Category Archives: Days of miracle and wonder

Farewell to the gold (and the amber and the black)

It was a Saturday afternoon. We’d been to see 1917; we enjoyed it, although I thought its portrayal of the wily, treacherous Boche was a bit lacking in nuance. (All friends now, eh?) The cinema was a bit fuller than I would have liked – there’s this virus going round, and even if there have only been single-figure numbers of cases in Manchester, it only takes one of them to sit next to you… Still, you’ve got to take some risks in life, haven’t you?

After the film, anyway, we were in the market for a drink; the Smithfield had been a hit with my other half when we’d been there on a previous weekend, and I had high hopes of introducing her to the Crown and Kettle. I couldn’t immediately work out a route, though, and we decided to give it up and go to the Pilcrow – which, unlike those two, isn’t one of my favourite town centre pubs, but is a lot handier for the cinema.

It was rammed. They’d said on the news that nobody was taking much notice of the advice to avoid unnecessary social contact, and that was certainly how it looked. I had heard that trade was dropping off in a lot of pubs (and the place where we’d had lunch had certainly been less full than usual), but the Pilcrow didn’t seem to have got the memo. To be honest it was too full – at least, it was too noisy (that’s what you get for all those hard surfaces). Herself fancied a fruit beer, so I got her a rhubarb saison; I had two beers, but I didn’t make a note of their names. One of them was a porter – by Beatnikz Republic, who also made the saison – and the other one was… something else. Really nice porter, for what that’s worth.

Not a classic beer experience, then, and definitely not a classic pub experience; but it was a Saturday afternoon, in a pub, with beer.

Nine days later, I found myself at a loose end mid-afternoon. I left work and headed home, pausing only for a swift half on the way. (Headed home to do some more work, I should say; I’ve been working from home ever since (spoiler), and have in fact had a very busy couple of weeks.) The venue was the Brewdog Outpost, and the half was something dark and strong – I forget what. The bar was fairly empty but not completely so, even on a weekday mid-afternoon; it was a pleasantly chilled environment, and the beer was rather fine. Again, not a classic of the genre – beer or pub – but each was good in their way. The third factor – the occasion – had its style rather cramped by the larger situation, though. One of my main memories of that visit is of standing well back from the bar when ordering, and attempting to keep a safe distance when the bartender circulated to collect glasses; it struck me that two metres is quite a long way.

Soon after I got home that day, the prime minister made a statement urging people not to go to theatres or cinemas – or pubs. Over the next few days, a series of cinemas, restaurants and theatres announced that they were closing; I realised I wasn’t going to get to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or The Invisible Man for that matter. Pubs, though, were mostly still open – and were starting to suffer from people staying away. I wondered about dropping in on one of my locals mid-afternoon, when they’d be quieter, but worried about maintaining two metres from the bartender and any other drinkers – and besides, I wasn’t actually free mid-afternoon (busy with work, as I mentioned). There was some talk on social media of bars offering growler fills, which involved paying a fiver for a resealable two-pint bottle and then getting it filled with draught beer – cask beer, even, while that lasted. Again, though, I was busy during the day, on top of which I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d maintain the two-metre thing. (Besides, £5 for an empty bottle?)

On the Friday – quite late on the Friday, as I remember – the prime minister announced that pubs (and much else) were going to have to close – and close that night, early as you like. I belatedly decided I would check out the growler situation, at one of the local bars that had said they’d be offering them. When I got to the bar, three or four people were smoking and chatting outside, a sight which already looked considerably less normal than it used to. I seriously considered holding my breath as I passed them (no offence, lads), but then realised that there was just as high a density of people inside. I pressed on and opened the door. The air inside hit me in the face; it was warm and thick, and I swear it was moist. The next thing that struck me – almost literally – was the noise: raised voices, rhythmic clapping, cheering; it felt as if I’d walked into a rugby club social. Social distancing was very much not in effect; in fact people were two or three deep at the bar. I couldn’t see anything of the bartender(s?) but an arm raised high above the crowd, to pass somebody their gin and tonic. At this point I did hold my breath, for as long as it took to turn tail and get back out on the street.

So if anyone asks me about the last time I went into a pub before the lockdown, if I’m being strictly honest that’s when it was. But the swift half to collect my thoughts on a quiet afternoon in the Outpost, and the couple of pints at the weekend at Pilcrow, are what I’m going to remember; they’re what I look forward to doing all over again. Not to mention the pint at the Crown and Kettle that I never even had – I’m sure it would have been a good one. As the man said, Farewell to the gold that never I found…


Times change

A bit less than eight years ago, I visited a new bar and came away with a substantial list of grievances. I didn’t have any problems with the beer I tried: it was an interesting beer with a big, complex flavour – at least, it was once I’d let [it] warm up and got rid of some of the CO2. But, as well as over-carbonating and over-chilling their beer, this bar had a number of disqualifying features, which I documented in some detail; an edited extract from the original post follows.

  1. High prices for ordinary beers: say 25% higher than I’d expect to pay anywhere else in Manchester for the entry-level draught beer, and 100% higher than you’d pay in some places.
  2. Very, very high prices for mildly unusual beers
  3. Ridiculously, insultingly high prices for really unusual beers [was that really three separate points? Ed.]
  4. Overpriced halves [half of £3.95 ’rounded up’ to £2.15]
  5. Short measures … 2mm of froth below the line in my glass
  6. Obtrusive branding: your average pub doesn’t brand every visible surface with the same company image.

More trivial annoyances included chalking up the most expensive beers with an even higher price than the price in the printed menu (which was already insanely high) and giving the cheapest beer on the board a deliberately off-putting name (an annoying little trick, familiar from the wine lists of restaurants with a student clientele).

Which might suggest that the same chain’s newest ahem ‘outpost’ is a venue that I wouldn’t have set foot in – and not that it would become a regular after-work hangout and a bar I spent more time in than any other, over the four or five weeks up to and including last Monday.

Well, we can all change our minds; for one thing, I no longer read nefarious intentions into getting a price wrong on the menu, or naming a beer “Dead Pony Club”. (Apparently it was originally “Grateful Dead Pony Club”. Yeah, well… exits muttering…) Another thing that’s changed over the last eight years is my employment contract & consequent spending power – points 1-3 don’t bug me the way they used to. The prices were still high – all the pints were priced in the £5-6 range, and so were the beers advertised in smaller measures (2/3, a half or even a third, depending on strength). Point 3 above continued to irk me for a lot longer than 1 and 2, but I got over it; in the end I was a lot more bothered by the thought of a beer being priced at eighteen quid a pint!!! than I was by actually paying £6 for a third of something unusual (and very strong).

The changes weren’t all on my side, either. No short measure that I noticed, and no price-gouging on the change front; with halves, thirds and 2/3s on sale, opportunities for creative ’rounding’ abounded, but I never saw a price rounded up further than the nearest 5p. Even the company branding had calmed down a bit, although what you could call a broader ‘hipster hangout’ branding was in full effect – if you don’t like huge railway-sleeper refectory tables in pubs, or posing tables with high spindly chairs, you wouldn’t have liked the seating options in this place, which consisted mainly of posing refectory tables. (Who knew there was such a thing?)

And the beer? Well, it wasn’t excessively cold and fizzy – another change for the better. They even had a cask tap for a while – and served some very nice porter from it – although they’d quietly discontinued that a couple of weeks ago. That cask porter aside, I will say that it wasn’t really a place to go for a pint; the only time I wasn’t crazy about the beer was when I went for a full pint of 5 a.m. Saint. Don’t get me wrong, it was good – not as good as the cask version I tasted once, but there we go – but at about the 2/3 point it did cross my mind that it had cost about the same as two pints of Landlord I’d had the previous night. Not one but two pints of Landlord is a high bar for any beer to meet. The up side was considerable, though; further off the beaten track – on the ‘guest’ side of the board, out among the bretted beers and imperial stouts – they served some of the best and most memorable beers I’ve had in a very long time; I always looked forward to what I was going to try next, and I was very rarely disappointed.

And that’s how I made my peace with BrewDog – at least with the BrewDog Outpost – and even became a bit of a fan (again). Memorable is what those beers are going to have to be, of course – what with one thing and another – and possibly for a very long time. But I’m already looking forward to going back. Perching on a high chair holding a funny-shaped glass containing less than half a pint of something smelling of blackcurrant and old socks probably sounds like a vision of hell to some of my fellow beer bloggers, but – to my surprise – I found it could be a lot of fun.

Goodbye, TicketyBrew

The ‘free advertising’ side of beer blogging has never sat well with me (although I’ve taken, and written about, the odd freebie over the years). I often catch myself writing about having a particularly nice pint of Scruttock’s Best down at the Pig and Whistle, and think, is that the stylishly-refurbished Pig and Whistle with a wide range of artisan gins and food service from 12.00 till 9.00? good old Scrut’s, with its surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue? Not really what I’m about. Not unless they were paying me, and in that case it definitely wouldn’t be what I’m about.

But there’s one brewery I’ve made an exception for, almost since the first time I encountered their beer; there’s one brewery which could always count me as a dedicated and vocal fan. I’ve referred to TicketyBrew in 35 posts on this blog, going back to 2013, including seven posts devoted to their beers alone. It started in July 2013, when I nominated their Pale, on cask, as my beer of the year; I didn’t think I’d taste anything better in the remaining five months of the year – and as it turned out I was right. I wrote: The aromatic wallop of a good contemporary pale ale runs head-on into the soft herbal richness of a Tripel, and they dance. Which still seems about right. On cask, the Blonde was pretty amazing too – not to mention the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter, the Invalid Stout, the Marmalade Pale… On keg and in bottle, there was a really nice Dubbel, a superb Tripel, the East India Porter, the Rose Wheat, the Rhubarb Weiss, the Ginger Beer and some terrific hoppy pales… the list just went on. Not to mention more or less experimental styles – Munchner, Grodziskie, Mumme – and dotty one-offs like Marmite Stout or Tea and Biscuits Mild.

Golden Bitter, Invalid Stout, Marmalade Pale, Rhubarb Weiss – it feels like I’m reeling off lists of ancient paintbox colours or weird Victorian sweets, rich, mysterious, unattainable. And I’m afraid that unattainable is what they are. Duncan has wound up the brewery and the company; his partner Keri, who left a career in marketing to start TicketyBrew back in 2013, has gone back into marketing.

I’m really sorry they couldn’t make it work. In the last couple of years TicketyBrew had had all-new brewkit, taken on new staff (the last time I saw Duncan he was complaining about how little brewing he got to do these days) and even had a redesign. Distribution didn’t seem to be a problem, either. When I saw the Blonde and the Pale in Wetherspoons fridges across central Manchester – and particularly when I ordered a Blonde for my Leffe-drinking son, and saw his reaction – I thought they were set up. Perhaps appearances were deceptive. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.

I wish both Duncan and Keri all the best – and I hope this won’t be the last the world of beer hears of Duncan. Not all of the styles he tried his hand at were equally successful, but his hit rate was ridiculously high. The East India Porter, the Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter – in fact, almost all the beers I’ve listed – were solid, solid beers, and a couple of them were classics: I’d put the Pale and the Blonde in that category, as well as the Dubbel and the Tripel.

Looking more broadly, I guess this is another example of a small brewery falling by the wayside, like Quantum and Offbeat. Only this isn’t just another small brewery – this is TicketyBrew, with the mad bottle labels and the pump clips you could spot from the street (very handy, that’s been) and the ‘Pale’ that was like a cross between a Tripel and a best bitter and the Stout that tasted of black treacle and the ‘Manchester Tart’ that actually tasted of Manchester Tart, and the small bottles for everything and the first few large ones just coming in (9% in 750 ml, really?), and the Invalid Stout with real liquorice and the Marmite Stout with God knows what (probably not real Marmite), and the Blonde that me and my German friend got absolutely pasted on and the way the Pale was right at the start and that amazing Seville Orange Pale, and the bottled Blonde that was probably a bit over-primed and the Grodziskie that practically exploded (Polish champagne, they call that), and the cherry Weiss and the rhubarb Weiss and the Citra Pale that was just as good as anyone else’s Citra pale, and the, and the…

I’m really going to miss them.

TicketyBrew, 14/2/2013 – ??/5/2018

Adieu, adieu, TicketyBrew
Image credit: Beerbods


I really ought to drink more session bitter, I say to myself from time to time (sometimes on this blog).  I really ought to drink more traditional styles. Beer began for me in the mid-70s, in the (first) heyday of CAMRA: back when CAMRA was half anti-big business and half conservationist, when finding good beer was a matter of finding the pubs that were still serving it. And, back then, traditional styles were what there was – to be more precise, bitter was what there was, unless it was winter and you were very very lucky (mmm, Young’s Winter Warmer…). That’s in the south-east, at least; I never tasted mild until I came to Manchester in 1982. (Mmm, Marston’s dark mild at the Royal Oak in Didsbury…) Porter was something you heard mentioned in historical dramas; as for stout, for a long time I had a vague idea that there wasn’t any such thing as a cask stout – that you actually couldn’t make it to be served that way. As for bottles, I’m struggling to remember when I started buying decent beer in bottles; as far as I remember, (a) it was much later, (b) at first I mainly bought imports and (c) the British beers I did buy were bitters, old ales and barley wines, just like the cask beers I’d tracked down from the late 70s on.

So that’s what I keep feeling I really ought to get back to. It’s partly because I suspect I’m missing out (some session bitters that I know are utterly wonderful, so it stands to reason that some I don’t know will be too), but mainly because I don’t want to turn into a neophile – or, worse still, an extremophile. It’s just not how I see myself. Never mind your short-run barrel-aged bourbon saison infused with kopi luwak! I picture myself saying. Never mind your limited-edition single-hop Imperial Pale Gose! Give me a pint of bitter!

But I fear it may be too late. Here are the last six beers I’ve drunk in pubs and bars:

2 pale ales
1 red ale
1 stout
1 IPA (keg)
1 double IPA (keg)

And the last nine beers I’ve bought in supermarkets – actually, one supermarket; this was the fruit of a single trip to Tesco:

1 best bitter
1 dark bitter
1 pale ale
1 red ale
1 Burton
1 old ale
1 stout
1 black IPA
1 saison

That’s an only slightly unusual range for a supermarket – there certainly aren’t any exotic (or exciting) breweries in there. Ten years ago you’d only have seen that kind of lineup in a specialist beer shop; twenty years ago you wouldn’t even have seen it there.

But look at that one lonely best bitter! Amalgamating the two lists you get eleven styles (counting ‘IPA’ and ‘double IPA’ separately). When CAMRA first got going, ‘best bitter’ was the only one of those styles that was at all easy to find in Britain, with ‘dark bitter’ a distant second; your best bet for finding a Burton or an old ale was to stop looking for a year or two and rely on serendipity. Of the other seven styles, one was more or less dead, one could only be found as an import and the other five didn’t even exist. (I’m counting ‘pale ale’ and ‘IPA’ in the five. Of course there were such things as pale ales and IPAs, but IPA in the 1970s meant ‘like bitter but very slightly different‘, and ‘pale ale’ basically meant ‘bitter in a bottle’; neither of them mean anything like the pale’n’oppy things that go by those names now.)

I don’t think I’m turning into a hipster; so far this year I’ve mostly stuck to my resolution to avoid beers that can’t be described in fewer than three words. But going back to session bitter may be a lost cause. There’s just too much else going on.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: final thoughts

After all that, what do I think? Would I recommend you get this book?

In two words, Hell, yes! (Other expletives are available, but you get the idea.) Absolutely definitely. Get it now. I haven’t got a huge beer book library – before I acquired this book it consisted mainly of Amber, Gold and Black (Martyn Cornell), Beer and Skittles (Richard Boston) and Pulling a fast one (Red Rog). Brew Britannia fully deserves a place in that company. If you’re only going to buy one book about beer, if I’m being brutally honest it should probably be Amber, Gold and Black, but this one’s not far behind. (Anyway, why would you only buy one book about beer?)

So what’s so good about it? Four main things, I think. I’ll put down my thoughts in the form of a numbered list, a device I’ve recently had great success withused.

  1. It tells a story… You know the criticisms I put forward in the previous post? They’re not (for the most part) criticisms, not in the sense that “the book’s too long” is a criticism – they’re disagreements. The authors don’t tell the story I would have told, but why would they? What’s important is that they have got a story to tell, and they follow it through from the first encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood to… well, the final encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood (much later and in a very different world). You know those books you read sometimes – particularly books by bloggers or newspaper columnists – which are basically just a lot of disparate bits pulled together? This isn’t one of those; if anything, it gives the impression that the authors’ blog is just somewhere to put offcuts from the book.
  2. …and it tells it well. It rattles along, frankly. One of the things I would have done differently would actually have been to slow it down, brake the narrative and put it on pause for a while in a number of places. But that’s not the way the authors have written it – and the way they wrote it does work. Everyone won’t be equally interested in all the subject matter – personally I started to glaze over a bit somewhere between Belgo and Mash – but there’s always something different round the corner; the book moves along quickly enough that you won’t get bored.
  3. The ruthless efficiency of the freelance journalist. Some beer books are like poems, with a blast of green hop suddenly striking the nose as a door opens somewhere and a waft of air carries jaunty fragments of shop talk and banter, familiar yet incomprehensible, while the beer itself slips down casually, almost unnoticed in the golden afternoon haze of sub-clauses and (cont’d p. 94). Some are the record of a personal quest; some are more about the writers than they are about the beer; some are encyclopaedic reference works; some tell you nothing you don’t already know from reading blogs. This isn’t any of those things. As I said earlier on, the authors write like freelance journalists – they’re readable, reliable and above all efficient. If you’ve got to make your writing pay and you don’t know where the next commission’s coming from, you develop a certain way of working. You find out what you don’t know, get the facts and get it down; then you cut it to shape, then you move on. It makes for a good, solid read.
  4. The interviews. Saving the best till last – the interviews! Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Christopher Hutt; David Bruce, Alastair Hook, Brendan Dobbin (Brendan Dobbin!); Stuart Ross, Jeff Rosenmeier, Justin Hawke… With a couple of exceptions (wot no Protzie?) the authors seem to have spoken to everyone who is anyone, who’s still around and has a story to tell. I was really impressed with the range and number of people they’d managed to track down and talk to. Especially Dobbin, obvs.

It’s not a timeless classic; it wouldn’t be my desert island book; it hasn’t changed my life. But it’s a fine book, and if you’re interested in beer (i.e. if you haven’t arrived at this page completely by accident), you should definitely contact the publishers about a review copy, they were really nice about it when I askedbuy a copy with money (here’s a link).

[Personal to RB and JB: OK, guys, that’s your lot – you can come out now. Seriously, I’d be really interested in your reaction to any of these posts.]

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: critical thoughts

My Brew Britannia review, part 3 of 4: the critical part.

As you can probably see from the previous post on this topic, most of my doubts about the book had to do with history. Put simply, I had trouble with the overall shape of the story B&B tell – it’s not the shape that story has in my mind – and, although the content is mostly excellent, I kept stubbing my mental toe on the structure. This has three main aspects: where the story’s coming from; where it’s going; and the role of CAMRA.

To begin with, while the book’s subtitle is “The strange rebirth of British beer”, it doesn’t contain very much about what it was that needed to be reborn. The thing is, even the most dramatic processes of reform & revitalisation build on what was there before. I remember a letter to the Guardian about the English Reformation, challenging the idea that Henry VIII had founded a whole new church when he declared himself head of the Church of England. Quote: “Asking ‘where was the church before the Reformation?’ is like asking ‘where was your face before you washed it?'”. Like the English church, the British brewing industry was right there before anyone ever tried to transform or revitalise it, and had been for some time. Obviously the authors are well aware of this, but they begin the story with the first (major) reform campaigns, without doing much to sketch in the background. Hence some of my notes: “History of brewing industry consolidation/introduction of keg skated over.”; “Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)”; “Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved”. I’m not saying that this book should have been Amber, Gold and Black – on top of what it is already – but a few pages on what beer and brewing looked like pre-kegging and pre-Big Six would have been very welcome, both in general terms and as background to the rise of CAMRA. (On a side note, I’m pretty sure the authors know what ‘crystal malt’ is (although they put it in quotes), and I suspect they also know what the ‘air pressure’ debate (dismissed as “an obscure technical issue”) was about. Again, a few words of explanation would have been welcome (at least to the geekily-minded) and wouldn’t have slowed things down very much.)

Secondly, the authors tell the story of CAMRA – particularly in its early days – in oddly detached, almost cynical terms; there’s a lot about image, position-taking and organisational machinations, not so much about CAMRA as a group of people trying to achieve something. I’m not saying that the first generation of CAMRA activists were idealists or romantics, just that they were campaigning – against heavy opposition – for something worthwhile which they genuinely believed in. While the authors draw a parallel with the contemporaneous formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the Homosexual Law Reform Society and others, they underplay the association with contemporary environmentalist, ruralist and wholefood campaigns, which seem a much closer parallel. My (youthful) perception of CAMRA in the 1970s was that it was the ‘beer wing’ of a much broader and more diffuse countercultural movement, in favour of small scale production using traditional methods, against adulteration and industrialisation. To my eye the book doesn’t really capture this, or take it entirely seriously. (There is a reference to small brewers producing ‘pure, virtuous beer’ later on, but the phrase is presented as a marketing pitch; the overstatement is telling.) On the other hand, the big brewers’ reintroduction of cask bitter is presented in the same tit-for-tat style, as a dastardly plot to take the wind out of CAMRA’s sails; again, the framing of the narrative obscures a much simpler and more obvious reading, which is that this was a defeat for the Big Six (or, at the very least, an enforced change of direction).

What gets lost, or downplayed – or, at the very least, taken for granted to the point of being downplayed – is what CAMRA fundamentally was in that first decade: a highly political consumer campaign, using the tactics of political campaigns of the time, which protested against the effective destruction of British beer through the industrialisation of brewing and the monopolisation of pubs, and was more successful than anyone could have imagined. (Some would insist that CAMRA did no more than spearhead and give voice to a wider protest against the effective destruction, etc, and I think that’s arguable. It would still be a pretty significant achievement.) Whether, as of the early 1980s, CAMRA had won all the battles it was ever going to – “Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – is another question. Personally I’m more hopeful: the fact that the major pub chain with the cheapest beer (by a long way) is also the one with the best cask selection (by a long way) has got to mean something. I also think the presence of CAMRA throughout the contemporary beer scene is easy to underestimate. On ‘third’ measures, advocated by CAMRA, the authors write that the smaller glasses have only really been taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'”. Personally I can only think of two places where I’ve drunk beer in thirds more than once. One is the local J D Wetherspoon’s (home of the CAMRA token), which regularly offers three thirds for the price of a pint during its ‘beer festivals’; the other is a craft beer bar (10 handpumps, 20 keg taps) – which offers CAMRA members a 25% discount on cask. (Thus making the keg prices even more ouchy, ironically.)

As for where the story’s going, I think the difference between my point of view and the authors’ is summed up by that Mark Twain quotation, and perhaps by my rather grumpy note to chapters 11 and 12 – Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene? (To which I guess the answer is “yes, it is – partly”. Well, maybe.) I get the impression the authors look at places like the three Bristol bars in the Prologue and think – this is it – we’ve arrived! Whereas I’d be more inclined to think this, too, shall pass. (I’d still go in the bars, mind you – I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid.) Basically I don’t think ‘craft beer’, in any except the broadest possible sense, is the future of beer; there was good beer before that phrase was ever used, and there’ll be good beer after it’s been forgotten. Nor do I think people who would identify as ‘craft beer’ drinkers are numerically significant at the moment, as interesting as the beer they’re drinking may be. In terms of numbers, the state of British beer at the moment is still that a lot of people are drinking Tetley’s smooth and a very large number are drinking Carling; I’d love to see that situation change, but I don’t think it’s going to be craft beer that changes it. But this isn’t really a criticism of the book, more a comment on what I brought to it.

Lastly, a couple of points about ‘craft keg’. On craft beer itself, a definition would have been nice! (I know, I don’t ask for much.) To be fair, there is a thoughtful and interesting discussion of the term in chapter 12, but without any firm conclusion; when the phrase is used again in chapter 17 it seems to have drifted into marketing-speak, largely unmoored from what it had meant before. It would have been good to stick to a single meaning – or, if that’s not possible (which it probably isn’t), to put the narrative on pause and take a page or two to set out what the various meanings seem to be. Then there’s the issue of new-wave keg vs cask; here I felt the authors were trying to sit on the fence – again, for the sake of keeping the narrative going – and not really succeeding. So we learn that some people denigrate keg as ‘cold and fizzy’ (in quotes), only to then be told that “A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing’” (also in quotes); the implication seems to be that some people think they don’t like cold and fizzy beer, but they’re wrong. (Also, “whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself”; I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘in itself’, but as it stands this certainly hasn’t been my experience.) Rather than taking a view, I think the chapter – and the book – would have benefited from stopping for a moment to present the different views in a bit of detail.

Coming soon: part 4, which explains why, having taken all of this into account, you should buy this book pronto.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: second thoughts

Although I liked Brew Britannia a lot, it wasn’t long before I started noticing – and noting down – things which, I felt, the authors had got wrong. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about factual errors, or anything that could be added to their scrupulous Errata. There’s ‘wrong’ as in ‘you spelt my name wrong’ – category 1 wrong, with no room for opinion; then there’s category 2 ‘wrong’ as in ‘this beer tastes wrong’, which is a statement of fact filtered through opinion (some people may like the taste of a beer that’s sour, full of yeast or both); finally, there’s category 3 ‘wrong’, which is pure opinion (as in ‘serving bitter in thirds is just wrong’). When I say B&B have got something wrong I’m mostly talking about category 3, with a few excursions into category 2. I also kept a list of things the authors had left out. This is a bit less challenging as a concept, although we should note that the list of things not included in any book is infinite; obviously when I say that a particular topic was left out, I’m saying it should have been included – or that leaving it out was… er… wrong. In some sense.

More from Philosophy Today next week. In the mean time, here (without much editing) is my list of omissions:

History of brewing industry consolidation/ introduction of keg skated over.

Earlier drinking clubs – much more!


CAMRAIL story starts to get political and is immediately dropped

Top pressure – at least tell us what it is!

Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)

Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved

Craft beer – not exactly a gap, but the subject is dropped very quickly (though not without a decent attempt at a definition). Crops up later in the context of Crafty Dan, Brains etc – could really do with a definition by that stage

Could have done with much more (than one paragraph) on Spoons

Ditto on present-day CAMRA

And here’s my list of things that I thought were… other than right, in whatever way.

Prologue: is this what it was all for? Mark Twain (Eiffel tower)

Any real connection between Victorian Society etc and SPBW?

Any real connection between CAMRA and CHE etc? Boston green/”real food” campaigning connection underplayed by contrast. Frustratingly, they get this in Ch 4 but treat it as spin (“pure, virtuous beer”)

Marches and TU alliances against brewery closures – loss of “political neutrality” – ? (This was 1973-4)

Big Six reintroduce cask: authors assume this is a cunning plan to undermine CAMRA, despite informants not saying anything of the sort. Surely a retreat and as such a victory for CAMRA.

Lager explained by 60s social mobility, in turn explained as a generational shift, leading to the conclusion that “People liked lager, and the fact that CAMRA did not made the organisation seem rather parochial and backward-looking.”

“Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – fighting talk!

Firkin thrived because of higher prices? Bears investigation

Beer Orders – could unintended consequences have been avoided?

Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene?

“whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself” – ???

“A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature” – as distinct from being ‘cold and fizzy’ – “has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing'” Quite a contentious point, and what are those scare quotes doing there?

“some people have a strong preference for one, while others are able to appreciate both”

“There are young professionals … who think nothing of spending £8 on a pint of beer” Are there?

Thirds taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'” Really not convinced by this narrative – look at Font

Wild – are they using wild yeasts or not?

I’ll pull together these thoughts in a third post. For now I’ll leave you with the quote from Mark Twain which I referred to above. For background, the Prologue features a thumbnail sketch of a street in Bristol with three (count ’em) separate craft beer joints, each one craftier than the last. (“We shake our heads in disbelief and ask, ‘How the hell did beer get so hip?'”) Take it away, Mr Clemens:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: first thoughts

This isn’t a review of Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (a copy of which the publishers sent me to review). At least, this isn’t the whole review; this is just what I think is special about the book, and – for what it’s worth – what I think is unusual about the authors, as authors of beer books go.

It’s always a good rule of thumb, faced with any kind of encyclopedia or comprehensive overview, to check the bit you know. If they’ve got that bit wrong, it doesn’t tell you that the rest of it is wrong, or even that any of the rest of it is wrong. What it does tell you is that you can’t assume that the rest of it isn’t wrong. In other words, a known error in one part tells you that you can’t trust the rest. (You may remember a celebrated anthology with encyclopedic ambitions falling foul of just this kind of fact-checking on quite a large scale.)

Boak & Bailey’s book isn’t an encyclopedia but it does cover a lot of ground, from Betjeman to BrewDog and beyond. Intuitively, it seems that covering that much ground will come at a cost. Nobody is as keenly aware of changes in pop music between the ages of 36 and 38 as they were between the ages of 16 and 18; similarly, there may well be people out there who have drunk Penrhos Porter, Bruce’s Dogbolter and Wild Evolver, but I don’t think anyone could be equally enthusiastic about all three. You never forget the first one that really hit the spot, whether it was Punk IPA or Ruddles County – but that necessarily means that everything else is likely to fade into the background a bit.

As a writer you can correct for this kind of bias – draining your writing of any excesses of enthusiasm for the stuff you like and dutifully pumping up the descriptions of the stuff you don’t – but the end result is likely to be a bit flat and brochure-y. It also does a disservice to your readers, who – hopefully – are enthusiasts themselves. The telltale sign of this kind of writing is that you notice – as with the fact-checking – when they’ve got your bit wrong. The stuff you don’t much like or weren’t around for, fair enough, the book seems to have done a reasonable job. But for the stuff you like – nay, love – this lukewarm approach is no good at all. This is the cue, in an encyclopedia, for porter enthusiasts to complain that their beer isn’t given its due, while IPA lovers complain about the praise being heaped on porter. Or, in a history, for first-generation CAMRA veterans to complain that the early sections are thin and bland compared to the endless ravings about ‘craft beer’ later on, and hipsters to complain about all the space that’s wasted on beardie nostalgia.

Or, in this history… not. What’s struck me about the reviews of this book is that different generations of beer enthusiasts have expressed satisfaction with the section on ‘their’ period, even if they don’t think the other sections work so well. (I’m no exception – I found the parts about the period I knew best to be particularly interesting and informative.) This is a remarkable achievement, and suggests that this book has something to offer quite a wide range of beer-drinkers – and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Having raved, in general terms, about the book, I’m going to say something about the authors which will sound a bit uncomplimentary. It’s not meant that way; bear with me. It’s like this: it’s tempting to conclude a complimentary write-up like this by saying something like “Boak and Bailey know their stuff”. On one level that would be true – I certainly didn’t see any factual errors – but on another level it’s not. I actually don’t think Boak and Bailey do know their stuff in the broader sense; I don’t think they’re authorities on half the subjects they cover in this book. That’s not what they do; that’s not why this is a good book.

What B & B are is journalists, and good ones. When I was a freelance journalist I had one regular job which involved writing a thousand words about a (specified) famous person, usually in the course of a week: it might be John Betjeman, it might be Prince Naseem, I had no way of knowing before the request came in. Essentially, I had to make myself an instant expert. (Sometimes ‘instant’ was the word. My single favourite assignment involved Crawfie – the Queen’s childhood nanny – and a deadline measured in hours rather than days; I’d barely heard of the woman when I got up that morning, but by the time I went to bed I’d got the thousand words written.) There’s a knack to rapidly absorbing information in that way, and it’s about finding angles and ways in. If two different sources refer to your subject’s love of horseriding or her difficult relationship with her mother, you dig there; you don’t waste time and effort filling in all the blanks (how many brothers and sisters, where did she go to school, did she have any childhood illnesses…) unless you absolutely have to.

In other words, I wasn’t an authority on Wallis Simpson or Helen Keller – the kind of person who would know their shoe size and what time they were born – but I could give you an account of them; I could tell you a coherent and believable story, with facts to back it up. And that’s essentially what Boak and Bailey have done here, on a much larger scale: they’ve become experts on Penrhos and Firkin, Brendan Dobbin and James Watt, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the CAMRGB. It’s a journalist’s book, in the best sense of the word: they’ve done the work, they’ve got the facts right (as far as I can tell) and, most importantly, they’ve found a way in to the story. Specifically, they’ve tapped into the enthusiasm of the people they’re speaking to and writing about, and echoed it in what they write. It’s a fine book. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t got a copy, you probably should; I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Next: part two of the review, which will be about what they got wrong and left out.

(But do get it.)

My my, hey hey

Here’s a puzzle for you. A nationally renowned brewpub opens a sister pub, supplying the same unique range of distinctive beers as the mothership. One or two of these beers are regular guests at a few pubs in the region, but this is the only other place where you can regularly find the full range. In other words, the number of pubs serving these rare and desirable beers has just increased by 100% – and the new pub is in a tourist town.

Yet, when I was in there the other night, there was nobody there but a handful of locals; apart from me, there were no avid tickers, no curious tourists. What’s more, I don’t expect this situation will change very much. I think they’ll do all right, but they will be catering mainly to the local trade: very few tickers are going to beat a path to their door, and they may struggle to raise much tourist custom.

What is this paradoxical establishment? It’s called Out of the Blue, which I guess marks it out as a bar rather than a pub – at least, all the other pubs in town have names including the words ‘The’ and ‘Inn’. It’s in Porthleven, where we’ve just stayed for a week; Porthleven is in Cornwall, or more specifically on the west coast of the Lizard (the bunion of Cornwall’s foot). To be precise, it’s in the old Porthleven AFC Social Club – if you put ‘Porthleven AFC’ into Google Maps you can see the location & indeed the building (although it’s since been done up). It’s roomy, as befits its former use. The thatched bar is partitioned off from the rest of the room, and most of the other punters had gathered on a little row of seating opposite. I went for the rather cavernous main room – I had a comfortable chair and something to read (and several beers to sample), so I was fine.

But what of the beer? As you may have guessed by now, the pub that the beer comes from is the Blue Anchor in Helston (hence “out of…”); the beer range, apart from a few keg taps for people who insist on that sort of thing, consists of the renowned Spingo ales. There were four on that night: Middle (5%), Special (6.6%), Ben’s Stout (4.8%) and Flora Daze (4%). This was only the second time I’d tasted Middle and Special; the first time was before my hop epiphany, so I was a bit concerned that they might strike me as a bit sweet and under-hopped. I needn’t have worried. What did I write last time?

[Middle is] a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice. [Special is] a darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle … a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. … It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better.

I’d endorse all of that, except to dial down some of the ‘sweet’ comments – there’s sweetness in there, but you could say the same of the red and blue Chimay. These are balanced, complex flavours, the Special in particular. Terrific beers.

The other two weren’t in quite as good nick, sad to say. I’m reserving judgment on Ben’s Stout until I get the chance to taste it again; there was a distinct sourness to the initial flavour, which I wasn’t sure was supposed to be there. Interesting and drinkable, but I think it could have been better. If the stout had suffered in that way, Flora Daze hadn’t – it was a bit flabby and lacking in condition, but flavourwise it was excellent. You could call it a lighter, more drinkable version of Middle, but with a herby, aromatic hop character which is all its own. Perhaps nothing startling within the contemporary brewing landscape, but I’d have it again; in fact, I think it joins Middle and Special in the ranks of beers I’d go some distance to drink again.

Not all the way to Porthleven, though. I didn’t know about Out of the Blue when we planned our holiday, but drinking Spingo beer was very much on my itinerary; the Blue Anchor is in Helston, and Helston is two miles from Porthleven. It’s ten minutes on the bus, or (I imagine) a leisurely 45-minute stagger if the last bus has gone: it’s very reachable. And, of course, there’s nothing on the far side of Porthleven but sea. Hence the apparent paradox I started with. As well as increasing pub choice in Porthleven by a third, Out of the Blue effectively doubles the Spingo estate; but anyone in search of Spingo is still going to head for Helston, unless they’re actually starting in Porthleven. As for the tourist trade, all the other pubs in town are big on dining and sea views – two of them overlook the harbour; precious few visitors to Porthleven are going to find their way to a former social club set back from the road out of town.

Verdict: amazing beers, curious pub, bizarre location. (When you think what they could have done with an offshoot in Exeter or even Truro…) I can only think the idea is to have a Porthleven pub for Porthleven people – all those people who don’t much care for views of the harbour, what with seeing it every day anyway, and who go to pubs for beer rather than beer-battered squid. I hope it does well, even if it’s not got much to offer incomers and tickers like what I am.

One final puzzle: if you look at the Street View image of the old Porthleven AFC Social Club, “Jolly’s Beers” are prominently advertised. Jolly’s sponsor the league in which Porthleven AFC play. Googling tells me that they’re a drinks company based in Redruth, but I can’t find any reference to brewing – and in my experience “drinks company” tends to mean distribution, with perhaps a sideline in own-brand soft drinks. So what did you get when you ordered a pint of one of Jolly’s beers? It’s a mystery.

(Bet it wasn’t as good as Spingo, though.)

On my way to the club

Quick addendum to the previous post. As you probably know, Wetherspoon’s have one of their periodic ‘beer festivals’ on at the moment. My local Spoons held a pre-launch event for local CAMRA members the night before the festival officially started. When I went along they were serving beers from Belhaven, Elgood’s, Moorhouse and Hilden (a new one on me, probably because they’re from Antrim), as well as two ‘international’ collaborative brews: a Greek coffee porter(!) brewed at Everard’s and an American amber ale brewed at Adnam’s. So, six decent guest beers, plus the usual suspects.

On my way to the Spoons I stuck my nose in every pub or bar I passed, making a mental note of how many beers were available & which breweries were featured. And I can report that the places I passed on that ten-minute walk were serving 22 cask beers from 15 different breweries: Art Brew, Brightside, Bristol Beer Company (x2), Buxton, Dark Star (x2), Green Mill, Hornbeam, Liverpool Organic, Magic Rock, Marble (x5), Red Willow (x2), Redemption, Salamander, Tatton and XT. This evening I tried the experiment of walking ten minutes the other way, to find another three bars and another eight beers: Beartown, Bollington, Hartley’s [sic], Hornbeam (again), Mobberley, Phoenix, Pictish and Thwaites. There are a couple of names in there that I wouldn’t necessarily cross the street for, but there are also plenty that would be worth a ten-minute walk any day of the week. (Plus three that I haven’t tried yet, and a fourth that I hadn’t even heard of before tonight.) It takes a bit of the shine off a paddle at Spoon’s, I have to say.

Miracle and wonder. I think this has to be a bubble, speaking economically (as well as culturally) – apart from anything else, speaking economically we’re all going down the tubes, and while people do carry on getting drunk during recessions they don’t tend to spend big on luxury items. (Although, as I’ve said before, the relative fixity of the price of cask beer has made it that rare thing, a high-quality good which isn’t a luxury good. (Another reason – or perhaps the reason – to be suspicious of craft keg.) So maybe beer will remain an affordable luxury and won’t be hit by the downturn.) Realistically you’d have to bet that we’re going to lose one of those bars and/or two of those breweries over the next year. Oh well – I’ll just have to keep propping up the ones I like.

Update 13th April. I stuck my nose in the local Spoons yesterday and noticed they had the special-edition 6% Wadworth 6X plus a 5.5%er from Orkney, both of which I rather fancied. I didn’t fancy them quite enough to drink them on the day – ‘day’ being the operative word – so left it until this evening… when they’d both gone. Curses. Instead, I had thirds of Central City Red Racer IPA, Robbies Hoptimus Prime and Lodewijk Fly By Night. All were quite pleasant, but they were (a) not much more than pleasant (Tandleman reports a similar experience); (b) in thirds, which increasingly looks like a doll’s house measure to me – you can get a taste of a beer in that volume but you can’t really get to know it; and (c) in a Wetherspoon’s, and one of the more barn-like ones at that. Not the greatest of beer experiences; I think that might be it for me and this particular ‘festival’. On my way back I passed by the Font, a venture which is surely doomed to fail – nobody’s going to go there if it’s always that crowded – and beat a retreat to De Nada, where I sank into a pint of Red Willow Directionless: a superlative pint in very nice surroundings (and a dimple mug, but you can’t have everything). The Font, incidentally, still doesn’t have a blackboard for cask beers, despite having one for keg and another for ciders. Presumably this is a deliberate decision, but if so it baffles me – they certainly aren’t all the same price, or cheap for that matter.