Monthly Archives: December 2010

Getting warmer

South Manchester CAMRA (I think), which is my local branch (at least, I think it is; Manchester is divvied up between about eight different CAMRA branches, most of which don’t seem to correspond to areas people are actually likely to say they live in – “Trafford and Hulme”, I ask you) – anyway, South Manchester CAMRA is running… I’ll come in again.

South Manchester CAMRA is running a Winter Warmer Wander, in connection with the upcoming National Winter Ales Festival. (It opens on 19th January and I’m looking forward to it already, Christmas schmistmas.) The deal is the usual kind of thing – visit up to 32 designated pubs in the area and “Buy at least half a pint of cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale, barley wine (or if none are available any other premium beer at 4.5% abv or greater)”. Twelve stickers get you two bottles of winter ale and a free ticket to the NWAF; prizes for visiting 24 and all 32 pubs are yet more generous.

Eight of the 32 pubs are in the city centre, if we define “city centre” to include a brisk hike up the Rochdale Road, so I thought there were some relatively easy ticks to be had. I started at the Waterhouse, one of the many Spoons houses in the centre, and probably my favourite; certainly it’s the one that’s most like a pub and least like an old-school Yates’s or a Butlin’s canteen. Getting served on the weekday lunchtime when I visited was a bit of a challenge, as the serving area was dominated by a long queue of people ordering food; I joined it on general if-you-can’t-beat-’em principles (a queue, in a pub?) but then spotted a group of drinkers loitering by the bar and went to loiter nearby. Sadly, the pub had no beer – I jest, it had several cask ales on, but none of them qualified as a “winter warmer”. What they did have on was Jaipur – well clear of the 4.5% threshold and, if ultimately not really my thing, a very nice example of its type. Very much Dobber’s smartly-dressed cousin; Dominic should fit right in over there.

Further into the town centre, the winter warmer drought continued. Nothing at Bar Fringe, where I had Blackwater’s oddly-named Disco; a perfectly decent north-end-of-session-strength pale bitter, but no more. Nothing at 57 Thomas St, partly because I literally couldn’t get in the door – someone seemed to have had the brave notion of taking an entire office party there. The numbers could have got lost in the Waterhouse; at 57 Thomas St, they gave the entire pub the density of a moshpit. I went on. Nothing at the Castle, where the Old Tom clip was turned round (and none of the ales that were on broke the 4.5% barrier). Nothing at the Arndale Micro Bar – at least, not until I remembered that one of the regulars there is Boggart Rum Porter, and what a very fine beer that is. And nothing, again, at 57 Thomas St, where I managed to get through the door an hour or so later; the range was the usual – Bitter and Dobber. The latter would have qualified, but the pub was still unpleasantly crowded and noisy, so I left it.

Another venture into town took me, warily, to the Smithfield Hotel. If you go to Band on the Wall and keep going – where the road heads away from Piccadilly and towards Victoria, and very rapidly starts looking highly run-down and a bit dodgy – you’ll reach the Smithfield. And reach it you should, because it’s a really nice pub with a great range of beer. I had Facer’s Winter Warmer: a beautiful 7% barleywine, mellow and smooth, heavy without being sticky. Emboldened, I made a return visit to the Castle, where the Old Tom was back on, and what a very, very fine beer that is. I had a half, and even that was enough to make me (a) lose all track of time and (b) not care. It drinks its strength in every sense: a firework display of flavour to keep pace with the 8.5% alcohol hit. Wonderful stuff.

Then it was back to 57 Thomas St, which was more or less empty and could only offer Bitter. (Shape up, lads – I don’t think a choice of two ales is a lot to ask.) Finally, I found myself at the Paramount, another Spoons house and one which I’d strenuously avoided up to now. The seating is plentiful, as always with JDW – you’ve got to have something to sit on while you eat your burger-and-a-pint – but the place somehow still gives the impression of being a “vertical drinking” pub; something to do with the combination of an open-plan layout, plate glass windows and low lighting. That, and vast hordes of punters – the place was absolutely rammed. I’ve never known a Spoons that was a nice place to drink, and the Paramount is no exception. On the other hand, I’ve never been disappointed by the beer on offer, and the Paramount came through on that front as well. Step forward Paramount Porter (!), which is 6.5% and brewed by Elland – and is presumably a rebadged version of the 1872 Porter which was Supreme Champion at the 2010 Winter Ales Festival. And rather fine it was.

Seven pubs, six beers, including three excellent “winter warmers” and one absolute classic. Six down, six to go – Chorlton is calling!

Make room for me

This is a late addendum to last weekend’s Open It! jollifications.

Out you come, lads

As you can see, I didn’t have any beer at the back of the cupboard that I wanted to broach for the occasion. (I have got four Marble 750ml bottles awaiting their special occasion – the first four, that is: Decadence, Special, Decadence Frambozen and Decadence Kriek – but by the time I started thinking about Opening It! it was Sunday evening, and I really didn’t want to start putting myself outside that much alcohol. Their time will come.) Instead, I dug out what you can see in the picture.

Lindisfarne sloe gin. This was a bit of a cheek, as this bottle was actually a present to my wife a couple of years ago. Still, she’d forgotten about it, so I thought it qualified (and she had a glass too). In the event, this gave us both a surprise. It was a deep purply red, it was thick and syrupy, it was sweet with an underlying bitterness… and it was sharp: not the slight fruity sourness of a ruby port but a real acidity. Much sharper than we’d expected, and not entirely successful.

I moved on to the

Gordon’s lemon gin. I guess this is also strictly speaking my wife’s property, as it was one of the things cleared out of her mother’s house when she went into a home. She (wife, not mother-in-law) remembers it sitting unopened in the drinks cupboard from her early childhood. Gordon’s stopped making lemon gin in 1980, so it’s at least 30 years old; from the look of the bottle I’d say it’s closer to 50. The strength is given as 60 degrees proof, which I reckon to be 34.5 % a.b.v.

So what’s it like? According to this ad what you get is “the purest gin blended with the juice of the finest lemons”, which sounds like a pretty full-on combination. On tasting, it became apparent that there was sugar in there too, although doubtless they insisted on the purest (or finest) sugar. At first it reminded me of limoncello – it could hardly fail to, given that it’s sweet, strong and tastes of lemons – but as I got further down the glass the gin flavours and aromas came through more insistently, a bit like hop aromas sneaking up on you when you’re drinking a malty beer. Really very nice indeed. I subsequently tried a lemon gin and tonic; this wasn’t as successful – a bit too sweet – but I could easily acquire the taste. If only it were still available!

From the sublime, lastly, to the Offley Port. My wife (I can’t keep her out of this post – honestly, you let the focus on beer slip for a moment and the womenfolk are all over the show) gave me this miniature in 1991, together with miniatures of Fernet-Branca and Cynar, after we’d returned from our honeymoon in Italy. The F-B and Cynar (an artichoke-based aperitif) were just things we kept seeing in bars over there, but the Offley port was a bit of a standing joke: every bar seemed to offer port, and the port they offered was almost invariably Offley, a brand which looks very classy and English but is in fact unknown over here. (Gin was even better: you could either pay over the odds for imported Gordon’s or get the local alternative, Focking Gin. Sadly, when my wife was shopping for miniatures she was unable to find any Focking Gin.)

So that’s the set-up: what about the punchline? I should say that I wasn’t expecting very much from the Offley: apart from anything else, the label clearly states that this is a miniature of Ruby Port, which isn’t normally known for losing its colour in two decades flat. First impressions were actually quite good: it looked a lot like white port and tasted pretty similar, with perhaps a bit of the ruby port blackcurrant flavour coming through. My mistake was to swallow: the aftertaste, and the aroma it seemed to release as it went down, were truly vile. I’d never fully appreciated the concept of a drink smelling “musty” before. This port didn’t just have musty overtones, it genuinely tasted like old books smell. Regretfully, I poured the rest of it down the sink.

But at least I can say that I Opened It – and, in at least one case out of three, I’m very glad I did. And next year, if they’re still there, one of the Marbles gets it.

Down with this sort of thing

One final note about the “craft beer” post, focusing on the reaction it got from US readers. (For anyone who doesn’t recognise it, the title refers here.)

Most posts on this blog seem to get 30-40 views the day they come out and another 60-70 afterwards. I’m happy with that; to the extent that I’ve got an audience in mind it consists mainly of other people who write beer blogs, and there aren’t that many of us, so reaching anything up to 100 people seems pretty good. (Disclaimer: I have not only met but actually drunk beer with 66% of the bloggers linked in the previous sentence. It’s like the Masons, I’m telling you.)

This post got 1,232 views the first day it was up; the total currently stands at 2,463. That’s an awful lot of new visitors – and I think it’s probably fair to say that a lot of them weren’t too keen.

I think this is more about envy of hype. Right now it is the American beers that are getting the hype and some people (especially in Europe) can not abide anything American being considered good.

Just another blogger making sweepy generalizations about something they don’t like or don’t agree with.

This guy’s a bummer. I wouldn’t want to drink a beer with him.

this blogger is a jackass, and i wouldn’t be surprised if they work for Coors.

Some of this negative reaction was entirely predictable – some people reacted badly to my critique of the elitism of the “craft beer” mentality because… well, take this comment:

Craft Beer….is better. Period. That’s why we love the stuff. I’m proud to have some level of literacy,culture,awareness,spirit of adventure. … Am I “Elite” probably not,but I’ve put an effort into being more evolved than the herd.

Moving swiftly along… In other cases there was more of a genuine communication breakdown, due partly to the attention-grabbing title I used. The US beer scene was never my main focus in writing that post. I don’t know a lot about it (although I know a lot more now than I did before I wrote that post) and I’m, frankly, not hugely interested in it: by and large, what happens there doesn’t affect me. After reading the reaction from US beer geeks, I’ve got a bit more of a feel for what “craft brewing” means over there and why, in the US, it might be a standard worth rallying around. (Short answer: it beats the hell out of the alternative.) But I still think that, even in the US context, it’s a rough-and-ready label with no precise definition – or else with a definition that raises more questions than it answers – and I think that’s likely to cause problems further down the road. Ultimately, though, that’s not what I was writing about; it’s not my fight. Here and now I’m certainly not attacking the actual liquids sold in the USA under the name of “craft beer”. (Well, maybe some of them.)

What I wanted to write about was the use of the term “craft beer” in the UK, and the associated growth of a certain kind of mentality, also found in parts of the US craft beer scene. Strictly speaking, my title should really have been “Down with the use of the term ‘craft beer’ by British brewers and beer geeks; also, down with the particular kind of ‘craft beer’ mentality which this is associated with”.

And what mentality is that? Firstly, “craft beer” in the UK is generally promoted as an alternative to “real ale”, the implication being that the insistence on cask ale is a shibboleth or even a bad thing; this is perhaps the main reason why the term sets off alarm bells for me (I dealt with this in this post).

Secondly, “craft beer” in the UK is a cliquey project: what “craft beer” actually is never needs to be defined, because you can read off what it means from the people who use it, and what they use it to refer to. As such, it’s inherently elitist, in a way that’s simply not true of “real ale” – which is, after all, how all beer was brewed and served for most of history. (Campaigning for “real ale” may be reactionary, but it’s not elitist.) As Zak said in comments, the “craft beer” mentality is very much FUBU – “for us, by us”; if the masses don’t Get It, so much the worse for them. (Just go back to drinking your mass marketed, bland, cheaply made watered down lager, and close the door behind you.)

And (thirdly) it’s strongly associated with a focus on extremes: strong is good, hoppy is good, weird is good, but stronger, hoppier and weirder are better. I stand by my comment on the Double IPA festival Mark wrote about – it sounds like hell on earth, and it certainly doesn’t sound like a beer festival (it doesn’t really sound like beer). I would hate to see that kind of event over here, because I think it would represent a real wrong turning for the British beer scene.

Which is still, primarily, a “real ale” scene, focused mainly (not exclusively) on stuff you can drink in pints, defined (mostly) in fairly inclusive technical terms. And long may it remain so.

Update I’d just finished fiddling with this post (apologies to anyone who caught the first published draft) when I read this terrific post from Velky Al, tackling the vexed question

What do craft brewers do that industrial brewers don’t?

Read it and find out. (Sample quote: Sometimes this whole craft vs industrial debate sounds like kids in the playground and when one kids says “my dad is bigger than yours” the craft kid replies “but my dad punches with artisan style”.)

Careful now

Some afterthoughts on my last post, starting with the promised response to Pete.

In 1971/72, CAMRA quite reasonably figured they should get around to defining ‘good beer’ a little more closely. The problem is, what constituted good beer back then was very specific, and the tight, technical definition of ‘real ale’ has become inadequate.

I think this is the nub of it (which should save time). According to this argument CAMRA not only should be, but always has been, a campaign for good beer; it’s just that the main threat to good beer in the early 1970s came from mass-market keg, and “real ale” (considered as shorthand for “the kind of good beer we’re campaigning for”) was consequently defined as “not keg”. Nowadays there are lots of varieties of good beer which don’t qualify as “real ale”, and so the definition is getting in the way.

Sorry, Pete, but I think this is backwards. I call in evidence Robinson’s Old Tom, and other non-bottle-conditioned bottled beers of style and distinction. It’s true that CAMRA officially refers to bottle-conditioned beers as “real ale in a bottle“, and there have been occasional attempts to rally the faithful against bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned, but they’ve never got much of a head of steam behind them. Non-b.c. bottled beer doesn’t have a bad name in the way that keg does, and the reason is that most of us drink it and we know that it’s often very good. So should we start referring to the likes of Old Tom as a “craft beer”? I’m sorry, I’ll type that again. So why should we start referring to the likes of Old Tom as a “craft beer”? The fact that they aren’t “real ale” has never got in their way: people who like good beer are capable of recognising it irrespective of labels.

The point isn’t that the label of “real ale” is too narrow to encompass all good beer; the point is that “real ale” refers to one specific front in the campaign for good beer. Cask vs keg is the part of the broader campaign which was of overriding importance when CAMRA was founded; it may not be as important now, but I’d argue that it hasn’t gone away (or else there’d hardly be any call for someone to write a Cask Report). Lots of keg bitter out there, or should I say keg “smooth” – which has come to be seen as a style in its own right (and you can’t get it out of those funny big pumps). Lots of room for promotion of “real ale”, even if “real ale” isn’t the be-all and end-all of good beer.

I’m an amateur folk-singer, and I frequently get into similar arguments about what is and isn’t “folk”: people will insist that a brand-new song should be seen as a “folk song”, because it’s in the folk style or it has the folk spirit, or something. Dig a bit deeper and what you often find is that they’re using “folk” as a synonym for “good”: it matters immensely to them that the label of “folk” should be stretched to cover what they’ve just written, because otherwise you’d be saying it was no good. Something similar seems to be going on when we’re told that “real ale” ought to be stretched to cover specially selected examples of keg beer, or else replaced with a new label that will be easier to stretch. I’d much rather answer the question of whether a keg BrewDog or Thornbridge beer is “real ale” with a flat No, and then consider the completely separate question of whether it’s any good. (Which it might be, or it might not; the scoreboard on a recent tasting of Thornbridge keg by some bloggers I trust could be summed up as “good but cold, fizzy and lacking in subtlety”. As for BrewDog, to my knowledge they brew some stupendous beer – on cask. I think their current commitment to keg is pushing contrarianism to daft and counter-productive lengths. So no change there.)

Anyway, back to Pete:

I would bet my house that for most CAMRA members, ‘real ale’ means beer that has been made ‘properly’, with love, and care, by people who care about taste.

I agree that those are the connotations of “real ale”, but that’s a long way from saying that that’s what it means. Do most CAMRA members think that all beer that’s been made ‘properly’ (etc) is “real ale”? Do they think that cask ale ceases to be “real ale” if it’s been thrown together any old how – or, more realistically, if it’s been brewed in industrial quantities by a company that’s run by accountants? I’d be surprised if many people did. I think most people who care enough about the term “real ale” to use it are aware that it’s not a synonym of “good beer”.

The whole point of ‘craft beer’ is that it is vague enough to encompass a broad church of beer. It’s imprecise, but most people would guess what it means and broadly agree on what is and isn’t craft beer.

It says “hand-made, possibly with twigs in” to me – which clearly rules out these people‘s products, in or out of a keg. Seriously, the great strength of “real ale” is that it means the same thing whether you care about it or not. “Craft beer”, at least in the UK, seems to mean nothing much more than “a beer made by a member of the club of people who like using the term ‘craft beer'”.

Oh, and it’s not a ‘marketing exercise’ – it’s popular because it works for fans of great tasting beer

I didn’t say it was. I said it was “an arbitrary bit of marketing jargon that a few brewers and their fans like to apply to their beers”, and I haven’t really been persuaded otherwise. But perhaps I’d qualify that now to “arbitrarily imported” – I’m coming round to thinking that the term does, just about, mean something in the USA.

Ah, the USA… home of many fine small breweries and many drinkers of strange and interesting beers, several hundred of whom came through here after learning about my post via BeerAdvocate or Reddit. I was going to say something about their reaction and what I learned from it, but I’ve spent long enough on this already. More another time. Here’s one comment I particularly enjoyed:

To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism on the island’s beer, beer culture, and the palate of those consuming beer.

This is a frequent phenomenon in the natural world and to critique the behavior of the British isle’s population without taking it into account would be unfair. When you take into account the isolation and limited resources an island habitat produces, it makes sense that beer would slowly evolve to survive with a lesser amount of fermentables, hops, carbon dioxide, and refrigeration.

Consequently, when someone from this environment sees a beer with high IBU’s and Alcohol content, it is seen as a grotesquely large freak of nature and is likely to offend their encoded notions of how beer should be produced.

Discuss.