Sunday 30 October 2016

Fear of the dark

There has recently been a debate in the columns of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing about whether pubs should make more effort to stock dark beers. On the one hand it is argued that, if pubs have eight or more handpumps, they could allocate one or two of them to dark beers to provide more stylistic variety. But, on the other hand, there is no point in stocking beers that don’t sell and, while you can lead a dark horse to beer, you can’t make him drink it.

This is exemplified by this letter in the November edition from Paul Hurditch, licensee of the Star in Glossop, a long-standing Good Beer Guide entry.

As he says, he’s made the effort to put dark beers on, but his customers don’t want to drink them. That is simply commercial reality – you offer the types of beer that your customers want. I’ve complained more than once myself over the years about pubs with eight beers that are all variations on the same theme, but sadly it’s a fact of life. Often it’s hard enough to find a brown beer, let alone a dark one.

I’ve spoken to several licensees of family brewer pubs who have told me that they tend to pass on any dark beers in the brewery’s seasonal range, as they simply don’t sell. And it’s always very noticeable at the end of Stockport Beer Festival that most of the beers left over are dark ones.

There is a widely-held belief that dark beers tend to be on the stronger side, which isn’t by any means always the case, but does deter people from drinking them. And all dark beers are not the same – there is a clear division between roasty, strong-flavoured stouts and porters, and sweeter, more mellow milds and old ales. Some drinkers try to avoid those roasty notes, while others will run a mile at the thought of anything with a chestnut flavour, let alone reminiscent of Christmas pudding.

I have to say I tend to prefer the more mellow side, and I have fond memories of drinking the distinctive old ales that used to be produced by breweries in the South-East such as Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. These typically had a strength of around 4.3 or 4.4%, so it was easy to drink a pint or two, but they still had a rich flavour and a touch of winter warmth about them. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much brewed in that kind of category nowadays.

Yes, it would be good to see more dark beers on the bar. But all dark beers are not the same, and it has to be recognised that their absence is not due to a lack of imagination of the part of licensees, but to customer preference.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Accessible or appetising?

A claim made more than once by egregious blogtroll “py” is that heavily-hopped New World-style IPAs are much more “accessible” than conventional British bitters. On the face of it, this seems an absurd proposition, as surely the blander a beer is, and the more it lacks strong, distinctive flavours, the more accessible it becomes.

In these terms, the ultimate entry-level beer must be a very light, bland lager such as Bud Light. There may not be much to appeal to the tastebuds, but there’s nothing to offend them either. While beers such as Doom Bar and Greene King IPA are often dismissed as bland, I’d say all ales have a slightly “rough” or “dirty” edge to them, which appeals to many, but stands in contrast to the cleanness of lagers. This is what in the past led to some fastidious people saying that they just didn’t like the taste of beer.

However, as explained in this blogpost by Boak & Bailey, there is a different way of looking at it. The sheer absence of offputting flavours may seem to some an absence of anything to actually appeal to the tastebuds. A beer may not be actively unpleasant, but on the other hand may have nothing to recommend it, and thus not appeal to people seeking distinctive, characterful flavours.

I said in the comments:

I’ve never got this about heavily-hopped IPAs being “accessible”. To my mind, it’s like putting forward Laphroaig as an “entry-level” whisky.
To which someone replied:
Funnily enough when I read your comment I was already planning to post exactly that: that for some people Laphroaig really is an entry level whisky.

My sister for one. She had tried other whiskies and not liked them much. Not hated them, but not liked them either and couldn’t see any reason to drink them when there are so many other drinks to choose them. And then she had a taste of Laphroaig and went wow! and has never looked back. Now she also appreciates more subtle whiskies, although I think Islay ones are still her favourites.

The point is, you can’t assume that blander things are more accessible. Sometimes a strong and/or unusual flavour can get people interested.

So, on those terms, it’s reasonable enough to argue that it’s powerful flavours that can get some people to understand the appeal of beer, or whisky, whereas more muted ones have passed them by. It’s like saying “I never got cheese until I tried a really ripe Stilton”. But it’s an entirely different kind of attraction from being unchallenging or easy-drinking, and the two shouldn’t be conflated.

And I still cannot understand how some people can claim that enamel-stripping IPAs with massive IBUs are actually sweet to the palate. But they do.

Friday 28 October 2016

Moor to taste

I recently posted about CAMRA giving accreditation as “real ale” to can-conditioned beers produced by Moor Brewery. Now, the point of this post was to express a degree of scepticism about the concept, and the message that this put across, rather than making a judgment on the beers themselves. However, inevitably someone said “how can you criticise something you haven’t tried?”, to which I rather cheekily replied that if Moor would send me some samples for me taste I would give a considered verdict. To their credit, Darran McLaughlin from Moor took me up on this and duly despatched a selection of six cans – of course child-sized 330ml “craft cans”.

His tasting and storage recommendations were: “Just let them sit in the fridge for a couple of hours. I drink them straight from the can because you don't get much sediment, but if you like you could pour carefully. I would pour a light one out fully so you can see that sediment isn't a problem.” However, I wanted to see what the initial level of clarity would be, and how it would be affected by storage.

The first I tried was the 4.1% Nor’Hop, which I drank only a couple of days after receiving the package, and poured the whole contents into the glass. This is a very pale beer with an assertive “New World” hoppiness. Having had little chance to settle, it was distinctly cloudy and, to be honest, very yeasty in flavour.

The 4.6% Confidence I donated to the raffle at the local CAMRA branch meeting, so can’t comment on flavour or clarity. Despite being accredited as “real ale in a can”, it met with a somewhat derisory reception.

The remaining four I allowed to settle for at least ten days, and poured very carefully to ensure I did my best to leave any remaining yeast in the can. I was able to pour them all with no more than a slight haze (although none were crystal clear) and all had sufficient carbonation to suggest that a secondary fermentation may well have taken place in the can.

These were:

  • Return of the Empire (5.7%) – a strong IPA with an aggressive, hoppy character.

  • Smokey Horyzon (5.0%) – a rye beer with a smooth palate and an intriguing flavour deriving from the use of smoked malts.

  • Revival (3.8%) – a lighter pale ale, still fairly bitter and hoppy, although less assertively so than the Nor’Hop and Return of the Empire.

  • Raw (4.3%) – a darker beer, more like a traditional bitter, although still with a hoppy edge, and rather more carbonation than the Revival.
Of these, the Smokey Horyzon was definitely my favourite, and probably the only one for which I would fork out my own money in the off-licence. The Raw wasn’t bad either, but the other three I tasted weren’t really my sort of thing.

The exercise demonstrated that, if given a decent time to settle and poured with care, these beers could be served with no more than a slight haze, and underlined (which I had never questioned) that Moor were accomplished brewers capable of turning out a quality product.

However, the whole issue of clarity cannot just be ignored. In the context of draught beer, Ed Wray gives a fairly thorough overview of the issues here, and the point is made that, once you accept *some* degree of haziness, where do you then draw the line as to when it becomes too much?

When it comes to bottled and canned beer, some people seem to dismiss out of hand any concerns that yeasty beer may have an adverse effect on the digestive tract. But these are far too common for them simply to be waved away, and I have to say on several occasions throughout my drinking career I have experienced unfortunate consequences from ropey beer. OK, you may have cast-iron guts, but many others don’t. I have nothing against bottle-conditioned beers, and recognise that at their best, especially at higher strengths, they can be superior to brewery-conditioned ones. But, at their worst, they can be far inferior, and I’d say the ability to pour them clear with confidence is essential.

For this reason, I’d say the whole idea of can-conditioned beer is a flawed concept, nay even a daft gimmick. They fail to meet the reasonable expectation of most canned beer drinkers that they’ll be able to get a clear glass of beer without any waiting period, and they make it far more difficult for the connoisseur of container-conditioned beers to be able to pour them clear and leave the yeast in the bottom.

They’re not intrinsically poor beers, but they’d be far better presented in bottle, and to my mind CAMRA undermines its reputation by giving its seal of approval to them.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Curtains for choice

Over the past nine years, I’ve often found myself cast in the role of Cassandra for predicting that the restrictions imposed on tobacco will increasingly be applied to alcohol. And, to be honest, while various measures have been mooted, in practice surprisingly little has actually happened.

But one measure that certain comes straight out of the tobacco control playbook is the proposal in Ireland to severely restrict the display of alcohol in shops. While in large supermarkets this may amount to nothing more than confining alcohol to a discrete section where children are not admitted, in small corner shops it will effectively add up to covering products with curtains or shutters in the same way as now applies to tobacco.

The ostensible reason given is the protection of children from the awful sight of bottles and cans of strong drink, but surely there’s also an underlying hope that it may curb adult consumption by making alcoholic drinks less visible. I’d say that’s very questionable, as if people want a drink, they’ll buy one, and in recent years we’ve seen declining overall consumption at the same time as alcohol has become more visible in shops and also spread to more outlets such as petrol stations.

But one thing it will do is the change the nature of the marketplace. Currently, you will survey the products available on the shelves and often, if you see something new that looks interesting, give it a try. You may already have seen advertising for that product, but you probably haven’t. If you have to ask for a product by name, or ask the shopkeeper to raise the shutter to view the shelves, you’re much less likely to do that, and more likely to end up asking for a familiar name simply because it’s easier.

This will very much stifle innovation and new product development, which should be of particular concern to sectors such as craft beer which to a large extent depend on variety and refreshing the range rather than just selling the same old stuff. Imagine trying to launch a new cigarette brand under the current regime – it would be simply impossible, and so the market ends up ossifying in the form it had before the restrictions came in.

And can we be sure there won’t be moves to apply similar curbs to the display of alcoholic drinks in pubs, at least those where children are admitted?

On a related note, it’s worth noting that the Irish Republic is also planning to introduce a minimum alcohol price of €1 per unit. At current exchange rates this is not far off double the 50p/unit proposed in Scotland. If applied in the UK, this would start to cut into the bottom end of the range of pub prices (think of those 6% real ales in Spoons after applying the 50p CAMRA discount) although, as prices are generally higher in Ireland, it probably wouldn’t quite manage it there.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Character or clutter?

The early days of CAMRA saw a reaction against the “plush pub”, with its deep-pile carpeting and expanses of red dralon upholstery. Thus was born the “bare boards alehouse”, which before too long became a feature of most major towns and cities. It was in keeping with the back-to-basics, rustic ethos of the real ale revival. The concept was even taken up by the big breweries, most notably in the form of Whitbread’s ill-fated “Tut & Shive” chain. It’s a theme that is still common, especially in independently-run free houses.

But there comes a point where plain and unvarnished starts to morph into plain tatty, and sometimes you wonder whether it’s simply because the owners can’t be bothered to apply a bit of polish. And, if they can’t keep the pub spick-and-span, what does that say about the cellar? I have to say on more than one occasion I’ve suffered beer redolent of a lack of line cleaning in scruffy “alternative” pubs.

Things get even worse when pubs start to accumulate collections of what some would regard as interesting memorabilia, but which others would simply dismiss as tat. It’s a danger sign once assorted stuff starts to spread from shelves and window ledges on to the seats themselves. I’ve hinted before how my trip earlier this year to the legendary drinking nirvana of Thanet didn’t quite live up to expectations, and one GBG-listed pub in particular came across as more like the private home of an eccentric hoarder.

Sometimes, as with the famous Yew Tree at Cauldon, it can work and add genuine individuality and character to a pub. But there’s one well-known free house in the North-West, which I won’t name, where the general accumulation of mostly WW2-related artefacts starts to obstruct the seating and access to the bar and, to my mind, goes too far. It just comes across as messy and tatty, and you have to wonder whether it’s ever cleaned or dusted.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Back from the dead

Off-trade drinkers in Scotland will have been dismayed by the recent verdict from the Scottish courts that minimum alcohol pricing may indeed, contrary to a previous EU judgment, be legal. The issue is well summed up by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb and there’s very little that I can add.

It’s almost certain that there will be an appeal to the Supreme Court, but if the verdict is overturned it will inevitably be seen by the SNP as another example of Westminster interfering in Scotland’s affairs. It’s richly ironic that, while the SNP continue to have a love affair with the EU, its trade rules stood in the way of their flagship policy.

It’s worth pointing out that a 50p per unit minimum price would affect the majority of alcohol sold in the off-trade, in volume terms. It certainly isn’t something targeted at a small minority of unusually cheap drinks, as often suggested.

To be honest, part of me rather wants the Scots to go through with it and find out the hard way what a damaging and counter-productive policy it would be. It would do nothing to curb problem drinking while encouraging criminal activity in the form of bootlegging.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

An acceptable method?

While CAMRA formally champions bottle-conditioned beer, I’ve long gained the impression that a lot of people who promote it don’t properly appreciate what it entails. They seem to think that it involves an unfiltered, unpasteurised bottled beer, probably a bit hazy, with a low level of carbonation and a layer of sludge in the bottom. But nothing could be further from the truth. As the name implies, it’s a beer that actually enjoys a secondary fermentation in the bottle and, I’d say, many British so-called bottle-conditioned beers don’t experience this.

Earlier this year, I discussed how most Belgian bottle-conditioned beers managed to achieve this quality. A beer that actually has conditioned in the bottle will be distinctly fizzy, typically with a dense, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising in the glass, albeit with a finer grade of bubbles than those produced by artificial carbonation.

Someone was recently comparing bottle-conditioned beers with sparkling wines made by the méthode champenoise, which involves conditioning in the bottle. Now, I have to say I didn’t really understand what this involves, so I looked it up. Do you know? I bet you don’t.

Apparently it’s no longer permitted to describe it as the méthode champenoise, as it involves the addition of a small amount of “outside” wine, so it’s now called the méthode traditionelle. But the essence is still the same. The bottles are stored on their side, with the top at a slightly lower level, so that the lees accumulate at the end where the cap is. Eventually, the cap is removed, the lees extracted, and the bottle recorked, resulting in a bottle of fizzy, but crystal clear, wine.

Would that be acceptable as a method of production for bottle-conditioned beer? And, if you don’t think it would be, aren’t you rather missing the point?

It seems that some people have experimented with beers given an in-bottle fermentation using the méthode champenoise style, but so far they don’t really seem to have caught on. Possibly the cost is a deterrent, because it's a rather labour-intensive process.

Monday 17 October 2016

Reality bites

For a long time, there has been a widespread view that craft beer happily floated along on a higher moral plane, where animosity and cut-throat competition were unknown. You know, “beer people are good people” and all that. However, there have recently been one or two uncomfortable incursions of harsh commercial reality.

Boak & Bailey have reported that some smaller brewers are complaining about the competition provided by “well-funded, trendy” brewers such as Cloudwater. And Matt Curtis has bemoaned that the craft beer market has succumbed to prince competition in a race to the bottom.

I’ve said before that I have little sympathy for brewers who find themselves exposed to the harsh winds of competition. The world doesn’t owe anyone a living and, to succeed, you need to be good at business, not just good at brewing.

And I fail to see how Cloudwater can be considered to be doing anything remotely immoral or underhand. As I said in the comments on Boak & Bailey:

I’m certainly no cheerleader for Cloudwater, but they have built up their reputation through producing well-made, innovative beers that people actually want to drink – surely the recipe for success in the craft beer market. The fact that it was brewed by Cloudwater would make it more likely that I would sample something unusual, simply because I’d be confident they’d done a good job of it.

There seems to be a large element of “tall poppy syndrome” about all of this. I’m not aware that Cloudwater beers are particularly cheap (indeed often the opposite), nor that they are engaging in loss-leading. Competition can be a harsh mistress.

Surely the fact that price competition and discounting have reared their ugly heads is a sign of maturity in the craft beer market – that it is reaching out to sections of the population who would previously only have considered mainstream beers. Every consumer market manages to sustain discount, middle-of-the-road and premium segments, and beer is no exception. Any fears that an outbreak of competition will end up devaluing the quality of high-end craft beers are misplaced. But it may expose more people to different and better beers than otherwise might have been the case.

Friday 14 October 2016

Squalour and grandeur

I’ve mentioned before that I often tend to use CAMRA’s National Inventory as a kind of informal Mudgie pub guide. By definition, every pub on it has a distinctive interior of historic character. Many of the featured pubs are splendid establishments in their own right, in terms of character and atmosphere and, in my experience, most are rewarding places to visit.

While I’m not turning into an NI ticker, this year I’ve made a bit of an effort to visit some of the featured pubs within reach of me that I had previously missed. And it has to be said that one or two have turned out to be places that, setting aside their undoubted historic character, you really wouldn’t go out of your way to visit as pubs.

You can’t necessarily blame the people in charge of them, as they may be in rather unpromising locations for running a pub in the present-day climate, and I’m certainly not going to name names, although if you follow my travels on Twitter you may have gained some idea.

I wrote here about how some magnificent 1930s improved pubs “linger on as rather down-at-heel locals which rather give the impression of barbarians playing amongst the awesome ruins of Ancient Rome”. And it’s a salutary reminder that the National Inventory, while it will lead you to many excellent pubs, is not a cast-iron guarantee of quality.

A perfect match?

I’ve never been a great enthusiast for the concept of beer and food matching, but when offered the chance to try a Spanish beer especially brewed to complement Spanish ham I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

The beer in question is La Virgen Jamonera, distributed in the UK by Basco Fine Foods. It came in an elegant brown 330ml bottle and was accompanied by a pack of dry-cured Serrano ham. It’s a bottle-conditioned beer, so I allowed it to settle for three days before sampling. Pouring it carefully, I managed to keep most of the sediment in the bottle, resulting in only a slight haze.

The beer is mid-brown in colour, with little noticeable aroma. It had moderate carbonation and only a small head, although it retained this down the glass. The flavour is malty and rounded with only a subdued hop character.

It’s a pleasant, mellow beer that, to be honest, doesn’t really stand out as being hugely distinctive, although having said that, its restrained character makes it a better match for ham than something more overpowering.

I’m not really sure of the correct vocabulary to describe ham, but it was certainly very tasty, coming in wafer-thin individual slices separated by thin plastic sheets.

The company also supply Cerveza Er Boqueron, a saltwater beer specially brewed to complement anchovies, another traditional Spanish delicacy.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Getting out of the house

Go into any town-centre Wetherspoons in the late morning or at lunchtime, and you’ll see a number of tables occupied by middle-aged or elderly men, sitting on their own, typically drinking a pint of John Smith’s, reading the Daily Mirror or the Sun, with a bit of shopping in a plastic carrier bag. This may seem like a sad indictment of loneliness and isolation in our society but, looking at it the other way, what would they be doing if they weren’t there? Probably sitting at home alone with a can watching daytime TV.

This illustrates how, even at a very low level, pubs can contribute to providing a social outlet and alleviating loneliness. Last Monday was World Mental Health Day. I’m not sure whether the two were connected, but Matthew Lawrenson wrote very perceptively about how his trips to the pub help him cope with life:

By this point, I'm sure you're wondering "Then why does he go out at all?" Fairly easy to answer. If you have recurrent mental health problems, being stuck in the middle of the same walls, seeing the same things and listening to the same sounds over and over and over again, well, it does your head in, basically. If you stay in your house too long, it's well documented that mood gradually lowers and you become isolated and less able to function in the world when it confronts you.
And RedNev added:
I live alone and if I don't leave the house for two consecutive days, I feel hemmed in. I was declared surplus from my last job and was retired early, so I don't even have the social interaction of the workplace during weekdays. Isolation isn't good for anyone.

Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer. Try talking to strangers in a café or restaurant and see what reaction you get. Actually, just try lingering too long in a café over one coffee without speaking to anyone and you may get suspicious looks, perhaps even be told to move on. This doesn't usually happen in a pub.

Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.

Things could be improved if Tim Martin changed the design of his pubs somewhat so that they were more compartmentalised, and the chairs faced into the centre of each area, providing more of an opportunity for customers to interact with each other. And you can see this in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, where from opening time each lunchtime there will be a fair number of customers, mostly older men who are retired or on disability, who clearly see it as a kind of social club and engage in various kinds of inconsequential banter. On weekday lunchtimes, the two Sam Smith’s pubs and the Wetherspoons will probably contain far more customers than all the rest of the pubs in the town centre combined.

The smoking ban dealt this kind of trade a substantial blow, as the bloke who saw enjoying a smoke as an essential part of relaxing in the pub may have stopped going, and his non-smoking friend who enjoyed his company may then have been deterred too. And it’s not something that pub-owners really want to encourage, hence the trend for wall-to-wall dining or replacing benches with posing tables that are a challenge for creaky joints.

But the importance of pubs in giving people some kind of social outlet, however limited, cannot be underestimated. Yes, old blokes sitting on their own in the pub may seem sad. But it’s helping to alleviate a greater sadness.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Turn the old man over

The argument is often made that, while we have lost many traditional pubs, they have to some extent been replaced by new-style bars. I’ve always thought that was a very questionable proposition, especially given that the new bars don’t tend to be the locations where the pubs have closed. It’s well worth repeating what I said back in October 2011:

For a start, the bars aren’t opening in the places where pubs have closed. In fact, they’re very much concentrated in middle-class urban enclaves. There may be a cluster in Chorlton, but they’re not spread evenly across the board. In recent years, the large Cheshire village of Helsby has lost two of its four pubs. Are there any new bars to replace them? What do you think? It’s not much use if you have to go eight miles down the road to Chester to find one.

Most of these new bars are targeted at the younger end of the market and have little to offer the more mature pubgoer. They don’t have the across-the-board appeal of proper pubs. And, although there are some honourable exceptions, most offer nothing of interest on the beer front. What is more, how can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees? Most will be fly-by-night operations with a limited lifespan and no continuity.

Realistically, the idea that the growth of new bars offers any kind of adequate replacement for closed pubs, except in very limited circumstances, is absurd. Chorlton is not representative of the rest of the world, and is very much the exception.

And I still entirely stand by that five years later. There has continued to be a steady movement between the two, with more and more proper pubs closing down, but trendy bars opening up in areas of high concentration.

There was a recent debate sponsored by the British Guild of Beer Writers where the proposition was “Are traditional pubs losing their relevance?” As shown in this report from What’s Brewing, CAMRA national director Andy Shaw certainly argued that café-bars were no substitute for community pubs.

There’s another aspect to it. A pub is something that is immediately identifiable and conveys a distinct body language that it somewhere that is genuinely open to all. See a Red Lion or a Coach & Horses and you instantly know what it is. Of course some pubs can be unwelcoming to strangers, but by and large this holds true.

On the other hand, with a new-style bar, you really don’t know what to expect, and the casual customer may well be deterred. Some, such as the Chiverton Tap in Cheadle Hulme, do put across the body language of “pub”, but all too many don’t. If you had just chanced upon it, would someone looking for “a pub” really go in a place called “Mary and Archie”? If there is a feeling that there is likely to be a narrow age range or a cliquey atmosphere, they can hardly be said to encourage community cohesion and ward off loneliness.

And CAMRA branches – to their shame – have started putting these new, trendy bars in the Good Beer Guide in place of proper pubs. Maybe it’s time for CAMRA to start practising what it preaches about community pubs.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Worlds apart

This week sees the latest annual IndyManBeerCon held in Victoria Baths in Manchester. Tempting as it might be, I have no intention of having a go at this, as Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards fame has skewered it perfectly here, and also here last year. But it must be said that it epitomises pretty much everything that passes me by in the world of beer and pubs – the relentless pursuit of extremes in strength, flavour and price, and the total disconnection from the experience of the ordinary drinker. It is the Beer Bubble encapsulated.

It’s hard to see that it has much, if any, connection with the world of National Inventory listings, cosy wood-panelled snugs, sleeping pub cats, Spoons vouchers, darts trophies, old boys’ banter, fish tanks, Draught Bass and OBB and boarded-up pubs. Not to mention sports TV and family dining!

I’ve argued here that it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone to be interested in everything, even though an accusatory finger is often pointed in the direction of those who dare to yawn at the Latest Cool Thing. But it cuts both ways – recently I sang the praises of a wonderful traditional pub in Somerset, only for someone to complain that its beer range consisted of “four bitters”. The horror! And just imagine the existential crisis if expected to drink in a place that only offers one bitter!

So perhaps it would be best if the organisers admitted it was just a jolly for well-heeled middle-class crafties that really has no relevance to the experience of the ordinary pubgoer or beer drinker in Britain today, and certainly does not represent the vanguard of some revolutionary beer movement. Nothing against it, just not for me. And the question must be asked whether these two very different worlds can or should be accommodated within the same big tent.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Can this be for real?

Eyebrows were raised last week at the news that CAMRA had given accreditation as “real ale” to can-conditioned beers from Moor Brewery in Bristol. While this may on the face of it sound surprising, given that CAMRA is happy to recognise bottle-conditioned beers as “real ale”, it is entirely consistent to do the same to beer that still contains live yeast, but just happens to be in a different kind of container.

However, the fact that cans, unlike bottles, are opaque is a significant drawback. With a bottle, you can check that the yeast has settled to the bottom, and then pour it carefully to ensure it doesn’t get in the glass and you end up with a clear drink. However, with a can, you simply can’t do that, so you have to trust to time and as to whether the yeast has settled, and depend on very precise timing to minimise the amount that ends up in the glass. For this reason, regardless of the inherent merits of the container, I’d say cans are not an appropriate medium for container-conditioned packaged beers.

Of course, you may not be much concerned with clarity in the first place, and Justin Hawke of Moor is well known as holding the view that too much importance is given to clarity in beer in the first place. Some, of course, might argue that’s just a case of claiming a defect as a feature, and, overall, cloudy or hazy beer is something the vast majority of beer drinkers actively avoid. Especially with a can, there’s a reasonable expectation that the contents will be crystal clear. Maybe a big warning notice is needed.

There’s also a possible question mark as to whether there actually is a genuine secondary fermentation in the can. Just having a bit of yeast in suspension doesn’t ensure that. Some US imported cans, such as the Sixpoint Bengali sold in Wetherspoons, are cloudy, but they don’t claim to be can-conditioned. And, realistically, is the CAMRA imprimatur going to make any difference to whether or not people drink it?

I’ve always maintained that it was an error of judgment for CAMRA to take the view that the relationship between bottle- and brewery-conditioned packaged beers was the equivalent of that between cask- and brewery-conditioned draught. For very good reasons, bottle-conditioning in the UK had largely died out decades earlier, and wasn’t in any sense a live tradition worthy of preservation, as cask was. In the 1970s, with the off-trade only accounting for a small proportion of overall beer sales, it didn’t matter all that much, but the effect today is to dismiss as unworthy of consideration many beers of high quality, while encouraging small brewers to produce inconsistent and hard-to-handle bottle-conditioned beers that are guaranteed to deter the ordinary drinker.

Yes, in these terms, can-conditioned beers do quality as “real”, but it’s very hard to see the early members of CAMRA from the 1970s being remotely comfortable that the organisation has ended up giving the seal of approval to kegs and cans. To quote George Orwell from Animal Farm, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Sunday 2 October 2016

A matter of choice

Although we have a lot fewer pubs than we used to, and we’re drinking a lot less, we’re often told we enjoy a much greater choice of beer. On a superficial level, with far more breweries and more individual beer brands, that’s a statement of the obvious. But, in practice, is it really so clear-cut?

“Choice” is rather like “Peace” as something you can’t really argue with, but for it to actually make a difference, people have to be in a position to exercise choice between different options for which there is a genuine demand. There is also an element of diminishing returns. Two beers versus one represent an infinite increase in choice, and four is twice as much again. But you can only drink one beer at once, and it’s doubtful whether an increase from 1000 breweries to 1500 makes any meaningful difference to the choice available in the market. We also frequently hear complaints about why there is any need for supermarkets to sell a hundred varieties of breakfast cereal.

Choice can’t be considered in isolation without also looking at the degree of market concentration. I’d say a situation where there are 200 products, and the top five command an 80% market share, in practice gives the consumer a lot more options than one where there are 2000 products, but the top five command a 95% market share. And that’s rather how the beer market has moved in recent years. Actual diversity is good, not just a long tail of products with tiny volumes.

There can’t be any doubt that there is far more choice in the off-trade sector, and that overall it is good news for the consumer. Both the number of brands represented, and the variety of beer styles, has hugely increased. The range stocked in the average supermarket would put to shame the cutting-edge independent off-licence of twenty years ago. Partly, of course, it is due to the overall expansion of the off-trade from 10% of the beer market when CAMRA was formed to 50% now, but it’s also a genuine widening of vision and possibilities.

In the on-trade, though, the situation is less clear-cut. There’s an obvious limitation in that most beer drunk in the off-trade is draught, and there’s a trade-off between choice and turnover. There have been plenty of complaints about pubs stocking far more cask beers than they can sell, and it can even become a problem with keg beers, as Wetherspoon’s seemed to find with BrewDog This.Is.Lager.

The keg drinker isn’t likely to feel much expansion of choice, as the various industry upheavals of the past twenty-five years have led to a far greater concentration on a limited range of leading brands. Many smaller-volume keg products, both ale and lager, have fallen by the wayside, and it’s no exaggeration to say that John Smith’s, Carling or Fosters, Stella, Guinness and Strongbow is now the default range for many bottom-end pubs.

For many drinkers, such as those in Broadbottom or Parr, the fact that most of their local pubs have closed down obviously deprives them of much choice in the on-trade. And the decline of the tied house system means that, often, it’s far less obvious exactly what you’re choosing between. Of course there were local monopolies or near-monopolies, but in plenty of areas many different breweries were represented, with distinctive beers and also often styles of pub. Nowadays, beer ranges often seem to converge into one.

It’s arguable whether the option of “ever-changing guest beers” really offers a meaningful choice to the drinker. If you don’t know what you’re going to find until you turn up, then how are you in a position to exercise an informed choice? In effect, “various beers” just becomes a single choice in itself. And being presented with ten variations on the pale’n’hoppy theme doesn’t really offer much variety. It’s like going to the cereal aisle and finding ten different brands of cornflakes.

Yes, of course there are more different beers available now, in a wider range of styles, and the average pub undoubtedly offers more than it did forty years ago. But, in the on-trade at least, “increased choice” isn’t a completely unalloyed benefit.