Sunday 29 June 2014

Stocking filler

Over the years I’ve met a number of people who buy themselves a lot of exotic bottled beers and end up with more than they can drink. Some have even held informal parties to drink up their stock. It’s not something I’ve ever really done myself, except maybe laying in a few special beers for Christmas and New Year – I tend to just buy what I intend to consume in the next week or so. No doubt Cooking Lager would say “Mudgie’s such an alkie that any grog in his gaff is going to get necked – it won’t hang around.”

There have recently been a series of posts on the Beer Compurgation blog, such as this one, where the author says:

“The downfall of being a great beer lover and enthusiast is a tendency to hoard. Nobody I know is as guilty of this as I. As such, I've come to realise in recent months that I really need to start working through my already sizeable bottle stock before purchasing anything else this year, if for no other reason than to try the beers I’ve spent my money on whilst they’re still at their best. Added to this is the realisation over the last few months – based on certain depressive life situations – that life is too short not to drink the great beers I have available to me. I also need to find new encouragement and inspiration to write again. I have never wanted this to be a beer review blog (with the exception of Advent) but all the above factors have led me to begin a series of “Stock Clearance” posts where I drink beers within my hoard that really need drinking for reasons that will be explained.”
So this prompted me to run a poll to see just how common beer hoarding was. The results show that, while a majority of respondents only bought what they planned to drink, quite a few did allow stocks to build up, with 12% ending up in the category of ending up with more than they could drink.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Preaching from a beer crate

This blog has now been going for seven years, and I make no apology in saying that the smoking ban was what prompted its creation and, while it has touched on many other issues, that has always remained its core theme.

As it says in the sidebar,:

This is not a beer blog. It's a view of life from the saloon bar, not entirely about the saloon bar - which of course is a metaphorical place as well as a physical one. It is as much about political correctness and the erosion of lifestyle freedom as it is about pubs and beer.
At that time I had never even heard of “beer blogs” and wasn’t aware there was anyone else blogging on the same kind of subject. It took a couple of years to feel I was part of a kind of wider community. I have always regarded this as basically a blog about lifestyle freedom viewed through the bottom of a beer glass, rather than a beer blog as such. I have commented freely on areas relating to diet, drugs and smoking as well as alcohol, but in general have steered clear of wider political issues. I haven’t banged on about defence, climate change, taxation or transport, although I have well-formed views on those subjects. Most of the members of the local branch of CAMRA have considerably more left-wing views than I do, but we still manage to get on amicably.

I have created a second blog to enable me to address these wider issues, but to be honest this has only been sporadically updated and has attracted little interest.

Pete Brown is a well-respected beer writer. I own a number of his books and have given a positive review to his cider book here. We’ve always known he’s a bit of a Leftie, but so long as that doesn’t become too predominant in his writing it’s something you can put up with. Indeed it is a sign of a good writer that you are able to write intelligently about your chosen subject without letting your political stance dominate.

However, he has really blotted his copybook with this highly partisan rant against UKIP. He hangs it on the argument that many innovations in British brewing would not have taken place without immigration, but in doing so deliberately and knowingly misrepresents UKIP policy. UKIP does not seek to ban all immigration, but simply to apply a quality threshold, as happens in countries like Australia and Canada. UKIP’s immigration policy would not have excluded any of those talented brewers.

I have to admit I made one or two intemperate comments in response to that post, for which I apologise. I should have kept a clearer head. But the post is basically dishonest.

As I have said on the other blog, I have a considerable amount of sympathy for UKIP, especially over their opposition to the smoking ban, but I am certainly not an uncritical supporter. However, there’s a good argument that UKIP is the one major political party that is really prepared to stand up for pubs.

But if the likes of Pete Brown are saying that any UKIP voter is somehow beyond the pale and not part of the political mainstream, they will ultimately diminish themselves. If you turn your beer blog into a political platform covering issues well beyond beer, pubs and brewing then you are likely to alienate many of your readers. Pete is fully entitled to his views, but they are out of place on a beer focused blog.

It would be interesting if Pete was prepared to run a poll on his blog about the political allegiance of his readers. He might find rather more UKIP supporters than he feels comfortable with.

The better part of valour?

I’m in a Brains tied pub in a Welsh market town to have a bite of lunch. I order a pint of Brains Bitter, which is OK but a bit past its best. There are a couple on a nearby table – he has a half of a paler beer and says out loud “this is terrible, it’s like vinegar!” I suggest he should complain, but he demurs, saying it’s not really worth it if he’s only having a half. It turns out it is their seasonal beer, British Summer.

You can’t really blame him for not wanting to kick up a fuss, and occasionally I’ve done the same myself. As I’ve said before, people go out for a relaxing drink, not an argument. But, on the other hand, if customers don’t complain the licensee gets no feedback and the vicious circle continues. He finishes it and they leave without ordering any food – I have no idea whether they were thinking about eating there.

It’s hardly surprising the average punter is reluctant to order cask beer in unfamiliar pubs if they stand a high chance of getting a dud. And I’d very much doubt whether the pub in question has the turnover to offer four cask beers in decent nick throughout the week – although, to be fair, it did serve up a decent, good-value sandwich.

Would you have taken your half back in those circumstances?

Incidentally, on the same trip I went in a busy Wetherspoon’s, spotted a favourite beer on the bar, and was not entirely surprised to be served up with a pint of soup.

Saturday 21 June 2014

We had to make our own entertainment

There’s a widespread view that, going back to the early days of CAMRA, pub life was pretty dull. Everyone dutifully trooped in to their local pub, to be faced with a limited choice of often poorly-kept beer (if not just keg) and, in the absence of any other form of entertainment, were actually forced to talk to each other. This is expressed in slightly tongue-in-cheek manner in this blogpost on Seeing the Lizards. Like many such examples of received wisdom, it contains a grain of truth, but in most respects things were actually very different.

1. The beer choice was poor

Of course there wasn’t anything like the choice of real ales you get now, but in many places there was still a wide selection of brews available. Within a few hundred yards in Stockport town centre, you could find real ales from nine different breweries, with three others just a short bus ride away. Plenty of other towns were similar. You could get the variety from a short pub crawl rather than working your way along the bar.

Plus, in a perverse way, if you lived in an area dominated by one brewer, it freed you from the compulsion of choosing pubs on the basis of what beer they served, and allowed you to judge them on other criteria.

2. The beer was terrible

It certainly wasn’t! Outside a few “keg deserts”, real ale was generally pretty plentiful, and pubgoers would often make their choice on the basis of how well a pub kept its beer. There was plenty of really fresh, tasty, high-quality beer. And the generally higher turnover of those days could easily make up for deficiencies in cellarmanship, whereas nowadays you get the impression that many pubs, with the best will in the world, are often struggling to cope with low sales.

3. The pubs were awful

Again, completely untrue. There were many more really basic pubs than there are today, but even some of those served a good pint. And there were plenty of smart, well-kept, spick-and-span pubs that you would be happy to take your maiden aunt – or your girlfriend – to. Indeed, in many cases the “lounge side” was plusher and more comfortable than it is today, when bare boards and hard seating seem to be fashionable. There were also a fair number of decidedly upmarket wet-led pubs of a kind you simply don’t find today. It shouldn’t be forgotten that pubgoing, to the right kind of pub, was a lot more aspirational then.

4. Everyone stuck to their local

A lot of people did, mainly from the social groups that today would be at home with a slab of Foster’s. But, in general, there were more pubs to choose from, and many would spread their favours amongst a range of pubs rather than automatically just going to the one. Casual drinking – “let’s go and check out the Red Lion tonight” – was far more commonplace . I would say in those days the more middle-class pubgoers often tended to frequent a wider range of pubs than they do now.

5. Pubs were unsociable

The image presented on TV of pubs like the Rover’s Return where everyone happily mingles and chats together has always been a bit of an exaggeration. But people would often meet up with and chat to people in the pub that otherwise they never met. I remember my late father having, successively, two groups of “pub friends” that he would regularly talk to once a week but never speak to outside the pub environment. It was a kind of social ritual. And the simple matter of “going for a drink” with people that you knew in some other context tended to loosen inhibitions and allow you to get to know them in a way that you wouldn’t in any other environment. It still happens, but much less than it once did.

But tell that to the young folk nowadays, and they just won’t believe you.

Second Life

When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, it settled upon the definition of “real ale” as involving the beer undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container from which it was served. For most British cask beers at the time, that was the case but, taking a wider historical perspective, might it have been more of an aberration than a universal principle?

A commenter on one of the beer blogs (I think it was Tandleman’s) recently said that, going back 60 years, pretty much all draught beer in the world was cask. But, apart from the British Isles and some isolated pockets in other countries, by that time virtually all of the world had adopted the bottom-fermenting lager technique for making everyday beers. This involves a period of cold-conditioning in tanks or barrels, during which time the beer will stabilise and drop bright. By the time it is released for sale, it is no longer experiencing any kind of fermentation. It may be unpasteurised, served using its own CO2, cloudy even, but it’s inert. The same is true of German top-fermenting styles such as Alt and K├Âlsch.

Even if we look at British top-fermenting beers, it has been by no means always the case that they were served by the current “cask-conditioned” method. Historically, many beers, notably porters, were matured for long periods in vats, during which time, as with lagers, they would have stabilised prior to barrelling and despatch to pubs. A famous example of this was the 1814 London Beer Flood. And all that IPA sent out to India didn’t continue working away during the three-month voyage. It effectively became a barrel-aged beer that was preserved by being kept in airtight casks.

In more recent times, Martyn Cornell in his excellent book Amber, Gold and Black points out that most mild was sent out from the brewery with a minimal or zero amount of yeast with the intention of being served within a few days. It was effectively “re-racked” beer. The presence of significant secondary fermentation was the feature that distinguished bitters from milds. This is why slops were put back in the mild, as they would stir up the yeast in the bitter.

While undoubtedly in 1970 cask-conditioned British bitters experienced a significant secondary fermentation, they were pretty much the only draught beers in the world that did. And that doesn’t even venture into the territory of bottled beers.

So a test of “good beer” that could be applied more widely in other countries with different brewing and beer-drinking traditions might have focused more on the absence of pasteurisation and the non-addition of extraneous CO2, allowing beers to settle out naturally or only being rough-filtered and, yes, the quality of ingredients.

Thursday 12 June 2014

A new broom sweeps clean

I was in a local pub at lunchtime the other day delivering the monthly CAMRA magazine. The pub in question had a couple of free-standing racks displaying leaflets and flyers from local businesses and groups. There seemed to be a new manager who took exception to these and decided to get rid of them all saying that they were “a load of crap” and had nothing to do with the pub.

That may be the case, and it can often happen that pubs accumulate a lot of out-of-date clutter. They’re under no obligation to display commercial advertising for “wardrobe doctors” and dog-walking services. But, on the other hand, they need to recognise that they are part of a local community and antagonise customers at their peril. Allowing displays of this kind – within reason – is surely a good way of maintaining a connection with local people and creating goodwill, and this, I would say, while it does have a contemporary theme, is very much a pub for local residents rather than a destination venue.

She had to nip out and the two bar staff on duty, both similarly young and female, seemed to agree that she had gone a bit too far. “After all,” one said, “it’s not as if it’s only young people who come in here” – looking round at me, another guy standing at the bar and a couple sitting nearby, whose average age was probably well north of 60.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

I see no craft

To paraphrase Admiral Lord Nelson – but, in most pubs, he wouldn’t even if he put his telescope to his good eye. Over the past few weeks, the better weather and the fact I’ve had a bit more time on my hands have given me the opportunity to get out and about visiting a few new pubs and reacquainting myself with old favourites. But it’s very noticeable how, in the vast majority, there’s scarcely a sign of the much-vaunted craft beer revolution.

As I wrote here, craft beer is as much an attitude of mind as a list of specific products, and a single craft keg tap does not make a pub a craft beer venue. But, if you look at the characteristic signs – the presence on the bar of cask ales from “cutting edge” breweries, the craft keg fonts and the fridge full of weird stuff from the UK and America – they’re in general conspicuous by their absence. I’m not including, by the way, Blue Moon, “world lagers” such as Estrella Damm or keg ciders from independent producers such as Aspall, Thatcher’s and Weston’s.

A fair number follow the well-trodden “multi beer alehouse” path, but even here the main concession to changing times seems to be a higher proportion of golden ales. Obviously, over the years the product mix changes, and certainly some of the more successful micro-breweries are now getting their beers on the bars of plenty of non-specialist pubs, including those run by the major pub companies. But that’s nothing that wouldn’t come within the general orbit of “real ale” as understood twenty years ago.

In many towns there’s now a kind of dedicated craft beer outlet - Shrewsbury, for example, has the Salopian Bar. But in most of the rest of the pubs there will just be a selection of real ales, some micro, some nationally-distributed, and the usual range of kegs and lagers. I asked a couple of years back whether we would see a craft keg tap becoming a standard feature in Spoons but so far, as far as I can see, it hasn’t, despite their ill-judged dabbling with US craft cans.

I suggested here that the full-on craft beer experience is something that is unlikely to make a decisive breakout from niche to mainstream. It hasn’t shown much sign of doing so in the past few years and, frankly, I suspect it never will beyond perhaps the assimilation of a handful of high-profile products. Maybe that’s the entire point of it.

Sunday 8 June 2014

You won’t even get bitter

Boak & Bailey’s recent blogpost on the decline and fall of Boddington’s Bitter reminded me of its erstwhile advertising slogan “If you don’t get Boddies’, you’ll just get bitter”. Well, you won’t get Boddies’ any more, at least in cask form, but in a growing number of pubs you won’t get bitter either.

OK, if you go into a tied pub of one of the independent family brewers, or Greene King or Marston’s, you will probably still find a beer on the bar in the 3.6% - 4.0% strength range describing itself as “Bitter”. But go in the vast majority of pub company outlets, or any “free house” that isn’t a specialist beer pub, and you’re likely to be confronted by three or four of the widely-distributed premium ale brands such as Doom Bar, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Wainwright and London Pride, which are in a slightly higher strength – and price – band. “Ordinary bitter” is conspicuous by its absence.

Indeed, very often the staple ale in these pubs is a smoothflow offering such as Worthington, John Smith’s or the dreaded nitro Boddington’s. Cask beer is reserved for the discerning “premium” customer with his deep pockets. You may even get a funny look if you walk in off the street and ask for it.

Yet, as I said here, to pack so much flavour and variety into beers of such modest strength is arguably one of the greatest achievements of British brewing. And, at a time when high pub prices are a constant source of complaint and we are being urged to curb our alcohol consumption, making a wider variety of ordinary bitters available would help both our wallets and our livers - not to mention our driving licences.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Strange brew

In the early 1970s, the British beer market was increasingly becoming dominated by a dwindling number of bland, dumbed-down beers mass-produced by a handful of giant corporations. Fast forward to the present day, and we have an unprecedented level of interest in and enthusiasm for beer, more breweries and beers than at any time since before the First World War, and more variety of beer styles than there has probably ever been. In their new book Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer (Aurum Press, £12.99) Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey tell the story of exactly how this apparently unlikely transformation came about. The book is officially released on 19 June.

They have been writing their eponymous blog since 2007. It’s one of the most consistently interesting and wide-ranging beer blogs, but does adopt a distinctively detached and observational tone that isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. Some of their best blog pieces have been examinations of various historical trends in the beer world and that approach adapts very well to the longer book format. The end result is a very lucid and readable volume that treats the subject with due seriousness but never allows itself to get bogged down in turgid detail.

Starting with the amateurish efforts of the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood in the 1960s, it looks at the foundation and dramatic expansion of CAMRA, the response of the big brewers, the setting-up of the first microbreweries and the pioneering work of Michael Jackson of presenting beer as something worthy of appreciation in the same way as wine. The story then runs through the politics behind the Beer Orders, which revolutionised the British beer and pub industry, the introduction of “golden ales”, the widespread adoption of American hops and beer styles, the contemporary “craft beer” movement and the growth of trendy beer-focused bars. It concludes by asking whether the tide of constant innovation has currently reached a high-point, while recalling that the same question had been widely asked back in the late 1990s.

Much contemporary beer writing is done under the auspices of CAMRA which, with the best will in the world, inevitably reflects a particular standpoint. The authors are members of CAMRA, and generally sympathetic towards it, but they don’t flinch from recording events such as the conflict over the creation of CAMRA’s own ill-fated pub chain in the late 1970s. They also give due prominence to stories such as the creation of the Firkin brewpub chain, with which CAMRA had a love-hate relationship, and the deliberately CAMRA-baiting rise of BrewDog in recent years. However, they rightly point out that, while much contemporary beer innovation has broken loose from the moorings of CAMRA, without the organisation’s ground-breaking campaigning, much of it might never have been possible.

One of the great strengths of the book is the way that, rather than just relying on secondary sources, the authors have carried out interviews with many of the individuals involved in the story. These include CAMRA founder Michael Hardman, its influential early chairman Christopher Hutt, David Bruce of Firkin fame and the mercurial Brendan Dobbin. This underlines the point that the beer revolution has very much been driven by a number of maverick personalities ploughing their own furrow rather than being an inevitable historical trend.

The aim of the book is to provide a history of the growth of beer enthusiasm and alternative beer in Britain, and so it would be unfair to criticise it for not being something it never sets out to be in the first place. However, the last few chapters do come across as a slightly breathless and narrowly-focused run through a variety of current trends and innovations. Taking a step back, there is a glaring paradox that, while we are more interested in beer than ever before, and producing a greater variety, we are in fact overall drinking less of it than at any time in that forty-year period, and especially drinking less of it in pubs, whose numbers have fallen to the lowest in living memory. It’s entirely possible, of course, that one is the mirror-image of the other, that beer becomes more appreciated the less it is part of everyday life.

Despite this slight caveat it is an excellent and enjoyable book which really is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the specialist beer market in Britain over the past forty years.

Declaration of interest: I was given a review copy of this book by the publishers. As it is a book I would have bought anyway, I have made a donation equivalent to the cover price to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is a cause that I and my family have supported for many years and seems particularly appropriate given the authors’ current location in Penzance.

Postscript: The above review has been written with a view to inclusion, maybe in a slightly modified form, in the local CAMRA magazine. It’s interesting that most of the other reviews I have read independently reach the same conclusion – the first half, up to the Beer Orders, is excellent, but after that it becomes more bitty and anecdotal. Maybe it will only be possible to put in all into context once a lot more water has flowed under the bridge.

Friday 6 June 2014

It’s oh so quiet

It’s always good to see a pub so busy it’s standing room only, but very often a visit is more rewarding at a quieter time when you have a choice of where to sit and can get served swiftly at the bar. You can have a relaxing, contemplative drink and watch the world go by secure in the knowledge that on Friday night it will be heaving.

However, it’s one thing for a pub to be a bit quiet, but something else entirely for it to be pretty much devoid of customers. I wrote recently about calling in a prominent, classic Holt’s pub at a time when once it would have been fairly busy, and finding only about five customers in a building that could easily have accommodated thirty times that number without feeling packed.

As blog readers will realise, I’m probably more interested in seeking out new and unfamiliar pubs than new beers, but sometimes it feels like intruding on private grief. Not so long ago I visited a pub that had been on my list for a while. It used to be in the Good Beer Guide but has dropped out in the past couple of years; however, there’s nothing obviously wrong with it, with three cask beers on the bar, a comfortable, rambling interior and A-boards outside advertising a varied food menu. Yet, once a guy sat at the bar had departed, I was the sole customer. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, and is likely to deter you from visiting again, or from recommending the pub to others. It’s even worse than dining alone in a restaurant because in a pub you’re looking for at least a little social buzz. It’s not as if there are other pubs nearby to which all the customers have decamped because in neither case do I reckon that applies.

I satirised this in the description of my visit to the Feltcombers’ Arms at Arkwright’s Hillock, but many a true word is said in jest. And, if even apparently attractive and welcoming pubs are deserted at times when surely twenty or even ten years ago they would have been doing decent business, then you have to think there is much more pain to come in terms of pub closures.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

A Guide of two halves

In the 1977 edition of the Good Beer Guide, the breweries section amounted to 11 pages. By 2014, with the enormous growth in new breweries and beers, it had swollen to 220 pages, albeit in slightly less dense type, making it virtually a book in its own right. The opinion has sometimes been expressed in the comments on here that it is time for CAMRA to split the book into two separate publications, listing pubs and beers, and indeed people have gone so far as to say they aren’t really interested in one half or the other.

On the one hand, the argument is that in most parts of the country there is now little difficulty in finding pubs offering a wide range of beers, so what is important is finding out what the beers you encounter are going to be like. On the other hand, and the view that I would incline more to, is that random pub choice can still be very hit and miss, but there are so many seasonal and one-off beers and new breweries that the beer listing is of little practical use. Gone are the days when an enthusiastic beer drinker could gain a reasonable impression of the character of all the brews they were likely to come across in their local area.

So I thought I would ask blog readers whether they thought it would be a good idea for CAMRA to split the Guide in two. While the pub enthusiasts almost equal the number of beer enthusiasts and those wanting both combined, it isn’t really hugely conclusive and so I doubt whether any changes are likely to be made. In practice, I suspect the non-CAMRA purchasers are overwhelmingly interested in the pubs side and so the beer-only volume would prove a slow seller.

You often read that online pub sites are going to spell the death-knell for printed guides, but there is a crucial difference, that the websites basically just offer a database while the guides provide a moderated selection. If you’re visiting, say, Chester, and look on WhatPub?, you will be presented with a list of 124 pubs, and that’s only in the city centre. The Good Beer Guide, in contrast, lists just 8, which, even if they’re not all to everyone’s taste, will probably be a lot better on average than the 124.

Even if you went through all the 124 entries to find some that sounded congenial, you might not find it too easy. Understandably, online pub guides tend to avoid needlessly antagonising pubs with negative comments, so the descriptions tend to be rather anodyne, making it hard to tell the sheep from the goats. In the past year I’ve visited at least two pubs that from online descriptions sounded at least worth investigating, but turned out to be extremely disappointing. So, until the online sites offer trustworthy ratings against various criteria, there will still be a role for the likes of the Good Beer Guide and Good Pub Guide. Positive recommendations from other people are still extremely valuable.