Category Archives: Pale’n’oppy

In your own way

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

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

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

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

2. This is a very bad thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. People need to start paying more for cask.

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

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

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

I’ll speed up for the last few points.

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

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

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

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

8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…

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

9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

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

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

The very cheese-oh

What shall we say about Ticketybrew? The first thing I want to say is that they’re making some of the best beers around at the moment, particularly on cask. If I see one of their distinctive pump clips I invariably make a bee-line for it; I’ve very rarely been disappointed, and I’m often genuinely impressed.

So: if the beer’s that good, what’s standing between Ticketybrew and the big time? Why aren’t we hearing their name bandied about alongside Blackjack and RedWillow, or Cloudwater at a pinch? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t they hip? There are three reasons, I think. One, I’m afraid, is the name; the design is brilliant, but the name is just a bit naff. The beer would gain credibility overnight if they changed the brewery’s name to something resonant and mysterious (“Liquid Void”, “GreenRail”…) – or even something plain like ‘Ticket’.

The second problem is the sheer hyperactive sprawl of the beer range. I’m in two minds about this – I’ve got fond memories of the Marmite Stout and the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss – but I can’t help feeling, as I said of Blackjack two years ago, that Ticketybrew could do with just slowing down. In peak condition, the Dubbel, the Tripel, the Pale, the Blonde, the Stout, the Golden Bitter and that double-hopped pale ale I had the other night are all absolutely stunning beers; how many more new and interesting fruit-machine combinations does the world need? At the end of the day, nobody likes a novelty merchant.

The third reason has to do with consistency. Consistency isn’t an issue for all of these beers – every Jasmine Green Tea Pale I’ve had, on bottle or cask, has had just the same light, flinty dryness. Even where it is an issue it’s not necessarily a problem; there’s a definite variability to most of their cask beers, I’ve found, but not in a bad way. Where the Pale and the Blonde are concerned, being slightly different every time even makes the beers more interesting. But for some beers, in bottle in particular, it is a problem – and that means it’s a problem Ticketybrew are going to have to surmount. If you look at Cloudwater, for instance, they’ve made their name on a few good beers and striking label designs, but also by getting consistency nailed: you may not know what a particular experimental hop pale ale will taste like, but you know that if you have it twice you’ll get the same again. As much as I love their best beers, Ticketybrew aren’t there yet, not for all of their beers – bottled beers in particular.

Overall I’d score Ticketybrew’s beer range something like this (with some double-counting for beers I’ve tasted in different conditions):

Superb Good Hmm
Cask 8 8
Keg 1 2
Bottle 8 8 6

The figures in the left-hand column are pretty impressive – that’s eight cask beers (plus the Tripel on keg) which are worth travelling across town for. I know that Ticketybrew are expanding; perhaps this is also an opportunity to get the consistency of their bottled beers sorted, whatever that actually involves (automated bottling? filter and re-seed? bottle in a cleanroom?). If they can pull that off, they could be world-beaters. Especially if they can slow down a bit on the fruit-machine style-ninja front – and maybe, just possibly, think about a name change? (“Thirsty Void”, there’s one nobody’s using. “Dark River”, “Electric Chill”, “BlueWindow”… Or maybe something plain like “Ticket”.)

HOPEFUL UPDATE 6/10 Had a bottle of the Blonde this evening; it was in better condition than I’ve ever tasted it in bottle, mellow and fruity without even a hint of sharpness. If this is how it’s going to be from now on – and I do hope it is – I’ll be recommending Ticketybrew beers in any format and without any qualification. (Even if they keep the name.)

Quite a bit of all right

More on my firm favourite among brewers, Ticketybrew, with particular reference to their bottled beers. This post and the one before it have been a long time coming; it was last Christmas when I set out to buy every Ticketybrew beer I could find for a comprehensive tasting. Unfortunately my sweep of the shops coincided with a problem at the brewery which led to a few bottles with serious infection issues escaping into the wild, a couple of which I eventually bought. When I alerted Keri at the brewery to what had happened she confirmed that they had had problems – which had since been resolved – and very generously offered to replace the beers I’d bought. So this review isn’t going to say anything about the bottled Dunkelweisse or Salted Caramel Coffee Stout, neither of which I tasted at anything near their best.

Ticketybrew do a huge range of beers in bottle – all bottled by hand, and all (as far as I’m aware) bottle-conditioned – so this is going to be a bit of a ‘list post’. First, some bottled beers that are also available on draught (or vice versa). Of the beers I reviewed in the last post, I’ve had the Stout, Jasmine Green Tea Pale, Cherry Berliner Weiss, Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel in bottled form, as well as the Pale and the Blonde. Those two are reliably good – almost as good in bottle as they are on cask. Of the others, the Stout was very nice, the Jasmine Green Tea was rock-solid and the Cherry Berliner Weiss worked well (and I could taste the fruit).

Of Ticketybrew‘s bottle-only beers, I’ve had a number of short-run pale beers: Citra Pale, Antipodean Pale, a 6% IPA and the Grodziskie. These were all 1. pale 2. ‘oppy and 3. nothing short of superb (although the Grodziskie threw half of itself out of the bottle before I could get a glass in range; it’s traditionally a highly-carbonated style, so I’ll give them a pass on that). They were also short runs, some very short – a couple of the bottles I tasted didn’t even have printed labels. I hope they brew some of them again and on a larger scale; I think the 6% IPA, in particular, could do very well.

Flavoured beers abound in their bottled range. I haven’t had the Peach Ice Tea, although it sounds good; I also missed the Rice Pudding (!) on its first outing and hope to see it again some time. Manchester Tart was a very pleasant pale beer flavoured – lightly – with raspberry and coconut; yes, it did work and no, I didn’t think it would. As for the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss, I’d rate it above the Cherry; perhaps it’ll make a comeback.

Then there’s the Dubbel, one of their very first beers. In the past I’ve been slightly ungenerous about the Dubbel, as I realised when I had a Westmalle Dubbel and compared the two. So let me clarify: at its best, Ticketybrew Dubbel isn’t any better than Westmalle. (It isn’t any worse, either.)

That just leaves the Rose Wheat, Flat White (coffee wheat beer) and Munchner. I’ll take them together with a few beers I mentioned earlier but didn’t say much about: the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel. With all these bottled beers – and with the Pale, Blonde and Dubbel – I’ve had some consistency issues. Remember what I said about the cask beers staling? More than once now, I’ve tasted the Pale and the Blonde and thought “I’m sure it wasn’t quite that sour last time… is it meant to be like that?“; that goes for bottle as well as cask versions. That said, I did ‘tune in’ to the taste of the beer almost immediately; the sharpness that hit me at the outset rapidly became one element of a complex flavour profile. (And that also goes for bottle as well as cask versions.)

I’m a bit more concerned about the others listed – the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA, Rose Wheat, Flat White, Munchner, Tripel and even the Dubbel. The contrast between the Tripel in bottle and in its freeze-dried flavour-capsule keg form is striking – I’d love to say that the bottle-conditioned beer has added subtlety and sophistication, but most of what I could taste was added acidity. All these bottled beers are terrific when they’re in good nick, but too often there’s been an extra note of front-of-mouth citric sharpness creeping in, and sometimes creeping right to centre stage. I wondered to begin with if this was down to the bottle conditioning – we all know about how the sugar turns to alcohol… Then I remembered the 10-year-old Chimay Blue that I’d tasted once (courtesy of my younger self): not a sour note in sight.

It’s not a bad line-up; I make that 21 different bottled beers, of which 13 are very good or brilliant. That’s not as good a hit-rate as the cask beers, though – and not all of the 13 are consistently brilliant, sadly.

How about you?

I’m a big fan of Ticketybrew and have been for some time; they’ve featured in my ‘Golden Pints’ roundup posts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 (in fact I nominated their cask Pale for ‘beer of the year’ as soon as I tasted it, in July 2013). From a cautious, if idiosyncratic, start – two beers, a Dubbel and a Pale, bottle only – they’ve branched out into a bewildering range of styles, for keg and cask as well as bottle. According to my notes I’ve tasted sixteen different Ticketybrew beers on cask, twenty in bottle and three in keg, for a total of 27 styles or variants.

This post will go through the cask and keg beers. To start with some dark ones, I’ve had the Mumme, Coffee Anise Porter, Summer Porter and four (count ’em) Stouts. I’m not the biggest fan of the Coffee Anise Porter, but only because I’m not convinced about the coffee/anise combination; it’s a well-made beer. The Summer Porter is a lovely beer – dark and spicy without seeming heavy. As for the Mumme, you can read about it on Keri’s blog; I thought it tasted of sweet coffee and was rather odd. Interesting, though. The Stout is dense, black and sweetish, calling black treacle to mind (and is in fact flavoured with black treacle). A couple of novelties – Mint Choc Stout and Marmite Stout – overlaid their additional flavours on a similar (but not identical) dark, sweet stout base, and worked amazingly well (and yes, it did taste of Marmite). Then there was the Invalid Stout (c), produced in homage to a nineteenth-century recipe with substantial qualities of liquorice; I liked it a great deal, and I don’t even like liquorice. As for its ‘invalid’ health-giving qualities, my lips are sealed.

One of Ticketybrew‘s flagship beers, the Pale, isn’t actually very pale. Perhaps to make up for this, they’ve brewed some very, very pale beers, although these have mainly been for bottling. The only really pale beer of theirs I’ve had on cask is the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, which is very dry indeed but not sharp-tasting at all; it’s perfumed mainly by the eponymous tea. It’s very refreshing; I tried it once as a novelty and have gone back several times since. They also vary their pale range with fruit-flavoured – and, well, pudding-flavoured – beers, although again these are mainly found in bottle. I’ve tried the Cherry Berliner Weiss on bottle, cask and keg, and can report that a cask Berliner Weiss works better than you might think. The Bitter Orange – only on cask to my knowledge – was terrific: very like the Pale (see below) with a bit of added marmalade oomph.

The final group of draught beers consists of all the ones that aren’t dark, pale or fruit-flavoured. Let’s start with a real world-class beer, Ticketybrew Pale. The first time I had the Pale on cask I just loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since; I’ve loved it fresh and mellow, I’ve loved it at the sharp end of the cask; I’ve loved it at its full strength of 5.5%, in the 4.3% version that they once supplied to a beer festival and even (slightly less) on keg. It’s just a lovely beer. The best way I can think to describe it is that there’s a certain kind of flavour profile you get in some high-strength beers, particularly dark beers – imperial stouts, barley wines, quadrupels; a sense of the flavour of the beer dropping away, as you drink it, and opening out into something bigger and more intense. In terms of flavour, colour and strength, the Pale is in the best bitter or ‘premium bitter’ area, but it also does that. It’s a massive beer (even at 5.5%) – an absolute classic.

The Blonde – smooth, creamy, lightly fruity – isn’t quite as good as the Pale, but it’s close. I have very fond memories of a session with a German friend on the Blonde, although at 5.6% it’s not really a session beer (as I realised the next morning). It’s a bit lighter and perhaps a bit less complex than the Pale, but with the same sense of ‘opening out’, of giving you a bit more flavour than you bargained for.

The Golden Bitter is a really nice, old-school amber bitter with a Landlord-ish diacetyl edge to it. Like the Pale – and the Blonde for that matter – the Golden Bitter is definitely a beer that stales, not to put too fine a point on it: when you go back on day 2 or day 3, you will absolutely not get the same mellowness that you got on day 1. Oxidation or something else? Either way, it’s not necessarily a defect; it’s not the kind of harsh, overwhelming sourness that tells you the barrel’s going off, more a shifting element of the beer’s flavour profile (sweetish gradually turning sharpish).

The Black IPA and Table IPA have been terrific when I’ve had them on cask; there’s an odd sort of mellow dryness underlying the resin (BIPA) and the old books (TIPA), which in both cases makes for a really drinkable beer. Last of all, the Tripel on keg was absolutely superb; I’ve had Belgian tripels on draught, and this is worthy to stand alongside them.

I’ll draw some conclusions at the end of the second post, when I’ve said something about the bottled range. For now, a quick running total: I make that 19 beers (with some double-counting for cask and keg), of which I’d class 10 as good and 9 as very good. Duncan Barton isn’t the kind of brewer who does conference keynotes and gets his picture in CRAFT magazine – more the kind who quietly gets on with it – but he and Keri are producing some absolutely stunning cask and keg beers.

And then there are the bottles…

Shop local

I realised the other day that we’ve got five off licences selling good beer within, say, twenty minutes’ walk – and that I never go to any of them, preferring to go to the supermarket and work my way through a series of bottles from Fuller’s, Adnam’s, St Austell and the like, interspersed with the odd Duvel or Guinness FE. Well, it’s Christmas, and (having recently gone full-time) I’ve got a bit more spending money than usual, so I decided today to do the rounds of all five and buy everything that jumped off the shelf at me, with a particular focus on British ‘craft’ stuff.

I can now report that – barring any nasty surprises when I come to open the stuff – I’m living within striking distance of five off licences selling insanely good beer. I’m now the proud owner of bottles (and a few cans) from

Seven Bro7hers
Ticketybrew

– Carrington’s

Buxton
Runaway
Six Degrees North

– Oddbins

Cloudwater
Magic Rock
RedWillow

– Épicerie Ludo

Marble/All In
Northern Monk/Nomada
Buxton/To Øl

– Tiny’s Tipple

Brew By Numbers
BrewDog
Kernel
Siren
Tempest

– Chorlton Off Licence

How they all keep going without cannibalising one another’s business is a mystery – the last two in particular, which are practically in the same parade of shops. There’s a certain amount of specialisation when it comes to breweries, as you can see from my shopping lists above – Ludo playing it a bit safer than COL, Tiny taking the more esoteric and bleeding-edge stuff – but it’s all on the same spectrum: mostly pales, stouts and sours, mostly 330 ml bottles and cans, prices in the £2-£3 range. Guess it’s a popular spectrum these days!

All I need now is somewhere to buy the rest of the Ticketybrew range (I’ve only managed to collect the Pale, Dubbel, Blond, Tripel, Table IPA, Black IPA and Jasmine Green Tea). Will travel, a bit.

(And no, I don’t do much of my beer shopping online.)

Little boxes

I’m rather late in writing this up, but a couple of months ago Beer52 got in touch and asked if I’d like to take another look at one of their monthly beer boxes. I was less than bowled over last time, concluding with the ringing endorsement “if you’re less bothered by the pricing, have fewer alternatives to mail order or really like the sound of those breweries, this may suit you better than it does me.”

A year down the line, they’ve made a few small changes and one big one. The small changes include ditching that awful food-matching copy on the box and throwing in a couple of nice extras – a small packet of something crunchy and a large, almost newspaper format magazine, Ferment. The basic setup remains unchanged: you still pay £24 a month for eight bottles of beer delivered to your door (although the price drops if you take out a longer subscription). Unimaginative tightfist that I am, last time round I got a bit stuck on that figure of £3 per bottle – particularly as several of the bottles were 330 or 355 ml – and a rather predictable internal argument ensued: “You might have to pay that much in a specialist beer shop!” At that price I just wouldn’t buy it. “If you think of it as mail order and allow a bit for P+P…” Yeah, but I don’t buy beer on mail order. And so on.

A year later I’m still a tightfist, but – and this is the big change – the beer is looking a lot more like beer I might pay £3 a bottle for, in a specialist shop or on mail order. The haul last time included the mighty Ticketybrew, Stevens Point, Oakham, Grain and three breweries I was less impressed with; it didn’t make me feel they were fielding the A team, put it that way. This time I got

  • Beer Project Brussels Dark Sister (6.66%)
  • Brewfist and Brewhere Caterpillar (5.8%)
  • Bronher The Drunk Hop (4.7%)
  • Cloudwater Grisette (3.5%)
  • Gosnells London Mead (5.5%)
  • Lucky Jack American Pale Ale (4.7%)
  • Six Degrees North Belgian IPA (6.6%)
  • Vocation Heart and Soul (4.4%)

All 330 ml bottles except the Lucky Jack and Vocation, which were 330 ml cans – rather nasty contract-labelled cans in the case of the Vocation.

I think you’ll agree there are some names to conjure with there. The Dark Sister was a black IPA; apart from that everything that doesn’t have a style in the name was a pale beer. And most of them, I’ve got to say, were really good. Hand on heart I didn’t much enjoy the Cloudwater, but I’ve never had a grisette before – supposedly it’s like a session saison – and I’m quite prepared to believe it was true to type. I did enjoy the Belgian IPA – which did what it said on the label – and, slightly to my surprise, the mead: it had a strong taste of honey without being at all cloying. I left the canned beers till last to see if I’d detect any oxidation from the excessive headspace which is a risk in canning (particularly contract canning), but I’m happy to say I didn’t – I’ve been highly impressed by Vocation beers on cask, and this one was almost as good.

I don’t do advertising, but I do think this is a good range. (Oh, very smart, going for the we-all-hate-advertising dollar… Shut up, inner Bill Hicks!) Bear in mind that the actual beers I got were last month’s selection or possibly the month before’s – you’re not going to get these beers if you sign up today. But if that list is at all representative of the kind of breweries they’re dealing with, I think it shows that what Beer52 are offering has improved a lot. As for whether it’s worth £3 a bottle, or £24 a month, for me I think the answer is still probably not, but it’s a close thing. Besides, I’m writing as somebody who lives within fifteen minutes’ walk of three different off-licences that sell Cloudwater beers (among much else). If you’re less fortunate in that respect, there are certainly worse things that you could do with £24 a month.

A brief word about the freebie magazine Ferment. I lean both ways about Ferment: as a former hack myself I’m generally in favour of anything that puts words on paper, and it’s a nice-looking, well-designed publication. The content isn’t particularly unusual, though, in authors, content or style; it’s somewhere between an issue of BEER and a good day’s trawl of the more earnest end of the blogosphere. That said, one article that qualified on all three counts was also an absolute clunker – the writer was ostensibly reviewing the Imbibe trade show but instead got two pages out of sitting on a slow-moving bus and deciding not to go to the show, and filled the ‘beer’ element of the brief by sniping (unoriginally) at horrible mass-market beers and (unpleasantly) at the horrible people who drink them. If that’s the alternative, give me food-matching, what’s new in the world of IPAs and what is a saison? any day. I also noticed that one of the contributors described himself as a recently qualified freelance journalist. Damn, that’s where I went wrong

Something silly

The Curmudgeon commented the other day on the burgeoning of ‘craft’ beers with silly a.b.v.s, arguing that this is a recent phenomenon and that it goes along with a different way of drinking beer. A session of thirds at 10.5% would be a very different experience from a session of pints at 3.5% – more like a wine- or whisky-tasting evening, less like a session down the pub.

The contrast can be exaggerated. Being a bit stronger than average has been a marker of quality in beer right back to the early days of CAMRA, when we’d seek out surviving strong ales and old ales (Young’s Winter Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier…) and compare them unfavourably with mass-market (keg) swill. Moreover, strength was still associated with quality and/or originality during the first pale’n’oppy boom. A big part of the appeal of Hopback Summer Lightning, back in the ’90s, was that it was both lighter-tasting than your average bitter and stronger – it was called ‘Lightning’ for a reason. (I wonder, looking back, how much of the original fan-base of Summer Lightning – and of the golden ales that followed – was made up of people who had been to the Netherlands or Belgium and tasted the ‘real’ Heineken or Stella: lighter and smoother than the beer we were used to, yet stronger with it.)

But there’s a big difference between Summer Lightning at 5.5%, or Young’s Winter Warmer at (I’m startled to find) a mere 5%, and something like Un-Human Cannonball at 11%. You’re no longer talking about having three or four pints, as normal, and feeling slightly rougher in the morning; three pints at 10% would equate to nine double gins, more than half the bottle. In fact you’re no longer talking about drinking pints at all (I found it hard enough to get through a third of UHC).

What you are talking about, at least in my experience, is the ideal candidate for a new way of drinking beer: the Half of Something Silly. Beer festivals and pub crawls aside, I almost invariably drink pints. At the end of a night, though, as I prepare to head home (or even after I’ve left the pub), I often fancy rounding off the evening’s drinking with a H. of S. S. (The fact that I tend to pass the Font on my way home from the pub may be relevant here.) To qualify as Silly, a beer needs to be something I’d never usually choose, either because it’s ridiculously strong or because it’s flavoured with, well, something silly – liquorice, cheese, Brett… A typical example of Something Silly was the smoked cherry chipotle milk porter I had a while back. I never want to have it again – I don’t think a milk porter was something the world was waiting for, let alone a chipotle milk porter or a cherry chipotle milk porter. (I couldn’t taste the smoke, which may be just as well.) But that’s not the point; sometimes (particularly when you’re already three pints down), you just fancy a half of something silly, and something silly is definitely what that was.

Any questions?

A new way of drinking beer – isn’t that a bit of a generalisation?

OK, it could just be me. But if you look at the keg list at a place like the Font in Chorlton, you’ll see that some of them hang around for absolute ages – particularly the really strong beers. (And I’m sure they’re fine, what with being keg to begin with.) There may be people having sessions on halves and thirds of loopy juice; alternatively, there may be some beers that only really come into their own after 10.30, when people start fancying a H. of S. S.

Aren’t you just describing what we used to call a ‘nightcap’?

Pretty much; and it’s not a million miles from other end-of-evening practices like switching to Landlord when time’s been called, or spinning out the last half of bitter by sticking a bottle of Guinness in it. But the likelihood of finding a cask ‘nightcap’ – or anything really weird or hefty – is pretty small nowadays. You’ll stand a better chance in a ‘craft’ bar – or a Spoons’ – but the real home of the end-of-evening beer, these days, is the ‘craft’ keg font.

So, Un-Human Cannonball is the new Old Tom.

Old Tom is the new Old Tom, and UHC would be a lousy substitute. Cannonball would do nicely, though. Also Marble Brew 900, Siren/Mikkeller White Stout, Marble Vuur and Vlam… all HoSS that I’ve known and loved. I’d include Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball (the 7.2% BIPA I finished off with last night) but for the fact that it gave me the worst hangover in years; I’m still a bit fragile 24 hours later. I only had a half (obviously), but I’m sure it was that one that did it – everything I’d had up to then was on cask, so it must have been OK.

Really?

No, not really. Actually I blame the saison I had earlier. Saison before black IPA and you’ll feel… how does it go?

News in brief

A few quick thoughts that don’t quite merit a post each.

“I Like This One More Than That One” – Local Man’s Shock Claim

A couple of cask/keg comparisons. The other day I had the opportunity to try Magic Rock High Wire on both cask and keg. The cask beer opened with an intriguing herby smokiness, which died away as I got further down; by the bottom of the glass it was just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. (I prefer Curious.) This raised my hopes for the keg – if they’d managed to, as it were, freeze-dry the initial hoppy attack so that it ran right through the beer, that would be rather special. I tasted it and it was… just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. My “Mysteries of Magic Rock Kegging” file gets longer.

A while ago I had Marble‘s Earl Grey IPA on cask & was rather impressed with it – more so than I remember being when they first brewed it. The keg comparison was unavoidable. I was startled to find that, as good as the cask was, the keg version was… hold on, I need to take a few deep breaths… the keg was… there’s no other way to put this, the keg was even better. Yes, it’s finally happened: I’ve found a beer that works better on keg than on cask (although the cask is really good). It’s the ‘Earl Grey’ aroma that tips the balance – in the keg version it comes through that much more clearly; it seems to hang over the surface of the beer as you’re drinking it.

As for Holt’s/Marble/Blackjack/Runaway Green Quarter IPA, I haven’t tracked it down on cask yet so can’t compare. The keg was pretty damn good, though. (Colder than it needed to be and gassier than it need to be, natürlich, but other than that it was excellent.)

Drinking keg and liking it – oh, the shame!

In Descending Order Of…

For a while now I’ve had my bottled beers arranged (under the stairs) in strength order – 3.8s and 4.1s at the front, 7s and 8s at the back. I decided a while ago that, rather than replacing bottles in ones and twos, I would drink my way through the entire stash (fourteen bottles at the time) in strength order. Not that I’d work my way through them all in one go, you understand, just that every time I fancied a beer I’d go for the strongest thing that was left. I thought this might be an interesting experience and that there might be a blog post in it. I’m now just over halfway through, and – while it has been interesting – there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say about it, except:

There’s a surprising number of ‘Burtons’ out there

McEwan’s Champion, Lees’ Moonraker and Manchester Star, Fuller’s 1845 and (perhaps) ESB, Marston’s Owd Roger, Robinson’s Old Tom… One of these things is not like the others, sadly. Owd Roger is a shadow of its former self: sweet and syrupy with a tell-tale whiff of alcohol on the finish. The rest are all good stuff, whether they put you in mind of a spiked fruit compote (McEwan’s Champion), malt extract off a spoon (Lees’ Manchester Star), or – somehow – both of the above (Old Tom, which really is the business).

In supermarkets, dark=strong and strong=dark

When I was growing up & first discovering beer, bitter was pretty much all there was; a dark beer would generally be sweetish, heavyish and at least half as strong again as the usual (think Bruce’s Dogbolter). That world’s long gone from pubs and bars, but it seems to be hanging on in the supermarket shelves: apart from Tesco’s BrewDog double IPA (which I didn’t have in when I started this), very few supermarket beers are both strong and pale. Instead, I worked my way through a succession of 6+% dark beers – those listed above plus a Robinson’s chocolate porter (from M&S) and Ridgeway Bad King John. (And what an odd beer that is: not a stout, not a porter, not an old ale or a Burton. By analogy with the way that two different flavour profiles come together in a black IPA, I think you could call BKJ a ‘black bitter’. Can’t think of another beer quite like it.) Shortly below 6%, though, I hit a turning-point: 5.9 was ESB, 5.5 was St Austell Proper Job. From here on it’s pale or amber beers all the way down. Watch this space.

Bester Festertester

When I got home from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival I was in no state to be allowed on the Internet, and by the time I sobered up the moment had gone rather. To the best of my recollection it was a terrific festival. I wasn’t there on the last day, but from my personal perspective the policy of putting everything available on from the start worked superbly well; I’d rapidly built up a want-list including twice as many beers as I could actually hope to drink. Many difficult decisions, reluctant substitutions and spur-of-the-moment decisions later, here’s what I ended up drinking:

Cryptic 1049 Dead 4.9% [a mild I’d enjoyed at the Spinning Top]
Ticketybrew Coffee Anise Porter 4.9% [hmm – not sure the flavour combination quite worked]
Ticketybrew Black IPA 5.9% [this, on the other hand, was terrific]
Outstanding M 10% [a beautiful barleywine, perhaps just slightly overclocked on the alcohol front – an 8% version would be blinding]
Blackjack Dragon’s Tears 5.2% [“Dragon’s Tears”? I drank a beer called “Dragon’s Tears”? It’s a saison, apparently.]
Cryptic 1049 Grey 4.9% [dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – two totally different flavours, which worked together surprisingly well]
Runaway Hopfenweisse 5.2% [identifiably a weissbier but hopped to the max]
Quantum Mandarina Bavaria 4.5% [my first exposure to the eponymous hop; it was terrific]
Buxton Pomperipossa 6% [sour cherry stout – rather good]
Squawk Espresso Stout 6.5%
Northern Monk Chennai 5.4%
Fool Hardy Renowned Ginger 4.4%

My recollections of the last few are a bit sketchy.

Looking down the list now, I’m struck by just how local those breweries are – three of them are actually based in Stockport, and most of the rest are within a ten-mile radius; the very furthest afield is Northern Monk in Leeds. Hand on heart, I had no idea of this when I was choosing beers; I genuinely picked these beers because I liked the look of them. In the words of the song, Manchester’s improving daily – and Stockport’s not doing too badly (on the beer front at least!).

Mildly interesting (6)

This is the sixth and last post documenting my wanders around Manchester and environs in search of mild, as part of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Mild Magic promotion.

This year’s MM augmented the sticker-collecting routine with a points system, with far-flung and little-visited pubs getting three points, busy and accessible pubs getting one and the rest getting two. What this meant in practice was that I avoided some pubs I’d usually have gone to and sought out some I’d never set foot in. While this was probably a good thing on balance, it did mean skipping some pubs I like a lot. By this stage, though, I’d built up a bit of a bank of points & could afford to go to some one-pointers, which I duly included on a couple of final crawls around town.

Manchester city centre’s first Wetherspoon’s, the hopefully-named Moon Under Water, had Beartown Black Bear on. I’m not a huge fan of Beartown – in the past I’ve found their beers to err on the side of bland and sweet – but this, to my surprise, was rather good. The venue, though… There are three kinds of Spoons, in my experience: there are the kind that actually look like a pub (very rare); then there are the kind that, while undeniably looking like a giant shed, nevertheless have a bit of a pub ambiance and are quite a pleasant place to while away half an hour. Then there are the rest. I drank up and moved on.

The Rising Sun has been a decent real ale pub for as long as I can remember; it had a Moorhouse’s tie (or something very like one) for a while. No Black Cat this time, though; in fact no mild at all. I contented myself with Howard Town Hope, a grapefruity blighter of a pale ale – a pleasant surprise from a fairly traditional local brewery.

My next stop was in the (Gay) Village. I was drinking in the Village when there barely even was a Village; when Manto on Canal Street first opened in the early 90s I used to go there quite a lot, mainly on Saturday afternoons. They had Pedigree on draught, and I liked the café-bar ambience (all terra cotta and hard chairs). Plus, while I’m not gay myself, I actually rather liked the ‘mixed’ atmosphere of the place, the sense that nobody walking in was going to be assumed to be straight (or assumed to be gay); it made for a relaxed atmosphere, something you can’t always rely on in pubs on a Saturday afternoon.

Since then, of course, Canal Street and the wider Village have got a good deal less ‘mixed’; if you stand at the Princess Street end of Canal Street now and look towards what used to be Manto, all you can see is a huge sign reading “G A Y”. And so to the Molly House, which is a sort of anti-Manto: on one hand it’s a snug, pubby-looking pub, all dark wood and plush upholstery, with an excellent range of beer on draught; on the other, it’s very gay. (Try googling the origins of the name.) A nice enough place to visit, for the heterosexual beer tourist, but it doesn’t have that chilled “hey, why should we define ourselves by our sexuality?” air about it. (And I doubt that anywhere does, these days; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ vibe of the early days of Manto was probably just a phase, which passed when the scene got better established.) Anyway, back to the beer – which was terrific. It was a Brightside dark mild which I hadn’t seen before, called MMM; mid-brown in colour with a real depth of flavour, not unlike the Titanic Nautical Mild.

Another lunchtime trip took me to the Marble Arch, which – unusually – was serving food; I couldn’t bring myself to pay £11 for a burger, though. I wouldn’t usually start a mild session with the equivalent of a pint at 7%, but the nearest thing they had to a mild was Chocolate Marble – and they had Brew 900 on keg. What else was I going to do? Second acquaintance with Brew 900 confirms that it’s a really nice tripel, with that delicate sweetness that comes in at the end without being cloying. The Chocolate was pretty good too.

The Castle on Oldham St is a Robinson’s house and hence a go-to pub on Winter Warmer Wanders. For mild, these days, not so much. They did, however, have Titanic Mild on – not the Nautical Mild, but a 3.8% dark mild, which (as you’d expect) was similar but a bit less substantial. Up the road, the Smithfield was unexpectedly shut – through the window I could see where they’d stashed their A-boards, one of them reading ‘Open daily 12-7’; for points-related reasons, this led to an unexpected detour to the Bull’s Head. After my experience at the Red Lion I wasn’t enthused about doing a solid ten-minute walk to get to a Marston’s pub, but it wasn’t too bad; in fact Banks’s Mild was surprisingly good.

Finally, for my very last sticker of Mild Magic 2015, I schlepped back to the Crown and Kettle, where I had… um. I followed it with Ticketybrew Table IPA, that I do know, but as for the mild itself (and I know there was a mild)… nope. Like the first mild I had this year, the last one has slipped my mind. A dark mild, and one I hadn’t had before; that’s all I can remember.

48 pubs down (and 100 points amassed), how’s it all stack up?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 33 (21 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 8
Breweries: 30 (22 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 6
Pubs worth going back to: 17
Once-a-year pubs: 25

Mildly interesting (4)

Another Mild Magic round-up, this one covering a few separate trips around Chorlton and Didsbury.

I’m perversely fond of the Sedge Lynn (JDW), and they didn’t let the side down; Peerless Dark Arts was rather good. Down at the Chorlton Green end of town, the Beech has Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best as a regular beer; they had Rudgate Ruby Mild as well, but GB was fine for me. Further along Beech Road, the Parlour – a nice relaxed bar, one of those places I always think I should go to more often – had Moorhouse’s Black Cat, also in good nick.

(SCRUPULOUS HONESTY UPDATE: if I’m scrupulously honest I don’t actually remember what I had at the Sedge Lynn – it was my first tick of this year’s MM, and is some time ago now. But it was a dark mild; the chances seem pretty good that it was one of the three dark milds I’ve had at other Spoons; and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t either of the other two. It was pleasant and well-kept, that I do remember.)

A trip to Didsbury started (thanks to the tram) at the Railway, a pleasant and welcoming Holt’s house serving (alas) the brewery’s weak and uninteresting dark mild. Down the road at Wine and Wallop, the staff claimed never to have had their MM stickers; this didn’t seem very likely to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. The W&W is a smart, attractive bar with a good range of beers, albeit with only one mild: a second appearance for Titanic Nautical Mild. (Something not quite right on the condition front, sadly; it was in better nick at the Bishop Blaize.) The sign board features a quote from 1984 supporting their contention that ‘wallop’ means ‘beer’; interestingly enough, the quote actually defines ‘wallop’ specifically as mild ale. They missed a trick there – or perhaps not.

Some way further down the road (I can be less precise) I arrived at the Parrswood Hotel, a JW Lees‘ house serving their (unexciting but perfectly serviceable) Brewers’ Dark. When I opened the door I thought I’d stepped back in time; the first thing I saw was a hippieish-looking old bloke standing at the bar wreathed in smoke. It was an e-cig, obviously, but he’d clearly found the ‘produce maximum vapour’ setting and given it some welly. He engaged me in conversation, which was sadly rather one-sided; all I could make out was that he’d worked for forty years and didn’t want to pay any more taxes (well, who does?). I’m a confirmed fan of Lees’ MPA, so I ordered a half of that too; sadly it had gone off. Not being a fan of Lees’ ordinary bitter, I did something I’d never done before in a pub and requested a refund instead of a replacement. I soon regretted it, though: the young lad serving had to go off to find somebody more senior, after which the two of them spent the next five minutes entering menu options and authorisation codes on a touch screen at the back of the bar.

Another Didsbury trip began up in Rusholme at the Ford Madox Brown (JDW), where Arundel Black Stallion was flanked (as I noted at the time) by no fewer than four beers I would have preferred; Moorhouse’s Farmhouse was particularly intriguing. Hopefully another time. Back on the bus and down to the Victoria in Withington, for the first (and very nearly the last) sighting this time round of Hyde’s Owd Oak, which was fine. I should say at this point that this was a lunchtime trip, and one of my resolutions when I left (along with “stick to the half of mild to begin with” and “have another half in the last pub or two, if there’s anything interesting”) was “get something to eat, only not in Spoons“: it takes the shine off trying new and interesting pubs if you end up ordering off the same menu they have in umpty-three other pubs. The Vic was one of the pubs I was hoping might be offering food, but no such luck.

The next pub on the list – the Red Lion – did have food on; it was clearly a chain menu, but at least it wasn’t the same chain menu I would have faced at a Spoons’. The trouble here, ironically, was the beer. When I lived in Withington the Red Lion was a bit of a cut above – it served Marston’s! On this visit they had quite the range: beers from Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood as well as the Marston’s mothership. I had a half of Ringwood Boondoggle – Jennings’ Mild had just gone off – which was… fine. No, it wasn’t fine: it was mediocre. It wasn’t actively bad – if it had been a mild it would have been Holt’s rather than Coach House, put it that way – but it was bland. It struck me then that this is what Marston’s do, these days – they make bland brown bitter (Pedigree), alternating with bland malty brown bitter (Cumberland), bland dark brown bitter (Hobgoblin) and bland yellowish bitter (Boondoggle). And now they’ve got Wainwright too. Yippee. CAMRA still have a job to do – there’s plenty of ale out there that still needs revitalising, and breweries that (sadly) aren’t helping.

Anyway, I had to force the half down – which is an awful thing to have to say of a beer under the Ringwood name – and there was no way I was staying for another, of anything. So it was ho forth to the Dog and Partridge, where they had a couple of signs up suggesting food, but no sign of a menu. (To be fair, there was no sign of anything much – I was the only customer.) I consoled myself with a Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best and headed for my next and final stop… the nearest Spoons’. The Milson Rhodes (JDW) had an extensive (if familiar) food menu; they also had some really rather excellent beer. I ordered some food and had it with halves of Peerless Dark Arts and Partners Tabatha (a 6% tripel). More messing about with technology here, rather more successfully than at the Parrswood: it turns out that the JDW till’s meal-anna-pint discount system can’t handle a meal and two halves, but that it can be induced to price up a meal-anna-half-anna-nother-half for less than the meal and the two halves would have been separately. (This has just taken longer to explain than it took the woman behind the bar to process.) I then finished off with the Adnams/Sixpoint collab Make It Rain, an IPA-ish golden ale that gave new meaning to the word ‘sproingy’. There was never a better illustration of why I tag posts “Love/hate relationship with JDW’s”.

But soft, what scores are those on yonder doors?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 20 (14 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 5
Breweries: 21 (16 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 11
Once-a-year pubs: 16