliest pubgoing days, I was always brought up to take my glass back to the bar after I had finished my pint. It’s basic good manners really, and you only don’t if there’s a crush at the bar or if you want to make a point about sub-standard beer. So it often dismays me when I see people on CAMRA pub crawls leave their cluster of empty half-pints on the tables. Isn’t this likely to add to the image of CAMRA as a bunch of patronising beer snobs who only condescend to visit someone’s local pub once a year and then leave their glasses for the skivvy to clear up?

Yet one member - of my sort of age - said that he had never come across the idea of taking your glass back until he had joined CAMRA. Did they not believe in manners where he was brought up, I wonder?

Monday 18 April 2011

Then they came for the white cider drinkers

A report commissioned by Alcohol Concern has called for the withdrawal of superstrength white cider from the market “because of the harm it causes to homeless people and other vulnerable groups”. Not exactly a surprise conclusion there, then.

Now, you may well think white cider is a load of crap, and it may well be true that it is disproportionately consumed by problem drinkers. But it would be setting a worrying precedent for government to seek to dictate the types of alcoholic drinks that can be legally sold and indeed to exclude a whole category from the market. Is it really going to stop there? Some of the recommendations, in particular that duty should be increased for all ciders over 5%, also have much wider implications.

If the homeless are deprived of white cider, they’re just going to turn to something else instead – they’re not going to miraculously give up drink overnight.

And hasn’t the tax on white cider been increased recently anyway because it would typically have a juice content well below 35% and thus would be taxed as “made-wine” rather than enjoying the lower cider duty rate?

Saturday 16 April 2011

Pull it through

Holts have recently introduced a very good new beer called Holts IPA, which sells alongside their standard bitter in a number of their pubs. But it’s effectively a different form of “bitter” – slightly less strong, paler and hoppier – and it will have the result of dividing “bitter” sales in two. Much of my discretionary pubgoing takes place at weekend lunchtimes, which for many pubs are nowadays a fairly slack time. At lunchtime today I went in my local Holts pub and had a couple of pints of IPA. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit warm and a bit dull. I suspect the first was the first to be drawn through the pump that session, and the second one had been lingering in the pipe for half an hour.

We seem to be in a paradoxical situation where the number of cask beers on bars is steadily expanding, but overall sales are at best flat, so slow turnover becomes more and more of a problem. When going into a multi-beer pub, often my choice of which beer to drink is influenced by what I have seen someone else just buying a pint of. If a pump is not dispensing beer at least every quarter of an hour, you’re likely to end up with a lacklustre pint. It’s no good saying the beer is fine when it’s busy, if it isn’t when it’s quiet.

It may be a controversial opinion, but I firmly believe that nowadays most mainstream pubs only have sufficient turnover to keep one cask beer well, which to maximise sales and throughput should be a well-known “premium bitter” in the 4.0-4.5% range of the likes of Jennings Cumberland Ale, Taylors Landlord, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X. You can see this in some “dining” pubs which sensibly only have one cask beer on the bar.

Pigging out

To some, they’re the ideal pub snack, tasty, crunchy, savoury, salty and home-produced in the West Midlands from our most versatile farm animal. To others, they’re disgusting chunks of pure fat that make your gorge rise. Yes, they’re pork scratchings.

I initially contemplated doing a poll on which of the usual range of pub snacks people liked eating, but decided that would be a bit dull, and it would be better to ask what you thought of the King of Snacks. There were 56 responses, and the result was a decisive 3 to 1:

Yum: 42 (75%)
Yeuk: 14 (25%)

Interesting how they often now feel the need to have a disclaimer: “Only suitable for those with strong healthy teeth.” In my experience, the best ones are those you find in clear plastic bags with only minimal information about who made them.

And a quick Google search reveals that scratchings have a website dedicated to them. Despite their reputation as being loaded with fat, it’s worth remembering that, unlike crisps and nuts, scratchings contain no carbohydrates whatsoever.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Blowing hot and cold

A problem with drinking bottled ales at home is getting them at the right temperature. Ideally, ales are meant to be served at around 10-12°C (50-55°F), which equates to a natural cellar temperature, but certainly isn’t fridge-cold. But that can be very difficult to recreate in the home, especially in the summer, something that the recent warm spell has underlined. Room temperature is much too warm, but if you put the bottles in the fridge for too long, they get lager-cold and lose much of their appeal. Ideally, you need to put them in the fridge for 60-90 minutes, but that demands a lot of forward planning.

The other day I drank a bottle of Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale which had been in the fridge too long, and the flavour didn’t really come out until I got near the bottom of the glass. Maybe this is the kind of rich, malty beer that most loses character from being too cold, but even so it wouldn’t be right at room temperature. Is this a deterrent to ale drinking at home? Should fridges maybe be equipped with a “cellar cool” section maintaining 50°F?

How important is size for you?

Well, the bottle size poll has now closed. The question was “At what strength do you prefer beers in 330ml bottles rather than 500ml?” There were 79 responses, broken down as follows:

5.0% or lower: 10 (13%)
5.5%: 11 (14%)
6.0% : 12 (15%)
6.5% : 4 (5%)
7.0% : 14 (18%)
7.5% : 8 (10%)
8.0% : 2 (2%)
8.5% or higher: 18 (23%)

So a long way from a “normal” distribution there – as Phil said in the comments, “the spread of answers to this one *really* surprised me - you could get pretty much the same thing by rolling a dice.” Basically, there seem to be three groups:

  1. People who think 330ml is an acceptable bottle size for beers of quite moderate strength that you might well drink a pint of in the pub
  2. Those who think there should be a clear cut-off point around the 7.0% or 7.5% mark, above which increasing strength does make the smaller bottle size sensible. I went for 7.5%, by the way
  3. Those who think that everything should be available in pints, or near pints, and possibly dismiss all those who disagree as wimps. These formed the biggest single group - and I know included both The Hearty Goodfellow and Tyson

Bear in mind this was intended to refer to British or German beers that you might reasonably expect to find in both sizes, not those that by tradition are always sold in the smaller size.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Life is fatal

Apparently it has now been “scientifically proven” that having more than one drink a day increases your risk of getting cancer. However, given that the article doesn’t say by how much it increases the risk, it’s not something I’m going to spend much time worrying about. As one commenter says, “If it goes from 1 chance in 1010 up to 1 in 1000 I think most people wouldn't care.” Even a 50% increase in a minuscule risk is still minuscule.

If you listened to all the scare stories, you’d never eat anything, as apparently everything from salt through salami to sardines is going to give you cancer. Of course, if you take it all to heart, you run the risk of suffering from orthorexia, which is just as bad for you, and far less fun. If you wrap yourself in cottonwool all the time you will live a very dull and circumscribed life.

Leg-iron has it right when he says that all these increasingly shrill and hysterical health claims are likely to just make people sceptical about all scientific claims, even those that are entirely valid. If you take it all at face value, you end up like his Mr Plastic:

Plastic Man is the Government's vision of the future. Married, two drone kids (hey, a beehive would reject these two as being too droney), follows the Life Plan to the letter, no smoking, no drinking, meals on time, work on time, home on time, in the garden at set times, lawn trimmed to perfection, car parked within inches of the target, washed and rust-free (I never owned a rust-free one. I was Hammerite's best customer for years). In bed by ten, television watched and assimilated, the News is True, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength... is that a fun life or is that just living for the sake of it?
This study will, though, inevitably be used as ammunition to call for even higher duties and more curbs on alcohol consumption. Of course, the Holy Grail of “alcohol science” is proof that any quantity whatsoever is dangerous, which would strip away the figleaf of “safe levels” and open up a whole new field of restriction and demonisation. Even this report is being used to suggest that the current “safe drinking guidelines” – which are absurdly low and completely without scientific foundation – are actually too high! You can just visualise Professor Ian Gilmore polishing his jackboots when he says “If we really want to see preventable deaths coming down in the next decade or so, I think there will have to be some form of tougher regulation by government.”

Thursday 7 April 2011

Bargain of the year so far

Tesco’s beer offers seem to vary unpredictably week by week, so you never quite know what you’re going to find. This week, they are offering four bottles for £5 across a wide range, including many of the popular premium ales such as Directors, Tanglefoot and Bishop’s Finger, plus the excellent bottle-conditioned Fullers’ Bengal Lancer and local favourite Robinson’s Unicorn Premium which rarely seems to be included in any offers. Given that, post-Budget, they seem to have raised their standard PBA price to £1.89, this is a very worthwhile discount. Punk IPA is in there too, although as the normal price is £1.49 the saving is not as great.

However, standing head and shoulders above everything else is Morland Old Crafty Hen, a superb, complex 6.5% vintage ale which Tesco normally sell for a somewhat prohibitive £2.79 for 500ml. At £5 for four, that’s less than half price, so if it’s to your taste it makes sense to fill your boots while the offer lasts.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Lost in translation?

Over the past year, CAMRA has been carrying out a strategic review under the chairmanship of former MP John Grogan. The results of this have now been published on the CAMRA website here (members only, unfortunately). It has to be said that, while a lot of effort has clearly been put into the document, and it is sensible enough as far as it goes, it isn’t quite what many people were expecting. The hope was that it would involve a fundamental review of exactly what “campaigning for real ale” means in 2011, as opposed to 1971. However, what we have got is a much more narrowly-focused exercise of examining how CAMRA goes about its campaigning, not of what it should (and shouldn’t) stand for and champion.

Indeed, that kind of root-and-branch re-examination is specifically ruled out:

It was no part of the Strategic Review Group's remit given to it by last year's Conference to second guess that democracy and pronounce on minimum pricing, the debate over the distinction between craft beers and real ales and the role CAMRA should play in combating the anti-alcohol lobby. Rather, our role was to identify ways in which CAMRA could sharpen up its act and campaigning activity.
This is, however, somewhat disingenuous. In practice, the campaigning priorities of the organisation, and its general tone, are set by the actions and words of its National Executive and professional officers, not by AGM motions, which only act to give a nudge once in a while. Somehow, the mission statement seems to have become lost in translation, and what we have is a review of tactics, not strategy.

Since CAMRA was formed in 1971, the environment in which it operates has dramatically changed. In particular, there are three major developments of recent years to which it has not yet formulated any kind of coherent response:
  1. The rise of off-trade beer consumption and the decline of pubs. At some time during 2012 the off-trade is likely to overtake the on-trade. This is closely linked with the startling rate of pub closures in recent years.
  2. The growth in the appreciation of “craft beer” which has wide areas where it does not overlap with real ale – and equally, most “real ale” is never going to be “craft beer”.
  3. The increased influence of the anti-drink lobby which has led to a much less favourable fiscal and regulatory environment for the beer and pub trade and has made consumption of alcohol, especially outside the home, markedly less socially acceptable.
The world has moved on, and you can’t go on campaigning like it was still the mid-Seventies. I’m not touting for any specific response to these trends, but if CAMRA continues to stick its collective head in the sand and says “nothing to do with us, mate”, then it risks being rendered a declining, nostalgic irrelevance.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Little and large

The current poll on bottle sizes was prompted by this post on The Bottled Beer Year complaining about the 4.5% Meantime London Lager being sold in a 330ml bottle:

The children's-sized bottle, however, quickly becomes a right old pain in the proverbial, especially when you realise that the happy event is pretty much over after around three average mouthfuls. If this were an act of love making, it would trigger a very awkward argument. No question about it.
Obviously, in general, there’s a broad correlation between strength and bottle size, with the stronger the beer, the more likely it is to appear in the smaller bottle. However, there’s a wide overlap with, for example, the 4.9% Hoegaarden coming in a 330ml, whereas 500ml is standard for all the 5%-ish British premium bottled ales.

The cut-off point may also vary depending on the beer type. Beers like Leffe and Innis & Gunn, which are both around 6.6%, seem right in a 330ml bottle, whereas Pedigree VSOP, which has a similar strength, is more of a traditional British ale and seems more suited to 500ml.

BrewDog, wanting to be different, put all of their beers in 330ml bottles, even down to the 4.1% Trashy Blonde. And Tesco are stocking 330ml bottles of many of the well-known PBAs such as Old Speckled Hen and London Pride, usually at well over two-thirds the price of the 500ml equivalents. I’m not sure how many they sell, though, and the other major supermarkets don’t seem to have followed suit.

The bigger the measure, the more time it will take to drink it, thus giving it more time to warm up. This isn’t likely to matter much with ales, but it has been advanced as a reason for preferring lagers in small bottles (and even in 250ml “stubbies”) rather than 500ml.

It’s interesting how at this early stage there’s such a wide spread in responses to the poll – clearly, some people prefer 330ml bottles across the strength range, and others actively dislike them except for very strong beers.

Monday 4 April 2011

Weak interest

With the government planning to halve duty from October for beers of 2.8% ABV or lower, I asked the question “Would 20p off a pint encourage you to buy 2.8% ABV beers?”. It can’t be said there was much enthusiasm about the idea, as the 84 responses broke down as follows:

Very likely: 3 (4%)
I’ll see what they taste like: 28 (33%)
Highly unlikely: 53 (63%)

This cut will provide a significant saving of duty plus VAT of 16p on a 500ml can, and 18p on a pint. The problem is that one of the key reasons people drink beer is that it actually does contain alcohol, and at this kind of strength level the alcoholic content becomes so low that it is little more than a distress purchase. Also, especially in pubs, drinkers don’t tend to choose their drinks primarily on the grounds of cost.

I can’t honestly see much demand at all for cask beers of this strength, especially given the fact that the weaker a beer is, the shorter the time it keeps. The chief beneficiaries will be the big lager brewers. Paradoxically, it will make the supermarket “value” lagers that are supposedly sold “cheaper than water” even cheaper, and I can see the major brands like Carling, Fosters and Carlsberg bringing out 2.8% “light” versions to take advantage of the duty cut. And, of course, the concern is that this, combined with the extra duty on beers above 7.5%, will lead over time to a tiered duty structure in the UK that penalises stronger beers.

Sunday 3 April 2011

The Great Western

I am a member of a non-beer-related organisation that each year in April holds its AGM in the Great Western pub in Wolverhampton, which is a good central location for people travelling from all around the country. This is a Holden’s tied house that they saved from demolition a couple of decades ago. It’s in an out-of-the-way location round the back of the station, although the local area has seen a fair bit of new development in recent years, and the pub has the advantage of having its own spacious car park, rare for somewhere so near to a city centre.

It has a main bar area with bench seating facing the bar, a snug to the rear on the right, then a long area to the left with more bench seating along the left-hand side, leading to a conservatory eating area with separate tables, and then some trestle tables out at the back next to the car park. The entire pub is packed with railway memorabilia.

The beer range on my most recent visit was Holden’s Bitter, Golden Glow and Special, Batham’s Bitter, and a trio of guest beers including the superb Thornbridge Jaipur IPA. All the beers I tried were in excellent form, the pick of the bunch being the Batham’s. Even though this was considerably more expensive than the Holden’s, it seemed to be the fastest-shifting beer. Holden’s Bitter was £2.25 a pint, Special £2.60, Batham’s £2.80 and Jaipur £3.20. Maybe surprisingly, in what is still regarded as a stronghold of mild drinking, there was no Holden’s Mild on sale.

There was a good mix of customers throughout the day, and it noticeably livened up approaching 8.00 pm when I left to get my train home. There were old boys reading the paper on the long bench to the left, and groups of young people clustering around the bar. It has a superb, buzzing, lively atmosphere.

Hidden away behind the station in an area with no nearby housing, by any rational calculation this pub should be long dead. But, here it is, thriving, and with customers beating a path to its door. It serves good beer and offers good crack. It’s a true classic and, although I only visit it once a year, one of my very favourite pubs. But I do like Batham’s Bitter...

I also called in the nearby Wetherspoon’s, the Moon Under Water. My pint was fine, but the police were going in as I arrived (at around 12.45 pm), and there was a slightly edgy atmosphere, with kids who were obviously not dining running around and causing mayhem. Another customer got up and moved elsewhere because of the kids – “I'm not f***king putting up with this!” he said. Plus it took me well over five minutes to be served.