Not the festival report

I realised the other day that I hadn’t written anything about this year’s Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. Thinking about it now, my memories are distinctly lacking in things to write about. I didn’t go in for Mild Magic this year, so I didn’t pitch up at the festival with unfeasibly large numbers of mild tokens to spend. I didn’t wander around muttering “had that… had that… seen that in Chorlton…” – the range was brilliant. It was in the usual large, light, airy, well-seated and bicycle-free venue of Edgeley Park, so I didn’t have anything to complainwrite about on that front. The place wasn’t uncomfortably hot and crowded, even though I went on a sunny Saturday – and, although the festival had been on since Thursday, most of the beers I was interested in were still on, so I didn’t end up with a long list of might-have-beens. All very negative – no wrecks and nobody drownded… I didn’t even win anything on the tombola.

I had a really nice afternoon, though, and drank some excellent beers. Here’s what I had, complete with contemporaneous tasting notes in italics.

Conwy Rampart 4.5% bloody lovely mun
A dark malty south Welsh bitter, tasting just like it did when I was sixteen (thanks, Dad). Wonderful stuff – 5/5.
Robinson’s Yippee IPA 5% perfectly fine
One of Robbies’ ‘white label’ beers. Great name; the beer was, well, perfectly fine. Say 3.5.
Quantum Bolo Ligo 6.4% odd but good
A wheat beer flavoured with blueberry (I think) and liquorice. I’m not crazy about strong fruit flavours and I’ve never liked liquorice, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one – 4.
Otherton Pointu 3.9% dubbel mild
A dark mild brewed with Belgian yeast, done exceptionally well – another 5. (I understand Otherton have knocked it on the head – shame if so, and I hope they find a way to get back into it. Beers like this are too good to lose.)
Quantum American Light 3.6% v nice
I got this on impulse after hearing one of the volunteers raving about its aromas. It was a very big, hoppy light ale – astonishingly big for its strength. I had a half (I was on thirds for everything else except the Rampart) and drank it with my lunch. I’d give it 4.5.
Runaway Caller the Smaller 9.5% everything everything
At this point my tasting notes are entering their impressionistic phase. But when I have a really good old ale or barleywine, that is what I feel like I’m getting – just everything a beer has to offer, all at once. Amazing to think this was brewed by a home brewer – more please! Another definite 5.
Fool Hardy Ritca 6% almost there (EG)
What my tasting notes are saying here is that this was an Earl Grey IPA, and it fell a bit short of Marble’s ditto. 3.5.
Tango 0%
Time for a palate reset and a bit of hydration.
RedWillow Imperial Smokeless 9.2% oh my (bit sweet tho)
An ‘imperial’ version of RW’s smoked porter; perhaps a bit too treacly for its own good, but definitely a 4.
Quantum Sourdough 3.6% yeah but
Third Quantum beer of the festival, and the only one that verged on being a dud – it’s a sour, and that was about it for me; 3.
Leatherbritches Smoky Lapsang 4.7% impressed but not entirely condensed
“I’m not convinced!”, my Senior Analyst used to say to us when we hadn’t made our case clearly or logically enough. Then we had to revise the argument and frame it logically until he was convinced. Well, it kept us busy. One day someone on another team listened patiently to an argument and then interjected “I’m not condensed!”, which promptly entered the language. (That’s the thing with office humour, it’s never worth the trouble of explaining.) Anyway, this was a pale ale flavoured with the slightly madey-uppy smoked Chinese tea Lapsang Souchong, and it was… interesting. Say 3.5.
Thirst Class Cloak and Stagger 6.8% generally wow
Another home brew competition winner – an ‘American porter’ – and, well, wow. Apparently it’s heavily hopped, but the hops didn’t work against the big malty depth of a strong porter, in the way that they sometimes do; if anything they enhanced it, the same way that a bit of sugar can heighten salty flavours. Great stuff, and once again I hope we see more from the brewer; 5.
Neepsend Osiris 4.2% whack whack whack
Can’t say fairer than that. A pale ale from a brewery I’d never heard of, recommended to me by John Clarke. And rightly so – 4.

If my arithmetic’s right that’s an average score of 4 and a bit – and a median of 4 – with four out of the twelve being 5-star worldbeaters (all of them dark in one way or another, I notice). Great beers, great festival.

Remember the name

I bought four bottles of beer the other day – four different beers from the same brewer, that is. The supermarket was having a bit of a push on them; the four of them had their own little cardboard display unit. Plus they were included in a ‘four for £6’ offer, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

There was an amber ale, “brewed in Burton-upon-Trent”. It wasn’t very nice. It was quite a deep brown in colour and tasted of diluted malt extract, with a very slight bitterness on the finish and nothing much in the way of carbonation. Essentially it tasted as if someone had set out to imitate an old-school sweetish bitter, but done so on a very tight budget. This was the only one of the four in a clear bottle, but it didn’t taste skunked; it just tasted rather boring.

Then there was a pale ale; mysteriously, this one was “brewed in the UK”. It was certainly paler than the previous one, and tasted a bit lighter, with some acidity and less of that syrupy sweetness. I wouldn’t say it rose to the level of ‘pleasant’, though; it was a bit of a struggle to get through the whole 500 ml.

Things started to look up a bit with the red IPA (also “brewed in the UK”). Only a bit – I’m not saying I’d buy it again – but I could drink an entire bottle without too much effort. ‘Red IPA’ was stretching it, though. With a beer like Hardknott Infra Red, you get something like the ‘red’ (or brown) equivalent of a black IPA: tarry bitterness and hop aroma overlaid on a heavy, sweetish old-school bitter. This wasn’t like that (or anywhere near that good). Basically it was rather like a combination of the other two – so ‘red’ meaning ‘dark, sweet, old-style bitter’ and ‘IPA’ presumably meaning ‘sharp-tasting and vaguely hoppy’.

After one beer that was disappointing and two that were positively hard to finish, I wasn’t expecting much from the fourth; this was a special ale and “brewed in Burtonwood”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite liked it. Another darkish, sweetish bitter, but this time with a more interesting flavour and with a bit of body and strength to it; it wasn’t a million miles from Fuller’s ESB, albeit less complex and a bit less sweet.

So what are these boring brown supermarket beers, with their conservative flavour profiles and their multiple brewery locations, and why am I bothering you with them? They’re Sharp’s Doom Bar, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Sea Fury, respectively. (Incidentally, none of the labels claimed that the beers were brewed in Cornwall; the labels for Sea Fury and Doom Bar specifically said they weren’t.) As you’ll probably remember, Sharp’s was a small Cornish brewery, which sold out to Molson Coors in 2011. At the time there was very little wailing and gnashing of teeth among beer enthusiasts, partly because most of us only really knew Sharp’s through Doom Bar, which was pretty unexciting even then (although personally I rather liked it). Most of us followed Pete Brown in giving the news a cautious welcome; I certainly did, as you can see from my comments on that post. Pete’s argument at the time was, firstly, that this was a good move for Molson Coors (“This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale”); secondly, that if Doom Bar did get blanded out by its new owners this was no great loss (“It’s only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it’s not as if there is any heritage here that’s about to be trashed by a big corporate”); and, thirdly, that Molson Coors were promising that Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe would be able to do his own thing (result!), and if that didn’t work out he’d jump ship and go and do it somewhere else (also a result!).

I think these were perfectly reasonable opinions at the time, not least because I held them myself. However, with five years’ retrospect we can see that there’s a lurking contradiction between Pete’s first two points. Is it such a good thing for a mega-brewery to develop “a big commitment to cask ale”, if the cask ale they’re committed to is a shadow of its former self? Conversely, can we laugh off Doom Bar getting dumbed down & blanded out – we weren’t drinking it anyway – if the new and even blander Doom Bar is going to be in our collective face, thanks to that “big commitment”?

In retrospect, I think this contradiction betrays a blind spot concerning the difference between a product and a brand. It’s not surprising that the two should get mixed up in people’s minds – they’re thoroughly mixed up in practice – but it’s still worth taking a couple of philosophical steps back. Let’s say that you’re given a taster of a beer, without knowing its name or that of the brewery, and you like it enough to seek it out and buy a pint: in that situation, you’re buying a product purely because of the qualities of the product. At the other extreme, say that your name is Finlayson, you’ve gone to the pub to celebrate a win on the lottery, and the first thing you see is a pump dispensing Finlayson’s Lucky Number (NB not a real beer) – obviously you’re going to have a pint of that, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the quality of the beer. The product and the brand are different things, although they’re welded together by the act of actually buying the thing – you can’t give money for the brand without experiencing the beer, and vice versa.

What makes it complicated is that, in practice, there aren’t that many ways to brand a beer that are completely disconnected from the beer itself – at least, not since the ASA got all spoilsport-y about associating alcohol with “irresponsible behaviour, social success or sexual attractiveness”. So what you tend to get is the presentation of product quality as a brand. The goal, in other words, is to create the impression among customers that the name of a particular beer, or a particular brewery, is the mark of quality. From that point on, as far as customers are concerned their buying decisions are based on product quality – that’s why they like the brand. But the brewer doesn’t have to sell on product quality; all they need to do is sell the brand, while doing whatever’s necessary to maintain the association between the brand and product quality. This may mean keeping quality high, but it doesn’t have to; it may just mean keeping prices high (“reassuringly expensive”, anyone?).

You can see how this applies to Doom Bar. A brand which is supported by a history of product quality is a strong brand, one which a corporation might well want to own. But the product that’s associated with that brand, once it’s been bought, doesn’t have to continue that history. The brand makes the proposition about quality, backed – implicitly or explicitly – by history and experience. The product doesn’t need to live up that proposition – it just needs to be palatable enough not to drive repeat customers away. Consider Stella, again; AB-Inbev are still trading on the name and history of the Brouwerij Artois, 28 years after it ceased to exist.

So, what do you get when a large brewery buys out a smaller one? We get one less brewery, and the larger brewery gets the assets of the smaller one – including the beers themselves, the beer brands and whatever other assets the smaller brewery had: brewkit, plant and buildings, yeast strains, employees, distribution channels and so on. In the 1960s and 70s, the key assets would have been the tied estate; these days it’s the brands. Now as then, there are no guarantees for the people or the brewkit – or the beers. For corporate brewers – and for anyone trading much above the face-to-face, word-of-mouth, farmer’s market level – a strong brand is far more valuable than a high-quality product; and this is the case even when the strength of the brand has been built on the quality of the product. (I had Stella Artois once, in Belgium, in the 1970s. It was good stuff.)

In short, takeovers turn beers into brands – or rather, they turn a beer-with-a-brand into a brand-with-a-beer. Even when the new corporate owner of a beer is genuinely committed to maintaining its original quality, the corporate scale creates new dangers. Brakspear Triple survived two changes of ownership – Brakspear was bought out by Wychwood in 2002, Wychwood by Marston’s in 2008 – only to fall foul of fluctuations in supermarket beer demand. In recent years the beer has been brewed primarily (perhaps exclusively) for the supermarket ‘premium bottled ale’ market – a big market in terms of potential sales but a very small one structurally, putting the future of the beer in the hands of a few beer buyers. And so it was that, in the words of a Marston’s spokeswoman quoted in June’s What’s Brewing, “Due to the decline in demand from consumers, Brakspear Triple bottle-conditioned beer was delisted by key retailers which inevitably meant we were unable to continue with the production and sale of it.” This is not to say that everything would have been rosy if Brakspear had refused Wychwood’s offer; the brewery might just have closed down, historic double-drop vessels and all. But it does show that a takeover doesn’t secure the future of any beer, even where the new owners have a genuine commitment to the beer – and not just the brand.

Whether AB InBev’s commitment to Camden Town and Meantime is to the beers or the brands, time will tell. (Sorry, make that Asahi‘s commitment to Meantime.) But I think anyone who bet on the key personnel or the original recipes still being in place in another five years would be very optimistic indeed. The brands, on the other hand, have got a bright future ahead of them. (Well, Camden’s have; given AB InBev’s enforced divestment, I’m even less optimistic about Meantime.) Just like Doom Bar.

According to Pete’s blog post in 2011, Stuart Howe was officially going to “[stay] doing what he’s doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability” (although Pete expressed some scepticism about whether this would work out). According to a comment on the post from Kristy McCready, who was doing PR for Molson Coors at the time, “100% of Sharp’s beers will be brewed at the brewery in Rock under the creative brilliance of Stuart Howe … no wing clipping, crass marketing, kegging, moving to Burton or anything other than business as usual for Sharp’s but with more investment behind it”. 100% of Sharp’s beers brewed at Rock? We’ve seen how that worked out. As for Stuart Howe, he left Molson Coors last year for Butcombe (which itself has recently been bought out by the Jersey-based Liberation group). Meanwhile, Doom Bar is going strong, an awful beer powered by the reputation Sharp’s built before the takeover – along with equally feeble beers like Atlantic and Wolf Rock (and the surprisingly decent Sea Fury).

The beer landscape has changed an awful lot since the 1970s, but in key respects it hasn’t changed that much. The big companies don’t want good beers for their quality, they want them for their market share and their branding – and those things don’t require high quality beer, even if high quality beer is what they were built on. One of three things happens when a small brewery is taken over: the beers are kept on with the same quality and standards; or they just disappear; or they’re kept on as brands fronting for inferior products, impostors standing in for the beers they used to be. I think history shows that the second is more likely than the first, and the third is most likely of all – particularly now that brands are such a key asset for breweries. In short, takeovers are (still) bad news.

 

Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!

Sour times

This post is aimed mainly at people who know stuff. I did one year of Chemistry at school; we had to take one science for O Level, but I chose Physics on the grounds that my friend was doing it. Kids, eh? Then again, I chose German on the grounds that my mother had talked me out of choosing Spanish on the grounds that my friend was doing it, and that wasn’t much better as choices go. My Spanish is much better than my German these days… sorry, what was the question?

Anyway, if you – like me – know next to nothing about organic chemistry, this post probably isn’t aimed at you. If you do know about this stuff – and brewing in particular – have at it in the comments.

Question 1: Why does cask beer eventually go sour?

We know it does. It’s obviously something to do with yeast, and something to do with contact with the air; that’ll be why keg beer doesn’t go sour – even if it’s got yeast in it. (Or does ‘real’ keg eventually go sour – does contact with oxygen just mean that cask just goes sour quicker?) Yeast plus beer plus time (plus oxygen) equals… what? Something to do with sugar turning to alcohol? Oxidation? Oxidisation? (Are they not the same thing?) Help me out here.

Question 2: Why does (good) bottle-conditioned beer not go sour – or not for a very long time?

I’ve drunk five- and ten-year-old bottles of Chimay Blue; by the time you get to ten years the taste is starting to get a bit thin (no doubt from all that sugar being turned to alcohol), but it’s not sour. Chimay Blue is pretty mellow when it’s brand new, and the older it gets, the mellower it gets. Whatever it is that happens in a few weeks to beer (with yeast in it) in a cask, it doesn’t happen in a decade to beer (with yeast in it) in a bottle from the lads at Scourmont; if anything, the opposite happens. (Other people have reported similar things of old bottles of Fuller’s Vintage and Thomas Hardy ale.) What’s going on there?

Question 3: Why does bottle-conditioned beer sometimes go sour?

I have – to my regret – had bottle-conditioned beer that wasn’t meant to be sour, but was every bit as sour as a barrel end pint: a harsh, battery-acid sharpness, drowning out whatever flavour the beer was originally intended to have. Will a beer like this have gone sour for the same reason that the barrel-end pint would have done, or are there other processes which might lead bottle-conditioned beer to go sour? If it is the same process, what went wrong with those bottles that made it happen, when (per question 2) it’s the opposite of what usually happens?

Question 4: Why gushers?

An easy one to finish with: what’s going on when you open a bottle of bottle-conditioned beer and it gushes like a Formula 1-winner’s champagne? What does that, and how can brewers stop it happening?

(Also, why is the triangle inscribed in a semi-circle always a right-angled triangle? I’d love to see a proof of that one.)

Update Matthew (in comments) explains all. Acetobacter converts alcohol to vinegar (it’s nothing to do with yeast per se); there’s acetobacter in the air, so any alcoholic drink in contact with the atmosphere will eventually get vinegarised. Bottled beer, on the other hand, shouldn’t have this problem, unless… well, unless what?

Let’s promote question 3 (which, to be honest, always was the one I was most interested in). When bottled beer goes sour – as, sadly, it sometimes does – what’s (most probably) going on? A pre-existing acetobacter infection? Some other sort of infection? (I’m not sure I can tell one kind of sourness from another; I’ve seen references to lactic acid as a fault, as well as acetic.) If it is some other kind of infection, what kind? And, if it is an infection (acetobacter or otherwise) what should the brewer have been doing to stop it? Or might it be some kind of problem with the yeast strain?

All suggestions welcome!

(Yes, I do have a specific brewery in mind. Two, in fact.)

FOTY

IMG_0919

Like this, only bigger

 

At least, if this wasn’t the beer festival of the year, the one that is will be really something.

I’m speaking of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, which this year was held at the old Central Station (or G-Mex as I still think of it; stupid name, but it stuck). This had quite a few advantages over its previous location:

  1. Lots of space – trade shows tend to partition G-Mex to bits, but you can also just use it as one very, very large room
  2. Lots of seating
  3. No stairs
  4. Central Station is about right; the place could hardly be more central

The disadvantages were minor in comparison:

  1. No serendipitous discoveries of extra bars hidden away in rooms on another level, which you only stumble upon while looking for something else (usually the loos)
  2. No cyclists to watch
  3. It got a bit draughty down at the door end
  4. That’s it

As for the beer… let me tell you about the beer.

My established routine at fests is to get the first thing I fancy, then do a circuit of the bars & get the best thing I see, then sit down and have a look at the programme. The first thing I saw when I came in was the Blackjack brewery bar. I started on their Snip Snap Snorum, which was a fine, herby, tobacco-y pale ale. Then a circuit of the room, and what should I find but Bathams Best Bitter. Bathams! After having it on home turf I came away with the conviction that its reputation is well-deserved; it’s a light, sweet-tasting pale bitter – almost a light mild – but one that develops enormously over the course of a pint, finishing dry and aromatic. I’ve likened it to a ‘session tripel’ before now. A half confirmed that I wasn’t wrong – it’s a lovely beer, and one that I never thought I’d see in Manchester. (Now, if only I knew for certain how to pronounce the brewer – BAT-ums? BAY-thums? Bat Hams?)

Like most CAMRA people I know, I was pleased that the festival had a key keg bar; one of the brewery bars (Runaway) was also KK-only. There was a distinct crush at the KK bar; as I approached I could practically feel the average age dropping (and the beard quotient rising). As it goes, I didn’t fancy any of the beers they had on that night. I did like the look of the Schlenkerla Marzen on the Bières Sans Frontières bar next door, though, and very nice it was too.

Then three in a row from the back end of the alphabet. Waen Snowball is a strong stout (7%); to be more precise, it’s a strong chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout. On the plus side, the flavour combination does work; on the minus side, it doesn’t work quite well enough to answer the question “why am I drinking a 7% chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout?”. Vocation Heart and Soul was terrific – I’ve yet to have a beer from Vocation that isn’t – but I chose it partly as a palate-cleanser between two stouts. The second was the Ticketybrew/Quantum Marmite Stout, which – slightly to my surprise – worked a lot better than the Waen had. I think the key is that it’s a sweet stout; Ticketybrew’s Stout is made with treacle, and I suspect this is too. As a result the Marmite flavour (which is unmissable) has sweetness to play off rather than burnt-grain bitterness; it works really well.

It was time to get some food. I ended up with a pulled pork brioche bun (très craft) and a half of Holden’s Mild. At first taste I badly underestimated this beer: it was a thinnish, sweet dark mild, it was a bit lacking in condition, and I could see myself knocking it back to wash the food down. How wrong you can be. Although it was only 3.7%, the beer had an astonishing depth and complexity; I found myself thinking of dense, malty porters, then of rich, sweet dubbels, then of strong dark bitters. Lovely stuff, and – against strong competition – my beer of the fest.

Then it was back on the hard stuff. I was quite excited to see Moor‘s old ale Old Freddy Walker, and it didn’t disappoint: sweet, heavy and strong, it drank like a throwback to the Burtons of old. The Faithless series apart, it’s not often I see a RedWillow beer I haven’ t tried, so I had to try Thoughtless from their brewery bar; it’s a 9.4% imperial stout, and it’s terrific.

The units were stacking up by this point, and I was planning to get something from the Conwy brewery bar and then call it a night. Conwy make a couple of tremendous dark, malty bitters, neither of which they’d brought along; they seem to be making a fairly concerted assault on the pale’n’oppy market. Sadly, their bar wasn’t at all busy (you couldn’t get near the Cloudwater bar…); perhaps they’re falling between two stools. Not that I personally helped matters, having decided at the last moment not to give them any custom myself. The problem was that I’d just remembered that Fuller’s Past Masters 1914 was on. It’s a fantastic beer, which somehow managed to find the mid-point between an old ale and a best bitter; although both were 7.3%, it seemed to be half as heavy as the Moor old ale and twice as drinkable.

Then I thought I might as well just revisit Bathams on the way out and had another third of the BB. This, I think, was a mistake – going for the third, that is: the first mouthful just tasted like sugar water, and it was only really starting to show itself as I drained the glass. But I’d had the rough equivalent of five and a half ‘normal’ pints by this stage, and that seemed like plenty. I got home without incident, drank a coffee and a pint of water, slept well and got up without any noticeable hangover.

What else did I do while I was there? Not a lot. I bumped into several people I knew – not only through CAMRA – most of whom were behind a bar, slightly to my embarrassment. The pulled pork bun was excellent; the choice of food was pretty good, too, although nothing was dirt cheap. I have fond memories of the Winter Ales fest which, as well as a full-dress food counter, had a stall selling plates of chips for a pound; very welcome in mid-evening, that was. More in the way of soft drinks might have been good; that Winter Ales bash also had apple juice and dandelion & burdock(!) on hand pump, which was a nice way to get a bit of hydration in between beers. As for the merchandise, some familiar stalls were present, and some other familiar stalls conspicuously weren’t – the laddishness (and worse) which has marred some merchandise stalls in the past was nowhere to be seen, as far as I could tell. But the stalls – even the food stalls – were secondary; this festival was there for the beer (and cider), and so was I (apart from the cider). And what very fine beer it was.

Warmer winter (4)

One final post on this year’s WWW, covering everywhere I went to that wasn’t in the centre or down Wilmslow Road.

I started in Chorlton, specifically at the Sedge Lynn. The Sedge Lynn has Phoenix Wobbly Bob as a more-or-less permanent guest, and I tend to ignore it very much as I ignore Abbot or Ruddles’. This isn’t very fair – it’s not as if you’ll find Wobbly Bob in every other Spoon’s – and I make a point of hitting the Wobbly when the WWW comes round. And very nice it was too.

On the night I went to Dulcimer, their habitually weird and wonderful range of beers included a Blackberry Porter, I think the one produced by Gloucester; it was good, and not as overpoweringly fruit-flavoured as fruit beers often are. I also had a porter at Parlour Moorhouse’s by name, which I’m afraid wasn’t terribly good; too light, in flavour and texture if not in colour.

Another trip took me to Altrincham via Stretford, where the Sip Club was a welcome discovery; only a couple of pumps, but one of them was serving Dunham Milk Stout. More milk stout at Jack in the Box, the Blackjack tap in Altrincham Market Hall: Left Handed Giant Lactose Tolerant. But by far the best beer of the trip was the one I had at Costello’s, where the Dunham Winter Warmer had recently run off and been replaced by Lymm‘s Lymm Dam, a terrific 7.2% old ale.

Finally, although by this stage I’d hit my target of 24 ticks, I hadn’t had Robinson’s Old Tom – the archetypal winter warmer – or indeed seen it anywhere. I rectified this omission with a trip out to The Blossoms, an old-school multi-room local heading out of Stockport on the A6. The Old Tom was sparkled hard, giving it a definite head and knocking some of the gas out of the beer; I wasn’t sure about this approach to begin with, but by the time I got to the bottom of the glass I’d been won over. A magnificent beer; I might even have stayed for the other half if the TV in the room where I was sitting hadn’t chosen that moment to come to life, regaling us with an aggressive American voice loudly hectoring contestants in some kind of game show (“hey, what went wrong? you lost! why’d you lose? you don’t wanna lose!). Shame – it was quite restful until then. I left, anyway, and came home via Heaton Hops. This is a tiny “tap room and bottle shop” – and I mean tiny; both rooms were rammed, with about 15 seated customers in total. I contented myself with finding somewhere to stand, and had an excellent half of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout. Milk stout isn’t my favourite type of stout, but this was far and away the best of the three examples of the sub-style I’d had.

Final scores:

Winter warmer: 5
Porter: 6
Stout: 10
Other >4.5%: 5

Comparing to previous years, the true ‘winter warmer’ score is still low (although it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t go into Stockport centre, where two pubs could have been expected to be serving Old Tom). But porters and especially stouts are coming on in leaps and bounds: only five non-qualifying beers in 26 pubs, which for me is a new low score.

Good fun, anyway; many thanks to the people who organised it.

Warmer winter (3)

What was going on at the Fallowfield/Withington/Didsbury end of things? In Rusholme, first of all, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) was serving Elland 1872 porter – 6.5% and a snip at ‘basically free if you’re having a sandwich with it’. My chicken and avocado wrap was stone cold – which is to say, fridge cold, let’s be honest – but the porter was a monster as ever, and you can’t argue with Spoons’ pricing.

A separate trip started at the Wine and Wallop in West Didsbury, which had an interesting range, as ever; Squawk Espresso Stout was very good indeed, if a bit hefty at 6.5% (again). More strong stout was on offer at Hyde’s pubs, specifically the Friendship in Fallowfield and the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury; in both places I had what Hyde’s are pleased to call Hefty Herkules, a seasonal 6%er. Oddly, although the beer was recognisably a stout, the pump clip refers to it as a ‘dark ale’. This is a trend I’ve seen in a few places; the word ‘mild’ has long gone from most pump clips and ‘bitter’ is thin on the ground, with many pump clips simply describing an ale by colour (pale, golden, dark, red…). The only exception to the no-styles-on-pump-clips trend is ‘IPA’, and strictly speaking that’s only a partial exception.

I’m glad to hear that the Milson Rhodes has been reprieved from an apparent threat of closure. I went in just after Christmas; I don’t know if it was because the pub’s future had been in doubt or just because of the seasonal rush, but the place was looking a bit sad, with about 2/3 of the pump clips turned round (and no dark beers in evidence). I went for Stone’s Amber Ale (brewed at Adnam’s), which was fine.

Further down the road, the Olde Cock Inn is (as far as I could make out) a Greene King house and one I hadn’t been in before. No dark beer here either, although they did have quite an interesting line in guest beers, with breweries including RedWillow on hand pump and BrewDog on keg. I had an Old Speckled Hen, which was perfectly drinkable, and followed it out of curiosity with a half of BrewDog Candy Kaiser, which was rather good if rather expensive (£4.45/pint is pushing it out in suburbia).

This trip finished at the Gateway – second Spoons’ of the trip and third of this post – where the fridge range included Chimay Gold at £2.49, plus Red and Blue for 50p & £1 more respectively. Spoons aren’t in the high-margin business where beer is concerned, and I salute them for that. I had a dark beer of sorts – Mobberley Origin – although as it’s a black IPA it doesn’t really qualify; nice stuff, though.

No winter warmers on this leg, but a fair few dark beers. Overall it’s

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 4
Stout: 7
Other >4.5%: 5

Warmer winter (2)

More town centre Winter Warmer Wandering.

As I mentioned in the last post, I haven’t seen any Old Tom this year, and the Castle is one of the places I haven’t seen it. (Stockport readers – I know you’re out there! – where’s good for Old Tom this winter?) The Castle, in fact, didn’t have anything dark on, or anything over 5%. I had something at 4.8%; it didn’t etch itself on my memory. Nor did the 4.8%er I had at the Micro Bar. The next time I was there, fortunately, the Boggart Rum Porter was back on, so we’ll count that one.

I said elsewhere – so I may as well say here – that I can’t think of another bar that’s gone down in my estimation so far, and so quickly, as Pie and Ale: from the initial “ooh, shiny!” response to a new and exciting craft beer palace, to a disgruntled “why did I come in here?”, in three visits flat. Drinking a spiced dark bitter, from a brewer I hadn’t heard of, with a jolly-jingle-bells pump clip, while watching large-screen sport, perched on an awkward high chair at an awkward high table… you get the picture. Still, CAMRA discount.

The Marble Arch came up trumps, though, with Marble Stouter Stout and much else; never thought I’d see Blackjack Devilfish on cask. (Hate to say it, but I think it worked better on keg. So that’s two.) Shame about the ten-minute walk through the rain to get there.

Another bar that takes a special trip is the Piccadilly Tap, where Cloudwater Stout was rather brilliant. Many thanks to the bartender who offered me a taster of the same brewery’s 7.2% IPA without prompting – that’s pretty damn good too. (Another factor in my disenchantment with Pie & Ale, incidentally, is that they’d had that very IPA previously, at approximately 190% of the price being charged at the Tap. Nice work if you can get it.) Really must leave Manchester by train more often…

Pub atmosphere is an odd thing. There are plenty of pubs that just don’t have it; even when they’re busy they just look crowded. There are ‘atmospheric’ pubs that retain a ghost of their atmosphere however empty they are, and for that matter whatever time of day it is; I’d say that of the Marble Beerhouse, the Crown and the (alas) defunct Live Stockport, which always looked like it was just about to be absolutely buzzing. And there are pubs where the question doesn’t arise, because to all intents and purposes they always are buzzing; I’ve seen quieter pubs on a Friday night than the George in Stockport on a weekday afternoon. Then there are pubs that do have atmosphere, but need a certain level of custom to bring it back to life; get there too early and the place is just dead. The Crown and Kettle, I’m afraid, is one of those. But the beer’s always good, and Brewsmith Oatmeal Stout was no exception.

Pretty high level of WWW-qualification all round, even if your actual winter warmers are fairly thin on the ground. Where are we up to?

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 3
Stout: 4
Other >4.5%: 2

Next: Didsbury ho!

Warmer winter (1)

A quick look back at this year’s Winter Warmer Wander, starting in town.

The Salisbury was heaving when I went in; it made me wonder, not for the first time, about the wisdom of holding a massive organised pub-crawl in the run-up to Christmas. (I guess the only alternative would be to run it from November to mid-December, and pubs might not be in the ‘winter warmer’ groove that early.) The Salisbury always was an old rocker’s pub, and nothing much seems to have changed. It’s the kind of pub where you might once have seen Theakston’s Old Peculier on the bar and made a note to get back there. Theakston’s isn’t what it was, and OP isn’t what it was either, but it’s a certified old-style winter warmer & was very pleasant – possibly even worth the ten minutes it took to get served.

On a separate trip I had… er… something dark; possibly a coffee stout?… at the Knott. The Knott is one of those places where you could very happily work your way along the bar, time, wallet and liver permitting; I was particularly struck by the keg beers on offer that day, which included the 11% Marble/All In collab Välbryggda. Reluctantly I swerved it, but followed the stout with a half of Vocation Chop & Change – light but uncompromisingly hoppy, hugely drinkable. What a very fine brewery Vocation is – they’ve yet to disappoint.

I stopped for two at the New Oxford, too, but nothing on the bar called to me as loudly as the JW Lees’ Moonraker I’d started with, so I had another half of that. Lovely beer – the second best winter warmer I had this year (we’ll meet #1 in Altrincham). Incidentally, I haven’t been in a single pub serving Old Tom this time round; I’m seriously considering a special trip to Stockport to rectify this situation.

To round off the southern end of the town centre, two very different Spoons’. I can never remember what I have at the Waterhouse, and last month was no exception. The near-Salisburian crush at the bar didn’t help; by the time I’d got served, and got a sticker, I just wanted to find a quiet corner and polish off my half. I’m pretty sure it was a porter, but my memory says no more than that. As for the Paramount, for once I didn’t have Elland‘s 1872 porter (something of a house beer at the Paramount) but Stockport Stockporter, and very nice it was too.

Five pubs, five qualifying beers: two winter warmers, two porters and a stout. Not bad.

Golden wossnames

Quoth Andy Mogg:

here’s an updated list, with added bits for canned beer. Feel free to do a runner-up and a winner for each category (or some honourable mentions) and link to blog posts if you’ve written about winners before. Then post it between now and New Year’s Eve and leave a link in the comments….If you don’t have a blog and want to take part email me your entries and a photo or two and I’ll put them up on here.

I’ve volunteered to collate the results come the new year so

Best UK Cask Beer
Best UK Keg Beer
Best UK Bottled Beer
Best UK Canned Beer
Best Overseas Draught
Best Overseas Bottled Beer
Best Overseas Canned Beer
Best collaboration brew
Best Overall Beer
Best Branding
Best Pump Clip
Best Bottle Label
Best UK Brewery
Best Overseas Brewery
Best New Brewery Opening 2015
Pub/Bar of the Year
Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015
Beer Festival of the Year
Supermarket of the Year
Independent Retailer of the Year
Online Retailer of the Year
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Best Beer Blog or Website
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Best Brewery Website/Social media

Oh blimey. No way am I going through that list, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s just too long – “a runner-up and a winner” for each category would be fifty nominations, and I defy anyone to turn a fifty-item list into an interesting blog post. Secondly, I haven’t got nominations for a good half of the categories; I don’t think I devote that much time and mental energy to beer. I certainly don’t think about beer that systematically; I’m not dedicated to the assessment and classification of beer, breweries, pubs, etc, even on an amateur level. I just like writing blog posts, and when I’m writing about beer I do it here. And thirdly, because I don’t approach these things systematically, when something has stuck in my mind it’s almost invariably something that’s made a good impression on me recently: not so much ‘beers of 2015’ as ‘beers of November and December 2015’.

Having said all of that, here are the Oh Good Ale Golden Pints Things That Have Made A Good Impression On Me Recently 2015.

Real Ale A three-way tie here: Ticketybrew Blonde (Sandbar) is a classic, if a bit too sessionable for its strength; Cloudwater IPA (the 7.2%er; Pie & Ale) is superb, although the bar was taking the p. by selling it at £8.40/pint; and Vocation Chop & Change (Knott) is a beautifully balanced pale ale, from a new brewery that’s barely put a foot wrong yet.

Real Ale Inna Bag Inna Box Full marks to the Harewood Arms in Broadbottom, who had put a “CAMRA says this is real ale” label on the keg font dispensing Siren Soundwave; very nice it was too, if a bit on the fizzy side. Which leads to a question recently aired in the pages of What’s Brewing: given that you can’t vent them, won’t keykegs inevitably give you pressurised, gassy beer? Happily, the answer’s No: step forward Runaway DIPA (Font Chorlton), which tasted exactly like a cask beer (in fact I’ve had colder and ‘pricklier’ beer on cask before now). Key keg: it’s the future. (Of keg, that is. The future of cask beer is cask beer – always has been, always will be.)

Actual Evil Keg I hate to say it, but BrewDog Candy Kaiser (at the Olde Cock, of all places) was pretty damn good. £4.45/pint is a bit ouchy for Didsbury, though.

Small Brown Bottles I’ve just recently caved in and started buying ordinary-strength beer in 33 cl bottles (and occasionally cans), that being the size almost all the cool kids are using these days. The best bottled beer I’ve had recently was, without a doubt, Ticketybrew Pale. Just occasionally you hit a beer that makes you want to go full Adrian (“rich, coppery shades matched by a resonant richness of flavour, flavours that ring like a gong before fading like the dying embers of a glowing copper sunset…”). This was one of those beers, when I first met it on cask in 2013, and it’s still one of them now.

Foreign Beers From Foreign Places Made By Foreigners Yeah but no; not really my area at the moment. Memminger Kellerbier at a restaurant in Berlin, that was seriously good. I had Köstritzer Dunkel on tap at a pizza restaurant in Wiek and in bottle at Sandbar, which was nice. Schlenkerla Helles is good stuff, to say nothing of Chimay Gold (currently going for £2.49(!) at the Gateway in Parrs Wood).

Collab I was very pleasantly surprised by the Marble/All In unnamed bottled collab beer; I took it for a stout, while the till receipt described it as a black IPA, but it turned out to be something more like a Cascadian dubbel (a dubbel IPA?). Rather fine, although (ironically) I would have preferred a smaller bottle – I rarely want a full half-litre of an 8.5%er.

Things Of Beauty For cans I’d nominate RedWillow – check them out if you haven’t seen them, they’re really rather fine. Magic Rock cans are good, but these are something else. (Memo to Vocation: please invest in some canning equipment; those unpleasant-textured matt labels are costing you at least one potential customer.) For bottles, I feel like I ought to nominate Cloudwater, but their labels leave me cold – they have the look of a design classic, without actually being nice to look at. So I go for Ticketybrew, again – particularly for the short-run bottle with the label that said “Best enjoyed before: somebody else does”.

Festival I only usually go to three; this year I went to two and volunteered at the third one, an experience which left me shattered (and, ironically, rather thirsty). Both the other two (Stockport in June and Manchester in January) were really, really good. For a bit more detail, see posts from July, June and January 2015 here.

Pub I wonder if anyone reading this remembers the Crescent in the late 90s and early 00s. Thinking about it now, what I loved about the Crescent back then – apart from the fact that I’d go in on my way home from seeing my academic supervisor, meaning that it was always a welcome sight – was how ample it was. There was a nice, slightly tatty but comfortable front room to sit in, with enough natural light to read by; if that got busy, there was another front room, just as comfortable, on the other side of the bar. There were good beers on the bar; there were about eight good beers on the bar, in fact, so you’d never run out of choices. There was an excellent CD jukebox, which again was just waiting to be explored (I’d generally put on something from Astral Weeks – the title track or else Sweet Thing or Madam George – and follow it with You Can’t Always Get What You Want). And there were darker corners, for when you just wanted to let the time pass. And there was a real fire. And there was a cat…

Happy days. Anyway, ever since I stopped going to the Crescent I’ve been looking for pubs with that inexhaustible quality – pubs that make you want to keep coming back, because you know there will always be another beer to try and another corner to sit in, another perspective to take. The Marble Beerhouse, the (Heaton Lane) Crown, the (Portwood) Railway and the New Oxford all have it to some extent, but no pub I’ve been to has really rung that bell loud and clear until this year, when the Smithfield reopened as the Blackjack tap. Nice rooms, amazing beers, good prices: great pub.

Online Retailer Beer52; they’ve really upped their game.

Best Out Of All The Best Of The Bestest Bests No – it’d be ridiculous to nominate a best brewery, let alone a best beer. For me this year has belonged to Vocation, Cloudwater and Ticketybrew, but I’ve also mentioned Siren, Runaway, Marble, RedWillow, Magic Rock, Blackjack and the Scottish brewer; pick the bones out of that.

Best Mate Out Of All The Best Of The (you’ve done this one – Ed.) Back-scratching nonsense – I’m not naming anyone as my favourite beer blogger, tweeter or whatever. I mean, if I like your stuff, you’ll know already – and if you’re not in the running, why would you care?

(Non-)Event Of The Year It’s not so much Camden Town selling out; it’s not even the fact that they sold out after Meantime. What’s significant, to me, is the accident of timing which has meant that Camden sold out after Meantime had been put up for sale by its new owner. The scale of the global brewing oligopoly means that the way those companies operate is a very different proposition from brewing as we’ve known it, even in the days of the Big Six. A ‘craft’ sub-division of Watney Combe Reid might have been just as viable as, and no more questionable than, a ‘craft’ sub-division of Brain’s or Thwaites’ (OK, bad example). A ‘craft’ sub-division of AB-Inbev, though – let alone multiple separate ‘craft’ sub-divisions…? There may be trouble ahead.

In Case You Missed It What review of the year would be complete without a blog round-up? Not this one! These are a few of my favourite posts:

The hard stuff (“hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be”)
All about Brewhive (1, 2, 3)
A sceptical investigation of warm beer
My review of Un-Human Cannonball (“It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”)

And that’s your lot for 2015. A Happy New Year to all my English readers!

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