Category Archives: Life’s great mysteries

Strong and stable

I’m returning to Ticketybrew, and in particular to my plan from a while back to write a comprehensive run-down of their beers. I’ve been a bit less ambitious this time and confined myself to beers that you can get hold of in bottle – so no Invalid Stout, no Manchester Tart and no Grodziskie.

But why am I doing all this again, having devoted several posts to the brewery last September? One word: stability. The first time I tasted Ticketybrew Pale, I was knocked out by the ramifying depths of the flavour, which belied an initial sweetness. I went back the next night and was bowled over once again, but surprised by the initial sourness. The next time I tried it, I thought for a moment it was on the turn, before ‘tuning in’ and recognising the same massive, complex beer. The fourth time we were back to sweetness; I was surprised, but I wasn’t complaining. Something similar happened when I first had the Blonde on draught, or rather the first and second times I had the Blonde on draught; later, I had a similar “was it sour like this last time?” moment with the Golden Bitter, and then with the Summer Porter.

It’s obvious now what was happening: those beers were in fact going sour in the cask, quickly enough to be noticeable but slowly enough for the beer to remain drinkable. So far, so bearable; the Golden Bitter was nicer when it was new, but the Pale and the Blonde really seemed to thrive on a bit of staling. Then I started getting beers that were starting to go sour in bottle, and sometimes not just starting: I had to tell myself to ignore that initial citric edge in quite a few different beers (although never the really pale ones, like the IPAs or the Jasmine Green Tea Pale).

So stability was a problem for Ticketybrew, as Keri wrote on the brewery’s blog last November – but the issues were eventually tracked down to a persistent and hard-to-fix lactobacillus problem. Hard, but not impossible: since the beginning of this year, to my certain knowledge, the problem has been fixed. These are new beers: if you’ve ever drunk Ticketybrew beers before now, you owe it to yourself to try them again. (And if you haven’t, where have you been?)

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to review everything that’s currently available in bottle, tackling first the ‘standard’ beers and then the ones reliant on additions – from Marmalade Pale to Coffee Anise Porter. Duncan and Keri, and their ever-expanding team, are doing some really interesting things up in Stalybridge – and you can rely on these beers to taste like they’re supposed to. (And if some of us rather miss the unreformed, unstabilised Blonde and Pale, with their dirty edges and scary depths… well, some of us are awkward so-and-so’s.)

Down with the kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In your own way

OK, so here’s what I think about the Cloudwater announcement.

It seems to me that a lot of the reaction to the announcement was based on a – mostly unstated – train of thought that goes something like this.

  1. Cloudwater are getting out of cask.
  2. This is a very bad thing.
  3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.
  4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.
  5. People need to start paying more for cask.
  6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.
  7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…
  8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…
  9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

I’m sorry to see Cloudwater getting out of cask, but apart from that I disagree with almost all of these statements.

2. This is a very bad thing.

Yeah… no. I’m sorry to see them go, but Cloudwater have never looked like a cask brewer. You know what a successful cask brewer looks like? They’ve got at least one year-round regular beer within hailing distance of session strength (Ringmaster, Hophead, Lumford, Seamless); they’ve probably also got one that looks a bit like a best bitter, which is still what a lot of people go to a pub expecting to find (Hat Trick, Partridge, Lord Marples, Feckless). They put seasonal stuff, experimental stuff and downright silly stuff on cask as well, but they’ve got a core range and they keep turning it out. Cloudwater actually make a feature of not having the same beers on all the time. Their nearest thing to a regular cask beer was a double IPA – and that was only regular in the sense that it was re-brewed every year. I’m not saying this puts me off – I’ll try a Cloudwater beer whenever I see it – but then, I’m serious about beer (God help me). For a non-expert – punter or publican – they’ve never looked like a good regular proposition. “If you liked our India Pale Lager you’re going to love our grisette”? Yeah… no.

3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.

I think it’s fair to say that’s an over-simplification. Looking at it another way, the reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they project that they won’t be able to make brewing for cask in the way they’ve chosen to do it pay as much as they currently need it to. And this needs to be understood alongside the alternative projection that they will be able to secure the profits they need by brewing in the way they’ve chosen to do it for keg, bottle and can. Cloudwater have made a huge upfront investment in kit and substantial continuing investments in materials and people; they need to do that if they’re going to maintain the high quality and consistency that they’re celebrated for, not to mention that ever-changing list of beers. That’s what launching a business is like; you start with money (your own or a loan), you spend like a drunken sailor and you wait for the money coming in to match outgoings. It’s a bit like launching a plane by pushing it off a mountain, and hoping that you can pull out of the down curve before you hit the ground. I would imagine that the capital Cloudwater were sitting on at the outset was probably more substantial than is the case for many newly-launched breweries, and I suspect it’s dwindled more rapidly as well. Whatever the facts of the matter are – and their statement was commendably open about their current position – the size of Cloudwater’s launch mountain and the shape of their down curve aren’t the same as those of any other brewer. Because of that, their experiences don’t necessarily generalise.

4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.

The idea here seems to be that keg is dear where cask is cheap, and if only cask were dear too we wouldn’t be having these problems. I have trouble with this argument straight off; within 15 minutes’ walk of my house I could pay £5.50, £4.50 or £3.50 for a pint of cask beer, and half an hour’s bus ride away I could pay £2.50. (And the £5.50 stuff is bloody good, let me tell you. Mind you, the £2.50 was rather nice.) Is £4.50 too cheap? If you’re visiting from the land of viaducts you might think it’s a sight too dear. The market’s segmented all over the shop. Also, from the figures Steve posted recently it looks as if the margin on a keg is just as poor as on a cask, despite the higher price – but nobody ever seems to say that keg is too cheap.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that if publicans were willing to pay (say) half as much again for a cask of Cloudwater Session IPA, Cloudwater would have carried on casking it – and that if punters were willing to pay half as much again for a pint, ditto, then publicans would also have been willing to pay the extra. The trouble is, this tells us nothing about the price of cask, except that it would be possible to manipulate it to a level that would keep Cloudwater interested – if only we had a mind-control ray.

But there are no mind-control rays, and the market is brutal. Once a price-range is established – even if it’s only established in Stockport, or in Chorlton – then it’s properly established; it’s hammered home in people’s minds with every purchase that they make. The price for a commodity may not be a rational reflection of the labour and materials that have gone into it, but (in the immortal words of Keynes) “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” Try selling against the market – for instance, by insisting that your cask beer simply has to go at £6 a pint (£4 in Stockport) – and you’ll find out how true that is.

The only way to peg prices permanently, short of government control, is by establishing a cartel; unfortunately this is illegal. Where there’s a relatively small number of suppliers and nobody has an overriding interest in undercutting the others, something cartel-like can develop informally – and if nobody is letting their keg IPA go out below £5 a pint, it doesn’t matter (to the drinker) whether this is being managed formally or not. Perhaps brewers have managed to hold the line on a higher price range for craft keg, in part by appealing to novelty and the ‘reassuringly expensive’ snob factor; I suspect we’re still in the phoney war on that front. But even if craft keg prices are permanently pegged in the £5+ range (£3+ in Stockport), that says nothing about what can be done with cask prices, or how it can be done – not least because there are so many more players in the cask field.

5. People need to start paying more for cask.

I object to this on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes no sense: starting to pay more for cask – more than the price it’s currently on sale at – isn’t something I can choose to do. I’ll certainly pay more for cask when I start being charged higher prices across the board – as I have done many times before – but that’s not really a choice either. Secondly, it implies that spending more money is an easy and neutral choice, which for most people is far from being the case. My current income makes the choice between a £3 and £4 pint painless, but I’m in the top 20% of the national income distribution. I know what it’s like to budget for a couple of pints at the weekend – and, I’d suggest, a lot more people have that experience than don’t. Thirdly, it’s economically irrational: how often do you make a purchase – of any kind – and think “I wish I was paying a bit more“? Unless you’re making a charitable donation or paying a “solidarity price”, the point of paying money for goods is to pay as little as possible. (Some high-end goods manage to peg their prices high, associating price with quality, but even in that context nobody wants to pay more than they have to. You may pay £700 for an iPhone instead of £50 for an HTC, but you won’t pay the Apple Store £705 if John Lewis have got them for £695. And you may pay £2.50 for a third of Un-Human Cannonball, but you won’t be happy to pay £3 if the bar down the road has it on for £2.40.)

So if you’re saying “people need to start paying more for cask”, you’re asking people in general to do something impossible, which might cause them hardship if it were possible, and which in any case goes against everyday economic rationality. But there’s an even bigger question, which is: why? Suppose I launch It’s Wicca, Man!, a line of refreshingly frothy pagan-friendly ales, with the unique selling point that every cask that leaves my garagepremises has been individually blessed by a qualified Wiccan. (We’ll handwave the question of what makes a qualified Wiccan. That’s probably what they do anyway.) Then suppose that, shortly before the launch, I have a falling-out with the Wiccan down the road, and it turns out that the nearest alternative qualified Wiccan lives in Holyhead and has a sickly rabbit which she refuses to leave for longer than a day. Now I’ve got worries – and they’re money worries. I’m starting small, so I’m only shipping out one cask at a time – and every one carries the additional overhead of paying my Wiccan friend’s travel costs from Holyhead to Manchester and back. I’m going to go broke in short order, unless I can persuade stockists to pay quite a bit more for each cask – either that or just lie about the Wiccan thing, but the Goddess really wouldn’t like that.

The point here is that nobody, in this rather far-fetched story, is stopping me making cask beer – not even the Goddess. What I can’t do is make cask beer in precisely the way I want to. Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that I should be able to make cask beer in precisely the way I want to, and that this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer, and that the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. Not because they’re evil or selfish or brainwashed, but because that’s how selling stuff in a free market, and the rationality the market is based on, work. (Approaching a smaller number of punters directly – through crowdfunding or some kind of share issue – could work; I wish Dave all the luck in the world and look forward to his announcement. But that’s by the way; the point here is that there isn’t a viable route through “voluntarily pay more for cask”.)

I’ll speed up for the last few points.

6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.

Given that telling people that they need to pay more for cask is pointless and worse – as we’ve just established – telling them on social media really can’t help. But telling people anything on social media is highly unlikely to help. It’s a tiny, self-selecting coterie; we only disagree so bitterly about trivial things because we share the same outlook about so much.

7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…

CAMRA does recognise the importance of beer quality; the days when all the organisation cared about was getting one more handpump in one more pub are gone, if they ever existed.

8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…

CAMRA doesn’t agitate for cheap beer. The idea that CAMRA has somehow driven down the price of cask beer is really widespread – at least in the CAMRA Critics’ Corner of my own social media coterie – but I don’t know where it came from. I can only assume it’s a kind of reverse association – CAMRA = real ale = not keg = not expensive. By the same logic you could accuse CAMRA of promoting the spread of nonic glasses.

9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

Won’t happen. CAMRA represents drinkers, not producers; if push comes to shove, it represents the interests of drinkers, not producers. And it’s not in the interest of drinkers to have less money in their pocket. CAMRA can – and does – advocate on behalf of good, interesting, well-produced cask beer, and very little of that beer will be available at bargain-basement prices. But explicitly pushing higher prices just isn’t going to happen.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t want to overstate point 3; I don’t think this is a complete non-problem. Clearly, Cloudwater aren’t the only brewery finding it hard to make cask pay. But I do want to stress point 5: if the price peg has been hammered in too low for some (or many) brewers, moving it upwards will take a lot more than exhorting punters to pay more (or exhorting CAMRA to exhort them). Market forces put it where it is, and it’ll be market forces that move it. Ultimately, I’m afraid that what’s going on now is simply that there are too many breweries, and we’re seeing the downward pressure on prices that predictably follows a glut in supply. (As a result we’ve already said goodbye to Waen and Quantum – although thankfully both the brewers involved are going to carry on brewing.) Here’s hoping that, across the industry, the innovators can survive – with a tactical retreat from cask if necessary – and it’s the corner-cutters and back-of-a-lorry merchants who go under.

O dark, dark, dark

Martyn waxes lyrical about old ales and Burtons, singling out Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Theakston’s Old Peculier. I’ve long been a fan of these styles & others in the same neighbourhood (e.g. dark barley wines, dubbels & ‘quadrupel’s). I’m a particular fan of one that Martyn didn’t mention, Robinson’s Old Tom, which for several years now I’ve regarded as one of the best beers in the world.

I’ve drunk all these beers & many similar ones, on draught as well as in bottle; I even did a comparison of several of them over a few weeks a while ago. What I’ve never done – for obvious reasons – is compare them on the spot, by drinking (say) an Old Tom followed by an Owd Roger and an Old Peculier. The one-shot nature of these beers, whose strengths range from 6.6% (Old Peculier, 500 ml bottle) up to 8.5% (Old Tom, 330 ml), makes it difficult to compare and contrast in this way. But where there’s a will there’s a way. With the aid of six small glasses – and a stash of 330 ml plastic bottles to hold the ‘excess’ – I’ve just done a blind taste test of some widely-available old ales and Burtons. I chose five – the Marston’s, McEwan’s, Theakston’s and Robinsons’s beers mentioned above, plus JW Lees’ Manchester Star – and rounded off the set with Chimay Blue. I was interested to see if the Trappist ale leapt out of the pack; if Old Tom lived up to my estimation; and if a couple of the others – Owd Roger in particular – lived down to past experience.

The procedure: I labelled six glasses, and drew off enough of the beer so that around 1/6 of a litre remained in each bottle. (This gives a total of 7.7 units, if you’re interested. Hey, it’s the weekend – and I usually keep Monday dry.) My OH then poured out the bottles into the labelled glasses and labelled each bottle to match its respective glass. I tasted them in order and made some initial notes, trying to be fairly systematic about colour, aroma etc, giving them an initial rating and having a guess at which beer was which. I then tasted them again in ascending order of my initial ratings, made some more impressionistic notes, and guessed again what I was drinking. Two beers I was certain I recognised, but for the other four I guessed differently each time – so between the six beers I made a total of ten guesses. (You may like to pause here and estimate how many of them were right.)

Here are my notes.

Beer 1
Mid-brown, translucent
Aroma: malt loaf
Big malt extract, caramel bitterness, slight metallic edge. 7
Second take: Malt party. Big dark bittersweet flavours, caramel and cake spices. Burnt sugar finish, but not just on the finish. 8.5

Beer 2
Brown-black, opaque
Aroma: not much; bonfire toffee?
Fruity dark bitter with burnt-sugar bitterness; a bit thin. 6
Second take: Quite an austere full-on malt character – fruity but not sweet. Some caramel but consistent throughout, not just on the finish. 7

Beer 3
Very dark brown, not quite opaque
Dark bitter backed up by caramel bitterness, plus a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: A nice dark bitter, made to seem more interesting by a big burnt-sugar finish. 6.5

Beer 4
Black, opaque
Sweet, very slightly bitter; a lot like Coke. 4
Second take: Very strongly carbonated; not much flavour mid-mouth apart from sweetness; caramel-bitter finish masks the alcohol. Quite fun but a bit one-dimensional and too much upfront sweetness. 6

Beer 5
Black
Aroma: malt extract
Heavy, sweet, Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: Very like a less successful version of beer #4 – less carbonated, possibly a hint of acetone. 5.5

Beer 6
Dark brown
Aroma: bready malt
Heavy, thick-tasting, malt plus. 7.5
Very sweet but very interesting with it – odd floral and herbal notes. No bitterness at all – the flavour just develops then fades. Bitterness builds down the glass, though. Sophisticated stuff. 8.5

So the beers fell into three groups: big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’ or similar malt-driven style, done well (1 and 6); dark fruity old ale with strong burnt-sugar notes (2 and 3); big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’, done not so well (4 and 5). Combining my two scores, my ranking was 1, 6, 2, 3, 5, 4. I was convinced that 1 & 6 were Old Tom and Chimay, respectively. My four guesses for 2 & 3 included Old Peculier, Champion and Manchester Star, while my four guesses for 4 & 5 included Owd Roger, Champion and Manchester Star.

3 was indeed Old Peculier, and 5 was Manchester Star. The rest of my guesses… not so good.

Here are the beers behind those numbers. To say I was surprised when I discovered what I’d been drinking would be a sizeable understatement. (In fact ‘sizeable’ is a sizeable understatement.)

1: McEwan’s Champion
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier
4: Chimay Blue
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star
6: Marston’s Owd Roger

Or, in judging order,

1: McEwan’s Champion (good Burton, 16 – “caramel and cake spices”)
6: Marston’s Owd Roger (good Burton, 15.5 – “Sophisticated stuff”)
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom (old ale, 13 – “austere full-on malt character”)
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier (old ale, 12 – “A nice dark bitter”)
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star (poor Burton, 11 – “Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite”)
4: Chimay Blue (poor Burton(!), 10 – “fun but a bit one-dimensional”)

A couple of shocks on that list, that last entry most of all. (To be fair to the Trappists, Chimay Blue does age particularly well, and there’s got to be a fair bit of sugar there for the yeast to keep working over an extended period; perhaps that’s how we should treat fresh bottles, as being best laid down for a few years.) It looks as if I can recommend McEwan’s Champion (stocked by Sainsbury’s) and Marston’s Owd Roger (which I found in B&M Bargains) every bit as strongly as Old Tom, and rather more so than Manchester Star (of which I’m rather fond).

One final note. If you take a particularly keen interest in the mechanics of blind tastings, you may have spotted an anomaly in my description of the set-up for this one. Pour 2/3rds of a 500 ml bottle into a resealable 330 ml bottle and drink the other 1/3rd, fair enough – you were probably thinking – but what have you done with the Old Tom and the Chimay (both of which are sold in 330 ml bottles)? If you’ve stashed half-full plastic bottles of these two, they’re not going to be in very good nick when you go back to them. Very good point – which is why I’ve poured them both into one bottle. Yes, I’ve got a bottle of Old Tom mixed with Chimay Blue – the bottle-conditioned Trappist sharing a bottle with the brewery-conditioned Stopfordian, the bland sweetness mingling with the austere malt. I’m guessing it’ll either be brilliant or terrible; I’ll let you know when I find out.

Sour times

This post is aimed mainly at people who know stuff. I did one year of Chemistry at school; we had to take one science for O Level, but I chose Physics on the grounds that my friend was doing it. Kids, eh? Then again, I chose German on the grounds that my mother had talked me out of choosing Spanish on the grounds that my friend was doing it, and that wasn’t much better as choices go. My Spanish is much better than my German these days… sorry, what was the question?

Anyway, if you – like me – know next to nothing about organic chemistry, this post probably isn’t aimed at you. If you do know about this stuff – and brewing in particular – have at it in the comments.

Question 1: Why does cask beer eventually go sour?

We know it does. It’s obviously something to do with yeast, and something to do with contact with the air; that’ll be why keg beer doesn’t go sour – even if it’s got yeast in it. (Or does ‘real’ keg eventually go sour – does contact with oxygen just mean that cask just goes sour quicker?) Yeast plus beer plus time (plus oxygen) equals… what? Something to do with sugar turning to alcohol? Oxidation? Oxidisation? (Are they not the same thing?) Help me out here.

Question 2: Why does (good) bottle-conditioned beer not go sour – or not for a very long time?

I’ve drunk five- and ten-year-old bottles of Chimay Blue; by the time you get to ten years the taste is starting to get a bit thin (no doubt from all that sugar being turned to alcohol), but it’s not sour. Chimay Blue is pretty mellow when it’s brand new, and the older it gets, the mellower it gets. Whatever it is that happens in a few weeks to beer (with yeast in it) in a cask, it doesn’t happen in a decade to beer (with yeast in it) in a bottle from the lads at Scourmont; if anything, the opposite happens. (Other people have reported similar things of old bottles of Fuller’s Vintage and Thomas Hardy ale.) What’s going on there?

Question 3: Why does bottle-conditioned beer sometimes go sour?

I have – to my regret – had bottle-conditioned beer that wasn’t meant to be sour, but was every bit as sour as a barrel end pint: a harsh, battery-acid sharpness, drowning out whatever flavour the beer was originally intended to have. Will a beer like this have gone sour for the same reason that the barrel-end pint would have done, or are there other processes which might lead bottle-conditioned beer to go sour? If it is the same process, what went wrong with those bottles that made it happen, when (per question 2) it’s the opposite of what usually happens?

Question 4: Why gushers?

An easy one to finish with: what’s going on when you open a bottle of bottle-conditioned beer and it gushes like a Formula 1-winner’s champagne? What does that, and how can brewers stop it happening?

(Also, why is the triangle inscribed in a semi-circle always a right-angled triangle? I’d love to see a proof of that one.)

Update Matthew (in comments) explains all. Acetobacter converts alcohol to vinegar (it’s nothing to do with yeast per se); there’s acetobacter in the air, so any alcoholic drink in contact with the atmosphere will eventually get vinegarised. Bottled beer, on the other hand, shouldn’t have this problem, unless… well, unless what?

Let’s promote question 3 (which, to be honest, always was the one I was most interested in). When bottled beer goes sour – as, sadly, it sometimes does – what’s (most probably) going on? A pre-existing acetobacter infection? Some other sort of infection? (I’m not sure I can tell one kind of sourness from another; I’ve seen references to lactic acid as a fault, as well as acetic.) If it is some other kind of infection, what kind? And, if it is an infection (acetobacter or otherwise) what should the brewer have been doing to stop it? Or might it be some kind of problem with the yeast strain?

All suggestions welcome!

(Yes, I do have a specific brewery in mind. Two, in fact.)

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!

Brewhive – some thoughts

Like other beer bloggers, I’m occasionally approached by brewers and distributors offering freebies of various kinds. (Needless to say, I’m approached rather more often by brewers, distributors and various other people not offering freebies, but most of those approaches can be ignored.) I treat this stuff as fuel for the blog: my main criterion for accepting a freebie is whether I think it’ll make something good to write about. Just the other day I turned down the offer of a three-course meal from a restaurant whose PR clearly had me listed under “food and drink”; I asked if there was a beer angle of any sort, it turned out that there wasn’t, and that was that.

So I was intrigued when I received an email, just under a month ago, from… well, I’ll take the liberty of quoting the email.

My name is [redacted], beer lover and Summer intern for a new start-up beer company Brewhive.

As part of my research into the industry I’ve been looking through your blog and have really enjoyed it. You really seem to know what you’re talking about and have introduced me to the whole concept of ‘real ale’ which previous to this job I wasn’t aware of.

Here at Brewhive we’re trying to enter the world of craft beer through the online market. We’ve developed a small line of 3 core beers that we hope gives our drinkers a rounded example of the beers out there for them: a pilsner made with the German magnum hop, an English endeavour IPA and an English chocolate malt porter.

I would be really keen to send you a sample of our beers so that you could try them and provide us with some honest feedback either personally or on your blog. Please let me know if this would be interest to you.

I was a bit surprised that this ‘beer lover’ hadn’t come across the concept of ‘real ale’ before reading my blog, but let it pass. (It’s a touch of personalisation, if nothing else – and ‘real ale’ is indeed one of the main topics I bang on about here.) I was intrigued by the idea of an online retailer entering the market with a dedicated range of beers – an online brewer, in effect – and the beer sounded as if it might be interesting.

So I did a bit of basic research online. The first thing that struck me about Brewhive was that they were taking social media seriously: the first page of search results brings back Brewhive material on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, as well as Facebook, Untappd and the company’s own Web site. I imagine a lot of this is down to the summer intern (job advert). The company site – here – is fairly basic but well-designed and clean-looking. It’s mainly given over to describing their products and selling them online, as you might imagine, but it also includes a blog written by Anna Roper. She describes herself as “the resident beer expert here at Brewhive” and promises to keep us updated on her journey to becoming an accredited Beer Sommelier.

As for the beers, there are three, bearing the slightly Repo Man-like names of ‘Pale Brew’, ‘Dark Brew’ and ‘Blonde Brew’; there’s also a cider (‘Cider Brew’). Tasting notes and serving recommendations are craft-y verging on pretentious. As well as ABVs and IBUs we’re given recommended serving temperatures, of 8 deg C, 11 and 14 for the Blonde, Pale and Dark beers respectively (and 10 for the cider). The IPA is described as ‘the ideal session ale’ and recommended to pair with ‘a young goats cheese’ or ‘chicken roast with lemon’; on the Dark Brew page we read, ‘A chocolate porter pairs naturally with rich desserts and game but for something a little different, why not serve with seared scallops?’

On the ordering page there’s a rather nifty ready-reckoner that enables you to price up a selection of beers (and cider), to be delivered in multiples of six bottles from the company’s warehouse in Edinburgh. The first time I saw this page it offered something that really got my attention – free delivery for orders of twelve bottles or more. Pricing up an online order and then mentally adding a fraction of the delivery charge to the price of each bottle has always been something that annoys me about online ordering; a retailer who was willing to absorb the delivery costs on larger orders would have a real edge, I thought. Apparently Brewhive didn’t think so – or, more probably, they decided that their business model wouldn’t support it – as this is no longer being offered. The beer is priced at between £1.85 and £2.20 per bottle, for 330 ml bottles – not expensive per bottle, but not dirt cheap per litre by any means (it’s the equivalent of a price range of £2.75 – £3.30 for a 500 ml bottle). And the beer isn’t particularly strong; the cider is 5%, but all the beers are either 4% or 4.1%.

By now I was starting to be puzzled. IPAs and porters at 4% are unusual; 4% IPAs and porters in 330 ml bottles are very unusual, and those that are out there are generally pitching pretty hard for the ‘craft’ label. Again, launching with an IPA and a porter seemed fair enough, but an IPA, a porter and a ‘German lager’ – and a cider? And those weird, corporate brandings, as if this was the only beer (or cider) anyone could want – the presumptuousness is very ‘craft’, admittedly, but not the narrowness of the range implied by the closed list of styles. (The famous Scottish brewery with a similar name does lots of ‘pale brews’.)

I let Brewhive’s intern know I’d be interested in reviewing the beers (and the cider) but that I also had some questions about the company. Then I did some googling. One of the first things I found was this, from the “liquid e-commerce” site:

Launched July 2015

Brewhive is an emerging brand within the growing craft beer category. Designed for home consumption this fast growing e-commerce brand plans to have the largest range of craft beers in the UK.

Our initial focus is on the harder to brew lager and IPA category, offering lighter beers for everyday consumption.

Focusing on provenance of ingredients is important to us, we have spent a huge amount of time researching the most interesting and flavoursome ingredients to add to our range.

The largest range of craft beers in the UK – provided by a fast growing e-commerce brand? Curiouser and curiouser.

Then there was this blog post from January, from somebody called Kevin Dorren. Quote:

The Brewhive Brand – Passionate about Hops

We are working hard on the Brewhive brand and user experience.

Brewhive is unique due to it’s focus on the hop. Most beers don’t make a big deal about the hop, but we plan to!

We are going to spend more on the customer experience than most online brands and hold much more stock to ensure availability is great. Three major things you need to focus on in e-commerce are:

  • Having the product in stock (sounds easy – lots of failures in this!)
  • Fast convenient delivery (next day, timed is ideal)
  • Fantastic customer support (solve issues with delivery, product quality etc asap)

To make this work, you need to cut your margin when offering a better quality delivery, hold more stock and have dedicated customer services resource. All of these cost money in terms of working capital but will improve word of mouth and customer satisfaction.

A passionate brand – and a unique focus on the hop. Hmm. I was starting to get the impression of people who knew a hell of a lot about retailing food and drink, and were thinking quite deeply about how to make a success of this particular venture, but who didn’t actually have any background in beer or brewing.

I sent some questions off to the intern.

Just a few quick questions about the Brewhive operation:

1. Who is/are the brewer(s)? What is their background (other breweries/Heriot Watt/home brewing etc)?

2. Where does the brewing happen? Does Brewhive have its own brewkit, or are they going down the ‘gypsy’ route (brewing on other brewers’ kit), or contracting the brewing out? What’s the brew length for each of the main styles? Where is the cider made?

3. The choice of styles is interesting – it seems quite conservative when compared with the more exotic and innovative styles that a lot of startup breweries are coming out with. How were these three beer styles (and one cider) arrived at? Will Brewhive be expanding this range or offering short-run specials?

4. Why ‘craft’? What does ‘craft’ mean to you – and if someone asked you to justify calling Brewhive a craft operation, how would you go about it?

5. The pitch to the online retail space is very strong; from a customer’s point of view, you seem to have a lot of the bugs ironed out (lack of availability, high delivery charges etc). Will Brewhive always be an online retailer of bottled beer? Can we expect to see the Brewhive logo appearing in shops or on bar taps?

I’ll look forward to hearing from you. I think this could make an interesting post for my blog – combined with my thoughts on the beer, of course.

Next: my thoughts on the beer, of course.

Uncool

In comments over at Ron’s, John Clarke raises an interesting point:

The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer “warm” because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm – especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.

(“The way described here” refers to… no, I won’t spoil the shock for you. Read the whole thing.)

This got me thinking about the ‘warm beer’ trope. If you plug the phrase ‘warm beer’ (without quotes) into the Google Ngram Viewer, you can see several distinct periods. From a low point at the turn of the century, the frequency of the phrase creeps upwards through the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but it’s fairly low throughout. From Google Books we can see that, before 1941, the phrase ‘warm beer’ is used in several different contexts:

  1. Recipes for beer that’s warmed on the stove before drinking (what we’d now call ‘mulled beer’)
  2. Same as 1, but for medicinal or other household purposes (warm beer is good for cleaning oak furniture, apparently)
  3. First-person references to drinking bottled beer that hasn’t been kept cool, particularly in hot countries
  4. Occasional references to problems in serving draught beer, invariably from the point of view of the server

The last of these is interesting: serving beer that was warm when it hit the glass was recognised as something that might drive custom away as early as the 1930s, if not before. (In one article the tendency to end up with warm beer is cited as a reason for the limited takeup of kegging!)

What we don’t see is any reference to drinkers finding cask beer to be warm in the glass. This rapidly changes from 1941 onwards; there’s a steep climb on the Ngram Viewer’s chart, peaking in 1945. The frequency then drops back down, to settle at a higher level in the early 50s. It’s in 1941 that Google Books finds its first reference to ‘warm beer’ being the norm in Britain – and there’s only one in the whole year. In 1942 – with the arrival of GIs in Britain – the floodgates open. From 1942 to 1946 the references to warm beer are legion; it’s often mentioned together with tea, as typical features of the English landscape which American newcomers found baffling. Warm beer in this sense is referred to just as often as warm beer from bottles. Interestingly, a lot of these references are also from the point of view of soldiers on active service. Perhaps from a GI’s point of view there wasn’t much to choose between beer that had been kept in a hole in the ground in North Africa and beer from a quaint old English hand pump – they both met the same lowered expectations.

As I said above, the Ngram Viewer shows a lower frequency of references after the war; Google Books also goes a bit quiet. This surprised me – I was expecting George Orwell’s famous reference to warm beer to have had more of an impact. (More on that later.) The ‘warm English beer’ trope may have got going when the GIs came, but when they left it seems to have stopped again – or at least become dormant; after 1946 we’re back to the warm bottles and problems with inadequately chilled lines. It’s worth emphasising that this idea of warm beer as a problem, from the server’s point of view, is not at all the same thing as the idea of ‘warm beer’ being the norm. If anything it’s the opposite, as they show that English bar staff in the 1950s and 60s were worrying about their beer occasionally being too warm – just as they had done in the 1930s.

In about 1973 the Ngram chart line starts to climb again; it climbs and climbs until it plateaus at the start of the 90s. This may be partly in response to the rise of kegging, which by then was becoming ubiquitous; some sentimental souls may have seen warm beer as part of an England we had lost. My trawl in Google Books didn’t turn up any evidence to support this, however. What I did find was an association between ‘warm beer’ and another 1970s development: CAMRA, and the broader movement towards taking English beer styles seriously. Ironically, the ‘warm beer’ trope seems to have been given a boost by several people – not all of them called Protz – complaining about it, and pointing out painstakingly that cellar-temperature cask beer is not what anyone from south of the Arctic Circle would call ‘warm’.

Throughout the 1980s, if Google Books is to be trusted, references to warm bottled beer remained the main source of ‘warm beer’ quotations; the idea of the traditional warmness of English beer had taken hold to some extent, but it was still fighting it out with an equal number of grumpy (but well-informed) arguments to the contrary. In fact the idea of ‘warm beer’ as synonymous with Englishness doesn’t seem to take hold until much later. How much later? Well, certainly after 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major told us that

Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.

Before we get back to the beer, it’s worth noting why it was that the PM felt the need to evoke an unchanging essence of Britishness. The answer is in the next (and concluding) paragraph of his speech:

Surely we trust our own integrity as a people quite enough to fear nothing in Europe. We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us. After 20 years we have come of age in Europe. One Conservative leader put us there. This Conservative leader means us to thrive there. So let’s get on with it.

For Major, in other words, a sentimental vision of an unchanging – even unchangeable – Britain was the counterweight to a commitment to remaining, and playing a bigger role, in the EU. One can think of worse causes for the British pint to be enlisted in. Be that as it may, it was surely this speech which launched the idea of warm beer as an inherent part of Britishness. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the GIs’ catalogues of British quaintness, Major wasn’t evoking Britishness as seen from outside: these were British tropes which we ourselves could be proud of, or mock ironically, or mock our own pride in, or be proud of mocking, or whatever. (Complicated business, being British.)

As for the Orwell quote, it comes from “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the (in)famous wartime essay in which he described Britain as “a family with the wrong members in charge”, and which is generally seen as a low-water mark in the radicalism of Orwell’s politics. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see him banging on about warm beer. Except that he didn’t – and, if you read the quotation, you’ll realise that Major didn’t even say that he did. All the guff about the eternal British verities of county cricket and pools forms was Major’s own invention (which was ironic, really, considering that Major’s own government was about to cut the legs from under the pools companies by bringing in the National Lottery). The same goes for the warm beer – and, in fact, the entire mistily harmonious message. Orwell’s own vision of England was a lot more hard-edged, and looks a lot more like a celebration of diversity and change:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

Orwell gets a bit soggy and essentialist in the second paragraph – and the conclusion is a majestic piece of having your cake and eating it – but it’s striking that those old maids on their bikes are presented as an example of disharmony: they’re nothing like the Lancashire mill-workers or the kids playing pinball in Soho. And, more importantly (for this blog at least!), the beer isn’t characteristically warm – it’s bitter; in fact it’s bitterer than the beer in any foreign country! (He did like his statements sweeping, did Orwell; you start to notice it if you read his stuff long enough.)

As for the contemporary fortunes of the ‘warm beer’ trope, I’d like to be able to report that the phrase became a stock signifier of Englishness (or possibly Britishness) straight after Major’s speech. I’d like to, but both Google Books and the Ngram Viewer are telling me otherwise. The phrase climbs in frequency very gently between 1992 and 1996, then climbs much more steeply over the next eight years; it peaks in 2004 and then declines gently until 2008 (the Ngram Viewer’s cut-off point). Similarly, Google Books shows very little action for the rest of the 90s; there are at least as many references to beer recipes and to unpleasantly warm cans and bottles (generally in hot countries) as there are to the proverbial Britishness of warm beer. Something certainly happened to give the phrase more prominence some time in the late 1990s, but exactly what it was – and when it happened – is unclear. Interestingly, if we put other phrases from Major’s speech into the Ngram Viewer – phrases like ‘pools fillers’ and ‘old maids cycling’ (Orwell wrote ‘biking’) – we see a similar pattern: a rapid rise after 1994, a peak between 2000 and 2004, then decline. Perhaps it simply took time for Major’s imagery to work its way into print (a book called “Invincible Green Suburbs” was published in 1998). Perhaps it has something to do with ‘Cool Britannia’ (1997-8) – and in particular Tony Blair’s eagerness to jump that wave when he became Prime Minister in the middle of it; perhaps the TV programme “I Love 1993” (broadcast in September 2001) would be worth checking out.

John Major didn’t invent the image of warm cask beer. It had been knocking around the national consciousness ever since 1942; thirty years after that, the image had been given greater salience both by the rise of keg and, paradoxically, by the efforts of cask devotees to debunk it. (You can’t say “it’s not true that cask beer is served warm” without saying the words “cask beer is served warm”!) But the prominence that the image has enjoyed recently is just that, recent. Before Major (and before Cool Britannia), “warm cask beer” was a sneer and a debating point. It took a controversial speech by an unpopular Prime Minister to turn it into a popular image of a British tradition. Like many imagined traditions, this one is barely old enough to drink.

Update (8th March) This conclusion needs a bit of qualification. As commenters have pointed out, ‘warm beer’ jokes abound in Goscinny & Uderzo’s Astérix chez les Bretons – written in 1965 and translated as Asterix in Britain in 1970. Further Googling for the phrase “as British as warm beer” finds multiple occurrences in the late 1990s and after – as we’d expect – but also one from 1986 and one from 1965; unlike those in the Asterix book, these don’t appear to have been written by outsiders looking in. So perhaps the ‘warm beer’ trope had a bit more of a hold before 1993 than I gave it credit for. I’d still maintain that Major’s speech gave it, at the very least, a big push towards the prominence it now has.

Clowntime is over

Top three reasons for taking a pint back, circa 1994 (or any time between the mid-70s and the late 00s):

1. “Sorry, mate, but this one’s sour.”

2. “Sorry, mate, but can you have a look at this? It’s really cloudy.”

3. “Sorry, mate, but I’m not even sure this is beer – it tastes more like somebody’s put a rye loaf in a bucket of water and let it ferment… Not being funny, but… Pint of Landlord, that’d be great.”

Top three hip ‘n’ happening trends at the craft beer cutting edge, 2014:

1. Sour beer.

2. Cloudy beer.

3. Kvass.

I’m starting to suspect that the similarity between the two lists isn’t entirely a coincidence (or a cheap gag). Look at it this way: if you’re brewing within a known flavour profile, using established methods, everyone up and down the line is going to know roughly what the beer is supposed to look like and taste like – or rather (more to the point) they’ll know what it’s not supposed to look and taste like. As soon as you open the door to ‘the right kind’ of sourness – or ‘the right kind’ of haze – you make quality control much, much more difficult. Ten years ago, when the friendly and helpful barman told you that your sour and murky pint was meant to look and taste like that, you could laugh at him; these days it is actually possible that he’s right. It’s also possible that it was meant to look and taste like a pint of beer, and it’s off in one way or another; more importantly, it’s also possible that it was meant to be sour-ish and/or murky-ish, but that this particular pint/barrel is in fact off. Throw in the wild card of different and challenging flavour profiles – and who isn’t brewing to different and challenging flavour profiles these days? – and it’s anybody’s guess what you were supposed to have in front of you or what condition it was supposed to be in. Next time you take a sour pint back, the f. and h. b. may not stop at telling you it’s fine – you may get the full hipster sneer (Bit sour for you, was it?).

All this was inspired by a pint of Moor Raw at Chorlton Font, which was frankly pretty foul. I started tasting the yeast about halfway down the glass; it arm-wrestled the malt for the rest of the pint, and by the end of the glass it had come out on top. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to taste like that – and, frankly, if it was meant to taste like that it shouldn’t be (there is no style definition of ‘best bitter’ which includes ‘a mouthful of yeast’). Moor beers are unfined, of course, and they’re often very good – I’ve had pale ales of theirs which were spectacularly fresh and zingy. But once you’ve told the world your beers are cloudy, you’ve made it next to impossible to catch the wrong kind of cloudiness. And if you also tell the world that your beer tastes ‘different’, it’s pretty hard to catch off flavours – more importantly, it’s pretty hard for customers to have any confidence that they can recognise off flavours.

I am really rather bored with craft beer (at least, there’s something I think of as ‘craft beer’, with which I’m rather bored) – and when craft beer enthusiasms and blind-spots get in the way of a decent pint of a Saturday night, I stop being bored and get cross. It seems to me that the tendency for brewers to go all out for new and different flavours, coupled with some quite deliberate boundary-pushing in the areas of cloudy and sour beer, have created a situation where lots of people are at risk of being served beer that’s off, and feeling discouraged from complaining about it. It seems to me that this is a really bad situation, and I say enough of it. Enough weird made-up beers – and especially enough sour and cloudy beers (not every boundary is worth pushing). If you’re not fining your beer, frankly you should start; it’s an ancient and perfectly natural technique (and if you’re worried about the fish bladders, have a word with the guys at Marble). If your beer’s sour, then – if you’re not making a Flemish Red or a gueuze – it’s come out wrong. (And if you are making a Flemish Red or a gueuze, can I suggest you stop fannying about and make a decent bitter?)

So that’s my wish list for 2014. No more Borefts-fodder beers-for-art’s sake – beers that you have to ‘get’. And no more sour beer, or cloudy beer. Let’s stop messing about. You’re the drinker – if it looks wrong or it tastes wrong, send it back.

Beer bad

I was thinking about hangovers the other week – thinking, specifically, that I hadn’t had one in the last four or five years, and reminiscing with a gentle shudder about how horrendous it was the last time. It’s not about the headache, for me. When I look back on the last really bad hangover I had (and it was a belter – it lasted most of the next 24 hours) what I remember more than anything else is the anxiety. They say that Ecstasy basically gives your brain a serotonin binge, so that you use up the next day’s supply of happy-making chemicals all in one go; I don’t know what the comedown from that feels like, but I imagine it’s not a million miles from where I go to with a hangover. There’s endless anxiety – no reason to feel happy or relaxed about anything at all, but no capacity to stop thinking; there’s something like shivers and cold sweats, or rather a feeling that shivering and cold sweat might break out at any moment (they generally don’t, but the feeling that they’re about to can go on for hours); and there’s a weird feeling of being out of phase with the world, as if I’m permanently half an inch ahead of or behind where my body is, straining to catch up.

Yes, I had another one just the other day. Beer bad. Kids, just say… never mind.

What I’m wondering about is what, exactly, brought it on. Here’s my night out in miniature:

8.00  Arrive at The Gaslamp. Pint of Red Willow Heartless chocolate stout, which is 4.9% and costs £3.50.
8.30  No more cask – boo! 500 ml bottle of Brightside Maverick IPA, which is 4.8% and costs £4.50. Ouch. Decide to make ’em last from now on.
9.30  Cask back on – hurrah! Pint of Brightside Dark Side stout, 4.6% and £3.40.
10.30 Maybe just a little one before I go… 330 ml bottle of Ticketybrew Pale Ale, 5.5% and a very ouchy £4.60.
12.00 Home: coffee, toast, pint of water.
1.00  Bed.

I can think of a number of suspects. The hangover could have been brought on by the following, in roughly ascending order of probability:

  1. Sheer, unbridled, physical revulsion at having had to pay £16 for four drinks.
  2. Having what basically amounts to a four-pint session.
  3. The Belgian yeast in the Ticketybrew.
  4. Having a four-pint session on top of a half at lunchtime.
  5. The booze plus a late finish making for a short and unsettled night.
  6. Having a four-pint session on top of three-pint sessions the previous two days.
  7. The two pints of stout.

I think we can rule out the first four. (I include the Belgian yeast because I was sick as a dog once after a work do at Mash and Air, where I’d finished the evening with one of their own ‘abbey-style’ brews – very yeasty, that was. But if that beer did disagree with me it was sorely provoked, by the large rich meal I’d just eaten as well as all the other beers I’d had earlier.)

The last three all seem plausible, but at the moment I’m leaning towards 7. I don’t entirely trust stout (even Toby’s); I find one pint is usually enough, for me at least. But what do you think? Have you got a love-hate relationship with stout, or any other style of beer? Are there any hangover triggers that you’ve learnt to avoid – or at least learnt to regret in the morning?