Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Clouding the Issue

I mentioned here my preview of the CAMRA AGM and Member's Weekend. It turned out pretty uncontroversial really and even the Great Leader remarked that the number of motions that formed debate this year was small, though he didn't mention the quality, perhaps allowing that to speak for itself.  The standard of debate nonetheless was high, with many talented speakers.  I didn't like Scarborough much the last two times I've been and didn't like it any better this time either. Torrential rain on Friday got us off to a wet start and the pubs were just a bit too ordinary on the whole.  The weather did improve though and I did have a superb curry and a lovely breakfast one day, but on the whole, I won't be looking back on it that fondly.  I can't recommend the Travelodge for the comfort of its beds, but can highly recommend the staff.  There's a tip for you.

My worries about Motion 11 were groundless.  It was misguided in a somewhat obscure way, but was otherwise well meant.  My Motion 9 was at least an interesting debate, despite it being defeated by almost 100 votes.  To say I was misrepresented is an understatement.  Despite making it clear that my concern was, that for cask beer,  lack of information about whether a beer on sale should or should not be cloudy or hazy, could lead to both confusion and malpractice.  I urged that the matter should be investigated to see if it was so and report back with findings and proposals.  I made it clear - no pun intended - that it was entirely up to the brewer if he or she wished to produce beers that were intentionally cloudy or hazy, but that confusion was not in the interest of real ale and could be detrimental.

Opposition came from Brass Castle Brewery who spoke almost entirely about themselves and their preference for unfined beer.  It was an impassioned piece of self advertisement, but nothing to do with the motion at all.   Roger Protz further muddied the waters - pun firmly intended - and gave a rousing speech about innovation being stifled and listed a load of stuff going into beers that make make them cloudy and how British brewing was at the cutting edge with young brewers leading the charge.  What I didn't pick up in my right of reply, but should have, is that almost certainly none of these beers he mentioned would be real ales or affected by what I proposed.  I did refute most of it in my second speech, but did not win out.  If you fail to get your arguments across, you lose.  That's democracy. I'll keep my eye on this subject though.

So what do we make of this?  I take the positive view that  CAMRA diehards attending the conference were convinced that my motion was an attack on innovation and "craft" beer.  They didn't want that.  Those that think CAMRA is stuck in the mud should take heart.  

I understand the Brass Castle only produce vegetarian (or maybe vegan) beers.  I also noted that some of the beers served at the CAMRA AGM were served with the warning "Hazy". Make of both what you will.

Friday, 25 April 2014


The CAMRA Member's Weekend and AGM is in Scarborough this year and I'll be off there later this morning. Let's hope for decent beer and sunny weather. This being the UK, neither is guaranteed of course. This year there is little to excite on the agenda, with only oblique references to craft beer and the rest seeming a bit stodgy really. This is a pity, though perhaps Motion 11 might throw up some controversy depending on the approach that is taken.  We'll see.


This Conference amends the key campaigns as recommended by the Policy Discussion Group on Campaigning Focus as they are not focused enough on the strengths of real ale, cider and perry over their non-real counterparts. These key campaigns must be updated by replacing generic references to beer with real ale, or adding suitable wording to encompass real ale, cider, and perry.

Proposed by Chelmsford & Mid-Essex Branch

If this is anti craft I'll likely be firmly opposing it. If it is just pro real ale I likely won't be.  We'll have to see.

Preceding this is one decent motion that might get things going a bit and which seems to me to make eminent sense. That's Motion 9.


This Conference is concerned about the increasing tendency for some cask ales to be brewed to be served hazy or cloudy and the potential for both confusion at the point of sale and the undermining of customer confidence in real ale. It therefore instructs the National Executive to examine the matter and report back to next year’s Conference with its findings and, if necessary, proposals to remedy or ameliorate the situation.

Proposed by Peter Alexander, seconded by Graham Donning  

These seem like a couple of sensible guys. I wonder what they'll say?  I'll let you know.

Sadly we'll be saying goodbye to our Chief Exec Mike Benner.  He is off to boss SIBA, so at least he is still in beer.  That's good.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

London Craft Moving North

Now I don't know Choice Restaurant and Bar in Manchester's Castlefield area, even though it has been around for over a dozen years.  It seems it is closing.  So what?  The interesting thing is that it will shortly re-open in what seems to be a joint venture with a London Craft Brewer.  Intriguing eh? I don't really know any more, but if you are interested, Manchester Confidential can tell you all about it here, though the identity of the brewer remains shrouded in mystery.

Owner Jon Grieves said  "Choice will be reinvented," he says. "A London-based craft beer company wants to move into the North West. We’re being brought into the brand to develop it."

Meantime seems to be heading the list of contenders, though I'd have thought it more of a Draft House kind of thing.  Anyone out there know? 

I also read that the concept will have to have some of the London taken out of it. Whatever that means.

Pub of the Year

Like most, if not all CAMRA Branches, we have a Pub of the Year (PoTY). Last time it was the Baum in Rochdale, which to its immense credit went on to win CAMRA's National Pub of the Year. A great accolade not just for them, but for our Branch too. Everyone got something out of that. It brought us great satisfaction,the town a lot of visitors and publicity and the Baum a lot of new business.

But things move on. This year we have a new Branch PoTY and despite it being selected by our members, I had never been there. A shocking admission for a Branch Chairman you may feel, but we have 582 pubs and oddly enough, I haven't been in them all, though maybe I should try to? It is a lot of pubs to look after and I sometimes envy smaller branches that get away with a couple of hundred. Or less. The Carrion Crow in Oldham is a locals pub. It is owned by Marstons and sells anything they can get their hands on from the entire Marstons range. This is a pretty good choice really, with beers from Banks, Jennings, Brakspear, Ringwood, Hobgoblin and of course Marstons themselves. With the amount of seasonal brews, as well as core ranges, this gives landlord Tony a lot to go at and when we called on Saturday, the display of pumpclips showed that he takes full advantage of the range. A couple of beer festivals a year adds to this as there is permission to buy guests from non Marstons breweries for these events.

With E in tow, we enjoyed the pub which is a simple open plan design with nooks and crannies to break it up. A cheerful bar with four handpulls will soon be augmented by two more.  Cask beer is selling. There was a hardcore sprinkling of locals in and we enjoyed their easy banter with each other and the way they slipped in and out, combining a drink with whatever other business they had outside. It reminded me a lot of my old local in Liverpool, which of course endeared it to me even more.   The landlord is very proud to have won the award as he has only been there three years and while he set out to build up the business, he feels he is ahead of his own schedule in doing so.  The brewery agrees and is so impressed it is doing a bit of a refit and makeover for him.

I'm looking forward to the presentation night on the 15th May, when the pub will be jumping and we'll get the local press along. Of course there are those that say CAMRA awards are meaningless. The Carrion Crow wouldn't agree.

I reckon some of the best beers in this group are coming out of Banks'. They seem to know what they are doing there.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Welcome Sign

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  So here is my picture from a warm Sunday.

The pub was heaving. Nice to see it trading well. 

We drank the place dry of Lees seasonal beer, Hoptimist, which is really rather nice stuff.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Less is More

Macclesfield.  There, I've said it.  What does it mean to you?  Nothing probably, unless you happen to be looking out of your Virgin train window going to and from Manchester on the London train, or, if you like, to and from London on the Manchester train.  Well there is that, but Macclesfield it isn't a bad place at all to go for a drink. Whisper it.  You can even get craft keg there. Mind you, it wasn't the lure of fizzy, expensive beer that took us there, but a visit to Red Willow Brewery, a brewery, which though probably not that well known out of its home area, is rather well thought of in these parts.  And deservedly so, with substance firmly pushing style aside.  Not that the beers aren't stylish.  They are.

Macc is rather an odd mixture of really nice and really not that nice.  The Red Willow Brewery is in a Victorian part of the town in a very old and rather worn looking set of brick buildings housing other small businesses.  Red Willow is squeezed in there somehow, with every inch of the brewery crammed with kit.  Amazingly, it is expanding, though as owner Toby McKenzie told us, it was a bit of a job to work out where it could all go. We could see what he meant.  Naturally there was beer and as Toby discussed how he had set up the business and what his ideas and plans were, he gave us free reign of several stillaged and handpumped beers, as well as the opportunity to sample beers straight from the conditioning tanks. Great stuff. All his beers end in "less" and I really enjoyed the pale and hoppy Headless and, despite my general dislike of smoked beers, Smokeless, which is deliciously drinkable and only subtly smoked.  Great for those like me that find too much smoke, er, too much.

Toby is an interesting guy and as we know each other a little, we talked about the beer scene in general and craft keg.  Interestingly our discussion took place as we gazed upon his supplies of keykegs and keg beers for his own pub, more of which in a moment.  We didn't disagree on much and had a good discussion about keykegs, which Toby sees as having rather limited future as one way use metal kegs become more prevalent and cheaper (it is always an annoyance to me that publicans apply GSP to a container rather than just the content but that's an aside and a complicated one at that.)  It was a good trip to a good brewery with a brewer that knows exactly what he is about.

After an all too brief tour round some of Macclesfield's pubs, including the Waters Green Tavern - OK - but not much more to my mind, the Castle, with a interior in the National Inventory of historic pub interiors with excellent beer and rather odd Polish grub and the small, friendly, modern and rather excellent Treacle Tap, we ended up in the Red Willow owned and operated by Red Willow Brewery and only open for a few months.  We bumped  into Toby again who was keen to show me his rather excellent cellar and afterwards talk me through the way the pub looks, which is really rather splendid in fact.  The building is an ex furniture showroom, the bar is long and well stocked with both cask and keg beers, most of which aren't from Red Willow, but many of course are. That isn't a hardship as the beers are great.  All are displayed on a flat screen TV so you don't have to ask what's on, or elbow those at the bar aside to have a look for yourself. Furniture is a mix of sofas, chairs and tables which all work remarkably well.  It is highly recommended and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.  I think it fair to say we were sorry to have to leave.

Sitting on the coach on the way back to Manchester, I reflected that despite the success of the brewery, having its own pub,  must be a huge bonus for any small brewer,despite the expense and hassle of setting it up in the first place. A guaranteed outlet, especially one as well thought out and well run as this one, while not exactly a "must" is surely well worth thinking about for many a small brewery?  

Bonus.  At long last I had a beer from Arbor that I actually liked.  The Mild West was superb. I should also add that lack of time meant several recommended pubs had to be missed out. Finally, how do the prices grab you?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Creating Demand

I was in Scotland last week and as always I try and observe the beer scene there, remote though I am from it.  I usually pop into three pubs for a half or two on the way to or back from Dumbarton.  I've written about the Drum and Monkey (part of the Nicolson's chain) before and it does a good job of presenting interesting beer in good nick, though a glance around the pub shows as many, if not more supping Tennent's Lager.  When I called last week they had a "Beer Festival" on and the approach of a few well chosen beers isn't a bad one at all.

Nearby on the way to Queen Street Station are two Wetherspoons.  The Counting House is a huge and impressive ex banking hall and is interesting for that and while the range of beers is expansive, I have never really found it that good quality wise, though it has improved.  My CAMRA colleagues from Glasgow say it is on the up, but it is in and out of the Good Beer Guide(currently in) indicating an ambivalence at best.  Nearby - across the road in fact - the smaller Camperdown Place has a smaller, but probably better chosen range and the beer is always good.  I do tend though to spend a fair bit of time in both watching what people drink in there and gratifyingly, there is a fair bit of real ale sold.  You simply can't deny that without JDW there would be a lot less cask beer drunk in what remains a lager stronghold. Then again, the West of Scotland always has been a lager stronghold, so perhaps that is all the more remarkable.

My home town has no real ale outlets.  Yet.  I was reminded forcibly of this when out with my old mother. Tennent's Lager which is ubiquitous, has no discernible taste other than carbonic acid, but is everywhere.  Smooth beer (Belhaven usually) and Stella complete the range.  Bottles? Yes. Becks or Corona.  The thriving real ale scene in Scotland is actually very small and is hard to find, other than in its key strongholds such as Edinburgh. So where is this going?  I was in Helensburgh meeting an old friend.  Helensburgh is a posher and slightly less depressed place than my home town, with a fair sprinkling of people from rUK.  Well, England really. Some are Royal Navy from the huge Faslane base and many just live there for reasons of business or perhaps a liking for wind and rain.  The local JDW, the Henry Bell, was selling a lot of real ale.  I chatted to the manager who was worried they'd run out of festival beers.  Quality was good and she said that there was no problem selling cask, though of course, she still sold more Tennents. Oh well, but the point is that where there is a constant availability and choice of real ale, it not only turns over, but it sells.

Back in Dumbarton I looked at the new JDW being built. It is the old Woolies I remember so well from my childhood and of course it will sell real ale. Now Dumbarton is a lot harder a nut to crack.  I remember the Cutty Sark trying it years ago and the many pints of vinegar I was offered,  but if I'm right, real ale will gradually gain a toe hold here.   Even in depressed Clyde Coast Towns, beer isn't cheap and I have no doubt that in the Henry Bell, many will have gone for cask on price, but they wouldn't stick with it if they didn't like it.  So keen pricing in the new Captain James Lang will be a key factor, but it will be the constant availability and commitment that will slowly raise sales.

I'll be back in Dumbarton in July about a month after the new JDW opens.  I await it with great interest as it will bring cask beer back to a real ale desert. That to me is a good thing.

Of course JDW haters will think that a lot of bollocks, but they have a choice usually.  It will mean that there will be food available until ten at night.  That's good too. Pubs in the town are already complaining.  They'll really have to up their game.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Come On Feel the Noize

Being old, I remember this Slade number and used to enjoy it a lot. I still do.  What I do not enjoy though is being blasted my modern techno music in an ordinary pub at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. And when I say blasted, I mean it.  You couldn't hear a bloody word.

Saturday before last, after watching a friend perform at the Friends Meeting House, four of us were heading for a meal pre booked in central Manchester.  We had 45 minutes to spare, so a pint seemed a good idea.  Being near Holt's refurbished Ape and Apple, I suggested there.  The Ape and Apple used to be a fairly traditional boozer with a mixed clientele, mostly on the more mature side.  It was younger as a pub than it looked, but the sort of solid, dark wooded place you associate with Joeys. It was the venue of the Gasman's Annual Piss Up of which I wrote here and of their monthly meetings too.

Now the Gasmen don't meet there any more.  It changed and not for the better it seems.  I forgot this and when entering, observed it had been tarted up in a cheap way to look brighter, but not nicer, but it was packed, so no doubt had achieved its financial purpose, though it was rarely quiet before.  There was no music on when we entered, so we made our way to the bar and then the "music" started.  My friend was ordering and had to repeat himself before the barman could make out what he was saying.  We retreated to near the door, but conversation was impossible, so we supped up as quickly as we could and left. There wasn't a seat to be had in the place incidentally. So I guess it says as much about us as those who chose to stay and suffer it.

I tweeted Holts who promptly replied that I could have requested they "turn it down a notch".  I replied it needed many notches turning down and that I didn't go out of an afternoon to engage in a discussion about too much music noise that was unlikely to end well and that it simply shouldn't have been like that in the first place.  I also said I wouldn't be back and I won't be. Music in pubs is divisive, but this was in excess by any standard. and given the time of day, the clientèle and the type of music, completely inappropriate.

The Mild was "off" too.  Unsurprisingly. It wouldn't have been in the Gasmen days.

Now even if it had been Slade I wouldn't have stayed such was the volume, but it was the electronically produced stuff with a repeated base - like someone continually knocking on your head with a polisman's baton.