Blue velveteen again

Night was falling rapidly and rain spattered the pavements as we embarked on our evening mission. A fearless band of battle-hardened topers, prepared for a long evening’s pubbing, foregathered at Never Say Never, the atmospheric Tibetan eaterie famed for its real ale and authentic Himalayan pork scratchings. Some familiar faces were on hand – Big Len, WG and Cajun Bill were soon joined by Green Vera, JoJo, Motormouth and Anthony Burtonshaw. Needless to say, the beer flowed and so did the repartee! JoJo was concerned that we might be driving other punters away, but most of us thought that the people on those tables had just decided to move away at the same time (“it’s not as if anything actually smashed,” Big Len pointed out). Golden Hind Yellowjack was sampled, and was variously rated “tasty and refreshing”, “tired and unconvincing” and “is that what I’ve been drinking?”. We would have stayed to check out some of the alternatives, but time was short. “Time is short!” said Cajun Bill and he was right. We moved on.

Just down the road, Café Paradise was serving its usual eclectic range of real ale, craft beer, real cider, speciality gin, over-proof rum, high-class cocktails and coffees-with-a-kick to its usual eclectic clientele of mums and toddlers. With only four staff on hand behind the bar, we all had plenty of time to reconsider our choices while we waited for our halves. New arrivals were filtering in; Sandwell and Dudley arrived together, to nobody’s surprise, and promptly got into an argument with Snowy the Beer Monster. Zenith Mango and Mint Old Ale was sampled and rated “off”, “I think it’s just… no, it’s off” and “no, that’s definitely off”; Ulan Bator An Ale That Is Pale was variously rated “really good”, “just like all the other hop-forward pale ales”, “OK, it is just like all the other hop-forward pale ales, but it is a really good one” and “mmm, yeah, maybe”. “Wagons roll!” said Snowy and we moved on.

Outside in the wet, the wet rain was lashing down wetly, while the darkness was darkening to an even darker degree of dark. The welcoming light of the welcoming open door of our next destination cast a welcoming glow on the wet dark pavement, welcoming us in (get on with it – Ed.). We could see that Bleep and Booster was a bit busy, but our intrepid band wasn’t going to be put off by a little thing like that. Once we’d all got in and closed the door behind us, the bar was a bit on the crowded side, but it was manageable – I think almost everyone had at least a square foot of floorspace. It wasn’t chilly, either! I was thinking of making notes on my beer, but five minutes after we’d arrived it had all gone; perhaps it evaporated. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting another, so I stayed where I was, admiring the bar staff’s crowdsurfing techniques and exchanging recommendations with Big Liz and Small David. Twenty minutes later who should turn up but the ever-elusive Metalman; the last I saw he was in the third rank at the bar, deep in conversation with Sandwell and Dudley. He said he’d catch us up, but I didn’t see him again. “Move ’em out!” said Small David – he’s got a surprisingly loud voice – so we did.

Down the road, Scran lived up to its name, plying our hungry band with a choice of amuse-bouches: for the vegetarians, a tartlet of goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade served with a quenelle of celeriac and mustard-seed puree on a bed of pressed radish and candied chestnut bound with a woodruff emulsion garnished with preserved sorrel leaves drizzled with walnut oil, in a basket; for the meat-eaters, half a pork pie. Needless to say, the pork pies didn’t hang around for long! Neither did the beer – I think I’d worked up a thirst in the previous bar. Half a pint of something pale and hoppy with with half a pork pie; half a pint of something black and stouty with another half a pork pie – food matching doesn’t get much better than that. I caught up with Big Len and Mister Jones; we talked about beer, as far as I can remember. It was a very nice half an hour, but like all half hours – indeed, like all half pints, not to mention half pork pies – it was soon over. “Hey ho my dearie-ohs!” said WG, calling time on this stage of our adventure in his own inimitable way; I stuck a couple of tartlets in my pocket for later and we moved on. (I found them again this morning.)

I went for a second half at our next port of call, too. Ordinarily I would have stuck to the one, but Very ‘Umble is no ordinary bar – and its in-house beers are no ordinary beers. On the grapevine I hear that sales have slumped a bit since the introduction of their eccentric “full names only” policy, but the bar still insists on it: as they say, you don’t point and mumble when you’re in Very ‘Umble! So I went to the bar, took a deep breath and ordered a half of And Hast Thou Slain The Jabberwock? American Amber Stout, which I followed up later with a half of O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! Imperial Pale Ale. (Word to the wise – make sure you pronounce the punctuation!) It was nice stuff, though I wasn’t sure where the paprika and wild garlic notes were coming from in the pale ale; I’d have asked at the bar, but I didn’t fancy going through all that again. Our party seemed to have grown again; WG was holding court at one end of the table, while in another corner Geoffrey of Monmouth was arguing about bicycles with Green Vera and Small David. “Is it about a bicycle?” I considered interjecting, but as it clearly was there didn’t seem much point. A party of roving tumblers came across to our table at this point and conducted some very impressive table-top juggling before our very eyes; what they did with two silk handkerchiefs, a pencil and a beermat defies description, not to mention belief. “Hello Kitty!” said Jimmy the Hat, and we moved on. (I kept meaning to ask him what he meant. Maybe next time.)

At the Lamb and Flag, three different beers and a cider were sampled and pronounced “disappointing”, “wait, did I order cider?”, “‘anging” and “…hmm”. I wasn’t too surprised – I don’t go to the Lamb for unique, interesting and high-quality beers. (But then, I don’t go to the Lamb.) Danno disagreed with Robbo and Kevino about the pub’s pricing strategy and a lively discussion ensued around the table, centring on the feasibility or otherwise of (a) non-conventional supply chain models in brewing and (b) that thing they did with the silk handkerchiefs, the pencil and the beermat. The juggling was assessed and variously rated “physically impossible”, “just a matter of skill and dexterity”, “a matter of physically impossible levels of skill and dexterity, more like” and “yeah, well”. “Excelsior!” said Danno – rather loudly, if I’m honest; people looked round – and we moved on.

The Quartile is the opposite of the Lamb in many ways; if I tell you that the Lamb offers cheap but undistinguished beer, colourful soft furnishings, bright lighting and cheerful and efficient staff, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Quartile. And so it was that I sat on the edge of our group, in an under-lit corner of a quiet and sombrely furnished room, looking out onto a dark street, drinking beer in a style I didn’t recognise from a brewery I didn’t want to admit to not having heard of. Mind you, I was pretty far gone by this point, so I wasn’t bothered. The decor certainly didn’t put a damper on the conversation: I can confirm that both Big Liz and Cheesy Pete have very strong views on the subject of Amsterdam, although what those views are now escapes me. “Oi oi!” called Motormouth and we moved on.

The evening’s festivities were due to terminate at celebrated alt-folk craftorama the Bird in t’ Hand – or the Bird in t’ Hand o’ t’ Man wi’ t’ Bag in t’ Box to give it its full title. Our experience here was mixed. I had a very nice half of Totally Craft Sammy the Stegosaurus (a West Coast-style IPA), but the venue wasn’t as welcoming as we might have liked. It seemed that the upper floor had been double-booked by a local Wiccan coven and a group of neo-dadaist performance poets. By the time we arrived any risk of unpleasantness had passed – the two groups were getting to know each other through an impromptu rap battle – but it did mean that that floor was pretty much out of bounds to casual visitors. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the monthly thrash metal disco hadn’t been in full swing on the ground floor. Some of us tried to get into the spirit of the thing, but for me it was too much, too metal, too late. “Come on, get down and do the funky boogaloo!” called Anthony Burtonshaw, but by that time I’d already moved on.

All in all, it was an evening of good beer in good company, not to mention good half pork pies. Shame I made it all up.

Author’s note: any similarity between this wildly improbable fabrication and Trafford & Hulme CAMRA’s Chorlton Challenge is entirely coincidental. (Apart from the bit about good beer in good company.)

O dark, dark, dark

Martyn waxes lyrical about old ales and Burtons, singling out Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Theakston’s Old Peculier. I’ve long been a fan of these styles & others in the same neighbourhood (e.g. dark barley wines, dubbels & ‘quadrupel’s). I’m a particular fan of one that Martyn didn’t mention, Robinson’s Old Tom, which for several years now I’ve regarded as one of the best beers in the world.

I’ve drunk all these beers & many similar ones, on draught as well as in bottle; I even did a comparison of several of them over a few weeks a while ago. What I’ve never done – for obvious reasons – is compare them on the spot, by drinking (say) an Old Tom followed by an Owd Roger and an Old Peculier. The one-shot nature of these beers, whose strengths range from 6.6% (Old Peculier, 500 ml bottle) up to 8.5% (Old Tom, 330 ml), makes it difficult to compare and contrast in this way. But where there’s a will there’s a way. With the aid of six small glasses – and a stash of 330 ml plastic bottles to hold the ‘excess’ – I’ve just done a blind taste test of some widely-available old ales and Burtons. I chose five – the Marston’s, McEwan’s, Theakston’s and Robinsons’s beers mentioned above, plus JW Lees’ Manchester Star – and rounded off the set with Chimay Blue. I was interested to see if the Trappist ale leapt out of the pack; if Old Tom lived up to my estimation; and if a couple of the others – Owd Roger in particular – lived down to past experience.

The procedure: I labelled six glasses, and drew off enough of the beer so that around 1/6 of a litre remained in each bottle. (This gives a total of 7.7 units, if you’re interested. Hey, it’s the weekend – and I usually keep Monday dry.) My OH then poured out the bottles into the labelled glasses and labelled each bottle to match its respective glass. I tasted them in order and made some initial notes, trying to be fairly systematic about colour, aroma etc, giving them an initial rating and having a guess at which beer was which. I then tasted them again in ascending order of my initial ratings, made some more impressionistic notes, and guessed again what I was drinking. Two beers I was certain I recognised, but for the other four I guessed differently each time – so between the six beers I made a total of ten guesses. (You may like to pause here and estimate how many of them were right.)

Here are my notes.

Beer 1
Mid-brown, translucent
Aroma: malt loaf
Big malt extract, caramel bitterness, slight metallic edge. 7
Second take: Malt party. Big dark bittersweet flavours, caramel and cake spices. Burnt sugar finish, but not just on the finish. 8.5

Beer 2
Brown-black, opaque
Aroma: not much; bonfire toffee?
Fruity dark bitter with burnt-sugar bitterness; a bit thin. 6
Second take: Quite an austere full-on malt character – fruity but not sweet. Some caramel but consistent throughout, not just on the finish. 7

Beer 3
Very dark brown, not quite opaque
Dark bitter backed up by caramel bitterness, plus a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: A nice dark bitter, made to seem more interesting by a big burnt-sugar finish. 6.5

Beer 4
Black, opaque
Sweet, very slightly bitter; a lot like Coke. 4
Second take: Very strongly carbonated; not much flavour mid-mouth apart from sweetness; caramel-bitter finish masks the alcohol. Quite fun but a bit one-dimensional and too much upfront sweetness. 6

Beer 5
Black
Aroma: malt extract
Heavy, sweet, Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: Very like a less successful version of beer #4 – less carbonated, possibly a hint of acetone. 5.5

Beer 6
Dark brown
Aroma: bready malt
Heavy, thick-tasting, malt plus. 7.5
Very sweet but very interesting with it – odd floral and herbal notes. No bitterness at all – the flavour just develops then fades. Bitterness builds down the glass, though. Sophisticated stuff. 8.5

So the beers fell into three groups: big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’ or similar malt-driven style, done well (1 and 6); dark fruity old ale with strong burnt-sugar notes (2 and 3); big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’, done not so well (4 and 5). Combining my two scores, my ranking was 1, 6, 2, 3, 5, 4. I was convinced that 1 & 6 were Old Tom and Chimay, respectively. My four guesses for 2 & 3 included Old Peculier, Champion and Manchester Star, while my four guesses for 4 & 5 included Owd Roger, Champion and Manchester Star.

3 was indeed Old Peculier, and 5 was Manchester Star. The rest of my guesses… not so good.

Here are the beers behind those numbers. To say I was surprised when I discovered what I’d been drinking would be a sizeable understatement. (In fact ‘sizeable’ is a sizeable understatement.)

1: McEwan’s Champion
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier
4: Chimay Blue
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star
6: Marston’s Owd Roger

Or, in judging order,

1: McEwan’s Champion (good Burton, 16 – “caramel and cake spices”)
6: Marston’s Owd Roger (good Burton, 15.5 – “Sophisticated stuff”)
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom (old ale, 13 – “austere full-on malt character”)
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier (old ale, 12 – “A nice dark bitter”)
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star (poor Burton, 11 – “Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite”)
4: Chimay Blue (poor Burton(!), 10 – “fun but a bit one-dimensional”)

A couple of shocks on that list, that last entry most of all. (To be fair to the Trappists, Chimay Blue does age particularly well, and there’s got to be a fair bit of sugar there for the yeast to keep working over an extended period; perhaps that’s how we should treat fresh bottles, as being best laid down for a few years.) It looks as if I can recommend McEwan’s Champion (stocked by Sainsbury’s) and Marston’s Owd Roger (which I found in B&M Bargains) every bit as strongly as Old Tom, and rather more so than Manchester Star (of which I’m rather fond).

One final note. If you take a particularly keen interest in the mechanics of blind tastings, you may have spotted an anomaly in my description of the set-up for this one. Pour 2/3rds of a 500 ml bottle into a resealable 330 ml bottle and drink the other 1/3rd, fair enough – you were probably thinking – but what have you done with the Old Tom and the Chimay (both of which are sold in 330 ml bottles)? If you’ve stashed half-full plastic bottles of these two, they’re not going to be in very good nick when you go back to them. Very good point – which is why I’ve poured them both into one bottle. Yes, I’ve got a bottle of Old Tom mixed with Chimay Blue – the bottle-conditioned Trappist sharing a bottle with the brewery-conditioned Stopfordian, the bland sweetness mingling with the austere malt. I’m guessing it’ll either be brilliant or terrible; I’ll let you know when I find out.

What gose on?

This both is and isn’t a contribution to Session #116.

Put it another way, if it is a contribution it’s not a very useful one. I haven’t got anything useful to say about gose; I’m not 100% sure I’ve even had one. I think I’ve probably had gose twice – once in the form of Magic Rock Salty Kiss and once not – but my memories are not very clear or detailed, and I don’t seem to have made any notes. I don’t think I liked it very much.

So maybe it’s true, as Derrick’s introduction suggested, that American breweries are running wild with the style, but I haven’t seen much sign of it – and I live in a part of Manchester that’s particularly well-supplied with craft beer. I certainly can’t agree with Boak & Bailey that the style is ‘nearing ubiquity’. (I was also surprised to learn from Derrick that black IPA is becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity, as I’d have said it was still on the rising side of the curve.)

But if, the next time I’m in one of the local ‘craft’ emporia, I do find they’ve got a gose on – alongside the Antipodean pales and the porters and the DIPAs and the barrel-aged imperial stouts, we do get all that stuff – I hope it’s just a gose, and not one of the many and various spice- and fruit-flavoured experiments Derrick also refers to. I disagree fundamentally with B&B here – I don’t think going mad with a style (or with your idea of a style) is likely to be a step towards getting it right; if the name of the old style does catch on, it’s far more likely that it will be attached to what’s basically a new beer. (Compare the IPAs we know and love now with what was sold under the name of IPA 30 years ago.)

So I’d like to check out a plain ordinary gose, if anyone’s brewing one of them. I’m not big on fruit and spice additions in beer generally, above and beyond anything that’s required by the style. I like fruity and spicy flavours – I’ve got a longstanding passion for old ales and barley wines – but I want them brought out of the beer, not added to it. More importantly, I’d like to actually taste the gose, not least because the next gose I drink will be the second or possibly third example of the style I’ve ever drunk. If somebody were to ask me, “does gose taste of grapefruit?”, I’d like to be able to answer with a definite Yes or No – not “it certainly does if you’ve added grapefruit”. And above all, I’d like to know what gose tastes like done well, which is a bit different from ‘gose with tomato juice/sour cherries/cucumber and watermelon, done well’. If you’re brewing a gose with crystallised ginger and molasses, to take another genuine example – or an ‘imperial black gose’, despite the fact that gose is pale and low in alcohol – the chances are you’re brewing something nobody else has ever tasted before, let alone brewed: you’re competing in a class of one. But if nobody else can tell you how it’s done, then nobody else can tell you what you’re doing wrong or what you need to improve. That’s OK, though: if you’re not going to do it again – by the time it runs out you’ll have moved on to the next thing – you’ve got no incentive to listen to anyone else.

I think this “and for my next trick” mentality is one of the worst features in the contemporary alt-beer scene. It’s odd in a way that the word ‘craft’ – along with similar words like ‘artisanal’ – is so firmly attached to the scene. Craft historically has never meant producing a series of unique one-off creations imbued with artistic passion – rather the opposite. Craft generally means doing the same thing over and over again, applying slow, incremental improvements until you’ve got it right – and then doing it over and over again, just the way that you got it right. Get your bitter nailed and bring on a mild; get that right and try out a best bitter. Hardly any new breweries work like this now, least of all those that refer to themselves as ‘craft’. If I was going to drink a gose, though, that’s the kind of brewery I’d like it to come from. I guess I need to plan a trip to Leipzig.

The very cheese-oh

What shall we say about Ticketybrew? The first thing I want to say is that they’re making some of the best beers around at the moment, particularly on cask. If I see one of their distinctive pump clips I invariably make a bee-line for it; I’ve very rarely been disappointed, and I’m often genuinely impressed.

So: if the beer’s that good, what’s standing between Ticketybrew and the big time? Why aren’t we hearing their name bandied about alongside Blackjack and RedWillow, or Cloudwater at a pinch? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t they hip? There are three reasons, I think. One, I’m afraid, is the name; the design is brilliant, but the name is just a bit naff. The beer would gain credibility overnight if they changed the brewery’s name to something resonant and mysterious (“Liquid Void”, “GreenRail”…) – or even something plain like ‘Ticket’.

The second problem is the sheer hyperactive sprawl of the beer range. I’m in two minds about this – I’ve got fond memories of the Marmite Stout and the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss – but I can’t help feeling, as I said of Blackjack two years ago, that Ticketybrew could do with just slowing down. In peak condition, the Dubbel, the Tripel, the Pale, the Blonde, the Stout, the Golden Bitter and that double-hopped pale ale I had the other night are all absolutely stunning beers; how many more new and interesting fruit-machine combinations does the world need? At the end of the day, nobody likes a novelty merchant.

The third reason has to do with consistency. Consistency isn’t an issue for all of these beers – every Jasmine Green Tea Pale I’ve had, on bottle or cask, has had just the same light, flinty dryness. Even where it is an issue it’s not necessarily a problem; there’s a definite variability to most of their cask beers, I’ve found, but not in a bad way. Where the Pale and the Blonde are concerned, being slightly different every time even makes the beers more interesting. But for some beers, in bottle in particular, it is a problem – and that means it’s a problem Ticketybrew are going to have to surmount. If you look at Cloudwater, for instance, they’ve made their name on a few good beers and striking label designs, but also by getting consistency nailed: you may not know what a particular experimental hop pale ale will taste like, but you know that if you have it twice you’ll get the same again. As much as I love their best beers, Ticketybrew aren’t there yet, not for all of their beers – bottled beers in particular.

Overall I’d score Ticketybrew’s beer range something like this (with some double-counting for beers I’ve tasted in different conditions):

Superb Good Hmm
Cask 8 8
Keg 1 2
Bottle 8 8 6

The figures in the left-hand column are pretty impressive – that’s eight cask beers (plus the Tripel on keg) which are worth travelling across town for. I know that Ticketybrew are expanding; perhaps this is also an opportunity to get the consistency of their bottled beers sorted, whatever that actually involves (automated bottling? filter and re-seed? bottle in a cleanroom?). If they can pull that off, they could be world-beaters. Especially if they can slow down a bit on the fruit-machine style-ninja front – and maybe, just possibly, think about a name change? (“Thirsty Void”, there’s one nobody’s using. “Dark River”, “Electric Chill”, “BlueWindow”… Or maybe something plain like “Ticket”.)

HOPEFUL UPDATE 6/10 Had a bottle of the Blonde this evening; it was in better condition than I’ve ever tasted it in bottle, mellow and fruity without even a hint of sharpness. If this is how it’s going to be from now on – and I do hope it is – I’ll be recommending Ticketybrew beers in any format and without any qualification. (Even if they keep the name.)

Quite a bit of all right

More on my firm favourite among brewers, Ticketybrew, with particular reference to their bottled beers. This post and the one before it have been a long time coming; it was last Christmas when I set out to buy every Ticketybrew beer I could find for a comprehensive tasting. Unfortunately my sweep of the shops coincided with a problem at the brewery which led to a few bottles with serious infection issues escaping into the wild, a couple of which I eventually bought. When I alerted Keri at the brewery to what had happened she confirmed that they had had problems – which had since been resolved – and very generously offered to replace the beers I’d bought. So this review isn’t going to say anything about the bottled Dunkelweisse or Salted Caramel Coffee Stout, neither of which I tasted at anything near their best.

Ticketybrew do a huge range of beers in bottle – all bottled by hand, and all (as far as I’m aware) bottle-conditioned – so this is going to be a bit of a ‘list post’. First, some bottled beers that are also available on draught (or vice versa). Of the beers I reviewed in the last post, I’ve had the Stout, Jasmine Green Tea Pale, Cherry Berliner Weiss, Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel in bottled form, as well as the Pale and the Blonde. Those two are reliably good – almost as good in bottle as they are on cask. Of the others, the Stout was very nice, the Jasmine Green Tea was rock-solid and the Cherry Berliner Weiss worked well (and I could taste the fruit).

Of Ticketybrew‘s bottle-only beers, I’ve had a number of short-run pale beers: Citra Pale, Antipodean Pale, a 6% IPA and the Grodziskie. These were all 1. pale 2. ‘oppy and 3. nothing short of superb (although the Grodziskie threw half of itself out of the bottle before I could get a glass in range; it’s traditionally a highly-carbonated style, so I’ll give them a pass on that). They were also short runs, some very short – a couple of the bottles I tasted didn’t even have printed labels. I hope they brew some of them again and on a larger scale; I think the 6% IPA, in particular, could do very well.

Flavoured beers abound in their bottled range. I haven’t had the Peach Ice Tea, although it sounds good; I also missed the Rice Pudding (!) on its first outing and hope to see it again some time. Manchester Tart was a very pleasant pale beer flavoured – lightly – with raspberry and coconut; yes, it did work and no, I didn’t think it would. As for the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss, I’d rate it above the Cherry; perhaps it’ll make a comeback.

Then there’s the Dubbel, one of their very first beers. In the past I’ve been slightly ungenerous about the Dubbel, as I realised when I had a Westmalle Dubbel and compared the two. So let me clarify: at its best, Ticketybrew Dubbel isn’t any better than Westmalle. (It isn’t any worse, either.)

That just leaves the Rose Wheat, Flat White (coffee wheat beer) and Munchner. I’ll take them together with a few beers I mentioned earlier but didn’t say much about: the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel. With all these bottled beers – and with the Pale, Blonde and Dubbel – I’ve had some consistency issues. Remember what I said about the cask beers staling? More than once now, I’ve tasted the Pale and the Blonde and thought “I’m sure it wasn’t quite that sour last time… is it meant to be like that?“; that goes for bottle as well as cask versions. That said, I did ‘tune in’ to the taste of the beer almost immediately; the sharpness that hit me at the outset rapidly became one element of a complex flavour profile. (And that also goes for bottle as well as cask versions.)

I’m a bit more concerned about the others listed – the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA, Rose Wheat, Flat White, Munchner, Tripel and even the Dubbel. The contrast between the Tripel in bottle and in its freeze-dried flavour-capsule keg form is striking – I’d love to say that the bottle-conditioned beer has added subtlety and sophistication, but most of what I could taste was added acidity. All these bottled beers are terrific when they’re in good nick, but too often there’s been an extra note of front-of-mouth citric sharpness creeping in, and sometimes creeping right to centre stage. I wondered to begin with if this was down to the bottle conditioning – we all know about how the sugar turns to alcohol… Then I remembered the 10-year-old Chimay Blue that I’d tasted once (courtesy of my younger self): not a sour note in sight.

It’s not a bad line-up; I make that 21 different bottled beers, of which 13 are very good or brilliant. That’s not as good a hit-rate as the cask beers, though – and not all of the 13 are consistently brilliant, sadly.

How about you?

I’m a big fan of Ticketybrew and have been for some time; they’ve featured in my ‘Golden Pints’ roundup posts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 (in fact I nominated their cask Pale for ‘beer of the year’ as soon as I tasted it, in July 2013). From a cautious, if idiosyncratic, start – two beers, a Dubbel and a Pale, bottle only – they’ve branched out into a bewildering range of styles, for keg and cask as well as bottle. According to my notes I’ve tasted sixteen different Ticketybrew beers on cask, twenty in bottle and three in keg, for a total of 27 styles or variants.

This post will go through the cask and keg beers. To start with some dark ones, I’ve had the Mumme, Coffee Anise Porter, Summer Porter and four (count ’em) Stouts. I’m not the biggest fan of the Coffee Anise Porter, but only because I’m not convinced about the coffee/anise combination; it’s a well-made beer. The Summer Porter is a lovely beer – dark and spicy without seeming heavy. As for the Mumme, you can read about it on Keri’s blog; I thought it tasted of sweet coffee and was rather odd. Interesting, though. The Stout is dense, black and sweetish, calling black treacle to mind (and is in fact flavoured with black treacle). A couple of novelties – Mint Choc Stout and Marmite Stout – overlaid their additional flavours on a similar (but not identical) dark, sweet stout base, and worked amazingly well (and yes, it did taste of Marmite). Then there was the Invalid Stout (c), produced in homage to a nineteenth-century recipe with substantial qualities of liquorice; I liked it a great deal, and I don’t even like liquorice. As for its ‘invalid’ health-giving qualities, my lips are sealed.

One of Ticketybrew‘s flagship beers, the Pale, isn’t actually very pale. Perhaps to make up for this, they’ve brewed some very, very pale beers, although these have mainly been for bottling. The only really pale beer of theirs I’ve had on cask is the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, which is very dry indeed but not sharp-tasting at all; it’s perfumed mainly by the eponymous tea. It’s very refreshing; I tried it once as a novelty and have gone back several times since. They also vary their pale range with fruit-flavoured – and, well, pudding-flavoured – beers, although again these are mainly found in bottle. I’ve tried the Cherry Berliner Weiss on bottle, cask and keg, and can report that a cask Berliner Weiss works better than you might think. The Bitter Orange – only on cask to my knowledge – was terrific: very like the Pale (see below) with a bit of added marmalade oomph.

The final group of draught beers consists of all the ones that aren’t dark, pale or fruit-flavoured. Let’s start with a real world-class beer, Ticketybrew Pale. The first time I had the Pale on cask I just loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since; I’ve loved it fresh and mellow, I’ve loved it at the sharp end of the cask; I’ve loved it at its full strength of 5.5%, in the 4.3% version that they once supplied to a beer festival and even (slightly less) on keg. It’s just a lovely beer. The best way I can think to describe it is that there’s a certain kind of flavour profile you get in some high-strength beers, particularly dark beers – imperial stouts, barley wines, quadrupels; a sense of the flavour of the beer dropping away, as you drink it, and opening out into something bigger and more intense. In terms of flavour, colour and strength, the Pale is in the best bitter or ‘premium bitter’ area, but it also does that. It’s a massive beer (even at 5.5%) – an absolute classic.

The Blonde – smooth, creamy, lightly fruity – isn’t quite as good as the Pale, but it’s close. I have very fond memories of a session with a German friend on the Blonde, although at 5.6% it’s not really a session beer (as I realised the next morning). It’s a bit lighter and perhaps a bit less complex than the Pale, but with the same sense of ‘opening out’, of giving you a bit more flavour than you bargained for.

The Golden Bitter is a really nice, old-school amber bitter with a Landlord-ish diacetyl edge to it. Like the Pale – and the Blonde for that matter – the Golden Bitter is definitely a beer that stales, not to put too fine a point on it: when you go back on day 2 or day 3, you will absolutely not get the same mellowness that you got on day 1. Oxidation or something else? Either way, it’s not necessarily a defect; it’s not the kind of harsh, overwhelming sourness that tells you the barrel’s going off, more a shifting element of the beer’s flavour profile (sweetish gradually turning sharpish).

The Black IPA and Table IPA have been terrific when I’ve had them on cask; there’s an odd sort of mellow dryness underlying the resin (BIPA) and the old books (TIPA), which in both cases makes for a really drinkable beer. Last of all, the Tripel on keg was absolutely superb; I’ve had Belgian tripels on draught, and this is worthy to stand alongside them.

I’ll draw some conclusions at the end of the second post, when I’ve said something about the bottled range. For now, a quick running total: I make that 19 beers (with some double-counting for cask and keg), of which I’d class 10 as good and 9 as very good. Duncan Barton isn’t the kind of brewer who does conference keynotes and gets his picture in CRAFT magazine – more the kind who quietly gets on with it – but he and Keri are producing some absolutely stunning cask and keg beers.

And then there are the bottles…

Session #113 – Two halves for the price of one

The other night I spent half an hour each in two local drinking establishments. Here’s what I observed.

Sedge Lynn (9.00 Wednesday)
Two men are sitting outside, looking a bit rough – one with a balding shaved head, the other looking like the oldest Mod in town.

Inside, the big open space seems pretty full – there are about 60 drinkers, mostly sat in groups of two or three, mostly male (perhaps 3/4); some couples, some solitary drinkers. In age terms they seem to be mostly in the 20-30 and 50+ brackets. One group of men are standing around a high table; everyone else in the pub is seated, mostly on bentwood chairs at small tables. There’s a table of about twelve (actually several tables pushed together) , having a celebration meal. Three or four young male staff in uniform shirts and ties are serving at the bar, serving food at tables and clearing tables, steadily and efficiently but without much animation or energy.

I have a pint of a 5% speciality pale ale brewed at Banks’. Looking at what people are drinking, it divides about 2:1 between lager and bitter. Various people around the room are drinking unidentified bright red drinks (presumably cocktails of some sort). At the bar I see people ordering lager and bitter, including cask bitter; there are eight cask beers on, including the Wetherspoon’s standards Ruddles and Abbot, and the Sedge Lynn standard Moorhouse Blond Witch. At the bar I notice, and avoid, two man having an animated conversation; one of them is wearing a bobble hat. I notice that the man talking to him has ordered one drink.

Looking at what people are wearing I notice teeshirts and sweatshirts (some designer), jumpers and a few hoodies. I realise that, apart from the staff, I’m the only man there in a button-through shirt.

Four young men (late 20s?) on the table next to me are discussing politics – the EU referendum and the state of the Labour Party. They seem well-informed. The conversation moves on to Guinness, seen as a particularly challenging beer (“he said, we’ll chill it to fuck, you won’t have to taste it”) and past acquaintances who had been particularly fond of it (“he’d just drink pint after pint after pint of it… towards the end of the evening when everyone was on shots, he’d just have another pint of Guinness…”) After a while they all go outside for a smoke; my nearest neighbours are now an animated young couple (both drinking the red cocktails) and a balding man sitting alone, wearing headphones plugged into his phone. There is a slow but definite turnover of customers; perhaps 20 have left in the half hour I’ve been there and another ten arrived.

I decide to leave. On my way out I’m surprised to see a man openly vaping. Outside there are now about ten people sitting at tables; most but not all of them are smoking (not vaping).

I move on to the Marble Beerhouse, arriving around 9.35.

It’s busy, which in this case means there are about eighteen people in. Most are drinking pale cask or ‘craft keg’ beers; one man is on stout. Again, the clientele is mostly sat in twos or threes and mostly male. A few are sitting at the bar. Ages range from 25-35 up to 50-60; people are wearing teeshirts, button-through shirts and jackets, some looking quite expensive although not flashy. One young man has the full beard, gelled hair, checked shirt and serious expression of a ‘hipster’. Two young female staff are serving at the bar; it doesn’t keep them busy. They stand around chatting and occasionally go out for a smoke.

There are six cask beers on and six keg lines; apart from two of the keg beers, they are all Marble beers. Strengths range from 3.9% to 7.4%. I have a half of a 7.1% cask beer (“Double Dobber”) and follow it with a half of the 6.8% Marble Earl Grey IPA. (The Double Dobber is a one-off, made using home brew kit for the recent Manchester Beer Week; apparently it’s not legal for sale, and is therefore being given out free. Which is nice.)

There is background music, although it’s too quiet to make out. One wall is taken up with mirrors, framed posters and tin plate signs; the opposite wall is occupied by a display cabinet full of Marble bottles. Mostly the furniture consists of small tables, bentwood chairs and low wooden stools, but there is some upholstered seating towards the back of the pub. A leather sofa faces a deracinated church pew fitted with a long leather cushion, across a leather-topped coffee table; off to the right are a large barrel and a bookcase containing copies of the Good Beer Guide.

I tune into nearby conversations. Two middle-aged men are talking, and I work out that one is showing the other holiday pictures on his phone. “Really lucky to see the Northern Lights… Loads of different hot tubs…” Elsewhere in the pub I eavesdrop on a group of four young men – late 20s? – whose conversation centres on stag dos: “So I had a bottle of wine down my pants…They’re just copying us, it was our idea… Mulv will be in his element… Wait, did he get married? To who? Who’d he get married to?”

I notice that the music has got louder (it appears to be 70s rock) and the lights dimmer. I drink up my Earl Grey IPA and leave. Looking round I see that there has been very little turnover in the past half hour – the people there are basically the same people as when I went in.

So there you have it. It was an interesting exercise – apart from anything else, from now on I shall be much more self-conscious about my clothes when I go in a Spoons!

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!