I was gratified to see that I had been named joint winner of the Blogger of the Year by the Boozy Procrastinator blog, saying “Best Beer Blog or Website – Beers Manchester for Beer/Bottle reviews and Pub Curmudgeon for all other drink/pub/liberty based thoughts.” I don’t know the author personally, but it’s a locally-based blog that is well worth following, and as well as the beery stuff sometimes touches on wider lifestyle issues such as this post about the proposed ban on smoking in cars carrying children.
At this time of year, many bloggers put together a list of “Golden Pints” – beers, pubs, books etc that have particularly impressed them during the previous twelve months. As you know, I’m not one for constantly haring after the new and unusual, and the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit. However, I thought a list of highlights and lowlights of the year might be interesting, although bear in mind that this doesn’t represent my definitive view on the best of anything.
- Crown & Anchor in Llanidloes, Mid-Wales (pictured) and the Cock at Broom in Bedfordshire. Both have marvellous, unspoilt, multi-roomed interiors, and the Cock has the added distinction of being a pub without a bar counter. On balance, the Crown & Anchor slightly shades it as, while the beer, service and atmosphere could not be faulted, at the Cock I was served a bacon sandwich where the bacon was so underdone as to be nearly raw. Sadly the Crown & Anchor has been put up for sale as the long-serving licensee wants to retire – let’s hope that any new owners will maintain its character.
- Pubs (continued excellence) – the Armoury in Edgeley, Stockport. This is a classic street-corner local (now on a busy roundabout) which hosts the regular working party meetings for the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. It retains a three-roomed layout including a darts-playing vault and always seems to be busy and bustling. It also in my experience consistently serves some of the best Robinson’s beer to be found in their estate.
- Pub operator (up and coming) – Joule’s of Market Drayton, who have continued to expand their estate and carry out high-quality refurbishments in a wood-and-mirrors style while brewing excellent traditional British beers. I still can’t help thinking it’s all a bit too good to be true, though.
- Pub operator (established) – Sam Smith’s, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but continue to maintain an estate of proper British boozers where conversation reigns supreme over piped music and TV football and also offer unrivalled value for money. They have also carried out a number of well-judged, low-key refurbishments that have maintained the character and enhanced the appeal of their pubs.
- Beers (draught) – I’ve drunk a lot of good beers once that didn’t really stick in the mind, but locally I’ve been impressed by Robinson’s two latest seasonals, South Island and the current Indulgence. Hyde’s also deserve credit for their Beer Studio sub-brand, which has steered clear of obvious crowd-pleasers. One or two have seemed like an uneasy juxtaposition of styles, but most have been excellent, and I was particularly struck by two pale, rounded, subtle brews – I think Golden Ochre and Seared Saaz – which were not obvious hop-bombs and all the better for it.
- Beers (bottled) – it may seem an odd choice, but one I’ve recently been taken by is Greene King’s Old Nutty Hen. I’m a sucker for winter beers with a hint of chestnut, and this delivered in spades at a relatively modest strength of 4.5% which meant you might go back for more.
- Best pub refurbishment – with the rise in economic confidence, a lot of money has been spent on local pubs in the past year. I was particularly impressed by Robinson’s work at the Hatters Arms in Marple, where they have managed to give the pub a wider and more contemporary appeal while retaining its multi-roomed layout, extensive bench seating and wood-panelled drinking corridor.
- Worst pub refurbishment – I’ve been critical of Robinson’s scheme at the Farmers Arms in Poynton, but to my mind they take the biscuit with the Baker’s Vaults on Stockport Market Place. The previous layout wasn’t ideal, but it had a kind of faded grandeur about it, while what has replaced it makes very poor use of space, has far too much gimmicky bric-a-brac, and is remarkably devoid of seating full stop, let alone comfortable seating. I’ve also heard reports of piped music being played at ear-splitting volume. You’ll find a far cheaper pint, a welcome absence of music and a far more authentic pub atmosphere in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head immediately opposite. I know opinions vary on this, but to my eye it’s seriously misplaced.
- Pub cat – not a lot of competition in this category, but my favourite was the friendly coal-black cat (name not known) in the Railway at Mobberley who is happy just to curl up on your lap. An honourable mention must also go to Legolas (aka Legz) of the Charlotte Despard in London, who happily climbs up on the bar despite only having three legs, and won Outstanding Rescue Cat of the Year.
- Blogging event – it’s been widely remarked that beer blogging has lost ground to Twitter, but one welcome development was the return of Jeffrey Bell aka Stonch, one of the pioneering beer bloggers, who took a break from it shortly after I started. I remember him as very forthright and combative, but he seems to have mellowed somewhat and is one of the dwindling number of bloggers with an appreciation and understanding of pubs.
- Beer book – well, I’ve not really read any others apart from the Good Beer Guide, but I would thoroughly recommend Boak & Bailey’s Brew Britannia, which takes a step back from the usual in-depth profiles of beers and breweries to look at the wider trends in the British “alternative beer” market over the past forty or so years. It’s very lucid and readable and its best point is how the authors have succeeded in carrying out personal interviews with many of the key figures involved in the story.
- Best public policy – George Osborne again making a small cut to beer duty, and on top of this freezing duty for cider and spirits and scrapping the duty escalator for all other categories of drinks. It’s excellent news that the government have at long last abandoned the policy of ever more tightening the fiscal screw on drinkers, and it’s important to remember that if the escalator had still been in place a pint in the pub would be 20-30p dearer. It’s definitely made a difference.
- Worst public policy – cutting the Scottish drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg. This will erode sociability and community spirit, damage the pub trade, criminalise previously law-abiding people and possibly set an unwelcome precedent for a similar measure south of the Border. And there’s no guarantee it will save a single life. It’s essentially an anti-drink and anti-pub measure, not a road safety one.
- Historic attraction – Eltham Palace in South-East London, a surprising juxtaposition of the Great Hall of the original mediaeval Royal palace with an ultra-modern Art Deco mansion built by the wealthy Courtauld family in the 1930s which, given its location, seems surprisingly under-appreciated. The lady of the house had a pet ringtailed lemur who enjoyed his own living quarters and had a tendency to bite guests.