Category Archives: Pocket fluff

Letter from West Point


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…

To find the long-lost bars

Before I supply the long-awaited parts 5 and 6 of my four-part survey of the local pubs, here are Seven Things You (probably) Didn’t Know About Me.

1. I’ve written a book. Some years ago I persuaded a radical publisher to give me an advance to write a biography of Guy Debord. For a variety of reasons I never finished it, although some of the more fully automated book sites on the Web still list it as available. What is available, however, is this: the book of my doctorate, and one of only a very few books in English on the Italian radical Left of the 1970s.

2. I’m a folkie: I play whistle in a scratch ceilidh band and sing traditional songs to anyone who will listen. I have been known to be an utter pedantic arse about the definition of ‘folk’, insisting in the face of all evidence to the contrary that ‘folk’ is synonymous with ‘traditional’. (This may come as a surprise to everyone familiar with my light-hearted free-wheeling approach to definitions in the field of beer.)

3. I didn’t have a haircut between 1996 and 2007. By the time of the last Comic Relief but two, I had hair down to my waist, and wore it in a plait. Washing it wasn’t particularly arduous – I found it stayed clean better than short hair – but I had to spend ten minutes every morning combing and re-plaiting it. So I had a sponsored haircut, and raised £120 for Comic Relief. My hair was shorter afterwards than it’s ever been before or since – I’d promised early on that if I raised over £50 I’d have a no. 1 crop.

4. I ate at the Croydon McDonald’s shortly after it opened – when it was the only McDonald’s in the country. It was OK. (After reading Richard Boston’s write-up in the Graun, I was actually slightly disappointed that it wasn’t worse. I believed every word Richard Boston wrote at the time – a policy which generally served me pretty well.) I tend to avoid McD’s these days – my son swore to avoid them for life after he saw Supersize Me!, and I go along with him – but I’m not a complete fast food refusenik; I was a huge fan of Denny’s when they had a branch in London.

5. I once appeared on GMTV, standing on the beach at Arromanches and being interviewed (well, being fed a couple of questions) by Roger MeJohn Stapleton, who introduced me as a ‘military historian’. I am not now and never have been a military historian. (I was a freelance journalist, and I’d written some fairly detailed stuff about Normandy for a BBC site – and I was available.)

6. I’m currently on my third career. I had a career in IT (11 years, three employers, eight different roles) and a career in journalism (eight years, one employer and a lot of freelancing, many different roles) before starting my current career as an academic (so far, six years, two employers, five different roles). The ironic thing is that when people asked me at school what I wanted to be, I used to say I was going to be a university lecturer. I was right the first time – I don’t know what took me so long.

7. I once interviewed Tony Wilson, in the Factory boardroom. Great man (among other things).

And this is me (in 1978):

They say you’re a nice enough young man

PS If anyone’s wondering, I know the title’s a misquote – I only realised it when I looked it up just now, though.

It’s only just begun

Although this blog has been around in some form for a couple of years, I’ve only been posting regularly since August – so I can’t possibly write a proper Review of the Year, Golden Pints-style. Also, I’m late with this already, and if I had to think of something for all those headings it’d be February before I got it finished. So this is what you’re getting.

Bottled beers of the year
Howard Town Dark Peak, Cumbrian Legendary Ales Croglin Vampire, HardKnott Dark Energy… I don’t have to pick just one, do I?

Cask beers of the year
Spingo Middle, Conwy Celebration, Yates Wight Old Ale, BrewDog 5 A.M. Saint.

Keg beer of the year
Shut up.

Beer festival of the year
National Winter Ales Festival

Pub of the year
The Beech, Chorlton. We sometimes see landlords praised for bringing pubs back from the brink; in the last few years the Beech has actually gone over the brink and closed down altogether, not once but twice. So all praise to the current landlord and his team, who are steadily turning the pub back into what it was 10-15 years ago, a thriving community pub. (Incidentally, you’ll never see a guest beer at the Beech: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Golden Best, Black Sheep Bitter, Copper Dragon Golden Pippin and, er, that’s it. Four session bitters, always on, all in good condition. It’s one way to do it.)

Blogs of the year
I wasn’t expecting anyone to nominate this blog on only four months’ approval, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get the nod from Tandleman or Ed – many thanks, and I hope I can keep it up next… um, this year. Among my other favourite blogs are: the refreshing astringency of the Pub Curmudgeon; the encyclopedia in instalments that is Zythophile; and the legend that is Cooking Lager.

In 2011 I would most like to
get some more beer to review; go on another Twissup; find Zeitgeist on cask.

Wikio, O Wikio…

The new Wikio rankings are out, I read here and here and indeed here – nice one, Sid.

Wa-hey! I thought (which isn’t easy), Oh Good Ale’s first month as a Wikio-ranked beer blog! What’ll it be – 203rd? 142nd? possibly even something in two figures? I checked the site immediately, then felt like an idiot for not noticing the date – it was only the 3rd of November; Wikio rankings might have been decided, but they weren’t due to be published until the 5th.

Well, here it is the 5th of November, and 4.20 p.m. as I write. The new Wikio rankings are out. No, they’re not. They really aren’t.

H’mph. I’ve a good mind to demand a refund.

Update 7.55 p.m. and the new rankings have arrived. All things come to those who wait, wait again, get tired of waiting and grumble ineffectually, then go back to waiting.

And this site has been awarded a ranking of no less than
Oh yes. One hundred and nine with a bullet. It’s not the one after 909 and I am not the 801 – in fact I can’t think of any relevant musical references at all – but it’s a solid mid-field position; in fact it’s a higher ranking in real terms than all but 108 of the other Wikio-registered (wine and) beer blogs. Next month I aim for double figures. And after that, the world!

Good companions

Testing, testing. Is this thing on? Right, gotcha. Er. Here we are then.

This blog used to be a personal note-pad, a place to keep my tasting notes. I turned it into a blog proper in August and started investigating the rest of the beer blogosphere. It launched without any sort of announcement or mission statement; in fact it didn’t so much launch as emerge. Here’s my hit counter since the beginning of the month:

1/9: 1
2/9: 0
3/9: 0
4/9: 0
5/9: 5
6/9: 5
7/9: 7
8/9: 12
9/9: 7
10/9: 3
11/9: 1
12/9: 1
13/9: 6
14/9: 13
15/9: 16
16/9: 95

Spot the difference.

So greetings to everyone who’s just joined, particularly my many visitors from Zak Avery’s fine blog. The tasting notes are still here, if you’re interested; see the links at the top left, under ‘Pages’. Apart from that, what you see is pretty much what you get – pub reviews, beer reviews, thoughts sparked off by the Curmudgeon or Martyn or Tandleman, grumbles about beer pricing (you haven’t done that one yet – Ed.), attempts to pinpoint just what is wrong with BrewDog (or that one)… whatever takes my fancy, really, as long as it’s got beer in it somewhere. (While I’m in linkage mode, I use and endorse All About Beer and Pubs Galore. Accept no substitute, unless it’s even better.)

Love: old ale, porter, dark bitter; Conwy, Hornbeam, Dunham Massey, Marble. (Yes, one of those breweries is not like the others, but I love ’em anyway.)
Hate: hop-monsters, and in particular bars offering a choice of three hop-monsters and nothing else. (Unless they’re the Marble Beerhouse, in which case I’d have a Ginger and shut up.)
My other blog is here, and covers my work, politics, music, books and basically everything else I’m interested in that isn’t beer.

I’m glad you’ve looked in, and hope you will be too. Share and enjoy!