Category Archives: Pocket fluff

Beery cheery

For no particular reason, here are some pictures of beers I’ve enjoyed recently. First, Magic Rock High Wire, keg (left) and cask (right). The cask shaded it on flavour, but I’ve got to admit the keg looks cooler.

I'm not actually with him

I’m not actually with him

Then… well, the rest of them explain themselves, really.

Chimay

Mmm… Orval. (Really must get an Orval glass. Or drink more Chimay.)

Duvel

Mmm, Duvel. Should have seen it with the head on.

Maredsous

Down the boozer again (Pi Chorlton) for this last one. Rather nice as I remember. (That’s tasting notes, that is.)

 

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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.

The stash

After a bit of pre-Christmas shopping, I find myself with 22 bottles of beer under the stairs (plus a couple which still need a few months’ ageing). Pausing only to check my window locks (there’s some excellent stuff in here, you know) here’s

What’s Under My Stairs

Thwaites’ Wainwright (all right, I didn’t say it was all excellent stuff) (Supermarket purchase)
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (S)
Orval (local Off-licence)
Okell’s Aile (porter) (Bargain shop)
Corsendonk Agnus (O)
Harbour India Pale Ale (S)
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (S)
Bosteels Pauwel Kwak (O)
Theakston’s Old Peculier (B)
Moortgat Duvel (S)
Robinson’s Old Tom (S)
Ridgeway Bad King John (S)
Adnams’ Broadside (S)
St Peter’s Christmas Ale (S)
McEwan’s Champion (S)
Thornbridge St Petersburg (O)
Marston’s Owd Roger (B)
Bateman’s Vintage Ale (Aldi (2013))
Rochefort 10 (O)
Paulaner Salvator (O)
Schneider Aventinus (O)
Goudale Abbey Beer (A)

Whether I’ll get through that lot before the next supermarket trip in the New Year is another question. But I’ll see what I can do.

Merry Christmas all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy and appropriately bibulous 2015.

Golden Pints

What’s been good in 2013? Here’s my ‘Golden Pints’ post. I’ve dropped all the categories I’m not interested in – and added a couple of my own, with a view to making it a record of my experiences rather than just a list of beers I like.

Best UK Cask Beer

I called this one a while back. It has to be Ticketybrew Pale Ale. Very variable, but actually not in a bad way. A mighty beer.

Best UK Keg Beer

I’ll say Marble Vuur & Vlam, of which I had a third one night on my way home from the Beech. Also a mighty beer, and I guess there’s no point complaining that it would have been mightier still on cask.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

I was very impressed with Harbour IPA.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

That would be De Struise Pannepot.

Best Overall Beer

I guess this should be one of the above category winners, but (SPOILER) I don’t want to give everything to Ticketybrew. I’ve been really impressed by JW Lees’ Manchester Star, both in bottle and (more recently) on draught – a proper stonking old Burton. Plus if you drew a line between Pannepot and Ticketybrew Pale Ale, it would definitely be somewhere in the middle.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

Ticketybrew (by a short head from Red Willow) – elegant, immediately visible on the bar and always nice to see.

Best UK Brewery

I quite like the look of what JW Lees are doing at the moment, especially when free beer is involved. But the prize goes, after some consideration, to Ticketybrew. They’re new, their range is quite narrow and in a few years’ time they may just look a bit one-note. I don’t think so, though – I think they’re on the verge of great things.

Best Overseas Brewery

Rochefort (but ask me again in a month’s time; the Orval I bought on holiday is still aging).

Pub/Bar of the Year

Last year I nominated Pi, with De Nada close behind. A year on and I’ve more or less stopped going to Pi – my main haunts are De Nada and Font, unless I’ve got Spoons’ tokens to spend. But I’ll be perverse again and nominate another pub entirely: the Beech, a proper old pub which seems to have cracked the virtuous circle of beer quality and demand (as I hoped it would when I wrote the linked post), with a range that always includes Landlord and usually includes something from Salamander or Oakham. Busy Suburban Pub Serves Decent Beer Shock.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

The Font Chorlton, which opened last March, has given me some of my peak beer experiences of the year, but I don’t much like it as a bar – it’s not the most relaxing environment. (It’s possible that 50-year-old solitary drinkers aren’t their core demographic.) So I’ll give it to the only other bar I’m aware of that opened this year – Out of the Blue. Well worth the detour, as long as the length of the detour is two miles or less; otherwise, perhaps not so much.

Supermarket of the Year

Definitely Carrefour. Over here, Sainsbury’s have their Great British Beer Hunt, even if the execution is rather variable; Tesco have a surprisingly good American range; and Morrison’s four-for-£5 deal across all their bottled ales is very hard to beat. (I don’t know if it’s a permanent thing, but it certainly seems to be on whenever I go into Morrison’s.) But I might never have encountered the Harbour IPA but for the GBBH, so I’ll nominate Sainsbury’s.

Independent Retailer of the Year

Chorlton is bizarrely over-supplied with beer shops – it seems as if the tiniest, grottiest off-licence will sell you a Summer Lightning or a Bengal Lancer, and for the more upmarket ones the sky’s the limit: can of Hitachino Nest with your Mars bar, sir? I don’t frequent any of them much – I have a strong psychological resistance to paying a great deal more than supermarket prices for beer that probably won’t be a great deal better. But I do like Tiny’s Tipple, despite the awful name. (While I do like small dogs – and Tiny seems to be a very nice small dog – I’m not really thinking ‘dog’ when I’m in the market for beer. Besides, it’s not his tipple, is it? At least, I hope not, for the sake of his tiny weeny canine liver. H’mph.)

Best Beer Blog or Website

I was actually in the queue to throw plaudits at the feet of Boak & Bailey (assuming that’s what you do with plaudits), when it struck me that there’s a beer blog I’ve enjoyed even more than theirs this year: Pete’s. Pete spruced up his blog towards the end of the year, and the new look seems to go along with a change in style – his writing voice seems clearer now (if that makes any sense at all), as well as being more forthright and, frankly, more grumpy. It works for me, and I hope he carries on in the same vein. He also gave us the best description I’ve read in a long time of getting drunk on cider.

Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (of the Year)

Back in 2009 I bought a bottle each of Marble Decadence and Special, followed in fairly short order by bottles of the raspberry (lambic) and cherry (kriek) versions of Decadence. (Then they carried on producing specials – some less affordable than others – and I stopped trying to keep up.) Since the blighters only bottle their specials in 750 ml – and I’m the only serious beer drinker in this house – all four bottles stayed unopened until I could find an occasion both special enough to justify opening a tenner’s worth of bottle and relaxed enough for me to drink fairly hefty amounts of very strong beer. This Christmas it was finally the turn of the last of the four – the Special, a 10.7% barleywine. And it was… fine. OK, it was better than fine – rich, heavy, herby, complex, undertones of hop bitterness, lots of generally good stuff going on; it just wasn’t much better. I could taste the heat of the alcohol, for one thing, which didn’t seem right – least of all after four years in bottle. So farewell then, socking great bottles of short-run beers with double-figure price tags. It’s been fun… just not that much fun.

Disappointment of the Year

De Garre and the eponymous tripel, in Bruges. Shorter: the bar was uncomfortably brightly-lit, uncomfortably noisy and uncomfortably packed with loud beer geeks, and the beer was just disappointing – very heavy, very ‘hot’, and very much as if somebody had brewed a half-decent tripel and then decided to up the ABV to 11% (perhaps in a spirit of juvenile competition with Het Taktikel Nukleare Pinguïn down the road).

Discovery of the Year

I was lucky enough this year to taste two of the more localised famous beers of Britain, in one case for the first time. The Blue Anchor Spingo ales I had in August were very nice – especially the Flora Daze, and especially especially the, er, Special – but the real eye-opener of this year was Batham’s Bitter. (As recommended by Pete. Great minds…) What’s it like? Well, you know how it tasted, the first time you drank a pint of beer and really enjoyed it? It’s like that. You know the way that a pint of good old-school brown bitter – Woodforde’s Wherry, say, or Harvey’s HSB – you know the way it builds and develops as you get down the glass, till when you drain it you just fancy another one? It’s very like that. You know the flowery delicacy of an abbey tripel or a really good perry? It’s surprisingly like that. And you know how sometimes a pint of 3.8% bitter is just the best thing you could possibly have – even, or especially, after you’ve been drinking big stouts or IPAs? It’s exactly like that. (Batham’s is actually 4.3%, but doesn’t drink even that much strength.) It’s light, it’s thin, it’s sweet (it’s made with actual sugar, purity freaks) – and it’s beautiful.

Blogging Resolutions for Next Year

I will drink more session bitter. (I’m defining ‘session’ as ‘<4.5%’; apologies to Ding, but if Batham’s Bitter isn’t a session beer I don’t know what is.)

I will not mention that the keg version of a beer was inferior to the cask (or speculate that it would have been if I’d had the cask). More generally, I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like.)

I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’. Really. (But note the word ‘try’!)

And above all: I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun.

Happy New Year!

Beer bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I call it

While various confused artists nostalgic for a positive art call themselves situationist, antisituationist art will be the mark of the best artists, those of the Situationist International, since genuinely situationist conditions have as yet not at all been created. Admitting this is the mark of a situationist.

Sorry, are we on? Just thinking about something else. Anyway. Ahem.

Suddenly everyone’s talking about daft beer!

But what is daft beer – what is this new breed of beer which seems to have come out of nowhere to sweep the boards at beer festivals, award ceremonies and really awful retailers’ trade shows alike? Is Blue F***ing Moon just the same as ordinary Blue Moon, or is it made to a different recipe? (Can they even put that on the label?) Is draft daft better than bottled daft – or is it all just equally daft? And, hey, what is daft beer? You’ve done this one already – Ed.

Well, a precise definition of daft beer is not possible – we all know that! But the fact is, a precise definition isn’t necessary, or even desirable – it would be like trying to define ‘true love’ or ‘punk rock’ or ‘real ale’! Let’s face it, we all know a daft beer when we see it. It’s what they call the elephant test – if, when you shut your eyes, you think you’re in an empty room, but if you reach out and grab hold of something you think you’ve got something different from what everyone else thinks they’ve got; and if none of you can stop talking about it, or else none of you wants to start talking about it… well, that’s the elephant test! Don’t worry if you don’t follow all the technicalities, by the way: the thing about the elephant test is, you just have to experience it for yourself! You’re fired – Ed.

But what about those of us who haven’t seen the daft beer elephant yet? For people who like to learn about things by reading words with their brains, infographics are an increasingly popular way of finding things out: a good infographic may have an information density as high as 20-25%, as compared to the amount of information you’d be able to get into the same area using words alone. Of course, even more information could be packed into the same area by using very small type, but there’s a downside – many people find it impossible to read small type without using glasses. (Ever wondered why really clever people wear glasses? Now you know!) Did I mention that you’re fired? – Ed.

Anyhoo (!), infographics represent a good trade-off between the key values of Information Density and Neat Pictures – and let’s face it, we can’t all be glasses-wearing brainiacs. (Don’t forget, statistics show that as many as 50% of all people are of average intelligence!) So I was delighted to see an unsolicited email in my inbox from some American college students, with an infographic telling the full story about daft beer. Here it is:

Reification

Wait, I think that’s the wrong file. Here you go:

oldgold

I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think that’s it either. Is it this one?

DJ_Cat

No, obviously it’s not that one. Silly idea. Well, this is embarrassing. I know it’s around here somewhere – I’ll have to get back to you.

In the mean time, here’s what the infographic actually said.

We’re all daft drinkers now. 36% of all consumers drink daft beer. 45% of all consumers say they would drink more daft beers if they knew more about them. If you assume that those 45% don’t drink any daft beers (you certainly can’t drink less than none!), that makes 81% of consumers who either drink daft beer or would like to. And since everyone who either eats or drinks anything is a ‘consumer’, that’s a pretty large majority of the population! Beer for everyone – and it’s daft all round!

Well, not quite all. Apparently 45% of ‘Millennials’ (people who believe that the Millennium will shortly be brought about by the Second Coming of Christ) prefer daft beer; a clear majority don’t, which is slightly disappointing. The news is even worse for ‘baby boomers’ (the infantile form of an adult boomer), as only 32% of them prefer daft beer. Then again, giving daft beer to babies of any kind is a bit irresponsible, not to mention a waste of beer. Think again, mummy and daddy boomers!

Daft beer comes in lots of different varieties. You can get daft saisons, wheat beers, pale ales, IPAs, Irish reds (exotic!), brown ales, barley wines and chocolate stouts. It’s not an endless list, though – for example, you can’t get a daft lager, bitter, mild, porter or stout. But how daft would you be if you asked for one of those? Not very!

Daft beer goes well with food. There are lots of daft beer/food matches out there. Saison goes with salad; wheat beer goes with sushi; pale ale goes, specifically, with mushroom ravioli (do check your ravioli beforehand to avoid disappointment). IPA goes, less specifically, with curry; Irish red goes with burgers; brown ale goes with grilled cheese. For afters, barley wine goes with pumpkin pie, and chocolate stout goes with chocolate cake. Some of these recommendations are fairly tightly defined, but it’s not hard to extend them. For instance, espresso stout will go well with coffee cake; damson and vanilla stout almost certainly goes well with damson and vanilla cake; and oatmeal stout has just got to go well with oatcakes. Enjoy!

Daft beer is growing. My, how it’s growing. Hey, wait – I’ve found the infographic! Well, I’ve found a bit of it – not sure where the rest of it’s got to, but never mind. It’s just as well, anyway, because this particular chart really does speak for itself.

Screen shot 2013-11-09 at 16.11.46

From 5.7 billion things in 2007 to 12 billion of the same things in 2012, to x 3 in 2017! You can’t argue with those figures.

Then there’s a picture at the bottom, but I can’t really make it out. It seems to show some sort of fish with a prominent dorsal fin, and a bottle of beer shooting or flying or leaping in some way over its back. What can it all mean?

One thing’s for sure, though – everyone’s talking about daft beer!

Going on a beer hunt

Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt is aptly named. Once drawn to the shop by word of mouth or blog posts, the unwary newcomer is likely to have great difficulty actually finding the beer. The trick is to forget all about the place where they keep the beer and go for the seasonal aisle, where three weeks of Great British beer is sandwiched in time between Back To School stationery and Halloween tat. I can understand this approach, just about, but what I’ll never understand is the complete lack of GBBH signage anywhere else in the store, directing potential punters to the aforesaid seasonal aisle. Once, I did see a GBBH poster in the beer aisle of a Sainsbury’s; it was after the GBBH had finished.

As far as Web presence goes, things are even worse. There used to be a greatbritishbeerhunt.co.uk Web site, but it was taken down shortly before this year’s beers hit the shelves; just as well, as it was devoted to the 2012 competition. (Updating it might have been another option, but never mind.) It’s impossible to find any information about the GBBH on the main Sainsbury’s Web site; search for ‘beer’ and you’re offered a large box of Budweiser. Even the corporate “J Sainsbury” site has nothing more recent than a press release from May, announcing that regional tastings had been held and

The five beers which received the highest number of votes at each regional event will go on sale in Sainsbury’s stores for three weeks in September

It took some fairly persistent searching to unearth the start date of those three weeks, which (according to a trade paper to which Sainsbury’s had vouchsafed the information) was the 11th of September. This seems like an odd choice – apart from being memorable for the wrong reasons, this year it was a Wednesday. But they had some nice-looking beers on, so I got myself down there.

At least, I got myself down there the following Saturday. I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend not to make a special trip to buy supermarket beers; the weekly big shop is when it happens. This means that the GBBH has the happy effect (from Sainsbury’s point of view) of taking our big shop their way; it’s the old beer and nappies effect writ large. Our nearest large Sainsbury’s is in Salford. We headed over there, I headed for the seasonal aisle (no flies on me) and found that a full five-shelf display had been devoted to the GBBH; there was shelf space dedicated to all twenty of the beers. Not only that, but each shelf was set out for one beer from each of the four regions (‘Scotland and NI’, ‘North’, ‘West’ and ‘East’), each of which had its own label on every shelf – alongside a shelf ticket for a beer from that region. A lot of thought and planning had gone into that display; in many ways it was really impressive.

There was, unfortunately, one way in which it wasn’t very impressive. There was no beer. The entire five-shelf unit, with its shelf tickets and its region labels, was completely empty. As you can imagine, I was a bit displeased, particularly with the whole choosing-Sainsbury’s-for-the-big-shop thing. (We did consider walking out and going somewhere else, but the moment passed.) When I got home I wrote to Sainsbury’s Customer Service to complain. Two days later I was passing a smaller Sainsbury’s (in Fallowfield), stuck my head in and found they had a GBBH display slightly smaller than Salford’s, but with the added bonus of actually having the beers in stock; I got some in. Two days after that a reply came from Customer Service, who had been

advised that the Great British Beer Hunt beers are now in stock. These are located in the seasonal isle.

Thanks, I had worked that one out.

Next weekend the big shop rolled round, and I wasn’t really in a Sainsbury’s-favouring-with-big-shop sort of mood; the other half suggested a nearby alternative supermarket and we went there. Last weekend, though, I thought it was worth giving Sainsbury’s in Salford another chance, and back we went. The good news is that the GBBH display wasn’t empty. The bad news is that, if anything, it looked even sadder than when it was empty: there was one shelf with shelf tickets for five GBBH beers, and only four of those were there. There was also a solitary bottle of another GBBH beer, with no shelf ticket. The other four shelves, making a nonsense of the GBBH signage, were half-filled with the usual suspects from the ale end of the beer aisle – Fuller’s, Greene King – plus a lost-looking cluster of bottles of Brooklyn Lager(!).

Two days later I was in Fallowfield again, and stuck my head in their Sainsbury’s again. Their GBBH display was groaning, again. This time I stopped to count the GBBH beers they were carrying: they had 15 out of the 20.

The GBBH is over now, or it very soon will be. Mostly thanks to the Fallowfield store, I’ve had the chance to buy all 20 beers and have actually bought 15 of them; I’ve drunk two so far, one of which was so good that I got a second bottle (from Fallowfield). I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest of them: interesting beers from decent breweries, and properly cheap with it.

So that’s all good. But when it’s time for the GBBH 2014 I won’t be bothering with Sainsbury’s Salford. In the immortal words of George W. Bush, “fool me twice, you don’t get fooled again”.

Lawnmower beer

I don’t mow the lawn very often. It’s never been the most beautiful lawn, and I’m not really into gardening. I cut it when I think it’s got too long, unless my wife’s got tired of waiting and done it herself; if so, it can wait until the next time it’s got too long.

But when I do mow the lawn, I like to celebrate with a beer. It goes something like this.

Preparation (1). The first couple of times I did this, I started by putting a bottle of beer in the fridge. Experience taught me that half an hour in the fridge has little or no effect. The first step is therefore to put a bottle of beer in the freezer.

Preparation (2). Get the lawnmower out of the garage and plug it in, remembering to use the circuit-breaker. (Which didn’t trip on the one occasion when I did slice the cable, but no matter – it could be useful some day.) Move the slide and the climbing frame. My children get about as much use out of a climbing frame and a three-step moulded plastic slide as you’d expect from a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old – very little and none at all, respectively – but the idea of getting rid of the slide has not been popular. As for the climbing frame, we assembled it in situ, and I think it would take an awful lot of WD40 to get those joints undone again. I don’t think it’s going anywhere… except when I mow the lawn, at which point it makes a stately tripodal progress from one side of the lawn to the other, clanging gently as it goes (there’s a pole hanging from a chain in the middle of the frame). This isn’t that difficult, once you’ve got the knack of elevating two sides and pivoting on the third, but it’s not what you’d call effortless.

The easy bits. There’s a nice, level, flourishing bit of lawn at the house end of the garden. I mow that first (side to side). Then I do the right-hand side of the lawn, top to bottom. Nothing much to report, apart from a tree root the size of a sewer pipe halfway down, and the lawn turning into bare earth at the far end (really must do something about that some time). It’s not hard work, although it is fairly noisy. For a while I mowed the lawn with headphones on, but I abandoned this approach after protestations concerning my rendition of “Dr Luther’s Assistant” by Elvis Costello. (My singing voice has been complimented on numerous occasions; my sing-along-to-Elvis-Costello-over-the-noise-of-the-mower voice, less so.) And empty the grass bin.

The hard bits. Now for the left-hand side. Clang, clang, clang, goes the climbing frame as I walk and pivot it back to where it came from to start with. The slide also goes back to its starting point. The left-hand side of the lawn isn’t much different from the right – as you might expect – but it is rather more severely affected by the tree whose root I referred to just now. It’s a flowering (as in non-fruiting) cherry; it’s at the top left corner of the lawn, and it’s much bigger than it was when the previous owner planted it. I mean, much bigger – the root system especially. The top left corner of the lawn has more or less ceased to exist, replaced by scattered tufts of grass in among a kind of rockery of gnarled and mower-scalped tree roots (a rootery?). Further down it gets pretty bumpy, too. Some of it gets mown top to bottom, some side to side, and by the time I’ve finished it I’m getting pretty thirsty. And empty the grass bin again.

The really hard bit. We’ve got this lawn at the front. It’s tiny. It takes five minutes maximum. Unplug the lawnmower, bring it through to the front, plug it in somewhere else. It’s quite a warm day and I’m getting seriously thirsty now. Come on, let’s get this over with. There, it’s done. Empty the grass bin one last time. Untangle the flex. Put the mower away. Ought to clean it really, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. Used to go over the edges with a pair of shears. Never really noticed when I stopped doing it, though. Wind up the flex. Put the lawnmower away. Done!

The good bit.

Mmm, Duvel

Does it get any better than this? I think not.

Letter from West Point

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Mmm, beer

A few quick updates.

My career as a beer reviewer has taken another step forward with the arrival of a bottle of the stuff pictured right, a limited-edition 7.5% barleywine from Bateman’s brewed to a historical recipe; this is going to be on sale via the slightly surprising route of Aldi. Although I can’t deny myself the habitual moan about large bottles for strong beers – the historical beer on which it was based seems to have been bottled in half-pints, which seems much more sensible – the beer itself does look rather special. The aforementioned supermarket will be selling it at £3.29 for 500 ml, which could be a bit of a bargain. One touch I particularly liked is that the label has a ‘best after’ rubric as well as ‘best before’ – specifically, it’s best after December 2012 and best before December 2037. Unfortunately I’ll be drinking it ‘young’ – I don’t think I can keep my hands off it till the new year. I’ll keep you posted.

Anyone with a view on unit-based minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks needs to read this reaction to the government’s latest wheeze from Damian McBride, who (in his own words) was responsible for alcohol duty in the Treasury between 1999-2002. McBride was the man behind Progressive Beer Duty, and on that basis alone would deserve a knighthood for services to microbreweries. (Assuming for the moment that services to microbreweries are a good thing.) On minimum pricing, he argues that the government’s proposed scheme – a simple fiat that alcoholic drinks shall not be sold below a certain price per unit – is unenforceable as designed and hence would never be enforced. (Local authority inspectors would have the power to demand that under-priced booze be removed from sale, but they would swoop into action when they receive complaints. That’ll work.) Even if command-based minimum pricing turns out to be legal – which is dubious – it looks as if it isn’t going to happen. But that leaves open the back-up option of enforcing minimum pricing through the tax & duty system, which would be simpler, more straightforward and less dodgy legally, as well as channelling the extra money to the government rather than the retailer. In political terms it’s eminently possible, in other words – which makes it rather unfortunate that a duty-based minimum price would be an even bigger disaster, for beer drinkers in particular. McBride explains why here, in a post which would make a great unofficial slogan for CAMRA when they campaign on this issue. (Oh, wait – CAMRA support minimum pricing. Silly me.)

Speaking of pricing… As local readers will already know, a Chorlton outpost of the Port Street Beer House opened recently. The Beagle – which I’m afraid I shall be calling the Bugle, for entirely puerile reasons – is one of those bare-boards, 70s-soundtrack, cutting-edge-beers places that used to be so much rarer than they are now. I don’t think it’s going to be a regular haunt. They’re going quite heavily for food, with quite a high ratio of tables to pub-type seating – which made me feel as comfortable as that arrangement usually does – and they’re big on craft keg. The cask range was excellent when I was in – two from Magic Rock, which was nice to see – and even on the keg side the pricing was, like Kevin Phillips-Bong, only slightly silly. But…

Well, it’s the keg thing. Me and craft keg, we’re just never going to get on. I think that’s going to be an early New Year’s resolution: just not to bother with it any more. The beer in this case was Lovibond‘s Dirty 69, which I was genuinely quite excited to see & keen to try. Summary: it was obtrusively fizzy, it was way too cold and the flavour didn’t develop. There was an interesting enough flavour there, but nothing very striking – or rather, there were occasional hints at something striking, but no more than hints. What I love about a good beer is the sense of lingering over it and getting to know it – the way the bottom half of the glass tells you something different than the top half & makes you want to find out more. (I say ‘glass’ – I’ve had this experience with a pint of mild and with a third of imperial stout.) I didn’t get any of that; just a pleasant-tasting fizzy drink with a bit of an alcoholic kick (although nothing like you’d expect from its a.b.v. of 6.9%). As I said in another post, I’ve seen it suggested that kegging takes the edge of extreme flavours and heavy alcohol content, making strong and ‘extreme’ beers more drinkable. I think I’m coming to the conclusion that that’s exactly what I don’t like about it.

The BugleBeagle has a great deal of local competition; I remember when there was nothing between the Whalley and the Seymour and nothing between that and the Royal Oak, meaning that (as the pub columnist in the South Manchester Reporter once noted) anyone planning a pub crawl in this area would need an obliging friend or a stout pony. Walk from the Whalley to the Royal Oak now and you’d pass ten drinking establishments (the Seymour not included, obviously), all but two of which serve real ale – and beyond the Royal Oak we’re equally spoiled for choice. So I was quite keen on the idea of the Chorlton Challenge, a mammoth pub crawl organised last weekend by the local CAMRA branch. I didn’t show up for it in the end, though, very largely because of that word ‘weekend’. Try and fit any more than nine or ten pubs into a day and, with the best will in the world, you’re going to get utterly bladdered. This may appeal to people who don’t have family commitments – or work on Monday – but shouldn’t CAMRA be trying to appeal beyond those rather well-mined demographics? A Challenge over a week would be much more manageable, if a bit less sociable.

One final note, on the blog itself. Tandleman’s recent announcement of his historic 1000th post prompted a bit more blog-related navel-gazing, which I deleted when it started to bore even me. However, I will just say that this is a milestone post for me – it’s my 100th. (Don’t know how Tandleman does it – at this rate I’ll be hitting four figures some time around 2030.) To celebrate this auspicious occasion I’ve given the blog a minor overhaul. I’ve recently implemented ‘categories’ and a ‘category cloud’ – on the right – so that anyone who wants to dig down to a particular topic can do so. I think they’re all reasonably self-explanatory.

Footnote of Local Interest Only

When we first looked at our house there was a certain amount of throat-clearing from the estate agent about its location – it’s Chorlton-cum-Hardy…ish. Well, OK, it’s not Chorlton Chorlton, but it’s very much in the Chorlton area… Chorlton’s just down the road, put it that way. We didn’t mind this, but we did start to wonder after a while where to tell people we were. Whalley Range was out for obvious reasons, and Firswood didn’t sound right. I consulted some old maps and discovered that our best option was West Point. So this – and every other post on this blog – is just what the title says, a letter from West Point. (We say ‘Chorlton’ these days – but then, these days Chorlton is a place to be, and the name covers pretty much everything from the Feathers to the Throstle’s Nest (as were).)

The Session #52: Beer collectibles

Here, slightly late, is my contribution to this month’s Session: beer collectibles.

But what do we mean by ‘collectibles’? It’s a bit of an ambiguous word – does it mean “stuff that can be collected” or “stuff that is worth collecting”? I’ve got little or no interest in the latter – boasting about your rare and interesting bottle-top is next door to boasting about the fact that you’ve drunk a rare and interesting beer, and that’s the kind of thing that encourages tulipomaniac tendencies. But if “collectibles” are things you can collect – bottles, beermats, fortune cookie mottoes, bus tickets – I’m right there. Sometimes it just seems like a good idea not to chuck stuff out.

Stuff I haven’t chucked out includes a couple of Felinfoel beermats (self-explanatory) and a couple for Caraca, a Brazilian ‘cane beer’ that was unsuccessfully launched here in the 1990s. (As far as I remember the beer was pretty revolting, but they distributed some unusually solid beermats – coasters, really – two of which I’m still using.) I used to have a double-sided Orval beermat, that I’d made myself by gluing two single-sided ones together, but I had to throw it out after my son chewed the edges off in idle moments. My bottle collection used to be more extensive than it is; I kept a Hobec bottle (with the weird screw-in stopper) for several years, not because Hobec was particularly special (it was an Allied Breweries brand) but because it reminded me of going to a pub after work and putting “The Only One I Know” on the juke box. I have kept one empty bottle (Marble Decadence, the original bottling; 330 ml with painted-on label) and two cans (D&G Crucial Brew and Newton and Ridley bitter, a real beer from a fictional brewery).

And then there are the bottle-tops. Although I’ve been a CAMRA fellow-traveller since before I could drink legally, I’ve only got seriously into tasting and comparing real ales in the last decade (roughly as long as I’ve been drinking at the Marble Beer House, not at all coincidentally). I drank a fair few posey imports in the decade before that (the likes of Red Stripe and Sol, not to mention Caraca and Hobec) and even when I was drinking proper beer I was mostly into European stuff – where by ‘European’ I mean ‘mostly Belgian’. (Again not very coincidentally, this was also roughly the decade before the euro took all the fun out of buying European beer.) And if, thanks to Carrington’s or the Belgian Belly, you’ve got your hands on a Sloeber or a Rochefort 6, you’re not just going to chuck the cap in the bin afterwards. Well, I’m not. So I started keeping interesting and unusual bottletops in a bowl, along with old badges and other small metallic odds and ends. Over time they migrated to a larger bowl, then to a bowl with a lid (not my idea) and finally to an old coffee jar, where they’re reasonably visible but don’t collect dust (this is what’s known as a compromise solution). When the jar started filling up I dug out another one and split the collection into British and foreign; the British collection is still pretty paltry by comparison with the ROTW, but it’s gaining.

Jake Thackray used to introduce a religious song by saying “This is a song of which I’m not very… ashamed.” Well, I’m not very ashamed to have a bottle-top collection – they’re not things of any value, but they’re mildly interesting, they don’t take up much space, and why not? Or perhaps I should say, I’m not very ashamed…