Category Archives: Chinstroker

Not a fan

I realised the other day that I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as an elaborate way to say you don’t much like something – although I’m sure I could reel off as many dislikes and prejudices as the next blogger. I’m not a fan of beer you can’t see through, for example, and I still haven’t managed to get into sours; in my experience Wild‘s beers need to be approached with caution, and Omnipollo‘s are rarely worth the trouble (and expense) of approaching at all.

But that’s by the way. The point is, when it comes to beer I’m not a fan – of anyone or anything (any brewery, any style, any beer).

(OK, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But let’s pursue this melancholy line of thought a bit further.)

What’s happened? How did the decades-long journey of discovery – starting out with one big, explosive discovery (beer!!!) and continuing through the smaller explosions of other discoveries (old ale! abbey beers! Weizen! Dunkelweizen! porter! imperial stout! really really really pale hoppy beers!) – how did it wash up in my current state of vague yeah it’s all right I suppose not-a-fandom?

The short answer is that things change. The long answer is the same, but in four parts.

1. Breweries Close

Yes, I’m going to mention TicketyBrew again. I was a huge fan of Duncan Barton’s beers; I’ve still got a few in the garage, but when they’re gone I’m really going to miss them. If I knew a bar nearby had one of their beers on I’d always check it out, even if it meant making a special trip later – and I was very rarely disappointed when I did. I only really discovered how big a fan I’d been after the brewery closed, when I realised that I’d stopped peering in at the windows of local bars as I passed. If I already knew I wasn’t going to see one of TicketyBrew’s instantly identifiable zigzag pump clips… well, what was the point? There are a few other breweries in the “always check out” category – Batham’s, Holden’s, Harvey’s, Dark Star – but three of those are very rarely available around here, and as for the fourth…

2. Breweries Change

For a long time I felt like I ought to be a fan of Marble, what with the eponymous Beerhouse basically being my local, and for a long time I didn’t really get their beers. I don’t think it was entirely me, either; some of them were a bit rough round the edges, particularly in the period when they were using that one hop that smells like vomit. (That’s not just me, is it?) Anyway, breweries change – sometimes for the better – and, while James Kemp was head brewer, Marble produced two superb pale ales, the beast that was Built to Fall and the crystalline perfection of Damage Plan. Kemp, with Joe Ince, followed up with the Gothic Series, a range of barrel-aged old ales and imperial stouts, which were equally brilliant. I bought one of everything and started making notes towards what would have been a big (and favourable) review of Marble Beers In General. Then things changed; James Kemp moved on (to Yeastie Boys); the bottles started going out of stock and the beers weren’t re-brewed. There have been a few new barrel-aged beers from Marble, but Ince’s interests seem to lie more in pales and sours. (So, am I a fan of Marble? No. Yes. Which Marble?)

3. Fashions Change

When I first got into beer there was a simple rule of thumb; beer in general was brown, malty and traditional, quite easy to find but not very strong; good beer was very brown, very malty, very traditional, quite hard to find and very strong (a phrase which here means ‘over 4.9%’). I had Young’s Winter Warmer at a beer festival once and for a moment had to restrain myself from shouting Yes! That’s it! (“Est, est, est!” “Tell them I am drinking stars, although by ‘stars’ I mean ‘memories of under-age drinking in South London’!”)

Anyway, one taste I’ve preserved from that period is a taste for old ales and barley wines. But can you get them? I realise that 8%ers on cask are a tall order, but you’d think that the ‘craft keg’ scene – with its tolerance for high strength and high price, and its endemic competition for stylistic niches – would have been ideal territory for a revival of these types of beer. (And you can always bottle them – see above.) Strong pales we get; strong stouts, we get; strong sweet stouts, even. Old ales and barley wines, dubbels, tripels, doppelbocks – not so much. It must just be fashion. I guess barley wines will come back round again – everything comes back round again eventually; I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

4. Tastes Change

This last point, though, is the real shocker. I cut my teeth on the brown, malty beers characteristic of the London area and South Wales – and Sussex, and rural Yorkshire, and the South-West, and the North-East, and East Anglia, and Scotland… – and for a long time I was a staunch partisan of those styles, despite them not being the thing around here (or in south Lancs and west Yorks generally).

After several years of more or less forced exposure to them, eight years ago I made the happy discovery that pale’n’oppy beers are actually quite nice. But I retained my appreciation of the good old brown-and-malty, if done properly – as in, Adnams’ Broadside or Fuller’s ESB rather than Sheps’ Spitfire – and would always make a beeline for beers from those few contemporary breweries that were still turning them out. They were often Welsh; Conwy was a favourite for a while, and I was over the moon when I realised that Evan Evans was a direct continuation of Buckley’s, whose bitter was the one of the first I ever loved.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a half of Evan Evans’ uncompromisingly-titled Cwrw in a Spoons’ in Urmston (of all places), and it was… fine. Well, barely that. I mean, the beer itself was absolutely fine – good example of the style, well kept and in good nick, I could tell that it was doing what it was supposed to do. It was just… a bit on the sweet side, if I’m honest; a bit too big and mouth-filling for my liking. Results from a subsequent tasting of Fuller’s ESB were similarly disappointing. It’s a good beer, it’s just… it’s not really my thing, any more.

But if I haven’t got a brewery to be a fan of, and I haven’t got a style to be a fan of – except breweries and styles that you basically can’t get – what does that leave?

5. Found in the Supermarket

A bottle of Landlord, the other week, absolutely knocked my socks off – it was every bit as good as it is on cask, when it’s been cellared properly and allowed to dry out a bit. A can (it’s what all the cool kids are drinking these days) of Rooster’s Yankee was terrific; I was genuinely surprised at how fruity and how bitter it was. The whole thing was so well done, it really seemed to make sense of the pale’n’oppy style (which can be as ho-hum as any other). A bottle of Proper Job delivered something similar but in heavier boots; that’s a big pale hoppy beer.

So there’s that; the classics are still classics, at least some of them. And, going back to the first couple of points, it’s worth noting that these are all quite long-established beers from independent breweries that are still trading (and still independent). Maybe that’s something I am a fan of: independent breweries (so that the brewer is close enough to the top of the organisation to guarantee quality) making styles they’ve been brewing for a few years (so that they’ve had time to get them right). Same thing I’ve been a fan of since the 1970s, really.

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Back to 78

This is an interesting thread from Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau:

Interesting – and informative (read the whole thread) – but, sadly, wrong.

The interesting part first: yes, moving from wooden to metal casks meant that secondary fermentation happened – or didn’t happen – in different ways. I’m not sure what Steve means by ‘micro-oxidation’, but I’d agree that the natural porosity of wood is likely to lead to (what we’d view as) undesirable loss of condition (i.e. beer going flat), while beer that was in a wooden cask for any length of time would be likely to pick up flavours from the wood itself (and/or from the pitch used to caulk the barrels(?)*). There’s also Brettanomyces, the proverbial English Disease**, which flourishes in the less-than-sterile environment of a repeatedly-used wooden cask*. Most beer – at least in 19th- and 20th-century conditions – was ‘running beer’*, which wouldn’t spend a lot of time in cask, but the difference in a ‘stock’ beer like a porter or Burton* would be quite pronounced.

The question then is whether anyone moaning about ‘kegging’ should either (a) insist on getting their beer from the wood or (b) shut up. I say No, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

Whose keg is it anyway?

Take the same, conditioning, beer, put one lot in a steel cask and the other lot inna bag inna box, and wait. Very similar stuff is going to happen to both lots of beer (although the bag inna box may be a bit of a bugger to vent). Slightly different things will happen once you start tapping the two containers, but the main difference will be the lack of oxidation in the beer inna bag inna box. Anyone who objects to every single manifestation of kegging – including unfiltered beer being packaged inna bag inna box and conditioning in very much the same way as beer in cask, but oxidating (if that’s a word) more slowly – is letting their taste in beer be ruled by an objection to the word ‘keg’, which is a bit daft.

That said, you can object to keg because you don’t like beer being filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated (as, indeed, who does?). Admittedly, this objection doesn’t catch quite a lot of what’s done nowadays under the name of ‘keg’, but it’s still a valid position. Or you can object to the “filtering and serving under gas” part of conventional kegging; or you may not like your beer chilled (which in itself doesn’t have much bearing on whether a beer’s in keg or not*, but does tend to go along with kegging). Or – and this is the nearest I personally come to an ‘anti-keg’ position – you may have no principled objection to beer being filtered and CO2’d (or even chilled), in and of itself, but believe that beer which can be cask-conditioned (and traditionally has been) is probably going to be better if it continues to be.

So, someone who tells you they don’t like “keg” may be saying that they believe (or affect to believe) that putting beer inna bag inna box immediately turns it to bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel; or they may be saying that they’ll drink pretty much anything apart from b. W.’s R. B. or its modern equivalent; or they may have one of a number of positions in between, including my own (irrefutably correct) position of drinking interesting beers in keg when they’re on keg, but preferring the same beers on cask*** when they’re available. It follows that some people who moan about kegging are ignorant, obtuse stick-in-the-muds, but not all; I myself, for instance, am open-minded, erudite and thoroughly sophistimacated.

One of its legs is both alike

But let’s say that there are people going around being ignorantly prejudiced against any beer in a keg, up to and including unfiltered beer inna bag inna box. (Incidentally, I have seen “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” labels on keg taps, but only twice in the last four years; I guess it’s not much of a selling point. Presumably the CAMRA members don’t believe it and the craft keg drinkers don’t care.) The question then is whether wood to metal is the same kind of change as cask to keg – or rather, whether it’s a change of the same kind and similar magnitude. (“How can you object to us building a housing estate in this National Park? You didn’t mind when it was one house!”)

Steve argues that, as compared with beer from a wooden cask, beer from metal is fizzier and “a much cleaner, almost filtered product”. On the specific issue of losing condition, the difference between wood and metal clearly is the same kind of difference as the difference between metal and beer inna bag inna box. (That said, I doubt that the first difference – between oxidation plus loss of condition via the wood and oxidation alone – is of the same magnitude as the second one – oxidation vs no oxidation – or anywhere near.) I have more problems with “almost filtered”: in terms of active yeast in suspension*, surely a beer’s either filtered or it’s not. Surely it’s a coincidence – at best – if the effect of putting an unfiltered beer in metal seems ‘almost’ the same as that of filtering it; unfiltered beer is still, well, unfiltered. It’s certainly unlikely to be a change of the same magnitude.

You’re a fine one (just like me)

But let’s put all this logic-chopping aside. Steve’s right about the effect on beer of keeping it in wood, as compared to the effect of keeping it in metal; let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the effect of kegging is just “more of the same”, another step down the same road. Beer in the wood, ‘woody’, Bretty and flat; beer in metal, clean, consistent and sparkling; keg beer, more clean, consistent and sparkling. Does this leave keg objectors without a leg to stand on, unless they go the whole hog and enrol in the SPBW?

I don’t believe so. It’s a common tactic, when you’re pushing a conservationist line of some sort, to reduce a complex history**** to a black-and-white choice: to claim that the thing you’re trying to protect or preserve is utterly unspoilt and pristine, and that the development you’re resisting would ruin it forever. It’s a common tactic, and it’s almost always poorly-founded: very few things in the world are unspoilt and pristine. Beer and pubs certainly aren’t, and to all intents and purposes never have been. Even if you were to take the view that we should go back to a time nobody alive now remembers – before the First World War, when Lloyd George ruined everything – you’d be effectively disregarding several hundred years of history, during which a lot of things changed (even in brewing).

So it’s certainly not the case that everything was great before kegging came on the scene, or that nothing had changed up to then. However, the fact that nothing (in the world of beer) is pristine and unchanged doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth preserving – or that there are no changes worth resisting. This becomes clearer if we assume, not only that “wood to metal” and “metal to keg” are the same kind of change, but that they’re both bad changes. If you assume that going to metal casks made the beer worse, and that going to keg makes it worse again, Steve’s argument becomes “why are you objecting to something that’s deteriorated twice when you accept something that’s deteriorated once?”. It’s a good argument for beer from the wood, but as an argument for kegging it lacks something – it’s a bit like saying “how can you say I’d be better off not being neck-deep in water, when you’re knee-deep yourself?”

In short, Steve’s argument only really works if you assume that going from wood to metal wasn’t a bad thing, and that going from metal casks to kegging wasn’t a bad thing – but if you already believe both of these, you don’t need the argument.

(Interesting stuff about beer from the wood, though. Me, I’m a child of the 70s, so it’s unfiltered beer from a metal cask for me, for preference – but, as ever, there’s plenty of good stuff that doesn’t fit that description.)

*All corrections welcome. I’m very hazy (ironically) on the history and even more hazy on the technicalities of brewing & keeping beer.
**Brett has never been referred to as the English Disease, AFAIK, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.
***In my experience, Blackjack Devilfish Saison and Marble Earl Grey IPA are, in fact, better on keg. Everything else where I’ve had a chance to compare, the cask wins.
****All histories are complex.

Say goodbye

I recently bought some beers from my personal favourite brewery, TicketyBrew.

What’s wrong with that statement? As we know, TicketyBrew closed down in early to mid-2018 (May? June?). There was no announcement, so I didn’t get the news till a couple of months later. After that I bought their beers whenever I saw them in shops (which, by that time, didn’t happen very often), and laid in stocks of the three greats – the Pale, the Dubbel and the Blonde – from an online beer merchant which still had a few bottles.

I worked my way through those over the next couple of months, and didn’t think much more about it. It was only the other day – on noticing Grimbergen Blonde, which never fails to remind me how much better TicketyBrew Blonde iswas – that it occurred to me to wonder if any other beer merchant still had any bottles in stock.

And so it came to pass. Sadly, the beers Flavourly had in stock (and still have, at the time of writing) don’t include all the ones I would have liked to stock up on, but the fact that they’ve got any of them, seven or eight months down the line, is worth celebrating.

Drinking them is an odd experience, though. There’s a distinct Mary Celeste quality about TicketyBrew’s closure – this post about their exciting new label designs dates from June 25th this year, by which point I suspect the brewery had already closed; certainly some of the new labels never seem to have made it into production. The impression is strengthened by some of the label copy on the bottles I bought, as we’ll see.

The Dubbel seems to have had a redesign (see previous link), but the bottle I bought came with the old-style label (black lettering on single-colour background with no spot colour, label copy reads “THE TICKETYBREW COMPANY”). As soon as I started to ease the crown cork there was a loud hiss and a thick collar of foam formed in the bottle; some careful work with the bottle-opener was required to avoid any gushing. Once open, it all went into a 355 ml glass without any fuss, though. As for what it’s like, it’s a beautiful beer. It opens with red-berry jamminess backed by malt loaf; at 6.5%, there’s no alcohol burn to speak of, just a pleasant density and warmth. There’s bitterness on the finish, but it’s smooth and unassertive, more like dark chocolate than coffee and perhaps even more like high-cocoa milk chocolate. It’s a really good dubbel, and I hope the world hasn’t seen the last of it. (I know I haven’t, as I bought several bottles, which are stamped BBE Feb 2020.)

Carrying on down the strength scale, the Black IPA – also with the old-style label – comes in at 6.1%, and I’d class it as good rather than great. I drank another black IPA earlier the same evening for comparison, and this one was certainly the better of the two; it just didn’t set off the piney fireworks that I remember from some black IPAs, back when they were new and some were referring to them as “Cascadian dark ales”. What you get is something like a best bitter, but with a smoky, tobacco-like edge, which builds to a charcoal bitterness and an overpowering ‘roasty’ finish; lots of bitterness, then, or different bitternesses. It is good and it is interesting, but it doesn’t score high enough on either count to make me want to bag the remaining stock. (BBE Jan 2019, so if it does appeal to you, the clock is ticking.)

Both Viva La Stalyvegas and Gertcha! are in the new livery, with spot colour (although, oddly, the VLS label has an amorphous blob of colour where publicity photos suggested the number 9 should be); both are listed as being in the ‘Staly Series’, complete with collect-the-set “Stalyfacts” (##1 and 3 respectively; I assume #2 was on the bottles for the US-hopped Yanks for the Memories, which coincidentally was the last cask Ticketybrew beer I ever drank). My VLS, like a lot of TicketyBrew bottles, was on the fizzy side of well-conditioned, but a careful pour into an oversized glass was all that was needed. It’s a 6% IPA and it’s terrific. Citra, Rakau and Ekuanot hops give a complex fruitiness, dominated by grapefruit – particularly on the long aftertaste – but with a distinct pineapple-ish sweetness in the mouth. Interestingly, the label says the beer was based on the Summer IPA, which was made with added pineapple and mango. I was positive about that beer when I reviewed it last year, but noted “I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt”. I guess Viva La Stalyvegas is that IPA. If you like fruit-salad IPAs that don’t compromise on bitterness – and why wouldn’t you? – this is a fine example. (The BBE date for this, and for all the remaining three beers, was Feb 2019.)

The new label system included two-tone labels for short-run beers; one such is the Pink IPA, labelled in two rather fetching shades of pink. The label copy announces that this was the second in TicketyBrew’s “rainbow series of IPAs for 2018”; second and last, sadly. It’s a 6% IPA, like Viva La Stalyvegas; unlike VLS, it was made with fruit additions – strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus, in fact. It’s not pink to look at, though, or particularly fruity to taste. Initially it tastes like a pale ale, albeit with a faint raspberry overtone; something else rapidly takes over, though, and the flavour is dominated by a rather overpowering bitter finish. Being bottle-conditioned (as all these beers are) and close to its BBE date (as most of them are), I wonder if it had dried out since it was fresh. For whatever reason, I didn’t think this one was a success.

The aforementioned Gertcha!, its label featuring a large spot-colour number 11, is a 4% pale ale, and as such falls foul of my scepticism about putting 4%ers – or anything much under 6% – in a 330 ml bottle. The label copy retrospectively sounds a particularly sad, Mary Celeste-ish note:

This is a pale ale which showcases two different hops each month, utilising the hop back. Just check on the Web site to see which hops are in your bottle! http://www.ticketybrew.co.uk/doublehop

Needless to say, that URL won’t get you anywhere now. So I’ve no idea which two hops were featured in the bottle I’ve drunk, but the end result was perfectly pleasant. Like VLS, it’s very much in the grapefruit zone, but with a simpler and more straightforward flavour and a lighter texture to go with it. More of a sessioner, I guess, although that brings us back to the vexed question of bottle size. (Stalyfact #3, in case you’re wondering, is the fact – or rumour – that the Courage advert based on Chas and Dave’s song “Gertcha!” was filmed in Stalybridge Buffet Bar, standing in for an East End boozer of old. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating thought.)

Lastly, Mocha Mild (a short-run beer, also in a two-tone label) is a bit of an oddity. This is another beer with additions: coffee, cocoa nibs and lactose. Uniquely (in my experience, at least), what these sweet coffee and chocolate flavours have to contend with isn’t the depth of an imperial stout or the weight of a porter, but a thin-textured, 3.9% dark mild. The oddest thing of all is how well it works: it doesn’t put you in mind of an Irish coffee so much as a mochaccino, but that’s no bad thing. The beer underneath isn’t swamped as you might expect, but works harmoniously with the additions; as well as giving you a blast of coffee and milk chocolate, they effectively tweak the flavour profile of a dark mild in that direction (and away from the more familiar malt loaf area). I’ve never had a coffee mild before, and I hope this one won’t be my last – although it may well be my last Mocha Mild.

So, farewell then (again), TicketyBrew! Although even this isn’t likely to be my very last look at their beers; as well as a small stash of Dubbels, I’ve held back one each of the Blonde and the Pale, for drinking when the Dubbels are finally down to the last one. (Also, at the time of writing the beer merchant I mentioned has 20+ bottles of all of these beers except for the Mocha Mild, so I might just restock.) As the man said, How can I leave you when you won’t go away?

 

How much is that pint on the menu?

A brief note about a curious experience we had in Manchester the other day.

The other half & I were in the market for a meal before going to the cinema, and decided to aim a bit higher than Spoons. (I won’t name the place we went to, but it was – as the ads used to say – Five Minutes From This Cinema, ‘this’ being the OdeonVue in the Printworks.)

The meal, although not fancy, was very nice indeed – it’s good to be reminded sometimes what a hamburger tastes like when it’s been made from scratch. What it wasn’t was lavish; the burgers, while perfectly adequate, were on the small side of large, and my wife’s salad had been portion-controlled to within an inch of its life. My chips were served in one of those odd metal canisters (a small vase? an ornamental tin can?), which appeared to have been quite generously filled; on inspection, however, the chips were sitting in a small greaseproof paper bag which was perched in the neck of the canister, the bottom half of which was completely empty. It was fine – I didn’t go hungry, and the quality of the food was excellent – but it did give the impression that they were trying to make a little go a long way.

As for beer, the drinks menu had several bottles and cans in the £3-£5 range, including a couple from small brewers. I fancied something bigger than 330 ml, though, so I looked at the ‘draught’ section – and was surprised to see that ‘craft ales’ [sic] were on offer. Getting our waitress to tell us what they actually were took several questions (on my part) and a bit of running back and forth (on hers), but eventually I was served with a pint of RedWillow Faithless – presumably the latest (#91), as it was a hoppy bitter. Rather to my surprise, it was on cask; it was in good nick, too, and went well with the meal.

At the end of the meal we were in a hurry to get to the pictures, so didn’t worry too much about the bill; the total sounded about right, so we paid up and scarpered. The curious experience came later, when we got the bill out to check what we’d paid for what. For my beer – a pint of a high-quality short-run beer from a well-respected local brewer, on cask, in a restaurant – I’d paid £3.85. £3.85! You could pay more than that over the bar in Chorlton; come to that, you could pay more than that for a bottle of lager in Nando’s or Pizza Express. And this in a restaurant which clearly had a policy of not leaving any money on the table (or on the plate) as far as food was concerned.

I’m not saying that £3.85 is cheap in pub prices, let alone that it’s too cheap. But £3.85 in a restaurant – and a restaurant that wasn’t giving anything away otherwise – for a quality beer like that…! I can only imagine that the restaurant’s paying a correspondingly low rate to the supplier – and I can only imagine that they’re doing that because of a perception that cask beer has to be sold cheap or not at all.

I’m all in favour of a £4 ceiling, and of keeping beer affordable generally. But there are bound to be exceptions, and I think the kind of restaurant where a burger costs a tenner could legitimately be one of them. The fact that, in this case, it wasn’t an exception – although they did feel free to charge ‘restaurant’ prices for beer in cans – makes me wonder if some of our campaigning on behalf of cask has been too successful, or if it’s succeeded in the wrong way.

Palely loitering

A couple of recent pub experiences have set me wondering about the health of the ‘craft’ scene.

One weekday prevening, I stuck my head in a bar nearby for a Swift Half On The Way Home. A Swift Half, etc. – not to be confused with the end-of-evening Half Of Something Silly – is for when you want to get a drink down and be on your way (home); hence a half rather than a pint. As you are just stopping for the one half, it needs to be strong-ish, and preferably have a reasonably definite flavour; you don’t want a beer so light that you end up necking it and looking for the other half. Where the typical Half Of Something Silly would be an imperial stout or a barley wine at silly%, the ideal Swift Half would be a bitter or a porter between (say) 4.8% and 6.8%.

But you can’t always get what you want, and on this occasion the bar in question came up short. Across four cask and three keg taps, they were serving a barrel-aged imperial stout, a blonde, a session IPA – and four separate pale beers, two of them showcasing the same hop. Mostly they were light in strength terms as well: apart from the stout (which had Half Of Something Silly written all over it) only one of the seven cracked the 4.5% mark. I appreciate that you’ve got to stock what sells, and maybe that is what the beer-drinking public around here is crying out for. Seems a shame not to have a bit more variety, though, in strength as well as style.

In another bar last night I had two beers which, on the face of it, couldn’t have been more different – a plain old straight up and down IPA from Tiny Rebel and a collab between Wild and Fuller’s. The latter was listed on the blackboard as a ‘Somerset pale’, but the pump clip told a different story: it was a grisette. Or rather, a green-hopped grisette. Specifically, an oak-aged green-hopped grisette.

What were they like? They were fine. Or rather – let’s not damn with faint praise – they were both good, complex, interesting beers, which I’d be happy to order again. If I’ve got anything to moan about here, it isn’t quality. But, while I’ve only had one grisette before, that one tasted a lot more like what the style sounds like. If you take a grisette and deliver it straight, I suspect you’ll end up with a bit of a niche product – but if you take a grisette and add the acrid zing of green hops, then age it on wood for body and mellowness (or maybe the other way round, I’m not a brewer), what you end up with is… well, a lot like a contemporary pale beer. Which is also more or less what you get if you take an IPA and soup it up [sic] with the East Coast of the USA in mind – fruit-salad hopping, creamy texture, minimal bitterness… I’m not saying both these beers arrived at the same destination, but they certainly wound up in different districts of Contemporary Pale City.

Where’s the innovation coming from – who’s producing something really different? (Pastry stouts? Fruit IPAs?) Alternatively, is innovation not what’s going to sell right now, in an increasingly competitive (i.e. cash-strapped) marketplace – is the dial going to stick on ‘pale’ now, just as it stuck on ‘brown bitter’ for all those years?

 

Some beers in

I’m a bit of a solitary drinker – particularly at home – and I like a bit of variety, even if it’s only alternating Landlord with Proper Job and Ghost Ship. So the only quantity I usually buy bottled beer in is 1. I have occasionally wondered what I’d offer a beer-drinking visitor – or rather, not what I’d offer them (I’d offer them a beer, quite clearly) but how I’d phrase the follow-up question: “What would you like, there’s a Boltmaker and a Harbour Pale and an ESB and an 1845 and a Champion, it is a bit strong that one, although you’re welcome if that’s what you fancy, or if you want a smaller beer there’s an Old Tom and a Duvel and a Guinness Foreign and… What am I having? No, you choose first, I really don’t mind…“. But I only ever seem to meet beer-drinking friends and acquaintances in pubs, so as yet the problem hasn’t arisen.

So I’ve never really “got some beers in”, or not until recently. My first multiple buy was around the beginning of the year, when I bought six bottles of Greene King‘s limited-edition bottle-conditioned Vintage Fine Ale after being rather impressed by the first bottle. This wasn’t a huge success, as I promptly went off it; too malty, too heavy, too much like beer with a cough-mixture depth charge (I imagine). That said, I’ve gradually worked my way through the batch since then & can report that it’s starting to dry out; by the time I get to the last bottle it should be pretty good.

More recently, there was the Aldi promotion which saw bottles of Holden’s XB, Felinfoel Dragon Heart and – in at least one store – Dark Star Hophead going cheap. I bought six of each – why wouldn’t you? Shortly after that we got the sad news about TicketyBrew, which naturally made me want to grab whatever beer of theirs I could still find; an online beer merchant obliged with six bottles each of the Pale and Blonde, and four of the Dubbel. The same retailer had a deal on Tynt Meadow – six for the price of five – so I went for some of those as well.

So for the time being I haven’t just got beers, I’ve got a stock of beers; I can get out a couple of beers, or have a beer and replace it with an identical example of the same beer. It’s a novelty. The main use I’ve made of it is to drink nothing but Hophead, at least as far as low-strength beers in large bottles goes; any time I fancy a pint of bitter, or the closest thing to it in a bottle, I’ve gone for the Hophead. It’s given me a distinct sense of what a pint of bitter tastes like: loose in texture, thin yet oddly oily or soapy; strongly aromatic, herbal (rosemary? sage?); a fresh-tasting attack, sharp but not sour enough to be citric; then a long, bitter finish, persisting almost long enough to be unpleasant, then fading away, leaving your mouth dry and ready for a repeat.

It’s a lovely, lovely beer – and it is, quite definitely, what bitter tastes like. Although I may feel differently when I’ve drunk nothing but XB for a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

UPDATE Three weeks and six bottles of XB later, I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is… hard to describe. It’s not a complex flavour as such, it’s just hard to pin down. What you taste to begin with isn’t sharp or citric, it’s not strongly bitter and it certainly isn’t aromatic – but I wouldn’t call it bland, either. It just tastes like beer – or rather, it feels like it tastes how beer ought to taste. Perhaps the texture is what’s most striking to begin with; it tastes heavy, like a much stronger beer. It’s not especially sweet, though; it certainly doesn’t taste ‘malty’ or have that slug of caramel you get with some stronger old-school beers. The finish is much easier to describe: it’s bitter, in a complex, lingering way; not tannic (yet another negative!) but herbal, medicinal, a clean-tasting contrast to that heavy start. It’s then that you really taste the sweetness of the beer, in an odd sort of front-of-mouth aftertaste. Like the Hophead, it’s very much a session beer – one mouthful sets you up for another – but in a very different way; I don’t know when I’ve drunk a pint (well, 500 ml) so quickly while being so unsure what it was I was tasting. Lovely stuff. Not like anything else (apart from Batham’s), but lovely stuff. Now for the Felinfoel…

UPDATE Another three weeks and six bottles down, and I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is, in fact, remarkably easy to describe. It tastes like beer – you know, beer, that brown stuff, puts hairs on your chest. Beer. Beer like it always was. When brown meant beer, and darker meant sweeter but also stronger… You wouldn’t say ‘fruity’ exactly, and ‘malt loaf’ isn’t quite what it is, but if you take granary bread on one hand and damsons or black cherries on the other, and aim for somewhere right in the middle, you’d be about right. It’s well-conditioned and lively, but it’s big – heavy-textured almost to the point of tasting thick. No surprises – this isn’t one of those beers that do one thing on the nose, one on the tip of your tongue, another in your mouth and another again in the aftertaste; what you taste is what you get. It’s brown, it’s heavy-ish, it’s sweet-ish, it’s strong-ish… it’s beer.

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.

 

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.