Monthly Archives: April 2013

The moving finger

DOUGAL: Right, Ted. Looks like an ordinary blackboard, doesn’t it?

TED: Yes.

DOUGAL: That’s what I thought – but watch this! You see? You can rub off the letters!

There was a time when you didn’t see blackboards in pubs, except next to the dartboard or listing the food specials. These days they’re much more of a fixture, particularly in craft beer bars & places catering to beer geeks. Apart from the neighbourhood Spoons, all my local boozers have at least one. There’s one odd omission, though – see if you spot it as you read down this handy list of The Bars and their Blackboards. (You can’t buy entertainment like this, I tell you.)

HILLARY STEP: one (cask, cider and keg)
DE NADA: one outside (cask and cider), one inside (cask, cider and keg)
FONT: two (keg and cider)
PI: one (doesn’t really count – used sporadically for new & interesting beers on tap or bottle)
MARBLE: two (cask regulars and guests)
BEAGLE: two (keg and cask)

Apart from Pi – a bar which has blackboards quite literally coming out of its ears, but only really uses them for food and slogans – there’s one bar that stands out: the all-new and ultra-whizzy shrine of beer that is [the] Font (I have to keep remembering that definite article). Eight ciders, listed on a blackboard with producer, a.b.v. and price; sixteen keg taps, their respective beers listed on another blackboard with brewer, a.b.v. and price; eight handpumps and, er, that’s it.

I think I know what’s happened, though. Last time I went in, I asked the woman serving if they were going to put up a blackboard for the cask ales. She said they weren’t. I said I thought it would be a good idea. She nodded, smiled, then gave me a yeah-but sort of frown and said:

Thing is, they’re changing all the time.

So that’s obviously the problem – they didn’t ask around, and they’ve got stuck with one of those ordinary blackboards. Easy mistake to make.

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Got the flavour

For one post only, here’s a return of my ‘tasting notes’ feature, dedicated to the various ‘craft keg’ beers I’ve sampled. I’ve had eight, that I can remember: BrewDog 5 a.m. Saint, Hops Kill Nazis and Zeitgeist; Hard Knott Duality; Lovibonds Dirty 69; Magic Rock Cannonball; Marble Earl Grey IPA; and Red Willow Soulless.

Beers served noticeably colder than cask: all of the above.

Beers with noticeably higher carbonation than cask: 5 a.m. Saint, Zeitgeist, Duality, Cannonball, Earl Grey IPA (i.e. most of the above).

Beers with a strong and distinctive flavour (as served): 5 a.m. Saint, Hops Kill.

Beer with an unpleasantly strong and distinctive flavour (as served): Hops Kill, which was revolting – either I really didn’t get it or the beer had managed to go sour in the keg. I’ll ignore this one from now on.

Beers with a nice but not particularly striking flavour (as served): Duality, Cannonball, Earl Grey IPA, Soulless.

Beers without very much flavour at all (as served): Zeitgeist, Dirty 69.

Beers whose flavour & aroma developed noticeably on warming up and/or outgassing: Zeitgeist, Duality, Cannonball.

Beer whose flavour & aroma developed noticeably and in a good way: Zeitgeist. (Both the other two released a blast of aroma, but the aroma was mostly one of dead leaves and old books.)

Strong beers which didn’t drink their strength: Dirty 69, Cannonball, Earl Grey IPA, none of which tasted anywhere near their 6+% a.b.v.

Beers which I’ve also drunk on cask: 5 a.m. Saint, Zeitgeist, Earl Grey IPA.

Beers whose flavour and aroma matched up to the cask version: none of those three, although in fairness the Zeitgeist wasn’t far short once it had warmed up a bit (by which time I’d already drunk half of it). (I also thought both the Zeitgeist and the Saint were better on keg than in bottle, for what that’s worth.)

Good, memorable beers: 5 a.m. Saint, Zeitgeist (when thawed).

Perfectly pleasant but just a bit ordinary: Duality, Cannonball, Earl Grey IPA, Soulless.

Wooden spoon: Dirty 69, an interesting-sounding beer which I wanted to like, but which just didn’t taste of anything very much.

With that, I think I really will let ‘craft keg’ alone, and the guys from Fraserburgh with it (until they see sense and go back to brewing some of their excellent cask beers). But I tried; never let it be said I didn’t try.

My lasting reaction is one of puzzlement. We’ll assume there was something wrong with the Hops Kill; on Duality, Dave has said that he was aiming for what I’d call “perfectly pleasant but a bit ordinary” (he didn’t use quite those words), so I guess that’s fair enough. That leaves six beers, and two questions. Zeitgeist and Saint were good, but I know they were much better on cask – and, in the case of Zeitgeist, it was much better when it had lost some of the excess chill & CO2. Why spoil great beers like that? As for the other four, Marble, Red Willow and especially Magic Rock are breweries I value for big, extreme, complex flavours, especially at higher strengths – and everything I read about Lovibonds suggests they’re working in a similar area. So why, when they brew for keg, are they making such light, undemanding beers?

On my way to the club

Quick addendum to the previous post. As you probably know, Wetherspoon’s have one of their periodic ‘beer festivals’ on at the moment. My local Spoons held a pre-launch event for local CAMRA members the night before the festival officially started. When I went along they were serving beers from Belhaven, Elgood’s, Moorhouse and Hilden (a new one on me, probably because they’re from Antrim), as well as two ‘international’ collaborative brews: a Greek coffee porter(!) brewed at Everard’s and an American amber ale brewed at Adnam’s. So, six decent guest beers, plus the usual suspects.

On my way to the Spoons I stuck my nose in every pub or bar I passed, making a mental note of how many beers were available & which breweries were featured. And I can report that the places I passed on that ten-minute walk were serving 22 cask beers from 15 different breweries: Art Brew, Brightside, Bristol Beer Company (x2), Buxton, Dark Star (x2), Green Mill, Hornbeam, Liverpool Organic, Magic Rock, Marble (x5), Red Willow (x2), Redemption, Salamander, Tatton and XT. This evening I tried the experiment of walking ten minutes the other way, to find another three bars and another eight beers: Beartown, Bollington, Hartley’s [sic], Hornbeam (again), Mobberley, Phoenix, Pictish and Thwaites. There are a couple of names in there that I wouldn’t necessarily cross the street for, but there are also plenty that would be worth a ten-minute walk any day of the week. (Plus three that I haven’t tried yet, and a fourth that I hadn’t even heard of before tonight.) It takes a bit of the shine off a paddle at Spoon’s, I have to say.

Miracle and wonder. I think this has to be a bubble, speaking economically (as well as culturally) – apart from anything else, speaking economically we’re all going down the tubes, and while people do carry on getting drunk during recessions they don’t tend to spend big on luxury items. (Although, as I’ve said before, the relative fixity of the price of cask beer has made it that rare thing, a high-quality good which isn’t a luxury good. (Another reason – or perhaps the reason – to be suspicious of craft keg.) So maybe beer will remain an affordable luxury and won’t be hit by the downturn.) Realistically you’d have to bet that we’re going to lose one of those bars and/or two of those breweries over the next year. Oh well – I’ll just have to keep propping up the ones I like.

Update 13th April. I stuck my nose in the local Spoons yesterday and noticed they had the special-edition 6% Wadworth 6X plus a 5.5%er from Orkney, both of which I rather fancied. I didn’t fancy them quite enough to drink them on the day – ‘day’ being the operative word – so left it until this evening… when they’d both gone. Curses. Instead, I had thirds of Central City Red Racer IPA, Robbies Hoptimus Prime and Lodewijk Fly By Night. All were quite pleasant, but they were (a) not much more than pleasant (Tandleman reports a similar experience); (b) in thirds, which increasingly looks like a doll’s house measure to me – you can get a taste of a beer in that volume but you can’t really get to know it; and (c) in a Wetherspoon’s, and one of the more barn-like ones at that. Not the greatest of beer experiences; I think that might be it for me and this particular ‘festival’. On my way back I passed by the Font, a venture which is surely doomed to fail – nobody’s going to go there if it’s always that crowded – and beat a retreat to De Nada, where I sank into a pint of Red Willow Directionless: a superlative pint in very nice surroundings (and a dimple mug, but you can’t have everything). The Font, incidentally, still doesn’t have a blackboard for cask beers, despite having one for keg and another for ciders. Presumably this is a deliberate decision, but if so it baffles me – they certainly aren’t all the same price, or cheap for that matter.