Monthly Archives: October 2010

Twissed

“Well, we’re meeting at 11.30,” I said. “Quick tour of the Marble brewery, go round a couple of pubs, then people are talking about going to Huddersfield and having lunch on the way there. So you’re looking at maybe a couple of hours in Manchester, and I’ll bale out after that; I’ll get something to eat on the way home and I should be back around 2.00, 2.30 maybe. And we won’t get through that much beer in that time, what with the brewery tour and the time it will take to get to all the different pubs; I’m not going to be paralytic or anything.”

My other half looked unimpressed. “So you’ll be rolling in drunk at about half past four,” she repeated.

Several hours later, I was congratulating myself on the successful purchase not only of some hot food but also of a book to read while eating it (if I was going to have lunch at 3.30, it seemed extremely important to have something to read while I was doing it). Neither a beef stifado nor Gary Morecambe’s memoirs of his father Eric would necessarily have been my first choice in normal circumstances, but at that moment they seemed to be just the job. (There was something deeply poignant – really deeply poignant, I mused – about the combination of how much Gary Morecambe had to write about… and how badly his book was written… really deeply poignant…) Also, I’d managed to select and pay for the book and the food without wobbling noticeably or otherwise attracting attention, even though my feet had for some time been doing that caterpillar-track thing when I walked (you know the gait I mean – short regular steps in a straight line, a kind of semi-controlled upright stagger). I was really quite drunk, I acknowledged ruefully as I came out onto the street. Still, at least the street in front of me wasn’t moving down and to the left before my eyes. This comforting reflection lasted for a second or two, after which I noticed that the street in front of me had started moving down and to the left before my eyes.

Kids, just say no. (More to the point, pace yourself and stick to halves.)

Four hours earlier (this is turning into The Event…) I arrived at Piccadilly Station about five minutes late, alternately cursing myself for not setting out earlier and reassuring myself that the Twissup party would be easy to spot – all I’d need to look for would be a group of ten to twelve middle-aged blokes like me, one or more of them wearing Marble T-shirts, heading down Station Approach en route to Rochdale Rd. Fortunately the group hadn’t yet set out, as I was wrong three times over – Dom rather unsportingly wasn’t wearing Marble gear (although he was recognisably Dom); we rapidly left Station Approach in favour of a more direct route involving an assortment of car parks and back alleys; and – most importantly – there were about 92 people there. OK, not 92, but there must have been getting on for 40 of them: it was a huge crowd. Oh, and some of them were women – although not, it has to be said, very many.

As a Twissup newbie I didn’t actually know anyone face to face, and as a non-user of Twitter there were quite a few people I didn’t even know online; it was slightly awkward for a while, with a few of those moments when you realise that the three other people you’re talking to have all been hanging out together for years. But I got talking to rabid Glyn, Hard Knott Dave, Barm and Zak, along with a number of other people not all of whose names I can remember at this stage. Also, there was beer, which helps with the socialising (at least, it does until you get to the stage of caterpillar-track feet and deeply poignant thoughts).

Ah, the beer. Oh good ale! First there was a glass of bottled Dobber to start the brewery tour with. A Twissup is no place for tasting notes, but I can say that I haven’t much liked Dobber in the past – I positively hated it the first time I drank it – and that this was rather fine; so much so that I was one of those who went back for seconds after the tour. (Which didn’t take very long – it’s a small brewery. Thanks to Zak for asking all the intelligent questions the rest of should have thought of, and to Dom’s colleague James for some fascinating information – not least, the revelation that the Chocolate Dubbel is in fact neither.) Then it was back up the road to the Marble Arch, which accommodated thirty-odd thirsty twissers with remarkable ease – surprisingly so considering that the Saturday lunchtime trade was in full swing by this stage. With pints being ordered all around me, I decided to be relatively moderate by going for a half of Dave’s 6.2% Infra Red. (Should be hoppier, said Dave. Tastes fine to me, said I.) However, the problem with halves – even strong ones – is that they don’t last very long. With pints still being ordered all around me, I went with the flow and had a pint of Ginger. When I’d got to the bottom of that and people were still showing no sign of moving, I went for a half of Lagonda IPA – like the Dobber, this was not a beer I’ve ever much liked before, and like the Dobber it was rather nice.

Then it was off to the Angel (the Manchester Angel?) which for a moment didn’t know what had hit it; I sneakily checked the blackboard and got my order in at the side of the bar while most of the throng was still eyeing up the pump clips. (Hornbeam Mary Rose, a darkish but hoppy bitter, very nice.) I got talking to Tandleman, who had joined the group here, and even met the legendary Cookie. A half of someone-or-other’s perfectly pleasant but not particularly memorable porter followed, and then we were off again and heading for Bar Fringe. I decided I’d rather do this stretch of the route alone, for whatever reason – there may have been some poignant thinking involved – and contrived to head out of the Angel midway between two groups.

By the time I got to Bar Centro I couldn’t see either of them, although this may have been partly because we weren’t in fact going to Bar Centro – a realisation which hit me as soon as I got there. After a short but essential detour to use the facilities of the Craft Centre nearby, I made my way back to Bar Fringe. Both the Marble Arch and, to a lesser extent, the Angel had displayed remarkable Tardis-like properties: they’re quite small to look at, but when put to it they absorbed a huge and thirsty crowd without much apparent strain. Bar Fringe is small to look at because it is small, and by the time I got there it was rammed. The Fringe’s USP has always been its European beer range, which is remarkable (if rather pricey); I felt I should bypass the handpumps for once, opting instead for a half of the seldom-seen Duvel Green (6.8% to its big brother’s 8.5). This was, of course, a mistake: a beer like this demands to be taken slowly and savoured, which is hard to do when you’re half-drunk, footsore, dehydrated and standing in the middle of a hot, noisy, crowded pub. Reader, I necked it.

The next bit you already know (although I’ve got no memory of actually leaving the Fringe). After getting some food down me I headed unsteadily for the bus home, intending to stay on to the terminus and come back again; the reasoning was that this would give me a chance to sober up. (Another drink or two and I wouldn’t have cared how drunk I was, or indeed been aware of it. Maybe another time.) In fact I passed out on the bus, but woke up in time – feeling a lot better for it – and… well, rolled in drunk at about half past four. That woman’s psychic, I tell you.

Advertisements

Marble and Me

I’ve been drinking Marble beers for pretty much as long as they’ve been brewing them. At the moment, the Marble Brewery are producing some of the most interesting, some of the most full-on, some of the hoppiest and some of the most varied beers currently being brewed. One obvious comparison would be newer hop-oriented brewers like Pictish and Abbeydale, but for my money Marble stand apart both by the sheer range of beers they produce and by the extremes of flavour they explore. In those areas Marble are closer to BrewDog, although BrewDog are very unlike Marble, both in aiming squarely for the mass market and in being incorrigible publicity hounds. (Separate BrewDog post to follow. You can’t not write about BrewDog, as much as it feels like you’re playing their game by doing so.)

Anyway, Marble have recently brought out two new bottled beers, both brewed using Westmalle famous yeasts: Westmalle for the “Chocolate dubbel” [sic], Duvel for the “Vuur & vlam”, which is a strong American-style IPA. (“Vuur en vlam”, meaning “fire and flame”, seems to be a common name for some Dutch beers is the name of an IPA from Dutch brewery de Molen; the Marble’s version was brewed originally for a Dutch beer festival, where all participating brewers were invited to compete in offering their own “Vuur en vlam”. The Marble came second overall, beating de Molen’s own into third place; not bad!) (Thanks to John in comments for the corrections.) I was at a tasting of Marble’s last four special bottlings a few months ago – the Special barleywine, a new Decadence stout, and ‘frambozen’ and ‘kriek’ variants on Decadence – and I can heartily recommend all four. The Special was particularly remarkable – a hoppy barleywine, would you believe – but all four were striking, and I ended up spending silly money on a bottle of each. (Separate post on silly money prices to follow.) Disappointingly, the new beers are once again only available in those huge 75cl bottles, although the price seems not to be set as high as the last time round. I’m looking forward to checking them out.

In the mean time, here for the sake of argument are my assembled one-line reviews of Marble beers past and present. For convenience I’ve split them into three categories: the Interesting, the Pleasant and the Superb. (Marble not being BrewDog, I didn’t need the additional categories of Dubious Experiment and Just Being Silly Now.) Re-reading them now, I’m struck by the way that Marble have been able to produce some overwhelmingly good beers well outside their hoppy comfort zone (Decadence, Ginger 6, McKenna’s Revenge), while at the same time taking hoppy beer in some new and different directions. Even as a confirmed malt-lover, I’ve learnt to tell the difference between (say) Dobber and Summer Marble, and started to appreciate all the different flavours that go under the name of ‘hoppy’. (Still prefer the dark ones though.)

Interesting

Brew 1335
A short-run seasonal special, apparently. You know that ‘Manchester pale’ style I keep talking about – lots of hops on top of a dry, yeasty flavour with a sour, almost stale-tasting edge to it? This is that. This is exactly that, done very well. If you like that sort of thing, you would definitely have liked this.

Brew 14
Interesting. Very dry, very hoppy, but with a smoky depth to it; I found I was thinking of this as a tall flavour, if that makes sense. I didn’t actually like it, but if you’re into beers with no discernible malt flavour you should certainly give this one a try.

[Another] Brew 14 (2010)
Yellow, sour, hoppy. Sourly hoppy, in fact – it’s made with Citra hops & as such is quite similar to Pictish’s single-varietal ale. Harsher, though – it’s a full-on hoppy ale, as the Marble’s often are, with a bitter attack in mid-mouth.

Brew 1425 v2
‘Manchester pale’, check; hops, dry yeasty flavour, sour edge to it, check. (Especially on the nose. If they ever put this into production they’ve got to do something about the way this beer smells as you lift it – it’s really not good.) But this is 5.9%, which is very strong for Marble beers, and the strength hits you in a big, heavy, slightly apple-y flavour in the middle of your mouth; essentially, this is Wobbly Marble. Not bad at all, apart from the nose.

Dobber
This was new, expensive and 5.9%, which makes me think it’s probably a production version of the 1425. If so 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. I really didn’t like this one. [Second encounter] On gravity dispense, and very nearly flat, it was “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”.

Festival bitter
Pale, hoppy and sour. I owe the Marble Brewery a bit of an apology. The taste – and smell – of some of their hoppier beers has a distinctive sour edge, which reminds me of stale beer and (not to put too fine a point on it) vomit. I had assumed that this was a sign of something going wrong in the brewing, but not so – at a recent ‘meet the brewer’ event I saw (and smelled) the hops the brewery uses, and one of them has exactly this smell. As does this beer. It takes all sorts.

Summer Marble (2010)
I last tried the Summer Marble a couple of years ago. Then, the bitterness was overpowering – a real clove-oil effect, a bit like a Kölsch – and I found it almost physically hard to drink. This is a much more complex proposition – although once again it’s a full-on beer, and once again it’s hops all the way. There’s a metallic bitterness first of all; get through that and you can taste two distinct hop flavours, the lemony Citra balanced by an uncompromising smoky hit at the back of the mouth. Not the pleasantest beer I’ve ever had, but very interesting.

Tawny (in bottle)
There’s a particular flavour, or combination of flavours, which immediately signals “Manchester pale” to me. You get it at the front of your mouth: a flowery, aromatic quality, combined with a slight sourness. It’s probably a particular kind of hops, or a particular kind of hopping, or something. The Tawny has the back-end qualities you’d expect from a dark bitter (malty body, bitter finish), but the front is all Manchester. Nice enough, but not quite my thing.

W90
Very pale, very hoppy: one of those beers with a full-on hop attack, combining bitterness and that odd sour smokiness. Light, fruity sourness in the body and a clean, easy-drinking finish; it’s all happening at the front of your mouth.

Pleasant

Bee
Darker and a bit maltier than the average Marble bitter, but no let-up on the hops. (Why Bee? Honey? The actual beer certainly isn’t sweet.)

Beer 57
Heavy, creamy and distinctly sweet, is the first impression. Lots of hops behind that; a definite metallic bite, with a hoppy finish at the back of the mouth and cloves on the tip of your tongue. Very much in the area Abbeydale have been staking out, but more full-on (as is the Marble’s wont).

Good Beer
A bit of a hostage to fortune, surely? Surprisingly enough, this is a brown, malty bitter, although the malt character doesn’t develop very far before the bitter hop finish slams down on it. Not bad at all.

McKenna’s Porter
Back in pre-vegan days, the Marble used occasionally to brew a porter called McKenna’s Revenge, and what a porter it was too – a really distinctive flavour consisting mainly of shovelsful of malt, balanced by just enough bitterness to stop it being cloying. This isn’t that, sadly; more of a ‘dark bitter with stout overtones’ kind of porter. File under ‘perfectly pleasant’.

Mild of the Times
Very dark, not very sweet; if you had this and the Boggart porter in a blind tasting you’d be hard put to identify the mild. The slightly sour flowery front end and the bitter finish are present and correct; in the middle there’s a bit more going on than usual, but it’s not really distinctively mild.

Tawny No. 3
Darkish, malty and strong, with a bit of hop bitterness cutting through and that particular smoky, queasy nose that the Marble’s hops tend to have. (Sorry, I’m just not a fan.) If you like Marble bitters, this is the kind of dark bitter you’ll like.

Tawny No. 4
Not very tawny, as it goes, but a lot browner than the average Marble bitter. A lot of bitterness there, but a lot of flavour too. Not a million miles from the Well Cut mild, but a less aggressive flavour & strength (4.5%). Really very drinkable.

Well Cut mild
A good strong mild is a thing of beauty. (If you like mild, and you like stronger and darker bitters, what’s not to like about a good 6% mild?) But strong mild is also an oddity – almost a contradiction in terms – and a rarity with it; this is only the second example I’ve come across, the other being Sarah Hughes’s Ruby Mild. Well Cut is good, but it’s nowhere near that good; lots of malt and tannic bitterness, but not enough sweetness. Would also lose points, if I were giving points, for playing silly beggars with pricing (see also Decadence) – yes, it’s seasonal and yes, it’s unusually strong, but £3.20 a pint? Give over.

Superb

Brew 1691
A great big flavour with a definite malty fruitiness and a big thud of alcohol (it’s 6% a.b.v.). Midway between a light-ish mild and an old ale – one hell of a between.

Chocolate
It’s a stout – heavy, bitter, espresso-dark with a tight, creamy head – and then it’s not. More specifically, something strange happens around the middle of your tongue, where the malt and the burnt-grain sourness usually kick in: there’s some of that, but there’s also a big sweet dollop of, well, chocolate. It really shouldn’t work, but it really does. It’d be interesting to compare it directly with Orval, which isn’t a stout but works a similar trick of simultaneously tasting like (a) plain chocolate (b) marmalade and (c) beer.

Decadence stout (2008) (in bottle)
The Marble brewery’s only recently got into bottled beers; most of them are 500ml bottles selling for £2.80, which is a bit steep but worth it for something like the bottle-only 6% Ginger Marble, which is rather fine. Decadence was a late addition to the range: an 8.2% stout sold in a 330ml bottle (with a painted label), for £4.50 a throw. Call me a skinflint, but to my mind £4.50 is a ridiculous amount for a bottle of beer. So the chances are I won’t be getting this again – but I’m very glad I tried it, & I’d recommend anyone who likes beer to try it once. What’s it like? Think of Dragon Stout, then multiply by Guinness Foreign. Think of the deepest, fullest-flavoured Trappist ale you’ve ever had, and add that. It’s the kind of flavour that rushes up to meet you and then keeps on going, enveloping you and then unfolding some more. Ink metaphors are hard to avoid with stout, and what this one reminded me of was the way black ink on wet tissue paper spreads out and unfurls into shades of blue. Shades of malt, in this case; shades of ale. It’s like swimming in beer, or possibly drowning. Really very nice indeed. Still ridiculously over-priced, though.

Ginger Marble
When the cider’s off and the guest beers both have ‘white’ or ‘silver’ in their names, you can always rely on a Ginger. I used to get Brendan Dobbin’s bottled alcoholic ginger beer sometimes; this isn’t quite up to that standard (that was quite extraordinary) but it’s a very fine pint. Essentially it’s my pet hate, a Manchester-style pale bitter, but with some of the hoppiness and most of the sourness swamped by, well, ginger. (You can actually taste the ginger – it’s not just heat.) Not really a session beer – I had four one evening shortly after it came in, and felt quite peculiar the next morning.

Ginger 6
The 6% Ginger Marble, usually only available in bottle. I wasn’t very taken with the bottled version, but this was terrific – all the plus points of the normal Ginger, bedded down on a deep alcoholic richness of flavour. Think of an Abbey-style Triple and you won’t be far off.

Stouter Stout
It was Christmas Eve a couple of years ago when I went to my local and noticed that they had the Marble Port Stout on. There wasn’t a price for it, so I asked how much it was. They said it was free. That had never happened to me in a pub before, and will probably never happen again. (It was nice, too.) I’ve had the Stouter Stout before and not liked it much. A draught stout is a difficult thing to get right, and in that earlier pint I couldn’t taste much apart from great slabs of inky burnt-grain sourness. (A real aficionado probably doesn’t mix beers, but I have to admit I’m partial to a black and tan, precisely because the bitter hides the sourness of the Guinness. Or rather, the sourness of the bitter and the sourness of the Guinness cancel each other out, somehow – with the right bitter, a black and tan tastes of almost nothing at all.) This one, anyway, was a lot better; the sourness was still there, but well down in the mix. A big, dark, bitter stout – inky in a good (metaphorical) way. As distinct from the earlier one, you understand, which actually tasted of ink.

Rebellious jukebox

Pete‘s done it, Mark Dredge has done it, the Curmudgeon‘s done it and Barm‘s refused to do it. Time then for me to do it: to say what would be on my ideal jukebox.

I’ve got quite mixed feelings about background music in pubs. (I exempt music sessions and singarounds, which are about making music rather than having it in the background, and which don’t invite an audience: if you’re listening, the chances are you’re also playing or singing.) The only kind I can’t stand is the kind that’s too loud to hear yourself speak; I don’t even like that kind of volume in a club for as long as I’m not actually dancing, and in a venue where you can’t dance it seems downright perverse. I’m not crazy about piped music, or amplified live music for that matter, where it’s loud enough to be intrusive; too much of that and you start hankering after silence. But relatively quiet music can make a good backdrop to a drink and a chat.

The big exception to the rule about intrusively loud music is the jukebox, which I appreciate at more or less any volume. Really, the jukebox is commodity capitalism in musical form: it delivers music in discrete packages, each of which can be purchased for the same fee, and by doing so it generates both demand and competition: if you don’t like what someone else has put on, put your hand in your pocket and buy your own choice. All the same, there’s something liberating – empowering, even – about being able to turn your desire for music so quickly and easily into effective demand: a good jukebox lets you dredge up the song that’s going through your head, be it a B-side or a buried album track, and fill the room with it almost instantaneously. It’s not a million miles away from the buzz of singing a new song at a singaround – although obviously in that case there’s more effort involved, and no money changing hands.

Anyway, here are some songs I’ve filled rooms with in the past and hopefully will do again.

Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
“Where immobile steel rims crack, And the ditch in the back roads stop…” What’s it mean? What’s he going on about? Half a minute later it doesn’t matter. Bliss.

the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”
For a long time I couldn’t pass the Crescent in Salford without going in, and I couldn’t go in without putting this on the jukebox. (To be fair, I only went down that street about once a week.) “I went down to the demonstration, To get my fair share of abuse…” Them weret’ days.

Wizzard, “See my baby jive”
The greatest single ever released. If it doesn’t lift your mood a bit you may be dead.

Radiohead, “Paranoid android”
Sometimes it’s not about lifting the mood. “From a great height… From a great height…”

Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes”
This single had almost mythical status when I was growing up, largely because nobody I knew had a copy. If you ever found it on a jukebox, what a song. My friends and I were fascinated by the spoken passage that you can just make out in the fade – “I’ve wanted to do this for years… There you go!

David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
I think we don’t always hear how weird this single is. It sounds as if the elements of a pop song have been shuffled and then put back together; they’re all there but nothing fits properly. It’s only let down by patches of downright ineptitude – he should have got rid of that saxophonist.

the Phantom Band, “Throwing bones”
Today on this programme you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. And folk, and angsty singer-songwriter introspection, and quite a lot of Krautrock. And Scottish accents.

the Pet Shop Boys, “Left to my own devices”
There had to be some Pet Shop Boys (at least, when I’m in a pub there often is). “Being boring” and the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this” were strong contenders, but this won out – the eight-minute album version, of course. (You may detect a theme emerging here. By my reckoning these eight tracks come in at 47 minutes.) Strings by Trevor Horn, rap by Neil Tennant:
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet:
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.

You can’t say fairer than that.

My Place, Chorlton

A few weeks ago I stuck my nose into Bar 4Eighty and the Lounge Bar, two bars sitting side-by-side on Chorlton’s main drag, and promptly withdrew – not a draught beer in sight. The next time I passed, the Lounge Bar was no more; it’s now trading under the non-Google-friendly name of My Place (or possibly MyPlace, I’m not sure).

I went in there for a drink this lunchtime. Still no cask beer, but what they did have was a choice of real cider – something I’ve only seen a couple of times before, and a very ambitious choice for a new bar. The choice in this case was between two polypins, standing uncooled behind the bar, offering Saxon’s optimistically-titled Session Cider (5.8%) and the same company’s Strawberry Fields (6.9%). I had a half of the latter, which was bright red and initially struck me as rather sweet, but turned out to be very nice indeed: the underlying taste of the cider was sharp enough, and strong enough, to counter the strawberry flavour. The service wasn’t brilliant – the barmaid went to give me ice without asking if I wanted it, then realised there wasn’t enough room in the tall tumbler she’d served me with and gave me a second tumbler full of ice, to add as I saw fit. I gave in to curiosity, towards the bottom of the glass, and tipped what was left into the ice glass. With its deep red colour it looked very nice – took me back to drinking Negronis in Italy – but the effect on the flavour was disastrous: it basically killed it, leaving nothing but an undistinguished sharpness. You’ve got to wonder what Magner’s tastes like warm, and how many people ever find out.

There was no draught beer, although there was a single unbadged hand-pump on the counter. I got talking to the manager, who said that “the brewery” (I missed the chance to ask him which one) had fitted it today, while he was out, and that it wasn’t what he wanted. What he wanted was to dispense beer the same way he did the cider, from barrels behind the bar – and he intended to talk to the brewery again and get it sorted out. We shall see.

I didn’t ask the guy any particularly searching questions, so I may be doing him an injustice here. But what struck me was that he didn’t seem to be any kind of beer geek – at one point he referred to the barrels he wanted behind the bar as ‘kegs’, for instance. Even so, he liked the idea of dispensing beer by gravity, having casks behind the bar and “making a feature of it” – and he clearly thought it would help the bar to stand out, in what’s locally a very competitive market.

Until fairly recently there were three types of establishment that would have beer on gravity dispense: country pubs which had just never stopped doing it; country pubs which would have stopped doing it if it hadn’t been for the tourist trade; and a few town pubs catering to tickers. For a new bar to put it on from the start suggests that something is shifting in perceptions of cask ale. I’m not crazy about gravity dispense, as I said back here, but one thing it does do very effectively is differentiate real ale from lager. And that differentiation, apparently, is now a selling-point.

An interesting development – although further visits and reports back will certainly be required!

Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 2

Quick recap:

  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.

The fact that cask ale drinking rose in the South-East of England in 2009, while falling in the rest of the country, lends some support to the ‘separate rise’ theory.

And here’s a relevant thought from the Curmudgeon:

In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. … In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.

However, it didn’t work out like that. … the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones.

I think there’s a lot in that, and it chimes with another aspect of the Cask Report which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. A representative quote:

cask ale drinkers tend to agree with statements that are more thoughtful, inquisitive and curious. They are active in their leisure time, interested in what goes on in the world, and like to stay informed about everything from international events to developments in technology. This attitude is also reflected in the fact that they read a lot of newspapers. They’re twice as likely to read quality dailies like the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent, but more likely to read any newspaper overall apart from the Star, Sun and in Scotland the Daily Record.

We are also substantially more likely than average to “go for premium rather than standard goods and services”; keg drinkers are slightly less likely than the average. Plus we like to try new drinks, we like a night at the pub (duh!) but don’t go out just to get drunk, we think it’s worth paying extra for good quality beer (hold that thought) and, by jingo, we’re prepared to pay more for good quality wine. In short:


No doubt this is connected with another finding:

Cask ale drinkers tend to be upmarket (68.5% are social grade ABC1). They are more comfortable about their financial situation, and tend to be at a life stage with fewer financial commitments. They tend to wear cravats and sit at the bar talking in loud braying voices, before driving home in their red MGs which were actually a bloody good investment when you really look at it.

(OK, only two of those sentences appear in the Cask Report. Full disclosure: I used to live in the South-East. Never regretted leaving.)

All this is partly smoke and mirrors: according to the 2001 Census (with some post-processing), 55% of the working-age population falls into either the AB group (professional and managerial) or C1 (supervisory and clerical). There’s a difference between a 55/45 split and 68.5/31.5, but not a huge one (Fisher’s exact test gives a p value of 0.08, stats geeks). All this statistic is really saying is that a random sample of cask ale drinkers is a bit more likely to include white-collar workers than a random sample of the population as a whole.

Nevertheless, the trend of the argument is clear: put on more cask ale and you’ll attract responsible drinkers who like good quality wine and read quality dailies. Nice people, in short – well, middle-class people, anyway. You know that old bloke who used to be in there every time you went in, sat in the corner with a fag on and an everlasting pint of Tetley’s and the Daily Mirror, and on Friday lunch his son would come in and they’d have lunch together? Not people like him.

The future of cask lies with a different type of customer altogether. Quoth the Report, “cask is enjoying a steady trend towards premiumisation, with people opting for slightly stronger, more expensive beers”. And why wouldn’t they, what with liking to try new drinks, being comfortable about their financial situation, being into premium goods and services and being willing to pay extra for good quality beer. Which brings us to page 11 of the Report, which deserves quoting at some length:
One of the absurdities of cask ale is that, as the most crafted, quality drink on the bar, it is often the cheapest. If we compare premium sausages to mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, farmhouse cheese to processed cheese, real coffee to freeze-dried granules, we routinely expect the premium version to cost more. The fact that cask is cheaper is doubly absurd because cask drinkers actually expect and are prepared to pay more for cask beer – especially the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit.

OK, let’s break this down. First point: the statistics don’t say what the Report says they do. They specifically don’t say what drinkers are prepared to pay for cask beer, just what they’d expect to be charged. Moreover, the averaged-out figures for all the over-34 age-groups don’t show much difference from the £2.50 baseline, ranging from £2.62 down to £2.39; the fact that they aren’t any lower probably just reflects a general awareness that £2.50 is pretty cheap for a pint these days. The only striking result is in the under-35 age group – the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit, or in other words people who haven’t got much experience of drinking cask ale.

Second point: there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and it’s historical. When keg bitter was introduced it was new, different and modern; it had an instant superficial appeal (why, every pint tastes the same! and they’re all fizzy!); and it did well. The breweries took the opportunity to jack up the price, even though the beer was actually cheaper to produce and distribute. When the big push on lager came in the 1970s, the same thing happened: your Hofmeister and your Heineken were new and exotic, so naturally they were priced even higher. Same story with nitrokeg Guinness. In short, there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and the reason is that keg drinkers are being ripped off. Since the rip-off has been going on for literally four decades, it’s probably not going to end any time soon – but to see it used as a reason for ripping off cask drinkers as well is a remarkable bit of chutzpah.

Fundamental point: cask beer is not a “premium” product. Ground coffee is not a premium version of instant coffee, it’s the real thing: instant coffee is a cheap substitute for ground coffee. (I drink it all the time, but (with all due respect to Rula Lenska) you would never imagine you were drinking ground coffee.) Sausages made from recognisable cuts of meat aren’t a premium version of mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, they’re the real thing; the nameless-pink-slurry variety are a cheap substitute. What Pete appears to be suggesting here is that lager and keg bitter are cheap, mechanically-produced substitutes for hand-crafted real beer. It’s a point of view that had a lot of currency in CAMRA in the early days, but I understood the debate had moved on a bit.

What’s going on here is, essentially, rhetorical softening-up for introducing the idea of ‘premium’ beer; on the back of bracketing real ale with foods that aren’t cheap and nasty, we’re being asked to bracket it with semi-luxury goods like farmhouse cheese. Like some other bloggers, I like a nice bit of cheese, and I’ll buy the odd bit of Stilton or chèvre without counting the cost too carefully. But when I go to the pub on a Saturday, I do not want to order the beer equivalent of an artisanal Brie. There’s good beer and then there’s New Special Different Original Rare Short-Run Hand-Finished Beer – or novelty beer for short – and never the twain shall meet. I will buy novelty beer from time to time – I’ve got all four of the recent Marble bottlings, each waiting for its own special occasion – but it really isn’t what I want to find on the bar on the average Saturday.

In the previous post I commented on the Report’s use of statistics, as well as the detail of the conclusions it draws from them, and concluded that it’s at least as much a piece of advocacy as an analytical report. I also asked: “if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?” My ideal world, as far as beer is concerned, is one in which the decline of cask is reversed: a world where I could go into any pub in town – including the ones where people read the Daily Mirror; including the ones where people drink Vod-Bull, come to that – and find at least one hand-pump on the bar dispensing a beer that’s in good condition, because people have been drinking it. I’m lucky; good, interesting, relatively inexpensive cask beer is part of my everyday life (well, 2-3 times a week rather than everyday as such, but the point stands). My ideal world is one where many, many more people have that experience.

I’m really not sure that that’s the ideal world the Cask Report is envisaging. Rather, I can see a vista of high-priced ‘premium’ and novelty beers opening up, with a new class of beer-drinkers to go with them: ABC1, Guardian and Telegraph-readers, responsible drinkers, comfortable with their financial situation, willing to pay for quality, and so on and so forth. And, perhaps, living mainly in the South-East. The really worrying thought is that the Cask Report may genuinely be reporting the future of cask: perhaps the shift towards “premiumisation”, the prominence of broadsheet readers and the anomalous rise in cask volumes in the South-East are all part of the same trend. Perhaps what’s continuing to decline in most of the country is the world of the pub and club as we’ve known it, and what’s on the rise in the South-East is a new kind of cask drinker: people who are already used to the £3 pint, and can pay more than that without really noticing; people who, as Gazza suggested, come to single-varietal beers knowing all about “the characteristics of individual grapes used in wine production”; people who genuinely see cask beer as a ‘premium’ product, in short, and don’t mind paying a premium for it.

These are not my kind of beer drinker – and I’m not convinced their beer is going to be my kind of beer.