Author Archives: Phil

0, 1, 2

it looks as if the period when my beer drinking consisted mostly, or entirely, of bottled beers at home may – touch wood – finally be coming to an end, I wrote here back in April (new Covid cases in England: 20,000/day and falling). Two and a half months later (new Covid cases 20,000/day and rising) I caught the damn thing myself, which was no fun at all for about a week and left me wondering if I was “back to normal” yet for the next… well, I’ll tell you when it stops. (Was I always this unfit? Was my capacity always this low? Did I always get that weird weak panicky feeling at odd moments? And so on. That said, I have been sitting in front of this computer too nervous to go out for two years, which may also have had the odd knock-on effect.)

Anyway, I didn’t get a bad dose (people I know have been knocked flat both by Covid and by the after-effects) – and Omicron infection is supposed to give your immunity a boost – and besides, new cases in England are currently 4,000/day and falling – so I’ll cautiously venture back out on that limb and say that, now, it looks as if the period when my beer drinking consisted mostly, or entirely, of bottled beers at home may – touch wood – finally be coming to an end.

Still got this stash, though. 50 beers at last count. Run out of Westmalle Tripels, too – ought to do something about that…

Bulk buying is a habit that’s going to die hard, and for some beers I can’t see myself giving it up at all: I don’t know if there will ever be a time when I don’t want to have a De Ranke XX-bitter to hand. Or a Westmalle Tripel; or an M&S Czech lager; or an Orval.

As it happens I’ve been bulk-buying Orval – and reordering before my stock runs out – since the first lockdown. As a result I’ve ended up with, oh, more than one or two bottles of it, including… this:

 

 

What do they taste like, though? Specifically, what do they taste like in comparison?

Let’s find out.

Bottle 1: 9/6/2022; just under three months old

Reminds me oddly of an old-school English bitter, but deconstructed. The flavour seems to have the same overall ‘shape’, beginning with a bit of citric freshness in the front of the mouth, developing into something denser and heavier in the bitter/sweet region and finishing with tannic bitterness in mid-mouth, but without any bittering-hop aftertaste. There’s no big hit of malt, though, just a bitterness that gradually develops, accompanied oddly by a vague milk-chocolate sweetness.

But the big flavour element – the one that really drives through and carries the other flavour elements, in the way that bittering hops drive through a pale bitter (or De Ranke XX-bitter) – is the Brett. After drinking this I spent an hour looking at secondhand books on the Internet, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Think old books, think dry leaves, think socks left unwashed, think last night’s tobacco smoke; you can even think horse blankets, if (but only if) you know what one of those smells like. Whatever you call it, there’s a lot of it in this beer: it’s there in the aroma, it’s there almost immediately after the start, and from there on it builds to the finish. The other elements – initial sharpness, hint of milk chocolate, dense bitterness – make this quite a complex flavour, but there’s never any doubt which element is in charge; balanced, this is not.

But then, it’s only young.

Bottle 2: 2/8/2021; a year and a month old.

Again, the flavour has that old-school English bitter profile, but in a much smoother, more integrated form. Grapefruit bitterness and a bit of citric fruit in the foretaste, but not in overpowering amounts; then there’s something sweetish – maybe even malty – with a bit of weight and body; then the whole thing is rounded off with mid-mouth bitterness, charcoal and dark chocolate. Again, it’s not a hoppy flavour – no flowery aromas and no back-of-the-throat bitterness.

As for the Brett, it’s there, but it’s behaving itself; it binds to the main flavour elements and hangs over them like a wisp of smoke (or sweat), only really making its presence felt in the aftertaste. At this age it only tastes of Brett in the same sense that chips taste of salt – which is to say, it doesn’t, except that you’d miss the Brett if it wasn’t there. The overall flavour profile is much better put together than in the fresh beer – you could even call it balanced.

Bottle 3: 6/6/2020; two years and three months old

This time the citric opening hit is in charge, slightly to my surprise, with a sharp note dominating almost all the way through. (I remember ‘old’ bottles I’ve had before being a lot mellower, and wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility of this one having a fault. But you can only review the one you’re drinking.)

If the fresh version was “an old-school English bitter, but deconstructed”, two years later the flavour profile’s well and truly put itself together again; there’s very few fireworks or surprises between the sharp opening and the mid-mouth bitter finish. The wispy, smoky, old-books-y Brett element is definitely there, but it’s back in its box, mainly serving to make the mid-mouth flavour a bit more complex and bulk up the finish.

It’s a fascinating beer; my only slight regret is that I haven’t organised my stash better and rotated a few more older bottles to the back. If any of my current stash makes it to three years old, I’ll let you know how they turn out.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (3)

One more post on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

When I started this blog back in 2010, one of the first things I posted was a series of posts on “my local” – I was lucky enough to have four pubs and bars to choose from. All four are still trading, although with the exception of the Wetherspoon’s they’re all under different management. Of the other three, two – the Beerhouse and the Hillary Step – are more or less recognisable as the same place they were, with a formula that the incoming management have altered but not overturned.

The Beech, though, is an almost completely different pub, with the snug opened out and large screens – and piped music – in every room. Not, I have to say, my cup of tea. Still, at all but its very lowest points the Beech has been dependable for beer quality, with a longstanding association with Timothy Taylor’s, and I’m happy to say that both of these are still the case. I didn’t stop long enough to find out if the Landlord and Boltmaker were as good as I remember them being, but I can report that the Brightside Umbra was in good nick. It’s an odd one for a dark mild, with a lot of roasty bitterness and very little sweetness; if you’d told me it was a light stout I wouldn’t have argued. Good stuff, though.

I had the Beech, and its many screens, more or less to myself on this Friday afternoon, but as I approached the Bowling Green things looked decidedly more lively. In fact it was buzzing. Actually it was a bit too busy, and what was that? a sign asking customers to place all orders at the desk? I approached close enough to the lad on the said desk for him to accost me and ask whether I was with the funeral. Ah.

Fortunately there was another pub handy, in the shape of the Horse and Jockey. In its latterday form as a gastropub, it was deserted and rather unwelcoming. I took my pint of Holt’s mild outside; it was fine, but no more than that.

On another Friday afternoon, the bus took me to Urmston and the Lord Nelson – a pub I’ve only ever visited in daytime, and which always looks as if it’s going to be a lot livelier in the evening; not in an unwelcoming way, though. The Holt’s mild here was excellent, for what that’s worth.

A walk into the centre brought me to the Prairie Schooner, the Music for the Soul secondhand record shop, and – more to the point – the Tim Bobbin (JDW), where I had another pint of Brightside Umbra (for about half the price the Beech had charged). The sticker sheet had gone walkabout, so I returned to the bar afterwards to get a signature, only to be stuck behind an old bloke who was having a pint of Coors dispensed from the slowest keg tap you have ever seen. And a slightly lairy-looking guy who lunged up to the bar, counted out some coins, said something about ifmyturncomesroundandI’mnotherecheersta and disappeared out of the front entrance, presumably for a smoke. (The bartender, still drawing the endless pint of Coors, ignored this approach completely and rolled her eyes as he left.) Then it turned out that the old bloke with the Coors wasn’t just ordering the one pint; in fact I had to wait until the bartender had pulled four of them, by which time there was a small crowd waiting and I felt quite bad about monopolising the bartender’s attention. Still, I seized my moment and got… the bartender’s initials in the box on the form. (This was actually the only place I came away from without a sticker this year.) Outside I met ifmyturncomesround guy, although as it turned out he wasn’t smoking; in fact he was riding a pushbike in circles on the pavement. He asked if there was still a queue at the bar, then answered himself (ahyouwouldn’tknowwouldyou) and headed inside to find out, wheeling the bike. JDW’s, all human life is there.

There was no drama at the Prairie Schooner – not least because it wasn’t on the MM list – but I’ll talk about it anyway. There was an opportunity to compare and contrast Loch Lomond‘s single-hop DIPAs Lost in Citra and Lost in Mosaic (verdict: the Citra works better than the Mosaic, unless you like an undertone of burnt toast with your fruit cocktail). Also at the Schooner, a wall entirely covered with past pump badges; I was able to count 20 different TicketyBrew beers, half of which I never had, alas. (Also a few from Cryptic – and doubtless from other former breweries of quality.)

And then to Didsbury. Wine and Wallop and I have (slightly tetchy) history with regard to MM, so it’s nice to be able to report that they had a mild on, and that it was a very nice pint. It’d be even nicer if I could remember which mild it was. I blame their bizarre decision to operate on table service only, while still having draught beers on the bar (and not on a menu, blackboard etc, at least as far as I could see). I distinctly remember thinking, halfway down the pint, what is this again? and straining to read the pump clip from my seat (I appear to be drinking… Binny Stritchly’s Dank Mick… can that possibly be right?). I don’t distinctly remember what I eventually worked it out to be, sadly. Still: they’re serving mild – and giving out stickers – so fair play to them.

There was more nomenclatural (it’s a word) consternation at the Fletcher Moss, which turns out to have been the only Hyde’s pub I visited on this year’s MM. Despite sponsoring MM, Hyde’s seem determined not to sell anything actually called Mild. As I understand it Hyde’s light mild is still on sale as 1863 (although as Hyde’s currently badge it as a “chestnut session ale” I wonder if it’s as light as it used to be), but the dark mild is no longer Owd Oak or even Old Indie; it’s… (You have to imagine this entire paragraph playing out, with increasing rapidity, in my head as I studied the pump clips at the Fletcher Moss.) In the end I plumped for Dark Ruby (“a very dark ruby red beer”), as much on the basis of its strength (3.5%) as anything else. A pint of it in the beer garden went down quite nicely.

Lastly to East Didsbury and the Gateway (JDW), where they were between milds. As remnants of their ‘beer festival’ were still visible, I took the opportunity to settle a question from the Waterhouse – where

There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why.

The only other dark beer it could have been was an Italian porter – Foglie d’Erba Hot Night at the Village – which, as luck would have it, was on the bar at the Gateway. So I had a half. It was good, but it was definitely a porter – which means I did have the Rudgate mild. Nice to get these things settled.

There was very nearly a problem with the stickers at the Gateway, albeit an unusual kind of problem – I overheard two members of staff debating whether, considering they hadn’t had a mild on, I should have been given a sticker. Fortunately they didn’t confiscate it for being obtained under false pretences. They were also pulling through Titanic Classic Mild at the time, and as I’d only had a half of the porter it seemed rude not to have a half of that as well.

Six pubs and one bar; seven venues, seven milds, six stickers. Overall, 23 out of 24 were giving out stickers and – more importantly – 20 out of 24 had mild on. Several old favourites it was nice to visit again – Costello’s, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar and of course the Tap – and four places I’d never been before (Ladybarn SC, Tapsters, the Halfway House and Bridge Beers). (And I really must get back to Reasons one of these days.)

Many thanks to the organisers for making Mild Magic possible, again – it’s good to have it back.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (2)

More on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

One of the pleasures of Mild Magic is connecting up assorted pubs and bars in a single route – particularly when it means getting to somewhere you don’t usually go without having to make a special trip. It doesn’t always work out; this time round I decided not to fit Reasons to be Cheerful into my Didsbury trip (of which more anon), but never managed to work out another route it would fit into. What I did manage this year, courtesy of a £10 all-you-can-eat bus/train/tram pass, was Stalybridge via Droylsden and Ashton.

At the Silly Country my notes have let me down; I could tell you what was on two of the handpumps (viz. two different flavoured ciders); I could draw you a map of the layout and tell you where I was sitting; I could even name several of the books on the bookshelves, but I can’t tell you the name of the dark mild I had. It was pretty good, though. (It definitely wasn’t Pomona Mild Peril, which TSC had had on, as that’s 6% and I would have (a) remembered and (b) had a half.) The Silly Country – a craft beer bar in a shopping-centre unit, in Droylsden – wouldn’t have been on my list of Bars Most Likely To Succeed, but it’s been there four years now and seems to be doing OK (and the mild, whatever it was, was in good nick). Good luck to them.

Back on the tram to Ashton, where I decided to tick off the (restricted-opening) Halfway House before trying anywhere more central. I’m not sure where it’s halfway to, but it would have to be pretty good if you were going to get me doing the other half on foot. I did get a bus part of the way, but ‘part’ was the operative word – the usually-reliable Moovit app suggested that my best route was “get on bus, sit down, count to ten, stand up, get off bus, walk uphill through terraced streets for 15 minutes”, and like a fool I believed it. The Halfway House turned out to be a back street pub on the old “large detached house” model, with three rooms, three customers and two handpumps. They had had a mild on, apparently, but no longer; I had a pint of Bass, which was perfectly fine.

Then back into the centre, which took a while – that side of Ashton isn’t really optimised for foot traffic – and took me down a lot of streets where all the shops were closed and there was nobody around but bored teenagers. As it was a Saturday lunchtime this seemed odd, to say no more than that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by living in Chorlton. Fortified by a couple of pies from the covered market, I went in search of Tapster’s, and found… a nightclub. A nightclub from the 1970s or 80s, specifically – chrome, deep pile carpets, black leather, low lighting… And, er, cask beer. There was no mild on, so I had a half of Bridge Beers Galaxy. The bartender told me they had a Bridge Beers mild, but it was still settling; we had a bit of a chat about the brewery, who he rated highly.

Next stop was the aforesaid bridge – viz. Staly – and my first call was Bridge Beers itself, where the brewery’s beers are served on gravity, from nines behind the bar. I had a half of Bridge Beers mild, which was really good. Ordinarily I would have either made it a pint or stopped for another half or two – I’d enjoyed the Galaxy & was quite tempted by the “Galaxy Export Strength”, even though “export strength” turned out to be 5% – but.. Well, it’s a social distancing thing, or rather an ‘enclosed space’ thing. I’d managed to mute, or at least snooze, my inner Covid Alert in all the places I’d visited so far – “well, it’s quite airy”; “well, it’s quite a big place”; “OK, it’s a small place with no windows at all, but… actually it’s quite big, and anyway there’s hardly anyone in”… But Bridge Beers was (a) tiny, (b) packed (there must have been eight other customers in there, maybe even ten) and (c) frankly a bit stuffy – you know how, when you’re in a crowded room, after a while the air starts to feel a bit moist? That.

So I regretfully supped up and moved on to my last stop of the day, the Buffet Bar. I went there 28 years ago to my certain knowledge (and that may not have been the first time); it hasn’t changed a lot. Sadly there wasn’t a mild to be had, but as they had Jaipur on cask I didn’t feel too hard done by. A half of that was followed by a half of Thornbridge/Neon Raptor Pandora’s Box, an 8% DIPA (on keg, naturally). Which was fine – lots of tropical fruit, lots of alcohol – but no more than that; I should just have had a pint of Jaipur, or maybe two.

Another trip out took me to Sale and Altrincham – not an actual train trip, admittedly, although it did involve travelling on a railway line.

In Sale I decided against trekking up the A56 to the Volunteer, and went to the J. P. Joule (JDW) next to the stationtram stop. It was early in the day, so I broke my rule and had a half, of Phoenix Monkeytown Mild. It was a fairly light-bodied dark mild, not particularly sweet, with a slightly stout-like bitter finish. I wasn’t bowled over, but it would probably work better over a full pint.

In Altrincham I went to the Old Market Tavern. I’ve seen it buzzing in the past, but that was at night. On this particular Saturday lunchtime, this big, open pub, a bit outside the town centre, not serving food (despite signs claiming otherwise), was about as busy as you’d expect. I imagine food service was a casualty of the pandemic, as I think was also the case for the Buffet Bar. Bringing it back would be a big step, but without it a place like the Old Market has lost a lot of its appeal, at least during the day. They also didn’t have any mild on, but a pint of Lees‘ MPA was very welcome.

Then it was over to Costello’s, where I was back on halves; the Dunham Dark would have been well worth a pint, but there was the Porter to fit in (malt extract and tobacco smoke), not to mention the Lymm Lymm Dam. There’s a certain kind of beer of which I always want to say that it “rings like a bell”. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that(!), but it’s usually an old ale, an abbey beer or a top-end strong bitter; Ticketybrew Pale qualified, for example. It’s a certain combination of body, fullness of flavour (without cloying sweetness or cough-mixture heaviness) and strength. Anyway, that half of Lymm Dam absolutely rang like a bell. (And the Dunham Dark was a very good mild.)

Three pubs and five bars – or if you’re being picky, three pubs, four bars and one micro-pub; quite a variety of places, anyway. And eight venues got me eight stickers and five milds – a bit less impressive than the 8/9 scored by central Manchester and Stockport (see previous post), but not bad.

Next: making some local calls.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (1)

Mild Magic – CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester – is back for 2022; slightly to my surprise, I’m even taking part myself. (“Look how the figures are falling at the moment” did battle with “Look at all the people who’ve been posting pictures of their positive tests”; it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but optimism eventually won, thanks in part to an intervention by “it’s not as if I’m not going to the pub already”.) 24 pubs, 24 different areas, mostly on weekday afternoons (being a part-timer has its benefits) – it’s been fun, and hopefully it hasn’t been excessively risky.

The main difference with previous years, as far as I’m concerned, is that I’ve decided to have a pint where possible. The weekday afternoon trade tends to be slack, for obvious reasons, and in previous years’ MMs I’ve sat in quite a few pubs and bars that were otherwise completely empty. If I was going to be the only custom a bar had in half an hour, I didn’t want to seem like a cheapskate into the bargain – especially post-pandemic. Also, it’s mild – a good mild should be pintable, even to the point of being a “disappearing beer“.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the first instalment of pubs on this year’s MM itinerary, covering central Manchester and Stockport.

I started at the Briton’s Protection, a landmark pub with reliably good and interesting beer, now sadly under threat (petition here). The mild they had on was 4Ts Old School, which was… fine. To be more positive about it, it was – as the name implies – an old-school dark mild: malty, sweetish, light-textured, absolutely nothing striking or unexpected about it. Which meant that it went down very easily.

I had an odd experience at the Waterhouse (JDW). There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why. It was a nice mild, anyway – fruity and full-flavoured, with a lot of body.

Also in – or near – the city centre are the New Oxford and the Piccadilly Tap; I know I had a mild in both places but I didn’t make a note of it, sadly. Both places had a big range of beers on tap, as ever – and, as ever, an impressive range of Belgian bottles at the Oxford – but nothing that made me feel the need to stop for another.

A city-centre pub that wasn’t an old haunt of mine – I think I’d only been in once before – was the Lower Turk’s Head. There are pubs that, when you see them in daylight, look as if they come into their own at night, and the Turk’s Head was definitely one of those. The Holt’s Cherry Mild was excellent, though – not especially sweet or fruity, but a big, complex flavour, far superior to the standard mild.

As for the Stockport leg of my MM journey, that began at the Ladybarn Social Club. I was initially foxed by the “entry by key fob only” notice on the door and considered going elsewhere, before reasoning that it must be possible for non-members to get in and trying the door buzzer. Of course, it was fine – just a matter of signing in as a guest – and I had a pint of Dunham’s Chocolate Cherry Mild, which was really good. The signing-in process took a bit of a while to organise, as did the hunt for the MM stickers, and I was slightly concerned that I was going to miss the next bus. Once I’d got my pint, I realised I needn’t have worried. The flavour of the CCM is just as big as the name implies, but the chocolate and cherry notes don’t feel bolted-on – it just tastes like a dark mild that happens to taste of those things. (Cf. Ticketybrew’s “Frankenstein beers” with hops-and-barley flavour profiles duplicated – and heightened – by the use of additions.) And it goes down extraordinarily easily. After this and the 4Ts, I started to wonder if the roster of disappearing beers needed to be updated to include traditional dark milds (and some less traditional ones).

In Stockport itself, the recently-revived Crown didn’t have a mild on, but only because it had run off the previous night, when (the licensees were keen to impress on me) the place had been rammed. It was Sunday afternoon, just after lunch; I had a half of Brimstage Oystercatcher stout, and I didn’t see another soul while I was there. It’s hard to come back from closure, and I wish the new licensees luck with it.

The Cocked Hat, by contrast, had a good complement of regulars, a word which here means “person sitting at the bar who looks round at you suspiciously as you come in” (an experience I’ve had in there before, although oddly enough the pub was under different management). It also had big screen sport with the sound off, together with piped music – a weird and unappealing combination (also seen at the Lower Turk’s Head). I decided to break my pint rule and had a half of Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild – a fairly rare bird, which I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past. Either it’s not as good now as it used to be or the half I had was in poor nick; I wasn’t impressed, anyway.

Lastly, I broke the pints rule again at the Petersgate Tap, but this was because they had Ashover Victorian Ruby Mild on – and it’s 7%. There’s no reason to imagine that a Victorian time traveller would call it anything but a mild – and matching Victorian styles to anything we’d recognise now is a mug’s game – and  but for what it’s worth this tasted like a strong old ale or a light-ish barley wine; it was terrific, either way. (But a half was enough.)

Counting the Ladybarn SC as a pub – and it’s certainly the pubbiest social club I’ve ever seen; I could name pubs that look more like a social club – that’s seven pubs and two bars; nine venues, nine stickers, eight milds.

Next: two train trips

Front line, back line

In the last week I’ve drunk about twice as much beer in pubs as at home; it looks as if the period when my beer drinking consisted mostly, or entirely, of bottled beers at home may – touch wood – finally be coming to an end. Let’s hope so.

Still, I do want to talk a bit more about the bottles under the stairs (and in the garage); specifically, about the front line and the back line.

Over the last two years I’ve ordered a lot of “mixed cases” (mostly from Thirst Class, Marble, the Petersgate Tap and Rotsaert – not the Belgian beer merchant I was using a couple of years ago, but the one that was first off the blocks in resuming deliveries to Brexit Island). I’ve also done a lot of bulk ordering – either beers that I knew I’d get through or beers that were only available in multiples, or in a couple of cases both: Jaipur, Boltmaker, Batham’s, Harvey’s Elizabethan… Perhaps especially during lockdown, I found it very reassuring always to know that any time I fancied an X, there an X would be. (I only got the Batham’s once, though – they just went down too quickly.)

Over time I’ve refined the bulk ordering process, generally by a process of realising over a period of time that (e.g.) six Ram Tams was one too many. (It goes out as Landlord Dark these days, seeming to endorse the old rumour that it was just Landlord with added caramel – which is odd because a side-by-side tasting confirms that they’re totally different beers.) But there’s been addition as well as subtraction; in fact I’ve now got six beers that are my ‘go to’ example of a particular style & which I’ve bought in quantity. So my stash has a definite front line of multiple-purchase reliables, along with everything else that catches my eye (the back line).

What’s in my front line? There are six (or seven) beers involved, and in ascending total alcohol content order (doesn’t everyone order their stash by total alcohol content?), they are:

1. The bitter: Marble Pint and Bitter (3.9% and 4.1% @ 500ml = 3.4% and 3.6% pint equivalent)

For some reason I largely went off hoppy beers during lockdown; I drank quite a bit of Boltmaker and indeed Landlord, but the Jaipur took a long time to get through. More recently, though, I’ve reacquired the taste for Bitter, Marble‘s contemporary stripped-down refit of a best bitter. More recently still, I’ve started finding even that a bit on the malty side, and preferred to go pale’n’oppy with Pint. To cut a long story short, when I fancy “a bitter” at home what I reach for is a 500 ml can of Bitter… or sometimes Pint.

2. The… well, the Orval: Orval (6.2% @ 330ml = 3.6% equiv.)

It’s Orval. There isn’t anything else like it. You can get it in bulk from Belgium. (Mind you, by Belgian standards it’s on the expensive side for a Trappist beer, making the differential with sterling pricing less steep than it is for many beers; if you can find it in bulk at a British beer merchant it’s sometimes worth a punt.) It does tend to be ‘young’ when you buy it from Belgium; for the last year or so I’ve been attempting to buy enough Orval to allow some of it to age in the garage, but I’ve never got much beyond a year. Young Orval’s still pretty good, though.

3. The Czech lager: a supermarket Czech lager (almost invariably 5% @ 500ml = 4.4% equiv.)

There’s nothing quite like a světlý ležák, even in the inevitably less than stellar examples that British supermarkets stock. That said, both Marks and Spencer’s own-brand Czech lager and, bizarrely, Lidl’s (Staravice) are pretty good examples of the style, IMO – and Sainsbury’s own-brand isn’t bad. (All three are brewed in the Czech Republic, for what that’s worth.) And even the Marks’ is cheap enough to buy four at a time.

4. The stout: Shepherd Neame Double Stout (5.2% = 4.6% equiv.)

Like a lot of people, I sampled Shepherd Neame‘s ‘brown label’ revival recipe beers when they appeared, and like a lot of people I found most of them a bit underwhelming – not bad, and certainly a cut above Sheps’ standard supermarket fare, but not particularly memorable either. The exception, as far as I’m concerned, was the “Double Stout”. (It’s certainly not a historically accurate Victorian double stout: they would have been a lot stronger, as well as having a relatively thin body and more than a touch of Brett. But then, if I want one of them I know where I can find it.) What this is, is a strongish but still “pintable” stout, big in body and flavour but without the sharp roasty edge of a Guinness. When it appeared in Lidl I stocked up.

5. The tripel: Westmalle (8.5% = 5% equiv.)

Got to have a tripel in there somewhere… I’ve had several orders from Belgium over the last couple of years and tried quite a few tripels, but very few of them come close to Westmalle. It’s oddly hard to describe: it’s dry, but with no sharpness (which is where a lot of other tripels fall down); there’s some sweetness, but it’s not sweet; it’s got herbal notes to it but no flowery or tropical-fruit overtones; it doesn’t exactly drink its strength – it’s certainly not ‘hot’ – but it doesn’t hide its strength either. It’s a really fine beer. (Honourable mention: De Ranke Guldenberg, which is even drier but perhaps not quite as complex.)

6. The quadhigh-end abbey beer: Rochefort 10 (11.3% = 6.6% equiv.)

I don’t call Rochefort 10 a quadrupel, if only because it had been brewed for some time before anyone thought of extending the dubbel/tripel naming convention up another level. It’s just… Rochefort 10: a third of a litre of beer that’s stronger than a pint of Wobbly Bob and tastes like plums in brandy – although, again, without any alcohol heat to speak of, despite its considerable strength. I don’t fancy this kind of beer all the time, but when I do there isn’t a better option. (Unless it’s Abt?)

There’s room for refinement – not least because the Sheps’ stout won’t last forever. I haven’t yet identified “the mild” (not enough candidates) or “the IPA” (too many candidates); “the black IPA” might also be worth a punt (and at the moment would probably be Thirst Class Penny Black). “The old ale” and/or “the barleywine” would be good – but as with milds, the field is small. I might replace the stout with “the imperial stout” if I can identify a good candidate (I had twelve of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout right at the start of lockdown, but that’s a bit too much its own thing). I have had “the porter” in the past (it was Thirst Class Any Porter In A Storm), not to mention “the old-school BB” (Boltmaker) and “the low-end abbey beer” (Rochefort 6); none of them made it past the first six, though.

Or I might just go back to drinking actual pints in pubs. Who knows, it could catch on.

 

Good Czechs

While I’m getting out a lot more than I did during the Omicron wave, I’m still mostly drinking at home. A mainstay of my beer stash is some kind of Czech lager… but what kind, exactly?

On returning from my only visit to Prague (thus far) I made sure to stock up on Czech beers when I saw them, but generally found them disappointing. There’s a curious quality of drinkability to an ordinary 11- or 12-degree Czech pale lager. They aren’t (for the most part) spiky or complex – in fact there’s nothing in the flavour that might get in the way of the beer disappearing down your throat. At the same time I’d never call them bland or characterless; on the contrary, they have enough character to make you want to keep drinking.

It’s a good trick, and one I was hoping that available imports of Czech brands would replicate. So I was sorely disappointed to find a couple of the leading candidates tasting full-bodied, slightly sweet and slightly bready – very like you’d expect a lager from an ale brewery to taste, and very much lacking the cleanness and simplicity of the beers I remembered having on draught.

I gave up on the Czechs for a while, before one of the beers listed below came to my attention. After a bit more research, I can offer a definitive Top 5 of Mass-Market Bottled Czech Beer. You lucky people.

5. Staropramen

Avoid, unless you like your beer to taste of sweetcorn and milk loaf. Brewed in the UK, quite badly.

4. Budvar

Much, much better than #5. Really, much better. That said, it’s not the best example of the style by a long chalk; the malt is a significantly bigger presence in this than I remember it ever being in draught beer in Prague.

2=. Sainsbury’s Czech lager

With a name consisting of the word ‘Czech’ and a label seemingly aping Staropramen, this beer didn’t raise high hopes. But it’s cleaner and lighter than Budvar, which makes it significantly more drinkable; it evokes a bog-standard undesitka, which is not a bad thing to be evoking.

2=. Pilsner Urquell

This is a contender in a very different way. It doesn’t go down the “clean and light” route; the body’s heavy and the flavour’s herby and aromatic. But none of that gets in the way of sinkability. Bonus points for being available in Prague, and tasting an awful lot like I remember it tasting there.

1. Marks and Spencer Czech lager

Brewed by the Regent brewery in Bohemia, this… this is the good stuff. In my admittedly limited experience, nothing comes closer to the světlý ležák experience than this middle-ranking supermarket own-brand. Strong recommend.

But what am I missing? Are there any (reasonably easily available) bottled Czech beers that outclass the M&S (and indeed the PU)? Am I too easily impressed – alternatively, have I been too hard on Budvar? Let me know what you think.

CIDER for everyone

I’ve just completed the CAMRA Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality Review (coincidence???), which you can find here. It struck me part-way through that it was the kind of stuff I tend to blather on about here – so I saved my comments as I went along, and here they are.

Are CAMRA meetings and events welcoming?

CAMRA meetings and local branch events are as welcoming – and as diverse – as the people who attend. Personally I’ve felt entirely at home at the branch events I’ve been to, and I think that’s mostly because the regulars at both my local branches are nice people. But it’s undeniable that, as a middle-aged White guy, I see a lot of people like me at those events – and what makes me feel that bit more at home will have the opposite effect on a lot of people. So CAMRA events do have some demographic issues, because CAMRA as a membership organisation has those issues (in terms of age as well as sex and ethnicity) – but addressing those is for the long haul; there’s certainly no way CAMRA nationally can micro-manage them now.

As for beer festivals, I have every confidence in CAMRA’s commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment, and I trust the organisers on the ground to put the work in to make this happen. What we’ve seen over the last few years is that much greater diversity (compared to CAMRA’s early years) is already a reality on the festival floor. We sometimes forget, when we hear stories of CAMRA organisers having offensive pump clips or merchandise banned, that they’re responding to (or anticipating) complaints – and there wouldn’t be any complaints if the festival crowd was still made up of bearded beer-monsters.

Admittedly I’m male and I go back to the 70s – as a real ale drinker if not as a CAMRA member – so I’m really not the person to judge. That said, my impression is that festivals are a lot more inclusive and a lot safer – which is to say, a lot less male-dominated and a lot less likely to get a bit lairy towards the end of the day – than they were even when I started attending regularly.

How could CAMRA deal better with complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination?

A confidential ‘hotline’ (or email address) and a dedicated team dealing with allegations would help. It would also help, in terms of acceptability to the membership, if the team didn’t go in two-footed but confined itself to offering ‘words of advice’ (in the police’s phrase), plus a bit of mandatory training; if there is anyone out there who CAMRA needs to be rid of, that would probably be quite enough to make them take the hump and leave.

How well is CAMRA appealing to a diverse audience?

CAMRA’s in an incredibly difficult position. How does an organisation whose membership is very largely White and/or male and/or middle-aged or older sell itself to all the people outside those demographics (or even to the large majority of society which is outside the intersection of all three) without either

(a) looking “pale, male and stale”, i.e. thoroughly unappealing
or
(b) making CAMRA look a lot more diverse than it (or at least its active membership) actually is?

Have you ever volunteered for CAMRA? You haven’t? What’s the matter with you?

Honest answer: never really fancied the more public-facing roles – let alone the more heavy-load-shifting roles – but a few years ago I did think I’d give it bartending a go and volunteered at a smaller local festival. We were mobbed – I worked a hand-pump for two hours solid, left thirstier than I’d arrived and had a sore arm for the next week. After that I never really wanted to try again.

What should CAMRA do now?

I don’t think CAMRA should make any sudden movements, for fear of repelling more people than it would attract (simply because it’s so much easier to cancel a sub than to take one out). What we’re seeing is a big demographic shift working its way through the organisation, and as far as I can see everyone in a responsible position is committed to letting it happen, if not helping it along (this is certainly true of local organisers where I am). Good – keep it up!

Fancy a pint (or equiv.)?

Back in August 2020 – when Covid deaths were running at 9-10 a day, I was unvaccinated (like everyone else), the pubs had only just reopened and I was mostly drinking at home – I came up with this table as a device for comparing beers of different sizes and strengths.

Third 24
275 ml 35
Half 36
330 ml 42
US 12 oz 45
440 ml 56
US pint 60
500 ml 63
Pint 72

So you’ve had a 440ml can of something at 7% and a 330ml bottle of a 9%er – what’s that in pints? Simple: it’s the equivalent of a pint at ((56 * 7) + (42 * 9)) / 72, or 770 / 72, which is very slightly more than 768 / 72, which is 10.75, so call it 10.8.

(Well, I say ‘simple’.)

Now, I’m triple-jabbed, Covid deaths are running at 90-100 a day, it’s too damn cold to sit outside and I’m mostly drinking at home. And I wonder if that table – marvel of concision and information-density though it is – could be improved. Perhaps we could focus on the main can/bottle sizes and redo the whole thing as fractions of a pint?

275 ml 35/72
330 ml 7/12
US 12 oz 5/8
440 ml 7/9
500 ml 7/8

Then how about extending that into a table of pint equivalents for different sizes? The principle’s simple: 500 ml at 6% is the equivalent of a pint at (6% * 7 / 8) = 5.3%; 440 ml at 6% is the equivalent of a pint at (6% * 7 / 9) = 4.7%. I’m limiting the table to (strengths corresponding to) the range from 3.4% to 6.8% – over 3 and under 7, broadly speaking – because that’s still the kind of strength I’m looking for from a single beer. (Not that I don’t occasionally buy beers outside that range, but they do tend to hang around for longer.)

Here goes then. The numbers along the top are the strength of the beer; the numbers in the table are the equivalent strength of a pint delivering the same amount of alcohol.

4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
275 ml 3.4 3.9 4.4 4.9 5.4 5.8
330 ml 3.5 4.1 4.7 5.3 5.8 6.4
US 12 oz 3.8 4.4 5 5.6 6.3 6.9
440 ml 3.9 4.7 5.4 6.2
500 ml 3.5 4.4 5.3 6.1

From which we learn that

  • 275 ml bottles (7%+) are good for the upper reaches of loopy juice but not for much else.
  • 330 ml (6-11%) is ideal for anything less than entirely sessionable; also, a lot of those punchy-looking Belgian beers are really fairly weedy when you take the bottle size into account. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
  • Those American 355 ml bottles… they’re fine, too.
  • Conversely, 500 ml (4-7%) is ideal for anything you’d drink when you’ve got a thirst on.
  • 440 ml (5-8%) is a bit betwixt and between – and besides, in practice people are putting stuff that’s much too strong into big cans (10% at 440 ml is a pint at 8.6%, which is… not a pint).
  • And don’t even get me started on 660 and 750 ml.

Admittedly, it’s not currently possible to filter the beers on any of my friendly local Webstores by strength and container size, but a table like this is handy as an aide memoire. And it’ll be handy until I’m mostly ordering over the bar again, which hopefully will be sooner than it currently looks like.

Is it safe?

Is it safe at this desk? Yes, I think so, although the joke could yet be on reclusive old me – a multi-member household is only as safe as the riskiest place any member visits.

Was it safe when I went to the Font last night? Yes, I think so – we sat outside. I had a NEIPA which I won’t name (it was so long since I’d had the style that I’d forgotten I don’t like ’em) and the ever-reliable Track Sonoma; my companions both had a raspberry sour from Vault City, which was really rather good. (I can recommend the same brewery’s blackcurrant sour, of all the unlikely things. Strong, sour fruit beers – they’re the next big thing, possibly.) The Sonoma was the only cask beer on, incidentally; in the old days there used to be six or eight of them, although admittedly all six (or eight) were generally low- to mid-strength pales. Anyway, given that we were in the open air it did all seem pretty safe.

Is it safe in an enclosed space? There’s a question. As an extension of the ‘open air’ principle, I reckon you’re probably reasonably safe as long as you can feel a bit of a breeze on your face, whether it’s from an open window or from ventilation. On that basis I don’t worry about the tram – though I do still try and avoid buses – and I think the cinema and the restaurant we went to last week were both probably OK. Not everywhere qualifies, though – most pub interiors don’t, for a kick-off. The only time I’ve been inside any of my local pubs this summer, I was sitting so close to an open window I could have poured my drink on the pavement.

Is it safe if you’ve had the vaccine? This is the difficult bit. According to data I’ve seen two shots cut your risk of catching the Delta variant by 60%. What this means is that for any occasion when you would (100%) have caught the virus otherwise, you now have only a 40% chance of catching it. But what that means, as anyone who can do powers of 6 in their head can confirm, is that if you have two opportunities(!) to catch the virus your chance of not catching it goes down to 36%; three, down to 22%; four, down to 13%… Six opportunities to catch it and your chance of missing out on getting infected is down below 5% – which is to say your cumulative chance of catching it is up over 95%.

People I know take the view that if you’ve had both shots (a) you’re not going to end up on a ventilator (or worse) if you do catch the virus, and in any case (b) you’re about as safe as you’re going to get, so if not now, when? I respect those people’s judgment, but I can’t quite share it, for three reasons. Firstly, while the thought of being protected from the worst outcomes is reassuring, I would really rather not get Covid (or pass it on to anyone else); it’s “just like the flu” in roughly the same sense that street opiates are “just like paracetamol”. It has some weird neurological features that we’re nowhere near understanding, and the long-term effects can be debilitating or worse – I knew someone who died from “long Covid”, aged 46. If the choice is to stay at home or roll the dice on a possible infection, it’s going to take a lot to get me out of the door – even with the dice weighted in my favour.

Secondly, I don’t believe we are about as safe as we could be: we’d be a lot safer – we’d be rolling those dice a lot less often – if figures were low and falling, instead of being high and rising. On current trends, the daily case count will match its early-January peak in about a month’s time. The vaccines have been effective to some extent: they’re almost certainly preventing a much steeper rise in cases, effectively providing firebreaks that stop flare-ups spreading. Also, both the proportion of people who catch the virus who are admitted to hospital and the death rate of those who are hospitalised are way down from the January wave. (If the peak case numbers are repeated, we’d expect to see 200 deaths a day in early October, not the 1200 per day we had at the end of January.) But remember that January was in the middle of a lockdown, a tactic that the government has promised not to use again: if we do see 60,000 cases per day in a month’s time, what’s to stop those figures rising even further? (Don’t say ‘herd immunity’ unless you can explain why – given that it clearly isn’t working now – a month’s worth of vaccinations will make it start working.)

Thirdly, the one thing we don’t want to happen is another mutation, making the virus more infectious, more deadly or both. When there’s a lot of viral replication going on, mutations happen all the time; most of them are trivial or non-functional, but sometimes a mutation improves the virus’s chances of surviving and replicating to the point where it out-competes other, existing variants. This is what happened with the Alpha (Kent) variant, and it’s happened all over again with Delta. (If we had nothing to worry about but the original Wuhan version of Covid, the country would probably be Covid-free by now.) The range of possible mutations isn’t infinite, and there may not be much scope for a version worse than Delta – but we don’t know that. Every day when people are getting infected is a day when a new mutation may arise. Every day when large and growing numbers of people are getting infected is a good day to stay well away from becoming a part of the process, if you can.

So, is it safe? Well, I don’t feel safe; I haven’t felt safe since about the time I last wrote on this blog. It was around that time that the government made it clear – to the general approval of their own party’s MPs – that the abandonment of lockdown measures and other restrictions, while it might be gradual, would be irreversible. I don’t know what this actually means, but the mood music is clear enough: the course has been locked in and nothing’s going to change it. Not public concern, not the case numbers, not the medical profession, not people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Watching the case figures rise – then fall, then rise again – and watching the hospitalisation and death rates rising or (at best) holding steady, ‘irreversible’ is the very last message I want to hear: it’s depressing, and by depressing I mean ‘nightmarish’. So that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging lately.

Is it safe to talk about? This is another. As it goes, I’m quite keen on Britain having good trading and political relations with Europe; I’m also a Labour Party member. So there have been plenty of opportunities, in the last six years, for me to learn that other people have strong negative feelings about people and things who I feel positively about. Usually I’ve been happy to stand by what I believe in – where appropriate, which on a beer blog it generally isn’t – and laugh off any hostility. Something about the politics around lockdown, though, has got to me, and made me not want to do anything even slightly like wading in. It’s partly that the topic of lockdown is hard to avoid if you’re writing about pubs and beer, and partly that I genuinely see the way we deal with Covid as… well, a matter of life and death; this makes it hard to engage in a highly polarised debate in a spirit of knockabout fun. And it doesn’t help matters that the effects of the other two big polarisations I mentioned – the effects of what happened in December 2019 and January 2020 – are still very much with us.

Is it safe to go to Spoons? Probably not, quite frankly – and there are plenty of other reasons to give someone else your beer money – but it’s so well-placed for a quick drink after the pictures… Early on a weekday evening, the Seven Stars was half-empty – a good kind of half-empty – but I could see that the staff were stretched, not least from the number of uncleared tables. I scanned the code on our table and found myself ordering through the Website, which rapidly chewed up the battery in my (admittedly ageing) phone. Cask beer was limited – not to one beer this time, but to four decidedly uninspiring house beers (Ruddles, Abbot, Doom Bar and Wainwright Gold). Scrolling the can and bottle menu, I saw several beers greyed out and marked as out of stock; several others which I would have expected didn’t appear at all (no sign of those Sixpoint IPAs, for example). But they had Devils Backbone American IPA (which was fine, although less ‘American’ than I remembered), and they had Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropicana, so… ah. No. In actual fact they didn’t have Clwb Tropicana, or pretty much anything else in a 330 ml can; our server explained that they were switching from cans to bottles (???) and suggested a few alternatives, all of which were 500 ml or more.

As for the safety aspect, I realised as soon as we walked in that we were the only people there wearing masks – and I didn’t see another soul in a mask the whole time we were there, entering or leaving, behind the bar or on the stairs. Ventilation? I didn’t notice any – which probably means there wasn’t enough. (Roll the dice, then.) The other thing I noticed when we walked in was a piece of tape across the main double doors reading ‘Entrance Only’; I didn’t remember that pub having another exit and wondered vaguely which way we’d be going out. When we left I realised I’d misread the sign: it said ‘Entrance Only’ on one of the two swing doors and ‘Exit Only’ on the other. If taped-off one-way routes are security theatre, this was security burlesque.

Is it safe? Some places yes, some maybe, others not really. The real question is, is this as safe as it’s going to get? Come to that, is this as normal as it’s going to get – six cask lines down to one, Spoons running out of craft beer, Nando’s running out of chicken joints (although not halves and quarters), half of the people hating the other half and everyone hating the government?

I really hope not.

Ceci n’est pas un Orval

IMG_2573

We see here:

  • one 33 cl bottle of Orval (bottled September 2020)
  • one 275 ml bottle of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout (bought December 2020, probably not much older)
  • one Orval glass

Let the dance begin (one for the proggies out there)!

I didn’t pour this one quite as clean as I’d like, but it’s not actually murky. Only six months old, so pretty lively. Tasting notes, as if I didn’t know what an Orval tastes like by now:

Sharp, but with an accessible, fruity best-bitter quality, together with a musty, old-books overtone that never becomes overpowering; the finish brings the sharpness and mustiness back, together with a big throat-drying bitterness, making it weirdly quaffable.

So I drank a bit of it, and when I’d made a bit of space I topped it up with the Harvey’s IEDS. This is what resulted:

This was quite the transformation. All that Bretty mustiness disappeared, replaced by – well, here are my notes:

Black coffee Orval? Orvalspresso? Black coffee and marmalade in one? Bitterness and some sweetness in the body – although oddly the bitter finish is muted now.

I’ve found the IEDS a bit of a beast in the past – a brandy-dark-chocolate-and-Marmite beast, admittedly, but with rough roasty edges, and flashes of the kind of sharpness you can only call gastric. None of those negatives now; just an espresso martini made entirely of beer. Really very nice indeed.

But I wasn’t going to stop there…

How much more black could it get? I asked myself.

This version – more or less a 50-50 mix – was a bit of a let-down. In fact it tasted of very little at all, transporting me back to the days when I used to take the rough edges off Holt’s bitter with a bottle of Guinness:

Black and tan! A light, oddly savoury start, followed by a full-textured but light-tasting body; dark-chocolate bitterness on the finish.

Very little going on at all, really; alarmingly drinkable for a beer in the region of 7.5%, but nothing particularly surprising or, to be brutally honest, interesting.

There was only one thing to do now:

“None. None more black.”

At this stage the IEDS started to get the upper hand, and things started to look up on the tasting front:

Fruity start blending into a chocolate milkshake body, blending into a dark-chocolate finish

is all I wrote, but I can assure you that it was really impressive. That word ‘blending’ is the key: it seemed to combine three quite distinct flavours (none of them very ‘beery’), but in a way that seemed perfectly natural and without any incongruity. Full-bodied – almost but not quite to the point of drinking its strength – and smooth; really very smooth.

Was it worth it? A cautious Yes, I think: the 3:1 and 1:3 mixes were terrific, even if the 1:1 left something to be desired. At least, it was worth it as far as the IEDS was concerned. The stout was very much in charge throughout: even at 3:1 Orval to IEDS, you’d never mistake what you were drinking for a pale beer. The ‘black and tan’ effect – where two very different beers effectively shave off each other’s sharp edges – took the roughness out of the IEDS, making it drink smoother and sweeter; but the Orval wasn’t smoothed so much as muted, losing the Brett and some of the bitterness. In fact I’m wondering now whether it would be worth repeating the experiment with a less special pale beer – perhaps a plain ordinary, common-or-garden Harvey’s Sussex Best?

PS Apologies for the enormous images. WordPress used to handle this kind of thing rather well, but now – thanks to the whizzy new ‘block editor’, which I’ve avoided for as long as possible but is now the only one available – it really doesn’t. Anyone got any recommendations for alternative blogging platforms?