Category Archives: Going down the pub

Going back

There are two kinds of courage. It takes courage to do something that you’re irrationally convinced is seriously dangerous, even if the rational part of your mind is reasonably sure it’s safe. (Holding on until you’ve managed to get the rational part of your mind to drown out the irrational part is another possibility, but it’s not always feasible – as anyone who’s ever got up to investigate noises in the night can confirm.) It also takes courage to do something that actually is seriously dangerous; it takes courage, and it also takes a very good reason – e.g. risking death for a cause or to save a loved one, or being a member of the army and receiving a direct order.

Pubs are great; they’re one of my favourite social institutions, and I’d miss them terribly if they were gone. However, the cause of pubs is not a cause for which I’m willing to die or risk death, and I don’t think I’m a massive outlier in this. People talking about courage, in the context of going back to the pubs post-lockdown, are talking about courage #1 – the courage to walk into a dark room where there could be literally anything at all (although, as it’s your living room and you were sitting there two hours ago, you can be pretty sure there’s literally nothing). Either that or they’re really fanatical pubpeople – Give me two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please, or give me death!

As it goes, I don’t think it’s at all likely that I’d have caught Covid-19 if I’d spent the whole of Saturday evening at any of my locals. I can’t – and couldn’t – say it’s impossible, though, or a low enough likelihood to be completely discounted. And, ironically, the risk is only going to increase: anyone who was infected on Saturday will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all this week, and anyone they infect will be asymptomatic (but infectious) all next week, and… We just have to hope that, by last Saturday, infectivity in the wild had already reached a low enough level to minimise the number of possible outbreaks, and that social distancing measures have reduced the number of actual outbreaks even further. But we won’t know for at least another week – by which time, of course, we’ll be a week further down the same track.

No pubbing for me, then? Fortunately it doesn’t have to come to that. The two main situations that I (still) want to avoid like Watney’s are sustained close contact with anyone outside my household – having someone breathe in my face, basically – and being in an enclosed public space for any length of time. That does rule out most of the things I like doing in pubs – God knows when I’ll be going to a folk session again – but not quite all of them. In particular, the sneaky mid-afternoon pint on a non-work day is still very much an option, particularly with the weather we’ve been having (at least, up to today).

And so it was that I celebrated my personal Return to the Pub, yesterday afternoon at the Beerhouse. I turned up, sanitised my hands and “waited to be seated”, at the small table handily positioned just behind me, checked the menu on the table and was rather pleased to be able to order “a pint of bitter” (i.e. Marble Manchester Bitter). I wasn’t asked for my details, but the chance of infection from anyone at another table, in the open air (and on a breezy day), really was negligible – particularly as the beer threw itself down my throat at a slightly startling rate. (Son of Bodds’? Not for me to say, but I’d love to hear from anyone who can compare.)

What was the beer like? It was superb. I’ve laid in a bunch of different bottled beers during lockdown, including a slab of Jaipur and a few bottles of Proper Job, but I have to say that it’s the pale’n’oppy beers that have been going down slowest; I seem to have lost the taste. (Give me a Landlord, or a Weihenstephaner, or an Orval, or a tripel, or one of those little Harvey’s monsters…) That pint of Manchester Bitter, though, was in a different league. As a kid I daydreamed about one day getting an underpowered little car – a 2CV, a Fiat 500, a Morris 1000 – and having the engine stripped out and replaced with something ridiculously powerful, just to see people’s expressions when I burned them up on the motorway. Manchester Bitter seems to have been arrived at by a similar process: they’ve taken a best bitter, stripped out most – but not all – of the malt and the body, and filled in all the gaps with aroma hops and (especially) bittering hops. The result is that it drinks with the soft cereal complexity of a BB, up to the moment when the bitter finish grabs you by the throat and squeezes. It’s wonderful, and – on a fine afternoon, when you haven’t been to a pub in (literally) months – it goes down very, very quickly.

Which, of course, is just as well; open air or no open air, I didn’t want to hang around there forever. I didn’t even stop for a second (although I was tempted to do a compare-and-contrast with Pint); apart from anything else, my capacity – along with consumption – seems to have gone through the floor during lockdown. But I’ll be back; I’m not planning on going through the door just yet, but I will be going back.

Forgotten beers

As I write I’m closer to my 60th birthday than, well, any other. Being of mature years isn’t exactly unusual among CAMRA members – any more than it is in my other social group of choice, folk musicians. But what does sometimes make me feel a bit atypical – in both contexts – is that I only became an enthusiast relatively recently; I started going to folk clubs in 2003, and started thinking seriously about beer (seriously enough to remember what I’d been drinking) in 2008. Before then… not.

(What was I doing all that time?)

But of course I didn’t start drinking in my late 40s. As a matter of fact I started drinking at the age of 12, when my parents let me and a friend see in the New Year at home with a bottle of Woodpecker each. (I remember telling them the next day that it had made me feel “very lucid”. They said it did have that effect.) I had got through a fair bit of beer before I started going to festivals, taking notes and generally thinking about what beer I did and didn’t like. I just… didn’t notice it so much.

This post is about two beers I know for certain that I didn’t notice – two gaps in my memory that I’m sure are there. One dates back to 1986 or 87, the other to some time in the early 00s.

We get to 1986 via 1976 (when I fell blissfully in love with London Pride and Buckley’s Best); 1979 (when I could drink legally but discovered that I didn’t actually like bitter after all); 1982 (when I came to Manchester, encountered Marston’s dark mild and fell in love with that instead, but mostly ended up drinking Hyde’s lager*); and 1983 (when I got a job and drank two pints of Greenall Whitley bitter every lunchtime and three on Fridays, because that was what you did). Beer could still be amazing, sometimes – but how often did you see London Pride on a bar in Manchester? Or Marston’s dark mild, come to that. Usually it was just… beer; something you drank when you went out, and you chose it because it was what they had in the place you’d gone out to.

The place we went out to, one day after work in 1986, was a proper working men’s pub (in the enthusiastic words of my friend Mike, whose idea it was) and a bit of a walk from the office. (This wasn’t a two-pint-a-day office, incidentally; I didn’t do much lunchtime drinking at all in that job, not least because when the people I worked with did go out they invariably went to the Vine (which was Greenall Whitley), despite it being right next door to the City (which wasn’t). So I guess I must have developed some taste in beer by then.)

Anyway, the pub Mike led me to was the Old Garratt. And yes, it was a “proper working men’s pub”; at least, I remember the place being full of blokes, and the two of us being the only people there in a suit and tie. I also remember glancing upwards and being unable to see the ceiling for a blanket of cigarette smoke. And I remember one other thing, which is the first of the two gaps in my memory I wanted to talk about: the beer. That evening in the Garratt, before I left to get the bus home for my tea, I had two pints of Boddington’s Bitter.

And I have no memory of it whatsoever. It could have been bright blue and tasted of cranberries for all I know. (Except, of course, that I know it wasn’t, because if it had been I would have remembered it.) I don’t remember it being particularly bitter, I don’t remember it being outstandingly drinkable, I don’t even remember it being dull. 1986 was pretty late to be discovering Boddington’s, admittedly – the early-80s bland-out referred to here was pretty much accomplished by then. But at the end of the day it was still Boddington’s, still being brewed at Strangeways, and if I ever have grandchildren I’ll be able to tell them that I did, indeed, once drink it. I just won’t be able to tell them what the hell it was like.

In the 90s I did start to get interested in beer, although not the kind that you get from a hand pump. There was a holiday in Barcelona, where I discovered Franziskaner Weissbier (not available in supermarkets at that point) along with bratwurst and sauerkraut; there was a holiday in Amsterdam, where (slightly more conventionally) I discovered witbier; and there was a holiday in Scotland, where I discovered Trappist beer (the hotel bar had overstocked on Chimay – which is to say, they’d bought some – and they were selling it off cheap).

After that I was away; Belgian beers were pretty cheap at the time**, when you could find them. In the 90s and early 00s I discovered blonds, red ales, dubbels and tripels, tried lambics and even one or two gueuzes, and ticked off all the Trappists I could find. Sometimes the big hits are big hits for a reason, and discovering Trappist beer was a bit like discovering Sergeant Pepper: I discovered that some of the beers everyone was raving about were, in fact, beers worth raving about. (If there’s a better beer anywhere than Westmalle Tripel… it’s probably an old-ish Orval.) Eventually I’d worked my way through all the available Trappist beers – which was to say, four of the big five Belgians, plus Koningshoeven – as you can see here.

IMG_2424

(Wait a minute. That isn’t four of the five big Belgians.)

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

Dredging my memory, I have the faintest of faint memories of buying those bottles of Westvleteren. It was in the Belgian Belly in Chorlton; my curiosity was aroused by the unlabelled bottles, and aroused some more by the relatively punchy price tags (although I can’t remember what the prices actually were, and I’m pretty sure they were considerably cheaper than you’d ever see them today). I can picture Jason telling me that these particular bottles really were a bit special, and I can hear him sounding entirely sincere and very persuasive, as indeed he generally did in that situation.

Or maybe I’m just filling in that last part because I know that the sales pitch worked. Anyway, evidently I bought them – presumably on the same occasion, although the BBE dates are rather a long way apart. And evidently I drank them, given that the bottle tops are all I’ve got left.

(Best beer in the world, they say it is. The strong one, especially.)

(Might be, for all I know. I have no memory.)

(Only one way to find out, now. Road trip! I could do that. When this is all over.)

There aren’t any big gaps after that – at least, none that I’m aware of! There is one other beer I’d like to remember more about: I went to Brendan Dobbin’s King’s Arms once around this time, and – while I remember the pub vividly – I’ve no idea what I had to drink. But I do have fond memories of a couple of West Coast beers, so let’s assume it was one of them. By then, anyway, the Marble Beerhouse was open. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and started taking a ticker’s interest in the Marble beers they served*** – and that put me on the path to keeping tasting notes, starting this blog, joining CAMRA and generally thinking about beer far too much.

(Still wish I could remember those beers, though.)


*For years I was convinced that, around 1982-3, I used to drink a pale yellow, sourish bitter at the Vic in Withington. Nobody else can remember this beer, and the simplest explanation is that it was in fact Hyde’s own lager – and that I really wasn’t into beer back then.

**Something to do with Black Wednesday, possibly. Or something to do with EMU. Or not.

***Despite the fact that at this stage I still didn’t like most of them. That didn’t change till some time later.

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.

Mild by Northwest 2 – Times Change

More on Mild Magic 2019

Times change
Ways change
Times change, people change
– Julian Cope

Didsbury and beyond
I haven’t been in many Hyde’s or Holt’s pubs for this year’s Mild Magic. But Hyde’s, in particular, is hard to avoid if you’re doing the Withington corridor, and one or other of 1863 and Old Indie was on offer at the Friendship, the Victoria, the Horse and Farrier (Gatley) and the Crown (Cheadle). The Vic was a bit dead when I called in, but the other three were all pleasantly busy – not something that’s always been true of the Friendship, in particular. (There have been fewer empty pubs across the board as compared to last year; it may not mean anything, but it does seem like a good sign.) I think 1863 is the only light mild I had this time round, if indeed it still is a light mild.

East Didsbury was more varied, in all senses of the word. I’ve never yet had a mild in Wine and Wallop (despite the name) and this year was no exception – although I gather that they did have a mild on for at least some of the Mild Magic period. My first visit to the Head of Steam also drew a blank, but when I returned a couple of weeks later they had Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on. The last time I’d seen that beer it was on the bar at the George in Stockport, side by side with Golden Best and both going for £2 a pint – happy days. It wasn’t £2 a pint at the HoS – in fact it was very nearly £2 a half – and I guess trade hadn’t been brisk, as it was rather tired. Still, better that than the reliably awful Coach House Gunpowder Mild which was on at the Olde Cock. Up the road in Burnage, Reasons to be Cheerful had Salopian Divine Comedy, an excellent contemporary take on the dark mild style, along with much else; it’s one of those bars that I try to fit in last when I’m doing a crawl, because I know I won’t want to stick to the one half. I have to confess, the places in this category used to be old-style real ale ‘exhibition’ pubs – the Crown in Stockport, the Railway in Portwood, the New Oxford – but these days they’re more likely to be places with interesting keg as well as cask ranges: Reasons, Petersgate Tap, Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Times change, people change.

Urmston
I like Urmston, but next to Chorlton – next to Stockport, for that matter – it’s… odd. It has the unevenly-developed, up-and-coming quality of bits of the Northern Quarter (ever-shrinking bits), or of Beech Road in Chorlton about five years ago, but with the difference that in both those two cases a bohemian/foodie/’craft’ scene took root in the midst of urban decline. Urmston’s not quite like that, in that the ‘old’ – pre-hipster – Urmston is still right there and doing absolutely fine. Put it this way, there can’t be many other places in Manchester where you can walk out of a craft beer bar and come face to face with a poster advertising a 70s dinner-dance hosted by TV’s Stan Boardman.

I was there for the beer, starting with Holt’s dark mild at the Lord Nelson; I even went for a pint, on the basis that

  1. it had been off at Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme, so I hadn’t had Holt’s mild yet
  2. it’s only 3.2%, and
  3. it seemed like the kind of pub where one orders pints

Nice pub, like a lot of Holt’s suburban pubs (the Griffin, the Park Inn) in being a massive, multi-roomed beer palace; hard to fill, but it was early in the evening when I was there and I got the sense it would get busier later. Perhaps it was just having a pint of mild in my hand, but it felt very much like proper old-school pubbing.

My other scheduled stop was the Tim Bobbin (JDW) for Lymestone Stonefish dark mild – and not Stella, as my order was initially misheard. (This seems to happen to me a lot in Urmston. I guess my accent still sounds a bit ‘southern’ – I’ve only been here since 1987, after all.) I also had a half of Evan Evans Cwrw; Evan Evans is the successor brewery to Buckley’s, whose bitter provided me with an unforgettable teenage beer epiphany. This time round… well, times change.

But I finished off at the Schooner, which wasn’t doing Mild Magic but would have been a sure-fire last-bar-on-the-route if it had been. The porter I started with was excellent; the arancini that were being prepared – one night only – on a stall outside made a great meal (and I’d been wanting to try arancini); and the second beer I had was the best of the night: it was dark, it was 7%, and it was an India Dark Ale. That’s right, it’s like an IPA only dark and stouty… It took me right back to when that piney/roasty combination was new – and “Cascadian Dark Ale” was being bandied about as an alternative title – and reminded me of what’s good about black IPAs, when they’re done well. It’s only a shame I can’t remember the brewer.

The Schooner also does off sales, and they had some beers reduced that night – including some that were up against the sell-by date and were reduced to £1. A recent Belgian beer tasting had introduced me to De Dochter van de Korenaar, so I was pleased to be able to pick up a bottle of their Beau Monde saison (brewed with bitter oranges and dry hopped). This is a daft recipe on paper, and it was an unprepossessing beer when I got round to opening it – it gushed enthusiastically and took about five minutes to transfer into a glass; how long it would have taken to settle I don’t know, as I wanted to drink it that evening. Still, sludge-brown and murky though it was, it was a terrific beer; the dry hopping and the oranges worked to blunt the rough edges of the saison style, and it all added up to a properly grown-up fruit beer.

Urmston took me back: back to the glory days of the late noughties when black IPAs were new, back to drinking malty Welsh bitter in my teens, back to the kind of pub that my Dad would have known his way around… (Not to mention taking me back to when I was new in Manchester and I was still getting accent-checked.) But the Schooner, at least, has one foot firmly in 2019. No mild, but nobody’s perfect.

Next: way out East.

Val-de-ree!

Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s “Winter Warmer Wander” is often celebrated as a means of encouraging people to go to pubs they wouldn’t usually go to. That’s fine as far as it goes. But in my experience, it also encourages people (e.g. me) to go to pubs where they wouldn’t usually stay, which is a bit different.

Consider a few pubs I’ve visited recently (well, today).

PUB 1 is pleasantly busy, with a hum of background chat from what seems to be a group of regulars. However, the regulars are all in the back bar, and I’m in the front bar – which is empty apart from me and two men who came in shortly after me. One of them exhibits an admirable level of trust in his friend, opening up to him about past and future medical procedures in a way which does both of them credit. Unfortunately he has quite a loud voice – and the front bar is really very quiet.

PUB 2 is a Wetherspoon’s, and it’s rammed. (As, I suspect, it will be from here to Christmas.) I find a seat with some difficulty. Behind me and to the right is a large group – two families or possibly three – having lunch; at least, the adults are having lunch. One of the children has recently been introduced to the concept of the “high five” and is keen to gain practice in using this gesture in a social setting. Over the background noise of conversation I can hear:

“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”

It continues.

After a while one of the adults decides to introduce a bit of variety by making a game of it, presumably involving ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ gestures. The result is slower-paced and more varied, but just as relentless; now I can hear

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

and so on.

And on.

PUB 3, to be fair, was fine, and PUB 5 was a delight.

PUB 4, though… PUB 4 has a small front-of-bar area and two back rooms, one reserved for gigs and the other full of people – as indeed is the front-of-bar area. Waiting at the bar, I realise that the three people ranged along it in front of me are not in fact three strangers but a group; a moment later I realise that they are not standing waiting to be served but have installed themselves on bar stools. Although they are a group – making me feel as if I’m invading their space when I move between two of them to look at the beer pumps – they have positioned their stools so as to keep a respectful distance from one another, and are consequently taking up most of the length of the bar. I find a space at the other end of the bar and wait while they get served. They have ordered three pints, plus three pints of tap water; they are clearly settling in for the long haul. I order my half of Winter Warmer-fuel, get served, pay, ask for the obligatory sticker, etc, and glance round to see how the bar-hogging trio are getting on. All three of them are sitting in complete silence, pints untouched, staring at their phones.

I go in search of somewhere else to sit down. As well as the main rooms, I remember coming to PUB 4 once before and spending a pleasant quarter of an hour in an upstairs room (with a beer and something to read, let’s be clear) – a memory which was only slightly marred by the fact that I slipped on the stairs afterwards and sat down rather hard. I negotiate the stairs but find that the upstairs rooms are locked; in fact they appear to have been converted for staff use. I head back down, half-pint in hand. On the last step, just as I congratulate myself on making it down the stairs unjinxed by past bad luck, I step down and realise that I was actually standing on the last step but one; I keep my footing but land very hard, splashing the wall liberally with beer. I decide to find an unoccupied patch of bar and finish my drink before anything else can happen. Finishing my beer, I feel that a swift exit is in order; I tip the last mouthful of beer into my mouth, put the glass down, turn and head for the door, planning to swallow the last of my beer as I’m walking out of the door (it’s called multi-tasking). Unfortunately some beer has gone down the wrong way and I cough explosively just before I reach the door, spraying a table of drinkers. I mutter an apology and make an even swifter exit than I had planned.

Would I have stopped for a drink in PUB 1, 2 or 4, if I hadn’t been in search of Winter Warmer Wander stickers? I think not. (PUB 4 didn’t even have a stout or porter on, let alone an old ale.) Would any of them have missed my custom? PUB 1 maybe; the other two, definitely not. (I couldn’t find anywhere to sit in PUB 3 either; even the deceptively spacious PUB 5 was pleasantly busy.) As I’ve said before, considering that part of the point of ‘trails’ like the Winter Warmer is to spread the custom around by sending people to different pubs, it seems odd that we do this one in the run-up to Christmas, a time when a recurring complaint about the pubs we go in is that they’re too full.

That was certainly my main complaint today – and I know from experience that PUB 4 and even PUB 2 can be perfectly delightful places to spend some time, when the crowds aren’t out. Some people like busy pubs, admittedly – but does anyone really enjoy dropping in on a busy pub?

Palely loitering

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.