Friday 30 October 2015

Britain, one pub at a time

One of the most prolific commenters on this blog has been Martin Taylor of Cambridge, who has seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British pubs and, wherever I’ve been, would always comment on his own experiences. He enjoys new-wave bars and craft beers, but he’s always shown a strong appreciation of traditional British beer styles and old-fashioned pubs. While not a dyed-in-the-wool opponent, he recognises the damage the smoking ban has done to wet-led pubs.

He’s now started his own blog called retiredmartin, which details his generally pub-focused travels around the country. He describes it as “Retired NHS, on permanent walk (15 miles a day) around UK and the world to record the great bits. Focus on pubs and live music.” He also says that, each year, he aims to get to as many of the new entries in the Good Beer Guide as he can. You have to admire his commitment!

The blog provides an honest assessment of the beer quality in each pub he visits, and also conveys a “sense of place” about both the pubs and their location, something that is missing in many other blogs which concentrate on the beer to the exclusion of all else. I haven’t met him so far, but hopefully that can be sorted out, although maybe we should steer clear of politics. Anyway, put him in your blog list and enjoy...

His criteria for a visit to the North-West are very interesting:

  • Travelodge for under £30
  • Short train/metro into Manchester
  • Access to new bit of UK to explore
  • At least 1 new Beer Guide pub in walking distance
  • Holts, Robinsons or Sam Smiths pub nearby
  • Live music – any quality
  • Hills of any size
  • Good Chinese takeaway
  • Likelihood southerners couldn’t place it on the map

Sunday 25 October 2015

Standing out from the crowd

I don’t usually go in for pub reviews on here, but I am going to make an exception to underline a point about the Good Beer Guide. It’s often claimed that the GBG has been rendered obsolete by the proliferation of online pub databases. However, a major problem with these is that they just offer an indiscriminate list, and it’s up to you to work out which pubs are actually worth a visit. The great value of the GBG – and publications such as the Good Pub Guide – is that someone else has done the work for you to come up with a selection of pubs that they recommend. It won’t necessarily accord with your own view, but you sort of learn to read between the lines, and the GBG will certainly take you to many excellent pubs that otherwise you might not have found. This is not an argument in favour of retaining a printed book, as the principle of selectiveness applies equally to apps and websites.

In the past, I’ve made the point is that the GBG isn’t aimed at hardcore beer obsessives, but at people who enjoy a drop of real ale and want to find decent pubs when away from home, in particular nice places to eat when on holiday. I’ve recently spent a few days in the North-East, where the GBG took me to the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice. If I search WhatPub for Tynemouth, which is where I had been, it comes up as #95 out of 118 pubs, so it’s unlikely I would have found it. But a quick look at the map in the GBG indicated that there were pub(s) in Seaton Sluice, a few miles up the coast, and flicking the page led me to the King’s Arms. It’s described as follows:

Traditional pub dating from the 1700s, sitting majestically next to the man-made harbour, constructed by the famous Delaval family.The pub is set back from the road, with extensive views of the beautiful beach at Seaton Sluice. It has an excellent reputation for good food using local ingredients (booking is advised). There are five handpulls dispensing a range of nationally sourced ales. Live bands play on Sunday evening.
While often dismissed as an uncompromisingly industrial area, the North-East actually has a surprisingly scenic coast. The King’s Arms is a substantial, four-square pub situated on a headland overlooking the small harbour at Seaton Sluice, with a magnificent view to the north towards Blyth. It’s essentially a food-led pub, but certainly isn’t somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable just having a drink. The L-shaped interior comprises a congenial bar area along the front of the pub, with extensive bench seating, and a more contemporary dining area to the rear with views over the coast. There are no TVs or piped music.

There’s a wide-ranging food menu of fairly standard pub grub, stretching from sandwiches to steaks, at pretty reasonable prices. A welcome feature is offering smaller portions for many dishes, which must appeal to pensioners and others who are overfaced by big meals. It’s a Star Pubs & Bars leasehold, which may somewhat restrict the available beer range. On my visit it was Greene King Abbot Ale, Ruddles County, Bombardier Burning Gold and Caledonian Deuchars IPA and Autumn Red. Not the most enterprising range in the world, and it would be nice to see at least one local beer, but my pint of Burning Gold was fine.

It’s by no means an ideal pub – the prominent, officious notice banning vaping particularly jarred. But it’s obvious that the family running it have a huge amount of commitment and attention to detail. For example, the menu folder includes a list of local food suppliers they use, a potted history of their involvement with the pub, and an update on recent developments. I was also served by a notably friendly and polite barmaid. And I probably wouldn’t have found it at all without the Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

English as she is spoke

Traditionalists such as myself are often heard to complain about the changing meaning of English words, which usually seems to result in a loss of clarity and precision in the language. However, any student of linguistics has to recognise that language does evolve over time, and that dictionaries have to reflect how people actually use words, not how someone else thinks they should.

The concept of “real ale” was invented by CAMRA, and before too long they succeeded in having it defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as

Real Ale: a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
However, in recent years I’ve increasingly begun to hear other people, especially work colleagues, say “I’ve got a few of those real ales in from ASDA.” Clearly, they’re referring to brewery-conditioned Premium Bottled Ales such as Pedigree and Abbot Ale, which aren’t real ales by the official definition. However, they see them as the bottle equivalent of real ales that you might get in the pub, and so there’s some sense in making the link.

My local branch of Morrisons has recently revamped its beer aisle, and there’s a prominent sign above the Premium Bottled Ales section saying “Real Ales”. Probably one or two pedants will write to them pointing out their error, but in reality that’s how customers define that beer category. In twenty years’ time, might we be seeing “real ale” redefined as any British top-fermented beer in a traditional style?

Next to “Real Ales” is “Craft Beers”, which seems to encompass a wide variety of British, American, Belgian and Swedish beers, but all in 330ml or 355ml bottles or cans, whereas the PBAs are in 500ml bottles. The definition of “craft beer” has been endlessly wrangled over in the beer blogosphere, but in the actual marketplace it seems to be resolving itself.

In the off-trade, it’s beers in smaller bottles that may be stronger and more diverse and experimental in style than the boring old brown PBAs in their big bottles. Probably more expensive too. And, in the on-trade draught beer market, “craft beer” increasingly means “craft keg”. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that, by any rational standard, virtually all microbrewed real ale is craft beer, but the market is saying otherwise.

Long gone are the days when a small, traditional, quirky, long-established, undeniably “artisanal” brewery such as Bathams or Hook Norton could be described as “craft”. Although eventually that moment of discovery is bound to happen when trendsetters say “Wow, these guys have been doing it for 150 years!”

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Turning the Page

Last year, Mike Benner left his post as Chief Executive of CAMRA to move across to SIBA. Mike was (and is) a very able and articulate chap and a compelling speaker. To replace him, CAMRA appointed Tim Page, a former Army officer who had extensive experience in other not-for-profit organisations, but wasn’t a beer industry veteran. He’s a rather avuncular-looking, middle-aged chap, and many people’s expectations were that he’d be someone who would keep things ticking over without unduly rocking the boat.

However, he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has launched a “Revitalisation Project” which aims to take a root-and-branch review of CAMRA’s strategies, structures and organisation. A few years ago, there was a “Fit for Purpose Review” following a conference motion by two Greater Manchester members, but unfortunately this ended up just looking at internal processes and did not address the wider issues.

CAMRA now has a record number of members, but is assailed by doubts as to what its purpose is in the current beer world, and concerns about the ageing profile of active members, and lack of engagement of younger ones. I’ve been a member for 34 years, and a life member for most of that time, so obviously it’s something I’m concerned about, even if at times I have been critical of some of its stances.

So here are my thoughts as to what Tim’s review should address:

  • Produce a clear definition of what CAMRA actually stands for in 2015. “An organisation that campaigns for quality beer, consumer rights, pubgoing and the preservation of our pub heritage, with particular reference to the unique British tradition of cask-conditioning.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, but that’s basically what it’s about.

  • Lance the boil of the cask vs keg dichotomy. There isn’t really a Manichean divide between good and bad beer, and most members recognise this. While accepting the primacy of cask-conditioned draught beer, CAMRA spokespeople and publications should be permitted to recognise merit in “non-real” beers. The motion against banning “anti-campaigns” was a start, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

  • Scrap the dogmatic championing of bottle-conditioned beers. When this policy was originated, bottle-conditioned beers were a tiny, irrelevant market sector. But drawing a direct parallel with cask vs keg is completely inappropriate. Yes, for the best, high-quality, strong bottled beers, bottle-conditioning is preferable, but for ordinary quaffing beers it just introduces uncertainty. This policy is a significant deterrent to the development of a thriving British bottled beer sector.

  • Return to putting more emphasis on pubs and pub preservation. This was a key plank of the original CAMRA, but seems to have been left behind in the current craze for new breweries and bars. But the National Inventory is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements, and will endure when all the railway arch brewers have gone to the great mash tun in the sky. Create a spin-off organisation of “Friends of Historic Pubs”, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust. Also set up a register of the “next 5000” which still retain a broadly traditional layout and character.

  • But, on the other hand, accept that greedy pubcos and lax planning controls are not major causes of pub decline – it’s basically a matter of demand. This is a false narrative that allows people to hide behind a smokescreen, and in reality is damaging to the cause of pubs. Market Rent Option won’t remotely save the pub trade, and things like ACVs, while they may be useful in a local context, will make scarcely any difference to the overall picture.

  • Mount a much stronger challenge to the anti-drink lobby. This has been agreed at Conference in the past, but little seems to have happened. Going forward, this is far more of a threat than the big brewers and pubcos. But a problem is that many CAMRA members, despite campaigning for a “fun” product, are instinctively puritanical. The people who advocate banning McDonalds and taxing sugar are really not on your side. Unfortunately this may involve making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n.

  • Place a much higher emphasis on beer quality in pubs. This may seem obvious, but in recent years CAMRA seems to have been far keener to cheer on the expansion of handpump numbers in pubs and the ever-burgeoning number of breweries. Quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive, but if you have to choose one, it must always be quality. Too many pubs are serving up tired beer because they are stocking too many. There also seem to be more novice licensees who don’t seem to understand the basics. Maybe there needs to be a big roll-out of basic beer tasting courses amongst regular NBSS scorers.

  • Sort out CAMRA’s relationship with cider. I’m not suggesting CAMRA should turn its back on cider, but APPLE often seem to be ploughing their own furrow with no reference to CAMRA’s wider aims. Cider is an entirely different drink from beer, and the definition of “real cider” is far more picky and obscurantist than that for “real beer”. And real cider never seems to have gained much traction in pubs. Every new family dining pub has three or four handpumps for cask beer, but none for real cider.

  • Take a serious review of membership activation, going back to basic principles. While CAMRA has a record membership, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in active local members, and many branches report a dwindling number of ageing activists. The way many branches operate still seems to be rooted in the 1970s, so could things be improved by a reshaping? Or do younger members simply not like any kind of organised events? Given its current membership level, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon, but at the end of the day it may need to look at becoming primarily a national campaigning organisation supported by local branches where they exist, as opposed to something that is essentially based on its branch structure.
There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm out there for beer and pubs, and the challenge for CAMRA is to harness that without unnecessarily alienating people. It also has to be recognised that different people will have different priorities within the overall organisation.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

I went in seeking clarity

The debate about clarity and murkiness in beer has recently burst into flames again in the response to a post by Quinno on Stonch’s blog entitled #Murkshaming. While I firmly come down on one side of the debate, I can’t thinking that to a large extent it’s arguing at cross purposes. One point that has been made more than once is that defence of clear beer is very much a CAMRA position, and that craft brewers producing murky beer is at least partly an exercise in cocking a snook at the CAMRA orthodoxy.

In the early days, CAMRA members were often characterised as humourless types who went into pubs, ordered halves and then held them up to the light. I’m sure there was a bit of truth in that, but in reality I think CAMRA tried to take a less absolutist approach to beer clarity. It has to be remembered that, in the Fifties and early Sixties, there were still plenty of small, rather moribund family breweries with poor quality control procedures who seemed to find it difficult to produce consistently (or indeed ever) clear beer. The rise of keg beer was to some extent a reaction to this.

My recollection is that CAMRA tried to promote a more nuanced view of beer clarity, pointing out that just because a beer was crystal clear, it didn’t mean it was any good, and that there were circumstances such as thunderstorms and “layering” which could turn clear beer cloudy. These last two always seemed to me rather like old wives’ tales, but they underline the point that CAMRA didn’t dismiss any kind of hazy beer out of hand, and I’ve heard members say that a bit of haze might add more character.

However, as the “real ale revolution” started taking it into pubs where it hadn’t been served for fifteen years, we increasingly saw incompetent licensees trying to hide behind real ale’s rustic image. The cry of “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that” was heard up and down the land, and its image was tarnished. Many drinkers reached the conclusion of once bitten, twice shy, and understandably started to view anything short of crystal with suspicion.

I would say, though, that, both officially and individually, CAMRA has never taken a dogmatic stance that all cloudy beer is inherently bad, and has been sympathetic to the idea that unfined beer might result in more depth of flavour, so long as drinkers are informed what to expect. Some other members seem to be more tolerant than I am of moderate cloudiness. But it is not unrealistic to point out that the vast majority of cask beer brewed and sold in the UK is intended to be served clear, that drinkers have a reasonable expectation that it will be clear, and if it isn’t, it’s almost always an indication of a flaw in brewing or cellaring.

(acknowledgements to Tandleman for the photo)

Friday 2 October 2015

Every little less never helps

Four years ago, I wrote about how the ever-increasing beer choice in supermarkets was cutting into the market of independent off-licences. At the time, it was a valid point but, as often happens, subsequent events have gone in the opposite direction. The craft beer sector has expanded into ever more obscure sectors, most of which the supermarkets will never touch with a bargepole, even if they stock Punk IPA and Hardknott Azimuth. And there has been a big growth in independent beer-focused off-licences, often in city-centre locations, which appeal to high-spending young hipsters professionals who probably never get in to Tesco Extra.

My local Stockport branch of that particular chain was notable for its impressively wide beer and cider selection, something that twenty years ago would not have disgraced a specialist off-licence. However times have changed and, in response to the challenge from discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the major supermarkets have been looking at streamlining their operations and rationalising their ranges. Apparently 20% of all products stocked sell either one item a week, or none.

So Tesco have decided to take the axe to their beer range. One of the most high-profile casualties has been Carlsberg, as Stonch reports here, but their more specialist ranges have been drastically reduced too. Imported German and Czech lagers, Belgian beers, premium ciders, British craft beers, all have suffered. The Premium Bottled Ale range doesn’t seem to have been too badly affected, and is always subject to churn anyway, but one of my favourites, the bottle-conditioned Shepherd Neame 1698, has disappeared. Some of the shelf space seems to have been reallocated to PBA multipacks.

Regular blog readers may have noticed that I have a fondness for authentic imported German lagers. Tesco used to sell three – Bitburger, Krombacher and Warsteiner – which were usually included in multibuy deals. Not maybe Augustiner Helles or Jever Pilsner, but all very decent, palatable beers. Now all gone, along with similar beers like Baltika 7 and Pilsner Urquell. Surely a range rationalisation should have reduced the three to one, rather than scrapping the category entirely.

Obviously supermarkets have an interest in selling whatever they can sell, whether beer or bread. But the beer category has wider implications, as it is one of the factors that people will use to choose one supermarket above another (rather like cask drinkers choosing which pub to go to) and also an area where supermarkets can reclaim market share from independents. They will never remotely match the range of the specialists, but there’s a substantial proportion of customers who might think if they can get Punk IPA in Tesco for £1.50, there’s no point in making an effort to trek to the independent to pay £2.80 for Beavertown Gamma Ray.

If customers think “oh well, I’ll manage with what’s left”, then Tesco have won. But if they think “I’ll now have to go somewhere else for that”, it may seriously undermine their business. The key USP of the conventional big supermarkets is that they offer a much wider ranger than the discounters. If they cease to do that, what’s the point? Tesco have also recently annoyed me with several delistings of non-beer products.