Category Archives: ‘Craft’ is it?

When Crafty met Spoony

Saturday. Takeaway. Couple of drinks before I pick it up. Where’s close? Big Spoons. Little ‘craft’ bar. Excellent beer. Really excellent. Pricey though, some of it.

Spoons tokens. Haven’t spent any of them so far. Don’t really need them at the moment, but still. Leaving money on the table. Just take a couple in case.

Craft place? Well, I’ve come this far – I’ll just go a bit further and see what the Spoons has got on. They have some good stuff, sometimes.

Usual suspects. Blonde Witch. That Acorn special could be good. Kelham Island, they still turn out some good stuff. Mobberley, they’re OK. (“Boom Juice”? Really? Catch me ordering that.) Oh, and there’s a porter. First pint sorted!

£1.79 a pint, I mean, come on. I mean, get in. Daft not to.

Table outside. Can see the craft place from here. Might head down there for my second pint. Might go for a half of something silly. They do some great strong beers on keg. Pricey, though, some of them.

That porter… it’s good. No, I mean it, it’s fine. I mean there’s nothing wrong with it. Seriously, just as the beer that it is, you know… It’s an enjoyable beer, if you don’t think about…

You just feel a bit cheap after a while, that’s the thing. Or, maybe not cheap exactly, but a bit… off. A bit, kind of, is this what I’ve come to. Is this the kind of person I am?

Fag ash on the table, and everything. And the porter, I mean, it’s good, but…

Definitely head to the craft place for the next one. Come on, here’s me with my Blue Harbour shirt and my iPhone and my London Review of Books, I must stick out a mile.

Still. This porter’s actually pretty good, if you give it a bit of time and attention. By the time you get to the bottom of the pint, it all comes together rather well.

Better get that takeaway ordered.

There goes the porter. That Mobberley pale ale would make quite a good contrast, when you think of it. And I mean, £1.79. Daft not to.

Very nice indeed. Really very nice indeed. Felt like a right idiot ordering, but can’t be helped.

Might just dip into the craft place after, if there’s time before my food’s ready. Half of something. Really excellent beers. Bit pricey, though, some of them.

Mmm, Boom Juice.

See all sorts here, that’s the thing. See a bit of life. Not like the craft place, where they’re all just sat there with their iPhones and their Blue Harbour shirts, drinking a half of this and a third of that – excellent beers, don’t get me wrong, but some of them are way too pricey.

And you know, if you were sat there on a Saturday night with your iPhone and your London Review of Books – sat there paying a fiver a pint, a fiver for two-thirds, a fiver a half for some of them… I think you’d just feel a bit flash after a while. Or, maybe not flash exactly, but a bit… off. A bit, kind of, is this what I’ve come to. Is this the kind of person I am?

Ah, there goes my phone alarm – best drink up.

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Around Manchester on a half of mild – 2

More random notes on pubs where I’ve recently drunk or attempted to drink mild, in alphabetical order (i.e. in no order at all).

The Story So Far: I’ve identified three recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, none of them particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Pub Food Is Dead
  3. Spoons Has Pros and Cons

(We’ll get to Theme 2 in a minute.)

Also, I’ve written about twelve pubs – seven of them with mild on – and got up to the letter F. Avanti!

the Friendship, Fallowfield
I first knew the Friendship as the pub I used to go to on the way home from Saturday shopping, back in the 90s; the beer was cheap and they had rather a good jukebox. I didn’t go in for a few years, and the next time I visited they’d done the place up and were serving Thai food; ever since then I’ve had the place filed under “done up recently, Thai food”. Well, it was lunchtime when I visited, but a weekday lunchtime; the big, light, airy, modernised-traditional pub interior of the Friendship was quiet as the grave. No food of any description, and precious little beer (being sold; there was plenty available). Theme 3, then; also, looking at the three regular Hyde’s beers and the Beer Studio faux-guest and the Kansas Avenue faux-guest – plus an actual guest from down South somewhere – I couldn’t help wondering if there are just (ladies and gentlemen, Theme 2!) Too Many Beers. To be fair, the whatever-it’s-called that used to be Hyde’s light mild was really nice – and cheap – so there’s that.

the Gateway, East Didsbury
Spoons. Busy-ish, as they tend to be. No mild of any description. Sticker, though – Spoons generally seem to have cleaned up their act on the sticker-location front. (When I visited the Gateway for the Winter Warmer Wander the guy behind the bar went into a bit of a rant about how the sticker sheet had gone walkabout, and how this always happened in Spoons. So he’ll be happy, at least.)

the Goyt Inn, Whaley Bridge
I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Whaley Bridge – two pubs there, then back to town via New Mills Newtown, Disley, Hazel Grove… Opening times are a bit of a bugbear when you’re planning a trip like this, as they set a definite limit to how early it’s worth setting out; I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Goyt Inn opened at 11.30. I got to Whaley Bridge at 11.30, to find the Goyt Inn (“Always a Warm Welcome”) closed and dark. I hung around in case they were just a bit slow opening up, then headed out to the Drum and Monkey, which opened at 12.00. Back in Whaley Bridge, post-D&M, I hung around a bit more – perhaps it was a typo and they opened at 12.30? – then went to peer in at the window to check that what looked like the darkness of a closed pub wasn’t just a fashionable natural-light effect. The barman saw me and unlocked the door – not to usher me in, but to tell me they weren’t open till 2.00. I went and got the train to Disley. (Couldn’t work out how to fit in New Mills Newtown. Another time, maybe.)

Great Central, Fallowfield
Spoons, Saturday. Pleasantly quiet, i.e. quite a few people in. Half of Titanic Classic Mild – pretty good. Bottle of Ticketybrew Blonde – very nice indeed. Realised that the reason it gushes like crazy when I drink it at home is probably that I don’t store it chilled. Not that Spoons do either, but if the fridges are on for all the hours they’re open that comes to the same thing. Honestly, these modern craft brewers and their supply chain requirements! (This has nothing to do with mild – Ed.)

Grey Horse, Manchester city centre
I’m rather fond of the Grey Horse – a properly pubby pub, despite its size – but to get the most out of it you need to have (a) somewhere to sit and (b) time to drink more than a solitary half, and this Saturday lunchtime I didn’t have either. Hyde’s Old Indie – not my favourite, not least thanks to the awful name, but basically fine.

the Grove Ale House, Hazel Grove
As I mentioned wrt the Crafty Pint in Stalybridge, there seem to be two types of micropub. The Crafty Pint was Type 1 – “not many in”. The Grove, I’m afraid, was Type 2 – “absolutely nobody in” – and it won’t be the last we meet. It’s a nice little bar, the landlady was friendly – recommending Jake’s and the Samuel Oldknow, neither of which I managed to get to – and the mild was good (although for the life of me I don’t remember whose it was). It’s just that there’s a limit to how much of a good time you can have in a pub when there’s nothing to watch or listen to but the sunlight bouncing off the walls and your own thoughts. I’m not the world’s most sociable drinker, Lord knows, but I do like to feel that I could talk to somebody if I wanted to. Not Enough Drinkers, I’m afraid.

the Harewood Arms, Broadbottom
Getting to Broadbottom (from Hyde) was memorable – rather than shlep up to Newton for Hyde for the train, I got the (mini-)bus from outside Morrison’s – but I remember very little about the Harewood Arms, other than that it was rather dark inside (pubs used to be, didn’t they?), there was a Howard Town mild on (which was fine), and they had a Tiny Rebel collab(!) on keg. They’ve clearly got someone behind the bar who knows their stuff. A few years ago I saw a “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” sticker on a keg tap – presumably KK – at the Harewood; still the only place I’ve ever seen that, sadly.

the Head of Steam, Didsbury
The Head of Steam is one of my favourite pubs anywhere; I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime there, getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer. That’s the Head of Steam in Durham. How’s the little brother in Didsbury looking? Not so clever, I’m afraid. We got off on the wrong foot straight away: I scanned the bar, saw nothing resembling a mild and asked the obligatory question-expecting-the-answer-No, only to be directed to something other than a mild (see also Ford Madox Brown). In this case the ‘mild’ label had been attached (literally) to Cameron’s Strongarm. The bartender compounded the offence as he pulled my beer, remarking with a knowledgeable air, “Yep, Cameron’s Strongarm ruby mild”. I’ve got nothing against Strongarm – it’s a fine beer when it’s on form – but mild it ain’t. Also, no sticker; my form was graced with a rubber stamp. I retired to my seat, picking up a copy of the beer menu on my way; this was my last call of the day and I fancied something decent to finish off with. More small irritations: the beer descriptions were chatty and twee (spare me the gnomes of Achouffe!); they also seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots rather than… I looked for St Bernardus and couldn’t see any of their beers listed – odd, that. I decided to go for something on keg instead (the Strongarm wasn’t on form, incidentally); back at the bar, my eye was caught by a tap saying Waterloo Récolte, so I asked about that. This led to irritation number… I’ve lost count… when the bartender went into raptures about how very organic and pure the beer was, what a very good choice it was of mine, and basically how it would suit me, sir. While all this was going on I glanced over his shoulder and noticed some St Bernardus bottles in the fridge. Hey ho. The Waterloo Récolte was very good, to be fair, but as a pub-going experience this wasn’t the greatest.

the Horse and Farrier, Gatley
Big old Hyde’s pub. Got there on the bus from Northenden (top tip: don’t). It was Saturday afternoon and the pub was buzzing; the bartender was quietly, efficiently and (as far as I could see) quite happily working flat out. Is this another Theme? I think it might be. Theme 5: There Are Still Pubs. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; it was a nice scene to dip into, however briefly. Plus, the whatever-it-is-that-used-to-be-light-mild was in good nick and very welcome.

the Joshua Bradley, Gee Cross
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Glossop via Hyde and Broadbottom. Opening times… you know this bit… so I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Joshua Bradley (not too far from a station on the Hyde line) opened at 11.00. Only it didn’t, obviously. Massive ‘roadhouse’-style dining pub, set back from the road and on a steep rise, unlikely to get any passing trade to speak of – except me, and I was there at 11.30 on a Saturday. When it was closed.

the Kenilworth, Cheadle Hulme
Being in Cheadle Hulme with a bit of time to kill before the next bus back to civilisCheadle, I wandered back up the bus route and happened on the Kenilworth. It’s a GK pub, so not promising – but it was on the Mild Magic list, so what the hell. I don’t know what announcement I’ve missed, but they were going big on Moorhouse beers, with the new and rather stylish pump clips – including the ever-reliable Black Cat. Glad I dropped in.

the Lord Nelson, Urmston
Urmston’s odd if you’re not used to it. There’s the centre – which I’ll get to another time – but then there’s… all these other bits… consisting to quite a large extent of streets with houses. I know, what are the chances of finding houses in a suburb – it’s just odd to work out a route from railway station to nearby pub, and then find yourself turning corners from one residential street into another. Anyway, I got to the Lord Nelson in the end: a huge Holt’s pub, with about five people in the entire place. Then I downed my half of 3.2% beer and headed back down somebody’s street.

the Lowes Arms, Denton
Having missed out on the Joshua Bradley, I decided to make a quick detour to Denton before hitting Hyde. The Lowes Arms is a nice old traditional-looking pub, with a small but decent beer range including Tweed‘s Chester Mild – an unusual dark mild, lightish in colour and texture, not very sweet but with a touch of ‘roast’. Nice stuff, anyway. I don’t think they can be getting much CAMRA trade; asking for a sticker provoked a long, initially incredulous, discussion, before somebody found the envelope underneath something, as usual.

Malt Disley, Disley
This looked like a nice little bar, in quite a surprising location – not the first or the last, either (and it’s another Theme: Craft Is Everywhere). At first glance, it looked like a good place to kill the 40-odd minutes before the next train. The beer was fine, too – well, the mild was going off, but it was replaced without hesitation; the bartender even offered to tap me a half of the mild that was coming on, straight from the barrel (I declined). The problem was people, or the lack of them: just like the Grove, there was no bugger there but me, and just like the Grove, it got on my nerves after a while. Shame.

Ten pubs with milds on (I’m including Malt Disley), two without, two closed; two Spoons’, five (non-JDW) free houses, three Hydes’ pubs and one each from Holt’s and Greene King. (Running total: 17 with a mild on, seven without, two of which passed something else off as a mild; the seven are a Holt’s pub(!), three Spoons and three free houses (Crown Northenden, Drum & Monkey Whaley Bridge, Head of Steam Didsbury).

In part 3: pubs from M (for Monton) to S (for Stockport).

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.

 

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.

Stout, stouter…

I’ve been buying some strong stouts and tasting them – well, drinking them, let’s be honest – in the hope of answering the two eternal questions about strong stouts. Firstly, do they have to be that strong? And secondly, are they actually any better than Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which is a lot cheaper and easier to come by than most of these? I’m drinking them in strength order, which means the beer I start with comes from none other than:

Guinness Antwerpen 8%
“Roasted malt, smoked wood and dark chocolate notes”
I got… that thing where front-of-mouth sweetness gradually and imperceptibly develops into a bitter finish, while at the same time the flavour of vanilla develops into aromatic bitter herbs. I never knew that was a thing, but apparently it is. This isn’t a multi-dimensional beer, and some might find it a bit straightforward and ‘clean’. It does what it does really well, though.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes. No. Not sure – I’d have to do another taste test. Put it this way, it’s definitely as good as Guinness FES.

Thornbridge Eldon 8%
“bourbon oak imperial stout … brewed with demerara sugar … chocolate, caramel and coffee notes and hints of vanilla” (Oddly, the ingredients list includes vanilla but makes no mention of sugar)
I got: whisky; lots and lots of whisky. The taste of a fairly basic and undistinguished porter was swamped almost immediately by whisky-toned full-bodied bitterness, whisky-edged sweetness and a finish dominated by whisky. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of Innis & Gunn. But to be fair, I’ve never had a whisky-aged beer that I liked – or that I didn’t think was too heavy on the whisky – so maybe it’s just not my thing.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Anspach and Hobday The Stout Porter 8.5%
I got: something recognisable as a porter – more Soreen than burnt toast – but heavy and boozy: from the first taste you can’t miss the alcohol. It wears it surprisingly well, though. It’s something like eating liqueur chocolates, but made with a really good dark chocolate; there’s sweet coffee in there too and caramel (salted caramel?), before the soft landing of a charcoal finish. If you’d told me this one was aged in bourbon casks I’d have believed you.
Better than Guinness FES? Well, it’s certainly got more going on. But ultimately no – just a bit too boozy.

Saltaire XS Imperial Stout 8.9%
I forgot to write this up at the time, but what I remember is a big, smooth body with a charcoaly, moderately bitter finish, marred only by an insistent top-note of booziness. As I’ve said about strong pale beers before now, this tasted like a well-made mid-strength beer that had had a glass of tequila tipped into it.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Buxton Subluminal Imperial Stout 10%
Getting nasty now, on the a.b.v. front at least. Surprisingly, this one isn’t at all boozy, despite being stronger than the last couple. It pours like ink, and the mouth-feel isn’t so much heavy as downright thick (although it’s not flat; there’s quite a pleasant prickle of carbonation). We’re in Soreen territory again, but now the malt and molasses are joined by something unmistakably savoury: an meaty note of Marmite umami. As it warms up the sweetness of the malt develops, building into something like a salted caramel effect. A bitter finish balances it out, but the bitterness is dialled down – not so much charcoal, more coffee grounds and dark chocolate. There’s no acetone overtone and not much alcohol heat, but it really drinks its strength; it’s a sipper, in a way that none of the others up to now have been. A mighty beer, really. Like all right-thinking beer drinkers, I’ve thought considerably worse of Buxton since they effectively got out of cask beer, but some of the stuff they do do they do rather well.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, yes, yes I said yes I will yes.

Blackjack Ace of Spades (red wine barrel) 10%
The Buxton beer impressed me, if anything, even more than the above review would suggest – it really felt like a milestone, one of those moments when my personal spectrum of excellence gets winched open to admit something new. So I came to this 10%er, 48 hours later, with high hopes. I’m afraid they were dashed almost immediately. Despite the strength, this is thinnish in texture. The initial flavour is all red wine; this is backed by a fairly heavy charcoal bitterness on the finish. And, er, that’s it. On the positive side, there’s no alcohol heat; it’s well put together in that respect. But it drinks like a cross between red wine and a lightish stout, with red wine predominating – and it is red wine rather than port, no density or sweetness to speak of. Disappointing.
Better than Guinness FES? Nope.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 10%
If I describe the elements of this one it’ll sound a lot like the Anspach and Hobday. So you’ve got malt loaf to begin with, just edged with a brandyish heat; then you’ve got the build-up to a dark chocolate and coffee-grounds finish; this is lightened with airy notes of vanilla and another dash of brandy. Overall it’s another “liqueur chocolate” job. What’s hard to explain is how this one does it so much better. It’s not that it hides its strength – as well as the moments where you actually taste the alcohol, the whole thing tastes strong; there are some varied and interesting flavours, but you’re never in any doubt that they’re being delivered through the medium of strong beer. But maybe that’s the point: it tastes strong, but what it doesn’t taste is boozy. There’s a glimmer of pure alcohol at the start and finish, but in between the two this is just a great big beer.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes indeed.

De Molen Rasputin 10.4%
Something I’ve noticed in a lot of these beers – right from the Antwerpen – is a gradual transition from one set of flavours to another; I think it’s a trick that strong stouts pull off particularly well. This is a masterclass in flavour transitions. It opens with jammy forest fruits, transitioning almost immediately into chocolate milk shake. Then something happens; tobacco notes appear and grow stronger, building to a finish that’s all coffee grounds and charcoal, overlaid with an unobtrusive tinge of brandy heat. I’ve had some IPAs that seemed to go off like fireworks – it’s sharp! it’s smoky! it’s sweet! it’s bitter! – but this beer isn’t anything like that; the contrasts are just as extreme, but the smoothness of the transition is such that you don’t notice them unless you stop to think about it. The chocolate predominated as it warmed up, making the beer a bit less interesting – not so much jam/chocolate/tobacco/coffee/charcoal/brandy, more ‘alcoholic Nesquik’. Still powerful stuff, in more ways than one. Black as ink, thick as gravy, lightly carbonated, pretty damn good.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, but not a world-beater.

Marble Lost Your Marbles 10.4%
“Red wine barrel aged forest fruits”
This is a good beer to finish this series with, because it doesn’t do anything I haven’t already described; this suggests either that I’m running out of things to say or that I’ve pretty much got this sub-style nailed. (Or both.) So, this is also a masterclass in flavour transitions; this also begins with forest fruits, a big jammy blast of them (but then, from my reading of the label, forest fruits are actually added to this one); this jammy flavour is wrapped up in chocolate milkshake, like tasting a jam mini-roll from the inside out; and you then get dark chocolate and coffee grounds, predominating towards the end, lifted finally by a touch of vanilla. There are two main differences between this and the De Molen, which put this one ahead: no loss of balance and complexity as it warms up, and no alcohol heat; it doesn’t drink its strength in that sense at all. Having said that, you are aware from the start that you’re drinking a really big, complex beer. (My wife’s unprompted reaction: “Oh my God!” She didn’t mean that in a good way, but never mind.) It’s a really excellent beer; if I were ranking these I’d say it’s second only to the Buxton, with the De Molen and Brooklyn in third and fourth places respectively.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, absolutely definitely; in a different league.

Nine beers; one more or less on a par with Guinness FES, four better and four not so good. My preconceptions about top-end strengths were well and truly challenged. On one hand, every one of the ‘good’ beers was 10% or above; on the other, only two of the nine tasted obtrusively ‘hot’ and boozy, and they were both below 9%. Results with regards to barrel-aging were more mixed; my prejudice against was confirmed by the Thornbridge and Blackjack beers (both of which, to me, tasted in their different ways of nothing but barrel) but strongly challenged by the Marble beer (which tasted of more or less everything under the sun).

Difficult to draw any broader conclusions. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that a strong stout, even from a brewery with a good name, will be worth splashing out on. On the other hand, sometimes the labels don’t lie, you certainly can’t assume that something with an a.b.v. in double figures will be a cranked-up ethanol monster. You pays your money and you takes your choice. (How much money? That’s another question.)

 

 

Strong and stable

I’m returning to Ticketybrew, and in particular to my plan from a while back to write a comprehensive run-down of their beers. I’ve been a bit less ambitious this time and confined myself to beers that you can get hold of in bottle – so no Invalid Stout, no Manchester Tart and no Grodziskie.

But why am I doing all this again, having devoted several posts to the brewery last September? One word: stability. The first time I tasted Ticketybrew Pale, I was knocked out by the ramifying depths of the flavour, which belied an initial sweetness. I went back the next night and was bowled over once again, but surprised by the initial sourness. The next time I tried it, I thought for a moment it was on the turn, before ‘tuning in’ and recognising the same massive, complex beer. The fourth time we were back to sweetness; I was surprised, but I wasn’t complaining. Something similar happened when I first had the Blonde on draught, or rather the first and second times I had the Blonde on draught; later, I had a similar “was it sour like this last time?” moment with the Golden Bitter, and then with the Summer Porter.

It’s obvious now what was happening: those beers were in fact going sour in the cask, quickly enough to be noticeable but slowly enough for the beer to remain drinkable. So far, so bearable; the Golden Bitter was nicer when it was new, but the Pale and the Blonde really seemed to thrive on a bit of staling. Then I started getting beers that were starting to go sour in bottle, and sometimes not just starting: I had to tell myself to ignore that initial citric edge in quite a few different beers (although never the really pale ones, like the IPAs or the Jasmine Green Tea Pale).

So stability was a problem for Ticketybrew, as Keri wrote on the brewery’s blog last November – but the issues were eventually tracked down to a persistent and hard-to-fix lactobacillus problem. Hard, but not impossible: since the beginning of this year, to my certain knowledge, the problem has been fixed. These are new beers: if you’ve ever drunk Ticketybrew beers before now, you owe it to yourself to try them again. (And if you haven’t, where have you been?)

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to review everything that’s currently available in bottle, tackling first the ‘standard’ beers and then the ones reliant on additions – from Marmalade Pale to Coffee Anise Porter. Duncan and Keri, and their ever-expanding team, are doing some really interesting things up in Stalybridge – and you can rely on these beers to taste like they’re supposed to. (And if some of us rather miss the unreformed, unstabilised Blonde and Pale, with their dirty edges and scary depths… well, some of us are awkward so-and-so’s.)

Brighton by the pint

I was in Brighton for three days last week. My parents lived there for the last twenty-odd years of their lives, so I knew the city quite well for a while, and still know my way around without needing to think about it. Naturally, I planned to spend my free time (a) walking along the seafront (b) walking around town and (c) drinking beer, particularly beer I couldn’t get at home and particularly particularly Harvey’s Sussex Best. The last time I spent any time in Brighton was before the ‘craft’ thing got started – before this blog got started, come to that – but I had some distinct beer memories. There was the range of interesting stuff they used to have (on draught) at the Quadrant and (in bottle) at an offie further up Queens Road; there were the Dark Star beers up at the Evening Star, near the station. Above all, there was the Harvey’s Sussex Best and all the unassuming little pubs that served it – there seemed to be one round every street corner. Walking, drinking, more walking, more drinking, that was the plan for my leisure hours – and heavy on the Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Well, you know about best-laid plans. The first thing I realised when I arrived in Brighton was that the new shoes I was wearing – perfectly comfortable up to then – had given me blisters on both ankles, making the prospect of walking anywhere a lot less attractive. The next thing was that some of my beer memories badly needed updating. The offie with the interesting beer? Gone (or possibly converted to an offie without interesting beer, it’s hard to be sure.) An interesting range of beers at the Quad? Not so as you’d notice. As for all those unassuming little pubs serving Harvey’s, I scoured the centre of town looking for them, as far as my ankles would permit; eventually I gave up and downloaded the brewery’s pub-finder app (which I recommend if you’re ever down there). Some of the specific pubs I remembered weren’t there any more; one had closed, but two had turned into something… different. You’ll look in vain for the Princess Victoria on North Road: it’s the Craft Beer Co now (with, to be fair, some very reasonable prices on cask beers, a phrase which here means ‘under £4’). As for the Prince Arthur, that’s now the… brace yourself… Brighton Beer Dispensary. I only stuck my head in there briefly, so my fleeting impression of the BBD – which involved Edison lightbulbs, furniture made from railway sleepers and £5 portions of chips – may have been misleading. I didn’t fancy stopping, I’ll say that. (The Arthur was a lovely little pub, too. O tempura, O morays.)

Mmm, murk…

My visit to the Arthur-as-was was on my first evening in Brighton, spent mainly wandering around the centre disconsolately, looking for something to drink that was (a) decent and (b) local. After I’d done this for a while I realised it was 9.00 and went for a meal. So it was that my first beer in Brighton was a bottle of Chang lager, which was pretty awful (the mussaman curry was excellent, though). But I went for a drink afterwards in the Spoons by where I was staying, where I had a pint of (Sussex-based) Firebird Parody IPA. It was seriously cloudy – not something you often see in a Spoons – and my first impression was that it was just plain off. The sharpness I tasted at first modulated into an apple-y fruitiness, which wasn’t at all unpleasant; I guess you’d call it juicy. On the other hand, none of the pictures of this beer on Untappd show any haze – let alone the floc party that was going on in my glass – so maybe it was just a badly-kept pint. I’d already taken against that Spoons after I ordered something different (something else from Firebird) only to be told, with a wave at a whole bank of pumps, “all of these are off”. I told the guy that if that was the case he should turn the clips round, but apparently that would be too much trouble. (Also, their wifi was off every time I went in there. Decent breakfasts, though.)

The next day, on a lunchtime trip to the Dorset in the North Laines, I was finally reunited with Harvey’s Sussex Best. If I say that my first impressions were ‘sweet and heavy’, that will probably give you completely the wrong idea. There is a lot of malt there, in the old-school heavy mouth-filling style, but this isn’t a sweet or heavy beer; it’s not hard to drink and it’s certainly not bland. There’s a tannic bitterness running right through it, building to a really clean, refreshing finish – like every good session beer, it’s decidedly moreish. Nice to see you again, HSB.

My next beer, though, was another meal accompaniment, and a bit of a bad choice on my part. Manju’s is a rather fine Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, with – unusually – a fairly extensive beer list; I was tempted by the beers from Hepworth’s, a local brewery specialising in gluten-free beers (for what that’s worth). Greed got the better of me, though; I noticed that the standard Indian lagers were priced up at £2.50, and that the table next to mine had a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher. Bargain, I thought, and duly ordered a bottle of Kingfisher. “Small or large bottle?” asked the waiter; yes, the £2.50 price was for the 330 ml bottle. I was too British to backpedal and order something else, so 650 ml of Kingfisher – which turned out to be £4.50 – it was. Still, the food was excellent. Afterwards I made my way to the nearest Harvey’s pub – the Lord Nelson, a spit from the station and a fair old hike from the seafront (as my ankles reminded me). I had a pint of Sussex Best and one of Harvey’s Armada; not a hop bomb by any means, but a bit lighter and more aromatic than the Sussex Best. Harvey’s brew an extraordinary range of beers, mostly for bottling, and the bar had rows of 275 ml bottles on display (not in the fridge, as far as I could see). I bought a bottle of the Elizabethan Ale; I was initially intending to drink it there, but the place was empty and the landlady clearly wanted to call it a night, so I took it away with me.

IMG_1554

Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

The next evening I went, again, in search of unassuming, ordinary pubs in the centre. I fetched up in a tarted-up Nicholson’s gastro-pub with bulls-eye glass in the windows; really not quite what I had in mind. (Not the one with the sign pictured here, though – I have got some standards.) Anyway, they had Dark Star Hophead on, and it was very welcome. It was about as different from the Harvey’s beers as it could be – pale yellow, with a loose, soapy head, and hoppy; really very hoppy. Then I headed stationwards again, to check out the Evening Star. Dark Star Six Hop was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment – it’s 6.5% and tastes like it, in the sense that it tastes like they were trying to make Hophead (a) even hoppier and (b) nearly twice as strong. Effortful, really, which is rarely a good look. (What with Hophead, Magic Rock Ringmaster and Marble Pint, I’m starting to think that 3.8% is actually the sweet spot for pale’n’oppy beers.) On keg they had – among much else – Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and Lost and Grounded Apophenia. I can report that the Tzatziki Sour actually does taste of cucumber, and that L&G may not be quite there yet on the tripel front, that being what Apophenia is: there was an initial sweet heaviness, that didn’t dissipate but combined with the herbal notes that come in later, to produce a kind of beer equivalent of winter mixture. I had a third, and it took a while to get through.

After this slightly disappointing session I looked for something to eat, although – being, on a rough count, four pints down – I was seriously considering having a soft drink with it. Nu Posto, a vaguely crafty pizza place, surprised me with another interesting beer list, including a couple from Hepworth’s. I went for a bottle of their Gold pale ale, which frankly tasted of very little – as golden ales go it was less Summer Lightning, more Rolling Rock – but did have an extraordinary aroma. I’ve never known a beer like it – I put my nose over the bottle and I was getting freshly-baked bread, cut with something sharp and herbal, perhaps sage or thyme. Then I actually tasted it and it was… fine. (And no, it wasn’t the garlic bread I could smell.) Back in my room, it was getting late, I was already pretty drunk and I didn’t really have anything to stay up for, but what can I say, the Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale was calling to me. It’s a big, dark, strong, sweet beer, tasting exactly like I’d expect an old-fashioned beer to taste. Very nice indeed, and easily my beer of the evening.

At close of play the next day I was heading home, but before I trudged up the hill to the station – again – I wanted to have at least one drink in a nice, ordinary pub that I remembered from my previous trips to Brighton. Eventually I managed to locate the Lion and Lobster in Hove – probably not a very long-established pub (or not under that name), but old enough for me. And they had… Dark Star Hophead! Harvey’s Sussex Best (with the old ‘barrel’ pump clip)! Dark Star APA! Old Dairy Blue Top! I was very tempted by… well, everything: the first two for obvious reasons, the third because it’s possibly even hoppier than Hophead and the fourth because it comes from Ed‘s old gaff. But I was still feeling a bit worse for wear from the previous day, and wanted to dial the a.b.v. right down, so Hophead it was: pale yellow, loose, soapy head, hoppy as a very hoppy thing. And that – apart from an Oakham Citra IPA from the M&S at the station – was it for Brighton.

Overall impressions: Brighton’s changed a surprising amount in ten years. Almost everywhere seemed solidly geared to a specific, high-spending clientele: tourists, stags & hens… hipsters. I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the Craft Beer Co – I think I could have had quite a pleasant session there, even if most of the beers were from that London – but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending any time in the Brighton Beer Dispensary; the vibe I picked up wasn’t just hipper-than-thou, it was considerably-more-hip-than-yow. (I may be doing the place a disservice; I was in a foul mood that evening and looking for a very different kind of pub.) Ordinary little pubs round the corner seem to be in very short supply. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to get decent beer with a meal than it used to be. What’s more, Harvey’s beers are still there if you look, and both HSB and Dark Star Hophead are as good as they ever were. The beer abides.

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.

 

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!

Brandwatch

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, and I think I’ve worked out why. Work’s been busy, since I last posted here, but that’s not it; apart from anything else, in the same period I’ve written nine posts totalling 22,000 words on my other blog.

No, it’s a blogger’s problem: the stuck post. I had a couple of ideas for posts lined up, but I never got round to writing them, and after a week or two I’d lost interest. But somehow those posts kept their place on my mental to-do list; any time I thought of this blog, I thought yeah, ought to write that or thatand then lost interest in the whole idea.

You know what? I’m never going to be able to take an interest in this blog again until I get those posts out of the way; I’m just going to have to write them. Here’s the first.

I wrote a while ago – both here and in the local CAMRA magazine (cheers, John!) – about brewery takeovers and what they mean for beer. My position then was that, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers are effectively dead. More precisely, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers may cease to exist – or be replaced by inferior substitutes – at any time, and there’s nothing anyone outside the new owner company can do about it. The new owner hasn’t bought beers, it’s bought brands and their market share. If the new owner is genuinely committed to making decent beer, the beer backing up those brands may continue to be good, but even that can’t be guaranteed – and, of course, the new owner can’t actually be held to account by anyone else. Even when the new owner continues to make a particular beer the old way, nobody can tell whether they’re going to start cutting corners or simply stop making it – let alone stop them doing so.

In the earlier post I gave Brakspear’s Triple as an example of a beer that had been living on borrowed time in just this way (Marston’s have now stopped making it, citing declining supermarket demand). The next time I was at the supermarket, Brakspear’s Oxford Gold caught my eye, and I realised I’d never actually tried it. I opened it a few nights later, expecting nothing much more than malt-and-caramel soup, and I was absolutely blown away – a sharp, citric foretaste, a big tannic finish and just enough malt in the middle to hold it all together. It reminded me of nothing so much as Harvey’s Best; it was a seriously refreshing beer. Naturally I picked up another bottle when the opportunity presented itself… and poured myself a big glass of malt-and-caramel soup, somewhere between Deuchar’s IPA and Doom Bar.

The brand! The brand! I thought to myself. They’ve lost the beer and kept the brand! I wondered if I’d been lucky enough to get one of the last bottles brewed on the old Brakspear’s kit, followed by one of the first of an awful bland imposter. But I thought I’d better at least make it the best of three, and got another bottle of Oxford Gold as soon as the disappointment had worn off. And it was fine; better than fine, it was really good. It wasn’t the same beer I’d had the first time, but it was well over on that side of the spectrum. Fourth and fifth bottles confirmed the impression – they weren’t as great as the first bottle, but they were nowhere near as bad as the second.

So I don’t know what’s going on in the Brakspear’s bit of Marston’s. Brakspear’s beers effectively died a long time ago – I stand by that – but I have to concede that Marston’s kept them on life-support very effectively until quite recently. Even now I’d say the Oxford Gold is worth a punt, as long as you don’t expect too much (the malt-and-caramel fog could roll in again at any time).

But rather that than Meantime London Pale in its dinky redesigned 330 ml bottle, which I bought on a whim and because I was bored with looking at the same beers every week (come on, Sainsbury’s, sort it out!). The label attempts an odd balancing act between the corporate scale and the artisan personal touch, acknowledging that the beer is produced by Asahi but crediting the Meantime brewery and Alistair Hook personally. (From Blue Moon to Camden, affectations of craftsmanship within a corporate setting are becoming typical of the ‘craft’ scene; BD are starting to look like the odd one out for still being independent.)

And the beer? Dear Lord, the beer! I’ve had worse, but not very often, and certainly not from a well-respected brewery. It was dreadful.

In other words, it didn’t just taste like a bland pasteurised bitter; it tasted like a bland pasteurised bitter made by someone who’d never actually drunk bitter and was more used to making lager on a budget. The first impression was a bland, maize-like sweetness, which gave way to nothing much (certainly no discernible hops); just a bit of malt and tannin in the middle, and the ghost of a bitter aftertaste.

I didn’t make my mind up about the Oxford Gold on the strength of one bottle; if I’d really wanted to be fair, I would have had to consider the possibility that this was a duff bottle and gone back for a second try. The thought of drinking that beer again – let alone paying money for it again – made up my mind for me: I’d rather be unfair. That is, I’d rather leave my findings provisional. What I can say is that, if that bottle is in any way representative, Meantime London Pale is about as much a craft beer as Boddington’s Bitter is the cream of Manchester – because Meantime, like Boddies’ (and Brakspear), isn’t a brewery any more; it’s just a brand. And you can’t trust brands.