Category Archives: Imaginary friends

‘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


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.

The Session #52: Beer collectibles

Here, slightly late, is my contribution to this month’s Session: beer collectibles.

But what do we mean by ‘collectibles’? It’s a bit of an ambiguous word – does it mean “stuff that can be collected” or “stuff that is worth collecting”? I’ve got little or no interest in the latter – boasting about your rare and interesting bottle-top is next door to boasting about the fact that you’ve drunk a rare and interesting beer, and that’s the kind of thing that encourages tulipomaniac tendencies. But if “collectibles” are things you can collect – bottles, beermats, fortune cookie mottoes, bus tickets – I’m right there. Sometimes it just seems like a good idea not to chuck stuff out.

Stuff I haven’t chucked out includes a couple of Felinfoel beermats (self-explanatory) and a couple for Caraca, a Brazilian ‘cane beer’ that was unsuccessfully launched here in the 1990s. (As far as I remember the beer was pretty revolting, but they distributed some unusually solid beermats – coasters, really – two of which I’m still using.) I used to have a double-sided Orval beermat, that I’d made myself by gluing two single-sided ones together, but I had to throw it out after my son chewed the edges off in idle moments. My bottle collection used to be more extensive than it is; I kept a Hobec bottle (with the weird screw-in stopper) for several years, not because Hobec was particularly special (it was an Allied Breweries brand) but because it reminded me of going to a pub after work and putting “The Only One I Know” on the juke box. I have kept one empty bottle (Marble Decadence, the original bottling; 330 ml with painted-on label) and two cans (D&G Crucial Brew and Newton and Ridley bitter, a real beer from a fictional brewery).

And then there are the bottle-tops. Although I’ve been a CAMRA fellow-traveller since before I could drink legally, I’ve only got seriously into tasting and comparing real ales in the last decade (roughly as long as I’ve been drinking at the Marble Beer House, not at all coincidentally). I drank a fair few posey imports in the decade before that (the likes of Red Stripe and Sol, not to mention Caraca and Hobec) and even when I was drinking proper beer I was mostly into European stuff – where by ‘European’ I mean ‘mostly Belgian’. (Again not very coincidentally, this was also roughly the decade before the euro took all the fun out of buying European beer.) And if, thanks to Carrington’s or the Belgian Belly, you’ve got your hands on a Sloeber or a Rochefort 6, you’re not just going to chuck the cap in the bin afterwards. Well, I’m not. So I started keeping interesting and unusual bottletops in a bowl, along with old badges and other small metallic odds and ends. Over time they migrated to a larger bowl, then to a bowl with a lid (not my idea) and finally to an old coffee jar, where they’re reasonably visible but don’t collect dust (this is what’s known as a compromise solution). When the jar started filling up I dug out another one and split the collection into British and foreign; the British collection is still pretty paltry by comparison with the ROTW, but it’s gaining.

Jake Thackray used to introduce a religious song by saying “This is a song of which I’m not very… ashamed.” Well, I’m not very ashamed to have a bottle-top collection – they’re not things of any value, but they’re mildly interesting, they don’t take up much space, and why not? Or perhaps I should say, I’m not very ashamed…

Some folks like radishes

Since I work part-time, I’m heading to the lunchtime session at Stockport Beer (And Cider) Festival tomorrow (Friday). Much beer will be sampled, including at least four milds (Mild Magic having left me with four bona fide beer tokens, redeemable only against mild (and only up to 5% a.b.v. at that, so no Well Cut for me)). Padding is important at these sessions, so I’m hoping the food will be up to scratch.

Anyone who’s going to be there and knows me, I’ll see you there! Anyone who’s going to be there and doesn’t know me, I should be easy to spot – I’ll be the middle-aged guy with a beard and a bit of a beer gut. I should stick out a mile.

O Dalek, I love you

On the 1st December 2010, Antony Hayes (who seems like a sound bloke) left the following comment on my rather excessively contentious post Down with Craft Beer!:

The term “craft” conjures up images of my granny’s crochet club.

Big breweries can make great beer – Castle Milk Stout for one.
Real ale is often oxidised.

Using “real ale” or “craft beer” to mean “good beer” is sloppy.

Judge the beer in the glass – not how it got there.

On the 22nd April 2011, this follow-up comment appeared:

yea i agree with you antony, it should be how it tastes not how it was made the end result is what count.

I didn’t think much about this rather vacuous comment, until I noticed the name of the commenter: a certain “electric kettle”, whose user ID links to an electric kettle review site. It’s spam, in other words – spam that’s not only good enough to get through WordPress’s filters but good enough to fool a human, viz. me.

On the 19th of April 2011, Skynet became self-aware; it launched its attack on the human race two days later.

Just saying.

(Happy Easter, btw, and apologies for the long silence. Normal posting will be resumed as soon as possible.)

Getting warmer (3)

As I may have mentioned once or twice, my taste in beer has a definite tilt towards the tawny and malty end of things, so the National Winter Ales Festival was right up my alley. In fact, if I had any criticism of the range of beers on offer, it would be that it was too broad – a festival consisting entirely of best bitters, strong milds, old ales and barley wines would have suited me fine. But there was some very fine beer to be had all the same.

I’d be lying if I said I had a clear memory of my visit to the NWAF, but I have got several different clear memories. For example…

Not meeting Pete Brown. The very first person I saw when I reached the venue was the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! Wow, I thought, the bloggers are here tonight! Unfortunately I don’t actually know the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! to speak to, and I certainly wasn’t going to charge up to him and say “hey, you’re the Famous Pete Brown!!!1!”. (If I’d had more presence of mind I could have scribbled a quick comment on a post-it note and passed it to him – “Wot no keg??!? Just kidding! – Phil (Oh Good Ale)”.) And I don’t think the bloggers were out in force; at least, I didn’t see anyone I recognised, not even Tandleman. No matter, there was

Beer to sink (into). I drank my first half while doing a circuit of the venue, and my second while doing another circuit in search of somewhere a solitary drinker could sit down (it was busy). By this time I was losing my inhibitions with regard to plonking myself down in vacant seats – which was just as well because the third – Thornbridge Saint Petersburg – was not a beer to be knocked back or swigged while vertical. I settled down with my imperial stout and my LRB and let the world roll away. Memories of this part of the evening are particularly vague, but I do remember reading a piece about the photographer Francesca Woodman, who had an extraordinary career before she killed herself at the age of 22(!); I composed a poem on the spot about how unbearable it is to live in a world where talented people like Woodman, Nick Drake and Peter Bellamy commit suicide, and got slightly tearful thinking about it. What can I say, it was fun at the time (and alcohol is a depressant, after all).

Curry and chips. Don’t knock it, I say. After I’d drunk myself sober – or at least into a state where I wasn’t feeling maudlin any more – I hit the fixed-price hot buffet and worked my way through a plateful of onion bhajis, vegetable curry, lamb curry, pilau rice, chicken and mushroom pie and chips. (What was I meant to do, these people kept offering me food.) Very nice indeed. I think I’ve had a better lamb curry, but I don’t remember when. I also remember finding room for a plate of chips later on, and a bag of Seabrook’s after that. Disgusting, really, overdoing it like that – I’m sure I was way over my daily allowance of deep-fried food.

Cash to burn. I’m a sucker for a tombola; at past festivals I’ve come away with a pump clip (since sold on eBay) and a 2001 Stockport Beer and Cider Festival half-pint (still knocking about). This time round my luck was in, as I won twice in four tickets, which I reckon comes in at a probability of 64/625 or just over 1/10. The numbers secured me one(1) copy of Clive la Pensée and Roger Protz’s CAMRA-published Homebrew Classics: Stout and Porter, and one(1) bottle of beer: pick a bottle, any bottle, and never mind that they’re all six feet away at the back of the stall. I went for… er… that one, which turned out to be Liverpool Organic Brewery’s William Roscoe. It’s a light, floral pale ale, says the label; having drunk it (several days later, I hasten to add) I can confirm that if you like the kind of beer where the hops do a kind of gymnastic display using the malt as a mat, you’ll like this. (I don’t, particularly – which is why I was at the Winter Ales Festival in the first place – but it was a pretty good beer.) I didn’t initially take much interest in the book – I’ve never really fancied brewing my own – but on inspection I think it’s a bit of a find: Clive la Pensée (who wrote most of the book) appears to be Martyn Connell‘s evil twin, with an even greater appetite for historical brewing trivia and even stronger opinions, mostly about how brewing has gone to the dogs since the eighteenth century. The blurb on the back of the book promises that it gives “full instructions for brewing your own Stouts and Porters with modern ingredients”, but I think this is wishful thinking. A quick scan of the book reveals 27 different recipes, but out of these all 27(!) are labelled ‘historical’ and only three look at all followable – and those three are prefixed with comments like “now things go from bad to worse”. I think this is going to be my kind of beer book.

A plastic bag. I was now wandering around the festival carrying a half-pint glass, a programme, a London Review of Books, a book on porter and a 500 ml bottle of beer, a combination which you couldn’t call wieldy; in fact, I had the book and the bottle stashed in a jacket pocket, which even in my fairly advanced state of inebriation struck me as not a good look. So I joined CAMRA. I hasten to add, the fact that they were handing out sturdy plastic carrier bags wasn’t the only reason I signed up – I’d been thinking of joining for a while – but it was certainly a consideration. The bag contained a membership pack (including £20 worth of 50p JDW’s vouchers , which should nicely cover the first year’s membership fee) plus a copy of last year’s Good Beer Guide; I was also given a pint’s worth of beer tokens, which was nice. But mainly I was just glad to have somewhere to stash my book and my bottle.

Oh, and good ale. I had eleven different halves and thirds in the end; I kept count on the back of the programme, and if all the measures had been on the line I would have had the equivalent of half a pint at 49% – or five pints at 4.9%. (As most if not all of them were slightly over, we can call it a round 5%.) Say sixteen units (calculations here); on a week night, that was plenty for me. Here’s what I had and what I remember about it (if anything):

Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild was my first beer. The first time I had it, I got the impression of a really good beer that hadn’t quite come off. Unfortunately it was the same this time.
Robinson’s Ginger Tom (4.3%) was, I’m afraid, the dud of the evening for me. It’s not made with ginger but with Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, and it tasted it; the only contribution the Tom seemed to make was to make it even sweeter. I’ll look out for the 6% version all the same.
Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Oh my. A very fine – and very strong – imperial stout: black as ink, heavy as gravy, with a flavour that makes you take your time and an alcohol content that demands it. Lovely beer. I couldn’t drink a pint of it, though, or not without clearing the evening.
Coniston No 9 Barley Wine After that it got better. “Rich in fruit flavours with marzipan, herbal hoppiness and cognac overtones”, says the programme. Just next to that I felt moved to write my own notes, which said: “Genius beer”. Excellent stuff.
Allgates Mad Monk Oh blimey, not another imperial stout! I realised as soon as I’d paid for this that I’d been expecting an old ale, possibly influenced by Marston’s Merrie Monk. (The monk in this case is Rasputin.) It was good, I’ll give them that – not quite up there with Saint Petersburg, but good.
Otley O Garden This was a bit disappointing. I could tell what they were aiming for, but they weren’t really anywhere near; it reminded me more of Marble Ginger than anything.
Dunham Massey Winter Warmer This was more like it.
Round about this time I had a pint of Dandelion and Burdock (but draught Dandelion and Burdock, none of your bottled muck).
Then Saddleworth Shaftbender was off (at least, I don’t think it was supposed to taste sour), so I went for
Bragdy’r Nant Mwnci Nell; I had to have at least one Welsh beer. This one was… OK. Like Jerry, I was mostly relieved to find that it couldn’t taste the ‘roasty fishy notes’.
Hawkshead Red sounded like my sort of thing, as did
Exmoor Beast. My memory is not forthcoming with regard to these ones. This was around the time that I overheard a volunteer saying that all the people who’d got there at 5.00 when it opened would be “reaching capacity” about then. I got there at 5.15.
As for Fuller’s London Porter, I had no recollection of this being my last beer of the evening until I checked back through the programme just now. I’m sure it was very nice.

Good beers, including a couple of classics; good food, good venue, good volunteers. In short, a right good do.

Avoid the humdrum

Following a fairly unusual session at a highly unusual pub, Zak wrote:

If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

I think this is asking the wrong question, or at least starting the argument too late. Real ale may be a living thing, but it doesn’t have feelings – beer can’t be ‘elitist’ any more than it can be intelligent, left-wing or prone to depression. Obviously what Zak meant by ‘elitist beer’ is ‘beer which is designed for elitists and shows it’, but that begs the question of who these elitists are.

So what is elitism in beer-appreciation? A while ago in a thread from hell on BeerAdvocate, I advanced the argument that the term “real ale” isn’t inherently elitist:

it may be eccentric, it may even be reactionary, but it’s basically just saying “let’s everyone do it the way they used to, because it was better”

This position did not meet with universal approval:

seems like the definition of elitism to label all other beers as “fake, phoney, ersatz, imitation.”

Hmm. So is that the definition of elitism – saying “the thing I like is the real thing”? And if not, what is?

Proposition 1: Saying “this beer is good” is not elitist.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with that one isn’t going to feel very comfortable with the beer blogosphere, or other people. Moving on:

Proposition 2: Saying “this beer is better than that beer” is not elitist.
I suppose there is an argument (at this point you can probably hear me bending over backwards to be fair) that it would be arrogant to say that a beer I happen to like is better than a beer I don’t like. It’s not an argument I share. I don’t think you can like beer (or anything else, really) without at some point thinking “now that’s good!“; it’s even possible to recognise that a beer you don’t particularly like is a good piece of work. (I’m happy to agree with the general opinion that Jaipur is a very fine beer. I’d also be happy never to drink it again.)

Now it starts to get a bit more controversial.

Proposition 3: Saying “this beer which I’ve had and you haven’t is better than that beer which you’ve had” is not elitist.
It can’t be, logically – otherwise it would be an act of elitism to introduce someone to a new beer. I think this gets confused in people’s minds with a slightly different statement:

Proposition 4: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t is better than that beer which you can get“… may or may not be elitist.
This is a difficult one. The key question is, why can’t ‘you’ get it? If the answer is, because you’re not in Huddersfield (or Helston, or St Helier) then I’m with Zak – Huddersfieldism is not elitism. I mean, there is no conceivable elite whose membership is defined by commuting distance from Huddersfield (I’m fairly sure about this one). Going back to BeerAdvocate, banging on about the real-ness of cask ale to a bunch of American beer geeks with no way of experiencing the difference might not have been sensitive or tactful, but it wasn’t elitism; just Huddersfieldism on a larger scale.

If the answer is, because you haven’t got a spare £350 to spend on 24 bottles of beer, the relevant definition of ‘elite’ seems a bit more obvious. I think I disagree with Zak on this point – I think money does make a difference. There is a kind of rough-and-ready elitism which is defined by having cash to burn and moving in circles where everyone else does too. An example would be the slighting reference in the Guardian‘s listings section a while back to “the kind of people who buy their clothes from Next”. (Me, I only go to Next when I’m feeling flush.)

But I’m more interested in a third possible answer, which I think gets us closer to a definition of beer elitism. What if the reason why you’ll never taste Brew X is that it costs a tenner a bottle, and you just wouldn’t dream of blowing that kind of money on a bottle of beer, even if you had the money lying around? Or what if it’s a short-run bottling which was consumed in its entirety at a beer writers’ dinner (invitation only naturellement)? I think I’m on stronger ground here:

Proposition 5: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you can get” is elitist.

And the reason it’s elitist is that it’s not about the beer or even the price of the beer: it’s about the people. Elitism is fundamentally about saying “we’re better than you”:

Proposition 6: Saying “this beer which I like because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you like” is elitist.

And this attitude has got nothing to do with price or availability; elitists often find it satisfying to demonstrate that they are different from the rest of us through the amount they spend on their passion, but the elitism comes first. You can have a passion for making good stuff available to everyone who wants it and still end up selling at the high end (or on Guernsey). (I don’t think of Dave as an elitist, for example, despite his keen awareness of who’s got money to spend.) On the other hand, you can be an obnoxiously blatant elitist, broadcasting your contempt for the common herd, and still put affordable beer on supermarket shelves; why you would want to do this I’m not quite sure, but I know that it can be done. Elitism is quite compatible with mass appeal: all you need to do is make everyone feel like they’re better than the common herd. At every university in the country there’s a group of first-year students who are dedicated to experiencing the hottest curry, the best drugs, the most alcohol, and think the rest of their year are wusses – and there are a lot of universities in the country.

So was Zak drinking ‘elitist beer’? I’m not sure. The Mikkeller thing with all the IBUs certainly sounds like something brewed for a very specific market – a kind of wannabe-connoisseur crowd, lacking the palate or experience of genuine connoisseurs but filling the gap with a juvenile passion for extremes (not unlike those first-year curry warriors). So that one sounds a bit on the elitist side; the others don’t, particularly. (I do envy Zak the Celebrator – but that’s Huddersfieldism rather than elitism.)

I intend to drink some good beer on Thursday evening, but it won’t be uniquely good beer – beer like nobody else is drinking for miles around – and I’d be worried if it was. I’m not interested in peak beer experiences nobody can share but equally dedicated geeks. More good ale, everywhere, for everyone!

It’s only just begun

Although this blog has been around in some form for a couple of years, I’ve only been posting regularly since August – so I can’t possibly write a proper Review of the Year, Golden Pints-style. Also, I’m late with this already, and if I had to think of something for all those headings it’d be February before I got it finished. So this is what you’re getting.

Bottled beers of the year
Howard Town Dark Peak, Cumbrian Legendary Ales Croglin Vampire, HardKnott Dark Energy… I don’t have to pick just one, do I?

Cask beers of the year
Spingo Middle, Conwy Celebration, Yates Wight Old Ale, BrewDog 5 A.M. Saint.

Keg beer of the year
Shut up.

Beer festival of the year
National Winter Ales Festival

Pub of the year
The Beech, Chorlton. We sometimes see landlords praised for bringing pubs back from the brink; in the last few years the Beech has actually gone over the brink and closed down altogether, not once but twice. So all praise to the current landlord and his team, who are steadily turning the pub back into what it was 10-15 years ago, a thriving community pub. (Incidentally, you’ll never see a guest beer at the Beech: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Golden Best, Black Sheep Bitter, Copper Dragon Golden Pippin and, er, that’s it. Four session bitters, always on, all in good condition. It’s one way to do it.)

Blogs of the year
I wasn’t expecting anyone to nominate this blog on only four months’ approval, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get the nod from Tandleman or Ed – many thanks, and I hope I can keep it up next… um, this year. Among my other favourite blogs are: the refreshing astringency of the Pub Curmudgeon; the encyclopedia in instalments that is Zythophile; and the legend that is Cooking Lager.

In 2011 I would most like to
get some more beer to review; go on another Twissup; find Zeitgeist on cask.

Make room for me

This is a late addendum to last weekend’s Open It! jollifications.

Out you come, lads

As you can see, I didn’t have any beer at the back of the cupboard that I wanted to broach for the occasion. (I have got four Marble 750ml bottles awaiting their special occasion – the first four, that is: Decadence, Special, Decadence Frambozen and Decadence Kriek – but by the time I started thinking about Opening It! it was Sunday evening, and I really didn’t want to start putting myself outside that much alcohol. Their time will come.) Instead, I dug out what you can see in the picture.

Lindisfarne sloe gin. This was a bit of a cheek, as this bottle was actually a present to my wife a couple of years ago. Still, she’d forgotten about it, so I thought it qualified (and she had a glass too). In the event, this gave us both a surprise. It was a deep purply red, it was thick and syrupy, it was sweet with an underlying bitterness… and it was sharp: not the slight fruity sourness of a ruby port but a real acidity. Much sharper than we’d expected, and not entirely successful.

I moved on to the

Gordon’s lemon gin. I guess this is also strictly speaking my wife’s property, as it was one of the things cleared out of her mother’s house when she went into a home. She (wife, not mother-in-law) remembers it sitting unopened in the drinks cupboard from her early childhood. Gordon’s stopped making lemon gin in 1980, so it’s at least 30 years old; from the look of the bottle I’d say it’s closer to 50. The strength is given as 60 degrees proof, which I reckon to be 34.5 % a.b.v.

So what’s it like? According to this ad what you get is “the purest gin blended with the juice of the finest lemons”, which sounds like a pretty full-on combination. On tasting, it became apparent that there was sugar in there too, although doubtless they insisted on the purest (or finest) sugar. At first it reminded me of limoncello – it could hardly fail to, given that it’s sweet, strong and tastes of lemons – but as I got further down the glass the gin flavours and aromas came through more insistently, a bit like hop aromas sneaking up on you when you’re drinking a malty beer. Really very nice indeed. I subsequently tried a lemon gin and tonic; this wasn’t as successful – a bit too sweet – but I could easily acquire the taste. If only it were still available!

From the sublime, lastly, to the Offley Port. My wife (I can’t keep her out of this post – honestly, you let the focus on beer slip for a moment and the womenfolk are all over the show) gave me this miniature in 1991, together with miniatures of Fernet-Branca and Cynar, after we’d returned from our honeymoon in Italy. The F-B and Cynar (an artichoke-based aperitif) were just things we kept seeing in bars over there, but the Offley port was a bit of a standing joke: every bar seemed to offer port, and the port they offered was almost invariably Offley, a brand which looks very classy and English but is in fact unknown over here. (Gin was even better: you could either pay over the odds for imported Gordon’s or get the local alternative, Focking Gin. Sadly, when my wife was shopping for miniatures she was unable to find any Focking Gin.)

So that’s the set-up: what about the punchline? I should say that I wasn’t expecting very much from the Offley: apart from anything else, the label clearly states that this is a miniature of Ruby Port, which isn’t normally known for losing its colour in two decades flat. First impressions were actually quite good: it looked a lot like white port and tasted pretty similar, with perhaps a bit of the ruby port blackcurrant flavour coming through. My mistake was to swallow: the aftertaste, and the aroma it seemed to release as it went down, were truly vile. I’d never fully appreciated the concept of a drink smelling “musty” before. This port didn’t just have musty overtones, it genuinely tasted like old books smell. Regretfully, I poured the rest of it down the sink.

But at least I can say that I Opened It – and, in at least one case out of three, I’m very glad I did. And next year, if they’re still there, one of the Marbles gets it.