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!

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