Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Illicit Drinking

I wrote a little about my former local here. It was a well run local's local, with high standards from old style licensees. Liverpool 7 had many pubs and ours was one of the better ones, but back in these pre PubCo days, when pubs were still run by breweries and when both sides of the agreement could make a living out of the deal, having a well run pub was the rule rather than the exception. In this world, more or less everyone knew everyone else by sight at least and a visit to another pub would usually get you a grudging nod, or a "What brings you here?" We were all pub men and recognised each other as such. We all knew which pub or pubs we all drank in.

Now once in that circle - and it took a while - you could always get a drink any time that you wanted, though you had to watch where you went. Afternoon drinking, back in the three o'clock closure days, was a forbidden pleasure where, to be honest, you had to be a little careful, as such pubs as freely admitted anyone, were where a lot of pissheads and ne'er do wells congregated. It was therefore handy, nay essential,  to know where was safe and where wasn't and many a flexitime Friday afternoon was spent in such places, where the frisson of excitement when you tapped on the closed door was palpable and when or if you got the nod, it was a relief, as you entered this closed curtained, illicit world. Once I got better known, my local provided my venue of choice, as it was an afternoon exclusive for the landlord's mates. I was one. A quiet tap on the window with a coin, a glassy eyed peer from the peep hole, a click of a bolt and you were in. Safe, supping and enjoying the banter.  Much more relaxing than places some, where the enjoyment of an illegal drink was tempered by looking out for yourself.

Now of course this strictly speaking wasn't a stay behind, Liverpool parlance for a lock in or AT's. In my local, it was a little privilege accorded to a few and all the more exclusive for that. A stay behind was much more of a general thing and was after official evening closure. Our pub did them too, but these were much less frequent, more impromptu and had a different set of rules.

All this is swept away now I suppose and in a lost world. The pub scene is so much different now.  We might have more choice or better beer, but these were halcyon days.  To have been a part of it was a lot of fun and provides happy memories.

I know the cops used to be well aware of it all. It suited them if all the scallies were in the pub. Quiet life and all that.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Oldham Beer Festival

After a break due to various council machinations, Oldham Beer Festival is back at its usual venue, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, next to Oldham Bus Station.  As always the festival will be run by my CAMRA Branch in conjunction with the Mayor of Oldham's Charity Appeal. We are concentrating on local beers this year with one or two special requests. My contribution was a request for Stringers. Hooray for me!

 The list of breweries is as follows: Acorn,Bank Top, Brightside, Dark Star, Elland, Green Mill, Greenfield, Hawkshead, Irwell Works, Lees, Leyden,Little Valley, Liverpool Craft, Mallinsons, Millstone, Otley, Outstanding, Pictish, Purple Moose, Redwillow, Saddleworth, Saltaire,  Stringers, Wilson Potter, Wright. There will be traditional cider as well as foreign beers too.

I will be looking after the beer and the bar, thus putting my reputation on the line. As always at these do's, there are lots of constraints, so it is difficult to get things right, but I'll be doing my best to present the beers as well as possible.  Due to the lack of ability to wash glasses, regrettably (due to hygiene restrictions), there will be no sparklers. That's one of the constraints. A bitter blow I know.

So, if you are in the area, get your weary bones along and do come and say hello. It should be a good do I reckon.

The full list of beers can be found here.

Monday, 23 April 2012

That's More Like It

There is little by the way of welcome in pubs these days. Eye contact by bar staff is kept to a minimum and attempts at conversation, even in an empty pub, are often met with blank indifference, or even looks of amazement. A simple smile and "hello" often seem too much to ask.  Staff seem happiest when gossiping amongst themselves. Recognise the picture? When I worked in the pub, I was taught always to acknowledge your customer, have a word if possible and unless actually serving someone else, always,repeat always stop what you are doing and serve the customers. Nothing,it was emphasised, was more important than that. Oh and always say goodbye and thanks. I was taught a lot more besides, by a true old school landlord. It is why I have such high standards when I visit pubs. It really is just as easy to do it well as badly and, oddly makes the job itself way more satisfying.

This was particularly noticeable in Brew Wharf where,in an almost deserted pub, the bar staff seemed happier to be chatting in what I think might have been Spanish, than giving a smile and saying "Hello". Nonetheless, the beer, a cask Wheat IPA, was excellent and moreish, even at £4 a pint. As I left, the heavens opened and I stood outside on the covered deck hoping it would pass. It didn't, instead intensifying into a downpour. Being a man, I had no umbrella, so retreated inside for another pint. I remarked to the barmaid that I had come back due to the rain, but somehow, despite me being there for half an hour, just minutes ago, I got the impression she was seeing me for the first time. Still, the beer was good.

On Saturday we had an East End wander and intended little by way of beer as we were going out for dinner later, but we did call into Mason and Taylor. I wrote positively about it here, some time ago. On Saturday it was quiet, being around two in the afternoon, but the contrast couldn't have been greater. Young enthusiastic staff all said hello as we walked in. My choice of Saltaire Rye IPA (£3.90) brought an immediate offer of a taster and I was asked if I knew the beer. We were advised that other samples were freely available. "Just ask.". Brilliant. A blues ensemble with New Orleans touches, struck up and we thoroughly enjoyed two more pints of the excellent Saltaire beer. I did try a couple of BrewDog keg tasters and quite enjoyed them. Motueka seemed good, but £8 a pint is too much for my sensibilities.

This was a pleasant interlude, made all the more so by the entertainment which was appropriate and may even have been impromptu, but above all, the warm welcome from cheerful and attentive staff, combined with excellent beer, made us want to stay. Isn't that what it's all about?

Pubs can still do well, but it really is about the offer.

How often are you made to feel welcome when you visit a pub? What was brilliant about Mason and Taylor was that the staf were still brilliant, over a year after our last visit. We won't be waiting a year for the next.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Knowing the Score

I did my bit of culture yesterday by visiting the RAF Museum at Hendon. A must for a buff like me, though I have been before. Later I had intended that we follow a pub crawl around the St Paul's area and accordingly I met E in the Bell,down the side of Cannon St station. It is a spartan little boozer, still tricked out as a Courage pub and quite likeable. After work it was full, though I found a seat beside two businessmen and eavesdropped on a long tedious discussion about conservatories. Such is pub life. Harvey's Bitter was my choice, though frankly it did little for me. The choice (all brown) did less for E, who declined a drink.

So off we went to the Nicolsons run Old Watling. This is a good pub and offered two light beers, though the Roosters True Grit went off as I ordered it. Our second choice of Jaipur was, well, just like Jaipur is these days. Below ordinary, but fortunately a new Roosters came on and was decent enough.  Next up was the Cockpit and another pub that I liked. Absolutely crowded, but we found a corner to stand in the bottom of the pub. Beside us, a young couple sat on bench seats, spread out so that a space that would have fitted four or five, was theirs alone. Her coat and handbag took up two spaces and he took up the rest. I sipped my Adnams and observed. She read the Evening Standard, he was texting like mad. They didn't speak and their glasses were empty. After a while the girl glanced up and looked at us. She asked if we'd like to squeeze in. He didn't make any move or even look at us, so we declined. About 20 minutes later they left.

Our next and final stop was Shaw's Bookshop. Our friends from the Cockpit were there at a table. Amazingly she said "Hello". I joked back that I hoped they were buying a drink this time. They grinned sheepishly.

A pub is a shared space. Knowing  and observing pub etiquette is important to make the system work properly and for the benefit of all.

Thanks to Perryluke for the crawl. Two pubs I'll be back to are the Cockpit and the Old Watling.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How Much Is It Then?

Beer in the pub is becoming expensive. Anyone disagree? Of course some do. They'll tell you this simple drink should command a top dollar price, but most of us just like an ordinary decent pint at a price we feel is value. 

But what does a pint cost in these inflationary and recessionary times? Goodness knows. Even here in cheap old Manchester, it can be anything from a couple of quid, to double that.  My local, a Lees Tied House) now charges £2.60 for Lees Bitter and it was noticeable to me and to others on Saturday when we toured Saddleworth - an affluent part of my CAMRA empire - that it was the free houses that were cheapest, the PubCo houses the dearest and the Family Brewer's pubs somewhere in between.  I worry about that for Family Brewers - neither fish nor fowl.  No great ranges to attract customers in most cases and no financial advantage for them either.  A double whammy if ever there was one.

So while I'm in London for the next few days, I'm going to note down what I pay for each pint (if I can remember).  Let's see how the big metrollops compares.

And if you fancy joining in, why not record here what you pay for your pint wherever you drink it.  Let's see what we are paying. Pints only please and say what and where.

Also, if you are joining in, please tell us if there was any indication of price, clearly visible to you,  before your purchase.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

"Background" Music in Pubs

I don't always agree with the Pub Curmudgeon.  He does though live up to his strapline "A jaundiced view of life". Thus it was that I read and disagreed with his views expressed here about a pub re-opening in Stockport. Mudgie reckons local CAMRA members are showing how out of touch with real pub life by suggesting that the pub "leave one or two areas free of noise so that the serious real ale drinker can enjoy the beer without unnecessary distraction?". Now this is a little inelegantly put, but having read about Mudgie's example elsewhere, all that was being suggested (by one person, not a cabal of CAMRA nutters) was that they don't have so called background music at top volume everywhere in the pub.  Not that unreasonable surely?

Now overbearing music, especially that with a repetitive bass beat driving through your skull is a pet peeve of mine (they seem very keen on that in London and I do mean you the Dispensary)) and one such incident - admittedly not involving repetitive bass - happened to me and E a couple of Saturdays ago, around tea time. We were in the City Arms in Manchester centre - a very traditional pub - and went in the back room. It was a  mixed company from young to old, but you had to shout to make yourself heard above the piped music. We drank up and fled, not because we couldn't discuss the finer points of the ale, but because we couldn't talk without raising our voices. Pub music is always divisive and there isn't really a simple test for those inflicting it, though I think they should ask two basic questions. Firstly am I putting this on for me, or for my customers and secondly, is at a reasonable volume and appropriate to the recipients?

One of the best things in a pub is to hear that lively buzz of people enjoying themselves over a tipple or three. It isn't just CAMRA members that take pleasure in cheery conversation unhindered by inappropriate music, played at nearly full toss. Is it really so wrong just to want to chat or ponder quietly? While background music can and does enhance from time to time, if you have to shout above it, it ceases to be background.

This is where the good old juke box comes in. At least the customer gets some say in the matter.

I admit to having a curiously ambivalent view of pub background music.  I can contradict myself on the subject.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

German Pubs Closing Too

It seems that Germany too is seeing pub closures on a grand scale, which tends to make one think this is not just a British problem and not one, in Germany's case at least, that can be blamed on a smoking ban. (Germany allows its states to decide and due to that has only limited smoking bans and even those are fairly recent.)

According to The Local, the total number of places to sit and drink a beer in Germany sank from nearly 48,000 in 2001 to 36,000 in 2010. That's a loss of nearly a quarter. The state of Hamburg lost an amazing 48% of its drinking establishments in that time and as anyone who has been to Hamburg recently can attest, getting a drink in the City Centre is not that easy. There just isn't many pubs any more. Booming Berlin spectacularly bucked the trend though, with a 95.8% increase though over that period, I'd guess most of that increase will be in former East Berlin, which is now awash with little bars to satisfy both locals and the soaring tourist trade. (Berlin ironically, is still one of the cheapest European capitals to visit.)

The effects on communities is being recognised too: “With the closure of the public house, an establishment with a high social and cultural worth is lost from the community,” said Florian Kohnle, cultural geographer at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.

Don't look here for any solutions is all I'd say!  German beer tax is already way lower than here.

The Local has the full story here. I've drawn on it extensively.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

What Drives Beer Bloggers?


My first ever contribution to The Session. And possibly my last.

The Session 52. What drives Beer Bloggers?

What's In a Name?

After some hospital visiting yesterday, a restorative beer was in order. We nipped into the Baum and settled without much hesitation for Windermere Pale from Hawkshead, one of my favourite beers. At the bar, also drinking the Pale were a couple of my CAMRA members and we chatted away about this and that and the range of beers on offer.

One caught our eye, but not in a good way. Now we hadn't tasted this beer, but we all felt suspicious about it. Why? We didn't like the name, Ole Slewfoot. Or the look of the pumpclip.  Alan was made of sterner stuff. He ordered a half and passed it round. It was decent, if unremarkable, but you know I bet we aren't alone and that this beer will sell slowly. Oh sure, if it was a world beater, word would get round, but it wasn't. Just decent.  I predict a slow mover.

Is this a common thing? You look at the name and the pumpclip and say subconsciously "Not for me".

Apparently this beer is named after a bear.. God knows why. It doesn't look like a bear to me, nor to the others. Nor did we didn't realise it was meant to be a US style IPA. It didn't taste like one. At all. Details here.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Defining the Undefinable

I mentioned that one of the recommendations of the Working Party on craft beer set up by CAMRA was to attempt a definition of craft beer in British terms. We thought that the best way would be to ask SIBA to join us in this, though nobody doubted that to achieve a successful outcome would be problematic, if not impossible. The main driver was to try and set some parameters and avoid large brewers jumping on the "This is Craft" bandwagon, as well as defining that beer could be craft beer irrespective of method of dispense. We didn't get that recommendation through and now, on reflection, it was probably just as well. There is little point of trying to close that door now. The term "craft" is now being widely used irrespective of provenance. Any streaky pig can and does call their beer craft.

Reading Boak and Bailey's viewsand the contributions from various people to their blog, shows clearly, that while most people know craft beer when they see it, when it comes to a common definition, there is little agreement and little to prevent anyone using the term "craft" in any context they like. Craft has always been a fairly meaningless term in a UK context and the whole thing is undermined by conflation with US craft definitions, which frankly, have little use here at all. In fact, it is the crossover, one to another that has created this daft situation where craft is either "beer I approve of" or good beer that isn't cask conditioned.

I know some don't like it, but to my mind craft keg is one definition that most people can understand. That is beer that is made with the finest of ingredients and then served by keg dispense. Real ale - cask conditioned beer - already has its clearly understood definition. It doesn't really need the term "craft". Keg beer does, to attempt to overcome the stigma it has achieved for itself over the years.

How about that then? Works for me anyway.

I commend Jeff Alworth's comments. He talks sense for a Yank trying to get his head round British peculiarities.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cheery Beery

Well despite waking up with a cricked neck and the rotten rainy weather outside, I feel quite chipper. I need to prepare for my CAMRA meeting tonight and do other mundane tasks, but I am looking forward to a few pints tonight at the Baum in Rochdale.

There is a distinct possibility of Mallinson's Chinook. Well it came on last night according to Twitter and there will be some left won't there? No negative vibes please.

So, I will travel hopefully tonight. And travel back hopfully!*

*Yes spellchecker. this time I'm having it my way.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Missed Opportunity

I promised I'd let you know the outcome of the small group CAMRA set up to look at craft beer. I am not sure that I'm meant to, but since the groups existence is in the public domain, I don't see why its outcomes shouldn't be.  It was all done in a bit of a hurry, but taken very seriously by the participants. We corresponded a lot, exchanged views, read a lot of stuff including a lot of blogger articles and comments, which I contributed - mine and others - and met to decide what we wanted to put to the National Executive. There was no disagreement from any of the Working Party about the final proposals. We set the background by setting out principles behind the recommendations, These included:

*The group agreed that the wider spread use of “craft beer” and “craft-keg” created danger
of confusion in the minds of consumers and as a result could devalue CAMRA's definition
of real ale and the campaigning power behind it.

* That CAMRA’s primary campaigning aim is and should remain the
protection and preservation of real ale, by our definition, and we should be unashamed of
continuing to state that the Campaign believes real ale, produced, kept and served in the
right way, continues to be the best way of presenting British beer and our key aim should
be the promotion and support of those who make it and the places which serve it.

*However, the group agreed that it is important CAMRA reaffirms the intentions of its
founding principles. CAMRA was established to promote choice for drinkers at a time
when choice on the bar was under threat.

*As such, the CAMRA should remind members that it is a positive campaign for
something, not against things which are not real ale.

*In this, CAMRA should be open to the concept that good beer does exist which is not real

*This does not mean CAMRA needs accept non-real ale at festivals, nor directly campaign
for or support non-real ale producers.

*CAMRA can however throw its weight behind generic promotions of beer drinking and
pub going which are not limited solely to real ale or real ale serving pubs.

Our recommendations were:

1. While not changing our primary campaigning position, CAMRA officially
recognises that good beers exist which are not real ale

2. CAMRA, in association with SIBA, attempts to write a definition of “craft beer”
to help prevent further confusion and abuse of the term – the group feels this
definition does not need to be a tight, technical specification, but a broad
“qualitative” definition

3. That the value of positive campaigning is reinforced and encouraged throughout
the campaign

4. An audit of all CAMRA publications and websites, both nationally and at branch
level are audited for negative rhetoric and this is removed

5. The group drafts three “holding” motions which the NE can amend or withdraw
once it has considered this report and the motions themselves

 Unfortunately the National Executive did not agree with our group's proposals and only passed the third recommendation. All others were rejected after discussion, which is, to say the least, disappointing.  (You can forget the last one, which was entirely dependent on the approval of the first four and was for CAMRA AGM use.)

So. It seems there is a long way to go it in moving the current NE round to thinking differently about the Campaign.  Things might change next year of course, when motions on the subject are more likely to be put straight to the AGM by individual members, given that an internal approach has failed to achieve change.   As Ian Fozard said of 40 year old CAMRA in this month's "What's Brewing": "Imagine if in 40 years time we’re still campaigning for real ale as currently defined and deriding other beer styles?" I for one think this was a missed opportunity, but it is only a matter of time. Yesterday's thinking is already doomed to the past where it belongs.  No-one wants to see the real ale baby thrown out with the bathwater* and there are plenty of us that will fight to ensure that doesn't happen. There really is nothing to fear in sensible recognition of changed times and moving with these changed times, while still strongly campaigning for real ale and for the pubs we drink it in.

I said in this post here that leadership needs courage. It also needs vision. This was small stuff really. An acknowledgement that a minor change, a couple of points of clarification and a return to our original value of promoting choice, would be a nod to the changes happening around us. It would have been a modernising influence, while still firmly maintaining our commitment to real ale.  It wasn't that big a step surely? 

Let's hope the two progressive motions that I mentioned here will pass today. I'll be checking Tom Stainer's twitter feed of proceedings.  *I apologise for the odd cliché in this article. I usually avoid them like the plague.