It’s a cold place in winter

…is old Hartlepool. It’s not so warm in April, either.

I spent the weekend in the oldest part of Hartlepool, for the Headland Folk Festival. Organised by esteemed folk trio the Young ‘Uns, the Headland FF didn’t aspire to be a competitor to Cambridge or the Green Man – no James Yorkstons or Ukulele Orchestras here. There were concerts – Polish shanty singers Brasy were particularly memorable – but the main business of the weekend was the singarounds. In my memory the weekend is already blurring into one continuous singaround, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon (when the Young ‘Uns and the Wilsons led everyone who was still there in a mass rendition of… Sea Coal, what else.)

Anyway, over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time in pubs, and here’s what I saw. And drank.

The rather ironically-named Cosmopolitan had one handpump, offering Hobgoblin. I swerved it and looked in the beer fridge, which had some passable supermarket-ish bottles (Maxim, Marston’s EPA, that kind of thing) – including one from a brewery I’d never heard of. Local speciality ahoy! I ordered that one and turned it round to check the details of the brewery on the label. The details of the brewery on the label began with the word “Lidl”. (The beer wasn’t great either.) To be fair, I never saw that beer again – and I checked that fridge every time I went in the Cos, what with not really fancying the Hobgoblin. Next time I was in, the most interesting thing I could see in the fridge was the Maxim, which I duly asked for; the barman said it had only just gone in the fridge and would I prefer Newcastle Brown. “I’ll have the Maxim,” I said. “Right, Newcastle Brown,” he said. (I don’t think he was doing it deliberately – I had terrible trouble making myself understood the whole time I was there. Simple things like asking a bus driver for a £1.70 fare – my whole intonation was off, somehow.) Anyway, I had the Newkie Brown, which was… well, what do you want, it was Newkie Brown; it was OK. What I will say for the Cos was that they did a very nice roast meat bun with chips and gravy (even if the barman tended to hear the word ‘pork’ as ‘beef’); they also hosted quite a few acts over the weekend, including the self-explanatory women’s vocal group She Shanties. Nice pub, shame about the beer, basically.

The programme for the Folk Festival listed one venue as Harbour of Refuge (Pothouse); I assumed this was a pub called the Pothouse which the organisers had romantically designated the Harbour of Refuge for festival-goers. It’s actually a pub called the Harbour of Refuge, which everybody calls the Pothouse – or rather, the pub management call it the Pothouse (it’s even on their beermats), and everybody else calls it the Pot. They had two handpumps, serving Jennings’ Cumberland and Cameron’s Strongarm; I naturally went for the latter, only to find it was just going off. I had a genuinely local bottle, Lion’s Den Headland Bitter, which unfortunately didn’t appeal to me at all (can’t remember why, but I don’t think it was an interestingly strong flavour of any description – I think it was just rather insipid). The next time I was in I noticed a barmaid pulling half-pints of Strongarm with enormous frothy heads into pint glasses, then stashing them carefully in the beer fridge; I took this as a hint that there was still something wrong with the Strongarm and had a bottle of Black Sheep. When I finally got a pint of Strongarm at the Pot it was pretty good – a red-brown bitter, with a big, densely malty flavour.

Having half an hour to kill one morning I wandered into the Globe. The Globe is an unpretentious boozer, which hosted acts and sessions during the weekend but on that particular morning hosted nobody but a bunch of regulars and me. The landlady clocked me as a folkie the moment I walked in and asked, “Are you going to be entertaining us?” Er, no, I muttered – to which one of the old boys standing around said, “Ah, but y’already are.” Cheers. My pint of Strongarm was served with the biggest head I’ve ever seen – a massive Mr Whippy thing, standing two or three inches proud of the top of the glass and making the beer quite difficult to drink (what are you supposed to do with it?). (This may also explain the thing with the half pints at the Pot.) The beer, when I got to it, was rather good – it was very cold and bordering on flat (unsurprisingly) but somehow both of those things worked in its favour. The flavour was better than it had been at the Pot and quite distinctive – a dark, woody maltiness, not at all sweet. Cheap, too. The prices at the Cos, the Pot and the Fish (see below) were at what I think of as Stockport rather than Manchester levels – £2.50-90 rather than £3.20-60. The Strongarm at the Globe was going for £2 flat.

Leaving the best of the Headland to last, I can’t think of anything bad to say about the Fisherman’s Inn, except that it’s carpeted throughout. This is a disadvantage because it means that when a group of rapper dancers turn up to do their thing (after making themselves the bare minimum of room in the midst of a crowd of shanty singers) you can’t actually hear their feet on the boards, which in turn means that seeing it from two feet away is merely gobsmacking rather than outright incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Fish (they don’t have much truck with long pub names in Hartlepool) is a lovely little pub with a great atmosphere; it’s also got great beer and some appreciative punters, judging from how quickly the guest beers turned over in the course of the weekend. I had Wold Top Headland Red (a mildly hoppy variant on the local dark bitter style), Bradfield Farmer’s Bitter and Stout, and Burton Bridge Porter; nothing outlandish (and certainly nothing pale’n’oppy), but all good solid beers and all in good nick. They also do pork pies for £1 – sadly, I never got round to checking them out. Should fate for any reason guide your steps to the Headland, get yourself down there; I’d even say it’s worth the detour from Hartlepool proper (10-15 minutes on the bus, don’t try walking it unless you absolutely have to). And if, like me, you get the chance to push your way into the pub while it’s crammed to capacity with people singing shanties very loudly, don’t miss it. I was hoarse the next day, but it was worth it.

A pound, or even a guinea (£1.05), won’t buy you a lot of beer these days. In a Spoons on a Monday, I’ve had a £1.99 pint knocked down to £1.49 with a token, but that’s the absolute limit – or so I’d have said. I’d come to Hartlepool with a walletful of Spoons tokens, and back in Hartlepool proper on the Sunday I found myself with half an hour to kill before my train at the Ward Jackson, one of Hartlepool’s two JDWs. At the Fish I’d been intrigued by some old pump clips above the bar from Black Paw brewery – a micro down the road in Bishop Auckland, it turns out; when I saw Black Paw Bishop’s Best on the bar at the Ward Jackson, I had to go for it. Another brown, malty, not particularly sweet, vaguely woody-tasting beer; it reminded me of the way Holt’s bitter used to taste. On form it would have been really interesting, if a bit challenging (i.e. it would have taken me two or three pints of the stuff to actually get to like it – another similarity with old-style Holt’s). Unfortunately the pint I had was rather noticeably lacking in condition, either because it was ready to go off or because sparkling those enormous heads had sucked all the CO2 out of the cask (Are you sure about this? Zymurgy Ed.) Not at all dislikeable – I’d have it again – and at least it didn’t break the bank. At my local Spoons, the session-strength guest beers are priced up at £2.25; at the Ward Jackson they were £1.55. With the beard voucher, that made it £1.05. Not all the prices were affected; they were offering two cans of Sixpoint for a fiver, same as in town.

I didn’t go into the Ship; as a bloke I met on the bus put it, “A lot of people won’t go in there, they think it’s a bit rough… well, it is rough…” Then there was the bizarrely polysyllabic Gaietys, which looked closed every time I passed; from the outside it somehow managed to combine the dourness of a Scottish back street boozer with the teenage tackiness of a 70s sports pub (“that’s more of a modern place” – bloke on the bus). After the Globe I was in no mood for mingling with the locals, or not without a bit of folkie backup. I somehow doubt I missed much in the way of beer. (I saw lots of Whitbread Trophy, incidentally – on keg it’s still big in the north-east, apparently.)

I was ready for a pale bitter by the end of the weekend – but then, by the end of the weekend I was ready for a number of things, including a good night’s sleep. By Sunday evening I’d been to two concerts, sung eight songs at seven sessions (two at the Fish, the rest at the Pot), drunk thirteen pints in five pubs, and slept for about twelve hours. It was a good weekend.

Wild wild life

‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it — either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else –’

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn’t, you know.’

Went out for a pint the other day. Cost me a tenner. Tell a lie, I had a pint and a half. Keg stuff. Twelve quid all in. Wasn’t too bad, though, there was a bag of crisps in there as well. And the beer was…

Well, the beer was… The thing about the beer is, it was…

The thing about the beer is, it was almost worth it. Possibly. Unless it wasn’t.

I’d better start again, and this time put in some information. The Font in Chorlton recently had a Meet the Brewer event with Wild. I didn’t go, but I was intrigued by some of the beers that they left behind when they went – notably a trio of stupidly high-strength and ridiculously high-priced beers on the keg fonts, Modus Wine, Raconteur and Wildebeest. Modus Wine was the weakest and cheapest of the three – and I’m using those words strictly in a comparative sense, as it was 8.3% and £7.80 a pint.

Anyway, a couple of weekends ago I headed down there to check them out. Fortunately Font serve beer in thirds, which made it realistic for both my liver and my wallet to try all three; I even hung around for a half of the same brewery’s Fresh, which was as zingy and herbal a pale ale as I’ve ever had on keg, at the almost reasonable price of a fiver a pint.

As for the main event, Modus Wine – which I guess is a version of Modus Operandi, an old ale aged with wild yeast, only aged in wine casks – was distinctively winey; very distinctively winey. Sweet, too, and fruity, but with that winey quality cutting through. If you imagine a fruit punch that’s had about six bottles of Madeira poured into it, it was a lot like that. An interesting and memorable flavour; my only reservation was that it wasn’t much like beer. Raconteur (9.9%), secondly, is a barley wine aged in marc de bourgogne casks. It was less sweet and fruity than the Modus, with more of a malty old ale character, but here again the wine casks were doing a lot of the work; that ‘Madeira’ flavour kept cutting through. As for Wildebeest (11%), Wild’s “imperial espresso chocolate vanilla stout”, this was probably the least distinctive of all; it didn’t really drink its strength, and tasted a lot like Young’s Double Chocolate stout, only sweeter.

It was also absolutely divine – a beautiful beer. At least, I think it was. I’m not saying that because my memories are unclear, but because that was the experience of drinking it – as the glass went down, I went from “is that all there is? and why is it so sweet?” to “my God, this is superb!”, and back again. Similarly with the wine-cask beers – I genuinely couldn’t decide whether they were works of sublime (if warped) brewing genius or just examples of how to combine some big, brash flavours with a lot of alcohol. Either they were some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted or else… or else they weren’t, you know.

I will say this, though – for several days afterwards I found I was drinking some terribly uninspired, pedestrian beers. Yeah, yeah – so it’s a strong IPA with American hops. So what? Where’s the Madeira?

Gratuitous equine dentistry while you wait

A few weeks ago, in common with a number of other bloggers, I was sent a box of (eight bottles of) beer by a company called Beer52, which was launching a subscription service where you pay them a monthly fee for a monthly box of (eight bottles of) beer. I didn’t break out the bunting at the time, pointing out that (a) while I do write reviews (and will invariably write something about anything blog-relevant which I’m sent) this blog is not part of the advertising industry and does not feature posts beginning “Those nice people at XYZ” and ending “why not drop them a line quoting BLOGAD?”; (b) the company’s initial approach to me had been so tired, unoriginal and impersonal that it looked almost, but not quite, exactly like spam; and (c) the freebie itself was equally impersonal, and frankly a bit unimpressive in terms of PR – while a free box of beer does mean quite a lot to me as a punter, to a company whose business is sending out boxes of beer it’s just some spare stuff. Also (d) I wasn’t sure about the price point – the price you actually pay if you take up the service, that is, once you’re past the first month where a discount may be available. (The full price is £24 per month.)

But I plugged it, and I mentioned the discount code they gave me, so there you go.

In the storm of adverse publicity which my post didn’t inspire, in which fellow bloggers didn’t denounce me as an ingrate or express bafflement at my refusal to ‘play the game’, a point which wasn’t made repeatedly (or at all) was that I hadn’t said anything about the actual beer. Be that as it may (or, er, mayn’t), I didn’t say anything about the actual beer, and it was a bit of an omission. So here goes.

Summerhall Barney’s Good Ordinary Pale Ale 3.8%
Too ‘ordinary’ by half. Tasted of nothing in particular. A good thirst-quencher, perhaps – particularly at that strength – but in that case, why is it in a 330 ml bottle? If I’d spent £3 on this I wouldn’t be pleased, to be honest.

Grain 316 Extra Pale Ale 3.9%
This was a lot more like it. Very pale, very hoppy – mostly the ‘dry’ end of hoppy rather than the ‘fruit salad’ – and very nice. I could drink a lot of this; 500 ml, in particular, would pose no problem at all (yes, this was another 330 ml bottle).

Top Out Staple Pale Ale 4.0%
Better than the Barney’s, but a bit raw and twiggy; there was a creamy quality to it which I wasn’t sure about.

Church Farm Harry’s Heifer 4.2%
The third new brewery to me (I had heard of Grain) – and I’m afraid I haven’t yet found one I’ll be seeking out again. This was a best bitter, and a bit on the sweet and heavy side for me.

Oakham Citra 4.6%
This surely needs no introduction – a mighty beer. I was surprised to see it in this box, though; it’s currently on sale at the Wythenshawe branch of B&M Bargains for £1.79. (To be fair, perhaps what it’s doing there is the real question.)

Stevens Point Brewery Black Ale 5.2%
Another small bottle (355 ml). I’m not a style Nazi, but it did bug me that I couldn’t work out what this was meant to be. I’m a big fan of contemporary porters and strong milds and dark old ales, and it didn’t strike me as any of those. Well made – not at all twiggy – and pretty nice, but just a bit unadventurous; a B+ rather than an A. (Stevens Point beers are available in our local Tesco’s, although not this one (or the next one).)

Stevens Point Belgian White 5.4%
Another tick in the “OK, fine, nothing actually wrong with it” column. (Also, another small bottle.) American brewery does ‘Belgian’ witbier. I kind of wish they wouldn’t, but the actual beer was… well, fine.

Ticketybrew Dubbel 6.5%
This was the first beer I tasted from my current favourite brewery, and I think it’s fair to say that this is the beer they’ve gone on to great things from; it doesn’t stand up to their stout, let alone the pale ale or that amazing bitter orange thing. But back to the beer I’m actually reviewing. It’s a good one. A dubbel it ain’t, really, but if you told yourself it was from a Belgian commercial brewer mimicking the abbey style you’d probably fall for it. Really very nice.

So that’s three beers that didn’t really work for me, two that were fine but no more than that, and three greats. I’m happy to have got them free. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I’d paid £24, though, or even £14.

(Other reviews are available; here’s a less curmudgeonly view from Paul Bailey.)

Condition, condition, condition

I never used to care about condition in cask beer. I think this is because I never used to get served beer in poor condition; occasionally you’d get a pint that was downright sour and have an interesting conversation with the barman, but flabby, lifeless, borderline-flat beer has always been a rarity in my experience. (At least, for beer out of a pump; with beers on gravity you take your chances.)

As noted a couple of posts ago, I had a pint of Dark Star‘s eponymous Dark Star a couple of weekends ago which looked like flat Coke; some vigorous pump-jockeying produced a bit of a head, but the effect was cosmetic – there was little if any carbonation left in the beer. And now this (a record of a weekend’s drinking):

Sedge Lynn (JDW)
Wicked Weed Sir Ryan the Pounder. Nice APA, in good nick.
Adnam’s Broadside. Big heavy dark bitter. Tired and flabby.

Beagle
Milestone Welsh Dragon. Decent best bitter. Very tired, almost flat.

Milson Rhodes (JDW)
Kelham Island Zombies of the Stratosphere. Hoppy pale ale. Tasted fine, but almost completely flat – no condition at all. Seriously considered taking it back.
Adnam’s Broadside. In good nick (about time!).

Gaslamp
Blackjack The River. Weird-tasting brown ale; will give benefit of doubt (brown ale). In good nick.
Coastal Hopmonster. Pleasant light golden ale (not a hopmonster!). In good nick.

This may not mean anything – apart from suggesting that the Gaslamp’s policy of only having two cask ales on (at most) isn’t entirely a bad thing. I may just have been unlucky in those three beers (or four, if we count the Dark Star the other week). But if condition problems are surfacing in outlets as diverse as the Font and the Beagle, on one hand, and two separate Spoons’ on the other, I do wonder if it’s a sign of something else – the most obvious candidate being over-supply, meaning that pubs can’t shift all the beer they have on before it gets tired. Just as ‘craft’ (or the idea of ‘craft’) goes mainstream, are we hitting Peak Beer – or Peak Bar?

¡Bien! ¡Bien! ¡Super super!

If only they could both lose…

In a statement the Portman Group said: “The independent complaints panel considered that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘loco’, listed as ‘crazy, or off one’s head’, was problematic when used in relation to an alcoholic drink, as it could suggest irresponsible or immoderate consumption, and that care must be taken when using the word on packaging or promotional material.”

Jim Sloan, President of Phusion Projects, said: “We respectfully disagree with the decision of the Independent Complaints Panel of the Portman Group. Phusion Projects has made clear from the outset that the ‘Four Loko’ brand name was intended to refer to the product’s unusual flavours and its four original ingredients.”

Got that? Four as in four (original) ingredients; Loko as in… um… ‘loco’ meaning ‘crazy’, obviously, but referring to unusual flavours. Oh, those crazy flavours. (Flavours include grape, coconut, watermelon, peach, lemon and lime, lemonade and cranberry lemonade.)

We’ve been here before. Four Loko is, basically, loopy-juice; it’s made with malt liquor in the US and with grain alcohol in Europe, with a variety of flavours (all of them sweet), and sold at strengths of 6%, 8% and most commonly 12%. One other thing: it’s sold in cans, of 23.5 US fluid ounces – just under two standard 12-oz bottles, in other words, or 695 ml. That’s an awful lot of alcohol, in readily-neckable form.

And those four (original) ingredients? One of them is alcohol (which at least has the virtue of frankness). Another is taurine, the substance which gave Red Bull its name and whose properties, despite a huge multi-year natural experiment in adding it to soft drinks, remain unclear. The other two are caffeine and guarana, which – whatever else of an exotic and rain-forest-y variety might be in it – is a natural source of caffeine. So, effectively, it was Two Loko: alcohol and caffeine. It’s a powerful combination, and works in (let’s be honest) an enjoyable way; when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities I once spent an entire day going from bar to bar in Barcelona, alternating wine and espresso. (I didn’t have a lot to do the next day.) But neither alcohol nor caffeine is actually good for you in large quantities; the combination, by keeping you alert for longer, makes it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of alcohol, while simultaneously making it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of caffeine. Mixing alcohol and caffeine in large quantities (such as 695 ml – just under a pint and a quarter) and at high alcohol concentrations (such as 12%), is basically a bad idea. Put it another way: if you drink a can of old-style Four Loko you’ve basically just drunk 2/3 of a bottle of Buckie (“the UK’s version of Four Loko”, confirms Vice magazine).

Jacob Sullum of the right-Libertarian Reason magazine has tried to defend Four Loko on two occasions, on general “keep the government out of my business” grounds, but it’s a tough pitch. The best he could come up with was to point out that making the cans resealable (to reduce the temptation to neck the entire can) wouldn’t actually stop anyone necking the entire can if they wanted to (true, but so what?); that coffee is used in some cocktails (which aren’t usually served in glasses holding 695 ml); and (my favourite) that “A can of Four Loko contains less alcohol … than some big bottles of craft beer.” A can of Four Loko contains 83.4 mls of alcohol; for an Imperial pint to deliver that much alcohol it would need to be 14.7%. Those are some big bottles of craft beer.

Anyway, a couple of years ago and in the wake of some horribly predictable and happily only near-fatal excess consumption incidents, the powers that be in the US decided (to Reason‘s chagrin) that the whole alcohol/caffeine thing was bad news, and Four Loko was reformulated to contain alcohol and, er, that’s it. So that’s One Loko, then – only not Loko in the sense of… er… can we get back to you on this? Which is where we came in: with Phusion Projects gamely trying to push their 12%-by-volume grain-alcohol-and-Starburst three-pints-of-lager-inna-can confection in the UK, and our old mates at Portman gravely ticking them off for being so irresponsible as to suggest that getting drunk might be enjoyable in some way. As I said at the top, if only they could both lose!

The best beer I drank last night

Going to Font in Chorlton on a Saturday night is becoming a bit of an ordeal. I was there last night for about 45 minutes, a good third of which I spent standing at the bar waiting for someone to take my order. (I blame the cocktails – great way to make every single drink take as long to prepare as a round of pints.) I wasn’t the only one feeling the time dragging, either. When the guy next to me ordered a pint of (Magic Rock) Ringmaster, the young and nervous barmaid made him repeat it twice, then turned round three different pump clips (including the right one) to check, then turned the pump clip round again to double-check, then asked him to repeat it again. “When I say ‘Ringmaster’ I mean Ringmaster,” he explained, not entirely kindly.

The all-but-universal “pour, leave to stand, top up” system for pulling pints didn’t help, either; it took a good three or four goes before my pint of Burning Sky Aurora was ready. (When I got it, it was… OK. There’s a bit of a buzz around Burning Sky, but I don’t think it can be because of this beer: a perfectly decent hoppy pale ale, but no more than that. There was an odd kind of creaminess in the flavour, I thought; probably an effect of the hops, but it got me wondering about stray yeast. Pretty clear, though, so it was probably fine.) Obviously trying to avoid the repeat-fill problem, the young and nervous barmaid pulled my pint of Dark Star Dark Star delicately, precisely and gently enough not to wake a baby; unfortunately this wasn’t one of the lively ones, and her efforts produced what looked like a glass of flat Coke. Someone else had a go at it, and with a bit more vigour on the pump handle managed to kick up a bit of a head, but first impressions were accurate: although the flavour of the beer was fine, it was either very tired or over-vented, and in any case practically flat.

Two pints will usually do me early doors on Saturday, but these had both been so disappointing that I felt the urge for another half. So I had a half of Magic Rock Circus of Sours. Unlike the other two, this one was on keg; unlike them, it was £4.50 a pint; unlike them, it was much colder than I like and rather irritatingly fizzy. Also unlike the other two, it was superb. Despite the name, this isn’t an out-and-out sour beer, like a saison. The best way I could describe it would be to say that it took the sour edge of a lot of hoppy pales – the rougher ones, in particular – and made it work: it’s a really interesting flavour, with a sour quality that feels like it belongs. There’s a distinct – and separate – sour after-taste, too, which doesn’t sound particularly nice but is. For its strength, which is under 4%, the range and intensity of flavours it delivers is extraordinary. Really terrific beer.

Whither my CAMRA loyalties? Well, Font offer a CAMRA discount; my membership saved me £2 on my two pints of cask beer, so you could almost say I got the half free. More generally, I don’t think one evening when the best thing I drank was on keg justifies any broader conclusions about where the best beer is coming from – apart from anything else, I would love to see Circus of Sours on cask; I think it would fly. But it does remind me of a point Tandleman has made more than once, that condition is the Achilles heel of cask beer. In my experience, keg at its best is never as good as cask at its best – but good keg beer vs poorly-conditioned cask beer is a very different comparison. I’ve always said that with keg you get consistency at the expense of some of the quality of cask – particularly that part of its quality that derives from how the beer changes over time: that Dark Star would almost certainly have been a very different beast a few days earlier. But if the quality of a cask beer can’t be relied on, the consistency of keg starts to look a bit more attractive.

‘And yet, Lady Alice, even pigs have feelings.’

Quick bleg: That London.

Yes, I know it’s a big place (see above). But for this trip, just to make things more interesting, I’m working under a set of arbitrarily-imposed* constraints, viz. and to wit:

  1. Nowhere that doesn’t serve cask, I don’t care who you are.
  2. And I’m not going to bloody Hoxton. (Let’s face it, I wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t like me.)
  3. In fact, let’s think central. Bloomsbury, West End, South Bank, that kind of manor.
  4. Only not the City. Tried drinking in the City. Didn’t like it. (Great scrums of Agent Smiths outside every single pub.) Ended up in a Spoons.
  5. Oh, and (IMPORTANT) I’ll have three non- or occasional drinkers in tow, one of whom is aged 14 & gets uncomfortable in predominantly male environments (see previous).
  6. And (ALSO IMPORTANT) we’ll be looking for food, more often than not.
  7. And we don’t want to end up in Spoons, again.

Have at it in comments, you who know these things.

*Not really.

Update We’re back. Where did we get to? Glad you asked. We got to

The Holborn Whippet. Wow. Saved the best for, er, first. I had a fair-to-middling winter ale whose name I forget and a Redemption Trinity, which was fab. This was from a choice of eight cask and as many keg beers, which I could have happily worked my way through had time allowed. We were there for lunch & had a 16″ pizza and a plate of chips between the three of us; it was all good. Great beer, great food – reasonably priced, too (the beer was cheaper than at some of the pubs in Chorlton, which is quite something for central London). I’ll go there again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Many thanks to Reading Tom in comments for this recommendation.

The Grafton Arms was the next day’s lunchtime destination, chosen (a) because it was there and (b) because it didn’t look rammed (a cursory search for pubs on Tottenham Court Road had been called off the previous night for lack of (b) qualifiers). The food came 35 minutes after ordering – not particularly remarkable, except that we’d been warned that it would take an hour; not sure if this was inefficiency or cunning expectations management. I had Portobello Star, which was fine if not especially memorable, and Meantime Pale (keg), which was a bit thin (and fizzy). The food was good and, again, cheaper than we’d expected. (The G. A. is a Taylor Walker pub; not a chain I’d seen before, but there seem to be a few of them in That London, complete with identical food menus. I think you could do a lot worse.)

The next day’s early-afternoon stop was the Elgin, which is now run by a chain called Geronimo, although at one time (according to Somebody On The Net) it was “the second dodgiest pub in Ladbroke Grove”. Whatever – it’s a big place with what look like some genuinely old fixtures and fittings; the overall effect is somewhere between a junkshop and a small stately home. We weren’t lunching that day (two words: Premier Inn), but I had a Young’s Special, which once again has failed to make any noticeable imprint on my memory (I ought to make notes, really).

And then there was the near-obligatory station stop, which in our case means the Doric Arch. Bengal Lancer was on draught, and very nice it was too.

Summing up: some nice pubs, some good food, some oddly unmemorable beers. And the Holborn Whippet.

Here for rapid persuasion

I don’t do advertising.

I do review beer, and if someone sends me a bottle of beer – or stands me a pint or five – I’ll put my impressions on here (using the ‘category’ tag of “Free as in beer”). And I’ll probably be reasonably positive, or mildly critical at worst – it seems polite.

What you’re not going to see here is rewritten press release copy, or those posts that look like a promo from a free paper (“Those nice people at AB-InBev have sent me a bag of free stuff, and now it’s your turn!”). I hate reading that kind of thing, so I’m certainly not going to write it. So when you do see a product endorsement on Oh Good Ale, you’ll know it’s a product endorsement you can really trust… hang on, that’s not where I thought I was going with that one. (Shall I put the Bill Hicks link in now? You know the one.)

Anyway, yesterday I had some free stuff delivered (after a brief email exchange of the “would you like some free stuff?” variety). Beer, specifically. Most of it looks good, some of it I know to be good. I haven’t drunk the beer yet, for reasons that will become obvious, but here’s what I think of it so far.

The beer. I was sent three 500 ml bottles, three 330s and two 355s. Both the 355 ml bottles are from the same US brewery; otherwise they’re all from different breweries. The breweries in my selection are Barney’s*, Church Farm**, Grain*, Oakham, Stevens Point, Top Out** and the very wonderful Ticketybrew (* = never seen their beer before; ** = never heard of them before). Most of the beers are low-strength; only three go over 5% and only one over 6%.

The service. The deal is that the retailer sends you eight bottles of what they insist on calling ‘craft beer’; it comes in a box decorated with the silly food-matching diagram I wrote about in this post, bizarrely enough. There’s also an informative leaflet with some useful details on the beers and breweries, as well as some more silly food suggestions (with ‘red meat’ you want a dubbel, apparently, unless it’s a steak (stout) or it’s been barbecued (pale ale)). You pay £24 for this; a month later, they do it all over again and you pay them again. (The Web site seems to want you to set up a recurring payment authorisation on your credit card. I’d be a lot happier with a Direct Debit mandate; in my experience recurring payments on CCs are a swine to manage.)

The price and value (the offering if you want to be pretentious). There’s a trade-off between price and perceived value – quality, rarity, novelty etc – and for me, living where I do and drinking what I do, this box doesn’t quite hit it. I buy a lot more beer in supermarkets than in specialist shops; there’s a huge range of beer available in the supermarkets around here, and although it’s not a huge interesting range, it is a range with interesting fringes. So I’m not used to going much over £2 a bottle – particularly not for a small bottle. Also, I’m not a mad ticker, so I don’t seize on beers I’ve never seen before with whoops of glee; and I don’t often – actually, I don’t ever – buy beer by post, so I’m not habituated to adding a bit for P+P. All in all, if I was being asked to pay £3 for a 330 ml bottle of Barney’s GOPA (3.8%), I would not feel I was getting a good deal. But your utility function may vary (enough jargon already – Ed.) If you’re less bothered by the pricing, have fewer alternatives to mail order or really like the sound of those breweries, this may suit you better than it does me. And let’s face it, you can always cancel after a month or two (although, as I say, I have had trouble stopping recurring payment authorisations before now).

The marketing. I’m going to be a bit harsh here, I’m afraid. I work from home quite a lot, which means that I’m interrupted quite often by phone calls from people who tell me they’re from Microsoft Technical Support and they’ve received error messages from my computer. (Sometimes I tell them I use a Mac.) Obviously “I’m from Microsoft” is just an opener – a way of getting the punter into conversation – but it’s still a con; you really shouldn’t make a statement like that unless you mean it, and if you mean it you should be willing to prove it. (Sometimes I ask them what my IP address is. That’s fun. One of them even had an answer – it’s 192.168.0.1, he said (that’s one for the geeks).)

The thing is, I don’t think there’s much difference between that approach and mailing a random beer blogger with a line like “I’m a huge fan of your blog”. This line – which I have seen before – just makes me think, O RLY? What is it that you particularly like about my blog in particular, hmm? In the case of this particular retailer I tried to set them a bit of a test (“Your familiarity with my blog should give you a pretty good idea what I do & don’t like in the world of beer”) – and I will admit that my first reaction to seeing the beers was that they’d included the Ticketybrew because they knew I’m a fan. Not so, as I realised when I saw the leaflet; nothing personalised about this box, any more than the email. I’ve worked in business, and I know that if you make stuff, or sell stuff, you always have some spare stuff knocking about, or put some stuff aside for spare. What they’ve done, essentially, is sent me a form email followed by some spare stuff, in the hope that I’ll give them a bit of advertiahempresence on social media. As transactions go it’s a bit, well, cheap.

I’m not saying I feel hard done by – far from it; one free beer is a bonus, let alone eight. (All those years doing political and current affairs blogging, before I started on this beer lark; nobody ever sent me any free, um, politics. I may have spotted the problem.) What I’m saying is that their marketing needs some work, especially if they’re serious about doing social media stuff. With their current approach they may get a few Those nice people at X have sent me… posts and related tweetage, but they’re missing the chance to build relationships with actual bloggers, who (like Soylent Green) are people.

So, anyway. Eight beers a month (quite good ones, mostly not in the high street); £24 a month. Up to you. More details in comments.

Aye, dry


Retro-blogging* the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2014, Saturday daytime session
*A bit like live-blogging, only different.

11:00 MBCF opens. Planned to be there by now. Am just leaving house. In fact, no wait, did I get that… yes, I had it all along, but more to the point have I got my ticket? My free Winter Warmer Wander ticket which is one of the reasons I’m going on Saturday, as (a) I could have got in free anyway on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which would have been a waste of a freebie and (b) the ticket wasn’t valid on Friday night, which would (ditto) and also have cost money? Where did I put the damn ticket anyway?
11:something Find ticket. Remember something else. Tell self to stop faffing about. Leave house.
12:ish Arrive at Velopark tram stop. Having been sat with my back to the rest of the tram, I’d had the impression that it had emptied out at the previous stop, viz. the Etihad stadium. On leaving the tram I’m slightly surprised to realise that approx. 300 people have left with me & are now streaming – well, trudging – towards the Velodrome itself, which seems to be about ten minutes’ walk away. Start to wonder about the session possibly being a bit busy.
12:ish + ten minutes Reaching the Velodrome, the throng trudges patiently around the corner, between two parked cars and up some steps. (OK, not 300, but there must have been a good 40 or 50 of us.) We then queue to be let in. There are notices on the door saying that the event has been far more successful than expected, and that the entry price has been dropped accordingly. We’re encouraged to drink the Festival dry and then head back into Manchester. (Having just spent a not entirely comfortable half hour getting here from Manchester, I feel this last part could have been phrased better, or not at all.)
A bit later Hand over my ticket. Realise that the reduced entry price is £1 or £0 for CAMRA members, so having the ticket’s made no difference at all. (On reflection, the WWW/Mild Magic incentives are probably aimed more at ordinary punters than at the CAMRA hard core like what I am.)
nn:nn (subsequent timings approximate) Wander around vaguely. It seems a lot like any other arena – a long circular corridor with some stuff in the middle that’s curiously hard to get to. After a bit of trial and error, I find the steps to the stand. Realise that the stand overlooks the cycle track, and that there are no pedestrian crossings. After a bit more wandering I find the steps that lead under the stand and enable you to get at the beer. Five flights down, three flights up.
nn:nn Start with half a pint of Mallinson’s Simcoe. Rather fine. Realise that the notice outside wasn’t joking – there are big gaps in the lineup, several of which have been heroically plugged by late additions (a category which includes the Mallinson’s Simcoe). Do the catalogue-ticking short-listing thing, but make sure to cross-check with what’s actually on the bars as I go along (“Timothy Taylor, Tiny Rebel, Ulverston, Waen… oh, they’ve all gone. Never mind.”) I end up with a pretty decent list even so.
nn:nn Having worked my way along all three of the main bars, have a look at the brewery bars. Say Hi to a fellow CAMRA member working at one of them. Am keen to find out what’s on the other brewery bars, so walk on without stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not being behind one of the bars myself. Decide to get another beer.
nn:nn Pleasantly surprised that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on.
nn:nn So where are the loos? Oh, right, down three flights of steps and up five. Of course.
nn:nn Aghast to find that Red Willow Faithless XXX (the beetroot one) has gone off, although it was on when I arrived. This is a bad sign, I think (correctly).
nn:nn Take a third of Wells & Young’s Winter Warmer with me down three flights of steps and up five to find something to eat. Some nice-looking stuff has been laid on for the Festival – Mexican, Indian and, er, pies with gravy – but I end up with a burger and chips from the Velodrome’s cafe. Finish the Winter Warmer about half an hour after starting it, by which point it’s understandably getting a bit tired. (I mention this because this was the only time in the whole day that I had a beer in anything less than good nick.)
nn:nn Another casualty from my hit-list: Thwaites’ Fallen Nun has now gone off. On the plus side, Harbour #5 (one of the late substitutions) knocks my socks off: a really superb pale ale – fruity hops a-go-go. Really starting to hanker after somewhere to sit. Do a quick head-count of people sitting on the floor as I cross the bar area and get to 25 – fewer than the people with actual chairs and a lot fewer than those standing. There is, of course, ample seating in the stands – but, well, eight flights of steps.
nn:nn First Chop Syl – “black jaggery IPA” – is much better than it sounds, and almost as good as it wants to be. Sit on the floor for a bit. It’s not ideal.
nn:nn Next to go off before I get to it: Burton Bridge Old Expensive. (Who’s been drinking that? I’d never even heard of Burton Bridge Old Expensive before today. I’m not convinced I’d even heard of Burton Bridge.) Have a Blackjack King of Clubs (imperial stout). Not bad at all.
nn:nn Mid-afternoon and the beers are really starting to thin out. Drift past the brewery bars, which proportionally seem to have a lot more left on than the main bars. Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime Reserve (8.5%) is on. I admit defeat on the seating front, and take it to a seat in the stands. Rather a peculiar beer – can’t quite work out what style it is; a bit like a black IPA crossed with a Burton. (Update: after tasting some very similar flavours in a pint of Buxton RednikQuantum Fall-en House (which is a stoutporter), I’m going for “strong hoppy porter”. Unusual, almost medicinal tasting, but not at all bad.)
nn:nn What’s left on my list? Not much, and certainly not much that’s still on. The whole of the second bar is marked “no service here”, as there isn’t any beer left there to serve. Crossing the floor, take another quick head-count of people sitting on the floor; I get to 70. Note with some surprise that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on – I guess the strength is putting people off. I go for Dent T’Owd Tup, which is rather good. Find an actual chair that nobody’s using. Hurrah!
16:00ish Eight beers down; less than three pints in total, but mostly strong and some very strong. Alcohol-wise, I’ve had the rough equivalent of four and a half pints of bitter now, and am feeling it. Was hoping to get a bit further before baling out, but body says otherwise. (Have had cold.) Wonder about finishing off with a return visit to Coniston No 9, seeing as it’s still there. Decide, regretfully, that this would be silly. Leave.
16:15ish On tram. Could really fancy a pork pie.
16:30ish Pitch up at the Arndale Market, where – surprise! – a beer festival is in full swing, courtesy of the Micro Bar. It would seem rude to pass by, so I finish my day’s drinking with a half of Ticketybrew’s Jasmine Green Tea special (seen subsequently on the bar at Font in Chorlton). It’s very nice. Then I go and get a pork pie. Then I go home.

On Twitter, Tandleman – who, under his secret true identity, is one of the key festival organisers – remarked that the Festival had ended for him on a low note, with disgruntled punters having a go. I can understand why people might be dissatisfied – the venue wasn’t ideal, and the beer obviously went down much quicker than planned; anyone turning up after 4.00 on Saturday will have had very slim pickings. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think the negatives outweighed the positives overall; I certainly wouldn’t have missed it. Even the heavily-depleted selection that faced me on Saturday morning was an amazing range of beers; just as importantly, every one of them (at least, every one I had) was in good condition. It’s not every festival where you can say you’re pleased with every beer you try. I’ve been to festivals where you have a choice of fifty different brown bitters from regional brewers, and this was nothing like that – come to that, I’ve been to festivals where the most interesting beers are things you’d see on the bar at the likes of Font or Pi, and this was nothing like that either.

This festival had its problems – most of them caused by its own popularity – but there was a huge range of interesting and well-chosen beers, at good prices and in good nick. When the post-mortems are being carried out, that’s the key point that needs to be remembered.

As I was a-wandering (3-4 of 4)

So then I went to this other pub and had a different beer, which was also very nice…

The plan to visit really quite large numbers of pubs in Stockport, and on the Fallowfield/Didsbury trail, didn’t work out; in the end I just made it to the 25-pub mark. Having done 17 pubs in the town centre and Chorlton, I’ve only got eight more to mention. I may as well run through them now.

In Rusholme, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) was serving Peerless Full Whack. The brewery describe this simply as a strong ale (it’s 6%), but I’m using my discretion and putting it down as an old ale. I liked.

Down the road in Withington, the Victoria had another 6%er in the shape of Hyde’s Beer Studio Crystal Chestnut. A darkish and surprisingly aromatic winter beer; again, this ticks enough of the boxes to go down as an old ale. Up the road, my plan to make an early-lunchtime visit to the Friendship was foiled by the place refusing to open, or at least taking its time over it; an unusual sight of a  Christmas weekend. The Great Central (JDW) was open, unsurprisingly, and supplied me with… White Horse Rudolph the Red Nosed White Horse (4.8%). Which was fine.

A trip to Stockport, also on a weekend over Christmas, took me first of all to Robinson’s Visitors’ Centre… which was shut (and yes, I had checked the times). H’mph. Ho forth to the Cocked Hat, which was… odd. It struck me as one of those pubs which would be written up as warm, friendly and welcoming, but only by its regulars. Put it this way, there were five or six punters stood in front of the bar, and every one of them looked round as I came in. The last time that happened to me the punters were speaking Welsh. As for the beer, there were five or six hand pumps, but it was actually quite hard to see all the pump clips, what with the discussion group parked in front of the bar – or to read what they said when I did get a look, thanks to the low light… the whole thing just wasn’t very comfortable, basically. I ended up with some kind of stout. Had a half. Supped up and got out. I think somebody wanted my table.

The Arden Arms didn’t disappoint, with a half of Old Tom from a pin on the bar; a bit listless and lacking in condition, but still a great beer. The pub was rather full, on the down side; I ended up standing in a corner of one of the side rooms. The landlord, wont to hail anyone standing at the bar to check whether they want to dine, was taking an even more proactive approach and encouraging drinkers to budge up on the benches to let more people sit down. I stayed stood.

At the Railway (Portwood) I bumped into a fellow CAMRA member, who advised me to get along to the Stockport branch’s 40th anniversary dinner, an idea I’d been toying with despite it not being my branch. (It turned out not to be a great idea, but I blame lack of preparation on my part more than anything.) Anyway, Rossendale Pitch Porter was on, and was as good as ever.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man with a half of Old Tom inside him fancies few things more than another half of Old Tom. This was provided by the Swan with Two Necks – in excellent condition and sparkled. “Very nice indeed” would be an understatement.

If anyone’s keeping count they’ll have realised that we’re now up to 24. Pub 25 was… The Olde Woolpack, a pub I’d never made it to before. I’m as sorry as anyone that it’s had to close, but I’m not sure I’m surprised – it’s a bit of a trek from anywhere else, in a town (and in a part of town) that’s not short of good drinking opportunities. Anyway, I skirted the industrial estate, crossed the roundabout with the motorway signs and made it to the beckoning lights of the Woolpack, to find that they had absolutely nothing on that would qualify: no old ale, no stout or porter, nothing over 4.5% (while the only ‘seasonal’ was something called Christmas Slapper, which somehow didn’t appeal). They were, however, very big on polypin cider, so I had one of those – something from Gwynt y Ddraig FWIW.

Stats?

These areas Total
Old ale / Barley wine 4 6
Porter / stout 2 12
Others (4.5% and over) 1 4
Others (non-qualifying) 0 2
Cider 1 1

Only six old ales and ‘winter warmers’, out of 25 pubs – and three of those were Old Tom. Rather a lot of draught stouts and porters. (Looking on the bright side, hey – rather a lot of draught stouts and porters!)

How do these figures compare with last year, I hear absolutely nobody ask? Here’s how:

2013 2012
Old ale / Barley wine 6 4
Porter / stout 12 9
Others (4.5% and over) 4 9
Others (non-qualifying) 3 4

So it looks as if things are getting better; the WWW may be helping to encourage pubs to put more stouts and winter ales on. And it’s always good to have an excuse to visit pubs slightly further afield; I just wish I hadn’t had a cold to slow me down for so much of the WWW period. So many pubs, so little time. Ah well – roll on Mild Magic!

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