Category Archives: Life’s great mysteries

Světlý ležák

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just had a sandwich that evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let me out

Nip bottles? What’s a nip bottle? Six fliud ounces, a third of a pint, what? Stupid. Nothing in there. What kind of size is that? Wouldn’t even fill a glass. Beer probably wouldn’t be that strong anyway. Beer in a nip bottle, why would you want that? Pointless. Ridiculous.

Quarter of a litre? Quarter of a litre? What kind of size is that? You know who uses quarter of a litre bottles, don’t you – supermarket lager. Supermarket own-brand lager, twenty bottles for a fiver, but what they don’t tell you is each bottle’s a quarter of a litre. Hardly even taste it. Not that you would anyway, supermarket lager, I ask you. Quarter of a litre – pointless, why would you want that? Ridiculous.

Then you get your third of a litre bottles, and have you seen some of the stuff they’re putting in them these days?

(What’s that? Third of a litre cans? Give over. Why would you want that? Ridiculous.)

So, yeah, your third of a litre bottles – seems like a good enough size, you go to Belgium, they’re all in third of a litres aren’t they, all the abbey stuff, all the loopy juice… But wait – look at some of the stuff they’re putting in them now! Four per cent, three point eight, three point five – I’m not joking, I got a third of a litre bottle the other day and it was three point two per cent. Three point two! What’s that in real money? That’s like, if you had a pint and it was that strong, overall kind of thing, it’d be like one point nine! Straight up – one point eight six recurring if you must know. Pointless – I mean, you wouldn’t know you’d had a drink! Why would you want that? Third of a litre bottles – ridiculous.

As for your 355 ml bottles, well, I’m sorry, but what is that? What is that all about? Some kind of American measure, and it’s, what is it, three quarters of one of their pints only it’s five-eighths of one of ours… please. How are you going to know what you’re drinking? How are you going to know how much you’ve had? Pointless. 355 ml bottles? Why would you want that? Ridiculous.

440 ml cans, I mean we’ve all seen those, we know about those, but for me it comes back to the same thing, the same question: have you seen some of the stuff they’re putting in them these days? Have you seen how strong it is? Ten per cent! Twelve per cent! Twelve per cent alcohol in a 440 ml can – I tell you, you’re not going to pile into a few of those on the train, are you? That’s like a pint at nine per cent – all in a nice handy can! Putting all that booze in a can, it’s ridiculous. Why would you want that? Pointless.

Now, 500 ml bottles, I have to say I haven’t got a problem with 500 ml bottles generally, but again, you look at some of them and you think, seven per cent? eight per cent? Did you run out of the small bottles or something? Ridiculous. If you’re buying a seven, eight per cent beer in the first place, you’re not going to want a big bottle of it – I mean, why would you want that? Pointless.

Then every so often someone gets clever and brings in a pint bottle. Thing is, though, for me that’s just confusing. So you’ve got a 500 ml bottle at five per cent and a pint at four point seven, and that one’s actually stronger. Why would they want to confuse people like that? Ridiculous. Besides, it’s not as if we aren’t used to sizes in mls by now. What are they going to do, bring back pints and quarts and fliud ounces and everything? Pointless.

And then you’ve got your big bottles – three-quarters of a litre like a wine bottle, two-thirds of a litre, or that weird American size that comes out about 650 ml – and what I say is this: the beer is too strong to drink that much of it! I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if we were talking beer beer – four per cent, five per cent, 750 mls of that isn’t going to hurt anyone – but it never is, is it? When you get a massive great bottle, chances are you get a massive great beer in it – eight, nine, ten per cent, or more than that even. Even eight per cent – 750 ml of that is like a pint at eleven per cent, would you believe. Ridiculous.

Different sized bottles? Why would you want that? Pointless.

 

Session #131 – 3, 2, 1

I dip in and out of ‘The Session’ – more out than in – but this month’s theme – supplied at short notice by Jay Brooks, onlie begetter of TS – caught my interest.

1. What should we call it?

Jay: what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?

I’m not as fussed about ‘craft beer’ as a term as I used to be; I’m happy to concede that I know pretty much what it means in practice – probably a new-ish brewery, probably one of a fairly small range of styles (pale’n’oppy, stout, sour), probably keg and probably sold at a mark-up. It doesn’t wholly describe beer that I’d like to drink, though, particularly given that one of my beers of 2017 was Harvey’s Sussex Best. (Harvey’s might qualify under the US definition of a ‘craft brewery’, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

What to call it, then – what one word or phrase can cover Harvey’s Best, Marble Pint and (for example) RedWillow Restless, an “imperial Vietnamese coffee porter” (8.5%, keg)? It is, in the immortal words of Flann O’Brien, “nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.” I propose a simple solution: call it beer. To put it another way, call the good stuff ‘beer’, and demand that what we call ‘beer’ is good stuff. This is what CAMRA is all about, as far as I’m concerned – not celebrating ‘real ale’ but campaigning for all ale to be real, for all beer to be the good stuff. As I wrote six years ago (time flies eh?)

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. … My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available.

The good stuff is ‘beer’; ‘beer’ is, or should be, the good stuff.

2. Two under-rated breweries

This one will be a bit quicker, and won’t surprise anyone who’s read this blog recently. It never ceases to amaze me that Ticketybrew don’t get more attention. Apart from anything else, they exemplify some of the worst (and most fashionable) tendencies of contemporary ‘craft beer’ – the restless search for new styles, leading to a different lineup every year; the use of obscure or defunct styles that can’t be checked against the original (Mumm, Grodziskie, Invalid Stout); the weird flavour combinations (‘tea and biscuits’ mild, Marmite stout); not to mention putting practically everything in small bottles, regardless of style or strength. I tell you, if it was Cloudwater doing all this we’d never hear the last of it.

Ticketybrew’s apparent inability to catch a break when it comes to ‘craft’ credibility is all the more baffling given that the beer is – as a rule – damn good. Their core range starts at ‘rock solid’ and goes up to ‘classic’; I haven’t had many Dubbels or Blonds better than theirs, or strong English bitters that were better than their Pale. There’s not much point me recommending their short-run brews, but I can assure you that I have fond memories of that Invalid Stout, not to mention the Bitter Orange Pale and their single-hop Citra. There’s not much that Duncan can’t turn his hand to, stylistically speaking; the results are never less than good and often superb.

Apart from them, I tend to think Marble are under-rated. They had a bit of a wobble a while back, since when Marble watchers have experienced a couple of realisations – “hey, they’re good again!”, followed quite soon afterwards by “wait a minute, actually they’re better than ever”. I’m going to have to make more of a study of those BA bottles, but if the one I have tried is anything to go by Marble may be sneaking up on phase three – “this isn’t just good, this is good“. So that’s my second pick. I guess I should be choosing somebody newer (Wander Beyond) or weirder (Chorlton) or just plain overlooked-er (Manchester), but “under-rated” includes “rated highly when they ought to be rated very highly” – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

3. Three neglected styles

This’ll be even quicker.

  1. Barley wine. I love a decent barley wine – and you so rarely see them. (Although the 6% ‘white stout’ I had last night came close.) Brewers! More barley wine in 2018! I know you aren’t going to sell kilderkins of the stuff – stick it in a keg, I won’t mind. (I’ll just think of it as a very large bottle.)
  2. Old ale. Anything like a dark, malty bitter, but a bit stronger; anything in the range from Young’s Winter Warmer (5.2%) up to Old Tom.
  3. Mild, especially light mild; also especially mild called ‘mild’, which is even more of a dying breed than light ditto.

Thanks for that, Jay – thought-provoking and fun.

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.