Monthly Archives: November 2018

How much is that pint on the menu?

A brief note about a curious experience we had in Manchester the other day.

The other half & I were in the market for a meal before going to the cinema, and decided to aim a bit higher than Spoons. (I won’t name the place we went to, but it was – as the ads used to say – Five Minutes From This Cinema, ‘this’ being the OdeonVue in the Printworks.)

The meal, although not fancy, was very nice indeed – it’s good to be reminded sometimes what a hamburger tastes like when it’s been made from scratch. What it wasn’t was lavish; the burgers, while perfectly adequate, were on the small side of large, and my wife’s salad had been portion-controlled to within an inch of its life. My chips were served in one of those odd metal canisters (a small vase? an ornamental tin can?), which appeared to have been quite generously filled; on inspection, however, the chips were sitting in a small greaseproof paper bag which was perched in the neck of the canister, the bottom half of which was completely empty. It was fine – I didn’t go hungry, and the quality of the food was excellent – but it did give the impression that they were trying to make a little go a long way.

As for beer, the drinks menu had several bottles and cans in the £3-£5 range, including a couple from small brewers. I fancied something bigger than 330 ml, though, so I looked at the ‘draught’ section – and was surprised to see that ‘craft ales’ [sic] were on offer. Getting our waitress to tell us what they actually were took several questions (on my part) and a bit of running back and forth (on hers), but eventually I was served with a pint of RedWillow Faithless – presumably the latest (#91), as it was a hoppy bitter. Rather to my surprise, it was on cask; it was in good nick, too, and went well with the meal.

At the end of the meal we were in a hurry to get to the pictures, so didn’t worry too much about the bill; the total sounded about right, so we paid up and scarpered. The curious experience came later, when we got the bill out to check what we’d paid for what. For my beer – a pint of a high-quality short-run beer from a well-respected local brewer, on cask, in a restaurant – I’d paid £3.85. £3.85! You could pay more than that over the bar in Chorlton; come to that, you could pay more than that for a bottle of lager in Nando’s or Pizza Express. And this in a restaurant which clearly had a policy of not leaving any money on the table (or on the plate) as far as food was concerned.

I’m not saying that £3.85 is cheap in pub prices, let alone that it’s too cheap. But £3.85 in a restaurant – and a restaurant that wasn’t giving anything away otherwise – for a quality beer like that…! I can only imagine that the restaurant’s paying a correspondingly low rate to the supplier – and I can only imagine that they’re doing that because of a perception that cask beer has to be sold cheap or not at all.

I’m all in favour of a £4 ceiling, and of keeping beer affordable generally. But there are bound to be exceptions, and I think the kind of restaurant where a burger costs a tenner could legitimately be one of them. The fact that, in this case, it wasn’t an exception – although they did feel free to charge ‘restaurant’ prices for beer in cans – makes me wonder if some of our campaigning on behalf of cask has been too successful, or if it’s succeeded in the wrong way.

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Palely loitering

A couple of recent pub experiences have set me wondering about the health of the ‘craft’ scene.

One weekday prevening, I stuck my head in a bar nearby for a Swift Half On The Way Home. A Swift Half, etc. – not to be confused with the end-of-evening Half Of Something Silly – is for when you want to get a drink down and be on your way (home); hence a half rather than a pint. As you are just stopping for the one half, it needs to be strong-ish, and preferably have a reasonably definite flavour; you don’t want a beer so light that you end up necking it and looking for the other half. Where the typical Half Of Something Silly would be an imperial stout or a barley wine at silly%, the ideal Swift Half would be a bitter or a porter between (say) 4.8% and 6.8%.

But you can’t always get what you want, and on this occasion the bar in question came up short. Across four cask and three keg taps, they were serving a barrel-aged imperial stout, a blonde, a session IPA – and four separate pale beers, two of them showcasing the same hop. Mostly they were light in strength terms as well: apart from the stout (which had Half Of Something Silly written all over it) only one of the seven cracked the 4.5% mark. I appreciate that you’ve got to stock what sells, and maybe that is what the beer-drinking public around here is crying out for. Seems a shame not to have a bit more variety, though, in strength as well as style.

In another bar last night I had two beers which, on the face of it, couldn’t have been more different – a plain old straight up and down IPA from Tiny Rebel and a collab between Wild and Fuller’s. The latter was listed on the blackboard as a ‘Somerset pale’, but the pump clip told a different story: it was a grisette. Or rather, a green-hopped grisette. Specifically, an oak-aged green-hopped grisette.

What were they like? They were fine. Or rather – let’s not damn with faint praise – they were both good, complex, interesting beers, which I’d be happy to order again. If I’ve got anything to moan about here, it isn’t quality. But, while I’ve only had one grisette before, that one tasted a lot more like what the style sounds like. If you take a grisette and deliver it straight, I suspect you’ll end up with a bit of a niche product – but if you take a grisette and add the acrid zing of green hops, then age it on wood for body and mellowness (or maybe the other way round, I’m not a brewer), what you end up with is… well, a lot like a contemporary pale beer. Which is also more or less what you get if you take an IPA and soup it up [sic] with the East Coast of the USA in mind – fruit-salad hopping, creamy texture, minimal bitterness… I’m not saying both these beers arrived at the same destination, but they certainly wound up in different districts of Contemporary Pale City.

Where’s the innovation coming from – who’s producing something really different? (Pastry stouts? Fruit IPAs?) Alternatively, is innovation not what’s going to sell right now, in an increasingly competitive (i.e. cash-strapped) marketplace – is the dial going to stick on ‘pale’ now, just as it stuck on ‘brown bitter’ for all those years?