Category Archives: Chinstroker

Sour times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that, as they say, a thing?

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

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Down with the kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ready reckoner

Or: using multiples of 71 for fun and profit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A session of three halves

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

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

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

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

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

 

There’s a B in both

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

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

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

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

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

The electric shirt-collar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shopping

Dry January was never really going to be an option for me, if only because I invariably over-purchase before Christmas. If you can abstain for a month with a sizeable stash of weird and expensive stuff looking you in the eye every time you go for the hoover, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Last weekend I finally drank the last of this year’s pre-Christmas purchases; since this left my beer stocks looking dangerously low (1 x each of Duvel, Old Tom, McEwan’s Champion) I also did a bit of re-stocking. So here, without much comment, are two shopping lists.

22/12/2016 (Tiny’s Tipple, Chorlton)

Marble Earl Grey IPA (500 ml; remainder are all 330 ml)
RedWillow Thoughtless imperial stout (can)
RedWillow Perceptionless New England IPA (can)
Rochefort 6 nectar of the gods
Marble Portent of Usher imperial stout
Flying Dog Horn Dog barley wine
Hawkshead Oak Aged No 5 strong porter
Wild Modus Operandi barrel-aged sour
Cloudwater Mosaic IPA
Blackjack Devilfish saison
Blackjack/Garage Gyle 700 bretted double IPA
Chorlton Goldings Sour (can)
Siren Broken Dream oatmeal stout (I have no recollection of choosing this)

Price range: £2.70 to £5.00
Average price: £3.88
Price range per litre: £8.10 to £15.00 (predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £11.30

Bit spendy, really. Was it worth it? Well, the first five – everything down to the Portent of Usher – struck me as rock-solid stone-cold five-star classics, and the next three after that were pretty damn good. I won’t go through the last five, except to say that with my beer-judging hat on I’d rate them all as good to very good. There certainly weren’t any stinkers – but a couple of them, for me, would qualify as fairly expensive experiments.

29/1/2017 (Sainsbury’s, Salford)

Timothy Taylor Landlord (500 ml, as are the rest)
Adnams Bitter
Brakspear Oxford Gold
Harbour IPA
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Adnams Ghost Ship

I agonised over that Adnams bitter – it was that or a Proper Job – but in the end the idea of filling my bottle carrier with three old-school bitters and three pales appealed to me.

Price range: £1.80 to £2.00
Average price: £1.84
Price range per litre: £3.60 to £4.00 (again, predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £3.68

So far I’ve had the Oxford Gold, which I’m planning on writing about separately; my mouth is actually watering at the thought of the Harbour IPA, and for that matter the dear old Landlord. All that for two notes for the best part of a pint. On the other hand, I did really enjoy that Portent, which set me back £4.50 for 330 ml. But was it three and a half times as good as Landlord? Yeah… no… maybe.

What’s the point here?  Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.

…and with that gloomy thought I approach the end of Dry Tuesday (would have been Monday but my wife opened some wine). Twenty-four hours, no problem! Not going to stretch it to 48, though – there’s a Meet the Brewer with Ticketybrew at the Ford Madox Brown tomorrow night. More on that in due course.

Spontaneous similitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What gose on?

This both is and isn’t a contribution to Session #116.

Put it another way, if it is a contribution it’s not a very useful one. I haven’t got anything useful to say about gose; I’m not 100% sure I’ve even had one. I think I’ve probably had gose twice – once in the form of Magic Rock Salty Kiss and once not – but my memories are not very clear or detailed, and I don’t seem to have made any notes. I don’t think I liked it very much.

So maybe it’s true, as Derrick’s introduction suggested, that American breweries are running wild with the style, but I haven’t seen much sign of it – and I live in a part of Manchester that’s particularly well-supplied with craft beer. I certainly can’t agree with Boak & Bailey that the style is ‘nearing ubiquity’. (I was also surprised to learn from Derrick that black IPA is becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity, as I’d have said it was still on the rising side of the curve.)

But if, the next time I’m in one of the local ‘craft’ emporia, I do find they’ve got a gose on – alongside the Antipodean pales and the porters and the DIPAs and the barrel-aged imperial stouts, we do get all that stuff – I hope it’s just a gose, and not one of the many and various spice- and fruit-flavoured experiments Derrick also refers to. I disagree fundamentally with B&B here – I don’t think going mad with a style (or with your idea of a style) is likely to be a step towards getting it right; if the name of the old style does catch on, it’s far more likely that it will be attached to what’s basically a new beer. (Compare the IPAs we know and love now with what was sold under the name of IPA 30 years ago.)

So I’d like to check out a plain ordinary gose, if anyone’s brewing one of them. I’m not big on fruit and spice additions in beer generally, above and beyond anything that’s required by the style. I like fruity and spicy flavours – I’ve got a longstanding passion for old ales and barley wines – but I want them brought out of the beer, not added to it. More importantly, I’d like to actually taste the gose, not least because the next gose I drink will be the second or possibly third example of the style I’ve ever drunk. If somebody were to ask me, “does gose taste of grapefruit?”, I’d like to be able to answer with a definite Yes or No – not “it certainly does if you’ve added grapefruit”. And above all, I’d like to know what gose tastes like done well, which is a bit different from ‘gose with tomato juice/sour cherries/cucumber and watermelon, done well’. If you’re brewing a gose with crystallised ginger and molasses, to take another genuine example – or an ‘imperial black gose’, despite the fact that gose is pale and low in alcohol – the chances are you’re brewing something nobody else has ever tasted before, let alone brewed: you’re competing in a class of one. But if nobody else can tell you how it’s done, then nobody else can tell you what you’re doing wrong or what you need to improve. That’s OK, though: if you’re not going to do it again – by the time it runs out you’ll have moved on to the next thing – you’ve got no incentive to listen to anyone else.

I think this “and for my next trick” mentality is one of the worst features in the contemporary alt-beer scene. It’s odd in a way that the word ‘craft’ – along with similar words like ‘artisanal’ – is so firmly attached to the scene. Craft historically has never meant producing a series of unique one-off creations imbued with artistic passion – rather the opposite. Craft generally means doing the same thing over and over again, applying slow, incremental improvements until you’ve got it right – and then doing it over and over again, just the way that you got it right. Get your bitter nailed and bring on a mild; get that right and try out a best bitter. Hardly any new breweries work like this now, least of all those that refer to themselves as ‘craft’. If I was going to drink a gose, though, that’s the kind of brewery I’d like it to come from. I guess I need to plan a trip to Leipzig.

Remember the name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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