Wednesday 29 May 2019

Crying over spilt beer

Pete Brown (yes, him again) has recently been complaining in the Morning Advertiser about the poor aesthetic presentation of beer as compared with other drinks. Although this is nothing that hasn’t been going on for decades, he does have something of a point. His core concern is spilt beer, either cascading down the sides of the glass or swilling around on tables.

There can be little doubt that this puts across a poor image. But there’s a very simple remedy in the general introduction of oversized instead of brim-measure glasses for draught beer, which would largely eliminate the problem. They used to be commonplace, but have now pretty much entirely disappeared. However, with oversize glasses inevitably comes the pressure for metered dispense, which would be compelling in busy, high-turnover pubs to avoid routine overmeasure. So be careful what you wish for.

From time to time you read articles about how the presentation of beer in pubs is offputting to women – there’s one in the latest issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing. Often they’re vague as to what exactly they expect to change, but surely one factor in it is brim-measure glasses, which arguably look inelegant compared with wine glasses and are very much prone to spillage.

The issue of beer on tables could of course be easily solved by bringing back beermats, which seem to have been largely absndoned by the more fashionable end of the market on the grounds that they’re old-fashioned.

He also makes a rather odd point about the pump nozzle never touching the beer. Clearly this is impossible with the swan-neck dispense that is now fairly general for cask beer, and I doubt whether it’s completely avoided with any dispense system for keg beers either. To achieve that would require a complete revolution in the way beer is served, which may end up alienating many drinkers.

Of course, in recent years there has been a major improvement in the presentation of beer in pubs with the widespread introduction of specific branded glasses. However, by definition, these are only applicable to major beer brands that are permanent fixtures on the bar, and exclude the constantly rotating guests that are the stock-in-trade of many specialist pubs. But pubs can go some way towards remedying that by producing their own branded glasses with the pub name. Hopefully oversized.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Groundhog Day at the polls

This isn’t an overtly political blog beyond the sphere of lifestyle politics. However, for each major national election, out of interest I’ve run a poll on people’s voting intentions. Five years ago I published the results of the one on the 2014 European Parliament Elections. It’s fair to say that the outcome had been somewhat swayed by rather enthusiastic sharing by other people.

Five years on, and against all expectations following the referendum result, we have another round of European Parliament elections. The results of my poll are shown above – make of them what you will. I’m not aware of this one having been touted around to anything like the same degree. As a comparison, here are the results of one of the final proper opinion polls:

As it is not off-topic on this post, feel free to comment on the political issues, but please be polite and don’t throw a metaphorical milkshake (or brick) at anyone.

Note that I removed For Britain from the options shown in the sidebar, as they did not end up nominating any candidates, which I wasn’t aware of when I originally created the poll.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Bladdered Brits?

Last week, there was a rather odd report claiming that British people were the biggest boozers in the world. This was based on a survey which asked people in 36 different countries how many times they had been “drunk” over the past year. The British came out top with 51 separate occasions, or almost one a week. However, this conflicts with actual statistics on per capita alcohol consumption. These can be worked out in various ways, but always put the UK well down the league table. For example, this table on Wikipedia puts us in twenty-fifth place, with Belarus top, over 50% higher than us.

There are perhaps two explanations for this. The first is that British people have always tended to adopt something of an “all or nothing” approach to alcohol, rather than the “little and often” than is more common in many Continental countries. This has if anything become more marked in recent years. And we also seem to be much more willing to admit, or claim, that we have been drunk than many other countries, and even see it as a desirable objective for a night out. That some of the other leaders are Australia, Canada and the United States, all of which are actually below the UK in the consumption league table, suggests there is a strong cultural element to it.

It also raises the question of how you actually define “drunk”. To my mind it implies one or more of slurring words, unsteady on feet, losing inhibitions, vomiting, becoming loud and aggressive or tearful and maudlin. It’s well beyond just a bit merry or tipsy, and definitely doesn’t just mean “over the legal limit for driving” as sometimes seems to be insinuated. Are people really saying they’re getting in that state once a week and, if they are, shouldn’t they take a long hard look at themselves? Or do they actually see it as just getting through half a bottle of wine or three cans of Punk IPA in an evening?

I’ve certainly had my moments in the past, but I can’t recall a single occasion during the past year when I’ve been in anything like that condition. For example, earlier this month we had a day out in Rugby, during which nine or ten pubs were visited. (I know exactly how many, but not everyone did every pub) Pints weren’t consumed in every pub, but they certainly were in quite a few. But everyone managed to get back to their hotel or catch their train home without any problem, and the conversation, while it might have become a little more forthright, never descended into argument. I wouldn’t say anyone was drunk or anywhere near it.

At the end of the day, this survey doesn’t really convey any worthwhile information: it just serves to reinforce national stereotypes and highlight our collective feeling of guilt and self-loathing about drinking.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

A pinch of salt on your greens

In recent years there has been a growing amount of interest in and media coverage of vegetarian and vegan diets. The impression given is that there’s an ever-increasing number of people taking up one or the other. According to this report in the Guardian, one in three people in Britain have stopped or cut down on eating meat, and no less than one in eight have given it up already. This is something that clearly has significant implications for the catering trade.

However, a recent survey by Yougov, carried out ironically for National Vegetarian Week, acts as a reality check to this and suggests that the actual figures are far lower, with a mere 3% identifying as vegetarians, and only 1% having gone the whole hog of adopting veganism. While that’s a market segment that shouldn’t be ignored, and obviously there’s nothing to stop meat-eaters choosing meat-free dishes, it hardly suggests that it’s something that is about to take the catering world by storm. Maybe people tend to overestimate the level because vegetarians are so keen to tell others about it.

In contrast, according to the poll, 14% describe themselves as “Flexitarians”. Now, one person rather piously explained to me that this meant someone who basically ate a plant and dairy-based diet, but occasionally ate small amounts of meat as a treat. No doubt a few do take that approach, but it’s one of those words that can mean anything you want it to. I’m sure others chose that option because they thought it sounded good and, hey, if I had an egg butty at work and that nice goat’s cheese pizza at Spoons the other day, then I must be a flexitarian. It’s not as if being a meat-eater means you have to include meat in every single meal. We often had dishes like cauliflower cheese and Welsh rarebit when I was a kid. Even if you drink considerably less alcohol, you’re still not a flexi-totaller.

It’s sometimes argued that vegetarian diets are better for the environment because using the intermediary of an animal is a much less efficient means of providing human nutrition than consuming crops grown directly. However, despite huge increases in world population in recent decades, we don’t exactly have a problem feeding people. There is no famine now apart from that caused by war and political mismanagement, and there is more obesity than malnutrition. Plus, much of the world’s land area is unsuited to arable farming, but can be used for grazing animals, which can be used for milk, wool and hides as well as meat. So, while there might be an argument for eating a bit less meat, using grassland for animal husbandry makes a better use of natural resources.

Yes, clearly there’s a place for vegetarian and vegan dishes in the catering trade. But it would be a mistake to bet the farm on it being an ever-growing market segment, just as it would be with alcohol-free beer. And, just as I’ve written in the past about the “beer bubble”, this indicates that there’s a similar “food bubble” inhabited by writers and commentators who breathe a rarefied atmosphere and are largely isolated, except for the occasional patronising sneer, from the culinary experience of ordinary people.

Incidentally, for the benefit those reading this on a mobile, I’ve created a poll in the blog sidebar on voting intentions for the European Parliament elections on Thursday. You can cast your vote here.

Saturday 11 May 2019

The three-pint window

Yesterday I wrote about how there was a fundamental limitation to the extent to which pubs could diversify their offer to attract non-drinkers. Whatever else happens in a pub, drinking alcohol always remains their core purpose, and if it isn’t, they’re no longer pubs.

Although I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote my post, Manchester journalist Tony Naylor has written an article in the Guardian along much the same theme. He was prompted by the opening in Dublin of a “pub” that only serves non-alcoholic drinks. One or two have described the tone of his piece as a touch panicky and defensive, but I would say it rings very true, and those who champion pubs need to be less apologetic about what they’re actually there for.

Of the Irish pub, he wrote:

“Can you lose the booze and keep the craic?” asked the Irish Times rhetorically, to which the only conceivable answer is: no. A fact that, despite reports of the Virgin Mary aiming for a “pub vibe”, Yates implicitly conceded when he told the Guardian: “By 10 o’clock in a [traditional] bar it’s very loud; there can be noise and chaos. Here you can still be having a conversation and still be making sense.”
He also describes how the pub trade has, in reality, taken numerous steps to broaden its offer:
At the same time, the pub trade has proved itself nimble in embracing a world beyond pints. Food has become central to the survival of many pubs, while others host endless activities – comedy and film clubs, mums’n’toddlers’ coffee mornings, psychic nights, karaoke – where alcohol is incidental to your visit, rather than the main draw. Landlords are acutely aware that they cannot survive by serving dwindling numbers of hard-drinking regulars.
However, all these activities only take place on the coat-tails of drinking. Take that away, and the pub becomes a restaurant, a community centre, a coffee shop or a music club. And he sums up very well the essence of what makes pubs special:
Beyond loving the taste of beer, I also love the effects of alcohol, and for what it can do to a pub. I cherish that three-pint window where real life melts away. I love the warmth, the laughter, the life, the random, nonsensical conversations and soft-edged, jovial chaos of full pubs at peak hours. I like the din. I like the revelry. I like a bit of noise and chaos, frankly. And I like the sense of drinkers of often very different backgrounds rubbing along in mutual intoxicated tolerance. In an increasingly atomised society, there is value in that.
Non-drinkers may get a taste of that experience vicariously, but they will never truly live it. However, he concludes:
Could people who aren’t drinking (much) even enjoy that atmosphere, too? Interestingly, according to Nescafé, 77% of supposedly abstemious Generation Z-ers still visit their favourite pub more than once a month. Pubs remain hugely attractive spaces and, undeniably, booze is crucial to their appeal. Cheers to that.

Friday 10 May 2019

Making pubs safe for non-pubgoers

A major problem for the pub trade is the growing proportion of young people who have chosen not to drink alcohol at all. In response to this, a recent report has said that 70% of “Generation Z” believe that the licensed trade needs to make itself “more inviting” to those who do not drink alcohol. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it is sponsored by a coffee company, but it does make an important point.

Clearly it makes commercial sense for pubs to widen their appeal so that they can be more inclusive of non-drinkers. Customers are increasingly likely to consist of mixed groups of drinkers and abstainers. This can be achieved by providing higher-quality tea and coffee and soft drinks, offering food and putting on events like quizzes and live music. And, to be honest, they have been doing these things to a greater or lesser extent throughout my drinking career. It’s nothing new or exactly a startling revelation.

However, there’s an important caveat here. The core purpose of pubs is, and always has been, socialising centred around the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Yes, over the decades they have needed to evolve and change in various ways, but that fundamental purpose remains unchanged. If nobody drank alcohol, pubs wouldn’t exist. Non-drinkers may enjoy various activities and services provided by pubs, but they wouldn’t be there in the first place if they weren’t there for drinkers. It’s rather like non-alcoholic beer – it wouldn’t exist if alcoholic beer didn’t, and it is only there to mirror to some extent the taste and experience of drinking alcoholic beer.

If they go too far down the road of changing their offer, pubs may well find themselves evolving into something entirely different. Some pubs have in effect turned themselves into restaurants, and it’s a very fine line when they actually cross over to that status, while others have metamorphosed into what are essentially live music venues.

It has to be questioned to what extent all this diversification is actually going to bring new customers into pubs. It may make non-drinkers happier when they are there, but will it encourage them to visit more often? It’s rather like the smoking ban, where prior to July 2007 many people said that one reason they didn’t go to pubs was that they were too smoky. Well, magic the smoke away, and they say that on their half-yearly visit that the atmosphere is much more pleasant, and it’s so much better now that those rough people are no longer there. But they don’t actually go any more than they did before. It’s a classic case of “revealed preference” – you have to judge people by what they actually do, not by what they say they would like.

This kind of call is nothing new, either. Back in 1998, I wrote:

You often read today that pubs will have to appeal to new groups of customers to ensure their long-term survival, but the examples given are usually people whose visits to the pub would at best only be occasional, and whose allegiance would be very fickle.
And later in 2011, I said:
At the end of the day, a pub is still a pub, and its fundamental raison d’ être remains the same. It can’t “move with the times” by turning itself into something else. If people no longer want to go to pubs, no amount of wine dispensers, crèches, coffee-makers and wi-fi hotspots will make any difference. And one of the oft-advanced examples of “moving with the times” – the general admission of children – is to many longstanding pubgoers excruciatingly offputting.
The reason that the pub trade has declined so much over the past twenty or so years is essentially because, due to a combination of social and legislative change, the demand for their core product has fallen. Obviously they can’t just turn their face against meeting other needs, but there is a limit to how far they can go down that road. It may be regrettable, but the fortunes of the pub trade are closely linked to the proportion of people in society who enjoy drinking alcohol in a social setting. And one of the most successful forms of “diversification” for pubs has been to metamorphose into convenience stores...

Thursday 9 May 2019

Tom Brown’s Pubdays – Part 2

We pick up our story having left the Victoria and heading back along Clifton Road towards the centre of Rugby. This brought us to the Squirrel on Church Street, which our previous route had circled without actually passing it. It’s a small, shallow, brick-built pub, probably one of the oldest buildings in the town. The image on WhatPub shows it in pink, but it has now been repainted in a shade that we struggled to actually name, a kind of cross between powder blue and aquamarine. Note Spiderman on the roof in Peter Allen’s photo.

Internally, it has a narrow seating area on the left-hand side, where newspapers – the Sun and the Daily Mail – were laid out on the tables, the bar in the centre, and a larger, but still fairly intimate room with a fireplace on the right, where we managed to find some seats, although at 4 pm it was rapidly filling up with a cross-section of customers. It’s fair to see this isn’t a Guardian reader type of pub. You can imagine it absolutely jumping on the evenings when the regular live music is on.

We were hoping to find Pedigree on the bar, but unfortunately it wasn’t on today. Instead there were two beers from the Marston’s stable – Ringwood Boondoggle and Lancaster Bomber, and Cotleigh Hawk’s Gold and Osprey. The one person who chose the Boondoggle was a touch disappointed, but both the Bomber and Osprey were in very good nick. Although Bomber isn’t maybe my favourite beer, it was certainly the best of the day so far in terms of condition.

Next came the obligatory excursion into the craftier side of things, partly driven by the Good Beer Guide listings. Rugby town centre has a complex layout that makes orientation difficult for the first-time visitor, so we were glad that someone knew where he was going and was able to lead us to the Crafty Banker, located appropriately enough on Bank Street. The name invites an obvious play on words, which the landlord of the Seven Stars couldn’t avoid. The solitary toilet contains both a urinal and WC, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

It’s a typical modern shop-conversion micropub, with posing tables by the door, some normal-height seating further back, albeit still unupholstered, and a bar across the rear. The lighting left the pumpclips in shadow, making them difficult to read. There were six cask beers, including XT Crafty Banker Bitter and Hop Kitty, Dark Revolution Sonic, and Chalk Hill Dark Anna, which were generally judged pretty decent. Obviously I had to have the Hop Kitty, which had the appropriate hoppy bite.

A short walk to the south side of the town centre brought us tohe Rugby Tap, facing the impressive buildings of the famous school across a roundabout. This originally began as a bottle shop with a few seats, but has since expanded into the premises next deer to offer a dedicated bar. This is considerably more comfortable than the Rugby Tap, with a number of upholstered cheairs with the arms of the kind you might find in a conference room. There was a pretty busy teatime trade – clearly this has become a rather smart meeting place. Unfortunately the atmosphere was marred by a couple of noisy, barking dogs.

It doesn’t have a bar as such, instead serving its cask beers on gravity from a stillage at right-angles to the side wall. The casks all had cooling jackets, so the temperature was fine. Those we tried included Church End Mild and Gravedigger, and Byatt’s Platinum Blonde and Hazy Belgian Pale. I decided to be adventurous and try the Hazy Belgian , which did what it said on the label and was pretty good. Apart from the Atomic ones, this was the only pub or bar we visited that was supporting local breweries: Church End is in Nuneaton and Byatt’s in Coventry.

Heading westwards away from the school along Lawford Road saw a rapid transformation to a more workaday environment, which was matched by our next stop, the Half Moon. This is a mid-terraced pub that looks as though it has been converted from a couple of houses. The WhatPub description gives you a good idea of what to expect: “Small mid-terraced pub that is quite simply a local boozer. Friendly locals who always make you feel welcome populate the pub... There are no foody smells to distract from the beer.” The interior comprises a busy bar area on the right, with some seating in the window by the open fire, a pool room in the centre, and a further area on the left with a dartboard and more seating.

There were three beers on the bar, Black Sheep Best Bitter, Old Golden Hen and Taylor’s Golden Best at a bargain price of £2 a pint. The natural inclination was to give this a swerve on the grounds that it would almost certainly be well past its best, which indeed proved to be the case, but it was willingly changed for the Black Sheep, which everyone ended up with. And indeed, in terms of condition, this was for me the best beer of the day at a stage when tastebuds are often jaded – fresh, cool, lively and full of flavour. While it was a somewhat Spartan pub, the toilets were immaculate. The soundtrack seemed to be “Dr Hook’s Greatest Hits”, which I have to say isn’t quite my favourite music from that era.

The comment was made that this was the sort of pub that splits the Pub Men from the Beer Men. Yes, the beer was in excellent condition, but would the searcher for exotic sours and pastry stouts even cross the road for a pint of Black Sheep?

The Half Moon was about the furthest pub from the station, so the next and final call had been planned as a staging point, although it’s worth a visit in its own right. The Bull, owned by Stonegate, is a big open-plan pub on one of the main shopping streets. It’s the sort of place with brightly-coloured menu flyers and an abundance of TVs, on one of which we were able to see England finally reach victory against Ireland after an earlier scare. Nevertheless, the L-shaped interior does include a variety of areas and plenty of comfortable seating.

Although owned by Stonegate, there were three Greene King beers on the bar – IPA, Abbot and Old Speckled Hen – alongside Taylor’s Landlord, which most of us went for, although one of our number decided to try Punk IPA for the first time. And the Landlord was pretty good, demonstrating that, even in a pub where most of the customers probably aren’t cask drinkers, you can still serve up a decent pint if you have enough trade overall.

From here, it was a fifteen-minute walk back to the station, although fortunately all gently downhill. However, when we got there we found that an incident on the line at Harrow & Wealdstone had caused chaos with the timetable, and the train that Paul and I were planning to catch back to Stafford had been cancelled. There followed an anxious half-hour of checking the departure board, but if trains are running late, then a delayed one may actually be on time for you, so I was in the end able to get back to Stockport only half an hour later than originally planned.

This was another excellent trip, to a town that I’d never been drinking in before, with a choice of pubs of different types, including some splendid proper boozers, and generally pretty good beer too. It was a marked contrast with Huddersfield a couple of months before. As always, the company was one of the best points. Thanks again to Peter Allen for the photos of the Squirrel and Half Moon. Perhaps the one disappointment was that, as well as the disappearance of the M&B and Ansells heritage from the town’s pubs, there was no sign of those Midlands classics, Bass and Pedigree. However, we’re planning to make amends for that on our next trip. Watch this space!

Tuesday 7 May 2019

The taste test

I recently came across this interesting article discussing whether the temperature at which it is served is holding cask ale back. However, it also included the depressing, although not remotely surprising, statistic that fully 90% of cask beer was kept on sale beyond the recommended three days. This prompted a lively debate on Twitter about how to improve cask turnover in pubs, in which several people made the point that licensees or cellar managers should be routinely tasting their cask ales to make sure they haven’t gone off.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but is that really the case? Pubs sell a huge range of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and for virtually all of them the licensees never have to taste them to ensure they’re OK. If they did, they would turn into alcoholics. Plus, many pubs sell a lot of food, but they have sufficient confidence in their suppliers and their kitchen hygiene that they don’t feel the need to nibble a corner of each steak or sandwich before they’re sent out to the customers. Is cask beer something so exceptional that it is different from everything else sold in the pub?

Added to this, there are many people running pubs who, for genuine medical or religious reasons, do not drink. Obviously that means they’re not in a position to sample the product. But it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t be in the business in the first place. Likewise, there’s no reason why a vegetarian, provided they do it from personal choice rather than wishing to impose it on everyone else, should not work in a food business selling meat dishes. Across the whole spectrum of businesses, there are plenty of examples of people who work at providing goods and services for which there is a demand, but which they do not personally consume. Why should the pub trade be any different?

It’s sometimes said that anyone running a pub really should drink the beer themselves. This is clearly ridiculous for the generality of pubs, and does it even apply to specialist bars? I’ve come across people over the years who have opened craft bars and micropubs because they see an attractive business opportunity, but who personally do not drink, or at least do not drink beer.

Yes, tasting the beer may be useful in some circumstances, and undoubtedly cask beer is a perishable product that does need special care. But a properly run pub really should be able to ensure that its stock turnover, supplier selection and cellar management practices are such that it is not routinely operating on the verge of its cask beer going off. The only skills really needed are to be able to smell vinegar and see if a pint isn’t clear.

Monday 6 May 2019

Tom Brown’s Pubdays – Part 1

Our next Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out took us to the Warwickshire town of Rugby on Friday 3rd May. The home of the famous school may not seem the most obvious choice for a beery excursion, but we were assured it had a good and varied selection of pubs, and so it proved. Rugby is an interesting combination of genteel market town and more modern industrial centre, which perhaps adds extra interest to its pub scene. Now that there is an hourly service from Stafford down the Trent Valley line through Nuneaton, it’s easily accessible by train from Stockport, taking less than two hours. Paul Mudge, aka The Other Mudgie, had a 1970s CAMRA pub guide of Warwickshire, which showed the town being dominated by Ansells and M&B, but we didn’t see any evidence remaining of either their livery on the pubs or their beers on the bar.

Our meeting point was the Seven Stars on Albert Square, which is actually a small cul-de-sac just north of the town centre. It is about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station, along a road that looks level on StreetView, but in fact climbs a noticeable gradient. Although it looks fairly small from outside, it has been considerably extended at the rear to provide a rambling interior with plenty of comfortable seating. A banner outside proclaims it was the local CAMRA Pub of the Year for 2017 and 2018.

It’s an Everard’s Project William pub, meaning that it has a wide range of guests alongside their own beers, making about ten cask lines in total. Those we tried included Everard’s old Original, Oakham JHB, Marston’s Old Empire, Titanic Plum Porter and Brit Hop King of the Kerb mild. The general view was quite favourable, but it has to be said that the mild, while in decent enough condition, was a touch thin and unmemorable. Although initially it took a long time for anyone to appear behind the bar to serve me, the landlord turned out to be quite chatty and gave us some tips about the other pubs in the town. The decorations include some vintage, and valuable, Worthington E toby jugs.

The Alexandra Arms on James Street was only a very short walk along a pedestrian cut-through passing some modern housing which had a plaque announcing it had won some kind of design award. It’s another outwardly small back-street pub that in fact has been considerably extended, with a couple of comfortable lounge areas at the front, and a large room at the rear with a pool table that is also used for live music. There were a group of youngish blokes in there who already seemed quite well-refreshed at 1pm. One of them chatted to us about the history of pubs in Rugby. “Are you the landlord?” one of us asked. “No, I’m just a dickhead”.

There were five handpumps on the first section of bar we came to. “Are there any more beers round the back?” “Hopefully not,” replied Martin Taylor, very conscious of the risk to beer quality from an over-extended range. Indeed there were, sensibly, only five beers. The pub is owned by the local Atomic Brewery, and the range included, alongside their own Strike, a number of guests including Titanic Plum Porter and Old Hooky. The Old Hooky came to the end of the barrel, but was cheerfully replaced by the Strike, which was pretty good. It was good to see the difference in price being automatically refunded, something you don’t always get when a beer is changed for another. Some gems on the jukebox, which may or may not have been selected by one of our party, included Si Tu Dois Partir by Fairport Convention, which I hadn’t heard for years, and Spirit of Radio by Rush.

We then skirted the eastern fringe of the town centre and were confidently led by Martin along an unpromising-looking path beside a church to reach the Merchant’s Inn on Little Church Street, which is close to the famous Rugby School. It’s a mock half-timbered building which describes itself on its website as a “flagstoned gem”, which indeed it is, at least in the main bar area. It has an extensive, rambling interior which has been opened out somewhat, but includes a magnificent room at the rear with a gabled timber roof. Everywhere is festooned with breweriana, including the advertisement for Wilson’s brewery of Manchester shown below.

There were nine cask beers on the bar, including Wantsum Black Prince, Titanic Plum Porter (again), Box Steam Machine Head, North Cotswold Black Jack and Nethergate Venture. Possibly at lunchtime this was rather too many beers for the trade available, and my Venture seemed a little tired. The pub has a comprehensive menu of fairly straightforward pub food, from which we selected a mixture of burgers, steak, fish and chips and a sandwich, all of which came in generous portions and were well-received, the home-made oinion rings being particularly memorable.

Another dubious-looking cut-through eventually took us to the busy Clifton Road, one of those characteristic just-off-the-centre shopping streets lined with curry houses and Polish grocers. This led us to the Victoria on Lower Hillmorton Road, a classic large back-street pub in the angle of two roads. It has a spacious, comfortable lounge to the right, and a basic public bar with pool table in the apex of the building, where we went. We were welcomed at the door by one of my favourite pub signs.

This is another pub owned by Atomic Brewery, and it had a couple of their beers on, Strike and Mosaic, alongside guests including Hooky Norton Hooky (which was pretty good), Adnams Ghost Ship and, yet again, Titanic Plum Porter, which so far had been a fixture in every pub we had visited. The music choice was what could best be described as “contemporary ballads” (oh for Ann Wilson to blow them away without the assistance of AutoTune) and this proved to be the first of several pubs screening the England vs Ireland one-day cricket international.

To be continued...

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the external photo of the Victoria – all the rest are my own.

Thursday 2 May 2019

The beer that dare not speak its name

Go back forty years, and there were basically just three types of real ale sold on draught in British pubs – mild, bitter and old ale. Each had its own distinctive symbol in the Good Beer Guide. And chief amongst them was Bitter. The term covered a huge variety, strong to weak, dark chestnut to pale straw, mouth-puckeringly hoppy to sickly sweet, but it was all part of that same identifiable, and uniquely British, style.

Since then, sales of mild have declined yet further and it has disappeared entirely from large areas of the country. In reponse to this, brewers started renaming their milds in the belief that the term itself was offputting to drinkers. So we have Hydes brewing Old Indie, Moorhouse’s Black Cat and Thwaites Nutty Black. But now this tendency has spread to bitter as well.

At first one of the drivers of this was to give beers are more instantly identifiable presence in the free trade and in take-home sales, so instead of just Blogg’s Bitter we got Robinson’s Unicorn and Taylor’s Boltmaker. And, earlier on, it was mostly confined to beers at the stronger end of the scale, with Courage Directors, Young’s Special and Marston’s Pedigree dropping the “Bitter” and just going by their one-word brand name. But it has now extended to the classic “ordinary” bitters, such as Hook Norton Hooky, and many of them denying that they are any kind of bitter at all, often just describing as “amber ale”.

This trend has now come to the attention of beer writers, with both Martyn Cornell and Pete Brown penning pieces on the subject in recent weeks. Both of them see the undesirable flavour connotations of the word “bitter” as a major factor, but I’m not entirely convinced by that. After all we’ve been happily drinking it for decades, and “sours” have become popular in the craft world without anyone finding that terms offputting.

It is more that “bitter” carries associations, as “mild” did before it, as being something old-fashioned that your dad would drink. This was borne out last year when we went round Banks’s brewery in Wolverhampton and were told that changing the name of their Bitter to Amber had gained a very positive reaction from drinkers. At least they do still own up in smaller letters to it being a bitter, though.

However, “amber” really says nothing about the character of a beer apart from a colour, and for many bitters it is seriously misleading. This is the colour Amber as defined by the official HTML colour chart:

And this piece of actual amber, with a mosquito trapped inside, is pretty much the colour most people associate with the term.

However, that colour is pretty much that of Foster’s when it was advertised by Paul Hogan as “the amber nectar”. Most bitters are considerably darker than that, and indeed Bombardier, despite being described as “amber beer”, is in fact a dark chestnut. The term is unhelpful and misleading, and obfuscates the true heritage of the beer. Nobody ever, when asked the question “what type of beer do you enjoy drinking?” replies “Oh, I like amber ale”.

At least, round here, if you go in a Holt’s, Lees or Sam Smith’s pub, you can still ask for a pint of bitter and that is precisely what you will get. Robinson’s, on the other hand, long ago renamed their Best Bitter Unicorn, and have more recently introduced a new mid-brown ordinary bitter called Wizard, while Hydes Bitter was renamed Original, as was Thwaites.

My friend Cooking Lager recently ran a Twitter poll which showed strong support for keeping the name of Bitter.

Whether you like it or not, Bitter, while it covers a wide spectrum of colours and flavours, is perhaps the quintessential English beer style, and stands in the pub alongside other major categories such as mild, stout and lager. To try to deny its existence and break it down into a myriad of sub-styles just sows confusion and leaves drinkers adrift as to what it actually is. So maybe it’s time that brewers should be prepared so say, loud and proud, that what they’re producing is Bitter, and stop trying to suggest that it’s just some fuzzy, ill-defined category of “Ale”.

And it seems that, after years of disguise, mild is at last coming back out of the closet and declaring unequivocally what it actually is, as shown in the pumclip below for Mcmullen’s AK, a light mild that for some years was badged as a light bitter.