Category Archives: Chinstroker

What happened?

A quick post on the CAMRA Revitalisation story, this time covering what’s actually happened.

Here (again) is what we had before the vote:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s what we’ve got now:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

How does 10 go into 5? Here’s what’s happened. First, three objectives (the old objectives 2, 5 and 6) have been reworded and updated, fairly uncontroversially.

Old:

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

New:

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

No real change there; the old objectives struck a balance between specificity and generality (“British real ale” in the first, “the traditional British pub” and “beer” in the second and third) which is preserved by the new versions.

Second, there’s one new (and very welcome) objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

Third, four objectives have effectively gone into one.

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

These have all been replaced by the very broad wording of the fourth new objective above:

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

I can understand the rationale for losing the second and third of these ‘old’ objectives – is “the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale” really in danger of extinction? does BEER need its own line in the constitution? I think losing the first and fourth is regrettable, though. Note that the fourth, while it refers to a whole range of forms of publication, doesn’t actually commit CAMRA to producing any specific type of media; if the Exec proposed to replace CAMRA Books with a Whatsapp group, the wording of the objective wouldn’t stop it. The same goes for the first of the four, for that matter; I referred to it in my earlier post as “the GBG objective”, but I might as well have called it “the WhatPub objective”. Either way, telling the world where cask beer in particular can be found is a very specific undertaking, which isn’t necessarily covered by the objective of becoming a Beer (And Cider) Oracle. Score +1 to generality, -1 to specificity.

Fourth, another two ‘old’ objectives have been dropped without replacement:

  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;

I referred to the first of these in my earlier post as “the GBBF objective”, but obviously it doesn’t carry a commitment to any particular event. If CAMRA does want or need, now or in the future, to scale down its commitment to national-scale events, retaining this objective wouldn’t actually have stopped it doing so – although losing the objective may make it a bit easier. I’m not sure why the second of these has been dropped; presumably not because it’s enormously ambitious and lacks any specific real ale focus (cf. new objective 4). Overall we’ve lost an objective focused on real ale, but we’ve also lost one that focuses on everything from malt whisky to blue WKD, so that’s -1 to both specificity and generality.

Fifth and finally, the vote that was lost. What was the first – and, you might think, fairly fundamental – objective of CAMRA

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

has gone. This is the one that was supposed to be replaced by

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

but this (much broader) replacement didn’t quite get enough votes. This was to be a dramatic broadening of CAMRA’s remit, from “the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale” to “the interests of all pub goers and [all] beer, cider and perry drinkers”; whether you’re drinking Pinot Grigio in a gastropub or Kopparberg in a car park, CAMRA is the campaigning organisation for you! Or it would have been, if this change had passed. Since it didn’t – and the old objectives had already been deleted en bloc – it’s -1 to specificity without any gain to generality; CAMRA is (officially) no longer the voice of the real ale drinker, but it’s not the voice of all beer drinkers in general either.

Add up all these subjective scores on an arbitrary scale, and you get a net change of -3 in specificity and 0 in generality. This may explain the disgruntled reactions to the changes from some quarters, the sense that CAMRA has missed the boat and fallen irrevocably behind the times: yes, CAMRA has cut several of its ties to ‘real ale’, but no, it hasn’t made an equal and opposite commitment to…

Well, to what? There’s an odd sense of a proxy battle to this debate. Nowhere in the proposals does the Exec refer to craft beer; at no point do the new objectives specify that CAMRA looks favourably on contemporary beer, innovative beer, forward-looking beer, beer made with passion, beer brewed by brewers under independent ownership… or any other form of words that may be used to divide the craft sheep from the macro goats. The choice before us isn’t between real ale and craft beer (defined in whatever way you prefer); it’s between real ale and all beer. This is one of the reasons why the debate, despite the passions it’s aroused, has left me cold. I can understand (although not agree with) people who want CAMRA to extend its remit to include Jaipur on keg as well as on cask, but embracing Carling into the bargain would seem like a step in the wrong direction. Be that as it may, this is why I’ve referred throughout to ‘specificity’ and ‘generality’, rather than ‘traditionalist’ and ‘moderniser’ or ‘cask’ and ‘craft’ – ‘specific’ vs ‘general’ is what the changes are actually all about.

This leads to my second point, which is that the result we’ve got is a mishmash of different levels of specificity and generality – “real ale, real cider and real perry”, “beer, cider and perry”, “beer, cider and perry of any type” – but that this is nothing new. Several of the old objectives refer to “real ale”, but there’s also a reference to “beer” and one to “alcohol”: CAMRA was already trying to lean both ways, towards real ale specifically and towards beer and pubs generally. Moreover, the fact that there’s still a reference to “real ale” in the objectives has nothing to do with the failure of that one resolution to pass; the old objectives were all deleted by a separate resolution (and that vote did pass, which on balance is just as well). “Real ale, real cider and real perry” – and no other beverages at all, craft beer shmaft beer – are specified in one of the new objectives, put forward by the Exec.

The full story of the changes, then, is nuanced, qualified and generally not very exciting. In bullet points:

  • CAMRA was already committed to supporting beer and pubs in general, alongside a set of objectives to do with real ale; the changes were about shifting the balance between these two things.
  • The Exec proposed to retain a core ‘real ale’ objective but commit CAMRA more explicitly to supporting beer and pubs in general.
  • Members who voted agreed overwhelmingly with the Exec’s approach, barring a single change which shifted CAMRA further towards a more general remit than some members were happy with.

In short, a change of emphasis within CAMRA’s existing set of objectives has been broadly accepted by the members, but toned down a bit in one area. Shock, horror.

 

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All or nothing

A quick note on CAMRA’s “Revitalisation” project.

The changes recommended by the Executive, following three rounds of membership consultation, are currently being put to the membership. What this means in practice is a change to CAMRA’s Articles of Association, detailing what CAMRA is actually for.

Here’s the current Article 2:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s the proposed replacement list:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers
  6. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

(Proposals from the Revitalisation Decision Web site.)

There are three types of change here. Firstly, out of the ten ‘objects’ (I think I’ll refer to them as ‘objectives’ from now on), five have been dropped without replacement:

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

So, out go the Good Beer Guide objective, the What’s Brewing/BEER objective, the CAMRA Books objective and the GBBF objective. I appreciate that all of these are currently a substantial drain on CAMRA resources, but I’m dismayed to see the in-principle objectives simply disappear: are these not things that CAMRA ought to find some way of doing? The fifth objective that’s been dropped is the one about improving standards in licensed premises (in general; no reference to real ale). I’m not sure how much of that CAMRA does at the moment, but it seems like a good idea; again, I’m not crazy about losing it without good reason.

Secondly, there’s one entirely new objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

No quarrel with that here, although it could be argued that it doesn’t go far enough – it might have been good to come right out and specify that we’re talking about health benefits. But that’s a minor nitpick, and overall I wouldn’t have any trouble voting for this one. (Although the question of voting is more complicated than it might seem; more on this later.)

That leaves five ‘old’ objectives which can be matched up with objectives on the ‘new’ list – and here, of course, there have been some changes.

First,

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;

is now

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity

There’s not a lot wrong with that – unless, of course, you feel that real cider and perry are different enough from real ale, and have enough of an enthusiastic constituency of their own, to merit being floated off from CAMRA altogether. But perhaps that’s for another Consultation.

Secondly,

  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;

is now

  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage

The two ‘as’ clauses in a row are a bit inelegant, but otherwise this seems fair enough. I’m not quite sure what that specific reference to ‘the public bar’ in the old objectives was meant to achieve, but it’s fair to say that its moment as a pressing issue (if not its moment as a phenomenon) has gone.

Thirdly, the conservationist-sounding

  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;

is still just about visible within the much broader

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

Perhaps the conservationist approach to beer is old hat; perhaps the battle to stop real ale dying out altogether is one that’s been won; perhaps that much broader terrain – provision of information to people interested in beer of any type – is the new world for CAMRA to conquer. I wonder.

Fourthly,

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

is now

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

That’s a great deal broader, and I wonder whether it’s something that CAMRA can really hope to achieve. It may address the ‘craft’ elephant in the room, but the other big background issue – declining levels of volunteering and activism – is surely exacerbated by giving existing activists such an expanded brief.

The last modified objective,

  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

hasn’t changed that much; it’s now

  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

‘Where possible’ sounds a bit weaker than ‘in every manner possible’ – implying that in some situations it won’t be possible at all – and there’s the cider issue. But this one, again, broadly seems fair enough.

Put it all together, and what you’ve got is an organisation turning away from real ale – and from specific activities it’s currently carrying out, associated with real ale – in favour of a much broader and less prescriptive remit, albeit that some references to real ale survive in among the references to ‘beer’ tout court. I wonder how an organisation with a growing activist deficit is going to find the resources for this new, longer task list. Perhaps the new ‘objects’ will be shiny enough to attract a new wave of members and encourage the existing armchair membership to get active. Alternatively, perhaps they’re written vaguely enough to cover a continuing decline in grassroots membership activity; CAMRA in the longer term could become less a campaign, more a head office sustained by a largely passive, dues-paying membership – think Oxfam or the Consumers’ Association (the charitable organisation behind Which? magazine).

I’m not hopeful about the first of these possibilities, and I’m not entirely convinced the Exec is either. Where I think I do differ with the Exec is that I’m not happy about the second possibility. In the end I only voted in favour of the ‘moderate drinking’ and ‘best interests of the customer’ objectives. But that in itself points to a problem with the way the new ‘objects’ have been put to the membership. The changes are being put forward as a series of ‘Special Resolutions’, each of which needs to get a 75% Yes vote in order to pass. One resolution, in effect, deletes the old objectives; the next six each put forward one of the new objectives. There’s an obvious danger here, or rather two dangers. What if the ‘deletion’ resolution gets the magic 75%, but only one or two of the new objectives reach that level? CAMRA could end up as an organisation whose sole objective was the provision of education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type. Conversely, what if some – or all – of the new objectives pass, but the ‘deletion’ resolution doesn’t? All ten of the old objectives would remain in place, alongside whichever new objectives were passed – CAMRA could end up officially committed both to the narrow (‘real ale’) objectives and to the broader ones (cider, beer in general, pub-goers in general). (If the second of these does happen, incidentally, I’m one of the people you can blame; I voted against the ‘deletion’ resolution.)

One more list. All in all, it looks as if the CAMRA Executive

  • does want to make cider and perry’s place in the campaign official;
  • doesn’t want to be tied down to running festivals, publishing books and all that stuff;
  • does want to do something to square the ‘craft’ circle, but
  • doesn’t really know how (which is fair enough; neither does anyone else); and
  • does want to keep the Campaign relevant to new generations of drinkers, but
  • doesn’t want to make the Campaign’s survival depend on a revival of grass-roots activism.

I disagree, more or less strongly, with most of this agenda (if this is the agenda) – which is why I’ve mostly voted No. But I guess it’s a bit late in the proceedings for a suggestion like “How about just campaigning for real ale?”.

 

Friday lunch

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three. (My workmates Joe and Paul had seen my arrival as the perfect opportunity to turn their two-pint lunchtimes into three-pint sessions. I’d gone along with it for a while, but eventually persuaded them that I was a lightweight, and that two was my limit for a weekday lunchtime.) If we timed it right and got them down without too much hanging about (the Greenall Whitley bitter in the Ces wasn’t anything to linger over), we could be clocking back in after not much more than the regulation 30 minutes. Fridays were a bit different – lunchbreaks stretched to an hour; if you usually had two pints you’d stay for three, and so on – but the canteen part of the routine didn’t change.

Not, that is, unless we were on. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen. (Tom, I should say, was a PAG 5 – very senior. Even Joe, my overall boss, was only a PAG 4.) By now, of course, considerably more than the usual 10-15 minutes had elapsed; in fact – wouldn’t you know it? – we’d spent all of 30 minutes in the canteen. Still leading the way, Tom took out his time card and clocked back in. We all followed suit – the PAG 4s, the team leaders, the mere analyst/programmers – and then we followed Tom down to the Cestrian.

It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on. My two-pint limit was rapidly forgotten; by the time we finished I was at least three pints down, probably four. (So was everyone else, of course.) There was still a fair old chunk of afternoon left when we got back, but I didn’t get much work done in it. (Nor did anyone else, of course.) Paul told me the following Monday that he’d been surprised to see Dave in the Ces after work as usual; we thought Dave had a bit of a problem, although nobody liked to say anything. At the time I didn’t think to ask Paul what he’d been doing in the Ces after work. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go, to be fair, even on a Friday.

1987, Manchester

“I think it’s time for a ROD,” Jill announced one Friday morning, with the self-consciously ostentatious air of somebody who’s using a code of their own devising and challenging everyone else to notice. “We haven’t had a ROD in ages. You’d be up for a ROD, wouldn’t you, Nik? What do you reckon, Chris – time for a ROD?”

Chris took the bait and asked what a ROD might be. Jill was delighted: “A ROD, of course – a Royal Oak Day!” It turned out that going to the Royal Oak for lunch was something they’d done in the past, before I’d started working there, possibly even more than once. It was a bit of an undertaking, as the Royal Oak was five miles out of the city centre; even with somebody driving, it would take a minimum of half an hour just to get there and back. We didn’t clock in and out at this place, but you couldn’t have many two-hour lunches before somebody noticed.

So RODs weren’t for every week – in fact I’m not sure we ever did it again – but that day there was a general agreement to go for it. At 12.00 we left and the five of us got into Chris’s car. (Chris was our designated driver, in the sense that Jill nominated him to do the driving – I don’t think he drank any less than the rest of us.) After rather longer than 15 minutes (blame it on the traffic) we reached Didsbury… and the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak was famous at this time for its lunches, and justly so. They didn’t do hot food; they did cheese and crusty bread, and plenty of it. Once you’d paid your money you’d be carved a slab from one – or more – of the mountains of cheese that stood on a small table at the back. To be (very slightly) more technical about it, these were cheeses – whole cheeses, or what remained of them after several days of lunchtime trade. If I remember rightly, there were three or possibly even four cheeses on offer – Stilton, Lancashire, Sage Derby, possibly even Cheddar (although it’s not very popular in this… yes we know). You could have a slab of each one of them if you were so inclined, with all the crusty bread and butter you needed (and a doggy bag for leftovers). Everything was open to the air, of course. I do remember noticing tiny black flies buzzing around a dish of chutney, but it didn’t bother me; they didn’t take any interest in the cheese as far as I could see, and I wasn’t planning on having chutney anyway.

The cheese was wonderful – or rather the cheeses were wonderful. My mother used to tell a joke, which she said she’d got from her (deeply religious) father: a young woman on a train is accosted by a stranger, who asks her out of the blue: “Do you love Jesus?”. She’s nonplussed and doesn’t say anything, so the stranger continues: “Not your English Jesus. Round, red, Dutch Jesus!” I defy anyone to go to the Royal Oak, in 1987 or thereabouts, and not love English Jesus. The beer was good as well – the Royal Oak was a Marston’s pub. The cask selection was distinctly limited – the mild had gone keg since the last time I’d been in, much to my disappointment – but what there was was good. To be precise, what there was was Pedigree, and it was in good form – no doubt partly because they sold so much of it.

The place was buzzing, the beer went down very easily and the cheese was never-ending (my doggy bag lasted me most of the next week). We must have been there for the best part of an hour, and the trip back to town took even longer than the journey out. Still, it was a Friday.

1998, Altrincham

Going to the pub at lunchtime with other people was something I hadn’t done for quite a few years, so it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself going to the Bay Malton with Seamus and Andy. A group of people from downstairs went to the pub most Fridays, and some of us from upstairs had tagged along a few times, but personally I never really enjoyed those big groups; I tended to mark Fridays by getting something different from the sandwich people. I did go to the pub sometimes, but on my own and in the week; a couple of times a week you’d find me there, with a ‘Steak Canadien’ and chips, a pint of Thwaites’ Original and a book. The Bay Malton was pretty sparse during the week – looking around, I’d usually only see four or five other tables occupied – but I didn’t mind that; some days I positively welcomed it.

I worked with Seamus and Andy towards the end of my time in that job. Sharing an office with (not one but) two people I could talk to easily came as a pleasant shock, all the more so when they both turned out to have a taste for the Bay Malton, Thwaites’ bitter and even the odd Steak Canadien. Fridays were particularly enjoyable, partly because the place was considerably busier and had a definite end-of-week buzz about it; the slightly forced, coach-trip jollity of the large groups, while I’d found it thoroughly uncongenial when I was in one, made quite a pleasant backdrop to our more ironic and worldly deliberations. Not only that, but with it being a Friday we felt entitled to give in to the arithmetic of our group size and “go for the burn” with pint #3 – although I do remember that by the time we’d finished our third pints we were among the last few people in the pub. (In my memory the Bay Malton was empty, or three-quarters empty, for far more time than it was ever full.) Some of the women from downstairs may even have commented on us as they left; we certainly got some looks. There was no excuse for sitting around boozing until getting on for 2.00, even on a Friday.

201_, Didsbury

At the moment I work from home most days of the week, which obviously(?) doesn’t involve beer – and when I do go to the office, the culture is very much that beer is for evenings and weekends. I think I’ve only had one pub lunch, on a work day, in the last ten years.

But there are, still, occasional leave days and strike days and work trips and dentists’ appointments and w.h.y.; for one reason or another, I do sometimes find myself in the vicinity of a pub on a weekday lunchtime. Passing the Railway in West Didsbury, one day not too long ago, I had a sudden yen for a quick drink in a proper pub – which is to say, a big room with plenty of natural light, with upholstered bench seating and internal partitions, serving one brewery’s beers. I wondered about taking a chance on their serving food, but decided not to risk it and made a quick detour for a sandwich, which I ate on the way back to the pub.

There was no food. There were also no customers; the place was empty but for me and the bartender. There were two Hyde’s beers on handpump plus two from the Horse and Jockey brewery Bootleg. (Rather confusingly, Bootleg’s Chorlton Bitter had two separate pumps with different pump clip designs; one was in an old-school Hyde’s style, which perhaps shows where the Bootleg brand is headed.) On keg, three more Bootleg beers: an IPA and two lagers of different strengths, apparently replacing the Crystal and Diamond of yore. I had a pint of Chorlton, which had to be pulled through. (Nice chunky Bootleg mug, incidentally.)

Empty as it was, it was still a nice pub; there was music from a jukebox, there was sunlight through the back windows, there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and I had a book to read. I settled down and got stuck into my Chorlton. (It was rather a good example of the old ‘Manchester bitter’ style – which is to say that it was quite a plain, light golden ale, made more interesting by a massive bitter finish. You could really taste the (bittering) hops!)

At this point the bartender, doubtless thinking she was acting in the customer’s (i.e. my) interest, killed the jukebox and switched on a very large and loud TV screen, tuned in to the cricket on Sky Sports. Attending to my book became difficult, particularly when the noisy tedium of cricket and commentary was broken by the attention-grabbing racket of a commercial break. Then, while the ads were still going, the jukebox suddenly started up again; confusingly, it was playing the theme to Test Match Special. (The long version. Yes, there’s a long version.) I drank up and left.

It was Friday, it was lunchtime, and the pub was empty, just as it had been before I arrived.

 

Session #131 – 3, 2, 1

I dip in and out of ‘The Session’ – more out than in – but this month’s theme – supplied at short notice by Jay Brooks, onlie begetter of TS – caught my interest.

1. What should we call it?

Jay: what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?

I’m not as fussed about ‘craft beer’ as a term as I used to be; I’m happy to concede that I know pretty much what it means in practice – probably a new-ish brewery, probably one of a fairly small range of styles (pale’n’oppy, stout, sour), probably keg and probably sold at a mark-up. It doesn’t wholly describe beer that I’d like to drink, though, particularly given that one of my beers of 2017 was Harvey’s Sussex Best. (Harvey’s might qualify under the US definition of a ‘craft brewery’, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

What to call it, then – what one word or phrase can cover Harvey’s Best, Marble Pint and (for example) RedWillow Restless, an “imperial Vietnamese coffee porter” (8.5%, keg)? It is, in the immortal words of Flann O’Brien, “nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.” I propose a simple solution: call it beer. To put it another way, call the good stuff ‘beer’, and demand that what we call ‘beer’ is good stuff. This is what CAMRA is all about, as far as I’m concerned – not celebrating ‘real ale’ but campaigning for all ale to be real, for all beer to be the good stuff. As I wrote six years ago (time flies eh?)

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. … My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available.

The good stuff is ‘beer’; ‘beer’ is, or should be, the good stuff.

2. Two under-rated breweries

This one will be a bit quicker, and won’t surprise anyone who’s read this blog recently. It never ceases to amaze me that Ticketybrew don’t get more attention. Apart from anything else, they exemplify some of the worst (and most fashionable) tendencies of contemporary ‘craft beer’ – the restless search for new styles, leading to a different lineup every year; the use of obscure or defunct styles that can’t be checked against the original (Mumm, Grodziskie, Invalid Stout); the weird flavour combinations (‘tea and biscuits’ mild, Marmite stout); not to mention putting practically everything in small bottles, regardless of style or strength. I tell you, if it was Cloudwater doing all this we’d never hear the last of it.

Ticketybrew’s apparent inability to catch a break when it comes to ‘craft’ credibility is all the more baffling given that the beer is – as a rule – damn good. Their core range starts at ‘rock solid’ and goes up to ‘classic’; I haven’t had many Dubbels or Blonds better than theirs, or strong English bitters that were better than their Pale. There’s not much point me recommending their short-run brews, but I can assure you that I have fond memories of that Invalid Stout, not to mention the Bitter Orange Pale and their single-hop Citra. There’s not much that Duncan can’t turn his hand to, stylistically speaking; the results are never less than good and often superb.

Apart from them, I tend to think Marble are under-rated. They had a bit of a wobble a while back, since when Marble watchers have experienced a couple of realisations – “hey, they’re good again!”, followed quite soon afterwards by “wait a minute, actually they’re better than ever”. I’m going to have to make more of a study of those BA bottles, but if the one I have tried is anything to go by Marble may be sneaking up on phase three – “this isn’t just good, this is good“. So that’s my second pick. I guess I should be choosing somebody newer (Wander Beyond) or weirder (Chorlton) or just plain overlooked-er (Manchester), but “under-rated” includes “rated highly when they ought to be rated very highly” – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

3. Three neglected styles

This’ll be even quicker.

  1. Barley wine. I love a decent barley wine – and you so rarely see them. (Although the 6% ‘white stout’ I had last night came close.) Brewers! More barley wine in 2018! I know you aren’t going to sell kilderkins of the stuff – stick it in a keg, I won’t mind. (I’ll just think of it as a very large bottle.)
  2. Old ale. Anything like a dark, malty bitter, but a bit stronger; anything in the range from Young’s Winter Warmer (5.2%) up to Old Tom.
  3. Mild, especially light mild; also especially mild called ‘mild’, which is even more of a dying breed than light ditto.

Thanks for that, Jay – thought-provoking and fun.

Sour times

This is going to be vague, for reasons that will become apparent: I’m not going to name the pubs or the beers, or even the day when I drank them.

Beer 1 was a porter – quite a big, complex beast. I liked it well enough, but it was a bit slack and lacking condition; what was worse, partway down the glass I started to notice a sour edge to the flavour, as if the beer was starting to oxidate(?).

Oh well – occupational hazard of drinking cask, I thought, and ordered something else. This was a pale beer with a completely different flavour profile, but… damn it, there it was again: a sour edge, as of a beer that was just about to start going off.

Beers 3 and 4, elsewhere and later the same day, were both pale. Beer 3 was one I’d had a couple of times, since it had come on, but never in a pint: I suspected the flavour would develop better that way. And so it did – lots of herbs and a bit of woodsmoke. Only there was also a bit of a sour edge…

Well, it had been on for a while. For beer 4 I chickened out and ordered keg. At least, I was about to order a keg beer when I noticed that the cask version of the same beer was on. When I commented, the bartender recommended it and said that it had just gone on. I got stuck into a pint, which would have been terrific – light and mouth-dryingly bitter – if it hadn’t been for that sour edge to the flavour…

At this point I gave it up and went home. But, with that last beer in mind in particular, I’m seriously starting to wonder: is it me? Was I just tasting everything as sour that day?

Is that, as they say, a thing?

Does anyone else have experience of thinking every single beer they tasted was going off, or know someone who does?

Down with the kids

I had a drink with my son in the Sedge Lynn – our local Spoons – the other night; I had Adnams Ghost Ship, he was on the Polgoon still cider (we hadn’t heard of it either, but it was very good). The place was rammed – particularly when the rain drove the smokers back inside – to the point where it was hard to find anywhere to sit; there must have been getting on for a hundred people in there. I don’t think there was a soul among them under 21. The average age was closer to mine than my son’s; the younger generation may favour Spoons’, but not that one, or at least not that night. (My son favours Sam Smith’s pubs when he has the choice.)

For a variety of reasons we couldn’t stay for another, but fetched up later in the Font up the road. I hadn’t been planning on revisiting the Font, having had a bit of a passive-aggressive ordeal there the previous week, but it was fine. We took our drinks (RedWillow Effortless (pale, hoppy and pretty decent as keg filth goes) and Hogan’s medium cider (not a patch on the Polgoon)) to the shabby but comfortable sofa in the room at the back, and settled down for some people-watching. Or rather, this being the back room of the Font, parent-watching. Judge not that ye be not judged and all that, and my son was certainly no stranger to licensed premises in his pre-school years; I remember him literally skipping down Brown Street towards Rothwell’s, one Saturday afternoon in town, shouting out “Pub! Pub!”. (He was good as gold once he’d got his coke and his crisps, let me assure you. Besides, we had the place to ourselves.) But I’m pretty sure it was only relatively quiet pubs that we took him into, and only in daylight hours; to put it another way, I’m pretty damn certain we never took him anywhere full of people, with music at shouting-over volume, at 8.00 on a Saturday night. The back room was less busy than the rest of the pub, but it’s a good size – it must seat about 24, mostly on refectory benches – and there were a good 12 or 15 people there. But I dare say the little girl playing on Daddy’s phone, while Mummy drank her cocktail and Daddy and his friend got another couple of pints in, was perfectly happy. As for the little boy of 12 months or so, whose father was encouraging him to take his first steps, in between the tables – well, what a precious memory that will be, and what kind of hidebound reactionary would argue that it shouldn’t be formed in the back room of a pub on a Saturday night?

Not that it’s actually a ‘back room’ we’re talking about here; banish all thoughts of ‘family rooms’, with their formica tables and soundproof doors. If you know the Font, you’ll know that the whole place is basically open plan. The area at the back – what’s effectively become its ‘family area’, complete with colouring books and crayons – is a separate room that was knocked through some time ago; there are pillars (presumably load-bearing pillars) marking it off, but no partitions or other barriers. At least, there aren’t usually any barriers… Cue the passive-aggressive story (imagine a wobbly time-travel dissolve here). The previous Saturday, I’d gone into the Font, found it a bit on the full side and noticed that the sofa at the back was free – there were a couple of small kids pottering about in front of it, but I reasoned that I could ignore them and they could ignore me. I got to the pillars marking off the back section of the room and found that one of the long benches had been pushed across to form a kind of barricade, at which a man was effectively standing guard. “Coming through?” he asked me – an odd question, given that there was nowhere to get to beyond the back room. I was a bit taken aback by the whole thing and replied, “I was planning on sitting down, yes.” He manoeuvred the bench out of the way and let me through into what had basically been turned into a play area, where two couples could relax without having to keep too close an eye on their three toddlers. Quite the little oasis, it was.

My presence caused a certain amount of consternation (although not among the kids), and I can’t really say I’m sorry. Not that I did anything; I sat on the sofa – moving some colouring-in to one side – and did what I’d been planning to do all along, which was read my paper, drink my beer and mind my own business. At one point two of the kids came over to have another look at their colouring (the third was too young to walk and wasn’t taking much part in proceedings). I wasn’t at all bothered – I carried on reading and they didn’t take much notice of me – but one of the mums immediately came over and got them out of my way, with profuse and rather loud apologies: “Come along, come along this man doesn’t want to be bothered by brats when he’s trying to read his paper! I don’t know, coming over here, getting in your personal space – I know what it’s like, they’re always getting in my personal space at home…!” And so on – communicating fairly clearly that (a) I was calling her kids brats (b) I had a nerve to insist on her keeping them out of my way, considering what she had to put up with and (c) she didn’t give a damn about me and my so-called personal space. Hey ho.

After twenty minutes or so they all left. Both couples had parked their buggies in front of the sofa where I was sitting; this gave the man who’d been guarding the barricade the opportunity to accost me again, telling me “I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, we’re leaving”. Which – I don’t know about you – I think is a bit rude. The ironic thing was that – as I well remember – it takes ages to get moving when you’ve got small kids, and getting two families moving somehow always takes twice as long; after Mr Gatekeeper had told me off for spoiling their evening it was a good five minutes before anyone had perceptibly moved at all, and getting on for ten before they’d all actually left the pub. I was ready to go myself by then, but no way was I giving them the satisfaction of leaving first.

The odd thing about this is that all the actual hostility came from their side. There are people who really don’t like being in the presence of other people’s kids; there are people who, if they went into a pub and found small children there, would walk out, or tut and glare, or sit and fume and consider their experience ruined. Generally I just tune them out; I don’t mind kids at all unless they make a lot of noise or barge into me – which are also things I don’t like adults doing. There is a difference, though, which is that noisy adults, as adults, have a right to be there, and should only be chucked out if they really make themselves unbearable; noisy kids are already there on sufferance. The pub is still adult space in my mind, at least in the evening; if it’s after 7.00 p.m., if the kids are younger than about 14 and if people aren’t eating, then I’d really rather they weren’t there. That’s a pretty liberal position by the standards of pub culture when I was growing up – and by the standards of a lot of pubs even now – but it doesn’t extend to welcoming the presence of toddlers at 8.00 on a Saturday night. I guess that attitude is what those parents were reacting against, both in creating ‘facts on the ground’ with an improvised barricade in the first place and in the warm welcome they gave me; I think they saw me as reclaiming that back room as adult space. Actually what I objected to wasn’t the children in that area, but the adults who were trying to keep me out of it.

A week on, I’m not quite sure what to think about this. I have some sympathy with the parents: I got enough side-eye from grumpy old gits in pubs, when I was shepherding small children around, to last me a lifetime. On the other hand, I really didn’t do anything, other than sitting down on an empty seat in an unreserved area in a pub; there was no tutting and glaring from me, I promise you, no fuming even (not at the kids, anyway). Then again, it’s true that I would have preferred the kids not to be there, and perhaps there’s not much difference – for a parent – between “take those evil-smelling brats out of my sight” and “wouldn’t your charming and delightful children be better off at home?”. But, then again again (on the fourth hand?), I actually do think that young children would be better off at home, at 8.00 on a Saturday night, than in a noisy, dimly-lit, sticky-floored pub with lots of hard surfaces and sharp corners, full of young people getting raucously drunk. Those parents – both weeks, and (let’s face it) quite probably every week, at the Font – remind me of nothing so much as parents in the US who take their kids to R-rated films rather than fork out for a babysitter. (A friend saw a man actually cover his daughter’s eyes and ears during the shower scene at the beginning of American Beauty. That kid must have asked her dad some very interesting questions afterwards, and serve him right.)

Ultimately it’s not good for kids to take them wherever you want to go. With its terra cotta floor tiles, railway sleeper furniture and transient population of drunken strangers, the Font is about as good a place to let children play as a bus station. (Even the Sedge Lynn would only score one out of three.) Some spaces just aren’t very child-friendly, and insisting on taking your kids to them doesn’t change that.

 

Ready reckoner

Or: using multiples of 71 for fun and profit.

Why 71? Well, you know how a standard US 12-oz bottle is 355 mls, which is 5×71, whereas an imperial pint is 568 mls or 8×71? Well, you do now. And you know how 14 71s is 994, meaning that an imperial pint is near as dammit 8/14s or 4/7s of a litre? Well, thank me later.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Third Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint
500 ml Pint
Third  = 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
Half 3/2 = 6/7 4/5 3/4  4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 7/6  = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16  = 7/8
Pint 3/1 2/1 12/7  8/5 3/2 8/7 =

To use, pick one row – or column – and memorise it; you can derive all the rest from it. Either that or print it out.

(As for why you’d want to use it, haven’t you ever wondered how to compare a pint at 6%, a 500 ml bottle at 6.8% and a US 12 oz-er at 9.6%? Now you know: they’re all exactly as strong as each other.)

UPDATE Removed the ‘US Pint’ entries and added ‘2/3’, that being a measure people reading this are actually likely to see.

A session of three halves

I’ve been in a few bars recently where a wide range of beers belied a decidedly narrow range of styles, strengths or – in the worst case – both. Not stocking anything over (say) 5% seems particularly regrettable. I know that cask beer doesn’t keep forever, so that any unfamiliar beer is a bit of a gamble for the bar stocking it – and a beer that people are likely to drink in halves is twice as much of a gamble – but there should be a bit more room for manoeuvre with keg beers, surely.

Fortunately, a Half of Something Silly is still available in some places. The newly-opened Keg & Cask (a successor of sorts to De Nada and occupying the same premises) included in its opening keg lineup Alphabet Flat White, an amber 7.2% number confusingly described as a ‘white breakfast stout’. First impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine. Second impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine with coffee and perhaps some sweetness from lactose. Overall impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine, which could probably have done without the coffee and the lactose. Call me a traditionalist, but I won’t mind, because I am. (What do I make of K&C? Early days – and I remember my first impressions of the (Chorlton) Font as ‘a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door’, which isn’t really the case now. What I will say about K&C is that the posing tables & high stools aren’t really for me – when I’m drinking I like to take the weight off my feet, sit back & lose myself in what I’m reading (and drinking), and being unable to do the first two makes the third a lot harder. The metal chairs on the astroturf ‘lawn’ outside were a lot more satisfactory.)

Somewhere that fits a lot of normally-sized seats – including bench seating – into a small space is the Marble Beerhouse, where I headed next. They had – and (as I’m writing) probably still have – Marble Portent of Usher on cask. This is a 9% imperial stout, and it’s worth seeking out: it’s ‘big’ and heavy without being hot, it’s sweet without being syrupy, it’s got depth and complexity without being hard to drink… all in all I don’t remember very much about it, except that it definitely didn’t not work; there are lots of ways to mess up with a 9% stout, and this one didn’t put a foot wrong. Perhaps my only worry is whether a beer so big should be quite so smooth or go down quite so easily.

Anyway, I had time for another half, and I was pleased to see Marble Assisi on keg. This is a dubbel – brewed in collaboration with the Gorton Monastery of St Francis – although it’s relatively light for the style, at least in colour and strength (6.5%). Having recently enjoyed a bottle of Ticketybrew Dubbel, I was initially somewhat taken aback by the Assisi, inasmuch as my first impression was that it was even better. On further reflection (and further drinking) I demoted it to ‘as good, but different’. It’s on the ‘strong bitter’ end of the dubbel style rather than the ‘dark mild’ end, put it that way: definitely a paler shade of malt loaf.

I called it a day then, or to be more precise went home for my tea. Three halves, then, with an average strength of 7.6% – which is to say, the equivalent of three pints at 3.8%. I don’t think I’ll do many sessions on halves – I do like the volume of a pint; in future I’ll at least alternate with something a bit less rocket-fuel-like. Good to have the option, though.

 

There’s a B in both

We spent a weekend in Exeter recently. We stayed in a Premier Inn just opposite the main station; handy as far as it goes, although we soon discovered that getting anywhere at all from there (e.g. the city centre or the university) involved climbing a steep hill. Visitors beware!

At the top of that hill, though, you’ll find the Imperial, a huge and rather extraordinary Wetherspoons; you can read about the history of the building here. Rather than pay Premier Inn rates, we had our breakfast there; to be more precise, we took our breakfasts in the Orangery. There, indeed, is posh. We also went there one evening, and it’s actually the beer I had then that I want to write about: an American Pale Ale from Long Man (a Sussex brewery named after the nearby hill figure). What was interesting about this was both what it was and what it wasn’t. For a start, it wasn’t yellow, or even a pale amber; it may have been a ‘pale ale’ in style terms, but it certainly wasn’t an ale that was pale. It wasn’t particularly bitter, and it certainly wasn’t a hop-bomb. With a dense, almost chewy body, it was well adrift of Gazza Prescott’s ‘mid-Atlantic‘ style guidelines (“The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!”). On the other hand, it wasn’t just a brown English bitter with a misleading name: there were (aroma) hops in there, making fruity and herby patterns above the luxuriant ground-level maltiness. I enjoyed it.

The following night we were down on the Exeter waterfront – a hip and happening location which, unless I missed something, offers 3 (three) different places to eat and drink. We ate at the Humbledy Ha Hum… a pub of which I remember very little other than that it had a commendably short food menu and advertised itself as part of the Heaviside layer chain. I do remember the beer, though, which was Otter OPA. As the initialism implies, this was another pale ale; it was also amber rather than gold and light rather than bitter, and it also featured aroma hops doing their thing on a malt crashmat.

Well, that’s the South-West for you, you might say; craft hasn’t really made it that far down the M5, you might say. And I might agree with you, if – returning to Manchester – I hadn’t tried Marble‘s new Tuckerlovsky Session IPA. What’s that I can taste? Fruity aroma hops. What’s that I can’t taste? Marble‘s usual, tonsil-scouring, bitter finish; all very light in that respect. And what else is that I can taste? Yes, it’s malt; it’s a big, malty body, of just the kind I always looked for when I first came up here. (Course, I’ve acquired the taste for the big golden hop-monsters now. Too late now.)

Two’s coincidence, three – in different parts of the country – starts to look like a trend. What’s up, then? Is it something to do with the rumoured hop shortage – are people being forced to ring some changes on styles with a reduced hop bill? Or is brown (but hoppy) bitter coming back into fashion? If so, I promise not to go around saying I was into it before it was cool. (I totally was, though.)

The electric shirt-collar

On flavourings in beer (as on much else), I tend to agree with Barm:

I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed, a few months ago, when a mailing from an online beer merchant offered a very, very special mixed case from Buxton, featuring

Rocky Road Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Texas Pecan Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Ice Cream Pale, 5.6% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly 2016, 11% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly Sundae 2016, 12% (we only have 216 bottles so this will limit the quantity of cases available.  These are the only bottles of YBS 2016 in Europe outside of Sweden) – Collab with Omnipollo

In fact, I don’t think I was even whelmed – least of all when I checked up and discovered that the aforesaid Yellow Belly is a “peanut butter biscuit imperial stout”. Now, I like peanut butter, and I like biscuits, and I like an imperial stout, but… On paper, at least, these beers seem to combine several different things I don’t like. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘fruit machine‘ style of brewing, where brewers seem to try and make their beers unique by adding two or three qualifications to every style (“whisky-aged… red… porter!”). I’ve always liked big, complex beers, that get everything from raspberries to dark chocolate to wholemeal bread to marmalade out of malted barley, hops and yeast (and maybe a bit of sugar) – which in turn means I’m not a massive admirer of beers that taste of raspberries, dark chocolate or marmalade because they’ve had those things added to them. And one thing I’m really not keen on is brewing as fan service – the kind of brewery that’s got itself into a position where beer geeks thirsty for rarities are its main customers, so that short runs and scarcity pricing become the normal business model. Still, I guess it doesn’t do me any harm, so they may as well get on with it.

That was the sum total of my thinking about the weirdly-named Swedish brewery Omnipollo and their collabs with Buxton, until the other day when I was passing my local craft emporium and in the mood for a half, or even a third, of something silly. They had Buxton/Omnipollo Lemon Meringue Ice Cream Pie on. I used to love a lemon meringue, although I haven’t tasted one in years – my mother used to make them – so I decided to give it a go, albeit with some trepidation (it sounded awfully sweet). I paid £2.70 for a third; the price was displayed, coyly, as £5.50 for 2/3 of a pint. So £8 a pint, then. (Apparently it’s available to the trade for £129 plus VAT for a 30L key keg; even with the VAT, I make that £3 a pint at the outside.)

It was clear but yellow – bright yellow – and it tasted of lemons. It really tasted of lemons; it was a properly sour beer. No sign of the meringue or the ice cream – apparently there’s lactose in there, but for all I could tell it had fermented out in the key keg. So just lemons, really, perhaps with some grapefruit – a big citric sourness, backed up by a mild but definite bitterness. There wasn’t any meringue in there – let alone ice cream – but the way the sharp attack and the bitter finish drifted in and out of focus did remind me of lemon meringue, or at least of the lemon curd base of my Mum’s meringue.

Lemons and plenty of ’em, then, but there was something else going on too. It was a bit like when I tasted some barrel-aged beers from Wild – the flavour was dominated by a big, uncomplicated fortified-wine sweetness, but alongside that there was… something else. They were interesting beers, not because they tasted of Madeira, but because they didn’t just taste of Madeira; there was something else about them, something that stayed with me for days. Similarly, this time round, I wasn’t just tasting lemon juice; the flavour of the beer stayed with me all the way home, and not just because I was checking my teeth for where the top layer of enamel had been stripped off.

The beer wasn’t a world classic – if anything it was just at the enjoyable end of ‘interesting’ – and £8 a pint for a 6% keg beer is crazy; I probably wouldn’t order it again. But it piqued my interest and gave me a sense of how sour beers might be enjoyable – very much as those Wild beers did for barrel-aged beers – and that’s the first time I’ve got that from a sour beer. New horizons in flavour!