Is it safe?

Is it safe at this desk? Yes, I think so, although the joke could yet be on reclusive old me – a multi-member household is only as safe as the riskiest place any member visits.

Was it safe when I went to the Font last night? Yes, I think so – we sat outside. I had a NEIPA which I won’t name (it was so long since I’d had the style that I’d forgotten I don’t like ’em) and the ever-reliable Track Sonoma; my companions both had a raspberry sour from Vault City, which was really rather good. (I can recommend the same brewery’s blackcurrant sour, of all the unlikely things. Strong, sour fruit beers – they’re the next big thing, possibly.) The Sonoma was the only cask beer on, incidentally; in the old days there used to be six or eight of them, although admittedly all six (or eight) were generally low- to mid-strength pales. Anyway, given that we were in the open air it did all seem pretty safe.

Is it safe in an enclosed space? There’s a question. As an extension of the ‘open air’ principle, I reckon you’re probably reasonably safe as long as you can feel a bit of a breeze on your face, whether it’s from an open window or from ventilation. On that basis I don’t worry about the tram – though I do still try and avoid buses – and I think the cinema and the restaurant we went to last week were both probably OK. Not everywhere qualifies, though – most pub interiors don’t, for a kick-off. The only time I’ve been inside any of my local pubs this summer, I was sitting so close to an open window I could have poured my drink on the pavement.

Is it safe if you’ve had the vaccine? This is the difficult bit. According to data I’ve seen two shots cut your risk of catching the Delta variant by 60%. What this means is that for any occasion when you would (100%) have caught the virus otherwise, you now have only a 40% chance of catching it. But what that means, as anyone who can do powers of 6 in their head can confirm, is that if you have two opportunities(!) to catch the virus your chance of not catching it goes down to 36%; three, down to 22%; four, down to 13%… Six opportunities to catch it and your chance of missing out on getting infected is down below 5% – which is to say your cumulative chance of catching it is up over 95%.

People I know take the view that if you’ve had both shots (a) you’re not going to end up on a ventilator (or worse) if you do catch the virus, and in any case (b) you’re about as safe as you’re going to get, so if not now, when? I respect those people’s judgment, but I can’t quite share it, for three reasons. Firstly, while the thought of being protected from the worst outcomes is reassuring, I would really rather not get Covid (or pass it on to anyone else); it’s “just like the flu” in roughly the same sense that street opiates are “just like paracetamol”. It has some weird neurological features that we’re nowhere near understanding, and the long-term effects can be debilitating or worse – I knew someone who died from “long Covid”, aged 46. If the choice is to stay at home or roll the dice on a possible infection, it’s going to take a lot to get me out of the door – even with the dice weighted in my favour.

Secondly, I don’t believe we are about as safe as we could be: we’d be a lot safer – we’d be rolling those dice a lot less often – if figures were low and falling, instead of being high and rising. On current trends, the daily case count will match its early-January peak in about a month’s time. The vaccines have been effective to some extent: they’re almost certainly preventing a much steeper rise in cases, effectively providing firebreaks that stop flare-ups spreading. Also, both the proportion of people who catch the virus who are admitted to hospital and the death rate of those who are hospitalised are way down from the January wave. (If the peak case numbers are repeated, we’d expect to see 200 deaths a day in early October, not the 1200 per day we had at the end of January.) But remember that January was in the middle of a lockdown, a tactic that the government has promised not to use again: if we do see 60,000 cases per day in a month’s time, what’s to stop those figures rising even further? (Don’t say ‘herd immunity’ unless you can explain why – given that it clearly isn’t working now – a month’s worth of vaccinations will make it start working.)

Thirdly, the one thing we don’t want to happen is another mutation, making the virus more infectious, more deadly or both. When there’s a lot of viral replication going on, mutations happen all the time; most of them are trivial or non-functional, but sometimes a mutation improves the virus’s chances of surviving and replicating to the point where it out-competes other, existing variants. This is what happened with the Alpha (Kent) variant, and it’s happened all over again with Delta. (If we had nothing to worry about but the original Wuhan version of Covid, the country would probably be Covid-free by now.) The range of possible mutations isn’t infinite, and there may not be much scope for a version worse than Delta – but we don’t know that. Every day when people are getting infected is a day when a new mutation may arise. Every day when large and growing numbers of people are getting infected is a good day to stay well away from becoming a part of the process, if you can.

So, is it safe? Well, I don’t feel safe; I haven’t felt safe since about the time I last wrote on this blog. It was around that time that the government made it clear – to the general approval of their own party’s MPs – that the abandonment of lockdown measures and other restrictions, while it might be gradual, would be irreversible. I don’t know what this actually means, but the mood music is clear enough: the course has been locked in and nothing’s going to change it. Not public concern, not the case numbers, not the medical profession, not people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Watching the case figures rise – then fall, then rise again – and watching the hospitalisation and death rates rising or (at best) holding steady, ‘irreversible’ is the very last message I want to hear: it’s depressing, and by depressing I mean ‘nightmarish’. So that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging lately.

Is it safe to talk about? This is another. As it goes, I’m quite keen on Britain having good trading and political relations with Europe; I’m also a Labour Party member. So there have been plenty of opportunities, in the last six years, for me to learn that other people have strong negative feelings about people and things who I feel positively about. Usually I’ve been happy to stand by what I believe in – where appropriate, which on a beer blog it generally isn’t – and laugh off any hostility. Something about the politics around lockdown, though, has got to me, and made me not want to do anything even slightly like wading in. It’s partly that the topic of lockdown is hard to avoid if you’re writing about pubs and beer, and partly that I genuinely see the way we deal with Covid as… well, a matter of life and death; this makes it hard to engage in a highly polarised debate in a spirit of knockabout fun. And it doesn’t help matters that the effects of the other two big polarisations I mentioned – the effects of what happened in December 2019 and January 2020 – are still very much with us.

Is it safe to go to Spoons? Probably not, quite frankly – and there are plenty of other reasons to give someone else your beer money – but it’s so well-placed for a quick drink after the pictures… Early on a weekday evening, the Seven Stars was half-empty – a good kind of half-empty – but I could see that the staff were stretched, not least from the number of uncleared tables. I scanned the code on our table and found myself ordering through the Website, which rapidly chewed up the battery in my (admittedly ageing) phone. Cask beer was limited – not to one beer this time, but to four decidedly uninspiring house beers (Ruddles, Abbot, Doom Bar and Wainwright Gold). Scrolling the can and bottle menu, I saw several beers greyed out and marked as out of stock; several others which I would have expected didn’t appear at all (no sign of those Sixpoint IPAs, for example). But they had Devils Backbone American IPA (which was fine, although less ‘American’ than I remembered), and they had Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropicana, so… ah. No. In actual fact they didn’t have Clwb Tropicana, or pretty much anything else in a 330 ml can; our server explained that they were switching from cans to bottles (???) and suggested a few alternatives, all of which were 500 ml or more.

As for the safety aspect, I realised as soon as we walked in that we were the only people there wearing masks – and I didn’t see another soul in a mask the whole time we were there, entering or leaving, behind the bar or on the stairs. Ventilation? I didn’t notice any – which probably means there wasn’t enough. (Roll the dice, then.) The other thing I noticed when we walked in was a piece of tape across the main double doors reading ‘Entrance Only’; I didn’t remember that pub having another exit and wondered vaguely which way we’d be going out. When we left I realised I’d misread the sign: it said ‘Entrance Only’ on one of the two swing doors and ‘Exit Only’ on the other. If taped-off one-way routes are security theatre, this was security burlesque.

Is it safe? Some places yes, some maybe, others not really. The real question is, is this as safe as it’s going to get? Come to that, is this as normal as it’s going to get – six cask lines down to one, Spoons running out of craft beer, Nando’s running out of chicken joints (although not halves and quarters), half of the people hating the other half and everyone hating the government?

I really hope not.

Ceci n’est pas un Orval

IMG_2573

We see here:

  • one 33 cl bottle of Orval (bottled September 2020)
  • one 275 ml bottle of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout (bought December 2020, probably not much older)
  • one Orval glass

Let the dance begin (one for the proggies out there)!

I didn’t pour this one quite as clean as I’d like, but it’s not actually murky. Only six months old, so pretty lively. Tasting notes, as if I didn’t know what an Orval tastes like by now:

Sharp, but with an accessible, fruity best-bitter quality, together with a musty, old-books overtone that never becomes overpowering; the finish brings the sharpness and mustiness back, together with a big throat-drying bitterness, making it weirdly quaffable.

So I drank a bit of it, and when I’d made a bit of space I topped it up with the Harvey’s IEDS. This is what resulted:

This was quite the transformation. All that Bretty mustiness disappeared, replaced by – well, here are my notes:

Black coffee Orval? Orvalspresso? Black coffee and marmalade in one? Bitterness and some sweetness in the body – although oddly the bitter finish is muted now.

I’ve found the IEDS a bit of a beast in the past – a brandy-dark-chocolate-and-Marmite beast, admittedly, but with rough roasty edges, and flashes of the kind of sharpness you can only call gastric. None of those negatives now; just an espresso martini made entirely of beer. Really very nice indeed.

But I wasn’t going to stop there…

How much more black could it get? I asked myself.

This version – more or less a 50-50 mix – was a bit of a let-down. In fact it tasted of very little at all, transporting me back to the days when I used to take the rough edges off Holt’s bitter with a bottle of Guinness:

Black and tan! A light, oddly savoury start, followed by a full-textured but light-tasting body; dark-chocolate bitterness on the finish.

Very little going on at all, really; alarmingly drinkable for a beer in the region of 7.5%, but nothing particularly surprising or, to be brutally honest, interesting.

There was only one thing to do now:

“None. None more black.”

At this stage the IEDS started to get the upper hand, and things started to look up on the tasting front:

Fruity start blending into a chocolate milkshake body, blending into a dark-chocolate finish

is all I wrote, but I can assure you that it was really impressive. That word ‘blending’ is the key: it seemed to combine three quite distinct flavours (none of them very ‘beery’), but in a way that seemed perfectly natural and without any incongruity. Full-bodied – almost but not quite to the point of drinking its strength – and smooth; really very smooth.

Was it worth it? A cautious Yes, I think: the 3:1 and 1:3 mixes were terrific, even if the 1:1 left something to be desired. At least, it was worth it as far as the IEDS was concerned. The stout was very much in charge throughout: even at 3:1 Orval to IEDS, you’d never mistake what you were drinking for a pale beer. The ‘black and tan’ effect – where two very different beers effectively shave off each other’s sharp edges – took the roughness out of the IEDS, making it drink smoother and sweeter; but the Orval wasn’t smoothed so much as muted, losing the Brett and some of the bitterness. In fact I’m wondering now whether it would be worth repeating the experiment with a less special pale beer – perhaps a plain ordinary, common-or-garden Harvey’s Sussex Best?

PS Apologies for the enormous images. WordPress used to handle this kind of thing rather well, but now – thanks to the whizzy new ‘block editor’, which I’ve avoided for as long as possible but is now the only one available – it really doesn’t. Anyone got any recommendations for alternative blogging platforms?

Greebling

Boak and Bailey make some interesting comments about pub tat – here a tin-plate sign, there a fishing float or two, and everywhere shelves of unread books – and the messages that it conveys:

What this kind of greebling aspires to, of course, is the genuine, accidental clutter of really old pubs. … The great thing about contrived greebling is that it only takes a decade or two to look as if it’s been there forever, and for fake greebling to attract the real thing as regulars present offerings as tokens of love.

Perhaps the value of greebling is that it suggests continuity – that a pub has been under the same ownership for more than a year or two, at least.

(Greebling? Yes, greebling.)

I think this last point is right, or half-right: it may not be the impression of continuity that the proprietor’s after, so much as – more straightforwardly – the impression of age. Age doesn’t necessarily mean trying to look like “really old pubs”, either. I’m thinking of Jam Street Café, a bar near us that I never used to visit very often (beer range not great, plenty of alternatives). When I did go in, though, I always felt comfortable straight away, purely because of the decor: framed posters advertising local bands from the very first days of punk. (They had one for Gyro, for goodness’ sake – who the hell remembers Gyro? I didn’t live here back then, but I did collect records on independent labels – including Gyro’s one and only single. (Maybe that was a poster for their one and only gig.))

Anyway, I went in again a year or so back, after a refit and a rename (Jam Street), and immediately felt uncomfortable. I realised eventually it was (also) because of the decor – the walls were now covered with posters for all these, I don’t know, modern, up-to-the-minute acts, like Moby and Catatonia and the Sterephonics… In other words, instead of appealing to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 70s, they’d reoriented to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 90s. Can’t blame them, I guess – it has to be a bigger (and thirstier) market – but it didn’t half make me feel old. (I hope they saved those posters at least.)

Then it gets meta: when a new bar opens, and you go in and see the walls adorned with Algerian hot chocolate posters, American coins flattened by trains and tide tables for Stranraer from 1975, what do you think? You know for a fact that the place hasn’t been there long enough to accumulate decades’ worth of assorted international cruft – and besides, the paintwork’s all fresh – but does it work on you nevertheless? Do you think Clearly the proprietor has come to this venture bearing the fruits of many’s the long year spent roaming the seven seas? Probably not. There is obviously an appeal to some kind of imaginary past, but it’s equally obvious that – while the individual elements do have a history – the composite past they evoke together is imaginary; and these two things cancel each other out. You know that it’s just decor, in other words; you judge it on whether you feel comfortable with this combination of elements or the composite imaginary past it suggests, or like the kind of person who’d put it together. (See also cafés with a vintage “look”, which often seems to involve mismatched crockery for some reason.) I love Sandbar dearly, incidentally, and will be going back there as soon as it’s feasible – and it’s probably the only place mentioned in this post of which I’d say that – but their particular combination of elements includes some that raise definite questions.

It goes beyond meta (if that’s possible) when the venue with the not-quite-believable combination of bits of vintage decor is not only new but part of a chain (paging Cosy Club). Given that the combination of elements on the wall presumably consists mainly of replicas and imitations, even the question of whether you would warm to the kind of person who would evoke this imaginary composite past gets lost. What you’re faced with is (on one hand) a look which relies for its impact on imitating things which did have a history, and (on the other) the knowledge that the look is just a look, which tends to cheapen the effect and reduce its impact. The extreme version of this approach is the chain pub refit I saw a while ago, which turned a multi-room pub with genuine signs of age into a big, open space, broken up with screens and dividers – all with shelves, loaded with miscellaneous but (ironically) very new-looking cruft.

Greebling: from an accumulation of objects with genuine age (even if only 30-odd years of it) to the mass-production of a brand-new imitation of the real thing – and from an instant emotional connection to none at all. And all within half an hour’s walk, in Chorlton (which admittedly is well-supplied with bars, whether old, new or old-but-disastrously-refitted).

One final, unrelated point on those shelves of unread books. B&B also write:

If you stop and look at the books on the shelves, or investigate the artefacts, you’ll find they rarely stand up to scrutiny.

I’m not so sure about this, where the books are concerned at least. A while ago the OH and I, who met at university, were visiting our offspring at a university up north. In a Spoons, having ordered a meal, we found ourselves with a few minutes to kill and started taking an interest in the books on the shelf opposite. A familiar coat of arms caught our eye: there was the Yearbook of the Cambridge college where we had met, mumble years ago and 200 miles away. (We didn’t even know there was a Yearbook.) Not only that, but it was for our year – and there, listed among the names of the new intake, were both of ours. It was more than a little spooky – but it was definitely genuine. (And, I suppose, genuinely old. If you must.)

 

Ready ready

No sooner had I updated my ready-reckoner of bottle and can sizes to include nip bottles (275 ml) than all the cool kids started putting their beers in 440 ml cans – a weird size, which is fairly easy to compare to 330 but has very little else to commend it. I guess 440 ml cans are easier to get hold of than 500 – and you can sell a full one for pretty much the same price, which means three cans’ worth of beer in every 25 are pure profit. (I’ll give you a moment to check the arithmetic. That won’t be the last of it.)

Now, a ready-reckoner that included the pint, half-pint, third pint, 500 ml, 330 ml, 275 ml, the US pint, the US 12 oz and the 440 ml (and the nipperkin and the brown bowl) would be unwieldy to say the least; that’s a 9 by 9 table. Is there any way to simplify things, other than by just leaving stuff out?

Let me introduce you to the most important imperial measure you’ve never used: 1/72 of a pint. Also known as 7.891251 millilitres, which is to say (and this will be important later) very slightly more than seven and eight ninths (7.8888…). (How slightly? If you multiply out by 72 you get 568 exactly; a pint is actually 568.261 ml. So if you use the “seven and eight ninths” rule of thumb you’ll be off by two millilitres per gallon.)

Now, 1/72 of a pint is not a particularly useful measure in and of itself. What it is useful for is conversion. Without further ado, I give you:

The Universal Ready Reckoner

Third 24
275 ml 35
Half 36
330 ml 42
US 12 oz 45
440 ml 56
US pint 60
500 ml 63
Pint 72

First column: measure
Second column: how many 1/72s of a pint is this?

These are all good to within 2 mls, apart from the 500 ml which is out by 3 (i.e. 63 * 7.888… = 497). Good enough for our purposes, which… well, what are our purposes? What’s this all about?

What this is all about is that, if you can memorise nine numbers and do a bit of arithmetic, you can convert the strengths of any measure of beer you’re ever likely to encounter back to the familiar pint (or back to any other measure you like). This in turn makes it possible to answer the eternal question How many did I have last night?, even if what you had last night was 500 ml at 5%, 330 ml at 7% and 275 ml at 9%. Multiply the abv number by the size factor, add it all together and divide by 72, and you’ll have the equivalent strength of a single pint. It’s just a more elaborate equivalent of the calculation you might do if you were on halves all night (“six halves at 6%, that’s like six pints at 3%, normally I’d be on 4%s, 18 over 4 is… four and a half pints“).

In the example I gave above, you’ve got 500 ml (63/72) at 5%, 330 (42/72) at 7% and 275 (35/72) at 9%; so the calculation is ((63 * 5) + (42 * 7) + (35 * 9) / 72). Multiply out and sum the results, and you get 924/72, which reduces to 73/6; so it’s the equivalent of a pint at 12.2%, or slightly more than three pints at 4%. (In passing, it’s worth noting that 63 * 5 and 35 * 9 both come to the same number – 315 – which is to say that your 500 ml 5%er was exactly the same strength-wise as the 9% nip bottle (it’s actually 25 mils of alcohol vs 24.75).)

In practice it’s not as scary as it looks. The thing about 72 is that it’s 8 x 9 – the product of two cubed and three squared – giving it ten factors other than itself and 1; this makes the arithmetic a lot simpler than it might be. Some of those measures have got 5s in, admittedly, which does make life more difficult – it’s why the example above ends up with a prime number (73) – but you can generally get quite a long way by halving both sides and/or dividing by three.

No more numbers! Numbers finished! Hello again, reader who started skimming when all the numbers came in! That bit’s finished now, you can carry on reading!

Anyway… I realise this won’t be for everyone; when I said …and do a bit of arithmetic I wasn’t joking about the arithmetic. If you are comfortable messing about with numbers, though, I genuinely think this could be handy.

Update 11th September What should appear on the shelves at my friendly neighbourhood Tesco but a BrewDog/Evil Twin collab canned in a measure of… 402 ml. What fresh hell is this? Eyeballing the decimals tells me that it’s more or less 17/20ths of a US pint (although US pints don’t come in 20ths), or somewhere in hailing distance of 7/10 of an imperial pint, or… I give up. But it is 51/72 (or 17/24) of an imperial pint, give or take half a ml; if this measure is more widely adopted (as I sincerely hope it won’t be), I can at least find it a row in the table.

Update to the Update On closer inspection of the aforesaid can – and, indeed, on opening it – I realise that the beer is nitrogenated (a dispense method which lived up to its reputation by giving the beer a tight, creamy head). So presumably what they’ve done is take a plain old 440 ml can and subtract the space taken up by the widget. We can probably forget about the 17/24ths.

Going back

There are two kinds of courage. It takes courage to do something that you’re irrationally convinced is seriously dangerous, even if the rational part of your mind is reasonably sure it’s safe. (Holding on until you’ve managed to get the rational part of your mind to drown out the irrational part is another possibility, but it’s not always feasible – as anyone who’s ever got up to investigate noises in the night can confirm.) It also takes courage to do something that actually is seriously dangerous; it takes courage, and it also takes a very good reason – e.g. risking death for a cause or to save a loved one, or being a member of the army and receiving a direct order.

Pubs are great; they’re one of my favourite social institutions, and I’d miss them terribly if they were gone. However, the cause of pubs is not a cause for which I’m willing to die or risk death, and I don’t think I’m a massive outlier in this. People talking about courage, in the context of going back to the pubs post-lockdown, are talking about courage #1 – the courage to walk into a dark room where there could be literally anything at all (although, as it’s your living room and you were sitting there two hours ago, you can be pretty sure there’s literally nothing). Either that or they’re really fanatical pubpeople – Give me two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please, or give me death!

As it goes, I don’t think it’s at all likely that I’d have caught Covid-19 if I’d spent the whole of Saturday evening at any of my locals. I can’t – and couldn’t – say it’s impossible, though, or a low enough likelihood to be completely discounted. And, ironically, the risk is only going to increase: anyone who was infected on Saturday will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all this week, and anyone they infect will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all next week, and… We just have to hope that, by last Saturday, infectivity in the wild had already reached a low enough level to minimise the number of possible outbreaks, and that social distancing measures have reduced the number of actual outbreaks even further. But we won’t know for at least another week – by which time, of course, we’ll be a week further down the same track.

No pubbing for me, then? Fortunately it doesn’t have to come to that. The two main situations that I (still) want to avoid like Watney’s are sustained close contact with anyone outside my household – having someone breathe in my face, basically – and being in an enclosed public space for any length of time. That does rule out most of the things I like doing in pubs – God knows when I’ll be going to a folk session again – but not quite all of them. In particular, the sneaky mid-afternoon pint on a non-work day is still very much an option, particularly with the weather we’ve been having (at least, up to today).

And so it was that I celebrated my personal Return to the Pub, yesterday afternoon at the Beerhouse. I turned up, sanitised my hands and “waited to be seated”, at the small table handily positioned just behind me, checked the menu on the table and was rather pleased to be able to order “a pint of bitter” (i.e. Marble Manchester Bitter). I wasn’t asked for my details, but the chance of infection from anyone at another table, in the open air (and on a breezy day), really was negligible – particularly as the beer threw itself down my throat at a slightly startling rate. (Son of Bodds’? Not for me to say, but I’d love to hear from anyone who can compare.)

What was the beer like? It was superb. I’ve laid in a bunch of different bottled beers during lockdown, including a slab of Jaipur and a few bottles of Proper Job, but I have to say that it’s the pale’n’oppy beers that have been going down slowest; I seem to have lost the taste. (Give me a Landlord, or a Weihenstephaner, or an Orval, or a tripel, or one of those little Harvey’s monsters…) That pint of Manchester Bitter, though, was in a different league. As a kid I daydreamed about one day getting an underpowered little car – a 2CV, a Fiat 500, a Morris 1000 – and having the engine stripped out and replaced with something ridiculously powerful, just to see people’s expressions when I burned them up on the motorway. Manchester Bitter seems to have been arrived at by a similar process: they’ve taken a best bitter, stripped out most – but not all – of the malt and the body, and filled in all the gaps with aroma hops and (especially) bittering hops. The result is that it drinks with the soft cereal complexity of a BB, up to the moment when the bitter finish grabs you by the throat and squeezes. It’s wonderful, and – on a fine afternoon, when you haven’t been to a pub in (literally) months – it goes down very, very quickly.

Which, of course, is just as well; open air or no open air, I didn’t want to hang around there forever. I didn’t even stop for a second (although I was tempted to do a compare-and-contrast with Pint); apart from anything else, my capacity – along with consumption – seems to have gone through the floor during lockdown. But I’ll be back; I’m not planning on going through the door just yet, but I will be going back.

Small beers

A few years ago I posted a ready reckoner on here, for the benefit of people who wanted to know how a third of a litre at X% compared with a pint at Y%:

Third Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint
500 ml Pint
Third  = 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
Half 3/2 = 6/7 4/5 3/4  4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 7/6  = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16  = 7/8
Pint 3/1 2/1 12/7  8/5 3/2 8/7 =

Here’s an updated version:

Third 275 ml Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint 500 ml Pint
Third = 16/23 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
275 ml 23/16 = 77/80 33/40 16/21 23/32 11/20 11/23
Half 3/2 80/77 = 6/7 4/5 3/4 4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 40/33 7/6 = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 21/16 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 32/23 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 20/11 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16 = 7/8
Pint 3/1 23/11 2/1 12/7 8/5 3/2 8/7 =

Well, that’s a bit of a mess. The 275 ml row and column are an absolute fright – and they aren’t even very precise (I took an editorial decision not to use any numerators or denominators of more than two figures, which keeps the mental arithmetic just about doable but also means it doesn’t quite work).

Still, this does tell you instantly (well, I say ‘instantly’…) that a 275 ml bottle at 7.5% is the equivalent of a more conventional 330 ml at 6.5%; more approximately, it’s in the region of a pint at 3.5%, which is nothing really. A 275 ml bottle at 9% is a bit punchier, but you’re still looking at the equivalent of a standard 500 ml bottle at 5%, or a pint at a sessionable 4.3%ish. So you might as well, frankly.

What am I burbling on about? Nip bottles, dear reader, and in particular some of the finer beers sold in nip bottles by Harvey’s of Sussex. As I mentioned in another post, I began lockdown by ordering a mixed case of nip bottles – the Elizabethan Ale (a barley wine devised for the coronation of the current Elizabeth), Christmas Ale, Imperial Extra Double Stout and Tom Paine (the runt of this particular litter at 5%; I would have completed the set with Prince of Denmark, but that combination wasn’t on offer). I liked them so much, I reordered the Elizabethan and the IEDS – and I considered going for the Christmas as well, even at this time of year.

What are they like? The Elizabethan tastes deceptively simple; not only that, it tastes sweet, almost syrupy. You get the flavour straight off, and it’s a mouth-filling, lip-coating malty sweetness; to that extent it reminds me of Wells‘ Dragoon, a 10% monster which I’ve only ever seen in Italy, on keg (strange but true). But the similarities end there. A relatively basic barley wine like the Dragoon starts with heavy sweetness and finishes with cough syrup and a blast of alcohol (vodka and Benylin?), but the Elizabethan Ale develops the way that a best bitter develops: the sweetness lightens with vanilla and floral notes, there’s a tannic mid-mouth bitterness to weigh the whole thing down and a bitter, drying finish with no discernible heat. It’s extraordinarily well put together; I mean, I’ve had worse tripels. It’s for all the world as if someone had set out to condense a pint of bitter into a 275 ml bottle (which, as you know, is a mere 11/23rds of a pint); it’s sweeter, it’s denser, it’s twice the strength (viz. 7.5%), but recognisably the same thing.

As for the Imperial Extra Double Stout, where do I start? Here’s a history lesson which goes some way to explaining why this beer is so distinctive. Probably the best way I can describe it is to say that it tastes like every stout you’ve ever tasted, combined. So there’s roast-grain bitterness with that slight sharpness that you get from a standard stout; at the same time, there’s a heavy-textured, dark-chocolate bittersweet character that says “imperial”. On top of all that, there’s a definite savoury umami note which somehow binds it all together, even while odd notes of almost gastric sharpness cut through. What you don’t get – as with the Elizabethan – is heat; you’d never know it was 9%. It tastes as if it comes from an earlier time (when they liked their beers strong); it tastes barrel-aged; it tastes as if debaryomyces has had a good old chew at it, as indeed it has; and with all of that, it still works. It’s a beast.

Having a few bottles of each of these to play with, inevitably I wondered what would happen if you mixed them – would an Elizabethan plus an IEDS add up to the ultimate black-and-tan? Well, no, not really. I tried the combination in different proportions, but the IEDS is such a monster that it overwhelmed the Elizabethan in a 50/50 split, while 2/3 IEDS to 1/3 Elizabethan just tasted like a slightly fruitier, slightly weaker(!) IEDS. 2/3 Elizabethan to 1/3 IEDS, though – that was something else. With two such big beers, the combination didn’t work the curious jigsaw-puzzle trick I remember from my days as a black-and-tan drinker, where the rough edges of the two beers cancel each other out and produce something blander than either of them. What you did get, though, was the biggest, darkest old ale you’ve ever imagined, or possibly the biggest, fruitiest porter.

If you ever find yourself with two bottles of Elizabethan Ale and one IEDS lying around, there are worse things you could do. Might be one for sharing, though; 275 ml at 9% a.b.v. plus 550 at 7.5% is the equivalent of 275 ml at 24%, which is the rough equivalent of a pint at [consults handy ready reckoner] 24 * 11/23 = 264/23 = approximately a pint at 11.5%.

(Sanity check with calculator: 275*0.24 = 66; 568*0.115 = 65.32. Once again, I thank you.)

Forgotten beers

As I write I’m closer to my 60th birthday than, well, any other. Being of mature years isn’t exactly unusual among CAMRA members – any more than it is in my other social group of choice, folk musicians. But what does sometimes make me feel a bit atypical – in both contexts – is that I only became an enthusiast relatively recently; I started going to folk clubs in 2003, and started thinking seriously about beer (seriously enough to remember what I’d been drinking) in 2008. Before then… not.

(What was I doing all that time?)

But of course I didn’t start drinking in my late 40s. As a matter of fact I started drinking at the age of 12, when my parents let me and a friend see in the New Year at home with a bottle of Woodpecker each. (I remember telling them the next day that it had made me feel “very lucid”. They said it did have that effect.) I had got through a fair bit of beer before I started going to festivals, taking notes and generally thinking about what beer I did and didn’t like. I just… didn’t notice it so much.

This post is about two beers I know for certain that I didn’t notice – two gaps in my memory that I’m sure are there. One dates back to 1986 or 87, the other to some time in the early 00s.

We get to 1986 via 1976 (when I fell blissfully in love with London Pride and Buckley’s Best); 1979 (when I could drink legally but discovered that I didn’t actually like bitter after all); 1982 (when I came to Manchester, encountered Marston’s dark mild and fell in love with that instead, but mostly ended up drinking Hyde’s lager*); and 1983 (when I got a job and drank two pints of Greenall Whitley bitter every lunchtime and three on Fridays, because that was what you did). Beer could still be amazing, sometimes – but how often did you see London Pride on a bar in Manchester? Or Marston’s dark mild, come to that. Usually it was just… beer; something you drank when you went out, and you chose it because it was what they had in the place you’d gone out to.

The place we went out to, one day after work in 1986, was a proper working men’s pub (in the enthusiastic words of my friend Mike, whose idea it was) and a bit of a walk from the office. (This wasn’t a two-pint-a-day office, incidentally; I didn’t do much lunchtime drinking at all in that job, not least because when the people I worked with did go out they invariably went to the Vine (which was Greenall Whitley), despite it being right next door to the City (which wasn’t). So I guess I must have developed some taste in beer by then.)

Anyway, the pub Mike led me to was the Old Garratt. And yes, it was a “proper working men’s pub”; at least, I remember the place being full of blokes, and the two of us being the only people there in a suit and tie. I also remember glancing upwards and being unable to see the ceiling for a blanket of cigarette smoke. And I remember one other thing, which is the first of the two gaps in my memory I wanted to talk about: the beer. That evening in the Garratt, before I left to get the bus home for my tea, I had two pints of Boddington’s Bitter.

And I have no memory of it whatsoever. It could have been bright blue and tasted of cranberries for all I know. (Except, of course, that I know it wasn’t, because if it had been I would have remembered it.) I don’t remember it being particularly bitter, I don’t remember it being outstandingly drinkable, I don’t even remember it being dull. 1986 was pretty late to be discovering Boddington’s, admittedly – the early-80s bland-out referred to here was pretty much accomplished by then. But at the end of the day it was still Boddington’s, still being brewed at Strangeways, and if I ever have grandchildren I’ll be able to tell them that I did, indeed, once drink it. I just won’t be able to tell them what the hell it was like.

In the 90s I did start to get interested in beer, although not the kind that you get from a hand pump. There was a holiday in Barcelona, where I discovered Franziskaner Weissbier (not available in supermarkets at that point) along with bratwurst and sauerkraut; there was a holiday in Amsterdam, where (slightly more conventionally) I discovered witbier; and there was a holiday in Scotland, where I discovered Trappist beer (the hotel bar had overstocked on Chimay – which is to say, they’d bought some – and they were selling it off cheap).

After that I was away; Belgian beers were pretty cheap at the time**, when you could find them. In the 90s and early 00s I discovered blonds, red ales, dubbels and tripels, tried lambics and even one or two gueuzes, and ticked off all the Trappists I could find. Sometimes the big hits are big hits for a reason, and discovering Trappist beer was a bit like discovering Sergeant Pepper: I discovered that some of the beers everyone was raving about were, in fact, beers worth raving about. (If there’s a better beer anywhere than Westmalle Tripel… it’s probably an old-ish Orval.) Eventually I’d worked my way through all the available Trappist beers – which was to say, four of the big five Belgians, plus Koningshoeven – as you can see here.

IMG_2424

(Wait a minute. That isn’t four of the five big Belgians.)

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

Dredging my memory, I have the faintest of faint memories of buying those bottles of Westvleteren. It was in the Belgian Belly in Chorlton; my curiosity was aroused by the unlabelled bottles, and aroused some more by the relatively punchy price tags (although I can’t remember what the prices actually were, and I’m pretty sure they were considerably cheaper than you’d ever see them today). I can picture Jason telling me that these particular bottles really were a bit special, and I can hear him sounding entirely sincere and very persuasive, as indeed he generally did in that situation.

Or maybe I’m just filling in that last part because I know that the sales pitch worked. Anyway, evidently I bought them – presumably on the same occasion, although the BBE dates are rather a long way apart. And evidently I drank them, given that the bottle tops are all I’ve got left.

(Best beer in the world, they say it is. The strong one, especially.)

(Might be, for all I know. I have no memory.)

(Only one way to find out, now. Road trip! I could do that. When this is all over.)

There aren’t any big gaps after that – at least, none that I’m aware of! There is one other beer I’d like to remember more about: I went to Brendan Dobbin’s King’s Arms once around this time, and – while I remember the pub vividly – I’ve no idea what I had to drink. But I do have fond memories of a couple of West Coast beers, so let’s assume it was one of them. By then, anyway, the Marble Beerhouse was open. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and started taking a ticker’s interest in the Marble beers they served*** – and that put me on the path to keeping tasting notes, starting this blog, joining CAMRA and generally thinking about beer far too much.

(Still wish I could remember those beers, though.)


*For years I was convinced that, around 1982-3, I used to drink a pale yellow, sourish bitter at the Vic in Withington. Nobody else can remember this beer, and the simplest explanation is that it was in fact Hyde’s own lager – and that I really wasn’t into beer back then.

**Something to do with Black Wednesday, possibly. Or something to do with EMU. Or not.

***Despite the fact that at this stage I still didn’t like most of them. That didn’t change till some time later.

Disappearing beers

This isn’t a lockdown post, except in the sense that lockdown has reacquainted me with The Bathams’ – which turns out to be a lot easier to get hold of in bottle than Pete suggested a few years ago. And Bathams’ bitter is a rare beast: it’s a disappearing beer. Not in the sense that it’s getting harder to find (see links above), but in the sense that it disappears; it goes beyond being drinkable, into a zone where the beer seems to drink itself. Essentially, if you buy a pint, take it back to your table, sit down, then look round a minute later to find the first half’s gone – that’s a disappearing beer.

Not all good beers are disappearing beers, by any means. I grew up on darkish, chewy bitters – sweet and fruity (Buckley’s) or dry and tannic (Harvey’s) – and I’m a huge fan of old ales and big stouts; some of my favourite beers are beers that you can’t knock back, or not without a conscious effort.

Come to that, being ‘smashable’ isn’t really the point either. Boak and Bailey wrote the other day in praise of Fyne Ales Jarl:

For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

I’d agree with that; Jarl’s a properly sessionable beer, and there are other beers I’d put alongside it – Marble Pint, Redemption Trinity, Magic Rock Ringmaster (although in its heyday (as Curious) it was arguably a bit too hoppy to be really sessionable). But even Pint doesn’t quite soak itself up the way that a true disappearing beer does.

If I’m not talking about style or flavour, and I’m not talking about sessionability, what am I on about? Is there really such a thing as an über-drinkable beer? Am I perhaps over-generalising from a beer that I happened to drink when I was thirsty? Yes, there is, and no, I’m not. Evidence: my 2018 visit to Prague, where the bars serve very little else: světlý ležák is the epitome of the disappearing beer. I had some interestingly diverse beers while I was in Prague, but I also had four pale lagers at 11 or 12°, from four different breweries, all of which threw themselves down my throat at a slightly alarming rate. “I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty.”

To sum up: my list of disappearing beers doesn’t include any sessionable hoppy bangers – even they require a bit too much effort to qualify as disappearing of their own accord – but does include

  1. Many (most?) Czech světlý ležák in the 10-12° range
  2. The Bathams’
  3. er, that’s it

On which note I’ll throw it open to the floor. What do you think? Am I right about the Bathams’… what kind of question is that, of course I am… How about the světlý ležák – was I just thirsty all the time I was in Prague? And what beers have taken you by surprise, by apparently drinking themselves and confronting you with a half-empty glass?

“Time in lockdown behaves slowly”, I wrote at the top of my last post. Evidence: this post, which (at the time) I was planning on writing the following day or maybe the one after that. Nine days later, here we are.

Lockdown beers

Time in lockdown behaves strangely. I was about to write “I remember the early days of lockdown” but then felt ridiculous – of course I remember the early days of lockdown, it was less than two months ago!

Things did feel very different, though. The first Saturday of lockdown, I remember we ordered a pizza instead of the usual Chinese takeaway, then had to wait two and a half hours for it to arrive. (I even chased them up.) The worst of it wasn’t the wait, but the sinking feeling that this was what it was going to be like from now on. Similarly with beer; after watching my under-stairs stash dwindling for a while, I took the plunge and ordered a case from Thirst Class and a mixed case of nip bottles from Harvey’s (of which more another time). When those started to go down, I looked at the breweries’ Web sites and found, to my mounting horror, that Thirst Class’s range had been greatly reduced since I’d ordered, and Harvey’s – although the Web site did say they were continuing to brew, to give their yeast strain something to do – had nothing at all on sale. Was this what it was going to be like? Were breweries going to stop brewing, one after another – then run down their existing stock, one after another – and then there would be no more beer? Was I going to have to start drinking gin?

Happily, I can report that Thirst Class currently has an extraordinary range of beer on sale – quite a lot of it isn’t their own, so presumably there has been some running down of stock, but it’s still a very fine range. As for Harvey’s, I don’t know why absolutely everything was marked as ‘sold out’ on that one alarming evening, but it certainly isn’t now; either they’ve been re-brewing quite a few of the weird and wonderful beers in their range, or they’ve found a lot of bottles somewhere (pub cellars, possibly) and assigned them to the Web shop.

So that’s the first effect, or the first two effects, of lockdown on my beer drinking habits: 1. buying in bulk and 2. panicking periodically. (Mind you, 2. is so familiar a feature of lockdown in general that it hardly deserves its own ‘beer’ sub-heading.)

My bulk buys to date are:

  • 12 assorted bottles from Thirst Class (free delivery)
  • mixed case of nip bottles (3 x Imperial Extra Double Stout, 3 x Christmas Ale, 3 x Elizabethan Ale, 3 x Tom Paine) from Harvey’s (courier)
  • 12 bottles of the Batham’s plus 3 x Enville Ale from The Wine Press of Stourbridge (courier) (hat tip to the Pub Curmudgeon)
  • a case (12 nip bottles) each of Imperial Extra Double Stout and Elizabethan Ale from Harvey’s
  • a case (12 33cl cans) of Jaipur and a mixed case of 12 bottles and cans from Thornbridge (free delivery on orders over £30, but orders by the case only)
  • 6 bottles of Orval and 12 other mixed Trappist and Trappist-ish beers from biere-speciale.be (international delivery, but bottle prices low enough to make orders of 10+ bottles cheaper than buying them locally)

The first Harvey’s case is long gone, as are the Envilles and all but one of the Thirst Class (you need to pick the right moment for a 9% black IPA); most of the Orvals and the IEDSs are for ageing, or at least that’s the plan. The rest should keep me going for another few weeks.

Or perhaps for longer than that, considering another effect of lockdown: 3. reduced consumption. I was never a huge pub-goer, but in the average month I’d probably fit in

  • 8 swift ones after work (15 minutes, 1 pint)
  • 4 trips to the pub to order the takeaway (30 minutes, 2-3 pints)
  • 2 folk sessions (2-3 hours, 3-4 pints)
  • 1 pub quiz (2 hours, 2 pints)

On one hand, when I stop work these days it’s because it’s time for tea (or to make tea), and it’s hard to fit in the swiftest of beers on my way from one room to another. On the other, following one beer with another beer – let alone following that one with a third – seems like a much bigger deal at home than it does in the pub. When – the week before lockdown – we switched to ordering the Saturday takeaway for delivery, I tried to make the effort to have two drinks in the half-hour before it came, but an effort is what it was. One beer in an evening – even one 33 cl bottle or can, which generally packs less of a punch than the weediest of pints – is not at all unusual these days; and the more I get out of the habit of session-style boozing, the less I’ve got the capacity for it. I hardly ever have an even moderately heavy session now; on the other hand, I also have fewer completely dry days – not least because I’m hardly ever hung over. It’ll be interesting to see whether I go back to how things were, whenever this thing is finally over.

Note I’ve been disinclined to write on this blog lately – along with most other things – but I’m planning to crank it up again. I’ve currently got another three posts planned; hopefully inspiration will strike again after that.

 

 

 

Farewell to the gold (and the amber and the black)

It was a Saturday afternoon. We’d been to see 1917; we enjoyed it, although I thought its portrayal of the wily, treacherous Boche was a bit lacking in nuance. (All friends now, eh?) The cinema was a bit fuller than I would have liked – there’s this virus going round, and even if there have only been single-figure numbers of cases in Manchester, it only takes one of them to sit next to you… Still, you’ve got to take some risks in life, haven’t you?

After the film, anyway, we were in the market for a drink; the Smithfield had been a hit with my other half when we’d been there on a previous weekend, and I had high hopes of introducing her to the Crown and Kettle. I couldn’t immediately work out a route, though, and we decided to give it up and go to the Pilcrow – which, unlike those two, isn’t one of my favourite town centre pubs, but is a lot handier for the cinema.

It was rammed. They’d said on the news that nobody was taking much notice of the advice to avoid unnecessary social contact, and that was certainly how it looked. I had heard that trade was dropping off in a lot of pubs (and the place where we’d had lunch had certainly been less full than usual), but the Pilcrow didn’t seem to have got the memo. To be honest it was too full – at least, it was too noisy (that’s what you get for all those hard surfaces). Herself fancied a fruit beer, so I got her a rhubarb saison; I had two beers, but I didn’t make a note of their names. One of them was a porter – by Beatnikz Republic, who also made the saison – and the other one was… something else. Really nice porter, for what that’s worth.

Not a classic beer experience, then, and definitely not a classic pub experience; but it was a Saturday afternoon, in a pub, with beer.

Nine days later, I found myself at a loose end mid-afternoon. I left work and headed home, pausing only for a swift half on the way. (Headed home to do some more work, I should say; I’ve been working from home ever since (spoiler), and have in fact had a very busy couple of weeks.) The venue was the Brewdog Outpost, and the half was something dark and strong – I forget what. The bar was fairly empty but not completely so, even on a weekday mid-afternoon; it was a pleasantly chilled environment, and the beer was rather fine. Again, not a classic of the genre – beer or pub – but each was good in their way. The third factor – the occasion – had its style rather cramped by the larger situation, though. One of my main memories of that visit is of standing well back from the bar when ordering, and attempting to keep a safe distance when the bartender circulated to collect glasses; it struck me that two metres is quite a long way.

Soon after I got home that day, the prime minister made a statement urging people not to go to theatres or cinemas – or pubs. Over the next few days, a series of cinemas, restaurants and theatres announced that they were closing; I realised I wasn’t going to get to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or The Invisible Man for that matter. Pubs, though, were mostly still open – and were starting to suffer from people staying away. I wondered about dropping in on one of my locals mid-afternoon, when they’d be quieter, but worried about maintaining two metres from the bartender and any other drinkers – and besides, I wasn’t actually free mid-afternoon (busy with work, as I mentioned). There was some talk on social media of bars offering growler fills, which involved paying a fiver for a resealable two-pint bottle and then getting it filled with draught beer – cask beer, even, while that lasted. Again, though, I was busy during the day, on top of which I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d maintain the two-metre thing. (Besides, £5 for an empty bottle?)

On the Friday – quite late on the Friday, as I remember – the prime minister announced that pubs (and much else) were going to have to close – and close that night, early as you like. I belatedly decided I would check out the growler situation, at one of the local bars that had said they’d be offering them. When I got to the bar, three or four people were smoking and chatting outside, a sight which already looked considerably less normal than it used to. I seriously considered holding my breath as I passed them (no offence, lads), but then realised that there was just as high a density of people inside. I pressed on and opened the door. The air inside hit me in the face; it was warm and thick, and I swear it was moist. The next thing that struck me – almost literally – was the noise: raised voices, rhythmic clapping, cheering; it felt as if I’d walked into a rugby club social. Social distancing was very much not in effect; in fact people were two or three deep at the bar. I couldn’t see anything of the bartender(s?) but an arm raised high above the crowd, to pass somebody their gin and tonic. At this point I did hold my breath, for as long as it took to turn tail and get back out on the street.

So if anyone asks me about the last time I went into a pub before the lockdown, if I’m being strictly honest that’s when it was. But the swift half to collect my thoughts on a quiet afternoon in the Outpost, and the couple of pints at the weekend at Pilcrow, are what I’m going to remember; they’re what I look forward to doing all over again. Not to mention the pint at the Crown and Kettle that I never even had – I’m sure it would have been a good one. As the man said, Farewell to the gold that never I found…