Saturday 26 December 2015

What’s another year?

Around this time of year, many bloggers come up with lists of “Golden Pints” which they have enjoyed during the previous twelve months. Now, as I said last year, that’s not really what this blog is about, 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.” But here are a few of my peaks and troughs of 2015:

  • Continued Achievement – no change from last year in Sam Smith’s for pub operator and the Armoury in Stockport for individual pub. Sams’ pubs have continued to provide ultra-keen prices and great atmosphere, and they’re currently engaged on a much-needed refurb of the Swan next to the station in Holmes Chapel. The Armoury is a classic street-corner boozer which is the go-to pub for the best kept Robinsons’ beer for miles around, and managed to become runner-up as local CAMRA Pub of the Year. The Magnet is an excellent pub in many ways, but the Armoury really should have won.

  • New pubs visited – I finally managed to get to the famous Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire, which is more in the nature of a pilgrimage. I was served Bass from the jug by the legendary Bessie, and saw a party of American tourists totally fazed by the whole thing.

    Amongst more “normal” pubs, I was struck by the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice in Northumberland. While it’s in a spectacular setting, the pub, though very congenial, isn’t outstanding in terms of either character or beer range. But the attention to detail and the friendliness of the welcome reflected an operation that was doing everything it could to get things right, in sharp contrast to the grudging, slapdash approach you unfortunately encounter all too often.

    Another memorable pub was Sam Smiths’ Victoria Hotel in Cleveleys, Lancashire, a mammoth, although externally rather plain, 1930s roadhouse-cum-estate pub tucked away in Blackpool’s northern suburbs. It must be one of the biggest purpose-built pubs still trading in the country. Internally it has a spectacular L-shaped lounge accessed from the corner door, a disused off-sales department, and an entirely separate vault. I overheard a classic pub conversation about the local Wetherspoon’s and pubs that showed football. You have to wonder how near full it ever gets, though.

  • Pub anecdote – I walked into a Good Beer Guide listed pub that was advertising a 10% discount on cask beer for CAMRA members but, not having my membership card on me, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage. However, the barmaid asked whether I was a member and, when I replied that I was, she let me have the discount anyway. Possibly the sight of a middle-aged bloke, wearing glasses and jumper, scanning the row of handpumps might have been a giveaway. I put the difference in the charity box. Unfortunately, I ended up with a cloudy pint and had to take it back to the bar to get it changed, which I felt slightly bad about.

  • New beer – nothing exotic, but for me it has to be Robinsons’ Wizard. It’s rare to see a brewery launch a new “ordinary bitter” as a permanent beer, and this is a very good one. Inevitably it was dismissed as dull and bland by the hop fiends, but ordinary bitter isn’t meant to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. Actually it’s a rewarding beer with a good balance of malt and hops and a surprising degree of complexity, which provides a tasty lower-strength alternative in Robinsons’ pubs. I’m told it has been extremely successful.

  • Best pub refurbishment – Hydes’ scheme at my local pub, the Nursery in Heaton Norris. I wouldn’t say this has improved it as such, beyond giving it a general smartening-up, and some of the carpet and wallpaper patterns are a touch garish. But they have respected all of this National Inventory listed pub’s original layout and stained glass, with the only structural alteration being the entirely sensible replacement of the disused off-sales counter with a ladies’ WC to serve the vault. It’s a big demonstration of faith in the future of the pub by Hydes and, with the help of a new but highly experienced manager, it has been trading very well and also selling consistently good cask beer.

  • Worst pub refurbishment – as last year, Robinsons are the guilty party, with their work at the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. This is a big, upmarket pub with an attached lodge. Maybe twenty-five years ago it was given a smart, clean-lined, comfortable interior in conjunction with multiple operator Kalton Inns. However, it has now been transformed into a fussy, over-styled mess which is one of those places where there are plenty of seats, but nowhere you really fancy sitting. In particular, the two south-facing rooms with bay windows have had all their fixed seating stripped out and replaced in one case by a steamer trunk in place of a table. Their website describes it as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say it’s more a monument to impracticality and pretension. I have to say I am becoming seriously dismayed by Robinsons’ systematic vandalism of large chunks of their estate, against which the once-derided “Robinsonisation” pales into insignificance.

  • Off-trade retailer – upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths have opened a branch this year in the suitably upmarket suburb of Hale Barns (just round the corner from the Bull’s Head), which isn’t too far from me and somewhere I regularly pass. Following my local Tesco culling its beer range, I decided to give them a try and wasn’t disappointed. They have a far wider beer range than any of the major supermarkets, including a lot of “craft” stuff, and at only slightly higher prices. If you spend over £10 at the weekend you even get a free national newspaper. Yes, there are specialist beer shops with more obscure bottles, but they come at a price and their range of everyday beers is often limited.

  • Pub cat – to be honest, I follow more pub cats on Twitter than I encounter in the wild. It’s impressive how they manage to negotiate social media without opposable thumbs. But my favourite was a cute little dark tortie in the Bunch of Grapes in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, who was happy to sit in one of those boxes normally used for charity sweets, placed on top of the bar. At first, I wondered if it was a stuffed cat, but in fact she was perfectly happy to be given the occasional stroke, and to raise her head and look around. The Draught Bass was good, too.

    And the Bag o’Nails in Bristol, run by occasional blog commenter Luke Daniels, got extensive news coverage for its large feline population. Unfortunately I’ve never been there personally. Typically, the RSPCA weren’t impressed.

  • Beer book – as with last year, I’ve only really bought one, in this case The Red Lioness by Cathy Price, recording her quest to visit all the 650-odd pubs in Great Britain called the Red Lion. A noble endeavour, and it benefits from her not being a professional beer or travel writer and so giving a fresh perspective. But, ultimately, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, including plenty of amusing and insightful anecdotes, but at the same time often coming across as a list of “first we went here, and then we went there”. I like the fact that she ended up in a pub featuring Britain’s only democratically elected village idiot. I’m planning to do a full review in the near future.

  • Beer blogging – in the early part of the year, Stonch, mentioned last year, continued to go from strength to strength, and assembled a team of contributors. Later on, one or two dropped by the wayside, and Stonch himself became fully occupied with a troubleshooting role in Manchester, but it continues to stimulate much discussion. Beer blogging itself seems to continue to wither on the vine. I’m likely to record my lowest tally of posts since 2007, which was only a half-year, and it looks as though Tandleman will do the same. I blame Twitter!

    I was also pleased to see long-time commenter Martin Taylor set up his own blog to record his travels around the country in pursuit of visiting every Good Beer Guide listed pub. This is a thoughtful, well-written blog that conveys a strong sense of place. It was also good to meet Martin on our local CAMRA branch’s annual Hillgate Stagger.

  • Unintended consequence – there was a huge amount of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in the twitter- and blogospheres over the news that ABInBev had bought well-regarded London craft brewery Camden Town. And I must claim some responsibility for this. A couple of weeks before, I bought a can of their India Hells Lager from Booths, and thought it was rather good, if pricey. As is well known, any beer that Mudgie enjoys can’t really be regarded as proper hardcore craft, so that must have been the signal for the vultures to swoop.

  • Best public policy – as last year, George Osborne’s decision to make a third small cut in beer duty, and indeed freeze all other alcohol duties. Combined with the economic recovery, this has made a noticeable difference to the level of trade in pubs, which must be welcomed. If the duty escalator had continued for three more years, the typical pint would probably be at least 30p dearer.

  • Most cheering news – the decisive rejection by the European Court of Justice of the Scottish government plans to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol. It’s not completely dead, but I’d be surprised if it sprang back to life, and this will also set a precedent that will affect similar proposals in Ireland. Maybe Cameron should throw down the gauntlet to Sturgeon and devolve alcohol duties to Scotland. I’d lay money they wouldn’t dare vary them, even if they had the power.

  • Tourist attractionSeaton Delaval Hall, just up the road from the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice mentioned above. A striking, monumental house designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, where the central block was gutted by fire in 1822 and remains a shell, although fully roofed. Just down the road, Tynemouth Castle and Priory are also well worth a visit, with spectacular views over the mouth of the river.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

I’m going to report you!

There are plenty of things that occasionally go on in pubs which are either illegal or in contravention of some code of practice. People are sometimes heard to mutter about this and say “something really needs to be done about it”. So I thought it would be interesting to create a poll to see which of various “pub transgressions” they would personally report to the authorities, the results of which are shown below:

I suspect the results of this have been skewed by it being circulated around some anti-smoking group. I looked at it at one point where there were 52 responses, with a lowish score for “permitting smoking indoors” and either one or zero for “non-conforming smoking shelter”. Then later the same day, the total had shot up to 97, with strong votes for both of those options. So I’d say those results can be discounted and, frankly, if anyone actually reports a pub to the local council for having a non-conforming smoking shelter, let alone someone who claims to support pubs, they should be taken out and shot.

Of the other results, perhaps understandably “allowing drug dealing” was the highest scorer, but next was “consistently serving short measures”, although I wish you luck getting your hard-pressed local trading standards department to show any interest in that. Obviously serving drunk drivers and selling black market spirits also scored strongly, but people seemed much more willing to put up with turning a blind eye to prostitution.

However, as Phil says in the comments, “Interesting question, as it combines two separate things - "do you disapprove of X?" and "would you actually report somebody allowing X?” In practice, if a pub was allowing drug-dealing and prostitution, or full of underage drinkers, most people would probably just take their custom elsewhere. For most of the other things, if they liked the pub on other counts, they would be most likely to mutter into their beer but put up with it. One pub near me used to illegally show City matches when they were on at 3pm on Saturday afternoons. Now, I’d rather they didn’t, and I would avoid it on such occasions, but I wouldn’t dream of telling Sky.

In reality, the only circumstances under which I can see people reporting any of these things to the relevant authorities are if they had a grudge against the pub in question or wanted to settle a score. In general, British people have always been suspicious of vigilantism and informing on neighbours, especially now when the State seems to want to intrude ever further into our daily lives.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Entering into the spirit of things

Over recent years, the rise of craft beer has been paralleled by a similar growth in craft spirits, with new distilleries springing up for the first time in many years, and existing ones coming out with new variations on their established products. The craft beer scene has also seen a number of companies offering the chance to try something new by sending people a “curated” selection of beers each month. I was interested to hear about a company called Flaviar – based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, of all places – providing a similar service for spirits.

They were kind enough to send me one of their initial tasting packs for review – these can be bought individually here. It came in an attractive presentation pack:

Which, once opened, revealed five elegant 45ml miniature flasks.

They were all different varieties of whisk(e)y, as it combines familiarity with an unparalleled variety, and is thus a good introduction to tasting spirits that go beyond the everyday. The selection comprised:

  • Amrut Indian Single Malt (46% ABV)
  • Koval Single Barrel Millet Whiskey (Chicago) (40% ABV)
  • Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (46% ABV)
  • Santis Cask Strength Peated (Switzerland) (52% ABV)
  • Writer’s Tears Irish Pot Still Whiskey (40% ABV)
The pack also includes suggestions on how to organise a tasting session, and detailed notes on each of the five whiskies.

For some reason, the Indian one did not appeal to my particular tastebuds, but all the others were excellent and underlines just how much diversity there is across different styles of whisky. My favourite was the Glenmorangie, a rich and complex expression of that distillery’s characteristic Northern Highland character, and I was also very struck by the heavily peated Swiss whisky which would not have disgraced an Islay distillery.

One minor quibble is that the smooth-sided caps on the flasks may look smart but can be a little hard to unscrew.

Their key offering is their Prime service, under which you will receive a tasting pack of three different spirits each month, costing £14.99 for the first month, and then £18.99 a month. If you find one that you like, then you can order a full bottle with free shipping. The prices start at around £30, which is much the same as you would pay for a good-quality malt in the shops, but rise to well over £100. The listing also includes some very tempting-sounding drams. As well as whisky, it also covers brandy, gin, vodka, tequila and absinthe. Gift packs are also available for various periods of time, starting at £37.99 for two months.

The whole thing sounds an excellent idea for anyone who is interested in trying a much wider variety of spirits without risking a lot of money on full-size bottles that may turn out to be disappointing. It certainly doesn’t come cheap but, as with many other things, quality is worth paying for.

And no, before you ask, I didn’t drink them all in one session!

Tuesday 8 December 2015

‘Tis the season to be unimaginative

The run-up to Christmas invariably sees brewers bringing out a rash of special seasonal beers. Most of these seem to follow a common blueprint:
  1. The name must be a bad pun on “Elf”, “Sleigh”, “Santa”, “Rudolph” etc.
  2. Names relating to “Santa’s Sack” or “Jingle Balls” are best avoided unless you want to fall foul of Pumpclip Parade
  3. The beer should be a touch darker than a normal bitter, but definitely not opaque
  4. The strength should be in a range from 4.0% to 4.3% as drinkers must not be encouraged to over-indulge
  5. Any hop character should be dialled down to a minimum, although a tiny hint of cinnamon or nutmeg may be allowed
The result is a selection of distinctly samey and underwhelming beers, and it’s even worse when you go into a pub and find that, to enter into the Christmas spirit, they have four of them on the bar and nothing else.

Praise must go to Shepherd Neame for their splendid – and pun-free – Christmas Ale, which, at 7.0% ABV, doesn’t pussyfoot around, especially given that it comes in a 500ml bottle. (The cask version, as so often, is a rather more humdrum 5.0%)

I’ve also got a bottle of BrewDog Santa Paws “Christmas Scotch Ale” to sample over the festive period, which sounds intriguing, although as usual only a 330ml.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Catastrophe north of the Border

And no, it’s not the closure of the Forth Bridge, it’s the effect on the licensed trade of last year’s reduction of the drink-drive limit, which has recently seen its first anniversary. I won’t say “celebrated” as it’s not something remotely worthy of celebration. The Morning Advertiser site doesn’t allow you to cut and paste, but this summary of the effects makes grim reading.

As I’ve said before, feel free to support this in England and Wales. But don’t pretend it won’t have a devastating effect on the pub trade. The supposed “pub campaigners” who favour this are in the same category as the useful idiots who didn’t think the smoking ban would have a negative impact on pubs. If you actually want to support pubs you need to accept them, warts and all.

Saturday 5 December 2015

The great divide

I recently reported how my local Tesco Extra had taken the axe to its beer offer, removing several lines that I regularly bought. So I thought “well, I’ll have to look elsewhere”, and an obvious choice was the Hale Barns branch of upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths, which opened earlier this year. All praise to Booths for having the finest range of beers of any supermarket, and at prices that maybe are a bit higher than Tesco, but still well below specialist beer off-licences. My only slight complaint is that it would nice to add a Münchner Helles to their German selection.

There’s a particularly stark divide between the Premium Bottled Ales in 500ml bottles, and the Craft Beers in 330ml bottles. They’re even on different sides of the beer fixture, and possibly some shoppers only look at one and ignore the other. It’s always been the case that there was a cut-off point somewhere, beyond which it became more appropriate to put beers into the smaller bottles. You wouldn’t really want a 500ml bottle of Old Tom, although you can get one of Lees’ 6.5% ABV Moonraker. This is something I discussed here, although it was clear from the results that there was a distinct lack of consensus.

However, it now seems that putting your beer into 330ml bottles, regardless of strength, has become a defining symbol of being “craft”, and sets you apart from all the boring brown beers that old men drink. It seems to be something, like much else of “craft”, that has been borrowed from US practice, where 355ml bottles and cans are the norm. I spotted this a couple of years ago, and since then it has become even more marked. Harviestoun, who have been established as a micro brewery for many years, have recently switched their Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion, respectively 4.2% and 4.8%, to the smaller size. Apparently Thornbridge, who are very “craft”, are going to do the same next year. A benefit to the brewers may be that they get to sell 330ml bottles for about the same price as the 500ml ones.

I’ve been drinking beer for nearly forty years and, while I may sometimes drink halves when driving or on a pub crawl, I always feel that a pint is the proper size glass for most beers in the pub. Likewise, if I’m settling down at home to watch the latest Inspector Lewis mystery or a documentary about Gallipoli, the best equivalent is a 500ml bottle poured into a brim-measure pint glass (which is about as much beer as you get in some pub pints anyway). This isn’t because I’m a pisshead, it’s because it’s what I’m used to and feels natural. It brings to mind this splendid rant by Mark Dexter about “silly child-size bottles”. Also, while I’ve accumulated a wide selection of beer glasses over the years, apart from a couple of cherished Belgian ones, I don’t really have any that are suitable for 330ml. Either you pour it into a half-pint and then top it up, which isn’t much use if it’s bottle-conditioned, or it’s lost in a pint glass.

This increasingly rigid demarcation comes across as unhelpful and divisive. Brewers should not feel obliged to declare themselves as being in one particular camp, and drinkers may be losing out by not even considering something from the “other side”. I’ve had a few of the “craft” offerings, but generally only to see what all the fuss about particular beers was about. I also know that I don’t really much like intensely hoppy US-style IPAs, so I tend to avoid those. I recently enjoyed a can of Camden India Hells, which claims to be a lager/IPA hybrid, but the Munich Oktoberfest beers of similar strength are always sold in 500ml bottles. And it would be nice to get some proper big cans of the normal Camden Hells and BrewDog’s This.Is.Lager.

As an aside, the same doesn’t really apply to pubs, as you have the option of draught pints, and bottled beers in pubs tend to be the stronger specials where the smaller bottle may be appropriate. But I think the last bottled or canned beer I drank in a pub was one of the Sixpoint cans in Wetherspoons when they were on special offer.