Back to 78

This is an interesting thread from Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau:

Interesting – and informative (read the whole thread) – but, sadly, wrong.

The interesting part first: yes, moving from wooden to metal casks meant that secondary fermentation happened – or didn’t happen – in different ways. I’m not sure what Steve means by ‘micro-oxidation’, but I’d agree that the natural porosity of wood is likely to lead to (what we’d view as) undesirable loss of condition (i.e. beer going flat), while beer that was in a wooden cask for any length of time would be likely to pick up flavours from the wood itself (and/or from the pitch used to caulk the barrels(?)*). There’s also Brettanomyces, the proverbial English Disease**, which flourishes in the less-than-sterile environment of a repeatedly-used wooden cask*. Most beer – at least in 19th- and 20th-century conditions – was ‘running beer’*, which wouldn’t spend a lot of time in cask, but the difference in a ‘stock’ beer like a porter or Burton* would be quite pronounced.

The question then is whether anyone moaning about ‘kegging’ should either (a) insist on getting their beer from the wood or (b) shut up. I say No, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

Whose keg is it anyway?

Take the same, conditioning, beer, put one lot in a steel cask and the other lot inna bag inna box, and wait. Very similar stuff is going to happen to both lots of beer (although the bag inna box may be a bit of a bugger to vent). Slightly different things will happen once you start tapping the two containers, but the main difference will be the lack of oxidation in the beer inna bag inna box. Anyone who objects to every single manifestation of kegging – including unfiltered beer being packaged inna bag inna box and conditioning in very much the same way as beer in cask, but oxidating (if that’s a word) more slowly – is letting their taste in beer be ruled by an objection to the word ‘keg’, which is a bit daft.

That said, you can object to keg because you don’t like beer being filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated (as, indeed, who does?). Admittedly, this objection doesn’t catch quite a lot of what’s done nowadays under the name of ‘keg’, but it’s still a valid position. Or you can object to the “filtering and serving under gas” part of conventional kegging; or you may not like your beer chilled (which in itself doesn’t have much bearing on whether a beer’s in keg or not*, but does tend to go along with kegging). Or – and this is the nearest I personally come to an ‘anti-keg’ position – you may have no principled objection to beer being filtered and CO2’d (or even chilled), in and of itself, but believe that beer which can be cask-conditioned (and traditionally has been) is probably going to be better if it continues to be.

So, someone who tells you they don’t like “keg” may be saying that they believe (or affect to believe) that putting beer inna bag inna box immediately turns it to bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel; or they may be saying that they’ll drink pretty much anything apart from b. W.’s R. B. or its modern equivalent; or they may have one of a number of positions in between, including my own (irrefutably correct) position of drinking interesting beers in keg when they’re on keg, but preferring the same beers on cask*** when they’re available. It follows that some people who moan about kegging are ignorant, obtuse stick-in-the-muds, but not all; I myself, for instance, am open-minded, erudite and thoroughly sophistimacated.

One of its legs is both alike

But let’s say that there are people going around being ignorantly prejudiced against any beer in a keg, up to and including unfiltered beer inna bag inna box. (Incidentally, I have seen “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” labels on keg taps, but only twice in the last four years; I guess it’s not much of a selling point. Presumably the CAMRA members don’t believe it and the craft keg drinkers don’t care.) The question then is whether wood to metal is the same kind of change as cask to keg – or rather, whether it’s a change of the same kind and similar magnitude. (“How can you object to us building a housing estate in this National Park? You didn’t mind when it was one house!”)

Steve argues that, as compared with beer from a wooden cask, beer from metal is fizzier and “a much cleaner, almost filtered product”. On the specific issue of losing condition, the difference between wood and metal clearly is the same kind of difference as the difference between metal and beer inna bag inna box. (That said, I doubt that the first difference – between oxidation plus loss of condition via the wood and oxidation alone – is of the same magnitude as the second one – oxidation vs no oxidation – or anywhere near.) I have more problems with “almost filtered”: in terms of active yeast in suspension*, surely a beer’s either filtered or it’s not. Surely it’s a coincidence – at best – if the effect of putting an unfiltered beer in metal seems ‘almost’ the same as that of filtering it; unfiltered beer is still, well, unfiltered. It’s certainly unlikely to be a change of the same magnitude.

You’re a fine one (just like me)

But let’s put all this logic-chopping aside. Steve’s right about the effect on beer of keeping it in wood, as compared to the effect of keeping it in metal; let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the effect of kegging is just “more of the same”, another step down the same road. Beer in the wood, ‘woody’, Bretty and flat; beer in metal, clean, consistent and sparkling; keg beer, more clean, consistent and sparkling. Does this leave keg objectors without a leg to stand on, unless they go the whole hog and enrol in the SPBW?

I don’t believe so. It’s a common tactic, when you’re pushing a conservationist line of some sort, to reduce a complex history**** to a black-and-white choice: to claim that the thing you’re trying to protect or preserve is utterly unspoilt and pristine, and that the development you’re resisting would ruin it forever. It’s a common tactic, and it’s almost always poorly-founded: very few things in the world are unspoilt and pristine. Beer and pubs certainly aren’t, and to all intents and purposes never have been. Even if you were to take the view that we should go back to a time nobody alive now remembers – before the First World War, when Lloyd George ruined everything – you’d be effectively disregarding several hundred years of history, during which a lot of things changed (even in brewing).

So it’s certainly not the case that everything was great before kegging came on the scene, or that nothing had changed up to then. However, the fact that nothing (in the world of beer) is pristine and unchanged doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth preserving – or that there are no changes worth resisting. This becomes clearer if we assume, not only that “wood to metal” and “metal to keg” are the same kind of change, but that they’re both bad changes. If you assume that going to metal casks made the beer worse, and that going to keg makes it worse again, Steve’s argument becomes “why are you objecting to something that’s deteriorated twice when you accept something that’s deteriorated once?”. It’s a good argument for beer from the wood, but as an argument for kegging it lacks something – it’s a bit like saying “how can you say I’d be better off not being neck-deep in water, when you’re knee-deep yourself?”

In short, Steve’s argument only really works if you assume that going from wood to metal wasn’t a bad thing, and that going from metal casks to kegging wasn’t a bad thing – but if you already believe both of these, you don’t need the argument.

(Interesting stuff about beer from the wood, though. Me, I’m a child of the 70s, so it’s unfiltered beer from a metal cask for me, for preference – but, as ever, there’s plenty of good stuff that doesn’t fit that description.)

*All corrections welcome. I’m very hazy (ironically) on the history and even more hazy on the technicalities of brewing & keeping beer.
**Brett has never been referred to as the English Disease, AFAIK, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.
***In my experience, Blackjack Devilfish Saison and Marble Earl Grey IPA are, in fact, better on keg. Everything else where I’ve had a chance to compare, the cask wins.
****All histories are complex.


Say goodbye

I recently bought some beers from my personal favourite brewery, TicketyBrew.

What’s wrong with that statement? As we know, TicketyBrew closed down in early to mid-2018 (May? June?). There was no announcement, so I didn’t get the news till a couple of months later. After that I bought their beers whenever I saw them in shops (which, by that time, didn’t happen very often), and laid in stocks of the three greats – the Pale, the Dubbel and the Blonde – from an online beer merchant which still had a few bottles.

I worked my way through those over the next couple of months, and didn’t think much more about it. It was only the other day – on noticing Grimbergen Blonde, which never fails to remind me how much better TicketyBrew Blonde iswas – that it occurred to me to wonder if any other beer merchant still had any bottles in stock.

And so it came to pass. Sadly, the beers Flavourly had in stock (and still have, at the time of writing) don’t include all the ones I would have liked to stock up on, but the fact that they’ve got any of them, seven or eight months down the line, is worth celebrating.

Drinking them is an odd experience, though. There’s a distinct Mary Celeste quality about TicketyBrew’s closure – this post about their exciting new label designs dates from June 25th this year, by which point I suspect the brewery had already closed; certainly some of the new labels never seem to have made it into production. The impression is strengthened by some of the label copy on the bottles I bought, as we’ll see.

The Dubbel seems to have had a redesign (see previous link), but the bottle I bought came with the old-style label (black lettering on single-colour background with no spot colour, label copy reads “THE TICKETYBREW COMPANY”). As soon as I started to ease the crown cork there was a loud hiss and a thick collar of foam formed in the bottle; some careful work with the bottle-opener was required to avoid any gushing. Once open, it all went into a 355 ml glass without any fuss, though. As for what it’s like, it’s a beautiful beer. It opens with red-berry jamminess backed by malt loaf; at 6.5%, there’s no alcohol burn to speak of, just a pleasant density and warmth. There’s bitterness on the finish, but it’s smooth and unassertive, more like dark chocolate than coffee and perhaps even more like high-cocoa milk chocolate. It’s a really good dubbel, and I hope the world hasn’t seen the last of it. (I know I haven’t, as I bought several bottles, which are stamped BBE Feb 2020.)

Carrying on down the strength scale, the Black IPA – also with the old-style label – comes in at 6.1%, and I’d class it as good rather than great. I drank another black IPA earlier the same evening for comparison, and this one was certainly the better of the two; it just didn’t set off the piney fireworks that I remember from some black IPAs, back when they were new and some were referring to them as “Cascadian dark ales”. What you get is something like a best bitter, but with a smoky, tobacco-like edge, which builds to a charcoal bitterness and an overpowering ‘roasty’ finish; lots of bitterness, then, or different bitternesses. It is good and it is interesting, but it doesn’t score high enough on either count to make me want to bag the remaining stock. (BBE Jan 2019, so if it does appeal to you, the clock is ticking.)

Both Viva La Stalyvegas and Gertcha! are in the new livery, with spot colour (although, oddly, the VLS label has an amorphous blob of colour where publicity photos suggested the number 9 should be); both are listed as being in the ‘Staly Series’, complete with collect-the-set “Stalyfacts” (##1 and 3 respectively; I assume #2 was on the bottles for the US-hopped Yanks for the Memories, which coincidentally was the last cask Ticketybrew beer I ever drank). My VLS, like a lot of TicketyBrew bottles, was on the fizzy side of well-conditioned, but a careful pour into an oversized glass was all that was needed. It’s a 6% IPA and it’s terrific. Citra, Rakau and Ekuanot hops give a complex fruitiness, dominated by grapefruit – particularly on the long aftertaste – but with a distinct pineapple-ish sweetness in the mouth. Interestingly, the label says the beer was based on the Summer IPA, which was made with added pineapple and mango. I was positive about that beer when I reviewed it last year, but noted “I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt”. I guess Viva La Stalyvegas is that IPA. If you like fruit-salad IPAs that don’t compromise on bitterness – and why wouldn’t you? – this is a fine example. (The BBE date for this, and for all the remaining three beers, was Feb 2019.)

The new label system included two-tone labels for short-run beers; one such is the Pink IPA, labelled in two rather fetching shades of pink. The label copy announces that this was the second in TicketyBrew’s “rainbow series of IPAs for 2018”; second and last, sadly. It’s a 6% IPA, like Viva La Stalyvegas; unlike VLS, it was made with fruit additions – strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus, in fact. It’s not pink to look at, though, or particularly fruity to taste. Initially it tastes like a pale ale, albeit with a faint raspberry overtone; something else rapidly takes over, though, and the flavour is dominated by a rather overpowering bitter finish. Being bottle-conditioned (as all these beers are) and close to its BBE date (as most of them are), I wonder if it had dried out since it was fresh. For whatever reason, I didn’t think this one was a success.

The aforementioned Gertcha!, its label featuring a large spot-colour number 11, is a 4% pale ale, and as such falls foul of my scepticism about putting 4%ers – or anything much under 6% – in a 330 ml bottle. The label copy retrospectively sounds a particularly sad, Mary Celeste-ish note:

This is a pale ale which showcases two different hops each month, utilising the hop back. Just check on the Web site to see which hops are in your bottle!

Needless to say, that URL won’t get you anywhere now. So I’ve no idea which two hops were featured in the bottle I’ve drunk, but the end result was perfectly pleasant. Like VLS, it’s very much in the grapefruit zone, but with a simpler and more straightforward flavour and a lighter texture to go with it. More of a sessioner, I guess, although that brings us back to the vexed question of bottle size. (Stalyfact #3, in case you’re wondering, is the fact – or rumour – that the Courage advert based on Chas and Dave’s song “Gertcha!” was filmed in Stalybridge Buffet Bar, standing in for an East End boozer of old. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating thought.)

Lastly, Mocha Mild (a short-run beer, also in a two-tone label) is a bit of an oddity. This is another beer with additions: coffee, cocoa nibs and lactose. Uniquely (in my experience, at least), what these sweet coffee and chocolate flavours have to contend with isn’t the depth of an imperial stout or the weight of a porter, but a thin-textured, 3.9% dark mild. The oddest thing of all is how well it works: it doesn’t put you in mind of an Irish coffee so much as a mochaccino, but that’s no bad thing. The beer underneath isn’t swamped as you might expect, but works harmoniously with the additions; as well as giving you a blast of coffee and milk chocolate, they effectively tweak the flavour profile of a dark mild in that direction (and away from the more familiar malt loaf area). I’ve never had a coffee mild before, and I hope this one won’t be my last – although it may well be my last Mocha Mild.

So, farewell then (again), TicketyBrew! Although even this isn’t likely to be my very last look at their beers; as well as a small stash of Dubbels, I’ve held back one each of the Blonde and the Pale, for drinking when the Dubbels are finally down to the last one. (Also, at the time of writing the beer merchant I mentioned has 20+ bottles of all of these beers except for the Mocha Mild, so I might just restock.) As the man said, How can I leave you when you won’t go away?



Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s “Winter Warmer Wander” is often celebrated as a means of encouraging people to go to pubs they wouldn’t usually go to. That’s fine as far as it goes. But in my experience, it also encourages people (e.g. me) to go to pubs where they wouldn’t usually stay, which is a bit different.

Consider a few pubs I’ve visited recently (well, today).

PUB 1 is pleasantly busy, with a hum of background chat from what seems to be a group of regulars. However, the regulars are all in the back bar, and I’m in the front bar – which is empty apart from me and two men who came in shortly after me. One of them exhibits an admirable level of trust in his friend, opening up to him about past and future medical procedures in a way which does both of them credit. Unfortunately he has quite a loud voice – and the front bar is really very quiet.

PUB 2 is a Wetherspoon’s, and it’s rammed. (As, I suspect, it will be from here to Christmas.) I find a seat with some difficulty. Behind me and to the right is a large group – two families or possibly three – having lunch; at least, the adults are having lunch. One of the children has recently been introduced to the concept of the “high five” and is keen to gain practice in using this gesture in a social setting. Over the background noise of conversation I can hear:

“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”

It continues.

After a while one of the adults decides to introduce a bit of variety by making a game of it, presumably involving ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ gestures. The result is slower-paced and more varied, but just as relentless; now I can hear

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

and so on.

And on.

PUB 3, to be fair, was fine, and PUB 5 was a delight.

PUB 4, though… PUB 4 has a small front-of-bar area and two back rooms, one reserved for gigs and the other full of people – as indeed is the front-of-bar area. Waiting at the bar, I realise that the three people ranged along it in front of me are not in fact three strangers but a group; a moment later I realise that they are not standing waiting to be served but have installed themselves on bar stools. Although they are a group – making me feel as if I’m invading their space when I move between two of them to look at the beer pumps – they have positioned their stools so as to keep a respectful distance from one another, and are consequently taking up most of the length of the bar. I find a space at the other end of the bar and wait while they get served. They have ordered three pints, plus three pints of tap water; they are clearly settling in for the long haul. I order my half of Winter Warmer-fuel, get served, pay, ask for the obligatory sticker, etc, and glance round to see how the bar-hogging trio are getting on. All three of them are sitting in complete silence, pints untouched, staring at their phones.

I go in search of somewhere else to sit down. As well as the main rooms, I remember coming to PUB 4 once before and spending a pleasant quarter of an hour in an upstairs room (with a beer and something to read, let’s be clear) – a memory which was only slightly marred by the fact that I slipped on the stairs afterwards and sat down rather hard. I negotiate the stairs but find that the upstairs rooms are locked; in fact they appear to have been converted for staff use. I head back down, half-pint in hand. On the last step, just as I congratulate myself on making it down the stairs unjinxed by past bad luck, I step down and realise that I was actually standing on the last step but one; I keep my footing but land very hard, splashing the wall liberally with beer. I decide to find an unoccupied patch of bar and finish my drink before anything else can happen. Finishing my beer, I feel that a swift exit is in order; I tip the last mouthful of beer into my mouth, put the glass down, turn and head for the door, planning to swallow the last of my beer as I’m walking out of the door (it’s called multi-tasking). Unfortunately some beer has gone down the wrong way and I cough explosively just before I reach the door, spraying a table of drinkers. I mutter an apology and make an even swifter exit than I had planned.

Would I have stopped for a drink in PUB 1, 2 or 4, if I hadn’t been in search of Winter Warmer Wander stickers? I think not. (PUB 4 didn’t even have a stout or porter on, let alone an old ale.) Would any of them have missed my custom? PUB 1 maybe; the other two, definitely not. (I couldn’t find anywhere to sit in PUB 3 either; even the deceptively spacious PUB 5 was pleasantly busy.) As I’ve said before, considering that part of the point of ‘trails’ like the Winter Warmer is to spread the custom around by sending people to different pubs, it seems odd that we do this one in the run-up to Christmas, a time when a recurring complaint about the pubs we go in is that they’re too full.

That was certainly my main complaint today – and I know from experience that PUB 4 and even PUB 2 can be perfectly delightful places to spend some time, when the crowds aren’t out. Some people like busy pubs, admittedly – but does anyone really enjoy dropping in on a busy pub?

How much is that pint on the menu?

A brief note about a curious experience we had in Manchester the other day.

The other half & I were in the market for a meal before going to the cinema, and decided to aim a bit higher than Spoons. (I won’t name the place we went to, but it was – as the ads used to say – Five Minutes From This Cinema, ‘this’ being the OdeonVue in the Printworks.)

The meal, although not fancy, was very nice indeed – it’s good to be reminded sometimes what a hamburger tastes like when it’s been made from scratch. What it wasn’t was lavish; the burgers, while perfectly adequate, were on the small side of large, and my wife’s salad had been portion-controlled to within an inch of its life. My chips were served in one of those odd metal canisters (a small vase? an ornamental tin can?), which appeared to have been quite generously filled; on inspection, however, the chips were sitting in a small greaseproof paper bag which was perched in the neck of the canister, the bottom half of which was completely empty. It was fine – I didn’t go hungry, and the quality of the food was excellent – but it did give the impression that they were trying to make a little go a long way.

As for beer, the drinks menu had several bottles and cans in the £3-£5 range, including a couple from small brewers. I fancied something bigger than 330 ml, though, so I looked at the ‘draught’ section – and was surprised to see that ‘craft ales’ [sic] were on offer. Getting our waitress to tell us what they actually were took several questions (on my part) and a bit of running back and forth (on hers), but eventually I was served with a pint of RedWillow Faithless – presumably the latest (#91), as it was a hoppy bitter. Rather to my surprise, it was on cask; it was in good nick, too, and went well with the meal.

At the end of the meal we were in a hurry to get to the pictures, so didn’t worry too much about the bill; the total sounded about right, so we paid up and scarpered. The curious experience came later, when we got the bill out to check what we’d paid for what. For my beer – a pint of a high-quality short-run beer from a well-respected local brewer, on cask, in a restaurant – I’d paid £3.85. £3.85! You could pay more than that over the bar in Chorlton; come to that, you could pay more than that for a bottle of lager in Nando’s or Pizza Express. And this in a restaurant which clearly had a policy of not leaving any money on the table (or on the plate) as far as food was concerned.

I’m not saying that £3.85 is cheap in pub prices, let alone that it’s too cheap. But £3.85 in a restaurant – and a restaurant that wasn’t giving anything away otherwise – for a quality beer like that…! I can only imagine that the restaurant’s paying a correspondingly low rate to the supplier – and I can only imagine that they’re doing that because of a perception that cask beer has to be sold cheap or not at all.

I’m all in favour of a £4 ceiling, and of keeping beer affordable generally. But there are bound to be exceptions, and I think the kind of restaurant where a burger costs a tenner could legitimately be one of them. The fact that, in this case, it wasn’t an exception – although they did feel free to charge ‘restaurant’ prices for beer in cans – makes me wonder if some of our campaigning on behalf of cask has been too successful, or if it’s succeeded in the wrong way.

Palely loitering

A couple of recent pub experiences have set me wondering about the health of the ‘craft’ scene.

One weekday prevening, I stuck my head in a bar nearby for a Swift Half On The Way Home. A Swift Half, etc. – not to be confused with the end-of-evening Half Of Something Silly – is for when you want to get a drink down and be on your way (home); hence a half rather than a pint. As you are just stopping for the one half, it needs to be strong-ish, and preferably have a reasonably definite flavour; you don’t want a beer so light that you end up necking it and looking for the other half. Where the typical Half Of Something Silly would be an imperial stout or a barley wine at silly%, the ideal Swift Half would be a bitter or a porter between (say) 4.8% and 6.8%.

But you can’t always get what you want, and on this occasion the bar in question came up short. Across four cask and three keg taps, they were serving a barrel-aged imperial stout, a blonde, a session IPA – and four separate pale beers, two of them showcasing the same hop. Mostly they were light in strength terms as well: apart from the stout (which had Half Of Something Silly written all over it) only one of the seven cracked the 4.5% mark. I appreciate that you’ve got to stock what sells, and maybe that is what the beer-drinking public around here is crying out for. Seems a shame not to have a bit more variety, though, in strength as well as style.

In another bar last night I had two beers which, on the face of it, couldn’t have been more different – a plain old straight up and down IPA from Tiny Rebel and a collab between Wild and Fuller’s. The latter was listed on the blackboard as a ‘Somerset pale’, but the pump clip told a different story: it was a grisette. Or rather, a green-hopped grisette. Specifically, an oak-aged green-hopped grisette.

What were they like? They were fine. Or rather – let’s not damn with faint praise – they were both good, complex, interesting beers, which I’d be happy to order again. If I’ve got anything to moan about here, it isn’t quality. But, while I’ve only had one grisette before, that one tasted a lot more like what the style sounds like. If you take a grisette and deliver it straight, I suspect you’ll end up with a bit of a niche product – but if you take a grisette and add the acrid zing of green hops, then age it on wood for body and mellowness (or maybe the other way round, I’m not a brewer), what you end up with is… well, a lot like a contemporary pale beer. Which is also more or less what you get if you take an IPA and soup it up [sic] with the East Coast of the USA in mind – fruit-salad hopping, creamy texture, minimal bitterness… I’m not saying both these beers arrived at the same destination, but they certainly wound up in different districts of Contemporary Pale City.

Where’s the innovation coming from – who’s producing something really different? (Pastry stouts? Fruit IPAs?) Alternatively, is innovation not what’s going to sell right now, in an increasingly competitive (i.e. cash-strapped) marketplace – is the dial going to stick on ‘pale’ now, just as it stuck on ‘brown bitter’ for all those years?


Some beers in

I’m a bit of a solitary drinker – particularly at home – and I like a bit of variety, even if it’s only alternating Landlord with Proper Job and Ghost Ship. So the only quantity I usually buy bottled beer in is 1. I have occasionally wondered what I’d offer a beer-drinking visitor – or rather, not what I’d offer them (I’d offer them a beer, quite clearly) but how I’d phrase the follow-up question: “What would you like, there’s a Boltmaker and a Harbour Pale and an ESB and an 1845 and a Champion, it is a bit strong that one, although you’re welcome if that’s what you fancy, or if you want a smaller beer there’s an Old Tom and a Duvel and a Guinness Foreign and… What am I having? No, you choose first, I really don’t mind…“. But I only ever seem to meet beer-drinking friends and acquaintances in pubs, so as yet the problem hasn’t arisen.

So I’ve never really “got some beers in”, or not until recently. My first multiple buy was around the beginning of the year, when I bought six bottles of Greene King‘s limited-edition bottle-conditioned Vintage Fine Ale after being rather impressed by the first bottle. This wasn’t a huge success, as I promptly went off it; too malty, too heavy, too much like beer with a cough-mixture depth charge (I imagine). That said, I’ve gradually worked my way through the batch since then & can report that it’s starting to dry out; by the time I get to the last bottle it should be pretty good.

More recently, there was the Aldi promotion which saw bottles of Holden’s XB, Felinfoel Dragon Heart and – in at least one store – Dark Star Hophead going cheap. I bought six of each – why wouldn’t you? Shortly after that we got the sad news about TicketyBrew, which naturally made me want to grab whatever beer of theirs I could still find; an online beer merchant obliged with six bottles each of the Pale and Blonde, and four of the Dubbel. The same retailer had a deal on Tynt Meadow – six for the price of five – so I went for some of those as well.

So for the time being I haven’t just got beers, I’ve got a stock of beers; I can get out a couple of beers, or have a beer and replace it with an identical example of the same beer. It’s a novelty. The main use I’ve made of it is to drink nothing but Hophead, at least as far as low-strength beers in large bottles goes; any time I fancy a pint of bitter, or the closest thing to it in a bottle, I’ve gone for the Hophead. It’s given me a distinct sense of what a pint of bitter tastes like: loose in texture, thin yet oddly oily or soapy; strongly aromatic, herbal (rosemary? sage?); a fresh-tasting attack, sharp but not sour enough to be citric; then a long, bitter finish, persisting almost long enough to be unpleasant, then fading away, leaving your mouth dry and ready for a repeat.

It’s a lovely, lovely beer – and it is, quite definitely, what bitter tastes like. Although I may feel differently when I’ve drunk nothing but XB for a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

UPDATE Three weeks and six bottles of XB later, I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is… hard to describe. It’s not a complex flavour as such, it’s just hard to pin down. What you taste to begin with isn’t sharp or citric, it’s not strongly bitter and it certainly isn’t aromatic – but I wouldn’t call it bland, either. It just tastes like beer – or rather, it feels like it tastes how beer ought to taste. Perhaps the texture is what’s most striking to begin with; it tastes heavy, like a much stronger beer. It’s not especially sweet, though; it certainly doesn’t taste ‘malty’ or have that slug of caramel you get with some stronger old-school beers. The finish is much easier to describe: it’s bitter, in a complex, lingering way; not tannic (yet another negative!) but herbal, medicinal, a clean-tasting contrast to that heavy start. It’s then that you really taste the sweetness of the beer, in an odd sort of front-of-mouth aftertaste. Like the Hophead, it’s very much a session beer – one mouthful sets you up for another – but in a very different way; I don’t know when I’ve drunk a pint (well, 500 ml) so quickly while being so unsure what it was I was tasting. Lovely stuff. Not like anything else (apart from Batham’s), but lovely stuff. Now for the Felinfoel…

UPDATE Another three weeks and six bottles down, and I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is, in fact, remarkably easy to describe. It tastes like beer – you know, beer, that brown stuff, puts hairs on your chest. Beer. Beer like it always was. When brown meant beer, and darker meant sweeter but also stronger… You wouldn’t say ‘fruity’ exactly, and ‘malt loaf’ isn’t quite what it is, but if you take granary bread on one hand and damsons or black cherries on the other, and aim for somewhere right in the middle, you’d be about right. It’s well-conditioned and lively, but it’s big – heavy-textured almost to the point of tasting thick. No surprises – this isn’t one of those beers that do one thing on the nose, one on the tip of your tongue, another in your mouth and another again in the aftertaste; what you taste is what you get. It’s brown, it’s heavy-ish, it’s sweet-ish, it’s strong-ish… it’s beer.

Světlý ležák

We spent a few days in Prague earlier this month – I was there for work and my wife was tagging along. Never having been to Prague – or anywhere else east of Berlin – I asked around on Twitter, then took the plunge and shelled out for a copy of Max‘s book on the subject. Which, if I’m honest, I found first overwhelming and then frustrating – so many bars were described in glowing terms, and I had so little time! To make matters worse, Max doesn’t rate pubs on standard tourist guidebook criteria, but only on whether they’re nice places to sit and have a pint of something decent and maybe something to eat – and OK, fine, that’s how I rate pubs myself, but how was I ever going to find the Top Five Utterly Unmissable Pubs Of Prague that way? Max doesn’t even go into much detail about the beer – some breweries are better than others, but at the end of the day it’s just this pale lager (světlý ležák), only apparently it’s really satisfying in some way… Baffling. Feeling rather stymied by the whole thing, I set up a Google Map with a semi-arbitrary top 28 pubs (and getting it down to 28 was quite hard enough), and trusted I’d be able to work out an itinerary or two on a quiet evening.

Then life intervened; running downstairs to check something on the morning of my departure, I slipped and fell hard on my back. No real damage was done – I can still feel all my toes – but it was not at all comfortable, then or afterwards; two weeks on, it’s subsided to the level of a permanent nagging backache. Adrenalin got me through the journey to Prague; once there, though, anything more than a half-mile walk was rather challenging. My view of Prague was perhaps slightly jaundiced as a result – although when it was good, it was very good.

On our first night we ate at a restaurant called Poja, which was quite near our flat in Žižkov and served beer from the Ježek brewery. The brewery’s name means ‘hedgehog’; there’s a picture of a hedgehog on their logo, with a slogan that seems to translate as ‘beer with spines’ (it probably works better in Czech). And it’s true, the beer wasn’t quite as smooth as I was expecting; a distinct aroma-hop spikiness came through, not entirely in a good way. I ordered what was described as a potato pancake (bramborak) stuffed with meat, reasoning that I’d get a crepe made with potato flour or something. I thought it couldn’t possibly be what I understood by a potato pancake – i.e. a Kartoffelpuffer or latke, grated potato bound with egg and fried; I mean, you can’t make one of those big enough to roll up and stuff with meat, can you? It turns out that you can in fact make Kartoffelpüffer the size of a dinner plate – and they do. It was very nice but a bit overwhelming, what with the assorted meat filling and the mound of grated cheese on top; after that meal I don’t think I felt hungry again until we were back in Manchester.

Lunch on the second day was at a pub about three-quarters of a mile from my work venue, which I realised halfway was a bit of a long haul in my condition at the time. Specifically, I went to U Sadu, where I had halves (well, 300 mls) of (their own) Sádek 11° and a Klášter 12°. (For an approximate ° Plato to a.b.v. conversion, divide by two and then subtract one – so roughly 4.5% and 5% respectively.) Both were good, but the (unfiltered) Sádek… perhaps I was thirsty, but the only way I can describe it is to say that it drank itself. I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty. Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the difficulty of getting enough to drink at receptions; it begins

I never remember holding a full glass
My first glance shows the level halfway down

That was me and Sádek – and it wasn’t the last beer in Prague to have that effect.

As for food, still being half-full from the night before I scoured the menu for something light and came up with “Švejk toast” – toast with egg and bacon. (The waiter was quite disappointed – “Is that all?”) Švejk toast turned out to mean two slices of rye bread, fried till crisp (possibly deep fried), then spread with mustard and topped with two fried eggs and a couple of rashers of bacon (all fried together), which in turn were hidden beneath a pile of chopped tomato, onion and pickled cucumber. Basic, maybe; light, no.

We just had a sandwich that evening.

The next day, still feeling of rather limited mobility, I had lunch at U Jary – which wasn’t on my list but was basically the closest pub I could find that I hadn’t been to. On finding it I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign advertising Pardubičky Porter (I’d been meaning to try a dark beer), then pleasantly startled to realise that I was at the bottom of the street with our flat on it. (Not that it was any use to me – my wife was out sightseeing, with the only key.) But what was the beer like? Most beers at U Jary are from Pernštejn (of Pardubice); I had a 12° světlý ležák called Premium, described on the menu as bitter (hořký), followed by a 13° amber beer called Granát. I chose this after chickening out of the porter on realising that it was 19°, which is to say 8%; some over-hasty mental maths convinced me that this would be like having five halves instead of two. (It’s strong, but it’s not that strong.)

Anyway, both the beers I did have were beautiful – and went well with the pork in paprika sauce from the à la carte menu (which cost less than the previous day’s Švejk toast) – but the Premium stands out; it positively threw itself down my throat. The Granat was, perhaps, more subtle and interesting – it was certainly more complex – but the relative cleanness and simplicity of the Premium somehow elevated it to another level. Back at the flat at the end of the day, I checked Max’s guide and discovered that he rates U Jary very highly. I don’t know why it wasn’t on my shortlist; I’m just glad I found my way there. (And embarrassed at how little Czech I know – going in completely cold, I found it wasn’t the nouns and adjectives I really missed so much as words like “and” and “the”. Still, I did manage to order two beers and a pork (vepřové) dish, without being asked to repeat everything in English, so I’m pleased about that. (I didn’t go near that ř sound – just treated it like a ž.))

That evening we went to another nearby restaurant, U Slovanske Lipy, where I had what would have been my second choice at Poja – roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings. The dumplings were bread-based and not particularly enticing, and the duck was well done going on charred; the meat tasted lovely, though, and it went really well with the red cabbage. But what about the beer? Half a litre of a 12° from Vedova did the now-familiar disappearing act; I remember saying to my wife that it was a bit like drinking water when you were thirsty, only more so. I followed it with a dark beer from Šnajdr, a pleasant light stout which gave me an instant earworm.

The next day we were leaving, but before we went we hit the Old Town. Now, I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Florence, I’ve even been to London, but nowhere have I ever seen such a concentration of tourists, over such a wide area. The entire pedestrianised area of the Old Town seemed to be entirely given over to tourists, who were out in force. To say that local businesses had adapted to these conditions would be an understatement; wherever you looked there were sweetshops, coffee shops, ice-cream shops and souvenir shops, and very little else. Prague is a cheap city if you’re coming from the West – presumably for historical reasons – but prices in the Old Town have adjusted to the influx of tourist euro, dollars and pounds. Whatever a beer, a coffee, an ice-cream cost in Žižkov, you could guarantee that in the Old Town it would be twice that, while still seeming reasonable relative to prices ‘back home’. (Two pounds for an espresso instead of one? Can’t complain really, can you?)

The architecture is beautiful and historic, but the lack of anything resembling real life, the relentless price-gouging and – most of all – the sheer number of people got to me after a while. The nadir for me was the Charles Bridge, which we crossed in what might as well have been a ten-wide marching column. Once over the river and into Mala Strana, we stopped for a drink at a bar specialising in beers from the Clock brewery; I had the desítka Hektor. Not far beyond that, the pedestrian zone ended and my spirits lifted – not that I’m a fan of cars and trams, particularly, but it was nice to see that the architecture and the history could coexist with ordinary Czechs going about their business.

We crossed back over the river by the Legions’ Bridge and had our final Prague meal at a Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. Just as I had at U Sadu, we both found ourselves combing the menu for something smaller than a full meal. In what was basically a ‘bar snacks’ section (“Between Beers”) we discovered the makings of an ample, indeed fairly hearty, lunch: pork sausages baked in a tomato and paprika sauce for me, pickled pork sausages (utopenci) for her and a bowl of fries between us. (How do Czechs manage it? Nobody we saw seemed particularly fat.) And the beer? The beer was divine; all the cleanness and uncomplicated drink-me goodness of the best beers I’d had, plus a hit of herbal bitterness in the aftertaste; I’m not saying it was the best beer I had in Prague, but it was certainly in a four-way tie for first.

So that was Prague. If I’d been more mobile I might have done more than scratch the surface. Perhaps some time I’ll go back and do it properly, although I’m not sure what I’ll do between beers – the thought of sight-seeing in Prague doesn’t make my heart beat faster, except perhaps with panic.

Postscript: a brewery recommended by Max, whose beers I regretted not trying, was Svijany; I regretted it all the more because there was a bar serving them right across the street from our flat, and normally it would have been the easiest thing in the world to wander across for a 13° nightcap. At the airport we were doing the usual thing of using up our coins in the shops, when I spotted some cans with the Svijany logo. I bought one – it was only about 50% more expensive than it would have been in a bar – and brought it home in my hand luggage. A few nights later I opened it. The first impression was both sweet and sharp, but this settled down into something more familiar and clean-tasting; a really nice beer, even out of a can. Max was right: světlý ležák is a plain, simple, straightforward style, so much so that it’s hard to say what’s good about it – but a decent světlý ležák is a really good beer.

Goodbye, TicketyBrew

The ‘free advertising’ side of beer blogging has never sat well with me (although I’ve taken, and written about, the odd freebie over the years). I often catch myself writing about having a particularly nice pint of Scruttock’s Best down at the Pig and Whistle, and think, is that the stylishly-refurbished Pig and Whistle with a wide range of artisan gins and food service from 12.00 till 9.00? good old Scrut’s, with its surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue? Not really what I’m about. Not unless they were paying me, and in that case it definitely wouldn’t be what I’m about.

But there’s one brewery I’ve made an exception for, almost since the first time I encountered their beer; there’s one brewery which could always count me as a dedicated and vocal fan. I’ve referred to TicketyBrew in 35 posts on this blog, going back to 2013, including seven posts devoted to their beers alone. It started in July 2013, when I nominated their Pale, on cask, as my beer of the year; I didn’t think I’d taste anything better in the remaining five months of the year – and as it turned out I was right. I wrote: The aromatic wallop of a good contemporary pale ale runs head-on into the soft herbal richness of a Tripel, and they dance. Which still seems about right. On cask, the Blonde was pretty amazing too – not to mention the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter, the Invalid Stout, the Marmalade Pale… On keg and in bottle, there was a really nice Dubbel, a superb Tripel, the East India Porter, the Rose Wheat, the Rhubarb Weiss, the Ginger Beer and some terrific hoppy pales… the list just went on. Not to mention more or less experimental styles – Munchner, Grodziskie, Mumme – and dotty one-offs like Marmite Stout or Tea and Biscuits Mild.

Golden Bitter, Invalid Stout, Marmalade Pale, Rhubarb Weiss – it feels like I’m reeling off lists of ancient paintbox colours or weird Victorian sweets, rich, mysterious, unattainable. And I’m afraid that unattainable is what they are. Duncan has wound up the brewery and the company; his partner Keri, who left a career in marketing to start TicketyBrew back in 2013, has gone back into marketing.

I’m really sorry they couldn’t make it work. In the last couple of years TicketyBrew had had all-new brewkit, taken on new staff (the last time I saw Duncan he was complaining about how little brewing he got to do these days) and even had a redesign. Distribution didn’t seem to be a problem, either. When I saw the Blonde and the Pale in Wetherspoons fridges across central Manchester – and particularly when I ordered a Blonde for my Leffe-drinking son, and saw his reaction – I thought they were set up. Perhaps appearances were deceptive. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.

I wish both Duncan and Keri all the best – and I hope this won’t be the last the world of beer hears of Duncan. Not all of the styles he tried his hand at were equally successful, but his hit rate was ridiculously high. The East India Porter, the Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter – in fact, almost all the beers I’ve listed – were solid, solid beers, and a couple of them were classics: I’d put the Pale and the Blonde in that category, as well as the Dubbel and the Tripel.

Looking more broadly, I guess this is another example of a small brewery falling by the wayside, like Quantum and Offbeat. Only this isn’t just another small brewery – this is TicketyBrew, with the mad bottle labels and the pump clips you could spot from the street (very handy, that’s been) and the ‘Pale’ that was like a cross between a Tripel and a best bitter and the Stout that tasted of black treacle and the ‘Manchester Tart’ that actually tasted of Manchester Tart, and the small bottles for everything and the first few large ones just coming in (9% in 750 ml, really?), and the Invalid Stout with real liquorice and the Marmite Stout with God knows what (probably not real Marmite), and the Blonde that me and my German friend got absolutely pasted on and the way the Pale was right at the start and that amazing Seville Orange Pale, and the bottled Blonde that was probably a bit over-primed and the Grodziskie that practically exploded (Polish champagne, they call that), and the cherry Weiss and the rhubarb Weiss and the Citra Pale that was just as good as anyone else’s Citra pale, and the, and the…

I’m really going to miss them.

TicketyBrew, 14/2/2013 – ??/5/2018

Adieu, adieu, TicketyBrew
Image credit: Beerbods

Glass, Traps

“That old bit of land? It in’t pasture, that’s for sure… ‘tin’t grazing… I could go on…”

Why yes, since you ask, that is a glass of Tynt Meadow dubbel (a branded Tynt Meadow glass, in fact, although that part isn’t obvious). Bottle and glass are both rather nicely designed; note in particular the die-cut bottom edge of the label, showing the skyline in (presumably) the eponymous meadow. The projection to the left of centre is the abbey of Mount St Bernard, which I think is also what the logo on the glass schematically represents.

Mount St Bernard? Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire. Not ancient, for obvious reasons, but pretty well-established; it was founded in 1835 by a group of monks who had left France following the post-Revolutionary suppression of monasteries there. Cistercian monks have been there ever since (it’s now the only Cistercian monastery in Britain) and they’ve recently started brewing beer. I say Cistercian; you could also call the order Bernardine, or indeed Trappist.


When I spotted this beer in the fridge at the Head of Steam in Durham, I was initially going to leave it – I quite liked the idea of being able to say I’d spotted it, and putting off actually buying it for another time. (Also, it’s brand new and wasn’t listed in the beer menu, and I hate buying things without knowing what they cost.) But curiosity overcame me in the end.

What’s it like? First impressions weren’t massively favourable, I have to admit. The picture doesn’t lie: not a lot of condition – certainly nothing resembling a head – and a liquid that was frankly murky. (Perhaps it needed another few weeks or months for the yeast to settle out properly, and/or for conditioning to develop. It’d be interesting to keep a bottle for a while.)

Taste, though? Really nice; more importantly, really interesting. It has a lot of the caramel-backed oomph of a dubbel like Westmalle, but more bitterness and, I think, more complexity. This may be autosuggestion, but to both me and my companion it tasted ‘English’; there’s something of the way that a dark old ale develops into herby and medicinal territory, as well as a bit of stouty roastiness on the finish. This isn’t an imitation of any other beer; it’s a distinctive take on the Trappist dubbel sub-(sub-?)style, from what looks like being a really interesting brewery. I’m going to have to get hold of some bottles to drink at home, though, both for ageing purposes and just to be able to drink it a bit below room temperature rather than fridge-cold – chilling doesn’t do this style of beer any favours.

Distribution shouldn’t be a huge problem; this beer’s appearance in the Head of Steam presumably means that James Clay are on the case. I wouldn’t have jumped to this conclusion at one time; compared to other bars trading under that name, the Durham Head of Steam used to be a rather different, and rather superior, proposition. A couple of months ago I was rather uncomplimentary about the newish Didsbury branch, comparing it unfavourably to the Durham HoS

where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac

sorry, wrong quote (although the mood is the right one)

[where] I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime … getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer

Didsbury? beer descriptions … [that] seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots; bar staff who, frankly, didn’t know their beer; the same ‘chain’ food menu as (e.g.) the Liverpool HoS; generic glassware with just a couple of ‘special’ glasses. Durham? Huge, properly curated beer menu; friendly, obliging bar staff who really knew their beer, Belgian beer in particular; the right glass for the right beer, without fail (something you hardly ever see in this country, even in self-styled ‘Belgian’ bars); and a short but individual food menu.

Well, now that’s finished; you’ll never see the Durham HoS (as it was). The powers that be at Cameron’s have obviously brought Durham into line with the rest of the chain: same food menu, same “guy on the Internet says” beer menu, same interchangeable bartenders with good people skills but a cavalier approach to glassware. (For our first round we ordered an Achel and a Spencer, which came with glasses branded for Duvel and La Trappe respectively; I wasn’t sure the Achel was going to benefit from the Duvel ‘thistle’ glass and got it replaced with a ‘chalice’ glass – which was branded Westmalle.) On the plus side, the beer range is still superb – and, as you can see, my Tynt Meadow did come with the right glass, as indeed did my companion’s Straffe Hendrik Tripel.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had a dubbel and a tripel in one visit to the Head of Steam, and probably not the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers. It is the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers from two different breweries outside Belgium – let alone from two different breweries in the English-speaking world. (As for the Spencer, it was fine, but not very special.) But then, that wasn’t possible before 2018 – in fact, it wasn’t possible before the 9th of July 2018, ten days ago. Yes, it’s Oh Good Ale, your source for breaking news in the world of beer!

NB other sources are available. Seriously.

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 4

At last, the long-awaited, and only partly forgotten-about, final instalment of my Mild Magic 2018 travels.

As noted last time, I’ve identified six recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, most of them not particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Too Many Beers
  3. Pub Food Is Dead
  4. Spoons Has Pros and Cons
  5. There Are Still Pubs
  6. Craft Is Everywhere

Also, I’ve written about 36 pubs – no fewer than 30 of which had a mild on – and got up to the letter S. The home straight beckons.

Smithfield, Manchester city centre
I’ve had good experiences at the Smithfield before, and this visit was no exception. While I couldn’t exactly say I remember the cask mild they had on, I remember liking it at the time; on balance it was a bit more successful than the bretted strong IPA on keg that I followed it with. For lo!, the Smithfield is a Pub That Does Both, and does ’em well. Food had been a bit of a contentious issue for me the night I was there (see Crown and Anchor); the Smithfield offered bar snacks, in the (slightly eccentric) form of hand-made pork pies stored in a large glass jar. I ordered one and was pleasantly surprised to find that (a) it was bigger than it looked in the jar and (b) it came on a board, complete with a knife, a dish of pickles and a choice of mustard. It was a fine pork pie and went well with both beers; my only slight regret was that it wasn’t quite a full meal (see Piccadilly Tap). Great pie, great beer, great pub.

Smithy Fold, Glossop
Glossop was my last stop on a long trail involving multiple beers and multiple forms of transport (see Harewood Arms, Cheshire Ring, Joshua Bradley etc). My recollections of this large, unusually quiet Spoons are consequently rather limited. I’m pretty sure they had a mild on, though.

Sportsman, Hyde
“It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant,” I wrote in 2015. Relations with Rossendale are currently strained, but the Latin American food is going strong; this time round I had the place pegged for a lunch stop. Once before I’d found the pub completely deserted – including the bar area – and had to go out to the kitchen at the back to ask where everyone was; this time, there was someone behind the bar, but the kitchen was rather conspicously silent. I asked about food and was told, “she’s just popped out to Morrison’s”. I decided to have a pint rather than a half. The Sportsman has two bars, both served by the same central bar area; all the handpulls are on the carpeted ‘lounge’ side, so that’s where I went. After ten minutes or so the cook made it back with her shopping and orders could be taken. At this moment, the lino-floored ‘public’ had a bit of a rush on, with the arrival of a group of lager-drinking regulars – all of whom, by Sod’s Law, also wanted food. All told, it was the best part of an hour between my arrival at the pub and the arrival of my Cuban Sandwich (which was essentially a cheese and ham toastie, heavy on the mustard). Which was very nice – and good value – but also, by that stage, very welcome. File under Pub Food Isn’t Dead Exactly, But Sometimes You Can See The Appeal Of Spoons.

Station Buffet Bar, Stalybridge
I’m not going to describe the Buffet Bar; if you don’t know what it’s like, that can only mean you haven’t visited, and you really should – it’s a great little pub. (Also does trains!) The bartender apologised for the condition of the Howard Town Milltown Mild, which was approaching the end of the barrel – it was a bit ‘slack’ but basically fine. I followed it up with Ticketybrew Yanks for the Memories, a session-strength IPA with American hops and an awful name. My timing was clearly out, as this was approaching the end of the barrel as well – but, even warming up and losing condition, it was absolutely superb. I had a 6% keg IPA from Marble that evening; when I finished it I could still taste the Ticketybrew.

Tim Bobbin, Urmston
No mild at this Spoons, and a very long hunt for stickers; by the time the sheet had been located I’d finished my half. Leaving the pub, I found I was looking directly at a very ‘crafty’ bottle shop (with, I think, some kind of ‘on’ licence) called Brewtique. (Theme 6: Craft Is Everywhere.) Spurning its charms (well, I did stick my nose in) I went 100 yards down the road and had a half at the Prairie Schooner, which was pleasantly busy that prevening; I had a ‘blood orange IPA’, from Moorhouse of all people. The rebrand, the Greene King tie-in and now this – what’s happening up there?

Tweed Tap, Hyde
A micropub with three or four people in feels pleasantly busy, which can’t be said of a full-scale pub (see Park Inn). Unfortunately a micropub with no bugger in at all (see Grove Alehouse, Malt Disley) feels much the same as a full-scale pub, ditto – perhaps even worse; in most pubs you can at least tell yourself that there might be somebody round a corner. I had the Tweed Tap to myself, despite it being a sunny Saturday lunchtime. The Chester Mild was really good, though – and in good nick, so somebody must be drinking it some time.

Victoria, Withington
Going back to the Vic now I see no trace of the big single-room boozer I used to go to in the mid-80s – no bellpushes, no white-coated glass collector; nobody remembers the sharp-edged bright yellow bitter I used to drink there, either. (Unless I was on lager in those days? That would explain a lot.) Anyway, what I do see when I go to the Vic now is the same pub I visited for last year’s Mild Magic, and the year before that, and the year before that (to say nothing of the Winter Warmer Wander) – which makes my memories of any particular trip a bit less than vivid. The dark mild’s OK, even with its terrible name.

Victoria Lounge, Glossop
Looks like a backstreet pub until you get inside, whereupon it turns into a rather opulent hotel lounge; also, seems larger on the inside. No mild AFAIR, but the beer was fine, if a bit more pricey than I was expecting in Glossop (although, to be fair, I had just come from a Spoons).

Waterhouse, Manchester city centre
Midway between the Vic and the Sedge Lynn on the ‘multiple visits’ front – I go to this pub on every CAMRA trail & several times in between. Not a scooby what it was like this particular time, although I’m pretty sure there was a mild on.

White Hart, Cheadle
To my dismay, the White Hart’s mild offering was Coach House Gunpowder Mild – a mild (and a brewery) which I prefer to avoid. I knocked it back – and, to be fair, it wasn’t positively unpleasant – and followed it with a half of draught Bass, which was a lot nicer.

Wilfred Wood, Hazel Grove
Spoons. Big. Main road. Titanic Nautical Mild. Er… that’s it.

Wine and Wallop, Didsbury
There was no mild on here. When I made the obligatory polite inquiry (see Ford Madox Brown, Head of Steam) the bartender lost several points by launching into a long and confident ‘splanation (see Head of Steam) of how they didn’t very often have mild on as such, it wasn’t a very popular style in this area, they had tried putting draught mild on but they’d had trouble selling it, and of course with draught mild you do need to be sure it’s going to sell, so they probably wouldn’t be having it on again, at least not very often, and so on.

QUIZ! Should I have
a) throttled him
b) said “That’s all well and good, but in that case why did you sign up for Mild Magic?”
c) said “The actual name of the bar is Wine and Wallop! What do you think ‘wallop’ is? It’s mild – that’s what it means! You’ve actually put ‘mild’ in the name of the bar!”
d) nodded politely and ordered something else

I went for d), of course – a pale ale from RedWillow, and very nice it was too. But still – spare me ‘splainers!

Nine pubs with mild on, three without; six (non-JDW) free houses, four Spoons, a Hyde’s pub and a brewery tap. Overall totals: 13(!) Spoons, 22 other free houses, 7 Holt’s, 4 Hyde’s and one each for Greene King and Tweed. Also, 39 with mild on vs 9 without, which isn’t too bad. (Also, two closed when they should have been open.) Ten pubs memorably busy (four of them Spoons), five completely deserted (three of them micropubs) – plus another four or five big pubs doing micropub levels of business. Most visits were at the weekend, with some weeknights and some weekday lunchtime visits; no weekday afternoons (in case you were wondering if that was why some of the pubs were deserted).

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of  new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size.

There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week). One strategy of adaptation is to forget about pub food, or else to go big on ‘dining’; Holt’s seem to be trying to do both at once, with predictably mixed results. (Perhaps they’re taking a leaf out of Sam Smith’s book; there are some very nice Sam’s ‘dining pubs’, as well as the more basic ones most of us are more familiar with.) Another strategy – which Holt’s, again, were early to adopt – is to grab a bit of that ‘craft’ market; that may be necessary, but it’s not going to be sufficient to keep big estates of big pubs afloat. (Going for the ‘craft’ market may not even be enough to keep a micropub afloat.)

“Do you drink something every day?” a friend who worked in public health once asked me. When I said yes, more or less (one or two dry days a week, and so forth) she said “Really?”, and looked at me as if I’d said I regularly put chip fat on my cornflakes. More precisely, her expression wasn’t so much disapproving as incredulous – a Regular Drinker! I never thought I’d actually meet one!. That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

(On the bright side, there is some excellent beer to be found out there – Great Heck Voodoo Mild, Tweed‘s Chester Mild and Stockport Arch 14 Mild (at the Grove Alehouse) were all impressive, and Hyde’s don’t-call-it-a-light-mild is still a very nice drop.)