Sunday, 4 March 2018

Balloch Blues

It must be hard being a real ale campaigner in Scotland and I take my hat off to those that do it. This is a rocky and uphill road and it has much ability to give disappointment and duff pints in equal measure. Though there must be compensating pleasures, I'm glad I do my bit for CAMRA in the relatively green, sunny and real ale rich pastures of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury.

But the campaign is about quality as well as choice, so how does Balloch measure up?  Firstly, why Balloch? Well simple really. It was the only handy place I could get a train to. Balloch is at the bottom of Loch Lomond, though in shivering cold, its banks and braes were anything but bonny. The road wasn't that bonny either, being around two feet of slushy snow. It has three real ale outlets - I say outlets rather than pubs - as none is a pub in the accepted English sense, two being hotel bars and one, just a typical Scottish one room bar*.  It has one other advantage as a small real ale crawl - all the boozers are within a three minute walk of the station and consequently of each other.

*The Dog House is a typical one roomed bar - or so I thought - but seemingly there is another bar within. Nonetheless I was in the one with the real ale, though as might be expected, everyone was drinking Tennents or cider, which may well explain the slightly stale and oxidised pint of the local brew, Southern Summit from Loch Lomond Brewery, carefully served in a Belhaven Best glass. The room was roughly rectangular with some bench seating and a small row of tables and chairs placed strategically in front of one of the dominating TVs.  It was friendly enough in that nobody stabbed me, but it was clearly a locals bar, with banter flying freely about as the denizens battered back the TL and walloped down the vodka.  I stayed for one only and was gratified that another recalcitrant ordered the cask before I left. Maybe it would be better than mine?

Just 50 yards away on the other side of the road was a place, Balloch House, I'd been to before without having a particularly good time.  I wrote about that here.  Hoping for improvement, I went in. Firstly it was busy.  Two guys were playing traditional (not Scottish) music and a few stood at the bar though like me they held their coats awkwardly under their arms, as there was nowhere apparent to hang them. The handpump selection was, one (empty), one (Doom Bar - off,) one (Bitter and Twisted) and the other Deuchars IPA. There might even have been another, but I can't remember. I selected Bitter and Twisted which was unsparkled and definitely uninspiring - average at best.  Looking around the pub had been furnished with various useless tat by modern pub central and although plenty people were in, it strikes me as the kind of place that couldn't generate atmosphere if you sealed all the doors and windows and pumped laughing gas in. (Your mileage may vary.) I was additionally annoyed by the free Wi-Fi which required - and didn't get - a huge amount of intrusive information as a matter of course. Having failed to enjoy this place on two visits, I must bravely face the fact that I like nothing at all about this Mitchells and Butler's outpost. Sorry.

Lastly the Tullie Inn. This is a bit of a barn and was clearly redeveloped some years ago from its former more traditional look to aim for the summer trade. In winter, it just looked, big, soulless, cold and empty.  I was greeted at the door by an A board where "George and Mildred" - or whoever - assured me of a warm welcome. I find though that if you have to write the welcome down, it is sure to be wholly absent within. And so it came to pass.  Funnily though my Cask Marque accredited pint from Fallen Brewery of Stirling was pretty good, even though the beer, Grapevine, fell several hurdles short of its description of "New World Pale" and was a mighty £4 a pint. Time was against me and that one would have to do. My train and, unknown to me, a very disturbed night ahead, awaited me.

Balloch is probably best experienced for its views of Loch Lomond and the Ben. Stick to them and you'll be quite happy. Expect a lot from the local pubs and sadly, you may well be disappointed.

I don't recall any keg craft as such in any of the pubs, so that avenue was pretty well closed. 

The rail line to Helensburgh is now restored and with luck I can nip down there later for a decent pint. I might even get home tomorrow.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

White Out

I'm currently in Dumbarton looking after my ailing Mum to give my sister a break and to spend a little time with my Mum while I still can.  It has snowed here rather a lot. In fact as much snow as I can recall in this old town, but then again, I haven't spent that much time in it recently.

Of course, man does not live  by copious cups of tea alone - well this one doesn't - and Thursday, which was pretty bad saw my Dumbarton family gave me a couple of hours off. Despite intermittent heavy snow and bright sunshine, I fancied a pint. My sister and niece had already advised that they observed, as they walked to Mum's, that all the pubs apart from the local Wetherspoons were shut. This though was fine by me as I wasn't after mass produced lager. The pavements were more or less out of bounds for two reasons. Firstly around they were coated by two feet of snow and secondly, my rather inappropriate footwear. I had anticipated the cold and had a heavy coat, but not the snow. "It never snows much in Dumbarton" was my faulty assessment as I left Middleton. So along with other brave souls, I trudged along the main road. Not a great problem as apart from a few four wheel drive cars, there was no traffic.

It didn't take me more than 15 minutes to get into town. Indeed the first two pubs - the biggest apart from JDW - were firmly shuttered.  All businesses and shops seemed to be too.  Now there are a couple more smaller pubs along the High St, but I wasn't checking them out. The Captain James Lang was open and fairly busy.  Wetherspoon has its critics, but it was open when other weren't and was doing good business in tea, coffee, meals and the odd pint too. My pints of Loch Lomond Southern Summit got a solid 3 as I assessed them for WhatPub and CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System.  As I sat I observed. My fellow Dumbartonians seemed well attired in the footwear department. I gazed enviously at the various walking shoes, boots and wellies.  My shoes were matted with snow and looked wet, but hadn't let any moisture in - Clarks doncha know, so I wasn't complaining, but was well aware that I looked dressed for rather better weather.

After a couple of pints of Southern Summit, I noticed the pub had newly installed BrewDog's Punk IPA, so I had a half. Underneath the carbonic acid ridden presentation is a rather decent beer trying to get out. It was hugely over gassed and very cold, but as it warmed up and revealed its layers of flavour, I reflected that despite all that is said about "craft" beer, in a lot of cases it still suffers from exactly the same problems that has always plagued it. That is excess CO2 and very low temperature. For sipping beer this might be fine, but for swigging beer, for this observer at least, it just doesn't cut it. Better gas control is a must - see this from Will Hawkes. He is spot on.

Anyway one thing I do notice in the Captain James Lang is that there is a slow and creeping uptake on cask. In fairness, the West of Scotland is a hard nut to crack, but I get the impression that they are doing their best here. Not enough to not try and get away with duff pints now and again, but better. I keep saying the last per
son who should discover a bad pint is the customer.

Beer quality should be continually checked. If it isn't, they simply aren't doing it right.

Hoping to escape to Glasgow later on. The CJL has lost its charms. I need pastures new. No trains but there are buses and I haven't been on a bus from Dumbarton to Glasgow for over 50 years.  Regretfully, not free despite my advancing years.

A footnote about Southern Summit and Joker IPA, which I have had some of on cask recently. Atren't they a bit sweet?

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Few, not the Many

At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I had the enviable (no I don't mean unenviable - it was great) task of chairing our annual Great Manchester Beer Debate. It attracted a fairly decent sized and very enthusiastic audience and together with our excellent panel resulted in a lively and interesting session. My dulcet tones, a fab top table and free beer along with beer talk? What's not to like? The subject, very loosely - though in the end it was maintained throughout without too many meanderings down side streets - was "The Price of Beer". Ironically the attraction of free beer to keep the buggers there and listening was a positive plus. Even those that argued for higher prices didn't mind that!

Our panel was Jo Whalley – Wigan Central's Bar Manager, Connor Murphy – Organiser, Manchester Beer Week, Brad Cummings – Tiny Rebel co-owner and now CAMRA NE candidate and Sue"the Brew" Hayward from Waen and Hopcraft Breweries. I'm not going to bore you with all the details, but our panellists had forthright views on the issue of price, but perhaps surprisingly, no real agreement. In particular the two brewers had quite divergent views on many aspects, which goes to show that perhaps there isn't really an exact and universally accepted conclusion to the question of price. Different businesses and owners take different approaches, both as sellers of beer and more surprisingly perhaps, when they are customers buying beer for themselves. The audience too was split with some accepting that price wasn't a great inhibitor and others saying it is. The conversation ranged across costs, poor brewing and too many breweries, great brewing costing more, price of ingredients, cask v keg, hard times, low wages and much and more. It was fascinating to chair and when we finished after around an hour and 20 minutes, there were still hands up trying to make further points.

I was prompted to recall this when I read a piece yesterday about the price of craft beer in the good old Morning Advertiser. You can read it here. The argument - and it isn't new or original - is that poorer members of the drinking public are being priced out of the craft beer revolution, especially in the push by some, for the £5 pint. (Of course many craft beers cost way beyond that.)  I could of course regurgitate the usual facile guff that some brewers trot out about the high cost of producing top quality beer with the best ingredients. That is fine and dandy and even to some extent true. But  the use of quality ingredients doesn't remotely tell the whole story of mark ups, location, staffing, size, efficiency, overheads, rental costs etc. etc.  Price is a very complex business indeed. Comparative price even more so. There is no one answer.

It is fashionable among some to present craft as a bottom up movement of the people sticking it to the man - BrewDog comes to mind, though they aren't alone - but wouldn't it just be a lot more honest to say "Well, we make expensive beer for people with plenty of disposable income and if those who don't have that income want to drink our beer, it's too bad. They'll just have to do without - or maybe have the odd glass as a treat". After all makers of other high end goods generally don't make excuses for their prices, or portray the product as something for everyone. Why should brewers?  Reflecting on price, I know that locally here in Greater Manchester, I can get excellent beer for (well) under £3.50 a pint even in Manchester City Centre.  Equally I can pay a lot more, even for the same beer. There is though, price points to suit most pockets and for those that can't afford to drink in pubs, there is a huge choice of cheap beer to drink at home. The truth is that somewhere in the market, no matter where you live in the UK, there is beer at an affordable price for you. We should be glad about that.

Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it should be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.

I think the main conclusion of the beer debate was just that. There is beer for everyone, but not everyone can have some beers. Some beer will always be a treat. We should just accept that. 

Prices around the country will obviously vary without changing my main point.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

On Trade Suffers Again

The news that 88 million less pints were drunk in pubs and bars in 2017 can hardly come as a surprise.  This equates to a 2.4% year on year fall and hammers home yet again the message that pubs are still in trouble and that there is still a significant switch to drinking beer at home, as overall, beer sales rose slightly.  There isn't a bright looking horizon either, with a business rates bombshell likely to have a further effect on on trade prices in 2018.

The great divide in beer continues, not because of increased off sales at the craft small pack end of things - that's a different thing - but at the volume end. For those with jobs and "just about managing", choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.

The beer market is changing considerably. The so called community pub is being threatened as never before as its core customers vote with their feet and drink their beer at home. Those of us who enjoy their beer in the pub had better watch out. It is an endangered species and while really good pubs that can attract those with plenty disposable income, will no doubt survive and while the craft bubble will continue to provide an alternative to the well heeled in mostly urban centres,  the overall picture is somewhat depressing. For those not quite at the bottom of the pile, who used to enjoy a pint in their local but can no longer afford to do so, the pub may fade from not only their daily routine, but their weekly and even monthly one.

Fragmentation, high prices, high duty and high business rates as well as different social habits, don't paint a rosy picture. Changes have been both evolutionary and enforced by circumstances. The effect is broadly similar however.

And there is more to come.

Britain has the fourth dearest alcohol prices in Europe. So much for minimum pricing.

The day of  the handy local pub is disappearing. You'll also have to travel further to the pub for that odd pint. Another disincentive.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Bradley Cummings?

In what might be seen as a major intervention in CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, Bradley Cummings, co-founder and co-owner  of Tiny Rebel Brewing has thrown his hat into the ring and will stand as a CAMRA National Executive member.  What might this mean if he is successful in his attempt? Is it a good or a bad thing? Let's have a look.

Well we don't need to guess at his intentions as he lays out his plans in a short and succinct 23 page manifesto. Let's have a look at it.

On the (perhaps) positive side Brad :
  • points out the lack of member involvement in the Campaign
  • puts forward a number of ideas to increase that involvement
  • wants to "drive shit and get things done"
  • wishes to get the best out of the potential of nearly 200,000 members
  • agrees CAMRA should widen its remit to include the wider beer community
  • recognises that unprofitable pubs must close
  • thinks that pubs must adapt or die
  • agrees that CAMRA should establish an Industry Committee or suchlike
  • thinks we should have a focus on membership education though disagrees with proposed methodology
  • points out CAMRA isn't very cool
  • reminds us that a 300% increase in members has brought little by way of increased involvement
  • suggests a much better use of technology and direct membership involvement
  • reminds us that better choice not real ale was the CAMRA founding principle
  • states that poor quality cask ale is the biggest risk to the future of cask ale
  • urges us to vote with our feet when encountering poor real ale
I could go on but have picked these out for you. I'd urge you to read the whole thing here and make your own list.

On the (perhaps) less positive side Brad:
  • seems to disregard cider and perry as irrelevant
  • thinks brewers, not the beer drinking public know best about beer quality
  • supports the on trade as a way into pubs for drinkers
  • poo-poos cask conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's art
  • wants members to be distanced from breweries by allowing brewers to represent themselves, rather than though liaison officers 
  • wants industry representation at all levels of CAMRA including direction and policy
  • postulates that quality comes at a cost
Now really with all this, you pays your money and you takes your choice. You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn't an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA's democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive.

On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can't really concur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible. CAMRA must continue to be an independent consumer champion and the very idea that brewers know best about everything beer-wise certainly causes me to raise my eyebrows somewhat. After all brewers rarely speak with a common voice. Just look at hazy versus clear, not to mention many other subjective arguments about hopping rates, carbonation, pricing, packaging and like as not, a million things more.

So vote for Brad? Up to you really, but having chaired the Great Manchester Beer Debate at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, where Brad was a panel member, I was impressed with many of his points of view. Revitalisation is something very different and maybe it is time for someone new to the Campaign, with an unconventional and non traditional background, to become a member of the Executive that will steer the changes through. There's lots you can add on the plus side and I for one reckon it might just be a good thing - assuming if elected - he sees his term to its end.

After all, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The Great Manchester Beer Debate was interesting. Subject was loosely "The Price of Beer". I'll try and deal with this in a later post. Yes, on the whole, most brewers, despite the fact they say little comes their way, favour higher prices.

Brad would also knock the JDW tokens on the head. He isn't alone in this.

Remember, all members will have a vote for both the National Executive and for Revitalisation. Use it.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Helensburgh High Spots

After my mixed bag in Glasgow, again after a hospital visit, I took the train to Helensburgh.  Now I always like trains and for reasons which will become clear, I like this line most of all. I grew up beside it and it holds a lot of memories. My late father was a Station Master on this line and I lived in a Station House in Dumbarton for many years. I well remember as a child looking out of my bedroom window at the platforms below and steam trains chugging by or patiently waiting as passengers got on and off. The smell of steam was a daily rotine for me when a small child. When the line was electrified in the early 60s I had the privilege to "drive", from  one end of the platform to another, new Bue Train as we called them, sitting with my hand on the "dead man's handle" on the knee of the driver. Railways are in my blood- but I digress.

There are two real ale outlets in Helensburgh that make an easy little two pub trip. The Henry Bell is a Wetherspoons with a clean, modern, good looking interior and on the ball staff who always seem interested in what they are doing - which goes to show that generalisations, while understandable, don't tell the whole story.  The HB also benefits I feel from a large influx of English customers - Helensburgh seems full of English people-  and of course, the nearby presence of the HM Naval Base Clyde - Faslane - home of the strategic nuclear deterrent and its submarine delivery system guarantees that the lesser interest in cask beer in this neck of the woods is leavened by those that grew up on it. Beer quality is invariably good.

The pub was busy on my arrival and ordering a pint of Purity Gold, which was in excellent condition, I found a bench seat (tick) with a good view and surveyed the scene. Clearly a boat was in and there was a large mixed age naval presence, with little groups of different types setting up homes on different tables, while nipping over occasionally to chat to each other. The younger end were putting the booze away at a far lick, but the atmosphere was pleasant, with the assorted naval types a credit to the service. I moved on to try an Amber Ale from Birkenhead's Peerless Brewing and while not my favourite style, I rather enjoyed it. Again it was in excellent condition and sometimes it pays to step outside your usual style and remind yourself that variety is a good thing.

It was time to move on, so turning left, then stepping over the road and walking a few yards, I entered the  Ashton,  CAMRA's West Dunbartonshire Pub of the Year (not sure which year mind you) and an old haunt of mine almost forty years ago. My luck was in. In addition to the usual Greene King/ Belhaven offerings was Fyne Ales Jarl. Now I have been a bit sceptical of this beer recently, feeling on the few chances to try it, that it wasn't the knockout of old. Well, on this form, I was clearly wrong. This was in stunning condition, with Citra hops shining through and making the beer extremely swoopable.  I was tempted to stay for several in this convivial local, but after a couple I left for the train. The service too was excellent with the barman temptingly reminding me that there are trains every half hour.  I resisted his blandishments, though when I arrived at the station and found I'd miscalculated my train time and had twenty minutes to wait, I bitterly regretted my decision.
There was no choice. I crossed the road for a swift half of Tennents in the Station Bar. No appalling music this time as there was football on.  I have written before about how the Tennents in here was excellent. This was too. Coming straight after Jarl, this was no mean feat.

So there you have it. Two out of two getting ten out of ten real ale and service wise.  Add in an excellent cheeky half of TL and it was a great night all in.

 Next time I'll make a return visit to Glasgow CAMRA's Pub of the Year the State Bar. Again I know this place of old.  I'll let you know how I get on.

I also intend to resume my Sam Smith's wanderings. It's been too long. 

The photo above is where our house once stood. I remember the day that bridge was built, replacing one from the 1890s.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Partial Disappointment in Glasgow

Yesterday after visiting my poorly mother in hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow, I was at a bit of a loose end. I could have gone back to Dumbarton or go into the City Centre. I chose the latter and hopped on a handy train to Glasgow Central.

Where to go? Now I always used to go to Nicholson's Drum and Monkey as a handy stop between Central and Queen St stations, but gave it up as a bad job after having too much sub-standard beer. "Let's give it a go again I thought" and nipped in. Now it has to be said that it is a fine looking traditional pub with a horseshoe bar, a lot of dark wood and a general feel of being spick and span.  It's history as a bank while not obvious, can readily be discerned. It was though at around 4pm, ominously empty.  I ordered a pint of Inveralmond Thai IPA, a beer that I've had and enjoyed before.  It felt warm in my hand and was slightly cloudy. It was clearly end of the barrel stuff and I took it back. Exchange was slightly reluctant, but done with speed. I was offered instead, Palmer's Trawlerman, which while warm and unsparkled was a decent enough beer underneath.  So not a great return and I can see no reason to go back other than in a minor victory of sorts, as I left, the faulty Thai IPA had been withdrawn from sale and the line was being cleaned.  Now I know I'm being a tad unfair, but the measure of a pub's beer quality must be that even at quiet times, it is good.

Another haunt - and I am not sure why - is the nearby Shilling Brewery. Again it was quiet when I entered and again - speaking from past experience - the staff seem curiously reluctant to engage customers in conversation. It almost seems to be part of the staff rules. I ordered a half of a rather coconutless Teleporter Coconut Porter which was so way over gassed as to make it tasteless. Now in stouts and porters I'd say put in on nitro rather than CO2 as at least you'll enjoy the texture a lot more.  A bit better though was the oddly named Machine Gun Lager which boasted German and New Zealand hops though when I asked what hops were employed, it took a bit before agreement could be reached. Still, the beer was decent with fragrant and floral hops, so lose one, win one.

I had to get home, but there was just time for a couple in the massive Counting House, a JDW on George Square and handy for my train.  My beer of choice here has been Williams Brothers hybrid lager/IPA, Caesar Augustus which I find is a delightfully refreshing beer. Alas after one pint, it ran out, as did my second choice, Joker IPA.  I have to say the barperson that served me was a delight in helping me choose from the many keg beers available. In a busy pub, she took her time to get it right. Well done for an excellent bit of customer service. My final pint was a Rye IPA, Ax Man, from Drygate, which was complex and unusual. A bit of a sipper, but none the worse for that.

So there you have it. Two quiet pubs and two moderate experiences and one rammed one which had not only atmosphere, great beer, but great service. Still all a bit of a lottery in the pub game.

I must say that I did have a good time not so long ago at Shilling Brewery, which I wrote about here. The beer is generally very good. 

Hasn't Palmer's beer come rather a long way?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Happy New Year

A bit late I know, but I've been busy. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival doesn't arrange itself and I've had an unexpected urgent trip to Scotland, to visit my ill and elderly mother. Nonetheless, the greetings are heartfelt.

We'll come back to Manchester Beer and Cider Festival shortly, but since I've been in Scotland, a few thoughts about the land of the loch and the glen. Firstly, if you didn't know it, while Barr's Irn Bru - is allegedly Scotland's "Other National Drink" (reformulated or not and yes, in my short visit, I have met Scots who have bought and hoarded cases of the really sugary version, pending the usurping launch of the not quite so sugary version), Scotland's other National Drink is undoubtedly Tennent's Lager. it is everywhere and it is drunk and revered everywhere.  While John Smith's Smooth may be the go to beer of the early morning Wetherspoon's soak in England - in Scotland it is TL they line up when most of us have scarcely breakfasted.  In the hotel bar - and there are lots of them in Scotland - it is Tennents on the bar.  In the noisy public bar with inappropriately loud and shite music - another West of Scotland trait - Tennents is the drink of choice. Even in craft beer bars like Shilling Brewery, they sell Tennents. In other words, unless you sell Tennents, get out of town.  With very few exceptions, you must sell Tennents or die as a business.

Now there are other lagers available. Sometimes. Wetherspoons have lots of them, but they are, frankly, a sideshow. It is the big red  T that dominates, but it wasn't always so.  Back in my days in Scotland, Skol, Norseman, Harp, Usher's Golden Lager and of course, McEwan's Lager were all readily available. All gone - and while nowadays Stella and Kronenbourg pop up here and there, plus the odd foreign beer, in the standard lager department, Tennents is yer man. I used to drink it myself many years ago, usually in pint screwtop bottles and quite possibly as an affectation. I sort of liked Skol better, but that was then and in McEwan's houses, I drank McEwan's Pale Ale, also in pint screwtops, or if feeling flush"A big Whitbread". (I think they were first to abandon pint screwtops in favour of the crown cap. But I digress.)

So what does it taste like? Well, at its best, not bad at all, but over carbonation and sub zero temperatures can wreck it. On Friday last week in the Abbotsford Hotel in Dumbarton, it was over-carbonated and utterly tasteless. Last night when I missed my train, in the Station Bar in Helensburgh, it was full bodied, subtly hopped, not over gassed and very enjoyable.  You can't depend on it sadly, though that seems not to matter to most of its customers.

While the quality of the drinking establishment and the eardrum busting music in the Station Bar can be questioned, I can vouch, from no little experience, that they keep a decent pint of Tennent's Lager.

Sadly I missed out on the GBG entry, the Ashton, but Loch Lomond Brewery beer was top notch in the Henry Bell, though nudged aside by a torrent of gin. 

I do miss these old standard lagers too. Pint of Alloa brewed  Skol? Yes please.

I'll do @Mancbeerfest tomorrow. This train is a bit shoogly.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Where's a good, easy day out from London? St Albans that's where. A mere 25 minutes from central London and in feel, a world away.  All of a sudden you are in a distinctly different part of the country with an easy going feel to it and a small town atmosphere.  It has a cathedral, a large market, an old town, lots of pubs and even a small Christmas market. What's not to like? Well a persistent drizzly rain that's what. Despite leaving London with a cloudless sky, we arrived to light rain, which more or less, despite the weather forecast saying a 2% chance of precipitation, gave us 100% drizzle.  As Peter Kay might say "you know, the kind of rain that wets you."

I suppose too if I was a bit picky, I'd complain about the station being nowhere near the centre - and it isn't - but if it hadn't been raining that wouldn't have mattered, but as it was we were getting distinctly wet, so after a little bit of orientation we hopped into the Blacksmith's Arms for no reason other than we were passing it.  It is quite a nice, friendly pub, which despite having a Cask Marque sign had by some way the poorest beer we had that day, not helped by a random looking choice of Christmas ales, plus Doom Bar. My Bath Ales Festivity was pretty underwhelming, but the pub was bustling and cheerful and the service was brisk and polite, so it was getting some things right.  The food looked decent too.

After a walk round the long street market, we crossed into the Old Town and made for the cathedral, noting the odd pub as we went. This being the festive season, it was carols that were the main attraction and the lovely cathedral was full of locals, anticipating their singalong, though one or two others, like us, wanted to see the building itself . That was fine too and very enjoyable. The whole church had a homely and community feel which given its size was extraordinary.  It was the kind of place, if I lived locally, I'd be drawn to - and I'm not particularly religious.  I'd go back in a heartbeat just to see it again.

So, after that uplifting experience it was back into the rain and a quick dart into the low ceilinged Boot, which was atmospheric and rammed. We stood for our first pint and then managed a little table for two with a good view of things. It was clear the place was full of locals as folks greeted each other by name or shouted and waved across the crowded room.  We were happy to be part of it and left with a lot of reluctance after a couple of decent pints, for a look round another market. Then a stroll to the local JDW which came as highly recommended, being in a renovated medieval barn. The Waterend Barn was also, despite its size absolutely "chokka" as they say in Liverpool, so we stood at the bar with our drinks while watching the manager dish out roles to the staff, while omitting to get one or two to actually serve the growing throng of customers waiting to be served. Ah well, nearly right. It should go without saying that serving customers comes first. Well in a way, that's what happened.  It went without saying. Good beer though and interesting customers in a more upmarket Christmas jumper sort of way.

We left the best of the day to the last two pubs we visited. The White Hart Tap was more or less on the way back to the station and an absolute delight, though tricky to get in as the door is in front of the bar which is only about five feet away and was blocked by a number of quite pissed lads, who good naturedly stepped aside to let us in. This is a neat little pub with Northern quality beer. I had some splendid beer from Summer Wine Brewery (Zenith) and even a bit of a chat with a couple of gents necking down vino reddo.

Our last call was near the station. The Robin Hood was better looking on the outside than in, though it was busy and friendly. It seemed to have been given a bad taste makeover recently, with inappropriate pale laminate flooring jarring considerably, as did the light blue paint on the bar. Putting these aside, the Harvey's Best was excellent and compensated in no small way for the decor. I do wonder though about the yukky pub interior, which was further diminished by harsh white overhead lighting.

This was a good day out with beer well above average, some good pubs and all noticeably friendly. Best of all in some ways was that less than an hour later, we were back in our London flat. We'll be back when it isn't raining.

The city - for that is what is is - had a homely small town feel to it. Coming as I do from a small town, I liked that about it.

I have been to St Albans before but it was a long time ago and I was driving, so no pubs that time.   Thanks to all who gave me recommendations for this visit. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Plastic Glasses

I had a lovely day out last Saturday with E. In London for the Beer Writers thrash and with some spare time on our hands and the rail strikes on Southern settled, we went to Lewes for the day - a long time ambition of mine - though E had done some work for the local council there, had been several times, so would be my guide.

The first surprise after a surprisingly long journey from Victoria is how steep the hill is between the station which lies below the town and the town itself. I found that out in a most unwelcome way, as my bad knee literally gave way on the one in ten gradient, or whatever this North Face of the Eiger alike, was. (It is bothering me still on stairs if nothing else.) After planting my nation's flag on the summit, we explored a bit. A long, quaint High St, dotted with individual businesses  both to left and right, so on E's recommendation we went left until the town more or less ran out, noting a couple of decent pubs on the way.  E explained the more modern part of the town - and that is very relative as it all was entirely delightful - was at the bottom of another steep hill, as was Harvey's Brewery.

After a look at the castle - which dated back to Norman times - of course I didn't pay to go in - £17 my arse - we set off for the bottom of the town down another fearsome hill to admire the brewery and take the customary photo. Very picturesque, but a drink was required, Harvey's of course. A handy sign pointed us to the equally picturesque (both in looks and setting) of the John Harvey, Harvey's Brewery Tap. That'll do very nicely. As we approached on a cold but sunny day, I noticed that the hardy outside drinkers had plastic glasses. I assumed that was because of outdoor drinking and its fleeting mark on my conscious mind was dismissed.  Inside the pub is a delight. Low ceilinged, lots of wood, a bar with both hand pumped and gravity fed beer and a good buzz of conversation. I looked at the pumps. "A pint of Mild please" quoth I.  Mine host, a cheerful young fellow replied "Is a plastic glass OK?" I'd rather not said I. He looked a bit embarrassed and replied that it was all plastic glasses. Hmm. Now I dislike plastic glasses intensely. I dislike even more those that are so flimsy you need to carry them with two hands. I politely declined and we left. For me it was a point of principle.

Settled comfortably in the Dorset round the corner with a pint of Sussex Pale in a proper glass, we wondered what the reason could be. Now Brighton, just down the road were playing Liverpool at home and we had see the odd Brighton fan waiting for a bus or walking about, but none were in the John Harvey, which frankly was rather a posh gaff with rather a posh clientele. Surely that couldn't be it? Bloodshed, or the potential for it there, seemed highly unlikely and we hadn't seen and didn't see a single policeman in the whole time we were there. A mystery.

After a bit of light shopping and a few more pubs - all of which were served in glass - we made our way to station and a last pint or two. Our destination, just across from the station was the Lansdown Arms, a proper bustling pub of character.  It was heaving with returning Brighton fans, still groggy after a good hammering.  We found a seat and got into conversation with two philsohical supporters of a similar age to ourselves. We asked about the John Harvey as we supped our beer, again from a proper glass. They didn't know why there was plastic either.

I recommend Lewes highly. We enjoyed the Dorset, even more the eclectically decorated Snowdrop, our "tea" in the Brewer's Arms - a splendid throwback to the seventies in every way including the menu - a quick visit to the old fashioned Rights of Man and our final pints in the Lansdown Arms, but the John Harvey left a note of disappointment which still lingers.

Plastic glasses in a brewery's showcase pub? I don't think so.

The pubs in Lewes are old fashioned in a really good way, though I have to say that the Harveys seemed better in the Royal Oak in Borough.

We bought some fancy cheese and E, a devotee of Seasalt, Cornwall, a pair of trousers.  Everybody happy then.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Not Quite Bad Enough Pint

Like many a cask beer drinker, I pride myself on knowing a good pint, knowing common faults in beer and perhaps most difficult of all, knowing when a cask is about to run out. That can be a bit of a harder one though, in that the pint will often look pin bright, have a decent head and will to the usually inexperienced server, look exactly the same as any other he or she has served.  But it isn't. Despite its looks the beer is actually, while not exactly undrinkable, not in optimal condition. As a beer, it has more or less ceased to be, while zombie like it still purports to be alive and kicking.

In one of my local pubs last night after trying the Bitter and MPA which were excellent - they keep their beer brilliantly there - I thought I'd switch to the lovely Christmas special, Plum Pudding. It looked fine, but one sip told me it was getting to the bottom of the barrel.  Dilemma. Was it bad enough to return? I debated it mentally. I know when the beer starts to lose its condition and pick up off tastes from the cask bottoms, it can still last two or three pints more, but sure as eggs is eggs, it won't last much longer and it won't be much good.  An additional problem to add to my deliberations, is that they know me there and they know I'm the local CAMRA Chairman and because of that, my general rule in pubs I know, is if they know me and who I am, I don't tend to moan about the beer - unless of course it is vinegar or something equally indisputable.

So, I supped a bit of it slowly while keeping my eye on the handpump.  It spluttered to an end a few minutes later. I watched and waited and as soon as the cask was changed ordered a new pint. It was gorgeous. My discarded half pint or so remained on the table.

Did I do the right thing in not presenting myself as some kind of beer soothsayer? I think so. In my position, you sometimes have to take one for the Campaign.  Nobody likes a smartarse after all.

In my opinion too, which is ignored at Good Beer Guide Selection meetings, this pub should be in the Guide.  Being an estate pub though very few of my members are likely to nominate it.  Shows it isn't always a fix.

For my London readers, very little of this applies of course.  Cask beer quality there usually precludes such beery predictions.


Friday, 24 November 2017

The Colour of Murky

I've always had my worries about murky beer and even quite hazy beer, though slightly hazy beer doesn't bother me that much.  What has though always concerned me, is that in the case of cask conditioned beer, it, pun intended, muddies the waters. Not so long ago, in the days of certainty, you knew where you stood. If a hand pulled pint had more than a slight haze, back to the bar it went. There was never much by way of argument. We all knew the rules and beer should be clear.  Any haze had your radar twitching and murk would never be tolerated.  Not so much now.

It kind of started for me in 2001 in Portland Oregon at Rock Bottom Brewery where to my horror the cask beer was cloudy and it was meant to be. My good friend Jaime Jurado, now Director of Brewing Operations at ‎Abita Brewing Co. and then Director of Brewing for the company that owned Bridgeport in Portland explained to me that "opalescence" was rapidly being considered a desirable feature in cask beer within the US. In a subsequent private tour of Portland Brewing Co and a tasting, this was confirmed. Deliberate murk has a long history.

Fortunately this tendency lay dormant - more or less for years and when I served beer at the Chicago Real Ale Festival in 2007, I believe what beer that was murky was more by poor handling than deliberate intent.  Arguments about taste abound - see Ed's blog here - and empirical evidence is hard to find - but where there is an absence of "yeast bite" I can live with it - pointless though it is - but my concern about "It's meant to be like that" being used an excuse certainly haven't gone away.  I rather doubt if I'd be given an exchange in many places and frankly, with the norm having been altered and fudged, I could hardly expect it to be.  A quick call to the brewer might well be an anwer, but I'm uncertain if that is the best way round it.

At the recent Rochdale Beer Festival we had about four beers where there was no indication on the cask that the beer should be hazy. So we left them, tasted them when they didn't clear and having found no obvious faults, put it on sale with a warning.

If you can't beat them, join them I suppose, but it doesn't leave me with a comfortable feeling.

Despite Cooking Lager's amusing ditty, I doubt if craft beer will crumble and die due to murkiness. 

London brewers still seem to lead the way in deliberate murkiness. London Murk indeed, though I reckon the influx of American brewers into the UK a few years ago and American influences on brewing here in the aUK had a hand in it, both directly and indirectly.

Thursday, 9 November 2017


No, not the discovery that I am a secret teetotaller and that all this is made up, but the brewery of that name in Glasgow. On my visits to Dumbarton I have seen their beers here and there, well, mostly there really, in the odd Glasgow hostelry, but a trip to Glasgow and the chance to see it for myself, was too good to miss.

We started with the train to Glasgow and a deliberately walk down Sauchiehall St rather than getting off in the City Centre. Boy could you eat well there, with trendy eateries, curry house, high street chains and much more abounding.  Back in the day I spent a few weeks learning how to assess Supplementary Benefit in that neck of the woods and really, apart from the shop fronts changing, the area is much the same. Food wasn't our intention though, but just to get a feel for it all again and for E to be reminded how smart a city Glasgow is.

It was a fine walk, but man does not live by Rennie Macintosh and nostalgia alone. I'd told E about Shilling Brewery, so in we went. It would have been around one o'clock when we rocked up and found just one other customer.  Given that there was four or five staff around, I found the welcome as I found it before. Absent.  Staff seemed for happier chatting amongst themselves and taking selfies than ministering to customers. Nonetheless, E liked the place - as do I - and the beer, both in house and bought in, was interesting and tasty as we sipped our selection of halves over the next hour or so. As the pub got a little busier we had a good time just taking it all in. Oddly the first new customers, in an empty bar chose to sit beside us. I had to move my chair back repeatedly as one leaned back on his, nudging mine.  Beats me why people do this.

After a desultory look around the shops we went out through George Square and headed for the eastern part of the city.  E was consulting her phone map and was offered directions more than once. People make Glasgow indeed, but as it is a straight line, not really needed. Drygate is an offshoot of the giant Tennent Caledonian Brewery at Wellpark.  Now Irish owned, the brewery dates back to 1556 and its lager is the go to drink in Scotland in a way you just wouldn't believe. It makes the devotion of the koala to eucalyptus leaves seem like a passing fad.

Drygate is on two floors just off the main road. Inside it is a large modern brewery tap, very reminiscent of an American Brewpub with a long bar, bench seating and large shared tables with the brewery visible behind a perspex wall. Service is attentive and helpful and the crowd, mainly young was leavened by quite a few who weren't. Beers brewed in house were supplemented by guests and the atmosphere was chatty and vibrant.  What was not to like? Only the pervading smell of cooking oil which drove us upstairs to another huge room and bar, this time much brighter, more airy and much less like your local chip shop.  Beer was pretty good including Drygate's cask and keg offerings, though a black mark goes to the assurance that Thornbridge Kolsch is meant to be cloudy. Presumably then it was meant to be stale too? The food looked great and again the atmosphere was relaxed and convivial.  This place works really well and is a great addition to the local scene. Top marks to TCB for doing it.

On the way back we enjoyed a tour of the Merchant City and even had a pint in BrewDog.  Is it just me or are all their pubs just a bit grey, gloomy and utilitarian?

The photos show my impulse purchase from a posh market stall and the ever lovely E beside a well known landmark. Drygate Brewery entrance finishes the set.

We did eat. Lovely Tapas in Cafe Andaluz by Queen St Station. Crap bread though.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

It Had to Happen

While walking out the other day, I noticed this advert for Jameson Irish Whiskey, which caused me to pause and take the photograph.

Since when did craft beer become such a thing that you'd want to flavour your whiskey with it? Is there now an hitherto untapped source of revenue from all those casks being stored in various microbreweries once they have been emptied and sold at top dollar? Has it all turned full circle as barrels that started out in distilleries find their way back there by a somewhat circuitous route?  Is there a single "craft beer" flavour that is sought?  In this case it is a stout cask that will provide the additional flavour, but are there others? What would and wouldn't work? Certainly not a metal keg. How did they get enough wood conditioned stout barrels? And lastly, who is this whiskey aimed at?  Is it just a gimmick?

Seems surprising and a bit odd to me. Anyone else?

A quick Google indicates the stout barrels came from Franciscan Well Brewery. It will cost you £27 at Tesco. Twice "ordinary" Jameson. 

Apparently it adds "notes of cocoa, coffee and butterscotch to this classic Irish whiskey."

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Even More Polish Craft

Too much Polish Craft  in fact.  Hopping off the tram, considerably refreshed already, we made for 4 Hops in an area  not far from the Old Town and very near our hotel. This was a busy and very pubby destination with a much more mixed crowd than the relatively young clientele at our previous location. That is, for once we didn't automatically double the average age of the customers on entry.  I liked it for that alone. Here we bumped into some more of our crowd and were able to ascertain with a modicum of accuracy, where others might be. Of course we made no use of this information whatever and after a couple made our rather wobbly way to Marynka, Piwo i Aperitivo where more by the fact we all had the same maps, we did indeed find some of our fellow imbibers.

Now don't get your hopes up here for a "aperitivo" meaning a sumptious Italian style free feast. Instead a few little tubs of this and that - think nibbles - were on the bar.  Still, disregarding that minor setback and glancing at the beer list, I noticed my nemesis was beckoning to me once again. Yes Dear Reader, Strawberry Milk Shake IPA.  She was as luscious and appealing as she had been earlier and in her enchanting way somehow buoyed me up for a later and un-needed visit to Stacja Pub - at least I think that's where it was. Either way it was heaving and had a great selection of Polish craft. I had something with Citra and something stouty, but things had gone well downhill by then. Of course it didn't end there though it should have. As we were just round the corner from our hotel, a quick visit to a rather posh bar was made, much against the will of a by then long suffering and reluctant E.  Once in, having knocked my beer bottle over twice, even I knew it was time for bed.

So what did I learn from this? Well, drinking lots of beer around 6% abv by the half litre over a long day is not really advisable. I should have known that really, but as they say, it seemed a good idea at the time.

I am desperately trying to recall if we ate anything. I have a feeling we did, but I'm not asking E. That would be inadvisable. 

Thankfully I woke up with only the slightest of hangovers. A substantial breakfast and lovely walk in the fresh air with added culture, chased that, if not away, to a place that I didn't exactly notice. The next day involved Tankovna Pilsner Urquell. That was a good thing and I know I ate properly and drank a lot more wisely.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

More Polish Craft

After our first night, it was up bright eyed and bushy tailed - honestly - yes - but that was the last of that joyous state.  A very decent breakfast set us up nicely for a walk around the city - well some of it anyway - in beautiful sunshine and shirt sleeve order.  It really is an impressive place and before joining the others, E and I poked around a bit. It really is amazing how the devastation has been seamlessly turned back into what it was (or near enough).

Our walk sort of ended at the River Oder which in Wroclaw is spilt into several different branches. The main bit was very attractive with people out enjoying the autumnal sunshine, but inevitably as it was a beery mob I was with, we found ourselves in the huge covered market. Some of us wandered around gawping at venomous looking mushrooms, home made jams, impressive meats and sausages breads and vegetables - all the usual paraphernalia that such places provide. Of course there was an ulterior motive as some of the party, giving up any pretence, sought out our goal, Targowa a multi tap pub located "somewhere" in the market hall.  Probably around ten taps or so of various Polish beers to go at. I had a very impressive Apatron American Pale, some New England Pale and a taster of a very fierce Habanero Oatmeal stout, which hadn't held back on the chillies. All beers were around 13 -15 zloty for a half litre or around £3, though the 13.8% Russian Imperial Stout was a whopping 31zl.

The party then split up to pursue other cultural pursuits. Well I won't lie to you, to pursue other pubs. Five of us decided to walk to Browar Stu Mostów which was a simple enough feat as we just followed the tram line.  A fascinating walk of around two miles took us up through an old tenemented part of the city, many clearly dating back to Kaiser Bill times (Wilhelminesche) with their elaborate wrought iron works and tiny balconies. Some were more modern where one assumes, destruction had occurred, though equally redevelopment could have been the cause.  We also passed a huge empty brewery, its buildings still intact and the name, just about readable on the chimney. Awaiting development no doubt.

Just over the river - the Oder again - a quick left and right and we arrived at our destination on the spot of its two o'clock opening time .  Browar Stu Mostów  is impressive as a venue. Downstairs, a shiny brewery of some size and upstairs, a rather small bar complete with a number of taps from its own brewery and elsewhere. Now it has to be said that we likely spent a bit more time there than intended and that wasn't good for us, though some of it was the wait to be served as the small bar got more and more busy, overwhelming the two or three staff.  Additionally, each time we tempted to leave, some others from our party showed up. I started of with a Hefeweizen after the hot walk, I had Black IPA, then my nemesis. I discovered Strawberry Milk Shake IPA - brewed on the premises - and the rocky road to ruin was assured.  I caught up with this lovely lady several more times elsewhere and she still held me in her thrall. An easy drinking 5.9% can be a hard mistress though as I subsequently found out, but she was so beautiful to be with.

Needless to say, we caught the tram back and more Polish beer was to come, though my lovely lady was nowhere to be seen. Just as well, but she was waiting for me elsewhere. It was destiny.

A word about Polish bar staff. All were most charming, male or female. English was widely spoken by the young.

Most Polish Craft Beer places were more pubby and less bleak than many elsewhere, but many similarities were to be found. Few hipsters though.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Craft Beer at Sensible Prices

No I don't mean the Counting House in Glasgow, though you certainly can get it there, nor do I mean Drygate Brewery in Glasgow where you can also get it - more of that later - but I do mean Wroclaw in Poland where you most certainly can get it and in very nice surroundings too.

Wroclaw is a Polish city in Western Poland. It used to be the German city of Breslau until after the Second World War when Poland was moved west and it kind of retains its German feel, though it was completely Polonised after the war after the German population was expelled. As Festung Breslau (Fortress Breslau) it was ferociously defended by the Germans and had the distinction of actually surrendering more than a week after Berlin fell. It was completely devastated, in its eastern areas particularly, by the advancing Russians and very heavily damaged elsewhere. You can see that today in the buildings, though the centre is wonderfully restored. It is also a very beery town indeed.

We started off our wanderings on our first night there (we only emerged from our hotels around half past eight)  with a meal and beers in Spitz, a grand cellar beer hall, very much in the German style, underneath the Town Hall.  They allegedly brew there, but if they do, it certainly isn't on the kit on show in the main area. This looks old and unused. The beers are broadly German in style - think helles, dunkel, schwarzbier - and while soft and drinkable, lacked any real oomph. This was in a huge way made up for by the charm of the young waitresses and waiters who were eager to help with menus and explain the beers and by the general jolly beer hall atmoshere inside. The hearty food wasn't half bad either and the crowd, a lot of them young, made for a very convivial couple of hours. We had to wait for a table and we weren't the only ones, our spot being swooped on on our departure, as soon as our bums lifted from the seats.

Just time for a couple before bed then. Next up was a much more modern affair. Browar Złoty Pies was just across the square and several of us congregated there. Translated as the Golden Dog, it had several dog themed craft beers on show and rare for me - I'm no ticker - I took the opportunity to have a sample tray. Four standard beers are produced on the premises and in addition, ever changing seasonal beers. Alas the passion fruit weizen had gone off but I enjoyed Setter Stout (maybe needs some work) the standard weizen was bang in the middle of the style, a perfectly decent Bokser Lager and the pick of the bunch, Pit Bull IPA which was American in style and pit bull like in every other way. It bit. The bar itself was modern, buzzy and if you are wondering about prices, under £3 a pint equivalent. Bar food is available.

A good start, but Saturday was yet to come. That's when it really got going. 

This was a CAMRA trip. Around 25 of us, though we went around in groups rather than mob handed. 

E and I stayed in Hotel Puro, a boutique hotel which is handy and highly recommended.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A Rare Event

Given that to most minds Manchester is one of the foremost beer cities in the country with a great cask and craft scene, there are relatively few beery events held here by the trade. Well few that I'm invited to anyway. It was therefore welcome and unusual to get an invitation to a Wine and Beer Tasting by locally based importers Morganrot held on one of the upper floors of the very trendy  Home Building in one of the more trendy areas of Manchester, Tony Wilson Place -'nuff said - which, needless to say, I don't know at all well.

I took E along for support and had a look at what was on offer. A simple programme showed mainly Spanish beers with a sprinkling from Sweden, Germany and Malta. The noticeable thing about the Spanish offerings was their similarity. All seemed to have a Pale Ale, an American Pale Ale, an IPA, an Amber Ale and either a stout or a porter. Now this isn't a problem, but does make you wonder a little why you'd go to the trouble as a small microbrewer to export such universally available products. I guess the answer is, that despite the oddities of the beer world that we see so often, that's what sells.

I tried most of them and it has to be said, though none were particularly bad, none really stood out. The pick of the bunch were the porters and stouts with a stunning cigar smoke smoked stout from oddly named Swedish brewers, Pang Pang and very competent offerings from others. For those interested in such things, Spanish brewers included Mala Gissona, Cervecera Artesana and LaPirata.

I also had a very informative chat with the Krombacher folks and in particular liked their attempt at a Southern German Weissbier, though I doubt that they'll be trembling in their shoes in Bavaria just yet. Likewise Sleeman Railside Session Pale is not going to cause anyone producing a domestic bog standard pale ale to have sleepless nights over this tame offering and it does make you wonder about the wisdom of trunking this kind of stuff across the Atlantic, other than novelty value. So what do we learn? Craft beer is by no means exempt from "boring brown bitter" syndrome, dark beers often present better than pale and does anyone actually like amber ale?

The best beer of the show? The delicious Cisk Lager from Malta, was honest, fresh and tasty and at the right price-point would be a great addition to certain outlets. That's the kind of beer that still really sells, but for complexity, the Cigar Smoke Stout pips it. For a different market of course.

My thanks to Morganrot for a very entertaining couple of hours. E enjoyed the wine too. 

Lastly, we went after to Gasworks Brew Bar and Kitchen next door. I liked it and more of this later.

Monday, 9 October 2017


I've been busy and unwell, so this is a bit of a catch up. Outstanding Brewery used to be in my CAMRA Branch Bailiwick, but has recently moved from its rather old fashioned building in Bury to a new location in deepest Salford.  They had a bit of an open day for CAMRA colleagues and their own friends and family a couple of Saturdays ago, so me and the boss went along.

At E's suggestion we walked from Shudehill along the banks of the Irwell as this seemed an interesting way to go.  That was easier said than done as we had to make frequent detours to avoid the intense amount of new builds along the banks of the river and further into the interior. It was fascinating nonetheless to walk in a part of the area that I don't really know and as a bit of a railway buff I really enjoyed looking at the work being done on the Ordsall Curve which will directly link Manchester's Piccadilly and Victoria Stations.

After a couple of miles and an equal number of false starts we located the building, paid a tenner to charity and went in. Two rather large industrial units have been combined into one, divided by stairs to a podium with a bar and sitting area. In the first of these units is Porter Installations the constructor of many of the current crop of UK microbreweries as well as an increasing number abroad.  Run by the eponymous Dave Porter a brewer, brewery builder and much more, partly constructed brew kit could be seen, while Dave himself showing his other side, did the guided tour bit of the actual brewery, while the owner Glen, a brewer himself and ever amiable and I looked down from above. I am unsure of how ownership works out other than that each appears to have a small stake in the others business, while facilities are shared. Or it may be some other odd combination, but either way, it seems to work. The units have been purchased as the rental option was considered dead money. They are modern and flexible. I think Dave, as well as knowing everything and everyone, was an accountant. He'll have done the sums. That's a compliment.

The brewery is large and fairly shiny and produces cask and keg beers. The bar dispensed several of each and while we both started off with a very, hoppy, light coloured Ultra Pale Ale - 4.1% I think, we ended up on Four, a clean, herbal, refreshing keg lager which shows what really can be done with this style. It is worth noting that while the keg lagers are filtered, none are pasteurised.

Nice guys that I have known for years, doing well and producing great beer is all this is about.  This is a simple good news story - apart from losing a great brewery from Bury that is.

The charity tenner got us as much beer as we wanted and a pizza should one be desired, but as usual at these things, it was just great to chat to beery people and talk beer to brewers. 

We got the tram back to Central Manchester. In my usual cack handed way, I only took one photo. See the website linked above for more.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Playing the Man and Other Stuff

It's been a funny old week on t'internet beerwise.  The old cask versus keg argument was set alight once more by some offensive ad hominem attacks on someone who simply professed in no uncertain terms - on his own blog - that a murky beer he'd been served was not remotely to his liking and in the opinion of him and his wife, tasted vile. He called it "overpriced rubbish." That's his opinion and on his blog, he clearly stated that and his mild reaction to such viciousness was a credit to him.  While it wasn't quite "Nothing to see here. Move on", though clearly it could have.

Sadly it wasn't that simple. A number of astonishing personal attacks then took place in the comments section, many of them complaining that the author wasn't erudite enough and didn't string his points together in a more appealing manner, though he seemed to have no problem in making himself and his meaning understood beyond reasonable doubt by his critics. (Surely the point of language and the written word, when all is said and done. The first comment and the second by the same person set the tone of what was to come. First of all was a pop at the author's writing ability and then at CAMRA and its members, which as far as I could see was nothing to do with the article.  (As an aside here, it is time people realised that the vast majority of cask ale drinkers have nothing whatever to do with CAMRA and aren't members - so pack that in please.)  In fact the writer of the piece concerned has a dig at CAMRA members later in his article, so who knows if he is a member or not? Whatever, but when you read on its gets worse. And worse. Since when did beer become so important that such nasty personal attacks made on a person are justified because of beery preferences and grammar?

Needing a bit of light relief from that I turned to Beer and Whine.  Given the title of the piece - "CAMRA - The Campaign for Rudeness & Arrested development" I was hoping for something a little more gentle and nuanced. A tongue in cheek look at the Venerable Society for Beer from the Wickets complete with a little leg pulling perhaps? Nope. This statement sets the tone for a bitter piece of CAMRA bashing "The first and most infuriating characteristic of your stereotypical CAMRA member is the outright arrogance and rudeness that is on display every time that they step foot in a bar/pub."  Goodness. What has happened to this poor writer at the hands of these cask conditioned cretins that has affected him so deeply? The rest of it continues in the same bilious tone, complete with misleading and incorrect statements. If you haven't read it do. Meantime I return to my point above. Most real ale drinkers aren't CAMRA members and I'll add a couple. Most members will visit your bar and you will never know they are members, hardly any will "demand" discount, though some may politely enquire and the question of pricing isn't as simple as jacking up the price, more of which later.

At least, despite what I read above, the cask versus keg war is over according to this article by Fourpure Brewery from the Morning Advertiser. No-one in their right drinking mind disputes the statement by Sean Knight of Fourpure that the focus should be on quality, but of course things are far more nuanced than that. Sadly it isn't that simple but this polite article was kind in tone and was refreshing for that alone.

This brings me neatly to comments, again in the Morning Advertiser by Sophie Atherton about cask beer pricing and so called "cut-price cask beer" and customer resistance to higher prices. As I hinted before this is complex problem and as I'd expect Sophie makes a good fist of examining the arguments, though I'm not sure that the sort of cask most of us real ale drinkers sup can truly be described as "premium".  The idea too that you can call a beer premium when it is so often already sold at top dollar in poor nick could be troublesome to sustain in a reasoned argument. Nonetheless I agree with the conclusion that a perfectly served pint can command a decent and fair price and that quality at the point of dispense is imperative.  Having said that, as Karl Marx said - and he was a real ale man - "the problem isn't identifying what is wrong, the problem is how to change it." Frankly there is no a consensus on that and the issue of too many breweries chasing too few accounts and publicans helping to drive down brewers' margins, isn't even discussed. Fair prices for sellers don't easily happen in a buyer's market.

So where does this leave us? Well we can deduce that the meatheads aren't all in CAMRA, the craft beer scene is far from gentle and benevolent and can show a snobby and arrogant side. Beer costs, too much/too little, is too warm too flat/too cold and too gassy and the answers to known problems aren't that obvious.

Think I'll go for a pint now. It will be from JW Lees, will be just under £3 and Lees make plenty of money.

I had a pint of keg beer the other day. The brewer admitted that it had around 3 volumes of CO2 in it. Too much for me. We will be having yer actual keg at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival as a matter of interest.

While answers aren't obvious, you should, in the meantime adopt my mantra "It's the offer Stupid."  If you don't get that right these days you are in trouble.

Nicked "Playing the Man" from Mudgie, though I doubt if it is copyright

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Why Bother?

That awkward sod Cooking Lager is pretty good at reminding us of the futility and foolishness of pub going and cask ale worship. Both too dear and if you do go to the pub for a real ale or two, it is likely to be manky.  In fairness he does give some stick to the crafties as well. He is nothing if not unfair to all is Cookie. Good on him.  He did give me pause for thought with this tweet the other day, when I was moaning about poor beer in Scotland.

Now there is a semblance of truth to this, but in reality, I rarely get a bad pint because sensibly, since I'm not a charity, I don't drink in random pubs as a rule. In London I avoid cask beer unless I'm confident in the pub, though of course I do get caught out at times, but as compensation, while the beer may be dodgy, the pubs are usually well worth a visit. Like many others though, normally, I mainly in pubs that I know and I go there because I like the pub and I know the beer will be good. Mudgie wrote about the subject here and I agree within this particular phrase in particular "the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem." 

This brings me on to another point. Most CAMRA members don't spend all their time crawling from random pub to random pub either, but as I do, go to pubs they can depend on. Naturally a lot of us pub goers will go on holiday or have a jaunt to another beer drinking town. In most cases it will be Good Beer Guide pubs we go to. It is the very existence of poor pubs and beer that makes the Good Beer Guide while not infallible, invaluable.  These entries are likely to be best of breed in the area concerned. It is CAMRA people that select them and we tend not to drink or vote for inclusion in the Guide, pubs that routinely serve sub standard beer. Local knowledge helps too, because in good drinking towns, not being included in the GBG, does not mean beer will be bad elsewhere. Sheffield is a good example of this, but sadly, in areas where there is little real ale, scan the description carefully. Read between the lines. It should sing about beer quality. If it doesn't, beware.

So is pub going and real ale drinking futile? Well what isn't in this vale of tears, but hit a good pub and a cask at its sweet spot and for the beer man or woman, there isn't much better.  Still worth a punt then I'd say, but hedge your bets and make enquiries if possible.

Sadly, like most things in life, the quality of pubs and beer cannot be taken for granted or assumed.

Monday, 11 September 2017

That Quality Thing Again

I have a lot of sympathy for my CAMRA colleagues in the South West of Scotland. Real ale is rather thin on the ground around these parts and it must be difficult, in a sea of Tennents, to keep the cask beer flag flying.

I was in Dumfries and Galloway a couple of weeks ago and though my friends and I didn't try all the pubs that sold real ale, we had a go at quite a few of them.  Some, it has to be said, even though they were listed in the Good Beer Guide were less than enthralling quality wise.  The most common fault being tired beer and warm beer, probably  indicating turnover wasn't all it could be. There was exceptions though and hats off to the  Cavens Arms in Dumfries for spot on beer - though dining pushes drinkers rather to the side here - and the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright whose beer was immaculate and, as we were the first customers of the day, was carefully pulled through to ensure quality. The resulting pints of Kelburn Pivo Estivo were well up to snuff and the beer garden, in unscheduled sunshine, was quite a bonus too.  So it can be done.

One thing we did notice was the dominance of beers from Greene King, supplied no doubt through their Scottish subsidiary, Belhaven. Fair enough, but not once in the half dozen or so pubs that sold Greene King, was a single cask ale from Belhaven available. Shame that.  It was sad too to see that beers in the local Wetherspoon in Dumfries were dominated overwhelmingly by Greene King and Marstons, though in fairness here, quality of what we had was good.

Now of course where there is a brewery tap, one can breathe a sigh of relief and relax in the knowledge that here at least will be a friendly welcome and beer as the brewer intended. Well you'd like to fondly imagine so wouldn't you? Sadly in the visit to the local brewery and tap, in my second Scottish home town of my youth, Castle Douglas - my grandparents lived there - that wasn't to be.  The beers were lifeless and warm and frankly near enough undrinkable. A quick look under the bar showed that the casks were not temperature controlled in any way and when this was mentioned to the barman, we were advised that real ale was meant to be served at room temperature. 

We made our excuses and left.

Yes, I will be dropping a note to my CAMRA colleagues in South West Scotland about the brewery tap. Brewery taps should be a beacon of real ale excellence. After all if you can't get cask beer there in the best form possible, then where can you? The only other bar in Castle Douglas purporting to have real ale, didn't have. We beat a hasty reteat to Dumfries for liquid sustenance.

The photo isn't beery, but shows Dumfries railway station at night. I spent many a time there with my Mum and sister waiting for the train to CD. Alas the line was axed by Beeching.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Where there's Murk, there's Brass

The controversy over hazy/cloudy/murky beer continues apace.  Twitter is full of photographic examples of beer which is so densely cloudy it looks like chicken soup, while all the while those posting said photos proclaim what a lovely drop it is.  There isn't much light I can shed on this phenomenon other than to suggest, mildly, that this has become a fashion that at its best can be described as bringing a new, open minded interpretation of beer presentation to the drinking public,  or at worst a con on the gullible with experimental beer, or a batch gone wrong, or even a brewer who doesn't know what the heck he is doing, pushing out bad beer at top dollar prices.  It's a thing though, so how should we react?

The simplest way is not to buy the stuff if it offends you, but of course it isn't that straightforward.  In the days before murk, it was easy. You got a cloudy or even hazy pint and you took it back. You knew that beer was meant to be bright and if it wasn't you returned it and asked for an exchange. In those days that was the norm. Customers knew it and bar staff knew it. It wasn't an arguable point. There was a rule - a clear rule if you like.  Nowadays there are those, rightly or wrongly that don't fine their beer in the belief, again rightly or wrongly, that by not fining the beer, the customer gets a "better" pint.  Now of course the flaw in this argument is that it is very subjective. Some like the added taste that not removing solids from beer gives - and that taste isn't all or always good - and some consider, me among them - that the flavours become imprecise, muddied if you like. Overcoming inbuilt norms, is not an easy thing either way.

There are brewers, good ones who take beer seriously that fret over this, but usually they have a tendency to go one way or another. You know the beers and you can choose accordingly. Ah, Yes. If you know the beers you can, but what about when you don't and most customers don't? Well, you rely on the brewer putting an explanation on the pumpclip, or the barstaff telling you (assuming in these days where quality control at the point of dispense has seemingly become the job of the purchaser) that the barstaff either know or care.  Never has it been easier for those selling a product that isn't quite right to say "It's meant to taste/look like that", especially as it sometimes is.

This, like it or not, is a particular problem for cask conditioned beer. I know some brewers haven't fined their beers for years, but they use an appropriate yeast and they allow the beer time. They may even re-rack almost bright into conditioning tanks and, providing the beer has enough viable yeast for a secondary fermentation in the cask, why not? Who cares? Certainly not me. The issue though is that with so many brewers of cask beer around now, some beers are frankly not worth drinking on taste alone, but if in addition they are cloudy, the customer is put in a position where he or she has to argue the case at the bar. Not good. Years of certainty over beers look and appearance count for nothing now.

What about craft beers? Well, here there may well be a different case to argue. Beers in this genre tend to be a lot more edgy, a bit more experimental. I read recently of a huge number of kilos of fruit pulp being added to beer. The brewer advised Twitter of the fact with pride. And why not?  I am not against such things - the Belgians have been doing it for years after all. Mind you they produce in the main very pin bright fruit beers - but we aren't Belgian here and in these cases, the resultant beer, cloudy as a fruit juice is what is intended and of course, here there is little argument. It is likely sold as what it is to those who have a fair idea of what they are getting and they pay and enjoy accordingly. That's fine by me.

So is this an issue and why is it happening? Most likely because it can happen and we have a new wave of brewers and drinkers who don't feel bound by a previous norm. They like it that way. That's fine, but brewers and publicans, please tell us in advance at the point of sale, in the case of cask conditioned beer at least.

London Murky is possibly the founding source  of this, but is separate and possibly more dodgy manifestation of this trend. It inspired the title of this piece in a way.

This blog piece which lends itself all too easily to dodgy puns, was at the back of my mind for a while. It was brought to life by an inability to sleep this morning and this piece here, where this issue seemingly precipitated a very unsavoury incident.