Tuesday 27 September 2022

A fresh approach

This week is Cask Beer Week and, as Roger Protz reports, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have launched a new initiative to promote cask entitled Drink Fresh Beer. At first I thought this was just another glib marketing gimmick, but on looking further there’s a lot more to it.

The Achilles heel of cask beer has always been inconsistent quality over the bar, and by far the biggest problem is slow turnover, leading to tired, lacklustre beer. At its best, fresh cask is great, but all too often it falls far short of that, and you just don’t know when ordering it. Most people in the industry acknowledge this issue, but are always very reluctant to put it into practice because they are too attached to offering a wide range of beers. As I have written in the past, it’s a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first.

Now, this SIBA scheme is seeking to address this issue head on by providing customers with the details of when a beer was put on sale.

Once they reach the bar, an AR-scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their favourite drink, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.
Hopefully this information will be made more obvious than having to fiddle about with a QR code, but the principle is there. This is something that I have suggested in the past in a somewhat mischievous spirit, and I probably never thought it would actually happen. The report goes on to say:
To ensure the quality of beer across the venues involved, pubs participating in the campaign will be asked to sign up to the Fresh Beer Promise. Alongside campaign materials at the Point of Sale in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two handpulls with a rotating third cask on tap and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing casks and take part in initiatives to improve quality.
Maybe it needs to be extended to those pubs that only have the turnover for one or two lines, but the intent is very clear. It’s unpredictable as to what effect knowing when a cask was tapped would have on customer behaviour, but people would soon find out through a process of suck it and see. They wouldn’t automatically choose the one-day beer over the two-day one, especially if it wasn’t their preferred style, but if there was nothing on the bar under five days they’d probably be looking at the lager and Guinness pumps or going elsewhere. It would give pubs a rocket up the backside and lead to a substantial and overdue curtailment of over-extended beer ranges.

It’s probably wishful thinking, but it would be good to see this initiative rolled out across the entire industry, particularly to Wetherspoon’s, who in my experience are the biggest culprits when it comes to selling stale beer. And, if a pub operator won’t sign up, it will be a clear indication that they have something to hide.

Obviously, rapid turnover is not the be all and end all of beer quality, and there are other issues that need to be addressed such as hygiene, temperature and conditioning time. There is no guarantee that a fresh beer will be a good one, but it’s pretty certain that a stale beer won’t be.

Over the summer there been an initiative called The Cask Project which has sought to promote the category while at the same encouraging debate about the issues surrounding it. While much of it has been very worthwhile, it has to be said that some has failed to appreciate the fundamental nature of the product. For example, one strand was “There’s a cask beer for everyone” which, in the reality of the typical pub there simply isn’t, as they won’t have the turnover to stock more than a couple, which will probably be a hoppy golden ale and a classic brown bitter. If you want that 8% mango sour you’ll have to look for it on keg.

What is needed, surely, is to go back to basics as to exactly why people should choose cask ahead of other beers. Back in the early days of CAMRA, the main priority was trying to convince people why cask ale was better than its keg counterparts. Nowadays, mainstream keg ales are a sector in steep decline, and the issue is more of how to appeal to people who drink lager, Guinness or cider. The key USP has to be saying that, at its best, cask offers far more richness, depth and complexity of flavour. And, of course, although this is very much in conflict with the current zeitgeist, it is a link with this country’s brewing traditions.

No doubt it will turn out to be a damp squib, but if the fresh beer initiative took off it could be a real shot in the arm for cask beer.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

A picture of health

It seems an age away now, but it’s only two weeks ago that we saw the installation of a new Prime Minister and with it the selection of a new Cabinet. One appointment that raised a few eyebrows was that of Thérèse Coffey as Health Secretary. Ms Coffey is what might be politely described as a “larger lady”, and has been known to enjoy a drink and a cigar, leading some people to suggest that she would not be setting a good example. One the other hand, others felt it might not be such a bad look.

I’m the last person to criticise others for their lifestyles, and it has to be accepted that some people are simply naturally more solidly built than others. All the dieting in the world isn’t going to make her look anything like Kate Moss. Surely it is better to have someone who will get to grips with the political and administrative challenges of the job rather than simply acting as a role model. And she must be a vast improvement on the egregious Matt Hancock, who may have been more svelte, but always came across as if he was giving a middle management pep talk. It’s also interesting to note the words this week of one of her predecessors, Ken Clarke:

“I’m not denying that smoking is the biggest single cause of lung cancer. But life has risks and smoking is one I’ve willingly incurred because it’s a nice part of my lifestyle – I’ve never made any attempt to give up.”

Maybe one could compare her with Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles Director of Public Health, who resembles nothing so much as one of Dracula’s victims, and can hardly be regarded as a picture of health or vigour. And it’s not hard to guess who would be more fun on a night out.

Tuesday 13 September 2022


Earlier in the year, I reviewed Harry White’s very interesting and informative book on The Story of Bass. However, I pointed out that wasn’t a history of the famous beer itself (although that would surely make for a very interesting volume) but a survey of the complex history of the giant corporation that came to bear its name. I’m not the person to write that history of the beer, but I thought it would be worth setting down a few personal memories and reflections on it.

The business model of the original Bass company was to a significant extent based on selling its beer into the free trade across the country. Before Draught Guinness, Bass was the first nationally-distributed draught beer. This still lives on to some extent in areas like the West Country and North and West Wales, in pubs like the Seven Stars in Falmouth, the Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, the Black Boy in Caernarfon and the Bull’s Head in Beaumaric, none of which have ever actually been Bass tied houses. The late Rhys Jones recalled how, in the 1950s, Stockport brewer Robinson’s bought up a number of free houses on Anglesey that had previously sold Bass, something that was resented locally for decades.

Another aspect of this approach was concluding trading agreements with family brewers to sell Draught Bass in their pubs, giving them another string to their bow and Bass more sales. Most of these were swept away by the merger mania of the 1960s, but one that survived into more recent time was with Higson’s of Liverpool. They owned the now-closed George in the centre of Stockport, and I remember before the takeover by Boddingtons in 1985 being able to drink Bass in what was then a very characterful interior. Another pub stocking Bass was the Carnarvon Castle in Liverpool city centre, which is fortunately still with us.

In the mid-70s, the original gravity (OG) of Draught Bass was increased from 1039 to 1044 so as to be able to compete better with the popular premium beers of the time such as Ruddles County. This was a very rare example of a major beer brand increasing its strength. This was before my time, but there must be some older drinkers around who can recall what difference it made to the flavour and character of the beer. It should be remembered that, across large areas of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Bass was sold as the pubs’ standard bitter, as was its Burton rival Pedigree. This is still true to a limited extent.

In the early 70s, there were only seven cask beers available in the whole of the city of Birmingham and one of them was Draught Bass, which was only sold in six selected Mitchells & Butlers pubs. One of these was the Bull’s Head on King’s Norton Green in the south of the city. This wasn’t the nearest pub to where I lived as a student in the late 70s, but sometimes we would pass the local to go and drink there as something of a treat. Bass was served in oversized dimpled mugs from electric metered pumps.

The cowls for these had a distinctive design reflecting the look of a Bass mirror, used for both metered and free-flow dispense. I don’t think the image is an actual font, but it gives an impression of the general look. I believe these survive in a handful of Bristol pubs where there is a tradition of drinking “flat Bass”, usually direct from the cask, which to some extent sails under the CAMRA radar. I don’t know Bristol well, but I have experienced this in the tiny Myrtle Tree in the Hotwells district, a few doors down from the better-known Bag of Nails “cat pub”.

The Bass company had a scattering of pubs in the Stockport area which had mostly come via the Charrington branch of the mega-merger from Hardy’s Crown Brewery of Hulme. In the late 80s, they decided to promote cask Bass by introducing it into the Bull’s Head and the Reddish Vale in the downmarket suburb of Reddish. While on one level this was an initiative to be welcomed, in practice it seemed to be an experiment designed to fail. The locals tried it, but complained that it was expensive, and gave them a bad head, because it was that bit stronger than the keg Stones Bitter they were used to. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last long. If they had been serious about reintroducing cask beer, it would have made more sense to switch the Stones from keg to cask. Both pubs have long since closed, and of what I think were at one time eight Bass pubs in Stockport only two now survive.

The beer itself has gone through a number of changes in production method and location, with Bass themselves abandoning brewing in the Union system in the late 80s, and contracting it out to Marston’s in the 2000s. Pedigree is still brewed in unions, but not Bass. Inevitably some people will say it’s now a pale shadow of its former self. However, which beers can really be said to be the same as they were forty or fifty years ago, and people’s memories of what beers tasted like back then are inevitably hazy and coloured by memories of their own lives in general.

Bass had always been a beer I quite liked, but I always tended to pigeonhole it as just another brew from the Big Six national brewers. My memory of the old union Bass was that it could sometimes have a rather cloying character that is absent from the current version. It is significant that the great beer writer Michael Jackson considered that Pedigree, not Bass, was the classic of the style.

I’ve given it more attention in the present century when it has become something of an endangered species, and I have to say that to my tastebuds the current incarnation is an excellent beer that preserves its distinctive bittersweet character and does not disgrace its honourable heritage. It stands up very well against its direct competitors. If it’s not the kind of thing you like, fair enough, but if you think it’s a poor beer compared with others in the same category that really says more about you.

It’s also significant that, as it is not actively promoted either by AB InBev or by pub companies, every pub that serves it has made a positive decision to stock it rather than having it foisted on them. Compare this with Taylor’s Landlord, another excellent beer in top condition, but all too often poorly looked after and extremely lacklustre when actually drunk in the pub.

Friday 2 September 2022

Huddling together for warmth

In response to the news of steep increases in energy prices, people inevitably started wondering for how long they would be able to get away with nursing a half of Ruddle’s in Wetherspoon’s. The appeal of lingering in a warm pub as opposed to heating your own house is only too obvious.

This may have been said partly in jest, but there are now serious suggestions that local authorities should turn vacant shops into official warm rooms for cash-strapped people to congregate instead of staying at home. There may be merit in this idea, but surely, as Richard Coles suggests here, to some extent pubs provide a ready-made solution. Plus the pub is already heated, so nobody is incurring any additional bills.

Licensees, with good reason, have always been resistant to the idea of allowing freeloaders to spend extended periods in the pub without putting any money across the bar, and to not being able to exercise control over who is allowed entry. It would not be reasonable to expect already cash-strapped pubs to extend this welcome out of the goodness of their own heart, but if this role was formally recognised it could be a reason for pubs to receive additional financial support.

It might require pubs to incur additional costs, such as by opening longer hours and paying staff to work them, as this would tend to be mostly a daytime activity. And the visitors would no doubt expect to use facilities such as toilets, wi-fi and charging points that the pub had already paid for.

Licensees would have to put up with pensioners bringing in their own sandwiches and a thermos flask of tea, but of course they might even end up actually buying some food or drink from the pub. However, a line would surely have to be drawn at bringing in their own alcoholic drinks, which undermines the whole trading basis of the pub. And I suspect that the local authority warm hubs would have to enforce a no-alcohol rule to prevent street drinkers bringing in piles of cans and causing trouble. The warm rooms would need a lot more organisation and policing than might at first be imagined.

Maybe nothing will come of this – after all, you don’t hear much nowadays of pubs providing “community toilet” facilities which were widely discussed a few years ago – but it’s something that must be worthy of serious consideration.

And, of course, people are still free to seek out the warmth and hospitality of the pub in the normal manner...