Category Archives: Not that anyone asks me

Farewell to a friend

The Dubbel, approaching its BBE date, poured without any problems, with a decent amount of condition but no head. Mouthfeel was light, even thin, and the flavours were unchallenging with no noticeable alcohol heat; no way did this drink its strength (6.5%). A light fruitiness at the front of the mouth gives way to a finish which I could only describe as “aromatic caramel”. There’s treacle and cake spices in there – I was reminded of gingerbread, and of speculoos in particular – plus a buzzing top note of raw ginger, or perhaps even of sulphur, to keep it interesting. The whole experience is a bit like taking a pinch of snuff, then eating a plum coated in dark chocolate followed immediately by a shot of brandy. (Those of you without experience of the poor man’s cocaine may substitute sniffing pepper. Those of you with experience of the rich man’s cocaine may want to keep quiet about it.) I’ve had a few Dubbels over the years, but I can’t think of one I’d definitely say was better than this one.

We shall not see their like again. Apart from the Pale bottle, I’m keeping that one.

The Blonde has caused me trouble in the past, on one memorable occasion in particular. I was at a fairly staid social gathering, where I’d been advised to bring my own beer but hadn’t been warned that I might be the only one drinking. (There were two of us in the end, to be fair, but still.) I sloped off to the kitchen mid-evening, already feeling like a conspicuous reprobate, and took the top off a bottle of the Blonde – which gushed. O, how it gushed. Once I’d poured out what remained in the bottle and mopped both the floor and the worktop – no easy task in a strange kitchen – it was a simple matter of waiting for the beer to settle in the glass. And waiting. And waiting. I watched a churning, peaty liquid, with great globs of yeast being hoisted up on bubbles of gas and then dropping to the bottom of the glass again, for what seemed like half an hour, before realising that it wasn’t going to get any better (and that my hosts would be wondering what the boozehound was up to out there). Reader, I poured it, and opened the bottle which (luckily) I had in reserve.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened this, my last bottle of Blonde (over a year past its BBE date). I needn’t have worried. It’s true that a collar of foam formed in the bottle the moment the edge of the crown cork lifted, and stood half an inch proud of the bottle by the time I could start pouring; it’s also true that the beer was a bit on the cloudy side, and that the carbonation was strong enough to give the aftertaste a distinct carbonic edge. As over-primed beer goes, though, this really wasn’t. Nor did it have any of the faults which have sometimes beset the Blonde. It’s hard to say much about the flavours, though, other than that it was a really good blonde; I had a St Feuillien Blonde a while ago, and this could stand alongside it without any trouble. It’s got a light texture, offset by an odd, creamy density – a bit like golden ale crossed with cream soda; it’s got a witbier’s topnotes of coriander and creme caramel, together with the throw-it-down drinkability of a Czech lager. I remember its cask incarnation, which – if memory serves – was slightly less strong (5.5% as against 5.8%), but had a sharpness which gave it a rough, rangy edge; I remember getting through three pints of it one night with a friend, finishing off with a bottle of Köstritzer Dunkel. Alas, while the bar still serves Köstritzer Dunkel, my friend’s gone back to Germany, and this bottle was the last time I’ll taste the Blonde. (There’s always St Feuillien.)

As for the Pale… I was particularly hesitant about opening this bottle; the Pale and I have some serious history. The first time I tasted it – and the second, and the third – I unhesitatingly named it my beer of the year: the way the beer unfolded seemingly endless depths of flavour, while recognisably working in the style of a traditional English strong bitter, struck me as unique and fascinating. But the second time I tasted it wasn’t quite the same as the first, and the third was different again. The sharpness I would later detect in the draught Blonde was there, and it grew stronger day by day (and I know, because I went back day after day).

Here’s the thing, though: that sharp edge – which almost certainly shouldn’t have been there, in either the Pale or the Blonde – didn’t spoil the beer; if anything it gave another side to what was already a multi-dimensioned flavour profile. That was on draught, though; the bottles weren’t always so fortunate. Overall it was a fault, and it had to be fixed – and it was; from the outside it looked as if the brewery had a bright future. But what would this last bottle – possibly the last bottle of Pale anywhere – taste like? Now cleaned up, and after ageing in bottle, would it be a pale shadow (no pun intended) of its mighty but problematic former self? There was only one way to find out.

Also over a year past its BBE date, this bottle was even more lively than the Blonde, but poured pleasantly clear. The flavour profile is – still – an absolutely outstanding combination of delicacy and depth. Although I’ve drunk these beers in descending strength order – the Pale comes in at a mere 5.6% – this is by far the most complex of the three, and evokes aspects of both of the other two. It opens light and fruity, developing briefly into a banana-tinged sweetness, which leads into a malty, tannic finish with just enough bitterness to back it up. That finish would be strongly reminiscent of an old-school brown bitter, if it wasn’t for the lightness of the malt body and the aromatic notes which – as in the Dubbel – come in right at the end: is that sage, or even mint? It’s a walloping great conundrum of a beer – like the Dubbel – with session-worthy drinkability – like the Blonde; the balance of all these different elements, and their delivery in a beer that’s crying out to be drunk by the pint, is truly extraordinary.

And now it’s gone.

So, farewell then, my last three Ticketybrew beers. You never got the appreciation you deserved, even though there’s nothing out there quite like you. I’ll miss you.

PS It’s longer than I realised since I last updated this blog; not sure what happened there, although I suppose the subject of my last post offers one suggestion. Fanboy or no, I hope not to leave it anywhere near this long before blogging again. In the mean time,

Val-de-ree!

Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s “Winter Warmer Wander” is often celebrated as a means of encouraging people to go to pubs they wouldn’t usually go to. That’s fine as far as it goes. But in my experience, it also encourages people (e.g. me) to go to pubs where they wouldn’t usually stay, which is a bit different.

Consider a few pubs I’ve visited recently (well, today).

PUB 1 is pleasantly busy, with a hum of background chat from what seems to be a group of regulars. However, the regulars are all in the back bar, and I’m in the front bar – which is empty apart from me and two men who came in shortly after me. One of them exhibits an admirable level of trust in his friend, opening up to him about past and future medical procedures in a way which does both of them credit. Unfortunately he has quite a loud voice – and the front bar is really very quiet.

PUB 2 is a Wetherspoon’s, and it’s rammed. (As, I suspect, it will be from here to Christmas.) I find a seat with some difficulty. Behind me and to the right is a large group – two families or possibly three – having lunch; at least, the adults are having lunch. One of the children has recently been introduced to the concept of the “high five” and is keen to gain practice in using this gesture in a social setting. Over the background noise of conversation I can hear:

“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”

It continues.

After a while one of the adults decides to introduce a bit of variety by making a game of it, presumably involving ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ gestures. The result is slower-paced and more varied, but just as relentless; now I can hear

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

and so on.

And on.

PUB 3, to be fair, was fine, and PUB 5 was a delight.

PUB 4, though… PUB 4 has a small front-of-bar area and two back rooms, one reserved for gigs and the other full of people – as indeed is the front-of-bar area. Waiting at the bar, I realise that the three people ranged along it in front of me are not in fact three strangers but a group; a moment later I realise that they are not standing waiting to be served but have installed themselves on bar stools. Although they are a group – making me feel as if I’m invading their space when I move between two of them to look at the beer pumps – they have positioned their stools so as to keep a respectful distance from one another, and are consequently taking up most of the length of the bar. I find a space at the other end of the bar and wait while they get served. They have ordered three pints, plus three pints of tap water; they are clearly settling in for the long haul. I order my half of Winter Warmer-fuel, get served, pay, ask for the obligatory sticker, etc, and glance round to see how the bar-hogging trio are getting on. All three of them are sitting in complete silence, pints untouched, staring at their phones.

I go in search of somewhere else to sit down. As well as the main rooms, I remember coming to PUB 4 once before and spending a pleasant quarter of an hour in an upstairs room (with a beer and something to read, let’s be clear) – a memory which was only slightly marred by the fact that I slipped on the stairs afterwards and sat down rather hard. I negotiate the stairs but find that the upstairs rooms are locked; in fact they appear to have been converted for staff use. I head back down, half-pint in hand. On the last step, just as I congratulate myself on making it down the stairs unjinxed by past bad luck, I step down and realise that I was actually standing on the last step but one; I keep my footing but land very hard, splashing the wall liberally with beer. I decide to find an unoccupied patch of bar and finish my drink before anything else can happen. Finishing my beer, I feel that a swift exit is in order; I tip the last mouthful of beer into my mouth, put the glass down, turn and head for the door, planning to swallow the last of my beer as I’m walking out of the door (it’s called multi-tasking). Unfortunately some beer has gone down the wrong way and I cough explosively just before I reach the door, spraying a table of drinkers. I mutter an apology and make an even swifter exit than I had planned.

Would I have stopped for a drink in PUB 1, 2 or 4, if I hadn’t been in search of Winter Warmer Wander stickers? I think not. (PUB 4 didn’t even have a stout or porter on, let alone an old ale.) Would any of them have missed my custom? PUB 1 maybe; the other two, definitely not. (I couldn’t find anywhere to sit in PUB 3 either; even the deceptively spacious PUB 5 was pleasantly busy.) As I’ve said before, considering that part of the point of ‘trails’ like the Winter Warmer is to spread the custom around by sending people to different pubs, it seems odd that we do this one in the run-up to Christmas, a time when a recurring complaint about the pubs we go in is that they’re too full.

That was certainly my main complaint today – and I know from experience that PUB 4 and even PUB 2 can be perfectly delightful places to spend some time, when the crowds aren’t out. Some people like busy pubs, admittedly – but does anyone really enjoy dropping in on a busy pub?

What happened?

A quick post on the CAMRA Revitalisation story, this time covering what’s actually happened.

Here (again) is what we had before the vote:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s what we’ve got now:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

How does 10 go into 5? Here’s what’s happened. First, three objectives (the old objectives 2, 5 and 6) have been reworded and updated, fairly uncontroversially.

Old:

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

New:

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

No real change there; the old objectives struck a balance between specificity and generality (“British real ale” in the first, “the traditional British pub” and “beer” in the second and third) which is preserved by the new versions.

Second, there’s one new (and very welcome) objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

Third, four objectives have effectively gone into one.

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

These have all been replaced by the very broad wording of the fourth new objective above:

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

I can understand the rationale for losing the second and third of these ‘old’ objectives – is “the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale” really in danger of extinction? does BEER need its own line in the constitution? I think losing the first and fourth is regrettable, though. Note that the fourth, while it refers to a whole range of forms of publication, doesn’t actually commit CAMRA to producing any specific type of media; if the Exec proposed to replace CAMRA Books with a Whatsapp group, the wording of the objective wouldn’t stop it. The same goes for the first of the four, for that matter; I referred to it in my earlier post as “the GBG objective”, but I might as well have called it “the WhatPub objective”. Either way, telling the world where cask beer in particular can be found is a very specific undertaking, which isn’t necessarily covered by the objective of becoming a Beer (And Cider) Oracle. Score +1 to generality, -1 to specificity.

Fourth, another two ‘old’ objectives have been dropped without replacement:

  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;

I referred to the first of these in my earlier post as “the GBBF objective”, but obviously it doesn’t carry a commitment to any particular event. If CAMRA does want or need, now or in the future, to scale down its commitment to national-scale events, retaining this objective wouldn’t actually have stopped it doing so – although losing the objective may make it a bit easier. I’m not sure why the second of these has been dropped; presumably not because it’s enormously ambitious and lacks any specific real ale focus (cf. new objective 4). Overall we’ve lost an objective focused on real ale, but we’ve also lost one that focuses on everything from malt whisky to blue WKD, so that’s -1 to both specificity and generality.

Fifth and finally, the vote that was lost. What was the first – and, you might think, fairly fundamental – objective of CAMRA

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

has gone. This is the one that was supposed to be replaced by

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

but this (much broader) replacement didn’t quite get enough votes. This was to be a dramatic broadening of CAMRA’s remit, from “the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale” to “the interests of all pub goers and [all] beer, cider and perry drinkers”; whether you’re drinking Pinot Grigio in a gastropub or Kopparberg in a car park, CAMRA is the campaigning organisation for you! Or it would have been, if this change had passed. Since it didn’t – and the old objectives had already been deleted en bloc – it’s -1 to specificity without any gain to generality; CAMRA is (officially) no longer the voice of the real ale drinker, but it’s not the voice of all beer drinkers in general either.

Add up all these subjective scores on an arbitrary scale, and you get a net change of -3 in specificity and 0 in generality. This may explain the disgruntled reactions to the changes from some quarters, the sense that CAMRA has missed the boat and fallen irrevocably behind the times: yes, CAMRA has cut several of its ties to ‘real ale’, but no, it hasn’t made an equal and opposite commitment to…

Well, to what? There’s an odd sense of a proxy battle to this debate. Nowhere in the proposals does the Exec refer to craft beer; at no point do the new objectives specify that CAMRA looks favourably on contemporary beer, innovative beer, forward-looking beer, beer made with passion, beer brewed by brewers under independent ownership… or any other form of words that may be used to divide the craft sheep from the macro goats. The choice before us isn’t between real ale and craft beer (defined in whatever way you prefer); it’s between real ale and all beer. This is one of the reasons why the debate, despite the passions it’s aroused, has left me cold. I can understand (although not agree with) people who want CAMRA to extend its remit to include Jaipur on keg as well as on cask, but embracing Carling into the bargain would seem like a step in the wrong direction. Be that as it may, this is why I’ve referred throughout to ‘specificity’ and ‘generality’, rather than ‘traditionalist’ and ‘moderniser’ or ‘cask’ and ‘craft’ – ‘specific’ vs ‘general’ is what the changes are actually all about.

This leads to my second point, which is that the result we’ve got is a mishmash of different levels of specificity and generality – “real ale, real cider and real perry”, “beer, cider and perry”, “beer, cider and perry of any type” – but that this is nothing new. Several of the old objectives refer to “real ale”, but there’s also a reference to “beer” and one to “alcohol”: CAMRA was already trying to lean both ways, towards real ale specifically and towards beer and pubs generally. Moreover, the fact that there’s still a reference to “real ale” in the objectives has nothing to do with the failure of that one resolution to pass; the old objectives were all deleted by a separate resolution (and that vote did pass, which on balance is just as well). “Real ale, real cider and real perry” – and no other beverages at all, craft beer shmaft beer – are specified in one of the new objectives, put forward by the Exec.

The full story of the changes, then, is nuanced, qualified and generally not very exciting. In bullet points:

  • CAMRA was already committed to supporting beer and pubs in general, alongside a set of objectives to do with real ale; the changes were about shifting the balance between these two things.
  • The Exec proposed to retain a core ‘real ale’ objective but commit CAMRA more explicitly to supporting beer and pubs in general.
  • Members who voted agreed overwhelmingly with the Exec’s approach, barring a single change which shifted CAMRA further towards a more general remit than some members were happy with.

In short, a change of emphasis within CAMRA’s existing set of objectives has been broadly accepted by the members, but toned down a bit in one area. Shock, horror.

 

All or nothing

A quick note on CAMRA’s “Revitalisation” project.

The changes recommended by the Executive, following three rounds of membership consultation, are currently being put to the membership. What this means in practice is a change to CAMRA’s Articles of Association, detailing what CAMRA is actually for.

Here’s the current Article 2:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s the proposed replacement list:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers
  6. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

(Proposals from the Revitalisation Decision Web site.)

There are three types of change here. Firstly, out of the ten ‘objects’ (I think I’ll refer to them as ‘objectives’ from now on), five have been dropped without replacement:

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

So, out go the Good Beer Guide objective, the What’s Brewing/BEER objective, the CAMRA Books objective and the GBBF objective. I appreciate that all of these are currently a substantial drain on CAMRA resources, but I’m dismayed to see the in-principle objectives simply disappear: are these not things that CAMRA ought to find some way of doing? The fifth objective that’s been dropped is the one about improving standards in licensed premises (in general; no reference to real ale). I’m not sure how much of that CAMRA does at the moment, but it seems like a good idea; again, I’m not crazy about losing it without good reason.

Secondly, there’s one entirely new objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

No quarrel with that here, although it could be argued that it doesn’t go far enough – it might have been good to come right out and specify that we’re talking about health benefits. But that’s a minor nitpick, and overall I wouldn’t have any trouble voting for this one. (Although the question of voting is more complicated than it might seem; more on this later.)

That leaves five ‘old’ objectives which can be matched up with objectives on the ‘new’ list – and here, of course, there have been some changes.

First,

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;

is now

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity

There’s not a lot wrong with that – unless, of course, you feel that real cider and perry are different enough from real ale, and have enough of an enthusiastic constituency of their own, to merit being floated off from CAMRA altogether. But perhaps that’s for another Consultation.

Secondly,

  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;

is now

  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage

The two ‘as’ clauses in a row are a bit inelegant, but otherwise this seems fair enough. I’m not quite sure what that specific reference to ‘the public bar’ in the old objectives was meant to achieve, but it’s fair to say that its moment as a pressing issue (if not its moment as a phenomenon) has gone.

Thirdly, the conservationist-sounding

  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;

is still just about visible within the much broader

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

Perhaps the conservationist approach to beer is old hat; perhaps the battle to stop real ale dying out altogether is one that’s been won; perhaps that much broader terrain – provision of information to people interested in beer of any type – is the new world for CAMRA to conquer. I wonder.

Fourthly,

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

is now

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

That’s a great deal broader, and I wonder whether it’s something that CAMRA can really hope to achieve. It may address the ‘craft’ elephant in the room, but the other big background issue – declining levels of volunteering and activism – is surely exacerbated by giving existing activists such an expanded brief.

The last modified objective,

  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

hasn’t changed that much; it’s now

  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

‘Where possible’ sounds a bit weaker than ‘in every manner possible’ – implying that in some situations it won’t be possible at all – and there’s the cider issue. But this one, again, broadly seems fair enough.

Put it all together, and what you’ve got is an organisation turning away from real ale – and from specific activities it’s currently carrying out, associated with real ale – in favour of a much broader and less prescriptive remit, albeit that some references to real ale survive in among the references to ‘beer’ tout court. I wonder how an organisation with a growing activist deficit is going to find the resources for this new, longer task list. Perhaps the new ‘objects’ will be shiny enough to attract a new wave of members and encourage the existing armchair membership to get active. Alternatively, perhaps they’re written vaguely enough to cover a continuing decline in grassroots membership activity; CAMRA in the longer term could become less a campaign, more a head office sustained by a largely passive, dues-paying membership – think Oxfam or the Consumers’ Association (the charitable organisation behind Which? magazine).

I’m not hopeful about the first of these possibilities, and I’m not entirely convinced the Exec is either. Where I think I do differ with the Exec is that I’m not happy about the second possibility. In the end I only voted in favour of the ‘moderate drinking’ and ‘best interests of the customer’ objectives. But that in itself points to a problem with the way the new ‘objects’ have been put to the membership. The changes are being put forward as a series of ‘Special Resolutions’, each of which needs to get a 75% Yes vote in order to pass. One resolution, in effect, deletes the old objectives; the next six each put forward one of the new objectives. There’s an obvious danger here, or rather two dangers. What if the ‘deletion’ resolution gets the magic 75%, but only one or two of the new objectives reach that level? CAMRA could end up as an organisation whose sole objective was the provision of education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type. Conversely, what if some – or all – of the new objectives pass, but the ‘deletion’ resolution doesn’t? All ten of the old objectives would remain in place, alongside whichever new objectives were passed – CAMRA could end up officially committed both to the narrow (‘real ale’) objectives and to the broader ones (cider, beer in general, pub-goers in general). (If the second of these does happen, incidentally, I’m one of the people you can blame; I voted against the ‘deletion’ resolution.)

One more list. All in all, it looks as if the CAMRA Executive

  • does want to make cider and perry’s place in the campaign official;
  • doesn’t want to be tied down to running festivals, publishing books and all that stuff;
  • does want to do something to square the ‘craft’ circle, but
  • doesn’t really know how (which is fair enough; neither does anyone else); and
  • does want to keep the Campaign relevant to new generations of drinkers, but
  • doesn’t want to make the Campaign’s survival depend on a revival of grass-roots activism.

I disagree, more or less strongly, with most of this agenda (if this is the agenda) – which is why I’ve mostly voted No. But I guess it’s a bit late in the proceedings for a suggestion like “How about just campaigning for real ale?”.

 

Friday lunch

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three. (My workmates Joe and Paul had seen my arrival as the perfect opportunity to turn their two-pint lunchtimes into three-pint sessions. I’d gone along with it for a while, but eventually persuaded them that I was a lightweight, and that two was my limit for a weekday lunchtime.) If we timed it right and got them down without too much hanging about (the Greenall Whitley bitter in the Ces wasn’t anything to linger over), we could be clocking back in after not much more than the regulation 30 minutes. Fridays were a bit different – lunchbreaks stretched to an hour; if you usually had two pints you’d stay for three, and so on – but the canteen part of the routine didn’t change.

Not, that is, unless we were on. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen. (Tom, I should say, was a PAG 5 – very senior. Even Joe, my overall boss, was only a PAG 4.) By now, of course, considerably more than the usual 10-15 minutes had elapsed; in fact – wouldn’t you know it? – we’d spent all of 30 minutes in the canteen. Still leading the way, Tom took out his time card and clocked back in. We all followed suit – the PAG 4s, the team leaders, the mere analyst/programmers – and then we followed Tom down to the Cestrian.

It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on. My two-pint limit was rapidly forgotten; by the time we finished I was at least three pints down, probably four. (So was everyone else, of course.) There was still a fair old chunk of afternoon left when we got back, but I didn’t get much work done in it. (Nor did anyone else, of course.) Paul told me the following Monday that he’d been surprised to see Dave in the Ces after work as usual; we thought Dave had a bit of a problem, although nobody liked to say anything. At the time I didn’t think to ask Paul what he’d been doing in the Ces after work. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go, to be fair, even on a Friday.

1987, Manchester

“I think it’s time for a ROD,” Jill announced one Friday morning, with the self-consciously ostentatious air of somebody who’s using a code of their own devising and challenging everyone else to notice. “We haven’t had a ROD in ages. You’d be up for a ROD, wouldn’t you, Nik? What do you reckon, Chris – time for a ROD?”

Chris took the bait and asked what a ROD might be. Jill was delighted: “A ROD, of course – a Royal Oak Day!” It turned out that going to the Royal Oak for lunch was something they’d done in the past, before I’d started working there, possibly even more than once. It was a bit of an undertaking, as the Royal Oak was five miles out of the city centre; even with somebody driving, it would take a minimum of half an hour just to get there and back. We didn’t clock in and out at this place, but you couldn’t have many two-hour lunches before somebody noticed.

So RODs weren’t for every week – in fact I’m not sure we ever did it again – but that day there was a general agreement to go for it. At 12.00 we left and the five of us got into Chris’s car. (Chris was our designated driver, in the sense that Jill nominated him to do the driving – I don’t think he drank any less than the rest of us.) After rather longer than 15 minutes (blame it on the traffic) we reached Didsbury… and the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak was famous at this time for its lunches, and justly so. They didn’t do hot food; they did cheese and crusty bread, and plenty of it. Once you’d paid your money you’d be carved a slab from one – or more – of the mountains of cheese that stood on a small table at the back. To be (very slightly) more technical about it, these were cheeses – whole cheeses, or what remained of them after several days of lunchtime trade. If I remember rightly, there were three or possibly even four cheeses on offer – Stilton, Lancashire, Sage Derby, possibly even Cheddar (although it’s not very popular in this… yes we know). You could have a slab of each one of them if you were so inclined, with all the crusty bread and butter you needed (and a doggy bag for leftovers). Everything was open to the air, of course. I do remember noticing tiny black flies buzzing around a dish of chutney, but it didn’t bother me; they didn’t take any interest in the cheese as far as I could see, and I wasn’t planning on having chutney anyway.

The cheese was wonderful – or rather the cheeses were wonderful. My mother used to tell a joke, which she said she’d got from her (deeply religious) father: a young woman on a train is accosted by a stranger, who asks her out of the blue: “Do you love Jesus?”. She’s nonplussed and doesn’t say anything, so the stranger continues: “Not your English Jesus. Round, red, Dutch Jesus!” I defy anyone to go to the Royal Oak, in 1987 or thereabouts, and not love English Jesus. The beer was good as well – the Royal Oak was a Marston’s pub. The cask selection was distinctly limited – the mild had gone keg since the last time I’d been in, much to my disappointment – but what there was was good. To be precise, what there was was Pedigree, and it was in good form – no doubt partly because they sold so much of it.

The place was buzzing, the beer went down very easily and the cheese was never-ending (my doggy bag lasted me most of the next week). We must have been there for the best part of an hour, and the trip back to town took even longer than the journey out. Still, it was a Friday.

1998, Altrincham

Going to the pub at lunchtime with other people was something I hadn’t done for quite a few years, so it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself going to the Bay Malton with Seamus and Andy. A group of people from downstairs went to the pub most Fridays, and some of us from upstairs had tagged along a few times, but personally I never really enjoyed those big groups; I tended to mark Fridays by getting something different from the sandwich people. I did go to the pub sometimes, but on my own and in the week; a couple of times a week you’d find me there, with a ‘Steak Canadien’ and chips, a pint of Thwaites’ Original and a book. The Bay Malton was pretty sparse during the week – looking around, I’d usually only see four or five other tables occupied – but I didn’t mind that; some days I positively welcomed it.

I worked with Seamus and Andy towards the end of my time in that job. Sharing an office with (not one but) two people I could talk to easily came as a pleasant shock, all the more so when they both turned out to have a taste for the Bay Malton, Thwaites’ bitter and even the odd Steak Canadien. Fridays were particularly enjoyable, partly because the place was considerably busier and had a definite end-of-week buzz about it; the slightly forced, coach-trip jollity of the large groups, while I’d found it thoroughly uncongenial when I was in one, made quite a pleasant backdrop to our more ironic and worldly deliberations. Not only that, but with it being a Friday we felt entitled to give in to the arithmetic of our group size and “go for the burn” with pint #3 – although I do remember that by the time we’d finished our third pints we were among the last few people in the pub. (In my memory the Bay Malton was empty, or three-quarters empty, for far more time than it was ever full.) Some of the women from downstairs may even have commented on us as they left; we certainly got some looks. There was no excuse for sitting around boozing until getting on for 2.00, even on a Friday.

201_, Didsbury

At the moment I work from home most days of the week, which obviously(?) doesn’t involve beer – and when I do go to the office, the culture is very much that beer is for evenings and weekends. I think I’ve only had one pub lunch, on a work day, in the last ten years.

But there are, still, occasional leave days and strike days and work trips and dentists’ appointments and w.h.y.; for one reason or another, I do sometimes find myself in the vicinity of a pub on a weekday lunchtime. Passing the Railway in West Didsbury, one day not too long ago, I had a sudden yen for a quick drink in a proper pub – which is to say, a big room with plenty of natural light, with upholstered bench seating and internal partitions, serving one brewery’s beers. I wondered about taking a chance on their serving food, but decided not to risk it and made a quick detour for a sandwich, which I ate on the way back to the pub.

There was no food. There were also no customers; the place was empty but for me and the bartender. There were two Holt’s beers on handpump plus two from the Horse and Jockey brewery Bootleg. (Rather confusingly, Bootleg’s Chorlton Bitter had two separate pumps with different pump clip designs; one was in an old-school Holt’s style, which perhaps shows where the Bootleg brand is headed.) On keg, three more Bootleg beers: an IPA and two lagers of different strengths, apparently replacing the Crystal and Diamond of yore. I had a pint of Chorlton, which had to be pulled through. (Nice chunky Bootleg mug, incidentally.)

Empty as it was, it was still a nice pub; there was music from a jukebox, there was sunlight through the back windows, there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and I had a book to read. I settled down and got stuck into my Chorlton. (It was rather a good example of the old ‘Manchester bitter’ style – which is to say that it was quite a plain, light golden ale, made more interesting by a massive bitter finish. You could really taste the (bittering) hops!)

At this point the bartender, doubtless thinking she was acting in the customer’s (i.e. my) interest, killed the jukebox and switched on a very large and loud TV screen, tuned in to the cricket on Sky Sports. Attending to my book became difficult, particularly when the noisy tedium of cricket and commentary was broken by the attention-grabbing racket of a commercial break. Then, while the ads were still going, the jukebox suddenly started up again; confusingly, it was playing the theme to Test Match Special. (The long version. Yes, there’s a long version.) I drank up and left.

It was Friday, it was lunchtime, and the pub was empty, just as it had been before I arrived.

 

Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!

IPA, IPA, IPA

Martyn’s recent post on the relaunch of Greene King IPA strayed, for me, a little too close to following the GK party line – a view shared, and stated rather emphatically, by some contributors to the ensuing comments thread. But I thoroughly agree with the final point:

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

I’ve never had anything from Phipps, but I did stumble on Wall’s Explorer IPA (4.7% in cask) the other day and noticed that the pump clip described it as “a traditional style India Pale Ale”. So I tried it, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Clearly, somebody at Wall’s remembers mid-20th-century IPAs too. What was it like? You get a big, fairly heavy, malty body with just a little sweetness. Then you get the bitterness – a tannic bitterness, which hits in mid-mouth, but it’s dialled right up, almost to the charcoal level. The bitter aftertaste isn’t immediately apparent, but it kicks in hard  at the bottom of the glass.

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘with a twist’. I’d be useless as a judge on Bake Off – I’d much rather see a straight Dundee cake recipe brought off really well than a competently-executed Dundee-with-a-twist, using pecans instead of almonds, chillis instead of glace cherries and polenta instead of flour. The same goes for beer, obviously – I’ve had some really good raspberry beers, damson beers, chocolate beers and w.h.y., but a straight style done really well will usually beat them all. But that IPA made me think that ‘twisting’ a style need not be such an artificial process. A fuller body, a more bitter aftertaste, much more bitterness mid-mouth – the 20th-century IPA was, basically, a twist on best bitter (the same way that black IPA emerged as a twist on stout, perhaps).

To compare and contrast, I made tasting notes for the next few beers I had with ‘IPA’ in the name. Harbour IPA (5%) is a favourite of mine; perhaps the best way to review this one is to say that, if there was ever a juicy banger, this beer is it. There’s bitterness from the off – it leaves your lips buzzing with it – and then a big, bursting hop flavour, fruity without being sweet, citric without being sour. It’s light, goes down very easily and finishes with an emphatic bitter aftertaste.

Another comparison: BrewDog Punk IPA (5.3%). One thing BD’s bottled beers really get right, in my experience, is the aroma – by which I mean, they’ve got lots of it: you really know when you’ve opened the bottle. In this case the aroma was mostly citrus, but with an odd, grainy, burnt-toast quality blended in. The flavour began with citric freshness, building to a big grapefruit character but with some of that burnt toast mixed in. Some sweetness on the finish, too; a distinct lychee or pear-drop flavour lurking in among the bitterness. Like the Harbour it’s very drinkable, and has almost nothing in common with the Wall’s beer.

The impression that IPA means (or has meant) two completely different things was strengthened by a bottle of Shepherd Neame‘s ‘historical recipe’ India Pale Ale (6.1%). Comparing with the Wall’s beer, the same key elements were there: the big, heavy body with a sweet edge; the strong, uncompromising bitterness mid-mouth; both were intense enough to combine in a pleasantly marmaladey way. In fact, the flavours were stronger all round than in the Explorer. Indeed, compared to the Wall’s beer the Shep’s beer was stronger, with more citrus at the front of the mouth and a more intense bitter-lemon aftertaste: in other words, it was like a halfway house between a twentieth-century IPA and the much more extreme contemporary style.

One final comparison: Greene King IPA. I jest – I don’t know where I’d go to find it (my local Spoons serves Ruddles and Abbot Ale). No, what I’m comparing with this time is Metropolitan Lone Wolf – which is to say, a 6% IPA sold in supermarkets in 330 ml bottles (with a rather stylish branding reminiscent of Peter Saville’s Manchester M logo) and brewed by, um, Greene King. The label boasts of seven different hops, with dry hopping for added ‘intensity’. What I tasted, bizarrely enough, was a rather bland variant on the twentieth-century IPA style. Heavy body, sweetness, tannic mid-mouth bitterness and a drying bitter finish were all present and correct, although for my money there was rather too little tannin and too much sweetness; in fact a malty sweetness dominated throughout, perhaps with some hop fruitiness a long way down in the mix. I don’t know if this is in any way related to Greene King IPA in any of its guises, but I’d be surprised if it was startlingly different. Why GK are trying to sell this quintessentially undemanding old-school beer into the ‘craft’ market is anybody’s guess. About the best I can say of it is that, if it were a better beer, it’d be good example of a twentieth-century IPA.

Which – returning to my starting-point – would be no bad thing. To quote a comment I left on Martyn’s post,

I got into real ale as soon as I was old enough to drink, then had a break from beer (or at least from taking beer seriously) between about 1980 and 2000. Coming back into a vastly changed (and rapidly changing) beer scene, one of the things I remembered clearly from ‘before’ was how an IPA ought to taste. Imagine my surprise (among other reactions) when I first tasted one of the new breed of IPAs. I’m not about to start drinking GK IPA in preference to Bengal Lancer et al – that ship has sailed – but I’m sure my 18-year-old self would have recognised & liked it

Even at my current advanced age, I recognised the Explorer IPA as such – and liked it. (But I like the Harbour too.)

Golden wossnames

I can’t really be bothered doing a full-on Golden Pints for 2014, not least because I’ve no idea what I’d put in most of the categories. (Best bottled beer? I did have a Rochefort 10 over Christmas, but was it my peak bottled beer experience? Set and setting…) Anyway, here are some random thoughts about last year, jammed awkwardly into an ‘awards’ format. It is, after all, only blogging.

Cask Beer Of The Year Spingo Middle. No, Special. No, Middle. I think. Or maybe the Special. (When can we go to Cornwall again?) Runner-up: about half the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Keg Beer Of The Year Electrik/Blackjack LFO (and not only because I was muttering “Ell, Eff, Oh” for the rest of the evening). Runner-up: Wild Fresh.

Worst Cask Beer Of The Year Wild Evolver, which looked and tasted almost exactly like an off pint from the bottom of the barrel. (For all I know it may actually have been off – how would I know? come to that, how would the bar staff know?) Runner-up: the other half of the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Most overrated and overpriced beer Of The Year, probably Wild Wildebeest, which was insanely strong, Tarquin Fintimlinbinwhinbimlim Bus Stop F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuit Barrel expensive and tasted, well, kind of like a chocolate stout. Except for about every third mouthful, when it somehow changed into a monster of enveloping gorgeousness and almost persuaded me it was worth the money. Only then it changed back again. Runner-up: Magic Rock Cannonball. (OK, it’s not the beer, it’s me – I still don’t get it, though. It’s so… moderate.)

Disappointment Of The Year Unreliable breweries. See also TwIshhpOTY, below.

Actually reliable (and consistently interesting) brewery Of The Year Ticketybrew. I can’t believe nobody else is raving about these people yet – I’ve never had a duff beer from them, and when they’re good they’re superb.

Pub/Bar Of The Year I’ll stick my neck out a bit on this one. OK, it’s a bit cavernous and lacking in atmosphere, like others in the same chain – it could certainly never be mistaken for a traditional pub. And OK, the clientele isn’t necessarily composed of people I’d choose to mix with. But the service is civil and efficient – even if there is a bit of a wait sometimes – and there’s always something decent on one or more of the hand pumps. All that and money off for CAMRA members – what’s not to like? So my vote for this year goes to the Font, Chorlton.

Trend which I haven’t quite caught up with yet Of The Year Sours. Well, I say sours – I like saisons, and I was drinking Rodenbach years ago. Full-on bretty ex-bitters, though… I’m not really there for them.

Trend which I sincerely hope has peaked Of The Year I’ve called it ‘poker dice’ brewing in the past, but on reflection ‘fruit machine’ brewing is probably a better label. Pull the handle (showing my age, I know), set the reels spinning and see where they stop: red… imperial… bourbon cask… pilsner! I first started noticing beers that couldn’t be named in fewer than three words around the start of this year (they’ve probably been doing it for ages in that London); I’ve had a few, but I’m struggling to think of one that I really liked. (Hang on – Ticketybrew Jasmine Green Tea pale ale. So there’s one.) The problem with this sort of multiple-compound-style brewing, it seems to me, is that neither you nor the people drinking the beer can really know whether you’ve got it right, or got it as good as it could be. (And quite often, in my experience, it’s not – this year I loved Blackjack’s Stout and White IPA, but hated their Orange Cream Ale and Belgian Honey Porter.) There’s a craft to making a good bitter (or pale ale, or stout, or porter, or mild, or…) and a fair amount of trial and error; comparing batches of what’s essentially the same beer, and tweaking the recipe to include the best bits of different batches, is quite a big part of my idea of being a brewer. So you’ve made a hickory-smoked cranberry porter: I’m sure the smoke and the berries come through loud and clear, but is it a decent porter? Can you tell? And, more importantly, are you going to hang around to find out – or are you already busy on your imperial white IPA? I was pleased to see Pete inveighing against craft neophilia the other day; perhaps one day we’ll look back at fruit-machine styles and think “that’s so 2014…“.

Book Of The Year Although the cynical young pups obstinately refuse to acknowledge that the foundation of CAMRA was a Very Good Thing, this was without doubt the year of Boak and Bailey and Brew Britannia (my review is hereabouts). Other beer books are available, but I bet they’re not as good.

Spectacularly Unmet Resolution Of The Year Looking at my Golden Pints for 2013, I didn’t do too badly on I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’; or I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like); or even I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun. The one resolution I really fell down on was the one that was beer- rather than blogging-related: I will drink more session bitter. That went out the window very early on, with results which – as you’ve just seen – weren’t entirely satisfactory. Maybe in 2015.

It comes in thirds

These are a few of my favourite things

A few of my favourite things

I had a bit of a revelation the other night, as I sat with a third of Magic Rock Cannonball (keg, of course). I suddenly thought: if you were Stuart Ross (or any other forward-thinking contemporary brewer) and someone suggested going down the ‘craft keg’ route… why wouldn’t you? Lots of people seem to like the stuff, and there are enough outlets that stock it, so no problem about shifting it. Then there are the positive advantages: the stability and consistency of keg would mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about the odd dud barrel, or about losing re-orders to incompetent cellaring (letting the beer spoil or putting it on too soon). As Dave Bailey recently commented, kegs are easier to export than casks, for much the same reasons.

Then there’s the price issue. In the cask world it’s rare to sell anything over £4 a pint, and it would be a brave brewer who insisted on £4+ prices: if competition from other brewers didn’t get you, you’d be sunk by all the ale-drinkers who think they know the right price for a pint and dislike being ripped off. Now, I am one of those ale-drinkers – I do think I know the right price for a pint, I do suspect rip-offs at every turn and I have to grit my teeth to pay anything over £4 a pint for anything. From my perspective, that combination of free-market competition among producers and penny-pinching drinkers is basically a good thing; if I was asked why I’d say something like “it keeps brewers honest”. In any case, it keeps my pint relatively cheap, and that’s a good thing in itself. (I’ve drunk some Stella in my time, but I’ve never been reassured by expense.)

But, of course, in the craft keg bubbleworld those factors don’t obtain – there’s no bog-standard pint of wallop pulling keg prices down, and no great mass of drinkers who think it’s their birthright that beer should be both good and cheap. From my point of view, this just shows what’s wrong with the craft keg world. In particular, the idea of beer drinkers being happy to pay high prices seems all wrong: it’s like workers taking pride in accepting a pay cut. From the brewer’s point of view, though… blimey. Say you did all the sums and came out with an estimated retail price of (say) £5/pint – that would be OK! You wouldn’t need to go back and work out how to do the same thing a bit cheaper! And if the bar wanted to be a bit cheeky and stick another 50p on, that would be OK too – nobody would even notice!

In short, I realised (as I drank the Cannonball) that going keg has the potential to get rid of a lot of quality worries, removing possible obstacles to repeat orders, while also gaining both the brewer and the retailer a significantly higher margin. It’s a whole new world! Why wouldn’t you do it?

I understand the thinking, but I think it misses out one crucial factor. The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”. But those like-for-like comparisons aren’t easy to make (I’ve never seen Cannonball on cask, for instance). And sometimes, maybe, a keg beer is the one to go for.

Here are some thoughts on recent encounters with keg, thinking about when – and why – it does and doesn’t work.

The “Yeah But, No But”: Cannonball

I described Magic Rock Cannonball once before as a big disappointment:

I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma.

I trust The Beer Nut’s reviews, and what he said about this one recently made me think I’d been missing something – quite a lot, in fact:

an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish

So I had to give it another try, and the other weekend I duly handed over my £2 (for a third). And it was… quite nice. I’d certainly agree with ‘drinkable’; it slipped down very nicely. I didn’t get ‘massive’ hops, though – compared to Magic Rock Curious (which is roughly half the strength) the hops were dialled right back. It’s certainly hoppy, it’s just not “being smacked in the mouth with a hopsack” hoppy. I couldn’t say I noticed the 7.4% alcohol, either. A few days later I had a third of Red Willow Ageless DIPA (7.2%), which was on cask in another Font bar – and, I think, had been sitting around in the cask for a while; it was a bit lacking in condition and warmer than I would have liked. Despite those disadvantages, it was a massive beer – a big, uncompromisingly smoky hop attack, broadening out as I went down the glass into an extravagant flowering of citrus flavours on a dense alcoholic background. Perhaps not the nicest beer to drink – even a bit offputting on first sip – but a great beer all the same. (It was also going for £3.60 a pint, which – once you’ve taken off the CAMRA discount – works out at 90p for a third. I felt slightly guilty paying so little.) The Cannonball didn’t really develop in the same way, perhaps unsurprisingly for a keg beer: it was the same all the way through, like Blackpool rock. So you got your citrus-y aroma and your smokey bitterness, and you got a bit of alcohol (not much), all in a very drinkable, well-put-together package. It just wasn’t terribly impressive, or overpowering, or memorable; nice, but not great.

The “Think Of It As A Very Large Bottle”: Electrik/Blackjack LFO

That ‘developing’ thing – where ‘halfway down the glass’ actually tastes different from the first mouthful, and the last mouthful tastes different again; I’ve never known a keg beer do it. But it’s not really something bottled beers do, either, and there is some great bottled beer out there. This is what went through my mind when I tasted the Electrik bar’s fourth collaborative brew, which is a keg lager named LFO (in response to some recent sad news). Fittingly, LFO is an absolute monster – very dry, very bitter, very hoppy on top of all that, and then all of the same again. It reminded me of nothing so much as my first taste of Jever Pilsener: it’s a great big beer that just keeps on coming at you. And if it doesn’t unfurl new flavour dimensions halfway down the glass, well, too bad – the Jever wouldn’t have done that either. (And it was on at £4/pint, which squeaks into the affordable bracket.)

The “Think Of It As A Very Small Bottle”: Mikkeller/Siren White Stout

For obvious reasons, really strong beers are a rarity in cask; they don’t tend to go, and if they don’t go they tend to go off. I think the strongest beer I’ve had from a cask was 8.5%: it’s a tie between Coniston No 9 barley wine (at a beer festival) and Robinson’s Old Tom. Old Tom is unusual in being widely available in Robbies’ pubs, and the brewery deserves a lot of credit for not abandoning it but building it up as a cask beer. It’s generally in pins to minimise spoilage, though – and I’m sadly familiar with the warmish, flattish, slightly metallic taste of old Old Tom!

So if somebody brews a beer at 12% – stronger than many wines – the chances are you’re only ever going to see it in a small, expensive bottle; what’s more, the chances are you never will physically see that bottle, and that if you do you’ll think the price is just a bit too silly. Kegging to the rescue: someone who might baulk at paying (say) £3.50 for a 250 ml bottle may well be amenable to paying £2.80 for a third of a pint (even though that equates to £3.66 for 250 ml). At least, I was.

Why Mikkeller and the ever-impressive Siren have called this beer a white stout I’ve no idea, given that all the information this really conveys is that it’s (a) strong and (b) not black. What it is, as far as I could see, is a barley wine. What it is, to be more precise, is a very, very good barley wine – a rich, dense, marmaladey fruitiness, smooth without being syrupy, heavy without (amazingly) any overt alcoholic heat. A stonkingly good beer, quite honestly, and one which I would probably never have had if I’d only seen it in bottles.

You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin! a stranger in a pub said to a friend of mine, unprompted, some time in the early 70s. By and large I’d agree with that; by and large, I don’t want beer squirted out of a tin. But, like CAMRA, I’m pro-cask rather than anti-keg; and I’m increasingly finding that there are times when the list of the best – or most interesting – things on the bar includes some beers on keg. Keg vs cask, I still think the keg is likely to be second best. ‘Cold and fizzy’ I can live with; what I’m thinking of here is more a ‘light, drinkable, rough edges shaved off’ sort of thing, not to mention the absence of the ‘developing in the glass’ thing. But if what you’re getting is something you can’t get on cask – something you would only previously have found in bottles – some of the objections become a bit academic.

(I still wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.)

Play us out, Mark:

To you it may be taboo

I’m afraid I won’t be going to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention. Or rather, I didn’t go (it was this weekend). Having missed the first one last yearthe first two (h/t Tyson in comments – time flies eh?), I wrote off this year’s IMBC when ‘sold out’ messages started appearing, several months in advance of the event itself. However, not all the advance tickets got used – as is bound to happen when tickets go on sale with a lot of time to spare – and a few were being touted around on Twitter as late as Friday.

So I did have the choice whether or not to go, and in the end I chose not.

REASONS FOR GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. Lots of interesting beers from cutting-edge brewers.
  2. The food sounded pretty good too.
  3. And it was in Victoria Baths, which would be unusual if nothing else.
  4. So, really, whatever the beer was like, it would have been an interesting experience and made a good blog post (as long as I hadn’t got too drunk to remember anything).
  5. (Even if I didn’t much enjoy it, it would have been an interesting experience.)

REASONS FOR NOT GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. It was £13 to get in. For that (according to the Website) you got a glass, a programme and er. Making it approximately £10 dearer than most CAMRA beer festivals.
  2. If last year was anything to go by, the beer would have been fairly pricey, too.
  3. Not to mention the food.
  4. More to the point, about 3/4 of the beer (at least, for the session I checked) was keg.
  5. I didn’t want to go and then spend the evening roaming the halls disconsolately looking for cask beers that (a) were on (b) looked interesting and (c) I hadn’t had.
  6. Nor did I want to spend it trying keg beers and hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. Because I do keep trying them and I do keep being disappointed – not every time, but definitely most times.
  7. And I certainly didn’t want to be the old bloke leaning accusingly on the Magic Rock bar and saying “Got any real ale, young man? No? Aye, well, think on.”
  8. In terms of interesting experiences, the last three possibilities wouldn’t have been very interesting – and “man who doesn’t like craft keg tries craft keg, doesn’t like it” doesn’t make a very good blog post.
  9. I know, I’ve written it.
  10. More than once.
  11. Most importantly, and setting aside any consideration of beard length –
  12. (May I point out at this point that I’ve recently gone clean-shaven myself, and am confident this will be the next trend. At least, I hope it is. I cannot be doing with those Iain-from-Bake Off full beards that the real hipsters seem to be sporting these days.
  13. I saw a little short bearded guy unlocking his bike from the railing of a bar down the road the other week – 5′ 4″ at most, long shorts, full beard. Not many things make me stare, but I could not stop staring at that guy. I think my subconscious must have taken him for a gnome.)
  14. Anyway, the point is that there’s a selection effect here. An event like IMBC, with lots of fanfare about its general awesomeness and cutting-edge-icity, will attract a lot of people who like the idea of going to an awesome cutting-edge event. (And I’m willing to bet that a lot of them will have full beards, but that’s not important right now.)
  15. And an event with what I imagine to be expensive beer and food, and what I know to be expensive admission tickets, will attract people who don’t mind paying a lot for their beer festival experience.
  16. Also, and most obviously, an event where 3/4 of the beer is keg will attract people who (at the very least) don’t mind that.
  17. In short, if I had gone I strongly suspect I would have been surrounded by well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers.
  18. I’ve got nothing against well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers, but they are not my people.
  19. (I mean, the guy with the ponytail and the Hobgoblin shirt drinking a pint of Old Tom from his own pewter tankard isn’t exactly my soul-mate, but I’d much, much rather be surrounded by people like that. Really much rather.)
  20. Also, the festival glass is a third of a pint. And serving bitter in thirds is just wrong.

So that’s five reasons in favour, twenty reasons against. The result was a foregone conclusion. To me the IMBC is – still – something to say ta-ta to.

(H/t John Hegley.)