Category Archives: CAMRA Man

Stocport and elsewhere

This is another Winter Warmer Wander roundup, covering pubs I’ve visited (a) in Stockport (six of them) and (b) elsewhere (another five). (NB I know about the misspelling.)

There’s a lot of pub-crawl potential in this year’s WWW, but only in Manchester and Stockport; elsewhere the pickings are a bit slim. In Chorlton, which you would have thought fairly target-rich, only one pub is listed: the Sedge Lynn (JDW). Here I had a choice between Phoenix Wobbly Bob – a perennial presence at the Sedge Lynn – and Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter would qualify – or what style it actually is – but a quick google while I was waiting to be served satisfied me that Ratebeer, at least, call it a porter, so that’s what I ordered. I’d reckoned without the manager, who intervened – midway through the predictable hunt for the sticker sheet – to tell her staff (and me) that Brodie’s Prime didn’t count for the WWW. Not feeling entirely sure on the style point, I said something about strength, to which she replied “Yes, it’s got to be 5% or over”. We got it sorted out in the end – at least, I let her know that the cutoff was 4.5% and I duly got a sticker – but things were surprisingly combative for a while there. I guess the Sedge Lynn doesn’t feel any need to drum up custom.

There were three pubs on the Fallowfield/Didsbury route, but you wouldn’t want to walk between them. Down at Parrs Wood, the Gateway was serving Stockport Ebeernezer, which looked like the most interesting option of two or three beers that qualified on strength only; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a vaguely Christmassy dark ale but a porter. Up the (tram) line at Wine and Wallop, there were a couple of good options and one excellent one: RedWillow Thoughtless, a 9.4% imperial stout, which (predictably) was very nice indeed. More cask stout at the Friendship in Fallowfield, and a bit of local brewery news (news to me at least): as well as the Beer Studio range, a couple of the Hyde’s pumps were dispensing beers under the “Provenance” label. I may be doing Hyde’s a disservice, but if this means anything it seems to mean “in the style of beers from region X”, which is more or less the opposite of what the word ‘provenance’ generally means. Anyway, my Hyde’s Dublin stout was a nice enough beer – a light-bodied, dryish, easy-drinking stout.

Then there was Urmston. Earlier in the WWW, the Prairie Schooner had had a Winter Warmer from Ticketybrew on, but sadly this had gone by the time I got there. Tatton Yeti only really qualified on strength, but it was a very nice beer. I didn’t go anywhere else in Urmston – the Hop House already had the shutters down – and it was a bit of an excursion for the sake of a half. I liked the look of the Prairie Schooner a great deal, though; at first blush it looks like a small bar/bottle shop of the Heaton Hops ilk, but there’s a more comfortable seating area behind the bar, going back quite a long way. Like the Sip Club in Stretford, it’s one of those places I shall be sure to visit the next time I’m visiting that part of Manchester; unfortunately, like Stretford, Urmston is a part of Manchester I hardly ever do visit. Speaking of Stretford, I got accent-checked by the driver of the bus I got home – Sorry, where? “Chorlton”. Oh, right, Chorlton! (Twenty minutes from here, mate. Also, printed on your timetable.) Admittedly I am a Southerner by origin, but that hasn’t happened to me in thirty years. But then, I don’t go west of the A56 that often.

As for Stockport, I saved it this year till I only had six slots left to fill & could do it in a day. (If six sounds unambitious, read on – & note the a.b.v.s.) Coincidentally my local CAMRA branch had a Stockport crawl planned; I was hoping to join it, but on the day we had something else booked. So it was as a solo drinker that I hit town and went straight to the Swan with Two Necks for a half of – inevitably – Robinson’s Old Tom. It was on hand pump, it was in good nick, it was big, malty and 8.5%, and by the time the bartender had got round to signing my sheet it was almost all gone. Shame – that snug looked very comfortable. From there I headed to the (Portwood) Railway, where I’d ordered a half of Rossendale Pitch Porter – an old friend – before noticing that the Phoenix pump was dispensing a 7% beer called Humbug. (The Rossendale beers have had a redesign, incidentally, and look rather good. They’re also insanely cheap if my half was anything to go by (£1.25!) – although this may just be the Railway, and/or my Chorlton expectations colliding with Stockport.) Anyway, I can report that Phoenix Humbug is terrific – a pale barley wine, sweet all the way down but without ever becoming cloying. My second ‘old ale’ of the Wander, and one to put alongside Old Tom.

Back to town then, where the Baker’s Vaults presented me with a similar multiple-qualifer challenge: Old Tom or Titanic Plum Porter Special Reserve? Well, Old Tom obviously, but I was curious enough about the PPSR to ask for a taster. (It was fine.) Then a couple of new venues, at least to me. The Remedy Bar and Brewhouse is every bit as ‘craft’ as that sounds – bare brick, railway-sleeper benches, big steel vessels, that style of thing. On the bar I couldn’t see any of their own stuff, but they did have a (I’m sighing as I type this) Bad Seed/Trembling Madness collab called Descent into Madness. It was a 7% imperial stout and it was fine. On to the Petersgate Tap; also a very un-pub-like venue, but considerably less rock’n’roll and more cafe-bar, as compared to Remedy, and a lot more to my taste. There was a choice here: Elland 1872 or Liverpool Organic Kitty Wilkinson stout. I’m a confirmed fan of the Elland, but it is 6.5%, and by this stage I fancied easing off a bit. So Kitty it was (4.5% chocolate & vanilla stout, well kept, very drinkable).

On past WWW Stockport trips I’ve finished up at the Crown, but on my last couple of visits I’ve found it hard – despite the huge range of beer they offer – to find one that really called to me. This time I headed to the Magnet. Cryptic Round One stout was 4.9% and fine (I know, but you try remembering what the beer actually tasted like at the back end of a session like this). I finished off with a half of evil keg. RedWillow, like Marble, seem to have got a bit of a new lease of life recently; the Perceptionless “New England IPA” was terrific (and not particularly hazy, for what that’s worth).

Counting one beer per venue (in other words, not counting the Pitch Porter) and adding in the details from the previous post, that stacks up as follows:

Central Manchester and Salford
Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2
No qualifying beers: 1

Stockport
Stout: 3
Porter: 0
Old ale: 3

Everywhere else
Stout: 2
Porter: 2
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 1

Total
Stout: 10
Porter: 7
Old ale: 3
Other >4.5%: 3 (Prairie Schooner, Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

Compared to previous years, cask porter has held very steady, and cask stout has grown and grown – if there’s one tangible success the WWW can point to, it’s that. Old ales, barley wines and winter warmers, though – where are they? Setting aside Robinson’s and Phoenix – both of whom, interestingly, brew a strong ale all year round – the breweries just didn’t seem to be trying this year. On the bright side, the number of pubs not actually putting the right kind of beers on – either not understanding the point of the Wander or just not bothering – has fallen dramatically; as recently as 2014 there were almost as many strength-only beers on my list as the rest put together. Overall, this year’s Wander has to be counted as a success; congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

Maximum darkness

Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander.  The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.

I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.

Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:

What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?

It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)

Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)

Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)

eggsDown on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.

Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.

That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).

And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.

Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)

Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:

Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.

Blue velveteen again

Night was falling rapidly and rain spattered the pavements as we embarked on our evening mission. A fearless band of battle-hardened topers, prepared for a long evening’s pubbing, foregathered at Never Say Never, the atmospheric Tibetan eaterie famed for its real ale and authentic Himalayan pork scratchings. Some familiar faces were on hand – Big Len, WG and Cajun Bill were soon joined by Green Vera, JoJo, Motormouth and Anthony Burtonshaw. Needless to say, the beer flowed and so did the repartee! JoJo was concerned that we might be driving other punters away, but most of us thought that the people on those tables had just decided to move away at the same time (“it’s not as if anything actually smashed,” Big Len pointed out). Golden Hind Yellowjack was sampled, and was variously rated “tasty and refreshing”, “tired and unconvincing” and “is that what I’ve been drinking?”. We would have stayed to check out some of the alternatives, but time was short. “Time is short!” said Cajun Bill and he was right. We moved on.

Just down the road, Café Paradise was serving its usual eclectic range of real ale, craft beer, real cider, speciality gin, over-proof rum, high-class cocktails and coffees-with-a-kick to its usual eclectic clientele of mums and toddlers. With only four staff on hand behind the bar, we all had plenty of time to reconsider our choices while we waited for our halves. New arrivals were filtering in; Sandwell and Dudley arrived together, to nobody’s surprise, and promptly got into an argument with Snowy the Beer Monster. Zenith Mango and Mint Old Ale was sampled and rated “off”, “I think it’s just… no, it’s off” and “no, that’s definitely off”; Ulan Bator An Ale That Is Pale was variously rated “really good”, “just like all the other hop-forward pale ales”, “OK, it is just like all the other hop-forward pale ales, but it is a really good one” and “mmm, yeah, maybe”. “Wagons roll!” said Snowy and we moved on.

Outside in the wet, the wet rain was lashing down wetly, while the darkness was darkening to an even darker degree of dark. The welcoming light of the welcoming open door of our next destination cast a welcoming glow on the wet dark pavement, welcoming us in (get on with it – Ed.). We could see that Bleep and Booster was a bit busy, but our intrepid band wasn’t going to be put off by a little thing like that. Once we’d all got in and closed the door behind us, the bar was a bit on the crowded side, but it was manageable – I think almost everyone had at least a square foot of floorspace. It wasn’t chilly, either! I was thinking of making notes on my beer, but five minutes after we’d arrived it had all gone; perhaps it evaporated. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting another, so I stayed where I was, admiring the bar staff’s crowdsurfing techniques and exchanging recommendations with Big Liz and Small David. Twenty minutes later who should turn up but the ever-elusive Metalman; the last I saw he was in the third rank at the bar, deep in conversation with Sandwell and Dudley. He said he’d catch us up, but I didn’t see him again. “Move ’em out!” said Small David – he’s got a surprisingly loud voice – so we did.

Down the road, Scran lived up to its name, plying our hungry band with a choice of amuse-bouches: for the vegetarians, a tartlet of goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade served with a quenelle of celeriac and mustard-seed puree on a bed of pressed radish and candied chestnut bound with a woodruff emulsion garnished with preserved sorrel leaves drizzled with walnut oil, in a basket; for the meat-eaters, half a pork pie. Needless to say, the pork pies didn’t hang around for long! Neither did the beer – I think I’d worked up a thirst in the previous bar. Half a pint of something pale and hoppy with with half a pork pie; half a pint of something black and stouty with another half a pork pie – food matching doesn’t get much better than that. I caught up with Big Len and Mister Jones; we talked about beer, as far as I can remember. It was a very nice half an hour, but like all half hours – indeed, like all half pints, not to mention half pork pies – it was soon over. “Hey ho my dearie-ohs!” said WG, calling time on this stage of our adventure in his own inimitable way; I stuck a couple of tartlets in my pocket for later and we moved on. (I found them again this morning.)

I went for a second half at our next port of call, too. Ordinarily I would have stuck to the one, but Very ‘Umble is no ordinary bar – and its in-house beers are no ordinary beers. On the grapevine I hear that sales have slumped a bit since the introduction of their eccentric “full names only” policy, but the bar still insists on it: as they say, you don’t point and mumble when you’re in Very ‘Umble! So I went to the bar, took a deep breath and ordered a half of And Hast Thou Slain The Jabberwock? American Amber Stout, which I followed up later with a half of O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! Imperial Pale Ale. (Word to the wise – make sure you pronounce the punctuation!) It was nice stuff, though I wasn’t sure where the paprika and wild garlic notes were coming from in the pale ale; I’d have asked at the bar, but I didn’t fancy going through all that again. Our party seemed to have grown again; WG was holding court at one end of the table, while in another corner Geoffrey of Monmouth was arguing about bicycles with Green Vera and Small David. “Is it about a bicycle?” I considered interjecting, but as it clearly was there didn’t seem much point. A party of roving tumblers came across to our table at this point and conducted some very impressive table-top juggling before our very eyes; what they did with two silk handkerchiefs, a pencil and a beermat defies description, not to mention belief. “Hello Kitty!” said Jimmy the Hat, and we moved on. (I kept meaning to ask him what he meant. Maybe next time.)

At the Lamb and Flag, three different beers and a cider were sampled and pronounced “disappointing”, “wait, did I order cider?”, “‘anging” and “…hmm”. I wasn’t too surprised – I don’t go to the Lamb for unique, interesting and high-quality beers. (But then, I don’t go to the Lamb.) Danno disagreed with Robbo and Kevino about the pub’s pricing strategy and a lively discussion ensued around the table, centring on the feasibility or otherwise of (a) non-conventional supply chain models in brewing and (b) that thing they did with the silk handkerchiefs, the pencil and the beermat. The juggling was assessed and variously rated “physically impossible”, “just a matter of skill and dexterity”, “a matter of physically impossible levels of skill and dexterity, more like” and “yeah, well”. “Excelsior!” said Danno – rather loudly, if I’m honest; people looked round – and we moved on.

The Quartile is the opposite of the Lamb in many ways; if I tell you that the Lamb offers cheap but undistinguished beer, colourful soft furnishings, bright lighting and cheerful and efficient staff, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Quartile. And so it was that I sat on the edge of our group, in an under-lit corner of a quiet and sombrely furnished room, looking out onto a dark street, drinking beer in a style I didn’t recognise from a brewery I didn’t want to admit to not having heard of. Mind you, I was pretty far gone by this point, so I wasn’t bothered. The decor certainly didn’t put a damper on the conversation: I can confirm that both Big Liz and Cheesy Pete have very strong views on the subject of Amsterdam, although what those views are now escapes me. “Oi oi!” called Motormouth and we moved on.

The evening’s festivities were due to terminate at celebrated alt-folk craftorama the Bird in t’ Hand – or the Bird in t’ Hand o’ t’ Man wi’ t’ Bag in t’ Box to give it its full title. Our experience here was mixed. I had a very nice half of Totally Craft Sammy the Stegosaurus (a West Coast-style IPA), but the venue wasn’t as welcoming as we might have liked. It seemed that the upper floor had been double-booked by a local Wiccan coven and a group of neo-dadaist performance poets. By the time we arrived any risk of unpleasantness had passed – the two groups were getting to know each other through an impromptu rap battle – but it did mean that that floor was pretty much out of bounds to casual visitors. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the monthly thrash metal disco hadn’t been in full swing on the ground floor. Some of us tried to get into the spirit of the thing, but for me it was too much, too metal, too late. “Come on, get down and do the funky boogaloo!” called Anthony Burtonshaw, but by that time I’d already moved on.

All in all, it was an evening of good beer in good company, not to mention good half pork pies. Shame I made it all up.

Author’s note: any similarity between this wildly improbable fabrication and Trafford & Hulme CAMRA’s Chorlton Challenge is entirely coincidental. (Apart from the bit about good beer in good company.)

Remember the name

I bought four bottles of beer the other day – four different beers from the same brewer, that is. The supermarket was having a bit of a push on them; the four of them had their own little cardboard display unit. Plus they were included in a ‘four for £6’ offer, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

There was an amber ale, “brewed in Burton-upon-Trent”. It wasn’t very nice. It was quite a deep brown in colour and tasted of diluted malt extract, with a very slight bitterness on the finish and nothing much in the way of carbonation. Essentially it tasted as if someone had set out to imitate an old-school sweetish bitter, but done so on a very tight budget. This was the only one of the four in a clear bottle, but it didn’t taste skunked; it just tasted rather boring.

Then there was a pale ale; mysteriously, this one was “brewed in the UK”. It was certainly paler than the previous one, and tasted a bit lighter, with some acidity and less of that syrupy sweetness. I wouldn’t say it rose to the level of ‘pleasant’, though; it was a bit of a struggle to get through the whole 500 ml.

Things started to look up a bit with the red IPA (also “brewed in the UK”). Only a bit – I’m not saying I’d buy it again – but I could drink an entire bottle without too much effort. ‘Red IPA’ was stretching it, though. With a beer like Hardknott Infra Red, you get something like the ‘red’ (or brown) equivalent of a black IPA: tarry bitterness and hop aroma overlaid on a heavy, sweetish old-school bitter. This wasn’t like that (or anywhere near that good). Basically it was rather like a combination of the other two – so ‘red’ meaning ‘dark, sweet, old-style bitter’ and ‘IPA’ presumably meaning ‘sharp-tasting and vaguely hoppy’.

After one beer that was disappointing and two that were positively hard to finish, I wasn’t expecting much from the fourth; this was a special ale and “brewed in Burtonwood”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite liked it. Another darkish, sweetish bitter, but this time with a more interesting flavour and with a bit of body and strength to it; it wasn’t a million miles from Fuller’s ESB, albeit less complex and a bit less sweet.

So what are these boring brown supermarket beers, with their conservative flavour profiles and their multiple brewery locations, and why am I bothering you with them? They’re Sharp’s Doom Bar, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Sea Fury, respectively. (Incidentally, none of the labels claimed that the beers were brewed in Cornwall; the labels for Sea Fury and Doom Bar specifically said they weren’t.) As you’ll probably remember, Sharp’s was a small Cornish brewery, which sold out to Molson Coors in 2011. At the time there was very little wailing and gnashing of teeth among beer enthusiasts, partly because most of us only really knew Sharp’s through Doom Bar, which was pretty unexciting even then (although personally I rather liked it). Most of us followed Pete Brown in giving the news a cautious welcome; I certainly did, as you can see from my comments on that post. Pete’s argument at the time was, firstly, that this was a good move for Molson Coors (“This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale”); secondly, that if Doom Bar did get blanded out by its new owners this was no great loss (“It’s only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it’s not as if there is any heritage here that’s about to be trashed by a big corporate”); and, thirdly, that Molson Coors were promising that Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe would be able to do his own thing (result!), and if that didn’t work out he’d jump ship and go and do it somewhere else (also a result!).

I think these were perfectly reasonable opinions at the time, not least because I held them myself. However, with five years’ retrospect we can see that there’s a lurking contradiction between Pete’s first two points. Is it such a good thing for a mega-brewery to develop “a big commitment to cask ale”, if the cask ale they’re committed to is a shadow of its former self? Conversely, can we laugh off Doom Bar getting dumbed down & blanded out – we weren’t drinking it anyway – if the new and even blander Doom Bar is going to be in our collective face, thanks to that “big commitment”?

In retrospect, I think this contradiction betrays a blind spot concerning the difference between a product and a brand. It’s not surprising that the two should get mixed up in people’s minds – they’re thoroughly mixed up in practice – but it’s still worth taking a couple of philosophical steps back. Let’s say that you’re given a taster of a beer, without knowing its name or that of the brewery, and you like it enough to seek it out and buy a pint: in that situation, you’re buying a product purely because of the qualities of the product. At the other extreme, say that your name is Finlayson, you’ve gone to the pub to celebrate a win on the lottery, and the first thing you see is a pump dispensing Finlayson’s Lucky Number (NB not a real beer) – obviously you’re going to have a pint of that, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the quality of the beer. The product and the brand are different things, although they’re welded together by the act of actually buying the thing – you can’t give money for the brand without experiencing the beer, and vice versa.

What makes it complicated is that, in practice, there aren’t that many ways to brand a beer that are completely disconnected from the beer itself – at least, not since the ASA got all spoilsport-y about associating alcohol with “irresponsible behaviour, social success or sexual attractiveness”. So what you tend to get is the presentation of product quality as a brand. The goal, in other words, is to create the impression among customers that the name of a particular beer, or a particular brewery, is the mark of quality. From that point on, as far as customers are concerned their buying decisions are based on product quality – that’s why they like the brand. But the brewer doesn’t have to sell on product quality; all they need to do is sell the brand, while doing whatever’s necessary to maintain the association between the brand and product quality. This may mean keeping quality high, but it doesn’t have to; it may just mean keeping prices high (“reassuringly expensive”, anyone?).

You can see how this applies to Doom Bar. A brand which is supported by a history of product quality is a strong brand, one which a corporation might well want to own. But the product that’s associated with that brand, once it’s been bought, doesn’t have to continue that history. The brand makes the proposition about quality, backed – implicitly or explicitly – by history and experience. The product doesn’t need to live up that proposition – it just needs to be palatable enough not to drive repeat customers away. Consider Stella, again; AB-Inbev are still trading on the name and history of the Brouwerij Artois, 28 years after it ceased to exist.

So, what do you get when a large brewery buys out a smaller one? We get one less brewery, and the larger brewery gets the assets of the smaller one – including the beers themselves, the beer brands and whatever other assets the smaller brewery had: brewkit, plant and buildings, yeast strains, employees, distribution channels and so on. In the 1960s and 70s, the key assets would have been the tied estate; these days it’s the brands. Now as then, there are no guarantees for the people or the brewkit – or the beers. For corporate brewers – and for anyone trading much above the face-to-face, word-of-mouth, farmer’s market level – a strong brand is far more valuable than a high-quality product; and this is the case even when the strength of the brand has been built on the quality of the product. (I had Stella Artois once, in Belgium, in the 1970s. It was good stuff.)

In short, takeovers turn beers into brands – or rather, they turn a beer-with-a-brand into a brand-with-a-beer. Even when the new corporate owner of a beer is genuinely committed to maintaining its original quality, the corporate scale creates new dangers. Brakspear Triple survived two changes of ownership – Brakspear was bought out by Wychwood in 2002, Wychwood by Marston’s in 2008 – only to fall foul of fluctuations in supermarket beer demand. In recent years the beer has been brewed primarily (perhaps exclusively) for the supermarket ‘premium bottled ale’ market – a big market in terms of potential sales but a very small one structurally, putting the future of the beer in the hands of a few beer buyers. And so it was that, in the words of a Marston’s spokeswoman quoted in June’s What’s Brewing, “Due to the decline in demand from consumers, Brakspear Triple bottle-conditioned beer was delisted by key retailers which inevitably meant we were unable to continue with the production and sale of it.” This is not to say that everything would have been rosy if Brakspear had refused Wychwood’s offer; the brewery might just have closed down, historic double-drop vessels and all. But it does show that a takeover doesn’t secure the future of any beer, even where the new owners have a genuine commitment to the beer – and not just the brand.

Whether AB InBev’s commitment to Camden Town and Meantime is to the beers or the brands, time will tell. (Sorry, make that Asahi‘s commitment to Meantime.) But I think anyone who bet on the key personnel or the original recipes still being in place in another five years would be very optimistic indeed. The brands, on the other hand, have got a bright future ahead of them. (Well, Camden’s have; given AB InBev’s enforced divestment, I’m even less optimistic about Meantime.) Just like Doom Bar.

According to Pete’s blog post in 2011, Stuart Howe was officially going to “[stay] doing what he’s doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability” (although Pete expressed some scepticism about whether this would work out). According to a comment on the post from Kristy McCready, who was doing PR for Molson Coors at the time, “100% of Sharp’s beers will be brewed at the brewery in Rock under the creative brilliance of Stuart Howe … no wing clipping, crass marketing, kegging, moving to Burton or anything other than business as usual for Sharp’s but with more investment behind it”. 100% of Sharp’s beers brewed at Rock? We’ve seen how that worked out. As for Stuart Howe, he left Molson Coors last year for Butcombe (which itself has recently been bought out by the Jersey-based Liberation group). Meanwhile, Doom Bar is going strong, an awful beer powered by the reputation Sharp’s built before the takeover – along with equally feeble beers like Atlantic and Wolf Rock (and the surprisingly decent Sea Fury).

The beer landscape has changed an awful lot since the 1970s, but in key respects it hasn’t changed that much. The big companies don’t want good beers for their quality, they want them for their market share and their branding – and those things don’t require high quality beer, even if high quality beer is what they were built on. One of three things happens when a small brewery is taken over: the beers are kept on with the same quality and standards; or they just disappear; or they’re kept on as brands fronting for inferior products, impostors standing in for the beers they used to be. I think history shows that the second is more likely than the first, and the third is most likely of all – particularly now that brands are such a key asset for breweries. In short, takeovers are (still) bad news.

 

Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!

Warmer winter (4)

One final post on this year’s WWW, covering everywhere I went to that wasn’t in the centre or down Wilmslow Road.

I started in Chorlton, specifically at the Sedge Lynn. The Sedge Lynn has Phoenix Wobbly Bob as a more-or-less permanent guest, and I tend to ignore it very much as I ignore Abbot or Ruddles’. This isn’t very fair – it’s not as if you’ll find Wobbly Bob in every other Spoon’s – and I make a point of hitting the Wobbly when the WWW comes round. And very nice it was too.

On the night I went to Dulcimer, their habitually weird and wonderful range of beers included a Blackberry Porter, I think the one produced by Gloucester; it was good, and not as overpoweringly fruit-flavoured as fruit beers often are. I also had a porter at Parlour Moorhouse’s by name, which I’m afraid wasn’t terribly good; too light, in flavour and texture if not in colour.

Another trip took me to Altrincham via Stretford, where the Sip Club was a welcome discovery; only a couple of pumps, but one of them was serving Dunham Milk Stout. More milk stout at Jack in the Box, the Blackjack tap in Altrincham Market Hall: Left Handed Giant Lactose Tolerant. But by far the best beer of the trip was the one I had at Costello’s, where the Dunham Winter Warmer had recently run off and been replaced by Lymm‘s Lymm Dam, a terrific 7.2% old ale.

Finally, although by this stage I’d hit my target of 24 ticks, I hadn’t had Robinson’s Old Tom – the archetypal winter warmer – or indeed seen it anywhere. I rectified this omission with a trip out to The Blossoms, an old-school multi-room local heading out of Stockport on the A6. The Old Tom was sparkled hard, giving it a definite head and knocking some of the gas out of the beer; I wasn’t sure about this approach to begin with, but by the time I got to the bottom of the glass I’d been won over. A magnificent beer; I might even have stayed for the other half if the TV in the room where I was sitting hadn’t chosen that moment to come to life, regaling us with an aggressive American voice loudly hectoring contestants in some kind of game show (“hey, what went wrong? you lost! why’d you lose? you don’t wanna lose!). Shame – it was quite restful until then. I left, anyway, and came home via Heaton Hops. This is a tiny “tap room and bottle shop” – and I mean tiny; both rooms were rammed, with about 15 seated customers in total. I contented myself with finding somewhere to stand, and had an excellent half of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout. Milk stout isn’t my favourite type of stout, but this was far and away the best of the three examples of the sub-style I’d had.

Final scores:

Winter warmer: 5
Porter: 6
Stout: 10
Other >4.5%: 5

Comparing to previous years, the true ‘winter warmer’ score is still low (although it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t go into Stockport centre, where two pubs could have been expected to be serving Old Tom). But porters and especially stouts are coming on in leaps and bounds: only five non-qualifying beers in 26 pubs, which for me is a new low score.

Good fun, anyway; many thanks to the people who organised it.

Warmer winter (3)

What was going on at the Fallowfield/Withington/Didsbury end of things? In Rusholme, first of all, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) was serving Elland 1872 porter – 6.5% and a snip at ‘basically free if you’re having a sandwich with it’. My chicken and avocado wrap was stone cold – which is to say, fridge cold, let’s be honest – but the porter was a monster as ever, and you can’t argue with Spoons’ pricing.

A separate trip started at the Wine and Wallop in West Didsbury, which had an interesting range, as ever; Squawk Espresso Stout was very good indeed, if a bit hefty at 6.5% (again). More strong stout was on offer at Hyde’s pubs, specifically the Friendship in Fallowfield and the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury; in both places I had what Hyde’s are pleased to call Hefty Herkules, a seasonal 6%er. Oddly, although the beer was recognisably a stout, the pump clip refers to it as a ‘dark ale’. This is a trend I’ve seen in a few places; the word ‘mild’ has long gone from most pump clips and ‘bitter’ is thin on the ground, with many pump clips simply describing an ale by colour (pale, golden, dark, red…). The only exception to the no-styles-on-pump-clips trend is ‘IPA’, and strictly speaking that’s only a partial exception.

I’m glad to hear that the Milson Rhodes has been reprieved from an apparent threat of closure. I went in just after Christmas; I don’t know if it was because the pub’s future had been in doubt or just because of the seasonal rush, but the place was looking a bit sad, with about 2/3 of the pump clips turned round (and no dark beers in evidence). I went for Stone’s Amber Ale (brewed at Adnam’s), which was fine.

Further down the road, the Olde Cock Inn is (as far as I could make out) a Greene King house and one I hadn’t been in before. No dark beer here either, although they did have quite an interesting line in guest beers, with breweries including RedWillow on hand pump and BrewDog on keg. I had an Old Speckled Hen, which was perfectly drinkable, and followed it out of curiosity with a half of BrewDog Candy Kaiser, which was rather good if rather expensive (£4.45/pint is pushing it out in suburbia).

This trip finished at the Gateway – second Spoons’ of the trip and third of this post – where the fridge range included Chimay Gold at £2.49, plus Red and Blue for 50p & £1 more respectively. Spoons aren’t in the high-margin business where beer is concerned, and I salute them for that. I had a dark beer of sorts – Mobberley Origin – although as it’s a black IPA it doesn’t really qualify; nice stuff, though.

No winter warmers on this leg, but a fair few dark beers. Overall it’s

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 4
Stout: 7
Other >4.5%: 5

Warmer winter (2)

More town centre Winter Warmer Wandering.

As I mentioned in the last post, I haven’t seen any Old Tom this year, and the Castle is one of the places I haven’t seen it. (Stockport readers – I know you’re out there! – where’s good for Old Tom this winter?) The Castle, in fact, didn’t have anything dark on, or anything over 5%. I had something at 4.8%; it didn’t etch itself on my memory. Nor did the 4.8%er I had at the Micro Bar. The next time I was there, fortunately, the Boggart Rum Porter was back on, so we’ll count that one.

I said elsewhere – so I may as well say here – that I can’t think of another bar that’s gone down in my estimation so far, and so quickly, as Pie and Ale: from the initial “ooh, shiny!” response to a new and exciting craft beer palace, to a disgruntled “why did I come in here?”, in three visits flat. Drinking a spiced dark bitter, from a brewer I hadn’t heard of, with a jolly-jingle-bells pump clip, while watching large-screen sport, perched on an awkward high chair at an awkward high table… you get the picture. Still, CAMRA discount.

The Marble Arch came up trumps, though, with Marble Stouter Stout and much else; never thought I’d see Blackjack Devilfish on cask. (Hate to say it, but I think it worked better on keg. So that’s two.) Shame about the ten-minute walk through the rain to get there.

Another bar that takes a special trip is the Piccadilly Tap, where Cloudwater Stout was rather brilliant. Many thanks to the bartender who offered me a taster of the same brewery’s 7.2% IPA without prompting – that’s pretty damn good too. (Another factor in my disenchantment with Pie & Ale, incidentally, is that they’d had that very IPA previously, at approximately 190% of the price being charged at the Tap. Nice work if you can get it.) Really must leave Manchester by train more often…

Pub atmosphere is an odd thing. There are plenty of pubs that just don’t have it; even when they’re busy they just look crowded. There are ‘atmospheric’ pubs that retain a ghost of their atmosphere however empty they are, and for that matter whatever time of day it is; I’d say that of the Marble Beerhouse, the Crown and the (alas) defunct Live Stockport, which always looked like it was just about to be absolutely buzzing. And there are pubs where the question doesn’t arise, because to all intents and purposes they always are buzzing; I’ve seen quieter pubs on a Friday night than the George in Stockport on a weekday afternoon. Then there are pubs that do have atmosphere, but need a certain level of custom to bring it back to life; get there too early and the place is just dead. The Crown and Kettle, I’m afraid, is one of those. But the beer’s always good, and Brewsmith Oatmeal Stout was no exception.

Pretty high level of WWW-qualification all round, even if your actual winter warmers are fairly thin on the ground. Where are we up to?

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 3
Stout: 4
Other >4.5%: 2

Next: Didsbury ho!

Warmer winter (1)

A quick look back at this year’s Winter Warmer Wander, starting in town.

The Salisbury was heaving when I went in; it made me wonder, not for the first time, about the wisdom of holding a massive organised pub-crawl in the run-up to Christmas. (I guess the only alternative would be to run it from November to mid-December, and pubs might not be in the ‘winter warmer’ groove that early.) The Salisbury always was an old rocker’s pub, and nothing much seems to have changed. It’s the kind of pub where you might once have seen Theakston’s Old Peculier on the bar and made a note to get back there. Theakston’s isn’t what it was, and OP isn’t what it was either, but it’s a certified old-style winter warmer & was very pleasant – possibly even worth the ten minutes it took to get served.

On a separate trip I had… er… something dark; possibly a coffee stout?… at the Knott. The Knott is one of those places where you could very happily work your way along the bar, time, wallet and liver permitting; I was particularly struck by the keg beers on offer that day, which included the 11% Marble/All In collab Välbryggda. Reluctantly I swerved it, but followed the stout with a half of Vocation Chop & Change – light but uncompromisingly hoppy, hugely drinkable. What a very fine brewery Vocation is – they’ve yet to disappoint.

I stopped for two at the New Oxford, too, but nothing on the bar called to me as loudly as the JW Lees’ Moonraker I’d started with, so I had another half of that. Lovely beer – the second best winter warmer I had this year (we’ll meet #1 in Altrincham). Incidentally, I haven’t been in a single pub serving Old Tom this time round; I’m seriously considering a special trip to Stockport to rectify this situation.

To round off the southern end of the town centre, two very different Spoons’. I can never remember what I have at the Waterhouse, and last month was no exception. The near-Salisburian crush at the bar didn’t help; by the time I’d got served, and got a sticker, I just wanted to find a quiet corner and polish off my half. I’m pretty sure it was a porter, but my memory says no more than that. As for the Paramount, for once I didn’t have Elland‘s 1872 porter (something of a house beer at the Paramount) but Stockport Stockporter, and very nice it was too.

Five pubs, five qualifying beers: two winter warmers, two porters and a stout. Not bad.

The hard stuff

Back to Brewhive anon; I just wanted to fit in one of my rare Session contributions.

The topic for The Session this month is “the hard stuff” – meaning hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be.

I can think of a few inconvenient truths, elephants in the room and the like:

  • A pub is more than a place that sells beer. We generally think pubs are a good thing and would sign up to a campaign to save the British pub, but we haven’t got much of a clue how to save them or even what they need saving from: we don’t know (or don’t agree) when British pubs were at their best, what was good about them or what changes in pub management have been bad for them.
  • A nicotine habit is very hard to break; barring smokers from pubs will not lead many of them to give up, but will lead a lot of them to stop going to pubs. This in itself may have adverse health consequences. We’re told that the health benefits associated with low levels of alcohol consumption may actually be associated with having a healthy social life; if this is the case, the smoking ban will have impaired the health of some of the very people it’s supposed to be helping.
  • Pricing matters. Telling people they can find the money if they really want to isn’t the answer. Overpricing matters; feeling that you’ve been ripped off matters. Telling people not to pay a price if they think it’s too high isn’t the answer.
  • Expensive beer is not the same as cheap beer. While all draught beer is available at roughly the same price point, all draught beer will (continue to) attract similar drinkers. As with the smoking ban, people used to paying £3 for a pint will not suddenly change their ideas about what beer is worth if you start charging them £5 and £6; they just won’t pay it. Different people will, and for different reasons (the appeal of quality, variety and exclusivity, rather than the appeal of something to drink on a night out). Changes like this will affect the nature of pubs and bars.
  • A campaigning organisation is not the same thing as a membership organisation with a small minority of active campaigners. If you’re building the second of these, you can’t be surprised if you don’t end up with the first.
  • Cask beer comes out cloudy if it hasn’t been allowed to settle properly, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be cloudy’. Cask beer goes sour when it goes off, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be sour’.
  • Regular low-level alcohol consumption – mostly of beer – used to be normal in this country; over the last two decades it has been substantially denormalised, and there’s no sign that the process has stopped. People who don’t drink small amounts of alcohol regularly don’t stop drinking altogether; they do develop a different relationship with alcohol, and not necessarily a healthier one.
  • Unfiltered key keg complete with live yeast is real ale – real ale that continues to attenuate in the keg, can go sour, and can be cloudy if it hasn’t settled properly.

But I think the issue I’d really like to draw attention to is beer quality everywhere else. I went to Leeds today, and I went to North Bar on my way home. Of course I did – I knew they’d have all the beers I could want and a few I didn’t know I wanted. If I’d had room for another after that I would have looked in at the Brewery Tap, or possibly Friends of Ham. Leeds also has half a dozen Samuel Smith’s pubs and a similar number of Spoons. What the beer’s like everywhere else, I neither know nor care. But I feel as if I should care – at least, somebody should.

I first became interested in CAMRA when Richard Boston wrote about the campaign in the Guardian, albeit that I was officially too young to drink at the time. The impression I gained of CAMRA back then, which I’ve held to pretty much ever since, is that it’s a campaign for real ale everywhere: for as long as you can walk into a random pub in a strange town and not find real ale – for as long as Pete Brown can still find crap beer in Chesterfield – the campaign still has a job to do. And, when the glorious day dawns and the last pub selling John Smith’s Smooth replaces it with Spitfire or Bombardier, we go back to first principles and campaign for revitalised real ale. I’ve never seen CAMRA as a campaign for some real ale, or as a campaign for real ale aficionados – or even a campaign for some really good beer to be available if you know where to look.

The front line in the battle for decent beer isn’t in North Bar, Smithfield and the like; they’re well behind the lines. It’s in every pub that takes cask off altogether – or puts it back on; every pub where the cask beer is so dismal that you’d be better off with a bottle of Beck’s, and every pub that’s like that but then improves. I’m not volunteering to spend my spare time checking the quality of pints of GK IPA or Hobgoblin or Cumberland, let alone sticking my nose into keg pubs to check that they still are keg-only; I’d much rather be checking out what’s new and different at the Smithfield. But to the extent that CAMRA’s a campaign rather than a drinking club, that is the kind of thing that more of us CAMRA members should be doing. And, to the extent that beer blogs are about more than swapping tasting notes, that’s the kind of issue that more of us bloggers should care about.