Monthly Archives: January 2014

Aye, dry


Retro-blogging* the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2014, Saturday daytime session
*A bit like live-blogging, only different.

11:00 MBCF opens. Planned to be there by now. Am just leaving house. In fact, no wait, did I get that… yes, I had it all along, but more to the point have I got my ticket? My free Winter Warmer Wander ticket which is one of the reasons I’m going on Saturday, as (a) I could have got in free anyway on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which would have been a waste of a freebie and (b) the ticket wasn’t valid on Friday night, which would (ditto) and also have cost money? Where did I put the damn ticket anyway?
11:something Find ticket. Remember something else. Tell self to stop faffing about. Leave house.
12:ish Arrive at Velopark tram stop. Having been sat with my back to the rest of the tram, I’d had the impression that it had emptied out at the previous stop, viz. the Etihad stadium. On leaving the tram I’m slightly surprised to realise that approx. 300 people have left with me & are now streaming – well, trudging – towards the Velodrome itself, which seems to be about ten minutes’ walk away. Start to wonder about the session possibly being a bit busy.
12:ish + ten minutes Reaching the Velodrome, the throng trudges patiently around the corner, between two parked cars and up some steps. (OK, not 300, but there must have been a good 40 or 50 of us.) We then queue to be let in. There are notices on the door saying that the event has been far more successful than expected, and that the entry price has been dropped accordingly. We’re encouraged to drink the Festival dry and then head back into Manchester. (Having just spent a not entirely comfortable half hour getting here from Manchester, I feel this last part could have been phrased better, or not at all.)
A bit later Hand over my ticket. Realise that the reduced entry price is £1 or £0 for CAMRA members, so having the ticket’s made no difference at all. (On reflection, the WWW/Mild Magic incentives are probably aimed more at ordinary punters than at the CAMRA hard core like what I am.)
nn:nn (subsequent timings approximate) Wander around vaguely. It seems a lot like any other arena – a long circular corridor with some stuff in the middle that’s curiously hard to get to. After a bit of trial and error, I find the steps to the stand. Realise that the stand overlooks the cycle track, and that there are no pedestrian crossings. After a bit more wandering I find the steps that lead under the stand and enable you to get at the beer. Five flights down, three flights up.
nn:nn Start with half a pint of Mallinson’s Simcoe. Rather fine. Realise that the notice outside wasn’t joking – there are big gaps in the lineup, several of which have been heroically plugged by late additions (a category which includes the Mallinson’s Simcoe). Do the catalogue-ticking short-listing thing, but make sure to cross-check with what’s actually on the bars as I go along (“Timothy Taylor, Tiny Rebel, Ulverston, Waen… oh, they’ve all gone. Never mind.”) I end up with a pretty decent list even so.
nn:nn Having worked my way along all three of the main bars, have a look at the brewery bars. Say Hi to a fellow CAMRA member working at one of them. Am keen to find out what’s on the other brewery bars, so walk on without stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not being behind one of the bars myself. Decide to get another beer.
nn:nn Pleasantly surprised that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on.
nn:nn So where are the loos? Oh, right, down three flights of steps and up five. Of course.
nn:nn Aghast to find that Red Willow Faithless XXX (the beetroot one) has gone off, although it was on when I arrived. This is a bad sign, I think (correctly).
nn:nn Take a third of Wells & Young’s Winter Warmer with me down three flights of steps and up five to find something to eat. Some nice-looking stuff has been laid on for the Festival – Mexican, Indian and, er, pies with gravy – but I end up with a burger and chips from the Velodrome’s cafe. Finish the Winter Warmer about half an hour after starting it, by which point it’s understandably getting a bit tired. (I mention this because this was the only time in the whole day that I had a beer in anything less than good nick.)
nn:nn Another casualty from my hit-list: Thwaites’ Fallen Nun has now gone off. On the plus side, Harbour #5 (one of the late substitutions) knocks my socks off: a really superb pale ale – fruity hops a-go-go. Really starting to hanker after somewhere to sit. Do a quick head-count of people sitting on the floor as I cross the bar area and get to 25 – fewer than the people with actual chairs and a lot fewer than those standing. There is, of course, ample seating in the stands – but, well, eight flights of steps.
nn:nn First Chop Syl – “black jaggery IPA” – is much better than it sounds, and almost as good as it wants to be. Sit on the floor for a bit. It’s not ideal.
nn:nn Next to go off before I get to it: Burton Bridge Old Expensive. (Who’s been drinking that? I’d never even heard of Burton Bridge Old Expensive before today. I’m not convinced I’d even heard of Burton Bridge.) Have a Blackjack King of Clubs (imperial stout). Not bad at all.
nn:nn Mid-afternoon and the beers are really starting to thin out. Drift past the brewery bars, which proportionally seem to have a lot more left on than the main bars. Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime Reserve (8.5%) is on. I admit defeat on the seating front, and take it to a seat in the stands. Rather a peculiar beer – can’t quite work out what style it is; a bit like a black IPA crossed with a Burton. (Update: after tasting some very similar flavours in a pint of Buxton RednikQuantum Fall-en House (which is a stoutporter), I’m going for “strong hoppy porter”. Unusual, almost medicinal tasting, but not at all bad.)
nn:nn What’s left on my list? Not much, and certainly not much that’s still on. The whole of the second bar is marked “no service here”, as there isn’t any beer left there to serve. Crossing the floor, take another quick head-count of people sitting on the floor; I get to 70. Note with some surprise that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on – I guess the strength is putting people off. I go for Dent T’Owd Tup, which is rather good. Find an actual chair that nobody’s using. Hurrah!
16:00ish Eight beers down; less than three pints in total, but mostly strong and some very strong. Alcohol-wise, I’ve had the rough equivalent of four and a half pints of bitter now, and am feeling it. Was hoping to get a bit further before baling out, but body says otherwise. (Have had cold.) Wonder about finishing off with a return visit to Coniston No 9, seeing as it’s still there. Decide, regretfully, that this would be silly. Leave.
16:15ish On tram. Could really fancy a pork pie.
16:30ish Pitch up at the Arndale Market, where – surprise! – a beer festival is in full swing, courtesy of the Micro Bar. It would seem rude to pass by, so I finish my day’s drinking with a half of Ticketybrew’s Jasmine Green Tea special (seen subsequently on the bar at Font in Chorlton). It’s very nice. Then I go and get a pork pie. Then I go home.

On Twitter, Tandleman – who, under his secret true identity, is one of the key festival organisers – remarked that the Festival had ended for him on a low note, with disgruntled punters having a go. I can understand why people might be dissatisfied – the venue wasn’t ideal, and the beer obviously went down much quicker than planned; anyone turning up after 4.00 on Saturday will have had very slim pickings. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think the negatives outweighed the positives overall; I certainly wouldn’t have missed it. Even the heavily-depleted selection that faced me on Saturday morning was an amazing range of beers; just as importantly, every one of them (at least, every one I had) was in good condition. It’s not every festival where you can say you’re pleased with every beer you try. I’ve been to festivals where you have a choice of fifty different brown bitters from regional brewers, and this was nothing like that – come to that, I’ve been to festivals where the most interesting beers are things you’d see on the bar at the likes of Font or Pi, and this was nothing like that either.

This festival had its problems – most of them caused by its own popularity – but there was a huge range of interesting and well-chosen beers, at good prices and in good nick. When the post-mortems are being carried out, that’s the key point that needs to be remembered.

As I was a-wandering (3-4 of 4)

So then I went to this other pub and had a different beer, which was also very nice…

The plan to visit really quite large numbers of pubs in Stockport, and on the Fallowfield/Didsbury trail, didn’t work out; in the end I just made it to the 25-pub mark. Having done 17 pubs in the town centre and Chorlton, I’ve only got eight more to mention. I may as well run through them now.

In Rusholme, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) was serving Peerless Full Whack. The brewery describe this simply as a strong ale (it’s 6%), but I’m using my discretion and putting it down as an old ale. I liked.

Down the road in Withington, the Victoria had another 6%er in the shape of Hyde’s Beer Studio Crystal Chestnut. A darkish and surprisingly aromatic winter beer; again, this ticks enough of the boxes to go down as an old ale. Up the road, my plan to make an early-lunchtime visit to the Friendship was foiled by the place refusing to open, or at least taking its time over it; an unusual sight of a  Christmas weekend. The Great Central (JDW) was open, unsurprisingly, and supplied me with… White Horse Rudolph the Red Nosed White Horse (4.8%). Which was fine.

A trip to Stockport, also on a weekend over Christmas, took me first of all to Robinson’s Visitors’ Centre… which was shut (and yes, I had checked the times). H’mph. Ho forth to the Cocked Hat, which was… odd. It struck me as one of those pubs which would be written up as warm, friendly and welcoming, but only by its regulars. Put it this way, there were five or six punters stood in front of the bar, and every one of them looked round as I came in. The last time that happened to me the punters were speaking Welsh. As for the beer, there were five or six hand pumps, but it was actually quite hard to see all the pump clips, what with the discussion group parked in front of the bar – or to read what they said when I did get a look, thanks to the low light… the whole thing just wasn’t very comfortable, basically. I ended up with some kind of stout. Had a half. Supped up and got out. I think somebody wanted my table.

The Arden Arms didn’t disappoint, with a half of Old Tom from a pin on the bar; a bit listless and lacking in condition, but still a great beer. The pub was rather full, on the down side; I ended up standing in a corner of one of the side rooms. The landlord, wont to hail anyone standing at the bar to check whether they want to dine, was taking an even more proactive approach and encouraging drinkers to budge up on the benches to let more people sit down. I stayed stood.

At the Railway (Portwood) I bumped into a fellow CAMRA member, who advised me to get along to the Stockport branch’s 40th anniversary dinner, an idea I’d been toying with despite it not being my branch. (It turned out not to be a great idea, but I blame lack of preparation on my part more than anything.) Anyway, Rossendale Pitch Porter was on, and was as good as ever.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man with a half of Old Tom inside him fancies few things more than another half of Old Tom. This was provided by the Swan with Two Necks – in excellent condition and sparkled. “Very nice indeed” would be an understatement.

If anyone’s keeping count they’ll have realised that we’re now up to 24. Pub 25 was… The Olde Woolpack, a pub I’d never made it to before. I’m as sorry as anyone that it’s had to close, but I’m not sure I’m surprised – it’s a bit of a trek from anywhere else, in a town (and in a part of town) that’s not short of good drinking opportunities. Anyway, I skirted the industrial estate, crossed the roundabout with the motorway signs and made it to the beckoning lights of the Woolpack, to find that they had absolutely nothing on that would qualify: no old ale, no stout or porter, nothing over 4.5% (while the only ‘seasonal’ was something called Christmas Slapper, which somehow didn’t appeal). They were, however, very big on polypin cider, so I had one of those – something from Gwynt y Ddraig FWIW.

Stats?

These areas Total
Old ale / Barley wine 4 6
Porter / stout 2 12
Others (4.5% and over) 1 4
Others (non-qualifying) 0 2
Cider 1 1

Only six old ales and ‘winter warmers’, out of 25 pubs – and three of those were Old Tom. Rather a lot of draught stouts and porters. (Looking on the bright side, hey – rather a lot of draught stouts and porters!)

How do these figures compare with last year, I hear absolutely nobody ask? Here’s how:

2013 2012
Old ale / Barley wine 6 4
Porter / stout 12 9
Others (4.5% and over) 4 9
Others (non-qualifying) 3 4

So it looks as if things are getting better; the WWW may be helping to encourage pubs to put more stouts and winter ales on. And it’s always good to have an excuse to visit pubs slightly further afield; I just wish I hadn’t had a cold to slow me down for so much of the WWW period. So many pubs, so little time. Ah well – roll on Mild Magic!

The Supermarket Beer Project – 2 of 2

Update completed 17th January.

What have we got, then? A couple of reasonably impressive old ales from Adnam’s and Thwaites’, and one very good one from Brakspear. Just the one barley wine, from Bateman’s; it doesn’t really live up to its back story, but it’s OK. (I didn’t try the Gold Label, which is still available in supermarkets but only in four-packs.) The style du jour, surprisingly, seems to be Burton, unless I’m completely mistaken about what that style is or was: there were (I think) a couple of fine examples from Lees’ and Theakston’s, and four absolute world-beaters from Marston’s, McEwan’s, Lees’ (again) and Robinson’s.

In ascending score order (reviews in strength order over the fold):

Wychwood Bah Humbug! 5% 6/10
Adnam’s Broadside 6% 7/10
Bateman’s Vintage Ale 7.5% 7/10
Sharp’s Spiced Red 9% 7/10
Thwaites’ Crafty Dan 6% 7/10
JW Lees’ Moonraker 6.5% 8/10
Brakspear Triple 6.7% 8/10
Theakston’s Old Peculier 5.6% 8/10
Marston’s Owd Roger 7% 9/10
JW Lees’ Manchester Star 7.5% 9/10
McEwan’s Champion 7.3% 9/10
drumroll please…
Robinson’s Old Tom 8.5% 10/10

Interesting exercise – apart from anything else I can honestly say that I’d never fully appreciated Old Tom before (which is something I never thought I’d say).

One minor gripe: the Old Tom, the Brakspear’s and the Sharp’s Spiced Red were the only ones of these beers to be bottled in 330 ml. I don’t obsess over units, but a full 500 ml of a 7+% beer is a bit of an undertaking. If it makes sense to put the Brakspear in small bottles, surely Manchester Star and Owd Roger would do better in the smaller size as well?
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The world is full of women and men

Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
Misogynist…
– Jake Thackray, “On Again”

[With apologies to Dave, who probably wants to forget any of this ever happened. I’ll try to be brief.]

I was surprised by the post by Emma (or Chris) in reaction to Dave’s now-deleted “Beer Drinking Women Are Not Attractive” post. I was surprised, because I expected to agree wholeheartedly & generally feel that I was in the presence of someone who’d got it. Instead of which, I found phrases like “bit of a tangent” and “was it that bad?” bubbling up, followed closely by “well, maybe, but I wish she’d explain…”

If I have to explain why discriminating in this way is a very bad thing I think my head might actually explode. I could say a lot more on this topic. A LOT MORE.

OK, we’ll skip the explanation.

Anyway, I’ve sat with it & come to the conclusion that the person not getting it was probably me. Here’s the offending passage from Dave’s post:

There were several women drinking beer. Mostly, but not all, by the pint. Generally they didn’t actually register in the “drop dead gorgeous” category, more the “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better” category. Indeed, there might be some sort of inferiority complex, perhaps even the fault of my Mum, that causes the “drop dead gorgeous” category to significantly overlap the “She’s a tart, thinks she’s God’s gift, would be hard work even if I did stand a chance, which is unlikely” category anyway.

Chris (or Emma) zeroed in on the third ‘category’, stressing how discriminatory it is to (mentally) affix labels like ‘would be hard work’ – let alone ‘tart’ – on the basis of appearance. Which is true. But I think when I first read it that particular passage didn’t seem too bad, for two reasons: firstly, it’s acknowledged in a hazy way that labelling women in this way is a problem; and secondly, there are plenty of social situations in which it’s normal to informally triage potential partners in this way into “interesting/attractive/out of my league”, and Dave could be describing one of those. (Never mind Dave’s marital status; we could just say that old mental habits die hard.)

What struck me today, reflecting on this, was that the problem of judging women on their appearance goes further than this scenario – or, to put it another way, that thinking in terms of this scenario is the problem. Look at the second category: “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better”. Men: do you ever look around a group of men and think “he looks interesting, I’d like to get to know him better”, about every single one of them? Of course you don’t – even if they were all interesting blokes (and how could you tell?), why would you want all those new people in your life? (How many more friends do you need?) What you do is look around a group of men and think, “here I am in a group of men”; or “isn’t there anyone here I know?”; or “at least I’m not the youngest/oldest/beardiest person here”. You look around at the group, and you take it as a group of people. But for a group of women – even for the women in a mixed group – the paragraph quoted only has three possibilities: “I want to chat you up”, “I want to chat you up (but I’d be scared)” and “I don’t want to chat you up, definitely not, but I would like to get to know you“. (As men so often do, when they meet women who interest them, in a purely platonic way. I’m sure it happens all the time.)

The underlying assumption – and I really don’t think I’m overthinking this – is that a woman in public is always on show. If you’re good-looking and well turned-out you’ll attract attention, although some of it will be negative (“thinks she’s God’s gift” etc); and if you’re not, then… you’ll attract attention (“she looks interesting”, etc). The option of just being somebody in a group of other somebodies isn’t on the table; that is, the option of just going places and doing stuff, like an ordinary person, and minding your own business until you happen to get talking to somebody else.

I feel a bit bad to be banging on about Dave’s post, not only because he’s taken it down but also because it was thoughtfully written and well-meant; it was nothing like as bad as Ding‘s wilfully obtuse sexism, in other words, and by rights deserved to get nothing like as much flak. But there’s a way of stepping back from prejudice which isn’t really stepping back at all. Like the polite racism I remember from the 1970s, dressed up in genteel phrases like “our coloured brethren”, or the courtly sexism mocked by Jake Thackray, Dave’s post didn’t put as much distance between him and the sexist attitudes he was criticising as it may have seemed to. If you say (in so many words) “I don’t judge women by their appearance – I prefer women who look interesting” then you are judging women by their appearance; in effect, you’re only seeing women by their appearance. And I don’t want to worry you, chaps, but there are a lot of women out there; that’s an awful lot of people not to be seeing properly.

Clowntime is over (slight return)

My first attempt at putting this argument got a bit sidetracked into talking about weird and unusual styles of beer, which wasn’t really what I wanted to focus on. So, fortified by a dark and murky bottle of something from East London Brewery, let’s have at it again.

Sourness. There is a sour flavour – let’s not over-complicate things, it’s the flavour commonly known as ‘sourness’ – which is characteristic of a lot of the hip new beers. It’s also characteristic of a lot of the beers we know and love, if they’re kept badly or kept on for too long (or, more rarely, brewed badly).

Murkiness. There is a cloudy quality which is very characteristic of a lot of the new beers the cool kids are drinking; really very characteristic. It’s also characteristic of a lot of the beers we’ve been drinking all these years, if they’re kept badly or tapped too early, or if they go into bottle in the wrong condition (or if the brewer just plain gets it wrong).

Soupiness. There is a rich, complex, malty ‘flavour soup’ quality, which – done well – is characteristic of some very good dark beers (old ales, abbey dubbels, that kind of area – one hell of an area). A similar but much less successful effect is also characteristic of dark beers that aren’t actually ready to go, in cask or in bottle. (Such as the ELB Nightwatchman I drank this evening, I’m afraid – a fan would have called it complex, but I thought it was twiggy.)

A soupy beer may be terrifically well executed – the complexity that’s in there may be there to stay. A murky beer may be (a) unfined and (b) superb (although the two don’t always go together). A sour beer may be Rodenbach. Alternatively, a beer that’s sour, murky or soupy may be a beer that’s gone off or isn’t ready yet (or wasn’t ready when it went in the bottle). Come to that, a murky beer may even be an unfined beer that isn’t ready yet – cloud is one thing, yeasty cloud is another.

I worry that there’s a culture of low expectations developing: that people are assuming beers are “meant to be like that” when they really aren’t – or, if they were meant to be like that, they shouldn’t have been. (This is where the “oak and almond porter” part of the original rant gets a look-in: the more people are expecting something different every time they go to the bar, the less they’ll have any firm idea what anything is “meant to be like”.) For the time being I’ll be avoiding anything I know, or suspect, to be sour, murky or soupy; the scope for sweeping failures under the carpet (for the bar as well as the brewer) is just too great.

Or I could just avoid all these pesky condition problems and go over to keg…

Clowntime is over

Top three reasons for taking a pint back, circa 1994 (or any time between the mid-70s and the late 00s):

1. “Sorry, mate, but this one’s sour.”

2. “Sorry, mate, but can you have a look at this? It’s really cloudy.”

3. “Sorry, mate, but I’m not even sure this is beer – it tastes more like somebody’s put a rye loaf in a bucket of water and let it ferment… Not being funny, but… Pint of Landlord, that’d be great.”

Top three hip ‘n’ happening trends at the craft beer cutting edge, 2014:

1. Sour beer.

2. Cloudy beer.

3. Kvass.

I’m starting to suspect that the similarity between the two lists isn’t entirely a coincidence (or a cheap gag). Look at it this way: if you’re brewing within a known flavour profile, using established methods, everyone up and down the line is going to know roughly what the beer is supposed to look like and taste like – or rather (more to the point) they’ll know what it’s not supposed to look and taste like. As soon as you open the door to ‘the right kind’ of sourness – or ‘the right kind’ of haze – you make quality control much, much more difficult. Ten years ago, when the friendly and helpful barman told you that your sour and murky pint was meant to look and taste like that, you could laugh at him; these days it is actually possible that he’s right. It’s also possible that it was meant to look and taste like a pint of beer, and it’s off in one way or another; more importantly, it’s also possible that it was meant to be sour-ish and/or murky-ish, but that this particular pint/barrel is in fact off. Throw in the wild card of different and challenging flavour profiles – and who isn’t brewing to different and challenging flavour profiles these days? – and it’s anybody’s guess what you were supposed to have in front of you or what condition it was supposed to be in. Next time you take a sour pint back, the f. and h. b. may not stop at telling you it’s fine – you may get the full hipster sneer (Bit sour for you, was it?).

All this was inspired by a pint of Moor Raw at Chorlton Font, which was frankly pretty foul. I started tasting the yeast about halfway down the glass; it arm-wrestled the malt for the rest of the pint, and by the end of the glass it had come out on top. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to taste like that – and, frankly, if it was meant to taste like that it shouldn’t be (there is no style definition of ‘best bitter’ which includes ‘a mouthful of yeast’). Moor beers are unfined, of course, and they’re often very good – I’ve had pale ales of theirs which were spectacularly fresh and zingy. But once you’ve told the world your beers are cloudy, you’ve made it next to impossible to catch the wrong kind of cloudiness. And if you also tell the world that your beer tastes ‘different’, it’s pretty hard to catch off flavours – more importantly, it’s pretty hard for customers to have any confidence that they can recognise off flavours.

I am really rather bored with craft beer (at least, there’s something I think of as ‘craft beer’, with which I’m rather bored) – and when craft beer enthusiasms and blind-spots get in the way of a decent pint of a Saturday night, I stop being bored and get cross. It seems to me that the tendency for brewers to go all out for new and different flavours, coupled with some quite deliberate boundary-pushing in the areas of cloudy and sour beer, have created a situation where lots of people are at risk of being served beer that’s off, and feeling discouraged from complaining about it. It seems to me that this is a really bad situation, and I say enough of it. Enough weird made-up beers – and especially enough sour and cloudy beers (not every boundary is worth pushing). If you’re not fining your beer, frankly you should start; it’s an ancient and perfectly natural technique (and if you’re worried about the fish bladders, have a word with the guys at Marble). If your beer’s sour, then – if you’re not making a Flemish Red or a gueuze – it’s come out wrong. (And if you are making a Flemish Red or a gueuze, can I suggest you stop fannying about and make a decent bitter?)

So that’s my wish list for 2014. No more Borefts-fodder beers-for-art’s sake – beers that you have to ‘get’. And no more sour beer, or cloudy beer. Let’s stop messing about. You’re the drinker – if it looks wrong or it tastes wrong, send it back.