Saturday 30 November 2019

Have we reached Peak Craft?

The Morning Advertiser reports that the craft beer sector has started to see a decline in sales. This has started with packaged products, which have fallen by 9% in the past year, and is expected to spread to draught within the next couple of years. This was only to be expected, as craft beer, insofar as it applies to the general beer market rather than just enthusiasts, has always given the impression of being something of a fashion rather than a genuine revolution.

“We have seen for a while that craft has been pushed into outlets it isn’t right for,” says the article, and that is exactly what has happened, with pubs putting a craft tap on the bar but finding few takers for it, while supermarkets have jumped on the bandwagon and been left with a lot of out-of-date stock. The typically high prices aren’t going to help, either.

It’s doubtful how many people actually identify themselves as “craft beer drinkers” rather than just consumers of a particular product. Do they see something like Camden Hells as a craft beer, or just an upmarket type of lager? While the concept of “craft beer” has become established in the public mind, it’s generally seen in a derogatory way as something associated with hipsters, high prices and weird flavours. Beyond Punk IPA, how many craft beer brands could the average person in the pub actually name?

It’s also notoriously hard to define, with most of the major brands being produced by offshoots of the international brewers, or other substantial companies, and often not really being considered genuine craft beers by the most vocal evangelists for the category. And does it include cask, or are the two mutually exclusive? If it does, how do we know which cask beers qualify and which don’t?

I’ve made the point before that, once the craft beer wave has exhausted itself, some of it will be absorbed into the mainstream, some will live on as a niche product that is irrelevant to most drinkers, and some will wither on the vine. And what we are seeing is that the likely legacy of craft is that many pubs will offer a hoppy keg IPA as part of their beer range, of which Punk IPA is the prime example. Maybe Punk will come to be a category-defining beer in the way that Guinness is.

On that subject, James Watt of BrewDog has made the claim that IPA is likely to overtake lager in popularity within the next 10-15 years. I have to say that sounds extremely unlikely, and comes across more as an example of the company’s typical headline-grabbing approach to publicity. In any case, the broad category of lager covers a wide range of styles, while surely IPA is just one sub-set of the general category of ale.

Someone made the point that bitter superseded mild, and lager superseded bitter, so why shouldn’t IPA then supersede lager? However, those changes occurred in a British market that was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Pale lager has conquered the world, and in some form is now the staple beer in every major country. The UK and Ireland were about the last holdouts against that trend. Beer has now very much become an international market, and no country can completely stand aside from it.

One of the key attractions of lager is that it offers a cold, refreshing, undemanding drink in hot climates. It’s very hard to imagine IPA, which is typically associated with astringent hoppiness, as taking over that role. And, even if it did, surely the undemanding 3.5% keg IPA that took the place in the market currently occupied by Bud Light would be precisely the kind of thing that CAMRA was initially set up to oppose.

IPA may indeed become more popular worldwide in the coming years, very often by displacing long-established local lager styles. But the idea that it is going to eclipse lager in popularity simply isn’t credible.

Friday 29 November 2019

A stroll around Shifnal – Part 2

We pick up the story of our day out in Shifnal with us having just left the White Hart and crossing the road in the steady rain to reach the Wheatsheaf, the only one of the pubs on the western side of the main street. Unlike most of the others which were relatively narrow and deep, this one is broad and shallow. The modern bow and dormer windows make it look newer than it actually is, as the interior reveals a genuinely old building with numerous exposed beams, quarry tiles on the floor and a welcoming real fire in the inglenook fireplace. It comprises a central bar area, where a number of afternoon drinkers had clustered, with a public bar-style room to the left and a small snug on the right.

There were four beers on the bar from the Marston’s stable – Banks’s Mild and Bitter, Wainwright and Directors - all of which were tried and proved to be pretty good. I went for the Directors as I hadn’t seen it in cask form for some time and I had only been discussing it on Twitter the previous day.

Crossing back to the eastern side of the street, we continued on to the Crown, which has recently been taken over and refurbished by Shropshire brewery Wood’s. However, this was very far from the image of a traditional alehouse, with four areas around the central bar sporting an assortment of modern furnishings and pastel colours. “Why does everything have to be grey?” one of us wondered. We had to wait quite a while for the barman to appear, and when we finally managed to settle ourselves down around a table we were assailed by earsplitting music from Pink.

Despite this, the beer was actually perfectly decent, with a choice on the bar of Wood’s Shropshire Lad and Lass, Sinbin and Born & Bred together with Wainwright. It was, however, served in unusual fluted glasses rather resembling toothmugs, and our round of five halves came to well over £10, which was well above the prices we paid anywhere else. It wasn’t surprising that this was by some way the least busy of all the pubs we visited, with the only other customers at this time being a couple of old guys who didn’t really seem to be the pub’s target customers. You do have to wonder exactly who a small independent brewer like Wood’s are aiming at with a pub of this type.

It was by now pretty dark as we returned almost to the station and then turned right along Victoria Road to reach the Jaspers Arms. WhatPub suggests that this has fairly recently been converted from a restaurant to more of a pub, and the long, low, orange-painted building with a distinctive mural on the gable end certainly looked the part. Inside it is deceptively spacious, with a central bar surrounded by a number of seating areas and a large lounge-type room at a lower level to the right, abundantly ftited out with mid-brown wood decor.

There was a cluster of customers around the bar of various ages, providing a lively atmosphere, and I met up with Carl Rothwell, who lives locally and is one of my Twitter followers. Beers available included Three Tuns XXX, Greene King IPA and Holden’s Bitter and Golden Glow, and again the quality was impressive. However, the pub slightly blotted its copybook when I spotted that an order for two halves of Bitter had been met with pulling Golden Glow. When questioned, the barmaid said “well, this is bitter”, and it seemed to be changed with slightly ill grace. You had to wonder exactly what you were supposed to ask for if you did want Bitter.

We went under the railway bridge into the most historic part of the town, with a number of old half-timbered buildings, although oddly the only pub in this area was our final Shifnal destination, the Oddfellows. This describes itself as a “wine bar”, but in fact its general feel is fairly pubby, although there is a dining area cordoned off to the left. The style is more modern with bare boards and stripped pine tables. Like all the other pubs on the east side of the street, the interior goes a long way back from the street frontage.

Beers on the bar were Salopian Oracle and Lemon Dream, and Hobson’s Best, and once more gave no cause for complaint. I noted that the soundtrack included “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. There were a good number of customers of mixed ages both drinking and eating, and in fact the healthy level of afternoon and early evening clientele was notable in all the Shifnal pubs we visited apart from the Crown. Possibly the town benefits from being sufficiently compact that most of the residential areas are within walking distance of the centre.

With one of us staying overnight in Shifnal, and another having to catch an earlier train, our numbers were depleted as we took the twenty-minute train ride back to Wolverhampton. There was still time for another drink in the Great Western, the Holden’s tied house just a short walk from the station. This is one of my favourite pubs in the country and it was as good as ever, with hardly a seat to be found early evening on a Friday, although we were able to secure a corner as another group left.

It’s notable that in this pub, unlike many others you come across, most of the customers are drinking ale, not lager. On the bar were the full Holden’s range plus Batham’s Best Bitter, which is a regular guest, although supplies are limited. The Batham’s, together with Holden’s Mild and Special, were all on very good form. My return train was delayed for about ten minutes due to some kind of incident that required the police to meet it at Stafford, but I was still back in Stockport shortly after nine.

So, another enjoyable day out, with good beer, good company, and eight new pubs visited, some of which were absolute gems. I didn’t have a beer that ranked less than good all day. While there was a constant flow of conversation covering a wide range of topics, we succeeded in steering clear of the fraught subject of politics. So here’s to our next outing to Burton-on-Trent in March next year.

Thanks to Paul Bailey for the photos of the Wheatsheaf and Crown, and Peter Allen for those of the Jaspers Arms, Oddfellows and Great Western.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

A stroll around Shifnal - Part 1

Our latest Proper Day Out organised through the Beer & Pubs Forum took us on Friday 22 November to the small Shropshire town of Shifnal. On the face of it, this may seem an unlikely destination, but it has a couple of attractive-sounding Good Beer Guide entries, on top of which research revealed a number of other pubs that sounded worth visiting, plus it’s easily accessible by train. I’ve occasionally driven through it and been struck by the number of pubs on the road (Broadway) leading north from the town centre, even though it’s not a main shopping street, but I had never actually visited any of them before. We were joined for the first time by Paul Bailey, author of Paul’s Beer and Travel Blog, who had travelled all the way from Tonbridge in Kent. Paul has produced a summary of the day here.

We broke our journey from Wolverhampton at Codsall to call in at the Station Bar, which occupies the former station buildings and has fairly recently been converted to a pub by Black Country brewers Holden’s. Although just outside the city boundary, Codsall is basically a suburb of Wolverhampton, and there are plenty of nearby houses to provide custom. It offers a spacious and tastefully-decorated interior, with a central bar area with a real fire, a cosy lounge are to one side with extensive bench seating, and a conservatory extension on the other side giving a good view of the passing trains.

There were the standard Holden’s beers on the bar – Mild, Bitter, Holden Glow and Special Bitter - together with a couple of guests from other local brewers in the shape of Enville White and Salopian Oracle. We were told that the much sought-after Old Ale would be available nearer to Christmas. All the beers we sampled were very good, despite in most cases being the first served that day, and my pint of Bitter was everything a classic “ordinary” should be.

The timetable allowed us a fairly leisurely drink before boarding the train for our short onward journey to Shifnal. The route runs past Cosford Aerodrome, now home to the RAF Museum. At Shifnal, a back exit from the station provided a short cut to our first pub, the Anvil. This whitewashed pub has recently been acquired by Black Country Ales and refurbished in their characteristic style, with a rambling interior offering a variety of cosy area. It was fairly busy just before 1 pm, with a number of groups eating.

On the bar were the usual BCA offerings of BFG, Pig on the Wall and Fireside, together with a number of guests including Enville White, Nailmaker Mild and Gothic Stout, and Green Duck Megalomania, together with a couple of real ciders. All the beers we sampled were in decent nick, but I have to say my Pig on the Wall was rather lacking in distinctive flavour and not a patch on the quality of the Holden’s. While BCA do a very good job with the fabric of their pubs, unfortunately they often suffer from the twin problems of having too many beers on the bar and their own ales being a touch lacklustre.

The rain was just setting in as we doubled back down Aston Street, passing the Winking Frog, which had been deleted from the itinerary due to reportedly not selling cask beer. However, peering in through the window, we spotted a pump for Wye Valley HPA, but it didn’t really look the kind of pub we wanted to squeeze in. Reaching the main street, we turned right to bring us to our next destination, the Plough, which was our scheduled lunch stop. This is an outwardly small terraced pub with a half-timbered frontage, which in fact runs a surprising way back from the street, reflecting the depth of the burgage plots of the mediaeval town. The interior has been opened out but retains a choice of different areas with plenty of old beams and flagged or wood floors.

Beers on the bar included Dark Star APA, two Citras – Oakham and Dark Star Hophead – Hobsons’s Mild and Bitter and Enville Ginger. Again all the beers chosen were pretty good. From the extensive menu, several of us were tempted by the Fish and Chips which was offered with a discount for two meals, one other person instead choosing the lasagne. The food, like the beer, was good, and the friendly and attentive service from the barmaid who also doubled up as waitress deserves a mention.

Heading further up Broadway and High Street in the steady rain, we passed the closed Beehive on our right to reach the White Hart, which was the northernmost pub on our list. This is an attractive old half-timbered building claiming to date back to the 17th century. Inside it retains a traditional two-bar layout, with carpet on the floor in both rooms rather than trendy bare boards. Although it was now approaching 3 pm and lunchtime food service had ended, there were still a fair number of customers, including a group playing cards in the public side.

The door to the lounge was not a self-closer, so we were told to shut it behind us when we walked in. Beers available, split between the two bars, included Enville Ale, Abbot Ale, Wye Valley Butty Bach and HPA, and Holden’s Mild. Enville Ale, which is a personal favourite anyway, did not disappoint, although opinions were divided about the Mild. On reflection, I think of all the pubs we visited in Shifnal this would be my first choice to drink in in terms of its overall atmosphere.

To be continued...

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos, with the exception of that of Codsall Station Bar, which is my own.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Keeping it in the family

At a recent meeting of the local CAMRA branch at the Sun & Castle in Stockport, we had a very interesting talk from Jane Kershaw of Holt's Brewery. She is the sixth generation of the founding family to be involved in the company, and gave us a potted history of the Holt and Kershaw families. Along with her younger brother Andrew she has recently joined the company after gaining experience working for other firms, something that used to be commonplace amongst brewing families. While clearly a clued-up business person, she came across as more authentic than some other scions of family brewers I have encountered who can be rather given to corporate-speak.

Among the points she made were:

  • Holt’s don't do regular brewery tours or have a visitor centre because the brewery is on a cramped site in the middle of a "grotty" area.

  • They place great store by the integrity of the brewing process, for example by using whole hops and avoiding high-gravity brewing.

  • Their own-brewed lagers make up a substantial part of their business and keep the plant a lot busier than some of their competitors.

  • While they recognise that an attractive food offer is important for many pubs nowadays, as a brewer they always aim to run pubs with a substantial wet trade rather than ones that are predominantly dining venues.

  • They currently own 127 pubs, up from 80 in 1980 when her father Richard Kershaw joined the company.

  • They are currently producing a range of seasonal beers to mark their 170th anniversary (which I never see in the Holts pubs I visit). The current one is basically a 5% version of their Bitter, which I would certainly like to try.
She was insistent that the recipe of the Bitter has not changed, although there is a widespread perception that it is a noticeably mellower and less assertively bitter beer than it was a generation ago. Someone suggested it may be because it has been overshadowed by the rise in very highly hopped beers in recent years, but I think there's more to it than that, and other beers haven’t undergone such a marked change. It is probably more a gradual accretion of subtle variations in the malt and hop bill than any deliberate attempt to dumb it down, but you never get one nowadays that really attacks your tastebuds as it once sometimes did. It is still an excellent beer when on form, though, as we found, for example, last month in the Hare & Hounds in Manchester.

There wasn't a lot of time for questions, but she did say that they didn't fill pins, which rather restricted the possibilities for cask Sixex (their strong winter ale). We know that they stopped using hogsheads a few years ago, but I'd bet they still fill plenty of full barrels. Some of the bigger Holts pubs could well have the largest sales of a single cask beer in the country.

Their most recent major investment project has been the Goat’s Gate in Whitefield, on which they have spent £500,000 “to turn what was solely a drinkers pub into a "Beer and Pizza House".” However, hopefully they have recognised the need to retain the wet trade too – some of their refurbishments in my local area such as the Griffin in Heald Green, Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme and the Five Ways in Hazel Grove give the impression of being overwhelmingly aimed at the dining trade, and drinkers don’t seem to be made particularly welcome.

Someone asked about the rather threadbare condition of the famous Lamb in Eccles. She took the point, and said it was on the list for a bit of TLC, but made the point that many locals actually felt at home in somewhere that felt "lived-in".

It has to be said that in the mid-1980s Holts often gave the impression of being stuck in a timewarp, with an estate of largely unimproved pubs and a reputation for incredibly low prices. That has now changed, with many pubs having been upgraded, and prices now often no different from the other local family brewers. It is now Sam Smith’s who wear the value crown. To a large extent, these changes have probably been inevitable as a response to shifts in market conditions, but it can’t be denied that Holt’s have lost the distinctive USP they once enjoyed.

Friday 15 November 2019

Suit yourself

A new bar has recently opened in Nottingham called the Tap House where customers are allowed to pour their own beer. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is basically a gimmick rather than a glimpse into a brave new world, but it does raise a number of issues. One obvious one is whether customers are entitled to a fresh glass each time they want to pour a different beer, as they now expect in conventional bars. This would increase the staff workload and make the process less streamlined than it might at first appear, as they would need to visit a glass exchange point and then the actual tap.

There would also be a need to guard against serving alcohol to minors, and on providing it to people who were already drunk. The first presumably can be achieved fairly easily simply by restricting entry to over-18s. However, the second may be more challenging, especially as the bar allows you to build up a tab on a card and settle at the end of the evening. It is much easier to assess whether someone is drunk by looking them in the eye when ordering a drink, than from observing their general behaviour. And people can always serve beer to their friends and not just themselves. I’m not sure what the answer is, but clearly it will require a level of staff supervision that erodes any potential savings from self-service.

The most important issue, though, is that of the measures served. The report says “Customers can select a range of drink sizes from a sample of around 50ml to a schooner (three quarters of a pint).” On the face of it, this would appear to be illegal, as the law only permits draught beer to be sold in thirds and halves of a pint and multiples thereof. Indeed, there’s an example of pub in Stockton-on-Tees using the same model being compelled to restrict themselves to the prescribed measures.

Some people have commented that “surely their operating plan will have been checked out by the council before they opened”, but that reflects a very optimistic assessment of how much time hard-pressed staff have to review such things. Anyway, it seems that they have received a visit, although it’s not made clear what the outcome was.

(Click on the image to read the text)

It’s conceivable that there is an exemption for cases where customers are serving themselves using a measured flow, as with petrol pumps, rather than the bar offering specific quantities for sale. I have my doubts, though. In any case, clear guidance would be useful. This would also apply to the growing number of single-price “all you can drink” craft beer festivals which often use a standard measure that is less than a third of a pint. As with several other examples in different areas, it suggests there is a need for clearer national standards on trading standards issues.

Some people have gone on from this to argue that it is time for the complete deregulation of measures – shouldn’t pubs and bars be allowed to serve beer in whatever measures they deem most appropriate? I suspect that much of this comes from those who simply object to the use of Imperial measures and would prefer metric ones. I’d hazard a guess that such people don’t tend to be Leave voters.

However, it’s important to remember that standardised measures were introduced for reasons of consumer protection. They make price comparison more straightforward and allow people to keep track of consumption of an intoxicating product. Deregulation of measures would lead to confusion amongst customers and open the door to all kinds of rip-offs. While there is a strong identification with pints, as soon as this was relaxed bars would be selling beer in all kinds of sizes, and it wouldn’t be long before people were simply asking for a large or a small one. Who would benefit if bars were able to define “a whisky” as 22ml, or 18ml, or whatever, and only declare this on an obscure sign somewhere?

We already see this on the price boards in some craft bars such as BrewDog, where a single price is given for each beer, with the quantity it relates to being shown beside it in smaller print. How often in practice does this lead to customers ordering a specific beer by name without stating the desired quantity? Not “a half of Elvis Juice” but just “an Elvis Juice”.

Whether the measures are Imperial or metric is irrelevant to the argument for standardisation. A comparison is sometimes drawn with petrol, where customers are free to dispense any quantity they choose. However, this doesn’t really stand up, as petrol is bought for consumption over a period of time rather than as a single serve to be used immediately. A bar is, in effect, serving “a drink”, not x amount of a particular product. Sheer practicality, such as the glassware required, would require a bar to define which were the normal quantities of beer it sold to customers. And petrol is in any case always very clearly priced per litre, so there is never any doubt about the actual unit price.

There is, perhaps, a case for allowing a smaller measure of beer for outlets, typically festivals , that operate effectively on what is a “sample” basis. But this could easily be accommodated within the current system by legalising measures of a quarter or a sixth of pint. It’s not a proper drink to my mind, though. It’s also doubtful how much take-up there would be. After all, while thirds have always been legal, and two-thirds was permitted a few years ago, they’re still rarely seen in the generality of pubs and bars. Try asking for two-thirds of Carling in Wetherspoon’s and see what response you get. But if you do want more flexibility without upending the whole system, this is what you should be arguing for.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Here we go again

It seems as though elections have become a regular fixture nowadays. We’ve just embarked on the fifth national poll in less than five years. As on previous occasions, I’ve created an opinion poll on readers’ voting intentions. This appears in the sidebar, but more and more people are now reading blogs on mobile devices on which it doesn’t appear. Therefore, as I’ve got nothing else on the stocks in the next few days, I’ve created a dedicated post for it.

POLL: How will you vote in the General Election on December 12th? free polls

The direct link to the poll is here, but I’d be grateful if you didn’t share it around indiscriminately on social media as this will make the results less representative. I’ll publish the results on the morning of polling day, December 12th. By coincidence, that’s the day of our local CAMRA branch meeting, at which I will be setting a Christmas Quiz. I will then be able to come home and watch the results.

Edit: This poll ws created before the Brexit Party announced that they would not be standing in any Conservative-held seats. Eventually, they also didn’t stand in about 40 others, some of which were Conservative targets. This will obviously affect the final outcome, although I’m not going to scrub it and start again. It shouldn’t be assumed that all, or indeed most, Brexit Party voters will automatically transfer to the Conservatives.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Sour note

The other week, I was served a pint in a pub that tasted distinctly off to me. It was a beer I’d never had before, so it’s possible that it was intended to taste like that, but I really don’t think it was. However, it was crystal clear, had a decent head and condition, and wasn’t vinegary as such, so I didn’t realistically consider it returnable. I didn’t fancy drinking it, though, so, perhaps egged on by my companions, I ended up rather theatrically tipping it into a plant pot. I’m not going to cast aspersions on this particular pub by naming it, although if you follow Simon Everitt’s BRAPA blog he will eventually get round to writing about it.

This particular off-flavour was something that I have encountered before over the years, a rather sickly, cloying, sour-cream note. Asking the question on Twitter, several people suggested it might be butyric acid, which according to various descriptions on the Internet certainly fits the bill. It is described on this website as “Rancidity, Baby vomit, cheesy, putrid, spoiled milk or butter”.

I’ve never worked in a professional capacity in the licensed trade, and I’ve never had any formal training in beer tasting. But I’ve drunk enough beer to know that sometimes it just doesn’t taste right, often for reasons that it’s hard to put your finger on. The site I linked to lists eighteen different recognised off-flavours in beer, some of which I recognise, although others don’t really ring a bell. I’ve also often encountered beers with a distinct woody note, but not served from wooden casks, which doesn’t exactly match up with any of those listed.

If you’re familiar with a beer, it’s not too difficult to tell whether or not it tastes right. Bit in these days of ever-changing guest beers, many of which you will only try once, and of unprecedented experimentation with different flavours, it can be extremely difficult to tell whether or not a beer is actually meant to taste as it does. Added to this, it’s not unknown for brewers to turn a defect into a feature in one-off beers, such as the perhaps apocryphal case of the batch that was badly affected by the common fault known as diacetyl, which results in a pronounced caramel note, but ended up being badged as “Butterscotch Porter”. It’s also the case that, in small doses, some of the off-flavours, such as phenol, can be regarded as desirable characteristics.

From time to time I’ve had pints that to my taste are distinctly off, but others found no problem with. They might have just been being ignorant or perverse, but equally it’s possible that they just didn’t notice, as people’s susceptibility to different off-flavours varies widely. In the summer of 1984, when I was living in that part of the world, Gales Brewery in Hampshire experienced a yeast infection, which to me gave their beer a very distinct and unpleasant taint. But some people couldn’t detect it at all. After about three months, it faded away, but some might argue that their beer was never the same again. There’s a well-known off-flavour in cider known as “mouse”, which actually does impart an oddly furry texture to the drink. But, again, some people can detect it and others simply can’t.

People’s aversion to different off-flavours also varies. I’m not too bothered about diacetyl in small doses, but others really can’t abide it. And, in the discussion about butyric acid, one person said that a hint of “baby sick” was one of his least disliked off-notes, whereas I find it foul in any degree.

The burgeoning range of flavours and styles, and the sheer number of brewers, means that off-flavours in beer are something that isn’t going to go away. It’s not reasonable to expect the general drinking public to be constantly on their guard to spot them, so brewers and retailers need to take ownership of the issue, be alert to it, and not just breezily dismiss it as all part of the rich tapestry of life. And maybe there is an opportunity to do more to educate interested lay drinkers in being able to identify the various taints.