Category Archives: Going down the pub

Světlý ležák

We spent a few days in Prague earlier this month – I was there for work and my wife was tagging along. Never having been to Prague – or anywhere else east of Berlin – I asked around on Twitter, then took the plunge and shelled out for a copy of Max‘s book on the subject. Which, if I’m honest, I found first overwhelming and then frustrating – so many bars were described in glowing terms, and I had so little time! To make matters worse, Max doesn’t rate pubs on standard tourist guidebook criteria, but only on whether they’re nice places to sit and have a pint of something decent and maybe something to eat – and OK, fine, that’s how I rate pubs myself, but how was I ever going to find the Top Five Utterly Unmissable Pubs Of Prague that way? Max doesn’t even go into much detail about the beer – some breweries are better than others, but at the end of the day it’s just this pale lager (světlý ležák), only apparently it’s really satisfying in some way… Baffling. Feeling rather stymied by the whole thing, I set up a Google Map with a semi-arbitrary top 28 pubs (and getting it down to 28 was quite hard enough), and trusted I’d be able to work out an itinerary or two on a quiet evening.

Then life intervened; running downstairs to check something on the morning of my departure, I slipped and fell hard on my back. No real damage was done – I can still feel all my toes – but it was not at all comfortable, then or afterwards; two weeks on, it’s subsided to the level of a permanent nagging backache. Adrenalin got me through the journey to Prague; once there, though, anything more than a half-mile walk was rather challenging. My view of Prague was perhaps slightly jaundiced as a result – although when it was good, it was very good.

On our first night we ate at a restaurant called Poja, which was quite near our flat in Žižkov and served beer from the Ježek brewery. The brewery’s name means ‘hedgehog’; there’s a picture of a hedgehog on their logo, with a slogan that seems to translate as ‘beer with spines’ (it probably works better in Czech). And it’s true, the beer wasn’t quite as smooth as I was expecting; a distinct aroma-hop spikiness came through, not entirely in a good way. I ordered what was described as a potato pancake (bramborak) stuffed with meat, reasoning that I’d get a crepe made with potato flour or something. I thought it couldn’t possibly be what I understood by a potato pancake – i.e. a Kartoffelpuffer or latke, grated potato bound with egg and fried; I mean, you can’t make one of those big enough to roll up and stuff with meat, can you? It turns out that you can in fact make Kartoffelpüffer the size of a dinner plate – and they do. It was very nice but a bit overwhelming, what with the assorted meat filling and the mound of grated cheese on top; after that meal I don’t think I felt hungry again until we were back in Manchester.

Lunch on the second day was at a pub about three-quarters of a mile from my work venue, which I realised halfway was a bit of a long haul in my condition at the time. Specifically, I went to U Sadu, where I had halves (well, 300 mls) of (their own) Sádek 11° and a Klášter 12°. (For an approximate ° Plato to a.b.v. conversion, divide by two and then subtract one – so roughly 4.5% and 5% respectively.) Both were good, but the (unfiltered) Sádek… perhaps I was thirsty, but the only way I can describe it is to say that it drank itself. I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty. Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the difficulty of getting enough to drink at receptions; it begins

I never remember holding a full glass
My first glance shows the level halfway down

That was me and Sádek – and it wasn’t the last beer in Prague to have that effect.

As for food, still being half-full from the night before I scoured the menu for something light and came up with “Švejk toast” – toast with egg and bacon. (The waiter was quite disappointed – “Is that all?”) Švejk toast turned out to mean two slices of rye bread, fried till crisp (possibly deep fried), then spread with mustard and topped with two fried eggs and a couple of rashers of bacon (all fried together), which in turn were hidden beneath a pile of chopped tomato, onion and pickled cucumber. Basic, maybe; light, no.

We just had a sandwich that evening.

The next day, still feeling of rather limited mobility, I had lunch at U Jary – which wasn’t on my list but was basically the closest pub I could find that I hadn’t been to. On finding it I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign advertising Pardubičky Porter (I’d been meaning to try a dark beer), then pleasantly startled to realise that I was at the bottom of the street with our flat on it. (Not that it was any use to me – my wife was out sightseeing, with the only key.) But what was the beer like? Most beers at U Jary are from Pernštejn (of Pardubice); I had a 12° světlý ležák called Premium, described on the menu as bitter (hořký), followed by a 13° amber beer called Granát. I chose this after chickening out of the porter on realising that it was 19°, which is to say 8%; some over-hasty mental maths convinced me that this would be like having five halves instead of two. (It’s strong, but it’s not that strong.)

Anyway, both the beers I did have were beautiful – and went well with the pork in paprika sauce from the à la carte menu (which cost less than the previous day’s Švejk toast) – but the Premium stands out; it positively threw itself down my throat. The Granat was, perhaps, more subtle and interesting – it was certainly more complex – but the relative cleanness and simplicity of the Premium somehow elevated it to another level. Back at the flat at the end of the day, I checked Max’s guide and discovered that he rates U Jary very highly. I don’t know why it wasn’t on my shortlist; I’m just glad I found my way there. (And embarrassed at how little Czech I know – going in completely cold, I found it wasn’t the nouns and adjectives I really missed so much as words like “and” and “the”. Still, I did manage to order two beers and a pork (vepřové) dish, without being asked to repeat everything in English, so I’m pleased about that. (I didn’t go near that ř sound – just treated it like a ž.))

That evening we went to another nearby restaurant, U Slovanske Lipy, where I had what would have been my second choice at Poja – roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings. The dumplings were bread-based and not particularly enticing, and the duck was well done going on charred; the meat tasted lovely, though, and it went really well with the red cabbage. But what about the beer? Half a litre of a 12° from Vedova did the now-familiar disappearing act; I remember saying to my wife that it was a bit like drinking water when you were thirsty, only more so. I followed it with a dark beer from Šnajdr, a pleasant light stout which gave me an instant earworm.

The next day we were leaving, but before we went we hit the Old Town. Now, I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Florence, I’ve even been to London, but nowhere have I ever seen such a concentration of tourists, over such a wide area. The entire pedestrianised area of the Old Town seemed to be entirely given over to tourists, who were out in force. To say that local businesses had adapted to these conditions would be an understatement; wherever you looked there were sweetshops, coffee shops, ice-cream shops and souvenir shops, and very little else. Prague is a cheap city if you’re coming from the West – presumably for historical reasons – but prices in the Old Town have adjusted to the influx of tourist euro, dollars and pounds. Whatever a beer, a coffee, an ice-cream cost in Žižkov, you could guarantee that in the Old Town it would be twice that, while still seeming reasonable relative to prices ‘back home’. (Two pounds for an espresso instead of one? Can’t complain really, can you?)

The architecture is beautiful and historic, but the lack of anything resembling real life, the relentless price-gouging and – most of all – the sheer number of people got to me after a while. The nadir for me was the Charles Bridge, which we crossed in what might as well have been a ten-wide marching column. Once over the river and into Mala Strana, we stopped for a drink at a bar specialising in beers from the Clock brewery; I had the desítka Hektor. Not far beyond that, the pedestrian zone ended and my spirits lifted – not that I’m a fan of cars and trams, particularly, but it was nice to see that the architecture and the history could coexist with ordinary Czechs going about their business.

We crossed back over the river by the Legions’ Bridge and had our final Prague meal at a Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. Just as I had at U Sadu, we both found ourselves combing the menu for something smaller than a full meal. In what was basically a ‘bar snacks’ section (“Between Beers”) we discovered the makings of an ample, indeed fairly hearty, lunch: pork sausages baked in a tomato and paprika sauce for me, pickled pork sausages (utopenci) for her and a bowl of fries between us. (How do Czechs manage it? Nobody we saw seemed particularly fat.) And the beer? The beer was divine; all the cleanness and uncomplicated drink-me goodness of the best beers I’d had, plus a hit of herbal bitterness in the aftertaste; I’m not saying it was the best beer I had in Prague, but it was certainly in a four-way tie for first.

So that was Prague. If I’d been more mobile I might have done more than scratch the surface. Perhaps some time I’ll go back and do it properly, although I’m not sure what I’ll do between beers – the thought of sight-seeing in Prague doesn’t make my heart beat faster, except perhaps with panic.

Postscript: a brewery recommended by Max, whose beers I regretted not trying, was Svijany; I regretted it all the more because there was a bar serving them right across the street from our flat, and normally it would have been the easiest thing in the world to wander across for a 13° nightcap. At the airport we were doing the usual thing of using up our coins in the shops, when I spotted some cans with the Svijany logo. I bought one – it was only about 50% more expensive than it would have been in a bar – and brought it home in my hand luggage. A few nights later I opened it. The first impression was both sweet and sharp, but this settled down into something more familiar and clean-tasting; a really nice beer, even out of a can. Max was right: světlý ležák is a plain, simple, straightforward style, so much so that it’s hard to say what’s good about it – but a decent světlý ležák is a really good beer.

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Glass, Traps

“That old bit of land? It in’t pasture, that’s for sure… ‘tin’t grazing… I could go on…”

Why yes, since you ask, that is a glass of Tynt Meadow dubbel (a branded Tynt Meadow glass, in fact, although that part isn’t obvious). Bottle and glass are both rather nicely designed; note in particular the die-cut bottom edge of the label, showing the skyline in (presumably) the eponymous meadow. The projection to the left of centre is the abbey of Mount St Bernard, which I think is also what the logo on the glass schematically represents.

Mount St Bernard? Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire. Not ancient, for obvious reasons, but pretty well-established; it was founded in 1835 by a group of monks who had left France following the post-Revolutionary suppression of monasteries there. Cistercian monks have been there ever since (it’s now the only Cistercian monastery in Britain) and they’ve recently started brewing beer. I say Cistercian; you could also call the order Bernardine, or indeed Trappist.

YES IT’S A TRAPPIST BEER! TRAPPIST BEER IN ENGLAND!! ENGLISH TRAPPIST BEER!!!

When I spotted this beer in the fridge at the Head of Steam in Durham, I was initially going to leave it – I quite liked the idea of being able to say I’d spotted it, and putting off actually buying it for another time. (Also, it’s brand new and wasn’t listed in the beer menu, and I hate buying things without knowing what they cost.) But curiosity overcame me in the end.

What’s it like? First impressions weren’t massively favourable, I have to admit. The picture doesn’t lie: not a lot of condition – certainly nothing resembling a head – and a liquid that was frankly murky. (Perhaps it needed another few weeks or months for the yeast to settle out properly, and/or for conditioning to develop. It’d be interesting to keep a bottle for a while.)

Taste, though? Really nice; more importantly, really interesting. It has a lot of the caramel-backed oomph of a dubbel like Westmalle, but more bitterness and, I think, more complexity. This may be autosuggestion, but to both me and my companion it tasted ‘English’; there’s something of the way that a dark old ale develops into herby and medicinal territory, as well as a bit of stouty roastiness on the finish. This isn’t an imitation of any other beer; it’s a distinctive take on the Trappist dubbel sub-(sub-?)style, from what looks like being a really interesting brewery. I’m going to have to get hold of some bottles to drink at home, though, both for ageing purposes and just to be able to drink it a bit below room temperature rather than fridge-cold – chilling doesn’t do this style of beer any favours.

Distribution shouldn’t be a huge problem; this beer’s appearance in the Head of Steam presumably means that James Clay are on the case. I wouldn’t have jumped to this conclusion at one time; compared to other bars trading under that name, the Durham Head of Steam used to be a rather different, and rather superior, proposition. A couple of months ago I was rather uncomplimentary about the newish Didsbury branch, comparing it unfavourably to the Durham HoS

where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac

sorry, wrong quote (although the mood is the right one)

[where] I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime … getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer

Didsbury? beer descriptions … [that] 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; bar staff who, frankly, didn’t know their beer; the same ‘chain’ food menu as (e.g.) the Liverpool HoS; generic glassware with just a couple of ‘special’ glasses. Durham? Huge, properly curated beer menu; friendly, obliging bar staff who really knew their beer, Belgian beer in particular; the right glass for the right beer, without fail (something you hardly ever see in this country, even in self-styled ‘Belgian’ bars); and a short but individual food menu.

Well, now that’s finished; you’ll never see the Durham HoS (as it was). The powers that be at Cameron’s have obviously brought Durham into line with the rest of the chain: same food menu, same “guy on the Internet says” beer menu, same interchangeable bartenders with good people skills but a cavalier approach to glassware. (For our first round we ordered an Achel and a Spencer, which came with glasses branded for Duvel and La Trappe respectively; I wasn’t sure the Achel was going to benefit from the Duvel ‘thistle’ glass and got it replaced with a ‘chalice’ glass – which was branded Westmalle.) On the plus side, the beer range is still superb – and, as you can see, my Tynt Meadow did come with the right glass, as indeed did my companion’s Straffe Hendrik Tripel.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had a dubbel and a tripel in one visit to the Head of Steam, and probably not the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers. It is the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers from two different breweries outside Belgium – let alone from two different breweries in the English-speaking world. (As for the Spencer, it was fine, but not very special.) But then, that wasn’t possible before 2018 – in fact, it wasn’t possible before the 9th of July 2018, ten days ago. Yes, it’s Oh Good Ale, your source for breaking news in the world of beer!

NB other sources are available. Seriously.

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.

Friday lunch

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three. (My workmates Joe and Paul had seen my arrival as the perfect opportunity to turn their two-pint lunchtimes into three-pint sessions. I’d gone along with it for a while, but eventually persuaded them that I was a lightweight, and that two was my limit for a weekday lunchtime.) If we timed it right and got them down without too much hanging about (the Greenall Whitley bitter in the Ces wasn’t anything to linger over), we could be clocking back in after not much more than the regulation 30 minutes. Fridays were a bit different – lunchbreaks stretched to an hour; if you usually had two pints you’d stay for three, and so on – but the canteen part of the routine didn’t change.

Not, that is, unless we were on. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen. (Tom, I should say, was a PAG 5 – very senior. Even Joe, my overall boss, was only a PAG 4.) By now, of course, considerably more than the usual 10-15 minutes had elapsed; in fact – wouldn’t you know it? – we’d spent all of 30 minutes in the canteen. Still leading the way, Tom took out his time card and clocked back in. We all followed suit – the PAG 4s, the team leaders, the mere analyst/programmers – and then we followed Tom down to the Cestrian.

It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on. My two-pint limit was rapidly forgotten; by the time we finished I was at least three pints down, probably four. (So was everyone else, of course.) There was still a fair old chunk of afternoon left when we got back, but I didn’t get much work done in it. (Nor did anyone else, of course.) Paul told me the following Monday that he’d been surprised to see Dave in the Ces after work as usual; we thought Dave had a bit of a problem, although nobody liked to say anything. At the time I didn’t think to ask Paul what he’d been doing in the Ces after work. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go, to be fair, even on a Friday.

1987, Manchester

“I think it’s time for a ROD,” Jill announced one Friday morning, with the self-consciously ostentatious air of somebody who’s using a code of their own devising and challenging everyone else to notice. “We haven’t had a ROD in ages. You’d be up for a ROD, wouldn’t you, Nik? What do you reckon, Chris – time for a ROD?”

Chris took the bait and asked what a ROD might be. Jill was delighted: “A ROD, of course – a Royal Oak Day!” It turned out that going to the Royal Oak for lunch was something they’d done in the past, before I’d started working there, possibly even more than once. It was a bit of an undertaking, as the Royal Oak was five miles out of the city centre; even with somebody driving, it would take a minimum of half an hour just to get there and back. We didn’t clock in and out at this place, but you couldn’t have many two-hour lunches before somebody noticed.

So RODs weren’t for every week – in fact I’m not sure we ever did it again – but that day there was a general agreement to go for it. At 12.00 we left and the five of us got into Chris’s car. (Chris was our designated driver, in the sense that Jill nominated him to do the driving – I don’t think he drank any less than the rest of us.) After rather longer than 15 minutes (blame it on the traffic) we reached Didsbury… and the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak was famous at this time for its lunches, and justly so. They didn’t do hot food; they did cheese and crusty bread, and plenty of it. Once you’d paid your money you’d be carved a slab from one – or more – of the mountains of cheese that stood on a small table at the back. To be (very slightly) more technical about it, these were cheeses – whole cheeses, or what remained of them after several days of lunchtime trade. If I remember rightly, there were three or possibly even four cheeses on offer – Stilton, Lancashire, Sage Derby, possibly even Cheddar (although it’s not very popular in this… yes we know). You could have a slab of each one of them if you were so inclined, with all the crusty bread and butter you needed (and a doggy bag for leftovers). Everything was open to the air, of course. I do remember noticing tiny black flies buzzing around a dish of chutney, but it didn’t bother me; they didn’t take any interest in the cheese as far as I could see, and I wasn’t planning on having chutney anyway.

The cheese was wonderful – or rather the cheeses were wonderful. My mother used to tell a joke, which she said she’d got from her (deeply religious) father: a young woman on a train is accosted by a stranger, who asks her out of the blue: “Do you love Jesus?”. She’s nonplussed and doesn’t say anything, so the stranger continues: “Not your English Jesus. Round, red, Dutch Jesus!” I defy anyone to go to the Royal Oak, in 1987 or thereabouts, and not love English Jesus. The beer was good as well – the Royal Oak was a Marston’s pub. The cask selection was distinctly limited – the mild had gone keg since the last time I’d been in, much to my disappointment – but what there was was good. To be precise, what there was was Pedigree, and it was in good form – no doubt partly because they sold so much of it.

The place was buzzing, the beer went down very easily and the cheese was never-ending (my doggy bag lasted me most of the next week). We must have been there for the best part of an hour, and the trip back to town took even longer than the journey out. Still, it was a Friday.

1998, Altrincham

Going to the pub at lunchtime with other people was something I hadn’t done for quite a few years, so it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself going to the Bay Malton with Seamus and Andy. A group of people from downstairs went to the pub most Fridays, and some of us from upstairs had tagged along a few times, but personally I never really enjoyed those big groups; I tended to mark Fridays by getting something different from the sandwich people. I did go to the pub sometimes, but on my own and in the week; a couple of times a week you’d find me there, with a ‘Steak Canadien’ and chips, a pint of Thwaites’ Original and a book. The Bay Malton was pretty sparse during the week – looking around, I’d usually only see four or five other tables occupied – but I didn’t mind that; some days I positively welcomed it.

I worked with Seamus and Andy towards the end of my time in that job. Sharing an office with (not one but) two people I could talk to easily came as a pleasant shock, all the more so when they both turned out to have a taste for the Bay Malton, Thwaites’ bitter and even the odd Steak Canadien. Fridays were particularly enjoyable, partly because the place was considerably busier and had a definite end-of-week buzz about it; the slightly forced, coach-trip jollity of the large groups, while I’d found it thoroughly uncongenial when I was in one, made quite a pleasant backdrop to our more ironic and worldly deliberations. Not only that, but with it being a Friday we felt entitled to give in to the arithmetic of our group size and “go for the burn” with pint #3 – although I do remember that by the time we’d finished our third pints we were among the last few people in the pub. (In my memory the Bay Malton was empty, or three-quarters empty, for far more time than it was ever full.) Some of the women from downstairs may even have commented on us as they left; we certainly got some looks. There was no excuse for sitting around boozing until getting on for 2.00, even on a Friday.

201_, Didsbury

At the moment I work from home most days of the week, which obviously(?) doesn’t involve beer – and when I do go to the office, the culture is very much that beer is for evenings and weekends. I think I’ve only had one pub lunch, on a work day, in the last ten years.

But there are, still, occasional leave days and strike days and work trips and dentists’ appointments and w.h.y.; for one reason or another, I do sometimes find myself in the vicinity of a pub on a weekday lunchtime. Passing the Railway in West Didsbury, one day not too long ago, I had a sudden yen for a quick drink in a proper pub – which is to say, a big room with plenty of natural light, with upholstered bench seating and internal partitions, serving one brewery’s beers. I wondered about taking a chance on their serving food, but decided not to risk it and made a quick detour for a sandwich, which I ate on the way back to the pub.

There was no food. There were also no customers; the place was empty but for me and the bartender. There were two Hyde’s beers on handpump plus two from the Horse and Jockey brewery Bootleg. (Rather confusingly, Bootleg’s Chorlton Bitter had two separate pumps with different pump clip designs; one was in an old-school Hyde’s style, which perhaps shows where the Bootleg brand is headed.) On keg, three more Bootleg beers: an IPA and two lagers of different strengths, apparently replacing the Crystal and Diamond of yore. I had a pint of Chorlton, which had to be pulled through. (Nice chunky Bootleg mug, incidentally.)

Empty as it was, it was still a nice pub; there was music from a jukebox, there was sunlight through the back windows, there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and I had a book to read. I settled down and got stuck into my Chorlton. (It was rather a good example of the old ‘Manchester bitter’ style – which is to say that it was quite a plain, light golden ale, made more interesting by a massive bitter finish. You could really taste the (bittering) hops!)

At this point the bartender, doubtless thinking she was acting in the customer’s (i.e. my) interest, killed the jukebox and switched on a very large and loud TV screen, tuned in to the cricket on Sky Sports. Attending to my book became difficult, particularly when the noisy tedium of cricket and commentary was broken by the attention-grabbing racket of a commercial break. Then, while the ads were still going, the jukebox suddenly started up again; confusingly, it was playing the theme to Test Match Special. (The long version. Yes, there’s a long version.) I drank up and left.

It was Friday, it was lunchtime, and the pub was empty, just as it had been before I arrived.

 

Val-de-ree!

It’s the time of year when Manchester CAMRA branches do their bit for the licensed trade by encouraging members to set out on a “Winter Warmer Wander”, thus bolstering pub receipts at this difficult time of year. (Note to CAMRA people reading this: hi John! Also, why is it in December? Wouldn’t January make more sense?)

Rather than separate posts for different areas, I’m going to post a quick round-up with subheadings.

The Good Ones

Last December Wine and Wallop had RedWillow Thoughtless on when I called. Alas, not this time – but they did have the chocolate stout Heartless, which is always welcome and was in very good nick. I was equally impressed with Magic Rock Punchline – a chipotle porter – at Brink. I like Brink a lot but never seem to spend any time there; I would have rectified the omission this time, but the place was packed out (I think there were as many as 30 people there).

Less stellar but decent were Gloucester Six Malt Porter at Pie and Ale and Manchester Brewing Pick Me Up in the Paramount (JDW), a coffee porter which was fine but a bit tired. The Paramount was every bit as full as Brink, which is to say that there were about 300 people in there. (On the same day, incidentally, I looked in at the Waterhouse (JDW), but thought better of it when I saw that the crowd at the bar was three deep.)

The Near Misses

Ashover Liquorice, in the Castle, was probably a really good liquorice stout. It certainly tasted strongly of liquorice – much more so than Ticketybrew‘s Invalid Stout, which was made with tons of the stuff. It’s a near miss for me because I don’t actually like liquorice, or not when it dominates the flavour as it did here.

Origami Mullered (Crown and Kettle) is the only old ale I’ve had this year – if we’re being picky, the only actual winter warmer – and it was really good. It would just have been even better if they’d had the courage of their ‘old ale’ convictions and not added ‘seasonal’ cake spices. Similarly, Ridgeside Kodiak – one of the adventurous choices on the bar at Reasons to be Cheerful – struck me as a hottish, slightly over-cranked porter, and only lost points when I learned that it was a “maple and pecan” porter. (I had it on keg later the same week; it didn’t taste so ‘hot’, oddly enough, but I still wasn’t getting the crunchy nut cornflake effect.) R2BC, like Brink, is a small, friendly bar with an excellent range of beer, and I always want to spend a bit more time there. This time was no exception. I dashed out to get my bus – after debating whether to wait fifteen minutes for the next one, and chance it on being home when I’d said I would – and ended up waiting the full fifteen minutes at the bus stop. (And I was home in time.)

Not Actually Dark

Hyde’s and their pubs aren’t really getting into the spirit of the WWW this year. I’ve had a couple of their “Beer Studio” beers: Mahogany Summit in the Fletcher Moss and oddly, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW); Yankee Pumpkin Ale in the Vic. They’re both basically darkish mid-strength bitters, although the Mahogany Summit does have an interesting ‘roasty’ finish; you could just about imagine you were drinking a stout if you didn’t look at it. There were also no dark beers at the Gateway (JDW) – I had hopes of Kelham Island Smoke on the Water, but it turned out to be a smoked pale beer; or at the Red Lion, where the Marston’s name over the door is as much a guarantee of bland predictability as it once was of quality (I had Snecklifter); or at the Smithfield (Kennet & Avon Caen Hill Hop), or the Great Central (JDW) (Brightside Topaz); or at the Friendship, where I havered between Hyde’s Lowry and someone-or-other’s Fireside Ale, unable to read the a.b.v. on either of the pump clips, and eventually jumped the wrong way. (The Internet tells me that Lowry is actually over the magic number of 4.5%, and that the Fireside Ale is under – and that it’s brewed by Greene King, although they keep very quiet about it.)

Not Actually Qualifying (plus Not Actually On The List)

None of the eight pubs in the previous paragraph had any dark beers on (let alone old ales), and most of them only had the one beer over 4.5%. After less than satisfactory encounters at the Vic and the Red Lion, I was in the mood for something dark – and it had been a long time since that Heartless at Wine and Wallop – so I bobbed into the Turnpike for a half of Samuel Smith’s Extra Stout. It was on keg, of course – Sam’s stout isn’t available on cask anywhere (unless you know better…) – but it was fine; if it was sold more widely, and if people bought keg stout for the taste, I could see it taking market share from Guinness. (Of course they don’t, and it never will, so the point’s academic.) Elsewhere, the Arndale Micro Bar, last time I passed, was listing three more beers than were actually on sale; this struck me as odd, given that they only had one pump idle at the time. One of the phantom beers was a draught stout, but none of the beers that were actually available was either dark or over 4.5%, so I passed. I was less scrupulous at the Crown (Northenden), having made a special trip out there; I had a pint of Weetwood Cheshire Cat, an unexceptional but agreeable golden ale, and found a corner to watch the match.

Are You Man U, You?

Watching the footie at the Crown was actually quite pleasant, which I fear doesn’t bode well for the pub – there were only about twice as many people in there as TV screens. Liverpool v Everton was still playing at the Red Lion and at the Vic; both of those were absolutely rammed, to the level where you have to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies to get from one side of the room to the other (“sorry… mind your backs… excuse me… coming through…”).

I made it to Fallowfield a bit later in the afternoon and decided to hit the Friendship before the Great Central, thinking that the latter wouldn’t have the game on and the former probably would – although I did also think that the Liverpool game would probably be over by this time. Good news: the Liverpool derby had indeed finished. Bad news: the Friendship was now showing the Manchester derby – Manchester United and the other lot – while also, apparently, trying for a world record for the number of people they could get into one room. I’d thought the Vic was busy, but this was something else. To get across the room – which included getting to the bar – you basically had to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies, and then push hard. You know when you’re at a gig, and there’s a support act on who nobody really cares about, but there are about eight rows of people at the front jealously guarding their positions for when the headliner comes on? Picture that, except that you need to get to the front of the stage in order to get served. My sticker-requesting technique – smile, make eye contact, ask directly and succinctly, say thankyou – was heavily tested today, never more than at the Friendship. (It worked, though – at least, nobody got at all narky about having to fossick around for a bit of sticky paper on one of the busiest days of the year. Which reminds me – why do we do this in December?)

The Scores

Everton equalised, apparently; I don’t know how they managed that. I don’t remember the score for the other match. As for the beers, in sixteen pubs I’ve had

1 old ale
4 porters
2 stouts
7 ‘other’ qualifying beers (>4.5%)
2 non-qualifying beers

7/16 – a bit on the low side, sadly.

The Twist Ending

After all that, I’m afraid I won’t be participating in the Winter Warmer Wander 2017, even though the sixteen pubs I’ve visited put me well on the way to a t-shirt to add to my collection. (Don’t knock it – my stash of CAMRA t-shirts and polo shirts makes packing for summer holidays much simpler.) At my first stop this afternoon, reaching for my sticker sheet, I found it wasn’t there; this didn’t worry me until I got home and found it wasn’t here either. So farewell then, my stickers for Brink, the Castle, the Crown and Kettle, the Fletcher Moss, the Ford Madox Brown, the Gateway, the Paramount, Pie and Ale, Reasons to be Cheerful and the Smithfield. As much as I like some of those places, I really don’t want to do all ten of them again – and I can’t see myself getting to 24 without them – so I think that’s going to have to be it for this year.

 

 

 

Sour times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that, as they say, a thing?

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

Down with the kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Spontaneous similitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue velveteen again

Night was falling rapidly and rain spattered the pavements as we embarked on our evening mission. A fearless band of battle-hardened topers, prepared for a long evening’s pubbing, foregathered at Never Say Never, the atmospheric Tibetan eaterie famed for its real ale and authentic Himalayan pork scratchings. Some familiar faces were on hand – Big Len, WG and Cajun Bill were soon joined by Green Vera, JoJo, Motormouth and Anthony Burtonshaw. Needless to say, the beer flowed and so did the repartee! JoJo was concerned that we might be driving other punters away, but most of us thought that the people on those tables had just decided to move away at the same time (“it’s not as if anything actually smashed,” Big Len pointed out). Golden Hind Yellowjack was sampled, and was variously rated “tasty and refreshing”, “tired and unconvincing” and “is that what I’ve been drinking?”. We would have stayed to check out some of the alternatives, but time was short. “Time is short!” said Cajun Bill and he was right. We moved on.

Just down the road, Café Paradise was serving its usual eclectic range of real ale, craft beer, real cider, speciality gin, over-proof rum, high-class cocktails and coffees-with-a-kick to its usual eclectic clientele of mums and toddlers. With only four staff on hand behind the bar, we all had plenty of time to reconsider our choices while we waited for our halves. New arrivals were filtering in; Sandwell and Dudley arrived together, to nobody’s surprise, and promptly got into an argument with Snowy the Beer Monster. Zenith Mango and Mint Old Ale was sampled and rated “off”, “I think it’s just… no, it’s off” and “no, that’s definitely off”; Ulan Bator An Ale That Is Pale was variously rated “really good”, “just like all the other hop-forward pale ales”, “OK, it is just like all the other hop-forward pale ales, but it is a really good one” and “mmm, yeah, maybe”. “Wagons roll!” said Snowy and we moved on.

Outside in the wet, the wet rain was lashing down wetly, while the darkness was darkening to an even darker degree of dark. The welcoming light of the welcoming open door of our next destination cast a welcoming glow on the wet dark pavement, welcoming us in (get on with it – Ed.). We could see that Bleep and Booster was a bit busy, but our intrepid band wasn’t going to be put off by a little thing like that. Once we’d all got in and closed the door behind us, the bar was a bit on the crowded side, but it was manageable – I think almost everyone had at least a square foot of floorspace. It wasn’t chilly, either! I was thinking of making notes on my beer, but five minutes after we’d arrived it had all gone; perhaps it evaporated. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting another, so I stayed where I was, admiring the bar staff’s crowdsurfing techniques and exchanging recommendations with Big Liz and Small David. Twenty minutes later who should turn up but the ever-elusive Metalman; the last I saw he was in the third rank at the bar, deep in conversation with Sandwell and Dudley. He said he’d catch us up, but I didn’t see him again. “Move ’em out!” said Small David – he’s got a surprisingly loud voice – so we did.

Down the road, Scran lived up to its name, plying our hungry band with a choice of amuse-bouches: for the vegetarians, a tartlet of goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade served with a quenelle of celeriac and mustard-seed puree on a bed of pressed radish and candied chestnut bound with a woodruff emulsion garnished with preserved sorrel leaves drizzled with walnut oil, in a basket; for the meat-eaters, half a pork pie. Needless to say, the pork pies didn’t hang around for long! Neither did the beer – I think I’d worked up a thirst in the previous bar. Half a pint of something pale and hoppy with with half a pork pie; half a pint of something black and stouty with another half a pork pie – food matching doesn’t get much better than that. I caught up with Big Len and Mister Jones; we talked about beer, as far as I can remember. It was a very nice half an hour, but like all half hours – indeed, like all half pints, not to mention half pork pies – it was soon over. “Hey ho my dearie-ohs!” said WG, calling time on this stage of our adventure in his own inimitable way; I stuck a couple of tartlets in my pocket for later and we moved on. (I found them again this morning.)

I went for a second half at our next port of call, too. Ordinarily I would have stuck to the one, but Very ‘Umble is no ordinary bar – and its in-house beers are no ordinary beers. On the grapevine I hear that sales have slumped a bit since the introduction of their eccentric “full names only” policy, but the bar still insists on it: as they say, you don’t point and mumble when you’re in Very ‘Umble! So I went to the bar, took a deep breath and ordered a half of And Hast Thou Slain The Jabberwock? American Amber Stout, which I followed up later with a half of O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! Imperial Pale Ale. (Word to the wise – make sure you pronounce the punctuation!) It was nice stuff, though I wasn’t sure where the paprika and wild garlic notes were coming from in the pale ale; I’d have asked at the bar, but I didn’t fancy going through all that again. Our party seemed to have grown again; WG was holding court at one end of the table, while in another corner Geoffrey of Monmouth was arguing about bicycles with Green Vera and Small David. “Is it about a bicycle?” I considered interjecting, but as it clearly was there didn’t seem much point. A party of roving tumblers came across to our table at this point and conducted some very impressive table-top juggling before our very eyes; what they did with two silk handkerchiefs, a pencil and a beermat defies description, not to mention belief. “Hello Kitty!” said Jimmy the Hat, and we moved on. (I kept meaning to ask him what he meant. Maybe next time.)

At the Lamb and Flag, three different beers and a cider were sampled and pronounced “disappointing”, “wait, did I order cider?”, “‘anging” and “…hmm”. I wasn’t too surprised – I don’t go to the Lamb for unique, interesting and high-quality beers. (But then, I don’t go to the Lamb.) Danno disagreed with Robbo and Kevino about the pub’s pricing strategy and a lively discussion ensued around the table, centring on the feasibility or otherwise of (a) non-conventional supply chain models in brewing and (b) that thing they did with the silk handkerchiefs, the pencil and the beermat. The juggling was assessed and variously rated “physically impossible”, “just a matter of skill and dexterity”, “a matter of physically impossible levels of skill and dexterity, more like” and “yeah, well”. “Excelsior!” said Danno – rather loudly, if I’m honest; people looked round – and we moved on.

The Quartile is the opposite of the Lamb in many ways; if I tell you that the Lamb offers cheap but undistinguished beer, colourful soft furnishings, bright lighting and cheerful and efficient staff, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Quartile. And so it was that I sat on the edge of our group, in an under-lit corner of a quiet and sombrely furnished room, looking out onto a dark street, drinking beer in a style I didn’t recognise from a brewery I didn’t want to admit to not having heard of. Mind you, I was pretty far gone by this point, so I wasn’t bothered. The decor certainly didn’t put a damper on the conversation: I can confirm that both Big Liz and Cheesy Pete have very strong views on the subject of Amsterdam, although what those views are now escapes me. “Oi oi!” called Motormouth and we moved on.

The evening’s festivities were due to terminate at celebrated alt-folk craftorama the Bird in t’ Hand – or the Bird in t’ Hand o’ t’ Man wi’ t’ Bag in t’ Box to give it its full title. Our experience here was mixed. I had a very nice half of Totally Craft Sammy the Stegosaurus (a West Coast-style IPA), but the venue wasn’t as welcoming as we might have liked. It seemed that the upper floor had been double-booked by a local Wiccan coven and a group of neo-dadaist performance poets. By the time we arrived any risk of unpleasantness had passed – the two groups were getting to know each other through an impromptu rap battle – but it did mean that that floor was pretty much out of bounds to casual visitors. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the monthly thrash metal disco hadn’t been in full swing on the ground floor. Some of us tried to get into the spirit of the thing, but for me it was too much, too metal, too late. “Come on, get down and do the funky boogaloo!” called Anthony Burtonshaw, but by that time I’d already moved on.

All in all, it was an evening of good beer in good company, not to mention good half pork pies. Shame I made it all up.

Author’s note: any similarity between this wildly improbable fabrication and Trafford & Hulme CAMRA’s Chorlton Challenge is entirely coincidental. (Apart from the bit about good beer in good company.)