Category Archives: Chinstroker

Front line, back line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Good Czechs

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

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

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

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

5. Staropramen

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

4. Budvar

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

2=. Sainsbury’s Czech lager

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

2=. Pilsner Urquell

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

1. Marks and Spencer Czech lager

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

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

Fancy a pint (or equiv.)?

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

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

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

(Well, I say ‘simple’.)

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

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

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

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

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

From which we learn that

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

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

Is it safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really hope not.

Ceci n’est pas un Orval

IMG_2573

We see here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I wasn’t going to stop there…

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

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

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

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

There was only one thing to do now:

“None. None more black.”

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

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

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

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

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

Greebling

Boak and Bailey make some interesting comments about pub tat – here a tin-plate sign, there a fishing float or two, and everywhere shelves of unread books – and the messages that it conveys:

What this kind of greebling aspires to, of course, is the genuine, accidental clutter of really old pubs. … The great thing about contrived greebling is that it only takes a decade or two to look as if it’s been there forever, and for fake greebling to attract the real thing as regulars present offerings as tokens of love.

Perhaps the value of greebling is that it suggests continuity – that a pub has been under the same ownership for more than a year or two, at least.

(Greebling? Yes, greebling.)

I think this last point is right, or half-right: it may not be the impression of continuity that the proprietor’s after, so much as – more straightforwardly – the impression of age. Age doesn’t necessarily mean trying to look like “really old pubs”, either. I’m thinking of Jam Street Café, a bar near us that I never used to visit very often (beer range not great, plenty of alternatives). When I did go in, though, I always felt comfortable straight away, purely because of the decor: framed posters advertising local bands from the very first days of punk. (They had one for Gyro, for goodness’ sake – who the hell remembers Gyro? I didn’t live here back then, but I did collect records on independent labels – including Gyro’s one and only single. (Maybe that was a poster for their one and only gig.))

Anyway, I went in again a year or so back, after a refit and a rename (Jam Street), and immediately felt uncomfortable. I realised eventually it was (also) because of the decor – the walls were now covered with posters for all these, I don’t know, modern, up-to-the-minute acts, like Moby and Catatonia and the Sterephonics… In other words, instead of appealing to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 70s, they’d reoriented to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 90s. Can’t blame them, I guess – it has to be a bigger (and thirstier) market – but it didn’t half make me feel old. (I hope they saved those posters at least.)

Then it gets meta: when a new bar opens, and you go in and see the walls adorned with Algerian hot chocolate posters, American coins flattened by trains and tide tables for Stranraer from 1975, what do you think? You know for a fact that the place hasn’t been there long enough to accumulate decades’ worth of assorted international cruft – and besides, the paintwork’s all fresh – but does it work on you nevertheless? Do you think Clearly the proprietor has come to this venture bearing the fruits of many’s the long year spent roaming the seven seas? Probably not. There is obviously an appeal to some kind of imaginary past, but it’s equally obvious that – while the individual elements do have a history – the composite past they evoke together is imaginary; and these two things cancel each other out. You know that it’s just decor, in other words; you judge it on whether you feel comfortable with this combination of elements or the composite imaginary past it suggests, or like the kind of person who’d put it together. (See also cafés with a vintage “look”, which often seems to involve mismatched crockery for some reason.) I love Sandbar dearly, incidentally, and will be going back there as soon as it’s feasible – and it’s probably the only place mentioned in this post of which I’d say that – but their particular combination of elements includes some that raise definite questions.

It goes beyond meta (if that’s possible) when the venue with the not-quite-believable combination of bits of vintage decor is not only new but part of a chain (paging Cosy Club). Given that the combination of elements on the wall presumably consists mainly of replicas and imitations, even the question of whether you would warm to the kind of person who would evoke this imaginary composite past gets lost. What you’re faced with is (on one hand) a look which relies for its impact on imitating things which did have a history, and (on the other) the knowledge that the look is just a look, which tends to cheapen the effect and reduce its impact. The extreme version of this approach is the chain pub refit I saw a while ago, which turned a multi-room pub with genuine signs of age into a big, open space, broken up with screens and dividers – all with shelves, loaded with miscellaneous but (ironically) very new-looking cruft.

Greebling: from an accumulation of objects with genuine age (even if only 30-odd years of it) to the mass-production of a brand-new imitation of the real thing – and from an instant emotional connection to none at all. And all within half an hour’s walk, in Chorlton (which admittedly is well-supplied with bars, whether old, new or old-but-disastrously-refitted).

One final, unrelated point on those shelves of unread books. B&B also write:

If you stop and look at the books on the shelves, or investigate the artefacts, you’ll find they rarely stand up to scrutiny.

I’m not so sure about this, where the books are concerned at least. A while ago the OH and I, who met at university, were visiting our offspring at a university up north. In a Spoons, having ordered a meal, we found ourselves with a few minutes to kill and started taking an interest in the books on the shelf opposite. A familiar coat of arms caught our eye: there was the Yearbook of the Cambridge college where we had met, mumble years ago and 200 miles away. (We didn’t even know there was a Yearbook.) Not only that, but it was for our year – and there, listed among the names of the new intake, were both of ours. It was more than a little spooky – but it was definitely genuine. (And, I suppose, genuinely old. If you must.)

 

Ready ready

No sooner had I updated my ready-reckoner of bottle and can sizes to include nip bottles (275 ml) than all the cool kids started putting their beers in 440 ml cans – a weird size, which is fairly easy to compare to 330 but has very little else to commend it. I guess 440 ml cans are easier to get hold of than 500 – and you can sell a full one for pretty much the same price, which means three cans’ worth of beer in every 25 are pure profit. (I’ll give you a moment to check the arithmetic. That won’t be the last of it.)

Now, a ready-reckoner that included the pint, half-pint, third pint, 500 ml, 330 ml, 275 ml, the US pint, the US 12 oz and the 440 ml (and the nipperkin and the brown bowl) would be unwieldy to say the least; that’s a 9 by 9 table. Is there any way to simplify things, other than by just leaving stuff out?

Let me introduce you to the most important imperial measure you’ve never used: 1/72 of a pint. Also known as 7.891251 millilitres, which is to say (and this will be important later) very slightly more than seven and eight ninths (7.8888…). (How slightly? If you multiply out by 72 you get 568 exactly; a pint is actually 568.261 ml. So if you use the “seven and eight ninths” rule of thumb you’ll be off by two millilitres per gallon.)

Now, 1/72 of a pint is not a particularly useful measure in and of itself. What it is useful for is conversion. Without further ado, I give you:

The Universal Ready Reckoner

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

First column: measure
Second column: how many 1/72s of a pint is this?

These are all good to within 2 mls, apart from the 500 ml which is out by 3 (i.e. 63 * 7.888… = 497). Good enough for our purposes, which… well, what are our purposes? What’s this all about?

What this is all about is that, if you can memorise nine numbers and do a bit of arithmetic, you can convert the strengths of any measure of beer you’re ever likely to encounter back to the familiar pint (or back to any other measure you like). This in turn makes it possible to answer the eternal question How many did I have last night?, even if what you had last night was 500 ml at 5%, 330 ml at 7% and 275 ml at 9%. Multiply the abv number by the size factor, add it all together and divide by 72, and you’ll have the equivalent strength of a single pint. It’s just a more elaborate equivalent of the calculation you might do if you were on halves all night (“six halves at 6%, that’s like six pints at 3%, normally I’d be on 4%s, 18 over 4 is… four and a half pints“).

In the example I gave above, you’ve got 500 ml (63/72) at 5%, 330 (42/72) at 7% and 275 (35/72) at 9%; so the calculation is ((63 * 5) + (42 * 7) + (35 * 9) / 72). Multiply out and sum the results, and you get 924/72, which reduces to 73/6; so it’s the equivalent of a pint at 12.2%, or slightly more than three pints at 4%. (In passing, it’s worth noting that 63 * 5 and 35 * 9 both come to the same number – 315 – which is to say that your 500 ml 5%er was exactly the same strength-wise as the 9% nip bottle (it’s actually 25 mils of alcohol vs 24.75).)

In practice it’s not as scary as it looks. The thing about 72 is that it’s 8 x 9 – the product of two cubed and three squared – giving it ten factors other than itself and 1; this makes the arithmetic a lot simpler than it might be. Some of those measures have got 5s in, admittedly, which does make life more difficult – it’s why the example above ends up with a prime number (73) – but you can generally get quite a long way by halving both sides and/or dividing by three.

No more numbers! Numbers finished! Hello again, reader who started skimming when all the numbers came in! That bit’s finished now, you can carry on reading!

Anyway… I realise this won’t be for everyone; when I said …and do a bit of arithmetic I wasn’t joking about the arithmetic. If you are comfortable messing about with numbers, though, I genuinely think this could be handy.

Update 11th September What should appear on the shelves at my friendly neighbourhood Tesco but a BrewDog/Evil Twin collab canned in a measure of… 402 ml. What fresh hell is this? Eyeballing the decimals tells me that it’s more or less 17/20ths of a US pint (although US pints don’t come in 20ths), or somewhere in hailing distance of 7/10 of an imperial pint, or… I give up. But it is 51/72 (or 17/24) of an imperial pint, give or take half a ml; if this measure is more widely adopted (as I sincerely hope it won’t be), I can at least find it a row in the table.

Update to the Update On closer inspection of the aforesaid can – and, indeed, on opening it – I realise that the beer is nitrogenated (a dispense method which lived up to its reputation by giving the beer a tight, creamy head). So presumably what they’ve done is take a plain old 440 ml can and subtract the space taken up by the widget. We can probably forget about the 17/24ths.

Going back

There are two kinds of courage. It takes courage to do something that you’re irrationally convinced is seriously dangerous, even if the rational part of your mind is reasonably sure it’s safe. (Holding on until you’ve managed to get the rational part of your mind to drown out the irrational part is another possibility, but it’s not always feasible – as anyone who’s ever got up to investigate noises in the night can confirm.) It also takes courage to do something that actually is seriously dangerous; it takes courage, and it also takes a very good reason – e.g. risking death for a cause or to save a loved one, or being a member of the army and receiving a direct order.

Pubs are great; they’re one of my favourite social institutions, and I’d miss them terribly if they were gone. However, the cause of pubs is not a cause for which I’m willing to die or risk death, and I don’t think I’m a massive outlier in this. People talking about courage, in the context of going back to the pubs post-lockdown, are talking about courage #1 – the courage to walk into a dark room where there could be literally anything at all (although, as it’s your living room and you were sitting there two hours ago, you can be pretty sure there’s literally nothing). Either that or they’re really fanatical pubpeople – Give me two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please, or give me death!

As it goes, I don’t think it’s at all likely that I’d have caught Covid-19 if I’d spent the whole of Saturday evening at any of my locals. I can’t – and couldn’t – say it’s impossible, though, or a low enough likelihood to be completely discounted. And, ironically, the risk is only going to increase: anyone who was infected on Saturday will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all this week, and anyone they infect will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all next week, and… We just have to hope that, by last Saturday, infectivity in the wild had already reached a low enough level to minimise the number of possible outbreaks, and that social distancing measures have reduced the number of actual outbreaks even further. But we won’t know for at least another week – by which time, of course, we’ll be a week further down the same track.

No pubbing for me, then? Fortunately it doesn’t have to come to that. The two main situations that I (still) want to avoid like Watney’s are sustained close contact with anyone outside my household – having someone breathe in my face, basically – and being in an enclosed public space for any length of time. That does rule out most of the things I like doing in pubs – God knows when I’ll be going to a folk session again – but not quite all of them. In particular, the sneaky mid-afternoon pint on a non-work day is still very much an option, particularly with the weather we’ve been having (at least, up to today).

And so it was that I celebrated my personal Return to the Pub, yesterday afternoon at the Beerhouse. I turned up, sanitised my hands and “waited to be seated”, at the small table handily positioned just behind me, checked the menu on the table and was rather pleased to be able to order “a pint of bitter” (i.e. Marble Manchester Bitter). I wasn’t asked for my details, but the chance of infection from anyone at another table, in the open air (and on a breezy day), really was negligible – particularly as the beer threw itself down my throat at a slightly startling rate. (Son of Bodds’? Not for me to say, but I’d love to hear from anyone who can compare.)

What was the beer like? It was superb. I’ve laid in a bunch of different bottled beers during lockdown, including a slab of Jaipur and a few bottles of Proper Job, but I have to say that it’s the pale’n’oppy beers that have been going down slowest; I seem to have lost the taste. (Give me a Landlord, or a Weihenstephaner, or an Orval, or a tripel, or one of those little Harvey’s monsters…) That pint of Manchester Bitter, though, was in a different league. As a kid I daydreamed about one day getting an underpowered little car – a 2CV, a Fiat 500, a Morris 1000 – and having the engine stripped out and replaced with something ridiculously powerful, just to see people’s expressions when I burned them up on the motorway. Manchester Bitter seems to have been arrived at by a similar process: they’ve taken a best bitter, stripped out most – but not all – of the malt and the body, and filled in all the gaps with aroma hops and (especially) bittering hops. The result is that it drinks with the soft cereal complexity of a BB, up to the moment when the bitter finish grabs you by the throat and squeezes. It’s wonderful, and – on a fine afternoon, when you haven’t been to a pub in (literally) months – it goes down very, very quickly.

Which, of course, is just as well; open air or no open air, I didn’t want to hang around there forever. I didn’t even stop for a second (although I was tempted to do a compare-and-contrast with Pint); apart from anything else, my capacity – along with consumption – seems to have gone through the floor during lockdown. But I’ll be back; I’m not planning on going through the door just yet, but I will be going back.

Forgotten beers

As I write I’m closer to my 60th birthday than, well, any other. Being of mature years isn’t exactly unusual among CAMRA members – any more than it is in my other social group of choice, folk musicians. But what does sometimes make me feel a bit atypical – in both contexts – is that I only became an enthusiast relatively recently; I started going to folk clubs in 2003, and started thinking seriously about beer (seriously enough to remember what I’d been drinking) in 2008. Before then… not.

(What was I doing all that time?)

But of course I didn’t start drinking in my late 40s. As a matter of fact I started drinking at the age of 12, when my parents let me and a friend see in the New Year at home with a bottle of Woodpecker each. (I remember telling them the next day that it had made me feel “very lucid”. They said it did have that effect.) I had got through a fair bit of beer before I started going to festivals, taking notes and generally thinking about what beer I did and didn’t like. I just… didn’t notice it so much.

This post is about two beers I know for certain that I didn’t notice – two gaps in my memory that I’m sure are there. One dates back to 1986 or 87, the other to some time in the early 00s.

We get to 1986 via 1976 (when I fell blissfully in love with London Pride and Buckley’s Best); 1979 (when I could drink legally but discovered that I didn’t actually like bitter after all); 1982 (when I came to Manchester, encountered Marston’s dark mild and fell in love with that instead, but mostly ended up drinking Hyde’s lager*); and 1983 (when I got a job and drank two pints of Greenall Whitley bitter every lunchtime and three on Fridays, because that was what you did). Beer could still be amazing, sometimes – but how often did you see London Pride on a bar in Manchester? Or Marston’s dark mild, come to that. Usually it was just… beer; something you drank when you went out, and you chose it because it was what they had in the place you’d gone out to.

The place we went out to, one day after work in 1986, was a proper working men’s pub (in the enthusiastic words of my friend Mike, whose idea it was) and a bit of a walk from the office. (This wasn’t a two-pint-a-day office, incidentally; I didn’t do much lunchtime drinking at all in that job, not least because when the people I worked with did go out they invariably went to the Vine (which was Greenall Whitley), despite it being right next door to the City (which wasn’t). So I guess I must have developed some taste in beer by then.)

Anyway, the pub Mike led me to was the Old Garratt. And yes, it was a “proper working men’s pub”; at least, I remember the place being full of blokes, and the two of us being the only people there in a suit and tie. I also remember glancing upwards and being unable to see the ceiling for a blanket of cigarette smoke. And I remember one other thing, which is the first of the two gaps in my memory I wanted to talk about: the beer. That evening in the Garratt, before I left to get the bus home for my tea, I had two pints of Boddington’s Bitter.

And I have no memory of it whatsoever. It could have been bright blue and tasted of cranberries for all I know. (Except, of course, that I know it wasn’t, because if it had been I would have remembered it.) I don’t remember it being particularly bitter, I don’t remember it being outstandingly drinkable, I don’t even remember it being dull. 1986 was pretty late to be discovering Boddington’s, admittedly – the early-80s bland-out referred to here was pretty much accomplished by then. But at the end of the day it was still Boddington’s, still being brewed at Strangeways, and if I ever have grandchildren I’ll be able to tell them that I did, indeed, once drink it. I just won’t be able to tell them what the hell it was like.

In the 90s I did start to get interested in beer, although not the kind that you get from a hand pump. There was a holiday in Barcelona, where I discovered Franziskaner Weissbier (not available in supermarkets at that point) along with bratwurst and sauerkraut; there was a holiday in Amsterdam, where (slightly more conventionally) I discovered witbier; and there was a holiday in Scotland, where I discovered Trappist beer (the hotel bar had overstocked on Chimay – which is to say, they’d bought some – and they were selling it off cheap).

After that I was away; Belgian beers were pretty cheap at the time**, when you could find them. In the 90s and early 00s I discovered blonds, red ales, dubbels and tripels, tried lambics and even one or two gueuzes, and ticked off all the Trappists I could find. Sometimes the big hits are big hits for a reason, and discovering Trappist beer was a bit like discovering Sergeant Pepper: I discovered that some of the beers everyone was raving about were, in fact, beers worth raving about. (If there’s a better beer anywhere than Westmalle Tripel… it’s probably an old-ish Orval.) Eventually I’d worked my way through all the available Trappist beers – which was to say, four of the big five Belgians, plus Koningshoeven – as you can see here.

IMG_2424

(Wait a minute. That isn’t four of the five big Belgians.)

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

Dredging my memory, I have the faintest of faint memories of buying those bottles of Westvleteren. It was in the Belgian Belly in Chorlton; my curiosity was aroused by the unlabelled bottles, and aroused some more by the relatively punchy price tags (although I can’t remember what the prices actually were, and I’m pretty sure they were considerably cheaper than you’d ever see them today). I can picture Jason telling me that these particular bottles really were a bit special, and I can hear him sounding entirely sincere and very persuasive, as indeed he generally did in that situation.

Or maybe I’m just filling in that last part because I know that the sales pitch worked. Anyway, evidently I bought them – presumably on the same occasion, although the BBE dates are rather a long way apart. And evidently I drank them, given that the bottle tops are all I’ve got left.

(Best beer in the world, they say it is. The strong one, especially.)

(Might be, for all I know. I have no memory.)

(Only one way to find out, now. Road trip! I could do that. When this is all over.)

There aren’t any big gaps after that – at least, none that I’m aware of! There is one other beer I’d like to remember more about: I went to Brendan Dobbin’s King’s Arms once around this time, and – while I remember the pub vividly – I’ve no idea what I had to drink. But I do have fond memories of a couple of West Coast beers, so let’s assume it was one of them. By then, anyway, the Marble Beerhouse was open. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and started taking a ticker’s interest in the Marble beers they served*** – and that put me on the path to keeping tasting notes, starting this blog, joining CAMRA and generally thinking about beer far too much.

(Still wish I could remember those beers, though.)


*For years I was convinced that, around 1982-3, I used to drink a pale yellow, sourish bitter at the Vic in Withington. Nobody else can remember this beer, and the simplest explanation is that it was in fact Hyde’s own lager – and that I really wasn’t into beer back then.

**Something to do with Black Wednesday, possibly. Or something to do with EMU. Or not.

***Despite the fact that at this stage I still didn’t like most of them. That didn’t change till some time later.

Disappearing beers

This isn’t a lockdown post, except in the sense that lockdown has reacquainted me with The Bathams’ – which turns out to be a lot easier to get hold of in bottle than Pete suggested a few years ago. And Bathams’ bitter is a rare beast: it’s a disappearing beer. Not in the sense that it’s getting harder to find (see links above), but in the sense that it disappears; it goes beyond being drinkable, into a zone where the beer seems to drink itself. Essentially, if you buy a pint, take it back to your table, sit down, then look round a minute later to find the first half’s gone – that’s a disappearing beer.

Not all good beers are disappearing beers, by any means. I grew up on darkish, chewy bitters – sweet and fruity (Buckley’s) or dry and tannic (Harvey’s) – and I’m a huge fan of old ales and big stouts; some of my favourite beers are beers that you can’t knock back, or not without a conscious effort.

Come to that, being ‘smashable’ isn’t really the point either. Boak and Bailey wrote the other day in praise of Fyne Ales Jarl:

For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

I’d agree with that; Jarl’s a properly sessionable beer, and there are other beers I’d put alongside it – Marble Pint, Redemption Trinity, Magic Rock Ringmaster (although in its heyday (as Curious) it was arguably a bit too hoppy to be really sessionable). But even Pint doesn’t quite soak itself up the way that a true disappearing beer does.

If I’m not talking about style or flavour, and I’m not talking about sessionability, what am I on about? Is there really such a thing as an über-drinkable beer? Am I perhaps over-generalising from a beer that I happened to drink when I was thirsty? Yes, there is, and no, I’m not. Evidence: my 2018 visit to Prague, where the bars serve very little else: světlý ležák is the epitome of the disappearing beer. I had some interestingly diverse beers while I was in Prague, but I also had four pale lagers at 11 or 12°, from four different breweries, all of which threw themselves down my throat at a slightly alarming rate. “I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty.”

To sum up: my list of disappearing beers doesn’t include any sessionable hoppy bangers – even they require a bit too much effort to qualify as disappearing of their own accord – but does include

  1. Many (most?) Czech světlý ležák in the 10-12° range
  2. The Bathams’
  3. er, that’s it

On which note I’ll throw it open to the floor. What do you think? Am I right about the Bathams’… what kind of question is that, of course I am… How about the světlý ležák – was I just thirsty all the time I was in Prague? And what beers have taken you by surprise, by apparently drinking themselves and confronting you with a half-empty glass?

“Time in lockdown behaves slowly”, I wrote at the top of my last post. Evidence: this post, which (at the time) I was planning on writing the following day or maybe the one after that. Nine days later, here we are.