Monthly Archives: February 2012

Hops, sausages, sugar

This is one of those posts where a certain amount of anonymity is called for. Not on my part, obviously, but I should probably draw a veil over the establishment involved.

So there’s this bar quite near where I live – which narrows it down to about 20 – and they’ve recently shaken up their draught beer range, which for a long time centred on some not very exciting beers from Bolton. These days they’ve got a wider and more interesting range, looking more to Cheshire than Lancashire, and including frequent appearances by my current favourite brewery.

Which is all good, except… There was a beer from my favourite brewery which I had there a few weeks back, and which had flavours I couldn’t quite get my head around; it was an American-style amber ale (at least according to the pump clip), but there was just too much sweetness there for me; sweetness and an odd sort of heaviness in the mouth. A different Favourite-Brewery beer today confirmed the impression; sweetish and heavyish – far more than the style would suggest – and with almost meaty, gravyish overtones.

I was mulling it over this evening and wondering if I needed to educate my palate to Favourite Brewery’s new direction, when I remembered why I’d originally stopped trying those beers from Bolton: they tasted like they hadn’t been terribly well kept. Specifically, there was a sweetish, heavyish, gravyish quality to them…

What to do? Naming and shaming would be wildly irresponsible – apart from anything else, I haven’t really got any evidence that they aren’t supposed to taste like that. (This is a problem with high-rotation guest beers – up to a point, how do you know whether they taste right or not? It makes me realise what a tricky position small brewers are in – a guest ale in a popular bar is a good way to make people remember your name, and a guest ale that tastes weird is a good way to make sure they avoid it.)

In terms of lodging a protest – and/or being a ‘responsible consumer’ – simply voting with my feet by not going back is probably my best bet. I don’t think that losing my custom would have much influence on them, though – I only ever drop in there after work when it’s quiet; later on it’s always packed out. Besides, I probably won’t even do that; it’s a nice enough bar, that particular brewery is a big draw for me, and who knows, the next one I try might be fine. Or maybe they are meant to taste like that, who knows.

All I’m saying is, if anyone from that particular bar is reading, and if you know who you are, then I think the cellaring side of things might need looking at.

Update: after reading the comments below, I hereby take it all back: the Macclesfield beers really were meant to taste like that, and the Bolton ones presumably were too. (At least, whatever they tasted like was what they tasted like, if you see what I mean.) Most importantly, I’m happy to put the record straight with regard to the beer quality at the bar in question, and will be heading back there for a swift one after work some day soon.

(Title: B&B.)

(And my Favourite Brewery is… newish, innovative, and based in Cheshire. Which narrows it down to about six. RedWillow, obviously. Really not sure about the sweet edge to those last two, but I’m still looking forward to the next one I try.)

Are you experienced?

There’s an interesting discussion over at B&B‘s (which is becoming my blog-from-blog – I’m spending more time commenting there than posting here) about what you might call the Great British Pub. Here’s a question from a US correspondent, with B&B’s response:

Q: Are pubs in the UK generally the quaint, homey, and instantly familiar and comfy establishments we’ve been led to believe?

A: Those pubs do exist but need a little work to find. There are lots of types of establishment calling themselves pubs which are actually restaurants, fast-food joints, dive bars, nightclubs and so on, perhaps with wood panelling and handpumps

I think that’s pretty much right – and, they might have added, there are lots of types of establishment dispensing hand-pulled beer and not looking like a pub, not calling themselves pubs or both.

The interesting thing about this question is how counter-intuitive the answer is. My immediate impulse was to think “of course that’s what pubs are like – dark wood, brass, plush seating, a real fire, the landlord’s cat and handpumps”. But on reflection that kind of establishment isn’t all that common any more, at least in towns. I can think of a few pubs in walking distance that are sort of pub-ish on that definition, but hardly any of them are places you’d go for decent beer.

So is the Pub Experience becoming divorced from the Beer Experience?

That’s one possibility, but it may be more complicated than that. On a couple of occasions recently I’ve looked down the bar at one of my locals and just not been very enthused. Yes, that looks like it’s pale and hoppy, but the pump clip describes it as ‘creamy’ – is that another word for ‘bland’? (It was.) Yes, it’s nice to see porter on sale, but is it likely to be a particularly nice or memorable porter? (It wasn’t.) Is there anything else I could have – anything interesting? Anything 5% or over, even? (There wasn’t.) I was drinking guest ales in two pubs – well, a pub and a bar – with well-earned reputations for good and varied beer; the breweries weren’t stellar, but they weren’t total unknowns either. And perfectly decent pints they were too, the kind of thing you’d drink in a pub (brass, dark wood, cat etc) and be well content. In an establishment that’s more of a beer palace than a pub, I felt a bit short-changed.

Then the other day – staying on the subject of change – I had a pint of Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, a really beautiful beer in excellent condition. I didn’t have time for another pint, so I followed it with a half of Burton Bridge Bramble Stout, an excellent example of how to use fruit flavours to enhance the natural flavours of a beer without overpowering them. Two very different beers, both of which hit the Beer Experience bullseye so hard they put a dent in it. And the two together cost £2.74; I was in a Wetherspoon’s.

In short: if you want the Pub Experience, you’ll probably end up drinking John Smith’s, or Bombardier if you’re lucky. If you want the Beer Experience, your best bet is probably somewhere with all the soul and atmosphere of a hotel dining room. And if you want to drink beer that’s perfectly decent but not terribly memorable, in surroundings that are quite nice but actually not all that comfortable, see where the CAMRA members and ‘craft beer’ fans go (and check your wallet).

I’m sure there are variations. Areas where the dominance of family & regional brewers hasn’t been broken – like Cornwall, or Stockport for that matter – may have seen less change from the old-school Pub Experience pub; smaller towns may have more pub-like pubs simply because the ‘bar’ look doesn’t have so much local appeal. (I have fond memories of York’s Maltings, which is as pubby as you like and served me some excellent beers from SWB and Magic Rock.) And my two locals may just have been having an off week on the guest beer front. They did make an odd contrast with the city-centre Spoons, though.