Monthly Archives: November 2012

Letter from West Point

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Mmm, beer

A few quick updates.

My career as a beer reviewer has taken another step forward with the arrival of a bottle of the stuff pictured right, a limited-edition 7.5% barleywine from Bateman’s brewed to a historical recipe; this is going to be on sale via the slightly surprising route of Aldi. Although I can’t deny myself the habitual moan about large bottles for strong beers – the historical beer on which it was based seems to have been bottled in half-pints, which seems much more sensible – the beer itself does look rather special. The aforementioned supermarket will be selling it at £3.29 for 500 ml, which could be a bit of a bargain. One touch I particularly liked is that the label has a ‘best after’ rubric as well as ‘best before’ – specifically, it’s best after December 2012 and best before December 2037. Unfortunately I’ll be drinking it ‘young’ – I don’t think I can keep my hands off it till the new year. I’ll keep you posted.

Anyone with a view on unit-based minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks needs to read this reaction to the government’s latest wheeze from Damian McBride, who (in his own words) was responsible for alcohol duty in the Treasury between 1999-2002. McBride was the man behind Progressive Beer Duty, and on that basis alone would deserve a knighthood for services to microbreweries. (Assuming for the moment that services to microbreweries are a good thing.) On minimum pricing, he argues that the government’s proposed scheme – a simple fiat that alcoholic drinks shall not be sold below a certain price per unit – is unenforceable as designed and hence would never be enforced. (Local authority inspectors would have the power to demand that under-priced booze be removed from sale, but they would swoop into action when they receive complaints. That’ll work.) Even if command-based minimum pricing turns out to be legal – which is dubious – it looks as if it isn’t going to happen. But that leaves open the back-up option of enforcing minimum pricing through the tax & duty system, which would be simpler, more straightforward and less dodgy legally, as well as channelling the extra money to the government rather than the retailer. In political terms it’s eminently possible, in other words – which makes it rather unfortunate that a duty-based minimum price would be an even bigger disaster, for beer drinkers in particular. McBride explains why here, in a post which would make a great unofficial slogan for CAMRA when they campaign on this issue. (Oh, wait – CAMRA support minimum pricing. Silly me.)

Speaking of pricing… As local readers will already know, a Chorlton outpost of the Port Street Beer House opened recently. The Beagle – which I’m afraid I shall be calling the Bugle, for entirely puerile reasons – is one of those bare-boards, 70s-soundtrack, cutting-edge-beers places that used to be so much rarer than they are now. I don’t think it’s going to be a regular haunt. They’re going quite heavily for food, with quite a high ratio of tables to pub-type seating – which made me feel as comfortable as that arrangement usually does – and they’re big on craft keg. The cask range was excellent when I was in – two from Magic Rock, which was nice to see – and even on the keg side the pricing was, like Kevin Phillips-Bong, only slightly silly. But…

Well, it’s the keg thing. Me and craft keg, we’re just never going to get on. I think that’s going to be an early New Year’s resolution: just not to bother with it any more. The beer in this case was Lovibond‘s Dirty 69, which I was genuinely quite excited to see & keen to try. Summary: it was obtrusively fizzy, it was way too cold and the flavour didn’t develop. There was an interesting enough flavour there, but nothing very striking – or rather, there were occasional hints at something striking, but no more than hints. What I love about a good beer is the sense of lingering over it and getting to know it – the way the bottom half of the glass tells you something different than the top half & makes you want to find out more. (I say ‘glass’ – I’ve had this experience with a pint of mild and with a third of imperial stout.) I didn’t get any of that; just a pleasant-tasting fizzy drink with a bit of an alcoholic kick (although nothing like you’d expect from its a.b.v. of 6.9%). As I said in another post, I’ve seen it suggested that kegging takes the edge of extreme flavours and heavy alcohol content, making strong and ‘extreme’ beers more drinkable. I think I’m coming to the conclusion that that’s exactly what I don’t like about it.

The BugleBeagle has a great deal of local competition; I remember when there was nothing between the Whalley and the Seymour and nothing between that and the Royal Oak, meaning that (as the pub columnist in the South Manchester Reporter once noted) anyone planning a pub crawl in this area would need an obliging friend or a stout pony. Walk from the Whalley to the Royal Oak now and you’d pass ten drinking establishments (the Seymour not included, obviously), all but two of which serve real ale – and beyond the Royal Oak we’re equally spoiled for choice. So I was quite keen on the idea of the Chorlton Challenge, a mammoth pub crawl organised last weekend by the local CAMRA branch. I didn’t show up for it in the end, though, very largely because of that word ‘weekend’. Try and fit any more than nine or ten pubs into a day and, with the best will in the world, you’re going to get utterly bladdered. This may appeal to people who don’t have family commitments – or work on Monday – but shouldn’t CAMRA be trying to appeal beyond those rather well-mined demographics? A Challenge over a week would be much more manageable, if a bit less sociable.

One final note, on the blog itself. Tandleman’s recent announcement of his historic 1000th post prompted a bit more blog-related navel-gazing, which I deleted when it started to bore even me. However, I will just say that this is a milestone post for me – it’s my 100th. (Don’t know how Tandleman does it – at this rate I’ll be hitting four figures some time around 2030.) To celebrate this auspicious occasion I’ve given the blog a minor overhaul. I’ve recently implemented ‘categories’ and a ‘category cloud’ – on the right – so that anyone who wants to dig down to a particular topic can do so. I think they’re all reasonably self-explanatory.

Footnote of Local Interest Only

When we first looked at our house there was a certain amount of throat-clearing from the estate agent about its location – it’s Chorlton-cum-Hardy…ish. Well, OK, it’s not Chorlton Chorlton, but it’s very much in the Chorlton area… Chorlton’s just down the road, put it that way. We didn’t mind this, but we did start to wonder after a while where to tell people we were. Whalley Range was out for obvious reasons, and Firswood didn’t sound right. I consulted some old maps and discovered that our best option was West Point. So this – and every other post on this blog – is just what the title says, a letter from West Point. (We say ‘Chorlton’ these days – but then, these days Chorlton is a place to be, and the name covers pretty much everything from the Feathers to the Throstle’s Nest (as were).)

Nice here, innit?

Back at the dawn of time, I kick-started this blog with a series of posts about my four main “locals” – four very different establishments, all of which were (and happily still are) doing quite well. I was intending to write a follow-up post talking about how they were doing well, but never got round to it. (I’d have to extend the list to seven, as well.)

Atmosphere has to be part of the equation, though. B&B’s recent comments on a pub in Bristol – a pub with a particularly high level of pubbiness – got me thinking again about pub atmosphere, and what contributes to it. Are there factors which consistently make you feel at home in a pub – that make you think “maybe I’ll stop for another”? And are there factors that consistently work the other way, making you think “maybe I’ll drink up and move on”? Here’s my list, off the top of my head:

“Drink up, move on”

Big, open rooms
Screwed-down tables
Cafe-style furniture (round tables, bentwood chairs etc)
Heavy emphasis on food
Heavy emphasis on gourmet-level beers with prices to match (stress on ‘heavy’; having Nøgne Ø in the fridge is fine, it’s getting in-your-face about it I don’t like)
Uniformly bright lighting
Bland, hotel-lounge decor
Radio on
TV on with sound
Multiple TVs with no sound (so a screen is visible from every corner of the room)
Great crowds of people (crammed into a small pub or spread out in a huge pub – either way, too many people is unsettling)
Mediocre beer, or decent beer in poor condition
A pub quiz, halfway through

“Stop for another”

A pub cat
An open fire
Multiple small-ish rooms
A good jukebox, or very good piped music (what B&B describe is essentially an excellent jukebox)
Bookshelves with interesting books
Squashy leather furniture
Interesting or striking architecture (think the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury or the Centurion in Newcastle)
Interesting decor (bare floorboards, gigantic refectory tables, whatever)
Groups of people chatting and looking like they’ve settled in
One or two people sitting alone reading the paper
Decent beer in good condition
A pub quiz, about to start

What about you?

Update Apparently everyone agrees with me, which is nice. What interests me, thinking about this some more, is that pubs almost always have some elements from both lists; this evening, for instance, I had a blissful pint listening to some excellent music while sitting on a bentwood chair. (I was seriously tempted by the place down the road with the leather sofa.) Spoons’ often tick a lot of boxes on the ‘bad’ list, but there’s one in Manchester with four or five ‘good’ features. There are also some that tend to go together, to the point where seeing one ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feature more or less guarantees you’ll get some of the others: uniform bright lighting is generally a bad sign. And a pub cat is always good to see.