Category Archives: Imaginary friends

Above the treeline

NEWS IN SHORT with apologies to M. L.

Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene was rocked to its foundations today by a shock announcement from local stalwarts Bongwater. According to Bongwater CEO Gavin Awesum-Straighte, the company’s groundbreaking leading-edge ‘beer’ strategy is no longer viable. Going forward into 2017 and beyond, Bongwater now dismiss ‘beer’ as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” and say their aspirations lie elsewhere. “Our paradigm-shifting bleeding-edge combination of relentless innovation, technical perfection at all costs, great big shiny steel fermentation… fermenterator… fermenty things and what was the third thing? Oh, right, that was the third thing. No, what was the fourth thing? Oh, yeah, money. So the innovation, the technical perfection, the fermenterers and stuff and the fourth thing which was no don’t tell me I can get this the fourth thing which was of course… money. Yes, lots and lots of money. Lovely money. So yeah, anyway, we’ve got the innovation and we’ve got the technical perfection, which you’ve got to admit is cool, and we’ve got the… shiny things… But the money is kind of – yeah. That’s basically the problem area.”

“So where do we go now?” asked Awesum-Straighte rhetorically. “What do we do? How do we carry on? Can we carry on? And if so, how? What do we do? Where do we go? Are there any questions? And if so, are there any answers? I’m glad you asked me that. The answer is – well, it was right in front of us all the time. The answer is ‘beer’. We’ve spent lots and lots of money making ‘beer’, and we thought that we were going to make lots and lots of money making ‘beer’ – I mean, that seems fair, doesn’t it? Anyway – looks like it’s not going to happen. So, what do we do? The answer, again, is ‘beer’. We’re fed up with it. Relentless innovation, technical perfection, big shiny… shiny things, and what good does it do us? I’ll tell you what good it does us, it does us no good at all.”

“So we’re getting out of ‘beer’. You want ‘beer’, you go to Granite, you go to Bakewell Brewery, you go to Medlock Ales if you really want to. We’re taking our relentless innovation and our technical perfection to customers who will appreciate us. Going henceforward, Bongwater are going to be Manchester’s foremost suppliers of selected strains of marijuana for personal medicinal use. It’s new, it’s innovative, it’s technically perfect, it’s new and best of all it’s totally legal. Well, it is in some of the cooler parts of America, and that’s really where we take our lead from these days.”

“Looking into 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022…” Awesum-Straighte said, before being nudged by a colleague and starting again. “Sorry, where was I? Looking into 2017, looking into 2018 and looking into the heart of the Very Future Itself…” The meeting was then adjourned to enable Awesum-Straighte and his colleague to stop giggling and send someone out for some brownies or maybe a Mars bar, no, wait, two Mars bars. Each – I mean, obviously. Cool.

Reaction to the news has been mixed. “This is a shock announcement that will rock Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene to its foundations,” said one ‘beer’ somel sommell somnambu expert, adding “Whichever way you look at it, it’s got to be bad news for CAMRA.” “It’s definitely bad news for CAMRA,” said another beer communicator, before shaking his head and adding, “I mean, obviously.” A dissenting opinion came from Derek Spikey (Medlock Ales). “Marijuana? They’ll never make it work. Naah, you want to check out my new line of artisan traditional-styled crystal meth. I tell you, it’s good gear – not that you’ll ever hear that from CAMRA!”

 

Advertisements

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.)

What gose on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session #113 – Two halves for the price of one

The other night I spent half an hour each in two local drinking establishments. Here’s what I observed.

Sedge Lynn (9.00 Wednesday)
Two men are sitting outside, looking a bit rough – one with a balding shaved head, the other looking like the oldest Mod in town.

Inside, the big open space seems pretty full – there are about 60 drinkers, mostly sat in groups of two or three, mostly male (perhaps 3/4); some couples, some solitary drinkers. In age terms they seem to be mostly in the 20-30 and 50+ brackets. One group of men are standing around a high table; everyone else in the pub is seated, mostly on bentwood chairs at small tables. There’s a table of about twelve (actually several tables pushed together) , having a celebration meal. Three or four young male staff in uniform shirts and ties are serving at the bar, serving food at tables and clearing tables, steadily and efficiently but without much animation or energy.

I have a pint of a 5% speciality pale ale brewed at Banks’. Looking at what people are drinking, it divides about 2:1 between lager and bitter. Various people around the room are drinking unidentified bright red drinks (presumably cocktails of some sort). At the bar I see people ordering lager and bitter, including cask bitter; there are eight cask beers on, including the Wetherspoon’s standards Ruddles and Abbot, and the Sedge Lynn standard Moorhouse Blond Witch. At the bar I notice, and avoid, two man having an animated conversation; one of them is wearing a bobble hat. I notice that the man talking to him has ordered one drink.

Looking at what people are wearing I notice teeshirts and sweatshirts (some designer), jumpers and a few hoodies. I realise that, apart from the staff, I’m the only man there in a button-through shirt.

Four young men (late 20s?) on the table next to me are discussing politics – the EU referendum and the state of the Labour Party. They seem well-informed. The conversation moves on to Guinness, seen as a particularly challenging beer (“he said, we’ll chill it to fuck, you won’t have to taste it”) and past acquaintances who had been particularly fond of it (“he’d just drink pint after pint after pint of it… towards the end of the evening when everyone was on shots, he’d just have another pint of Guinness…”) After a while they all go outside for a smoke; my nearest neighbours are now an animated young couple (both drinking the red cocktails) and a balding man sitting alone, wearing headphones plugged into his phone. There is a slow but definite turnover of customers; perhaps 20 have left in the half hour I’ve been there and another ten arrived.

I decide to leave. On my way out I’m surprised to see a man openly vaping. Outside there are now about ten people sitting at tables; most but not all of them are smoking (not vaping).

I move on to the Marble Beerhouse, arriving around 9.35.

It’s busy, which in this case means there are about eighteen people in. Most are drinking pale cask or ‘craft keg’ beers; one man is on stout. Again, the clientele is mostly sat in twos or threes and mostly male. A few are sitting at the bar. Ages range from 25-35 up to 50-60; people are wearing teeshirts, button-through shirts and jackets, some looking quite expensive although not flashy. One young man has the full beard, gelled hair, checked shirt and serious expression of a ‘hipster’. Two young female staff are serving at the bar; it doesn’t keep them busy. They stand around chatting and occasionally go out for a smoke.

There are six cask beers on and six keg lines; apart from two of the keg beers, they are all Marble beers. Strengths range from 3.9% to 7.4%. I have a half of a 7.1% cask beer (“Double Dobber”) and follow it with a half of the 6.8% Marble Earl Grey IPA. (The Double Dobber is a one-off, made using home brew kit for the recent Manchester Beer Week; apparently it’s not legal for sale, and is therefore being given out free. Which is nice.)

There is background music, although it’s too quiet to make out. One wall is taken up with mirrors, framed posters and tin plate signs; the opposite wall is occupied by a display cabinet full of Marble bottles. Mostly the furniture consists of small tables, bentwood chairs and low wooden stools, but there is some upholstered seating towards the back of the pub. A leather sofa faces a deracinated church pew fitted with a long leather cushion, across a leather-topped coffee table; off to the right are a large barrel and a bookcase containing copies of the Good Beer Guide.

I tune into nearby conversations. Two middle-aged men are talking, and I work out that one is showing the other holiday pictures on his phone. “Really lucky to see the Northern Lights… Loads of different hot tubs…” Elsewhere in the pub I eavesdrop on a group of four young men – late 20s? – whose conversation centres on stag dos: “So I had a bottle of wine down my pants…They’re just copying us, it was our idea… Mulv will be in his element… Wait, did he get married? To who? Who’d he get married to?”

I notice that the music has got louder (it appears to be 70s rock) and the lights dimmer. I drink up my Earl Grey IPA and leave. Looking round I see that there has been very little turnover in the past half hour – the people there are basically the same people as when I went in.

So there you have it. It was an interesting exercise – apart from anything else, from now on I shall be much more self-conscious about my clothes when I go in a Spoons!

Golden wossnames

Quoth Andy Mogg:

here’s an updated list, with added bits for canned beer. Feel free to do a runner-up and a winner for each category (or some honourable mentions) and link to blog posts if you’ve written about winners before. Then post it between now and New Year’s Eve and leave a link in the comments….If you don’t have a blog and want to take part email me your entries and a photo or two and I’ll put them up on here.

I’ve volunteered to collate the results come the new year so

Best UK Cask Beer
Best UK Keg Beer
Best UK Bottled Beer
Best UK Canned Beer
Best Overseas Draught
Best Overseas Bottled Beer
Best Overseas Canned Beer
Best collaboration brew
Best Overall Beer
Best Branding
Best Pump Clip
Best Bottle Label
Best UK Brewery
Best Overseas Brewery
Best New Brewery Opening 2015
Pub/Bar of the Year
Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015
Beer Festival of the Year
Supermarket of the Year
Independent Retailer of the Year
Online Retailer of the Year
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Best Beer Blog or Website
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Best Brewery Website/Social media

Oh blimey. No way am I going through that list, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s just too long – “a runner-up and a winner” for each category would be fifty nominations, and I defy anyone to turn a fifty-item list into an interesting blog post. Secondly, I haven’t got nominations for a good half of the categories; I don’t think I devote that much time and mental energy to beer. I certainly don’t think about beer that systematically; I’m not dedicated to the assessment and classification of beer, breweries, pubs, etc, even on an amateur level. I just like writing blog posts, and when I’m writing about beer I do it here. And thirdly, because I don’t approach these things systematically, when something has stuck in my mind it’s almost invariably something that’s made a good impression on me recently: not so much ‘beers of 2015’ as ‘beers of November and December 2015’.

Having said all of that, here are the Oh Good Ale Golden Pints Things That Have Made A Good Impression On Me Recently 2015.

Real Ale A three-way tie here: Ticketybrew Blonde (Sandbar) is a classic, if a bit too sessionable for its strength; Cloudwater IPA (the 7.2%er; Pie & Ale) is superb, although the bar was taking the p. by selling it at £8.40/pint; and Vocation Chop & Change (Knott) is a beautifully balanced pale ale, from a new brewery that’s barely put a foot wrong yet.

Real Ale Inna Bag Inna Box Full marks to the Harewood Arms in Broadbottom, who had put a “CAMRA says this is real ale” label on the keg font dispensing Siren Soundwave; very nice it was too, if a bit on the fizzy side. Which leads to a question recently aired in the pages of What’s Brewing: given that you can’t vent them, won’t keykegs inevitably give you pressurised, gassy beer? Happily, the answer’s No: step forward Runaway DIPA (Font Chorlton), which tasted exactly like a cask beer (in fact I’ve had colder and ‘pricklier’ beer on cask before now). Key keg: it’s the future. (Of keg, that is. The future of cask beer is cask beer – always has been, always will be.)

Actual Evil Keg I hate to say it, but BrewDog Candy Kaiser (at the Olde Cock, of all places) was pretty damn good. £4.45/pint is a bit ouchy for Didsbury, though.

Small Brown Bottles I’ve just recently caved in and started buying ordinary-strength beer in 33 cl bottles (and occasionally cans), that being the size almost all the cool kids are using these days. The best bottled beer I’ve had recently was, without a doubt, Ticketybrew Pale. Just occasionally you hit a beer that makes you want to go full Adrian (“rich, coppery shades matched by a resonant richness of flavour, flavours that ring like a gong before fading like the dying embers of a glowing copper sunset…”). This was one of those beers, when I first met it on cask in 2013, and it’s still one of them now.

Foreign Beers From Foreign Places Made By Foreigners Yeah but no; not really my area at the moment. Memminger Kellerbier at a restaurant in Berlin, that was seriously good. I had Köstritzer Dunkel on tap at a pizza restaurant in Wiek and in bottle at Sandbar, which was nice. Schlenkerla Helles is good stuff, to say nothing of Chimay Gold (currently going for £2.49(!) at the Gateway in Parrs Wood).

Collab I was very pleasantly surprised by the Marble/All In unnamed bottled collab beer; I took it for a stout, while the till receipt described it as a black IPA, but it turned out to be something more like a Cascadian dubbel (a dubbel IPA?). Rather fine, although (ironically) I would have preferred a smaller bottle – I rarely want a full half-litre of an 8.5%er.

Things Of Beauty For cans I’d nominate RedWillow – check them out if you haven’t seen them, they’re really rather fine. Magic Rock cans are good, but these are something else. (Memo to Vocation: please invest in some canning equipment; those unpleasant-textured matt labels are costing you at least one potential customer.) For bottles, I feel like I ought to nominate Cloudwater, but their labels leave me cold – they have the look of a design classic, without actually being nice to look at. So I go for Ticketybrew, again – particularly for the short-run bottle with the label that said “Best enjoyed before: somebody else does”.

Festival I only usually go to three; this year I went to two and volunteered at the third one, an experience which left me shattered (and, ironically, rather thirsty). Both the other two (Stockport in June and Manchester in January) were really, really good. For a bit more detail, see posts from July, June and January 2015 here.

Pub I wonder if anyone reading this remembers the Crescent in the late 90s and early 00s. Thinking about it now, what I loved about the Crescent back then – apart from the fact that I’d go in on my way home from seeing my academic supervisor, meaning that it was always a welcome sight – was how ample it was. There was a nice, slightly tatty but comfortable front room to sit in, with enough natural light to read by; if that got busy, there was another front room, just as comfortable, on the other side of the bar. There were good beers on the bar; there were about eight good beers on the bar, in fact, so you’d never run out of choices. There was an excellent CD jukebox, which again was just waiting to be explored (I’d generally put on something from Astral Weeks – the title track or else Sweet Thing or Madam George – and follow it with You Can’t Always Get What You Want). And there were darker corners, for when you just wanted to let the time pass. And there was a real fire. And there was a cat…

Happy days. Anyway, ever since I stopped going to the Crescent I’ve been looking for pubs with that inexhaustible quality – pubs that make you want to keep coming back, because you know there will always be another beer to try and another corner to sit in, another perspective to take. The Marble Beerhouse, the (Heaton Lane) Crown, the (Portwood) Railway and the New Oxford all have it to some extent, but no pub I’ve been to has really rung that bell loud and clear until this year, when the Smithfield reopened as the Blackjack tap. Nice rooms, amazing beers, good prices: great pub.

Online Retailer Beer52; they’ve really upped their game.

Best Out Of All The Best Of The Bestest Bests No – it’d be ridiculous to nominate a best brewery, let alone a best beer. For me this year has belonged to Vocation, Cloudwater and Ticketybrew, but I’ve also mentioned Siren, Runaway, Marble, RedWillow, Magic Rock, Blackjack and the Scottish brewer; pick the bones out of that.

Best Mate Out Of All The Best Of The (you’ve done this one – Ed.) Back-scratching nonsense – I’m not naming anyone as my favourite beer blogger, tweeter or whatever. I mean, if I like your stuff, you’ll know already – and if you’re not in the running, why would you care?

(Non-)Event Of The Year It’s not so much Camden Town selling out; it’s not even the fact that they sold out after Meantime. What’s significant, to me, is the accident of timing which has meant that Camden sold out after Meantime had been put up for sale by its new owner. The scale of the global brewing oligopoly means that the way those companies operate is a very different proposition from brewing as we’ve known it, even in the days of the Big Six. A ‘craft’ sub-division of Watney Combe Reid might have been just as viable as, and no more questionable than, a ‘craft’ sub-division of Brain’s or Thwaites’ (OK, bad example). A ‘craft’ sub-division of AB-Inbev, though – let alone multiple separate ‘craft’ sub-divisions…? There may be trouble ahead.

In Case You Missed It What review of the year would be complete without a blog round-up? Not this one! These are a few of my favourite posts:

The hard stuff (“hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be”)
All about Brewhive (1, 2, 3)
A sceptical investigation of warm beer
My review of Un-Human Cannonball (“It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”)

And that’s your lot for 2015. A Happy New Year to all my English readers!

The hard stuff

Back to Brewhive anon; I just wanted to fit in one of my rare Session contributions.

The topic for The Session this month is “the hard stuff” – meaning hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be.

I can think of a few inconvenient truths, elephants in the room and the like:

  • A pub is more than a place that sells beer. We generally think pubs are a good thing and would sign up to a campaign to save the British pub, but we haven’t got much of a clue how to save them or even what they need saving from: we don’t know (or don’t agree) when British pubs were at their best, what was good about them or what changes in pub management have been bad for them.
  • A nicotine habit is very hard to break; barring smokers from pubs will not lead many of them to give up, but will lead a lot of them to stop going to pubs. This in itself may have adverse health consequences. We’re told that the health benefits associated with low levels of alcohol consumption may actually be associated with having a healthy social life; if this is the case, the smoking ban will have impaired the health of some of the very people it’s supposed to be helping.
  • Pricing matters. Telling people they can find the money if they really want to isn’t the answer. Overpricing matters; feeling that you’ve been ripped off matters. Telling people not to pay a price if they think it’s too high isn’t the answer.
  • Expensive beer is not the same as cheap beer. While all draught beer is available at roughly the same price point, all draught beer will (continue to) attract similar drinkers. As with the smoking ban, people used to paying £3 for a pint will not suddenly change their ideas about what beer is worth if you start charging them £5 and £6; they just won’t pay it. Different people will, and for different reasons (the appeal of quality, variety and exclusivity, rather than the appeal of something to drink on a night out). Changes like this will affect the nature of pubs and bars.
  • A campaigning organisation is not the same thing as a membership organisation with a small minority of active campaigners. If you’re building the second of these, you can’t be surprised if you don’t end up with the first.
  • Cask beer comes out cloudy if it hasn’t been allowed to settle properly, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be cloudy’. Cask beer goes sour when it goes off, and this is a fault – even if the beer is ‘meant to be sour’.
  • Regular low-level alcohol consumption – mostly of beer – used to be normal in this country; over the last two decades it has been substantially denormalised, and there’s no sign that the process has stopped. People who don’t drink small amounts of alcohol regularly don’t stop drinking altogether; they do develop a different relationship with alcohol, and not necessarily a healthier one.
  • Unfiltered key keg complete with live yeast is real ale – real ale that continues to attenuate in the keg, can go sour, and can be cloudy if it hasn’t settled properly.

But I think the issue I’d really like to draw attention to is beer quality everywhere else. I went to Leeds today, and I went to North Bar on my way home. Of course I did – I knew they’d have all the beers I could want and a few I didn’t know I wanted. If I’d had room for another after that I would have looked in at the Brewery Tap, or possibly Friends of Ham. Leeds also has half a dozen Samuel Smith’s pubs and a similar number of Spoons. What the beer’s like everywhere else, I neither know nor care. But I feel as if I should care – at least, somebody should.

I first became interested in CAMRA when Richard Boston wrote about the campaign in the Guardian, albeit that I was officially too young to drink at the time. The impression I gained of CAMRA back then, which I’ve held to pretty much ever since, is that it’s a campaign for real ale everywhere: for as long as you can walk into a random pub in a strange town and not find real ale – for as long as Pete Brown can still find crap beer in Chesterfield – the campaign still has a job to do. And, when the glorious day dawns and the last pub selling John Smith’s Smooth replaces it with Spitfire or Bombardier, we go back to first principles and campaign for revitalised real ale. I’ve never seen CAMRA as a campaign for some real ale, or as a campaign for real ale aficionados – or even a campaign for some really good beer to be available if you know where to look.

The front line in the battle for decent beer isn’t in North Bar, Smithfield and the like; they’re well behind the lines. It’s in every pub that takes cask off altogether – or puts it back on; every pub where the cask beer is so dismal that you’d be better off with a bottle of Beck’s, and every pub that’s like that but then improves. I’m not volunteering to spend my spare time checking the quality of pints of GK IPA or Hobgoblin or Cumberland, let alone sticking my nose into keg pubs to check that they still are keg-only; I’d much rather be checking out what’s new and different at the Smithfield. But to the extent that CAMRA’s a campaign rather than a drinking club, that is the kind of thing that more of us CAMRA members should be doing. And, to the extent that beer blogs are about more than swapping tasting notes, that’s the kind of issue that more of us bloggers should care about.

Mixing it

Late contribution to The Session #88.

There’s only one beer mix I’ve drunk at all… well, I was going to write ‘at all regularly’, but now I think of it the last word isn’t necessary; there’s really only one beer mix I’ve drunk at all. I was introduced to it one time when I was travelling and bought a round for some people I didn’t know very well. This was at a time when for some reason I thought it would be terribly uncool to actually ask somebody what they’d been drinking – either that or I was just shy – so some guesswork was involved. Mostly people were drinking straight lager or bitter, but one guy was mixing his drinks. I took a stab and ordered him “a half of Guinness in a pint glass with a bottle of Guinness poured into the same glass”; it took a bit of explaining to the barmaid, and came out looking all wrong (about six inches of cumulo-nimbus head, apart from anything else). Next round someone else was getting them in, & I heard him asking the mixed stout drinker if he wanted a “black and tan” – which turned out to be a half of bitter with a bottle of Guinness on top, and no massive head. I tried it myself when I got back to civilisation and found it a great improvement on Holt’s bitter without the Guinness, although on reflection I found I couldn’t say exactly why. The closest I could get was that it didn’t taste of anything at all. I’ve never much liked sourness in beers, and in the Guinness/bitter mix the citric sourness of the bitter and the burnt-grain sourness of the Guiness somehow cancelled each other out, leaving me with this big, rich, mouth-filling… nothing very much. I alternated bitter & B&T for a while, then started reserving a B&T for the last drink of the night and eventually gave it up; by this time I was drinking in places that offered a bit more choice than Holt’s bitter and bottled Guinness.

So the idea of the Session #88 didn’t appeal to me very much. But the round-up made it sound interesting enough to make me want to give it a go, particularly when I noticed that – while B&B had tried a couple of Burton & Bitters – nobody had had a go at a ‘mother-in-law’, a.k.a. old and bitter (ho ho). So I pulled out a bottle of Landlord and one of Old Tom and set to.

Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (4.1%): light, thin-bodied, big tannic bitterness, very drinkable.

Robinson’s Old Tom (8.5%): heavy, sweetish, complex, superb.

Lord Tom (2/3 Landlord, 1/3 Old Tom): surprisingly thin. There’s a bit of sweetness there but without the oomph of Old Tom, and almost all the bitterness of Landlord seems to have gone. There’s not much flavour there at all, to be honest. Tastes like a mix, in a bad way – or else it just tastes like a rather bland bitter with some kind of syrup dropped in it.

Old Landlord (1/3 Landlord, 2/3 Old Tom): a bit more successful. The sweetness of the Old Tom is more in evidence in this mix, but oddly enough so is the bitterness of the Landlord; they combine & conflict in some fairly interesting ways. In a blind tasting I think I would have taken this for an actual beer, perhaps a relatively light Belgian dubbel – although not a particularly good one, if I’m brutally honest. If you were determined to mix Landlord and Old Tom I’d recommend you did it in these proportions – but only after I’d tried to talk you out of it.

How was my mother-in-law? Well, I wouldn’t say my mother-in-law’s thin, but… it was; also, just a bit bland and uninteresting. Perhaps the problem was using two beers which have such a strong character of their own – or perhaps the problem was just using two beers I like.

All in all, the experiment confirms my initial view of beer-mixing: that it’s something you do with two beers whose taste you don’t much like, to mask those flavours and leave you with something that’s drinkable but doesn’t taste of much. And the only time you’d want to do that is when there was nothing to drink whose taste you did like. I’m as nostalgic as the next CAMRA member for the world of pubs serving two bitters and a mild from the brewery down the road, but that lack of choice – unless you got on your bike – obviously had its disadvantages. Beer-mixing was, perhaps, a way of mitigating those disadvantages; it solved a problem, but a problem that we don’t have any more.

 

‘And yet, Lady Alice, even pigs have feelings.’

Quick bleg: That London.

Yes, I know it’s a big place (see above). But for this trip, just to make things more interesting, I’m working under a set of arbitrarily-imposed* constraints, viz. and to wit:

  1. Nowhere that doesn’t serve cask, I don’t care who you are.
  2. And I’m not going to bloody Hoxton. (Let’s face it, I wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t like me.)
  3. In fact, let’s think central. Bloomsbury, West End, South Bank, that kind of manor.
  4. Only not the City. Tried drinking in the City. Didn’t like it. (Great scrums of Agent Smiths outside every single pub.) Ended up in a Spoons.
  5. Oh, and (IMPORTANT) I’ll have three non- or occasional drinkers in tow, one of whom is aged 14 & gets uncomfortable in predominantly male environments (see previous).
  6. And (ALSO IMPORTANT) we’ll be looking for food, more often than not.
  7. And we don’t want to end up in Spoons, again.

Have at it in comments, you who know these things.

*Not really.

Update We’re back. Where did we get to? Glad you asked. We got to

The Holborn Whippet. Wow. Saved the best for, er, first. I had a fair-to-middling winter ale whose name I forget and a Redemption Trinity, which was fab. This was from a choice of eight cask and as many keg beers, which I could have happily worked my way through had time allowed. We were there for lunch & had a 16″ pizza and a plate of chips between the three of us; it was all good. Great beer, great food – reasonably priced, too (the beer was cheaper than at some of the pubs in Chorlton, which is quite something for central London). I’ll go there again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Many thanks to Reading Tom in comments for this recommendation.

The Grafton Arms was the next day’s lunchtime destination, chosen (a) because it was there and (b) because it didn’t look rammed (a cursory search for pubs on Tottenham Court Road had been called off the previous night for lack of (b) qualifiers). The food came 35 minutes after ordering – not particularly remarkable, except that we’d been warned that it would take an hour; not sure if this was inefficiency or cunning expectations management. I had Portobello Star, which was fine if not especially memorable, and Meantime Pale (keg), which was a bit thin (and fizzy). The food was good and, again, cheaper than we’d expected. (The G. A. is a Taylor Walker pub; not a chain I’d seen before, but there seem to be a few of them in That London, complete with identical food menus. I think you could do a lot worse.)

The next day’s early-afternoon stop was the Elgin, which is now run by a chain called Geronimo, although at one time (according to Somebody On The Net) it was “the second dodgiest pub in Ladbroke Grove”. Whatever – it’s a big place with what look like some genuinely old fixtures and fittings; the overall effect is somewhere between a junkshop and a small stately home. We weren’t lunching that day (two words: Premier Inn), but I had a Young’s Special, which once again has failed to make any noticeable imprint on my memory (I ought to make notes, really).

And then there was the near-obligatory station stop, which in our case means the Doric Arch. Bengal Lancer was on draught, and very nice it was too.

Summing up: some nice pubs, some good food, some oddly unmemorable beers. And the Holborn Whippet.

Letter from West Point

W4712BATEMANSVINTAGEALE_SHAD_040929

Mmm, beer

A few quick updates.

My career as a beer reviewer has taken another step forward with the arrival of a bottle of the stuff pictured right, a limited-edition 7.5% barleywine from Bateman’s brewed to a historical recipe; this is going to be on sale via the slightly surprising route of Aldi. Although I can’t deny myself the habitual moan about large bottles for strong beers – the historical beer on which it was based seems to have been bottled in half-pints, which seems much more sensible – the beer itself does look rather special. The aforementioned supermarket will be selling it at £3.29 for 500 ml, which could be a bit of a bargain. One touch I particularly liked is that the label has a ‘best after’ rubric as well as ‘best before’ – specifically, it’s best after December 2012 and best before December 2037. Unfortunately I’ll be drinking it ‘young’ – I don’t think I can keep my hands off it till the new year. I’ll keep you posted.

Anyone with a view on unit-based minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks needs to read this reaction to the government’s latest wheeze from Damian McBride, who (in his own words) was responsible for alcohol duty in the Treasury between 1999-2002. McBride was the man behind Progressive Beer Duty, and on that basis alone would deserve a knighthood for services to microbreweries. (Assuming for the moment that services to microbreweries are a good thing.) On minimum pricing, he argues that the government’s proposed scheme – a simple fiat that alcoholic drinks shall not be sold below a certain price per unit – is unenforceable as designed and hence would never be enforced. (Local authority inspectors would have the power to demand that under-priced booze be removed from sale, but they would swoop into action when they receive complaints. That’ll work.) Even if command-based minimum pricing turns out to be legal – which is dubious – it looks as if it isn’t going to happen. But that leaves open the back-up option of enforcing minimum pricing through the tax & duty system, which would be simpler, more straightforward and less dodgy legally, as well as channelling the extra money to the government rather than the retailer. In political terms it’s eminently possible, in other words – which makes it rather unfortunate that a duty-based minimum price would be an even bigger disaster, for beer drinkers in particular. McBride explains why here, in a post which would make a great unofficial slogan for CAMRA when they campaign on this issue. (Oh, wait – CAMRA support minimum pricing. Silly me.)

Speaking of pricing… As local readers will already know, a Chorlton outpost of the Port Street Beer House opened recently. The Beagle – which I’m afraid I shall be calling the Bugle, for entirely puerile reasons – is one of those bare-boards, 70s-soundtrack, cutting-edge-beers places that used to be so much rarer than they are now. I don’t think it’s going to be a regular haunt. They’re going quite heavily for food, with quite a high ratio of tables to pub-type seating – which made me feel as comfortable as that arrangement usually does – and they’re big on craft keg. The cask range was excellent when I was in – two from Magic Rock, which was nice to see – and even on the keg side the pricing was, like Kevin Phillips-Bong, only slightly silly. But…

Well, it’s the keg thing. Me and craft keg, we’re just never going to get on. I think that’s going to be an early New Year’s resolution: just not to bother with it any more. The beer in this case was Lovibond‘s Dirty 69, which I was genuinely quite excited to see & keen to try. Summary: it was obtrusively fizzy, it was way too cold and the flavour didn’t develop. There was an interesting enough flavour there, but nothing very striking – or rather, there were occasional hints at something striking, but no more than hints. What I love about a good beer is the sense of lingering over it and getting to know it – the way the bottom half of the glass tells you something different than the top half & makes you want to find out more. (I say ‘glass’ – I’ve had this experience with a pint of mild and with a third of imperial stout.) I didn’t get any of that; just a pleasant-tasting fizzy drink with a bit of an alcoholic kick (although nothing like you’d expect from its a.b.v. of 6.9%). As I said in another post, I’ve seen it suggested that kegging takes the edge of extreme flavours and heavy alcohol content, making strong and ‘extreme’ beers more drinkable. I think I’m coming to the conclusion that that’s exactly what I don’t like about it.

The BugleBeagle has a great deal of local competition; I remember when there was nothing between the Whalley and the Seymour and nothing between that and the Royal Oak, meaning that (as the pub columnist in the South Manchester Reporter once noted) anyone planning a pub crawl in this area would need an obliging friend or a stout pony. Walk from the Whalley to the Royal Oak now and you’d pass ten drinking establishments (the Seymour not included, obviously), all but two of which serve real ale – and beyond the Royal Oak we’re equally spoiled for choice. So I was quite keen on the idea of the Chorlton Challenge, a mammoth pub crawl organised last weekend by the local CAMRA branch. I didn’t show up for it in the end, though, very largely because of that word ‘weekend’. Try and fit any more than nine or ten pubs into a day and, with the best will in the world, you’re going to get utterly bladdered. This may appeal to people who don’t have family commitments – or work on Monday – but shouldn’t CAMRA be trying to appeal beyond those rather well-mined demographics? A Challenge over a week would be much more manageable, if a bit less sociable.

One final note, on the blog itself. Tandleman’s recent announcement of his historic 1000th post prompted a bit more blog-related navel-gazing, which I deleted when it started to bore even me. However, I will just say that this is a milestone post for me – it’s my 100th. (Don’t know how Tandleman does it – at this rate I’ll be hitting four figures some time around 2030.) To celebrate this auspicious occasion I’ve given the blog a minor overhaul. I’ve recently implemented ‘categories’ and a ‘category cloud’ – on the right – so that anyone who wants to dig down to a particular topic can do so. I think they’re all reasonably self-explanatory.

Footnote of Local Interest Only

When we first looked at our house there was a certain amount of throat-clearing from the estate agent about its location – it’s Chorlton-cum-Hardy…ish. Well, OK, it’s not Chorlton Chorlton, but it’s very much in the Chorlton area… Chorlton’s just down the road, put it that way. We didn’t mind this, but we did start to wonder after a while where to tell people we were. Whalley Range was out for obvious reasons, and Firswood didn’t sound right. I consulted some old maps and discovered that our best option was West Point. So this – and every other post on this blog – is just what the title says, a letter from West Point. (We say ‘Chorlton’ these days – but then, these days Chorlton is a place to be, and the name covers pretty much everything from the Feathers to the Throstle’s Nest (as were).)

Mr and Mrs Gnome-Aitz and their son…

The London Review of Books

It’s a right riveting read

Yes, it’s a Late Arrival, this time for the Session.

I never seem to notice the Sesh until it’s over; usually it’s no great loss as the topic doesn’t inspire me, but just occasionally a topic is right up my alley. As is this one: drinking in pubs alone.

Conviviality, relaxation, spontaneity; these are some of the great things about drinking in pubs. These days I mostly seem to experience them alone.

Here’s when I drink in company, in descending order of frequency:

  1. When I’m playing or singing at a folk club / singaround. The odd thing about these is that, although they’re usually held in pubs or clubs, they aren’t especially convivial occasions – or at least, the conviviality happens through the music; you don’t spend a lot of the evening chatting over beer. Musical sessions are a particularly extreme example – essentially, two hours of playing traditional tunes, pausing only to draw breath and take the odd gulp.
  2. With my family, usually having a meal, generally in JDW’s. Well, JDW’s, what is there to say? Excellent beer sometimes – but again, it’s generally not the most convivial of experiences.
  3. On work do’s. Nothing against a work do, particularly after the first pint or two. But I have got a problem with big gatherings in general, which is that I’m a bit deaf in one ear – so if the group, or the pub, is at all noisy I have to make an effort to keep up with the conversation, and don’t always succeed.
  4. Meeting a friend for a drink. This is the real deal in terms of conviviality, as long as nobody falls ill or throws a strop, but I don’t do it much; we’re talking number of times per year rather than per month, and they’re generally arranged well in advance. Also, the deaf thing is sometimes a problem.

Here’s when I drink alone, also from most to least frequent:

  1. On Saturday nights, one pint before ordering our regular takeaway and another before picking it up. Good beer, leisurely early-evening weekend atmosphere and something good to read (usually the London Review of Books). Half an hour of mildly alcohol-fuelled semi-intellectual reverie and relaxation: bliss.
  2. On occasional weekday evenings after dropping my daughter at one of her regular activities (on foot, I hasten to add). Usually I turn round and go home again, but sometimes I stay out and pick her up afterwards, spending the next hour with a couple of pints of something decent and the London Review of Books. An hour of [see above], made a bit less blissful by slightly less relaxed mid-evening weeknight atmosphere (darker, noisier, busier).
  3. On occasional weekday afternoons when I’m not working (I work part-time), and I feel like celebrating or it’s hot or something. A leisurely pint, or sometimes just a half, watching the world go by and – just for a change – reading the London Review of Books. Again, the atmosphere falls a bit short of Saturday evening, for the opposite reason – it’s generally a bit dead (although not completely – I’m never the only person in there, and I’m usually not the only person drinking alone).
  4. On tickers’ pub crawls, e.g. Mild Magic or the Winter Warmer Wander. I really enjoy seeing a variety of pubs and getting to know different beers, and doing it on my own doesn’t bother me; I’ve always got something to read (it’s often the London Review of Books).

You get the rough idea. Drinking isn’t really a social thing for me; by and large, it’s something I do alone in a social setting. I’m not totally anti-social – I don’t actually prefer newsprint to a chat with a friend. But if that’s not a possibility – which it quite often isn’t – a pint with the LRB isn’t a bad alternative.