Monthly Archives: September 2010

Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 1

I’ve been browsing the Cask Report. It’s well-written and well-presented, and will probably do more to help the spread of real ale than any number of well-meaning but patronising columns aimed at the punters (here’s one I read earlier). So I apologise in advance to Pete if my comments seem unduly negative.

I had two big problems with the Report. Firstly, what is it – is it an analytical report on recent trends in the cask beer market (as the name implies) or is it an elaborate piece of advocacy, a public information message from the Cask Marketing Board? (They’re happy, because they drink cask!) The problem here is that the two types of document would approach the evidence in very different ways: a marketing ‘report’ might skate over results that an analytical report would highlight, while putting a lot of weight on findings that can’t necessarily bear it. And secondly, if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?

I’ll deal with the second point in a separate post. The first point can best be illustrated by pulling out a couple of graphs. First, here’s cask volumes vs the overall beer market:

Or rather, here’s the annual rate of change in cask volumes vs the annual rate of change in all beer volumes. If you look at it that way, that upward trend starts to look a bit less hopeful: remember, the 6% decline in 2001 was on top of the 8% decline in 2000, and the great leap forward of 2009 represents a change from a decline of 2% in 2008 – on top of all the previous declines – to an increase of 0%. If you plug in the figures and multiply it out, assuming 1999 as a baseline, you get this:

It’s much clearer from that graph that we’re looking at the back end of a long period of decline. Two periods, to be precise: from 1999 to 2006 overall beer volumes held more or less steady, ranging from 97% of the 1999 volume to 102%. Meanwhile, cask volumes declined steeply and steadily: 92% of the 1999 figure in 2000, 83% in 2002, 73.6% in 2005. (The fact that this downward curve gets shallower as it goes on is what creates that upward line in the published graph.) From 2006 to 2009 the trends were reversed, with overall volumes dropping year by year while cask volumes held more or less steady – but at a level far, far below the level of 1999, which was scarcely the Roaring Twenties in the first place.

How to interpret these trends? The simplest interpretation of the 1999-2006 figures for cask would be that this is the latest stage in the long decline of cask from its historic pre-eminence. I’m doubtful that this long, well-established and profitable trend in the pub industry came to a halt in 2006; I think it’s more likely that it’s continued, but been offset by a separate rising trend in cask ale drinking (on which more later). Rather more striking is the downward trend in overall beer volumes from 2006 on. What’s going on here is unclear, although the fact that the smoking ban in England became law in 2007 can hardly be ruled out as irrelevant. But we should be clear on a few points:

  1. Cask ale sales aren’t rising, they’re holding steady.
  2. They’re holding steady at a low level, having dropped by 30% since 1999.
  3. If cask appears to be gaining market share, this is the result of cask sales holding steady while overall beer sales fall.
  4. This fall in overall beer sales is an established trend, but a new and worrying one.
  5. It is not clear whether cask is actually immune to this trend, or if its effects are being cancelled out by a separate rise in cask drinking.

One clue is provided by this graphic, which I found both informative and infuriating.

What’s infuriating is that massive block on the right – a THIRTY-ONE PERCENT increase OMG!!!1! Except that (as the report acknowledges) all this really means is that Scotland accounted for about 3% of UK cask sales in 2008 and about 4% in 2009; it’s a huge relative increase, but in absolute terms it’s just not that significant. (This kind of thing is a recurring irritation in this report: too often we’re presented not with absolute figures but with proportions, or changes in proportions, or rates of change in proportions, or (as in this instance) proportionate changes in proportions. The numbers are a bit too thoroughly crunched, in other words – it’s hard to verify the claims that are being made, or even to work out precisely which claims are being made.)

The point, anyway, is that the North-East (for example) is a big cask-drinking region while Scotland isn’t, so the 6.6% decline registered in the North-East for 2009 almost exactly cancels out that seemingly huge 31% rise. Which still leaves substantial drops in just about every other part of England and Wales to account for. (We know in this instance that the UK’s total cask ale consumption hasn’t changed, so a fall in one area has to be matched by a rise in another.) The answer lies in the South-East – although oddly enough not in London itself – where a 7.5% year-on-year rise in cask consumption was sufficient to offset declining sales in four other regions. This lends some support to the speculation that downward pressures on beer consumption may be being cancelled out by a separate rising trend – a geographically separate trend, apparently.

I’ll say a bit about what that trend might be in part 2. (Clue: I’m agin it.)

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Good companions

Testing, testing. Is this thing on? Right, gotcha. Er. Here we are then.

This blog used to be a personal note-pad, a place to keep my tasting notes. I turned it into a blog proper in August and started investigating the rest of the beer blogosphere. It launched without any sort of announcement or mission statement; in fact it didn’t so much launch as emerge. Here’s my hit counter since the beginning of the month:

1/9: 1
2/9: 0
3/9: 0
4/9: 0
5/9: 5
6/9: 5
7/9: 7
8/9: 12
9/9: 7
10/9: 3
11/9: 1
12/9: 1
13/9: 6
14/9: 13
15/9: 16
16/9: 95

Spot the difference.

So greetings to everyone who’s just joined, particularly my many visitors from Zak Avery’s fine blog. The tasting notes are still here, if you’re interested; see the links at the top left, under ‘Pages’. Apart from that, what you see is pretty much what you get – pub reviews, beer reviews, thoughts sparked off by the Curmudgeon or Martyn or Tandleman, grumbles about beer pricing (you haven’t done that one yet – Ed.), attempts to pinpoint just what is wrong with BrewDog (or that one)… whatever takes my fancy, really, as long as it’s got beer in it somewhere. (While I’m in linkage mode, I use and endorse All About Beer and Pubs Galore. Accept no substitute, unless it’s even better.)

Love: old ale, porter, dark bitter; Conwy, Hornbeam, Dunham Massey, Marble. (Yes, one of those breweries is not like the others, but I love ’em anyway.)
Hate: hop-monsters, and in particular bars offering a choice of three hop-monsters and nothing else. (Unless they’re the Marble Beerhouse, in which case I’d have a Ginger and shut up.)
My other blog is here, and covers my work, politics, music, books and basically everything else I’m interested in that isn’t beer.

I’m glad you’ve looked in, and hope you will be too. Share and enjoy!

57 Thomas Street

Marble bar, 57 Thomas Street... on Twitpic I finally made it to 57 Thomas St today; ironically enough I was on my way to the Marble Arch at the time and had forgotten I’d be passing the Thomas St bar. (I never got to the Marble Arch; I was heading over there to buy a bottle of the Special, but they had it on sale in Thomas St, saving me the trip.)

I’m not sure what to say about this place. I mean, I’m a real Marble loyalist; I like the idea of a bar serving Marble beer, food and very little else (no wine or spirits); and I would really like it to succeed. The cold meat list is impressive, the cheese list even more so, and the bottled beer list makes me wonder if this is where Jason from the Belgian Belly ended up. Also, I had one perfectly nice beer and a perfectly decent toasted sandwich; the decor had some nice touches (I particularly liked the two chessboards on the table, each with bowls of white and black bottletops for playing draughts); and the mix they were playing included a couple of songs I really like.

Lots of positives, then.

Now for the negatives.

1. The place is tiny – one long table down the side of the room; some odd geometric cushiony things, like misshapes from a sofa cushion factory, at the front of the room; and, er, that’s it. Tiny, tiny place.

2. The food is fine – although they seem to have scaled it back a long way from the bill of fare featured in this preview (tabouleh? potted rabbit?). The menu basically consists of cold meat platters, cheese platters, pork pies, ploughman’s and toasted sandwiches. Nothing wrong with any of that – except the price. The ploughman’s is £7.50; a pork pie would set you back £3.50, and my toasted sandwich was £4.50. Now, the Northern Quarter is coming up in the world and has been for some time, but Thomas St is still in the grotty end of the town centre, just about; it’s the sort of street where you can get a cooked meal for £3 and today’s special for £4.50 (albeit not in a bar that looks like 57 Thomas St). My sandwich was perfectly pleasant, and I’m sure the ingredients were fairly high-class, but the pricing feels all wrong – and that’s “all wrong” in the sense of “I’m not paying that much again”.

3. Gravity dispense. This is a big one. The only beer served from pumps is lager. There were four barrels on the bar, all of them on the go – apparently the original plan was to have two tapped and two settling, but if so this has gone by the board. Today the beers on offer were Pint, Lagonda IPA, Dobber and Ginger; I was hoping to spot the elusive Brew 1734, but I fear I’ve missed out on that one. I had a half of Dobber, which (getting back to the topic of gravity dispense) was a bit on the flat side, but actually benefited from it to my mind. I haven’t really gone for Dobber in the past. Of Brew 1425, which I think was the test version of Dobber, I wrote “the strength hits you in a big, heavy, slightly apple-y flavour in the middle of your mouth; essentially, this is Wobbly Marble”, but when I first tasted Dobber itself I was less keen:

they’ve fixed the aroma – basically it doesn’t smell slightly off, which has got to be good. But something else has happened to the flavour; the uncompromising bitterness and the Wobbly Bob alcoholic richness have blended in a way they hadn’t before, and the result is, as far as I’m concerned, actively unpleasant.

Today I found it a challenging flavour, but one I could appreciate – and I felt that the relative stillness of the beer gave it an extra weight which complemented the heaviness of the flavour, making it easier to get into. I followed it up with a pint of Ginger – which was presumably running lower than the Dobber, as its barrel was jacked up at a steeper angle – and that didn’t work so well; bluntly, it was flat as paint. To be honest, I know nothing about what calling a beer “cask-conditioned” actually means; when I see discussions like this one I feel like I’m back in Chemistry at school (and I didn’t understand it then). But I do get two messages: (a) gravity dispense doesn’t have to mean flat beer, but (b) you do need to do it properly. Here’s hoping the Ginger was a one-off.

4. This is the really big one (and may be related to 2. and 3.) Where is everybody? I went in at about 12.30, to find two bar staff chatting in an empty room. Fifty-five minutes later, when I was looking at the last of my Ginger, another party came in (a group of four, two of whom were on the lager). There was one person (viz. me) in the place for the best part of an hour – or in other words, for most of a sunny weekday lunchtime.

I’m sorry to say it, but I can see 57 Thomas St closing – or at best turning into a white elephant for the Marble – unless they make some changes. I don’t think we’re talking about teething problems any more; I think there’s a basic problem with what they’re trying to do with the place. But I do wish them well with it, and I hope I’m wrong.

My local (number 4 in a series of 4)

And so to the local Wetherspoon’s. The Sedge Lynn is about 100 yards from the Marble Beer House, and has been since 1999 (i.e. shortly after the Marble itself opened). Until recently I hadn’t been in very often, partly for the usual anti-Wetherspoons (i.e. anti-corporate and anti-chain) reasons and partly because I didn’t find the Sedge Lynn itself particularly comfortable. This changed when the Marble hit a particularly busy streak; I often drink alone & like to read while I’m doing it, and the combination of reading, drinking and standing up is not particularly relaxing (although it can be done, I can assure you).

So I started treating the Sedge Lynn as my ‘overflow’ pub, and after a couple of weeks found it was growing on me. It’s not my dream pub by any means. It’s large and barn-like – a single room with a high vaulted ceiling. Bar staff are young, friendly and dressed in uniform T-shirts; the seating consists almost entirely of dining tables in a variety of shapes, sizes and heights(!); and, of course, every table has a brass number-plate and a menu from which you can learn the date of the next Curry Night or the price of a pitcher of Cheeky Vimto. As pubs go, it’s a lot like a Butlin’s dining-room (albeit with nicer architecture and furnishings). Maximum capacity must be well over 100; the last time I was there I counted 50, and the room felt half-empty. It’s not a “workingmen’s pub”, but the clientele does seem to be noticeably older, maler and less middle-class – and more heavy-drinking – than in any of the other pubs I visit regularly. Possibly for this reason, it’s not a hugely relaxing environment for the solitary drinker, although it doesn’t actually feel threatening in the way that some city-centre and estate boozers can do; I’ve never seen trouble in there, although I’ve heard a fair bit of strong and bad-tempered language. (There was a stabbing outside the pub several years ago – but just the one, and it was several years ago.) On the other hand, I did once see a sing-song break out. In general you’re more likely to be irritated or disturbed by another drinker in the Sedge Lynn than in any other pub I know, but also more likely to get a genuine apology if you want one. Case in point: the woman, fairly well gone for 6.30 on Saturday, who tried to make conversation by asking what I was reading in the London Review of Books (“it’s about poetry? ooh, I love poetry!”). She then asked for a taste of my beer, told me it tasted like shit and dropped the glass, spilling most of it. Case in point, part 2: her partner, who came over from another table where he’d been looking after their toddler, apologised profusely and bought me another drink – top man.

I’m probably making it sound pretty hellish – certainly the features of the pub that I’ve mentioned so far wouldn’t be enough to make me warm to the place. What the Sedge Lynn really has going for it is the beer. There are CAMRA members behind the bar, and the range of beers is terrific; they even serve the nut-brown malty ales I still love, as well as the pale hoppy stuff which most of Manchester seems to prefer. The beer’s well-kept and well served; on the rare occasions I’ve had a beer that was off it’s been replaced without a murmur. (Pet hate (not seen at the Sedge Lynn): bar staff who insist on tasting a sour pint themselves and telling you they think it tastes fine, before getting you your replacement. I mean, why? What does it gain them?) And it’s all the same price, from a 3.2% mild up to Wobbly Bob (a regular presence on the bar) – a price which is currently set at £1.70.

What’s this pub doing right? The main thing it’s doing right, in terms of commercial viability, is being part of a big national chain with a complex and detailed strategy for maximising revenue: I’m sure that that £1.70 pint has been costed out as the most profitable price-point for this particular pub. Beyond that, the Sedge Lynn has clearly attracted a good proportion of the clientele who find other pubs in the area a bit middle-class – and this without music, TVs or any regular events, unless you count the Curry Nights. I guess cheap beer, well kept, has got to be a winner.

The Blue Anchor, Helston

Or: what else I did on my holidays.

Helston is an unassumingly beautiful town, which has been there approximately since the Norman Conquest and seems not to have changed all that much since. It’s mainly known for two things, one of which is the Furry: an annual unofficial holiday, when everyone in the town stops for a day and either dances through the streets or goes to watch the dancers. Nobody really knows how long it’s been going on, but the song Hal-An-Tow (which is associated with a mummers’ play performed on the day) seems to refer to the Spanish Armada; also, the word ‘Furry’ is believed to derive from the Latin feriae, ‘holidays’. Pretty old, then. Nothing pagan about it as far as I can tell (sorry Ed), but it does have that air of strangeness that comes with the thought that people have been doing it for hundreds of years without ever really knowing why.

Anyway, the other thing Helston is famous for is the Blue Anchor: a brewpub dating back to the fifteenth century, at which time their main product was mead rather than beer. Inns used to brew their own beer as a matter of course, but by the middle of the twentieth century brewpubs were few and far between; at one point the Blue Anchor was, apparently, one of only four in the UK. Fortunately they kept the faith and continued to brew beers under the name of Spingo.

The name of Spingo is actually all you see on the four handpumps which confront you as you go into the Blue Anchor; the different beers are listed on a blackboard. I visited the Blue Anchor last month for the second time. The first time I went, I didn’t clock the blackboard and merrily ordered a pint of Spingo; I liked it a lot and subsequently ordered another one. This time round, I resolved to do it properly. Well, slightly more properly – I couldn’t bring myself to actually take notes, but I did work my way through the four pumps. Here’s what I remember.

Middle
This is the nearest thing to a Spingo best bitter; it’s what you get if you order a pint of Spingo. Middle, which according to the brewery was “originally brewed to welcome home those men who fought in the First World War”, is 5% a.b.v. It’s a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice.

Jubilee IPA
This, by contrast, is a light, bitter, clean-tasting pale ale, possibly because someone said it couldn’t be done. No sweetness, although there is a fair bit of malt.

Bragget
A bit of an oddity, I have to say. Essentially it tastes like cider, or possibly mead; it’s pale yellow and heavy in texture, with a distinct apple flavour and a honeyed finish (literally – you’re left with your lips tasting of honey). 6%, but doesn’t drink it.

Special
A darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle, with the honeyed finish of Bragget; a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. You wouldn’t want to order a pint – or rather you would, but you wouldn’t want to have anything else planned for the next hour or two. It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better. Apparently at Christmas and Easter they brew a special Special at 7.6%; that really would be a beer to spend the afternoon with.

Nice pub – they’ve stopped serving food since we were last there, but the barman suggested we get pasties and take them through to the back; he even pointed out a good pastie shop. Nice pub, lovely beer. Albeit possibly not for hop-heads. Ed:

The beers were nothing special, all being a bit sweet and under-hopped for my taste.

Ah well, more for me.

A tale of two pubs (Lizard, Cornwall)

Before our recent holiday in Cornwall I read up on the local pubs. Where the village of the Lizard was concerned, this didn’t take long. There were two choices: the Top House and the Witchball.

Commenters on Beer In The Evening were very scathing about the Top House. One wrote:

The new owners simply want to run it as a restaurant and have completely excluded their local trade through a number of means. For instance one of their first acts was to get rid of the folk evening and stop all other local fund raising events such as the quiz nights. An immediate stop to entertainment. OK so it is the summer season but you will now be asked to move if you sit at a table without buying a meal and from experience anyone who has argued has since been asked to leave. The locals are now boycotting the Top House in favour of the nearby Witchball.

And the Witchball?

A small but friendly pub with a lovely beer garden in the summer. Free house so use only local ales from a local brewery. Since the locals were excluded from the Top House we have been using the pub regularly.

(On inspection, both these comments were written by the same person.)

Anyway, I’ve been to both and can report back. The Witchball was small, pleasantly busy and friendly. It certainly appears to be frequented by locals and does an excellent range of beer; I had a pint of Chough’s (brewed a few miles up the road) and one of Gray’s Best (presumably the Mansfield brew, although the pump clip was unfamiliar). The Chough’s wasn’t in the best of nick, sad to say, but the Gray’s was rather fine. We inquired about eating there but the dining room was booked out for the evening; also, the chef hadn’t turned up for work yet, so the landlady wasn’t entirely sure what was going to be on. It was that kind of place. Great atmosphere, though – I’d go back there like a shot.

Still in search of something to eat, we headed for the Top House. I told my other half dark tales about the Beer in the Evening comments, although these lost their impact somewhat when she pointed out that we (a) weren’t locals and (b) actually wanted to eat. Fair point. My first impression was that the comments about the new landlord pitching for the food trade were not wrong: the furniture seemed to consist entirely of wooden chairs arranged around oblong tables with a number screwed on, plus a few stools at the bar. We were shown to our table by a young lad in a uniform teeshirt, and had what was actually a fairly pleasant meal. There was something distinctly corporate and impersonal about the place: the lads serving seemed to have been drilled in a few stock phrases, all redolent of an up-market chain restaurant (“OK, that’ll be with you guys shortly”; “Enjoy your meals” (I hate that plural)). Our main courses were very nice, but it has to be said that they were with us very shortly after ordering – certainly in less time than it would have taken to cook the meat through. Our puddings, on the other hand, seemed to take forever (despite only requiring fairly basic assemblage) and weren’t brilliant when they arrived. One member of the party, who has a nut allergy, ordered a dish served “with grated chocolate” in preference to one “with chocolate and nuts”; it came with chocolate and nuts, and when we complained was replaced by one with neither. And I had the cheese, which was pretty awful – a brie, a blue cheese and a smoked cheddar, all of which somehow had the same rubbery, pasty texture; I wonder now if they’d been frozen. (Nice biscuits, though.)

And yet, and yet. The locals haven’t all deserted the Top House or been barred – the bar stools at the front of the pub weren’t there for decoration, and later in the evening there was a lively conversation going on there. It also turned out to be Folk Night, much to my surprise; in practice this meant a group sitting in one corner and playing tunes to entertain the diners, rather than the more participative session you usually expect from a ‘folk night’, but it was better than nothing (or piped music). And then there was the beer, which was (predictably) a bit too cold but otherwise very nice indeed. The pub is a St Austell house and has a full range of their beers; I had an IPA (a bit of an oddity these days, with a strength of 3.4%) and an HSD, both of which were full of flavour and in very good condition.

Verdict: a friendly pub is a wonderful thing, but a bit of efficiency doesn’t go amiss – particularly when it comes to beer quality. (I’ve had some very good pints in some large and soulless Wetherspoons’.) The Witchball is still streets ahead in my personal estimation, but if I were judging on the beer alone it would be a much closer call. And it seems as if the Harvesterisation of the Top House was exaggerated, or else has been partly reversed – which serves as a reminder that reviews can’t give you the whole story. There’s no substitute for seeing for yourself.