Category Archives: Aargh! Keg!

Spontaneous similitude

As a footnote to the previous post, here’s something I noticed about the pricing of cask and keg beers in two bars I’ve visited within the last 48 hours.

The Library in Durham is a nice, laid-back bar, appealing (as far as I can tell) equally to students and locals. They have two beer blackboards, one labelled ‘cask’ and the other ‘craft’. They’re certainly not pitching to the cognoscenti, but it’s interesting that they think it’s worthwhile to offer a range of keg beers that they can call ‘craft’. The keg beers are fairly wide-ranging – I’ve seen Guinness on a ‘craft’ tap before now – but generally include something from BD (5 am Saint today). They also have a cask offering which is generally just on the interesting side of mainstream – Landlord, Bishop’s Finger and Black Sheep today – plus a cider on handpull. (It was a still cider today (rather a nice one from Cornish Orchards); there was a sign on the bar saying that if anyone wanted a head on their cider they’d be happy to knock one up with the steam arm from the coffee machine. We didn’t take them up on the offer.) The food’s good, incidentally – and served on metal trays, which are at least more practical than boards.

The Font in Chorlton – what can I tell you about the Font, other than that we refer to it in our house as TumbleTots? There were, unusually, no families with pre-school children in when I visited last night; I’d say the average age must have been right up in the mid-20s. (Yes, it was a Saturday night, and yes, that was unusual.) Anyway, they have eight cask beers and no fewer than sixteen keg taps; even allowing for a few, mostly rather uninspiring regulars – Flensburger pilsener, a keg cider – that generally makes for an impressive range of ‘craft keg’ options. Plus a 25% CAMRA discount, no less, although obviously this only applies to cask.

What struck me in both places was the pricing, which displayed a definite uniformity. A couple of years ago, there was a period when the Font’s keg board routinely listed prices for halves and even thirds, on the basis that (a) the price for a pint would just be too scary (b) you wouldn’t actually want a pint or (c) both. Cask beers were going for £3.20-£3.80 a pint, but a good half of the keg options were up in the £8-9 region; very nice some of them were too, but the disjuncture was a bit glaring. Then there was a period when the two sets of prices seemed to be converging – if the cheapest ‘craft keg’ option was under £5 and the dearest real ale was £4, surely it couldn’t be long before we were looking at one range of prices rather than two.

Or so I thought – but then they diverged again. With the exception of Magic Rock Cannonball – a fixture alongside Camden Ink – the really spendy big hitters seem to be a thing of the past: I’m no longer getting my late-night half of something silly from the Font. What’s happened now is that the keg beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in one price range, and the cask beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in another. I first took note of this yesterday because the ranges in question are both on the high side: £3.80-£4.90 for cask, £5.60-£7.20 for keg.

Meanwhile back in Durham, the Library has implemented a similar price standardisation policy, also with two price ranges – or rather price points: you could pay £3.35 for a pint of Landlord or Bishop’s Finger or that still cider from Cornwall, or £4.70 for a pint of something ‘craft’. The really daft part of it is that the ‘craft’ range included König Ludwig Weissbier and Grimbergen Blonde – the latter of which (coming in at 6.7%) is surely worth £4.70 of anyone’s money (even at Durham prices). 5 a.m. Saint, maybe not. (It used to be fantastic on cask, though. Trust me on this.)

The point of all this is that, when we talk about beer pricing, we’ve tended to look at it from the point of view of brewers. (For reference, here are the points of view of Cloudwater, HardKnott, Beer Nouveau and Siren.) It’s understandable that we should be sympathetic with brewers’ point of view – by and large, we’d like them to stay in business, after all. But that can easily slip into seeing the world (of beer) in brewer-centric terms, as if the problem of pricing was one that they could solve by gently pushing their trade price up a bit and (in the words of the Siren blog) “educating the market”, building a following of people willing to pay that bit more for beer from Siren (and other comparable breweries).

What both my recent blackboard encounters suggest is that it isn’t going to work like that. Until quite recently you wouldn’t have seen any cask beers at the Font above the £4 mark; those prices have gone up, no question. But the point is, they’ve all gone up – and the prices of the keg beers have gone up accordingly. Has every single brewery supplying the Font been pushing for prices in the £4+ range? Come to that, have Grimbergen, König Ludwig and BrewDog had a meeting and resolved not to supply the Library unless bar prices were pegged above £4.50? Obviously not. The bars have set their prices – partly in line with what their suppliers are asking for, certainly, but mainly in line with what the market will bear. (Both bars were buzzing, I should say.)

Bars will set prices where they can – they’ll set them as high as the market will bear, but no higher. Supply beer that usually goes for £2.50 a pint – and has a wholesale price set accordingly – to a bar where everything’s £4 or above, and it’s not likely to go on at £2.50. On the other hand, try and supply beer that usually goes for £4.50 a pint to a bar where everything’s £3 or under, and it’s not likely to go on at all. What you’re never likely to see is a £2.50 cask beer alongside a £4.50, or a bar selling beers at a whole range of price points from ‘cheap’ up to ‘scary’. (A range of price points from ‘expensive’ up to ‘scary’ is another matter – see under ‘craft keg’; although if the Font’s anything to go by this may also be a hard sell.)

Bars set price ranges, based on the costs they have to cover and what their own particular market will bear; where cask beer is concerned, by and large what they set is a single price range, the price range for ‘cask beer’. Changing that assumption – and turning the cask beer list on a pub’s blackboard into something more like a restaurant wine list – may be even harder than cultivating the perception that the beer from this or that brewery is worth a bit extra.

In your own way

OK, so here’s what I think about the Cloudwater announcement.

It seems to me that a lot of the reaction to the announcement was based on a – mostly unstated – train of thought that goes something like this.

  1. Cloudwater are getting out of cask.
  2. This is a very bad thing.
  3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.
  4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.
  5. People need to start paying more for cask.
  6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.
  7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…
  8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…
  9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

I’m sorry to see Cloudwater getting out of cask, but apart from that I disagree with almost all of these statements.

2. This is a very bad thing.

Yeah… no. I’m sorry to see them go, but Cloudwater have never looked like a cask brewer. You know what a successful cask brewer looks like? They’ve got at least one year-round regular beer within hailing distance of session strength (Ringmaster, Hophead, Lumford, Seamless); they’ve probably also got one that looks a bit like a best bitter, which is still what a lot of people go to a pub expecting to find (Hat Trick, Partridge, Lord Marples, Feckless). They put seasonal stuff, experimental stuff and downright silly stuff on cask as well, but they’ve got a core range and they keep turning it out. Cloudwater actually make a feature of not having the same beers on all the time. Their nearest thing to a regular cask beer was a double IPA – and that was only regular in the sense that it was re-brewed every year. I’m not saying this puts me off – I’ll try a Cloudwater beer whenever I see it – but then, I’m serious about beer (God help me). For a non-expert – punter or publican – they’ve never looked like a good regular proposition. “If you liked our India Pale Lager you’re going to love our grisette”? Yeah… no.

3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.

I think it’s fair to say that’s an over-simplification. Looking at it another way, the reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they project that they won’t be able to make brewing for cask in the way they’ve chosen to do it pay as much as they currently need it to. And this needs to be understood alongside the alternative projection that they will be able to secure the profits they need by brewing in the way they’ve chosen to do it for keg, bottle and can. Cloudwater have made a huge upfront investment in kit and substantial continuing investments in materials and people; they need to do that if they’re going to maintain the high quality and consistency that they’re celebrated for, not to mention that ever-changing list of beers. That’s what launching a business is like; you start with money (your own or a loan), you spend like a drunken sailor and you wait for the money coming in to match outgoings. It’s a bit like launching a plane by pushing it off a mountain, and hoping that you can pull out of the down curve before you hit the ground. I would imagine that the capital Cloudwater were sitting on at the outset was probably more substantial than is the case for many newly-launched breweries, and I suspect it’s dwindled more rapidly as well. Whatever the facts of the matter are – and their statement was commendably open about their current position – the size of Cloudwater’s launch mountain and the shape of their down curve aren’t the same as those of any other brewer. Because of that, their experiences don’t necessarily generalise.

4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.

The idea here seems to be that keg is dear where cask is cheap, and if only cask were dear too we wouldn’t be having these problems. I have trouble with this argument straight off; within 15 minutes’ walk of my house I could pay £5.50, £4.50 or £3.50 for a pint of cask beer, and half an hour’s bus ride away I could pay £2.50. (And the £5.50 stuff is bloody good, let me tell you. Mind you, the £2.50 was rather nice.) Is £4.50 too cheap? If you’re visiting from the land of viaducts you might think it’s a sight too dear. The market’s segmented all over the shop. Also, from the figures Steve posted recently it looks as if the margin on a keg is just as poor as on a cask, despite the higher price – but nobody ever seems to say that keg is too cheap.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that if publicans were willing to pay (say) half as much again for a cask of Cloudwater Session IPA, Cloudwater would have carried on casking it – and that if punters were willing to pay half as much again for a pint, ditto, then publicans would also have been willing to pay the extra. The trouble is, this tells us nothing about the price of cask, except that it would be possible to manipulate it to a level that would keep Cloudwater interested – if only we had a mind-control ray.

But there are no mind-control rays, and the market is brutal. Once a price-range is established – even if it’s only established in Stockport, or in Chorlton – then it’s properly established; it’s hammered home in people’s minds with every purchase that they make. The price for a commodity may not be a rational reflection of the labour and materials that have gone into it, but (in the immortal words of Keynes) “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” Try selling against the market – for instance, by insisting that your cask beer simply has to go at £6 a pint (£4 in Stockport) – and you’ll find out how true that is.

The only way to peg prices permanently, short of government control, is by establishing a cartel; unfortunately this is illegal. Where there’s a relatively small number of suppliers and nobody has an overriding interest in undercutting the others, something cartel-like can develop informally – and if nobody is letting their keg IPA go out below £5 a pint, it doesn’t matter (to the drinker) whether this is being managed formally or not. Perhaps brewers have managed to hold the line on a higher price range for craft keg, in part by appealing to novelty and the ‘reassuringly expensive’ snob factor; I suspect we’re still in the phoney war on that front. But even if craft keg prices are permanently pegged in the £5+ range (£3+ in Stockport), that says nothing about what can be done with cask prices, or how it can be done – not least because there are so many more players in the cask field.

5. People need to start paying more for cask.

I object to this on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes no sense: starting to pay more for cask – more than the price it’s currently on sale at – isn’t something I can choose to do. I’ll certainly pay more for cask when I start being charged higher prices across the board – as I have done many times before – but that’s not really a choice either. Secondly, it implies that spending more money is an easy and neutral choice, which for most people is far from being the case. My current income makes the choice between a £3 and £4 pint painless, but I’m in the top 20% of the national income distribution. I know what it’s like to budget for a couple of pints at the weekend – and, I’d suggest, a lot more people have that experience than don’t. Thirdly, it’s economically irrational: how often do you make a purchase – of any kind – and think “I wish I was paying a bit more“? Unless you’re making a charitable donation or paying a “solidarity price”, the point of paying money for goods is to pay as little as possible. (Some high-end goods manage to peg their prices high, associating price with quality, but even in that context nobody wants to pay more than they have to. You may pay £700 for an iPhone instead of £50 for an HTC, but you won’t pay the Apple Store £705 if John Lewis have got them for £695. And you may pay £2.50 for a third of Un-Human Cannonball, but you won’t be happy to pay £3 if the bar down the road has it on for £2.40.)

So if you’re saying “people need to start paying more for cask”, you’re asking people in general to do something impossible, which might cause them hardship if it were possible, and which in any case goes against everyday economic rationality. But there’s an even bigger question, which is: why? Suppose I launch It’s Wicca, Man!, a line of refreshingly frothy pagan-friendly ales, with the unique selling point that every cask that leaves my garagepremises has been individually blessed by a qualified Wiccan. (We’ll handwave the question of what makes a qualified Wiccan. That’s probably what they do anyway.) Then suppose that, shortly before the launch, I have a falling-out with the Wiccan down the road, and it turns out that the nearest alternative qualified Wiccan lives in Holyhead and has a sickly rabbit which she refuses to leave for longer than a day. Now I’ve got worries – and they’re money worries. I’m starting small, so I’m only shipping out one cask at a time – and every one carries the additional overhead of paying my Wiccan friend’s travel costs from Holyhead to Manchester and back. I’m going to go broke in short order, unless I can persuade stockists to pay quite a bit more for each cask – either that or just lie about the Wiccan thing, but the Goddess really wouldn’t like that.

The point here is that nobody, in this rather far-fetched story, is stopping me making cask beer – not even the Goddess. What I can’t do is make cask beer in precisely the way I want to. Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that I should be able to make cask beer in precisely the way I want to, and that this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer, and that the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. Not because they’re evil or selfish or brainwashed, but because that’s how selling stuff in a free market, and the rationality the market is based on, work. (Approaching a smaller number of punters directly – through crowdfunding or some kind of share issue – could work; I wish Dave all the luck in the world and look forward to his announcement. But that’s by the way; the point here is that there isn’t a viable route through “voluntarily pay more for cask”.)

I’ll speed up for the last few points.

6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.

Given that telling people that they need to pay more for cask is pointless and worse – as we’ve just established – telling them on social media really can’t help. But telling people anything on social media is highly unlikely to help. It’s a tiny, self-selecting coterie; we only disagree so bitterly about trivial things because we share the same outlook about so much.

7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…

CAMRA does recognise the importance of beer quality; the days when all the organisation cared about was getting one more handpump in one more pub are gone, if they ever existed.

8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…

CAMRA doesn’t agitate for cheap beer. The idea that CAMRA has somehow driven down the price of cask beer is really widespread – at least in the CAMRA Critics’ Corner of my own social media coterie – but I don’t know where it came from. I can only assume it’s a kind of reverse association – CAMRA = real ale = not keg = not expensive. By the same logic you could accuse CAMRA of promoting the spread of nonic glasses.

9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

Won’t happen. CAMRA represents drinkers, not producers; if push comes to shove, it represents the interests of drinkers, not producers. And it’s not in the interest of drinkers to have less money in their pocket. CAMRA can – and does – advocate on behalf of good, interesting, well-produced cask beer, and very little of that beer will be available at bargain-basement prices. But explicitly pushing higher prices just isn’t going to happen.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t want to overstate point 3; I don’t think this is a complete non-problem. Clearly, Cloudwater aren’t the only brewery finding it hard to make cask pay. But I do want to stress point 5: if the price peg has been hammered in too low for some (or many) brewers, moving it upwards will take a lot more than exhorting punters to pay more (or exhorting CAMRA to exhort them). Market forces put it where it is, and it’ll be market forces that move it. Ultimately, I’m afraid that what’s going on now is simply that there are too many breweries, and we’re seeing the downward pressure on prices that predictably follows a glut in supply. (As a result we’ve already said goodbye to Waen and Quantum – although thankfully both the brewers involved are going to carry on brewing.) Here’s hoping that, across the industry, the innovators can survive – with a tactical retreat from cask if necessary – and it’s the corner-cutters and back-of-a-lorry merchants who go under.

How about you?

I’m a big fan of Ticketybrew and have been for some time; they’ve featured in my ‘Golden Pints’ roundup posts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 (in fact I nominated their cask Pale for ‘beer of the year’ as soon as I tasted it, in July 2013). From a cautious, if idiosyncratic, start – two beers, a Dubbel and a Pale, bottle only – they’ve branched out into a bewildering range of styles, for keg and cask as well as bottle. According to my notes I’ve tasted sixteen different Ticketybrew beers on cask, twenty in bottle and three in keg, for a total of 27 styles or variants.

This post will go through the cask and keg beers. To start with some dark ones, I’ve had the Mumme, Coffee Anise Porter, Summer Porter and four (count ’em) Stouts. I’m not the biggest fan of the Coffee Anise Porter, but only because I’m not convinced about the coffee/anise combination; it’s a well-made beer. The Summer Porter is a lovely beer – dark and spicy without seeming heavy. As for the Mumme, you can read about it on Keri’s blog; I thought it tasted of sweet coffee and was rather odd. Interesting, though. The Stout is dense, black and sweetish, calling black treacle to mind (and is in fact flavoured with black treacle). A couple of novelties – Mint Choc Stout and Marmite Stout – overlaid their additional flavours on a similar (but not identical) dark, sweet stout base, and worked amazingly well (and yes, it did taste of Marmite). Then there was the Invalid Stout (c), produced in homage to a nineteenth-century recipe with substantial qualities of liquorice; I liked it a great deal, and I don’t even like liquorice. As for its ‘invalid’ health-giving qualities, my lips are sealed.

One of Ticketybrew‘s flagship beers, the Pale, isn’t actually very pale. Perhaps to make up for this, they’ve brewed some very, very pale beers, although these have mainly been for bottling. The only really pale beer of theirs I’ve had on cask is the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, which is very dry indeed but not sharp-tasting at all; it’s perfumed mainly by the eponymous tea. It’s very refreshing; I tried it once as a novelty and have gone back several times since. They also vary their pale range with fruit-flavoured – and, well, pudding-flavoured – beers, although again these are mainly found in bottle. I’ve tried the Cherry Berliner Weiss on bottle, cask and keg, and can report that a cask Berliner Weiss works better than you might think. The Bitter Orange – only on cask to my knowledge – was terrific: very like the Pale (see below) with a bit of added marmalade oomph.

The final group of draught beers consists of all the ones that aren’t dark, pale or fruit-flavoured. Let’s start with a real world-class beer, Ticketybrew Pale. The first time I had the Pale on cask I just loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since; I’ve loved it fresh and mellow, I’ve loved it at the sharp end of the cask; I’ve loved it at its full strength of 5.5%, in the 4.3% version that they once supplied to a beer festival and even (slightly less) on keg. It’s just a lovely beer. The best way I can think to describe it is that there’s a certain kind of flavour profile you get in some high-strength beers, particularly dark beers – imperial stouts, barley wines, quadrupels; a sense of the flavour of the beer dropping away, as you drink it, and opening out into something bigger and more intense. In terms of flavour, colour and strength, the Pale is in the best bitter or ‘premium bitter’ area, but it also does that. It’s a massive beer (even at 5.5%) – an absolute classic.

The Blonde – smooth, creamy, lightly fruity – isn’t quite as good as the Pale, but it’s close. I have very fond memories of a session with a German friend on the Blonde, although at 5.6% it’s not really a session beer (as I realised the next morning). It’s a bit lighter and perhaps a bit less complex than the Pale, but with the same sense of ‘opening out’, of giving you a bit more flavour than you bargained for.

The Golden Bitter is a really nice, old-school amber bitter with a Landlord-ish diacetyl edge to it. Like the Pale – and the Blonde for that matter – the Golden Bitter is definitely a beer that stales, not to put too fine a point on it: when you go back on day 2 or day 3, you will absolutely not get the same mellowness that you got on day 1. Oxidation or something else? Either way, it’s not necessarily a defect; it’s not the kind of harsh, overwhelming sourness that tells you the barrel’s going off, more a shifting element of the beer’s flavour profile (sweetish gradually turning sharpish).

The Black IPA and Table IPA have been terrific when I’ve had them on cask; there’s an odd sort of mellow dryness underlying the resin (BIPA) and the old books (TIPA), which in both cases makes for a really drinkable beer. Last of all, the Tripel on keg was absolutely superb; I’ve had Belgian tripels on draught, and this is worthy to stand alongside them.

I’ll draw some conclusions at the end of the second post, when I’ve said something about the bottled range. For now, a quick running total: I make that 19 beers (with some double-counting for cask and keg), of which I’d class 10 as good and 9 as very good. Duncan Barton isn’t the kind of brewer who does conference keynotes and gets his picture in CRAFT magazine – more the kind who quietly gets on with it – but he and Keri are producing some absolutely stunning cask and keg beers.

And then there are the bottles…

Something silly

The Curmudgeon commented the other day on the burgeoning of ‘craft’ beers with silly a.b.v.s, arguing that this is a recent phenomenon and that it goes along with a different way of drinking beer. A session of thirds at 10.5% would be a very different experience from a session of pints at 3.5% – more like a wine- or whisky-tasting evening, less like a session down the pub.

The contrast can be exaggerated. Being a bit stronger than average has been a marker of quality in beer right back to the early days of CAMRA, when we’d seek out surviving strong ales and old ales (Young’s Winter Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier…) and compare them unfavourably with mass-market (keg) swill. Moreover, strength was still associated with quality and/or originality during the first pale’n’oppy boom. A big part of the appeal of Hopback Summer Lightning, back in the ’90s, was that it was both lighter-tasting than your average bitter and stronger – it was called ‘Lightning’ for a reason. (I wonder, looking back, how much of the original fan-base of Summer Lightning – and of the golden ales that followed – was made up of people who had been to the Netherlands or Belgium and tasted the ‘real’ Heineken or Stella: lighter and smoother than the beer we were used to, yet stronger with it.)

But there’s a big difference between Summer Lightning at 5.5%, or Young’s Winter Warmer at (I’m startled to find) a mere 5%, and something like Un-Human Cannonball at 11%. You’re no longer talking about having three or four pints, as normal, and feeling slightly rougher in the morning; three pints at 10% would equate to nine double gins, more than half the bottle. In fact you’re no longer talking about drinking pints at all (I found it hard enough to get through a third of UHC).

What you are talking about, at least in my experience, is the ideal candidate for a new way of drinking beer: the Half of Something Silly. Beer festivals and pub crawls aside, I almost invariably drink pints. At the end of a night, though, as I prepare to head home (or even after I’ve left the pub), I often fancy rounding off the evening’s drinking with a H. of S. S. (The fact that I tend to pass the Font on my way home from the pub may be relevant here.) To qualify as Silly, a beer needs to be something I’d never usually choose, either because it’s ridiculously strong or because it’s flavoured with, well, something silly – liquorice, cheese, Brett… A typical example of Something Silly was the smoked cherry chipotle milk porter I had a while back. I never want to have it again – I don’t think a milk porter was something the world was waiting for, let alone a chipotle milk porter or a cherry chipotle milk porter. (I couldn’t taste the smoke, which may be just as well.) But that’s not the point; sometimes (particularly when you’re already three pints down), you just fancy a half of something silly, and something silly is definitely what that was.

Any questions?

A new way of drinking beer – isn’t that a bit of a generalisation?

OK, it could just be me. But if you look at the keg list at a place like the Font in Chorlton, you’ll see that some of them hang around for absolute ages – particularly the really strong beers. (And I’m sure they’re fine, what with being keg to begin with.) There may be people having sessions on halves and thirds of loopy juice; alternatively, there may be some beers that only really come into their own after 10.30, when people start fancying a H. of S. S.

Aren’t you just describing what we used to call a ‘nightcap’?

Pretty much; and it’s not a million miles from other end-of-evening practices like switching to Landlord when time’s been called, or spinning out the last half of bitter by sticking a bottle of Guinness in it. But the likelihood of finding a cask ‘nightcap’ – or anything really weird or hefty – is pretty small nowadays. You’ll stand a better chance in a ‘craft’ bar – or a Spoons’ – but the real home of the end-of-evening beer, these days, is the ‘craft’ keg font.

So, Un-Human Cannonball is the new Old Tom.

Old Tom is the new Old Tom, and UHC would be a lousy substitute. Cannonball would do nicely, though. Also Marble Brew 900, Siren/Mikkeller White Stout, Marble Vuur and Vlam… all HoSS that I’ve known and loved. I’d include Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball (the 7.2% BIPA I finished off with last night) but for the fact that it gave me the worst hangover in years; I’m still a bit fragile 24 hours later. I only had a half (obviously), but I’m sure it was that one that did it – everything I’d had up to then was on cask, so it must have been OK.

Really?

No, not really. Actually I blame the saison I had earlier. Saison before black IPA and you’ll feel… how does it go?

A wet weekend

SATURDAY

My weekend’s drinking got off to an unusual start, with two hours of abstinence surrounded by beer.

Back a bit. I’ve been going to the Chorlton Beer Festival most years since it started, what with it being a beer festival, in walking distance, in and around (and in aid of) a rather nice local church. What I’ve never done, there or at any other CAMRA fest, is volunteer. For a while now, I’ve been feeling a bit bad about being the totally passive subs-paying variety of CAMRA member (particularly since the discounts available locally mean the sub pays for itself), and this year I decided to get my feet wet with a quick bit of festival staffing.

Never having done this before, I found I was enormously apprehensive – both in general terms (what would it actually be like?) and about the specific question of (not to put too fine a point on it) beer. My only experience of pint-pulling came from an afternoon stint at the Club Mirror trade event a few years back. This was essentially a beer showcase for licensees, and the beer was free – for the guests & for those of us on the stillage side of the table, if we wanted to sample the goods and/or were getting thirsty. Trade was reasonably brisk, but there was plenty of time for sampling – by the end of the afternoon I estimated I’d had about four pints in total. (Didn’t feel it, oddly enough. Must have been all that running up and down.)

Obviously an event where everybody’s paying will have different rules from one where nobody is, and I wasn’t expecting the Chorlton fest to be anywhere near as liberal as that. But my stint as a volunteer was going to be my only visit to the fest: I didn’t want to end up going home without having had anything at all. The advice sent out to volunteers set my mind at rest to some extent:

Staff are encouraged to taste the beers in order to familiarise yourself with what is available so you can recommend beers to customers. Please do not misuse this privilege. Your bar manager will give you a staff glass when you arrive – mark it with insulation tape showing your name. When going on a break, you may fill your glass. Please drink responsibly.

That didn’t sound too bad, particularly the bit about filling your glass. What did worry me was what would happen at the end of my stint – would I be able to buy some tokens and hang on as a punter? Or would they confiscate my ‘staff’ glass and insist I paid the full whack? (And if they did, what would I do?) I was still speculating (pointlessly) about this when I walked down to the church on Saturday afternoon.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. You may have spotted the flaw in my plan to ease myself into CAMRA volunteering with a little light pint-pulling. The festival was open Thursday evening, Friday evening and on Saturday from lunchtime to 9.30 p.m. For what must have seemed like good reasons at the time, I’d decided to volunteer from 6.00 to 8.00 on Saturday.

Was it busy? Yes, it was busy. It was very busy. There were about eight of us between the bar and stillage which had been set up at one end of the room, serving 20-odd beers – mostly from handpump – to… lots of people. At one point I remember thinking the crowd was thinning out a bit, and then realising it was still three deep along most of the bar. I took orders, pulled beers as quickly and efficiently as I could manage (balancing speed against froth), did mental arithmetic to work out what to charge and then did some more to work out which numbers to cross off on the token sheet – or sheets; a couple of times I was handed three separate sheets, all of them partly completed. Then I did it all again, and again. (As, of course, did all the people around me, most of whom were already doing it when I arrived and were still there when I left.) I spent the first ten minutes dashing unnecessarily up and down behind the bar and getting under people’s feet (sorry), working out where everything was and in some cases wasn’t (a couple of beers had already gone off). Then I got the hang of it. My pump-jockeying was getting quite good by the end of it, too.

Did I taste the beers to familiarise myself with what was available? Well, I did get a staff glass, but actually putting anything in it wasn’t an option. This was partly peer pressure – I could plainly see that nobody else was drinking anything, apart from one guy who was on water – but mainly it was just because there wasn’t time: even if the entire front row of drinkers was being served (which we did sometimes manage) there was always the row behind them, and the row behind them. It was endless. When I left, I suppose I could have pulled myself a cheeky familiariser on the way out, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that while everyone else was still working flat out – and besides, by that stage the beers were starting to get a bit scarce.

As for hanging around to sample the fest as a punter, certainly nobody made any move to take my glass off me, so that was one less worry. The only problem was, by then two of the three bars serving beer had completely run off and closed up; the only bar where beer was still being served was the one I’d just come from. It wasn’t that I didn’t fancy a beer – by this stage I really fancied a beer – but I didn’t fancy queuing up to get served by somebody I’d just been working alongside, let alone doing it two or three times over so as to spend £5 worth of tokens. So I parked my glass on a table and came home, via the Sedge Lynn (Phoenix White Tornado) and Pi (Se7en Brothers EPA).

The moral of this story is that I should have been more selective about which period I volunteered for – and that anyone who does volunteer (knowingly!) for a busy period at a beer fest is an absolute hero. (I’m still aching four days later – what it would have been like to serve all evening, and then do the take-down, I can only imagine.)

SUNDAY wasn’t quite what I’d expected, either.

In a conversation on Facebook earlier in the week I’d chanced to use the phrase “Manchester’s improving daily” – the title of a Victorian broadside ballad about the transformation of the city during the Industrial Revolution. A passing member of the band Edward II picked up on this and asked if I was coming to their ‘mini-festival’ – entitled Manchester’s improving daily – that weekend at the Angel. (It wasn’t quite such a coincidence as that makes it sound – the phrase was in my mind because I’d seen it earlier in the week, on a poster which was presumably advertising the event.) As well as performers giving renditions of selected Victorian ballads, the afternoon was going to feature two sets by Edward II, who are a kind of mutant reggae ceilidh band; there would be food and, the Angel being the Angel, a wide range of beers. The idea of standing in the sun with a beer listening to Victorian reggae appealed to me rather a lot, so on Sunday afternoon I headed out.

Then it started raining. By the time I got into town it was raining really heavily. I decided to take the bus to the Angel and got into an altercation with the bus driver, who’d never heard of the Angel (or, presumably noticed it) and didn’t know what fare to charge: “How much do you usually pay?” “I don’t, usually I walk it…” I got there to find the pub rather full – standing room only – and Edward II in the process of packing up: clearly the rain hadn’t been factored in. I got a drink (Stockport First Gold) and mulled over what to do. While I was mulling I overheard somebody telling somebody else that Edward II were going to do a set at Band on the Wall instead, and that there was a “scratch acoustic thing” going on upstairs. I headed upstairs, to find – not a scratch anything, but – the estimable Mark Dowding and Chris Harvey, who recorded an album of Manchester Victorian broadsides ten years ago. Still nowhere to sit, though. I stood through “Manchester’s improving daily” (none other) and then decided to go somewhere else to take the weight off.

The particular somewhere else I had in mind was the Smithfield – a pub I’ve always rather liked, though it’s never been the most opulent of drinking experiences. It’s recently started a new lease of life as a joint venture between Blackjack and an independent beer distributor. It’s also practically next door to the Band on the Wall, so it seemed like the ideal place to pass the time until Edward II were ready. I ended up having three Blackjack beers – You Bet, Jabberwocky and Full House – and an Alechemy Citra Burst. Three pale ales and one tripel, two on keg (You Bet and Full House), two on cask. They were all terrific; I started with You Bet but thought Jabberwocky shaded it in terms of complexity and interestingness – although I did catch myself thinking, heretically, that it would have been nicer just a bit colder. (It was a hot day.) And Full House, at 9.2%, was just superb.

As for Edward II, when I went to the Band on the Wall they had a sign up saying that they weren’t going to play after all, but ‘events’ would continue at the Angel. I shlepped back to the Angel and found no events going on, so I went home. An hour later – by which time it was a pleasant, sunny evening – a note appeared on Facebook to the effect that they were going to play after all, at the Angel. Blast! But then, if I’d hung around at the Angel – or in the Smithfield – for another hour I’m not sure I’d have been able to stand, let alone dance.

And the moral of that story – well, it’s a bit like the story of Trillian’s contact lenses in one of the later Hitchhiker books. The moral is that if you go home you miss out, sometimes, and if you stay out it’s a waste of time, sometimes. The trick is knowing which is which.

News in brief

A few quick thoughts that don’t quite merit a post each.

“I Like This One More Than That One” – Local Man’s Shock Claim

A couple of cask/keg comparisons. The other day I had the opportunity to try Magic Rock High Wire on both cask and keg. The cask beer opened with an intriguing herby smokiness, which died away as I got further down; by the bottom of the glass it was just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. (I prefer Curious.) This raised my hopes for the keg – if they’d managed to, as it were, freeze-dry the initial hoppy attack so that it ran right through the beer, that would be rather special. I tasted it and it was… just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. My “Mysteries of Magic Rock Kegging” file gets longer.

A while ago I had Marble‘s Earl Grey IPA on cask & was rather impressed with it – more so than I remember being when they first brewed it. The keg comparison was unavoidable. I was startled to find that, as good as the cask was, the keg version was… hold on, I need to take a few deep breaths… the keg was… there’s no other way to put this, the keg was even better. Yes, it’s finally happened: I’ve found a beer that works better on keg than on cask (although the cask is really good). It’s the ‘Earl Grey’ aroma that tips the balance – in the keg version it comes through that much more clearly; it seems to hang over the surface of the beer as you’re drinking it.

As for Holt’s/Marble/Blackjack/Runaway Green Quarter IPA, I haven’t tracked it down on cask yet so can’t compare. The keg was pretty damn good, though. (Colder than it needed to be and gassier than it need to be, natürlich, but other than that it was excellent.)

Drinking keg and liking it – oh, the shame!

In Descending Order Of…

For a while now I’ve had my bottled beers arranged (under the stairs) in strength order – 3.8s and 4.1s at the front, 7s and 8s at the back. I decided a while ago that, rather than replacing bottles in ones and twos, I would drink my way through the entire stash (fourteen bottles at the time) in strength order. Not that I’d work my way through them all in one go, you understand, just that every time I fancied a beer I’d go for the strongest thing that was left. I thought this might be an interesting experience and that there might be a blog post in it. I’m now just over halfway through, and – while it has been interesting – there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say about it, except:

There’s a surprising number of ‘Burtons’ out there

McEwan’s Champion, Lees’ Moonraker and Manchester Star, Fuller’s 1845 and (perhaps) ESB, Marston’s Owd Roger, Robinson’s Old Tom… One of these things is not like the others, sadly. Owd Roger is a shadow of its former self: sweet and syrupy with a tell-tale whiff of alcohol on the finish. The rest are all good stuff, whether they put you in mind of a spiked fruit compote (McEwan’s Champion), malt extract off a spoon (Lees’ Manchester Star), or – somehow – both of the above (Old Tom, which really is the business).

In supermarkets, dark=strong and strong=dark

When I was growing up & first discovering beer, bitter was pretty much all there was; a dark beer would generally be sweetish, heavyish and at least half as strong again as the usual (think Bruce’s Dogbolter). That world’s long gone from pubs and bars, but it seems to be hanging on in the supermarket shelves: apart from Tesco’s BrewDog double IPA (which I didn’t have in when I started this), very few supermarket beers are both strong and pale. Instead, I worked my way through a succession of 6+% dark beers – those listed above plus a Robinson’s chocolate porter (from M&S) and Ridgeway Bad King John. (And what an odd beer that is: not a stout, not a porter, not an old ale or a Burton. By analogy with the way that two different flavour profiles come together in a black IPA, I think you could call BKJ a ‘black bitter’. Can’t think of another beer quite like it.) Shortly below 6%, though, I hit a turning-point: 5.9 was ESB, 5.5 was St Austell Proper Job. From here on it’s pale or amber beers all the way down. Watch this space.

Bester Festertester

When I got home from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival I was in no state to be allowed on the Internet, and by the time I sobered up the moment had gone rather. To the best of my recollection it was a terrific festival. I wasn’t there on the last day, but from my personal perspective the policy of putting everything available on from the start worked superbly well; I’d rapidly built up a want-list including twice as many beers as I could actually hope to drink. Many difficult decisions, reluctant substitutions and spur-of-the-moment decisions later, here’s what I ended up drinking:

Cryptic 1049 Dead 4.9% [a mild I’d enjoyed at the Spinning Top]
Ticketybrew Coffee Anise Porter 4.9% [hmm – not sure the flavour combination quite worked]
Ticketybrew Black IPA 5.9% [this, on the other hand, was terrific]
Outstanding M 10% [a beautiful barleywine, perhaps just slightly overclocked on the alcohol front – an 8% version would be blinding]
Blackjack Dragon’s Tears 5.2% [“Dragon’s Tears”? I drank a beer called “Dragon’s Tears”? It’s a saison, apparently.]
Cryptic 1049 Grey 4.9% [dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – two totally different flavours, which worked together surprisingly well]
Runaway Hopfenweisse 5.2% [identifiably a weissbier but hopped to the max]
Quantum Mandarina Bavaria 4.5% [my first exposure to the eponymous hop; it was terrific]
Buxton Pomperipossa 6% [sour cherry stout – rather good]
Squawk Espresso Stout 6.5%
Northern Monk Chennai 5.4%
Fool Hardy Renowned Ginger 4.4%

My recollections of the last few are a bit sketchy.

Looking down the list now, I’m struck by just how local those breweries are – three of them are actually based in Stockport, and most of the rest are within a ten-mile radius; the very furthest afield is Northern Monk in Leeds. Hand on heart, I had no idea of this when I was choosing beers; I genuinely picked these beers because I liked the look of them. In the words of the song, Manchester’s improving daily – and Stockport’s not doing too badly (on the beer front at least!).

The big, the bad and the Marble

Brewing at high strengths isn’t easy. Come to that, brewing isn’t easy – I haven’t got the faintest idea how to go about it – but you know what I mean: above about 7%, brewers face problems that aren’t an issue for session-strength beer, and the problems get more intractable as you go up the scale. Go into double figures, particularly with a pale beer, and you’re liable to end up with something that tastes – as I said of the celebrated De Garre tripel – as if somebody’s brewed a strong beer and then poured a glass of tequila into it. Alcoholic heat, alcoholic oiliness, even alcohol flavour – these aren’t things you want to be tasting in a beer.

I’ve tasted three high-strength ‘special brews’ (if you’ll pardon the expression) recently, and I’m sorry to say that two of the three fell right into this trap. The other week I noticed that one of my locals was selling Thornbridge Jaipur X (in bottles), and charging no more than a 50% markup on the retail price – which is to say, they were resisting the temptation to charge £10 for it (which they could probably have got away with). It’s Jaipur, it’s a tenth-anniversary special Jaipur, and it’s a 10% a.b.v. tenth-anniversary special Jaipur. And it tastes as if somebody had opened a bottle of Jaipur and poured a glass of tequila into it. The extra strength adds nothing, I’m afraid – if anything the effect is negative, adding a distracting, woozy note of pure alcohol. You know the first time you tasted Special Brew, and how you noticed it tasted different from ordinary lager? It’s like that; that’s the difference.

Then there was Magic Rock Un-Human Cannonball, an 11% “triple IPA” (whatever that means). (So I’m reading this guy’s blog, and all of a sudden he goes “triple IPA, whatever that means!” Expect he was pissed they wouldn’t serve him a proper British pint. English, what are you gonna do?) I’ve never been crazy about Cannonball, but one thing it does do well – perhaps even a little too well – is to keep the alcohol well hidden; it’s a light, smooth, easy-drinking 7.4% skull-splitter. So I had high, well, fairly high, moderately high, sort of fair-to-middling hopes of the top-of-the-range Un-Human Cannonball. The first thing that struck me was that it was opaque – I mean, completely; chicken soup territory. The last time that happened to me it was an unfined (and badly handled) cask beer which was full of yeast, but presumably that’s not an issue when you’re drinking keg. (Unless it’s real-ale-inna-key-keg, I suppose – topical! – but even then you wouldn’t expect that much yeast, surely.) As for the taste… well, it was OK. It was stronger-flavoured than Cannonball and less balanced – and the comparison made me appreciate both Cannonball and the virtue of balance: the Un-Human version was at once less easy-drinking and less complex. And, once again, there was lots of alcohol going on there – very much as if you’d brewed a strong beer and then poured it into a glass of tequila.

Third time lucky: Marble Brew 900 was a 9% keg beer I ordered without knowing much about it, but having liked the brewery’s barley wine rather a lot. It was light and very drinkable, with a delicate, slightly fruity flavour; in fact, I thought as the bottom of the glass loomed into view, you could call it a tripel and nobody would be any the wiser. On inspecting the tap I discovered that Marble have in fact called it a tripel. A very nice one it is too – and with no alcoholic overtones to speak of.

Marble seem to be on the up at the moment. On the same visit to the Marble Beerhouse I had two cask beers – Antipodean, a newish pale ale with NZ hops, and the relatively well-established Earl Grey IPA. I don’t know if I’ve only just got the point of the Earl Grey IPA or if it’s improved recently; either way I was impressed with it in a way I hadn’t been before. Antipodean was terrific, too – pale ales have been Marble’s forte for a long time, but this didn’t have any of the rough edges they’ve sometimes had in the past. Marble have been coasting for a while – losing some of your best brewers will do that to a brewery – but on this evidence they’re definitely getting back on track.

Update 30/4 I did a bit more drinking last night & can add to both parts of this post. On the Marble front, another hit: Little Meiko is terrific. It’s a strong (7%) IPA, currently available on cask, and it’s got a flavour I can only describe as sproingy. (I mean that literally – if I could think of another word I’d use it. It just is… sproingy. Lots of hops. They kind of go ‘sproing!’.) On the strength front, it very nicely hits the spot between not drinking its weight and actually tasting strong. However, although it plainly is a craft beer, it doesn’t taste of grapefruit; it tastes of yuzu. So now you know.

More to the point, the shocked and horrified responses to the first part of the post (see below) persuaded me that I should give Un-Human Cannonball another go. Here are my tasting notes, as far as I remember them.

“Maybe ‘chicken soup’ was unkind. It’s not that cloudy. I mean, if you hold it up to the light… actually, no, it is that cloudy. It is in fact opaque. What did they put in it?”

“Mmm… OK. It’s true what they say about this one, there is a lot going on. There’s pine, and a kind of punchbowl of tropical fruit, with smoky notes in there too, and a big bitter finish, and it all sort of rolls over you propelled by the alcohol.”

“You can kind of taste the alcohol, though.”

“OK, good. Got it. All I’ve got to do now is drink the rest of the glass.”

“It’s kind of an exhibition beer, this one – you could drink a shot glass of it and you’d get everything, and it’d all be very impressive. But a whole third of a pint is actually going to be a bit of a slog.”

“Third of a pint. If you were out with a friend and he asked if you wanted another, and you had a third of a pint left, you’d just knock it back. If you knocked this one back you’d fall over.”

“It’s like beer but it’s not like beer. It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”

And that’s pretty much all I remember.

It comes in thirds

These are a few of my favourite things

A few of my favourite things

I had a bit of a revelation the other night, as I sat with a third of Magic Rock Cannonball (keg, of course). I suddenly thought: if you were Stuart Ross (or any other forward-thinking contemporary brewer) and someone suggested going down the ‘craft keg’ route… why wouldn’t you? Lots of people seem to like the stuff, and there are enough outlets that stock it, so no problem about shifting it. Then there are the positive advantages: the stability and consistency of keg would mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about the odd dud barrel, or about losing re-orders to incompetent cellaring (letting the beer spoil or putting it on too soon). As Dave Bailey recently commented, kegs are easier to export than casks, for much the same reasons.

Then there’s the price issue. In the cask world it’s rare to sell anything over £4 a pint, and it would be a brave brewer who insisted on £4+ prices: if competition from other brewers didn’t get you, you’d be sunk by all the ale-drinkers who think they know the right price for a pint and dislike being ripped off. Now, I am one of those ale-drinkers – I do think I know the right price for a pint, I do suspect rip-offs at every turn and I have to grit my teeth to pay anything over £4 a pint for anything. From my perspective, that combination of free-market competition among producers and penny-pinching drinkers is basically a good thing; if I was asked why I’d say something like “it keeps brewers honest”. In any case, it keeps my pint relatively cheap, and that’s a good thing in itself. (I’ve drunk some Stella in my time, but I’ve never been reassured by expense.)

But, of course, in the craft keg bubbleworld those factors don’t obtain – there’s no bog-standard pint of wallop pulling keg prices down, and no great mass of drinkers who think it’s their birthright that beer should be both good and cheap. From my point of view, this just shows what’s wrong with the craft keg world. In particular, the idea of beer drinkers being happy to pay high prices seems all wrong: it’s like workers taking pride in accepting a pay cut. From the brewer’s point of view, though… blimey. Say you did all the sums and came out with an estimated retail price of (say) £5/pint – that would be OK! You wouldn’t need to go back and work out how to do the same thing a bit cheaper! And if the bar wanted to be a bit cheeky and stick another 50p on, that would be OK too – nobody would even notice!

In short, I realised (as I drank the Cannonball) that going keg has the potential to get rid of a lot of quality worries, removing possible obstacles to repeat orders, while also gaining both the brewer and the retailer a significantly higher margin. It’s a whole new world! Why wouldn’t you do it?

I understand the thinking, but I think it misses out one crucial factor. The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”. But those like-for-like comparisons aren’t easy to make (I’ve never seen Cannonball on cask, for instance). And sometimes, maybe, a keg beer is the one to go for.

Here are some thoughts on recent encounters with keg, thinking about when – and why – it does and doesn’t work.

The “Yeah But, No But”: Cannonball

I described Magic Rock Cannonball once before as a big disappointment:

I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma.

I trust The Beer Nut’s reviews, and what he said about this one recently made me think I’d been missing something – quite a lot, in fact:

an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish

So I had to give it another try, and the other weekend I duly handed over my £2 (for a third). And it was… quite nice. I’d certainly agree with ‘drinkable’; it slipped down very nicely. I didn’t get ‘massive’ hops, though – compared to Magic Rock Curious (which is roughly half the strength) the hops were dialled right back. It’s certainly hoppy, it’s just not “being smacked in the mouth with a hopsack” hoppy. I couldn’t say I noticed the 7.4% alcohol, either. A few days later I had a third of Red Willow Ageless DIPA (7.2%), which was on cask in another Font bar – and, I think, had been sitting around in the cask for a while; it was a bit lacking in condition and warmer than I would have liked. Despite those disadvantages, it was a massive beer – a big, uncompromisingly smoky hop attack, broadening out as I went down the glass into an extravagant flowering of citrus flavours on a dense alcoholic background. Perhaps not the nicest beer to drink – even a bit offputting on first sip – but a great beer all the same. (It was also going for £3.60 a pint, which – once you’ve taken off the CAMRA discount – works out at 90p for a third. I felt slightly guilty paying so little.) The Cannonball didn’t really develop in the same way, perhaps unsurprisingly for a keg beer: it was the same all the way through, like Blackpool rock. So you got your citrus-y aroma and your smokey bitterness, and you got a bit of alcohol (not much), all in a very drinkable, well-put-together package. It just wasn’t terribly impressive, or overpowering, or memorable; nice, but not great.

The “Think Of It As A Very Large Bottle”: Electrik/Blackjack LFO

That ‘developing’ thing – where ‘halfway down the glass’ actually tastes different from the first mouthful, and the last mouthful tastes different again; I’ve never known a keg beer do it. But it’s not really something bottled beers do, either, and there is some great bottled beer out there. This is what went through my mind when I tasted the Electrik bar’s fourth collaborative brew, which is a keg lager named LFO (in response to some recent sad news). Fittingly, LFO is an absolute monster – very dry, very bitter, very hoppy on top of all that, and then all of the same again. It reminded me of nothing so much as my first taste of Jever Pilsener: it’s a great big beer that just keeps on coming at you. And if it doesn’t unfurl new flavour dimensions halfway down the glass, well, too bad – the Jever wouldn’t have done that either. (And it was on at £4/pint, which squeaks into the affordable bracket.)

The “Think Of It As A Very Small Bottle”: Mikkeller/Siren White Stout

For obvious reasons, really strong beers are a rarity in cask; they don’t tend to go, and if they don’t go they tend to go off. I think the strongest beer I’ve had from a cask was 8.5%: it’s a tie between Coniston No 9 barley wine (at a beer festival) and Robinson’s Old Tom. Old Tom is unusual in being widely available in Robbies’ pubs, and the brewery deserves a lot of credit for not abandoning it but building it up as a cask beer. It’s generally in pins to minimise spoilage, though – and I’m sadly familiar with the warmish, flattish, slightly metallic taste of old Old Tom!

So if somebody brews a beer at 12% – stronger than many wines – the chances are you’re only ever going to see it in a small, expensive bottle; what’s more, the chances are you never will physically see that bottle, and that if you do you’ll think the price is just a bit too silly. Kegging to the rescue: someone who might baulk at paying (say) £3.50 for a 250 ml bottle may well be amenable to paying £2.80 for a third of a pint (even though that equates to £3.66 for 250 ml). At least, I was.

Why Mikkeller and the ever-impressive Siren have called this beer a white stout I’ve no idea, given that all the information this really conveys is that it’s (a) strong and (b) not black. What it is, as far as I could see, is a barley wine. What it is, to be more precise, is a very, very good barley wine – a rich, dense, marmaladey fruitiness, smooth without being syrupy, heavy without (amazingly) any overt alcoholic heat. A stonkingly good beer, quite honestly, and one which I would probably never have had if I’d only seen it in bottles.

You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin! a stranger in a pub said to a friend of mine, unprompted, some time in the early 70s. By and large I’d agree with that; by and large, I don’t want beer squirted out of a tin. But, like CAMRA, I’m pro-cask rather than anti-keg; and I’m increasingly finding that there are times when the list of the best – or most interesting – things on the bar includes some beers on keg. Keg vs cask, I still think the keg is likely to be second best. ‘Cold and fizzy’ I can live with; what I’m thinking of here is more a ‘light, drinkable, rough edges shaved off’ sort of thing, not to mention the absence of the ‘developing in the glass’ thing. But if what you’re getting is something you can’t get on cask – something you would only previously have found in bottles – some of the objections become a bit academic.

(I still wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.)

Play us out, Mark:

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: final thoughts

After all that, what do I think? Would I recommend you get this book?

In two words, Hell, yes! (Other expletives are available, but you get the idea.) Absolutely definitely. Get it now. I haven’t got a huge beer book library – before I acquired this book it consisted mainly of Amber, Gold and Black (Martyn Cornell), Beer and Skittles (Richard Boston) and Pulling a fast one (Red Rog). Brew Britannia fully deserves a place in that company. If you’re only going to buy one book about beer, if I’m being brutally honest it should probably be Amber, Gold and Black, but this one’s not far behind. (Anyway, why would you only buy one book about beer?)

So what’s so good about it? Four main things, I think. I’ll put down my thoughts in the form of a numbered list, a device I’ve recently had great success withused.

  1. It tells a story… You know the criticisms I put forward in the previous post? They’re not (for the most part) criticisms, not in the sense that “the book’s too long” is a criticism – they’re disagreements. The authors don’t tell the story I would have told, but why would they? What’s important is that they have got a story to tell, and they follow it through from the first encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood to… well, the final encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood (much later and in a very different world). You know those books you read sometimes – particularly books by bloggers or newspaper columnists – which are basically just a lot of disparate bits pulled together? This isn’t one of those; if anything, it gives the impression that the authors’ blog is just somewhere to put offcuts from the book.
  2. …and it tells it well. It rattles along, frankly. One of the things I would have done differently would actually have been to slow it down, brake the narrative and put it on pause for a while in a number of places. But that’s not the way the authors have written it – and the way they wrote it does work. Everyone won’t be equally interested in all the subject matter – personally I started to glaze over a bit somewhere between Belgo and Mash – but there’s always something different round the corner; the book moves along quickly enough that you won’t get bored.
  3. The ruthless efficiency of the freelance journalist. Some beer books are like poems, with a blast of green hop suddenly striking the nose as a door opens somewhere and a waft of air carries jaunty fragments of shop talk and banter, familiar yet incomprehensible, while the beer itself slips down casually, almost unnoticed in the golden afternoon haze of sub-clauses and (cont’d p. 94). Some are the record of a personal quest; some are more about the writers than they are about the beer; some are encyclopaedic reference works; some tell you nothing you don’t already know from reading blogs. This isn’t any of those things. As I said earlier on, the authors write like freelance journalists – they’re readable, reliable and above all efficient. If you’ve got to make your writing pay and you don’t know where the next commission’s coming from, you develop a certain way of working. You find out what you don’t know, get the facts and get it down; then you cut it to shape, then you move on. It makes for a good, solid read.
  4. The interviews. Saving the best till last – the interviews! Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Christopher Hutt; David Bruce, Alastair Hook, Brendan Dobbin (Brendan Dobbin!); Stuart Ross, Jeff Rosenmeier, Justin Hawke… With a couple of exceptions (wot no Protzie?) the authors seem to have spoken to everyone who is anyone, who’s still around and has a story to tell. I was really impressed with the range and number of people they’d managed to track down and talk to. Especially Dobbin, obvs.

It’s not a timeless classic; it wouldn’t be my desert island book; it hasn’t changed my life. But it’s a fine book, and if you’re interested in beer (i.e. if you haven’t arrived at this page completely by accident), you should definitely contact the publishers about a review copy, they were really nice about it when I askedbuy a copy with money (here’s a link).

[Personal to RB and JB: OK, guys, that’s your lot – you can come out now. Seriously, I’d be really interested in your reaction to any of these posts.]

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: critical thoughts

My Brew Britannia review, part 3 of 4: the critical part.

As you can probably see from the previous post on this topic, most of my doubts about the book had to do with history. Put simply, I had trouble with the overall shape of the story B&B tell – it’s not the shape that story has in my mind – and, although the content is mostly excellent, I kept stubbing my mental toe on the structure. This has three main aspects: where the story’s coming from; where it’s going; and the role of CAMRA.

To begin with, while the book’s subtitle is “The strange rebirth of British beer”, it doesn’t contain very much about what it was that needed to be reborn. The thing is, even the most dramatic processes of reform & revitalisation build on what was there before. I remember a letter to the Guardian about the English Reformation, challenging the idea that Henry VIII had founded a whole new church when he declared himself head of the Church of England. Quote: “Asking ‘where was the church before the Reformation?’ is like asking ‘where was your face before you washed it?'”. Like the English church, the British brewing industry was right there before anyone ever tried to transform or revitalise it, and had been for some time. Obviously the authors are well aware of this, but they begin the story with the first (major) reform campaigns, without doing much to sketch in the background. Hence some of my notes: “History of brewing industry consolidation/introduction of keg skated over.”; “Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)”; “Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved”. I’m not saying that this book should have been Amber, Gold and Black – on top of what it is already – but a few pages on what beer and brewing looked like pre-kegging and pre-Big Six would have been very welcome, both in general terms and as background to the rise of CAMRA. (On a side note, I’m pretty sure the authors know what ‘crystal malt’ is (although they put it in quotes), and I suspect they also know what the ‘air pressure’ debate (dismissed as “an obscure technical issue”) was about. Again, a few words of explanation would have been welcome (at least to the geekily-minded) and wouldn’t have slowed things down very much.)

Secondly, the authors tell the story of CAMRA – particularly in its early days – in oddly detached, almost cynical terms; there’s a lot about image, position-taking and organisational machinations, not so much about CAMRA as a group of people trying to achieve something. I’m not saying that the first generation of CAMRA activists were idealists or romantics, just that they were campaigning – against heavy opposition – for something worthwhile which they genuinely believed in. While the authors draw a parallel with the contemporaneous formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the Homosexual Law Reform Society and others, they underplay the association with contemporary environmentalist, ruralist and wholefood campaigns, which seem a much closer parallel. My (youthful) perception of CAMRA in the 1970s was that it was the ‘beer wing’ of a much broader and more diffuse countercultural movement, in favour of small scale production using traditional methods, against adulteration and industrialisation. To my eye the book doesn’t really capture this, or take it entirely seriously. (There is a reference to small brewers producing ‘pure, virtuous beer’ later on, but the phrase is presented as a marketing pitch; the overstatement is telling.) On the other hand, the big brewers’ reintroduction of cask bitter is presented in the same tit-for-tat style, as a dastardly plot to take the wind out of CAMRA’s sails; again, the framing of the narrative obscures a much simpler and more obvious reading, which is that this was a defeat for the Big Six (or, at the very least, an enforced change of direction).

What gets lost, or downplayed – or, at the very least, taken for granted to the point of being downplayed – is what CAMRA fundamentally was in that first decade: a highly political consumer campaign, using the tactics of political campaigns of the time, which protested against the effective destruction of British beer through the industrialisation of brewing and the monopolisation of pubs, and was more successful than anyone could have imagined. (Some would insist that CAMRA did no more than spearhead and give voice to a wider protest against the effective destruction, etc, and I think that’s arguable. It would still be a pretty significant achievement.) Whether, as of the early 1980s, CAMRA had won all the battles it was ever going to – “Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – is another question. Personally I’m more hopeful: the fact that the major pub chain with the cheapest beer (by a long way) is also the one with the best cask selection (by a long way) has got to mean something. I also think the presence of CAMRA throughout the contemporary beer scene is easy to underestimate. On ‘third’ measures, advocated by CAMRA, the authors write that the smaller glasses have only really been taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'”. Personally I can only think of two places where I’ve drunk beer in thirds more than once. One is the local J D Wetherspoon’s (home of the CAMRA token), which regularly offers three thirds for the price of a pint during its ‘beer festivals’; the other is a craft beer bar (10 handpumps, 20 keg taps) – which offers CAMRA members a 25% discount on cask. (Thus making the keg prices even more ouchy, ironically.)

As for where the story’s going, I think the difference between my point of view and the authors’ is summed up by that Mark Twain quotation, and perhaps by my rather grumpy note to chapters 11 and 12 – Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene? (To which I guess the answer is “yes, it is – partly”. Well, maybe.) I get the impression the authors look at places like the three Bristol bars in the Prologue and think – this is it – we’ve arrived! Whereas I’d be more inclined to think this, too, shall pass. (I’d still go in the bars, mind you – I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid.) Basically I don’t think ‘craft beer’, in any except the broadest possible sense, is the future of beer; there was good beer before that phrase was ever used, and there’ll be good beer after it’s been forgotten. Nor do I think people who would identify as ‘craft beer’ drinkers are numerically significant at the moment, as interesting as the beer they’re drinking may be. In terms of numbers, the state of British beer at the moment is still that a lot of people are drinking Tetley’s smooth and a very large number are drinking Carling; I’d love to see that situation change, but I don’t think it’s going to be craft beer that changes it. But this isn’t really a criticism of the book, more a comment on what I brought to it.

Lastly, a couple of points about ‘craft keg’. On craft beer itself, a definition would have been nice! (I know, I don’t ask for much.) To be fair, there is a thoughtful and interesting discussion of the term in chapter 12, but without any firm conclusion; when the phrase is used again in chapter 17 it seems to have drifted into marketing-speak, largely unmoored from what it had meant before. It would have been good to stick to a single meaning – or, if that’s not possible (which it probably isn’t), to put the narrative on pause and take a page or two to set out what the various meanings seem to be. Then there’s the issue of new-wave keg vs cask; here I felt the authors were trying to sit on the fence – again, for the sake of keeping the narrative going – and not really succeeding. So we learn that some people denigrate keg as ‘cold and fizzy’ (in quotes), only to then be told that “A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing’” (also in quotes); the implication seems to be that some people think they don’t like cold and fizzy beer, but they’re wrong. (Also, “whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself”; I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘in itself’, but as it stands this certainly hasn’t been my experience.) Rather than taking a view, I think the chapter – and the book – would have benefited from stopping for a moment to present the different views in a bit of detail.

Coming soon: part 4, which explains why, having taken all of this into account, you should buy this book pronto.