Category Archives: Life’s great mysteries

Ready ready

No sooner had I updated my ready-reckoner of bottle and can sizes to include nip bottles (275 ml) than all the cool kids started putting their beers in 440 ml cans – a weird size, which is fairly easy to compare to 330 but has very little else to commend it. I guess 440 ml cans are easier to get hold of than 500 – and you can sell a full one for pretty much the same price, which means three cans’ worth of beer in every 25 are pure profit. (I’ll give you a moment to check the arithmetic. That won’t be the last of it.)

Now, a ready-reckoner that included the pint, half-pint, third pint, 500 ml, 330 ml, 275 ml, the US pint, the US 12 oz and the 440 ml (and the nipperkin and the brown bowl) would be unwieldy to say the least; that’s a 9 by 9 table. Is there any way to simplify things, other than by just leaving stuff out?

Let me introduce you to the most important imperial measure you’ve never used: 1/72 of a pint. Also known as 7.891251 millilitres, which is to say (and this will be important later) very slightly more than seven and eight ninths (7.8888…). (How slightly? If you multiply out by 72 you get 568 exactly; a pint is actually 568.261 ml. So if you use the “seven and eight ninths” rule of thumb you’ll be off by two millilitres per gallon.)

Now, 1/72 of a pint is not a particularly useful measure in and of itself. What it is useful for is conversion. Without further ado, I give you:

The Universal Ready Reckoner

Third 24
275 ml 35
Half 36
330 ml 42
US 12 oz 45
440 ml 56
US pint 60
500 ml 63
Pint 72

First column: measure
Second column: how many 1/72s of a pint is this?

These are all good to within 2 mls, apart from the 500 ml which is out by 3 (i.e. 63 * 7.888… = 497). Good enough for our purposes, which… well, what are our purposes? What’s this all about?

What this is all about is that, if you can memorise nine numbers and do a bit of arithmetic, you can convert the strengths of any measure of beer you’re ever likely to encounter back to the familiar pint (or back to any other measure you like). This in turn makes it possible to answer the eternal question How many did I have last night?, even if what you had last night was 500 ml at 5%, 330 ml at 7% and 275 ml at 9%. Multiply the abv number by the size factor, add it all together and divide by 72, and you’ll have the equivalent strength of a single pint. It’s just a more elaborate equivalent of the calculation you might do if you were on halves all night (“six halves at 6%, that’s like six pints at 3%, normally I’d be on 4%s, 18 over 4 is… four and a half pints“).

In the example I gave above, you’ve got 500 ml (63/72) at 5%, 330 (42/72) at 7% and 275 (35/72) at 9%; so the calculation is ((63 * 5) + (42 * 7) + (35 * 9) / 72). Multiply out and sum the results, and you get 924/72, which reduces to 73/6; so it’s the equivalent of a pint at 12.2%, or slightly more than three pints at 4%. (In passing, it’s worth noting that 63 * 5 and 35 * 9 both come to the same number – 315 – which is to say that your 500 ml 5%er was exactly the same strength-wise as the 9% nip bottle (it’s actually 25 mils of alcohol vs 24.75).)

In practice it’s not as scary as it looks. The thing about 72 is that it’s 8 x 9 – the product of two cubed and three squared – giving it ten factors other than itself and 1; this makes the arithmetic a lot simpler than it might be. Some of those measures have got 5s in, admittedly, which does make life more difficult – it’s why the example above ends up with a prime number (73) – but you can generally get quite a long way by halving both sides and/or dividing by three.

No more numbers! Numbers finished! Hello again, reader who started skimming when all the numbers came in! That bit’s finished now, you can carry on reading!

Anyway… I realise this won’t be for everyone; when I said …and do a bit of arithmetic I wasn’t joking about the arithmetic. If you are comfortable messing about with numbers, though, I genuinely think this could be handy.

Update 11th September What should appear on the shelves at my friendly neighbourhood Tesco but a BrewDog/Evil Twin collab canned in a measure of… 402 ml. What fresh hell is this? Eyeballing the decimals tells me that it’s more or less 17/20ths of a US pint (although US pints don’t come in 20ths), or somewhere in hailing distance of 7/10 of an imperial pint, or… I give up. But it is 51/72 (or 17/24) of an imperial pint, give or take half a ml; if this measure is more widely adopted (as I sincerely hope it won’t be), I can at least find it a row in the table.

Update to the Update On closer inspection of the aforesaid can – and, indeed, on opening it – I realise that the beer is nitrogenated (a dispense method which lived up to its reputation by giving the beer a tight, creamy head). So presumably what they’ve done is take a plain old 440 ml can and subtract the space taken up by the widget. We can probably forget about the 17/24ths.

Small beers

A few years ago I posted a ready reckoner on here, for the benefit of people who wanted to know how a third of a litre at X% compared with a pint at Y%:

Third Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint
500 ml Pint
Third  = 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
Half 3/2 = 6/7 4/5 3/4  4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 7/6  = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16  = 7/8
Pint 3/1 2/1 12/7  8/5 3/2 8/7 =

Here’s an updated version:

Third 275 ml Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint 500 ml Pint
Third = 16/23 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
275 ml 23/16 = 77/80 33/40 16/21 23/32 11/20 11/23
Half 3/2 80/77 = 6/7 4/5 3/4 4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 40/33 7/6 = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 21/16 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 32/23 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 20/11 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16 = 7/8
Pint 3/1 23/11 2/1 12/7 8/5 3/2 8/7 =

Well, that’s a bit of a mess. The 275 ml row and column are an absolute fright – and they aren’t even very precise (I took an editorial decision not to use any numerators or denominators of more than two figures, which keeps the mental arithmetic just about doable but also means it doesn’t quite work).

Still, this does tell you instantly (well, I say ‘instantly’…) that a 275 ml bottle at 7.5% is the equivalent of a more conventional 330 ml at 6.5%; more approximately, it’s in the region of a pint at 3.5%, which is nothing really. A 275 ml bottle at 9% is a bit punchier, but you’re still looking at the equivalent of a standard 500 ml bottle at 5%, or a pint at a sessionable 4.3%ish. So you might as well, frankly.

What am I burbling on about? Nip bottles, dear reader, and in particular some of the finer beers sold in nip bottles by Harvey’s of Sussex. As I mentioned in another post, I began lockdown by ordering a mixed case of nip bottles – the Elizabethan Ale (a barley wine devised for the coronation of the current Elizabeth), Christmas Ale, Imperial Extra Double Stout and Tom Paine (the runt of this particular litter at 5%; I would have completed the set with Prince of Denmark, but that combination wasn’t on offer). I liked them so much, I reordered the Elizabethan and the IEDS – and I considered going for the Christmas as well, even at this time of year.

What are they like? The Elizabethan tastes deceptively simple; not only that, it tastes sweet, almost syrupy. You get the flavour straight off, and it’s a mouth-filling, lip-coating malty sweetness; to that extent it reminds me of Wells‘ Dragoon, a 10% monster which I’ve only ever seen in Italy, on keg (strange but true). But the similarities end there. A relatively basic barley wine like the Dragoon starts with heavy sweetness and finishes with cough syrup and a blast of alcohol (vodka and Benylin?), but the Elizabethan Ale develops the way that a best bitter develops: the sweetness lightens with vanilla and floral notes, there’s a tannic mid-mouth bitterness to weigh the whole thing down and a bitter, drying finish with no discernible heat. It’s extraordinarily well put together; I mean, I’ve had worse tripels. It’s for all the world as if someone had set out to condense a pint of bitter into a 275 ml bottle (which, as you know, is a mere 11/23rds of a pint); it’s sweeter, it’s denser, it’s twice the strength (viz. 7.5%), but recognisably the same thing.

As for the Imperial Extra Double Stout, where do I start? Here’s a history lesson which goes some way to explaining why this beer is so distinctive. Probably the best way I can describe it is to say that it tastes like every stout you’ve ever tasted, combined. So there’s roast-grain bitterness with that slight sharpness that you get from a standard stout; at the same time, there’s a heavy-textured, dark-chocolate bittersweet character that says “imperial”. On top of all that, there’s a definite savoury umami note which somehow binds it all together, even while odd notes of almost gastric sharpness cut through. What you don’t get – as with the Elizabethan – is heat; you’d never know it was 9%. It tastes as if it comes from an earlier time (when they liked their beers strong); it tastes barrel-aged; it tastes as if debaryomyces has had a good old chew at it, as indeed it has; and with all of that, it still works. It’s a beast.

Having a few bottles of each of these to play with, inevitably I wondered what would happen if you mixed them – would an Elizabethan plus an IEDS add up to the ultimate black-and-tan? Well, no, not really. I tried the combination in different proportions, but the IEDS is such a monster that it overwhelmed the Elizabethan in a 50/50 split, while 2/3 IEDS to 1/3 Elizabethan just tasted like a slightly fruitier, slightly weaker(!) IEDS. 2/3 Elizabethan to 1/3 IEDS, though – that was something else. With two such big beers, the combination didn’t work the curious jigsaw-puzzle trick I remember from my days as a black-and-tan drinker, where the rough edges of the two beers cancel each other out and produce something blander than either of them. What you did get, though, was the biggest, darkest old ale you’ve ever imagined, or possibly the biggest, fruitiest porter.

If you ever find yourself with two bottles of Elizabethan Ale and one IEDS lying around, there are worse things you could do. Might be one for sharing, though; 275 ml at 9% a.b.v. plus 550 at 7.5% is the equivalent of 275 ml at 24%, which is the rough equivalent of a pint at [consults handy ready reckoner] 24 * 11/23 = 264/23 = approximately a pint at 11.5%.

(Sanity check with calculator: 275*0.24 = 66; 568*0.115 = 65.32. Once again, I thank you.)

Forgotten beers

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

(What was I doing all that time?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2424

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

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Disappearing beers

This isn’t a lockdown post, except in the sense that lockdown has reacquainted me with The Bathams’ – which turns out to be a lot easier to get hold of in bottle than Pete suggested a few years ago. And Bathams’ bitter is a rare beast: it’s a disappearing beer. Not in the sense that it’s getting harder to find (see links above), but in the sense that it disappears; it goes beyond being drinkable, into a zone where the beer seems to drink itself. Essentially, if you buy a pint, take it back to your table, sit down, then look round a minute later to find the first half’s gone – that’s a disappearing beer.

Not all good beers are disappearing beers, by any means. I grew up on darkish, chewy bitters – sweet and fruity (Buckley’s) or dry and tannic (Harvey’s) – and I’m a huge fan of old ales and big stouts; some of my favourite beers are beers that you can’t knock back, or not without a conscious effort.

Come to that, being ‘smashable’ isn’t really the point either. Boak and Bailey wrote the other day in praise of Fyne Ales Jarl:

For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

I’d agree with that; Jarl’s a properly sessionable beer, and there are other beers I’d put alongside it – Marble Pint, Redemption Trinity, Magic Rock Ringmaster (although in its heyday (as Curious) it was arguably a bit too hoppy to be really sessionable). But even Pint doesn’t quite soak itself up the way that a true disappearing beer does.

If I’m not talking about style or flavour, and I’m not talking about sessionability, what am I on about? Is there really such a thing as an über-drinkable beer? Am I perhaps over-generalising from a beer that I happened to drink when I was thirsty? Yes, there is, and no, I’m not. Evidence: my 2018 visit to Prague, where the bars serve very little else: světlý ležák is the epitome of the disappearing beer. I had some interestingly diverse beers while I was in Prague, but I also had four pale lagers at 11 or 12°, from four different breweries, all of which threw themselves down my throat at a slightly alarming rate. “I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty.”

To sum up: my list of disappearing beers doesn’t include any sessionable hoppy bangers – even they require a bit too much effort to qualify as disappearing of their own accord – but does include

  1. Many (most?) Czech světlý ležák in the 10-12° range
  2. The Bathams’
  3. er, that’s it

On which note I’ll throw it open to the floor. What do you think? Am I right about the Bathams’… what kind of question is that, of course I am… How about the světlý ležák – was I just thirsty all the time I was in Prague? And what beers have taken you by surprise, by apparently drinking themselves and confronting you with a half-empty glass?

“Time in lockdown behaves slowly”, I wrote at the top of my last post. Evidence: this post, which (at the time) I was planning on writing the following day or maybe the one after that. Nine days later, here we are.

Roll up! Roll up!

All the fun of the festival! Yes, it’s another beer festival – Chorlton this time.

I’ve been to Chorlton Beer Festival, held every year in the outbuildings and grounds of St Clement’s Church, most years since it started in 2005; I’ve still got fond memories of the BrewDog Zeitgeist black lager I had there once (and that’ll be at least ten years ago now). So the lineup of attractions this year wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In rough order of appearance, there was:

The Hip One (On Cask!)
Always nice to see a cask beer from a fashionable brewery who you don’t always see cask beers from, if that’s grammar. Cloudwater Mr Green’s Bouffant is a strongish pale ale, and it was pretty nice. (It’s no Zeitgeist, but what is?)

The One With The Flavourings
I couldn’t say no to RedWillow‘s pink peppercorn saison (a Faithless), particularly when there was a gap in the bar between me and it. I realised afterwards I’d been at the keg bar – and I do hold to the general position that any given beer is almost always better on cask – but they didn’t have this one on cask, so never mind. Anyway, the carbonation and chill didn’t seem to do it any harm (and it was a warm night).

The Crush At The Bar
Or, as it turned out, not. I wimped out of volunteering this year, as indeed I have ever since my rather strenuous – and very dry – experience at the festival in 2015. But the bars seemed to be much better arranged this year; I don’t think I ever noticed a bar that was two deep along its full length, let alone three. Maybe next year. (If they’ll have me – if they’ll let me back in, come to that. But more on that later.)

The Other One With The Flavourings
I was a bit disappointed by Stockport‘s Raspberry Porter, having really liked the brewery (and indeed their porter) before now. You know how in Sam Smith’s raspberry beer you can actually taste raspberries, it’s not just a syrup flavour? Not like that, sadly. (But Stockporter’s still ace.)

The Seating Situation (featuring Staring At Strangers)
I believe there were enough chairs, and to spare. It’s just that it’s not always easy to get at the one empty chair halfway down a long table (backing onto another long table); and it’s not easy (in another sense) to sit yourself down, as a lone punter, in one of the two empty chairs in between two groups of six, which was generally what was left by mid-evening. (Were they even empty? Were they keeping them for their friends?) So I spent a fair amount of time leaning against the church or perched on various bits of wall that shelved outwards, sometimes directing hard stares at people who seemed to be particularly profligate in their use of seating. (The three people chatting, standing up, in the middle of a cluster of eight empty chairs – I saw you.)

The Murky One
Track Helios – a Stockport Beer Festival home-brew competition winner – was everything you’d expect from a New England IPA: it was fruity, it was creamy, it was zingy, it was… completely opaque, and frankly rather unattractive to look at. So I drank it without looking at it. But it is a great-tasting beer.

The Food Situation
Having eaten before I came out, I wasn’t in the market for a full meal, but after a few beers you always fancy something… But what? I’d scouted out a couple of food stalls where everything seemed to be large-ish and priced around the £8 mark, and was musing grumpily on how this was Not what I wanted At All, when I caught sight of the answer to my prayers: a stall selling pork pies. Lots of pork pies. All different. A couple of different vegetarian options even. I bought one – £3, for a proper handful – and was well pleased. Festivals everywhere please copy.

The Cold Fizzy One
So there was this keg bar, and some of them were only on keg, and it was a warm night, and… What can I say, Beatnikz Republic/Atom Blanc Atomium (white IPA) is a really nice beer.

The Advancing Inebriation (also featuring Staring At Strangers)
No thirds at Chorlton, and some of these beers were rather strong (although I regretfully decided to swerve the Cloudwater Human Meanings at 8.5%). Rather sooner than anticipated I found myself sitting with my back to the church, gazing vaguely ahead of me and thinking rather slowly. I remember noticing a very tall woman who looked a bit like Thom Yorke, and wondering if she found that difficult. On getting up to go for another drink, I realised I’d been looking at a fairly tall man who looked a bit like Thom Yorke.

The One You Don’t Remember Afterwards
A classic sign of actually getting drunk at a beer festival is that, even though you’ve made a list, when you look at it later you’ve got no idea what the last beer on the list was like. (Or sometimes the last two or even three beers.) Blackedge Porter falls into that category this time. I do remember the guy serving me recommending a different porter, which – unlike this one – was on cask; I didn’t go for it, though, possibly because it was the Stockport and definitely because he’d already started pouring this one. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t bad, anyway – I’d have remembered that.

Then there was a feature you don’t get at most festivals:

The Argument With A Clergyman
Chorlton BF runs on tokens, sold in sheets of £10 a go; this is on top of an entry fee, which also gets you a programme and a (non-returnable) glass. Partly-used sheets of tokens can be refunded on the way out. Some years ago, the organisers caused a bit of a row – literally on the night(s) and figuratively afterwards – by implementing a policy of not refunding partial sheets and holding on to the difference, for the benefit of the church. This is not something CAMRA approves (and the festival is sponsored by CAMRA), so they’d promptly stopped doing it. However, subsequent festivals have featured signs at the refund desk, asking visitors to consider not getting a refund and donating the value of their unused tokens to the church. Now, I don’t have many issues with the Church of England in general – and I dare say St Clement’s in particular could make good use of my money – but I have got a bit of a thing about making conscious choices: when I donate money, it’s because I’m choosing to donate money. Rattle a tin and I’ll often choose to put money in it; sell me a programme and I’ll usually choose to buy it; just don’t borrow money from me and then say, hey, here’s a thing, how about we keep it? This kind of ‘nudge’ technique, extracting the cash by replacing a deliberate donation with an unthinking default, is something that annoys me intensely whenever I see it (and I’ve seen it in lots of places beside St Clement’s, of course).

I’d seen the sign as I came through the churchyard on the way in, I knew where I stood, and by the time I was leaving I’d had plenty of time to think about it all. Asking at the tokens stall, I was redirected to the refunds stall, which was staffed – probably not coincidentally – by a man in a clerical collar. When he asked if I’d consider donating the money that was left on my card, I declined, giving him a polite but firm prepared statement: No issues with the church… like what you’re doing here… when I donate… choose to donate… so yes, thanks all the same, but I would like my money back. He wasn’t best pleased, and reacted as if I was the first person to be so awkward all evening (and, to be fair, I probably was the first person to make a speech about it). But he turned to his cashbox, and I prepared to take my £4.40 and leave with a good grace, feeling slightly ungenerous but satisfied that I’d made my point.

Then he took £4 out of the cashbox and explained that he was only giving me back the whole pounds. I did not have a line prepared for this – and I was, as I may have mentioned, quite drunk at this point. I don’t think I swore, but I certainly expressed some surprise and disappointment. His response, rather to my surprise, was not to try and mollify the ranting drunkard who’d just appeared in front of him, but to explain that this was in fact the festival’s policy, and even to indicate the small print on the sheet of tokens which had (apparently) notified me of this. (The chance of my reading any of the said small print was non-existent – I’d already handed the sheet over by this time, and in any case it was 10.00 at night.) Outmanoeuvred and out-documented, I turned to go – but then remembered CAMRA’s previously-expressed policy on the non-refund thing, and turned back to advise my new friend that he was in breach of this policy. He got quite flustered (I suspect I was getting rather loud by now, which I do regret) and offered me 50p, “if it matters so much to you”. But the money, of course, didn’t matter to me – and I certainly wasn’t going to take any money off him that wasn’t mine – so I left it and walked away, highly disgruntled.

It’s a shame; it was a bad note to end the evening on. (To clarify, I wasn’t involved in the planning, so I don’t know if the ‘whole pounds’ thing is covered by the festival’s arrangement with CAMRA or not. It doesn’t strike me as particularly good practice, though.)

Conclusion: The Negatives
As I’ve said, there were no delays getting served and no trouble finding affordable food. There was live music, but it was kept to a level where it was no nuisance to anyone who wasn’t in the mood; there were no queues for the loo, either, although as a man I was well provided-for. (None of the portaloos dotted about seemed to be designated for women only, while men had the added benefit of a block of urinals. This may be one for the organisers to keep an eye on.) More importantly, none of the beers I liked the look of had run out (and I was there on the second night); none of the beers I had was in poor condition; and I did not regret having any of them. Overall, it was not a bad little festival, and I would not rule out going again this time next year – as long as I’m not barred.

Palely loitering

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Světlý ležák

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just had a sandwich that evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)