The electric shirt-collar

On flavourings in beer (as on much else), I tend to agree with Barm:

I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed, a few months ago, when a mailing from an online beer merchant offered a very, very special mixed case from Buxton, featuring

Rocky Road Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Texas Pecan Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Ice Cream Pale, 5.6% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly 2016, 11% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly Sundae 2016, 12% (we only have 216 bottles so this will limit the quantity of cases available.  These are the only bottles of YBS 2016 in Europe outside of Sweden) – Collab with Omnipollo

In fact, I don’t think I was even whelmed – least of all when I checked up and discovered that the aforesaid Yellow Belly is a “peanut butter biscuit imperial stout”. Now, I like peanut butter, and I like biscuits, and I like an imperial stout, but… On paper, at least, these beers seem to combine several different things I don’t like. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘fruit machine‘ style of brewing, where brewers seem to try and make their beers unique by adding two or three qualifications to every style (“whisky-aged… red… porter!”). I’ve always liked big, complex beers, that get everything from raspberries to dark chocolate to wholemeal bread to marmalade out of malted barley, hops and yeast (and maybe a bit of sugar) – which in turn means I’m not a massive admirer of beers that taste of raspberries, dark chocolate or marmalade because they’ve had those things added to them. And one thing I’m really not keen on is brewing as fan service – the kind of brewery that’s got itself into a position where beer geeks thirsty for rarities are its main customers, so that short runs and scarcity pricing become the normal business model. Still, I guess it doesn’t do me any harm, so they may as well get on with it.

That was the sum total of my thinking about the weirdly-named Swedish brewery Omnipollo and their collabs with Buxton, until the other day when I was passing my local craft emporium and in the mood for a half, or even a third, of something silly. They had Buxton/Omnipollo Lemon Meringue Ice Cream Pie on. I used to love a lemon meringue, although I haven’t tasted one in years – my mother used to make them – so I decided to give it a go, albeit with some trepidation (it sounded awfully sweet). I paid £2.70 for a third; the price was displayed, coyly, as £5.50 for 2/3 of a pint. So £8 a pint, then. (Apparently it’s available to the trade for £129 plus VAT for a 30L key keg; even with the VAT, I make that £3 a pint at the outside.)

It was clear but yellow – bright yellow – and it tasted of lemons. It really tasted of lemons; it was a properly sour beer. No sign of the meringue or the ice cream – apparently there’s lactose in there, but for all I could tell it had fermented out in the key keg. So just lemons, really, perhaps with some grapefruit – a big citric sourness, backed up by a mild but definite bitterness. There wasn’t any meringue in there – let alone ice cream – but the way the sharp attack and the bitter finish drifted in and out of focus did remind me of lemon meringue, or at least of the lemon curd base of my Mum’s meringue.

Lemons and plenty of ’em, then, but there was something else going on too. It was a bit like when I tasted some barrel-aged beers from Wild – the flavour was dominated by a big, uncomplicated fortified-wine sweetness, but alongside that there was… something else. They were interesting beers, not because they tasted of Madeira, but because they didn’t just taste of Madeira; there was something else about them, something that stayed with me for days. Similarly, this time round, I wasn’t just tasting lemon juice; the flavour of the beer stayed with me all the way home, and not just because I was checking my teeth for where the top layer of enamel had been stripped off.

The beer wasn’t a world classic – if anything it was just at the enjoyable end of ‘interesting’ – and £8 a pint for a 6% keg beer is crazy; I probably wouldn’t order it again. But it piqued my interest and gave me a sense of how sour beers might be enjoyable – very much as those Wild beers did for barrel-aged beers – and that’s the first time I’ve got that from a sour beer. New horizons in flavour!

Brandwatch

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, and I think I’ve worked out why. Work’s been busy, since I last posted here, but that’s not it; apart from anything else, in the same period I’ve written nine posts totalling 22,000 words on my other blog.

No, it’s a blogger’s problem: the stuck post. I had a couple of ideas for posts lined up, but I never got round to writing them, and after a week or two I’d lost interest. But somehow those posts kept their place on my mental to-do list; any time I thought of this blog, I thought yeah, ought to write that or thatand then lost interest in the whole idea.

You know what? I’m never going to be able to take an interest in this blog again until I get those posts out of the way; I’m just going to have to write them. Here’s the first.

I wrote a while ago – both here and in the local CAMRA magazine (cheers, John!) – about brewery takeovers and what they mean for beer. My position then was that, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers are effectively dead. More precisely, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers may cease to exist – or be replaced by inferior substitutes – at any time, and there’s nothing anyone outside the new owner company can do about it. The new owner hasn’t bought beers, it’s bought brands and their market share. If the new owner is genuinely committed to making decent beer, the beer backing up those brands may continue to be good, but even that can’t be guaranteed – and, of course, the new owner can’t actually be held to account by anyone else. Even when the new owner continues to make a particular beer the old way, nobody can tell whether they’re going to start cutting corners or simply stop making it – let alone stop them doing so.

In the earlier post I gave Brakspear’s Triple as an example of a beer that had been living on borrowed time in just this way (Marston’s have now stopped making it, citing declining supermarket demand). The next time I was at the supermarket, Brakspear’s Oxford Gold caught my eye, and I realised I’d never actually tried it. I opened it a few nights later, expecting nothing much more than malt-and-caramel soup, and I was absolutely blown away – a sharp, citric foretaste, a big tannic finish and just enough malt in the middle to hold it all together. It reminded me of nothing so much as Harvey’s Best; it was a seriously refreshing beer. Naturally I picked up another bottle when the opportunity presented itself… and poured myself a big glass of malt-and-caramel soup, somewhere between Deuchar’s IPA and Doom Bar.

The brand! The brand! I thought to myself. They’ve lost the beer and kept the brand! I wondered if I’d been lucky enough to get one of the last bottles brewed on the old Brakspear’s kit, followed by one of the first of an awful bland imposter. But I thought I’d better at least make it the best of three, and got another bottle of Oxford Gold as soon as the disappointment had worn off. And it was fine; better than fine, it was really good. It wasn’t the same beer I’d had the first time, but it was well over on that side of the spectrum. Fourth and fifth bottles confirmed the impression – they weren’t as great as the first bottle, but they were nowhere near as bad as the second.

So I don’t know what’s going on in the Brakspear’s bit of Marston’s. Brakspear’s beers effectively died a long time ago – I stand by that – but I have to concede that Marston’s kept them on life-support very effectively until quite recently. Even now I’d say the Oxford Gold is worth a punt, as long as you don’t expect too much (the malt-and-caramel fog could roll in again at any time).

But rather that than Meantime London Pale in its dinky redesigned 330 ml bottle, which I bought on a whim and because I was bored with looking at the same beers every week (come on, Sainsbury’s, sort it out!). The label attempts an odd balancing act between the corporate scale and the artisan personal touch, acknowledging that the beer is produced by Asahi but crediting the Meantime brewery and Alistair Hook personally. (From Blue Moon to Camden, affectations of craftsmanship within a corporate setting are becoming typical of the ‘craft’ scene; BD are starting to look like the odd one out for still being independent.)

And the beer? Dear Lord, the beer! I’ve had worse, but not very often, and certainly not from a well-respected brewery. It was dreadful.

In other words, it didn’t just taste like a bland pasteurised bitter; it tasted like a bland pasteurised bitter made by someone who’d never actually drunk bitter and was more used to making lager on a budget. The first impression was a bland, maize-like sweetness, which gave way to nothing much (certainly no discernible hops); just a bit of malt and tannin in the middle, and the ghost of a bitter aftertaste.

I didn’t make my mind up about the Oxford Gold on the strength of one bottle; if I’d really wanted to be fair, I would have had to consider the possibility that this was a duff bottle and gone back for a second try. The thought of drinking that beer again – let alone paying money for it again – made up my mind for me: I’d rather be unfair. That is, I’d rather leave my findings provisional. What I can say is that, if that bottle is in any way representative, Meantime London Pale is about as much a craft beer as Boddington’s Bitter is the cream of Manchester – because Meantime, like Boddies’ (and Brakspear), isn’t a brewery any more; it’s just a brand. And you can’t trust brands.

Shopping

Dry January was never really going to be an option for me, if only because I invariably over-purchase before Christmas. If you can abstain for a month with a sizeable stash of weird and expensive stuff looking you in the eye every time you go for the hoover, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Last weekend I finally drank the last of this year’s pre-Christmas purchases; since this left my beer stocks looking dangerously low (1 x each of Duvel, Old Tom, McEwan’s Champion) I also did a bit of re-stocking. So here, without much comment, are two shopping lists.

22/12/2016 (Tiny’s Tipple, Chorlton)

Marble Earl Grey IPA (500 ml; remainder are all 330 ml)
RedWillow Thoughtless imperial stout (can)
RedWillow Perceptionless New England IPA (can)
Rochefort 6 nectar of the gods
Marble Portent of Usher imperial stout
Flying Dog Horn Dog barley wine
Hawkshead Oak Aged No 5 strong porter
Wild Modus Operandi barrel-aged sour
Cloudwater Mosaic IPA
Blackjack Devilfish saison
Blackjack/Garage Gyle 700 bretted double IPA
Chorlton Goldings Sour (can)
Siren Broken Dream oatmeal stout (I have no recollection of choosing this)

Price range: £2.70 to £5.00
Average price: £3.88
Price range per litre: £8.10 to £15.00 (predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £11.30

Bit spendy, really. Was it worth it? Well, the first five – everything down to the Portent of Usher – struck me as rock-solid stone-cold five-star classics, and the next three after that were pretty damn good. I won’t go through the last five, except to say that with my beer-judging hat on I’d rate them all as good to very good. There certainly weren’t any stinkers – but a couple of them, for me, would qualify as fairly expensive experiments.

29/1/2017 (Sainsbury’s, Salford)

Timothy Taylor Landlord (500 ml, as are the rest)
Adnams Bitter
Brakspear Oxford Gold
Harbour IPA
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Adnams Ghost Ship

I agonised over that Adnams bitter – it was that or a Proper Job – but in the end the idea of filling my bottle carrier with three old-school bitters and three pales appealed to me.

Price range: £1.80 to £2.00
Average price: £1.84
Price range per litre: £3.60 to £4.00 (again, predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £3.68

So far I’ve had the Oxford Gold, which I’m planning on writing about separately; my mouth is actually watering at the thought of the Harbour IPA, and for that matter the dear old Landlord. All that for two notes for the best part of a pint. On the other hand, I did really enjoy that Portent, which set me back £4.50 for 330 ml. But was it three and a half times as good as Landlord? Yeah… no… maybe.

What’s the point here?  Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.

…and with that gloomy thought I approach the end of Dry Tuesday (would have been Monday but my wife opened some wine). Twenty-four hours, no problem! Not going to stretch it to 48, though – there’s a Meet the Brewer with Ticketybrew at the Ford Madox Brown tomorrow night. More on that in due course.

Spontaneous similitude

As a footnote to the previous post, here’s something I noticed about the pricing of cask and keg beers in two bars I’ve visited within the last 48 hours.

The Library in Durham is a nice, laid-back bar, appealing (as far as I can tell) equally to students and locals. They have two beer blackboards, one labelled ‘cask’ and the other ‘craft’. They’re certainly not pitching to the cognoscenti, but it’s interesting that they think it’s worthwhile to offer a range of keg beers that they can call ‘craft’. The keg beers are fairly wide-ranging – I’ve seen Guinness on a ‘craft’ tap before now – but generally include something from BD (5 am Saint today). They also have a cask offering which is generally just on the interesting side of mainstream – Landlord, Bishop’s Finger and Black Sheep today – plus a cider on handpull. (It was a still cider today (rather a nice one from Cornish Orchards); there was a sign on the bar saying that if anyone wanted a head on their cider they’d be happy to knock one up with the steam arm from the coffee machine. We didn’t take them up on the offer.) The food’s good, incidentally – and served on metal trays, which are at least more practical than boards.

The Font in Chorlton – what can I tell you about the Font, other than that we refer to it in our house as TumbleTots? There were, unusually, no families with pre-school children in when I visited last night; I’d say the average age must have been right up in the mid-20s. (Yes, it was a Saturday night, and yes, that was unusual.) Anyway, they have eight cask beers and no fewer than sixteen keg taps; even allowing for a few, mostly rather uninspiring regulars – Flensburger pilsener, a keg cider – that generally makes for an impressive range of ‘craft keg’ options. Plus a 25% CAMRA discount, no less, although obviously this only applies to cask.

What struck me in both places was the pricing, which displayed a definite uniformity. A couple of years ago, there was a period when the Font’s keg board routinely listed prices for halves and even thirds, on the basis that (a) the price for a pint would just be too scary (b) you wouldn’t actually want a pint or (c) both. Cask beers were going for £3.20-£3.80 a pint, but a good half of the keg options were up in the £8-9 region; very nice some of them were too, but the disjuncture was a bit glaring. Then there was a period when the two sets of prices seemed to be converging – if the cheapest ‘craft keg’ option was under £5 and the dearest real ale was £4, surely it couldn’t be long before we were looking at one range of prices rather than two.

Or so I thought – but then they diverged again. With the exception of Magic Rock Cannonball – a fixture alongside Camden Ink – the really spendy big hitters seem to be a thing of the past: I’m no longer getting my late-night half of something silly from the Font. What’s happened now is that the keg beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in one price range, and the cask beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in another. I first took note of this yesterday because the ranges in question are both on the high side: £3.80-£4.90 for cask, £5.60-£7.20 for keg.

Meanwhile back in Durham, the Library has implemented a similar price standardisation policy, also with two price ranges – or rather price points: you could pay £3.35 for a pint of Landlord or Bishop’s Finger or that still cider from Cornwall, or £4.70 for a pint of something ‘craft’. The really daft part of it is that the ‘craft’ range included König Ludwig Weissbier and Grimbergen Blonde – the latter of which (coming in at 6.7%) is surely worth £4.70 of anyone’s money (even at Durham prices). 5 a.m. Saint, maybe not. (It used to be fantastic on cask, though. Trust me on this.)

The point of all this is that, when we talk about beer pricing, we’ve tended to look at it from the point of view of brewers. (For reference, here are the points of view of Cloudwater, HardKnott, Beer Nouveau and Siren.) It’s understandable that we should be sympathetic with brewers’ point of view – by and large, we’d like them to stay in business, after all. But that can easily slip into seeing the world (of beer) in brewer-centric terms, as if the problem of pricing was one that they could solve by gently pushing their trade price up a bit and (in the words of the Siren blog) “educating the market”, building a following of people willing to pay that bit more for beer from Siren (and other comparable breweries).

What both my recent blackboard encounters suggest is that it isn’t going to work like that. Until quite recently you wouldn’t have seen any cask beers at the Font above the £4 mark; those prices have gone up, no question. But the point is, they’ve all gone up – and the prices of the keg beers have gone up accordingly. Has every single brewery supplying the Font been pushing for prices in the £4+ range? Come to that, have Grimbergen, König Ludwig and BrewDog had a meeting and resolved not to supply the Library unless bar prices were pegged above £4.50? Obviously not. The bars have set their prices – partly in line with what their suppliers are asking for, certainly, but mainly in line with what the market will bear. (Both bars were buzzing, I should say.)

Bars will set prices where they can – they’ll set them as high as the market will bear, but no higher. Supply beer that usually goes for £2.50 a pint – and has a wholesale price set accordingly – to a bar where everything’s £4 or above, and it’s not likely to go on at £2.50. On the other hand, try and supply beer that usually goes for £4.50 a pint to a bar where everything’s £3 or under, and it’s not likely to go on at all. What you’re never likely to see is a £2.50 cask beer alongside a £4.50, or a bar selling beers at a whole range of price points from ‘cheap’ up to ‘scary’. (A range of price points from ‘expensive’ up to ‘scary’ is another matter – see under ‘craft keg’; although if the Font’s anything to go by this may also be a hard sell.)

Bars set price ranges, based on the costs they have to cover and what their own particular market will bear; where cask beer is concerned, by and large what they set is a single price range, the price range for ‘cask beer’. Changing that assumption – and turning the cask beer list on a pub’s blackboard into something more like a restaurant wine list – may be even harder than cultivating the perception that the beer from this or that brewery is worth a bit extra.

In your own way

OK, so here’s what I think about the Cloudwater announcement.

It seems to me that a lot of the reaction to the announcement was based on a – mostly unstated – train of thought that goes something like this.

  1. Cloudwater are getting out of cask.
  2. This is a very bad thing.
  3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.
  4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.
  5. People need to start paying more for cask.
  6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.
  7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…
  8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…
  9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

I’m sorry to see Cloudwater getting out of cask, but apart from that I disagree with almost all of these statements.

2. This is a very bad thing.

Yeah… no. I’m sorry to see them go, but Cloudwater have never looked like a cask brewer. You know what a successful cask brewer looks like? They’ve got at least one year-round regular beer within hailing distance of session strength (Ringmaster, Hophead, Lumford, Seamless); they’ve probably also got one that looks a bit like a best bitter, which is still what a lot of people go to a pub expecting to find (Hat Trick, Partridge, Lord Marples, Feckless). They put seasonal stuff, experimental stuff and downright silly stuff on cask as well, but they’ve got a core range and they keep turning it out. Cloudwater actually make a feature of not having the same beers on all the time. Their nearest thing to a regular cask beer was a double IPA – and that was only regular in the sense that it was re-brewed every year. I’m not saying this puts me off – I’ll try a Cloudwater beer whenever I see it – but then, I’m serious about beer (God help me). For a non-expert – punter or publican – they’ve never looked like a good regular proposition. “If you liked our India Pale Lager you’re going to love our grisette”? Yeah… no.

3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.

I think it’s fair to say that’s an over-simplification. Looking at it another way, the reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they project that they won’t be able to make brewing for cask in the way they’ve chosen to do it pay as much as they currently need it to. And this needs to be understood alongside the alternative projection that they will be able to secure the profits they need by brewing in the way they’ve chosen to do it for keg, bottle and can. Cloudwater have made a huge upfront investment in kit and substantial continuing investments in materials and people; they need to do that if they’re going to maintain the high quality and consistency that they’re celebrated for, not to mention that ever-changing list of beers. That’s what launching a business is like; you start with money (your own or a loan), you spend like a drunken sailor and you wait for the money coming in to match outgoings. It’s a bit like launching a plane by pushing it off a mountain, and hoping that you can pull out of the down curve before you hit the ground. I would imagine that the capital Cloudwater were sitting on at the outset was probably more substantial than is the case for many newly-launched breweries, and I suspect it’s dwindled more rapidly as well. Whatever the facts of the matter are – and their statement was commendably open about their current position – the size of Cloudwater’s launch mountain and the shape of their down curve aren’t the same as those of any other brewer. Because of that, their experiences don’t necessarily generalise.

4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.

The idea here seems to be that keg is dear where cask is cheap, and if only cask were dear too we wouldn’t be having these problems. I have trouble with this argument straight off; within 15 minutes’ walk of my house I could pay £5.50, £4.50 or £3.50 for a pint of cask beer, and half an hour’s bus ride away I could pay £2.50. (And the £5.50 stuff is bloody good, let me tell you. Mind you, the £2.50 was rather nice.) Is £4.50 too cheap? If you’re visiting from the land of viaducts you might think it’s a sight too dear. The market’s segmented all over the shop. Also, from the figures Steve posted recently it looks as if the margin on a keg is just as poor as on a cask, despite the higher price – but nobody ever seems to say that keg is too cheap.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that if publicans were willing to pay (say) half as much again for a cask of Cloudwater Session IPA, Cloudwater would have carried on casking it – and that if punters were willing to pay half as much again for a pint, ditto, then publicans would also have been willing to pay the extra. The trouble is, this tells us nothing about the price of cask, except that it would be possible to manipulate it to a level that would keep Cloudwater interested – if only we had a mind-control ray.

But there are no mind-control rays, and the market is brutal. Once a price-range is established – even if it’s only established in Stockport, or in Chorlton – then it’s properly established; it’s hammered home in people’s minds with every purchase that they make. The price for a commodity may not be a rational reflection of the labour and materials that have gone into it, but (in the immortal words of Keynes) “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” Try selling against the market – for instance, by insisting that your cask beer simply has to go at £6 a pint (£4 in Stockport) – and you’ll find out how true that is.

The only way to peg prices permanently, short of government control, is by establishing a cartel; unfortunately this is illegal. Where there’s a relatively small number of suppliers and nobody has an overriding interest in undercutting the others, something cartel-like can develop informally – and if nobody is letting their keg IPA go out below £5 a pint, it doesn’t matter (to the drinker) whether this is being managed formally or not. Perhaps brewers have managed to hold the line on a higher price range for craft keg, in part by appealing to novelty and the ‘reassuringly expensive’ snob factor; I suspect we’re still in the phoney war on that front. But even if craft keg prices are permanently pegged in the £5+ range (£3+ in Stockport), that says nothing about what can be done with cask prices, or how it can be done – not least because there are so many more players in the cask field.

5. People need to start paying more for cask.

I object to this on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes no sense: starting to pay more for cask – more than the price it’s currently on sale at – isn’t something I can choose to do. I’ll certainly pay more for cask when I start being charged higher prices across the board – as I have done many times before – but that’s not really a choice either. Secondly, it implies that spending more money is an easy and neutral choice, which for most people is far from being the case. My current income makes the choice between a £3 and £4 pint painless, but I’m in the top 20% of the national income distribution. I know what it’s like to budget for a couple of pints at the weekend – and, I’d suggest, a lot more people have that experience than don’t. Thirdly, it’s economically irrational: how often do you make a purchase – of any kind – and think “I wish I was paying a bit more“? Unless you’re making a charitable donation or paying a “solidarity price”, the point of paying money for goods is to pay as little as possible. (Some high-end goods manage to peg their prices high, associating price with quality, but even in that context nobody wants to pay more than they have to. You may pay £700 for an iPhone instead of £50 for an HTC, but you won’t pay the Apple Store £705 if John Lewis have got them for £695. And you may pay £2.50 for a third of Un-Human Cannonball, but you won’t be happy to pay £3 if the bar down the road has it on for £2.40.)

So if you’re saying “people need to start paying more for cask”, you’re asking people in general to do something impossible, which might cause them hardship if it were possible, and which in any case goes against everyday economic rationality. But there’s an even bigger question, which is: why? Suppose I launch It’s Wicca, Man!, a line of refreshingly frothy pagan-friendly ales, with the unique selling point that every cask that leaves my garagepremises has been individually blessed by a qualified Wiccan. (We’ll handwave the question of what makes a qualified Wiccan. That’s probably what they do anyway.) Then suppose that, shortly before the launch, I have a falling-out with the Wiccan down the road, and it turns out that the nearest alternative qualified Wiccan lives in Holyhead and has a sickly rabbit which she refuses to leave for longer than a day. Now I’ve got worries – and they’re money worries. I’m starting small, so I’m only shipping out one cask at a time – and every one carries the additional overhead of paying my Wiccan friend’s travel costs from Holyhead to Manchester and back. I’m going to go broke in short order, unless I can persuade stockists to pay quite a bit more for each cask – either that or just lie about the Wiccan thing, but the Goddess really wouldn’t like that.

The point here is that nobody, in this rather far-fetched story, is stopping me making cask beer – not even the Goddess. What I can’t do is make cask beer in precisely the way I want to. Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that I should be able to make cask beer in precisely the way I want to, and that this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer, and that the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. Not because they’re evil or selfish or brainwashed, but because that’s how selling stuff in a free market, and the rationality the market is based on, work. (Approaching a smaller number of punters directly – through crowdfunding or some kind of share issue – could work; I wish Dave all the luck in the world and look forward to his announcement. But that’s by the way; the point here is that there isn’t a viable route through “voluntarily pay more for cask”.)

I’ll speed up for the last few points.

6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.

Given that telling people that they need to pay more for cask is pointless and worse – as we’ve just established – telling them on social media really can’t help. But telling people anything on social media is highly unlikely to help. It’s a tiny, self-selecting coterie; we only disagree so bitterly about trivial things because we share the same outlook about so much.

7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…

CAMRA does recognise the importance of beer quality; the days when all the organisation cared about was getting one more handpump in one more pub are gone, if they ever existed.

8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…

CAMRA doesn’t agitate for cheap beer. The idea that CAMRA has somehow driven down the price of cask beer is really widespread – at least in the CAMRA Critics’ Corner of my own social media coterie – but I don’t know where it came from. I can only assume it’s a kind of reverse association – CAMRA = real ale = not keg = not expensive. By the same logic you could accuse CAMRA of promoting the spread of nonic glasses.

9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

Won’t happen. CAMRA represents drinkers, not producers; if push comes to shove, it represents the interests of drinkers, not producers. And it’s not in the interest of drinkers to have less money in their pocket. CAMRA can – and does – advocate on behalf of good, interesting, well-produced cask beer, and very little of that beer will be available at bargain-basement prices. But explicitly pushing higher prices just isn’t going to happen.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t want to overstate point 3; I don’t think this is a complete non-problem. Clearly, Cloudwater aren’t the only brewery finding it hard to make cask pay. But I do want to stress point 5: if the price peg has been hammered in too low for some (or many) brewers, moving it upwards will take a lot more than exhorting punters to pay more (or exhorting CAMRA to exhort them). Market forces put it where it is, and it’ll be market forces that move it. Ultimately, I’m afraid that what’s going on now is simply that there are too many breweries, and we’re seeing the downward pressure on prices that predictably follows a glut in supply. (As a result we’ve already said goodbye to Waen and Quantum – although thankfully both the brewers involved are going to carry on brewing.) Here’s hoping that, across the industry, the innovators can survive – with a tactical retreat from cask if necessary – and it’s the corner-cutters and back-of-a-lorry merchants who go under.

Above the treeline

NEWS IN SHORT with apologies to M. L.

Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene was rocked to its foundations today by a shock announcement from local stalwarts Bongwater. According to Bongwater CEO Gavin Awesum-Straighte, the company’s groundbreaking leading-edge ‘beer’ strategy is no longer viable. Going forward into 2017 and beyond, Bongwater now dismiss ‘beer’ as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” and say their aspirations lie elsewhere. “Our paradigm-shifting bleeding-edge combination of relentless innovation, technical perfection at all costs, great big shiny steel fermentation… fermenterator… fermenty things and what was the third thing? Oh, right, that was the third thing. No, what was the fourth thing? Oh, yeah, money. So the innovation, the technical perfection, the fermenterers and stuff and the fourth thing which was no don’t tell me I can get this the fourth thing which was of course… money. Yes, lots and lots of money. Lovely money. So yeah, anyway, we’ve got the innovation and we’ve got the technical perfection, which you’ve got to admit is cool, and we’ve got the… shiny things… But the money is kind of – yeah. That’s basically the problem area.”

“So where do we go now?” asked Awesum-Straighte rhetorically. “What do we do? How do we carry on? Can we carry on? And if so, how? What do we do? Where do we go? Are there any questions? And if so, are there any answers? I’m glad you asked me that. The answer is – well, it was right in front of us all the time. The answer is ‘beer’. We’ve spent lots and lots of money making ‘beer’, and we thought that we were going to make lots and lots of money making ‘beer’ – I mean, that seems fair, doesn’t it? Anyway – looks like it’s not going to happen. So, what do we do? The answer, again, is ‘beer’. We’re fed up with it. Relentless innovation, technical perfection, big shiny… shiny things, and what good does it do us? I’ll tell you what good it does us, it does us no good at all.”

“So we’re getting out of ‘beer’. You want ‘beer’, you go to Granite, you go to Bakewell Brewery, you go to Medlock Ales if you really want to. We’re taking our relentless innovation and our technical perfection to customers who will appreciate us. Going henceforward, Bongwater are going to be Manchester’s foremost suppliers of selected strains of marijuana for personal medicinal use. It’s new, it’s innovative, it’s technically perfect, it’s new and best of all it’s totally legal. Well, it is in some of the cooler parts of America, and that’s really where we take our lead from these days.”

“Looking into 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022…” Awesum-Straighte said, before being nudged by a colleague and starting again. “Sorry, where was I? Looking into 2017, looking into 2018 and looking into the heart of the Very Future Itself…” The meeting was then adjourned to enable Awesum-Straighte and his colleague to stop giggling and send someone out for some brownies or maybe a Mars bar, no, wait, two Mars bars. Each – I mean, obviously. Cool.

Reaction to the news has been mixed. “This is a shock announcement that will rock Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene to its foundations,” said one ‘beer’ somel sommell somnambu expert, adding “Whichever way you look at it, it’s got to be bad news for CAMRA.” “It’s definitely bad news for CAMRA,” said another beer communicator, before shaking his head and adding, “I mean, obviously.” A dissenting opinion came from Derek Spikey (Medlock Ales). “Marijuana? They’ll never make it work. Naah, you want to check out my new line of artisan traditional-styled crystal meth. I tell you, it’s good gear – not that you’ll ever hear that from CAMRA!”

 

Stocport and elsewhere

This is another Winter Warmer Wander roundup, covering pubs I’ve visited (a) in Stockport (six of them) and (b) elsewhere (another five). (NB I know about the misspelling.)

There’s a lot of pub-crawl potential in this year’s WWW, but only in Manchester and Stockport; elsewhere the pickings are a bit slim. In Chorlton, which you would have thought fairly target-rich, only one pub is listed: the Sedge Lynn (JDW). Here I had a choice between Phoenix Wobbly Bob – a perennial presence at the Sedge Lynn – and Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter would qualify – or what style it actually is – but a quick google while I was waiting to be served satisfied me that Ratebeer, at least, call it a porter, so that’s what I ordered. I’d reckoned without the manager, who intervened – midway through the predictable hunt for the sticker sheet – to tell her staff (and me) that Brodie’s Prime didn’t count for the WWW. Not feeling entirely sure on the style point, I said something about strength, to which she replied “Yes, it’s got to be 5% or over”. We got it sorted out in the end – at least, I let her know that the cutoff was 4.5% and I duly got a sticker – but things were surprisingly combative for a while there. I guess the Sedge Lynn doesn’t feel any need to drum up custom.

There were three pubs on the Fallowfield/Didsbury route, but you wouldn’t want to walk between them. Down at Parrs Wood, the Gateway was serving Stockport Ebeernezer, which looked like the most interesting option of two or three beers that qualified on strength only; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a vaguely Christmassy dark ale but a porter. Up the (tram) line at Wine and Wallop, there were a couple of good options and one excellent one: RedWillow Thoughtless, a 9.4% imperial stout, which (predictably) was very nice indeed. More cask stout at the Friendship in Fallowfield, and a bit of local brewery news (news to me at least): as well as the Beer Studio range, a couple of the Hyde’s pumps were dispensing beers under the “Provenance” label. I may be doing Hyde’s a disservice, but if this means anything it seems to mean “in the style of beers from region X”, which is more or less the opposite of what the word ‘provenance’ generally means. Anyway, my Hyde’s Dublin stout was a nice enough beer – a light-bodied, dryish, easy-drinking stout.

Then there was Urmston. Earlier in the WWW, the Prairie Schooner had had a Winter Warmer from Ticketybrew on, but sadly this had gone by the time I got there. Tatton Yeti only really qualified on strength, but it was a very nice beer. I didn’t go anywhere else in Urmston – the Hop House already had the shutters down – and it was a bit of an excursion for the sake of a half. I liked the look of the Prairie Schooner a great deal, though; at first blush it looks like a small bar/bottle shop of the Heaton Hops ilk, but there’s a more comfortable seating area behind the bar, going back quite a long way. Like the Sip Club in Stretford, it’s one of those places I shall be sure to visit the next time I’m visiting that part of Manchester; unfortunately, like Stretford, Urmston is a part of Manchester I hardly ever do visit. Speaking of Stretford, I got accent-checked by the driver of the bus I got home – Sorry, where? “Chorlton”. Oh, right, Chorlton! (Twenty minutes from here, mate. Also, printed on your timetable.) Admittedly I am a Southerner by origin, but that hasn’t happened to me in thirty years. But then, I don’t go west of the A56 that often.

As for Stockport, I saved it this year till I only had six slots left to fill & could do it in a day. (If six sounds unambitious, read on – & note the a.b.v.s.) Coincidentally my local CAMRA branch had a Stockport crawl planned; I was hoping to join it, but on the day we had something else booked. So it was as a solo drinker that I hit town and went straight to the Swan with Two Necks for a half of – inevitably – Robinson’s Old Tom. It was on hand pump, it was in good nick, it was big, malty and 8.5%, and by the time the bartender had got round to signing my sheet it was almost all gone. Shame – that snug looked very comfortable. From there I headed to the (Portwood) Railway, where I’d ordered a half of Rossendale Pitch Porter – an old friend – before noticing that the Phoenix pump was dispensing a 7% beer called Humbug. (The Rossendale beers have had a redesign, incidentally, and look rather good. They’re also insanely cheap if my half was anything to go by (£1.25!) – although this may just be the Railway, and/or my Chorlton expectations colliding with Stockport.) Anyway, I can report that Phoenix Humbug is terrific – a pale barley wine, sweet all the way down but without ever becoming cloying. My second ‘old ale’ of the Wander, and one to put alongside Old Tom.

Back to town then, where the Baker’s Vaults presented me with a similar multiple-qualifer challenge: Old Tom or Titanic Plum Porter Special Reserve? Well, Old Tom obviously, but I was curious enough about the PPSR to ask for a taster. (It was fine.) Then a couple of new venues, at least to me. The Remedy Bar and Brewhouse is every bit as ‘craft’ as that sounds – bare brick, railway-sleeper benches, big steel vessels, that style of thing. On the bar I couldn’t see any of their own stuff, but they did have a (I’m sighing as I type this) Bad Seed/Trembling Madness collab called Descent into Madness. It was a 7% imperial stout and it was fine. On to the Petersgate Tap; also a very un-pub-like venue, but considerably less rock’n’roll and more cafe-bar, as compared to Remedy, and a lot more to my taste. There was a choice here: Elland 1872 or Liverpool Organic Kitty Wilkinson stout. I’m a confirmed fan of the Elland, but it is 6.5%, and by this stage I fancied easing off a bit. So Kitty it was (4.5% chocolate & vanilla stout, well kept, very drinkable).

On past WWW Stockport trips I’ve finished up at the Crown, but on my last couple of visits I’ve found it hard – despite the huge range of beer they offer – to find one that really called to me. This time I headed to the Magnet. Cryptic Round One stout was 4.9% and fine (I know, but you try remembering what the beer actually tasted like at the back end of a session like this). I finished off with a half of evil keg. RedWillow, like Marble, seem to have got a bit of a new lease of life recently; the Perceptionless “New England IPA” was terrific (and not particularly hazy, for what that’s worth).

Counting one beer per venue (in other words, not counting the Pitch Porter) and adding in the details from the previous post, that stacks up as follows:

Central Manchester and Salford
Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2
No qualifying beers: 1

Stockport
Stout: 3
Porter: 0
Old ale: 3

Everywhere else
Stout: 2
Porter: 2
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 1

Total
Stout: 10
Porter: 7
Old ale: 3
Other >4.5%: 3 (Prairie Schooner, Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

Compared to previous years, cask porter has held very steady, and cask stout has grown and grown – if there’s one tangible success the WWW can point to, it’s that. Old ales, barley wines and winter warmers, though – where are they? Setting aside Robinson’s and Phoenix – both of whom, interestingly, brew a strong ale all year round – the breweries just didn’t seem to be trying this year. On the bright side, the number of pubs not actually putting the right kind of beers on – either not understanding the point of the Wander or just not bothering – has fallen dramatically; as recently as 2014 there were almost as many strength-only beers on my list as the rest put together. Overall, this year’s Wander has to be counted as a success; congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

Maximum darkness

Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander.  The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.

I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.

Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:

What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?

It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)

Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)

Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)

eggsDown on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.

Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.

That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).

And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.

Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)

Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:

Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.

Blue velveteen again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O dark, dark, dark

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

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

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

Here are my notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in judging order,

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

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

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