Category Archives: That’s, uh, hip, hip, hip, hip

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.

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Above the treeline

NEWS IN SHORT with apologies to M. L.

Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene was rocked to its foundations today by a shock announcement from local stalwarts Bongwater. According to Bongwater CEO Gavin Awesum-Straighte, the company’s groundbreaking leading-edge ‘beer’ strategy is no longer viable. Going forward into 2017 and beyond, Bongwater now dismiss ‘beer’ as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” and say their aspirations lie elsewhere. “Our paradigm-shifting bleeding-edge combination of relentless innovation, technical perfection at all costs, great big shiny steel fermentation… fermenterator… fermenty things and what was the third thing? Oh, right, that was the third thing. No, what was the fourth thing? Oh, yeah, money. So the innovation, the technical perfection, the fermenterers and stuff and the fourth thing which was no don’t tell me I can get this the fourth thing which was of course… money. Yes, lots and lots of money. Lovely money. So yeah, anyway, we’ve got the innovation and we’ve got the technical perfection, which you’ve got to admit is cool, and we’ve got the… shiny things… But the money is kind of – yeah. That’s basically the problem area.”

“So where do we go now?” asked Awesum-Straighte rhetorically. “What do we do? How do we carry on? Can we carry on? And if so, how? What do we do? Where do we go? Are there any questions? And if so, are there any answers? I’m glad you asked me that. The answer is – well, it was right in front of us all the time. The answer is ‘beer’. We’ve spent lots and lots of money making ‘beer’, and we thought that we were going to make lots and lots of money making ‘beer’ – I mean, that seems fair, doesn’t it? Anyway – looks like it’s not going to happen. So, what do we do? The answer, again, is ‘beer’. We’re fed up with it. Relentless innovation, technical perfection, big shiny… shiny things, and what good does it do us? I’ll tell you what good it does us, it does us no good at all.”

“So we’re getting out of ‘beer’. You want ‘beer’, you go to Granite, you go to Bakewell Brewery, you go to Medlock Ales if you really want to. We’re taking our relentless innovation and our technical perfection to customers who will appreciate us. Going henceforward, Bongwater are going to be Manchester’s foremost suppliers of selected strains of marijuana for personal medicinal use. It’s new, it’s innovative, it’s technically perfect, it’s new and best of all it’s totally legal. Well, it is in some of the cooler parts of America, and that’s really where we take our lead from these days.”

“Looking into 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022…” Awesum-Straighte said, before being nudged by a colleague and starting again. “Sorry, where was I? Looking into 2017, looking into 2018 and looking into the heart of the Very Future Itself…” The meeting was then adjourned to enable Awesum-Straighte and his colleague to stop giggling and send someone out for some brownies or maybe a Mars bar, no, wait, two Mars bars. Each – I mean, obviously. Cool.

Reaction to the news has been mixed. “This is a shock announcement that will rock Manchester’s cutting-edge new-wave ‘beer’ scene to its foundations,” said one ‘beer’ somel sommell somnambu expert, adding “Whichever way you look at it, it’s got to be bad news for CAMRA.” “It’s definitely bad news for CAMRA,” said another beer communicator, before shaking his head and adding, “I mean, obviously.” A dissenting opinion came from Derek Spikey (Medlock Ales). “Marijuana? They’ll never make it work. Naah, you want to check out my new line of artisan traditional-styled crystal meth. I tell you, it’s good gear – not that you’ll ever hear that from CAMRA!”

 

FOTY

IMG_0919

Like this, only bigger

 

At least, if this wasn’t the beer festival of the year, the one that is will be really something.

I’m speaking of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, which this year was held at the old Central Station (or G-Mex as I still think of it; stupid name, but it stuck). This had quite a few advantages over its previous location:

  1. Lots of space – trade shows tend to partition G-Mex to bits, but you can also just use it as one very, very large room
  2. Lots of seating
  3. No stairs
  4. Central Station is about right; the place could hardly be more central

The disadvantages were minor in comparison:

  1. No serendipitous discoveries of extra bars hidden away in rooms on another level, which you only stumble upon while looking for something else (usually the loos)
  2. No cyclists to watch
  3. It got a bit draughty down at the door end
  4. That’s it

As for the beer… let me tell you about the beer.

My established routine at fests is to get the first thing I fancy, then do a circuit of the bars & get the best thing I see, then sit down and have a look at the programme. The first thing I saw when I came in was the Blackjack brewery bar. I started on their Snip Snap Snorum, which was a fine, herby, tobacco-y pale ale. Then a circuit of the room, and what should I find but Bathams Best Bitter. Bathams! After having it on home turf I came away with the conviction that its reputation is well-deserved; it’s a light, sweet-tasting pale bitter – almost a light mild – but one that develops enormously over the course of a pint, finishing dry and aromatic. I’ve likened it to a ‘session tripel’ before now. A half confirmed that I wasn’t wrong – it’s a lovely beer, and one that I never thought I’d see in Manchester. (Now, if only I knew for certain how to pronounce the brewer – BAT-ums? BAY-thums? Bat Hams?)

Like most CAMRA people I know, I was pleased that the festival had a key keg bar; one of the brewery bars (Runaway) was also KK-only. There was a distinct crush at the KK bar; as I approached I could practically feel the average age dropping (and the beard quotient rising). As it goes, I didn’t fancy any of the beers they had on that night. I did like the look of the Schlenkerla Marzen on the Bières Sans Frontières bar next door, though, and very nice it was too.

Then three in a row from the back end of the alphabet. Waen Snowball is a strong stout (7%); to be more precise, it’s a strong chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout. On the plus side, the flavour combination does work; on the minus side, it doesn’t work quite well enough to answer the question “why am I drinking a 7% chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout?”. Vocation Heart and Soul was terrific – I’ve yet to have a beer from Vocation that isn’t – but I chose it partly as a palate-cleanser between two stouts. The second was the Ticketybrew/Quantum Marmite Stout, which – slightly to my surprise – worked a lot better than the Waen had. I think the key is that it’s a sweet stout; Ticketybrew’s Stout is made with treacle, and I suspect this is too. As a result the Marmite flavour (which is unmissable) has sweetness to play off rather than burnt-grain bitterness; it works really well.

It was time to get some food. I ended up with a pulled pork brioche bun (très craft) and a half of Holden’s Mild. At first taste I badly underestimated this beer: it was a thinnish, sweet dark mild, it was a bit lacking in condition, and I could see myself knocking it back to wash the food down. How wrong you can be. Although it was only 3.7%, the beer had an astonishing depth and complexity; I found myself thinking of dense, malty porters, then of rich, sweet dubbels, then of strong dark bitters. Lovely stuff, and – against strong competition – my beer of the fest.

Then it was back on the hard stuff. I was quite excited to see Moor‘s old ale Old Freddy Walker, and it didn’t disappoint: sweet, heavy and strong, it drank like a throwback to the Burtons of old. The Faithless series apart, it’s not often I see a RedWillow beer I haven’ t tried, so I had to try Thoughtless from their brewery bar; it’s a 9.4% imperial stout, and it’s terrific.

The units were stacking up by this point, and I was planning to get something from the Conwy brewery bar and then call it a night. Conwy make a couple of tremendous dark, malty bitters, neither of which they’d brought along; they seem to be making a fairly concerted assault on the pale’n’oppy market. Sadly, their bar wasn’t at all busy (you couldn’t get near the Cloudwater bar…); perhaps they’re falling between two stools. Not that I personally helped matters, having decided at the last moment not to give them any custom myself. The problem was that I’d just remembered that Fuller’s Past Masters 1914 was on. It’s a fantastic beer, which somehow managed to find the mid-point between an old ale and a best bitter; although both were 7.3%, it seemed to be half as heavy as the Moor old ale and twice as drinkable.

Then I thought I might as well just revisit Bathams on the way out and had another third of the BB. This, I think, was a mistake – going for the third, that is: the first mouthful just tasted like sugar water, and it was only really starting to show itself as I drained the glass. But I’d had the rough equivalent of five and a half ‘normal’ pints by this stage, and that seemed like plenty. I got home without incident, drank a coffee and a pint of water, slept well and got up without any noticeable hangover.

What else did I do while I was there? Not a lot. I bumped into several people I knew – not only through CAMRA – most of whom were behind a bar, slightly to my embarrassment. The pulled pork bun was excellent; the choice of food was pretty good, too, although nothing was dirt cheap. I have fond memories of the Winter Ales fest which, as well as a full-dress food counter, had a stall selling plates of chips for a pound; very welcome in mid-evening, that was. More in the way of soft drinks might have been good; that Winter Ales bash also had apple juice and dandelion & burdock(!) on hand pump, which was a nice way to get a bit of hydration in between beers. As for the merchandise, some familiar stalls were present, and some other familiar stalls conspicuously weren’t – the laddishness (and worse) which has marred some merchandise stalls in the past was nowhere to be seen, as far as I could tell. But the stalls – even the food stalls – were secondary; this festival was there for the beer (and cider), and so was I (apart from the cider). And what very fine beer it was.

Stylish

I really ought to drink more session bitter, I say to myself from time to time (sometimes on this blog).  I really ought to drink more traditional styles. Beer began for me in the mid-70s, in the (first) heyday of CAMRA: back when CAMRA was half anti-big business and half conservationist, when finding good beer was a matter of finding the pubs that were still serving it. And, back then, traditional styles were what there was – to be more precise, bitter was what there was, unless it was winter and you were very very lucky (mmm, Young’s Winter Warmer…). That’s in the south-east, at least; I never tasted mild until I came to Manchester in 1982. (Mmm, Marston’s dark mild at the Royal Oak in Didsbury…) Porter was something you heard mentioned in historical dramas; as for stout, for a long time I had a vague idea that there wasn’t any such thing as a cask stout – that you actually couldn’t make it to be served that way. As for bottles, I’m struggling to remember when I started buying decent beer in bottles; as far as I remember, (a) it was much later, (b) at first I mainly bought imports and (c) the British beers I did buy were bitters, old ales and barley wines, just like the cask beers I’d tracked down from the late 70s on.

So that’s what I keep feeling I really ought to get back to. It’s partly because I suspect I’m missing out (some session bitters that I know are utterly wonderful, so it stands to reason that some I don’t know will be too), but mainly because I don’t want to turn into a neophile – or, worse still, an extremophile. It’s just not how I see myself. Never mind your short-run barrel-aged bourbon saison infused with kopi luwak! I picture myself saying. Never mind your limited-edition single-hop Imperial Pale Gose! Give me a pint of bitter!

But I fear it may be too late. Here are the last six beers I’ve drunk in pubs and bars:

2 pale ales
1 red ale
1 stout
1 IPA (keg)
1 double IPA (keg)

And the last nine beers I’ve bought in supermarkets – actually, one supermarket; this was the fruit of a single trip to Tesco:

1 best bitter
1 dark bitter
1 pale ale
1 red ale
1 Burton
1 old ale
1 stout
1 black IPA
1 saison

That’s an only slightly unusual range for a supermarket – there certainly aren’t any exotic (or exciting) breweries in there. Ten years ago you’d only have seen that kind of lineup in a specialist beer shop; twenty years ago you wouldn’t even have seen it there.

But look at that one lonely best bitter! Amalgamating the two lists you get eleven styles (counting ‘IPA’ and ‘double IPA’ separately). When CAMRA first got going, ‘best bitter’ was the only one of those styles that was at all easy to find in Britain, with ‘dark bitter’ a distant second; your best bet for finding a Burton or an old ale was to stop looking for a year or two and rely on serendipity. Of the other seven styles, one was more or less dead, one could only be found as an import and the other five didn’t even exist. (I’m counting ‘pale ale’ and ‘IPA’ in the five. Of course there were such things as pale ales and IPAs, but IPA in the 1970s meant ‘like bitter but very slightly different‘, and ‘pale ale’ basically meant ‘bitter in a bottle’; neither of them mean anything like the pale’n’oppy things that go by those names now.)

I don’t think I’m turning into a hipster; so far this year I’ve mostly stuck to my resolution to avoid beers that can’t be described in fewer than three words. But going back to session bitter may be a lost cause. There’s just too much else going on.

Tasting the difference

Morrison’s isn’t a supermarket I get to very often (although this may be about to change), and it’s taken me a while to get round to checking out their ‘own brand’ beers. In the past I’ve seen beers brewed by Titanic and Black Sheep in the range, but at the moment they all seem to be from Marston’s or Ringwood (owned by Marston’s since 2007). Last time I was in, I bought one of each – at £1.50 you might as well; here’s what I thought.

Dark (Ringwood) Not sure if this is a mild or a very dark bitter. Fairly thin, either way; competent but not exciting.

Amber A bit more full-bodied, with some of that satisfying hoppy prickliness going on. I say ‘some’, though – again, this struck me as a light beer, lighter than it needed to be.

Stout Light is the word, again; there’s some burnt-grain bitterness, but a lot of sweetness too, and the body’s thin. It’s as if a stout has been blended 1:3 with a dark mild. It’s not unpleasant by any means, it’s just not necessarily what you’d be expecting.

IPA Now this was more like it: tropical fruit a go go, a proper new-model IPA. I’ll be getting this one again. (Ratebeer says: ‘One of those that fall into the “I’ve had worse…..” category’, ‘Bit on the boring unremarkable side.)

For another set of comparisons, I bought the two separate Marston’s IPAs currently available at Sainsbury’s – their own “Taste the Difference” IPA and Marston’s Old Empire IPA. All three of them – these two and the Morrison’s – are within a couple of decimal points of a.b.v. (they’re all over 5.5 and under 6), and I wasn’t expecting there to be much difference. I was surprised.

Sainsbury’s IPA I was particularly surprised by this one, and not entirely in a good way. “Toffee apple” is the best flavour descriptor I can think of: the flavour’s dominated by a great wodge of sweetness and burnt-caramel bitterness, with some fruit in the background. It’s well within the style parameters of a twentieth-century IPA, but even in that context it’s rather offputtingly heavy. Taste the difference you most certainly will.

Old Empire IPA Ratebeer has strong opinions about this one: ‘bitter disappointment to notice that this has nothing to do with IPA‘, ‘Not IPA as it says on the bottle.‘, ‘I have no idea why they wrote IPA on the label.‘ Well, excuuuuuse me. It’s actually well over on the ‘tropical fruit’ side from the previous one; like Sheps’ ‘historic recipe’ IPA, it’s basically midway between the IPAs we were (occasionally) drinking in the 1980s and what the style stands for now. Not bad at all.

To sum up:

Morrison’s own-label beers are (currently) best described as ‘light’, nay, ‘undemanding’. This works better for some styles than others; for the IPA I think it works rather well.

Marston’s three* IPAs cover the range from 1980s toffee apple to 2010s fruit salad, and two of the three are pretty good.

*Unless, of course, you know different.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: first thoughts

This isn’t a review of Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (a copy of which the publishers sent me to review). At least, this isn’t the whole review; this is just what I think is special about the book, and – for what it’s worth – what I think is unusual about the authors, as authors of beer books go.

It’s always a good rule of thumb, faced with any kind of encyclopedia or comprehensive overview, to check the bit you know. If they’ve got that bit wrong, it doesn’t tell you that the rest of it is wrong, or even that any of the rest of it is wrong. What it does tell you is that you can’t assume that the rest of it isn’t wrong. In other words, a known error in one part tells you that you can’t trust the rest. (You may remember a celebrated anthology with encyclopedic ambitions falling foul of just this kind of fact-checking on quite a large scale.)

Boak & Bailey’s book isn’t an encyclopedia but it does cover a lot of ground, from Betjeman to BrewDog and beyond. Intuitively, it seems that covering that much ground will come at a cost. Nobody is as keenly aware of changes in pop music between the ages of 36 and 38 as they were between the ages of 16 and 18; similarly, there may well be people out there who have drunk Penrhos Porter, Bruce’s Dogbolter and Wild Evolver, but I don’t think anyone could be equally enthusiastic about all three. You never forget the first one that really hit the spot, whether it was Punk IPA or Ruddles County – but that necessarily means that everything else is likely to fade into the background a bit.

As a writer you can correct for this kind of bias – draining your writing of any excesses of enthusiasm for the stuff you like and dutifully pumping up the descriptions of the stuff you don’t – but the end result is likely to be a bit flat and brochure-y. It also does a disservice to your readers, who – hopefully – are enthusiasts themselves. The telltale sign of this kind of writing is that you notice – as with the fact-checking – when they’ve got your bit wrong. The stuff you don’t much like or weren’t around for, fair enough, the book seems to have done a reasonable job. But for the stuff you like – nay, love – this lukewarm approach is no good at all. This is the cue, in an encyclopedia, for porter enthusiasts to complain that their beer isn’t given its due, while IPA lovers complain about the praise being heaped on porter. Or, in a history, for first-generation CAMRA veterans to complain that the early sections are thin and bland compared to the endless ravings about ‘craft beer’ later on, and hipsters to complain about all the space that’s wasted on beardie nostalgia.

Or, in this history… not. What’s struck me about the reviews of this book is that different generations of beer enthusiasts have expressed satisfaction with the section on ‘their’ period, even if they don’t think the other sections work so well. (I’m no exception – I found the parts about the period I knew best to be particularly interesting and informative.) This is a remarkable achievement, and suggests that this book has something to offer quite a wide range of beer-drinkers – and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Having raved, in general terms, about the book, I’m going to say something about the authors which will sound a bit uncomplimentary. It’s not meant that way; bear with me. It’s like this: it’s tempting to conclude a complimentary write-up like this by saying something like “Boak and Bailey know their stuff”. On one level that would be true – I certainly didn’t see any factual errors – but on another level it’s not. I actually don’t think Boak and Bailey do know their stuff in the broader sense; I don’t think they’re authorities on half the subjects they cover in this book. That’s not what they do; that’s not why this is a good book.

What B & B are is journalists, and good ones. When I was a freelance journalist I had one regular job which involved writing a thousand words about a (specified) famous person, usually in the course of a week: it might be John Betjeman, it might be Prince Naseem, I had no way of knowing before the request came in. Essentially, I had to make myself an instant expert. (Sometimes ‘instant’ was the word. My single favourite assignment involved Crawfie – the Queen’s childhood nanny – and a deadline measured in hours rather than days; I’d barely heard of the woman when I got up that morning, but by the time I went to bed I’d got the thousand words written.) There’s a knack to rapidly absorbing information in that way, and it’s about finding angles and ways in. If two different sources refer to your subject’s love of horseriding or her difficult relationship with her mother, you dig there; you don’t waste time and effort filling in all the blanks (how many brothers and sisters, where did she go to school, did she have any childhood illnesses…) unless you absolutely have to.

In other words, I wasn’t an authority on Wallis Simpson or Helen Keller – the kind of person who would know their shoe size and what time they were born – but I could give you an account of them; I could tell you a coherent and believable story, with facts to back it up. And that’s essentially what Boak and Bailey have done here, on a much larger scale: they’ve become experts on Penrhos and Firkin, Brendan Dobbin and James Watt, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the CAMRGB. It’s a journalist’s book, in the best sense of the word: they’ve done the work, they’ve got the facts right (as far as I can tell) and, most importantly, they’ve found a way in to the story. Specifically, they’ve tapped into the enthusiasm of the people they’re speaking to and writing about, and echoed it in what they write. It’s a fine book. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t got a copy, you probably should; I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Next: part two of the review, which will be about what they got wrong and left out.

(But do get it.)

…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!

The moving finger

DOUGAL: Right, Ted. Looks like an ordinary blackboard, doesn’t it?

TED: Yes.

DOUGAL: That’s what I thought – but watch this! You see? You can rub off the letters!

There was a time when you didn’t see blackboards in pubs, except next to the dartboard or listing the food specials. These days they’re much more of a fixture, particularly in craft beer bars & places catering to beer geeks. Apart from the neighbourhood Spoons, all my local boozers have at least one. There’s one odd omission, though – see if you spot it as you read down this handy list of The Bars and their Blackboards. (You can’t buy entertainment like this, I tell you.)

HILLARY STEP: one (cask, cider and keg)
DE NADA: one outside (cask and cider), one inside (cask, cider and keg)
FONT: two (keg and cider)
PI: one (doesn’t really count – used sporadically for new & interesting beers on tap or bottle)
MARBLE: two (cask regulars and guests)
BEAGLE: two (keg and cask)

Apart from Pi – a bar which has blackboards quite literally coming out of its ears, but only really uses them for food and slogans – there’s one bar that stands out: the all-new and ultra-whizzy shrine of beer that is [the] Font (I have to keep remembering that definite article). Eight ciders, listed on a blackboard with producer, a.b.v. and price; sixteen keg taps, their respective beers listed on another blackboard with brewer, a.b.v. and price; eight handpumps and, er, that’s it.

I think I know what’s happened, though. Last time I went in, I asked the woman serving if they were going to put up a blackboard for the cask ales. She said they weren’t. I said I thought it would be a good idea. She nodded, smiled, then gave me a yeah-but sort of frown and said:

Thing is, they’re changing all the time.

So that’s obviously the problem – they didn’t ask around, and they’ve got stuck with one of those ordinary blackboards. Easy mistake to make.

Drink the long draught, Dan

When we first moved here, there were many good things to be said about the area where I live – five minutes’ walk would get you to a laundrette, a post office, a bakery, a butcher’s, two newsagents (one each way), an ironmonger, a pet shop, an Indian takeaway and two chippies.

What you couldn’t really say was that we were in easy reach of a good place to drink. There was a pub within five minutes’ walk: just the one; a classic Big Four multi-room suburban pub, the size and shape of a very large detached house. If you didn’t like it, you could walk for another five minutes (in either direction) and find another one very like it. The South Manchester Reporter‘s pub column once ran a series of local pub round-ups; for our area, the writer said that a pub crawl would only be possible with the aid of “an obliging friend or a stout pony”.

(For those who know Manchester, I’m talking about Chorlton, or rather the bit between Chorlton and Old Trafford (“Chorlton borders” if you’re an estate agent). For those who know Chorlton, I’m talking about the Seymour, with the further-flung alternatives being the Royal Oak or the Throstle’s Nest.)

Times change; of all the shops I listed in the first para, the only ones still trading are the post office, the ironmonger, the chippies, the Indian takeaway and one of the newsagents – and the Indian’s the only one that’s still under the same ownership. And the pub – the Seymour – closed down long ago, having gone to seed in quite a big way. (While it was still open, the South Manchester Reporter‘s columnist noted that the wasteground behind the pub was littered with old boards and said that some of the regular female clients found they came in handy. Nice.) It reopened for a while as “the Grove”, before being closed for good and demolished. I don’t think anybody really took to the new name; the Seymour, or “where the Seymour used to be”, is a local landmark to this day.

Times change, and while you’d have a good long walk to the nearest butcher or baker (or a drive to the nearest branch of Pets ‘Я’ Us), we’ve got places to drink coming out of our ears. First, and furthest away (a good ten minutes on foot) was the Marble Beerhouse: small, dark, bar-like but working that superficially unwelcoming “this is a pub, you middle-class whippersnapper!” vibe that a lot of GBG pubs have. Around the same time, JDW’s converted the local snooker hall into the Sedge Lynn, an establishment with a distinctly different appeal to the Marble (but some good beer to go with it). Iguana also opened around this time – a conversion from a restaurant, the owner’s previous venture on the same site – but they didn’t serve real ale, so I’ll pass over. Then there was the Hillary Step – light-ish and bright-coloured, stocked with expensive nibbles, smoke-free before the smoking ban and generally out and proud about being middle-class. (You won’t go long without hearing a local accent in the Marble. You could go weeks in the Hillary Step.) After the Hillary came Pi; then Jam Street, and then the Nip and Tipple. There’s a definite progression there. My father was a middle-ranking civil servant and a lay reader at the local church (which was in Surrey); I went to a fee-paying school and then Cambridge. I’ve been in the N&T once and felt genuinely uncomfortable: it was so middle-class – so comfortably middle-class – it set my teeth on edge.

This may of course just be me.

But that’s not the end of the story by any means. The Marble had, well, Marble, plus Pictish, Abbeydale, Phoenix and whatever else passed the pale’n’oppy test; the Hillary had Thwaites plus guests; Jam Street had Outstanding, the N&T had Hornbeam and Pi, after an early dalliance with Bank Top, had Tatton, Acorn and Red Willow. (Mmm, Red Willow.) I was settling in as a regular at Pi when De Nada opened, on the site of what was briefly a vodka-and-classical-music bar called Chopin. (Perhaps that particular concept was a bit too middle-class.) Initially De Nada had regular Lancaster beers; subsequently they’ve specialised in Brightside, Worth, XT and Red Willow (mmm, Red Willow). (And comfy chairs.) Then there was the Beagle – a big, unpubby, dining-oriented sort of place, offering all the craft keg you can eat, plus Quantum, Magic Rock, SWB… And now Font: the bar formerly known as Iguana, formerly formerly known as Paschal’s Greek restaurant, is now the Chorlton arm of the expanding Font empire.

What’s it like? Well, the “hip, hipper, hippest” progression continues – as in Marble/Hillary, Pi/De Nada, Beagle/Font – with Font a nose in front of the Beagle. On the opening night there were seven cask beers on (an eighth pump clip was turned round); the breweries were Dark Star, Thornbridge (Jaipur), Redemption, Bristol Beer Co, Harbour, Moor and Magic Rock. Plus eight real ciders/perries (which is to say, one or two perries and six or seven ciders), dispensed from taps on the wall – presumably by gravity; there was no signage in that part of the bar, just a blackboard. Plus sixteen(!) keg fonts – Aspall’s cider, Duvel and another couple of continentals, and the rest devoted to hipster keggery a-go-go (Magic Rock, Brodies, Kernel, Brodies, Lovibond). The Chorlton Tap est arrivé. In terms of comfort it’s nowhere: a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door. This strikes me on reflection as a model which works fine in Fallowfield, but looks a bit out of place in Chorlton. I imagine that as time goes on it’ll get a bit more homely (and/or pubby) – either that or it’ll fill up with parties & vertical drinkers, and I’ll stick to De Nada.

All in all, that’s an awful lot of places to drink. (And I didn’t even get as far as Chorlton itself.) An interesting development, too – possibly a bubble (and there surely isn’t room for many more bars, is there?). We shall see.

A quick summary, which can stand as one person’s record of the rise of the real ale/craft beer bar. (All measurements are taken from the standard reference point of My House.)

Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 1998: the Throstle’s Nest, the Seymour, the Royal Oak.

Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 2013: the Nip and Tipple, the Hillary Step, Jam Street, De Nada, the Font, Pi, the Marble, the Sedge Lynn, the Beagle. And the Royal Oak.

Update:I followed up this survey a few days later by counting the restaurants in the two-mile stretch of road between two defunct pub landmarks, the Seymour and the Feathers. I counted anywhere you could go for a sit-down meal: pubs serving food were included, but I arbitrarily excluded anywhere that was mainly a takeaway (from kebab shops to McDonald’s) and anywhere that only served cakes or breakfasts. I only included restaurants fronting on the main road itself – I didn’t wander off exploring Chorlton. One road, two miles, not counting takeaways. Fancy hazarding a guess? (My guess before I left home was 12.)

The answer is: 25. It looks as if the beer bubble is sitting on top of a general night-time economy bubble.

As for the Font, I went back the Saturday after opening & found it changed, both for better and worse. On the plus side, the management have sorted out the furniture situation, and the doorman seems to have stopped opening the door wide whenever anyone comes in or out: draughty barn no longer. On the minus side, still no blackboard for cask ales, making me think this is probably a deliberate feature (why?). Also, some of the more interesting beers had gone off and been replaced by equally hip but less interesting candidates (no Moor, no Magic Rock). I went for Bristol Beer Company‘s Double Acer. The barmaid warned me that it was £4 a pint; this was nice of her, although that price does seem excessive – even for a 6.3% beer (another minus). Fortunately I was able to claim a CAMRA discount, taking it down to a more reasonable £3 (a plus!). Unfortunately it wasn’t that great – although it’s a single-hop brew it wasn’t slap-in-the-face hoppy, and I’d never have known it was an IPA without being told. But the really big minus factor, which wasn’t present on the opening night, was the piped music. A key fixture of my Saturday night routine is ordering a takeaway over the phone (hey, rock’n’roll), and I usually try and do this on licensed premises. Not in the Font – that night I ordered in the street (on my way to the Beagle). The music was seriously loud; certainly too loud to hold a conversation without shouting. I wouldn’t have minded so much, frankly, if it had been better music (De Nada and Pi have excellent selections, as well as not having it up so high). As well as seriously loud, it was seriously bland: at one point I was genuinely disappointed when I realised that the track starting wasn’t Coldplay. I wouldn’t have thought there was much crossover between those people who like it cranked up really high and those who find Dido a bit edgy and left-field, but what do I know? (The Bugle did a bit better on the night: nowhere to sit – bah, gastro-pubs – but a prominently displayed blackboard and a pint of something proper ‘oppy from SWB for an only slightly excessive £3.60, with discreet background music.)